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
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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.
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He could have been angry about a donkey finding a common chord with his students. But that wasn't the way of Nitin Sir.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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That brings me to the other part of this write-up, the part which deals with the Goddess of Nerdistan. 
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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.
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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". 
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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.
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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).
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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".
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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.
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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. 
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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.
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Well then, I have been all over the place and back again. 
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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.
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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?
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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. 
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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. 
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So I follow the Buddha, hold the middle path. A couple of twists of the throttle later, vanish into nirvana.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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[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.  

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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.


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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/

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Fire & ice



Leap. Snap. Crackle. Burst.
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The campsite is noisy. The flickering campfire sets faces aglow - some singing, others laughing and still others reflecting their wandering thoughts. The fire is the heart of all the action - at least of their limited world. The bitterness of a Himalayan winter night cannot enter its circle of power. The flames stand tall, embracing and protecting all those who seek its shelter.
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The campsite is quiet. At least it seems so when seen from beyond where the sounds carry and the cheer spreads. Beyond... where the forest lives, moving to its own rhythms, unmindful of a handful of city-bred ape-like bipeds creating a ruckus just because they can. Its animal citizens are out doing what they do best, eating and avoiding being eaten.
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The night skies have been cleared of the spoilsport clouds of the afternoon, chased away by someone with superpowers & wanting to get a better view. Because it is quite a view. Even the noisy ones in that little corner by the flames go quiet once in a while. 
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The snow covered giants of the Nepal Himalayas - wisps of icy steam curling off their tops, the silver glow of the forest under the moon's longing gaze and her distant cousins whom she'll never meet, a million pin pricks of brightness across the canvas of the skies.
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Saturday, January 9, 2016

Aam Pachak v/s Walter White


Blue meth's got nothing on this s**t.
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It looks so innocent on the outside.
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A yellow plastic tube with a friendly mango saying "Eeyah!"
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On the inside, is a darker, more malevolent force. Take a couple of tablets, it says. But my stomach is empty, my brain replies, I don't need digestive boosting. Never you mind... take a couple, it repeats.
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My arms revolt... obeying the dark side and guide the potent tangy sweet spicy contents towards my mouth again. And again. And again. Till the tube is empty.


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I feel helpless. Like I have felt before. In front of packets of Pachan Amla & Hawa Ban & Fatafat. In front of the stupendous selection of the drug cartel Jaina Silpa Mandir's stalls at the Pujo Pandals.
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Whatever it is that they put in there, pachaks, churans and aachaars [or as my Dad calls them 'tokktokiyaa'] are chemically designed for total domination over self-control. Strange circuits light up and on long, busy office days, my overworked brain keeps begging for more.


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Don't know about all the other stuff that they claim India invented "first" but I can guarantee at least this... that the slogan "No one can eat just one" sure wasn't originally coined for a packet of Ruffles Lays or anything sold in Albuquerque. 

Sorry, Walter... but Aam Pachak is the one who knocks.


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[http://virtual-inksanity.blogspot.in/2016/01/aam-pachak-vs-walter-white.html]

Monday, January 4, 2016

Phanoosh


New Year's Eve. Close to midnight, the party at my cousin's is picking up pace.
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But I am not feeling it.
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Only a couple of days before, I was at the Nimtala Burning Ghat. The closure that the final journey and the all consuming flames seemed to offer then... doesn't feel as complete right now.
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Like so many times before. we had taken for granted that Kaki Dimma would return home from hospital all smiling and chatty about the latest pain & complications she had overcome.
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This time though, she gave us the slip.
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This party is peopled by my paternal side cousins & their families, with no connections to Kaki Dimma, the last of her generation from Mom's side. They obviously are in a completely different frame of mind.
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The rooftop of my cousin's building is dark. An ensemble group ranging in age from 8 to 50 tumbles onto it as all around the city skies light up. A spray of colour here, a boom of sparkliness there - all in celebration of what was and what will be.
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What was. Dadubhai. Dimma. Pishi Dimma. Kaku Dadu. And now Kaki Dimma. Wrinkly knobby slow moving hands, snow for hair, indulgent to a fault and never without a smile to spare - they occupied a unique shelf in my childhood cupboard of categorisations. 
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"How can anyone be so nice? Are they for real? If so, why can't everyone else be like them?" 
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Restore & double the lost money of a recently pick-pocketed 10 year old grandson; jump out of sick bed to fulfill the luchi-aloo bhaajaa demands of that same grandson; from his own shop's stock, pour out more brown and white wrappered Melody chocolates than a small pair of hands can hold - all legend establishing standards of care.
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The roof is abuzz with activity. Brothers, sisters, brother-in-laws, nephews and nieces have set about clearing the pooled firecracker stock. Charkhas whirr in duets and rang-mashaals blaze with no particular agenda. In the darkness beyond, I watch with borderline detachment.
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The 'cells' make an appearance, their heavy cylinders packed with surprises to be revealed a few hundred feet up in the air, with a flash of sound and light - if things go to plan. As it turns out, things do go to plan to everyone's relief.
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The bigger plan, the plan of plans, however, never goes to (our) plan. Fully aware that nothing is permanent, we, quite foolishly, cling on to the hope that it is. 
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Enthusiastic conversationalist armed with a girly giggly laughter and a wide-eyed concern for all, Kaki Dimma, of all people, the sweetest of all my Dimmas, had seemed timeless. 
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On our rooftop, it is phanoosh time, the closing act. Phanoosh - the funny sounding Bengali word for hot air balloon - also moonlights as the word of choice for Chinese sky lanterns. 
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After the manic razzmatazz of the 'cells', the careful unwrapping of the thin papered lanterns brings a dimension of calm to the proceedings, a thoughtfulness so far missing in the revelry.
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Careful planning and teamwork by us, cousins and brood, cannot prevent our first launched phanoosh from confidently sailing into a neighbouring building. There are no screams of terror that follow nor does the attacked building go up in flames soon after. In retrospect a minor mishap. 
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The phanooshes that follow the pilot launch are significantly more well behaved.
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It may be the near disaster of the first launch and the resilient cheerfulness of the launch team. It may be that other phanoosh that rushed groundwards, only to catch a breeze just in the nick of time, rising straight up into the sky, past a wildly cheering group of cousins. 
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Whatever be the reason, I am feeling significantly better.
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Come to think of it, the only flavour added to my life and to that of many others by people like Kaki Dimma through all her years is the flavour of happiness. Being morose on account of her is contradictory to how I want to remember her.
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The sadness will remain, no doubt, a gap never to be filled. Yet there is some comfort to be drawn from a constructed image.
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The analogy of a loved one becoming a star is, if I may say so, done to death. 
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It is much better to think of a phanoosh, the way it brings a group of people together under the flickering light of the flame. There's the wait for the hot air to fill up the delicate paper. There's joking around, there's impatience and finally there's the tug.
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Should we let it go? Is it ready? Are we ready to let it go?
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All questions answered as the phanoosh climbs, ever so slowly, leaving a glowing trail of smiles and cheer, a bright spot of familiarity in the endlessness of the dark night sky.

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