Thursday, February 26, 2009


13th May 2008...

“Akram! Darwaza khol…. Akram!” An impatient palm slapped the wooden door. “… kya so gaya kya?” Another knock and then Akram heard footsteps going down the stairs. He heard two distinct footsteps… one, a rubber soled shuffle and the other, a rather awkward descent on stilettos. Akram looked around the one room set-up; un-ironed clothes heaped on the bed, empty bottles rolling like downed pins on the mosaic floor, and at the compose strip in his hand… How many would he need, he wondered….?

Two years ago…..

Akram was one of those shy studious characters, good with books and awkward with people. Salt of the cow-belt earth, Akram, by sheer dint of effort had come to be a student of the post-graduate programme at one of the country’s premier B-schools. His family tended to their ancestral medium-sized farms in UP. But Akram was ambitious, and instead of letting his rural background hold him back, he jumped into the whirl of an urban education, first in for his graduation and then reached Delhi for his MBA.

It wasn’t going to be easy. His phenomenal ability to process objective information gave him an advantage in quantitative subjects but the high glamour events like debates and presentations would leave him feeling miserable. Though sound with grammar when writing, his spoken English was marred by errors, a thick accent and a tendency to slur… To compound matters, Akram was sensitive. Whenever his tongue would betray him in class, he would lose his bearings, start sweating and slurring… his eyes would roll and his heart would thump louder and louder until every other sound would get sucked out of his world…

Akram felt like a bird whose wings had been clipped. His high flying dreams had crashed to the ground, tripped by an upbringing that seemed decidedly coarse next to his slick and urbane classmates. Humiliated and helpless after another presentation that had gone wrong, Akram went off into an empty classroom and gave in to his frustrations… he screamed… and he screamed out loud, cursing himself, the English language and his fate. He heard knock on the classroom door… he stopped. It was Mr B, the Executive Communication faculty who’d been taking a session next door. “What’s wrong, Akram?”, asked Mr B Akram liked whatever he’d seen of Mr B in the two sessions they’d had so far, and in his desperation, he bared his soul. B smiled and told Akram to see him in the class the next day.

On the day, Akram found himself in the class with 15 other students, who, like him, seemed to find the language difficult to handle and their complexes had given birth to inner demons that hounded them. “We communicate because we want to touch lives and move minds, and that objective should never be lost” said B. “We are creatures of emotion and it’s our emotional existence that tells us, and the world that we are alive. To put a spin on what Descartes said, ‘I feel, therefore I am’. So, don’t worry about what you say… focus on how you say it and on making your audience feel it… if you speak with passion, energy, emotions and have a story, the errors will fade away”. Then B gave them an assignment. All the students were given a historical character of their choice, from Adolf Hitler to Mao Tse tung; then they were given historical situations wherein they had to address a large gathering and inspire them into action as those greats from history. The 16 of them had to build a speech around the occasion and invoke the fire of that character into it. Akram picked Sir William Wallace, the valiant Scottish hero who fought against the English…

Once all the students were ready, B wished them and said “Don’t speak to us, your audience, but speak to our hearts, for that’s what matters…” When Akram got up to speak, his big brown eyes pierced into the mass of students. He unbuttoned his jacket and pointed at his audience, and with a voice that roared like a wounded lion, he said “Children of Scotland, hear me speak….

I am William Wallace…..”. That day, the fire in Akram’s heart singed the audience’s soul. The errors were still there but Akram didn’t care, for he spoke like a man possessed… He got a standing ovation and Mr B and his friends hugged him. Then on, Akram, in spite of his limitations, became a star speaker who never failed to move and impress his audience.

The leaves changed colour and the trimester drew to a close. Akram lost touch with Mr B as he got busy with his specialisation. And then a big presentation came up. Akram was sure he’d do well but when the big day came up, he forgot his lines, and worse, he seemed uninvolved. His teachers and friends were disappointed but Akram didn’t care. It’ll be ok the next time, he felt. But it wasn’t ok… again, he botched his lines and was as limp as a wet cracker… But Akram didn’t care, it’ll be ok, he told himself. But how could it be ok, for hubris had set in. He’d become lazy, complacent and cocky. Living in denial, the once shy Akram, who had become the champion and inspiration for all underdogs had now hit a reckless downward spiral. He drowned himself in alcohol, missed classes, spent all he had to buy sex and smoke pot. Soon enough, it was placement season and Akram got rejected by all comers. His early track record and laurels got him to the interview table but he was such a wreck by then that he found no takers… That was December 2007. There was a deluge of companies coming in for placements. January, February, March, April and then May… Almost all his friends were placed in the organisations of their dreams, and yet their hero Akram lay alone in a room. Broke, jobless and perennially drunk… And that’s where we found him at the top of the page, on the 13th of May, alone in his room with a bunch of sleeping pills in his hand… feeling like a loser who wanted to end it all…

Maybe you should hear the rest of the story in his own words….

