Sunday, December 28, 2008

What to say after ‘I Do’

Don’t bother reading this, because in all probability, I didn’t write these hurriedly scribbled words of advice for you. And who needs advice anyway… not you. Not unless you just got married, like two of my cousins just did. In that case, you’ll be busy climbing every tree in the vicinity hoping to find the ‘Fruit of Knowledge’, failing which, you might find every bit of advice rather useful… something to hold onto, albeit briefly – just like rocks on a shoreline that give you hope even as the high tide of holy matrimony sweeps you off your feet and into those turbulent waters. Advice, on such occasions, could be your life jacket to the future…

And why am I just the person to dispense it? Well, if I haven’t said this before, let me say it again… We, my bride and I, got married when I was 21. About as soon as I could. And yes… yes… mujhe unme Rabh dikhta hai… except, of course, when she’s screaming at me for leaving my clothes on the floor and my shoes on the bed (tab unme Mom dikhti hain… and what’s worse, it’s not like Mom has stopped screaming either. The baton wasn’t passed, it just gets flung at me... in twos now!). But that isn’t the point. The point is, between all the baton ducking, we’ve managed to find our way through many a marital mire, thanks to a little luck and a lot of love. And now that ‘tis the season for sayin ‘I do’, maybe I could share my learning with those, who, like my cousins, have leapt before they could look, and help you, even as you try to smell the roses through the coffee. And even if you didn’t JUST get married, JUST pretend that you did… it’ll only help…

1. Don’t Believe That Marriage Changes Anything For It Doesn’t Marriage doesn‘t and isn’t supposed to make you more committed, secure, responsible or keep you in love. It’s merely an announcement that two people, because they’re in love or because they believe they might learn to love, have decided to live together. The two of you have to make the marriage work; the marriage can’t work for the two of you.

Just because you’re married, don’t expect too much of each other. Pretend the marriage never happened and you’re just living-in, two souls in love, bound by nothing but love and friendship. And do keep these two bonds alive, and fresh...

2. Your Best Friend’s Wedding Should Also Be Your Own This isn’t about community weddings and nor am I insisting that you marry whoever your best friend happens to be, irrespective of gender. All I’m saying is that you and your partner should grow up to be, if you aren’t already, the best of friends. Romance and lust are like autumn and spring – short beautiful interludes between blazing summers and freezing winters. They’ll surely return, but just as surely, they’ll disappear in the heat and dust of summers or the cold hard truths of winter. Then, what you’d need most is a friend – someone to stand by you, selflessly, without passing judgment. And if your partner can’t be your best friend, he/she will be someone else’s. You mightn’t like that.

Above all, when you’re both old and wrinkled, your greatest joy would be to sit in a garden in the evenings with your best friend, enjoying a cup of tea, a heartfelt conversation and the beautiful sunset…

3. Beware Of The East India Company Syndrome Partners in a marriage, often inadvertently, become imperialists and colonisers. A husband I happen to know, I’m not going to say who, once complained bitterly about how his wife always chooses which side of the bed she’d want to sleep on. That’s cute enough but here’s what made it worse. “Whenever I get out of bed to go to the loo or for water, I’d always return to find the missus sleeping right in the middle of the bed, splayed out at such an angle that the only way I could get some sleep was by hanging on to the edge of the bed, my legs sticking out like sugarcane from one of those heavily loaded tractor trolleys you see on the highway. When I get to office, my sleepless eyes all red and puffy, colleagues elbow me in the ribs, wink and say ‘you don’t seem to be getting much sleep. Way to go, old chap.’ If only the buggers knew…”

This state of mind is rather common amongst newly married couples. The ‘bed’ incident is only a microcosm of a greater malaise. A partner might not even realise when and how he/she intrudes into the other’s space, so much that things become claustrophobically dire for the other. Trying to control your partner who trusts you, inadvertently or otherwise, is akin to betrayal. Guard against this at all costs, for then the relationship dynamics and the friendship will suffer. If ever in doubt, just ask. You’re best of friends, remember…

4. Last but not the least, The Bedroom Brawl Sometimes you could be forgiven for thinking the idea of marriage must’ve been someone’s idea of a cruel joke. A man and a woman have near opposite body rhythms when it comes to ‘getting cosy’, if you’ll pardon the euphemism… You see it’s a bit like the rains and the river. One is programmed to manifest itself in short bursts and a trifle indiscriminately while the other is programmed to stay its course, relatively speaking, and go on and on… and yet they’d die without each other. To cut a long and rather interesting story short, the bedroom offers a couple its greatest challenge because of the physiological, psychological and evolutionary differences which, once surmounted through a bit of educated understanding, could become the bedrock of the relationship. There are other more opportune platforms to understand the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of the birds and the bees, but your key words are ‘understanding, patience and passion’. Understanding would take a while coming, so meanwhile be patient and don’t let the wait dim your, or your partner’s, passion.

This isn’t the last word and you will have to swim in these waters on your own, but if this piece keeps you afloat for a while, it would’ve done its bit…Stay in love, stay together and God bless.


“What are the grounds for your divorce?” asked a judge to a woman who’d filed for divorce. She replied, “About four acres and a nice little home in the middle of the property.” Jokes apart, alarmingly skyrocketing divorce rates across the world are severely testing the institution called marriage. So, what’s driving this disturbing trend? Well, there’s the familiar ‘seven year itch’ syndrome (biological studies suggest that humans’ preference is to pair for about seven years before changing mates) but here are three of the most leading causes:

INFIDELITY: It is often the symptom of all problems, a physical manifestation of problems elsewhere in the marriage. An affair or a one night stand, it has been cited as overt grounds for divorce in over a third of the cases in the US and some studies indicate it might feature in over half of all failed marriages.

COMMUNICATION: It is an essential for a successful marriage, but the lack of it can happen because of lethargy, suppression of emotions or plain absence of effort leading to frustration, resentment and ultimately the irreparable breakdown of the relationship.

COMPATIBILITY: ‘Made for each other’ can quickly become a nightmare, if wedges are driven between couples because of their incompatibility (and possibly detrimental competition) on the professional and consequently financial fronts.


Sunday, December 21, 2008


On the night of November 26, when terrorists stormed the Taj, in a room on one of the floors, there was one of India Inc’s bright young beacons lying on the floor, alive, but terrified, confused and unsure. Next to him on the floor lay others, some bleeding, others perhaps weeping… A wall away, they could hear the crack of assault rifles, the cries of victims as they crashed lifeless in corridors and rooms and the deafening sound of explosions. As the acrid smell of the carnage wafted in with the smoke, panic set in. How much longer before the terrorists enter our room? Will they kill us all? What do we do? Questions raged in every head, including the young CEO’s… “We did not know what to do? We tried barricading ourselves inside the room… but it was rather flimsy…” he said on TV, after he was rescued the next day. He thanked providence and his spiritual practice for carrying him through those harrowing hours, for there was little else to bank on.

That same evening, in another part of the hotel, seven South Africans were dining in one of the restaurants when they heard gun shots inside the hotel. When they realised that there were terrorists in the hotel, they spoke to the other diners and told them who they were – bodyguards in the country on an assignment, protecting international cricketers – and explained that they had the training to handle this situation. “People remained calm”, one of them told a news channel, as they moved more than a hundred people out of the restaurant. “…it had a large glass area which could have been dangerous…” They switched off the lights to retain the element of surprise and then the other guests were herded into a conference room which was then barricaded by the South Africans with relatively sturdy objects like refrigerators and heavy tables. The bodyguards had armed themselves with what they could – cleavers and knives and were considering various possibilities when they realised that the building was on fire. They knew they had to evacuate, checked to see if it was ‘all clear’, got word through to the security personnel that they shouldn’t shoot and finally through the fire exit, guided 120 hostages to safety (including an old woman who was carried in a chair, down 25 flights of stairs!)

I heard about both these incidents on the same day and the contrast hit me hard between the eyes. Our young CEO was lucky, but

there were many others who stumbled upon their deaths because while they too did not know what to do next, unlike the CEO, the dice just didn’t roll their way. And yet, I have a feeling that if there were a handful of other professionals like these South African heroes – people who had some notion of what could be done to save their own lives and those of others around them, perhaps many more would’ve walked out alive from the Taj.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again - we are a people under siege and we’re practically on our own. It took a nine hour long ‘quick reaction’ for our commandos to be brought to location (and that they had to be brought there in ‘BEST’ buses, tells you about India’s ‘most terrorised’ city’s levels of preparedness). You might rant and rave, and light enough candles to pave the Marine Drive with wax, but you can bet your last recession-hit rupee on it that nothing, absolutely nothing is going to change if anybody with a voice (and that’s not you or me) in this great dysfunctional democracy can help it. There could be more terrorists tomorrow, and there could be more bombs; there could be cyclones, tsunamis and earthquakes, but help would only reach once it’s too late for most.

But we can’t remain helpless, at the mercy of the guy with the gun, whichever side he might be on. Just like the South Africans, instead of letting ‘terror’ paralyse us, surely, we too can prepare ourselves for such an eventuality. I wanted to know if there was anything I could do if I was stuck in a burning building with ruthless gunmen on the prowl? Is there anything we could do to hold the fort and save lives (including my own) until help finally arrived? Turns out, yes, we can…

I asked two of India’s most well known security consultants and martial artists – SWAT and Krav Maga Chief Instructor (India) and veteran Karateka Vicky Kapoor and Shaolin and Police Kung Fu and Kali Master Kanishka Sharma – the same question: what can a lay civilian can do in a 26/11 scenario? Apparently, conscription helps. A country that has had to fight insurgency almost since the day it was born would obviously do well if every citizen was also a soldier. “…it builds a sense of nationhood… makes you more aware as citizens”, says Kapoor. Well, but that’s not an option for now… what else?

“Be aware!”, echoed both masters. Here, it would be pertinent to note that both have been responsible for giving extensive close quarter combat (CQC) training to various law enforcement agencies, the military and some of its elite units. It seemed a generic directive, but as the South Africans proved, it was the one trait – being aware of one’s environment (moving away from glass areas, fire, checking for exits, and finding resources for barricading an area) that saved more than a 100 lives.

