Friday, 28 December 2012

Give The Dog A Bone..

Justice Markandey Katju claims that 90% of Indians are idiots. Methinks the man is being far too conservative – the figure should be closer to 99%! Let me hasten to add that I consider myself as prime among this majority, and quite revel in it!

The first sign of an idiot, as Dostoevsky says in his novel of the same name, is that he unthinkingly accepts his fate. And we Indians are the very personification of glum acceptance of the inevitability of our `kismet’. We are, what Kamala Das beguilingly called, `fatalists on stone benches’.

The mirror of any society is – or ought to be – its media. Pick up any mainstream newspaper, and what do you find? Ayaz Amir, the Pakistani columnist, was once  in New Delhi, and spent the entire morning going through every national daily from cover to cover. At the end of the exercise, he says, he was no wiser on what was happening around the world. He was, of course, fully updated on all the gossip that did the rounds of the corridors of power, and who was going around with whom in Bollywood.

The Times of India devotes over 80% of its space to advertisements, another 10 to 15% on inane gossip, and only about 5% to serious news. Full-page ads are now splashed across their front pages, I kid you not! Ravi Dugal, who has worked intimately with the Jains who own the Times Group, rightly says that news and editorial content is only meant to fill in the spaces left after the ads have been inserted!

The `Pune Times’ supplement is aptly described by my kids as a `potty paper’ – ideal reading on the pot! Check the item on the masthead - `Poonam Pandey is better than Bipasha, says Amit Saxena’! I tell you!! To make matters worse, they now have their front pages as `half pages’ (vertically sliced), which makes it extremely cumbersome to unfold while precariously balanced on the `throne’! Sid was so incensed with this inanity, he promptly dashed off an angry letter to the Editor!

As for the high decibel electronic media, they are no better than dogs with a bone. The bone of the moment is the unfortunate and tragic gang rape in Delhi. They will chew on it mercilessly till someone throws them another bone – then this story will be promptly dumped, and the other one gleefully snatched. The reporters in the field have no grace, no manners – they think nothing of shoving a mike into a traumatised victim’s face and asking him how he/she is `feeling’.

The anchors are so loud, so crass, so filled with outrage they make my stomach churn. And yet, they are the true STARS – just check the channel ads, where they preen themselves so shamelessly! So utterly full of themselves these idiots don’t allow the guests to get in a word edgewise. Rude in their interruptions, arrogant in their self belief and utterly crass in their manners. The Radia tapes exposed them so thoroughly, and yet the same faces continue to hog the airwaves, screaming and hyperventilating themselves into a state of near apoplexy!

Justice Katju is right. We are idiots, period. Maybe we deserve these nincompoops, maybe they only reflect our own inner self. Is there a glimmer of hope anywhere? I fear not…

Ek hi ullu kaafi tha, barbaad gulistan karne ko
Anjam-e-gulistan kya hoga, har shaakh pe ullu baithe hain..

Monday, 24 December 2012

Tell me, Oh Khuda...

When the CMP (Corps of Military Police) Centre & School was shifted from the sleepy hamlet of Faizabad in UP to the bustling metropolis of Bangalore in the late seventies, there were naturally whoops of joy all around.  This was not, however, without a twinge of regret. The grand and opulent Centre Mandir, which had acquired the status of a local landmark of sorts in Faizabad and nearby Ayodhya, would have to be left behind. But Bangalore was Bangalore – the fastest growing city in the subcontinent – and arguably the best city in the country (after my Poona, of course), so this seemed a small price to pay – if at all.

The Centre Commandant was a true Infantry soldier, complete with handle bar moustache and an IQ that struggled to reach double figures. One of his quirks (and there were quite a few, believe me – he believed he could cure any ailment by running a magnetic device over the patient’s photograph – even if the patient happened to be a continent away!) was his longing for the old mandir. He was convinced that by abandoning it for the city lights of Bangalore, the Centre had incurred the wrath of the Gods! So he decided to re-build an equally grand temple at Bangalore.

Idols in pristine marble were ordered from his home state of Rajasthan. These landed up at Bangalore about a few weeks before the structure was completed, so they had be stored somewhere till their `grand home’ was ready. A derelict barrack close by was being used for dumping all the construction material, as well as some of the debris from the structure. It was convenient, so room in this barrack was duly made for the idols. For a while, they stood patiently among sacks of cement, iron rods and wooden planks, while awaiting their move to more grand circumstances.

All this while, the `working parties’ trooped in and out of the barrack, in size-16 ammunition boots, sometimes carrying stuff away, sometimes dumping debris, always raising plumes of dust. The idols bore all this movement, noise and dust with the stoic sangfroid that Hindu Gods are so well known for.

