Sunday, December 30, 2007

In the shadow of the Sun

God hasn’t spoken to me yet, but this was the closest I’ve ever felt His presence. Looking skyward at a Nordic nightscape awakening to the gentle touch of summer, I was transfixed by the stunning magnificence of a quiet explosion of a river of translucent green, coursing across the night sky, shimmering and cascading in a divine dance of luminous ecstasy; and then just as suddenly, it stopped.

It was as if the heavens had parted for a magical moment, to reveal a glorious cosmic waltz, and just as one was about to surrender to its splendour, closed its doors on you, as if to say “more of it when you get here.” But if you happen to live at the end of the world (which is where I probably was), the gods have a way of compensating for all the loneliness and gloom with fairly regular display of auroral brilliance to make up for all the dark days spent in the shadow of a pole shy sun. But I’m getting ahead of my story…

I had entered Norwegian airspace in a tiny Air France plane that had dropped me off at Bergen Airport. From the moment I stepped out of the airport, I was like a voyeur at the beach, staring at the symmetry and balance of the city’s architecture, offset beautifully against the gorgeous fjords that surround it. It was all I could do to keep my jaw from scraping Bergen’s cobbled streets. The only dampener though was the weather, for it rains 360 days a year here and this day was no different. In spite of the steady drizzle though, it was fairly warm. So throwing caution and umbrella to the winds, I plunged in.

I started with Torget, the city’s fish market – a throwback to the markets of yore, where village merchants would gather at a town square and trade both goods and gossip. I’d never have known, if not for Torget, that fish aren’t just fish but they are either perch or pike, cod or mackerel, and so on…. One of the stalls had a huge fish, the size of a small man, and while I was staring at it in amazement, I heard a deep, muffled voice, “There’s a holy butt!” I turned around, half expecting to see a naked priest involved in some quasi Christian ritual, but couldn’t find anyone who could’ve seemed even remotely holy ‘anything’.

“Holy Butt?!” exclaimed a female voice this time. “Ja! Ja!”, said the man, “…Holy Butt!!” I looked around desperately for both voice and vision, before finally locating the rumour-mongers – a pretty blonde girl and right next to her was a grizzly bear, standing upright in a sailor’s cap. On closer examination, the bear seemed to become human, little by painful little. ‘Grizzly’ was pointing at the ‘giant fish’, and then he said it again, “Holy Butt!” and it was then that I spied a little plastic tag that read ‘H-A-L-I-B-U-T’.

With a smile, I walked over to the odd couple and introduced myself. “Hei! Goddag? (No, it isn’t American for disciplined canine behaviour, but Norwegian for how do you do?) Beautiful weather, or what?!” ‘Grizzly’ looked up at the rain, while ‘Goldilocks’ eyed me suspiciously, and then they both smiled. “Hei! I’m Arne”, said the bear, “...and this is my niece, Maria.” We got along like a herd of reindeer, walking and talking along the harbour, past stalls selling fish, reindeer antlers, seal skins, arctic fox-tails, and the disturbing sight of mountainous mounds of smoked Minke whale meat.

Incidentally, Norway, along with Iceland and Japan, has become a global pariah of sorts for stubbornly refusing to give up whale hunting. And the Norwegians are very sensitive to criticism on this count. Big Arne was far too big, Maria far too pretty, and I far too lonely, for what promised to be a messy argument so I held back with regret.

After that evening, I left for Oslo, the city that inspired and hosted Henrik Ibsen’s immortal plays. Then, I travelled north by road under the brilliant skies from the beginning of our story and there, all alone, I remembered Arne’s parting words “beyond the McDonald’s and the Mercedes on our streets, beyond these fjords and mountains, in remote villages, old-timers still fear evil trolls in our forests and still believe that we are at the centre of the universe and that the Sun does a very poor job of revolving around the Earth. We are a strange lot,” and then with a smile, “but a beautiful and great country!” And I realised that no matter where I go, I’ll always find a little bit of home everywhere. Step out.. and you’ll find out… Merry Christmas.

Norway all the way!

It’s not for nothing that Norway is known as the Land of the Midnight Sun. You can call it ‘Norway Shining’, and the moniker would be richly deserved this time. And Norway has been shining for a long time, ever since oil was discovered in the North Sea in late 1960’s and the first oil well came online in 1971. With a population of just over 4.7 million and currently third highest production of crude oil in the world (After Russia and Saudi Arabia) Norway is swimming (not drowning) in oil wealth. But admirably it has managed to avoid all the other ills associated with easy money supplied by oil. Corruption is almost non-existent, its people are amongst the most productive in the world and its one of the most equal (comparatively) societies in the world, and also one of the richest. No wonder then, that Norway had occupied the first position for five consecutive years (2001 to 2006) on the UNDP Human Development Index. Although it slipped to second place in 2007, it is an example of how a model society should be.


Sunday, December 23, 2007

If Sando-kan, I can too

If Rocky Marciano and Danny DeVito were to have a baby together, the baby’d’ve looked a bit like Mauro. I was sitting next to him on my Alitalia flight from Sofia to Rome. As you’d’ve gathered, Mauro isn’t quite the ideal Italian male – you know Paulo Maldini etc. While gagging on a beef sandwich, he inquired “what country?”. Ducking and weaving between pink and white flecks of semi-masticated bread and beef, I managed to whisper “India!”.

“India?? You not look Indian!” he said. So I asked him who did. He said “ Kuber Bedi!” “Kuber Bedi??” “Yes! Si! He Sandokan. Italian women very much like Sandokan”. “Ah Kabir Bedi!”, I corrected him, remembering the Italian TV series from the 80s featuring Kabir Bedi. “Si, si, women love Kuber Bedi!”. Almost blushing, I thought it was only polite to ask, “So Italian women like Indian men, eh?” But he shook his head, said “only if look like Kuber Bedi!” and went back to gagging. Sorry, did I say Devito and Marciano? Correction; actually he looked more like a love child born after an amorous exchange between a chimpanzee and the Hunchback of Notre Dam. Silence followed. We were busy trying to pick up what remains when reality crashes violently with a fond but brittle illusion.

Away from Mauro and the crummy Alitalia planes, Italy and Italians looked as pleasant as the guidebooks had promised. Bold beams of sunlight danced on window sills, bounced off designer shades and lit up happy faces. And the musical trill of the Italian tongue was as easy on the ears as Monica Belluci is on the eyes. But your columnist wasn’t smiling. You see, first Alitalia blinds you with its garish green décor, then starves you by literally offering peanuts on a flight that seems to last weeks but worst of all, swallows up your luggage as greedily as a Neapolitan Mastiff might bolt down a dog biscuit. So there I was, on a Roman holiday with nothing on me but for the shirt on my back and thankfully, a clutch of euros. The euros didn’t last long though. Italian cabbies are absolutely the most charming in the world. Mine, Paulo, treated me like a long lost friend, told me he liked Indians, and not just because they “always give many tip” and finally dropped me off “just two lanes from hotel, taxi too big, not go there”, with an emotional, “Arrivederci!”.

I thought how wonderful the world would’ve been if all the cabbies in the world could’ve been like Paulo only to discover that my hotel had been a mere walk from the train station while perfidious Paulo had taken me all around the city and dropped me off at the farthest point possible from it. I have a feeling he did it as much for a laugh as he did it for the money. But the man was so charming, he could’ve stabbed me with a blunt knife and I wouldn’t’ve known till I sputtered, died and went to heaven. But redemption for Rome was close at hand. A lady, could’ve been a Belluci, or at least a close cousin, walked past and must’ve seen the lost puppy look (now don’t snigger, if I didn’t look that cute, why’d she stop?) on my face. She stopped to ask, and embarrassed that I’d been cheated thus, offered to take me to the hotel. Chivalry, propriety and stupidity of course demanded that I maintain I could manage on my own if only she could tell me how, and so I reached my hotel after a rather long walk.

Later, joined by my wife, we went exploring. The Coloseum, the Vittoriano, the Vatican. Rome reminded me of Delhi. Both cities have history, and its residue hewn in rock lurks in every corner, often forgotten, yet resilient. And Italians, like us Indians, seemed the nicest and most engaging rogues possible. This place was home. We just had to come back so off we went to the famous Trevi Fountain to toss a coin and wish to return.

There, even as I asked my wife in Bangla to toss the coin, a voice interrupted “coffee khaben?”. Bangladeshis! Hordes of them - immigrants, some legal, mostly illegal, employed with Italians selling souvenirs. And they were so happy to see a “Dasher manush” that they gave some stuff to me for free and sold me the rest at discounts that would’ve embarrassed Wal-mart. An employer screamed at a Bangladeshi for selling a souvenir too cheap but he pretended not to understand and then turned back, winked and smiled, even as we waved goodbye. I loved Rome, for its naughtiness and warmth, and for its history and chaos, but most of all for its sense of poetic justice.

The slip stream

When in Rome, pray!

Visit Rome for its Colosseum, leather, food, fountains and… a country! The State of the Vatican City, no more than 100 acres or so, is the world’s smallest nation that one can walk into right after alighting from a cruise on River Tiber. An ecclesiastical sovereign, complete with a flag and a constitution, the Holy See was established as an independent enclave in 1929 by the Lateran Treaty signed between Prime Minister Mussolini for the King, and Cardinal Gasparri on behalf of Pope Pius XI. It is the only remaining vestige of Italy’s era of papal ascendancy that existed until the unification of Italy in 1870, which was also when Rome became the capital.

Barely packing in more than 900 folks, this seat of the Roman Catholic Church retains the finest motifs from the glorious age of the Italian Renaissance. Even ‘awe-inspiring’ doesn’t serve to relate the grandeur of St Peter’s Basilica, the tomb of the first pope, its interiors done up by none other than the peerless Michelangelo. Then there is the Vatican Museums Complex – the largest in the world – so large that it offers choice of itinerary through the Museum, none of which however miss out on the overwhelming Sistine Chapel.

A country to get blessed by the head of state – the Pope!


Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Cinderella story

I know it isn’t chivalrous to kiss and tell, but what the heck, I’ve got a column to write. . .

