Thursday, September 24, 2009

For my beloved city and the best 5 days each year

Ok, you can't blame a Bengali for wanting to write about his favourite 5 days of the year. However there have been reams written about this festival of the goddess and rightly so, for there isn't a festival that can simply match the spirit of the people who celebrate it (at least to a Bengali). So here goes some of the things that I love about Durga Pujo.
The feel of Calcutta about a week before the pujas begin. We Bengalis believe the sunlight changes to a divine golden, and special flowers begin to bloom. There is feverish activity in every 'para' as the pandals come up and discussions abound as to what vehicle (mythological reference of elephant etc.) that the goddess is coming in for each means something different. For example this year she is coming in a 'palki' meaning draught, and going on an elephant meaning 'good harvest'. The best however is that there is an upbeat mood and everyone is happy. It might be the poorest person shopping for just one t shirt or the middle class elbowing the crowd at Sree Leathers or the rich waltzing into Raymond but each one of them is happy and there is a smile on his face.
Romance during pujas is stuff of folklore. Guys eye the locality beauty trying very hard to catch her eye while every Bengali girl turns into a beauty dressed in white saree red border, open hair and red bindi. Places like Maddox Square for the 'upmarket school and college crowd' might be the in thing, but there is no hunting ground like your local para pujo. Invariably peaking around sandhi puja (maximum permission to stay out late from home) and seldom surviving beyond kali puja, these romances are about buying her jhal muri, or watching her perform rabindrasangeet at the evening concerts and even eyeing her from the corner of your eye during ashtami anjali that you have fasted for.
Pandal hopping has different modalities. From teenage boys out with friends (possibly only time parents give permission), to people from outside Calcutta pooling together a vehicle to come to town, or the likes of me who just like to wander the streets on foot. My family always sees a few pujas, ones they call 'abhijato' viz. Ballygunj Cultural, Samaj Sabi, Maddox Square (Richie Park) and the likes. Some pujas I have always wanted to see but balked at the waiting include Md. Ali Park (note secular nature), College Square and Babu Bagan.
The last is about the food... from kachuri alurdam at breakfast to ilish maach and chingri maach at lunch to shiraz biryani at dinner it is one gastronomical delight. I for one, prefer eating at home due to the simple variety my mom lays out (but my grandmom will always be the best) and because restaurants are a mess at this time!
The best part of the pujas is that while I adore every mythological facet (from madhu kaitav, to mahisasura's different forms to ram offering his eyes as a flower), it is an inherently family and social festival and if anyone claims its more religious than these two he/ she doesn't understand a thing about this festival.
So this is my initial list... what is yours?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Simple things of material impact

I never get as irritated as I do when I see stupidity around me when I drive... the auto rickshaw that drives at 20mph but on the right most lane... the BEST bus that has to stop right at the middle of the road... the people who just can't learn to walk on the pavement... this list is endless.
However the point of this post is not to crib about what others should do. It is about little changes that we can bring about in our daily lives and how everyone's lives can be better if we do so. The list below follows very simple rules:
1. They must be inherently simple to follow
2. They must benefit others (apart from us of course)
3. They must be part of our daily lives.

So here goes
1. Take responsibility to be the one to switch off lights. This might mean your house while leaving, the conference room after the conference etc.
2. Follow simple rules that avoid wastage: don't keep the tap on while shaving/ brushing etc., don't always take a shower, but rather use the bucket and mug, ensure all electric and electronic appliances are switched off rather than put on standby
3. Don't honk on the roads unless necessary
4. Use the pavements when walking on the road
5. Try and organize a car pool. If not possible at least ensure you gift a lift to someone so that he doesnt use a taxi. Can't blame people for not using public transport given the pathetic state of the same in our country
6. Simple ones like not throwing garbage on the road, continues
These are just initial starting thoughts. As I think of more will update.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Why do we hate Mayawati?

This is actually a question that I heard on NDTV being asked Prannoy Roy and it had me really thinking.

