Saturday, July 31, 2010

In the land of Bagheera

"A black shadow dropped down into the circle. It was Bagheera the Black Panther, inky black all over, but with the panther markings showing up in certain lights like the pattern of watered silk. Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody cared to cross his path; for he was as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant. But he had a voice as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree, and a skin softer than down."

It was close to 15 years ago when I first read these lines in the opening chapter of Rudyard Kipling's classic "The Jungle Book". And I am yet to come across a better single paragraph introduction for any character in any novel, human or animal. Bagheera appears out of nowhere to announce his intention to protect the man-cub Mowgli from Shere Khan while the wolf pack under Akela debate whether to keep Mowgli or throw him to the hungry tiger. For most people who have watched the Walt Disney animated version of the story with its song and dance frivolity and for many of us who grew up with Vishal Bhardwaj and Gulzar's "Jungle jungle baat chali hai..." introductory number to the Sunday morning cartoon series which achieved cult status in India, the Jungle Book with its menagerie of talking animals is a children's story.

What is not immediately apparent is the relevance of the story across all age groups and across all cultures, and the basic timeless issues that it addresses. The Law of the Jungle which finds mention every now and then in the book is a code that emphasizes on justice and fairness (Kill for food. Only man kills for pleasure.); Bagheera's willingness to save the helpless innocent man-cub despite his own bad experience of having suffered torture in human captivity from which he escaped is a lesson in forgiveness and control over misdirected anger; man versus nature and the obvious need to co-exist in peace; the wolf pack's disintegration due to weakness and hunger after they break away from Akela's leadership, wanting to hunt on their own, ignoring the discipline specified in the Law of the Jungle egged on by Shere Khan, is an indication of the path that anarchy or freedom without responsibility leads to; the closing chapter of the book when Mowgli becomes an outcast both from the animal world which fears him because he is more like a man now and the human world which thinks him to be some kind of a sorcerer is a telling statement on how most of society tend to treat people who are somehow different - all of this becomes clearer when I think back on why this particular story retains its charm for me. Of course as a kid, I was just absorbed in the wonderful characters and imaginativeness of the storyline. The Jungle Book is very much the reason why I am such a Discovery/NGC wildlife documentary freak and so much of a nature lover. I never really got a chance to think back on the story though; in such detail; until this.

On the 29th of June this year, we (My parents and me) were just over halfway through our drive across the breadth of India from Bharuch to Calcutta. We had crossed Nagpur, the halfway mark with its teeming lunch time traffic about a couple of hours ago. We took a late afternoon tea break at a highway hotel near Bhandara  and kept an eye the gathering monsoon clouds and debating whether to push on ahead to stay put at our present location for the night. Our dilemma was resolved by the hotel manager who said that this was more a restaurant than a hotel. No one actually lived on the premises of this hotel after evening and for a night stay we needed to move their sister concern in the heart of Bhandara town. So it was decided that we would drive all the way to Rajnandgaon in Chattisgarh before we took a night halt as we were already behind our original schedule.

Rajnandgaon was still about 150 kilometres away and it was going to be dark in about an hour's time so I took over the wheel and stepped on the gas. The road was a two lane one so night driving sharing it with the catastrophically overloaded trucks was to be minimized. Outside the weather grew pleasant, the cool breeze awakened by rain in some adjacent area bringing relief and the fading sun across a mostly empty landscape made for a beautiful drive. The landscape was quite featureless with flat unending plowed fields on both sides, but the stark aesthetics of emptiness in a country cramped for space becomes appealing. I was hard-pressed for time though and couldn't really focus on anything except the distance covered on the odometer and the traffic on the road ahead dictating my car speedometer's rise and fall. 

