Thursday, February 25, 2010


In the dark cave, her flashing eyes caught mine, and smiled. I smiled back… I saw her mouth move but in the spiraling mist, the thunderous roar of that crashing tongue of cascading water killed the words before they could reach me… The narrow cavern at Trummelbach falls, near Interlaken, Switzerland was packed with tourists, one serpentine queue rolling down in a hurry, with her, as she struggled to keep pace, even as I wriggled up absent-mindedly with the other queue, marvelling at the gorgeous gorges and little canyons that wound their way around us. I couldn’t hear what she was saying but even as we crossed, before I could stop and talk, the surging crowds had carried us away in opposite directions…

That evening, by a little bench in Interlaken… Behind me ran a quiet street where an elderly couple walked arm in arm, with a big black dog. They were both looking up at the evening sky… a canvas of bright blue, streaked with fl ashes of vermilion and gold to the west, and the tall slim spire of a moss capped mountain to the east. As your gaze runs along the contours of the mountain, at its foot, next to the street behind me, were the prettiest urban homes you could ever hope to see; sloping red roofed villas with tall French windows, hiding behind beautifully manicured gardens and surrounded with picket fences, hedgerows and flower bowers… The bench was looking over a grassy bank that sloped gently into the waters of the lake, where a pair of swans glided across the water, their reflections, slender grace painted in radiant white, painted exquisite patterns in the shimmering waters of the lake. As I sat on the bench, my wife put her head on my shoulder and we both looked at golden blue waters and I whispered an unspoken prayer into the gentle breeze that played with her hair… ‘that one day, many many years from now, may we too walk along such a street, immersed in the beauty of life and love by such a lake, with such a dog (now don’t you grudge me that dog, honey), just like the old couple that had now reached a handsome old arched bridge that stretched across the lake… It was, to me, one of the most beautiful and romantic corners anywhere along the whole length of the Milky Way.

Interlaken is not a town steeped in history. You won’t find monuments dedicated to heroes and their victories, nor modern architectural marvels that celebrate new-found prosperity. Interlaken isn’t gorgeous or grand and yet nestled between those green hills, it is subtle and serene in its beauty, more Norah Jones than Zeta Jones. And that’s how Interlaken is... If someone asks you what’s there to see in Interlaken, you wouldn’t know what to say, or what not to say… A Utopian wonder, for it’s a town born, not of Nature ravished by man, but of Nature courted and romanced… where the old and the new don’t jostle and bicker but blend to transcend.

Across the lake, I could see gardens and other villas. In one such garden, there were Falabellas, beautiful little horses no bigger than a large dog, prancing around, their long fl owing blonde manes and tails floating like golden rivers in the wind. It was like walking into a fairy tale. At that moment it was impossible to imagine that anybody who lived in this town could ever be sad, unwell or ever die.

And yet if you so choose, Interlaken’s kerb-side cafes packed with travellers from all over would rescue you from the reverie and it is only a few hours away from the cosmopolitan bustle of Geneva.

“Hi…!” We turned towards the voice. It was Sarah, the girl from the cave! My wife and I had been taking photographs along the bridge yesterday evening and struggling to take a picture of the two of us together when Sarah, who had been strolling along the bridge offered to take the picture. Eventually, we got talking and found out that she was a tourist like us, but unlike most tourists, she was out to discover herself… she and a friend of hers had set off from New York and landed in Jerusalem. From there, they went to Turkey and then back-packed their way through Europe… I remember making some terrible joke about ‘finding her Abraham’ which she ignored with a polite smile. Then I asked “Interlaken must surely be the prettiest little town you could ever hope to see, isn’t it?”. Sarah took in the view, and then she said “I’m going to Trummelbach tomorrow (so were we)… will tell you after I’ve seen it and the rest of this town…” But that was yesterday.

