Monday, October 17, 2011

Let's Have Some Humor, Please

We are living in a terrible world and doomsday is just around the corner; or so we are led to believe by television, newspapers, the internet and all other oracles of wisdom. Nothing seems to going to right for humanity- Greece, the Euro crisis, Wall Street, US debt, climate change, rogue states, etc. Closer home we have inflation, falling stock markets, the Lokpal Bill, 2G and scams of every kind and size. The list is ever growing; you only have to add your pet angst to it.

Whatever happened to that wonderful therapeutic called humour? I don’t mean the stand up comic type which is in vogue today; rather, the sly poke in the ribs that reminds us that, even if all is not well with the world, we are doing fine and having a good laugh about it.

Welcome to the little world of Don Camillo.

In the context of its time, post world war two Europe was just as insecure and dangerous as the world is today.  While the common folk grappled with economic hardship, their political leadership was preoccupied with ideological realignments or preventing them. As a farcical consequence, depending on your leanings, all problems owed their roots to communism or opposition to it. Black couldn’t get blacker and white, whiter.

The absurdity of the situation was too much for an Italian, Giovanni Guareschi. He reacted by creating two characters, a priest named Don Camillo and his communist adversary, Peppone, in a village in the Po river valley in Northern Italy. The battle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie was truly joined and the several comic confrontation between the two reflected the pointlessness of the  discourse of the time.

Guareschi was born “… in Parma near the Po River; people born in this area have heads as hard as pig iron…My parents had decided that I should become a naval engineer and so I ended up studying law and thus, in a short time, I became famous as a signboard artist and caricaturist.” 

As if this was not enough, life had a lot more in store for him.

He wrote, “For reasons entirely beyond my control, the war broke out…Since I did not want to work for the Germans; I was sent to … various concentration camps… I had to do everything to stay alive and succeeded almost completely by dedicating myself to a precise programme which is summarized in my slogan 'I will not die even they kill me'. (It is not easy to remain alive when one is reduced to sack of bones of which the total weight is one hundred pounds, and this includes lice, bedbugs, fleas, hunger, and melancholy.)”.

One must read the Don Camillo stories to appreciate the delicious farce of the battles between faith and ideology. Both Don Camillo and Peppone are  rigid in their beliefs and do not hesitate to use their fists to make their points. But “… one man beats the other over the head, but fairly - that is, without hatred - and that in the end the two enemies find they agree about the essentials.”

Christ is Don Camillo’s conscience keper and the two often converse and argue. But His control over the priest’s temper is tenuous. In one story the Lord restrains Don Camillo saying that “…your hands were made for blessing, not for striking.” In response, Don Camillo made the rather fine point that the Lord said nothing about the use of  feet and proceeded to give his adversary a powerful kick in the behind.

But the Lord is even-handed in his dispensations. When Don Camillo refused to  baptise Peppone’s infant son (I'm thinking of the reputation of Paradise, Don Camillo claimed.), Christ was annoyed.

'The reputation of Paradise is my business,' He shouted angrily. 'What matters to me is
that a man should be a decent fellow and I care less than nothing whether his name be Lenin or Button.

Though they would not admit to it, both men needed each other. In one story, the communists petition the Bishop to transfer Don Camillo from the village because of his “his provocative and dictatorial poses.” Peppone misses him almost immediately on Don Camillo’s departure and loses no time in leading another group to the same Bishop with a demand to get him back and threatened that “…until our regular parish priest returns to us, not a soul will enter the church."

Giovanni Guareschi is unapologetic about his characters. “If there is a priest anywhere who
feels offended by my treatment of Don Camillo, he is welcome to break the biggest candle
available over my head. And if there is a Communist who feels offended by Peppone, he is
welcome to break a hammer and sickle on my back. But if there is anyone who is offended by the conversations of Christ, I can't help it; for the one who speaks in this story is not Christ, but my Christ - that is, the voice of my conscience.”

For reasons beyond our control, the world has got to where it is now. We take our experts-politicians, stock brokers, bankers and the like- far too seriously. In the general atmosphere of gloom, they appear to be only ones with carefree smiles on their faces. And why not, if they are being paid handsomely just to remind us, day in and day out, of our miserable condition?

The time is just right to shut our ears to the din and stop taking ourselves seriously. Don Camillo and Peppone can teach us how. Along the way, we might also realize  the foolishness of taking extreme positions.

 And laugh about it, too.

(The Don Camillo stories are freely available on the internet)

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Butterflies in my Garden

I like  plants, flowers and a bit of greenery in my immediate surroundings. Thus, I decided that I must have my own personal green space in the terraces of my flat. It took me several months to realize that I am not blessed with what is called a green thumb.

Some plants did survive my ministrations. The lemon grass and hibiscus held their own, and the balsam came back from the brink. But the calendula plant   refuses to bloom and the flowering rosy milkweed vine is often given to sulking. It has a temperament that would shame a pampered movie celebrity. Hardly garden-of-Eden stuff, one might say.

