Thursday, September 24, 2009

A ‘race’ against time

It was a lazy Saturday at the Neemrana Fort-Palace. The slanting rays of the evening sun had set the ochre walls of the terrace restaurant ablaze. Table attendants in pink livery were strutting around with laden trays, their proud bearing tempered with the humility that is the hallmark of Indian hospitality. And across the table around which I was lounging with my friends sat two adorable little girls, their braided hair adorned with beads, one of them fiddling with a straw and the other was watching a movie on a small DVD player. Facing away from the table, but sitting right next to them sat a woman. Her curly locks were tied into a tight pony-tail and with her delicately chiseled features, that complexion borrowed from well-brewed coffee and with those almond-shaped eyes imperiously scanning the menu card, she looked rather arresting. I was intrigued.

Ever since I started travelling in earnest, I have always been intrigued by accents, features and other distinguishing characteristics that define races and cultures because it is this veneer of language and features that holds the key towards understanding the civilisations and the evolutionary history that has shaped today’s world. But those are details for another day. As for today, as I looked at the three of them, presumably a mother and her two children, I couldn’t help but try and guess what their nationality might be… their African heritage was unmistakable but their slight build and strikingly delicate features distinguished them from the rugged robustness of the West and the copper tinged high cheekbones of the South. Unmistakably Ethiopian, or perhaps Eritrean, I thought. Seemed logical but now I felt I just had to be sure. So egged on by that moment of Sherlockian deduction, I walked up to the trio and choosing a moment which I felt wasn’t too intrusive, popped the question… “Hi! I hope I’m not disturbing you but I couldn’t help wondering if you were from anywhere near the Horn of Africa… Ethiopia perhaps?” The woman looked away from her menu card and turned towards me but before she could choose to respond, a rich grainy voice whispered softly into my right ear, “… Does it really matter?” The owner of the voice was a man with a graying goatee and features similar to that of the three women. Ah, the man of the house… I turned and apologised… “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to offend anybody… was just curious…” At that point, the lady turned to speak… “Yes, we are from Ethiopia, but why does everybody want to know? Wherever we go, we are asked the same question ‘Where are you from? Which country?’ Really, why is that so important?” Gosh, I seemed to have stirred a hornet’s nest. “I’m sorry if I have offended you. It wasn’t my intention to disturb you… my question seems to have upset you but I was just being curious. Please excuse me…”

I turned to leave but the man pulled a chair and asked me to sit down. “No, no we are not upset. Just that this question chases us around at every step and after a point it does get to us… We’ve travelled all over Europe and Africa and nowhere else were we asked this question this often and yet random strangers who we might never meet again seem to want to know about our ethnicity…” “And you think it might have something to do with your colour… ?” I asked. Both of them nodded in a manner that said ‘we didn’t want to put it that way but since you’ve asked, yes, that’s what it is…’ For a brief moment I was mortified as I wondered if they felt the same way when I had walked up to them to ask the question but then I’ve asked the same of people of all shades and always received enthusiastic responses. Perhaps we were just a curious race and I told them so. “You know, when I go into remote villages in India I’m asked the same question at tea stalls and gas stations. We don’t mean any harm… it is just a cultural reaction to an exotic new presence.”

“That maybe so” the lady retorted “but we’ve been in India for four years, and Hindi thoda thoda nahin, bahut aata hai and when I walk down a street in Delhi, I know what people keep saying because they think I won’t understand but we do… and it hurts us because we had known a different India back home… the land of Gandhi, the land which itself struggled against colour discrimination by its colonial masters and fought against inequality with dignity and courage… and yet in this very same country the first sign that greeted us at the airport was one that said ‘Dark is beautiful’. Agreed, there is nothing wrong with that statement, but when a nation has to make such a public assertion on the issue it proves that the nation is guiltily aware of its own deep-set racial prejudices and colour complexes, for what does colour have to do with beauty anyway? But India is a great nation and in spite of certain issues we have had a great time here. We love the culture and its people and are aware of this nation’s potential and strength. If there are certain aspects of your culture that we can’t relate to, it is up to us to change because soon India is going to become so powerful that the world will have to change with India, not India with the world.”

