If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Asima Chatterjee and ...

It is wonderful to wake up and see Google celebrate the centenary of Dr. Asima Chatterjee, a scientist who is either unknown to or forgotten by her compatriots.
Asima Chatterjee is fortunate to have been just forgotten.
Subhash Mukhhopadhyay, a physician and a fellow Bengali scientist who independently created the second "test-tube baby" in the world almost single-handed in his primitive lab, was the target of intense envy of his fellow scientists and the all-knowing bureaucrats warming the chairs in the government secretariat in Kolkata.
Under the watchful eyes of a communist government lead by another "great" Bengali, a Commission was formed to verify the claims of Dr. Mukhopadhyay. The Commission, which included an atomic physicist among other luminaries, rubbished Mukhopadhyay's claims. Mukhopadhyay was humiliated as a fraud and transferred to a TB hospital. (I think, but will have to verify, the atomic physicist was the head of the panel.)
While we are proud that the world today recognises Asima Chatterjee's basic research in chemistry which has contributed to development of chemotherapy for treatment of cancer, let us also remember another Indian scientist of her generation who couldn't take it any more and committed suicide in 1981.
Durga, the baby who got her life thanks to Dr Mukhopadhyay, and Louise Brown of England, the first test-tube baby in the world, were both born in 1978, Durga 67 days later.
Twenty-nine years after Mukhopadhyay's death, in 2010, Robert G. Edwards, an English scientist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for developing the technique of in vitro fertilization.

23 September 2017



Monday, 2 October 2017

Stand calm and resolute

Statue of Mahatma Gandhi at Pietermaritzburg
These verses are from the The Mask of Anarchy by the English romantic poet Shelley. Gandhi once recited them to a Christian gathering in India.

As I woke up this morning in a country where hatred has become the dominating force in just a few years, I thought of the great man, and the lines which sum up his political creed.

Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.

And if then the tyrants dare,
Let them ride among you there;
Slash, and stab, and maim and hew;
What they like, that let them do.

With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay,
Till their rage has died away.

Then they will return with shame,
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek.

Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!

It seems for us, Indians, the old chains of colonialism have been replaced by new shackles of meanness and mutual hatred. India always had many fault-lines like religious, social, and economic, which Gandhi managed to join, not seamlessly, but effectively nonetheless. And I believe our success, rather, our survival as a federal country largely depends on how well we manage these fault-lines on a continuing basis.

Astonishingly, at present, some Indians are working overtime to widen these fissures like never before in recent history. In fact, they are dividing the country far more effectively than our ruthless alien rulers could, except for the last two years of their miserable rule.

One hundred and forty-eight years after Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born, I think recalling these lines once again would be a fine way to pay tribute to the flawed genius, who perhaps was more a human with multiple failings (like you and me) than a Mahatma.

Bengaluru
2 October 2017

[Photo courtesy news24.com: Statue of Mahatma Gandhi at Pietermaritzburg. It is at this place in South Africa where Gandhi, while travelling to Pretoria, was thrown off a train at the instance of a white-man who objected to his travelling in a first class compartment, though he had a valid first class ticket. Did the makers of the statue "return in shame"?]

Friday, 8 September 2017

Being and nothingness

Swapna Chaudhuri

[On the Internet, we often come across brilliant writing by nameless authors. I often read wonderful writing on my friend Swapna's Facebook wall. Here is a translation of one of her pieces, followed by the original] The other day, Manju, one of my colleagues – she is an amazing singer – said with a touch of deep sadness in her voice, ‘Swapna, tell me, what have I done all these years? Nothing!’ I said, ‘even Rabindranath said, “Sadly, nothing has been done.”’ And that started me thinking. True, I’ve lived long, but done nothing. But in the autumn of my life, the song by Tagore is indeed a soothing salve on my utter futility. And there is some consolation: we can look at it from another point of view. The immortal writer Tarashankar Bandopadhyaya’s oeuvre is fascinatingly diverse and powerful. His novel “Ganadevata” (God among People) is an eternal jewel in Bangla literature. How many educated Bengalis have read it? In every short story, Jagadish Gupta fascinates us with his ability to bring in the unexpected in a myriad ways. How many Bengalis read him? I suspect that after a few generations, no one will read his work. I ask my husband’s students if they have heard Dhananjay Bhattacharya. The question of listening to his songs doesn’t arise; they haven’t even heard his name! But I always thought some of his songs would transcend generations. Abdul Karim Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali are two fulcrums of Indian classical music. But I’ve seen, even those who’re learning khayal haven’t heard their names. Let me stop, there is no point in extending this sad story. However, in my pointless life, they are my greatest solace. Should people read me, or Shirshendu Mukhopadyaya? Who will listen to my khayal when no one has time for Veena Sahasrabuddhe, Malini Rajurkar, or Kumar Gandharva? I am insignificant but happy. God hasn’t blown His bugle for me. But has given me boundless, profound peace. 08 September 2017 এক অনুভব ======= সেদিন মঞ্জু, আমার সহকর্মী, অসাধারণ গায়িকা গভীর মর্মবেদনায় বলে উঠল,"স্বপ্না, কি করলাম বলতো! কিছুই তো করা হল না।" আমি উত্তর দিলাম এই বলে যে, স্বয়ং রবীন্দ্রনাথ গাইছেন,'কিছুই তো হল না,হায়'?! তো বসলাম ভাবতে।আজ জীবনসায়াহ্নে রবীন্দ্রনাথের এ গান আমার অপদার্থতায় সান্ত্বনার প্রলেপ তো বটেই। সত্যিই তো, কিছুই করা হয়ে উঠল না এ দীর্ঘ জীবনে। তবে সান্ত্বনা-ভাবনা আরও আছে,এই ভরসা। অমর কথাশিল্পী তারাশঙ্কর--কি শক্তিশালী অসাধারণ বৈচিত্র্যময় তাঁর রচনাসম্ভার!'গণদেবতা' বাংলা সাহিত্যের এক চিরন্তন সম্পদ। কিন্তু শতকরা কতজন বাঙালি সে লেখা পড়েন বা পড়েছেন? জগদীশ গুপ্ত-তাঁর প্রতিটি গল্পে কি অতর্কিত বৈচিত্রাঘাত, কি সমৃদ্ধ তাঁর গল্পগুলি! কতদিন বাঙালি পড়বে তাঁর রচনা? এই বঙ্গে তো আর দুটি জেনারেশন এর পর বাংলা সাহিত্যের পাঠক পাওয়া যাবে কিনা আমার সন্দেহ আছে। অধ্যাপকের ছাত্র দের প্রশ্ন করলাম, ধনঞ্জয় ভট্টাচার্যের গান শুনেছেন কিনা। গান? নাম ই জানেনা। আমি ভাবতাম তাঁর 'চামেলী মেলোনা আঁখি' বা 'এমন মধুর ধ্বনি' একেবারে কালজয়ী। আবদুল করিম খাঁ সাহেব বা বড়ে গোলাম আলী খাঁ সাহেব ভারতীয় সঙ্গীতের দুই প্রধান স্তম্ভ। দেখেছি খেয়াল শিক্ষার্থীরাও অনেকে এঁদের নাম ও শোনেনি।
এ দুঃখের আলোচনা দীর্ঘায়িত করতে পারি তবে লাভ নেই তাতে। আমার এ তুচ্ছ জীবনে পরম সান্ত্বনা এঁরাই। শীর্ষেন্দুর বই পড়বে না আমার? কেন লিখব? বীণা সহস্রবুদ্ধে, মালিনী রাজুরকর,কুমার গন্ধর্বের খেয়াল শোনার লোক নেই আমার খেয়াল কে শুনবে?সময় থাকতে বৈজ্ঞানিক গবেষণা করতে পারলে হয়তো মানুষের কাজে লাগত! তুচ্ছ আমি,সুখী আমি! দুঃখের পথে আমার নীরব তূর্য জ‍্যোতির্ময় হতে দেয়নি আমায়! বড় শান্তি, নিবিড় আরাম।