Encouragement came by way of a pair of butterflies. They arrived one afternoon and perched on a hibiscus leaf. They were small and, but for the colours that were in startling contrast to the green of the leaf, could have been easily missed. They remained there for a few hours. Then, when my attention was drawn by an unavoidable chore, they were gone.

Look at the symmetry of design and colour. At a distance, they looked like one

It was only when I got closer that I found that there were two of them!

It is not easy to describe what went through my mind at that time. Suffice it to mention that I redoubled my efforts since that day. Tending to the plants is now an indispensable part of my morning constitutional. The appearance of a new leaf is a sign of hope; a bud presages  something to look forward to and the- as yet occasional- bloom, reason to rejoice.

There is hope for me, yet

Sunday, September 25, 2011

North Sikkim Remembered

Sikkim is the original God’s own country (I will brook no dissenting opinions here) and North Sikkim is His own very special place. The scenery is breathtakingly beautiful- rugged snow capped mountains, deep valleys, lush alpine forests, clear fast flowing streams. Sikkim is paradise on earth.

My first view of North Sikkim. Lachen  is
a pretty little village.

North Sikkim and its lovely people did not deserve the earthquake. What saddens me more is the indifferent response of the general public to the catastrophe. The spontaneous mobilisation of voluntary efforts is completely absent. True, more lives were lost in Gujarat and Latur. But  North Sikkim’s suffering is no less in its intensity.  

Life is not easy here. In the best of times, the roads are bad; in the worst, they cease to exist. Landslides are a fact of everyday life. The weather can change several times a day-sunny to wet to cool to biting cold. Villages, settlements and hamlets are scattered. Communications are erratic. Yet, in spite of the hard life, the people are among the friendliest and the most helpful ones that you could meet.

Early evening- This house in Lachen 
is a  picture right out of a fairy tale 
We were looked after by a family of three-a woman and two teenage children- when we stayed at their lodge in Lachen. We were a group of twenty fussy and demanding  big city dwellers. They checked us in, carried our bags to our rooms, had hot tea and snacks ready, served  a delicious seven course dinner, got us bed tea at 6am, followed by hot water for our baths and breakfast at 8. Their smiles never slipped. They were genuinely delighted to have us.

The pictures  in this post bring back memories of a lovely time in a lovely place with lovely people.

The Monastery in Lachung. Did it survive the quake?
Lachung - the river Teesta flows at
a lively pace by the town
The Sinba Valley bursts with colour in the months of April and early May. It is time for the annual Rhododendron Festival which draws nature lovers from all over the world by the hundreds.

Blood red, lilac, orange, lavender-
Nature's very own Holi Festival
Rhododendrons rule the valley
a few weeks. 

Yumthong Valley

The river Teesta in Yumthong

Sinba valley carries the scars of numerous landslides over the years. The media carried reports of damage to Lachung, Singa and Yumthong. What does it take to ruin a postcard?

Up Close-the mountains in Katao

Katao- about 30km from Lachung
The day before our visit, three army
soldiers were killed by a landslide at
this spot

The roads challenge the sturdiest of SUVs.Break downs and getting stuck in the mud are common.There is an accepted code of conduct that, regardless of impatient tourists, passing drivers must stop and offer help. Our driver stopped several times to help pull vehicles out of the slush or coax tired engines back to life.
Such sights are a regular feature in Sikkim. Manoj, our
driver(far right in white jersey) helped get this SUV out of
the mud and the convoy moving.  Manoj played the
good samaritan often.

This young man lives in Sinba valley and stopped
us just to ask for cigarettes. Our driver obliged and we were
rewarded with a grateful smile

 It is great pity that Sikkim's suffering has to compete for attention with the Euro crises , US debt and 2G. I suspect-and the thought does not give any comfort-that , like other north-eastern states, Sikkim has not completely integrated into our national consciousness.

As I write this- more than a week after the quake- Television Channels have started to play tickers asking for donations to the Chief Ministers fund. For those who read this, please help as much as you can. Let us reach out to the people of Sikkim at this time of need.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Wanted- Chief Spiritual Officer

The attendant whispered into the ear of The Great One that it was time for his  Sadhana     (meditation). The Great One nodded, half-closed his eyes, smiled at the small gathering and raised his hand, palm facing outward. The meeting ended. Laptops were switched off and returned to their bags; and the people in the room rose and moved forward, heads bent, to receive the His blessings. The Great One blessed them all. Eyes shining in ecstasy, they filed slowly out of the room, each person trying harder than the other to be the last to leave so that that the Vibrations and the Energy from the Great One remained the longest with him.