I was shocked by the bitterness with which she spoke. She must have had some bad experiences. I tried to explain to her that there were many Indias within one India and that colour really doesn’t matter to a large section of the population but she came back at me with “Oh, you should read your matrimonial classifieds… you’ll know… and we went into a village in North India. Even today, there is a school there which has classrooms and wells by caste… even today…”

The exchange carried on in the same vein for a while but I realised that these guys were really hurting. I went back to my friends and told them about the conversation I just had. I was expecting them to get defensive and critical of the Ethiopians and their attitude but instead one of them, a professor with a university spoke of her experience with a group of exchange students from Nepal and Italy who were in Delhi recently. Everyday, the Italian girls had complained about the behaviour they had to contend with on the streets, but what was worse were the racial taunts that the Nepalese had to endure. And yet they had hoped that at least urban Delhi with all its promise would be more accommodating.

There is nothing new about this. In the wake of the attacks on Indians in Australia, various publications had carried accounts of home-grown racism. But what my recent interactions seemed to suggest was that while India has always had a lot to be proud of, today, India sits on the cusp of greatness. Her global aura in the past has been that of a spiritual leader. Her voice has been the voice of Gandhi and Vivekananda and the values that they stood for – peace, non-violence, righteousness and tolerance. But today India is finally growing into the giant she always was, but as she grows, so would her responsibilities. To the developing world she is a beacon of what is possible, spiritually and materially, and to the developed, an assurance that her greatness, because of her heritage, would not be tainted with hubris or indifference. And when we as Indians do not live up to the values that have defined us to the world for generations, we will end up disappointing all those who come to our shores. The world awaits our coronation and the onus is on us, whether we like it or not, whether rich or not, young or not, each one of us is an ambassador for our country and we are carrying the burden of global leadership on behalf of this great nation and I sincerely hope for the sake of generations to come that the world will remember us as much for our celebrated human and spiritual values as it will for our material and military might. And to that end we will need to do all we can to shed our prejudices and embrace the world, both within and without, with all its exotic differences. After all, what good is a leader who cannot accept or embrace all, no matter how diverse and dissimilar, who come seeking guidance, a helping hand or merely a warm friendly touch…? So here’s to great power, and a greater sense of responsibility. Amen!


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Thursday, September 17, 2009

IDOL IDEALS

Perhaps it is too late. By the time you read this page, all those who sin on our behalf would have already sinned in the name of God. But as they say, better late than never…

It is that time of the year again when the Kash flowers sway in the autumn light and the Probashi (non-resident) Bengali spirit gets a second wind. It is that time of the year when the Mother Goddess returns to Pandals and homes across the country for a four-day-long celebration of divinity and cultural character – it is the time for Durga Puja. Every year, there is a child in me who waits for these days of the Puja like a farmer waiting for the rain, and yet for the last two years though, I must confess that my celebrations have always been tempered with a tinge of guilt.

Two years ago, I came across an article in an environmental magazine about the terrible damage that the Durga idols cause to our river systems when they are immersed into the rivers after Dussehra. Both these years, I thought I should do something about the issue and yet every year I would go no further than discussing the issue with a couple of DPCs (Durga Puja Committees) and sharing my concerns while the venerable old men heading these committees would nod sagely and say “Shoththi kotha khoka… what you say is true child, but what to do…? Such are the times we live in,” and with that, we both would wash our hands off the matter and carry on with our respective Puja preparations.

