Thursday, October 25, 2012

THE PRICE OF FAITH

Much water has flowed past the banks of the Yamuna since I last wrote this, and yet not a lot over here... no, that would be unfair, but yes, definitely not enough has changed since.

Undoubtedly, there are more who care and more who know and understand about all that I have to say, and yet there would be places that you and I would know of, where we still partake of sins in the name of God. So here’s a reminder for us to do all we can, where we can, to ensure that the spirit of faith and the joy of celebration are not marred with the stain of death and the guilt of decimation... Shubho Pujo!

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 son, 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. Tuft s 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, October 18, 2012

THE COLOUR OF PASSION

“Cricket needs the West Indies to do well!”, screamed the papers at the start of the 2012 T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka. It was as if the fortunes of the game were tied to the success of the cricketers from the Caribbean. And toddlers and teen agers playing cricket in the maidans of the sub-continent would wonder why those men in maroon might matter any more than cricketers from New Zealand, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe or any of these other often honest but hardly ever spectacular cricketing teams. Yes, the West indies have Chris Gayle, but take away the last two IPLs and what exactly do you remember of his greatness?

Almost on cue, arrived Stevan Riley’s ode to West Indian cricket, Fire in Babylon. This award winning documentary film lasted no longer than a week in theatres in Delhi, but the few who did catch this film would have come to know why West Indian cricket is so valuable for world cricket.

Every sport needs champions, to inspire the fans; to create history, glorious history; to draw the spirit of young heroes to be; to sell cars, clubs, TV rights; but most of all, a sport needs heroes to define itself, to survive, to capture the imagination of generations, so it continues to be played, for years, decades and centuries. And cricket has not had taller heroes than those that walked the green ovals of the game in the 70s and 80s, than those men from the happy islands in the West Indies.

When I was just beginning to play and read about the game, in the early and mid 80s, cricket was a battle for second place. The crown rested well beyond reach, on a beautiful black head that turned only if you called out “ Hey Viv! Is that a bat or a battle axe yer holdin’, maan….?!”

Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards had just taken over the captaincy and inherited this legacy of invincibility from Clive Lloyd. Sachin Tendulkar is respected for his class and sublime mastery and Jacques Kallis for his guts; Inzamam-ul-Haque for his power and Brian Lara for his silken grace, and Ricky Ponting, Allan Border and Sunil Gavaskar may have attained greatness through their sheer prolificacy, but never has a man walked on to a cricket pitch and combined the brutal and raw savagery of a vengeful Samson with the imperious swagger and elegance of a man born to rule. No batsman before or since has inspired such knee-quaking fear in captains and bowlers around the game.

Richards was a great batsman not just because of his power and balance, his innovative strokeplay or even the sheer courage and skill that made him hook a superfast bouncer from Jeff Thompson or Andy Roberts from front of his nose and deposit it in a gutter outside the stadium while wearing just his maroon cap and crest for protection. No sir, for what made those eyes burn with passion was that furnace of black pride that burnt in his heart.

But though King Viv was the master of all he surveyed, West Indian supremacy wasn’t built on just his massive shoulders and the flair and brilliance of his fellow hardhitting willow wielders alone. Four tall, strong men, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and Colin Croft , menacing hunters who hunted in a pack, scalped batsmen with the hard red cherry hurled at speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour. They were called ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, and wherever they went, destruction followed. Wherever they stood, batsmen fell, to the ground, clutching a head or a limb, spitting teeth and blood, writhing in agony. And these four men walked on, leaving splintered willow, wood and bones in their wake.

I remember my friends and their brothers and uncles speaking in hushed tones about the West Indian pace battery, the kind of tone they use in fairy tales to speak of dragons and ogres and other supernatural agents of fear and mayhem. Cricket had been elevated to another level. Hitherto, it had been a game for gentlemen - aristocratic batsmen, working class bowlers and reluctant fielders - who went along with the English garden tea script, and except for the odd Bodyline series or a mercurial Compton, Miller, Trueman or Sobers, had remained an expression of class, race and existing post-colonial socio-cultural values instead of a truly athletic sporting endeavour.

Clive Lioyd’s boys changed all that. The natural athleticism that their fathers brought with them from the shores of Africa was honed into sublime skill on the sun-kissed beaches of the Caribbean and was then forged into winning steel during the Packer-series (where they became the first real team to have a fitness coach) that eventually cut through all opposition for nearly two decades. For 20 years, this team dominated the game through pace and power. But suddenly, it all changed. The first brigade had retired by the mid 80s. Roberts, Lloyd, Holding and Garner… But there were eager titans waiting to take wing. Desmond Haynes and later Richie Richardson joined Vivian Richards and Gordon Greenidge to keep the batting as formidable as ever while the pace juggernaut now looked even more formidable with the fearsome Malcolm Marshall who delivered hissing mambas and cobras that spit, swore and bit the batsman hard, sharing demolition duty with two lethal assassins, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose.

