Saturday, April 15, 2017

Guardian. Child.


"Where would you like to go?" Salvador Dali in camouflage pants & a faded white vest asks. "Anywhere you would go!" I answer with hollow valour. His crazy crazy eyes see clean through me. Yet he turns, hacks his machete at an errant creeper in his way and on we go deeper, deeper into the steaming jungle tracing the pug marks of a striped tawny king.
-
The job of a Special Tiger Protection Force (STPF) guard at the Pakke Tiger Reserve, where the Eastern Himalayas begin in misty mysteries, is unavoidably "different". Being charged by a lovelorn elephant or chancing upon a militant jungle camp are all par for the course. Even by those standards, as per his STPF colleagues, Sanjay Disso is "a little different".
-
Different. In the way he pats a stately vellore tree, a familiarity one would reserve for a beloved grand-uncle. His guffaw of remembered delight as he talks of elephants undaintily tumbling down waterfalls rings through the forest. The cat grin that he wears as he shares stories of 'his' animals comes alive, almost glows in the depths of a darkening forest as we duck and weave, lift and heave.
-
Different. The Dali resemblance is more than coincidental. When not patrolling, Sanjay paints. Not molten clocks, but persistently happy animals – a cheerful great hornbill here, a positively ecstatic flying squirrel there – on the walls of the forest rest-houses that dot Pakke. Boots on the ground protection apart, he makes exquisite fibreglass casts of hornbill beaks which substitute for the real thing in the traditional rituals of native Nyishi tribals.
-
Different. But both this thick glasses wearing nature documentary nerd and this man for whom the forest is "the neighbourhood" giggle nervously when deep in & a little lost, the forest rips open not only my week-old trekking shoes but his too. We stand in sombre solidarity over a shard of motorcycle fender plastic, proof of a recent forest guard fatality in an ill fated crossing of paths with an elephant.
-
At the end of my stay, we visit his little shack at the edges of Pakke, the exposed brick walls and the naked light bulb of which make us miss the green radiance of the forest all the more. He tells me with kindergarten glee of the camera trap photography contest that he obviously won. The only time his laughing eyes betray a glint of steel is when he explains to me poacher tactics.
-
Sanjay Disso. Artist. Warrior. Happy child of the forests. Grim guardian of the beasts.
-