But this year I wanted to do more…

Durga idols are legitimate works of art. Tufts of straw, a pile of bamboo and dollops of clay (thankfully still a far more popular medium than plaster of paris which though easier to work with, pollutes the river systems unlike clay) blend under the artisan’s masterful touch and lo and behold, there stands in front of you an image that reflects both beauty and beatitude. Now somewhere in the middle of this artistic process, the artisan, who in all probability descends from a family of idol-makers, dips his paintbrush into a jar of chemical laden paint to add colour to his creation and it is this paint that happens to be the villain of the piece. These paints carry toxic chemicals like lead, mercury and cadmium and tonnes and tonnes of these pollutants enter our river systems during every Durga Puja and Ganesh Utsav. But so what, you say? Well, whatever we put in our rivers, lakes and oceans flows right back to us through our taps. And if not the taps, you’ll find traces of these very toxins in the fish you might buy from the market in your neighbourhood, because in all probability, the fish must have been half-dead with all the poisons we poured into its habitat before the fisherman caught it and sold it back to you. And what do these noxious elements do to our bodies, you ask? If you must know, they usually come up with various ingenious ways in which they could cause organ damage and failure in our bodies. Convincing logic, I would’ve thought but I knew not much would come of my attempts to talk to some of the DPC members I was familiar with. Neither was there any point in speaking to the civic authorities. Traditionally, they have been far too timid to confront communities on anything which might sniff of anything remotely religious and expecting them to implement whatever rules there might be was asking for too much off even one as na├»ve as yours truly.

So the only red hands left to hold were those of the artisans themselves, so off I went to ask them what they felt about the issue. When I entered the thatch and tarpaulin structure that was both studio and home for these industrious folk it was late evening. I could see a handful of artists working on more than thirty idols of various dimensions by the light of a single naked bulb. Seeing these simple folk work so hard and with such apparent devotion, I felt a tad guilty about accusing them of all the horrible things their actions were undoubtedly setting in motion. But when I did talk to them, instead of getting defensive, the boss-man on the floor, a lean and grey old man with a single betel-stained tooth in his mouth ‘smiled’ and assured me that they only used natural and vegetable dyes to paint these idols and were totally aware of the environmental hazards associated with lead laden paints. What could I say…? I felt relieved… and happy. At least in one locality, there was a conscientious environmental movement afoot, and at the very least, this was a start. I walked around the ‘workshop’, admired the idols in various stages of completion and was about to leave when tucked away under a stack of straw I spied three cans of a popular brand of chemical paint. I realized that the only simpleton under this roof was me and when I asked single-tooth gran’pa about the paint cans, he just put on his ‘I’m just a poor ignorant fool’ mask and said “oh… but I was told this is natural paint… isn’t it? Who to trust in the city, babu…” Well, the wily old man was not going to be the ally I was looking for either. Looks like I started my crusade a little too late this year, so yet again the Yamuna will cough and choke and leak lead right back into our homes, but I have an action plan ready for next year. Here’s how this works… I happened to meet two of my friends, one in south Delhi and the other in east Delhi, both influential members of their local DPCs, and they have promised to take up the cause in their respective committees next year. Additionally, they have promised to allow me into their review meetings and all meetings for next year, where I could try and convince the committee to insist on an eco-friendly idol like some of the Ganesh Utsav committees in Mumbai this year. Dear reader, you too ought to try and do your bit to sensitise and convince your local DPC because the river we eventually pollute with our callousness is actually the one that runs in our veins.

And while we are at it, maybe we should also insist and ensure that the dhakis, traditional professional drummers who play at Durga Puja pandals, only decorate their drums with artificial feathers. Until I read an article in the Hindustan Times, I had always assumed that these tall and beautiful plumes gracing the drums were artificial. But the article revealed that thousands of egrets and storks are trapped and killed to provide plumes for the drums (about four birds are killed for each drum). Such brutality for the sake of vanity will surely not find divine sanction and if our celebrations cause such misery and pain, surely such joys would be short-lived. And if some of you are wondering, then what of animal sacrifices at festivals, I would only repeat that if there is a God, then our act of destroying what He created can cause him no joy. But that is a debate for another occasion… for now, let us just ensure that our celebrations remain events that spread happiness and good cheer and not pollutants and fear…


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Thursday, September 10, 2009

THE MADNESS OF A MILLIONAIRE

The sweet scent of a heady concoction of perfumes wafted out as the doors to a store on London’s Oxford Street swung open. A gaggle of shoppers bustle out with slick plastic shopping bags bursting at their well moulded seams with the day’s excesses. Through the glass windows that sprang up from the pavement, I could see shoppers drifting and darting from counter to counter, like dazed children at a fairground, ushered around by a set of rather chic attendants with smiles that dazzled as much as the bright and shiny wares in the windows.

