Thursday, December 23, 2010


In these pages, I have written to you of lands far and near and of lives forgotten and dear; of food we eat and people we meet; of those we love to love and those we love to be, but amongst it all, every now and then, I’ve written about the time I spent staring into the abyss, into worlds beyond ours. And aft er each trip to these dark corners, this question would linger– “Is there life beyond death? And does this ‘life’ at times wander with questions of its own, looking for answers it hasn’t found, stumbling into realms that intersect our own?”

Let me take you through these journeys, some of which you might have encountered in previous issues, and let’s together brush away the dust that had settled on these experiences…

According to lores and legends that speak of the world of spirits, there are places all around us which, because of the way the earth rises and folds (fault lines, river banks, formation of hills etc.) or due to the history and nature of the energy trapped in certain areas, have become receptacles for supernatural experiences. In other words, those places are haunted. And even those who walk in flesh and blood aren’t immune to the seductions of these corners. Perhaps that is why I oft en find myself wandering about these places, not with a preconceived notion seeking to either refute, or reaffirm, but with an honest curiosity, seeking to know and understand…


Begunkodor is a tiny station on the Purulia-Jharkhand border. Here the earth is dry and red and the black hills cast long shadows on the tiny village of Bamniya that lies to the south of the station. The station lies deserted today, with tuft s of grass peeping through the red brick walls. No passenger walks this platform and no train would stop here today and none have for decades now. The air is still and heavy and for some reason, even the birds seem to avoid the station and the lone dead tree that stands next to it.

It is said that the last station-master was a kind man who helped the village boys with their studies and games. Then one day, the children ran crying to him and told him of their playmate who’d died aft er being bitten by a snake. The station-master was saddened by the news and retired early that night. In the middle of the night he heard a voice that seemed to be calling out to him. It was a child’s voice and he wondered why one of them was calling at this hour. In his sleep he walked up to the door and even as he opened it, he recognized the voice – it was the voice of the boy that had died. The next day the villagers found a delirious station-master lying in a dry well.

The boy’s mother heard rumours that the station master had seen her son and went looking for him the next night. She must’ve found something because the station-master said the next day that he heard her banging on his door but he was too scared to open. He heard a train thundering past that very moment and heard a terrible scream. He dragged himself to the door and with quivering hands, opened the door. What he saw left him rooted to the spot and the next morning villagers found him lying in a heap by the doorway. On the tracks below lay the mangled remains of the mother. They found an arm and the head some metres away.

Two nights later, the station master disappeared. No one knows where he went and none of his successors lasted longer than a week. Some of them said they saw a woman running along the platform at night screaming out a name, while others said they saw a child sitting on a branch on the tree in the dead of the night. I later learnt that if a child died in the village, it was buried under that tree. Since then, no station master has ever agreed to man Begunkodor station and no train has ever stopped here since…

As night fell and I walked away from the station, I felt a strange gloom that had descended on the place. Twice, I felt I was being followed and while a part of me knew it was the sound of my cargo-pants brushing against the grass, another part of me made me stop and turn…but when I did, all I could see was the silhouette of the station and the dead tree framed against the inky-blue sky and a lone light from the village flickering against the shadow from the hills. I wished the village well as I drove away…


This one happened by chance. I was travelling through the forests around the Seoni hills in search of the potter’s village that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book when my car’s radiator broke down on a rocky forest track. There was a stream running through a shallow valley not too far away and as I walked down to the water I saw a red flag fluttering in the cool breeze. Now this forest was in the heart of a great wilderness where wild beasts stalked the night and even in the day, we hadn’t seen a soul for miles and miles. So what was a flag doing over here? I looked around and found a cave and a cow tied to a stake. The cave seemed empty so I waited for a while and then I saw this hulking figure draped in black walking towards me.

The man was a tantric, and once an engineer from the city of Nagpur. But he had given up his job with a public sector power company because this place called out to him in his dreams when he was a child. He had sleep walked his way to this valley when still a child but then he had been found by his family and had to return. The dreams followed him though and then when he was old enough and had fulfilled his obligations, he returned to this valley. He had no guru in the flesh but there were evolved spirits in this valley and this river, he said who were his teachers… They had taught him all he knew about tantra. He told me that the hills around the valley formed a yantra which attracted spiritual energy and spirit guides and to meditate here brought the sadhaka closer to siddhis and salvation.