“Secondly, you should always stay low – you might escape both bullets and heavy smoke”, urged Vicky Kapoor. “Krav Maga (used by the Israeli Defence units) was designed to counter hostage situations”, he elaborated, as he showed us how he would’ve handled armed hostage takers even if handcuffed “and while most Israelis would’ve made difficult hostages because they’ve served in the army and trained in CQC, most of us Indians are neither trained nor aware. Even if you can’t get army training, every school, RWA and organisation should run programmes that run basic first aid. Doctors trapped in one of the hotels saved the lives of a wounded few with basic first aid techniques. Perhaps many others could’ve been saved. Teach people what to do incase of a fire or an earth quake. Offices have fire extinguishers but who knows how to use them? In case of a fire or explosion, more might die in a stampede. Simple evacuation drills could save lives. Martial skills could be infinitely useful, but the rest is basic and should be mandatory training for each and every Indian. Wake up, and take charge of your lives. No one else would do it for you”, he concluded. Incidentally, Vicky Kapoor has been training security teams in some prominent hotel chains in the aftermath of 26/11. Kanishka echoed the same thoughts. “We’re usually too busy walking like zombies to notice our surroundings. Why is that man so nervous? Whose bag is that? Where are the exits? Which is the closest hospital? I’m not saying you should be in a state of paranoia 24/7, but be aware of your surroundings. And be careful before you start a self defense course to prepare yourself for hostage situations. They work…” he said as he demonstrated how even an unarmed hostage could, at the right moment, “with the right training”, disarm an armed assailant and get out alive “… but you must understand that combat martial styles, like Kali (a martial art used by the Filipino Marines) begin where most martial sports (Tae kwon do and sport Karate are sports which’ve banned lethal techniques, focusing instead on scoring points) end. Their aim is to train to finish the opponent (even if armed), not score points and this distinction is very important when you choose a martial art for self defense. Presence of mind, common sense and even the ability to engage hostage takers in a conversation, a negotiation, could save your life. If that fails, train the mind and the body with self defense skills and you might still come out alive.”

I know what you’re thinking? What good are martial skills in the face of a bullet. Well, if someone wants to shoot you, he will and there’s nothing you can do about it. But in a hostage situation, escape if you can. And if you can’t, wait. There might be a moment when the terrorist comes close enough for you to act. I hope such a day never comes, but if it does, you might as well be prepared… See you in the dojo then… PS Mr CEO(s), do remember to organize fire safety, first aid and evacuation drills in the office. It might save more than just one life…


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bravehearts against the apocalypse

Looking back on the years spent wondering ‘what would I be when I grow up?’, I don’t have regrets about the various windows of opportunity that I might have stared through for a while but then left them behind, unopened… none save one… And that regret was acting up like a dull ache from an old war wound when I saw those images of commandos being air dropped onto Nariman House…

When I was about 13, I moved from my catholic missionary ‘boys-only’ concentration camp to what I hoped was liberation and freedom in the co-educational world of Central Schools (an anglicised moniker for the staid old Kendriya Vidyalaya). While my mates at the ‘missionary’ drew inspiration from the entrepreneurial spirit that had driven their families from post partition penury, to way up the socio-economic ladder towards plenty and prosperity, the boys in KV cared for one thing, and one thing only – life in the ‘Academy’ (the National Defence Academy). That, I suspect, had to do with two things. One, most of them had been brought up on tales of valour in the family and joys of life in the ‘mess.’ And two, you didn’t have a Chinaman’s chance with the girls unless you happened to be preparing for the NDA… because for them, cricketers weren’t man enough and movie stars were mostly pansy dandies… so unless you were training to be an army officer like her daddy, you could forget about asking any of them even the time, least of all for a date.

So after watching “Top Gun” Cruise taking their breath away, I declared that I too would become an air force pilot or, after some heavy duty persuasion from the Gubernator, maybe a commando. I dropped my cricket kit and went running with the boys, cranked out push ups and pull ups, watched “Platoon” and debated about the comparative virtues of the three forces…

That was a wonderful time and we spoke of how wonderful it’d be if we all made it to the ‘Academy’ together until… until one of the NDA hopefuls did not turn up for school. The year was 1989 and news came in that his father had come back wrapped in a tri-colour from Sri Lanka. Soon there were others who did not turn up for school. It was a gloomy winter, and when our friends returned, they seemed unrecognisable – gone was that enthusiasm which had fired our dreams. In its stead raged bitterness, anger and a sense of betrayal. We heard about how intelligence failures and political ineptitude had left our troops vulnerable and how some of our best soldiers had to pay with their lives because some one else sitting at a desk just wasn’t smart enough to back him up. Later, one of the boy’s uncles was heard complaining about how political indecisiveness and foreign policy misadventures by our political leaders result in the needless destruction of this country’s ‘only heroes’. It was a feeling echoed by others.

The ‘Academy’ never happened. Some of us studied engineering, others management, and all those women who couldn’t see beyond men in uniform settled down happily with power dressing executives and one of them even a psychiatrist. After that winter, none of us spoke of the ‘Academy’ ever again and I have a feeling it wasn’t just us. The IPKF mission did nothing to diminish the valour of our forces, and some like the Marine Commandos (MARCOS) returned as veritable super heroes. But the Lanka operations made it apparent to many Indians, including naïve romantics like us, that irresponsible and unintelligent governance can reduce the best fighting units to mere pawns in a bout of political eyeballing.

Some of my closest friends are serving in the ‘forces’ and they are amongst the people I admire and respect the most. In fact, in the presence of a battle-scarred soldier, irrespective of nationality, I always have this debilitating sense of awe and humility – I almost don’t feel man enough in their presence (and I’m pretty sure it’s because those snooty army daughters had scarred my teenaged psyche in school). And yet, since that winter, I’ve remained disillusioned with the idea of a career in the forces. All that awe and humility was always tinged with liberal doses of pity. For who knows how they’ll meet their end… would it be on a garden chasing their dog and the grand kids, or would they instead get blown up by an IED that had been planted by the very terrorist who they had apprehended and handed over to the cops only for the local politician to have him released in no time.

But all that changed on 27th November, 2008, when I saw these modern day ninjas storming Nariman House in a bid to not take lives but save them. And don’t let the Israeli Defence Minister and Curry King Ghulam Noon’s criticism of our commandos mislead you. Indian special forces like the NSG, MARCOS and the Para Commandos are amongst the absolute best in the world, and I’m not the only one saying this. John Geddes, ex British SAS (Special Air Service – the mother of all Special Forces units) and now a celebrated and battle hardened PMC (Private Military Contractor) wrote pretty much the same thing in one of his books. And thus the regret…

There were brave people amongst the hostages, some of the hotel staff, but while these were heroes by chance, these soldiers are heroes by choice and design; heroes of not just this moment but of this nation. And while I wouldn’t agree with what my classmates had said about our sportsmen and actors, who happen to be this nation’s ambassadors and cultural flag-bearers, there’s no denying that these masked crusaders, much like comic book super heroes who save the day and then disappear without a trace, are the only real action heroes of our times. Looking back, I feel it’s a shame we gave up on the Academy, for lousy bosses notwithstanding, there’s nothing like saving lives for a living, especially if you have the skills to put your own on the line and get out alive. Nevertheless, the SF are better off without us, and here’s to our gallant men in black. May they continue to save our face and lives, and may they live long and prosper… God bless them, and a billion more…

The slip stream

Methods behind the madness

The Mumbai siege proved the state’s failure on all fronts – political leadership, security, intelligence – except one: concerted action by our own ‘top guns’ in the moment of crisis.

The training schedule of the Indian Special Operations Forces like the National Security Guards (NSGs), the Marine Commando Force (Marcos), and Para Commandos would suggest of a torture order, so much that the drop-out rate of the candidates is around 60-80%! Consider the NSG. Created around the time of Operation Bluestar for intense counter-insurgency operations, NSG recruits are subject to severe physical and psychological tests through the training period. For e.g., incumbents are required to chart a 780-metre obstacle course complete with gaping chasms and vertical scaling, all in a maximum of 25 minutes, which some accomplish in nine! Awaiting at the end of it is a target shooting session with a partner standing right next to the aim. Reaction times of the commandos are conditioned to be as low as 0.26 seconds.

Marcos are trained for swift amphibious assaults, considering they are mostly reserved for maritime operations, and are referred to as ‘water hens’ or ‘crocodiles’ for their abilities. Para Commandos are proficient at conducting aerial recces and are experts in HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) parachute jumps.


Sunday, December 7, 2008

On god’s blind side

Toby’s an interesting character. He once learnt to ride a motorcycle while on a trip to Kathmandu and then bought his own– “a Royal Enfield, what else” and rode his iron steed all the way back home to “England, where else…” He now runs a voluntary organisation called Flying Kites that has been working with children in Kenya. But this is not his story. He’s merely the voice of the ‘greek chorus’, in a drama that is staged every day in the frame of our car windows…
I met Toby in a restaurant in Delhi. He was digging into baklavas and speaking passionately about an upcoming trip to India’s coal-belt. He was in India to make a film about street children, the ones we meet everyday on our way to and from work, begging for “ek rupaiya” or rubbing a greasy cloth on the windshield or brandishing ugly burns and wounds wrapped in flies and rags, hoping you’ll part with that “rupaiya”. And he was going to the coal-belt to find out what prompts so many children to leave the sheltered environs of their villages in the region and head for the capital’s streets. There seems nothing right about that choice, and yet, everyday would find scores of waifs, between 6-14 years of age, alighting from the train at a station in Delhi, in search of a ‘better life’- a life that in all probability will be over before they touch 30. Toby wanted know why…

“One of the boys I met at the Old Delhi Railway Station told me how he got here…” recalled Toby. “While back home in his village orchard, while up on a tree, he had dropped a mango on his father’s head who was sitting under the tree… His father dragged him to the railway station, bought two tickets for Delhi and once there pushed him out onto the platform and left him… ridiculous… maybe he was lying…” and maybe he wasn’t, for haven’t stranger things happened between parent and child?

As I’d once written in a previous column, I often wonder what one ought to do when these kids, from butt-naked toddlers to cocky teenagers, surround one’s car, their filthy happy faces, belying their bleak existence. Does one give in and give them money, or does one pretend, inspite of the persistent knocks on the window, as if they just don’t exist? Or does one holler at them for ruining the car’s paint-job with their grimy hands? “Maybe you’re better off not giving them any money. Once in a while, there might be a guy who’s starving and could really use the money, but most often, these kids, even if they’re starving, would only spend it to buy glue… to sniff it and get a high,” said Toby. “There are a few NGOs striving to rehabilitate street kids, taking them into rescue homes but the kids don’t want it. They’re just too hooked to their life on the pavements” sighed Toby with a sense of resignation. “One of these kids… he must’ve been 11, had puncture wounds running all along his arms… heroin! Through our translator, I suggested that we could take him with us to a ‘shelter’ and he could be tended to. While our translator spoke, the kid smiled at us. Then he seemed to get rather excited and we felt he was ready for deliverance – we would be saving a soul after all. But alas, it wasn’t to be, for even as our translator spoke, his expression darkened and he walked away. Apparently, he got excited because he thought we might be interested in buying the drug. But when he understood our offer, he was disappointed. About 30 percent of these street kids have already been to various homes and have in fact ‘escaped’ back to the streets. These children prefer the hazards of living on the street to the claustrophobic security of a ‘home’.”

