Monday, December 29, 2008

Verdict 2008: Jammu and Kashmir’s “vote for democracy”?

(Pictures: Reuters)

As the pro-India National Conference emerged as the single largest party in Jammu and Kashmir assembly elections, the writing on the wall is a tad difficult to miss.

Fed up of living under the constant shadow of violence in a state divided under religious lines, Kashmiri voters surprised seasoned political pundits by turning up in large numbers to cast their ballots.

They defied calls of poll boycott from Muslim separatists and belied fears of violence in the wake of the bitter Amarnath Yatra land row that led to the fall of the Congress-PDP coalition government and imposition of central rule.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the high voter turnout a “vote for democracy” and Congress President Sonia Gandhi has said this should be a message for “our neighbours” (about what the people of Kashmir want).

Whether it is their desire for better governance and development first and the issue of autonomy later, the Jammu and Kashmir voters have set the ball rolling on the counting day in many ways.

Conducted in seven phases, the elections this time came on the heels of agitation over the Kashmir government’s decision to give forest land to the trust that runs Amarnath, a cave shrine visited by Hindu pilgrims.

This enraged many Muslims.

The government then backed down on its decision, which in turn angered many Hindus in Jammu, the winter capital of the region.

The deep divisions that surfaced and the polarized electorate seems to have helped the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a party that has traditionally struggled to make its presence felt in the state. The BJP won 11 seats from Jammu, a gain of 10 seats from 2002.

Both the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party have done well in the valley.

The National Conference has kept the doors open for a possible alliance with Congress to make the half-way mark in the 87-member assembly.

But such an alliance will not come without its customary wariness given the history of their political tie-ups in the late 70s and 80s, most of which were followed by periods of Governor’s rule in the troubled state.

It remains to be seen whether the NC and Congress take advantage of the lull in overall violence in the state and live up to voters’ expectations of giving more weightage to development issues.

Or will they get cowed down by separatists looking to regain their foothold in the region?


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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas advice for the lonely and single - how to make the most of your misery

"MERRY CHRISTMAS!!! We're here!" sang a bunch of my friends over the speaker phone on Christmas eve. One thoughtful deed deserves another. So I growl politely "bugger off...!"

"Whats with the grouch Bhowmik?" One cheerful elf asked while I could clearly hear giggled whispers of 'PMS" and "sex starved depression" in the background.

"I can hear you, you know?" I say.

I'm not anti-fun as such. I have tried fun in a hygienic and controlled environment and its fun.

But I have begun to dread this festival euphoria and the "are you having fun?" syndrome which hits worst when you are single, grumpy, and down a drink or two.

It is a must that you have a Plan.
The Plan includes pretty men and women clad in the latest boots and fur coats with posh accents. They must have the right mix of devilry and corporate suave to know a punch from a cocktail. And uh...they must be a part of your friend set.

Since I do not have such a Plan, and most of my friends look at the right hand column of a menu first and exclaim openly at the outrageous prices of food and drinks, once again I find myself alone at Christmas, wallowing in my private misery.

I feel the pressure of 'having fun' too much to handle every time a national holiday or a festival comes up. Every one seem to be asking the question I dread so much. "What are your plans?" Normally I ho-hum a bit, look shifty and say "Well I did have to line my kitchen shelves with newspaper..." Till a close friend pointed out the folly of it all.

"What are you, an ogre? Never admit that you don't have plans. Say you will be out till 4 am partying. No one will check up to see if you are actually downing tequila shots in a pub or wearing your ugly pajamas and polishing brass candlesticks."

Years and years of such constant pressure to "have fun" has forced me to come up with a list of things to do to counter frantically happy people who have perfect lives and cool friends to have fun with. It's the Plan against the List.

The List (for the lonely/single/divorced/widowed/dead/all of the above)

1. Stock enough vodka and lime juice to last a nuclear holocaust.

2. Spend the day shopping for peanuts, DVDs of F.R.I.E.N.D.S or Seinfeld or comedy movies

3. Come home by 4 pm, switch off your phone/blackberry/laptop/desktop. If company policy prevents you from switching off these gadgets then put them on silent mode.

4. Get dressed for the occasion. Best if you have a threadbare pair of pajamas and a sweatshirt/top.

5. Drag a pillow and blanket to the living room and make your sofa/couch/bed as comfortable as possible.

6. Bring in the drinks and the peanuts and stock it in reachable distance from the TV.

7. You are set for the night.

8. Its 930 pm and you are sloshed beyond decency. Get up, sway over to the fridge and get some food. This is the right time to call up old friends.

9. Call up old friends and slur "heyyy bitch...how are ye doing?" Most fun conversations happen when you are drunk. You will of course kill yourself in the morning, but hey, you are allowed your pathetic night out.