I didn’t know what to believe and so the man said “wait till the moon comes out… you will see the spirits frolicking in the river with your own eyes. You’ll hear their songs and power of their spells. ” This is the closest I had ever come to a ‘promised spiritual experience’ but I had a plane to catch. I thanked the man for his time, filled up the jerry-can with water from the river and hurried back to the car, but I vowed to return.

It has been many moons since I went to these places and some others like them and it is time I returned. Death is our final frontier and one day we’ll all know, through objective experiences what it means to die and do we really live on aft er the body gives up the ghost. But until we do, perhaps it is these in-between places straddling the realms of the flesh and the spirit which might hide the mysteries of a world beyond death. This new year, I’ll try and go look for some answers, and will keep you posted.


Thursday, December 16, 2010


There’s a man I want you to meet. He’s old, about 80 and not quite himself these days with a bad case of Parkinson’s... But he’s a remarkable gentleman nevertheless.

To see him, we’ll have to go all the way to a nursing home in England, where he sits propped up on his bed this afternoon. Dark for an Englishman, he looks more Indian than English. You see him staring vacantly at the wall and you know he isn’t quite there. His mind deserts him. But there are times when his soul shines through his eyes, like a joyful dolphin breaching through the ocean’s darkest depths, dancing on the surface, briefly but beautifully. Remember the fire of his soul that flickers in his eyes, for it’s a fire that singed an empire.

Those eyes, they’ll tell you all they saw…

For what they saw when they were young was a world full of hate and fear. Do you see that world now, a world far removed from here and now, many miles and many years away, in Cape Town, South Africa. You see a road and some kids playing cricket in the heat and dust of the afternoon. They’re playing hard, with enthusiasm but you doubt they have the skills… except for the tall lad with a bat in the middle, whacking the ball to all corners with ease. Suddenly, you hear angry sirens… the game stops. The kids freeze, and once they know the direction of the approaching police car, the kids run…in the opposite direction. The white policemen run aft er the dark-skinned little urchins but they escape. It’s apartheid-time in South Africa. “Coloured” kids go to jail for playing on the streets.

Anyway, you follow the kids on their run, especially the tall one with the eyes you know, as they run through streets and lanes, past hovels and slums, until one of the younger ones calls out to the tall one “Basil! Basil!!... I think we’re safe now…” The tall one slows down, looks back at him, runs to him and puts an arm around him…the two friends are tired, but they’re happy…to be free, free to run and play…They look at each other and laugh, and laugh till they cry…

Basil grew to become quite the star in the local matches amongst non-whites (once hitting 46 in an 8-ball over) but he couldn’t ever hope to play for South-Africa. Born into an Indian-Portuguese family in South Africa, he wasn’t allowed to play with white South-Africans because the minority white government felt that it was beneath “white dignity” to mix with people of Indian or African origin. But as little Bas’s talents blossomed, so did his dreams. He was loved by his people for his brave and explosive batting, his tall hits and taller scores, and he’d like me to add, his steady, oft en inspired medium-fast bowling. But he’d grown too big for his ‘coloured’ boots. He wanted to play ‘Test’ cricket. He’d watch the great white South-African cricketers playing in the big stadium, and from his little segregated corner in the stands, wish he was there on the field, playing with them. He made up his mind to try the impossible. If his homeland wouldn’t have him then he’d try and play for the game’s homeland – England.

Basil had a friend he trusted. A man he believed had a heart as bright and bold as that golden voice of his – BBC commentator John Arlott, a household name in every commonwealth home with a radio. It was the 1950s and Basil was already on the wrong side of 25. Time was running out and he knew he was reaching for the moon, but he had to try. Arlott didn’t know of Basil when he received a letter from him that spoke of his dreams. But the story of a gift ed boy trapped by the colour of his skin touched a chord in his heart. Arlott wrote back, and thus the two exchanged letters and hope until two years passed. Then it began to wane. Basil was grateful for Arlott’s support but he knew it was too late. He was too old now… Then out of the blue came a letter from Arlott. He’d persuaded an English club to hire Basil as a professional. The pay was meager, but at last Basil would play as a professional.

