Everything is not for Sale

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The priceless gift: a Sphatik

Several years ago, my friends and I went to visit the Ajanta caves in Maharashtra. A stranger there offered us this stone along with two palms full of raw, uncut amethysts. I don’t know where the other stones are but I discovered this piece in one of my little treasure boxes.
While inspecting each cave, we took a particular fancy for a statue of Buddha with his right arm broken from its elbow. The insides of the broken arm glistened white and violet in the artificial light.

After going through all the caves we followed some other visitors across a bridge and up the hill opposite to the caves. The Ajanta caves are placed in a neat row in a horse-shoe formation by the gorge of a river. The hill opposite gives a breath-taking view of all the caves, we could guess. But the climb was steep and the few visitors ahead of us gave up and started climbing down in a while, owing to the fierce afternoon sun. We went ahead.

In a while we reached a plateau that arched off into the distance, cut off from the skies by the dense branches of dried up dead trees. The little grass that was there had yellowed. It looked desolate and scary. Turning back, we could see the tiny rows of caves in the opposite bank, some of which caught the afternoon sun. Ancient monks worked inside the darkness of the caves to carve out those exquisite sculptures following this sun, we blurted in unison.

Just then a man approached us. Tall and wearing a well worn shirt and trousers, he came up and started a conversation. I don’t remember what we spoke about until he asked us to follow him—”I’ll show you around”—he said. We hesitated. But curiosity got the better of us. He guided us through the dead trees and shrubs and showed us the river valley that looked like the peninsula of India. He said that he was a farmer. But he liked to observe and talk with visitors from across the world when he was not busy in his field.

And then after some more small talk, he said he had been collecting stones. “It sells well and they’re easy to find if you know how to spot them”. And then he delved into his pockets and produced two palms full of stones. “For you”, he smiled and stretched out his arms. The stones, grey and unimpressive on the outside, glistened white and violet like the arm of the Buddha we had seen inside the cave.

We declined at first. We couldn’t pay and didn’t want him to lose out on a good bargain. “Everything is not for sale, madam. These are gifts.”, and he pointed out the amethysts from the sphatik, adding “This one, you find in the river bed sometimes. Difficult to spot because you can’t tell it apart from the water.”

Dumbfounded, we accepted his gift. We did not have the heart or the gall to offer him any money.

I don’t remember his name or his face even. He lingers in my memory like an apparition in that endless wasteland, observing people and giving them little lessons in humanity sometimes.

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Tripping Solo

I keep reading that it’s not safe for women to travel alone in India. The US government has, for example, issued several advisories in the past about the dangers of travelling to India given that several ghastly assaults on women have been reported in the recent months and years. As a result, when I planned my travel and read up on blogs and forums, I found that safety for women travellers are a major topic of discussion.

Obviously the very fact that there’s so much of discussion going on about women’s safety in India—particularly for travellers—clouds your travel plans with awful premonitions. However, as an Indian and a woman who has travelled across much of east, west and north of India in groups as well as by myself, I find it a little too overhyped. Sure, there are rowdy people, cheats, touts, beggars, and inquisitive, annoying aunties—but once you spread your soul out on your travels you realize that there are an aweful number of surprisingly nice people that you had no idea about.

So when I started seriously considering a solo vacation to the hills, I was in two minds. There were all these discussions—primarily amongst travellers from western countries who link “safety” to the kind of clothes they wear. The overriding presumption is that people in the west won’t harm you no matter how short your skirt or cropped your top is, but in India it means you’re inviting trouble. For anyone reading this, I want you to know that it’s a non-issue. People in India will stare, but criminality has got nothing to do with attire—just as anywhere else. The more pressing issue is the apparent lack of law enforcement which enables crimes to go unreported, justice delayed, and therefore a pall of fear develops regarding the lack of safety.

However, it’s all empty talk without actual, hard evidence. As a resident of the National Capital Region (NCR/Delhi), I live with the constant awareness that I’m not safe. People don’t walk much, they drive—even if it’s to buy milk in the morning. The roads aren’t safe, for anyone can attack you. I was once groped less than 50 metres from my home. People don’t come to help others in trouble, for you never know which minister’s or business tycoon’s son is the trouble maker and you don’t want to get into trouble. This is my reality and this, I’m told, is one of the most unsafe places in India. Surely, If I go somewhere on a vacation, it won’t be worse than this—I told myself. Besides, my own experience in towns and villages outside of the big cities have been rather pleasant.

The real kick came when I heard that a former colleague had suddenly passed away. My travel plans were all but cancelled before that. I had no tickets; all my friends jettisoned the idea for a variety of reasons; and yet my leaves were approved and I wasn’t ready to cancel my leaves. At that moment—while I communicated with other friends to find out if the news of my colleague’s death was not a bad joke—I was overwhelmed with a strange feeling of time passing by. Life is short, I realised. It’s wasteful to let time slip by doing nothing owing to fear or laziness or lack of company. I thought about my colleague and the long conversations we once used to have about art and felt—selfishly—what a gift it is to be alive.

