Sunday, June 15, 2008

Two Worlds in One Country

They materialised out of nowhere, by stealth, like guerrilla fighters in the jungle, except that this was the urban jungle. They were unwashed and their shiny, dark faces had a beauty of their own, something gypsies and troubadours have.

They sat on the platform in Andheri station as I was waiting for a train to CBD Belapur, and I, too, quite stealthily took out my mobile phone and captured them and here’s the result. None of them seemed to have an iota of education, and none of them would qualify for a job, except that of scrounging for plastic in garbage bins and selling them to businesses that recycled plastic, which is what they seemed to do as they had metal hooks they used as implements. They were well built and able-bodied with well-shaped arms and legs and seemed dangerous. I guess even the black-coated ticket checker daren’t ask them for tickets as they knew the consequences.

In this relentless monsoon where will they stay? Who knows? May be in plastic hovels held up with sticks in some dumping ground. This is one aspect of India that remains hidden from the television cameras, the movie cameras, the one that the privileged do not even acknowledge. This is the truth of India.

If I ask them there would be a story that would shock and awe me. Truly, these are the sort of people who are at the receiving end of globalisation which the diametrically opposite faction is tom-toming as the future of India, the India of “India Shining”, “Twenty-first century India”, and “Yuppie India.” And they aren’t going away anywhere. They multiply like the opposite camp does and democracy has taught them that they too have rights. They may have been displaced for dams and expressways, but they survive all right, even if it means eking a precarious existence by selling plastic scrounged from garbage bins.

Two days later I was in Centre One in Vashi, New Bombay. I saw another face of India, the consumerist face. People are buying, buying, buying! Trolleys are full of snacks, fruit juices, anything and everything is available. I can’t even believe it is India because I see tinned baked beans in tomato sauce, sauerkraut (cabbage something or the other), and a whole lot of stuff; I don’t even remember what they are.

On the other hand, exercising my grey cells, as I am rarely wont to do, I do remember: scented candles with candle stands, wine and champagne glasses, rows of shampoos, and vitamin enriched shaving foam (this one’s a marvel at Rs 100 for a can, the last one I bought from Reliance Fresh was Rs 250 a can), at prices so cheap. Which makes me want to kick that damn fool Bush for saying India is consuming all the world’s food, when his country is dumping baked beans and sauerkraut on us!

I digress, and when I digress, I digress bad. Damn! Coming back to the mall, this is the affluent India of call centres, mercenary marketers and brand managers, and FMCG executives who offer you a sachet of shampoo and comb with every pack of the fairness cream, etc. etc. The men all have harassed looks, and the women a glow from all the freebies on offer. Such as the following:

Free razors if you have a shave (several unshaven guys queuing up here); a free pack of cappuccino if you taste one for free; two packs of potato chips for the price of one. And a sign says blithely in bold 250 sanserif Arial print: “The Only Way to Save Money is to Buy More.”

Buy… buy… buy….

A salesgirl sidles up to me as I am admiring a John Miller shirt and we start talking. I like the design, the colour, the stitching, the works, except that the price is Rs 1125, for which I can buy two decent shirts of a lower brand.

“But sir, it’s the brand. You will stand out in a John Miller shirt.”

“Oh, will I?” I ask and she isn’t bad looking too.

“Yes, sir, this shirt will look very good on you.”

Then I have my doubts and I look her in the eye, smile and thank her and walk away. Suddenly, as if on cue, her face droops and she loses all interest in me. Gosh, I thought she liked me.

Now this guy John Miller (with whom I share a first name) must have been some very inventive guy to sell shirts at double the price. “Wot men,” my friend Anthonybhai would have said, “aaj kal, aisaich hai, no value for money, men. Those richie-rich buggers who throw money have it so good, no men?”

He should know because he is neither the privileged one, nor the forsaken one. Neither am I.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Nedumbassery Airport, Cochin

At Cochin’s Nedumbassery Airport I am divested of my multipurpose Swiss knife. Baah, it’s sad day for me. I love that knife, a reliable travelling companion, and just today had cut and eaten an apple with it. The woman in security is so efficient, ‘There’s a Swiss knife sir,’ she says with confident arrogance. Again my bag goes into the scanner. ‘There’s a packet of blade in it,’ and I produce that too, rather sheepishly, I might add. I will miss you my sweet Swiss knife.