These streets dehumanise these kids. Innocent urchins, mostly boys, many girls, reach the station and find their way to various night shelters. There, these mean streets drag them through a baptism by fire where these vulnerable children are sexually exploited by older inmates and even outsiders with ‘local influence’. Physical abuse and further exploitation, even by those they ought to have turned to for protection, strips away every layer of dignity until they’re left with nothing. “The child inside is dead before long. They act like cold hard adults before they hit their teens. But at times the glue brings old repressed emotions back to life, and like the Kosi, these dammed emotions erupt and all the shame, hurt and indignity consumes them. One boy at the station had a deep six inch long gash on his forehead. Once in a while when ‘high’ he would break down, cry and bash his head against a wall. When I met him he was being restrained by his friends but he wriggled out, and in tears, ran to the tracks and started bashing his head against the tracks even as a train hurtled towards him. His friends and I had to wrestle him away, and just in time too… he lay for about an hour in their arms, sobbing and screaming till his emotions subsided… At least they had each other…”

Many of them will graduate to petty crime and some, if they survive long enough, will graduate to worse. But there are some, admittedly a rare few, who’ve truly turned the corner. One of them, for instance, had become a promising photo-journalist and Toby feels that it is amongst them that we can find our future leaders and change agents–people who’ve crawled out of the city’s dark underbelly and into the light, for who’ll know better than them what it takes to get there, and thus show others the way.

“I had come here hoping to ‘free the children’ from the factories and the streets. But once here, I realised that freedom for them meant giving them opportunities and choices. And it is possible… But we need to ensure that these opportunities, especially education, reach every village. And in our cities, rehabilitative care needs to be more sensitive and it needs to add value and meaning…”

But until that happens, the streets of this great country will stand mute testimony to our collective failure as a humane and civilised society.

Mean Streets

The plight of street children visits us in moving montages as we weave our way through traffic. But a deeper understanding of their stark world, an understanding that can help us help these blighted souls, can be attained through some of the most powerful works of literature and filmmaking. In fact, even to watch/read the following would require us to step out of our comfort zones:

City of God: A great book; a greater movie. A gut-wrenching tale of pre-pubescent protagonists in the slums of Rio de Janeiro – a veritable hell on earth – playing out their destinies of violent crime and exhilarating redemption. Feel it shake you up.

Salaam Bombay!: Mira Nair reconstructs the life of homeless street kids in Mumbai with help from the real subjects – 10 to 12-year-olds struggling in the shadow of Bombay’s glitzy lights, their raw emotions retouched in drama workshops with the filmmaker.

Street Kids: The Tragedy of Canada’s Runaways: This, if you thought street urchins to be the bane of the third world alone. Written by Marlene Webber, though much of it is in the words of those deemed the godless ones, it is an excruciating recount of causes and effects of life under the sun, unprotected and unforgiving.


Sunday, November 30, 2008

The old tiger still roars

25 kilometres from the Indo-Nepal border, framed against the Terai forests of Lakhimpur Kheri, stands a lonely house… and here they say, an old tiger still roars.

The house was empty. Rising flood waters of the Soheli had claimed these lands for long this season and while the waters had receded, the old tiger hadn’t returned yet to his Haven. On the verandah, next to stacks of mouldy books, throwing a silent challenge, rolled a solid iron barbell, loaded thick with weighted plates. I succumbed to the lure and gripped the cold steel bar and heaved. Nothing happened… I heaved again, and it moved a few reluctant inches before I gave in to gravity and let the barbell clang to the floors. “Sahab roz uthathe thhey, till about 8-10 yrs ago”, said a voice. It was the caretaker. That weight must’ve weighed many hundred pounds and ‘Sahab’ was supposedly 91 now. I wondered about the veracity of the legend. ‘Sahab’ wasn’t here though. He’d moved a few kilometers south, and we followed. I remembered what a local zamindar had said. “He isn’t very tall but used to be a very strong man. He once picked up the front axle of a tractor. Even today his arms are in better shape than yours or mine”. Then I saw him on the front porch of his house, a frail little man curled up on a high chair, a gentle smile welcoming us. He motioned for us to sit and the first thing I asked him was if he’d really picked up the tractor. “Just stories…”, boomed the man’s voice and then he shook my hand with an iron grip that suggested that these ‘stories’ must ring true… surely, the old tiger still roars.

‘Billy’ Arjan Singh is what they called him in the early days when he went about trying to be ‘The Corbett of Kheri’ as he put it, but today he prefers just plain Arjan Singh. Tracing his lineage to the royal family of Kapurthala and Anglo –Bengali Christians, ‘Billy’ loved the great outdoors. He wrestled, lifted weights and in keeping with his heritage, made friends with the hunting rifle rather early in life. He killed his first leopard at 12 and his first tiger at 14. In fact, he was quite a blood thirsty little butcher in those days, killing every possible animal within the range of his rifle. On one occasion he and his brother were returning from the forest in a car and saw a hyena loping across. They fired at the unhappy beast till they ran out of bullets. Then they tried to run the animal over and yet the suffering animal wouldn’t die. There are tales a plenty of his ‘callous brutality’ as he puts it in one of his books. And yet, the forest had claimed his soul and with each animal he killed, he felt a little emptier inside until the day he realised that he killed not for the joys of the hunt as much as he killed to quiet his own feelings of inadequacy. Since then, he has ruthlessly denounced his own weaknesses that had made him into a wanton killer. Today, as the crops stand in his fields, he tells his farm hands that the animals have first right to these crops and there would be enough for all. And sure enough, there is. There’s a sadness in those eyes when he talks of that same blood lust, greed and human insecurity that he once felt, which still turns men into poachers and forests to fallow land, but he hasn’t given up the fight… the old tiger still roars.

As an adult, Billy returned from the army after the second great war and moved to these lands bordering the forests of Dudhwa, hoping to make a living as a farmer. It was difficult because these lands were overrun by stray and wild ungulates, and yet Billy succeeded in running the farm in the lap of nature, sharing its bounties with the wild animals who frequented it. Around the same time, in the 1960s, he took up cudgels against the rather popular sport-hunting outfitters who organised trophy hunting expeditions for rich paying clients. Billy was almost single-handedly responsible for driving them out and having the government ban trophy hunting for good. In a way, he was atoning for the transgressions of his early days. And Dudhwa, especially its rare barasinghas, owe an invaluable debt to this man for dedicating his life to protecting the park from poachers, land grabbers, and securing the future of this deer.

But when I ask him of his legacy, he seems unsure. “Democracy will kill the tiger. There are just too many of us and soon these forest too will have to go. What can you do?”, he says. I’m saddened to hear him say that. I was hoping that he, more than anyone else would hold out defiant hope. After all, isn’t he the most decorated conservationist in the world, having won awards and appreciation from all quarters and corners and isn’t he the man who poachers still fear? And isn’t he the man who has repeatedly achieved the impossible, whether it be protecting a forgotten landscape from eternal destruction or be it successfully returning hand reared leopards and tigers back to the wild. “What can I do? I’m an old man now. Everybody I know is gone. I’m just waiting for the end. Soon, I’ll be gone too… and so would the forests.” I must’ve looked crestfallen, and I was. Though physically much taller, I felt dwarfed by the majesty and aura of the man. I must’ve seemed like a sad little boy who’s had his last shred of hope wrenched away from his hopeful heart. The affectionate old man seemed to take pity on the little boy sitting across him and his eyes softened… “I haven’t given up yet. I might be old but I’m not going to quit. I’m still working hard… I can’t give up the fight.” There’s fire burning in that belly yet… the old tiger roars still…

Conservationist extraordinaire Billy Arjan Singh seemed a lonely warrior. The man who had shared shikar yarns as a boy with Jim Corbett now looked back on his time spent in these forests he loves so dearly with a fondness that overwhelmed me. The proud figure, unbending, unyielding, brave of heart and stout of limb, forever chasing redemption, had shades of Victor Hugo’s unforgettable hero – Jean Valjean. It was lunch time and Billy’s man Friday, Shriram, was helping him away… As he got up to leave, he said “if you want to save the tiger, you have to give him a vote.” And then he said, “you want to know what my obituary would be?” I didn’t. There’s time yet sir, I said. “I’ll tell you… The lines are Kipling’s (Tiger--Tiger) but they speak of my soul…” He paused for a while and the lines came back, first in a trickle and then in waves… child-like joy creased his face as his voice grew strident - What of the hunting, hunter bold,

Brother the watch was long and cold.

What of the quarry ye went to kill?

Brother, he crops in the jungle still.

Where is the power that made your pride?

Brother, it ebbs from my flank and side.

Where is the haste that ye hurry by?

Brother, I go to my lair to die.

The legend that had taken on a life and aura of its own as it emanated from his being while we spoke had shrunk back into the tiny old man as he hobbled back to his room. As he stopped to turn and wave, I said a silent prayer, for I hoped and believed that old tiger will roar for long still… for who knows what these forests would become, if not for that roar.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Is the heir apparent?

You’ll find this a little shocking but in all the years I spent bowling my heart out in various tournaments, I was always rooting for Pakistan. Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were my heroes. Every autumn, I’d wait for the desert spectacle in Sharjah, where I was happier seeing the Ws hurling cricket balls like 90 mph grenades and blasting through Indian defenses than I was to see Sachin bludgeoning them across and over the ropes, which anyways didn’t happen too often those days.

I wanted to be a fast bowler and had read that the mighty English fast bowler Frank ‘typhoon’ Tyson had said that the ‘coming of guile to a fast bowler was like a creeping paralysis’ – it kills the purity of spirit that epitomises a ‘fast man’. In many ways, a fast bowler’s philosophy is an ode to the purity of purpose, courage, vigour and tragic glory of an Andalusian fighting bull. The odds are against him… The crowd wants to see him brought down to his knees, either by bat or blade. He is but glorified fodder for celebrated cannons and yet he keeps running in… As blood streams into sweat, he serves himself in all his taurean glory only to be carved up at the altar of public entertainment – a public that marvels as much at his sublime physicality, as it enjoys seeing that same physicality tamed and subdued. There is a tragic inevitability to their meteoric explosion, and yet, for those brief magical moments, when a great fast bowler, just like a brave bull, finds a concerted rhythm, the spectacle is both beautiful and devastating … an uncontained force of nature.