“ …then I cried like a baby… I cried and cried till I could cry no more… I looked at the pills and I looked at the walls around me. These walls had been my only friend for the last six months… they had seen me rise, they had seen me fall… and then I saw those big bold words I had scribbled on the wall… words I’d been blind to for all these months… words that had once inspired me to become the Akram who everybody admired… words that said – I AM WILLIAM WALLACE! I read those words again and again and something in me moved… I stood up, shakily at first and then with conviction… I looked up at the fan and at the walls, thumped my chest and screamed “I AM WILLIAM WALLACE!” I said those long forgotten words again and memories of that day came flooding back… the thunderous applause, the hugs, the tears of joy… it all came rushing back… I saw my eyes in the mirror and saw a spark flicker. I threw the pills and the bottles away, clearing the cobwebs in my room and my life, chasing the old fire that once burned within me…

On May 16th, I sat for an interview with one of the biggest banks in the country. I was selected. The same with interviews on the 21st and 27th… then on May 31st, I got through an interview that found me a job in the Emirates. Today, I live in a penthouse, drive a nice car and draw a salary that is comparable with the best from my country…

And it all turned around for me in one day, in that one hour on the 13th of May, when I went from being a man without hope, a man who wanted to end his life, to a man who believed he still had it in him to beat the odds and live his dreams…

Sometimes, life can seem so knotted and wretched, or our own sins so shameful that one can’t bear to take another breath. But all one has to do is look back on that one day in your life when you had found meaning and love. Then that dusty memory, and not our current misery, will magically become the axis of our future. It happened to me… it can happen to anyone… thanks for being there - Akram”

How do I know all this? Just the other day I received an e-mail… the subject said – ‘Mr B, I am William Wallace!’


Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Shade of Love – II

VJ had always been a part of our band of cherubic hell-raisers in school before he took up science and the rest of us moved into commerce. But he'd stayed in touch with Kobita and through her, the rest of us. Having said that, I was still surprised to get an email from him after he had left for what was then Bangalore. Maybe he thought I'd understand because other than him, I'd been Kobita's closest friend in school…

" Pickles (that's what they called me…) I don't know why I'm writing this to you. Don't expect you to help… just wanted to share this with someone, and who'd understand this better than you… We're like two fishermen who sailed in the same river in a village, distant, but always connected by the current. On the banks, they might wave and talk a little. But then one day the river runs dry and both run to the city to make ends meet. And in the city when they meet, they meet like brothers, talking endlessly, of the river. And while they talk, the river runs again, coursing through their lives as it coursed through their veins… Kobita is that river, and while I talk of her to you, I feel she's here, with me… though her life may have changed course, irretrievably…

Pickles, my emotions are running away with my thoughts. 'Come away with me Kobita' I had told her when we met. 'I know you want to… I see it in the way I make you laugh the way no one else can; in the way I understand you the way no one can and I know it in the way you touch me, carelessly, almost accidentally… but your touch betrays you Kobita. It tells me things you haven't. Your fingers, in a moment's brief contact tell me that they long to linger but can't; that they wish to be held, to be enveloped by a warmth that they've yearned for, that they want to touch not just my skin but gently caress my soul…

Kobita, don't misunderstand me. I've loved you as the woman you are from the day I knew I was a man. I was wrong not to have said this earlier, but do you have to punish both of us now… and Nik too? I know he loves you in a good-natured way but, isn't there more to life than just affection? What about love, real love, and romance… and passion… why deprive ourselves of the magic we feel for each other? And Nik, he doesn't need your charity. Perhaps he too will find someone who completes him the way you complete me. By staying with him, you're taking that possibility away from all of us… Why're you so quiet? Are you angry? Why are your eyes welling up…? Is it Koel? I've thought about it… I know Nik's a great dad but Koel likes me too… we'll be great together… And every now and then the three of you could spend time together, for Koel's sake and for your own… What do you say, Kobita? … Kobita, where are you going… Kobita…?' And she was gone… without a word… That was the last I saw or heard of her… that bright red sari disappearing in the inky blackness of a winter evening. It's been two weeks and she hasn't taken my calls or responded to messages. I've ruined what we had but I have no regrets… at least she knows. I don't have the courage to call Nik… I've done nothing wrong but I still feel guilty when I think of him. I told Che-chi (his elder sister) about all this… she says I was wrong… Wrong to have asked a married woman to leave her husband and deprive a child of her father. "What kind of a woman would she have to be to leave them behind after so many years of marriage? Not someone you'd want to live with, VJ…" she'd said. And maybe she's right. I'm being selfish and it's wrong to expect her to be the same… I love Kobita and I know she loves me… she always has… but it doesn't matter anymore, does it, Pickles?"