They don’t really spoil you with food on Aeroflot so as the plane from Moscow touched down at Sofia airport, I asked the Tom Selleck look alike in the cab to take me to the Sheraton (for some strange reason, my travel agent had booked me into the most expensive hotel in town in the middle of a ‘Europe on a shoestring’ kinda trip. But after Aeroflot, I wasn’t complaining). The suburbs of Sofia looked rather depressing. Clusters of cardboard box houses, peeling plaster and mile high rubbish heaps spoke eloquently of a nation that hadn’t yet come to terms with life in the free market lane. So here I was… in Bulgaria, the poorest destination on my itinerary – a nation that had once joined hands with Hitler (hoping to annexe Macedonia in the bargain) and yet had the courage to refuse to hand over all Bulgarian Jews to him; a nation that is proud of its unique heritage, and yet had offered to become a part of the Soviet Union. The cars were old, dirty and dimpled, and yet the people on the streets were impeccably dressed, in clothes that would’ve done prêt lines of Milan and Paris proud. If Bulgaria sounds like an enigma, well, that’s what it is…

‘Happy Bar and Grill!’ With a name like that you really can’t blame the waitress when she asks “Sir... you prefer ‘spooning(!!) or f…..(!!!...forget it, can’t even write the word)”, and even as I begin to wonder what ‘bar and grill’ might mean in Bulgarian, she spreads out the menu and the cutlery. This was my first evening in Sofia, capital of Bulgaria, a country that very few Indians would go to of their own volition. Sitting at that table in what was perhaps the most cheerful ‘bar and grill’ in all of Europe, I was glad I’d made the trip. I was told that Bulgaria was like a poor cousin to Russia but this place was nothing like a poor cousin to anybody. Let’s begin with Happy Bar and Grill where happy patrons are happily ‘spooning’ on tables full of Balkan delights while waitresses in bright red uniforms exude good cheer. But that isn’t the first thing I notice about them because it takes a while to get over the fact that these are perhaps the most dazzlingly beautiful women I’ll ever see in uniform! Then, once the waitress has left with the order, I notice the other people in the restaurant, and realise that each one of them is as gorgeous as the other. It was the kind of beauty that soothes rather than the kind that inflames with passion… you know, more George Clooney than Brad Pitt, more Paz Vega than Angelina Jolie. And I kid you not, everybody around looked as good as that. Bulgaria, over the centuries, has been a crucible for Turkish and Slavic bloodlines and it sure has made for a heady cocktail. I mean, even the beggar I gave some money to looked like a toothless, compressed Sean Connery of sorts.

Sofia has many attractions, and most of them, like the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, have the touch of a Russian hand-me-down. But the Sofia worth seeing isn’t in its churches, museums and the rather dull and loud excuses for opera that Sofians seem so proud of but on its streets where the subtle whiff of a Channel No. 5 mixes inextricably, and rather agreeably, with the wafting aroma of freshly smoked chestnuts and mozzarella cheese; in its rather small, but well stocked stores which sell, amongst other things, the chic-est of clothes and accessories at bargain prices that would put the rest of Europe to shame and in the joi de vivre that this ‘new nation’ exudes.

One of my greatest memories of Sofia was being taken to the beautiful Vitosha mountains, past farmhouses, Audis and donkey carts, by a man called Todorov, who looked more like a kindly university professor than a chauffeur. He asked me where I was from, and then rolled down the window as we sped down the mountain and started singing… “tarambu, tarambu, (something… something) awara hoon…. Awara hoon”… and so we went, a 60 year old Bulgarian and a 30 year old Indian, united in their memory of Raj Kapoor… it was snowing, but I don’t know why I felt a warm glow in the cold mountain air…

I was in love with Sofia, still am, and while it might not look all that nifty from the air, as soon as you touch down, this quaint and warm city will touch you right back.

There, I’m glad I told you…

The slip stream

Some history!

Few countries have known greater political upheaval than Bulgaria. When the indigenous settlers of South Eastern Europe – the Thracians – were joined by the Central Asian Bulgars from across the Danube, and the Indo-European Slavs, there regrouped the earliest recognised state of Bulgaria in 680 AD. Under Tsar Simeon I, during the period between late ninth century and early tenth century AD, this First Bulgarian Kingdom heralded its Golden Age of conquests and culture. In the 11 th century, Bulgaria went under to the Byzantines, who in turn were ousted in an anti-establishment revolt in 1185, and there commenced the period of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom. The dominance of Orthodox Christianity for over 500 years was somewhat hit with the invasion of the Islamic Ottoman Turks in the late 14th century, to which can be traced the 13% Muslim population in the current Bulgarian demographics.

With crucial Russian aid, Bulgaria rid of the Turks, and had ever since toed the communist line until 1990, when the country elected to power its first democratic government, albeit nominally (the winning party – Bulgarian Socialist Party). Part of EU since January 2007, it’ll be difficult to find a country more historically and ethnically multifarious than Bulgaria in the Union.


Sunday, December 9, 2007

Russian defrost

If you’ve ever wondered why Russian Christians are called orthodox, just take an Aeroflot flight to Moscow. You see, in the early days of aviation, it was customary during take-off for passengers to send a discreet word to the heavens, insisting that we only want to go so high and no higher, followed by a bit of ‘Amening’ after a safe landing. But as planes became more reliable, and ‘God’ rather unreliable, scanning the movie menu replaced the quiet prayer as every airline passenger’s pre-flight ritual. But on Aero-judder-do-der-flot, thoughts of Heaven come rushing back. In fact, I reckon it’ll beat most churches at sending people ‘back to the fold’. Now, could a people stuck with an airline that doubles up as an evangelist help but be orthodox?

My flight landed in Moscow, and having come to a stop, kept shuddering intermittently (like those irritating snorers, who instead of an even rhythm, go into sudden alarming paroxysms that suggest that they’re about cough up a kidney or two before sinking back into peaceful slumber). I stared out through the tiny port window and saw the trees in the horizon, gray and bare. I hired an airport taxi, a boxy Lada that must not have been too new in the days when Lenin was a young man, and as we rolled along the vast expanse of suburban Moscow, my thoughts returned to the Russia I’d encountered in Tolstoy’s books, in the strains of Tchaikovsky, in those old, grainy movies on Doordarshan which had convinced me that Russians must be a rather affable lot. . .

Boy, was I wrong! In R-r-a-a-s-h-y-a, no one seems to know a word of English. From air hostesses to hotel receptionists, ask them a question and all they do is throw a bunch of vees and zees at you or point at a map or a road sign with some words on it that look like as if someone was trying to write in English with the wrong hand, after having downed a few barrels of cheap vodka. The buildings and the cars were a strange mix-ultra modern glass and steel structures rubbing shoulders and knees with Communist era brick buildings with garish neon signs reasserting the stamp of capitalism, and rust-bucket Ladas standing next to shiny black BMWs. And where are the Sharapovas, because the only women here were all about 50 years old, 50 stone, and looked like versions of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in the woman’s mask in Total Recall. You think I’m being mean?

Wait till you have to use the world’s only post vintage underground railway system. I had to take tuitions from a Scottish expat on hand signals before I could buy a ticket; I was lost in the labyrinthine dungeons that pass off for train stations in Moscow and everytime I would approach an Arnie look alike in a skirt for help, they would look at me as if I’d just thrown up on their favourite carpet, splotched some on my shirt and was still retching as I approached, and walk past with a sneer. So there I was standing on the top of a muddy escalator, a lonely Indian, nervously chewing on Moscow horror stories the Scotsman had recounted, about tourists being singled out, mugged and stabbed by gangs. I had never felt so angry about a city until that moment, when from within the crowd, an angelic young woman and her boyfriend walked upto me, smiled and guided me to my platform, all the while chatting away in English. They stayed till my train arrived, gave me a hug and left. They were the first young people I’d seen, and they’d melted my hardening heart in this cold Russian winter. I met more young people after that – one insisted on buying me lunch simply because we spoke for a while on a train to the Red Square and the only house-maid in my hotel who was under 40, spoke English and was really kind with toiletteries, just because I’m a Bengali like, brace yourself, not Tagore or Subhash, but Mithun Chakroborthy(!!) .

The place isn’t all that bad after all. It’s just that like most countries that are big and great, there are many Russias inside Russia; there is one that is middle aged, mildly xenophobic, and spends time gazing at the Red Square; and then there is the other younger Russia, that walks past the Red Square with less than a passing glance, right into GUM-one of Europe’s most fashionable shopping arcades, a Russia that is taking on and taking in a new world with open arms. Now doesn’t that sound like another country we know rather well…?

The slip stream

Comradian Camaraderie

There are places you would go for adventure and there are sites you’d retreat to for peace. But if it’s intrigue that pulls you, try Russia. Emerging from an inveterate history of dictatorship and communism, it wouldn’t exactly figure on top of the best travel destinations, but worth exploring it certainly remains. Between waterway tours in St Petersburg and shopping at the GUM in Moscow and guzzling a whole lot of vodka, you can try Russia for a variety of reasons, but the reason you must do it most is its people!

Family-oriented, much like ours-the agriculturist economy that it is at heart, the Russians lend good weightage to communal fraternity and dependence. Alas, for a foreign traveller in the land, it would be difficult to experience anything remotely cordial, given their particularly insular attitude towards strangers. This perhaps is compounded by the lack of linguistic flexibility especially amongst older Russians. But this conservatism has its virtues because once a Russian has befriended you, he’s befriended you for life.

More oriental than occidental, the family values reflect the close knit bonds so rare in the West.


Sunday, December 2, 2007

Humour that tumour

Pearl was being a good hostess. She was vivacious, considerate, sensitive and charming. I remember her throwing her head back every time she laughed, and then hurriedly clutching at the red woollen hat as it began to slide off her bald head - she wasn’t used to it. For a moment so brief you could miss it, the smile and the colour would disappear, and then the old Pearl would be back, laughing, entertaining and ensuring that we all were having a good time. But all evening, the hat kept sliding off and each time, Pearl seemed to take a little while longer to get her composure back. That was about a year ago, mere months after she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She was in her early 50s then, with an active corporate career, a devoted husband and a brilliant son, who happened to be a dear friend. The fact that doctors had given her mere months to live, seemed impossible. This woman was bursting with life. Everything about her, except for what chemotherapy had done to her hair, seemed so ‘normal’. That night at the party, as we watched her hat constantly remind her of her illness every time she tried to drown it in her laughter, I told my friend that the doctors had to be wrong. Someone so beautiful, so happy, so alive couldn’t possibly die. She was bound to pull through.