Basil was delirious and his family and friends were so happy for him. In his dreams they saw their hopes of dignity and acceptance and taking flight. But those dreams had come with clipped wings, only to flutter and shatter on the hard cold floor. Basil didn’t have the money to pay his way to England.

But help walked in, in different hues. Friends, both brown and black, wroteletters and raised funds, and then Gerald Innes, a white South African cricketer heard Basil’s story and put together a team of ‘whites’. They played a match, defying apartheid-laws and its brutal police-action, to raise funds for Basil’s journey. Years later, whenever Basil would be asked to add his voice to the crescendo against ‘the white man’s tyranny’, his memory of Innes walking amongst the spectators with a pail in his hands, raising funds for his cause, would always soft en his stance.

In England, it was a quiet start for the boy from streets, walking behind his mates, looking for ‘coloured-only entrances and toilets’, but soon his great talent and greater hunger saw him take the leagues by storm. In five years, he’d become a British citizen, and perhaps because he’d lied about his age on arrival, was selected to play for England in 1966. He was 34. The old fire in his eyes must’ve glistened, for he must’ve shed a silent tear in prayer and joy that day… And then runs, dozens, scores and hundreds more flowed from his blade, and Basil scanned the horizon. England was due to tour South Africa and he was in form. This was the day he was waiting for, when he’d return to the land of his birth with so much to prove. It was a moment that he and his people had been waiting for.

But then the unthinkable happened. Basil lost his touch. It was 1968 and the Australians were touring. Basil was dropped aft er the first match. Four Tests later, they’d announce the team for South Africa. ‘Basil was worried. Meanwhile, South Africa’s Prime Minister, one-time Nazi sympathiser BJ Vorster was also worried. Not co-incidentally, Basil had been approached by a South African tobacco magnate to coach ‘non-white’ South Africans for more money that he’d ever seen. The ‘catch’- he’d have to make himself ‘unavailable’ for the tour. Basil was tempted. He could secure his family’s future if he accepted… But what of his dreams? And all those people waiting back home to see ‘Bas’, the ‘coloured’ Test cricketer? Though not on the team, Basil refused and hoped for a miracle.

It was the final ‘Test’ at the Oval and batter Roger Pirdeaux fell ill. Meanwhile, Basil had turned out brilliantly in a county game and was picked for the final match. When Basil walked out to bat, he knew he was battling not just Aussie bowlers and the pressure of a comeback but also battling the South African government that wanted him to fail as well as the weight of the expectations of every man of colour around the world. Basil scratched the pitch with the toe of his bat and took guard for far more than his team that day and slammed158 iron-willed runs that took England to victory, like in a fairy-tale. What could stop his inclusion for the tour now? But alas, something did. The selectors were informed that South Africa won’t allow a player of ‘colour’. However, the English selectors maintained that “Bas had been dropped on ‘cricketing grounds only’”. The nation erupted in support for Basil. But Basil felt betrayed by his adopted nation and maintained a stoic dignified silence even as the storm blew and grew. Then, as luck would have it, Cartwright, a bowler, was injured and Basil was recalled to the tour-team. But before a bemused Basil could join the team, Vorster exploded in Bloemfontein, calling the English team a team of “the antiapartheid movement.

”Now the English couldn’t drop him and Vorster wouldn’t have him, and so the tour was cancelled. Bas felt sorry, for his English team mates, and for himself, but most of all for his people back home. His integrity and proud dignity in the face of such rejection and betrayal stood out in stark contrast to the terrible racial bigotry in South Africa and the English sporting establishment’s tacit support. The West having hitherto turned a blind eye to South Africa’s excesses was now disgusted and embarrassed; it began to sever ties with South Africa. Within a year of refusing Basil, South Africa had become the pariah of the world, shunned and abhorred for its inhuman policies. If not for Basil D’Oliviera, the shy Indian boy from the Cape, who knows when, if ever, the world would’ve noticed, and who knows how much longer South-Africa would’ve taken to become the great rainbow nation it is today.

So when you watch India take on South Africa this week, remember to say a prayer for that old man in the nursing home for making it all happen. He might not remember everything from that summer of ‘69, but we still owe old Bas for pushing the world in the right direction all those years ago. Nothing quite as dramatic as the story of the other Indian in South Africa who got thrown out of a train, but significant nevertheless… wouldn’t you agree?