In the 90s, all seemed well on the surface, but as these warriors aged, so did that aura of invincibility that had cocooned West Indian pride for so long. Black power, the pride of a once-slave fighting for dignity and then for vengeance, redemption and then glory, for himself, his race, his team, and for the right to look his white master in the eye after whipping him blue and telling him, “I am black, and I am better than you!”, had been the flame that had set the game ablaze in the islands. For a people torn away from their history and culture, cricket was war that gave them their history and their pride. It gave them the right to say, “we are children of men who ruled the world”. But in the 21st century, that legacy was lost on a generation born free that sought not equality but opportunity. Economics and a culture that drew its influences from its closest neighbor, the United States, far more than from its old colonial past led to an exodus of talent into other richer sports. Athletics (Usain Bolt, need I say more) and basketball (Patrick Ewing, Al Horford) became the sport of choice for the next generation of Holdings and Garners.

Without their pace battery, the attack lost its teeth. The West Indian pacers, now a motley bunch of fast-medium men like Merv Dillon and Cameron Cuffy, had become human again. With the bat, they still had a cricketing giant amongst them in Brian Lara but that old fire was just a pile of smoking ashes now. A loss to those babes-in-the-game, Kenya in the ‘96 World Cup was followed by a series of losses at home. Pride was dead and had been put to rest in the islands. An decade and a half of excruciating ordinariness followed until last week, when almost like a prophecy that needed to fulfill itself, The West indies touched glory and a World Cup again.

But will this glorious new chapter in their once rich history of triumphs set the tone for the near future. Will the West indies win back their legacy of global dominance in World Cricket? Well, I think the answer is yes and no. Yes, because West Indian cricket has found a new hunger and new pride and no, because it will perhaps never be the same again. And that is so, because the last dawn of West Indian cricket happened during an era when Africa and the black African man outside his continent were both looking to be free from prejudice, were rediscovering pride and were fighting for dignity, for rights, for equality. There was fierceness in those times that these times can’t match. And secondly, though champions, this team has a very different colour and character from that team of yore, and that colour is more brown than black, and the character more Indian than African.

Indo-Carbbeans had always been a part of the West Indian teams of the past. Rohan Kanhai and Alvin Kallicharan were preceded by the diminutive Sonny Ramadhin. The Indo-Guyanese pair of Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan were the only glimmer of hope for West Indian fans during the dark decade of 2000. But you know that the world is changing when not only is their most consistent batsman (Sarwan/ Chanderpaul), wicketkeeper (Denesh Ramdin) and of course the traditional mystery spinner (Sunil Narine) from Indian stock, but even the leader of the West Indian pace attack happens to be of Indian origin. Take a bow Ravi Rampaul…

So what if India could not make it to the semi-finals, there would have been celebrations yet, from Delhi to Darbhanga. And so they will win more games and pride in the hereafter, but not with African rhythm and power but with sub continental grace and craft . Here’s to a new tomorrow, for the West Indies, and for world cricket…!

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Thursday, October 11, 2012

ON A WING AND A PRAYER

My friend, the struggling illusionist, has this story he bandies around to impress the ladies, and as a prelude to his tricks – magic tricks, as he likes to call them. The story is about Khoko, or some such gent, from the land and days of the pharaohs. Bored with climbing pyramids and swimming the crocodile infested waters of the Nile, Khoko came up with an idea to entertain his fellow villagers. So, on a pleasant winter noon, Khokho trudged up to the village square with a chicken trussed under his arm. The square was bustling with activity… hawkers selling their wares, the elders trading smokes and tales and children playing tag.