Then after buzzing along the road for about half an hour, we came to a very long bridge over a vast muddy river. The usual practice on Indian highway and railway bridges is to put a board stating the river's name on either end of the bridge but I couldn't find any at the beginning of this bridge. I looked out of the windows to see a semi-dry river bed bordered on both sides by the faint beginnings of a jungle. I was trying to figure out by myself what river could it be when the question was answered by a small board to my right. The board said "Wainganga". Well, the name might not ring a bell for most people but like I said "The Jungle Book" is among my all time favourite stories (both the novel and the cartoon series) so in my head, it was a whole battalion of ship horns that started tooting. The Wainganga was the setting for so many of the story's important events. I started chirping like a repetitive parrot to my parents "Look it's the river of Mowgli! Look it's the river of Mowgli! Look it's the river of Mowgli!" who looked at me with a mixture of amusement and alarm, I daresay like Baloo might have looked at Mowgli! Our route, I realized, was taking us south of the Pench and Kanha National Parks, south of forests fed by this story-shaping river, the  Wainganga. The width of the bridge made in a difficult one to stop on but I screeched to a halt right after it ended.

Camera in hand, I literally ran out towards the middle of the bridge, soaking in the breeze, drunk on the vision in front of me as the soft light of the fading sun partially hidden behind the looming rain clouds lent a surreal quality to what in any case was already a significant enough event to me. Here I was, on a mostly empty bridge on which the rare truck thundered by, over the river where all of the characters of the kind of story I love to read had lived and learned (at least in the author Kipling's imagination), the kind of story I'd love to write someday which could provide entertainment as well as food for thought to ages 8-80. I closed my eyes and opened them again just to see if the scene was indeed for real. 

It was... and I have rarely felt happier in my life. Fifteen minutes later and it would have been too dark to revel in the heavenly sight before me; any other day in any other year, the clouds might not have so perfectly placed to make an ideal memory of my first sight of the Wainganga. The wonderful story of how a man-cub was raised by the wolves, living to hunt in the jungle and of all the other memorable animal characters could have never seemed so perfectly plausible and true except in that exact setting I found myself in. I walked back to the car in a cheerful daze, as a couple of minutes was all I could afford to spend there. Though I did not see an "inky black" shape slink down to the water to have a drink. Indeed an impossibility today because there are hardly any spaces left for anything really wild, let alone magnificent black panthers. 

Yet there are moments in life when you do feel that every preceding random act and every preceding random choice was to bring you to this exact juncture in time and space, the biggest incentive for me in feeding my mad urge to travel around the country, around the world. This was fate, this was destiny, those few minutes of bliss on the river running through the land of Bagheera.


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Friday, July 30, 2010

The great debt

Image of map of the British Indian Empire from...Image via Wikipedia
It was the 25th of January this year, a day before Republic Day, when we were roaming the beautiful old campus of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS), Shimla built during the days of the British Raj like most of Shimla, perched on the edge of a steep mountain side looking out to the higher permanently snow capped ranges of the Himalayas. The sun was on its way down; its mellow mood cast a mesmerizing golden glow on the magnificent building and the little on-campus canteen where we were taking a  break after a day of walking around the picturesque little hill town and we were absorbed in the delightful view before us. Then among the handful of tourists also wandering through the campus, I heard one of them bring up a theory which is very commonly thrown around especially among us, the educated English speaking, so-called 'elite' and which never fails to irritate me ever so much.

"We owe the British so much for everything that they have done for us!" is a refrain still heard frequently around our country and unfortunately even from the nearest and dearest ones within my own family. "Without the British, there would have been no English based education system, no consequent social reform of traditional Indian society, no Indian Railways, no internationally renowned Indian Armed Forces and indeed no concept of India as a country. We would be more like the Baltic countries permanently engaged in fruitless battles against each other. Gandhi's non-violent freedom struggle wouldn't have worked against any other colonizers as the others were not as cultured as the Brits." is the elaboration given on the above point. While all that is probably true but do we actually owe them anything at all considering that it is a historical fact that we were taken over by the Brits (like most of the world at that point of time) and every tiny little benefit or the most major benefits that happened during their rule were mostly unintended side-effects of an oppressive system set up by them to enhance their Empire which in time were used against them. It's like saying Adolf Hitler was cute just because he actually had a major role to play in the development of the Volkswagen Beetle.