The attendant then spread the Turkish rug.  The Great One gathered his finely patterned mauve and gold (according to The Great One, the colours of sunrise over the Gobi desert in early summer)  silk robe around him and sat. At a sign that only he could understand, the attendant turned on the Bang and Olufsen audio system, selected African Chants and pressed the play button.

From inside the folds of his robe, The Great One then brought out the Svarovski crystal beads strung together in a fine platinum thread. Then he took a deep breath, shut his eyes and exhaled. The attendant made sure that the air conditioner was set at 22.5degrees Celsius and exited the Divine chamber.

Outside, scores of his devotees chanted along and swayed to the ululation that came out of the speakers. They had travelled thousands of miles to experience Absolute Ecstasy. They were the truly fortunate and Blessed ones that day.

But, inside the Divine Chamber, The Great One was restless. He was unable to drive corporeal matters out of his mind.  True, the outcome of the meeting was reassuring. His following had grown manifold and the flow of offerings (the Great One did not accept gifts or donations, only offerings) from His devotees were turning into a flood.  From hard cash to gold and diamonds, cars to yachts and aircraft- his devotees spared no efforts. Universities, hospitals, and even banks were named after him. Yet, his worries remained. If anything, they only seemed to increase.

In his childhood an astrologer had predicted greatness for him. As an adult he was a brilliant engineering student who went on study management and became a successful banker. Then he heeded a Higher Calling. He stopped chasing wealth. His destiny was- as he would sometimes humbly share with his most ardent devotees- to lead people to Enlightenment and Happiness. If the size of his following and offerings was anything to go by, he didn’t do badly.

A contemporary of his, whose following and influence even The Great One wished he could match, had given up his mortal being recently. His followers, who remained in the illusional material world, fell to squabbling among themselves and soon destroyed his legacy. It was then that The Great One realised that he, too, was allowed finite time in this world. But he did not want HIS work to be undone in such a manner. It was this thought that was ruining his concentration.

The spiritual being in him advised The Great One against attachment to worldly issues. But his material alter ego insisted that it was his responsibility to ensure that his legacy continued. Soon, The Great One’s mind turned into a battlefield in which the material and the immaterial fought for domination. 

The Great One sighed loudly and said, “Enough! I have decided.” He kept aside his beads and reached for his phone, switched it on and made a call.

The conversation ended a few minutes later after which The Great One resumed his meditation. His mind was at peace, his face glowed and the serene half-smile returned. He was back on the path to Enlightenment and Happiness.

A few days later, leading newspapers carried the following advertisement:

Our client, an internationally renowned organization committed to the spiritual upliftment of the global community, has advertised for the following position
                                                    Chief Spiritual Officer
LOCATION: India. The incumbent will have the opportunity to live and work in one of the most scenic areas in the country. The establishment is located on several hundred acres of greenery. One of India’s largest rivers flows through it in the backdrop of snow capped mountains. The air is pure and the environment serene. The place is connected to the State Capital by a six lane highway to the State Capital; and an airport to major destinations in India and overseas.

QUALIFICATIONS AND EXPERIENCE: The position does not call for a formal education although the ability to read and write will be considered an added asset. However, the incumbent must effectively communicate the core spiritual messages and demonstrate his ability to attract, retain and expand a global following. Success in retaining the unquestioning devotion of politicians, business leaders and other persons of influence will be a key result area. A talent for magic like fire eating, conjuring objects and making them disappear, etc will be to the candidate’s advantage.

Marital status is not an issue of concern for the position. However, the incumbent is expected to maintain the highest standards of discretion in his (or her) personal matters. A willingness to deny existence of close family would be ideal.

SALARY AND PERQUISITES: No limits. The successful candidate may select his (or her) remuneration package in any or a combination of major international currencies. The incumbent will be entitled to a modern, fully furnished, centrally air conditioned twenty-room mansion equipped with state-of-art furnishing, plumbing and communication facilities. Also at disposal are personal and secretarial staffs to attend to all needs. In addition, The Chief Spiritual Officer is entitled to the exclusive use of a fleet of luxury cars, three yachts and two aircraft.

The selected candidate will be expected to join at an early date and work with the present incumbent. He (or she) will take  full charge after the latter’s departure from this world. The candidate must also bear in mind that, for obvious reasons, it is not possible to set a timeline for this eventuality.

Please apply in strict confidence to ……….

The last we heard on the matter, the recruitment company had  received 12,486 applications. The short listing process and preliminary interviews are on. Hopefully, The Great One will find a worthy successor in about ten years. Or, at least, a reliable astrologer.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Teaching History

I spent most of my reading time in the last few months reading up on history. It was not a conscious choice; an improbable turn of chance caused four books on the subject to fall on my lap one after the other. The selection was eclectic and covered diverse periods and perspective.