“Hello Sarah! What were you trying to tell us this morning?” I asked. “Oh, just that this town’s really beautiful, but you’ve got to believe me when I say, there’s a town prettier still…”

Prettier than this? Impossible, I thought… but that’s a story for another time, from another time…


Thursday, February 18, 2010


The cashewnut shake was too thick, in a it’s-good-for-you-so-swig-it kinda way. Around me, the evening was alive with bright lights, a happy babel of voices and old rock n’ roll… I was sitting alone at my table, but the others had a cluster of animated people of all hues, brown, black, white, yellow and everything in between, sitting around them, speaking in languages they were making up as they went along –a smattering of English, eloquent hands, with eyes that danced and hearts that spoke…

That was the German Bakery not too long ago…

I had wrapped up my meetings in Pune by evening so a colleague suggested that the Osho Ashram might be a good idea. But I couldn’t make it in time for ‘visiting hours’… I was flying out early next day. So, I asked someone what I could do to experience a slice of Osholand in the time I had, so the man said, “Try the German Bakery down the road…” And I did…

At the café, all around me was this intense friendliness… People walked in alone or in pairs and merged into these bubbling whirlpools of camaraderie and conversation. It was like a party, where no one knew anybody and yet could relate to everybody. I felt like an outsider and yet I felt welcomed. I was toying with the idea of walking up to a group and introducing myself when a couple walked in and sat at my table. The man, a Caucasian in his 50s with a scruff y salt and pepper beard and with him was a handsome woman of generous proportions, with flashing eyes and an olive complexion. I smiled. They smiled back… Then they continued to talk like an indulgent couple… I couldn’t place the language though. The intonations seemed Arabic, and yet not quite… My curiosity burst through like dammed water through breached gates… I introduced myself with an apology… They were speaking Hebrew. The man, Aaron, had moved to Israel from France when still a child while the woman, Nurit, had lived in Israel all her life. They’d met at the ashram… I hoped they weren’t upset by the intrusion, but if they were, they did a good job of masking it. We spoke of life in Israel for a while but then Nurit said, “There’s too much pressure back home… To be a Jew, to be Israeli, I understand that’s important… We’re a small country… But here, it’s so liberating… To just be Nurit. And it doesn’t matter whether I’m a Jew or Muslim… Here, we only relate to individuals, and to ourselves. That’s why most of us are here at the ashram. Love comes easy here…”.

As if on cue, a tall young man with long shaggy locks and a fl owing beard entered and embraced Nurit and Aaron and shook my hand. He seemed to know them well and kept teasing them about their cuisine. The Israelis teased him back about his… He was Iranian, a student studying in Pune… While they playfully mock-squabbled over the usual trifles between Israel and Iran, from nuclear weapons to cinema, the Iranian finally said, “Ok… Say you make better biryani and don’t want mine and I’ll concede defeat…” Nurit and Aaron started laughing… “He makes the best biryani we’ve ever had…”, Aaron confided… “And he plays the guitar beautifully… You should hear him play”, added Nurit… The Iranian laughed an easy laugh, “Yes, you must … We’re all going to my place and I’ll cook and play… Please come”. I didn’t know these people. They didn’t know me. In fact, they barely knew each other and yet they were happy to live, love and laugh together for the brief moment in time that brought them together in that café, happy to look upon each other as individuals, without being burdened by nationality, religion or economics. You may call this escapism, and maybe it is, but then isn’t this escapism the very ideal that we seek and advocate in our interactions with each other?

“What’s in a name?”, The boy said when I inquired… “When you come again, I’ll make you good biryani, play good music and Nurit will tell good stories… You’ll love it, and what else is to love… You’ll always find me here... In this café by the corner, and if you don’t, just ask for the Iranian student… They’ll tell you where to find me” and gave me a hug as I got up to go…

That night, I left two Israelis and an Iranian laughing over biryani in that café by the corner, a veritable shrine, and wondered if there were many others where love, or even laughter, even if briefly, came this easy…

Last Saturday, that shrine was razed and love and laughter died… Along with an Iranian student and 10 others. Was he the same? I don’t know… But here’s the thing about shrines… They never go away… Nor does the laughter or the love… So you could keep going in there with bombs in your bags, until one day, you too will stay back, for some biryani, some love and some laughter…


Thursday, February 11, 2010


So you want to save the tiger? You’ve seen the Save Our Tigers campaign and that cute little tiger cub, all scared and lonely in the big bad world, waiting for a mother who’ll never return. Your heart goes out to that cub… you want to cradle it in your arms, and protect it from all the evil in the world. So what do you do? You go on Facebook and post a comment. Something inane like “We must save tigers… little cub’s cho chweet. Spread the message….” or something shockingly stupid like “I’d do anything for the tiger and this is the best way”.