When the D-Day arrived, the idols were duly dusted, even washed, and carried ceremoniously to their respective `thrones’.  A spiritual `baba’ of sorts was summoned to carry out the installation ceremony – the `sthapna’.  The patience of the idols had been duly rewarded, and lo and behold – they who had only heard the stomping of ammunition boots till a few hours ago, now couldn’t be approached unless one removed all forms of footwear first. They who had smiled upon unruly soldiers swapping risqué one liners, now had the same soldiers reciting the gayatri mantra. All in a matter of a few hours!

At what precise moment had the idols become divine, I wondered. What had changed so suddenly? The `sthapna' ceremony? A few Sanskrit shlokas recited as desi ghee was poured over a hawan fire? Faith is truly a strange thing. I shook my head ruefully.

An aside here. I commanded a Signal Regiment in hard field in Nagaland. My Corps Commander was the redoubtable General Nanavatty, who like all Parsis was an absolute gem. As I took him around my unit, he was awe struck on seeing my OR Messes (lungars). I had set up bars in each of them, which functioned exactly like the Officers’ Mess bars – liquor was served every day, and the God-awful `Rum Issue Days’ had been junked. He was pleasantly surprised to learn that this had, in fact, reduced the overall consumption of liquor in the unit! However, on seeing the ramshackle state of my Unit Mandir, he asked why I had not lavished as much attention to that barrack. “Sir”, I told him, “if someone really wants to pray, he can do so even while sitting under a tree! Let me focus on the material rather than the spiritual needs of my men first!” Only his stiff-upper-lip upbringing prevented him from actually hugging me!

Today, people are killed for allegedly desecrating books. Symbols have become more valuable than human life. And the Gods continue to maintain their sangfroid. As a peasant remarked to Maxim Gorky "Man has learnt to swim like a fish, to fly like a bird - but when will he learn to walk on earth like a man??"


Friday, 23 November 2012

Lingua Indica??

The most endearing fallout of the publishing of my infamous ` Open Letter to General Kayani’ in the Pakistani press, was that it put me in touch with a lot of Pakistani journalists and writers, some of whom I am now privileged to call as friends. One of them, the delightful Mohammed Hanif (author of the must read ` A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ and `Our lady of Alice Bhatti’) has written a beautiful piece on mother tongues et al on Wordpress..

It got me thinking. I can read and write fluently in English and Hindi, and with a fair bit of labour in Urdu, Punjabi and Marathi. Being the youngest child in the family, with a mother who was asthmatic, and a father in his forties, I was brought up mostly by my sisters who were teenagers and studying at St Anne’s, or the maid Mathu Bai. So the first languages I was exposed to were my sisters ` Convent English’ and, to a lesser extent, my parents Punjabi and Mathu Bai’s Marathi. 

At St Vincent’s, it was much as Hanif describes urban Pakistan - the complete inability to read or write in your mother tongue was a prerequisite for upward mobility. Marathi was frowned upon, and the Hindi we occasionally spoke was typical ` Bambaiya’ – the aayela, gayela variety.

We carried this elitist attitude into Fergusson College, where we, the ` English medium’ types, happened to be in a minority. We walked around with our noses high in the air, and frowned upon the vernacular second class citizenry. This lasted for all of two to three weeks, till we realised what an excellent lot the other guys were, and how much we had in common. There’s nothing like romancing a true blue `Marathi mulgi’ behind the Geology lab to really integrate yourself into the mainstream!

In the Army, Punjabi is the lingua fanca, and even pucca Southies like course mate Kelly Vishwanath learn to speak it fluently.

At Tezpur, I was once castigated for the terrible food at a Mess party (I was the food member). The CO, Col Jaswant Singh, as rustic a sardar as ever donned the olive greens (a true GEM of a human being), roundly denounced the koftas as having tasted like `bademey’!  His BP shot up a further few notches when he saw I had no clue what the word meant. Much later, when I narrated the incident to my father, he castigated me in his own turn "Tainu bademey nahin pata??" Apparently, the term refers to the seeds/kernels of cotton plants, which are fed to cattle in rural Punjab. 

To my lasting dismay, I have always been branded an outcast by both the core groups that I belong to. While my fellow Maharashtrians brand me a ` Punju’, my Punjabi brethren have always dismissed me as a `Mhratta’.  

As only the great Allama Iqbal could have put it..

Zaahid-e-tang nazar ne mujhe kaafir jana
Aur kaafir yeh samajhta hai musalman hun main

Friday, 9 November 2012

What though the field be lost...

It was a winter evening when my sister, her ten year old son and I were travelling by train from Bombay to Poona.  The boy had always been a fussy eater, and my sister used to spend most of her waking hours in trying to force feed him.  At Lonavala station, she bought him a sumptuous thali meal (they were sumptuous in those days), which the young lad proceeded to ignore or turn his nose up at in what was, for me, an all too familiar tableau.  Meanwhile, a beggar lad, roughly the same age as my nephew, stood at the window and gazed at the thali with a longing that was heart wrenching. Where there was appetite, I sighed, here was no food, and where there was food….