I started with a history of China and Japan from Will Durant’s classic, “The Story of Civilization”. Then followed “A People’s History of the World” (Chris Harman), a persuasively different-and somewhat controversial- view of history from prehistoric time. While the mind was still taking in the view, Nilakanta Sastry’s scholarly “A History of South India” cried for attention.  Then it was off to the New World to read “The Civil War Memoir of Philip Daingerfield Stephenson, D.D”, a Confederate soldier’s account of the American Civil War.(The Confederates were on the losing side. History is as much about the losers as those who vanquished them)

My interest in History was kindled in 1975 when I came across the complete set of Durant’s “The Story of  Civilization” in the reference section of the library at the Regional Engineering College (now National Institute of Technology), Warangal. The volumes had gathered dust and definitely looked out place amid all the material on science and engineering. I could not read the full set, but managed parts from each volume.

Warangal is famous for its beautiful Thousand Pillar temple; it was also the capital of the powerful Kakatiya Empire. This much is common knowledge. But, how many know the significant role some of its kings played in delaying the advance of Muslim rule in southern India? How many of us know enough to appreciate that the history of South India is an integral part of the history of India. This leads me to the problem.

The problem lies in our horribly warped approach to teaching. History is taught from a narrow regional bias.  By itself this need not be a bad thing if the learning process draws students out of their immediate geographical area and makes them appreciate the bigger influences around them. Unfortunately, this is not happening.  

History is much more than a series of dates and bloody conquests. It is a continuum. Regardless of perspective, it is a record of humanity’s aspirations, struggle, achievements and failures.  More importantly, the fortunes and destinies of different peoples and cultures are interlinked. This point has been completely missed in our textbooks and teaching methods.

Arts and humanities do not get equal treatment with science in the education space. Simply put, they are treated as an unavoidable distraction in a teacher or parent’s drive to make his or her child a successful doctor, engineer, techie or whatever it is that our  regards as  success. As a consequence, the study of history is a desultory exercise in remembering a few dates, people and events without really appreciating the bigger picture.

In Durant’s words, history is “not a lifeless chronicle but a … humanizing visualization”. Events are shaped as much, if not more, by people’s aspirations as by quest for personal glory. It is this that we must learn to appreciate. We live in a diverse and complex society. I cannot think of a better way (than studying history) to understand people who are different from us. I believe that a proper understanding of its history enhances a society’s awareness of itself as well its sense of destiny.

Such an approach will place a huge demand on the intellectual resources of our educators. But isn’t that what  teaching and learning , especially of the arts and humanities, is all about- to energize our individual and collective intellect?                                                                                                                                    .

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Miracle in Milan

Miracle in Milan
I am not given to talking or writing about films. To me, movies fall in of the following categories- they are “a waste of time”, “worth watching if someone else is paying for the tickets”, “good” or “would like to see it again”.  No explanation is offered for the yardsticks I apply and a debate on the subject is not encouraged.

However, I must make an exception with a film I saw recently. It is “Miracolo a Milano”(Italian for “Miracle in Milan”). The film was made by the celebrated director, Vittorio de Sica in the middle decade of the last century. It is a fantasy set in post World War-II Italy. Somehow, I couldn’t help connecting the story with contemporary situation.

The story is quite simple. Toto, the protagonist, was found by an elderly woman in her cabbage patch. She raises him as her own and Toto grows in a loving and protected environment. Soon his adoptive mother dies and, with no family or wealth to fall back on, Toto is left to fend for himself.

Circumstances lead Toto to a group of squatters who live on a piece of land by the railway line. His innate good nature, helpfulness and organizational abilities draws the squatters together and they build a shantytown on the land. 

As their song went, “All I need is a shack, a pair of socks and a piece of the sun”. Toto ensured  that everyone got a shack and a bit of sun.

Their contentment did not last. Oil is discovered on the land and the owner, Mr Mobbi, wants to get rid of the people. Toto leads a group to to Mr Mobbi’s office to plead their case. But, as they are being lavishly entertained by Mr Mobbi, the police arrive at the shanty and begin to evict the squatters. Toto returns to find the shanty being demolished and the people forced to move. 

Disheartened by Mr Mobbi’s deception, he is about to give up the struggle. Suddenly, the ghost of his adoptive mother appears and gives Toto a dove which has magical powers. With the help of the dove Toto and his group succeeds in driving back Mr Mobbi and the police. But their joy at having won is short lived.

The dove is taken back by the angels who do not like the idea of a human being using it. With Toto and the squatters being rendered helpless, the police move in again, round up the group and take them to jail in paddy wagons. As they reach the city square, the dove is restored to Toto and there is yet another miracle. Toto’s wish for freedom and happiness for his friends is granted in a classic, fairytale scene which must have few parallels in cinema.

The film is set with the constant movement of the trains in background as if to remind one that progress is inexorable and impersonal. You do not matter to the world. There is  the unforgettable scene in which dozens of squatters crowd together in a small patch of sunlight-the only source of warmth in a cold and gloomy landscape. Truly a cinematographic achievement when you remember that the film was shot in black and white.