I did not reply to VJ's email. After two days, I opened my account to read it again, and I saw a new mail.. from Kobita…

"Koel is asleep in bed with her head on my lap as I write these words. And on her head rests Nik's hand. He's asleep… They make a beautiful picture… It's a picture that speaks of family, of togetherness… and of love. This picture is every woman's dream. I can feel pins and needles in my legs from sitting still for so long but I don't have the heart to move for fear of waking them up and spoiling this picture… Then why on earth would VJ think that I would leave it all for anything on the planet… even him???!! I know you know, Pickles… Did I go wrong? Did I bring this upon myself? You've known us both… did I ever send out a sign saying I was unhappy, that I longed for him? For if I did, I never intended to… I was happy, I am happy… and even if I did feel about things the way VJ does, isn't it wrong… isn't it unfair… to Nik? …to Koel? I love them to death… Nik's a good, strong man… and a beautiful father. I respect him… a little too much some say… but so what? Marriage, they say, is always 'work in progress'. Couldn't we work on it, so that we too can feel the magic… the way I can with VJ… Oh god, why me? Why couldn't I live out my life in quiet contentment like all my neighbours? Why do I have to burn the way I do? Pickles, you know how VJ makes me laugh and feel alive… I don't know if I love him but I love the person I become when I'm with him… he makes me feel good about myself the way no one else can… If that is love, then in love I am. But why does my happiness have to be at the cost of someone else's… I can't give them this pain, nor can I bear this pain.

'Where do you draw a line? What if it's someone else tomorrow?', isn't that what you're thinking? I don't know, Pickles, but why, in this world of adults do I have to know…? why can't I follow my heart?

Sorry for putting you through this…." Just then, a chat box popped up. It was VJ… "Pickles… awake @ this hr? u know… you might say things would've been different if she wasn't married… didn't have a child. But so what if she is? God didn't make marriage, we did… and what changes in that one public ceremony meant for total strangers? Wouldn't Koel be happier spending time with three happy adults instead of with two parents who'll never be able to touch her life with the exhilaration of true love…?"

I'd had enough. I signed out, shut down my laptop and picked up my phone…

It's been five years since that day. Today, VJ is back in Bengaluru, waiting for Kobita. She returns next week from Kolkata, with Koel, and Krishna, her son and VJ's. Koel shares her long holidays between Kolkata and Bengaluru and seems to be having a normal, happy childhood. And are the others any happier? Well, they say so… as do the photos they send… Honestly, I can't tell from here… maybe you should meet them and find out…


Monday, February 16, 2009

A Shade of love

Nearly 62 per cent people surveyed on St. Valentine’s Day some years ago confessed they often feel empty and lonely, even if in an otherwise stable and loving relationship. Romance in most relationships is ethereal, delicate, fragile… and its often gone before you know it… And I’m not saying this from a pedestal. It could happen to anybody including every author who ever wrote a ‘How-to-love-better’ book, but why are you nodding your head? That anyway isn’t the point of this piece…. The point is… Aha! I get it… you’re feeling lonely too, aren’t you? No, don’t get me wrong… I didn’t say that you are unhappy or alone… I just said lonely, as in, you feel incomplete and unfulfilled though you may well be in good company. Sounds familiar?

Well, here’s the deal for this week… I’m going to turn you into a fly and we’ll go into the lives and homes of some friends I know and we’ll hang out on a wall by the corner and see if we can learn some lessons on love, whether love be what you breathe, make or miss… so let fly, fellow fly….

First stop: The bedroom of a mansion, Saltlake, Kolkata: Fellow fly, do you see that girl? No, no, not the one soiling her diapers, the other one… yes, yes, the mother… What do you mean she’s not a girl? She’s only 33, and she doesn’t even look it. Her name is Kobita. She was with me in school in Delhi. We were good friends then but then she had to move to Kolkata when her father retired. While in first year she fell in love with Nikunj, a final year student and the college president. Now Nikunj is quite a character. Although not a Bengali, he had the charisma to become the president in a predominantly all-bong college against a Bengali rival. A usually quiet and intense man, he has this self –deprecating sense of humour that catches everybody unawares, thus underscoring its impact. A fairly popular Bengali theatre and TV actor today, and a successful ad-man, everyone agrees, he’s quite a catch.