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Living with differences


***This is an accidental repeat post :P. Since a 100 odd people have re-read it, I'll let it be***
-
[Not a Republic Day post this but I thought the above WhatsApp forward says what I want to say too. This is the article for which I won an all India essay writing competition organized by the Indian Express & Citizens For Peace in 2008 and thereby my first love, the blue Pulsar 180. Quite long it is... so apologies in advance. But today in a world of increasing divisiveness - on food habits, on language & on what is "patriotism", it does seem relevant. In a famously complicated country like ours, diversity is not a problem... it's the solution]
-
I can’t help feeling a little cynical as I pen this down. After all, the only people who would want to read an essay on “Living with differences” would be the ones who are already aware that there is no viable alternative to it. For those who are convinced that standardization-be it on the lines of religion, caste or class is the way out of the entire world’s ills wouldn’t bother making the effort. But in times when a moderate opinion on any issue is panned and reviled by both warring camps, this is an important exercise in self-motivation.
-
It’s been over a year since I passed out of Regional Engineering College (REC), Kurukshetra (Now that’s a real place in Haryana, in case you thought it is something on the lines of Rama’s Bridge). It’s been grandly re-christened National Institute of Technology (NIT), Kurukshetra, but we alumni persist with the REC short form rather than the new fangled NIT. RECs represent a unique kind of Institutions where people so markedly different are put together in some kind of weird social experiment. Students from every state have just got to be there, unlike the IITs where only the ‘cream’ shows up (more often than not resulting in states with great competitive environments dominating the numbers). But in RECs, it was a case of state boards, Delhi boards, vernacular medium, English medium, competitive exam based selections and board marks based selections, all tossed together in a mixed salad of sorts. And to the great surprise of everyone involved, manage to function quite well in their own hopelessly complicated sort of way.
-
As one would expect, stereotyping was everyone’s favourite pastime. Guys from the North are bruising and crude, the people from the East are pseudo-intellectual snobs, the fellows from Western India- oh, ready to sell their souls if there was any money involved, students from the South never looking beyond syllabus books and their ‘own’ kind and finally the North-east- drunk druggies! And this was just stereotype level 1, the data and pre-conditioning for which our upbringing in our respective domicile states had already groomed us to believe. The next level would crop up when passionate as the youth must be, battle lines would be drawn over a minor argument or scuffle. Regions would blend into temporary coalitions and you would discover that:
# Up-ites were all scheming politicians
# Biharis were vicious fighters ready to plunge into battle at the drop of a hat
# Telugus were basically spineless and wouldn’t ever take a stand
# Tamils were out on a mission to subjugate all other South Indian cultures
# Bengalis were so full of themselves that it was impossible to stand them for more than a minute
-
and a million more such previously unstated accusations that were always hiding in a dark corner of the mind waiting for an oppurtune moment to spring out.
-
All prejudices and pet hates now out in the open, a tangible bitterness in the air and one would be forgiven for thinking that national integration was a lost cause even after 60 years of Independence. Tense and difficult, moments like these were indeed but in retrospect they bring a smile to my face.
-
I smile because there is a fact that drifters like me knew. Being a Bengali schooled in Gujarat, and thereby gaining admission through the Gujarat quota, my domicile state was just one identity. We call them State GTs (Get Togethers) and Gujarat GT was something like a degree which was affixed to my name as and when the situation required. I had the good fortune/misfortune of being termed too Bengali or not Bengali enough by different groups at different times. I knew that despite all the cribbing and finger pointing some things would remain unchanged.
-
When mess food in its vile form was served on our plates, all hands would stretch to that extra large jar of spicy South Indian pickle carried by a benevolent soul. When the Telugu guy next room would be really sick, it would be his Haryanvi classmates who would rush him to the hospital. That the common room would be packed to the rafters with every eye on the TV screen whenever “The Matrix” was on or when Australia was on the verge of losing a cricket match, whether the opponent be India or not. That the precious matchbox doing the rounds to light cigarettes had no regional loyalties and neither did a freshly filled bottle of cold water from the cooler, the furious look on its owner’s face notwithstanding. Xeroxed notes on the night before the exam would have a geographical distribution worthy of a thesis and that the look of shock after a particularly tough exam hardly varied from face to face. The dissimilarities between us were far too many to note down, but it was the most unlikely similarities that invited bemused contemplation.
-
But of course, not everything was hunky-dory in life at an REC. Some of my fellow students by way of being in the wrong place at the wrong time walked away from 4 years of engineering with regional stereotypes further re-inforced. Some of them gave up the fight to defy the labels of their region, finding it much more convenient to behave the way certain people expected them to, helped in no small measure by constant heckling and jeering. The 50% local strength of the Haryanvi students in our REC frequently saw ‘Us and them’ situations crop up with Haryana-non Haryana tensions simmering. This feeling of insecurity against the majority populace seemed to be a common feature in most RECs if reports from friends in other RECs are anything to go by. Any kind of majority always exerts an unseen and mostly unintentional pressure on the others, and in an atmosphere of distrust, it only requires the proverbial spark to burst into flames.
-
This is where I realized the sincere need for just inane conversation. By virtue of my network of friends, I always knew that the rumours and whispers about the ‘rival’ group had minimum basis in truth. Some of the people I talked with hardly had anything in common with me, but just by interacting with them I knew they couldn’t be half as bad as the alarm raisers claimed them to be. Sadly for others who were completely out of touch with them, anything anyone ever said about them was as good as true.
-
Having grown up in Gujarat, I wondered even more how much a little mindless banter could have made a difference. During the 2002 riots in Gujarat, a Muslim classmate and I laughed over the fact that identical stories about a Muslim girl/Hindu girl being abducted were doing the rounds simultaneously in the respective communities. But when put in context of the horrifying violence that rumours like these generated, it hardly seems funny any longer. The fact that virtual LOCs between the two communities in most cities still persist, its sadly evident that peace achieved in such conditions is just a makeshift arrangement.
-
At the end of the day we are all flawed, emotional beings who have a set of prejudices and dislikes which have evolved out of our immediate environment. Some of these prejudices cannot be shaken off in a lifetime but we can surely do better at preventing them from hardening. Every time one makes a sweeping statement about a community or a caste or a class, its important to rein that in. Situations may yet force them out but keeping those words in for a few seconds more robs them of their sting and in many cases makes one realize the purposelessness of it all.
-
It is only human nature that we turn to a group that is closest to our way of living whenever we feel the need for security and identity. But reaching out is so much more important even though mutual agreement may be a distant dream. Just by knowing a person with a set of values which we find odd, comes a revelation that we are similar in some ways however few they may be. This similarity is a surprise and lessens to a great extent all our apprehensions about something completely unknown. And of course the all important fact that for any correction of supposed ‘flaws’ in the other, the kind word of a friend is so much more effective than the hate filled invective of a stranger.
-
It’s a strange world that we live in. The rich/privileged seem to hate the poor for not being able to fend for themselves and the poor/disadvantaged hate the rich for purposefully keeping all opportunities to themselves. The religious hate the ‘modern’ for being too flippant about their God, while the ‘modern’ hate the religious for being book-bound bigots. And so on and forth, rage a variety of differences. I am not idealistic enough to see the world join together in a celebration of our differences in the near future, indeed coming together has its fair share of acrimony. But just knowing our differences and accepting them, before pushing for any kind of compromise is the first and inevitable step in the long, arduous path towards a world which is a saner, more livable version of its present sorry self.
-
-