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

NIGHT: “A slim volume of terrifying power”



When the slim volume arrived by courier, I’d been reading other books. I looked at the new arrival, read the blurbs, and smelled it for its deeply sensual pleasure. Then I decided to read a few pages before returning to Barbara Tuchman’s history of the Vietnam War.

I could put down Elie Wiesel’s NIGHT only after reading it completely, every word of it. 

If the lines above gave you the impression it was pleasure reading the 135 pages, you would be grossly mistaken. It was one of the most difficult and disturbing books I’ve ever read. It tells us about the monster that lives within each one of us. It is mind-numbing, and I wouldn’t even try to review it. I am just presenting the basic “storyline”. It will help you understand human nature better.

Eliezer Wiesel’s Jewish family lived happily in the small town of Sighet, Romania. Buffered by Austria and Hungary from Germany, they believed they were safe. Moreover, in the spring of 1944, “there was splendid news from the Russian front. There could no longer be any doubt: Germany would be defeated.” A deeply observant 13-year-old Elie watched elders going about their life, concerned about everything else except “their own fate”.

Their fate was foretold when Budapest radio suddenly announced that the Fascist Party had seized power in Hungary. In less than a week, the German army was in their street. And shortly, the entire Jewish population of the town was moved into and confined in two ghettos. Even then, they believed they would just live there in peace until the Red Army came to free them. “The ghetto was ruled by neither German nor Jew; it was ruled by delusion.”

Soon all of them would be packed in closed cattle cars so tightly that they wouldn’t even be able to sit down. They would be transported to Auschwitz death camps, where 90% of the deportees would be murdered on arrival, after being shorn of whatever valuables they had on them, including gold teeth. Most would die in gas chambers. Children would be thrown into a fire-pit.

The healthiest 10% would live on to deliver hard labour on near starvation diet … and die slow, miserable deaths.

As Eliezer’s family entered the camp facing SS men and their guns and clubs, someone commanded: “Men to the left! Women to the right!”

Just eight words “spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion” decimated a family. And many other families. That was the last time Elie and his father saw his mother and little sister, who – unknown to them – would be killed soon. He would meet his two older sisters after many years at a camp for war orphans.

The real story begins. The Nazis, with their famous eye for details, would have calculated the bare minimum nutrition needed for a person to survive. The prisoners got not a calorie more. Food consisted of watery soup, and bread, that too on good days. They went without any food many a day.

Hygiene was limited to a jar of disinfectants kept at the entrance of every block, with which the men had to soak themselves before having a luxurious shower followed by sleep on tightly packed hard wooden bunks without sheets. They would begin a day of hard labour early next morning.

They would be driven like than animals, but without the faintest trace of compassion that humans have for cattle, besides incessant abuses, threats, blows, lashes, and execution by public hanging for the slightest perceived lapse. (The extra effort was clearly unnecessary as people were shot at the drop of a hat, but I think the SS needed the spectacle to drive in the wedge of terror deeper into the heart of the prisoner.) Nazis had discovered a simple management principle, if you fell at work, you’d be marked for slaughter.

So the men toiled under the shadow of a chimney bellowing smoke a part of which had been living human beings a few hours ago. The men struggled to the limits of endurance literally under the shadow of death. Period.

If you thought things couldn’t be worse. You would be wrong, again. As the front came closer, Nazis decided to relocate the prisoners to another camp, this time, deep within Germany, in Buchenwald.

To the utter misfortune of the prisoners, the winter had set in. All they had for warm clothing were shirts and trousers removed from their dead comrades. Wiesel writes: “We each had put on several garments, one over the other, to better protect ourselves from the cold. Poor clowns, wider than tall, more dead than alive, poor creatures whose deathly faces peeked out from layers of prisoner’s clothes.”