Kobita and I had stayed in touch over letters and emails but I hadn’t seen her since school. So when I did see her recently, I was rather disappointed. Why? Well, because when I met her a few months back, I couldn’t recognise her. She’d grown prettier, and a wee bit plumper, than she was in school but it wasn’t about her appearance… it was her soul. I couldn’t see it, and I have a feeling that nor can Nik. You see, in the two hours we spent together, Kobita didn’t once disagree with Nik. Though a measured talker, Nik had very strong opinions, even about things like the party plans for their daughter Koel’s birthday. And all that Kobita would do is nod, smile, giggle and mouth the lines that he just said and repeat them like a parrot… at times she would offer token resistance and disagree but I could see she didn’t mean any of it.

Look at her now… her life looks complete, doesn’t it? A big mansion, a closet full of fine clothes, a big rock on her finger, a beautiful little baby and an affectionate and successful husband. But… she’s bored. And it isn’t anybody else’s fault but her own. She has become a boring yes-girl. Agreed her husband is a confident, dynamic and a very willful person who might not be easy to disagree with. But he does not need a ‘yes-girl’. He will have enough of them at work.

Kobita and Nik are an intelligent pair and will perhaps live conveniently ever after, but I’m sure they feel lonely quite often, perhaps even when they’re together. And I’m sure if we hang around on this wall long enough, we’ll see that intimacy and romance have given way to one-way discussions about bringing up the baby, stuff at work and the lives of others. Can things get better? Sure they can, but only if Kobita realizes that she can’t give up who she is to become what she thinks Nik wants. She needs to realise that by becoming agreeable, she has lost her identity and in order to maintain ‘the peaceable kingdom’, become pretentious and boring. And the day you start pretending with the love of your life, you’ve traded in love in the hope of longevity. And while a marriage can survive on mere convenience alone, love will surely flicker and die without romance to keep it alive… Kobita had reduced herself to what the famous love Dr Phil Mcgraw calls an ‘accessory’.

An apartment in south Bangalore: You see that photograph there? Do you recognize it? That’s Kobita… just before she had her baby. That’s when VJ had last seen her in Kolkata. VJ was with us in school and was Kobita’s best friend. When she moved to Kolkata, VJ stayed in touch with her and then moved to Kolkata for his post graduation.

He did not tell us then and nor did he ever let Kobita know, but he had always been besotted by her. Kobita too liked him a lot and was surprised that he never popped the question. Then of course, she met Nik and before either of them knew it, she was married to Nik after a whirlwind romance. VJ was there at the wedding; older, wiser, bolder and lonelier.

VJ visits Kobita and Nik whenever he’s in Kolkata and he genuinely likes Nik. They’re good friends now and Nik had even asked VJ to help him with the surprise he’d planned for Kobita for their first Valentine’s after the wedding. With each passing day though, VJ’s found himself getting drawn towards Kobita. Both Nik and Kobita trusted VJ and thought the world of him and pampered him whenever he visited Kolkata. And on such occasions, VJ would feel guilty and ask himself if he was wrong to feel the way he did about Kobita….

A lot of water has flown under the Howrah bridge since the day VJ first got in touch with his feelings for Kobita. Today, as he sits in his living room on the eve of Valentine’s Day with a plane ticket to Dum Dum in his hand, he thinks: “ If only I had not taken forever before telling Kobita how I feel about her… I don’t know how she feels about me, then or now, but at least I would’ve told her… I know she can only be happiest with me for no one understands her the way I do… and she knows this too… This is why I haven’t told her how I feel… she seems content with her lot in life. Perhaps it wouldn’t be fair to disrupt her world… and Nik… what about Nik? He trusts me and treats me like a good friend… I can’t do this to him… I know that if I bare my heart to Kobita, it’ll stir a tempest in her world but… but who would she really be happy with? Who would she be herself with? I love her and I love her more than any man… She’ll be happiest with me… so what if she is married and has a child… and so what if she has a husband who is a nice man and a good father… There’s no magic in their lives, no romance… but sparks fly when Kobita and I meet… we share an indescribable bond. Nik too knows that what we share is special and has told both of us so… then why o why is it wrong for me to want to love her, for me to want to be with her… for us to want to be together. Won’t Nik understand? Won’t the world understand?”