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Claude Lebel - Professional



Claude Lebel? Who? Not many remember his name. Many more will never know his name. In fact, he is so attention shy that the title of the book that he is central to does NOT refer to him.
-
I could have talked about many books - books that tell you to come to work every day with a smile on your face, books that inspire you to count your blessings or books that help you to be the best ‘you’ you can be.
-
But I choose to talk about a classic thriller written by the author Frederick Forsyth “The Day of the Jackal”.
-
The plot of the novel is spectacular, heavily based on actual historical events and personalities but I wouldn’t want to give out spoilers right here. Briefly put, it is about an attempt by terrorist rivals of French President, General Charles de Gaulle to assassinate him using a professional hitman, the Jackal of the book’s title. Midway through the book, the French government gets wind that money was paid for an assassination attempt and puts all of its power behind protecting their President.
-
Problem solved, right? Seal the President in! After all, it is only one man against an entire country’s security & police force?
-
Actually… no. Because you underestimate the Jackal. Assassin extraordinaire, flamboyant, master of disguise, identity-less, genius exploiter of human psychology and very terrifyingly professional. In summary, a super-villain. Add to that, the ego of President Charles de Gaulle, refusing to call off public engagements (this was a characteristic of the real Charles de Gaulle, French President as well) despite knowing of a specific assassination attempt being planned on him. Now that situation makes for a tense and exciting book.
-
Who will try to stop the Jackal now? Enter police detective Claude Lebel. Now if we were to go by the typical thriller template (say the Jason Bourne series), Claude Lebel the hero would be an emotionally disturbed good-guy-who-did-some-bad-things-but-is-an-expert-in-everything-weapons-languages-martial-arts-basically-Sherlock-Holmes-meets-Bruce-Lee so that he could take on the Jackal.
-
But here’s the kicker. Claude Lebel is not any of those things. He is a regular police detective, best in the business no doubt, but still a regular police detective. He wears a shabby overcoat, thinks a lot and has serious issues explaining to his wife why his work takes him so long to finish. To his credit, he may be slow but he is sure, circling around the Jackal’s spectre inching ever closer. He has been given a job and that he must complete.
-
Did Lebel get the Jackal? I’ll let you read “The Day of the Jackal” to find out. All around us, far too much focus is on how we must “love” our job and how “inspired” we must be. No one wants to talk about how it is also our duty to do our jobs well. Claude Lebel might have a few words to say on how to be that specific word. Professional.
-