An icy wind was blowing violently that morning. The prisoners were made to run on snow, pushed by gun wielding guards shouting, “Faster, you filthy dogs!” They ran through the day, they ran through the night. Their guards changed shifts when tired, but the prisoners ran on. Anyone falling behind was shot. But it was more for pleasure, because anyone lying on snow under a pitiless winter night sky didn’t have a ghost of a chance to survive in any case.

It is not clear how long the journey went until they are transferred to another cattle-car, this time, without a roof! And as the train trudges on through pouring snow and stops for eternity, the prisoners have nothing to eat or drink, except when curious German onlookers throw a few loaves of bread to the pitiable creatures on board. And as many men fight for the crumbs, people die. Eliezer – he is just 15 – watches a son snatching away bread from his dying father. They old man desperately clings on to his bread and pleads, “Son, you are killing me for a loaf of bread?”

By the time son achieves his goal, father is dead. The living desperately munches the food that might have saved the dead.

On the way, corpses are thrown out casually by men who themselves could have been cast away, dead. A hundred men boarded a wagon with Elie; only 12 get off at Buchenwald, where they would wait for death or liberation.


Some tragedy can only be described only in words, and not by pictures or films. Printed words can expand our horizon in a unique way and help us see the unseen, without which our world view would be much poorer.

Please read this book if you can. And think how well we have been able to deal with the monster that lives within every one of us.

06 September 2017


[Photo of Buchenwald Camp taken five days after its liberation by the Red Army; Elie Wiesel is on the second row from bottom, seventh from left, next to the plank. Courtesy the Wikipedia]

Thursday, 17 August 2017

‘He would never forgive himself if anything happened to her’



On 14 August 2017, New York Times published a few anecdotes by the survivors of the HIndu-Muslim riots 70 years ago, which killed more than two million people, according to the Wikipedia.


The estimate tracked people who left their homes in India and Pakistan, but never reached the other side, and was based on the census figures before and after the Partition. The actual figure would have been much higher. And the tragedies of raped women, broken families, orphaned children would be far beyond the scope of statistics.


I am sharing one of the anecdotes from the NYT written by Sohail Murad. Please read the story, it reinforces our faith in humanity.

"When partition was announced, my father, who worked for the British Indian Government, was posted in Bombay. He was advised that as a Muslim he would have better career opportunities in Pakistan. He was asked to report to offices in Rawalpindi as soon as possible. He left and my mother, Rosy, who was 20, and their six-month-old daughter stayed behind until he could arrange for their accommodation. Because of the chaos he could not come back to get them, so he asked my mother to take a train to Lahore. On the train a Sikh gentleman noticed my mother alone with an infant and asked her where she was going. When she told him Lahore, he was shocked and told her about the massacres that were taking place on trains going to Pakistan — my mother and father hadn’t known.

"He said he was traveling to Amritsar (30 miles from Lahore) but would accompany her to Wagah, a border town between India and Pakistan, because he would never forgive himself if anything happened to her. He told my mother that if anyone asked, she was his daughter. He thought her name, Rosy, was fine since it was secular. But my sister’s name, Shahina, was distinctly Muslim, so if anyone asked her name was Nina. He stayed with them until Wagah and walked with them to the Pakistani border, kissed them both on their foreheads and told them he wished he could take them all the way to Lahore, but he would not make it back alive.

"My sister, who lives in Karachi, is still called Nina by everyone in the family. My mother insisted on that."

Bengaluru 
16 August 2017


Sunday, 6 August 2017

Thotadhahalli In the Land of Coffee



In a way, the desk that I’m writing on is like a sepia photograph. Made of teak and intricately carved, it can be a hundred years old. It’s five in the morning, dark outside, but the world is far from silent. Sibilant sound of air rustling through thousands of silver oak trees is interspersed with gusts of rain lashing the tiled roof of our cottage. But unlike yesterday, the birds are quiet. Are they too soggy and dispirited after the long night of relentless rains?

Welcome to Thotadhahalli Coffee Estate, a short five-hour drive from Bengaluru, but it’s actually on another planet. Two days ago, on a sudden impulse we drove down to this place, which is 10 kilometres from the coffee capital of the country, Chikmagaluru.

As we left the tarred road that goes to Shimoga at Kaimara, Google Map died peacefully and Mother Nature filled our world completely. Fortunately, there were signposts to tell us that our destination was at the end of the narrow alley covered with black soil.

The bungalow, like the other planter’s bungalows, is large. On one side of the main building is a cemented flat space for drying coffee beans. On the other side are the cottages given as home stay. As we enter, quaint charm of a faraway past greets us.



Around a lush green garden, there are cottages with wide verandas with dark red floor and roofs covered with vermilion Mangalore tiles supported by solid carved rosewood pillars that have the stamp of the refined taste one comes across all along the Malabar Coast, in the Raja Rao country. The cottages and the verandas are strewn with ancient wood carvings, gold-inlayed Tanjore paintings, and artefacts from around the world. And not one of them is kitsch!

If you can turn your eyes off the pieces of art and look at the garden again, you will be greeted by orchids, aerophytes (plants that grow without soil, drawing sustenance from moist air), and bonsai plants, while majestic oaks that provide shade to coffee plants sway in the background.

It is a planter’s home, but it could well have been an artist’s – everything has a touch of class here, including the brass lock on our door which has the head of a soldier stamped on it with the inscription “Field Marshall Sir Thomas Biyami”. When did anyone make such a lock last?

Back to the 21st Century, our hosts Pallavi and Prakash make their guests feel at home, literally. The food offered is refined Coorg fare, and every meal is different from the previous one. While we have food, one of our hosts makes it a point to come and check that everything is fine.