Thursday, December 9, 2010


The road blurred into a haze… buildings and buses melted and melded into the road, like paints in a picture swirling in water. All I could hear was a voice in my head that said “go left !!” and I did, but he was still coming at me. He didn’t look like he’d be able to stop himself. I wrenched the steering hard to the left and the car ran off the shoulder into a cloud of grit and dust. And yet he kept coming at me and crashed right next to me by the driver’s side-view mirror. The mirror broke on impact and I braked hard.

Everything around us had come to a sudden stop. The swirling roads, buildings and buses had become straight and dead again. The buses, people in the buses, in the streets and in the shops, they were all frozen and rooted to the ground. I was in shock. Though uninjured, I was terrified. I didn’t know what to expect. Slowly, I turned and looked at the broken pieces of glass shimmering in the winter sun and the crumpled bundle of sheets and woolens as it slowly stood up and dusted itself. It was a young boy. I didn’t know what to feel. Should I be concerned and worried for his well being? Or should I be angry with him for running into my car in his mad rush and breaking a mirror? After what seemed an eternity, but what must’ve only been a couple of moments, I did feel something. It was relief. I was relieved that the boy was fine; relieved that I wasn’t an unwitting instrument of someone else’s misfortune or death. And relieved that that there would be no hospitals, police stations or courtrooms to visit. I opened the door and was about to step out and dispense some well-meaning advice to the kid when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was AB, my colleague, friend and fellow traveller. He had his hand on my shoulder but he wasn’t looking at me. No, he was looking out at the back and as I followed his gaze, I saw through the rear wind-shield a sight that curdled my blood.

Men, scores of men, bristling with sticks and sickles, in turbans, blankets and shawls, were running towards the car with a sense of purpose. In the blink of an eye, I had to decide whether to stay and negotiate or flee (I hate using that word but…). I’d done nothing wrong. I knew the boy was fine. Logically speaking, it was I who deserved compensation for the mirror or at least an apology. But I also knew that the crowd bearing down on us wasn’t in the mood for logic. AB made up my mind for me. He whacked me hard on the back and screamed “Go… go… go…!!!” I put the car in gear, the engine responded and even as the boy stood up and peered inside the car, we sped away. The horde followed us for as long as it could, brandishing their sticks and sickles at us. As the distance between us grew, some even pelted a few wayward stones at us, but we were too far ahead.

We knew what had happened could’ve been far worse. The kid could’ve been hurt. We could’ve been hurt. The car could have been damaged. We were very lucky. And yet I was feeling sick in the stomach. We had just fled the scene of an accident, howsoever minor – I wasn’t proud of myself. “But we didn’t have a choice…” AB retorted. And yes, looked like we didn’t.

I replayed the sequence of events in my head. We were driving on this broken back country road that led to Alwar. A Rajasthan Roadways bus heading in the opposite direction had stopped further up the road. People were getting down from the bus and most of them were crossing the road from in front of the bus where they were visible to oncoming traffic. But this kid and two of his friends just popped out from behind the bus just as we were about to cross it and were tearing down to the other side without stopping to look right or left . I veered off the road to avoid them and yet one of them couldn’t stop himself as he ran right into the side of the car. So, you see I didn’t run into him, he ran into me, and though I would’ve felt far better if I could’ve stayed to help, the aggressive crowd scared us away. Nothing much I could do, I guess.

Now here’s what happened next. Further up the road, at a police barricade, we were stopped and questioned. Someone had called up the check post and given our number and told them of the incident. Miraculously, some relatives of the boy had appeared who wanted ‘compensation’. I was all for sticking to our guns and not giving an inch since we’d done no wrong. AB wasn’t so sure. In the beginning we were threatened with cases and worse, but we’d seen that the kid was fine and so were ready to fight it out. It was a question of who blinked first. Eventually the cops lost interest and the relatives softened their stance. They just needed some money to tend to the child’s wounds. Apparently, it was our moral obligation. We too had tired of arguing and thought it would be pointless wasting anymore time. So, we offered a few hundreds as a ‘goodwill gesture’ and said it was all we were willing to ‘help’ the boy and his family with. The cops and the ‘relatives’ mulled over the ‘off er’ and then with some healthy persuasion from the cops, agreed to settle the issue. They even wrote a letter to the cops that said they were grateful for our help and had no complaints. And with that we wrapped up a rather unpleasant episode in my life.