That said; I am a great lover of airport lounges. I don’t mind flights being delayed, as I don’t want the journey to begin, far less, to end. The ideal air journey for me is an unending wait at the airport lounge, a smooth take off, and oh! I don’t like landings and the thought of going home or anywhere else, that would be an end to the bliss of watching so many types of people, so many technologies at work, so many giant birds taking off in flight, the smooth docking, the flurry of ancillary vehicles, the uniformed attendants and stewardesses. One such celestial beauty in a pant and suit of spotless red is gallivanting rather pertly with her panty lines showing. All adds to the experience of an airport lounge, I might say here for posterity.

Nedumbassery Airport is spic compared to the railway stations I have been through. At Panvel, on the way to Kerala, I cringe to find the three-tier air-conditioned coach crowded with children and passengers on reservation against cancellation (RAC), that a haze comes over my eyes. I am not even in RAC, I am in waiting list, and don’t have a right to be there. I cringe some more. My wife has excellent public relations, which comes handy in such situations. (She can remember [teacher, being she] names, faces, names of children, where they are studying, in which standard, etc. etc.) My public relations is non-existent, and I hardly know anyone in the compartment, though I am supposed to be a writer, poet and blogger. Fame has evaded me thus far. Grumble! Grumble!

Two families known to my wife are in the compartment and spring to her help and offer her seats with them. She accepts the offer of a friend from Belapur and adjustments are made. My son becomes friendly with the friend’s son, leaving me friendless, sitting at the door of the train in my Kakadu shorts (the memory of “Animal” of Indra Sinha’s “Animal’s People” still lingers in the memory). Sometimes I stand at the space near the toilet and talk to another guy who, a member of the ultra-religious Pentecostal sect, actually confesses to me that he runs a used-car racket in Kerala. Some confession by a professed believer!

Oh, misery thy name is Indian Railways! The small compartment is humming with the talk of so many people, almost like a beehive: young, old, and the little monsters. One such monster, sitting beside me, terrorises his mother and even publicly beats her up, yet she doesn’t scold him. A man says, ‘In our days, we never used to stir in front of our parents.’ Is it a sign of the times? There are a few monsters down the aisle and the monsters are conspiring to take over and spread chaos on the train, but sleep mercifully confines a few to their berths. What a lucky escape!

A woman is talking Mack English in a persistently high-pitched tone. Her words are simple commands to her children like, “I told you so many times to wash your hands, no, you don’t listen only.” The odd thing is: the way it comes out, it seems forced and self-conscious in the extreme. Does she ever shut her mouth for a few minutes? As author Yann Martel once famously asked, “Do they have periods of silence in their lives, periods when they think, introspect, read, and write something? I don’t know. I guess we Indians have sacrificed the art conversation to the urgent need to make ourselves understood.

I had a few glorious days at my wife’s sister’s beautiful house in Keezhvaipur. The stillness of the morning, warmth of the afternoon, and the convectional rainfall in the evening lull me into a soporific feeling when I sprawl on the easy chair in the porch. The rain in the evening makes the thickly populated topography even greener than it was a day before. From where I am comfortably ensconced I can see teak, rubber, coconut palm, arecanut and jackfruit trees. (My online friend Chryselle tells me that Jackfruit is derived from the Malayalam word “Chakka”, which became “Jaca” in Portuguese and was again corrupted to Jackfruit in English.) These are the ones I can identify, there’s a forest-like profusion of trees around me. It is pleasantly cool, even cold in the night. Nights are full of the cheeping, droning sounds of frogs and crickets and morning come alive with the call of the Cuckoo.

Ah, in this paradise, truly god’s country, full of his heavenly munificence, there’s frustration, too. The causes cannot be elaborated in full here, or anywhere. Why is the Malalyali such a demon for drinks and addictions? Why has Kerala become a land of unfulfillment though it is fulfilled by nature? Every Malayali these days are into some kind of addition, no, multiple ones. At Aluva I see a man walk into a shop demanding to be served lemonade. His eyes are bloodshot, popping out like eggs, and below it are bags that can easily hold a pouch of tobacco, which he orders next. Obviously, he is trying to control last night’s excessive consumption of the local potion – arrack.

I have seen men become so disoriented that they consume in excess with a vengeance, as if drinking can exorcise the demons. And there are sad stories plenty for the migrant workers who have returned from the Persian Gulf, Bombay, Delhi and other parts of the world: malignment, persecution and ill treatment. Women are distraught when their men get together for a tipple as the result is over-drinking and over-eating that eventually lands up in a hospital bed.

The truth is Kerala has a big addiction problem that keeps the liquor, medical and local mafias in business. The mafia has its hands in everything. A ‘quotation’ racket is unearthed, the television at Nedumbassery Airport informs me. ‘Quotation’ is the name given to contract killing. It is easy to get somebody killed in Kerala; all it takes is a few thousand rupees and the services of a few goons like the ones I am watching now. Finito! Life is cheap.