Well, everything is, when old-world charm meets the convenience of modern amenities, with the added blessing of the absence of the TV and the Internet.

Ah! As I come to the end of another page in my diary, birds have just been waking up and filling the sky with warble, and the ground below is taken over by the aroma of the finest Arabica coffee. And the sky is clearing up; it’s time to go for a lazy walk through the coffee estate which has denser foliage than most jungles.



Thotadhahalli / 04 August 2017

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Alone, and a Few Others


Eka ebong Koekjon (Alone and a Few Others) is a long Bangla docufiction – if I may use the term for novels – by Sunil Gangopadhyay that covers numerous voices bearing witness to an eventful time of the Twentieth Century India. Beginning a little before the Second World War and ending after the independence of India, the narrative covers the war and the vulgar profiteering that accompanied it, the burst of patriotism and resistance during the Quit India Movement (1942) in which some of the fading terrorist freedom fighters of Bengal got a new lease of life and then died out as quickly. It covers the Great Bengal Famine (how can a famine ever be great?), the agony of the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1946 followed by the ecstasy of 1947, and ends with the disillusionment that came upon people when the reality of the free India turned out to be harshly different from the utopia of equality and endless happiness nurtured in the mind of ordinary Indians.

Two storylines, around cousins Surya and Badal, who began their life’s journey at the time of the war, intertwine the novel. Their names, meaning the sun and rains, eponymously tell the reader the contrasting lives the two protagonists would live. Badal is clearly autobiographical. He is a budding poet with just about an average academic career from a rootless family that migrated from East Bengal to Kolkata, like the author himself in every which way, who tries to find his feet in a pitiless and chaotic post-independence India that doesn’t offer an easy passage to a young man without the support of a papa with power or pelf. Badal comes out in flesh and blood, an ordinary boy with sparks of brilliance being buffeted by the gigantic forces unleashed by history yet to be written.

Surya, on the other hand, is the son of a self-made businessman and a dancing woman, who he had married after forsaking his first wife. After his mother killed herself for inexplicable reasons, Surya was brought up by her stepmother in his early childhood and later, after her premature death, by wardens in a Jesuit boarding school.

Given his unusual childhood, Surya offered tremendous scope to his creator to sculpt an unusual character. But unfortunately, despite Sunil’s brilliance as a storyteller, I think he went overboard in his efforts to construct Surya with everything that doesn’t fit into normal scheme of things. That Surya would be a non-conformist is more than plausible, but what stretches the reader’s credulity is his complete lack of empathy for the people around him. He seems too cardboard a character with far too many self-contradictions. For example, nothing in his life correlates to his absolute commitment and boundless love for a comrade when they come face to face with death, or the empathy he shows to the young boys who supervises in an ashram run by a Gandhi follower, although he has unmixed contempt for the philosophy behind the ashram. Neither is it clear why he has to be a sex-maniac.

As I read the 626 pages, I couldn’t but think that the novel was trying forever to stand up on one leg, but despite that, I am convinced it is worth reading.

In fact, it is much more than worth reading because of the historian in Sunil Gangopadhyay. I recall, in his autobiography titled Ordhek Jeeban or Half a Life, he narrated the events leading to the Second World War in passing, in just about six pages. I think those six pages would make any historian proud. In Eka ebong ... too, Sunil captures an enormous historical canvas almost effortlessly. And to the extent I know, he depicts about the quarter of a century of tumultuous time accurately, in brilliant prose. In the introduction to his memoir Bangalnama, a significant Bangla book of our time (In English, The World in Our Time), historian Tapan Raychaudhuri wrote that as a historian, he wanted to feel the heartbeat of the men and women who lived in the past. In Eka ebong Koekjon, I felt the heartbeat of some people who lived in both Bengals during the time.

I believe Eka ebong Koekjon was one of his earlier historical novels. Sunil was developing the skills needed to mesh history with lives of ordinary men and women. He would develop his skills more completely in Purba Pashchim (The East and the West) written with the freedom struggle of Bangladesh as the background, and of course, Sei Samay (Those Times), his magnum opus which covers the history of the nineteenth century Bengal with an élan unmatched in Bangla literature.

Bengaluru / Thursday, 20 July 2017

Friday, 14 July 2017

“What I demanded of myself was this: whether as a person or as a writer, I would lead a life of honesty, responsibility, and dignity.” – Liu Xiabo


Liu Xiaobo, writer, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and China’s most well-known dissident and prisoner, has died today from cancer at a hospital in China. The Chinese authorities diagnosed his liver cancer only when it had advanced possibly beyond cure. And as could be expected, they refused Liu to travel abroad for treatment of his choice. They were certainly criminally negligent, but they allowed Liu to leave jail so that he could die in relative dignity under the watchful eyes of police guards. Thank communists for small mercies.

Liu was born in Jilin in north-east China. The Guardian writes: “His parents were devoted to the party, but from his youth Liu struck an independent course. After studying Chinese literature at Jilin University, he began an MA in 1982 at Beijing Normal University, where he stayed on as a lecturer. His keen intelligence and razor tongue soon established his reputation: hundreds watched his dissertation defence, while students from other universities packed out his electrifying lectures. He was also a visiting lecturer at the universities of Oslo and Hawaii, and Columbia University in New York.”

Since 1989, he was given four prison sentences, the last of which he couldn’t complete as he died at the age of 61. But his biography could have been different.

Liu was at Columbia University in New York as a visiting lecturer just before Tiananmen Square happened. He could have lived in peace and prosperity and written lofty pro-democracy articles if he had chosen to appeal for citizenship or political asylum in a First World country. Instead, he returned early to China in May 1989 to join and lead – he was one of the four foremost organisers – the movement that was sweeping the country. It culminated in the pro-democracy movement we know as Tiananmen Square protest which was brutally crushed at the cost of no-one-knows how many thousand human lives.