In the school nets, I’d charge in at a single stump, trying to find and unleash that force of nature in my own being. But when I sought inspiration, I couldn’t find it in India. In the late 80s and early 90s, Australia had big Merv and Mcdermott followed by McGrath. The Windies had two coconut trees that would sway down from the boundary, pelting ‘perfume balls’ from somewhere up in the sky. They went by the names of Courtney Walsh and very curtley Ambrose. They even brought in a priest to preside over the mayhem – they called him Bishop, Ian Bishop. South Africa announced its return with a burst of ‘white’ lightning that smashed Pravin Amre’s wicket to pieces. The owner of those thunderbolts was Allan Donald, one of the fastest bowlers of our times... Seeing them charge in gave me goose bumps and the batsmen cold sweat… and who knows what other bodily fluids were lost at the other end of the 22 yard strip…

But in the Indian team, the fastest bowler, barring the odd Test when Javagal Srinath got a game, happened to be a tall bespectacled spinner called Anil Kumble… So, when India played, like my friends, I too hoped to see India bat.But while they hoped to see our willow wielders, I wanted to see the opposition bowlers, most of all the guys next door. The Pakistanis proved that bowling fast wasn’t about genetics. The brown man could ball as fast as a black man or a white man. I didn’t care who they bowled against…

Indians, Australians or Sri Lankans… I just wanted to see them bowl… until… Until… I saw Ishant Sharma bowl to Ricky Ponting at Perth…

I’d been reduced to a parochial Indian fan when I gave up my dreams of playing for India. No longer did I enjoy watching sport for sports’ sake. I just watched as did everybody else, to forget for a while that we’re a third world country with news of bomb blasts and deaths two flicks away on the remote. I watched because like everybody else, for a fleeting victorious moment, I too wanted to believe that in spite of the corruption, the communalism and the anger, 11 people could still make us feel like one country…

But when I saw Ishant bowl, I realised that the twin reasons for which I sat in front of a tv watching people run around in dress pants and collared shirts would converge… we’ll see India win more matches more often and see India bowl faster than ever before.

The connection is borne out in the preceding pages (read drop anchor), but let me offer further proof of the inevitable.

In the 90s, when the baton of cricketing supremacy passed to Australia, it didn’t happen with that one defining series in 1995 when the fire of Glen McGrath and the dour will of Steve Waugh finally wrested the prize from the formidable West Indians. The seeds were sown in 1991, when the islanders lost their ODI home series to a resurgent Australia 4-1 (Losing ODIs consistently to a particular opponent implies a narrowing of the gap between teams, especially in batting and out cricket. All it takes is an added edge in bowling to take over in Tests) and barely managed to hold on to their superiority in Tests. Shaken and stirred, the Windies went to Australia, and in Adelaide, won a match they should’ve lost which allowed them to hang on to yet another series before the end came in 1995. A decade and a half later, India began challenging Australia consistently in the ODIs which culminated with India’s victory in the CB series. Similarly in Tests, each series since 2001 has been closely contested with Australia hanging on to the trophy this year in Australia because of a match they should have lost in Sydney, until the fateful Nagpur Test. It’s like a boxing match where the challenger stuns the champion with an early knockdown before the champion realises the threat, pulls up his socks, and fuelled by hurt pride, hangs on to a hard fought victory. But both know that the aura of invincibility is gone… the challenger will be back, and this time, pride won’t be good enough…

The similarities are unmistakable and I will stick my neck out and say that the coronation has begun. India will become the premier nation in world cricket and the series against England (the only other team to steal a series victory over the all conquering Aussies) will prove it. But the Australians have a great domestic set up. They won’t just roll over and die like the Windies… so Dhoni, may your majesty be warned….


Many legendary teams have ruled the roost in cricket, but the gold standard is ‘The Invincibles’ led by Don Bradman. The Australian team of 1948 was the first undefeated touring team to England. Though not as prolific, there have been many follow up acts through the years since. Ian Chappell’s ‘Ugly Australians’ ruled the 1970s (with bowlers like Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson) while England were worthy opponents, propelled by all rounder Ian Botham. And then the West Indians and their much feared pace battery emerged. It didn’t hurt that they had a batsman with the destructive appetite of Vivian Richards too. Then in a symbolic power shift in 1994/95 Mark Taylor lead Australia won the series in the Caribbean and the most dominant modern team emerged. Powered by bowlers who went on to become legends (Warne, McGrath) and steamrolling batsmen (Gilchrist, Ponting and Hayden) they ruled either side of the 21st Century. And they had two 16 test winning streaks to show for it. And now depleted by the retirement of those very legends, the old order seemingly is at an inflection point. The question to ask is: Would India be the successor? Well, after all ‘tis a season for ‘change’!


Sunday, November 16, 2008

An island in the ocean

“Why do you do yoga all the time? You want to live to be 150, isn’t it? Why? What would you do at 150… all alone while your friends, your loved ones, perhaps even your children and grand children have all gone? Not worth it!” Thus spake Kakoo (uncle) – let’s call him Dr Kakoo…

Dr Kakoo happens to be my favourite uncle in the neighbourhood and he’s seen me grow from the toddler who chased after a butterfly (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with being gay; I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Sir David Attenborough and Steve Irwin do pretty much the same thing on TV) into a professional gadfly. And ever since the time he suggested I might want to reconsider my decision of running away and joining the circus as a four-year-old, I’ve always found his advice timely and pertinent.

But this time, I begged to differ...

I was sitting in his living room, following up on an after dinner chat, while a replica of the Mona Lisa stared down at us from luminous white walls. He insisted that life was worth living only till about 80 (Kakoo’s in his 70s) or so and beyond that, it is but a listless wait for the end to come. And since reaching that limit, going by current gerontological standards, was a more likely statistical possibility than not amongst middle-class Indians, why bother with the mind-numbing stress of a workout for a few more years of life?

But that wasn’t all. Dr Kakoo had seen one of his aunts, a lovely loving lady, a kind pious soul, live long into her 90s. And he had seen the loneliness of her last decade which was spent mourning the loss of many who ought to have waited for her, but couldn’t… Whenever I met her, I was touched by the warmth and affection that seemed to cascade from her being, but what struck me most was the aura of quiet fortitude that seemed to envelop her. And in that sense Dr Kakoo is right. Longevity can be as much of a curse, as it is a boon. “ I don’t want to see what my aunt had to…”, he said, “And I don’t want to become a disfigured and worthless lump that is kept alive as a relic (a dynamic and successful intellectual, Kakoo has too much pride to allow himself to be reduced to that). I wish we could invent a tablet which once ingested, will ensure good health for the next decade or two and then on a random preset date (unknown to the individual), burst while asleep and euthanise us painlessly…”

‘You don’t need a tablet and you don’t need a preset date,’ I said. ‘Kakoo, don’t you think one could possibly be happy and healthy well into one’s ninth and tenth decade too? All the stuff I do is not so that I may live long, but so that no matter how long I live, I live healthy…’ Kakoo seemed willing to consider, and finding the iron hot, I told him what Kenshin, a Japanese tourist I’d met last year in Bharatpur, told me about a magical island between

Japan and China where he’d spent his early years – an island called Okinawa. In the north of this island, on the beach stands a monument that declares to the four winds and the waves the ethos of its people – “At 70, we are mere children and still young at 80; if at 90, the ancestors beckon heavenwards, ask them to wait… for we might consider proceeding only after 100” – an ethos that every Okinawan strives to emulate, for the people here live longer, healthier lives than anywhere on earth. Their average life expectancy is well into the 80s (while India’s hovers around 60 and the United States’ in the mid 70s). More significantly, Okinawans suffer greatly reduced incidences of cancer and coronary heart disease. What fascinated me was Kenshin’s account of a number of nonagenarians and centenarians, both men and woman, who not only live healthy, but in fact, active and vigorous lives… gardening, hiking, swimming and fishing…

I got back home and did some research and here’s what I found out about the Okinawans and their template for living a long, healthy and fulfilling life… here’s what I found out… Diet: A Penguin publication calls the Okinawan diet “the healthiest diet” in the world. They have a low calorie diet that is high in vegetable and fruit content (almost 10 daily servings) high in whole grains, with a generous sprinkling of soy and fish protein, legumes and omega-3 foods (you could get your daily dose from cod-liver oil tablets at the pharmacist’s or if you’re a vegan, wait till you can find some supplements made from sea algae (the primary omega-3 source). And they drink lots of green tea and jasmine tea. Just as importantly, they avoid red meat, junk food, egg yolks, alcohol, tobacco and sweets like the plague.

Exercise: Almost every Okinawan follows an exercise regimen like tai chi or yoga, or at least a regulated physical activity, and in fact becomes more regular and consistent as he grows older.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about them is their belief in ikigai – ‘a sense of purpose that makes one’s life worth living’, and supportive family groups. This sense of purpose and responsibility seems to give them a reason to go on living while many of their counterparts in other latitudes have lost theirs…

And it’s not just the Okinawans, (I had written about the Abkazhians in a previous column), for there are many such communities around the world whose shared values have contributed towards healthier, long-lived communities and families and not just individuals.

So eat right Kakoo; don’t be lazy and please exercise; and share this lifestyle with friends and family and stop worrying about being infirm or lonely… it’s bound to work. Just ask the Okinawans…..

the slip stream

Living it up… and out!

The 2007/2008 Human Development Index (HDI) of the United Nations Development Program lists Iceland at the top. It would have been funny, had it not been so tragic, that this top-ranking ‘happy’ country was overnight declared bankrupt in the wake of the recent recession, leaving Icelanders at the mercy of the IMF. However, it couldn’t turn around another fact, not overnight, that they have the longest living people on earth. The explanation partly lies in the Index itself, for the HDI picks off human development measures largely in terms of life expectancy and adult literacy levels, and that is still theirs to cherish.

Owing to the social structure, lifestyle and diet of the Scandinavian countries and Japan (Okinawa is a part of the Japanese archipelago), these countries share the longevity credits with Iceland. Proximity to the sea and availability of sea food replete with nutritious fatty acids and proteins are believed to help. Besides, cold climates are known to be physically salubrious than the hot or humid climes. Close family ties, as in Japan, or remarkably reduced hang-ups about marriage and ‘moving-on’, as in Iceland could be another. After all, the world’s first elected female president was a divorced, single-mother Icelander!