10. 11 pm. You are a rock star, but for heavens sake go to bed now.

You can alter some or all of these points in my list if the situation so demands.

This list always works for my lonely and pathetic life. It might work for you too. Or you can just go and buy a new set of friends on eBay.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night"
























"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us." - Dickens (A Christmas Carol).

Don't blame me if I spoil your appetite for cheer and good will this season. I have found out the world has become a very complicated place for me in the last few decades. 

I've been around for much longer than most of you. So excuse me my condescension. 
I have survived the Cold War, Great Depression and 'Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi' and I have lived to tell the tale. 

It's true my red sack is considerably lighter this year and mostly filled with crappy recycled gifts that no one wants but I have an appraisal coming up and I have to still get up and go about my job even when all I want is to curl up with my pint on the sofa.

I was wanting to write to you guys for a long time but postage costs shit these days and Internet connection isn't always reliable in North Pole. 

I have stopped using my wi-fi ever since I got a very scary mail from the FBI saying some little known terror group in India had hacked my network to transfer data to their associates in Pakistan. 

Those fat fools in the FBI would not believe me when they interrogated me at length about my alleged connections with this Lashkar something group. I told them I wouldn't be involved on principal with a group whose name I couldn't spell.

And beside, terrorism isn't really my field of work anymore. Especially since Social Services has made it illegal to leave out naughty children from my Christmas gifts list, even if they are the devil's offspring. 

They say it breeds inequality and the trauma of not getting any gifts can scar children for life no matter what their crimes are. They suggest counselling, I suggest good old fashioned  spanking across the knee. They force me to bring goodies to 15 year old dope pushers on street corners. 

But I have always been known for my tolerance and love for all, rich or poor. So even as I offer candies to a character who answers to "Blade", he asks my mother to do unspeakable things to his brother. 

But how I ramble. 
In this yearly newsletter to my followers, I write to let you know that Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet and Cupid have been grounded by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals this year. 

Even as I write this, a bunch of them are protesting right outside my office wearing nothing but a great red clown ball on their noses and stuffed reindeer horns on their heads. 

Now I really like their costume, distracting as it it for my working elves, who anyway have been complaining about a meager bonus package this year. I would appreciate these PETA kids more if the missus wasn't home to breathe fire down my neck. But as it happens, no one tells me how to treat my rein deers.

As it is, I'm fuming and frustrated over the list I got from kids the world over this year. Now let me tell ye good people, I have been running this show for the last thousand years. I have given out the strangest gifts to good boys and girls who ask me nicely before Christmas.

A black parrot for the prince of Persia, a diet for BritneyS pears, the secret of youth for Dev Anand and facial hair for Himesh Reshamiya. So dont tell me about strange gifts. 

But what in Saint Nick's  name is an "Xploder"? I double checked the IP address to make sure it isn't a sneaky request from a trainee terrorist to slip one over me. I do not want another visit from the busy elves at the FBI headquarters thankyouverymuch. It's actually from a kid in Chicago and he says "Its like the coolest game, yeah, so like...cudja pls pls gimme me ok?" Sigh. What has happened to Monopoly and Scrabble? Or to grammar?

I have of course the standard requests for world peace and as always I have marked them as spam. But I have one very interesting mail from a black guy in Washington who claims to be the President of US in waiting. He writes to let me know that he has been a very good boy this year and could I please, if it's not too much trouble, get him out of the auto crisis which in a way is his legacy born of mainly an out-moded system of union contracts.

Ho Ho Ho.
I used to be the embodiment of everything jolly and nice. My flowing white beard and huge belly, is a child's delight as he sits on my lap whispering his heart's desire in my ear at super malls. 

Not anymore it seems. According to new regulations, any unseemly physical contact with a minor is jailable up to 12 years. Thanks to a ghoulish looking pop star in US and his way with children. 

I was discussing this with an elf at work today. I said, really, what are they going to think up next? Sliding down chimneys into homes is breaking and entering? Punishable with 4 years? So Greenbell the elf says "whatever you do chump, don't touch the stockings."

Don't touch the stockings? Excuse me, I was under the impression that was my job. To stuff stockings. So Greenbell sniggers and informs me "you dirty old thing, you. that's a major kink doncha know?"    

I had the most harrowing time at the North Pole air traffic controller's office. They ran over everything in my sack with a great big metal detector which went off thrice a minute. "What's in here grampa?" The evil looking officer questioned me. I drew up to my full height and let them know that it's gifts for kids all over the world. "Whatever it is, you have to check it in. Cant allow food items, liquid and weapons on board." 