Some of the film's best moments combine satire with the poignant. After having beaten back the challenge of the police, Toto is besieged by his followers to use the dove's powers to satisfy personal needs and, then, greed. It begins with someone asking for a decent set of clothes, another for a pair of shoes, and so on with the demands becoming increasingly outrageous till two men trying to shout each other down in asking for " a million, million, million...and a million lire" till they run out of breath. A police sergeant, who is watching all this, creeps up to Toto and begs to be made a general. Toto obliges and the man returns happily to his post-then promptly refuses to obey his superior's orders because he is now a general!

"Miracle..." is rich in satire and humor that is intelligent and ironic by turn. Above all, it is also a compassionate view of those who are not as privileged as us. It also reminds us , sixty years after it was made, that it does not need special effects, booming guns and Dolby sound to tell a good story that also entertains.

Grazie, Signore de Sica


Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Few Good People

Corruption is the flavor of the day and no other issue has captured public attention in the manner that Corruption has. Not surprisingly, in the recent past there has been a spurt in the public expiation of personal wrongdoing by the famous and not-so-famous; and givers as well as takers. I am sharing a personal experience of a slightly different kind.

An important life lesson was learnt on a train one summer evening in 1981.

I was traveling from Ahmedabad- where my parents lived then-to Bangalore (Bengaluru) where I was doing my post-graduation in the Indian Institute of Science. Train connectivity was poor in those days and one had to change trains at Bombay (Mumbai) and Guntakal. Making reservations for all the stages of the journey was a difficult and complicated process. On that trip I did not have a reservation for the Guntakal-Bangalore leg and boarded a reserved coach confident that I could manage the TTE (Train Ticket Examiner) for a berth.

The TTE on this coach was an elderly man and probably close to retirement. As the train pulled out of Guntakal, he got down to the task of checking the reservations. His manner was brusque and businesslike. As he paused in his work, I caught his attention and requested a berth. He told me that the coach was full and that I would have to leave the coach at the station.

I did not give up as I was used to the rapaciousness of the TTEs on the Ahmedabad-Bombay route and assumed that it was only a matter of time before the TTE and I would discuss “business”.  I was the only person in the coach who did not have a reservation; so I rated my chances of success as rather high.

The TTE looked up from his work and was annoyed to see that I was shadowing him.

“What do you want?” he asked, “I have already told you that there is no vacancy.”

I gave him that syrupy, ingratiating smile hoping that he would get the message. He got the message and, in full view of the passengers, gave me a tongue lashing that I have not quite got over even today.

“What kind of a person do you think I am? Do I seem the type who can be bought? Do expect me to make a berth for you with your money? What do you young people think of yourselves? Is this what my country is coming to?”

He went on in this vein and after sometime ordered me to stand near the door and get off at the next station. The alternative was being handed over to the police for traveling without a valid ticket.  Humiliated and defeated, I headed to the door and mentally prepared myself for a sleepless night in a dirty, crowded and smoky coach.

A few minutes later, the TTE called me over and told me to occupy a berth left vacant by a passenger who did not show up. Head bowed, I mumbled my thanks and paid the reservations charges. He made out the receipt and returned the exact change.  He then asked me to join him for a chat at his seat near the door.

By then his demeanor had changed.  His work over, he became a kind and concerned uncle. He apologized for his outburst and went on to criticize his generation for setting a wrong example to young people. He spoke about his own struggle to resist temptation and his isolation among his colleagues. To Mr Sampath- that was name of the TTE- honor and integrity mattered more than anything  else.

Surprisingly, Mr Sampath did not once admonish me for my impudence; nor did he advise me on morals. He spoke simply , matter-of-factly and without rancour. Then we talked about my studies for a few minutes. Soon, it was time for bed. I was tired and wanted to sleep in order to be reasonably alert in class the following morning

“Goodnight, young man,” he said, “do well and bring credit to your family. My shift will end in a few hours and I will be getting off the train when you will still be asleep”.

I went to my berth but, in spite of my exhaustion, could not sleep.

During the course of my career  I realized that things happen not due the “corrupt-but- efficient” many but the dedicated few who place service before self and discharge their duties honestly, diligently and with no expectation of a reward. Whenever I am tempted to take the short-cut, Mr Sampath returns to my mind. I do not claim to be perfect but I have also learned that patience and respect for the rules go a long way in avoiding battles with our conscience. It is people like Mr Sampath who give spine to the struggle against corruption. Without them the Lokpal-or any other- Bill- will remain just one among the countless laws that we have.  Thank you, Mr Sampath, wherever you are.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The war on Corruption

Some posts back I took an irreverent view of  corruption in public life and one man's crusade against it. I feel less sanguine now, and more so as battle lines between Government and "Civil Society" have clearly drawn. A dangerous game of brinkmanship is being played out by both sides with no clear outcome in sight. As always, it is the people who will suffer. Here are my views for what they are worth.