The little research that I could do on her showed that Mayawati had one major corruption allegation against her in the Taj Corridor case and another even graver but inderect allegation of murder and extortion by BSP for what is called her 'birthday fund'. Does that make an object of such hate in an absolute sense? Yes, definitely yes. However, when we look around at our political class, she is not the only one who has such allegations against her, then why single her out for such vitriolic hate. We seem to forget Lalu Prasad Yadav's Fodder Scam and invite him to IIMA, we forget Narendra Modi's state sponsored communal violence because he is an able administrator. and even think of eulogizing Jyoti Basu whose only contribution to Bengal is considered to be a film fraterntity at Nandan and his son Chandan.

The real answer to that lies in exactly what Mayawati has managed to achieve. She has come from what is arguably the toughest background in India- Dalit woman and risen to become the Chief Minister of the largest state in India. If anything, that makes her the pin up girl of Indian politics far more than Priyanka Gandhi's pretty face.

She has upset all our long held beliefs of social laddering and what we consider to be the rightful place of certain kinds of people. She is definitely not the most honest leader alive (she paid over 26 crores in taxes and has an ongoing case on assets disproportionate to known sources of income) but this mindless almost personal hatred towards her doesn't speak too well about us either.

Think about it and our closely held prejudices.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Those little prejudices that you don't even notice

Like a lot of my other posts even this one begins after watching a good movie- this time it’s the Pakistani movie, Khuda Kay Liye. However this movie is not about the movie, it’s more about intolerance and freedom of choice.

The only limited point I am trying to make here is that almost all of us agree that everyone is entitled to an opinion and the right to choose, but when it comes to things that are close to us, most of us let our prejudices take the better of us. What is worse is that in most cases it’s not even a belief, or not even a prejudice, it’s a habit driven into us from childhood. This is what makes its correctness escape the question of a discerning eye and also the easiest to remedy.

Let us take a few simple examples. A Hindu mother will believe she s broad minded because her son plays with a Muslim girl, but come the time of marriage, all hell will break loose if her son chooses a Muslim girl. There cannot be any half way on the freedom of choice. It is absolute for an individual, obviously restricted to the point that it causes no harm to others. There can be a debate on this point as to what is “harm” and what is “others” but that will only trivialize the moot point of discussion here.

It is easiest to tell a person not to do something and then take the garb of abstract concepts like religion and what’s again worse, custom. However religions per se are I believe (and I am not qualified enough to say I know) far more based on sound logic than an irrational mind. So a Muslim father will tell his son not to eat pork, but not explain that the reasons lay in the fact that pigs lived in dirt and hence bore lot of diseases, that given the hot climate, in these parts we were most susceptible to.

There s another classic movie that probably explains it better. It’s a movie called “Gentlemen’s Agreement” on anti Semitism with more than a hint of sarcasm. The basic point that the protagonist makes is that a lot of these unfair prejudices continue even today is because, most of the educated genteel refuse to stand up and protest.

I’ll do my best to see what I can do about it. Won’t you?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


I travel alone partly by choice and also partly because I hate the effort required to convince others to join you, match calendars, desires budgets etc. So when I set off for a five day holiday in the Kashmir valley I didn’t even bother to ask anyone else. I can write a book about this trip, but what I ll do here is cover some aspects of my trip that I want to talk most about (but may not be that you might want to hear about).

My travel took me from the glaciers of Sonmarg (Golden Meadows), to the meadows nestled among the hills in Pahalgam (Village of the Shepherds), and the ever so popular peaks of Gulmarg. I spent considerable time exploring the Mughal gardens of Srinagar, the dal (water in Dongri) of the lakes in Srinagar and around like Manasbal in beautiful shikaras. The lost secularity of Kashmir unraveled in visits to Hazratbal (where a hair of the prophet is believed to be stored), to Shankaracharya (where he is supposed to have gathered enlightenment before establishing the 4 dhams of learning). Finally I drove quite a bit to see the Jawahar Tunnel (2.54 kms of rock blasted in the Pir Panjal range) to connect the valley with the rest of the country. A couple of highlights apart from this were the visits to the saffron fields and the cricket bats being made from Kashmir willow. Now, that’s the basic data of the trip J