Sunday, November 9, 2008

Epilogue to the age of rage: A few good men

Remmember SS? The lady with the left lane fetish? Usually, she’d sashay in, instinctively imitating a movie star on the red carpet,a ‘hi’ there, a wave here, as she walks past the bays. But today she was quiet.

Something had happened. She sat down, admired her toe-nails for a while and then looked up… “I’ve had the one of the most moving moments of my life… I’ve had an epiphany.” One of the interns looked up in horror, “oh my god! Where? Did it hurt?” Hmmm….

Well, that was one intern less for the season, but going back to SS’ story – “You might not have noticed it but I’ve been trying to make it in time for work. I leave home early and usually make it in time... like this morning... and then I hit Adhchini crossing. There was more mayhem than usual. Two cars ahead, the traffic lights weren’t working at the intersection. And of course when the lights shut down, so does common sense. So there we were, waiting behind an auto rickshaw, a truck and a Mitsubishi Lancer, all at right angles to each other, or something similarly obtuse, refusing to move an inch backward and unable to move an inch forward. Gradually, this infectious unreasonableness rippled across from its triangular epicenter and spread to all the cars around me. Happy heads bobbing to the tunes of the morning radio stilled, as the impasse deepened and frustration seeped in. The shiny happy faces became grim and I caught my surly reflection in the mirror. Then a car honked… some windows rolled down and soon enough, expletives were flying thick and fast... doors opened, executives in ties started squabbling with scruffy tractor drivers while heavily made up matrons screamed at amused truck drivers…

Meanwhile, the lights started functioning, and like cockroaches in the kitchen when the lights come on, people scurried back to their cars and lurched forward in hope… but to no avail… all of us, including me were too tired of waiting to care for the lights and shoved our noses in where we could… Traffic from the opposite side had right of way but the bus ahead of me bulldozed into them trying to forge a way through, and I and the cars behind me followed in its wake. I felt a trifle guilty. Our indiscretions had inspired traffic to break rank in other lanes too and in spite of the lights, traffic from all lanes had been reduced to a slow crawl.

Suddenly, the bus stopped dead. I braked hard behind it. A crowd had gathered around it, anticipating a knuckle fest. Apparently, the bus had shaved a coat of paint off a Tata pick-up’s flank while barging into the flow. The pick-up’s angry occupants had parked on the side and run back to the bus. I could see the two of them now as they exchanged words with the bus driver – the older of the two, clad in a dhoti, perhaps in his 40s, had a decidedly rural air, was heavily built, and bald.

The younger man was in his 20’s, perhaps a college-kid in a kurta, baggy trousers and sneakers. Livid with rage, they were thumping the body of the bus. The bus-driver seemed apologetic and since he was in the middle of the road, holding up traffic from every side, they stopped traffic, and with another warning thump, let him pass. I and the cars alongside tried to follow but the two of them beat down on the hood of our cars with their fists and screamed “ruk ja…wait for your turn! Wait for the light!” They looked menacing… but not menacing enough for the Innova on my right though, for he pushed ahead even as the two men turned their backs. At this, the bald one turned and brought his hammer fist down on the MPV’s windshield, shattering it on the spot. The car stopped, and the stunned driver froze in his seat. “Wait!” repeated the bald one, and walked away to the other end of the intersection where his companion was trying to push traffic back. After that, most fell in line but some, like an officious Ambassador just wouldn’t listen and kept pressing forward. Exasperated but unwilling to give up, the two just lay down in front of the vehicles and shamed them into moving back till the lights turned green…

It was incredible. These most likely out-of towners had crossed the intersection and though they’d lost a coat of paint, could’ve yet been on their way. Instead they returned and stopped the bus but instead of thrashing the guy, just rebuked him and then eased him out of the snarl to make way for the rest of us. While these two hollered in the heat and rolled on the road for our sakes, we selfish inconsiderate city-slickers just stayed put in our cars waiting our turn … I was embarrassed. I wanted to get down and help them, but was worried that I might be in the way… (this from a girl who wouldn’t let a 100 wild horses pull her out into the sun) Soon it was our turn and the bald one let us pass… I nodded at him and smiled and he nodded and waved. Once across, I parked the car by the kerb and went back to help them.

At the intersection though, traffic flow was normal, in tune with the lights. The men and their pick-up was nowhere to be seen. It was as if I’d imagined it all… I wondered if my sleep-deprived mind had begun playing tricks… until something on the road caught my eye – the shiny glass pieces from the Innova windshield. I know that the guilt I felt for not helping them today will make me step out next time…”

Sorting out a traffic snarl really isn’t the same as finding a cure for cancer, but for many, it is perhaps the only opportunity to touch strange lives in a positive way, an opportunity that perhaps passes us by every day… let’s take it if we care – it’ll make us better people, a happier people…

The slip stream

Retold Parables of the good samaritan

It is sad that while searching for content to support this week’s edition of ‘Typos’ one couldn’t find a lot of authenticated examples from India of individuals taking initiative in a bid to make a change that goes on to make a big difference, oftentimes, just by virtue of standing out as an inspiring example for others… Of course, this is not to say that such individuals don’t exist in this country, but perhaps we need to identify them and celebrate them with greater gusto. To this end, do write back to us with references of such exemplary individuals if you happen to have been inspired by any. Meanwhile, you could pick up The Power of One – The Unsung Everyday Heroes Rescuing America’s Cities by Debra Schweiger – a book that explores the impact of social entrepreneurs whose altruism has made a significant difference to Americans.

Or you could read Our Time is Now by Sheila Kinkade and Christina Macy which profiles 30 youth from all over the world (including two Indians) whose intent and actions have impacted local communities.

Both books discuss issues and initiatives that have the power to inspire that defining human emotion called empathy and spur us into action. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, says, “We don’t notice (others’ pain) and therefore we don’t act.”

It is time we all began to notice…


Sunday, November 2, 2008

Surviving the age of rage

There maybe no dragons left to slay, nor damsels to rescue. But if you seek adventure, the greatest ride yet is that earnest ride to and back home from work which, if made with vehicle and sanity intact, is no small cause for celebration.

On our roads, damsels in distress are hard to find, for, forgive the sexist who put a gun to my head and made me write this, but damsels behind the wheel are in fact busy causing distress… (SS for instance is a rather pleasant driver, driving in the middle lane most times. But whenever possessed by the need to overtake, instead of doing it ‘right’, she slows down, and nine times out of nine, veers to her left, sending unsuspecting cyclists, jaywalkers and thhelawallahs into a frenzied scatter, before picking up the pace on a thus cleared coast. She apparently feels safer there than in the overtaking lane… ?!!!). Men of course can be far more dangerous.

Roads challenge not only our motor skills (!), but also trigger our basest emotions – anger, arrogance and vengeance. Thanks to that, cars have emerged as the greatest phallic symbols of our times, even amongst women (‘mine is bigger than yours… and… er… ahem… faster!!’), and inspired that terrible lifestyle affliction – road rage.

I offer no solutions but an experience – might help…

A rainy day – a Santro speeds past my car. Up ahead, the road is choked with sewage water. The Santro crawls to the right where water levels are lower. Here’s where hubris sets in and you tell yourself ‘this is the day for which I wore old suits with greasy stains so I could afford those EMIs; this is the day for which I put up with a rear end (the car’s, that is) that gets stuck in tight corners; this is the day for which I bought this SUV!’ So, I move up a gear, ploughing through brown slush in a manner reminiscent of Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea, right past the Santro on my right. A kilometre later, the Santro shows up in my rear view mirror… at speed. I give way. It speeds past, slows down, and does a jig in front of my car, refusing to let me pass. Amused, I wonder if it’s someone I know, and pull over... Santro does likewise; the doors open, its occupants emerge – a burly driver and a short stocky man who’d been sitting in the rear seat. It became obvious why they’d wanted me to stop, for from the top of their turbaned heads to their toes, their starched white cottons were marked, rather attractively, I dare add, with big wet brown splotches. Their windows must’ve been down when I drove past, showering them with a spray of stinky brown, sewage water…

Now, for the love of God, tell me who drives in the rain with their windows rolled down? But obviously, I could see the argument wouldn’t hold water (especially sewage water). They were spitting debris caught between their teeth as they walked towards me. There was murder in their right eye (couldn’t make much of their mud caked left).

I remember choking back a smile… they might misunderstand. I weighed my options – flight (Advantage yours truly, thanks to our choice of cars and being victim of aforesaid phallic symbology), fight (odds even – inflated sense of inadequate martial arts experience versus raw rustic muscle, times two), flight (seems better option in light of fact that wet brown men seem to be locals. Others join their short vengeful march), definitely flight (more join in)… Flight!! Flight!!! Too late (for as I turn, I see other men between me and a by now rather flaccid phallic symbol).

Surrounded by the dozen, three (burly driver, stocky passenger and a youth, perhaps a nephew or neighbour) came forward. Stocky was screaming his head off but I couldn’t catch a word. But I did catch his drift as he pointed at himself. I felt sorry. Before I could say so, he slapped me. Burly landed a hook and nephew jumped in too… I did not hit back (though, you see, I could’ve…) because that would’ve inflamed the mob, but didn’t flinch either. They kept striking but I kept up the banter … (Slap2!) ‘I know you’re angry. My bad, sorry…’ (Slap 3!) ‘Don’t!! I’m sorry!’ (No one’s listening… Slap4!) ‘HEY! I said I’M SORRY! Didn’t realise you had your windows down.’ (Stocky stops… mumbles something like ‘how can you drive like this…’) I know, sorry… par aap buzurg hain… I’ve been apologising while you’ve been abusing and slapping me … (note: I didn’t say, I could’ve hit back – that would’ve ruined his guilt trip) Stocky pats my cheek ‘chal koi nahin… ho jaata hai’. Burly and nephew also stop… And then I say – ‘Sir, I think you too should apologise for while I respectfully apologised for my bit, you haven’t for your excesses.’ Believe you me, howsoever grudgingly, Stocky apologised. Nephew put his arm around me ‘Soary yaar… gussa aajata hai’. Now it was Burly’s turn, but he muttered and turned towards his car… I stopped him. I wanted my apology, but Stocky patted mine ‘let go, beta… hamne bol diya’ and walked away. Two out of three… could’ve been 12… not bad. A sore jaw in return for a sewer shower and an apology for an apology – split even, I’d say.