Anna Hazare’s movement against corruption is developing farcical dimensions and I am uneasy about the outcome. The anxiety is compounded by the realization that, being a member “civil society”, I am supposed to be different from the class of people I have elected.

First, the authorities found that releasing their prisoner was easy. The hard part was in getting Anna to leave jail!

Then Anna negotiated (browbeat would be a more appropriate term here) with the police about the location and duration of his fast. The last I heard, he was given permission to go without food for fifteen days. By then, I assume,  the Government would blink first or Anna would give up

This was followed by a gesture that has no precedent. I am referring to the Delhi Police’s action in arranging the infrastructure –as it were- for the event! Going by media reports, they have spared no efforts- tents, platforms, electricity.

The media, too,  has gone on overdrive. As matters stand today, Anna Hazare, the person, has become much, much bigger than the cause he is fighting for. He is well on his way to being anointed a Mahatma. So we have hundreds of millions of Indians hanging on to his every word, and reading meanings in every gesture.

Celebrities and public figures, many of whom have benefited by winking at the law, have sprouted halos after joining Anna.

Colleges -many of them guilty of taking illegal donations- have allowed staff time off to participate in protests.

Young people waving flags show policemen the middle finger as they speed past traffic lights.

Is this what the movement against corruption is all about? Could we not have gone about it differently? I think the time has come for everyone to stand back and take a deep breadth.

We have several oversight and regulatory bodies already. Let them do their work without fear or favor. How is the Lokpal expected to be different?

Unfortunately, our institutions and political processes have been so badly subverted by corruption that people’s faith in them has eroded almost completely. Still, the big bang approach favoured by the proponents of Lokpal is not likely to work because it will, sooner or later, subsumed into the system.

I believe that victory in the war against corruption will be the sum of wins in local battles. Such an approach demands that we stop making a spectacle of ourselves in front of television cameras and put our money where our mouths lie. For a start, volunteer groups can picket government offices and report on corruption as it occurs. The campaign must be sustained and there must be no let up in intensity till the guilty either mend their ways or are punished.

As for our politicians, they owe their existence to “civil society”.  Let the message be clear that our votes matter and they will be personally answerable to their constituency for their party’s failures.

Next week, I will be accompanying my daughter when she goes to the Regional Transport Office to get her learner’s driving license. I understand that many of the staff has gone on leave to join Anna Hazare.  But my work will be done if….

Let’s see. I might even start a fast to get my work done.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Urban Landscape- Dreams in Concrete

( A small home in the shadow of the clouds- my mind is playing crazy with this dream…)
 Kishore Kumar sings in “Naukri”

Tevye, the milkman, sings “If I were a rich man” in “The Fiddler on the Roof”

It starts with a dream... let yourself go
In spite of the competitive pulls at the wallet, it remains the ultimate in the realization of dreams. Simply put, it is the purchase of your very own home. There is no better way-than  buying  a house- to affirm to yourself and to society at large that you have “settled”. Not having a home to call your own can have an “unsettling” impact on your image.

We  want more.. and more.Nothing is too much or too good for us...

Thanks to rising affluence, Pune has enjoyed an almost uninterrupted property boom for over a decade.  Here is a market in which seller and buyer are more or less evenly matched. No wonder, then, that most of public advertising space in the city and its outskirts are taken up by the builder-oops, sorry, that should be  property developer- fraternity.

70 amenities ... what could they be? Start your count with walls, doors
windows, electricity, running water, swimming pool, garden, clubhouse,
 gym,... continue till they add up to 70..!

It is impossible to ignore the hoardings that promise to fulfill your dream of living in urban utopia. Unlike the modest romanticism  of Kishore Kumar and Tevye, our dreams are more ambitious and unfettered. Nothing is too much or too good for us.

The aggressive creativity that builders apply- and push the envelope- in the use of permissible living space now extends to their marketing methods. It starts with the names given to housing projects.

Gone are the days when our life’s goals are realized in an “Aashiyana”, a “Shanti Kutir”, or a “Sai Dham”. Today we will settle for nothing less than an abode in Whistling Woods (never mind the treeless landscape), a Balmoral (just off a dusty highway) or an Aircastle (on terra firma). The options and promises are virtually unlimited. We are global citizens, we think global and our aspirations are global. Everything about us must have the global look and feel.

The search for the perfect dwelling... your private heaven on this earth... between 9pm and 8am,
The options are unlimited

The promises of a paradise on earth were simply too good to ignore. I started taking these pictures to relieve the tedium of a long   commute. I thought I would be done in a about a week. But more and more hoardings came up and the earlier ones made way for new projects. For about a month, office and home became a second priority. It was fun while it lasted.