Other well meaning fools, nearly 100,000 strong and counting, have gone on to Aircel’s campaign website and ‘joined the roar’. Forgive me folks, I know you are well-intentioned people but what good is your name on a tiger’s picture that says ‘you’re roaring for the tiger’ for a tigress roaring in agony in the forest. Her bleeding paw is caught in a steel-jawed trap. Footsteps hurry towards her. They don’t bode well. She tries to shake her paw free but the steel-jaws bite deeper. She struggles some more. In desperation, she gnaws through her trapped front paw… her anguished roars seem to draw blood from the hills that surround her. But alas, it’s too late... The poachers, bedraggled men with a hungry look in their eyes surround her and spear her with crude lances… she turns around to fight, snarling and swiping with her free paw, but in vain. Her strength ebbs… the roaring shudders to a muffled groan and a once magnify cent beast is reduced to a lacerated lifeless body. Her beautiful skin is cut open by the men, its organs and bones removed with an efficiency that tells you that these men have done this earlier… and will do it again.

What’ll stop them? Your Facebook posts? And what good is your post for that starving cub, pining for the tigress’ return until it is too weak to breathe. Far too emaciated now to look ‘chweet’, its dull skin clings to the bones. Those baby eyes no longer look upon the world with wonder for the light’s gone out of them. Soon, it too will be food for worms, yet another statistic that should tell you that mere words don’t matter. They can’t feed nor protect tigers. Somewhere right now, as you read this, a tiger lies dying. The pen might’ve been mightier than the sword, but what good is it against hunger and greed, against poverty and stupidity, against corruption and insecurity?

Let me break the problem down for you…
One post said “We must stop buying tiger products and the killing would stop too”. Now, who do you know who buys tiger products? No one! The market for tiger parts is China, where limp egos hope to find a peg to hang their insecurities on by borrowing a tiger’s virility. So they drink tiger-penis soup and use its bones for its perceived medicinal properties, though there isn’t a shred of scientific c evidence to support it. But sexual insecurity is perhaps the world’s greatest motivator (Hitler, it’s rumoured, had only one testicle) and many Chinese are willing to pay huge sums for a piece of the tiger. This demand triggers the network which, through vile middlemen, reaches the poor tribal whose desperate poverty makes a poacher out of him.

Here’s what to we can do…
1. Reach out to the Chinese. Share our perspective and help them understand that tiger parts won’t ‘give them a lift ’. There’s a growing movement amongst Chinese TCM practitioners who’re offering vegetarian alternatives while wildlife activists are spreading awareness about tiger conservation. Partner them in their mission and spread the message across China, without irresponsible jingoism, and appeal to a neighbour’s better judgement, pledging help and seeking empathy. And Aircel, your charming campaign’s tugging at the wrong hearts, but the right customers. Question is, what’ll you do about it?

2. Lobby and urge the government to recruit forest guards from local communities and fill up vacancies. Positions have remained vacant for nearly two decades. These units are understaffed, under paid, untrained and too old to be any good in the
field. Start a fund to pay and train them or donate to an NGO that does.

3. Lastly, urge companies that benefit from eco-tourism, and receive your business (hotels, travel companies etc.) to employ people from local forest communities and start welfare initiatives within the community. It’s in their best interests to share the spoils for it is an investment, for when the tiger disappears, so would their businesses. Also, through employment etc., the communities will realise that the tiger’s worth more alive than dead, and therefore involve themselves in the conservation process, becoming informants, guardians and willing partners in arms against poaching.