At Aluva I spend a night in a roach-infested hotel, which boasts of an air-conditioner, which wheezes but doesn’t reduce the temperature a bit. There aren’t rooms to be had anywhere else. The next day I see the new Kerala at Nedumbassery Airport, from where I am writing this. There are well-dressed people everywhere. Even the Mundus and saris are carefully starched and worn with √©lan. There are smells of expensive perfumes, and the waiting lounge glitters in the glow of a thousand fluorescent tubes.

At last my flight DN 819 to Mumbai is announced. I am now shutting my Word file on my Nokia E61i with some reluctance. My bird is ready and the journey back to the daily grind has begun.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Essay: What Goes of Your Father?

Nothing much to write about today, except this piece, which details the daily gauntlet I run to get to the office. It’s a mad scramble, as you know. Today is a typical day in my life, full of the irritating uncertainty of living in a big city. There aren’t any rickshaws to take me to the railway station at Belapur, and I wring my hands, and then call my son and ask him to drop me to the station on his Hero Honda CBZ, which he does. As I ride I wonder how nice it would be to be dropped everyday, but sonny is sleeping when I leave and I don’t want to disturb him.

At the station, as I enter it huffing, the train is just slithering away, the last few compartments still temptingly on the platform. A vain thought, I run after it, knowing fully well that it’s no use, and the train just slides away smooth as an eel, unattainable. Damn! Then there’s the wait for the next train, which arrives, and I jump in even before it stops. It’s dangerous, I know, but I need to sit down in that damn thing, or I will be standing till Andheri. And, lo and behold, the seats are all taken. Like a damn fool I stand while my poker-faced audience (yes they all look so, so blank) look at me and sneer at my discomfort. Drat!

Then a guy gets up and offers another guy a seat. What the heck? What did I do not to deserve that seat? Then I fish out Indra Sinha’s “Animal’s People" and begin to read. It’s a good book and I am lost in its beautiful prose, the cynical argot of Animal, the boy-man who is full of erotic love for Nisha, and I chuckle, I smile, and I read on. (Do buy this book and read, I assure you, word of honour, etc. you will never regret it).

But then my smile turns to grimace. The reason is, I feel a terrible urge to urinate. It’s terrible and it’s because of some medication that I am taking. I squirm in my seat. Andheri is half an hour away, and I try to read deeply, with a lot of involvement to avoid my bladders bursting.

Finally the train arrives at Andheri, I make a beeline for the toilet on platform one and see that a queue has already formed, and it isn’t moving forward. The toilet stinks, there’s water on the floor, the cobwebs hang from the ceiling, there are shabbily stuck posters everywhere (learn fast, fast English in one month, Rs 1000 only et al), and still the line isn’t moving.I hold some more, shifting uncomfortably. And then, I am inside and I see one of the receptacles (what else do you call them?) empty. I rush to it.

The man beside me stops me. Reason? Ahhhhh! There’s a pile of shit lying on it. I shout to the red-shirted attendant, a tall, gangling guy who is joking about it.“Koi raat ko kiya hoga. Control kar nahi paya, light bhi nahi the, tho bus kar diya.”Somebody must have done it in the night. Couldn’t control, and there were no lights. I think of Annie Zaidi’s post:

“My foot squelched and sank into something soft. It took a couple of seconds to register what the mess was - it was about two inches of shit. Human shit all over the floor.” Truly a very disconcerting, and humiliating experience. Then I think of VS Naipaul who wrote:“Indians shit everywhere.”

I don’t blame him, he is right, I mean, Naipaul. There is a toilet a few feet away from the urinal, and all that the miscreant had to do was hold on a little longer, walk those two steps, and sit inside the toilet. He was a few feet away from the toilet (and decency, I suppose) and still he shat on the steps of the urinal. Could you believe that? We still haven’t made the switch from village to the city, from crudeness to decency and for some people the rationale is even one of prestige:“Thumhara baap ka kya jata hai?”What goes of your father?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

ESSAY: Stop this frivolity in the AV media

Any channel I surf these days has a profusion of laugher shows: the great Indian laughter challenge, laughter champion, comedy circus, etc. There’s so much laughter; it isn’t funny anymore. Either it’s a laugher show or its rival in frivolity, a music show, with celebrity judges. I am not saying laughter is bad, but how much can we laugh? How much can a character shouting ‘Wah, guru’ keep laughing his head off, high fiving his glamorous star judges, and even performing the bhangra. ‘Hahahahaha… hehehe…,’ he goes every time an inane jokes are cracked. What makes him so easily tickle-able, I am left wondering most of the time?