The Indian Express reports:

“After spending nearly two years in detention following the Tiananmen crackdown, Liu was detained for the second time in 1995 after drafting a plea for political reform. Later that year, he was detained a third time after co-drafting “Opinion on Some Major Issues Concerning our Country Today.” That resulted in a three-year sentence to a labour camp, during which time he married [poet] Liu Xia. …

“Released in 1999, he joined the international literary and human rights organization PEN and continued advocating for human rights and democracy.”
His final prison sentence was for “Charter 08,” a document he co-authored and circulated in 2008. It called for more freedom of expression, human rights, and an independent judiciary in China in the line of “Charter 77”, which had been a civic initiative in Czechoslovakia in 1977 that partly led to the Velvet Revolution 12 years later.

*

Liu Xiaobo was just 61 when he died. As I read the news of his death, a deep sense of personal gloom gripped me. I do not know why. Maybe, because he was younger than me. I have developed a completely irrational belief that people who came to the world after me should leave it later.

Maybe, because we in India have started living in a strange version of democracy which looks increasingly like the repressive Chinese regime in many ways, although its characteristics are vastly different. If our present masters are allowed a free hand, we cannot but reach a situation

Where the mind lives in constant fear and the head isn’t held high

Where knowledge isn’t free

Where the world has been broken up into fragments

By narrow domestic walls …

I couldn’t but wonder … what inspired Liu Xiaobo to stand up – again and again – and take on a vicious regime that doesn’t care a fig for human rights. That brooks no dissent. That doesn’t think twice before sending people to jail just because they think differently or rolling down columns of tanks to physically crush unarmed and peaceful protestors. What makes people like Liu Xiabo sacrifice everything and suffer so terribly to uphold the honour and dignity of humanity?

Liu Xiaobo is dead. But the values that he stood for do not die.

Human desire to “lead a life of honesty, responsibility, and dignity” is an inalienable fundamental right. There will be setbacks, like it has been happening in India today, but ultimately, Liu Xiaobos are going to win.

We are going to win.

13 July 2017

Photo courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54542145



Monday, 26 June 2017

The valley of death


On Thursday morning, 22 June, a 15-year-old Junaid Khan left home in Ballabhgarh in Haryana to buy kurta-pyjama, a pair of shoes and some khushboo for Eid from Delhi. He returned home dead.
On his way back on a train with his elder brother Hashim and two friends, he was stabbed to death by a group of 15 men between 7-8 pm. Their crime? They were Muslims. Last night I saw on NDTV Junaid’s older brother, who too was attacked, say that the attackers were taunting them over their clothes, and also talked about “beef eating” before taking out their knives. Another victim said to the Indian Express, “Hashim told me the men threw them off the train at Asaoti station. Some people there called an ambulance and they were then taken to a hospital in Palwal.” * How can anyone hate a stranger, that too, a child, so intensely just because he is a Muslim? Unfortunately, mindless violence against Muslims and Christians in this country by insane men in recent years is not the end of the gruesome story. What is far worse is a conspiracy of silence by a large number of Hindus. Please check this report on Indian Express today (25 June) with the heading: AT RAILWAY STATION WHERE JUNAID BLED TO DEATH, ALL SAY: DIDN’T SEE ANYTHING “FROM the station master and his staffers to a nearby post-master, to vendors at the platform, nobody appears to have seen anything at the Asaoti railway station where few trains stop, where Junaid Khan bled to death after being repeatedly stabbed aboard a local passenger train on Thursday evening. The CCTV THAT LOOKED ON TO THE SPOT HAS BEEN FOUND TAMPERED WITH, an official of the Government Railway Police (GRP) told The Sunday Express. [Emphasis added] “The only sign of the murder that evening at this sleepy station … are the blood stains still visible on platform number 4, where Junaid’s body lay for some time. “… Station Master Om Prakash says the guard of the train, which was enroute from Delhi to Mathura, told him around 7.21 pm on Thursday that a “huge crowd” had gathered on platform number 4. “I immediately asked two of the staff present to see why the crowd had gathered. When they reached there, no one was present. The public might have taken away the body. I did not see anything, neither the body nor the crowd,” says Prakash. The Station Master claims he was busy in the control room at the time. The control room, that is adjacent to platform number 1, is 200 metres from where the 15-year-old died. * Do all these men who “have seen nothing” share the hatred of the 15 men who killed the child for no reason whatsoever? Or are they plain scared because everybody knows that the government of the day and their huge machinery will side with the murderers, not the victims? I am too disturbed to write anything more. Let me share with you a translation of a few lines of a Bangla poem by late Nabarun Bhattacharya. I have deliberately changed a few words of the poem. I believe Nabarun Bhattacharya would have approved the changes. This valley of death is not my country ============================ The father who’s scared to identify the body of his son – I hate him The brother who is shamefully normal even now – I hate him The teacher, intellectual, poet and clerk Who don’t want to avenge this death – I hate them. The body of a dead child Is lying on the path of our conscience I am going insane A pair of open eyes look at me while I sleep I scream out They call me at all hours … to the garden I’ll lose my sanity I’ll take my life I’ll do whatever I wish to … This valley of death is not my country The dancing executioners on stage are not my countrymen This extended crematorium is not my country This blood-soaked abattoir is not my country 25 June 2017

Sunday, 25 June 2017

West Bengal and an award for helping girls?


There is little doubt that the queen of Bengal – who’s always dying to hear the next round of applause – is gloating over the award that her government has got from no less than an arm of the UN. There is little doubt that her fawning chamchas are now jostling to catch her eyes and show how god-damned delighted they are over HER success. As I write, I am sure that sweets are being distributed and gulal is being showered from her party offices infested with criminals, which often terrorize people of the locality. And millions of rupees will go down the drain in the months to come in endless newspaper adverts and hoardings with her smiling face telling the world what wonderful things SHE has done for girls!