I bought a bus ticket online, packed my bags, surprised (shocked?) my husband by informing him that I was going, and I was off. At the backend, of course, it took me several hours of intensive work to cook my dogs’ food, write out instructions, and research on hotels and prices. I made no bookings, though.

It was my dream to wander by tall dark trees amongst the mountains. A tiny house and river features in that dream too. And ever since I heard of Kasol from my brother, my dreamscapes were tied to that tiny village with a clear, bouncing river. Kasol is a small village by the river Parvati in the state of Himachal Pradesh. I did not have the time to go through my original itinerary covering the northern parts of Himachal Pradesh—especially because I decided to not hire cabs. Hiring cabs for travel saves time, but it isolates you from experiencing the local culture, and it’s one of those things that might lead to trouble.

My bus started from Delhi at 7.30 and was scheduled to reach Bhunter, a small town that served as a junction between Manali and Kasol, at 8 the following morning.

The bus was awesome. It was an HPTDC volvo (which you can book online from here) that was half empty, and because it had an abundance of emergency bags, I had no trouble while puking early in the morning as we climbed higher and higher. I had had dinner by the roadside in the plains and an early morning tea in the hills. Here’s the first shot I took with my phone as I sipped my tea and enjoyed the mist and light drizzle.

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An amazing morning. An amazing bus.

There was a family on board—parents and two grown up sons—and one of the sons turned out to know my husband. It transpired that they were in college together, and when my husband explained to them at the bus stop that I was going on a vacation by myself, the mother’s expression changed. There seemed to be a flicker of disbelief and horror in her eyes, which quickly dissipated. But I thought it was better to stay clear from aunties on a vacation and therefore pretended to sleep for as long as they were up. In the morning, as I told the bus conductor that he was to inform me when Bhunter arrived, I learnt that auntie and company were also getting off there. As I stepped out of the bus and looked around, auntie asked me:

“Do you know this place? Why did you get down here?”, to which I replied,

“I don’t know this place, but this is where I had to get down to reach Kasol”.

“How will you go?”

“I think I will catch a bus. But I have to find out where to catch it from.”

“Do you know anyone in Kasol?

“No, I’m just going on a vacation.”

“Betaa, you have a place there naa? Where will you put up there?”

Now I realised that auntie was petrified. My vacation made no sense to her and she feared the worst for me. To put her at ease I lied:

“Of course, my friends are already there, I’ll just have to reach and then we’ll party.”

My parents and husband would have been very flustered with the idea of my going to the hills with a bunch of friends to party. But auntie here seemed to be satisfied that at least I wouldn’t be alone. Perspectives!

So auntie and company spoke to the cab drivers waiting for passengers and asked the cab drivers to put me up on a bus. While all this was happening, a bus came by, and I said a hearty goodbye and boarded the bus, leaving auntie with her fears.

As I stared at the greenery and mists, I noticed two things. There were many bikers, most of them young, turbaned Sikh boys, going in the same direction as ours on motor bikes laden with flags. Quite disconcerting. The last thing you’d want to see on a hill station are biker gangs or processions. The second thing I noticed was an elderly couple sitting in front of me, and uncle was pointing out every little detail to auntie as they kept up a constant chatter. Rather cute. I don’t know how a conversation started between uncle and me, and soon he asked:

“You’re travelling all alone, little girl?”

Yes. That’s what he asked. So I gave my best little girl smile, nodded and said:

“Yes, I’m going on a vacation”.

Brief silence. Thank god for beautiful mountains, the chatter soon filled up the little discomfiture.

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River Parvati – first view

When I reached Kasol, it was almost noon. I walked around a bit trying to find the hotel I had rung up. There were no rooms available but they had asked me to come and check in person, in case someone vacated, and they had, what seemed to me from the pictures, the best position by the Parvati. The hotel was situated in the centre of the village and right by the river—its garden restaurant hanging from a jutting piece of cliff over the river. The most astounding thing about the place was the roaring of Parvati in spate. I had seen photos of the Parvati as a limpid blue stream, but what I saw in person was a terrifying white and brown foam, with a constant haze over it, rumbling down the valley with a mighty roar.

I waited for an hour sipping coffee and contemplating the river before I was told that they had a room for me. It was on the ground floor, damp, and not very nice. However, I was hooked to the river, or it’s sound rather, and decided to take it.

After lunch, I set out to explore the village. Kasol has changed much since the time my brother described it to me almost a decade ago. Although a small village, it’s overflowing with westerners and its streets are lined with cafes and restaurants selling Italian, continental and Israeli food. Israeli tourists seemed to outnumber others since I also noticed billboards written in Hebrew and a Chabad House!