I was wrong. Like a time lapse image, the brave and beautiful Pearl crumbled and in the span of a few months, the head she would throw back and laugh was being placed gently on a pillow in a coffin that now held her lifeless body. At the funeral, somebody said, “cancer... it’s a death sentence!” And I wondered if he was right. Dr. Biswas had said the same thing about my grandmother and he was right. They said the same thing about Bob Marley, about Nargis Dutt, and they were right. They must’ve said the same thing about someone you know and they must’ve been right. And maybe they said the same thing about you. They might’ve also said that subject to the type of cancer you have, you might have a survival possibility of anything between 3% (for pancreatic cancer, the kind Pearl had) and 96.5% (for testicular cancer, the kind Lance Armstrong had). Statistics also suggest that nearly half of all men and almost as many women will get cancer of some sort. Which means, either you, or me, dear reader, probably will get cancer, and if you’re getting all smug and thinking ‘it couldn’t be me’, well then in all honesty, so am I. But then it’s only human to hope, so no offence meant, and I hope none taken. But are they right? Irrespective of whether it’s you or me, is the one who does get it, bound to give up the ghost?

If you ask a doctor, a Dr. Jerri Nielsen that is, she’ll tell you that ‘impossible is nothing’ isn’t just a handy cliché. Dr. Nielsen was stranded at a research station in Antarctica where she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Being the only doctor at a station cut off from the rest of the world by bad weather, she had no choice but to self-treat, and did so successfully. If you ask adman Anup Kumar, he’ll tell you that he only really began living after he faced death when he was diagnosed with lung cancer (last stage) and was given just four months to live. Anup did not believe the doctors. He willed himself into believing he would survive and survive he did. His survival story took the shape of a book - The Joy of Cancer, a book that is both armour and sabre, a sublime inspiration, in the battle against the disease. And if you ask this sinewy fella in bright tights on a cycle called Lance Armstrong, he won’t tell you his story. He’ll tell you instead about young Hugo Gomez, about a not so young Samantha Eisenstein and a rather old Perry Rothaus, and about hundreds of others like them, who have beaten cancer and lived to tell the tale. Now through the Lance Armstrong Foundation, they are sharing their experiences and helping others like them beat the dreaded C.

Moral of the story: You and I are at least as likely to get the disease as we are not likely to. And if we do get it, our survival depends on one thing, and one thing alone – our stomach for a fight. So let’s prepare for battle today, for tomorrow we’ll have to fight, either for ourselves, or for someone we care about.

Myths about Cancer

Cancer, like any other terrifying and usually inexplicable phenomenon, spawns myths. They are a way to cope with the terrifying indifference and often a downright contempt, the disease shows for human life. Myths however, have a life of their own and often end up doing more harm than good, i.e., the myth that cancer is contagious often results in the unfortunate patient being left to fend for oneself without the support of family or friends, at exactly the moment when one needs them the most. There are others too, and they range from denial (oh it only happens to older people) to pushing the blame (it’s the result of all the man-made chemicals that we inadvertently consume) to being rather illogical (small breasted women don’t get breast cancer!). The list goes on, but the important thing to realise is that, nobody, as of now, is absolutely sure what causes cells to go cancerous. Bottom line: If you avoid tobacco (and other known carcinogens) and still get the dreadful news someday, the main thing to remember is that instead of thinking about the ‘why’, you’re better off thinking ‘how’ and ‘then what’.


Sunday, November 25, 2007

In the right spirit

Sometimes I really struggle with these weekly columns. You know, do I write about this, or should it be about that? These struggles I hoped would cease when I came across a rather well known Latin American poet’s thoughts who said “write as though it were your last day on earth and all would be clear”. Well, the sheet’s still clear, but a chance meeting left me thinking that there would perhaps never be a last day on earth for me – or for you! Old hat you say? Well, I don’t know… let me tell you what this interesting lady, I met at a friend’s place, had to say about her experiences and then you and I’ll go about making up our minds together. Now don’t laugh, but this woman I met volunteers, so to speak, as a medium at séances. And she isn’t a lonely loony widow but an attractive woman in her 20s with a blossoming corporate career. NN was your everyday teenaged girl who rebels against parents, parties with friends, swoons at the movies and spoils her dog silly. And it is that dog that wags this tale. NN was besotted with her Yorkshire terrier Murphy, and treated him like a dear friend, her confidant, her child. But dogs being dogs, tend to curl up and die sooner than we’d expect and so was the case with poor Murphy. NN was inconsolable. She cried, she pined and she questioned; questioned her family, her friends, her beliefs and her god, until one day she met a lady, a friend of her mother’s who told her she could make her talk to Murphy. This clairvoyant aunt of hers acted as a medium between her and her dog and revealed to NN secrets that were known only to NN and her dog. “No matter how improbable, once faced with such a situation, it sure makes for compelling evidence, don’t you think?” she asked wide eyed.

I don’t think I would’ve had the heart to disagree even if I felt otherwise, but going by what she said, I could see no avenue for disagreement. But a greater revelation awaited her. NN underwent a hypnotic trance that took her back to her days with Murphy, to her childhood and then, in a vision, she saw a grey-bearded man, walking through a field toward a great banyan tree. Around the tree there sat a group of men and women. They were chanting and the bearded man joined them. This man looked familiar, very familiar… where had she seen this man before, and then she knew it – she was this man. NN believes this was a vision from a past life. That moment, she believes transformed her. She lost her fear of death and more significantly, she lost her fear of losing those she loves because she believes she saw in that vision the very people she is close to in this life and that no matter as what or where, we are always likely, in every life, to be close to those we love - and you thought it happened only in the movies Compelling? Debatable! Interesting? Undoubtedly! The friend I had gone to meet was still mourning the loss of his mother. I had picked up a set of books by a psychiatrist called Dr. Brian Weiss (see pic) for him. Brian Weiss’ first book ‘Many Lives Many Masters’ is about one of his patients who stumbled upon her past life during a hypnotic session and the many journeys they take into past lives together. I have found that his books are a wonderful healing agent for those who have lost someone they love because unlike everything else around us, his books reiterate the permanence of life and love.

Following my meeting with NN I sought out other individuals who had dabbled in past life regression. Some had attended workshops and still couldn’t believe what they had experienced while others were reluctant and refused to share their experiences because they suspected they would be mocked. So where do we stand on the issue, dear reader? I for one, remain an interested sceptic. I really want to believe it all, but not until I’ve experienced and understood it all for myself. But it definitely is a course worth chasing for in it could lie the answers to all the mysteries that shroud our understanding of ourselves, our lives and death. I am ‘dying’ to find out, aren’t you?

The slip stream

The Immortal Cycle

The concept of reincarnation is very strong in the Hindu religion. Thousands of years old Upanishads, the guiding force of Hinduism, make powerful arguments in favour of reincarnation. It’s believed that body is nothing but a vessel for the soul, which is immortal. The cycle of death and rebirth goes on indefinitely until the soul itself becomes dissatisfied and hungers for Moksha–where it attains spiritual enlightenment, thus ending the cycle of death and rebirth. However, the concept (of reincarnation) isn’t restricted to Hinduism alone. Throughout history there have been numerous recorded instances of people claiming to be reincarnated. People suddenly remembering, or claiming to remember their previous lives with accurate and verifiable details–such accounts are dime a dozen with Dr Ian Stevenson, a psychiatry researcher who’s dedicated 40 years to study this phenomenon. He claims to have over 3,000 similar cases with him, involving mostly children, where the only plausible explanation has to be reincarnation. With religion and science, both coming out in support for this ideology, maybe it deserves a closer look.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Monkeys, babies, rabies, et al

Dusk was approaching a lonely outpost on the outskirts of Delhi. The wide, well lit double carriageway had narrowed into a broken, unmarked road. Temples, schools and markets had given way to thorn-scrub on both sides before the road turned left to reveal a shanty hamlet that was now in the eye of a raging storm. This was Sanjay Camp, Bhati Mines – yet another battle-zone in a strange new turf war that has gripped the city of Delhi.

As the car rocked and rolled over ruts and road, the usual vignettes of India’s squalor waved past – a mangy dog and scrawny chickens; fetid ditches and broken walls; thin, bent women, their hard life etched on their faces, running after happy, hungry children - a slum like any other. However, at the break of dawn, fear grips Sanjay Camp. The children are scared to walk alone, the men huddle in corners over decks of cards, trying to bury their fears and frustrations in the game at hand, women hurry on the streets, hoping to get indoors before they are assaulted, while traders arm themselves with sticks and catapults, in a desperate bid to defend their homes, their families, their livelihoods and their person from the marauding bands that have terrorised this forgotten settlement of two-thousand odd families for the last 8 months. For now though, late in the evening, a sense of uneasy calm hangs over the slum as we drive past it to the great green gates that separate the dark and dreaded forests of Bhati Mines, the source of all their fear, from the hamlet. On top of the gates and the high boundary walls, in the gathering gloom, I could see scores of silhouetted forms, the villains of the piece – a rag tag bunch of starving monkeys.

Monkeys, more specifically Rhesus Macaques, aren’t easy to live with. They are wily bandits, opportunistic bullies who, when driven by hunger, wouldn’t run shy of raiding your kitchen, or snatching your lunch from under your very nose. Unpredictable and aggressive, they are known to bite, often without provocation. They carry zoonotic diseases so terrible - like rabies and herpes B- that such a bite could kill, and when not busy stealing or biting, they seem to enjoy demolishing car mirrors and cables. So here we are, stuck with a revered and protected religious icon that scratches and bites, robs and wrecks and makes babies faster than the Chinese can make brassieres. (In fact, macaque populations in some urban centres grow at the rate of 10% every year while by comparison, India’s fairly prolific human population grows at a measly 2% percent or so).

But why blame the little devils. The Indian government was once the largest exporter of Rhesus macaques for medical research and whole troops of macaques were callously trapped in India’s forests and then shipped to laboratories around the world. There they were exposed to atomic radiation, pitilessly cut open without anesthesia, shot, burnt and drowned alive for the sake of research. Stragglers from these troops became outcasts and drifted into the cities. As forests were cleared, more homeless monkeys entered the cities. Today, a city like Delhi has about 6000 of them. Since March this year, nearly 2000 of these simian refugees have been trapped and bundled off to Bhati mines, a poor habitat which offers little forage, thus pushing the brown buggers to thuggery. Under these depressing circumstances, where designated sanctuaries are ill prepared to hold or sustain a burgeoning primate population, there’s still light at the end of the tunnel and it’s from a Chinese lantern. You see, Hong Kong had a similar problem with monkeys, and instead of culling them, they started what was perhaps the world’s first monkey sterilisation programme. Himachal Pradesh followed suit with some success and it might solve Delhi’s problem too, at least for a while.

But sterilisation and culling are merely symptomatic measures. Forgive me for screaming from the pulpit, but the way I see it, every time we exploit nature – whether it is the nature of water, the nature of an animal or good old human nature – in a manner that is cold, callous and cruel, we trigger off a domino effect - like the hurricane in New Orleans, like the ‘monkey menace’ in New Delhi and like we did on ‘9/11’ in New York - that brings the chickens back to roost.