Soon, a reality check... money does matter

Sleep on little one while mummy and daddy slog to pay
off the mortgage

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Season for Colours

 There’s no electricity and our taps are dry. How are we going to last the season without water?

The air-conditioner does not work when we want it to.

Mom, I don’t care if we are out of salt. Its 3pm and I am not going out in the heat.

Mom, can I go out to play?
In this heat? You must be mad.

Couldn’t sleep a wink last night, it was hot and there was no electricity

Summer is the season for angst. Any situation that can be even remotely connected to the heat qualifies for a complaint or an excuse for inactivity.

But summer is also the season for colours. 
Colours that brighten
Colors that soothe
Colors that enliven

      Gulmohurs dominate the summer landscape. It is impossible to miss
      this huge treaa near Dehu Road on National Highway-4

The flowering trees are at their brightest best. So, stop that whining and feast you’re your eyes on a palette that is full with very color that you can think of-red, orange, purple, pink, yellow, and more. You don’t have to travel far, too; they are right there in your neighbourhood.

Summer Colors: Gulmohurs, Bougainvillae, Acacia, Jacaranda and more...
 I love the festival of colours and , these days, it takes a lot more than the heat
to keep me indoors!

Enjoy the colours while you can. In about six weeks the the first showers of the monsoon will wash that palette.  Then, green will dominate the landscape, but that is another season and another story

Beauty in Starkness. Monotony and preoccupation with our daily routine
blinds us to some compelling sights. If only we could stop and stare more

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Pani Puri, Anyone?

It began with an emergency meeting of the AIAPPMV- All India Association of Pani Puri Manufacturers and Vendors. (Just for the record, the Association is an affiliate member of United India Federation of Street Food Producers and Vendors, UIFSFPV). A longstanding member was assaulted by customers for using  his utensils of trade for purposes not indicated by the manufacturer of the said utensil. (Plainly put, he had emptied his bladder into the vessel). To add insult to injury, his raw material was destroyed. To add more insult, the law took an unsympathetic view of the matter and fined the said vendor for endangering public health.

The President of the Association started the meeting with a condemnation of the unprovoked attack on a senior member and called for a nationwide strike. The proposal did not find much support as –in the words of one of those present-it was a purely local matter. Serves the chap right, said another. Most of those present, however, were worried about their  losses and they were too scared to go out to work. They wanted the AIAPPMV to do something about it.

A worker with a NGO, which was a support group for the Association, then stood up. He explained how the world had changed and why it is important to be clean and maintain hygiene. He also gave examples of how a clean and pleasant environment actually helped businesses to grow and flourish.

New ideas have their share of opponents and skeptics and this was no different

“We have worked like this for several decades, why change now?” was the immediate reaction.
“It won’t work in our case,” was the considered opinion of the wise one
“Can’t afford this, we are barely able to make ends meet.” This came from the practical one.
“Things are bad enough as it is; trying out something new is not going to make it worse.” Here was a grudging acceptance, at last. The NGO worker had had his way. All that remained was to discuss the plan and put it in action.

Soon, there was a noticeable change in the way business was conducted. The foodstuff was stored in shining stainless steel vessels, it was handled with disposable plastic gloves and the pani was made using packaged drinking water. Cleaner than clean was the driving motto.

The vendors also wore neat uniforms which reflected the colour of their servings- greenish brown trousers (for the pani) and beige shirts (for the puri). They wore chef caps on their heads.

The AIAPPMV and the NGO also installed a large potted plant near every pani puri stall.

What a pleasant ambience, exclaimed a foreign tourist as she reached  for her camera.
One could hide behind it, commented another customer.
Yes sahib, replied the pani puri seller humbly, the plant is of great help in many ways.

The changes also attracted media’s attention. The president of the AIAPPMV was much sought after for interviews.  Soon after, he was invited to lecture Management Students on “Street Level Changes”.

The whispers began a couple of months later. No one paid any attention at first. The whispers gave way to low mutters and then to loud rumblings. Reality had to be faced. The pani puri business had not improved. In fact-as one pani puri vendor put it- it was as bad as it could be.

The same vendor quoted an old customer, “Your pani puri just doesn’t taste right these days”.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Corrupt? Who, us?

People’s power asserted itself peacefully and forcefully-as would be expected in a vibrant and functioning democracy- when the Government agreed to form a committee to draft the Jan Lokpal Bill.

I remained in ignorant bliss as history was being made. After the cricket world cup, I did not consider any event as worthy of being reported. So I had stopped reading the newspaper and did not pay my cable television subscription. Now, with the impending Jan Lokpal Bill, I told myself to take my obligations as a responsible citizen  very seriously.   I must make amends quickly.

First, I will get myself and a few friends photographed with the national flag. Then I will superimpose our picture on a newspaper photo of the scene of the historic fast. Many years hence, I must not be found wanting when my grandchildren ask me about “the second struggle of independence”. I must have a good story to tell. But, on second thoughts, that is still too far into the future.Life is so short and uncertain. Instead, I will put the photo on my Facebook page.