And now they have a certain lady, the ‘smile on hire for all occasions’ judging laughter competitions. She’s been on a roll for some time, cricket, TV serials, and now laughter shows. In none of the shows mentioned does she have anything intelligent to contribute. Except Shekhar Suman, who looks sleep deprived, the judges have nothing to say, no intelligent analysis, tips, etc. That would mean it’s laughter for laughter’s sake, empty, without purpose, like canned laughter.

Music shows aren’t any better. The typical reaction of the brainless celebrity judge is mind numbing; ‘Mind blowing’ is the most favourite words on these shows. It’s irritating how they say ‘Mind blowing’ and ‘fantastic’, ‘superb’ in one breath. Or it’s ‘miiiiinnnnnnddd bloooowwiiing’. And minor children aren’t exempted from the vagaries of competing in music awards. Appalling, as it might seem there are shows like ‘little champs’ targeted at the minor segment, and it’s heart rending to hear them trying their best to win awards, prodded by their parents. I think, my own jaundiced view, there should be a ban on minors performing in such shows.

Now who has these music shows discovered? Indian Idol Abjijeet Sawant is still struggling to find his slot, and the others have either dropped out, or been eliminated in the mad stampede towards recording contracts. Laughter stars Raju Shrivastava (my favourite) and Sunil Pal (second in line) have become typecast and are overworked producing the same type of staid stuff. So are the others. The Pakistanis across the border are a really talented lot when it comes to tickling the funny bone. Irfan Malik and Ali Hassan are a riot; I love their act.

However, there’s a lot at fault here. A society that is frivolous enough to value laughter and dance more than hard news, learning and literature is doomed to fail. The news media, the watchdogs, are no longer the bull terriers they used to be, rather tame shoe-licking, tail-wagging Pomeranians. And, no wonder, that’s already happening. Disillusioned, people are using religious faith to prop and leverage their position in society. They are becoming more intolerant than a decade ago. To my horror I found that one of my friends is these days viewing to the discs of a fundamentalist Baba something, I forget the name. Are we going the way of Yugoslavia where the Catholic Croatia, the Eastern Orthdox Serbia and the Muslim Bosnia Herzegovina split into a schizophrenic trinity, while leaving pockets of these communities stranded in enemy territory?

That reminds me of something more disturbing, that I have been ruminating about writing for a long, long time, which I will mention here in passing. The irony is what strikes you dumb: the government is writing off loans given to farmers on the one hand and on the other it is creating special economic zones for the already rich, while the media is full of laughter and music. Who will, at least, speak for the common man and his burdens? Who will hold this candle that has been lighted at both ends? Any guesses?

No, I won’t hazard a guess.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Khalid Hosseini - The Kite Runner

There’s not a single book I have read recently in my life that brought tear to my eyes when I read the last few words before closing it. (A good part of the book was read lying in a hospital bed, while drips were being administered by white-frocked denizens of the heavenly kind. Needless to say, this story, and the other eternal best seller of all time – the Bible – were the two books that hastened my recovery, and those which put me back into the circle of life.) And I decided I must write this review, though time – the monster – is sitting on me and not letting me look this way or that these days.

What can I say about the novel “The Kite Runner” by Khalid Hosseini except that it’s a tragic tale about a tragedy of a country that has been attacked, over-run, raped, and talibanised. And I am shocked and amazed that though there is such a precedent so close to our country, some people in our own country is bent on trying here the failed experiment of religion ruling over governance and statecraft. Those people who kill in the name of religion and those people in power who turn a blind eye to such progroms should read this book as a case study in keeping religion away from government. I mean it; it should be made must reading for the likes of Narendra Modi and Lal Krishna Advani.

First things first, the author should be admired, nay, congratulated for writing so candidly about the tragedy of a “reckless” people so effectively. Truly the Afgans are a tragic people circumscribed by their own recklessness. I had the opportunity of having a few Pathan friends when I was working in the Persian Gulf and I can vouch that they are a very warm people, acutely conscious of their tradition and culture. However, except for their culture and tradition, which, the book proclaims, aren’t rules but just traditions, the country has nothing that would propel it to modernity, governance, organisation, and progress, in short, betterment and a happy state of existence. They don’t even have a great many movies to call their own. The movies they fancy are stale Hindi movies and re-runs of old Hollywood movies such as: “Magnificent Seven”, “Dirty Dozen” and others. (Gives me goose pimples to remember how they would crowd before a television set every evening for the nightly show of a Hindi movie when I was working in Saudi Arabia.) Coming from such a background this novel stuns with its originality, it’s realistic and believable portrayal of a society much like our own.