I could’ve fought, left one with a bleeding nose, a sore groin, but there was that mob; I could’ve abused but that would’ve made them angrier; I could’ve cowered, asked for mercy but that might’ve aggravated the bullies; I could’ve run, leaving the car behind, but then the mob would’ve smashed it to bits (option two)

Dear reader, it isn’t my intent to brag, and some might consider me a wimp, but for others, I believe this combination of calm dignity and polite apology might diffuse potentially dangerous situations with minimal damage, usually, and hopefully, only to one’s ego. Isn’t this what Sun Tzu – the ancient Chinese war philosopher called ‘winning without fighting’? If he’d had to drive cars during rush hour, he might well have…

Wheels – and more – on fire

“Anyone driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac.” However much road rage may get the hype in terms of ‘psychological disorder’ or ‘epidemic’, it remains essentially an attitude issue that can’t be done in with some common sense and some more of self restraint.

Here’s how common sense helps: Start off with good driving habits.

Obey traffic lights. They are there for a reason.

Use your indicators. Ditto.

Lane driving is safe, and trouble free. Usually.

And still if you happen to be one of the 78% of people who claim to have been victims of varying degrees of road rage, here’s what you can do to prevent yourself from getting into a murderous confrontation or a volley of obscenities –

Factor in 20 minutes of Extra Time into the actual time to get to your destination, so you’re never in a hurry to get there.

If someone gives you the stare, smile back. Try it.

Think and act like one of the better-behaved souls on road.

Keep your doors and windows locked. Just in case.

And if he/she does force you off the road much against your wishes, think about how your kids will react if they saw you swear or gesticulate. No kids? Think of mom!


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Some Legacies cut both ways

Ghiyasuddin was an odd sort. Over 6 feet tall, and wiry, his hazel-green eyes bore into me as he approached. His sun-burnt, pock- marked face, the luxuriant henna-dyed whiskers and that aquiline nose were not rare amongst the tribes in the Alwar region. But those smouldering eyes burning with defiant pride would’ve done justice to a king clapped in irons.

I had returned to Sariska because a contact had promised a rendezvous with an ex-poacher. So there I was, sitting on a cold stone seat next to a shack on one of the arterial routes connecting Alwar and Jaipur, sipping a hot-cuppa in the early morning nip, when the towering turbaned figure of Ghiyasuddin, draped in white, blocked out the sun as he stood before me.

However, as far as poachers go, Ghiyasuddin turned out to be a disappointment. The big man, in his 50s, claimed to have only hunted deer and birds for the pot, and no, he hadn’t ever poached a tiger or a leopard. Perhaps he was afraid to divulge more. I assured him that he wouldn’t get into trouble because I wasn’t interested as much in the poacher as I was in the circumstances that fashioned one. Ghiyasuddin shook his head and right hand in rhythm rather impatiently. “Nahin huzur, I wouldn’t do it. Nor would I let anyone, if I could help it. We’re traditional shikaris, huzur… our community would disown us for hunting the cats… they’re hunters like us. Hamari purkhein yuz aur baaz se shikar karte the… unhe kaise maar sakte hain?” Yuz? Baaz? By baaz, he must’ve meant hawks. I gestured as a falconer would and he nodded… but what’s a yuz? Sher jaisa, kutte jaisa, chitkabra sa, huzur… woh hai yuz!” What was he talking about? A hyena? ‘Lakkadbagha?’, I asked. He shook his head, with that typical Ghiyasuddin impatience “Lakkadbagha nahin huzur, it can’t even run, while the yuz would fly.” Fly? Was it a bird? Didn’t he say it was like a tiger and a dog… and then it dawned on me… Could he possibly be talking about.. oh he must be.. what else could it be…? I asked if it was still found in these parts. “Ab kahan… sab khatam ho gaye… the forest’s big… hone ko ek aad ho sakta hain; umr beet gaye, na dekha na suna… they’re gone for good.” Ghiyasuddin could’ve only been talking about one animal – the Cheetah.

In the 1950s, somewhere in the great plains of India, the last wild Cheetah had sprinted his last. Since then, the word cheetah had come to mean that other great spotted cat, the leopard. Therefore Ghyas’ people used the Persian word yuz to describe the animal. I’d been digging for coal but had found a diamond instead. Ghiyasuddin was from a long line of shikaris skilled in the most aristocratic of kingly pursuits – the sport of coursing game with falcons, an animal Ghyas called the siyagoosh (which I later came to know is Persian for the desert lynx), and of course the cheetah.

Ghyasuddin was still a young man when government legislation put an end to the wanton decimation of wild game in the name of sport. Ghyas lamented that it was this legislation that destroyed the great sport of coursing and also caused the extinction of the big cat because until then, as far as he could remember, there were always about a dozen cheetahs on the princely estates in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan where his fathers and uncles worked as cheetah trainers. But Ghyas was wrong. In all probability, it was this very sport that caused the extinction of the Asiatic Cheetah in India.

The cheetah isn’t as feisty as the other big cats and therefore was easy to tame. Record of the first cheetah being tamed in India goes back more than 2,000 years. With the advent of the Mughals the sport reached its zenith. Thousands of these graceful animals were trapped in the wild, tamed and trained by highly skilled hereditary trainers like Ghyas’ forefathers (see slip stream). Once trained, these cheetahs would be taken to the grasslands on bullock carts (and eventually, jeeps), and once in sight of their quarry (blackbucks and chinkara) would be let lose for a spectacular chase that often resulted in a kill. The trainers and owners took good care of their prized coursers but there was one problem; these shy animals just wouldn’t breed in captivity. Slowly their numbers declined.

Towards the beginning of the 20th century, India’s population exploded manifold and the great wild plains got cut up into farms and towns. Turned out of home and hearth, the last few cheetahs were either shot and speared by British trophy hunters or farmers who had lost livestock to the hungry cats, or just starved to death. “Then where did those cheetahs come from?” Ghyasuddin retorted, “Aapki baat bahut pehle ki hai... My people had been working with Nawabs and Rajahs and their cheetahs till about 30 years ago?” ‘African Cheetahs, Ghyasbhai!’ These princely estates used to import African cheetahs for you to train and for your masters to course with… when the government banned coursing, they stopped importing… Ghyas was stunned. He shook his head and hand impatiently, but this time he had closed his eyes. Those embers had lost their fierce glow. That look on his face reminded me of Othello - a man who had killed that which he loved most, and did not even realise it until it was too late. Ghyas got up, still shaking his head. Whether it was disbelief or defiance, I’ll never know. I called out to him, but he kept walking… the sun was stronger now, but the tall figure walking away from me had wrapped his head and shoulders in a blanket, perhaps to muffle the sound of my voice as I called out to him; or perhaps he was trying to muffle the sounds in his own head… They always hurt the most, the sounds in our own head.

Not fast enough?

Watching a cheetah chase its game is one of the most awe-inducing sights in nature. Those stretching-out-of-frame strides, that vital tail seemingly with a mind of its own and the sheer acceleration that can turn the red Ferrari green… Now imagine this fastest animal on land tethered to a leash, or with a hood on it. That’s right. Cheetahs are known to have been tamed and trained for hunting purposes, more specifically known as coursing, from Africa to Asia. The earliest records mention the pharaohs who kept these cats for pets in symbolic deference to their cheetah-goddess Mafdet.

In India, the Mughals had a particular penchant for game hunting with cheetahs. Emperor Akbar is believed to have housed upto a thousand of these cats at one time. However, using cheetahs as an aid to hunting finds mention as early back as in Manasollasa, an ancient Sanskrit text. Trustee of the World Wide Fund for Nature (India) and author Divyabhanusinh Chavda, in his book The End of a Trail: The Cheetah in India, mentions a treatise called Saidnaniah-i-Nigarin put together by the master of the stable (risaldar) in the administration of Sawai Maharaja Ranjore Singh, that chronicles the details of the royal activity, including catching the cats to training and treating their ailments.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Hitch before ‘the Hitch’ – story I

Chee (definitely not short for Cheesy) is 27, and one of the sweetest and prettiest people I know. Pea (short for who knows what) is 26; tall and well built with a smelly-as-old-socks kinda locker room humour. And both their lives are as barren as a grain of sand. There’s a difference though… Choosy Chee’s life is like a grain of sand from the parched Sahara, where no one goes and er… no one comes. Most of the men in her universe might be grovelling at her feet but she usually looks at them the way you might at dead flies caught in a restaurant’s bug zapper… with a mixture of pity and disgust. Chee just isn’t happy with what she has and doesn’t know how to get what she wants… her problem? She’s the right course in the wrong restaurant …

On the other hand, Pea has the opposite problem. His life is like a grain of sand from a beach, often flooded and at times crowded, but barren nevertheless, because neither the waters, nor the people ever stay back… and yeah, he does get trod upon a fair bit too. His problem? He is looking at the wrong course in the right restaurant… Allow me to explain. I believe that as far as compatibility in relationships is concerned, people are like meal-courses, and if you get greedy or cheap and don’t order the right course, you’ll either throw up (fall out) or have to live with chronic dysentery (a bad painful marriage) all your life.

Here’s how this works… Chee’s always been a ‘good girl’. She knew the rules, studied hard, did the ‘right’ things, returned home before dark and didn’t get stoned. People liked her and she stayed out of trouble; she was giving and caring and found a similar guy who’s reliable at home and work. Nothing could go wrong with her life. Now that’s a simple, uncomplicated one-course person – not too many layers, nothing unpredictable and her whole life smells of wholesome goodness. So, what went wrong? Well, it’s that monster that waylays every relationship – evolution. Of course, its old hat that partners in a relationship evolve, at different paces, in different directions. If partners remain sensitive to each other, they feel the tug as they pull in different directions and get back to some amorous CPR to fortify the bond. But usually, the bonds break even before we realise that we’ve drifted away.

Chee and her ex suffered the same fate. She met some people at work who she had nothing in common with. She was thrown together in a team with these seven-course, multi layered, super complicated people who she’d perhaps have never said more than a ‘hello’ to if they didn’t have to work together. Given time and human nature, they became good friends. One of her colleagues, let’s call him ‘The Rajput’, is a real dasher. He loves trekking, riding and women, and if nothing else, is brilliant at talking about them, with a smile that could charm Medusa. And so what if he can’t sing; he sure can cook. Now I’ve got to admit, while single-course guys, like Chee’s ex, lets call him pizza’, are reliable and caring individuals, they just can’t match these multi course exotic platters like our ‘Rajput’ in terms of charisma and persona.