The slip stream

When monkeys attack!

The Deputy Mayor of Delhi, S.S. Bajwa, tumbled to his death last month while trying to chase away a troop of monkeys. Like most animals, monkeys too avoid coming into conflict with human beings but when the two primates are thrown into the close confines of urban living, something’s gotta give. Here are a few do’s and don’ts which might help with the primate protocol between cousins - A universal rule applicable with all animals and especially monkeys is to avoid eye contact. This might be taken as a threat, provoking an attack. Abstain from feeding the animal as this act of generosity would condition the monkeys to associate people with food and might prompt an attack when refused. If you feel threatened, pretend to pick up a stone to scare the monkey away and if it still charges, don’t let the animal get a grip on you because unlike dogs, it can only bite what it can hold. Monkeys are bullies and the sight of children emboldens the naughty ones, so protect your children in their presence. Treat them with respect but not with fear, and you should get by just fine…


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Miracle on whatever street

The Dutch often claim that God lies in the details. Well, no one can accuse an Indian of looking for Him there so I’ll spare you the same, but honestly, if you’re ever in need of a dash of divinity, look up the details about the man in my story and go pay him a visit. You won’t be disappointed. I had seen his pictures and read his books, but he seemed different when I met him in the flesh. He seemed to have been hewn out of the rugged rocks of Vetal hill, now casting its lengthening shadow over the city of Pune. It was late afternoon, and since I seemed to have disrupted the man’s siesta, I sat across him with some trepidation. He wasn’t a big man, but his diminutive 90-year old frame seemed hard pressed to contain the colossus that breathed within; his voice rumbled deep inside him and hit me with the heat and force of a freshly ejected cannon ball. I’d been warned that he did not suffer fools – especially fools with press cards – gladly.

And why was I here? Well dear reader, like any self respecting gadfly with a pen, I was out risking life and limb to bring you the truth – the truth about miracles. And since yoga boasts of more miracles per century than any other art or science, I thought of meeting the man who the BBC described as the Michelangelo of yoga – Shri B.K.S. Iyengar. In the beginning, I was a little disappointed. When I asked the great yogi if he had acquired any siddhis, he responded with what a rather egotistic rant, “I have conquered the world”, he boomed, as the windows rattled “…but do you know how I was as a child?” he asked with a boyish smile that made his bushy eyebrows dance. I was beginning to like the man… “I was sickly and weak, I had tuberculosis and couldn’t attend school... the doctors said I didn’t have long to live…” and it was then that yoga found him and breathed health and strength into his dying body. Thus resuscitated, Iyengar surrendered himself to yoga and was perhaps singlehandedly responsible for the yoga revolution that is sweeping the world today. “From a dying child, I became a man who taught yoga to the world, isn’t that a miracle?” he asked. Yes, yes I wasn’t convinced either, and ‘Guruji’, as his disciples call him, must’ve noted my disappointment.
While the interview was in progress, he called out to young lady who walked past us. “You wanted a miracle? Well, here is one. Nivedita, tell them your story” Nivedita, a little bashful to begin with, began her story “I was bed-ridden for 15-years of my life. The doctors couldn’t tell me what was wrong with me, the tests couldn’t… I was told I’ll never walk again. My life was as good as over, until I met Guruji. After one look, he prescribed a set of asanas and soon enough I was able to sit, walk and run on my own. Today I’m in the best of health, and teaching yoga – a life that my doctors and I believed was impossible for me.” Just then, a blonde woman walked in to ask ‘Guruji’ something about a class that was in progress at the time.

“Ah, here’s another ‘miracle’!” exclaimed Guruji. “ Shai, tell them your story.” Sure enough, Shai, from Israel, revealed how she had an obstinate brain tumour that simply refused to respond to medication or surgery and how her life had become intolerable with constant nausea and headaches but once she started yoga with Iyengar, the pain and the nausea went away, she stopped taking her medication and even her doctors say that she should “keep doing yoga because nothing seems to work the way this does.” And so it went on… there was Raya, a reformed Indian delinquent, there was the charming Danish breast cancer patient, Ingellsen, an ever so sweet woman in her 60s who said “I’ve surrendered myself to Guruji, I owe my life to him… there is something divine about him.”

B.K.S. Iyengar may not have resurrected the dead (yet!), but he sure comes close. As I walked away, I was filled with a deep sense of regret, for not too long ago I had lost a relative who might have lived a longer, fuller life if I had had the sense to bring him here. If you share your life with a Nivedita or a Raya, go to that miracle worker on Hare Krishna Mandir street, because for you or yours, God might actually lie in that detail.

Heal the world

It’s been long overdue but the world is finally waking up to the health benefits of Yoga. This 5,000 year old spiritual practice continues to find new believers and converts, in search of inner enlightenment or a good old fashioned workout. Indian Yogis had forever been a source of wonderment and awe among the ‘cultured’ westerners, with their impossible feats of endurance and famed longevity. Nobody was sure how they did it till very recently, although yoga obviously had something to do with it. Now researchers from all over the world have started to find that a steady and diligent practice of various forms of Yoga–Iyengar, Ashtanga, Raja etc–has the ability to treat or lessen the symptoms of various ailments. Hypertension, asthma, cardiovascular ailments and even OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) are–just to name a few–diseases which have been successfully treated with Yoga. Not to mention the happy side-effects, improved flexibility, glowing skin, a well toned body and a peaceful demeanour. With so much going for Yoga, is it any wonder that this ancient practice continues to evolve?


Sunday, November 4, 2007

Surviving Education

“He has to go! He is extremely indisciplined and an absolute failure! There is no place in our school for such students!!” I stood there feeling a little awkward but don’t remember feeling terribly ashamed. My parents had been pleading with Father P, the principal, but all to no avail. Finally, he insisted that we leave his office. As I walked out of those hallowed gates for the last time as a much maligned nine year old, my parents were inconsolable. Hitherto, they had taken a lot of pride in the fact that they had managed to send me to one of the country’s most respected schools, but now, here I was, expelled even before I could learn to spell the word.

Now, think about it! I hadn’t killed a fellow student over lunch money, nor had I been an instrument of moral capitulation for any of my teachers (as far as I know or can remember), and yet, the headmaster was calling me a failure and my parents were ashamed of their only son, simply because I found science and math too boring to pass. Let me remind you that I was in the fifth grade at the time.

Was I a very bad student? Honestly, I don’t think so. Other than obstinately holding on to the notion that every number had to be an ‘odd number’ all through my early years, I was a surprisingly pliant child. I was good at languages and history and too shy to be naughty. But sadly, I was being ground between millstones that demanded conformity and industry, a system that condemned an obvious weakness far more than it praised an obvious strength. All I was told was that I was bad at this and bad at that. My parents, with their misplaced sense of reverse motivation repeated the same patter, thus driving home the point that within the walls of ‘school’, I really was good for nothing. And since no human being, child or adult, particularly likes feeling like he is good for nothing, I would cycle to school, contemplating the prospect of another dreary day, and on occasions end up in a garden instead where I would spend a happy day with Alexandre Dumas or Conan Doyle… That was of course until the bubble burst and I and my parents made an ignominious exit from school one.

I went to a new school, made new friends and was lucky enough to make new friends who helped me discover that I wasn’t all bad. I still was embarrassingly inept at math (my scores all through rarely crossed the 50% mark, and consistently hovered around 20% or less) but it really did not matter because I wanted to work with what I enjoyed, the humanities, and as long as I did better than most at them, I was happy. I know what you are thinking. Did I make it to an IIT or an IIM? No I did not. But one of my friends made it to IIT and the other went to Delhi School of Engineering and then to Wharton and while their cars and bank balances might be marginally bigger, I suspect I’m having a little more fun.

This just isn’t my story. This perhaps also is your story, or your child’s perhaps…. And I’m putting it down for you because I really believe that while most of our schools might forever remain institutions where we are sent more to be judged than to learn, let us as individuals retain a balanced perspective about a school report card. Every child is good at something because of a certain genetic or cultural orientation, and perhaps because of the very orientation, is also disinterested in certain other things. Academic excellence is usually proof of discipline and industry, not potential and as long as that potential is encouraged, one will emerge a happy and a successful human being, neither of which can be measured in ‘degrees’.

The slip stream

‘Great’ Failures?

The carefully regimented lifestyle that schools claim to foster often ends up constricting the creativity and enterprise of students. Those who conform are held up as paragons of virtue, to be emulated and followed, whereas those who choose to differ are often derided and humiliated. Most often, schools fall into the trap of having a ‘tunnel vision’ towards the achievement of good grades by their students, of getting the highest passing percentage and grooming the kid who would top All India rankings. Rather than realising that a student who tops in every subject perhaps needs more direction than one who knows his strengths and weaknesses and concentrates on the former. Great personalities and free minds over the ages have often rebelled against this system of ‘rote learning’; prominent ones include Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein. Churchill who was rebellious and a non-conformist did poorly at school and often got unduly punished. Einstein on the other hand found the careful regimentation too stifling for his creativity. These once-upon-a-time school ‘failures’ ironically enough went on to rewrite school books, which students continue to memorise, unfortunately, still by rote.


Sunday, October 28, 2007

True Colours!

All this brouhaha over racial taunts directed at Andrew Symonds deserves a perspective. So let me tell you about something that happened not very long ago that changed my perspective on racism. I was watching a cricket match in a packed stadium in one of the world’s greatest cities. Sitting close to the boundary, I had a good view of the fielding side. After some overs, one of the fielders was sent to man the ropes right where I was sitting. As soon as the fielder reached the fence, some of the spectators started jumping and whooping like gibbons, and in a disgusting display of brazen racism, started taunting him for the colour of his skin. At the time, this cricketer was one of the brightest young stars in international cricket. His name: Vinod Kambli. And the city which embarrassed itself thus was not one full of ‘white’ Australians or ‘black’ West Indians but a city as proud of its inclusive heritage as it is of its modern cosmopolitan present – the city I call home – the city of New Delhi.

This was the early 90s, when South Africa was emerging from the shadow of apartheid and India, once herself a colony and a victim of racial discrimination, was at the forefront, leading the diplomatic battle for the rights of those oppressed for their colour. But the truth is that we are a far cry from the pluralistic society we pretend to be. With a double century in his third test, the flamboyant Kambli should’ve been treated like a star. Instead, all he was treated to were chants of ‘kalu!’ and ‘Kala Bandar!’. What is worse is that Kambli did not seem surprised. Perhaps he had come to expect this cruel treatment from his countrymen. At one point, when the heckling reached a crescendo, he turned back and looked at us, our eyes met and he smiled a sad smile. At that moment I was mortified. I felt terrible that he might think I was as much a party to this shameful picketing as the idiots around me and I was too young, too helpless to stop them. As he looked away, I turned and walked away from the stadium. It was the first time I had witnessed a man being insulted for his colour and it changed my perspective on our people.