If you want to save the tiger, only this will help and little else would… You can make a difference, but whether you want to make a difference and roar for the tiger or for a mobile service company is up to you.


Thursday, February 4, 2010


On a three-hour flight to Chennai, I finally started reading a book that I’d bought years ago but never managed to sit down in a corner with… Elie Wiesel’s Night. It’s a brutal book… like a cold strong hand that holds your own limp fingers and drags you through a portal into a hellhole called Auschwitz where you smell the acrid smell of burning flesh, a pungent smell that stays with you long after you have put down the book, closed your eyes and wondered if all this really happened?

And then images fl oat by… Barbedwire fences, chimneys spewing smoke, and the bodies - writhing, screaming, broken bodies, of children thrown into the fire… alive. But the hand doesn’t let you stop. You feel it grow thin and bony but it doesn’t let go… it pulls you with greater strength into the concentration camps where you hear the sound of baton beating bone, the poignant struggle of a father struggling to hold on to his son as the prisoners stampede for a crumb; everyday, people die of cold, of hunger, of fear; where stripped of their clothes, their identities and their dignity, naked bodies of plump bankers, muscled blacksmiths and pampered children have all been reduced to a hungry bag of bones and tattooed numbers. Each day, death stalks them in the glazed eyes of a frozen neighbour or the raised arm of a sadistic guard.

The hand scoops up earth and snow and throws it in your face. The snow stings and you feel the grit in your teeth and you know that they oft en only had this to eat, for days…

Now the hand turns on itself, with honesty as brutal as the soldier’s boots that kick the dying to their deaths. The hand plucks out its own heart which once shed tears for the love of God, for a lost mother, and sisters, which even till yesterday, cared for nothing more than to see his father make it through the day, to see him survive the death squads that swooped down on the weak, but today is too afraid to respond while his father cries in pain, as the guards rain blows on his back. The old man calls his son again, and again till his voice ebbs and dies… but his son’s heart has grown cold with fear. He doesn’t respond to his father who dies with his son’s name on his lips. The hand is ashamed of its heart, which at that moment, instead of feeling shame, remorse and the emptiness that comes with the passing of a parent, felt relieved and free of the burden of having to keep both of them alive where even for one to survive the next hour was an excruciating miracle. The hand plucks out that heart and flings it at your feet, where all the remorse and the pain streams out of it in a crimson river of words that line the pages of the book I held in my hand.

Elie Wiesel survived that death, and the others that came before it, including the passing of his own faith in God, man and self. Night, the account of a teenaged Elie’s rite of passage through hell won Wiesel the Nobel Peace Prize. But more than being cathartic, this book has a message. In the early pages, Elie spoke of his days in Transylvania where in the summer of 1944, word of Hitler’s war and his hate reached their town. The sound of cannons and rumours of the terrible death camps drew near but no one believed it. It was 20th century Europe after all. The world wouldn’t just stand and watch, they told each other. Then one day, the German army marched into town. Their nightmare had begun. And yes, the world did just stand and watch…

In his acceptance speech in 1986, Wiesel said “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy… because of race or religion… we must interfere. (And we must not forget) because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices”. But we’ve forgotten, in Cambodia, in Darfur, in the Balkans, why even in Iraq. And there are smaller fires that simmer, which our silence shall fan into uncontained infernos that, heaven forbid, will inspire yet another Night.

I was quiet when Gujarat burned, but you too were silent when the Kashmiri pundits never returned; I am too far away to listen while Manipur screams, while you turn a blind eye to the ‘Sena’s’ parochial dreams.

Is our silence any better than that of thousands of Germans who found the voice to denounce Hitler only after millions lay dead? As Elie’s Night reveals, there is a fiend that lurks in every soul, and with each unpunished act of violent oppression (irrespective of claimed historical provocation), it grows stronger, bolder and more vicious than ever. We encourage them with our silence at our own peril. In our own way, let us all speak… before it is too late yet again…!