VJ had made up his mind. He knew that Kobita would really find true happiness with him and that is a fact that even Nik would have to accept. If Nik truly cared for Kobita, wouldn’t he be happy for her, and after all, wouldn’t he be happier with someone who really was his ‘true north’, like he knew he was for Kobita. VJ was going through what might happen in his head… he’ll meet Kobita at work on V-day and surprise her. Then, maybe over lunch, he’ll confess to Kobita. She’ll be shocked but then she’ll calm down and realize that they both had seen it coming… maybe Nik too had seen this coming, maybe he’ll understand when… or if… no, no… when they tell him… it’s only right. It’ll be difficult, but it’s the right thing to do… the right thing for him, the right thing for Kobita, the right thing for Nik and… for Koel? He had forgotten about Koel… was this the right thing for Koel too? And if not, should the three of them end up living incomplete lives just so that one child could be happy? VJ’s resolve seemed to weaken… it was an unfair question.. especially on the eve of Valentine’s day…. Until next week then… happy Valentine’s day!


Monday, February 9, 2009

Betrayal at chauri chaura

‘The harm that good men do’, was an essay by Bertrand Russell that I never finished reading but was a heading I often thought about whenever I heard the name Gandhi being discussed… I had often witnessed disparate schools of thought converging on the notion that Gandhi the man, as well as Gandhi the idea, had often done more harm than good to the cause of this nation’s freedom, from both communalism and colonialism. Many years ago, on this very day, the 4th of February, near the town of Gorakhpur, there once lay 22 charred bodies and a few blackened bayonets. And amidst the rubble and ruins of that day, there also lay the smoking ruins of a nation’s aspirations. The year was 1922 and the place – a little known police station in a town called Chauri Chaura.

At Chauri Chaura that day, a non-violent protest march, part of a nation-wide Non-Cooperation movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, turned violent when policemen opened fire on unarmed protestors, killing three of them. The angry mob went on the rampage and burnt down the police-chowki. Twenty-two policemen, too, were burnt alive inside the police station. Gandhi felt he had been betrayed, perhaps even shamed by his followers. For him, violence was not an option. His followers had committed themselves to ahimsa. And yet, they had weakened and given in to their impulses, thus jeopardising the movement around the country. He wanted to disown the action of the protestors at Chauri Chaura and therefore he denounced them and withdrew a movement that had galvanised a nation. photo-op

The protestors too felt betrayed. Not only were they being hunted down, but their leader had, in effect, given them up, holding them accountable for not just the death of the policemen but also the withdrawal of the movement.

But the sense of betrayal was greatest amongst the masses that had burnt their bridges and committed themselves to the Non-Cooperation movement. Men, women and even little children had been carried away by the wave of nationalism only to be left stranded. That day in Chauri Chaura cleaved a deep divide between the methods and mission of a betrayed Mahatma and that of those who felt betrayed by the Mahatma. Amongst the latter were two little children in Punjab whose meteoric lives streaked across our national consciousness, in a blaze of glory that many say rivals the aura of even a Gandhi. One of them, a lad called Bhagat Singh lived a well documented life, but the other, a certain Sukhdev Thapar, has been reduced to a foot note.

Bhagat and Sukhdev met each other while in college in Lahore and became the best of friends. And from the day they met they matched each other step for step, all the way to the gallows and that is a well documented story. But what after that? What happens after a freedom fighter has made the supreme sacrifice? Well, there were many who actually didn’t have to die. They managed just fine with a series of protest marches, lectures and mild-mannered discussions around a few tables. The situation required consistent and delicate handling, but in return, the British bureaucracy and our democracy allowed them, and many of their descendents, the right to define our past, present and future. But what of those who did go all the way? In order to find out, I went in search of Bharat Bhushan Thapar, paternal nephew of the great Sukhdev. It wasn’t a pretty picture...

Sukhdev’s family had always supported his cause. His father Ram Lal Thapar ran a successful business and “ …on occasions, Sukhdevji would come and take the day’s earnings because the party (Hindustan Socialist Republican Association) needed funds. His father and brothers of course were all happy to support him as much as possible,” recounted Bharat Bhushan.

But soon their world was to come crashing down on the Thapars. Sukhdev was hanged and his father was arrested and deported. “Neighbours, not wanting to be seen around the family of a revolutionary, avoided us like the plague. After numerous raids, the family business collapsed. We were on the verge of destitution. We’ve seen terrible times, and no one did a thing to help...” said Bharat. Freedom had demanded far more than death from Sukhdev Thapar.

The Thapars saw terrible times, and it didn’t matter if the nation was being run by those who Sukhdev fought against, or those who he fought alongside. The apathy of free India was as painful as the persecution of the British India. It is said that Bharat’s father, Sukhdev’s younger brother, Prakash Chand Thapar had to pull carts and sell grass to make ends meet. “We’ve only now begun to eat three square meals a day… I’m in my 50s now but for as far back as I can remember, life has been about survival. I wish I had the opportunity to sit with my grandparents and listen to the legend of my brave uncle, but I never had the time… its been hard…really hard”, lamented Bharat. Naughara, Sukhdev’s ancestral house in Ludhiana, where nine Thapar families lived together was handed over by Bharat to the local administration, in the hope that it would be made into a memorial or a library. “I didn’t want a penny…”, said a disgusted Bharat. “All I wanted was to hand over the property but they made me run from pillar to post and kept me waiting outside their office for hours…can you believe that? Recently, they renamed the Ludhiana bus stand in my uncle’s honour and that is all my uncle has been reduced to – a photo-op for politicians. I wasn’t even called. They picked up a random ‘Thapar’ to attend the event while I stood there unrecognised.”