My intention was to find the bridge that I could see from my hotel so I could go past the river on the other side where there seemed to be a narrow forest trail by the the tall mountain. As I walked, scores of the bikers I described earlier passed by—leering, hooting and generally having “fun”. They were supposedly on a pilgrimage to Manikaran, which is about 14 Km from Kasol. I felt quite disgruntled. “Why must I have to deal with such assholes outside Delhi as well?” I complained to myself and kept walking. I was determined to not let unnecessary intrusions affect my mood (which was already affected) and I only turned back when it started raining. I took shelter in a shop, chatted with a local lady, bought a shawl from another shopkeeper and spent an hour or more there. Roop Kumari auntie, the local lady, told me that monsoons had become increasingly dangerous with landslides occurring more often over the years. She also asked me about my friends, and when I told her that I came by myself, discouraged me from wandering by myself.

“It’s not safe, not with these type of people (showing some bikers) around.”

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Roop Kumari auntie – 50 years and counting in Kasol

As I walked back, darkness descended suddenly, as it often does in the hills, but not being used to it, I increased my pace. And I took a terrible decision. I reasoned with myself at that moment that since I could not go further north and couldn’t go for the 8 hour trek to Kheer Ganga by myself either, I’d rather head back home. So I went to the nearest travel agent and booked a ticket back to Delhi for the following day.

Back in the hotel, I took my sketching things outside and sat in the drizzle for a couple of hours—sitting astride a parapet hanging over the river—and sketched. I got up to go inside only when I began to feel really cold, and the cold made me see less, and the drizzle got the better of my already wet unruly hair and blotched my water colour pencil sketch in several places. Even as I tore myself away from the cold and rain and that roaring river, I went in and continued filling the page with colour until I fell asleep over it. Happiness.

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An eventful day

The next morning I awoke with a start. It was not yet 7 a.m. The skies seemed to be clear and I was feeling like I could conquer the world. Instantly I regretted my decision to purchase that ticket back to Delhi. “I could jolly well laze around here another full day even if I didn’t go anywhere, I reasoned.” To make up for my self-imposed time constraint, I set out early, found the bridge and crossed over for a short trek to the next village, Chalal.

This was every bit my dream landscape and like a sleep walker I went ahead instinctively, stopping only to gasp at the river or peer at the unending pine trunks up, down, and all around me. This was the winding road I could see partially from my hotel. It was laden with dried pine leaves most of the way, and I kept collecting rounded pine cones whenever I spotted one. By the time I reached Chalal, I was too hungry to think of anything else and hence made my way up to a restaurant. As I waited for my aloo parantha, I chatted with friends on the phone. On my way back, I crossed the shrubbery and went right up to the river and spent an hour lying down, staring at the sky and listening to the river.

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I was not happy with myself for having purchased the return ticket in a knee-jerk reaction to a minor discomfiture caused by some overenthusiastic men. Or perhaps the repeated nay sayers and discouragement made me nervous. However, it’s a valuable lesson for me for my future trips: Even if everything does not go according to plan, one needs only to do what one loves, get over the negativity and brace oneself for the world. It’s more about one’s own attitude towards the world than about strangers’ attitude to oneself that determines one’s experience. Summarily, I have decided to never listen to my reactive mind, no matter how vulnerable I feel or attractive the option seemed at the moment—I must let myself soak in the environment and give myself time to switch on my explorer mode, before I purchased return tickets from anywhere. Note to self: It pertains to return tickets only.

Yet I was quite merry in the jam-packed bus that I boarded for my return to Bhunter. In Bhunter I waited for more than hour before the bus to Delhi arrived. I was hungry and wanted to eat, but strangely, most of the shops were closed. Hence all I managed was a cup of tea. No sooner had the bus started than I began to feel funny. Funny led to nausea. And within an hour I was shifting in my seat constantly, cowering in the cold blast from the air conditioner, and fearing for the passenger next to me—for I could puke any moment, and the only saving grace in the entire scenario was that my stomach was empty.

I’m one of those optimists who refuse to carry medications for motion sickness or nausea. I believe it won’t happen again although it happens every time. Secretly, of course, I feel embarrassed for being such a sissy. However, by the time the bus stopped for dinner—which was almost midnight—by a dark highway lit up only by two food joints, I was feeling terrible. I stepped out and paced up and down by the highway as people flooded into the dining room for their dinner. Some people peered, some stared openly at my antics, and there were some bikers too but no one bothered me with small talk. Perhaps there was something about my pacing that told people off for I was in a mood to kill.

A Caucasian man with two small children was one of the passengers in the bus. He stood outside the food joint instead of going in. In a while the little girl came out—bare feet—and he took her inside, presumably to the washroom. As she boarded the bus, the little boy came out—bare feet—and he took him inside too. When he’d sent both of them inside the bus, he turned and said,

“Hello”.

I was still pacing and surprised, I said “Hello”.