Chee too was swept off her feet by the man’s wit and charm. Her good old Pizza now seemed bland and boring. Soon enough, they broke up. Nothing happened between her and The Rajput though. He was happily married to another multi-course platter. Chee came across other seven-course dazzlers though, but couldn’t hang on to these broncos. They were too wild, too complicated, too unpredictable. Little Chee can’t figure out where she went wrong. While Chee is a real person, I’m sure we all know someone like her, maybe in the next cubicle, maybe across the dining table, maybe you see her in the mirror everyday. Here’s what you can do if you’re like…

Chee: Ma’am, you might read up books which promise to help you ‘find the one you want’, but that isn’t your problem. Your problem is hanging on to that one and that, if he is a multi-course charmer, while you remain a single course, uncomplicated angel, is virtually impossible. Multi-coursers like complications. They need to pray at the altar of a demanding goddess in order to feel fulfilled every day. But you, if you don’t mind my saying so, are a tad too simple. He’ll get bored and you’ll tire of keeping up with him. Your options? You’ve got two. A) You’re a wonderful as you are. Around you, there are great single-course guys, both sincere and giving (virtues you embody) and all you have to do is open your eyes to them and you’ll see them… waiting. B) If you’re smitten by the multi-course bug and can’t resist the magnetic charms of their undeniably exciting world view, you’ll have to change, and that’ll take work. You need to change your value system and really ‘step out’. Make it a point to constantly challenge yourself with new experiences. It could take years and as you gain new attributes, you might lose all that you hold dear today. Reinvention demands both surrender and sacrifice – it wouldn’t be easy; it mightn’t even be right, but hey, follow your heart, and I’ll wish you luck. Chee’s Pizza: Feel sorry for you, buddy. You’ve did nothing wrong but yes, you should’ve felt the tug when she started drifting away. You have the same options too – remain true to who you are and give up on love, for now, but do make a conscious effort to keep evolving (as against drifting) along the planes of your uncomplicated single-course psyche. Or, you too could follow Chee and hopefully find your feet in multi-course country.

The Rajput and his ilk: Tread carefully! Don’t promise more than you can deliver in such a relationship. Once sure of your mutual incompatibility, warn her off and be honest. She’ll thank you for saving her a heartbreak and you would’ve won a friend for life.

Next week, our friend Pea will have his moment in the sun...

The slip stream

Relationship Rescue

To maintain and nurture a relationship is hard work, and sometimes it’s made harder by the fact that men and women communicate in different ways. For example during a crisis in their lives men withdraw into their shell and try to think of a way out - the classic case of ‘retreating to their cave’. As for women when they face a crisis, their response is to talk it out with their friends; they find comfort when someone acknowledges their problems. These words are John Gray’s, author of the best selling Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. Written in 1992, this book has been the grand daddy of all relationship counseling books which view men and women from different prisms. A tidal wave of follow up books from different authors have followed, most notably, Why Men Lie and Women Cry from Allan and Barbara Pease and relatively recently, Love Smart from Dr. Phil McGraw. Their advice may vary but one thing remains the same, most relationships can be saved if both of partners are willing to work hard on it, with honesty and passion


Sunday, October 5, 2008

Making sense of sensibilities

Driving out of the city today, past little post-monsoonal streams that run along our highways, you’ll see bouquets of silver tufts of Kash, erupting from the moist earth, heralding that glorious half-week of Durga Pujo that keeps the withering Bengali in the Probashi alive. The other day, while driving back from the mountains, these flowers, swaying to a silent music, like an orchestra conducted by the ministrations of the wind, drew me back to last year’s ‘pujo’ where I met old friends in New Delhi’s Bengali ghetto of CR Park.

It was a Saptami afternoon and the ‘pandal’ was quiet. The ‘bhog’ over, the hitherto bustling pandal wore a look of contented slumber… My friends, the characters of this account, are all living separate lives now. But whenever the Kash flower blossoms, we become children again... Aar, a Jaat who’s participated in Durga Pujas all his life, is a Major now, who until recently was ducking bullets along the LOC (Can’t imagine that lamb in wolf’s clothing firing any). Aay’s a journalist with a Bengali weekly, and an intellectual snob (Yes, a pseudo intellectual snob, but let only that bong who claims not to be one cast the first stone); Bee’s a writer (Calls himself a poet, which explains why he lives off the pocket money he gets from his wife); Tee is a professor of something complicated and self important in a southern university (He actually wanted to bowl fast for India. Of how he ended up hurling theorems at unsuspecting students instead of bouncers at hapless batsmen, he has no idea). Then there’s me - your Greek Chorus, if you will…

Aay: See that Durga idol... that’s ekchala (single frame). Just got back from Kumhartuli, the Grand Vatican for idol makers. Those fellas have strong opinions. To make ends meet, they’ve often deviated from tradition and made idols where the asura has Osama’s face, but they hate it. They prefer the traditional ekchala idols. And one of them, Nimai, just railed off against our Fida sahab (he means MF Hussain; told you... he’s a snob)… said his paintings insulted Maa Durga. The idols in his workshop were semi-finished, without a stitch on them. So I asked …‘you’ll clothe them now and he didn’t, but there are ancient temples around the country with our gods in the nude. So what?’. Nimai was unmoved. ‘This is an art I’ve learnt from my forefathers, with bhakti. But that man has no right… let him paint his own gods if he wants to…’ baap rey baap…

Aar: He’s right! I don’t care if every temple in this country has nude idols. Let Hussain attempt painting his own God and his Prophet in the same manner before attempting to paint our deities… But he knows he can’t. I’ve seen his paintings on the net. He’s painted the Prophet’s daughter and there is such a stark difference between the conservative dignity of her image and the naked abandon of ones like Maa Durga’s (hmm… our lamb had grown teeth). You know how Muslims around the world reacted to Hazrat Muhammad’s cartoons… But we... we just get taken for granted…

Tee: Hang on, there’s a difference… (Did I forget to mention, Tee’s a real intellectual and a Muslim, a Bengali Muslim). There’s a difference in objectives to begin with. The cartoons were insensitive and designed to incite the community. There’s a historical precedent to the portrayal of Hindu deities in various styles but Islam forbids any images of the Prophet, and these cartoons weren’t even in good taste…

Aar: Tee, you can’t possibly be defending all that violence that followed. Why should a man in Nigeria have to die for a cartoon drawn in Scandinavia? You don’t need a sense of humour to see this… just be logical…

Tee: I’m not defending those who indulged in arson and violence in different parts of the world. They perhaps hadn’t even seen the offending cartoons. It was done to bait Muslims, and many naïve and ignorant individuals fell in the trap. They obviously weren’t being rational. But Hussain’s paintings are different… it is artistic expression and you can’t straitjacket that within narrow religio-political interpretations…

Bee: Fine, but then what about the Satanic Verses? Wasn’t that an example of artistic expression too?

Tee: I haven’t read the book... but it was the work of an eccentric who ridicules everything! To take him that seriously was a mistake. Hussain though must’ve made his paintings out of reverence rather than to ridicule....

Aay: How can…

Bee (He raises his voice to speak and we become quiet. Except for his wife, everybody listens when Bee speaks): Tee’s got a point! It doesn’t make sense to react to artistic expression of any sort, irrespective of intent, with any sort of vandalism. Sexual symbology, from the Shiva lingas in our temples to Krishna’s love play in the “Gita Govindam” and Vidyapati’s “Padavali”, has been characteristic of Hindu mythology.

That’s our heritage. Whoever argues otherwise is actually confusing borrowed Victorian prudery with the real essence of Hindutva. And does it matter if a Christian’s depiction of Islam or a Muslim’s depiction of Hinduism, or a Hindu’s depiction of Christianity (like in Chandramohan’s paintings) goes against the grain of the faith? Even if artistic expression does go wrong, it can’t affect faiths that have survived centuries. It is we who need God to protect us, and not vice versa. In civil society, art should only be condemned and criticised through art. But to vandalise is to confess to one’s insecurities and lack of intellectual ability…

(Dan-da-dadan-dan… the ‘dhakis’, traditional ‘puja’ drummers, were back. It was time for the evening ‘arati’. Tee jumped forward in his dhoti and took up two heavy earthen lamps and danced to the beat of the drum with Aar taking the other two… they had both been exceptional ‘arati’ dancers and as the rest of us watched along with the appreciative audience, here surely was an artistic expression that no one could complain about)

The slip stream

God knows?!

‘Religious controversy’ has come to be yawn-inducing as much as it proves to be sentiment-stoking, given the alarming regularity of the phrase in the media. Even areas one would imagine to be shielded from radical musings of the fundamentalists are gatecrashed into. Consider these:

Da Vinci Code (2003) : Dan Brown’s fiction novel, essentially a murder mystery with a Harvard symbologist and a cryptographer on the detective trail, finds itself in religious territory with references to Opus Dei as an organization with secret rituals and albino henchmen. Its fact-o-fiction allusions to Jesus Christ’s marital status and his alliance with Mary Magdalene created much furore in the Catholic world apart from great publicity for the book as well as the Tom Hanks-starring movie.

The Bamiyan Buddhas: After the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 2001, the World Heritage Site of the Bamiyan Buddhas fell to concerted vandalism unleashed by the new rulers of the state, declaring the idols and its worship ‘un-Islamic’. Dynamite and artillery fire destroyed the archeological treasures in Bamiyan Valley, ones that had even survived the onslaught of Taimur and Ghazni.

Madonna: Earlier this month, the queen of pop made enough news for her Sweet & Sticky Tour, when she dedicated her ‘Like A Virgin’ song to the Pope. Déjà vu 2006 – the Confessions Tour – when the lady staged a mock crucifixion atop a 20 feet cross wearing a crown of thorns, inviting outrage from church groups across the world. God bless them all…


Sunday, September 28, 2008

Surviving the crossfire

I spent most of Saturday evening sending out text messages to friends, ranting and railing against the inhuman cowardice of the bombers and the pathetic ineptitude of the government in a bid to vent my frustrations and fears. Come Sunday, my sense of anger and disbelief, perhaps much like yours, had waned to pity and a sense of sympathy that was withering by the hour; by Monday, I was back at my desk, sifting through more ‘regular’ concerns like page lay-outs and lead stories… my life, much like rest of Delhi’s had returned to ‘normal’. The possibility that it could be “me” next time, or “a loved one” is not lost on any of us, but in a nation of fatalists, who has the time to compute probabilities...