Nobody paid Khoko and his chicken much attention until he stood at the centre of the square and declared “I will break this chicken’s neck and wrench its head off before your very eyes and then you’ll see this magical chicken grow a new head, like the celestial Hydra”. Khoko paused for effect and as the crowd looked on, with a great flourish, he took both his hands to the bird’s head and neck and while the right hand yanked and pulled, the left held on to the neck. Suddenly the right hand pulled free… and a jet of crimson shot out of the neck and streaked the earth red as the right hand flailed the bleeding head around and then flung it on to the square… While the audience gasped in shock and gawked at the bloodied lifeless head and the half closed eyes, Khoko’s left hand kept the chicken’s real head tucked in carefully and once the audience had recovered enough to look at Khoko again, the illusionist baited the audience with a few magic words and then removed his hand and let the chicken’s head bob about freely…

The village square erupted with spontaneous cheering and invocations to the gods that be, for this ‘resurrection’ seemed nothing short of a miracle. Khoko, my friend tells me, went down in history as one of the first practitioners of that spectacular principle of magic called ‘misdirection’ – where the magician deceives the audience by making them focus on one thing while distracting them from another, potentially a more significant aspect of the act.

Over the last couple of decades, environmental agencies, the ministry and even the media have been both perpetrators and victims of one such misdirection. After our independence, when realisation dawned that the country was rapidly losing its natural heritage and wildlife to the social anarchy that followed the exodus of the British and the local potentates, laws were passed to protect and preserve all that remained of our forests and its denizens – laws that were comprehensive but were executed by a weak willed and toothless administration. A few decades later, the country’s minders realised that they had been far too apathetic a little too long. Now one of the most visible symbols of this country, its spirit and its wild places – the Royal Bengal Tiger, was standing at the very edge of that chasm called extinction and something would have to be done about it and soon…

Here’s where the first misdirection was set up. Project Tiger, a programme committed to protecting the tiger and its habitat was designed and executed and it even encountered a fair degree of success, or so we were told. Then in 2004, Sariska Tiger Reserve lost all its tigers to poachers, and in 2009, Panna National Park followed suit.

The environmental machinery responded with another misdirection – it narrowed its focus and resources even further by setting up a Tiger Task Force that attempted to outdo Project Tiger and plug the conceptual gaps in the latter. And while wildlife activists, corporate do-gooders, media houses and protection agencies and officials busied themselves with plans of protecting the tiger, and as an after thought, the rhino and the elephant, poachers busied themselves with hunting musk deer for its pod, black and sloth bears for their bile, claws and cubs, otters and snow leopards for their pelt, Tibetan antelope for their fur, parakeets and mynahs for the pet trade, bustards for the pot and their feathers, and most of all, leopards for their organs, bones and pelts, as a substitute for the relatively better protected tiger.

Recently released reports by TRAFFIC suggest that a leopard a day was killed or poached over all of this year. There have been counter suggestions of setting up a Leopard Task Force to monitor and stem this carnage. But that’s a case of missing the woods for the trees. Task forces might sound like fun, but evidently, they don’t seem to be working.

Tigers and rhinos continue to be poached with impunity and the task force has come a cropper. As for the lesser denizens of our forests, whole populations have been decimated and we will never know how many we have lost already. This is so because except for the three flagship species, no one’s ever bothered with a census for any other species.

So fixated has the conservation mechanism been on the tiger, the rhino and the elephant, that even in protected reserves hunting of other species has gone on unchecked.

A winter or so ago, I was in Ranthambore and while out driving with one of the field guides, I started talking to him about the possibility of finding bush meat (wild game hunted for the pot) in the area. He was cagey about it initially and said he did not think it was a very good idea, but there were people around who could procure it. There was nothing very romantic or sportsman-like about the methods either. Tribal hunters in the region would lay wire nooses or steel jawed traps along well-worn jungle paths and return every three days to check the snares for catch. Others would stuff little bombs in balls of jaggery and corn. Animals like deer, antelopes and wild boars would try and gobble these balls, thus triggering an explosion that would result in internal hemorrhaging or the lower jaw being blown off. The hunter would just follow the blood trail to the carcass and carry it home.

Tomorrow that same route that is used to transfer bush meat could be used to transfer bones and skins .

If caught by forest guards, sharing a little of the profit or the meat is all it takes to get the officials to look the other way, said the guide, as long tigers, elephants and rhinos were not involved. This practiced apathy and selective focus is at the root of India’s wildlife woes.

More task forces and such ‘misdirections’ will serve no real purpose. All that state and non state conservation agencies need to do is ensure that the reserve or national park – not just one animal but the whole biosphere – is protected, and the letter of the law is respected. Independent species within the park will be a lot safer when park rangers are not using their individual discretion with respect to poaching and are equally committed to saving both the tiger and the honey badger.

It is frustrating and even hypocritical to just sit on the sidelines and merely preach about what ‘should have been’. Therefore, next week, I will ask around and return with the path that you and I could take, within our own limited means, to try and make a difference to these bleak lives in the wild… until then we all remain very concerned, for these wild lives that have been getting by, on a broken wing and a quiet prayer…

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