“How long do you think the bus will stop here?” he asked in a heavily accented English.

“I don’t know—as long as it takes people to eat, I suppose.”

“You’re travelling alone?”

“Yeah.”

By that time I’ve had enough of this you-woman-how-can-you-be-travelling-alone conversations and couldn’t take any more of it. So I cut in:

“Why aren’t your kids wearing shoes?”

“Mumble mumble mumble mumble.”

I didn’t get what he said but I realized he was a little embarrassed about it. I wondered for a second if I should ask whether he was carrying any medicines, but decided against further conversation. I finally did ask for a medicine from a group which had spent their evening staring at me at my hotel as I sat and sketched in the rain.

Note to self: Travel solo and learn social skills.

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Chander Pahar – A Book I Love and a Movie I Must Talk About

What happens when you see a childhood myth rendered into celluloid? Even as you encounter the unfolding visuals, straggling between memory and the living moment, your mind creates a hyperreality in which one flows into the other, creating a montage of images melting into each other, welding the vivid imagination of a ten-year-old with the rust and sepia of experience.

When I watched Chander Pahar on celluloid, that’s exactly what happened to me. I had grown up reading and internalising the novel of the same name by the Bengali author Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay. Published in 1937 and capturing a fictionalised narrative in the pre World War 1 era, the novel is an interesting take on the classic Bildungsroman. 

Shankar, the protagonist, lives in rural Bengal at a time when India was still under British occupation. The time of the fictional narrative is significant—Bengal was divided into east and west along communal lines, the economy was broken because most of Bengal’s jute produce came from the east and the factories processed them in the west, businesses were failing, jobs were dwindling and inertia was being replaced by a robust anti-British sentiment in Bengal. However, there was no despair. Politics had not yet descended into intrigue. The World War 1 was a decade away and the soil of Bengal was yet to be stricken with the famished dead bodies of people starving owing to Britain’s expensive wars.

In locating the narrative back into a relatively less grisly time in history, Bibhuti Bhusan can credibly beckon his readers’ attention to the inner turmoils of Shankar rather than those surrounding him in society and politics. Thus, Bibhuti Bhushan’s understated prose gently skirts the impoverishment and colonial tyranny of the time, focusing rather on the surface, the happy advent of a job for Shankar in a jute mill in Kolkata. 

Shankar, however, is not one to be tamed by a city job. He dreams of being an explorer, and sooner than you know it, you’re following Shankar in his wanderlust across the grasslands and veldts in Africa. Here he meets a middle aged Portuguese explorer named Diego Alvarez, who finds in Shankar an ideal companion to conquer the “Mountain of the Moon” (Chander Pahar) which supposedly held the fabled diamonds for which several explorers had given up their lives—and never returned to tell their tales. Alvarez wanted the diamonds. Shankar wanted the experience of discovering the wild—and in the process, as the story unfolds, the reader discovers a joie de vivre, the secret source of the wide-eyed wonder and energy that animates Shankar.

And yet, being the master story teller that Bibhuti Bhushan is, he doesn’t flinch in exposing the secret little fears lingering in the shadowy corners of Shankar’s mind. When he is tired and overcome with despair amidst the unending mountains and forests, Shankar prods on, afraid that expressing his despair would reinforce what the white man was wont to think about subjugated people—about their physical incompetence, lack of strength and courage. Alvarez, on the other hand, is impressed with Shankar—aware that this is the 20 year old’s first journey outside his village, but apparently unaware of the thoughts and complexes that motivate Shankar. Bibhuti Bhushan problematizes the relationship between the two with elan—without allowing the reader to lose track of the plot. And yet, as the story progresses, to the reader Shankar grows in stature from a boy with an impossible dream to an allegory of a struggling, stumbling nation in the making.

To the reader, it is clear that Shankar’s challenges are not limited to the terrain; his battles with the physical forces of nature assumes almost allegorical resonance with the battle he is fighting within—his quest being the elusive balance between inimical forces—between the oppressor and the oppressed, between want and greed, between nature and order, and between life and death.

The narrator’s voice in the novel, which informs and elevates the prose from the pithiness of what could have become a one-dimensional story of a go-getter becomes a bit of a set back in the movie.

When you show two men trudging along mountain passes with backpacks, you don’t need a narrator to tell you what’s happening. The audio-visual impact of cinema ensures that you don’t really need to prepare your audience for a shift in time-place continuum. Showing is enough; you don’t need to insult the reader’s intelligence by explaining what you’re showing. And despite retaining the narrator’s voice in the movie, there is none of Bibhuti Bhushan’s understated narrative master strokes. Shankar in much of the movie shows no vulnerability apart from physical ones.