Some years later, having applied for a visa to a country that had been plagued by illegal Indian immigrants, I was interviewed and asked a question that seemed to insinuate that being an Indian, I too was likely to stay back illegally. I might have read too much into a fairly regular question but it singed my soul and I restrained myself with great difficulty. That day, while walking out with the visa, I thought of Kambli again, for while I was fuming just because my integrity as a person and as an Indian had been questioned by a foreigner, how must poor Kambli have felt for being insulted thus in his own country, by his own people. And there’s more. Last year, I was on a bus that was going from Washington D.C. to New York and I struck up a conversation with the driver. After beating around Bush for a while, I asked Jacques, a Haitian American, if he ever faced discrimination in America. Jacques stunned me when he said that while there is a certain degree of discrimination between Anglo Saxons, Hispanics, African refugees and African Americans, the group that he faced the highest degree of racial putdowns from were Indians – not American Indians, but Indian-Americans. I shouldn’t’ve been surprised though and nor should Andrew Symonds be. I mean come on, we are a people who, going by the matrimonial columns and websites, don’t believe that the fair sex deserves a partner unless she really is ‘very fair’ and we are a people amongst whom I have seen grandparents discriminating between grandchildren on the basis of colour. We are racists. Period.

The film Chak De India illustrated yet another aspect of racial discrimination and cultural corruption when it highlighted the manner in which we treat Indians from the North East. I’ve had students from Nagaland and Mizoram who have recounted experiences which convinced me that if it had happened to me, I would’ve found it impossible to believe that this really is my country. Racial xenophobia and discrimination is an intrinsic part of our collective psyche and instead of brushing it under the carpet as the Indian media seeks to do, by pointing fingers at the admittedly far more often guilty Australians, we need to identify our cultural faultlines and rebuild the institutions that create them – our schools and our families.

The slip stream

Much about melanin

Sledging isn’t a new fad. It has always been a part of the ‘gentleman’s game’ and racial slurs too have occasionally raised their ugly heads. Of the various racial issues in cricket, a classic straw in the scrubs is that of Basil D’Oliviera who was an unfortunate victim of sporting conspiracies. A ‘coloured’ South African, he was barred from playing for his home nation. He migrated to England in 1960 and played for them after becoming a British citizen. Basil performed creditably for his adopted country, but discrimination shadowed him again when he was dropped from the squad touring South Africa because South African Prime Minister Vorster had made it clear that he was unwelcome. Injuries however forced his inclusion and Basil was offered money to make himself unavailable for the tour which eventually fell through and led to South Africa’s suspension from international sport.

In the world of sports, and most other arenas, for that matter, the only race that should matter is the one against time. Incidents like the one involving Symonds, Mc Grath’s apalling outburst in the West Indies, Lehman’s ugly words against Sri Lanka and Darrell Hair being prohibited from officiating should remain the exceptions that prove the rule.


Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Idiot’s guide to Durga Puja

“Shona! Otho shona Buduuu…!!” I was hoping she’d stop, but you know how mothers are. It must not have been a minute after four in the morning, and she kept at it till I woke up, all bleary eyed, to the strains of a mesmeric voice chanting on the radio. That happened when I was four, and it happened again today morning, 27-years later, just as it has, on this very day of the Bengali calendar for all the intervening years (and mom, you better keep at it for decades to come).

This invocation to Goddess Durga - Mahalaya, was my introduction to that grand Bong affair called ‘Durga Pujo’. And since that day to this, autumn leaves, the voice of Bhadra and the beats of the dhak, herald the coming of the Goddess, and while I’m not much of a Bengali, nor an idolater, there is a certain magic in the air that touches the core of my being when I see the ‘pandals’ go up. It is impossible to remain untouched by the festive fervour, especially if one has been brought up in that infamous Bengali ghetto in North India called Chittaranjan Park, and I, for one, rejoice in it. It is the only time of the year when I feel connected with the Bong bit in my roots, and wallow in the nostalgia of Puja shopping, pandal hopping, and seasonal community dating.

Let me explain the last bit (these are rare insights into the psyche of the ‘Probasi Bangali’, so both non Bengalis and non Probasis pay heed). You see, my parents and many of my friends’, victims of a strange Anglo-banglo colonial hangover, insisted on sending us to these terrible institutions called ‘Boys only convents’. Now in an environment where for most of the year, the only unrelated, teenaged, female you can sit next to happens to be your principal’s matronly Labrador, things do get a little desperate. So, come puja time, my friends and I would try and join one of the ‘jatra’ (theatre) or ‘orchestra’ (music bands) groups that would hold auditions and rehearsals in preparation for the stage shows during Durga Puja, in the hope of discovering the joys of conversing with at least one female teenager who wasn’t a relative or a dog. Such voyages of discovery often lasted till dashami (Dussehra) and then, thanks to a misplaced sense of propriety, hit the sand bank… till it was time for ‘rehearsals’ again.

With these and other such happy associations to celebrate, there isn’t an event in the year that I look forward to more than Durga Puja, and for the same reasons, I hate dashami and it’s sense of closure. On dashami, the idol is removed from the pandal for bhashaan (immersion) and taken in an open vehicle in a long procession, like a carnival parade, where the celebrations are perhaps wildest, and then immersed in a local waterbody, a symbolic return of Shakti to nature. But I find the sudden calm of an empty pandal absolutely heartbreaking. A Durga Puja pandal is that rare platform where long lost friends meet once a year, where families distributed over colonies and continents reunite, and for a brief period of four days, are a family again, and where socially starved boys and girls get a crash course in the lessons of life. But every dashami, the fairy tale comes to an abrupt end, and no, not everybody in this happy multitude gets to live happily ever after. I’ve seen young couples celebrate a puja together and then separate, as the romance refuses to sink deeper, and seen couples much older, wrenched apart by the Grim Reaper. And yet, after every bhashaan, the revellers return to the now barren pandal, and stand, heads bowed, as if mourning the dead, waiting for the priest to bless all with ‘Shantir jal’ (waters of peace), and hope that they could live in peace and prosperity until it is time for the Goddess to return.

But you don’t have to be Bengali to be touched by the magic and romance of Durga Puja. Ask my friend, a Columban, a Christian, who met the first non canine teenaged female of his life at one of these pandals, fell in love, and after consistently meeting the same girl for four days every year for about 15 long years, got sick of waiting the whole year and married her instead... and his is not the only story. Durga Puja, like most great celebrations of the world, is about celebrating life and love, and neither your language, nor your god, ought to stop you from joining us in this celebration… so hope to see you at a pandal this puja…

The slip stream

The chronology of mythology

Durga Puja is celebrated to worship the Goddess of power and beauty and the victory of good over evil. According to Hindu mythology, Mahishasura, the king of asuras was granted immortality, plundered the world and ruthlessly killed people. Terrorised by his tyranny, the gods sought help from Lord Shiva, Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu, the divine trinity whose combined energies gave birth to Devi Durga – the 10 armed personification of Shakti. Born in the ashram of sage Kattyana, Durga was worshipped by him for nine days after which she set forth to destroy Mahishasura on dashami when a fierce battle finally brought an end to Mahishasura and his demonic perversions. Originally, Durga Puja was celebrated in spring but according to legend, when Lord Rama invoked the Goddess in autumn before venturing out to kill Ravana, consequently, the autumnal (sharodia) Puja celebrations became more popular. Since then, Sharodia Durga Puja has become the biggest Hindu festival in Eastern and Central India while in other parts of India, the celebrations acquire their own hue.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

For the monogamous ignoramus

Dear reader, you hold in your hands the anniversary issue of The Sunday Indian. It’s been a year of sharing commiserations over dying deadlines, celebrations over your letters to a demanding editor, and wiping blood, off editorial meeting tables with crumpled copies of rival magazines, shed to ensure that you get the very best. For your fidelity, you deserve more than mere thanks, and so here you have it - insights to keep happy and alive that most cherished anniversary of all – the wedding anniversary. Why, you ask, am I in a position to unravel such deep, dark truths? Well, for one, I happen to be one of those rare men who voluntarily walked under a wedding bower as soon as I legally could, against wishes and advice, without having any pressing need, if you catch my drift, other than love, to do so. More importantly, both my wife and I have managed to get by for about a decade now without having to call upon kitchen implements, in-laws, neighbours or lawyers to mediate. And anyway, if we as a civilisation, had no qualms about asking groups as diverse as celibate priests and promiscuous prostitutes about marital advice, why should yours truly be any less worthy?

Researchers claim that the phenomenon most damaging to a monogamous relationship is infidelity. These researchers, most of them Americans, insist that about 60% of all men and about 40% of all women are adulterous. If you look at the relationships around you, you’ll notice that though the figures, like most things American, might be slightly bloated, they aren’t too far off the mark. In fact, the venerable Desmond Morris has said that almost every adult male commits adultery with his eyes every day. (Don’t worry honey, I’m just the exception that proves this rule). Now, it is normal in such circumstances to go about clucking like self righteous hens and blame the partner that strayed, and since I’m without any personal experience in the matter (honest!), I’ll stop short of defending it. But here’s a thought – what keeps a loving relationship together is love, and just because one gets into a socio-legal contract called marriage, is it fair to expect and demand love and fidelity as if they were mere clauses in the contract. Love is a natural reaction to mutual emotional needs being satisfied, and if the ‘infidel’ is guilty of taking his unmet emotional needs beyond the pair bond, isn’t the other partner at least as guilty for not fulfilling those needs?

A related vice, possessive jealousy, is another silent relationship slayer. In the early days of our relationship, I used to be intensely possessive. While in college together, I would stick to the love of my life like a limpet, forever fearful that in my absence she might learn to love another. She only had to look at a fellow student and smile for me to fly into a rage, convinced, that in being politely attentive to the attentions of another, she had wronged and betrayed me. Looking back, I wonder why she chose to put up with my pathetic behaviour, but I’m glad she did. With time, I began to realise that possessive jealousy is not as much about the friendly classmate, or about the way the object of my affection might react to him but about ‘me’, and my own insecurities. I realised, somewhere deep down, I felt I wasn’t good enough for her and perhaps those she came in contact with were, in some respect or the other, better than me – more suitable suitors. My solution: I took an honest look at myself, figured out what about me was even remotely likeable and then committed myself to becoming better, nicer, the best I could be. Finally, I was secure in the knowledge that I was the best bargain that life could’ve offered her. If you are in the same boat, this is your oar. But let me warn you, the cliché, about getting to the top being easier than staying there, is an absolute axiom here. You and your relationships, dear reader, are always a ‘work-in-progress’; so awake, arise and stop not ever, for the goal shifts as soon as you’ve reached it.