Yes, the West Bengal government have distributed cycles and school books and school shoes and what-not to girls of her state. I do not question this fact. But will they get a job after they graduate under a collapsing education system with ever-falling standards?

Even the beggars on the streets of Kolkata know the answer.

The West Bengal government today presides over a crumbling economy inherited from their predecessors, and does nothing about it. In my childhood, lots of people came to Kolkata from the Punjab to Kerala in search of livelihood. In the Lake Market area near my house, there were more Tamilian and Malayali office employees than Bengalis. Today, people from West Bengal are seen washing dishes and carrying bricks from the Punjab to Kerala. You would have seen them even in the less developed sates like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. I have.

No jobs are created here in Bengal; it is a fallow land where no industry grows. A small segment of the population blessed by the ruling party earn their living through extortion rackets in which the top leaders of the party are intimately involved, as the Narda sting operation has shown shown beyond a shred of doubt. But for the majority, opportunities are so insignificant that even a free cycle seems to be manna from heaven.

In West Bengal today, the entire state comes to a grinding halt the day exams are held for primary teachers’ positions because every young man and woman who hasn’t been fortunate to go to a handful of premiere institutes is unemployed. Come the day of the entrance test, millions of young men and women flood buses and trains, and thousands miss the test because they just cannot board one.

So, what is the big deal about giving pittances like bicycles to girls, Your Highness? Can they ride their bicycles after dusk? How safe are girls in your state with a dysfunctional police force?

Isn’t the state competing with Uttar Pradesh to be designated as the rape head quarters of the country? Haven’t luminaries of your party repeatedly tried to shame rape victims by calling them prostitutes? Haven’t you yourself tried to brush incidents of rape under the carpet by calling them “sajano ghotona” or concocted stories?

Isn’t it a fact that – a few hours after the sun has set – every dark alley hidden behind the garishly illuminated roads of the capital and small towns of your state comes under the control of drunken goons who are protected by your party and police?

Isn’t the state No.1 in trafficking in women? Aren’t Kolkata and other towns in the state, where my mother and aunts would happily return home after watching a late night film show close to midnight 50 years ago, a strict no-fly zone for women after 9 PM?

The UN hasn’t honoured the state government for helping girls, it has disgraced itself!

24 June 2017

Sunday, 28 May 2017

They’ve done it again!


A government is supposed to solve problems, but the present one in Delhi creates problems when there’s none. Regularly!

After NOTE-BANDI, it’s CATTLE-TRADE-BANDI!

In one fell swoop two days ago, the Government of India has destroyed the livelihood of millions of ordinary Indians by virtually banning camel- and cattle-trade.

How many Indians work in tanneries and related fields? How many Indian lives depend on the legal business in buffalo and camel meat? Experts will certainly calculate the figures, but very roughly, even if half a percent of our population depends on these until-yesterday legal activities, the number would be a staggering 65 lakhs or 6.5 million.

Most of these people are poor, they know no other trade. The government doesn’t even seem to bother to offer them an alternative occupation, which in any case, it can't. So, the ban consigns these mostly-poor people to slow starvation deaths. Also, from the sociological point of view a vast majority of them are Muslims and Dalits, two most vulnerable sections of our society. (Dwivedis, Dasguptas, or Nambudris don't skin dead animals, do they?) And all this in the name of cows, one of the least sentient creatures around us.
Cartoon is by Keshav in the Hindu
If you permit me a short digression, three to four million Bengalis were killed in the Great Bengal Famine of the 1940s – engineered directly by the poster boy of the British right wing, Winston Churchill. Unlike Hitler, who killed six million Jews, Churchill didn’t need bullets and gas to kill millions. And the lesson from this gory chapter of history is: you can murder millions without using machine guns. I have reasons to believe something similar is going to happen in India unless this insane order is reversed.

Is it a bloody joke to play with the lives of such a huge multitude of already-struggling citizens, without a public debate, without taking the parliament into confidence, by a mere executive order? As if it was something like banning plastic packets?

Have Indians seen a more destructive ruler in the Indian capital since Robert Clive who stole shiploads of gold and silver from Bengal and turned the most prosperous place on earth into barren fields of dying people in just a few years?

If you are an Indian, whether you call your country Bharat Mata or not, please stand up and protest. We must get this ban reversed.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Saturday, 27 May 2017

To our eternal shame ...


Every Indian should hang their head in shame after reading this.
Farooq Ahmed Dar, a 26-year-old shawl maker from Kashmir was tied to the front of an army jeep by one Major Gogoi of the Indian Army, and paraded him through several Kashmiri villages a few days ago. And a video of the incident went viral on the Internet. Army claims he is a "stone pelter", but Dar, his family and neighbours say he is not, he never was. Scroll.in reports after meeting him:
"This is how Dar said his day proceeded. After he cast his vote in Chil, 33 km from Srinagar, he said that he got on to his motor cycle to attend a condolence meeting at his sister’s house in Gampora village, 20 kms away. His brother Hilal followed him on another motorcycle.
"A few kilometres before their destination, at Utligam village, Dar said he was stopped by an army patrol.
The patrol consisting of at least 17 personnel was led by a major, Dar said. The security men surrounded him and pulled him off his motorcycle. After looking at his identity card, they questioned him about why he was so far from his home. They then began to beat him up and accused him of being a stone pelter. But, said Dar, there were no visible disturbances in the area when the stopped him.
“They thrashed me for 20 minutes,” Dar said, adding that after the beating, they attempted to push him into a stream.
"The soldiers then tied him to a vehicle and paraded him “through 10-20 villages” with a piece of paper attached to his chest declaring that he was a stone pelter, Dar said. He said he did not have a clear recollection of events that transpired when he was tied up. “I was not in my senses,” he said."
Farooq Ahmed Dar's account is bound to be true. Because had he been a stone pelter, the army wouldn't have allowed him to go home on the same day. More importantly, Dar was among the 7% voters in his area who had cast his vote defying a ban and threat of death issued by terrorists. Besides the e-paper I have quoted, he facts have been brought out by several front-line newspapers, including the Indian Express and Hindustan Times.