However, that doesn’t take anything away from the imaginative brilliance of some other scenes and sequences in the movie. The smooth transition of the entire narrative from a dialogue between Shankar and Alvarez to a monologue played out in action and dream sequences through Shankar’s perspective is an example. Then there is that scene in the cave where Shankar finds the diamonds—a hark back to the metaphorical Philosopher’s Stone—and unaware of what they are, he picks only one to mark his way out of the cave. This is the beginning of the philosopher taking over the explorer, soon to be followed by the superbly executed scene of Shankar tearing out and eating the meat off a roasted vulture as he talks with himself.

As a viewer, you’re bound to stare with open-mouthed wonder at the transition of a well-groomed, well-shaven young man into a brute living off the earth like an animal—knowing no better way to survive than by the bullet and no better reason than to die with courage. What exactly is civilization, you will wonder, as you look at Shankar and then turn the gaze upon yourself.

The movie deviates from the novel in several places, but that’s not terribly relevant to this post. What’s more relevant, to a global audience though, is the narrative continuity between this movie and another Africa epic: Blood Diamond. In this context, Chander Pahar becomes a pre-Lapsarian prophecy of what is to come, encapsulated in Blood Diamond. Both the movies use the same tropes and narrative devices (Blood Diamond being tighter and crisper with no animals, thank you); both deal with the subject of greed, destiny and a journey that ends with only one survivor. Interestingly, both the movies have dream sequences towards the end. And yet they’re as different as chalk and cheese when it comes to using these materials to create meaning. Blood Diamond is a disturbing movie—its meaning lies on the surface, its message direct. Chander Pahar is disarmingly childish—you can take your five year old to watch it, and yet as you drive back home, you will discover that there is more to it than the tale of an ordinary boy with an extraordinary wanderlust.   

Chander Pahar is heart-warming because you discover—contrary to all forebodings—that the friends he has lost and the wealth he has found has not changed Shankar into a sadder or a vainer man. Shankar’s unbelievable feat is in retaining his sense of chaste wonder at the world around him. When he sets sail again, you’re almost relieved that Shankar has not fallen into the trap of losing himself into the mire of that which has claimed many a life before he made it out alive from that enchanted cave with diamonds.            

Lest I forget to mention, there’s computer-generated-imagery (CGI) of a Bunyip—the mythical animal that protects the diamonds according to the Zulus (and looks like a dinosaur according to me), CGI of an erupting volcano, and lots of breath-takingly beautiful panorama shots across the movie. The actors have done their job, including the lions and hyenas. There’s a bit of blood and gore and a fully clothed skeleton—if that kind of detail interests you.

P.S. There’s no hot chick, no love angle, and no song and dance sequences.

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Happy Birthday, Monkeys

Happy Birthday, Monkeys

A delayed post. But it’s never too late to beat the drums when it’s your birthday! <3 <3

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The Diminishing Marginal Utility of the anti-Modi Rant, or Why my Vote goes to Modi

The law of diminishing marginal utility states that the marginal utility of a product or service decreases with each successive unit of consumption, up to a point where additional consumption creates dis-utility or dissatisfaction.

2002

The unanimous condemnation of the horrific events of 2002 in Gujarat—in both national and international media—was instrumental in creating a ritual disgust for Narendra Modi in my mind. For the first time in India, communal riots were captured in real time, with a barrage of damning evidence all over the media, in print, through photographs, and video footage running 24*7 on every news channel.

I was 19, studying for my board exams that February, when the news of the Sangh Parivar activists commemorating the demolition of the Babri masjid in Ayodhya was doing the rounds. Thousands of devout Ram-bhakts from all over the country were assembling in Ayodhya to do their bit to build their temple. I knew there would be trouble, and I detested the Sangh Parivar for its rabble-rousing antics. About three years ago, some men associated with the Sangh Parivar had burnt to death a Christian missionary along with his entire family in Odisha for allegedly carrying out mass conversions in lieu of money. Not surprisingly, it became a hot topic of discussion amongst friends in my Christian missionary school. My Christian friends were not complaining, not because they weren’t bothered but because, I guess, they did not want to embarrass us—the Hindus—who denounced, unanimously, with no prior planning, the dastardly act of those goons. For the first time in my life I felt embarrassed at being a Hindu—not because the immediate people around me did or said something to cause embarrassment—but because I shared my faith with those goons, I sensed that in the non-Hindu mind I was perhaps equally capable of harbouring similar thoughts. Hence, my (in fact, our) loud denouncement of the murder of G.S. Staines.

I wasn’t religious. At 19, I called myself an atheist, and much as I tried to understand the religious motivations of people fighting over mosques and temples, all I could make out, unconvincingly though, was that they were all uneducated ruffians—and the group with the larger number won. Nevertheless, I carried my secret guilt of being a Hindu in a Hindu-majority country like an albatross round my neck. And therefore I was also staunchly secular.