Obviously, India has much in common with Afganistan, no, not only the words like “sahib”, “Zindagi” and Hindi movies, but a lot of other things besides. The Mughals who ruled us came from thence, the songs and gazals came from there, so did Sufism and a lot of what we call Hindustani culture and cuisine. But apart from all this we have always considered the Pathans from Afganistan as our valiant friends from across the borders. Maybe it is because of their looks and bodies, but they have always held a charm for us, and our rulers have used them as mercenaries because of their recklessness, and easy initiation into any mercenary mission with bloodcurdling intent.

That such a brave people would be so easily brainwashed by the Russians, the Northern Alliance communists, and subsequently the Taliban is something very sad and unfortunate. The Pathans have a traditional code of conduct called Pathaniyat by which they treat guests with honour that is due to them. So they can be easily exploited, and I guess the Russians overstayed their welcome and even exploited their hosts. A doctor in an Islamabad hospital asks Amir why Afgans are a reckless people. Afgans, a majority of whom are Pathans are spread into Pakistan and into India’s north-western border. Being Sunnis they have contempt for the “Hazaras” or the Shias, who are a minority in Afganistan. (The same contempt we have over here for the minority community, I guess.) That may be the reason why Amir, born to a rich father, hates his father’s servant’s son Hassan, who is a Hazara. But Hassan is also Amir’s best friend and protector, who saves him from the bad boys of the locality, who are led by Assef, the local bully. This hatred is kindled and sustained by the fact that his father loves his servant’s son Hassan as his own. Amir is consumed by jealousy and starts betraying Hassan in small ways to attempt to win over his father’s affections.

Amir and Hassan grow up as master and slave respectively, not knowing that they are half brothers. But this knowledge comes too late in his life for Amir to make amends. The boys have a common passion for flying kites, much like any Indian boy who enjoys this pleasurable pastime. And when Amir, the master, wins the kite fight tournament over the skies of Kabul, Hassan runs to retrieve the kite and is waylaid and cruelly dealt with by Assef, just because he is a Hazara.

What tragically happens afterwards is the main theme of this path breaking novel, which though it drags at times, has ominous portents for India and the road its mercenary religious zealots have chosen. The situation changes dramatically after religious bigotry wins. Afganistan is taken over by the Taliban. This devastates the country, leaving it a bare skeleton of its earlier glorious days. (It is obvious here that mere religious ideology cannot rule a country for long. Before you could say “Abracadabra,” the country descends into bedlam and misrule by the misguided Mullas of Taliban who dispense justice through the barrels of Kalashnikovs while seated in pickup trucks. There is a climate of fear and men are regularly picked up and killed.) Fearing for their lives Amir and his father immigrate to the US to save themselves from the Taliban’s autocratic rule. In the US Amir finds love in the beautiful Soraya, a teacher. Amir’s father dies soon after. Amir is called back by the ailing Rahim Khan, a friend of his father, who tells him that Hassan is his half brother and that he is dead, but that he has a son who is still alive and is living in an orphanage inside Afganistan.

This novel is a seminal work in that it dissects Afgan life like never before. It struck me that Indian life and Afgan life have a lot in common and that we are two countries bound by a common destiny. What happened to Afganistan may happen in India if we aren’t too careful. Our religious zealots are also as reckless and unscrupulous as the Gujarat genocide shows. Already rumblings of such types were seen after the demolition of the mosque at Ayodhya and the carnages that followed.

What is happening is that leaders who have absolutely no clue about solving the country’s problems are promising a heaven they cannot deliver, on condition that a certain section of the country is either eliminated or pushed into the ghettos. Such politics has failed for the first time in Afganistan and will fail again if it is tried elsewhere. This is because of the simple fact that zealous priests who can preach deliverance cannot rule. Too much divine power in a priest’s hands would corrupt him as much as that in any other individual’s hands.

Hosseini’s writing is simple, lucid, and though he uses a few novelistic techniques, he doesn’t overdo it or make such techniques obvious. There’s a hidden subtlety in the book that makes one want to read more from this promising author. And Amir is unashamedly the intellectual writing type of person, without making any pretence to anything vaguely virile and manly. His failings are very obvious to the reader and that makes him/her want to relate to the author’s prose all the more. Buy this book, read it, and give heed to the message it has to offer. I am sure it will be time well spent.