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Music Sir and the Goddess of Nerdistan


Sometime in the late 1990s, in a narrow lane near Silver Sea Chinese restaurant, Bharuch, Gujarat
-
Music Sir (as we called Nitin Sir) began first, in his deep and beautiful voice. "Saaaaaaaaa..." he sang and then we, his students followed in chorus "Saaaaaaa...". Outside the little room where about 6 of us were packed in for Hindustani classical singing classes, a donkey (Yes, there were donkeys that roamed the streets of our little town by the river) joined in too "Haychoo haychoo haychoo". Laughter all around and the loudest laughter came from Sir himself.
-
He could have been angry about a donkey finding a common chord with his students. But that wasn't the way of Nitin Sir.
-
-------------------------------------------------------------------------
-
A little over a week ago, I heard of Nitin Sir's passing away from my sister, who along with my elder brother and me, felt blessed to have had him in our lives, both as a classical music teacher and as a personal inspiration. It had been more than 15 years since I had last talked to Nitin Sir or even seen a recent photograph of him but the sadness was immediate & personal.
-
Nitin Sir was already well over 70 when he taught me Hindustani classical music. Diminutive, seated on the floor with folded legs and wearing his trademark crinkly white kurta, the harmonium in front of him looked like it would overshadow him. That was until he began singing.
-
For in his voice, there was power and grace and soothing melody, developed over years of riyaaz and hundreds of public performances. It was hard not to be taken in by the surge of emotion as he launched into "Shyam Sundar Madan Mohan... Jaago Mere Lala" in that small room where we had just inspired a donkey to dream big. We all wanted to sing like Nitin Sir, natural abilities and limitations be damned. He was our rockstar.
-
He was our rockstar not only because he sang so well. He was our rockstar because he drove in the message repeatedly that "Music is music" and that everything is connected, even the most popular music. He could have stuck to the raags Yaman Kalyan & Bhairavi but he would spend serious efforts in explaining how songs from Govinda's Bollywood No.1 (Coolie, Hero etc) series could be based on ragas too.
-
Not for him, the whole "We must protect our culture from Western influences" theme. This from a man steeped in the best traditions of Indian classical music. Like every Indian who understands what being an Indian means, he knew that there is no demarcating line where Indian culture stops and "foreign" culture begins. It is one continuous, dynamic, evolving thing and for that, we his students are ever grateful to him.
-
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
-
That brings me to the other part of this write-up, the part which deals with the Goddess of Nerdistan. 
-
Another very strong memory linked to Nitin Sir is the red hardbound notebooks that he gave to all of his students to make their music notes in. Red hardbound notebooks with bright ruled paper and an image of Saraswati with her veena and swan on the cover. Just to think of that notebook makes me happy. It just felt so right for the purposes it was given to us for.
-
If you are the religious or the hyper-patriot type, I suggest that you stop reading right about now because this is where I am about to venture into "sacrilege" and "anti-nationalism". 
-
I think it is really really really cool that we have a Goddess of Knowledge, a lady who can stake a very strong claim to being a Goddess of the Nerds. I think it is really really really cool that while the world was full of conquerors trying to dominate and defeat the known earth from sea to sea, we Indians were busy being nerds, philosophizing, writing, painting and singing - in our Nerdistan protected by the Himalayas.
-
Saraswati, more accurately the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts, wisdom and learning, is IMHO quite the ideal representation of the nerd. Spends time tinkering with a musical instrument? Check (the veena tuning). Spends time buried in books? Check (out how even her DP has one of her hands holding a book). Spends time with animals? Check (her DP again and you know that she is the type who has bread crumbs ready in her hand when she sees the swans in the lake and the swans know... they wade in towards her as well).
-
Now am I being disrespectful of my religion when I refer to Saraswati so casually? Actually, I feel proud to be from a religion which allows me to view my gods and goddesses as living people. It makes my religion more real and relevant and if I may say so... "hip".
-
This would be a good time to bring up those b***-hurt folks who have felt nothing but shame for India from the time period of 600 AD to May, 2014 AD. They are glad that the great 
56-incher is finally here to deliver us from the darkness of the past 1414 years. I feel sorry for them but as you can see, I also feel angry at them. For they... they do not understand.
-
They do not understand that history is a mixed bag, it always has been and the past 1414 years were not 1414 years of Hindu defeat - that Shivaji had Muslim soldiers in his army and Aurangzeb had Hindu generals. They do not understand that India can never be a one language, one culture, one religion country because it never was and it was never meant to be. 
-
They do not understand that seeking peace is not weakness - that the rest of the world is 2000 years LATE to the ideas implemented by Ashoka - that mutual respect & tolerance is the only sane possibility which remains in the times of ISIS and Donald Trump... or we all lose. This is India's place in history, this is India's role in history, this is India's importance in history - not Let's-Ruin-Everyone-Else-So-That-We-Stay-Somewhat-Happy-Superpower ambitions.
-
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
-
Well then, I have been all over the place and back again. 
-
Much like music & art cut across barriers of language and culture, so does basic goodness of human nature. Hate & insecurity always circle around and understanding & acceptance. In Music Sir, we saw an ideal, a man tied to tradition but ever willing to accept the new. For he had already seen a lot in his life and saw no sense in denying change. Yes, there was much that was great about the past but not all of it. Yes, the future holds promises of grand possibilities but it is very important to remember what brought us here.
-
For both to happen, central to retaining the past and resolving the future is knowledge. Central to retention of knowledge is the nerd - of every kind - including (but not limited to) the history nerd, the math nerd, the science nerd, the painter nerd, the singer nerd, the writer nerd and the sport nerd. Where would we be today without them?
-
So be happy that someone long ago thought that there should be a deity for the nerds, someone they could call upon in times of dire need, like that tiebreaker question in that epic trivia quiz finale. 
-
Never be ashamed of being a nerd because as you well know "the geek shall inherit the earth". Someone up there when not trying to pick up a new tune on the veena is always looking out for you.
-