If Kashmir is boiling today, it's to a large extent because of army and police officers like Gogoi, who have tortured innocent Kashmiris without bothering to think about the long-term consequences of their action. And there are a lot of Indians to glad-hand officers like Gogoi who display tremendous disdain not only to Kashmiri Muslims, but also to the laws of the land.
Please put yourself in Farooq Ahmed Dar's shoes for a minute. You belong to a small minority of Kasmiri Muslims who still have faith in India, you're among the 7% of people who've voted. And on the same day you are picked up by an insane army officer from the road, beaten up, get a judgment "stone pelter" stuck on your chest, and you are strapped to the bonnet of a jeep and paraded through villages like an animal.
Even if I accepted, for the sake of argument that Dar is indeed a stone pelter, which Indian law allowed him to be treated in such an inhuman manner? And what about that nearly-forgotten word "human rights"? Does Geneva Convention allow an army to treat even a captured enemy soldier like that?
And the tragedy is: Farooq Ahmed Dar is a law abiding Indian citizen.
Finally, to our eternal shame, the chief of the Indian Army has commended the Major for this grossly illegal and immoral act.
Terrorists try to break up our democracy from outside. When protectors of the law break laws themselves, the corrode the system from within. They are two sides of the same blob of shit.
Kolkata / 26 May 2017

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Grandpa calling?



When I was born, both my grandpas had been dead.

I have no idea how my dad’s dad looked, because he died long ago sometime in the nineteenth century, long after photography was invented (1827, Mr Google tells me), but long before “Daguerretype” came to India’s hoi polloi.

But I can see my mother’s dad if I close my eyes. Let me tell you why.

My mother had a framed five-by-seven black-and-white photo of her father. It showed an elderly man in his mid-sixties smiling pleasantly at you. So the picture would have been taken when granddad was my age.

And mother always placed the frame at a vantage point where she could see her old man as she got up from sleep. So, around sixty years ago, I learned how my grandpa had looked and thereafter, I saw Late Tara Bhushan Pal, a reasonably successful small-town lawyer and an amateur carpenter, almost every day for nearly fifty years until my ma passed away, and the framed picture lost its pride of place in our home.

That is how people are forgotten. That is how our world ends, slowly, almost imperceptibly. I don’t think the name Tara Bhushan crosses my mind even once in a year now. But I believe he was one of the better specimens of humans in his time. His wife died young, at the age of 37, but Tara Bhushan didn't marry again, which was quite unusual in his time and place. I am inclined to believe it showed devotion to a dead wife, but the view might be debated. What is beyond debate is the fact that he brought up his seven children single-handed on top of his legal practice. And from the stories I heard from ma, he was exceedingly affectionate towards his offspring.

Whenever I got angry, whenever I was rude, my mom reflected – obviously with a tinge of deep sadness – that her son hadn’t inherited the even temper of her father.

Tara Bhushan died with the reputation of never ever having lost his cool. And I am inclined to believe that the reputation was not unfounded when I think of Arindam and Monica, my cousins who too carry 25% of Tara Bhushan’s genes…. Both are pretty much unflappable.

This morning, as I got up and stood before the bathroom mirror with a toothbrush in hand, I was shocked.

Grandpa Tara Bhushan was looking at me benignly from behind the mirror.

Genes! ... What tricks they play!

Kolkata / 20 May 2017

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Dismantling democracy

It takes years or decades to create something, but just days, if not hours to dismantle it. It is true for buildings and bridges. And it is true for democracies.
Indian democracy has been built by people who led the freedom struggle, and while we are rightly unhappy with many aspects of how our country functions, the greatness of the Indian democracy becomes clear when we compare ourselves with the other countries that achieved freedom after the Second World War. Look at our neighbours: Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka … every one of them has gone through tremendous civil strife and seen mass killings and instability from time to time. It is true for Nepal too, to a lesser extent. And of these countries, Pakistan and Burma aren’t democracies by any stretch of imagination. We would shudder to think of living in either of them. Comparatively, we have had a stable democracy, barring a two-year aberration during the hated Emergency regime of 1975-77.
Any government with commitment to liberal democracy should try to protect and strengthen the institutions of democracy. The much maligned UPA regime (2004-14) – despite the thieves and thugs in their ranks – did exactly that when they introduced the Right to Information Act or the RTI Act in 2005.
It offers every citizen the right to seek and obtain information on government activities. Naturally, the Act has been a deterrent against corruption. A politician or bureaucrat trying to bend rules for personal benefits stand to be exposed in the future, thanks to this Act.
Many people have tried to catch politicians and babus for their wrongdoings, but it hasn’t been easy. There have been 400 physical attacks against RTI activists and as many as 65 of them have been murdered in the last 11 years. Maharashtra tops the list with 19 murders. The latest victim too is from the state. Suhas Haldankar was the latest RTI activist to be killed on 9 April by hitting him repeatedly with concrete blocks.
A protest against Suhas Haldankar’s killing in Kharalwadi area of Pune. (Express Photo by Rajesh Stephan)
It is essential that laws are strengthened to protect people like Suhas Haldankar. However, Narendra Modi led BJP government is doing exactly the opposite. Let me explain.
The government is trying to modify Rule 12 of the Act to “permit the Central Information Commission to allow appeals to abate on the death of the appellant or for their withdrawal.” The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), a human rights group, demands that the Rule 12, instead of being diluted, “must be dropped without any delay.”
To put it simply, the changes that the government is trying to introduce is this: If an RTI activist is killed, people who might be affected by the information the former was trying to discover, may appeal to close the chapter.
Therefore, if the change happens, a corrupt politician or bureaucrat will have a strong incentive to murder the activist who is trying to unearth the former’s wrongdoings.
How wonderful of the government! While a civilized system should demand that whistle-blowers (people who are trying to fight corruption) be given protection, our present government is doing exactly the opposite.
“This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”
My heart goes out to the family and friends of this young man who gave his life for us. But the bigger question is: How many of us realise that the Indian Democracy is being dismantled bit by bit by the present ruling dispensation?
You can read the entire story here. But let me warn you: In my opinion, it is a rather badly written article. In fact, that is the reason I tried to make rewrite it and make it shorter.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Noor Mohammed and other Indian Muslims



I didn’t think there would be a direct bus from the Old Airport Road to my home. So, I boarded one for Marathalli, a junction on the way, where you could find a bus to anywhere in the world.