Sukhdev’s battles aren’t over yet. One of his compatriots, Hansraj Vohra, had become an approver and he was the one responsible for the conviction and death of Sukhdev, Bhagat Singh and Rajguru. Vohra later became a journalist, but to add insult to injury, the cowardly Vohra tried to justify his actions by saying that he did it because Sukhdev, his guru, had turned approver first and also because… you’re not going to believe this… he ridiculously enough, wanted to complete his final year of college (??). And so he bought his freedom with their blood, which he now had tainted. Noted journalist Kuldip Nayyar who investigated the allegations once said in an interview that had Sukhdev compromised, “he wouldn’t have been hanged. It was Vohra, an insider who spilled the beans.”

Vohra claimed he was shown a signed testimony by Sukhdev which is why he believed Sukhdev had betrayed them, but as a friend and fellow revolutionary, Vohra was bound to have known better. Sukhdev, when a small boy in school, had refused to salute visiting British military officers in spite of a severe caning. And only such a boy could have embraced the hangman’s noose with a song on his lips.

Just before being hanged, Sukhdev had written a letter to Gandhi, declaring that he believed his country would be served better by his death. He also requested Gandhi not to ask the revolutionaries on behalf of the British to ‘give up violence’. This would only serve their intention of maligning revolutionaries in the eyes of the masses. But Gandhi did not stop appealing to the revolutionaries, and while all of India begged Bapu to plead for the lives of the trio and not sign the Gandhi-Irwin pact, Gandhi went ahead and signed, thus sealing their fate. Many historians believe, Gandhi could have saved them. He chose not to… he would have had his reasons.

As for Sukhdev, on the 23rd of March 1931, at 1933hrs, his tall figure cast a long shadow as he joined his best friends on their way to the gallows. And the walls of Lahore Central Jail echoed his voice as he sang … Shaheedon ki chitaon par judenge har baras mele/ Watan par mitne waalon ka yehi baaki nishan hoga; Kabhi yeh bhi din ayega jab apna raaj dekhenge/ Jab apni hi zameen hogi aur apna aasmaan hoga.

Martyrdom is not a martyr’s alone for there are those that love him, miss him and suffer for him in his wake. And whether it is a Sukhdev Thapar or a Sandeep Unnikrishnan, a nation that cannot honour its heroes, surely doesn’t deserve any…


Monday, February 2, 2009

The ark is sinking...

It had been a fair while. I wasn’t sure if she’d remember. But was she gorgeous… a flame haired beauty with the most soulful eyes in the world… though a child I was, I knew what I had felt then was something not far from the neighbourhood of love. Her name – Pinky, was the only dampener. Nothing against the name … just didn’t suit her. But I didn’t care… I remembered the first time we’d met… I remembered her touch… that gentle caress as she held my hand. No words, but we did have a moment there…

I burst through the gates and ran towards the doorway where I had last seen her… it had been a bit like that scene from “Dilwale…” She’d walked away into that dark corridor, and just before crossing into her cell, she had turned back… and looked… for a moment that had seemed like it would last an eternity, and it had… As I ran towards that same dark corridor, my heart beat to strange rhythms… there was joy, anticipation… and fear… it surprised me. It wasn’t an emotion I had expected… perhaps I was worried - would she still remember me? Would she still be there? Of course she would, I told myself… where could she go…?

Breathless and exhausted, and with my heart pounding away, I threw myself on the walls of the precinct and peered over the edge... she wasn’t there… I went around the back, towards the corridor… not there either. I walked up to the guard. He seemed bored… “Pinky?”, he pondered, and then, as he dragged the very last wisp of smoke from his bidi, he added “Woh toh gayi, sir… she’s gone.” Where to? I was shocked… was she… “Dead!” he said. “Ab to kaafi time hogaya…” I looked around at the empty cell in disbelief… my legs felt wobbly and I felt my eyes well over… the warm wet tears a strange comfort in the cold dry November winds… How could she die? She was only 15, young, even for an Orangutan… I trudged back through the zoo, back the way I’d come. I was sad and miserable. And the place seemed depressing… In that moment, I’d grown up and had begun to see the zoo for what it was…