Friday, May 20, 2016

Pluviophile


Mild surprise. In eyes not used to seeing me leave office this early. It's only late evening. But I am compelled.
-
Beyond the air-conditioned sterility and the glass walls. Down to the basement, down to the beast. There it is. Black and orange with Metzelers for shoes.
-
Grumbling up the concrete, out into the world, out into the wind. The first drop hits my neck. Cold, steady and sure, a wake-up call tracing its way down my spine.
-
Fumbling around in my back pocket. Need to find that token, get out the gate. The security folks won't accept anything else. Found it. License to slink away then, responsibilities in my rear view mirrors.
-
Rain washed streets glint under the streetlights. In a special personal sort of way. Puddles line up on the road edges - speed sucking swamps awaiting their next victim. 
-
So I follow the Buddha, hold the middle path. A couple of twists of the throttle later, vanish into nirvana.
-

Monday, April 25, 2016

A brighter shade of blue














Blue we were, a brighter shade of blue
Young, restless, lonely... but with a crew
Evenings endless to fill, not a thing to do
Rumours like cigarette smoke float, from God knows who.
-
Laughter there was, there was fear
Anxiety there was, so was cheer
Swear words flowed easy, reddening earth & sky
High Hopes played on loop, deep... deep into the night.
-
These walls these fields these stars they knew
For long had they from boys, men drew
Whatever else they may be, this much was true
These guys... were a brighter shade of blue.
-
[http://virtual-inksanity.blogspot.in/2016/04/a-brighter-shade-of-blue.html]

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Arunachal Diaries : Kharman Chronicle


Huff. Puff. Huff. Puff. Boy, this is beautiful! Boy, this is killing! Just a little while more. Time to call it quits. Glory. Failure. 