My final anniversary advice dear reader is that you should never let yourself or your partner feel that you are married to each other. Do all that you have to because you want to, not because you have to. Stay together because of love, not marriage, and you’ll stay together forever. Gotta go now… it’s a Sunday and I have to clean the toilets… hate the job, but I love the boss....

The row over the. . vow

‘Marriage’ has been around for thousands of years. It is often regarded as the foundation of pre-historic man’s attempt to make himself social and civilised. Almost every culture known to man has marriage in one form or another woven into its fabric - a remarkably stable force in the evolution of the modern man. Now, however marriage is in trouble—in the West at least. There people have started questioning the inherent compromises and adjustments that one has to make for the marriage to be successful. As a result, the divorce rate in most of these countries has gone over 50%, with as many as six out of 10 marriages being plagued with extra-marital affairs.

As the population growth rates in some of these countries have declined sharply—some have even gone into negatives—experts have started believing that the common person is no longer willing to carry the ‘baggage’ that being married entails. Over here in India, however, marriage is still beyond reproach. The number of marriages taking place keeps increasing year after year, and in terms of weddings, bigger is better. So place your bets and hope for the best.


Sunday, October 7, 2007

There is hope in hell!

Nonsense! All this talk of Twenty20 being a sport for pretty young twenty some-things in tights (I meant the Aussies, not the cheer leaders), to borrow a phrase from a man whose only connection with the number 20 today would be the number of strands he hides under his bowler (it’s the hat, silly!), is ‘utter roobish!’

The all conquering Indian team might have an average age of 24, but that can’t take away from the fact that the highest run scorer in the tournament is a hulking, super strong, super fit 36 year old called Matt Hayden; the top wicket taker till the semi-finals was the 32-year-old Stuart Clarke; the fastest and only bowler with a hat-trick in the format was a 31 year old flash of greased lightning called Brett Lee and the man who almost took the ‘cup’ away from parched Indian lips was the 33 year old Misbah ul Haque. The point is, youth, in practically every sense and spirit of the word, is a function of fitness, not age.

Now all of you who are still not 30, stop sniggering and keep reading, because you’ll get there before you know it. And fellow 30 year olds, realise, that the 30s is the glorious decade of synergy where mind and body peak in unison and it is the things we do in this decade that determine our future biological and social success and longevity. I know what you are thinking – the trousers don’t fit, you are still wondering where Samantha Fox might’ve disappeared, and worse than the kids calling you ‘uncle’ is the realisation that the grizzled ‘auto-wallahs’ you once addressed as uncle, today call you ‘bhai-sahab’. You have no idea when that six-pack became a barrel, and when you traded in that gym membership for a leisurely night walk – to help with the digestion. If that is where you stand in life and find my assertions hard to believe, let me tell you about another man in his 30s.

Born in Illinois, this man led a fairly active life during his early youth. But somewhere along the way, our hero let go of his fitness lifestyle. He packed on the pounds and became terribly overweight– more than a 100 slobby kgs at 5’9”. At this juncture in his life, he thought of joining the army and showed up for his physical entrance exam for the 10th Mountain Division. One of the most basic preliminary tests to qualify was a two mile run. Joe, for that’s what our hero is named, set off from the starting line with a host of other aspirants and while the runners kept up a steady pace, our embarrassingly unfit misfit fell further behind. ‘Young’ Joe gasped and flapped, stumbled and staggered and finally collapsed in a jiggly-wiggly rotund heap, literally miles before the finishing line as the other runners disappeared over the horizon. Ashamed and disgusted with himself, Joe swore he would turn back the clock as he spat out the sand.

Some years later, on a cold December day in Potomac, Maryland USA, a not so young Joe, now in his 30s, ran 10 miles, cycled across another 100, walked and hiked over 15 more, swam, skied and rowed his way across another 28; then followed that up with ‘4000 reps of calisthenics and crunches’ and lifted a cumulative total of 50,160 lbs to successfully complete Guinness’ 24-Hour Fitness Challenge to emerge as the ‘World’s Fittest Man’. If you leaf through the pages of a Guinness Book of Records, you’ll see the name of Joe Decker adorning that title.

That was in the year 2000. Since that day, Decker had been featured in some of the world’s most popular publications like GQ, People and The Washington Post as a beacon of health and fitness in an ageing and obese world. Today, Decker is a celebrated personal trainer, and you might catch him endorsing fitness products on television. But he experiences his greatest high when he competes at some of the toughest foot races in the world and announces, ‘If I can, anybody can!’

So, fellow 30 something year olds (and don’t feel excluded, dear Sachin and Sourav), don’t you believe them when they say that you are too old for anything, least of all, T20 cricket. Enough of the high-fives around the television. Pull up your socks, tuck that chest of yours – that has slipped a few inches – inside that track pant and start running… your life.

How old is 30?

Come on, 30 isn’t really a time when we need to worry about ageing and its effects. Right? Wrong! The 30’s is a tricky period - a time in life when we refuse to acknowledge that our bodies are any different from when we were in our 20s.The signs are all there –the slight graying of the side burns, the layers gathering around the mid-riff, the gentle wheeze that accompanies our trudge up a flight of stairs – but we refuse to see them. The truth is that with each passing year during this treacherous time, our metabolism slows down and we start losing lean muscle mass. And if we don’t do anything about it, one day, we’ll just wake up to see a fat, old stranger in the mirror.

However the truth is that it is possible to be super fit in one’s 30s and 40s, but it does take regular exercise, a clean diet and a little more time and care than what might’ve been the case in our 20s or teens. Having said that, I must reiterate that great shape and excellent health is an achievable goal at any age.


Sunday, September 30, 2007

A river runs through us

Western UP’s dry brown countryside had turned a vivid green with the rains. The lonely road, a long leafy boulevard, was a car killer. Broken and jagged, it rattled bones and churned the marrow. But the sight of sugar cane fields beside an open road; women in ghungats suppressing a shy giggle as I ask for directions; the dappled light of a mango orchard and the whiff of dung cakes baking in the sun… aah.. my city sore senses couldn’t care less.

And then, as the poets might’ve, or at the very least, should’ve said, ‘the lover can walk over broken glass as if he was walking over petals when he knows his beloved awaits him at his journey’s end’. The beloved I sought was a dolphin. Now, don’t raise that eyebrow and wonder what might a dolphin be doing so far from the sea, for I speak of the other dolphin – the river dolphin. Once found through the length and breadth of most of India’s and China’s rivers, pollution, hunting and fishing nets had greatly reduced their numbers. A few can still be seen along stretches of the Ganges. News recently came in from China though that they had lost the Yangtze river dolphin-the baiji- to its polluted waterways, though some reports speak of a lone dolphin having been spotted. Never having seen one, and having heard of the near extinction of its Chinese cousin, I couldn’t resist the thought of paying them a visit when I heard from friends at WWF that one could see them, if lucky, a mere 200 kms from Delhi, at the Ganga Barrage in Narora.

Enroute, I passed a bunch of schoolboys piled atop a mule cart returning from school. “Susu (go ahead! Open any book or website worth opening and you’ll find that that is what the dolphins are called in hindi) kahan milega?” I asked them. They looked at me as one might at a circus elephant- a mixture of awe and mirth, and then started repeating my question, individually, then in chorus, and broke up into peals of laughter. The wagon rolled off, the driver shaking his head, his passengers rolling, laughing, pointing fingers at me as the sky filled up with the cry of ‘susu kahan milega?’. As I drove off, I saw a group of elderly ladies sitting on a string cot next to their buffaloes. They’ll know for sure, I thought. But even as I got down from the car, I realised that while the school kids had spared me the misunderstanding, these grand dames, with dung cakes within easy reach, were less likely to. I stopped myself and drove on, in search of susu, wondering all the while why it couldn’t have had a more innocuous name. Next, I saw a policeman. Couldn’t risk the law misunderstanding yours truly, so I threw in the towel and tried the tamer ‘dolphin kahan..?’ ‘Oh sus!’ he exclaimed, and pointed me straight toward the barrage. Damn the extra ‘u’, I thought.

At the Barrage, the river stretched out into a narrow channel. I scanned the waters for a while and then drifted toward some villagers who had gathered by the banks. I meant to ask them about the sus and where and when they might surface. What surfaced instead was years of collective anger and frustration. The village, Jairampur, is a fishing village, and like every civilisation in history, their lives and fortunes are inextricably intertwined with that of the river that runs through their lands and lives. That river was dying. Totaram, a village elder, railed against the sugar mills of Simbhaoli, which, come winter, released untreated effluents, ‘kala paani’ in the river every year. It killed everything in the river - the fish they caught, the sus they revered, the lives they lived. Faces, voices - Charan Singh the Panch, Puran, the drunkard, Manzoor, the fish contractor, they all begged me to try and do all I could, otherwise the ‘kala paani’ they said, would kill off not just the sus, but all of Jairampur.

Jairampur isn’t alone. The once holy Ganges is a toxic river today. It poisons those who live off it and those who live in it. I didn’t see the dolphins – indicators of the river’s health – this time, but I did see a whole lot more. The waters of life now stink of the dead, and unless we act soon, the stink will spread. So lets fight and write and lobby and labour, to save the river, because the destiny of Jairampur is as indicative of our own destiny, as the dolphin’s destiny is indicative of Jairampur’s.

The slip stream

Toxic tide

The Ganga is a river in deep crisis. This revered water source is slowly being choked by overwhelming population pressure which is threatening to make it a ‘dead river’. Take Kanpur for example, this city of three million depends on Ganga for most of its water needs. However without proper waste disposal and management facilities it ultimately pollutes the same source which nourishes it. Industrial effluents, pesticides, human waste and toxic chemicals all mix to make these holy waters a deadly and often fatal cocktail. As a result most of the aquatic life in the river has either died or is desperately sick.

Things are equally bad in the countryside too. Here again, over-exploitation of the river water has led to loss of biodiversity which in turn leads to falling soil organic content, blamed for poorer crops, which in turn leads to increased chemicals, pesticides and fertilizer usage. All this is definitely not a good trend. Moreover inadequate water recharging also hampers natural arsenic clearing leading to arsenic poisoning of the immediate population, as well as death.