Seduced by the aroma and the ambience, I followed the sweet scent to the doorway and was about to enter when the corner of my eye happened to catch something dirty and grey. I stopped and turned to see a tall thin white man in a shabby tweed jacket and loose brown trousers standing with a big cardboard sign in his hands and an upturned hat with a few coins in it on the pavement near his scuff ed brown boots. I couldn’t read the handwritten sign so I went closer… The sign said “I’m homeless, just like Harry from the store… Help Me! It’ll make him Happy!!”

Nearly every shopper who walked past the sign would stop to read it and while some would nod and smile, others would stick out their chin and wonder, but irrespective of their reactions, most of them would drop a penny or more into the hat. Intrigued, I walked up to the man and asked him what the sign meant but he was too busy smiling and nodding at people to notice. I inched closer and in a slightly louder voice, asked him, “Who is Harry?” That seemed to have grabbed his attention. He turned towards me and looked at me as if I had asked him if he paid taxes… then he unclenched his jaw and said, “Harry? … He owns the store!” That just blew my mind. “Owns the store? This store?? Then why is he homeless?”, I asked. But the tramp ignored the question. He just went back to bowing and smiling at passersby and looked right through me as if I wasn’t there. I hung around for a while, hoping to catch him once the crowds thinned but Oxford Street was overflowing from brim to bottom this evening and I gave up and went inside.

After spending an hour and a half in the slipstream of other shoppers at the store, I thought of heading back to the hotel but before leaving, I went back to the corner entrance to check on the tramp but he had left by then. I so wanted to know about Harry’s story but knew the attendants in the store wouldn’t have the time or the inclination to trade stories during business hours and I didn’t know who else to ask, so dejected and disappointed, I trudged back to the hotel.

At the hotel, I asked people if they knew anything about Harry’s store and the man at the travel desk, Ryan, smiled and said,“Please take a seat sir, I’ll tell you his story.” “

Harry is dead,” he said. “He died long ago, in fact in 1947. It was a sad and lonely death too… Harry was not British but actually an American from Wisconsin. Born in the mid 1800s, he lost his father to the Civil War and his mother struggled to bring up the family. Once in his teens, young Harry dropped out of school and started working to supplement the family income. He joined a retail store and steadily rose up the ranks and managed to save enough by the time he was 40-years-old to consider retirement. The fact that he was married to an heiress only made the decision seem even simpler.

Around this time Harry travelled to England with his family, and perhaps disappointed with the ‘stiff and stilted British service’ and the general quality of our retail services, decided to show the Brits how it ought to be done and declared publicly his designs of building a grand department store in the American fashion in what was then an unfashionable corner of London. He was laughed and scoff ed at by the media in London and everybody told him his plans would fail but Harry would have none of it. He invested many hundred thousand pounds of his personal fortune into the idea and moved with bag, baggage and babies across the Atlantic and settled down in London. It is said that he was an obsessive and compulsive workaholic who involved himself with everything with the tiniest of details regarding the running of the store and redefined the shopping experience for London and the world with his innovations and customer centric policies. “The customer is always right” is a phrase you might’ve heard across businesses around the world. Well, it was old Harry who came up with that phrase.

It is said that on a typical vacation, good old Harry would take the afternoon train out of London on a Saturday and reach a continental skiing destination by Sunday. He’ll spend half the day skiing and then pack his bags and leave for London and would be in the store by Monday morning, opening time. By 1918 Harry had become a retail moghul and his store had become the benchmark for stores around the globe. But it was all too good to last. Harry’s wife caught the fl u and died. And something within old Harry too died as he stood by her grave that day. Perhaps in a bid to drown his grief, old Harry plunged headlong into the gloom and glow of the London night clubs. Ill fated and whirlwind affairs with a number of women including the Hungarian– American dancing twins, the Dolly sisters pushed Harry further away from reality. Within a decade Harry had squandered and gambled his fortune away. Removed from the board of his own store, and crippled by debts that ran into millions of pounds, the great retail baron had lost his fortune, his fame, his castles, his Rolls Royces and his pride and joy – his ‘store’ to his excesses. He died a forgotten pauper who lived in a shanty corner of the city and had to take the bus to town. That is the tragic story of a millionaire’s madness. Harry Gordon Selfridge gave the store his name and today Selfridges is amongst the premier department stores in the world and yet… and yet….”

