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