 A coursemate and close friend had just been posted to Poona as Chief of Staff.  We sat sipping the good staff one evening on the sprawling lawns of his palatial, colonial style bungalow.  “How many rooms does this have?” I asked him in wonder.  His wife shook her head ruefully “Don’t ask”, she said “When the kids were with us, we couldn’t even give them separate rooms of their own! And now when they’re away in the US, the Army gives us this palace..”

When we were young subalterns and captains in the Army, all we could afford to drink in the Mess was Hercules rum (with Coke, till George Fernandes threw Coca Cola out of India). Scotch was a hallowed word whispered in reverential tones, and emerged from the cellar only when a particularly high up General was visiting the Mess. Those were the days when we could (and did) cheerfully polish off half a bottle of rum in an evening, and still be on time for PT the next morning. Today, as bottles of Glenfedich and Chivas line my bar at home, I can’t even have a second `small’ without reaching for an Alka Seltzer the next morning.

You want to check the seniority roll in a regiment – just take a dekko at the queue at the buffet table in the Oficers’ Mess. In the days when we could easily have wolfed down a whole tandoori chicken merely as a starter, we, being low in the pecking order, were lucky if we even got a good neck piece.  And the only guy who managed an extra helping of the ubiquitous `Tipsy pudding’ was the food member who had thoughtfully stashed away a bowl for himself. Today, the `leg pieces’ and `rabri-jalebis’ are all within arm’s reach, but lipid profiles and triglicerides have become the bane of our existence..

And lastly, but most poignantly, comes the clincher and the wake up call. When your kids are kids and want you to play with them, you’re the Adjutant of your regiment, and the world would naturally collapse if you leave the office half an hour early.  Now you have all the time in the world, but where are they? Just when you think you’ve got the hang of parenting, you’re no longer required to be a parent. Just when you get good at being a dad, you’re simply fired from the job!!

Truly, where there is appetite there is no food, and where there is food…

Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Price of Wheat and Lentils...

We were at the Phoenix Market City mall shopping for Sid’s wedding when we decided to take a breather at Costa Coffee. Puja whipped 200 bucks from my wallet, and went for a cold coffee. Also get me a bottle of water, I told her. I did some quick math in my head – sixty bucks for the coffee, another ten for the water – so she should get back 130 bucks. To my horror, she returned with just ten bucks! Seeing my quizzical expression, she threw up her hands in the air – Pa, kis zamaane mein rehte ho, she asked. The coffee (since the simple `cold coffee’ of my college days is no longer available anywhere, she had got something with a french sounding name – latte or frappe or something of the kind) had cost Rs 155, and the water (a SMALL 500 ml bottle, mind you) Rs 35!

Thirty five bucks for half a litre of water, Jesus! Took me back to the shocker I faced at Ankara airport in Turkey in 2003, where a similar bottle cost, hold your breath, half a million Turkish lira (I kid you not!). I laboriously counted out the notes (with the great Kemal Ataturk’s face beaming at me from all of them) and handed them over. The guy handed them back, saying these were just 50,000 lira, what he wanted was an additional zero! The Turkish lira at the time was a joke – the cab from the airport to the hotel in Diyarbakir, a mere 2 Km away, cost us 4 million lira! The cab meter was as long as my arm just to accommodate all those zeros! I believe some sense finally prevailed on the Turks, and they revalued their currency by knocking off SIX ZEROS!!

The kids wanted to book tickets for `The Dark Knight Rises’. Using her iPhone and MY Credit Card, Puja booked the tickets as were on our way back – in a jiffy, from the back seat of the car! The cost of four tickets? A cool twelve hundred bucks! Seriously??  I could have bought the Bluray, seen it again n again on my Home Theatre, and STILL have the damn thing!

The special (butter) masala dosa at Vaishali, which cost less than five bucks in my Fergusson days, is now approaching the three figure mark! Samosas at Karachi’s (served with their most delectable chutney) now cost 12 bucks a piece!

Which brings me to Lahore in Pakistan. Apparently, samosas are consumed with great relish by Pakistanis around the year, but the sales skyrocket during Ramazan as it is a staple of the Iftar spread. The City District Government of Lahore had fixed the price of samosas at Rs 6 apiece, and magistrates imposed fine on shopkeepers for selling them at a higher price.  The Punjab Bakers and Sweets Federation had challenged this order at the time, but the Lahore High Court had dismissed the petition. The petitioner then appealed to the Supreme Court of Pakistan against the LHC ruling, and had it overturned! My reaction – La haul vila kuwat! Do the courts in Pakistan, including the Supreme Court, have nothing better to do? Also, if a Karachi’s samosa in Poona costs 12 bucks, which is about 20 Pakistani rupees, then I wonder what the filling of the 6 rupee samosa in Lahore contained!!