I must have been 14 or so, but until that day, in a zoo, I’d been like Alice in Wonderland, enchanted by the proximity of beasts and birds, hitherto, unaware of the terrible crimes this institution had been committing on its inmates. And inmates they were, incarcerated for life and destined to die, well before their years, of illness and disease if lucky, or boredom if not. Pinky, I was told died of both…

The Delhi Zoo is a relic from the 1950s, and like various other zoos in the country, the animals in it, are living like condemned prisoners. Pinky, a near-human creature, intelligent and sensitive, would spend her afternoons on a small enclosed island with hardly a feature to stimulate her brawn or her brain. The rest of the time she was locked inside a tiny cell that had lime washed walls and grimy iron bars on all sides, a far cry from the sea of green that would have met her eye in her natural habitat… high up on the canopy in her forest home. She had become a neurotic, self-mutilating wreck even before she could outgrow her childhood.

She was at least lucky in that she had at least some time every day under the open sky. Most inmates in our zoos, both bird and beast, live out their lives in small concrete cages, so small that they can’t even turn around; monkeys and macaws and even African cranes stuffed in tiny wire mesh cages, screaming away like banshees till they scream out their last… What I had thought to be a fantasyland as a child, full of sights and sounds of nature, was actually a cemetery, where the ghosts of once-wonderful creatures remain trapped in their wire-mesh graves and the tortured screams of haunted souls echo within these tomb-like walls, until they are liberated by death.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think a zoo is a wonderful idea. And in a world were habitat destruction is called ‘developmental activity’, it is a veritable Noah’s Ark for the world’s wildlife. They began as centres of public entertainment, but around the world, even the third world, they have evolved into centres of education, trustees of endangered species and breeding centres for the world’s rarest creatures. Some, like the California Condor in fact owe their escape from extinction to zoos. But zoos like the ones in India, barring perhaps some like Nandankanan in Orissa, are like burial grounds where enclosures and cages, apparently borrowed from Nazi concentration camps and Chinese torture chambers still remain, unchanged for more than half a century.

Most species in our zoos (save few, like some species of deer, wild boar or parakeets, which can breed anywhere) refuse to breed. If an animal is comfortable enough in its environment to start breeding, a zoo can claim to have done its job. And here, the Delhi Zoo is a case in point where ostriches, black panthers, orangutans, chimpanzees, black rhinos, pumas, and a whole herd of Wild Asses just couldn’t breed. How could they, for if the environment wasn’t depressing enough, there are these hordes of visitors who given the opportunity, would poke out an animal’s eye if they could, to elicit a reaction from the bored beasts. I once asked a high ranking zoo official why we couldn’t have interactive programmes or feeding demonstrations in Indian zoos like we do in zoos around the world? Animal and visitors could interact in the presence of handlers and as it happens elsewhere, here too, visitors would have left with a greater understanding of, and a greater bond with the animal. “You have a point”, said the well meaning official, “ but we wouldn’t want to inconvenience the animal. That wouldn’t be right”, he intoned. Yeah well, seemed like he hadn’t been to a zoo in a while.

I don’t blame him though. The zoos of India are rotting from the ground up. The animal-keepers are the most important people in a zoo, and yet they’re lucky if they get treated as well as janitors. While in the best zoos, it is the keepers who interact with visitors, conduct researches and studies and can aspire to become directors someday, here they are stuck in low paying dead-end jobs. If they steal the animal’s rations or turn a blind eye when the animals are unwell or injured, I’m not surprised.

It’s our city folks. That our zoos are wretched is not my opinion alone but the Supreme Court’s too. It had declared that our present zoos are so poorly maintained that no new ones can be made unless the present ones get their house in order.

These zoos are ours, yours and mine, and it is our right to demand action from those who have been trusted with their upkeep. Signature campaigns, protest marches, student demonstrations, they could all help. Our city, our children and those ‘beautiful people’ in our zoos deserve better… much much better…


Sunday, February 1, 2009

Weapons of Choice

In chains and marked by black leather, the man writhed in agony as the corded whip lashed out like an angry tongue. Lying on his stomach on blocks of ice, the man’s face was etched with pain as his captors rained blows on his bare back… my wife changed the channel... just in time for us to catch another man standing in the face of an icy winter… the winter of hardships they call it, taking oath as he said “…our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please.”