And what can one do? Is there a way to stop these terrorists or these bombs from going off? We know that terrorists, whether those burning churches or those planting bombs in the name of God at the hour of ifthaar, represent neither a community nor a faith and are merely serving their own twisted agendas. We know that our politicians don’t give two hoots about what happens to you or me as long as their chairs aren’t rocking. Even their rhetoric has lost fizz (perhaps the attacks are so frequent that their speech writers haven’t had the time to innovate). We know our security agencies have been desperately understaffed for more than a decade (an intelligence report had assessed that the Intelligence Bureau needs ten times its current strength in terms of personnel if it is to meet the nation’s needs. Of the 3,000 posts that should’ve been filled up since 2001, merely a thousand have so far been sanctioned.

On the other hand, against the international norm of a minimum of 250 policemen per 100, 000 citizens, with many countries investing in twice that number, India, across states ranges between 25-100 policemen per 100,000 citizens). So can we do more than just hope and pray before the blasts and follow up with tears and empty rhetoric? This time, I was bothered enough to find out, and therefore, sought out a security consultant who has been training security forces for years and has had training experience in red-flag battle zones in the Middle-East. We’ll know him as VK.

“We’re a nation under siege and we refuse to recognise that”, said the hulking giant, who reminded me of a comic book character called Juggernaut, who could walk unscathed through walls and explosions. VK looked every inch the kind of man you’d want on your side when ‘under seige’. A shaven head, a nose reshaped by flying shrapnel, meaty arms adorned by burns and scars, and quick, intelligent eyes that didn’t miss a thing, VK had been through enough mayhem around the world to know how to get out alive. “You wonder why terrorists had to plan the strike of the century to hurt the United States and without an encore, in spite of the US being on the radar of nearly every jehadi outfit in the world, while Indian cities seem to get bombed at will? Well there’s obviously a difference in levels of surveillance technology available, but most of all there is a difference in the levels of commitment and application at all levels of the security set-up. Don’t waste time thinking about it though because there’s nothing we can do about it. In that sense we’re not a nation but individuals, practically on our own.”

I asked him about his time in Israel… “There’s a lot we can learn from others, be they friends or enemies. And Israel can teach us a lot. They might seem heavy handed but no one attacks them with impunity and hopes to get away with it. Every Israeli, even a child, is aware that there are threats in their environment and they’re trained to identify and react accordingly. For instance, if the 12 year old balloon seller had been trained like his Israeli counter parts, he would’ve alerted relevant agencies well before the explosions and a tragedy could’ve been averted. The success of the ‘Eyes and Ears’ programme of the Delhi Police which led to two of the bombs being diffused and the security drill in a market-place are steps in the right direction but it can’t just stop at training rag pickers and traders. This programme has to extend to you and me, to schools, offices and colleges, to housing complexes and welfare associations. Bombs don’t discriminate between class, age or creed. A community civilian defence programme that prepares us for appropriate and prompt reactions is important because not only would it remind us not to settle into a false sense of short-lived normalcy and complacency but also builds a sense of unity of purpose which is essential in such times.”

Finally, I asked VK if there was anything one could do to survive an explosion in one’s vicinity. He nodded, “Duck! Hit the floor on your stomach, head down, ears covered; cross your ankles, clench your buttocks and close your anus.” I was a little intrigued by the last bit. “Pressurised air can enter any open orifice and rip the body apart…so close all orifices and lie low”, he explained (see slip stream for other precautions).

VK left with a parting shot. “The terrorists are one of us. And we’ve gone wrong somewhere… we need to rebuild… the rest are all temporary measures”. I couldn’t agree more. Maybe we could start undoing some of our wrongs as part of the silent moderate majority, across faiths, by insisting, forcefully if necessary, that those who assume our representation have to stop pretending to win people’s souls by burning their bodies, be it Orissa, Ayodhya, Ahmedabad or Delhi.

The slip stream

Prepare for the worst

It’s a sad but true fact of our modern lives that we’re increasingly likely to be directly affected by a bomb blast. With terrorist activities growing everyday and bombs being planted in crowded markets, it’s wise and prudent to at least know basic do’s and don’ts and be prepared for the day (may it never come)... just in case...

Ok, first things first, remain calm. Too often a stampede breaks out immediately after a bomb blast (caused by people panicking), resulting in more deaths than caused by the actual blast. Secondly, take cover under something sturdy, like a table or a low ledge to protect yourself from any follow up explosions. Thirdly, make sure that you’re safely away from anything that could fall on you, like electric poles, fans, glass, etc.

And lastly, remain where you are and wait for evacuation for there could be more bombs planted in the exit routes (a favourite terrorist trick) but this rule doesn’t apply if the explosion has caused a fire or some other hazard which threatens your life (naturally). Follow these rules and it’s a guarantee that you will have more than an average chance of making it through your worst nightmare, alive.


Sunday, September 21, 2008

Valley of the immortals

The summer of 2000, somewhere between Geneva and Paris : The train is chugging past a series of European clichés framed against the train-window-rolling meadows, blue lakes, and chunky piebald cows… A soft summer sun, the rolling inertia of the TGV and the constant chatter of some of my students I was travelling with had my drowsy head lolling in rhythm in no time, until…“Ram-me-ya, What’s-the way-ya, Ram-me-…” The lyrics I couldn’t vouch for, but the tune seemed vaguely familiar… this was… this was…. Oh yes, this was Lata Mangeshkar with an accent; Ramaiya Wasta… Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420. I woke up with a start to see a tall slim middle-aged lady, dark glasses on her forehead holding up a lock of thick auburn hair cropped short, crooning, hopping on and off key, to some enthusiastic support from the students… Antakshari in the Alps!

“Ketarinah Kerovpe from with the United Nations. I love India… and Raj Kapoor” she’d said when we sat down for coffee later in the dining car. “Raj Kapoor? That must’ve been long ago…” the words tumbled out before I could hold them back. She laughed… “It was... I must’ve been in university then… almost half a century ago”. Half a century? That would make her not a day short of seventy, at least, and here she was looking not a day older than 45, and I said so. She seemed charmed. “It’s my mother”, she said. “Although my father is Armenian, my mother is from Abkhazia, in Georgia, although my mother would tell you that Abkhazia never really was ‘in’ Georgia (did you read the papers today)… She’s in her 90s and strong enough to do her own gardening… I owe this compliment to her.” Abkhazia?! Sounded familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it... “and to the yogurt I guess”, she said, scooping out another spoonful. Yogurt?! Yogurt!… I remembered now... when I was a child, my grandfather would force feed me a lot of yogurt… so much so, that at a point I was sure that if you’d cut me up, yogurt would ooze out of my wounds instead of blood. And he did so because he’d heard the Georgians lived incredibly long lives because of their ‘yogurt’ diet.

“Not all Georgians,” Ketarinah pointed out “only those living in Abkhazia… that place is truly Shangri-la. Tall mountains and clear sweet water… but you’ll be disappointed if you go there expecting to see everybody looking like they just walked out of a Baywatch set. You’ll see a lot of ‘middle-aged’ people though… crinkly eyes, a missing tooth, or a streak of grey. But the interesting bit is that they’re all far older than they look, are incredibly active, ride horses, chop wood and work on their farms at an age where most people elsewhere would consider being able to go to the toilet on their own an accomplishment.”

Usually, I’m a sucker for such stories… but this time, I was skeptical. … could such a paradise really have remained undiscovered for so long… “Not undiscovered, just forgotten…” said Ketarinah. “In the 1970s, a popular magazine had stumbled upon Abhkazia and its super centenarians… it was said that in Abkhazia, people didn’t grow old. They just got better…”. And their secret? Yogurt? “Dunno… was a popular myth at the time,” she said. “but wasn’t very popular on our dining table…” Humph!

Baited by the conversation, I tried to find out more. After all, who wouldn’t want to live to be 150? Initially, I was disappointed. You wouldn’t find any Abkazhian in any official list of centenarians. Skepticism surrounds every longevity claim from the region. Names like Khfaf Lazuria, claiming to be 140 and Shirli Muslimov, apparently an astounding 168, couldn’t substantiate their claims because neither they nor the other super-centenarians had reliable birth certificates. To compound matters, it was discovered that the erstwhile Soviet Union’s communist propaganda machinery might’ve exaggerated these figures to prove the superiority of their socio-political setup.

But wait, there is hope…

While it’s undeniable that most Abkhazians don’t have reliable birth documents, visitors to this region have confirmed that many of these golden oldies were actually exceptionally sprightly great-great grand parents. Muslimov himself (died 1973), was one such great-great grand father who was busy riding miles and tilling fields till his last days. Though exact life-spans are difficult to ascertain, most Abkazhains have very low incidences of cardio-vascular diseases or cancer compared to the rest of the world, maintain a slim profile and actually live long, and very healthy, lives.

Still interested in their secrets? Okay, here goes… they eat right – lots of organic, home grown tomatoes (anti – cancer) and citrus fruits, cheeses and nuts; they shun stressful deadlines (hope my editor’s reading this) and walk a lot in the high mountains. But that isn’t the real secret of their vigour and vitality. In Abkhazian society, senior citizens are valued like national treasures. The older they get, the more sought after is their advice and families take pride in taking care of their elders… good conversations, social utility and strong family bonds seem to be the real secret of the Abkazhians. And yes, ahem…there’s one more thing… Abkhazians marry late (30s and 40s). Since pre-marital sex is frowned upon, these people are late bloomers in more ways than one. As a consequence perhaps, they can keep at it for far longer and till much later in life; ‘experts’ feel that here too might lie yet another key to the secrets of Abkhazia.

So, there you go, give what you can a shot, and don’t bother about the rest… later, we’ll explore some other regions which are home to super centenarians … meanwhile, don’t hold your breath.

Long live life!

Did you know there existed careers in ageing? Gerontology is the science that deals with the stage of life that women fear and men refuse to acknowledge. The social, biological and psychological aspects of ageing have for long been subjects of scientific study, mainly with aims of extending the youth phase infinitely or conversely, adjourning the greying blues sine die.

According to the Gerontology Research Group (GRG), there are 78 living supercentenarians (individuals who have lived to 110 or beyond) as on August 29, 2008. While the GRG roster lists persons from USA and Japan to be among the longest living, Italy, England and Canada also make their appearances (some of which will be subjects of future columns in this series). Claims to validated demographic data on supercentenarians are however as many to be found as there are possibly the ‘wizened’ folks around, thanks to un-standardized data collection methods and poor record-keeping. It can be one reason to explain the absence of Abkhazia, even with its assertions to be a romantic Shangri-La, on the GRG list. At the same time, Abkhazia’s claims, although unsubstantiated could not altogether be rejected, for its inconspicousness may have to do with its very remoteness.