Yes, Kashmir looks like a land at war. The Indian security forces are everywhere, and the threat of attacks from the militants is alive all the time in the minds of the people. Having said this, one must also realize that Kashmir is nowhere as bad as it was in the earlier 90s. It’s perfectly safe for tourists and over the past five years attacks on tourists have been negligible. Most of the militant activities happen in the Kupwara and Baramullah districts near PoK or Azad Kashmir, as it is called, depending on your point of view. The shelling across the border happens near Kargil in the areas of Dras and Batalik but even that has been on a decline. None of these places are on your normal tourist beat. However, everywhere you turn you will see the security forces training the guns on you, every now and then your car will have to move away from the road to let an army convoy pass through, and you will be frisked and searched at various points. The idea is that now that we have gained control, we cannot let the hard fought gains go easily, else we ll be back to 1989 when our security system had all but collapsed.

NH1A is the life line of Kashmir connecting Jammu with Srinagar and then moving onto Leh via Kargil (which is my next trip). Another branch of this road goes to Muzaffarabad across the border. In fact the journey distance from Srinagar to Jammu is about a hundred kms shorter if we could have traveled through Pakistan! Every two hundred metres on this road, all through the five hundred odd kms you have our security forces standing guard through sun or hail or snow. Periodically mine sweepers move over the sensitive areas to sanitize the road. The security forces come from J&K police (who unlike our city forces are armed with automatic weapons and have their fingers on the triggers at most times), CRPF and Rashtriya Rifles. The army regiments have withdrawn to the barracks, and only take part in operations and not vigil.

I won’t delve too deep into the heavenly beauty that Kashmir is. Suffice to say, that it is as beautiful as you have seen in pictures and your imagination can paint it to be. The snow of the glaciers is as white as you thought it to be, the meadows are as green as you can paint it to be and the mountains offer views panoramic enough to delight any photographer. I just stood marveled at the beauty and wondered “AGAR FIRDOUS BA ROYEE ZAMEEN AST, HAMI ASTO HAMI ASTO HAMI ASTO”. The women of Kashmir are by far the most beautiful I have seen anywhere in the world. They are all fair, sharp featured, flawless skin and pink cheeks. However guys, please be very careful about checking them out, as you risk your progeny trying to do so!

I couldn’t get to experience much of the local culture given the situation of Kashmir today. Whatever I managed was because of the very nice family who run a small cottage near the Dal, in Srinagar. They shared their Kashmiri bread, the nun cha, the gustaba et al during the meals and the grandfather of the house gave me books to read about Kashmir. In fact it was they who showed me how the local papers are all anti India, as it ensures sales.

Kashmiris are a disillusioned lot today. They have been taken advantage of by both sides and been made mere pawns in the power plays of the two nuclear powers. “Yeh thakt ki ladai hai, ye kursiyo ki jang hai, ye begunah khoon bhi, siyasaton ka rang hai”. Needless to say, they are also to blame for their present misery and they realize that twenty years of fighting has only adversely affected their own development. We should also realize that the accession of Kashmir to India was not the smoothest and nor did it have popular support. It’s a different matter that there is no going back today, but we have to be cognizant of the fact that the average Kashmiri does feel betrayed by both India and Pakistan and some are still today waiting for the UN promised plebiscite of 1948. For twenty years, they have seen their folks either die in the hands of militants, or disappear in the hands of the armed forces and been subjected to daily identification parades. Most of the buildings they grew up with were either bombed or burnt. Corruption is rampant among the politicans, and all the money the Indian state gives to Kashmir goes to those pockets. Thankfully, the realization is slowly dawning on all, and, once again it’s the Indian Army leading the way with “Operation Sadbhavna”- efforts to engage the local population with slogans like “Jawan aur awam, aman hai muqam”.