"Still..." say the Brit lovers, "Would we have been able to build all those roads to our remote Himalayan hill stations, discovered our own lost heritage through archaeological finds in dense jungles, built those magnificent monuments and structures which house our government now and developed a stable, hopelessly complicated yet magically (at least 20%) functional democracy?" Who really knows what would have happened if Robert Clive had not won the Battle of Plassey? Who knows how peaceful or violent India would have been if it hadn't seen the vicious bloodshed of British fuelled Partition? Who knows what stage of development this land we call India today would have progressed to if we didn't have a group of foreign masters driving us to grow indigo while the rest of the world rapidly developed their technology in the golden age of the Industrial Revolution, a critical time when most of the countries which we now call 'developed nations' made hay? These are questions which can never have a conclusive answer, no matter how good or harrowing a hypothetical situation we simulate or no matter how patriotic or pessimistic we feel about the potential of our nation.

One thing I am sure of as of today is that our erstwhile colonizers did make pot-loads of money at our expense while they did what they did, good or bad or someplace grey. So for all the social change and infrastructure 'development' that they engaged in; building roads, bridges, administrative systems, education systems and what not, I have a very relevant question, relevant especially in the modern world's way of looking at things for anyone who says that we must somehow be completely grateful to the English for their contribution as opposed to having a realistic view that yes, we gained on some important grounds but that's mere co-incidence not gracious planning. The all important question is - Tell me, o kind sir, who footed the bill? 
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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Mechanical poet

Long due and well deserved is what a servicing means to our 10 year old Maruti 800. The appealingly named 'moonbeam silver' colour of its body has suffered too much from the vagaries of the weather and now should more appropriately be called 'just about silver'. My Dad is a very safe driver, as safe as anyone can be, considering that even the safest driver has no control over some other madman driving on the road who might just crash into your safe driver tag and ruin it for good but even he couldn't prevent the minor dents and scratches which have appeared all over the car during its decade of existence on Indian roads. The left rear door has a gluey door lock and the the left rear door inner handle is half chewed thanks to my dog's itchy gum teeth developing phase when she was carted around to wherever my parents went. And the final fact being that my Dad is not a very big fan of company approved service stations and so our car had seen very little of the inside of the huge Maruti service station only a few kilometres from our house in Bharuch.

But carting the three of us (Mom, Dad and me) and a dog through 2300 kilometres on a east-west sojourn across India without a single major problem (only a minor coolant issue near Mehkar, MH which was resolved in a jiffy by a local mechanic) was good enough to finally earn it its equivalent of a luxury bath and even Dad couldn't protest too strongly about it. So it got the royal treatment with a carburettor overhaul, engine oil change, complete vacuuming of all the dust collected from across India and a long session in one of those wonderfully effective car showers of repair garages out of which every car no matter how old & beaten up comes bright and shiny. I was there when one of the mechanics was finishing the spruce up and I swear that if the car had a face, it would've smiled!

Smiled not just because it was fresh and clean again, but also because of the central role played by it in many a family adventure the highlights of which would have been the Bharuch to Mussoorie and back drive in 2005 and the Bharuch-Calcutta mega road trip less than a month ago apart from numerous trips to Bombay, Pune, Baroda and Surat. What after all had it not seen? The steep roads and the striking beauty of the Himalayas; the lush forested ghats with "Go slow, elephant crossing" road signs of Orissa; the flickering green fields over endless expanses all across rural India as the sun played hide and seek with some feeble monsoon clouds; the tumble and tussle of Bombay traffic and the divine glimpse of Marine Drive bordered by the Arabian Sea at 2:00 AM in the morning as it both cursed and praised the endless energy of the Maximum City; the divine stretches of roads between Udaipur to Ahmedabad, and Mumbai to Pune as India began to prove that we can make roads as good as any other nation in the world - just a random sampling of all the paths that it has merrily wandered on. Our car like the members of our family has the footloose soul of a travelling gypsy. Given a chance, it could compose one or two original songs for the road! 
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Monday, July 26, 2010