Poetic Justice it may well be, but surely, as a civilisation, we could do much better - for our own sakes.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

A bird’s eye view

The two tall wiry men spied our car and fled. My friend Rahul and I were on one of Delhi’s busiest roads while the two men were tearing along the footpath, hoping to escape through one of the narrow lanes that run perpendicular to the main road. The mini-truck I was driving wasn’t really built for high speed chases and it was slow-going. The fugitives were gaining ground, and I was beginning to lose hope when Rahul, ever the impetuous adventurer, opened the door, jumped out of the slow moving vehicle and gave chase. I was concerned. Granted, he was built like a bull with the heart of a lion, but the odds were against him. I honked and hustled. The road opened up. I put pedal to metal, overtook Rahul as he caught up with the straggler, passed the front runner and swivelled to a stop. I jumped out of the car and ran toward fugitive 1 through the dust clouds and latched on to his booty bag. Fugitive 1 dropped his bag and escaped into the lanes, and when fugitive 2 dropped his bag, Rahul didn’t chase after him either. It was the bags we were after.

Pleased as punch, we took out the contraband – bags full of ‘parrots’ (parakeets actually - India doesn’t have any indigenous parrot species - the green, long-tailed birds that squawk and talk and are often kept as pets in homes). About a dozen of them trussed six cages. We checked to see if their wings were clipped and then released them. I wouldn’t want to bore you with the poetic clichés that one can’t help but utter when one sees a bird that has known what it is to be free, struggle with a wire cage, stare at you with a mixture of mistrust and disbelief as you open the trap door, and then with a sudden flurry, fly away – a green blur on a blue canvas. This was our third ‘heist’ of the day. Release score: 25 parrots... at least.

Now if you’re wondering what’s the big deal about bullying two street-side bird sellers, here’s are some details to help with the perspective. India is home to a number of indigenous birds that make popular pets. Parakeets, munias and mynas are perhaps the most popular. My relatives had them, I’m sure many of yours did too. As a kid, I begged and pleaded with my parents to buy a caged pair but they refused. I thought they were being incredibly stingy but once I was old enough to care and understand, they explained how unfair it was to confine a creature that was born to soar in a tiny cage where it couldn’t even spread its wings. A little research will also tell you that the trade in live birds is worth millions, fuelled by breeders and fanciers who are genuine bird lovers and enthusiasts. The sad irony is that approximately 70%-80% of all birds trapped die before reaching a buyer. Trapping, trading and keeping wild-caught birds has been banned in most parts of the world and is illegal in India. The trauma of being trapped and breaking a leg or a wing in the process is the least a trapped bird has to suffer. Once trapped, a bird the size of a parakeet would be stuffed with 40-50 other parakeets, in cages or containers no bigger than a shoe box. Most would not survive this journey as they’ll die of asphyxiation, or would be crushed to death. Of those that do, many will starve and the few that remain will be sold on the streets. Not only is the process cruel and exploitative but the trade encourages the spread of avian flu and worse, has cost the world nearly two-thirds of its wild parrot population.

The buck stops with us. The people who create the demand and thus the market for this trade are people like you and me. Our friends, relatives, perhaps even you, dear reader. And it is up to you and me to convince such people that it is the bird lover who is driving the object of his affection to extinction. Recently a friend of mine from Mumbai, sweet thing, moved by the sight of these caged birds, bought a few and set them free. Unfortunately, by buying the birds, she only added to the cruel trade (see slip stream). So if you really love your feathered friend, set it free (without paying for it). If it never comes back, it really is free, it will love you more for it and you’ll know that it never was yours... nothing ever is...


Sunday, September 16, 2007

My, am I store

Drat! I was late again. I had woken up at an ungodly hour, endured an animated soliloquy in Kannada by a cabbie who didn’t believe in brushing or rushing and begged and pleaded with a middle aged morning walker who ran screaming the moment I jumped down from the car to ask her for directions, all to no avail. I had missed my 5am class with the legendary Yogi, Sri Pattabhi Jois.

While I waited in the courtyard for the 6am class, my thoughts went back to Ms. Morning Walker. She was wearing a monkey cap and an overcoat on top of what must’ve been at least a couple of sarees. I broke into a sweat just thinking about her. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that this was June and the thought of all those layers of clothing on a fairly warm day just seemed unbearable. Soon enough though, other equally well wrapped morning walkers passed by. That’s when the Mysorean’s weather view dawned on me. In a part of the world where the weather didn’t seem to change much, the Mysorean apparently dressed for winter early in the morning, breakfasted in spring, lunched in summer and so on I guess. Charming folk, I say!

My thoughts returned to the bolted doors of the yoga studio beyond which the man I had come to meet, the nonagenarian Jois, Guruji to his students, held court. At an age where it is usually difficult to blow out candles on a birthday cake, here he was leading students younger than his grandson through reportedly one of the toughest workouts on the planet. Very impressive! By 0530hrs, students for the 6am class started trooping in - a bunch of beach-burnt Brazilian girls, a Korean, a Judi Dench type Brit stiff, upper lip and all, and a host of others. Some looked like hippies, others like geeky violin players. There where a couple of tattooed ex-convict types too. I struck up a fairly lively conversation with the Brazilians but the Dench dame raised a plucked-bare eyebrow and wagged a disapproving finger. Made to feel like naughty five year olds, we shut up and endured the awkward silence till Sharath, Guruji’s grandson opened the doors to let us in.

As the students took their place on the mats, the hall filled up with about 50 of them. In a white tee and black shorts, Guruji chanted. His face glowed, his eyes sparkled and Sharat, who assists the legend, set the class rolling. This was a ballet. Beautifully toned bodies moving in sync with Sharat’s instructions, standing, stretching, bending, balancing and breathing, most with the serene expression of a mother looking at a new-born child, while some looking a bit like the mother’s husband who just discovered that the child wasn’t his. But it was their breath that blew me away, almost literally. The breathing was in concert and the sound was such that if I had been blind-folded and brought here I would’ve thought that I’d stumbled upon Godzilla as he slept. Suddenly Sharat urged, “spread your legs!”, and even as I wondered what was to come next, 50 odd pairs of legs were unfurled, balanced on, if such a part were there in the yogi’s anatomy, “the tip of the butt” for a perfect Upavishta Konasana. Incidentally, the “yoga-butt” (said to be one of most admired examples of the human posterior), claimed a student, is one of the main attractions of yoga (and you thought it was only good for enlightenment).

Class over, I asked the students why they had traversed continents for a morning’s workout. Nakamura, Japanese, said “Yoga is a complete psycho-spiritual workout... the root of all martial arts”. Andrew, 50, a gigantic Australian vegan, who often benched 400lbs, claimed “Yoga’s my best bet for living a longer and healthier life.” Guruji’s other famous students are Sting and Madonna. “Ashtanga Yoga is real yoga, the only yoga! Essential for every Indian, every country!” said Guruji, and went back to playing with his great grand daughter. Someday, I too would want to be able to play with my great grand daughter after a sweaty workout with Madonna and Sting, or if I’m asking for too much I’d be happy with just the great grand daughter bit. Wouldn’t you?

The slip stream

AshtangA - the root

For long yoga has been associated with ageing men and women, who want take it easy and still get a workout in the autumn of their lives. In the hope of easing blood pressure and curing hypertension, geriatrics have usually been the most enthusiastic yoga practitioners. But an ancient practice rediscovered by the West threatens to give yoga’s middle-aged image a makeover. It’s called Ashtanga Yoga and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, his grandson Sharat and celebrity students like Madonna have made it one of the most popular workouts in the world. But this new rage traces it’s roots to an ancient text called the Yoga Korunta and a Yogi called Ramamohan Brahmachari who lived in the mountains near Tibet. When he was more than a 100 years old, he taught Ashtanga Yoga to a young man called Sri T. Krishnamacharya who in turn taught a young Pattabhi Jois the nuances of the art.

Jois remained unknown in India but when his students took Ashtanga yoga West, it exploded. So if you think you are too good for ‘middle aged yoga’, flex those spiritual muscles and try out an Ashtanga yoga class if you dare.


Sunday, September 9, 2007

A nose for trouble

“The Filipino girls might seem a comely lot. They’ll seem to like you easily, and without discrimination. But don’t get too excited. Remember, any girl who approaches you is either blind or a street-walking transvestite looking for a ‘job’. And since your wife is going to help me cook dinner and you’ll be on your own, don’t get into any trouble you can’t get out of. Ok?” Sisters!! You see, my sister had just moved to Manila and my wife and I had gone visiting. She was barely a week old in the city at the time but she has this irritating habit of talking about everything under the sun as if she’d just written a ‘Best Seller’ on the subject. The girls wanted to play ‘catch up’, while I went exploring, so I left the girls to their giggles and took to the streets, ‘armed’ with ‘words of wisdom’ from a week old expat.

Following a gaggle of Vanessa Mae look-alikes into the crowded precincts of the imaginatively titled Mall of Asia, I was reminded of her advice when I felt a gentle prod where the family jewels rested. Stuck in a serpentine queue that was slithering it’s way into the mall’s portals, I was right behind the girls, followed by two tiny old women with walkers. They looked like they were hundreds of years old. Neither of the two groups looked like transvestites looking for a ‘job’, but there it was, that awkward prod again. I looked down and there was the culprit, mouth agape, lolling tongue and a wagging tail. It was a sniffer dog, “trained to detect bombs”, his handler told me. There were half a dozen of them patrolling the mall and its exit and entry points. Some shoppers seemed scared, some positively disgusted but most seemed happy to see the dogs there. As for me, I was relieved. Relieved to know that the threat from both bombs and transvestites, at least for now, had passed.

The Philippines is battling Moro rebels who aren’t too shy about popping a few well timed RDX cans in crowded places. As a counter measure, security agencies have dispatched bomb detection dog teams to places like malls, busy markets, airports and even hotels. And during a bomb threat, these dogs are your safest bet. Not convinced? Let me tell you a story.

The year: 1985. Dog handler Gary Carlsson and his bomb detection dog, Thor, are usually responsible for screening passengers and luggage at Pearson Airport, Toronto. In the third week of June, Carlsson and Thor are sent to Vancouver with the rest of Canada’s bomb detection k-9 teams for a week long training session. 1985 is a world away from the fear that stalks the planet today. The Canadians are more bothered about communist comrades than jilted jehadis. Therefore, they aren’t too perturbed by the fact that with all their bomb detection dogs in training camp for a week, baggage at various airports might go without the usual sharp nosed security checks. June 22, 1985; Pearson Airport, Toronto, Canada: Air India Flight 182 stands on the Toronto Runway. In its baggage hold lie bags and suitcases which have been given a rudimentary check by an electronic sniffer. The sniffer however cannot compare with a well trained canine nose. But Thor and his handler are miles away and Flight 182 can’t wait. It takes off, touches down at Montreal and then takes off for Heathrow enroute to India. Off the coast of Ireland, undetected explosives in it’s baggage hold, presumably planted by Sikh terrorists, explode. The plane blows up and crashes, killing all passengers on board.