Next morning, I rushed back to the ‘store’. I stood outside the great doorway and the tall glass windows. Everything, even today was just like the way old Harry had conceptualised the store all those decades ago. The annual sale that was on right now, the bargain deals in the basement and the very concept of keeping the perfume counters on the ground-floor, practices that are common place in every departmental store in the world… they were all Harry’s ideas, and yet… and yet… In the corner by the door I saw the tramp with the sign. “Who is that man with the sign?”, I had asked Ryan. “Oh, that man… he’s a crazy kid… calls himself the inheritor of Harry’s legacy… but that’s another story….”

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Thursday, September 3, 2009

MIRACLE MONKS

I’ve had this terrible cold for a while and it has been scaring the wits (rhymes with another word that might have expressed their emotions better, but then this is a family magazine after all) out of most people I meet. And I can understand their concerns. The fact is, when I talk these days I sound like someone who is getting his nose and his bottom pinched just as he is about to swallow a mouthful of water… not a pretty sound or sight. In fact, I am a walking spitting sniffling abomination, and with swine fl u having become the rage it is I’m not surprised that no one wants to shake hands with me. But it really isn’t H1N1. It is just a regular cough that always follows months of sleepless exertions and irregularities, and I make it a point to tell whoever, if ever, might remain within earshot after one of my coughing fits. Usually, it’s nobody, but at a seminar I had recently gone to attend, it turned out to be everybody…

Let me explain this in greater detail. On August 31, I was attending a seminar hosted by Kanishka Sharma, a Shaolin warrior from the Shaolin Temple and a Special Forces instructor who once shared anti-terror tactics on this very page, and Sifu Shi Yan Fang, 34th generation Shaolin Warrior from Hubei Province, China. Now as they wrapped up the seminar and I walked up to the two Shaolin warriors and their entourage of students and assistants, I got the sniffles and then that hacking gurgling cough… Over the last few days, I had gotten used to seeing people run for cover when that happened but these guys just stood there and smiled and I even had a stray “bless you” coming my way. I must confess I was a little disconcerted by their indifference to the army of viruses I might have let loose in their breathing zone and so I gave the next round of coughing all I had… But those Shaolin guys, all of them in ochre robes and with shaved heads, didn’t even fl inch. I instinctively offered the olive branch, “It isn’t swine fl u, don’t worry.” Kanishka smiled and said, “Doesn’t matter if it is, the virus won’t survive if it enters our bodies”. I stared for a while to check if he meant what he had just said… but he seemed to have said it in earnest.

I have always been intrigued by images on Discovery and National Geographic of these monks from the Shaolin Temple breaking rocks with their hands and bending spears with their necks, having meat cleavers brought down on their arms and breaking steel bars over their heads. Then, I happened to see the same feats being performed by a troop of traveling monks in Singapore. They brought out a trident that was mounted on a stand and to establish the sharpness of the pointed central spear, threw a large watermelon on the tip of the trident. The trident cut through the fruit and split it in two. Then one of the monks stood in front of the trident, did some slow breathing exercise and then seemed to meditate for a while. And then astonishingly enough, he lowered his belly onto the central spear of the trident and then on that point, which must have still been sticky and wet with the juices of the split watermelon, balanced his whole body and put his arms by his side. If I have been able to paint the picture correctly, what your mind’s eye should be seeing is a man balancing his whole body on the tip of a trident that is meant to impale and disembowel human bodies. When this man stepped down from the trident stand, one could see a shallow depression on the skin that stretched across his near washboard abdominals but the skin wasn’t broken, not even a scratch. Amazing!