Machete in hand, a Monpa tribal song on his lips, Rinchin Tsemyang leads the way. He pauses every once in a while to cast a benevolent look backwards. The practiced ease with which he scales up the steep slopes of the forests beyond Kharman, is well beyond my abilities to keep up with. Years of cubicle rot and a reluctance to engage in any sort of physical activity have led me to such a condition of disrepair.  

-
Possibly, if I weren't wheezing like a steam engine, I could have focussed more on the experience. Then again, maybe, pain is multiplying the gain. 

-
Impact, it has to be said, isn't in short supply. Kharman, a picturesque little settlement in the remote Pangchen Valley of north-western Arunachal Pradesh is my base station. The homestay run by Mr. Tsemyang, in an initiative supported by the World Wildlife Fund, is a cozy stone dwelling with bright blue windows. Perched as it is, at the top of a steep hillside overlooking the valley of the Nyam Jang Chhu, its location is enough to keep me enthralled without even venturing out into the jungle. 


-But I am in the jungle, a beautiful beguiling jungle, made all the more mysterious by the rain clouds invading the valley on this morning in early May. The grayness of the clouds brings out the lushness of the green even more effectively. The sunlight often finds a window or two to throw a spotlight on a particularly beautiful tree proudly displaying itself in moss covered finery. The trek out of Kharman has seen us pass orchards and the kitchen gardens of little houses sprouting up like magic mushrooms on the sheer hillside and we are long past the temporary hamlets of the 'people who live beyond the last village' as Rinchin dramatically put it.  




The air at 8000 plus feet is cold, crisp and as per signals from my plainsman's lungs, in short supply. We pause often, allowing me to pretend that I am taking pictures while quite obviously catching my breath. Pictures are in a way, a lost cause, because every time I turn around to look down, the view is so much better than it was a 100 steps ago. The ribbon of white that is the Nyam Jang Chhu cuts through a infinite palette of green all the way down, deep down to the valley floor with the mist from the rain providing the aura of a Japanese water painting. To the north are the massive snow covered sentinels of the Tibetan border from where the river emerges to make a quick detour into India before meandering westwards into Bhutan. 

-
These are forests of plenty and the avian citizens who flitter in and out of my visual range provide liberal doses of colours, some known & others not but whose psychedelic shades blaze themselves into my memory. Home to fauna like the musk deer, Himalayan black bear, blue sheep & takin which have thrived due to the strict no-hunting code implemented by the village councils on the principles of Tibetan Buddhism, the Pangchen Valley continues to be a natural wonderland despite it not having any government designated protected areas. 

-
Not to forget, these forests are also a stronghold for the indescribably cute and very rare red panda, imaginatively called the fire cat, due to its distinctive fur. It was a thrill to walk through their home although in summer months, they tend to prefer the higher colder reaches where I did not venture. As I look around to see seasonal waterfalls springing from random locations in the surrounding hills and little wooden logs strung across burbling streams as bridges, I can only imagine how happy animals must be to have a place like this. Even as a human, I am filled with an indescribable joy. 


-The human is not entirely absent from this scheme of nature's bounty. Once in a while, a water wheel makes an appearance, done up in exquisite bright colours, spinning under the influence of a tumbling mountain water channel. The golden dome of a distant gompa on the mountaintop opposite glints with a message of peace and serenity. The white chortem where we pause, yet again, a memorial to ancestors past,  is covered with fluttering prayer flags, casting their ancient mantras to the breeze.  


-As tired and beat-up as I am, the truth, already well known to men like Rinchin, is plain to see. Impatience, wanderlust, restlessness - are often a city man's creed, it takes a walk through a forest for him to be finally freed.


-
For any and all information regarding the wonderful homestay(s) at Zemithang, please contact the conservation rockstar and local hero Degin Dorjee at +91-9402955593/+91-9402859651 and learn about the WWF run programme at https://bpwange.wordpress.com/