My thoughts went back to the man on the block of ice… Before being captured, he had exhorted his fellow “terrorists” (that’s what his captors called him and his associates) to pick up arms “for there was no other path left… to justice, to dignity and to freedom. This isn’t mindless violence… this is self defence, self expression and the only way to self determination. To arms brothers…” This man was not a Kashmiri jihadi or a naxal from Bastar, but, an intense young man who had seen innumerable atrocities being perpetrated on his people… a man who felt betrayed by the socio-political system of his time and the empty promises of his weak-kneed leaders… this man was Bhagat Singh – a man revered in post-independence India as an icon of the freedom struggle and the indomitable spirit of a shackled India; and yet a man whose ideology stands at loggerheads with the Gandhian philosophy that flutters alongside the tricolour as a symbol of our nation.

Around Republic Day and the 15th of August, TV channels usually run reruns of films about the freedom struggle and our war lore, competing with the parade of pride in a bid to inject a sense of nationhood. And, every time I happen to watch any of the better made movies about the freedom struggle, like Raj Kumar Santoshi’s “The Legend of Bhagat Singh” or Hemen Gupta’s “Anand Math”, I’m forced to wonder, what path would I’ve followed had I been born in that time? Would I, like my grandfather, have strived to be a good human being, perhaps even a successful one, albeit within the system, applauding in private the actions of our revolutionaries but being a ‘British law’ abiding citizen in public? Or would I have had the courage to follow my convictions to the very bitter painful end? Would the pain overcome my resolve? Would I have betrayed my comrades, my courage seeping out through the wounds in my broken body? And speaking of courage, were those Indians who fought the Great Wars alongside the British with valour and vigour any less brave than our freedom fighters? And yet, one man’s hero is another man’s traitor and another man’s terrorist, the other man’s hero… These questions will need answering later, but now, there’s another question that needs answering…

Bhagat Singh’s call to arms has echoed in the valleys of Kashmir, the forests of Nagaland and Chhattisgarh, the alleys in Gaza, the deserts of Iraq and, not too long ago, it had echoed in the ghettoes of Soweto as much as in the ghettoes that dot the United States of America… Today, as I watch a black man with a Muslim middle name being handed the reins to the greatest economic and military force in the world in what is celebrated as ‘a peaceful transfer of power’, these ghettoes echo to a different call… a call that says ‘Yes, we can!’

So, is that the answer to oppression and injustice? It might have taken black Americans more than 400 years, but, finally, the ballot seems to have given them more answers than the bullet. There was a time when black America had considered, even pursued a separatist’s path; there have been bitter and bloody revolts and riots and crimes fuelled by racial hatred and yet, not much had changed… the civil war changed the law, but it took far more for ‘a dream’ to become today’s reality. While America and India celebrate their constitutions this week, this question ought to be there in the mind of every man who uses a gun to fight for his cause – is this path the only path, and more significantly, is this path of violence truly the best path? Let’s go back to that man on those blocks of ice. Bhagat Singh’s greatest impact as a revolutionary leader was not in the shooting of a police officer or the hurling of a non-lethal bomb but his passionate courtroom speeches and his hunger-strike in jail which brought an administration to its knees and inspired the youth of an entire nation – a fast that arguably achieved and inspired far more than any of Gandhi’s.

More recently, the huge, relatively non-violent separatist mass movement in Kashmir during the land transfer row was another case in point. It galvanised tremendous support, not just in the Valley, but even in the rest of the country, especially amongst secular intellectuals and thought leaders… something that an insurgent’s bullet hasn’t been able to achieve even after decades of violence. How would the establishment in this country have reacted if Kashmiri separatists, instead of investing in insurgency, had gone the other way and gone on a state-wide hunger strike (as Bhagat’s example illustrates, there are hunger strikes and then there are hunger strikes that work)? With the world watching and without the usual anti-terrorist rhetoric, the government would’ve been hard pressed to lend more than just an ear to their voice…

But, does non violence and faith in the ballot always work? Would it have worked for the Kashmiri pundits when they were being hounded out of their homes in the Valley; or for Bosnian Muslims in the Balkans; or for the Tutsis in Rwanda or the people of Darfur? Is non-violence really a credible weapon in the face of ethnic cleansing and genocide? Unlikely! Against an opponent that seeks to dominate, we can debate and dissent, but against those who seek to destroy, one can only strike out in despair, in self defence… for survival first, and self expression and self determination last…

I return to you again, fellow insurgents, and ask of you this question – those whom you call your enemies, infidels or invaders, they may well be, but do they seek to dominate or do they seek to destroy? If the latter, none should stop your hand and strike you must; but if it’s fear of domination that forces your hand, beware, you can’t kill us all… Inspire faith in your cause, not fear of it and perhaps you’ll find both support and success. Can you win a war without firing a bullet against such an ‘enemy’? If you have the integrity of a Bhagat Singh, the fortitude of a Martin Luther King Jr, and the persuasive powers of a Barack Obama, I believe ‘Yes, you can!’