The conductor is a charming young woman in uniform: a khaki jacket over a khaki sari – only sarkari babus can have the imagination to contemplate a khaki sari! I am sure the girl hates it.

And why khaki for all so-called low level jobs? It’s a kind of apartheid, isn’t it? If I was the chairman of BMTC (Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation), I would introduce bright orange uniform with floral designs for women employees, and dark blue shirts with paisleys for men, like those my fashion icon Nelson Mandela used to wear.

My meditation is interrupted by the woman in khaki as she approaches me for ticket. She has a good look at my head and issues a senior citizen ticket for ₹14. It doesn’t matter these days, but even a few years ago, I would have been mildly irritated to have been bracketed with oldies. Alas! Time changes. And I guess I got a concession of 30%.

I secretly thanked BMTC (Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation) for the compassion, although, thanks to an accident of my birth in a certain social milieu, I belong to the microscopic minority of Indians for whom six rupees means nothing. But it does matter to most, particularly those who are on the outskirts of a physically active life.

Looking for an auto rickshaw, I met a fellow senior citizen who looked at least twenty years older than me. He asked me for a reasonable amount, but I haggled a bit out of sheer habit. And more importantly, because I think of senior-citizen concessions only when I am a potential beneficiary.

Noor Mohammed had completely gray hair and a seven-day stubble. He looked quite frail and I wondered how he managed to drive an auto rickshaw in the hot summer in Bangalore traffic. In India, it is politically correct to ask a man’s age, and so I asked, ‘How old are you, Noor Mohammed?’

‘Sixty-five.’

‘That means you are exactly my age!’, He didn’t notice the touch of surprise in my voice. And I continued with the small talk, ‘Where do you live in Bengaluru?’

‘I don’t live in Bengaluru, I am from Ramanagara, a distance of three-four hours.’

‘Ramanagara? Where Sholay was shot?’

‘Yes’, he replied tersely. He obviously didn’t care much for the fame conferred upon his hometown by Sholay, or for that matter, David Lean’s Passage to India.

‘Then how come you are here?’

‘I don’t have children. I have a foster daughter. She is 21. Bees aur ek.’ After a pause, he repeated as if from far away, ‘Bees aur ek. She has a hole in her heart. So, we brought her here and put her in a hospital. My wife too is in the hospital. The doctors are doing some tests. By this evening, they will tell us when the surgery will happen. She was an orphan. … My wife and I brought her up since she was this small’, he took his left hand off the clutch lever and put the straightened palm about six inches above the floor. ‘What can I do now? Throw her away?’

He seemed to read the unasked question in my mind, and continued, ‘We are staying with some distant relatives here. They have this auto rickshaw. They asked me to drive it and earn something. Bahut achche aadmi hai woh log.’

Of course, they are wonderful people. I ask, ‘How much will the surgery cost?’

‘A lakh and seventy-six thousand. I have a little bit. For the rest, I’ll take a loan. … maybe, I’ll ask the people with whom I'm staying. Udhar le lenge.’

I was not surprised. The poor in India have a unique social security network where they help each other to tide over crises. Only recently, our domestic help asked for a small loan as she had to send ₹30,000 (roughly her three months’ earnings) to her sister in Delhi. Her sister is taking a house on rent and needs the cash to pay security deposit.

The calm fortitude with which the poor in India faces financial turmoil is amazing. Noor Mohammed’s daughter is in hospital, she needs a life-saving surgery, he doesn’t have the money, and he isn’t sure who he can approach for a loan. But at least on the surface, he is completely unfazed. He hopes to get a loan. Period.

Noor Mohammed is not an exception. He is the rule. The poor slog it out to earn two meals a day and a roof over their head. The unique phase in life called retirement that some people have between work life and death doesn’t exist for them. They invariably age prematurely and die uncomplainingly when the time comes.

If a hole is discovered in the heart of a child, they will try their best to fill it. But if they can’t, so be it. They will accept it gracefully. I recall Ajijul, a mason in Kolkata, who told me – as if he was giving me information about a distant cousin – that his oldest son and principal assistant in work had died in an accident a few weeks ago. That boy too, incidentally, was 21. Bees aur ek.

*

Noor Mohammed’s daughter would have all the dreams that a girl like her would. A loving husband, children, a little less of drudgery and insecurity, and a little more comfort and stability.

Please join me in wishing her all the very best.




POSTSCRIPT:

In normal times, I wouldn't add this. But today, I feel compelled to.


Life is not easy for the poor in India. And countless authentic statistics tell us that a huge majority of the 17 crores (170 m) Indian Muslims are much more like Noor Mohammed and Ajijul, and much less like Mr. Azim Hashim Premji, an Indian industrialist near the top of the Forbes list of rich people. 

Let me also ask a question to some of my friends who are educated and compassionate and love the present BJP regime: How does it feel to be poor in India? And how does it feel, on top of it, to live in the fear that any day, protectors of cows might lynch you to avenge the death of a cow that never died?

Friday, April 7, 2017