az monsoon cloudsImage via Wikipedia
It rains aplenty during the course of a Calcutta monsoon and the best part is not being able to predict when the darkest of dark clouds would decide to let loose their payload of cold, clear water putting off temporarily the stifling humid heat that seems to stalk around in the city otherwise letting loose rivulets of sweat down every single face. You could drive your motorcycle all the way to work and back with the clouds blotting out the sun but there might be not a single drop of rain or within 15 minutes of a weakened sun casting its fading glow around, the heavens could open up pelting down rain at a rate which can only be described as furious. So the plan of action could  be (a) to carry a umbrella and raincoat all of the time (not at all uncommon in this town, a home of chronic hypochondriacs) or (b) to bide your luck, not carry any kind of umbrella/raincoat and thank your lucky stars that you could get where you wanted to get to without getting drenched or just be gleeful on the inside if the rain caught you out while falsely remonstrating to others how you never expected it to come down just then. I am a firm proponent of plan (b) therefore I frequently find myself inverting my shoes to let out the water which had seeped in through sloshing through in-rain puddles. I am rather fond of taking on the monsoon's might and losing. Defeat somehow doesn't taste like defeat when it means raindrops rolling down your face and the playing of tin roof melodies in celebration!
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Sunday, July 25, 2010

The ways of the old

Auto Rickshaw in Bangalore, with the Vidhana S...Image via Wikipedia
On the occasional Friday, I need to take my guitar along to my after-office classes. Not wanting to risk breaking it on the front of a bus which swerved too close to my motorcycle on Calcutta's cramped roads, I have to abandon my favourite mode of transport for that day and go the bus-autorickshaw-autorickshaw route to work which the majority of my co-workers take. After a jittery bus ride to the Sealdah station which never abandons its reputation of being a constant example of the term 'human sea', I now need to take the auto-rickshaw (autos) to Chingrihata. A lot of people hate autos for the monstrous traffic jams that their tendency to sneak into the smallest possible gaps in the slow moving traffic causes. I on the other hand think they are rather funny with their whirring engine noises and fun to ride since they convey an illusion of being at high speed even at 40 kmph thanks to their rickety light little body frames. Its like having a convertible experience on 3 wheels!

The auto route from Sealdah to Chingrihata follows a road which embodies all the problems you would think define Indian driving conditions. On a mostly very smooth stretch of road, a couple of terrible patches would pop out of thin air, the surprise element in their attack critical to inflicting the maximum damage to your vehicle. Apart from the usual mess that a busy two lane road sees with buses, trucks, motorcycles, hand pulled loads, cycles, cycle-rickshaws and auto-rickshaws all trying to overtake each other with very little success and thereby blocking the oncoming traffic, the situation is compounded by the bazaar which lines the road on both sides with fruit and vegetable vendors comfortably settling down on the road itself. Its great daily entertainment if you include the the honking horns and bells of a huge variety and the volatile emotions of the drivers, cyclists & walkers in the mix, entertainment as long as there is someone else doing the driving for you or you are riding something of negligible external dimensions like a motorcycle enabling you to slink your way through the often stalled traffic. If it rains, wading through standing water at a low enough speed so that the walking crowds don't get splashed and therefore angry is another challenge in store for the hapless driver.

My destination is at the very end of the auto route at the auto stand itself so I along with my fellow passengers take it easy as getting worked up over bad traffic and long delays is not something which is of constructive value considering the road we are on. It is more of an accepted fact and the extra time required to negotiate this portion of our commute is incorporated into our schedules. For someone who needs to disembark on a section of road somewhere in between, the Bengali for "Brother, could you stop to the left?" is what seemed really curious to me once I gave it a little thought. The Bengali version of the request goes "Dada, ektuu baa dikey baandhben?" which literally translates to "Brother, could you please tie it to the left?"

Almost all of Bengal is composed of fertile flatlands with more than generous amounts of tropical rainfall and a numerous little rivers which at one time and age must have been the main routes of transportation through boats and ferries. No wonder that fish is such an integral part of the Bengali diet. To see a reflection of that old way of life, a remnant of a totally different world, in those few words adapted to a modern context was quite a strange feeling. The original use of "Tie it to the left" can only be explained as a request to the boatman to stop at the left bank of a narrow river or canal. Without tying the boat would just drift ahead on the river current. The rivers, once the lifeline of many a civilization may have been pushed away to the rural landscapes by relentless urban development but they continue to make their presence felt, in our daily language, and at the back of our minds.

"The road like a river of flowing might,
Wheels like oars on the tugging tide,
Much we have changed or so we are told,
Yet alive through thoughts... the ways of the old."
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