That was more than a decade ago. Yesterday, while reading the papers, I was reminded of the same incident when I came across the story of a popular pop idol and his friends being roughed up and assaulted in Mumbai after their car hit a two-wheeler and injured the two riders. Now, this isn’t a pedestrian/two-wheeler versus car driver debate for we are all one or the other at various points of time. And either party could make a mistake for whatever reason. An accident is usually just that – an accident. The point I want to make stems from the advice those cops gave me when I asked what one should do when a mob gathers and turns hostile. Now do keep this in mind if you happen to be involved in an unfortunate incident like the above. He said, If the crowd turns hostile, not only would you be unable to help the injured but you risk getting thrashed, even lynched. And your car could be battered, even gutted. So, the best thing to do would be to leave the place immediately and then inform the police as soon as you are out of range. That’s the best you could do”.

Sage but sad advice. On two occasions in Delhi, I’ve had the opportunity to help accident victims. And I know from experience that there can’t be a better closure to something as terrible as a road accident than to take those affected to hospital and see them recover… where gratitude replaces a grudge, even if that grudge is misplaced. It would be sad if an aggressive crowd bent on meting out its own version of vigilante justice, mixed with manifestations of socio-economic repression and ethnic or even religious prejudices, prevents people involved in an accident from helping those who are hurt. Time is precious in such situations and if a party has been guilty of rash, negligent, dangerous or drunken driving, of course the driver should be brought to book, but only after the injured have been attended to.

So you might have to run away from the scene and a mob today if involved in an accident but you better report to the cops and call an ambulance as soon as you’ve got some breathing space. And for those who run our schools, I think you owe it to society to teach our children how to behave at the scene of an accident, as those involved or as onlookers.

And lastly, a lot of aggression at accident sites perhaps also stems from a lack of faith in the judiciary; from a belief reinforced over generations that the drunken truck-drivers and spoilt rich kids in fancy cars will always buy their way out of trouble so they are made to pay here and now. And I fear that no matter how much we try in our schools, as long as justice is delayed and denied in our courts, we’ll have to keep running away from an accident instead of running out to help.

I leave you with the hope that both you and I will have the courage to do ‘the right thing’ if the moment comes… and above all, walk and drive safe.


Thursday, December 2, 2010


No, its not that pigs are an endangered species. Not most kinds anyway. On the contrary, they are prolific breeders and no matter how many get poached, porked, baconed and sausaged, there always seem to be enough around. So, why on earth would I be wasting a whole page and all the time it would take you to get through it on these poor porkers? Well, because it’s the holiday season. And what better way to start one than to atone and repent. More pigs are slaughtered at this time of the year for your epicurean pleasures than any other, and while there was a time I loved pepperoni pizzas and cold ham, I stopped. In fact, I gave up eating pork long before I gave up other forms of meat. And I did that because of an incident that happened many years ago.

I was driving through one of Delhi’s easternmost corners. It must’ve been the height of summer and I remember driving past a slum cluster on one side and a busy market on the other with the windows rolled down. The air-conditioner had gasped its last and I was in a hurry to get out of the oppressive heat when I heard a scream emanating from the very depths of hell. It sounded like a bunch of school kids screaming their heads off in a great fear and even greater pain…a sound so human and yet unearthly. I just had to stop. I parked and half walked-half jogged past the stores and sheds into a clearing… a crowd had gathered. It was a butcher slaughtering piglets in his backyard…

The pig’s squealing was the butcher’s way of announcing to the area that fresh meat would soon be available. The butcher’s knife was working its way down the pig’s belly, cutting it open as the intestines spilled out. One of the pig’s legs was still kicking. I don’t know if it was still breathing…but I looked away. The sun was bearing down. And in the heat, the swirling dust was just beginning to settle, like a frenzied dancer, having twirled round and round in circles finally tiring and slumping on the floor. There were flies everywhere, on hands and faces, on flesh and faeces, on blood and butcher. My eyes wandered to the slaughtered animal’s now lifeless form. Surprisingly, the animal’s throat was intact. So, I asked a bystander how did the animal die when it wasn’t even bleeding from the throat? Was it beaten to death?