The above premise—I’d still like to think—was the result of my own mental gymnastics. However, it gave me immense confidence that the line of thought propagated by the majority of English language news channels was similar. My favourite channel was the newly launched NDTV and Barkha Dutt, then my favourite anchor. She was dynamic, fearless, and was the first woman to cover the Indo-Pak war of 1999 from the war-zone of Kargil. I admired her, secretly hoped to become a journalist like her, and in retrospect, I think I was far too influenced by her style to be able to distinguish between reporting and value-judgement.

Day after day, I watched homes burning on TV, blood splattered on the streets, and a steady stream of pictures of half-burnt, naked, mutilated human bodies on almost every page of the two newspapers we subscribed to. The death toll increased each day as news reporters spoke with survivors, mostly Muslims, who recounted their horror at watching their people being raped and butchered by Hindu mobs.

At breaking point, I decided to stop watching the riot coverage altogether. I was disconsolate and the images of the burning riots made it impossible for me to concentrate on my studies. I promised myself that I will read up on this later and buried myself in text books. But by then my opinion of Modi as a maut ka saudagar (“dealer of death” as alleged by the Congress president Sonia Gandhi) was cemented. I did keep my promise though. Soon after I started college in Kolkata, I bought a documentary on the Gujarat riots as compiled by some leading intellectuals from the Left Front government ruling Bengal at that time. I read it without looking at the pictures inside.

2003

My college was a hotbed of political activism. The students’ wing of the Left Front (then in government in Bengal) lost the elections and made way for a parti-coloured coalition of sorts to gain control of the students’ union. Legend has it that what happens in this college ripples out and shapes the events outside, particularly in the Vidhan Sabha.

This was also the year in which the US started its invasion of Iraq, carpet bombing what it believed to be secret installations of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and killing a million people in its wake. This was the American “war against terror” in response to the tragedy that struck on September 11, 2001. In a rare show of solidarity, all the parties in my college got together and organised a protest march against the American invasion of Iraq, which we believed had more to do with oil than with WMDs. I joined this march because I thought it was important, and helped create one of those traffic snarls that Kolkata is known for.

My opinion of Modi remained unchanged.

2004

In the general elections I voted for the Congress, believing them to be the best available option because, well, a party that harbours the likes of Modi—despite it’s good handling of economic policies and record of development—can’t be voted to power. Sonia Gandhi of the Congress was almost crowned as the prime minister, when that was botched by one Subramanium Swamy of the BJP, citing a clause of reciprocity in the Constitution. Therefore Manmohan Singh is nominated as the Congress-led UPA’s prime minister.

There’s no question of changing my opinion of Modi.

2006

A series of 7 bombs went off in quick succession in several busy railway stations in Mumbai on July 11. Over 200 people were killed and 700 left injured, and while the government and police went into a tailspin fixing blame and managing the disaster, the mainstream media sang paeans to the resilient spirit of Mumbaikars who went back to work the very next day using the same railway lines. This was suspiciously in sync with the timing of another grenade attack by terrorists in Kashmir.

A Pakistan-based terrorist group claimed responsibility and said that this was done in response to the Gujarat riots of 2002.

My opinion of Modi remained unchanged.

2007

Bengal had been simmering with frequent outbreaks of violence between the two rival political parties. The incumbent Left Front had been in government for over thirty years—too long for a single party to rule uninterrupted but too short to see the fall of every industrial institution in the state. The incumbent chief minister went against his party’s hardline Leftist ideology and met with several investors in the hope of reviving the economy. This failed, and some of the credit for scuttling an industrial resuscitation goes to Mamata Banerjee, the leader of the opposition party.

Banerjee’s party worked relentlessly to apprise the poor farmers about the government’s plans of acquiring land for industries. This fomented trouble in several areas where the farmers refused to part with their land.

In Nandigram, the farmers feared that the chemical plant planned on their lands would sully the waters and the soil and they would be left without adequate compensation. They dug up every road that led to their village and kept a round-the-clock vigil to prevent any government vehicle from entering. A large police contingent was deployed to break the farmers’ resistance. Unable to negotiate, on March 14, the police opened fire, killing 14 people, mostly women and children. The chief minister claimed that the police acted without his orders, yet it was but a matter of time before his party would lose to Banerjee’s in 2011.

My opinion of Modi remained unchanged.

2008

Ajmal Kasab and company arrived in Mumbai on a boat from Pakistan and opened fire on people. The firing wasn’t completely indiscriminate: They chose to spray bullets in a specialty hospital, a 5 star hotel frequented by the rich and foreign, a busy railway station, and a Jewish prayer house.They killed over 200 people, and continued to fight until all but one were killed.

They claimed that this was their way of meting out justice for the injustice wrought on Indian Muslims during the Gujarat riots of 2002.

My opinion of Modi remained unchanged.

2009

After Greg Chappell’s disastrous coaching of India’s cricket team, not many in India would praise Australia. However, the sudden spurt of physical violence on Indian students in Australia created a diplomatic face-off. From the Australian authorities there was denial, followed by a grudging acknowledgement of a racist undercurrent, and finally followed by reassurances.