So when I met this living breathing Shaolin Master from Hubei at the seminar, I had to ask Sifu (master) Fang how they could manage such astonishing feats. Sifu Fang, though just 26-years-old, had the air of a wise grey master, “Tie Bu Shan…” he said, through his clipped Sino-Anglo accent. “ Iron Shirt training! In Shaolin Kung fu, before you learn to fight, you must learn to make your body strong… from inside and from outside. Iron shirt or ‘steel Jacket’ as it is oft en called, is a method of training the body to withstand blows from impact weapons (like baseball bats) and edged weapons (like knives and cleavers) by transferring energy to that part of the body that is under attack. Masters of the iron shirt technique can transfer energy to the arm, leg, head or torso at the speed of thought thus cushioning the body from the impact.”

Thus encouraged, I moved to the next question which had been hovering at the edges of our conversation. I asked Master Fang if he had seen ‘The 36th chamber of Shaolin’. Master Fang seemed puzzled… “The 36th??” I realised that for a man who wanders in and out of the various chambers of the Shaolin Temple on a daily basis, it needn’t be obvious that I was talking about the film that had made the Shaolin Temple a household name around the world. So I clarified…. “aaaah, the film, yes, yes…” So I reminded him of a scene from the film that had one of the abbots, a grand old man, with whiskers as white as snow, sitting in meditation when the main protagonist, Gordon Liu’s character San Te, disturbs him at his prayers. The abbot first asks him to leave but when Liu persists, the abbot who was sitting many metres away from Liu merely gestures with his hand and an invisible force seems to flow out of his palm like a gale force that picks up Liu and hurls him back. Master Fang and master Kanishka looked at each other and smiled… then Master Kanishka unveiled a demonstration for my benefit. He arranged three volunteers in a row standing behind each other with the second holding the first one around the shoulder and the third holding the second and so forth with the fourth. Then Master Kanishka stood mere inches away from the first volunteer and in a move similar to the one in the film, gently touched the first man on his shoulder… he stayed where he was but volunteers two three and four rolled over like dominoes. It was incredible, and the way they went flying into each other, perhaps impossible to stage. “This is the power of chi (the universal energy), which when harnessed can do magical things. I am an intermediate warrior as is Sifu Fang, which is why I need this gentle touch but if you go to the Shaolin Temple in Hanan, you will see not one or two but many such masters who can send you flying without making physical contact”.

It seemed incredible. And the candour with which he said it and the sincerity with which Sifu Fang nodded, I was inclined to believe what they said and made a mental note of adding it to my personal ‘things to see before I die’ list. I was thirsting for more miracle stories when Master Fang said, “These stories are nice but the real magic of Kung fu is in its ability to heal as well as hurt.” Sifu Kanishka added “before meeting you, I was at a Qigong healing session for a lady who has breast cancer. Shaolin internal energy work is very powerful and has worked miracles in its own way. One of my Masters, Sifu Yanzi has a brother who contracted Hepatitis C. The doctors had given up on him but Sifu taught him Xi Sui Jing (Marrow Brain washing – a form of internal energy training exercise) and he was fully cured within two years. Another master at the Shaolin Temple, Master Shin Shou was diagnosed with Glioma, an extremely virulent form of cancer and most people don’t make it past a year after being diagnosed. It’s been four years since Master Shou was diagnosed and he has been doing a lot of Qigong and living a normal life and the tumors have been receding. These are the miracles that truly matter, far more than the ability to defeat people or use some invisible power. And it is not just Shaolin Kung fu that has the ability to heal. Even other martial arts that work with energy, like Taiji and various forms of Yoga have the power to cure mankind of diseases that many doctors might call incurable.”

Indeed, I couldn’t agree more. While reading this issue’s drop anchor, I realised that the dreaded C is bound to hound us in some form or the other, either in our own bodies or in somebody we love and care about. On such occasions, it is good to know that beyond vaccines and modern medicine, there are also ancient and proven methods that have oft en been as effective, both as deterrents and as a cure, against such fearsome diseases and that such lifestyle choices are available to all of us if we only make the effort.


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