Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Slumdog reality

The White TigerImage via Wikipedia
I just finished reading Aravind Adiga's "The White Tiger" and find myself in a curious place between anger and acceptance. The novel is unsparingly scathing in its appraisal of India's 'progress' post liberalization and  its hard to deny that it is brilliantly written. Its been a while since I raced through a book in a couple of days as I managed to do with this one.

"Slumdog Millionaire" was a horribly made movie especially in contrast to the sheer brilliance of the writing in "The White Tiger" but for the moment I'll put both of them under a single spotlight as portrayers of an image of India that we'd rather turn our faces away from. They are more a recreation of how a Westerner would like to perceive India as. We don't live like that, we console ourselves, yet that is the image that a Westerner wants to retain - as "the poor people, hungry people" scene of Munnabhai MBBS fame illustrates. We have fine world-class buildings, houses, schools and factories, we claim, wondering why don't the Westerners discuss those for a change!

It is so sad that we continue to pull this wool over our eyes. Crores of our people live in those sub-human conditions, on our city's footpaths, in our city's slums, in faraway villages without the most basic of amenities and mostly without even enough food, unable to lead a respectable life, caught in the vicious quicksand of communal violence, extremist regionalism, social evils like the caste system, overwhelming corruption and unimaginable levels of poverty. So obscenely are the odds stacked against our country that it is a wonder that we haven't self destructed as a nation already. 

The novel speaks in the voice of the protagonist of the metaphorical 'white tiger' who will have to, will need to eliminate certain obstacles in his way in the foulest way possible to even achieve a humanly acceptable standard of living. Or he will have to stay trapped forever in the cage which his birth and economic situation have plunged him into. As of today, there is no way forward for the hardworking, honest fellow (Was there ever though?) especially with respect to that strata of our nation, the majority of our population actually, which has difficulty in making two ends meet and is at the mercy of the government's 'welfare' schemes. Intelligence fortunately or unfortunately is not just a privilege of the rich and the comfortable. So if some drastic action is not taken to correct the injustice in the system and to remove the stink of thievery in broad daylight from it, we will indeed become a nation of 'white tigers', a nation of super-intelligent criminals who have discovered that the wrong way was the only right way to survival and success.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The deepest cut

Taken during Auto Expo 2008 New DelhiImage via Wikipedia
Yesterday, I saw it happen once again. I have witnessed it so many times by now that I am sure it is an inevitable tragedy for anyone who has the guts to sit at the wheels of a car in this city. It was a slow speed accident. Something about a high speed crash says that yes, you were driving rashly and quickly on a stretch of road which was not meant for it and so in a sense, you were asking for trouble. But when the traffic is moving at a snail's pace, and you are safely guiding your own vehicle through the mess one foot a minute, it is so much more heart-rending when some buffoon who is on the same slow course dings your car. 

This time it was a brand new red Tata Indica who got tagged by an oldish grey Honda City. The Indica driver was on the verge of tears and sputtering angrily at the driver of the City "I will punch you to pulp. I'll beat you black and blue. I'll smash in all your car windows!" He knew fully well that he could do none of those things with a cop standing next to him and the huge back-up of cars behind him on the narrow lane that he now blocked, honking in unison for him to make a move on. He also knew that on another day, it could've been him trying to sneak his way past another excruciatingly slow car and in a last moment error of judgement failing to come down on the brakes quick enough.

This unfortunately is the bitter reality of Calcutta's roads. The joys of owning and driving a brand new car are balanced out by the terror of getting into scrapes and head-on encounters with some wayward driver or the other. The slight ding or scratch must hurt like hell even if you are not the typical car lover. After all, the thing costs a lot of hard earned money and who doesn't like a new and shiny ride to stay that way. I have come up with a solution of my own for the time when I buy my own new car (A red Swift is high on my list of the car I have forever wanted to buy). Before venturing out on the roads to take on the incredibly horrible traffic of this city, I would request a hammer from the showroom's garage. Then I would swiftly ding my car with the aid of the hammer and drive away with the knowledge that the worst deed that can be done to a glinting, metallic beauty of my new car has already been done and at least find some consolation in the fact that I myself was to blame for it!
Enhanced by Zemanta

Monday, August 2, 2010

Billoo barberisms

The Barber ShopImage by deep shot via Flickr
May 30th 2010 was just another Sunday for me. I woke up quite late and on confronting myself in the mirror saw that something needed to be done to tame the wild state that the hair on my head had progressed to. So digging out a old T-shirt and retaining my over-worn pair of shorts, I walked out of my house and took the corner just a couple of steps away from my main gate. "Janta Hair Dressers" said the board which must have been painted 30-40 years ago and it is very much the typical Indian barber shop with its customary creaky old slow ceiling fan and creaky old wooden chair on which customers relax while the barber does his job. As with the board, not much has changed since the shop opened its doors with framed pamphlets on the walls still displaying a sampling of haircuts which could have found social acceptance only in the crazy 70s.

There is a senior hair-dresser or 'naapit' as he is called in Bengali in charge of the saloon and a number of his younger trainees who report to him in the important task of getting rid of unwanted facial hair. Depending on who's free at what time, the master or the trainees take up the challenge of executing a unstylish but effective haircut. My lot fell with the grizzled old master who was in his late 60s by now and I could foresee one of our usual hair-cutting conversation on the horizon.