Dogs are perhaps the quickest, the most reliable (with a 90% accuracy rate), and perhaps the cheapest ‘technology’ available for detecting explosives. In a country as vulnerable to ‘terror’ as India, these dogs on patrol could perhaps have prevented the carnage that visited Delhi in 2005, Mumbai in 2006 or Hyderabad in 2007. But while the rest of the world has ‘gone to the dogs’, all you’ll ever see in India is the perfunctory presence of a worthless metal detector and a disinterested security guard. K-9 teams are only brought out in response to threats or for sanitising VIP areas.

So as long as the government is busy barking up the wrong tree, their really isn’t much that man’s best friend can do. Maybe I should make them talk to my sister.

The slip stream

K-9 Brass tacks

Dogs were first used by the police in the 19th century by the Belgians in the city of Ghent. Soon Germany, Switzerland and other European nations followed suit. By the 1970s police forces all over the world had started using dogs for detecting drugs and explosives. Dogs even went to war and the army called them K-9s and since then the name has stuck for most service dogs. Detection dogs stationed at airports and on patrol have saved innumerable lives and millions of dollars. Indian railway stations and airports too could become far safer through the deployment of a larger contingent of sniffer dogs. Trains after all have been some of the most popular terror targets in India.

Besides detecting explosives, dogs have been used to detect narcotics and recently many have been used in Afghanistan to clear its fields of land-mines. These dogs are cheaper and more portable than high –tech robots and far more reliable than even the most sophisticated electronic sniffers in the world. Some of the most popular breeds used for explosive detection are German, Dutch and Belgian Shepherds, Labrador and Golden Retrievers and American Pitbull Terriers.


Sunday, September 2, 2007

So that I too may rest in peace. . .

I don’t remember how I felt at my grand father’s funeral. I remember the day well enough, it’s just that I do not remember how I felt… Perhaps I did not feel much that day, other than a numbness - an empty lack of feeling. Maybe I loved him without needing him, and so I just felt empty. It wasn’t a feeling I understood much even a year later when my grand mother followed him to the other side. I know now that they loved me more than I loved them and had I been older, maybe I would’ve learnt to love them better.

I was 18. it was a wonderful time. I had hopes, I had dreams and I had friendship. A friendship that made me complete in a way nothing else could. At a time when I should’ve had pimples, insecurities and complexes, this friendship protected me, cocooned me and nourished me without complaint or restraint. I fed off it and grew, without realising for a minute how much I had taken this person, this relationship for granted. We were inseparable. But now I know we were so because he held me tight, so firm that I couldn’t stray, but gentle enough not to smother me. I loved him more than I knew. Never told him so, but when I look back, I know he knew…. At 19, he was a year older than me. I still remember him standing, one leg across the other, in front of the gate waiting for me, playing his harmonica as he waited. I kept him waiting, because I knew, that no matter how long I took, he would be waiting…But one day he kept me waiting. I didn’t have his patience, so when I thought I heard him at the gate, I rushed out in anger. But it wasn’t him… after that day, it wasn’t ever him.

I would still hear the harmonica at times, but he was gone, seemingly for ever. His passing changed me. I was still a boy, but he had taken my boyhood with him. It was something we shared which we couldn’t have shared with anybody else but I don’t regret it. He took with him what was ‘ours’ and left me in return what was his. I learnt to love for the sake of love and not because I was loved back in return, just like he used to. And he taught me a word that I never thought I’d understand – empathy.

That was long ago though, and sometimes these days, when I can’t see beyond a story or a scoop, his spirit tires of me and leaves me and I regress into a lesser man –like the kinds who are staring so hard at tomorrow that they don’t even notice as today drifts by; until every tomorrow has become yesterday, a lifetime lost without a ‘today’.

Funerals have a way of putting our lives in perspective - like an epiphany that for a fleeting moment, or longer, cuts through the charade of our lives and gives us a glimpse of what it ought to be - what we ought to be. A lit pyre, a handful of dirt on a coffin, they remind us of our own mortality and how we take our own lives and health for granted. They make us more human, more compassionate. They make us want to reach out, to comfort each other. But above all, they remind us that targets, deadlines, promotions and incentives aren’t half as important as the love and faith of the relationships that keep us rooted. We see them every day, and yet we push them back into recesses of our minds and lives. Like leaving parents, who’re hoping to catch up with a busy child, waiting up at dinner every night, because there are friends to meet, presentations to finish, a movie to catch. But then there’s always tomorrow. They’ve always been there, they’ll always be there, you tell yourself, until you’ve waited one tomorrow too long.

So let it not take obsequies to remind us not to wait for tomorrows. Let’s celebrate the most important relationships in our lives every day, every ‘today’. And let us not ever have to stand at a funeral, hearts heavy with guilt, wishing we had one more day.

Pitchin’ for Mitch

Iwrote the words on your left after spending time with a dear friend who had lost a parent. He is a son who had not waited for ‘tomorrow’ and it showed in the way he dealt with his grief. A few days later, I thought of picking up a book for him - a book by a man who understands loss, and so I picked up Mitch Albom’s ‘For One More Day’. Serendipity?! Who knows...

After I read the book, I wondered whether Mitch Albom’s critics were right. They said he was hawking syrupy sentimentality. I liked the sentimentality though. And honestly, I think the guy had a point. I don’t think you and I are alone in taking those we love for granted. Albom’s books can move a man and point him in the right direction and heal and soothe a grieving soul. There aren’t many books one can say that about and for this I wouldn’t grudge him his ‘syrupy prose’ or his profits. It is surprising that a man who made a name for himself as a decorated sports columnist with Detroit Free Press and Playgirl should come up with such delightful little books that satiate the spirit.

Irrespective of his motives, his books have touched chords and changed lives. Should a writer, his readers or his critics ask for more.


Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Drone’s Drone

Growing up in a boys’ school, I worshipped women with the silent zeal of a rabbi in a concentration camp. I thought them no less than Goddesses; high born souls far removed from boyish preoccupations like digging noses and breaking wind. Whole rivers must’ve passed under the bridge before I realised that they too were of flesh and blood, no more divine than fellow school-mates like young Fabian, who routinely announced his deep set understanding of elementary mathematics by depositing a steaming turd on the vinyl classroom floor every time he was asked the difference between 10 and 11, or ‘digital’ geniuses like Baby Bajaj, who once declared to an admiring audience that his fingers could reach his brain through his nose.

Flesh and blood they might well be, but it is an inescapable fact that Providence had dealt ‘man’ an unkind hand and created him as a mere serf to her favourite child – the woman. For a fair few centuries after we emerged from the caves, women remained the centre of the family. The woman served nature’s purpose of furthering life and nature gave her all she needed to survive. To begin with, nature endowed her with an extra helping of fat to help her survive famines that made pickled cadavers of us men (blame it on the rain, or rather the lack of it, if it doesn’t fit honey). Secondly almost every disease known to a woman, including breast cancer is, statistically speaking, almost invariably more likely to kill a man than a woman. And worst of all, from bridal beds to hospital beds, women simply last longer. Men are nothing but expendable worker bees who struggle with killer trucks and stressful jams, border disputes and despotic bosses, addictions and affairs just to be able to bring home the bacon to the queen bee, who holds a generation in her womb.

For a long while, woman’s true stature as the centre of the human universe was undisputed. While she carried the future and sustained the present, men, when not serving their ‘queen’, were engaged in little bouts of jousting and hoarding – relics of our animal past that advertised our potential as desirable mates (Incidentally, in almost every species, while each female gets to mate and bear children, only the strongest and healthiest of males get to pass on their genes to the next generation – a right often won at the cost of male lives and limbs.

And while some like the male Red-tailed Phascogale, an Australian marsupial are so exhausted by the mating game that they die of exhaustion, some insects like the male Praying Mantis are cannibalised by the female after coitus - consumed after consummation. Now, that’s a sobering thought if you are a man and are wondering about where you stand in Nature’s scheme of things). But soon, our little boyish games matured, as did our toys. Flints and sticks were soon replaced by guns and bombs. Suddenly, our hoards had become the capital that financed trade and cities and our jousts had become wars – world wars. As the enduring spectacle of evolution was pushed to the background, and the viewer friendly charade of wars and commerce began masquerading as the essence of ‘civilisation’, the woman was eased out of her throne, and after this evo-revo-lutionary coup, the slave became king and ‘man’ wore the crown, which is where I think we lost the plot.

One look at Nature’s blueprint - the animal kingdom reveals that in all of creation, it is the feminine force that drives life across the species barrier, while the male flits from being a mere sperm donor like a pea-cock (wonder why they’d call any male animal that!) or a Brad Pitt to a genius like Da Vinci or Mike (a relatively tiny male chimp who revolutionised chimpanzee politics by using tin cans, now immortalised in Jane Goodall’s memoirs) whose creative perspectives helped a race transcend it’s limitations. Male reactions to the stress of everyday management is proof of the fact that the male brain is happiest being either a jack-ass or a genius and the intolerable middle ground is best left to women. Matriarchal societies have always been more rational and more peaceful than patriarchies while the inherent risks of a creative challenge are bound to stimulate the reckless male mind more. So lets turn the world over to our women, loosen our neck ties, and settle down under a tree and talk of poetry, pottery and philosophy… Happy honey?

Sex, Lies and Misunderstandings

Men don’t listen and women talk too much. This social axiom has exemplified the man-woman divide over the ages in popular culture and defined gender equations. If the two most essential components of society are so different from each other then how do they manage to work together? It’s not that both genders haven’t attempted to explain this anomaly. Many books have been written in search of a deeper understanding of this subject. One of the most famous ones, a veritable classic is Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus by John gray. The book explores the fundamental differences between men and woman and how misplaced expectations creep up on unsuspecting couples and deepen the divide. Allan and Barbara Pease explored the genre further with their books Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps and Why Men Lie and Women Cry. Invoking evolutionary biology and social psychology and garnished with oodles of wit, the Peases crafted quite a social manual to help bridge the gender gap. Books however can only take you so far for the proof of the pudding lies in the eating as they say.