This morning, I studiously checked up the prices of wheat and lentils in Poona – so I can no longer be accused of not knowing the `attay-daal ka bhaav’!

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Puja and her Bollywood blues!

I guess the fault is really mine. She was barely a few months old when we took her to see her first movie. In the crisp Delhi winters of 1976, we wrapped her up in a blanket, and trooped off to the open air theatre at Delhi Cantt’s Vaughn Club (is it still around, anyone?). Where we screwed up big time was in the choice of movie. Well, there wasn’t any choice really, only the biggest duds from Bollywood found their way to the club. This time it was `Kehte hain mujh ko Raja’ with Biswajeet in a double role, AND directing the movie!

Now Biswajeet, poor guy could barely ham a single role effectively – this was an unmitigated disaster! An aside here. I ran into Biswajeet at Delhi airport a few years ago, and like me he was sporting Aviator dark glasses. However, unlike me, he had lost almost all his hair, and was tad shorter, and more fragile. I pointed him out to the youngsters who were with me, and they were understandably sceptical that this frail guy had once been a matinee idol. “Sir, you look much better!” they assured me – but that was only because Appraisal season was just around the corner.

But back to the Vaughn Club. The attraction of fauji open air theatres is the charm of watching Mumtaz do her thing while you sipped your rum and coke (yes, one hadn’t migrated to whisky by then). But my little daughter, all of four months old, all wrapped up in her blanket didn’t take her eyes off the screen even for a second. If some `uncle’ or `aunty’ crossed her path and blocked her view, she’d let out a wail they could hear in Ambala! Otherwise for the two and a half hours, she was quiet as a mouse, feed forgotten, soother discarded, as she gazed at the two Biswajeets in rapt and adoring attention!

 Fast forward to Jhansi, 1984. The Los Angeles Olympics coincided with the setting up of a Doordarshan station at Jhansi fort. Colour TV (Konark Rainbow Deluxe, with a Grundig kit), and the VCR (National Panasonic G-12) invaded our lives, and what a world they opened up! The only VHS tapes we had were `Ghulami’ and `Batwara’. My daughter, who was around 8 years by now, soon knew both the movies by heart! Today, in 2012, she STILL quotes from these movies – when her hubby demanded only mineral water at a restaurant, she did her best Dimple Kapadia imitation “Pani toh pani hovay hai thakur saab!”.

Puja has inherited this trait from my mother, who could (and DID) watch `Nagmani’ more frequently than I care to remember, without letting us fast forward even the ads! My lasting regret is that my mom didn’t live long enough to see my state-of-the-art home theatre – but I guess she lives in my daughter who, at any given time, accompanies her `doing her nails’ to the re-screening of Hindi movies of the 70’s and 80’s. Absolute low brow stuff like `Ghar Sansar’, `Naseeb Apna Apna’ and the like.

“Don’t blame me, she says – you started me off with Kehte hain mujh ko Raja!” Why, oh why didn’t I take her for `Lawrence of Arabia’ instead??

And Mummy, was this the ONLY trait you could have gifted your grand daughter? Come to think of it, she also gifted her an extremely nervous (am being kind here) digestive system – lekin woh kissa phir kabhi!!

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

At Arbil that fateful February...

I did a stint in Iraq in 2004 immediately after the Second Gulf War, as a Project Manager for a Telecom Infrastructure company, setting up a fledgling mobile communication network. 

I happened to be in Arbil in Northern Iraq (Kurdistan) when, in a double suicide attack on Eid-ul-zuha day on 2nd Feb 2004, the offices of the two main political parties (Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) were simultaneously attacked by suicide bombers, killing a total of 117 people. The bombers had come to `celebrate' Eid, and blew themselves up as they were embracing/kissing the party chiefs, as is the custom.

I happened to be in the vicinity of the KDP office that day, and saw first hand the devastation that occurred. 57 people died in that office. Since I was with a British engineer, we were mistaken as being part of the BBC crew, and were allowed into the building. The scene was ghastly, and is forever imprinted in memory. The following lines were written that day...

Death, be not proud
That day you came treacherously
Like a traitor, with a Judas kiss

A single death is tragedy
A broken home, a shattered dream
Senses numbed, paralysis….

Fifty seven deaths are a statistic
A news item, a TV report
Political hues, conspiracy…

And yet in this rubble, I see
Scattered among the broken glass
Buried under the falling bricks…

Fifty seven homes destroyed forever
Fifty seven dreams that died still born
Don’t talk of causes, not to me….

Man has learnt to swim like a fish
To fly like a bird, to soar the skies
But when, my Lord, will he ever learn
To walk on earth like a real man….