In 2010, after a long public discourse on immigration control, Australia tightened its immigration rules in favor of English speakers and professionals, saying the country has been attracting “too many hairdressers and cooks and too few doctors and engineers”.

My opinion of Modi remained unchanged. Obviously, what’s immigration got to do with Modi, would you ask?

2011

I had moved to Maharashtra by this time and lived in Pune. I had stayed for a while in Mumbai too, in 2007, and loved the city. A couple of seemingly unrelated incidents resulted in an unbelievable case of rioting in Azad Maidan in Mumbai.

  1. A sustained communal clash between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar raised communal passions in India.
  2. As a result, within a few weeks, clashes broke out between the mostly Hindu Bodo tribals and Bengali Muslims in Assam. Tensions had been simmering over the steady infiltration of Muslims from Bangladesh across the porous border, and the clashes snowballed into a full-fledged riot after 4 Bodo youths were killed. In the ensuing violence more than 80 people lost their lives and 4 lakh rendered homeless.

Unhappy with the clashes in Assam, a Muslim group held a protest rally in the heart of Mumbai. The police permission for the rally estimated 1500 people—however, more than 15000 turned up, many of them armed with batons, cans of petrol, etc. In response to some speeches and photographs, this crowd turned restive and started beating up the already heavily outnumbered police personnel and set fire to cars, buses, and destroyed the Amar Jawan (Martyr’s) memorial.

A Facebook conversation with a Muslim friend on this turned sour, following his meandering slimy soft-pedalling of Jehadi elements holding the nation at ransom. The sourness also arose from the fact that he’s a journalist—and capable of selling his BS thanks to his Press card—and I can’t do anything about it. However, I did do something: I cast off the metaphorical albatross of Hindu guilt I had been wearing around my neck. That conversation was an eye-opener for me as to the futility of having pious sentiments like vicarious guilt in a land where ruffians murder and their well-read alter-egos justify murder.

Shortly after the Azad Maidan incident, some electronic messages and videos were spread warning people from the north-east of India of physical harm in retaliation to the Assam riots. As unbelievable as it may sound, it triggered a massive exodus of people of the north-east from cities like Bangalore, Mumbai and Pune—and went on for several days.

The Indian government cracked down on social networking sites to control this kind of rumour mongering. It was during this time that I found my blog domain blocked—without any information—and a potentially dangerous idea being floated by Kapil Sibal, the Congress minister in charge of IT and Telecommunications, that all content on the Internet including social networking sites should be monitored by the government.

The minister later denied making that statement—but going by the fact that the idea was successfully planted in public discourse, does it make you re-think the magnitude of the American NSA programme?

There’s no question of changing my opinion on Modi, though.

2012

By this time, India’s economic growth had collapsed to what it was twenty years ago before we liberalised our Soviet model of economy to allow foreign direct investment (FDI) in for rapid development.

One scam after another began to unfold before the public—thanks largely to an overzealous civil movement called India Against Corruption and castigation from regulatory bodies like the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG).

Taking advantage of our troubled house, our friendly neighbours on both sides resorted to regular violation of ceasefire and land-grabbing.

It also emerged by this time that the Congress-led UPA at the centre was preparing for a hattrick win in election 2014 riding pillion with two proposed legislations—the Food Security Bill and the Communal Violence Bill.

Food security sounds nice in a country which boasts of a nuclear arsenal and yet people die of hunger. This bill, which is now an Act, seeks to provide a minimum quantity of food grain to about 800 million people at a heavily subsidized fixed rate—estimated to reach upto Rs 124,747 crore annually.

However, it’s important to read the fine print. Food Security was pre-empted by a direct-cash-for-food scheme that replaced the previous public distribution system (PDS). The government defended its direct cash transfer scheme as one that is likely to have the least leakage—in contrast to the PDS—while as a taxpaying citizen it’s difficult for me to digest this given the fact that Rs 8000 crore of taxpayer money was siphoned off in repeated cheques to the same vendor in what’s know as the Commonwealth Games (CWG) scam.

Just to give a sense of proportion: India’s much celebrated Mars mission cost only Rs 450 crore. Had the Rs 8000 crore not been lost in corrupt government deals for the CWG, how many such missions or Food Security Acts would have been possible?

The strange case of the Communal Violence Bill defies all logic. Against all established principles of law, this proposed legislation seeks to hold the majority community guilty of either criminal act or criminal intent, in any case of communal conflagration. Which effectively means that a Hindu man in Bengal, which has a Hindu majority, will be held criminal until proven innocent in the event of a communal clash. The Bill doesn’t address the case of clashes between minority communities such as the one in Assam.