As expected, half a minute had not transpired before he began in his gruff voice "It is about time you got married, Babu!" 22 years of cutting my hair, back from when I was 3 years old and my uncle's, father's and grandfather's before that, had earned him the right to advice me on anything at all so the only reaction I could muster was a sharp "Why?!!!" The reply did not take long in coming "Marry while you still have such great hair. Once you start going bald, which good girl will like you, tell me?" Why such a critical chapter of my life should be decided by the lushness of my hair was beyond me but it was his perspective of looking at things and very much in line with what a barber would think of as the single most important criteria in life. So I just rolled my eyes at which my hair surgeon found reason to smile. He liked the idea of having a captive audience at the mercy of his scissors and blade on whom he could foist his hair-centred ideas.

In the meantime, another regular to his shop popped into the shop and asked the chief barber "Have you voted already?" He replied without pausing in the snip-snippy motions around my head and with a sense of resignation, "I did. Early in the morning when the queues were small. You've got to do. what you've got to do!"  Today was municipal election day for Calcutta, I remembered and also encountered a rising sense of guilt because I had not even registered myself on the voting list here. I knew what question was going to be thrown at me next. "And you, Babu?" was the query to me. "Yes! Yes! Of course!" I swiftly lied, more out of shame than anything else.

Here was a man in charge of civilizing my hair, a man who took his daily bath at the public municipal taps that line Calcutta's streets, a man who could never dream of earning even half as much as me and who was just educated enough to read the Hindi newspapers which he subscribed to. His voice did not contain any trace of hope that his vote was going to make any difference to whoever he brought to power and he was old enough to be cynical about election results after having seen so many of them come and go. 

Would the ridiculous corruption levels go down; would the area see long due development; would the promises of a better tomorrow for him and his children be fulfilled? All he had his mind set on was that he complete his end of the duties. Because he did not need a college degree or an MBA to develop this most basic of understandings about the democratic process. It is an understanding that millions of 'uneducated' voters who line up to vote at the numerous polling booths around the country have while the majority of the cynical urban 'educated' snigger at the effort put in by the other not-so-privileged half while they enjoy a day off from work. After all, your opinion and importance on any matter related to deciding the fate of you yourself, your family, neighbourhood, city, district, state or nation,will only be as important as you yourself think it to be. There may be a million other factors that determine what eventually happens but if you have the slightest belief in your own capabilities and your ability to make a difference to the world around you, you will cast your vote, no matter how long the queue.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Bengali school : Day 1

Hilsa FishImage by lorises via Flickr
Everyone knows of how sentimentally attached the stereotypical Bengali is to his daily diet of fish and rice (maach-bhaat). The consumption of fish also entails dragging his otherwise lazy self daily (Because he 'bill' eat fresh fish only please) to the local fish market, a real horror story for anyone who has a thing for sanitized environments. I am not one of those persons with a thing for sanitized environments but it still takes a lot of strong reasoning for me to even consider going to the muddy floored, fish entrails strewn, noisy, crowded hell hole that is our local fish market. Thankfully for me, my Dad is such a bazaar-oholic that I don't even need to raise a finger before the painful duty of buying the 10000 different variety of food items that my mother usually requires is enthusiastically volunteered for by him.

Today my golden days of irresponsibility in the fish shopping department came to a grinding halt. The electrician was working on some new wiring at home and Dad had to supervise him. With some guests invited for lunch, the onus of performing of the most Bengali of Bengali duties fell on me. I was chosen by compelling circumstances on this rainy, wet Saturday to pay a visit to the Beniapukur fish bazaar. 

"What fish should I buy?" I asked my old man, the in-house expert on all things bazaar. "Buy any fish which you like, but just not pomfret as the guests are not fond of it, OK?" Drat! I thought to myself. It's the only fish which I could identified from its shape and now that was off the list of candidates.

With doubt rapidly flooding my mind, I entered the tin roofed area where the fish market is housed. As expected, all the fish looked ominously similar to my inexperienced eyes. Silver scales, big dead fish eyes, longish bodies seemed to be the common theme running through their species. There were a couple of stalls which were selling black whiskered fish (I guessed they were catfish just on basis of their whiskers) which were still alive trying desperately to swim in thumb depth water. I decided that I would not be the agent of the Grim Reaper for their wriggly existence and stuck to choosing between those fish which were already dead.

Confusion and the utter lack of any sort of fish related knowledge was writ large on my face. This I found out when without any sort of prompting, the sellers began to identify aloud the fish for me pointing at each of them and going "Mackerel! Rooee! Hilsa!". Frankly speaking it was really tough to tell the difference or maybe the importance of the occasion was getting to my nerves. I nodded feebly in acknowledgement before deciding go with the evergreen favourite in the Bengali foodies world, the Hilsa (Eeelish in Bengali). Without chancing a look at any more fish, I quickly ordered 700 gm of Hilsa to be hacked up for me. 

In those final few moments before it was sliced up on the seller's mean blade, I tried to store a mental image of how the Hilsa looked. I thought I had the shape memorized successfully only to wander my gaze to a different pile of fish and discover that those darned things looked very much like Hilsa fish too. So I ended giving up the hope of learning anything of significance on this trip to the fish market. Not that I hadn't tried... there were just too many fine differences for me to tear my hair over. This after all was my first day of attendance in the Bengali lifestyle school.

Enhanced by Zemanta