I am also concerned over reports of disagreements amongst the committee members. In my opinion-which is just one out a 1.21 billion- they are not focused on the basics. As I also have the right to be heard, I have decided to write to the committee with a few suggestions.

In my view the committee must address two fundamental points:

DEFINE CORRUPTION:   The effectiveness of the Lokpal Bill depends on the clarity that it brings to the meaning of the word corruption. Because of the far reaching effects of the  Bill, corruption must be defined and explained in all our constitutional languages so that it is understood by all Indians in the manner it is intended. If necessary, sub- committees must be formed to select regional language experts. This is serious work and its importance must not be underestimated. We cannot afford to have lawyers holding up cases while courts deliberate on the interpretation of the word. India has waited for forty years and a few decades more will not matter.

HEAR THE VOICE OF THE COMMON MAN. The common man supports the Bill, but is also worried that the rhythm and flow of his daily routine may be disturbed. The Committee must take these concerns into consideration. Let me explain.

Managing situations are an integral component of our everyday lives. We manage the policeman when we break a traffic rule. We manage the lineman when he arrives in our premises to cut the electricity because we have not paid the bill. A friend of mine also manages the VAT department whenever he misses the pay-by date. (The VAT officer will also vouch for my friend’s excellent hospitality). These are just a few examples that came immediately to my mind.

The committee must understand that we are honest, hardworking citizens. Most of us who cannot afford Chartered Accountants even pay our income tax on time. It is just that we do not want to bring any inconvenience and trouble upon ourselves.

So, would the committee kindly see to it that the Bill does not apply to us common folk? I am sure that there will be enough scams, frauds and Swiss Bank accounts to keep the courts busy

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Opium for the Masses

"Then ye returned to your trinkets; then ye contented your souls
With the flannelled fools at the wicket…..” Rudyard Kipling

The Minister was working very hard. It was not enough that India won the World Cup. True, during the month or so that the tournament held public attention, he did not have to be reminded daily about failed election promises and face awkward questions in Parliament. The challenge now was to keep the nation’s attention fixed on cricket. The Prime Minister wanted ideas. The Minister had responded with a proposal for a Ministry of Cricket The Prime Minister was pleased but also wanted the idea to be followed with quick administrative action. But that was not all.

A delegation of the sponsors had met him with a list of their demands. They were not satisfied that only 67.6 million had watched the finals. They had put in a lot of money and wanted more. India has a population of 1.21 billion and it was reasonable to expect that at least 500 million should watch the game. With so many people hooked to the television screens, commercials would reach a huge audience, which in turn could lead to a surge in purchases. Naturally, this would result in manufacturing growth, increased employment and more purchasing power.

The delegation also cautioned that all this will not be possible unless the game is supported by the government and built into an Institution. The Minister was impressed and the delegation left with a promise to build a cricket stadium in his village.

The Minister got down to work immediately. He was a man of destiny and this was his chance to leave his mark. His vision and plans soon took shape:

  • Cricket will drive –was that a pun?- the economy
  • There will be a Ministry of Cricket and, of course, the Minister would be honored to head it.
  • The Ministry would be run by the finest bureaucrats of the country so that cricketers can play cricket and ex-cricketers can commentate on matches.
  • There will be wide screen television sets in every office so that dedicated, hardworking employees do not miss a game
  • April 2 would be celebrated as World Cup day and declared a national holiday.The Department of Personnel will also be persuaded to add another category of leave. In addition to Earned Leave, Casual leave and Sick Leave, every employee would be entitled to seven days of Cricket Leave to watch at least one Test Match or a few one day or T20 games.
  • There will be an allowance so that employees may be able to travel to the match venues. An employee would be allowed to accumulate both leave and allowance for four years-enough to watch a full world cup
  • Exam schedules will be approved by the Ministry so that that they do not clash with match days. Students must be spared the stress of having to miss games because of exams
  • A special Act of Parliament was envisaged which will exempt cricketers from paying income tax (Farmers don’t pay tax, do they?). The Minister was also hopeful that gifts of cars, yachts, airplanes and such like would also not be taxed.
  • The Ministry will also look after the interests of cricketers who have sacrificed the best part of their lives. A special purpose vehicle will be formed to acquire land for houses and cricket academies.
There were more proposals. Indeed, the Minister’s head was brimming over with ideas. This was going to be definitive phase in Indian cricket and he wanted be known as the “game changer”.

"…eleven flannelled fools chasing a red ball, with eleven thousand fools cheering them" George Bernard Shaw

The Minister smiled as he recalled Kipling and Shaw. He had studied in England, was fashionably contemptuous of the British but, cricket- he just loved the game. In his mind, he strapped his pads and twirled his bat. He then squared his shoulders and strode to the Prime Minister's office.