I ll leave you with a very interesting poster I saw when you exit from the Jawahar tunnel and enter the Kashmir Valley (which is a sight that is worthy of the Gods). It said “Welcome to Kashmir Valley (Paradise on Earth); Neighbours Envy, Owner’s Pride”

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

A day in Los Angeles

The South West flight from Chicago to Los Angeles was a four hour one but my first experience with South West was very very good. The announcer had an awesome sense of humour and actually made me listen to his announcements by cracking a joke with even the most mundane security ones. The entire boarding process is very streamlined unlike our low cost aircrafts where a Mumbai local traveler has an advantage on any given day.
Anyway, LA looked stunningly dazzlingly beautiful before landing, far more than New York, Paris or Mumbai. My friend who received me and whose place at Irvine I stayed in took me for dinner to an Ethiopian restaurant and then for a drive around LA. I did all the standard tours of Beverly Hills, Sunset Boulevard, Rodeo Drive but I couldn’t resist getting off at the Walk of Fame. Apart from the names on the pavement, there seemed to be so much happening around, from nightclubs to gentlemen’s clubs; from classy ladies in their cars to the hookers on the street. I am coming back here for sure.
The next day was spent at Universal Studios. Now here you find rides like amusement parks; I took the Jurassic Park one. There are different shows, and I watched Water World, the show with Hollywood animals and a very enjoyable 3 D show of Shrek. The atmosphere is like a carnival with people dressed up (ala Venice carnival), performing tricks etc. You just enjoy walking about the place and interacting with people. The best part is obviously the studio tour, where they take you all around the studio and you see sets from Spiderman to Desperate Housewives, are shown how Jaws was shot and even pieces of history like the office of Alfred Hitchcock.
Once we had had enough of Universal my friend took me one really amazing drive on the Pacific Coast Highway from Malibu via Santa Monica and dropped me at the airport. This was my first sight of the Pacific and it was rather serene in this stretch. The surrounding was however almost picture post card material with small hills, sea rolling by and cars zipping by in the area where Baywatch was shot!
Just like London in this trip of mine, this day ended with a promise to return.

A day in London

What would you do, if you had one day in London and it was your first trip to the city? Well, here s what I did.
The first question I asked myself is that having seen a few other European city what is it that sets London apart . The obvious answer which came to me was the monarchy and all things associated with it.
So my tour began at the Westminster Abbey where having only an hour to spare I had a sort of whirlwind tour. So I spent some time at the choir area, tombs of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots and saw the coronation chair where for seven hundred years the monarch has got his/ her throne. In fact the abbey is the place where all the important functions of the monarchy have been held. St Paul's Cathedral is the other famous place (made more famous by the shot of Diana and Charles after their wedding, while her funeral was held at Westminster). The most time I spent was in the world famous Poet’s Gallery where you feel almost all of English literature lies buried and a few additions from the world of cinema and music like Sir Larry and Handel. To my surprise I never noticed much of Newton there even though The Da Vinci Code kept referring to it.
The rest of my morning was spent in witnessing the spectacle called ‘The Change of Guard’. I had already made great friends with a taxi driver (whose favourite cricketer was Sachin and professed to have played cricket with Saurav!) and he had explained the best way to see this event. Let me share the secret with you. The change of guard begins with the cavalry change of guard at Whytehall. So catch that first and then cut through St James Park and come out in Constitution Avenue in time to watch the infantry march out of their barracks. Walk down with them all down to the Victorian Monument in front of Buckingham Palace. This is where you face a bit of a problem in being able to cross the street to get to the gates of the palace inside which the rest of the ceremony takes place. There is always a crowd and so getting a view is not easy but my Indian friends if you can manage to get into a Bombay local why can’t you push your way through a crowd of foreigners J Even you can’t initially just hang around there for a lot of people come expecting to see guns booming and when they realize its all about music and not guns they leave and you can step up to take their privileged wasted seats.
After a lunch of very bad ‘fish n chips’ by Trafalgar Square I made my way to the final stop in my itinerary where I spent the rest of the afternoon, The Tower of London. Now, the tower was the residence of the royals prior to Buckingham Castle and the best way is to get a tour conducted by the Yeomen Warders or the ‘Beefeaters’ as they are popularly called. You can follow it with your own tour through the Crown Jewels (yes, that’s where the Kohinoor is), the ravens (whose wings are clipped since it’s believed that the British monarchy will survive till the time the ravens are there) and the armoury. Henry VIII and his absolutely mad ways form a lot of the stories here, including the ghost of Anne Boleyn believed to still haunt the place. You finally end with a walk through the Tower Bridge from where you get a good view of the Thames and its banks, along with the London Eye in the distance.
Dinner done safely and cheaply at Mc Donald’s I headed for the most expensive and enjoyable part of my trip, a musical at West End. I didn’t manage to get tickets for Les Miserable but I did get for Sound of Music. Now if you knew me you would know what this meant to me for ever since I remember anything I have been singing these songs. Palladium, the place where it was being staged is beautiful to say the least and Maria was brilliant (Von Trapp wasn’t). However I still think Phantom of the Opera at Broadway was a better show that I saw.
I consider this trip just an appetizer and would love to go and spend at least week exploring only London.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Yet Another Weekend Story