Well, that sounds creepy, doesn’t it? Why would a government priding itself with a host of lawyer-turned-ministers and an Oxbridge educated economist prime minister think of such a crappy legislation? It does sound like turning the state machinery against its own people, even if I were to discount the random theft of national assets and taxpayer money. Who are they trying to protect by posturing with this clearly flawed Bill? Clearly, this government is up to no good and needs to be kicked out.

This is the time to take a fresh look at Modi. If his detractors are this bad, what moral authority do they have to call him communal?

If one takes exception to the events of 2002, then the events of 1984 can’t be shrugged off either. After all, 3000 people died in 3 days of unchecked violence at a time when the home minister could deploy the army immediately to take control—he chose not to. And this home minister—PV Narasimha Rao—went on to become a prime minster later on, and nobody demonised him as a mass murderer. Interesting!

Compare Modi with the man who decided to carpet bomb another country, killing millions, and embezzling taxpayer money in restructuring what he destroyed—and Modi comes off looking better.

Compare Modi with a cultured bespectacled soft-spoken erudite man who has read all the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez but did not know that his police were about to open fire on unarmed women and children—and Modi comes off looking much better.

A mass murderer is someone like a Kasab, a Hitler, or a Indira Gandhi—who killed people according to their whims and fancies. Remember compulsory sterilization, Emergency, Operation Blue Star? A mass murderer shows no remorse—unlike Modi.

2013

In one of those oft-repeated-scant-regarded incidents of Pakistan violating the ceasefire in Kashmir, 5 Indian soldiers lost their lives. It was later reported that they were beheaded and their mutilated bodies returned to India. Heeding the public outrage that followed, our prime minister went on to say—rather uncharacteristically—that there could be no “business as usual” with Pakistan after this.

This was quickly followed by allegations of the government coming to a secret understanding on the disputed Siachen glaciar with Pakistan, under the watch of the US. The allegations came from highly placed military sources, and yet the government neither confirmed nor denied the reports.

Another piece of planned legislation—the FDI in Multi-Brand Retail—did not see the light of day owing to the BJP-led opposition’s strong objections to it. The FDI in Multi-Brand Retail seeks to enable venture capitalists like the British Lynn de Rothschild to invest copiously in India, focusing on agriculture and streamlining supply-chain dynamics—which is widely understood to be detrimental to the interests of the small Indian farmers.

Later this year, communal clashes broke out between Muslims and Hindu Jats at Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh. The riots resulted in almost 50 deaths and several thousand rendered homeless. In another macabre twist to the narrative, the chief minister instructed the beneficiaries of compensation to not move back into their homes because, well, they were compensated for!

In the mean time, where’s Gujarat?

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been reading up on Gujarat. Not only has this state developed at a faster rate than the rest of India for the last decade, its government has also won several accolades—one of which includes a United Nations award for creativity in public service.

And all this happened under the watch of a hostile central government.

In all the media blitzkrieg around the unfortunate events of 2002, everybody forgot the devastating earthquake of 2001that left 20,000 dead and over 400,000 homes reduced to rubble in Gujarat.

How did Narendra Modi manage to salvage his state after that earthquake, and following the riots that shattered investor confidence in Gujarat? How could Modi transform Gujarat into what’s today called a “model state” when the Left-liberal intellectuals running my state of Bengal have reduced it to a national joke—begging for tax redemption, begging for investments, and having nothing but the pretence of cultural superiority to bask in?

Most importantly, Narendra Modi’s Gujarat hasn’t witnessed any communal violence despite there being a long legacy of tensions between the Hindu and Muslim communities.

Contrast this to the shabby handling of communal relations and riots in the past few years by every other government—and not a single chief minister or prime minister is named for his inability to save people’s lives in riots. Not a single chief minister except Narendra Modi has ever been subjected to a decade long judicial inquiry and come out of it unscathed. Despite the best efforts of Congress and its allies, not a single accusation of money laundering could be made against Narendra Modi—I guess that leaves out only his wife to be the easiest target.

The question that must be asked is: Why demonise only Modi?

As this writer points out, India has witnessed several riots after independence—some of them far worse than Gujarat 2002 and mostly in Congress-ruled states—yet why do we not know the names of the chief ministers of the states in which they happened?

How do I make the people in media account for their hate literature that has shaped my views, and likewise, the views of millions of others? Why does the media that is so quick to condemn Modi and insinuate at his alleged role in the Gujarat riots assume this cryptic silence when referring to the role of Rajiv Gandhi in the 1984 massacre of the Sikhs?

I believe there is more to the sustained hate-Modi campaign than ideology or economics. I believe there are vested interests that will find it difficult to survive in a Modi-led regime because clearly, Modi is not a status-quoist. Luckily for me, the hate-Modi industry has had its full course and I can’t take anymore of that. I find moralistic sermonising along party lines abominable—and immoral—when disguised in the language of journalism.

A three-time winner of state elections who has inspired a sustainable industry of hate literature that oils the wheels of engines like NDTV must be really, really gifted. My vote goes to him.

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