No, no, it was nothing half as humane – pigs apparently are a little tough to kill and so they truss it up, and then heat up an iron stake till it’s smoking red and then take it right through the pig’s rear end. Impaled on the stake the poor animal wriggles and writhes and suffers unimaginable agony till it dies a horrible death. I was told this method made the meat tender. Death must have been liberation indeed for the animal that had by now reduced to chunks of flesh, fat and organs. The butcher now rose and walked towards his left . The crowd followed him and as I followed the motley bunch, I realised they were walking toward this little pink piglet that had been lying in the dirt. It must have sensed why the butcher was walking towards him and struggled to escape, but it had been tied up and though it squealed and struggled all it could, the ropes held fast.

The butcher put down his carving knife and picked up the stake as his assistant bent down to hold the pig. At that moment the pig stopped squealing and looked up. For a brief moment, our eyes met. Then it looked at the other men briefly, with eyes that begged and accused in the same glance. Then with a near audible sigh, dropped its head with what I could have sworn was a sense of resignation. It wasn’t squealing anymore and its body seemed limp even as the butcher’s assistant tried to truss up the animal for the coup de grace, as if the animal was willing itself to death before the pain rammed home. I don’t know what it was – the reproachful look in the pig’s eyes, the horrible death that awaited this sweet little creature, or the horde surrounding it, baying for its blood, but I just couldn’t stand there and watch it happen. So, I turned and walked away…

Almost that very minute, I heard the pig let out a terrible scream. It was almost as if it was calling out for help. I clenched my jaws and tried to pull away but my feet were frozen. The squeals were more earnest now. I had to do something, but what? I couldn’t possibly convince them into not killing the animal. I was a pork eater myself, and God knows how many piglets would’ve suffered such a death before ending up on my plate. But I knew I had to do something. I turned and ran, muttering a prayer and hoping it wasn’t too late. To my relief, the piglet had not been ‘skewered’ yet and so I hurried to the butcher and said, “Maro mat! Don’t kill it, sell it to me.” The butcher, a small swarthy man, seemed a little startled and could quite believe his ears. So, I repeated the offer, all the while hoping I would have enough in my wallet. The crowd seemed disappointed, but the butcher was happy enough and we spat and shook hands on rupees 500 for the marked animal.

I cradled the creature as it shivered in the heat and gently nuzzled the crook of my arm. As it nestled close to my rapidly beating heart, I began to wonder, what next? It couldn’t of course stay in the house. These pigs grow too big to be urban pets. And so an animal shelter it would have to be. I drove it to Frendicoes, a well known NGO that does all it can for animals that suffer on our streets. The little porker clung on and just wouldn’t let go. It broke my heart to leave it just when it had begun to trust me, but I didn’t have options.

I went back home and read up all I could about pigs and was stunned. Pigs aren’t just the dirty, fat slobs they are made out to be. They’re in fact quite bright. They can be trained to play videogames and have oft en beaten humans, at their own game, so to speak. They are almost as quick at learning commands and tasks as apes and monkeys and a lot smarter than dogs. I read about pigs that had saved people and children from drowning during floods, and I read about pigs that protected their owners from dog attacks and burglars. We, humans and pigs, are similar enough on the inside for there to be talk of organ transplants during medical emergencies. And interestingly, cannibal cultures had oft en noted that pigs taste the most like humans.

I started thinking of the piglet as a pet and indulged in a fantasy or two about the things we’d do in the days to come. Next morning, I planned to visit the piglet before going to work and thought of a name for the little one. Just as I was about to leave I got a call. It was from the shelter. “Your pig died last night. I’m sorry we couldn’t save it. It must’ve overheated in the sun, or in your car, before you brought it to us.” It was a strange empty feeling. Somehow, I felt I had let the poor creature down – I felt responsible. I had to make up. I couldn’t think of ever being responsible for the cruel death of a creature as capable of love and pain. I swore never to touch pork ever again.

Since then, I’ve given up meat altogether. But I haven’t atoned enough. This story is another apology to that little piglet and those that have gone before him. If you, dear reader, are a pork-eater and this story makes you reconsider, it would be a small step for both of us towards making up for our many murders.