I am the one of the biggest culprits for doing this- I ask all and sundry, “What did you do last weekend”. Some tell me in detail, some give only data points while some simply glare (for the life of me I don’t know why!). The reason I do is because it tells me a lot about the person and helps me see them in what I consider their elements.

Anyway, this is a boring post about what I did this weekend.

The Friday night was duly spent at my favourite pub in Bombay, Totos in Bandra. Lots of beer and rum flowed through the night spent with friends, colleagues at Totos, at my house, at another friend’s house etc. This was followed by the customer coffee at 4 AM from the cycle wallah post which S decided we had to see his house. He however was so drunk that he showed us the wrong house.

Saturday began with finishing some office work in the morning and picking Dad up from the airport. However Sa made the evening brilliant when we decided to fly kites (in Maharashtra kites are flown on Makar Sankriti), and also in the process discovered that we had a lovely terrace, which was duly celebrated with some beer (Yeah, in Mumbai you can get the shop to deliver beer cans right up to your terrace). Finally took my dad to see Taare Zameen Par (my third time). We both agreed that Darsheel has to be up for a Best Actor Oscar and if we edit the movie a little then there is no reason why we can’t win the Best Foreign Film award as well.

The Sunday began with a show at my Movie Club ( where they screened a Bengali documentary by an American called “Born into Brothels” on the children born to sex workers of Sonargachi. Dad gave them a 3 star while I being the more liberal kind gave them 4 stars. Lunch was at my favourite Sunday spot, Sea View Hotel and then the much needed Sunday afternoon siesta. I spent a lot of that time listening to the Christmas carols played by Amjad Ali Khan on the sarod and then watching the Accenture debate on a multi polar world. The evening however was the best part of the weekend. We went for a Hariharan Pongal concert at probably the most picture perfect venue I have seen, amphitheatre of Badra Fort. He sang Tamil and Hindi film music, ghazals, fusion and a brilliant genre he called Urdu Blues. For most of the concert we were sitting on a twelve feet high wall of the fort with the concert in the front and a brilliant view of the Bandra Worli sea link and the arc of Bombay lights from Bandra to Worli. I cannot but describe how beautiful the experience was and it showcased just how cosmopolitan city Bombay is. This city turns up in numbers to celebrate a primarily Tamil festival dancing to Tamil songs from Ilaiyaraja to Shivaji. The dinner (I must tell the bongs this) was golda chingri which my mom sent from Cal!

So here s the story of my weekend, the correct response from you will be, “So Why The Hell Are You Telling Us” Cheers!