Its a toy squirt gun for a kid in Israel for heavens sake. "Israel, yeah right. Squirt guns are not what they want at the mo, do they?"

When did it become this complicated? At the Cambodia airport I had to line up for vaccination as a very friendly stewardess informed me about a fresh outbreak of bird flu. 

If this despair I am feeling is bird flu, then I'm definitely coming down with it. I am Sinter Klass, Saint Nicholas, Santa Klaus for crissake! I have always been around, I have spread love and have worked Christmas miracles. 

I have come in children's dreams and I have merry Ho Ho Hoed for years. 

I do not have to go under the metal detector, be frisked or stay away from minors. Or for that matter be asked to inject liquidity into the market. (What the hell does that mean, anyway? Weird nerdy requests always bugger me)

So my sugar plums if this Christmas isn't that good for you, do not blame me. Its not "rocking" for me either. I have been asked by the government to quit smoking my pipe as it is bad for passive smokers (yeah, like my rein deers care! snort!) And I do not have the nerve of Shah Rukh Khan to yell back at the government. 
   
Hope you get the discounts at the super malls and the couple night passes at pubs that you really wanted instead of my usual photo frames and gilt bracelets. I waited all year to visit you when you are sleeping in your dark silent houses. But looks like I cannot do that either without tripping up the burgler alarms or getting clicked by the CCTVs. 

So Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

I Am Going Into Terrorism

The owl glasses have spoken. 

I am going full time into the terrorism business. 

All things considered, I think it's the safest bet in these unsteady times of recession and bankruptcy.

I have tried this journalism business for some time now and the only thing I have to show for it is a holier-than-thou attitude and hardcore cynicism that my mother thinks lends me the distinguished air of a jack ass.

A friend across the border called in really early this morning to say there is a buzz on the share market circuit there that Lashkar-e-Taiba shares have hit rock bottom since constant raids by government soldiers and missile strikes by U.S. drones. 

If this is the state of a perfectly dependable organisation based on solid old world Jihadi economy, then how will the smaller fringe groups survive in these hard times? 

"So listen," my friend says, "there is word that the government will liquidate the outfit. There were some talks of a bailout plan but they got squashed by meddling non-state actors from India and U.S." 

I of course sent him a five rupee note to stick on the entrance to the cave in the wild wilderness where the front office of the outfit operates from. 

I checked out the risks involved in going into the terror business with a moll who often worked with trainee operatives in finishing school. 

Dressed as a virgin, her role was to train these 20 something gawky youngsters in etiquette required of them in jannat. 

"We cannot of course have them pawing virgins and behaving like a kid in Disney Land," she says.      

I still had my doubts on the return on my investment. 
"Look, I won't lie to you. There are chances are that your brains will be blown out and your bones spooned up from sidewalks. But lets be realistic here. That happens only in Sri Lanka and that too if you are dumb enough to wear a bomb on yourself."

"Things have changed now. We have outsourced and the guys that apply from some of these Middleeast and even some western countries are simply the best in the business. We have expanded into hostage taking now."

I was still worried. I have never taken a hostage in my entire life. 
Unless you count out the time I locked my sister in a bathroom in fourth grade for 40 minutes and ate all her candies.

"You just have to open fire till you get a crowd rounded up inside a prominent building. Then on, you will not have to worry about a thing."

How will I know whats going on if I'm locked up myself inside a building with a bunch of people?
"Just turn on any TV set and you will know what's happening, including pictures of commando action," she says.   

I brighten up visibly. But as always I drive a hard bargain. 

Look my job might not make me a millionaire but at least it keeps my family going. I'm leaving all this to join groups whose fourth quarter profit looks grim. It's easy to prance around a training room in a "Like a Virgin" costume surrounded by Versace clad men. But it's my ass on the firing range here. 

"We have thought all about that. Here are season tickets to the best virgin shows in jannat for you and this neat package paid in instalments for your family after you are gone."

What do you mean 'gone'? You said it was a cakewalk and even if I get caught It wouldn't be so bad in jail.

"It wouldn't. Have you heard what Kasab eats in jail? Four meals a day running into four courses. We have lined up some human rights groups who will go on a chain hunger strike as soon as you are arrested to ensure that you are not tortured. We have links in the UN who will keep enquiring about you from time to time."

What if they trace me back to you guys?

"Are you kidding me? They are still shuffling papers trying to trace the last eight attacks, and we are here getting stronger. Aren't we? And anyway, your dressing will confuse them, I am quite sure."

Hey! I never cross-dress when I'm on a serious job. How did this get around anyway?

"(laughs) I didn't mean cross dressing you big oaf. You will have a saffron waist band, Gucci shoes, a red bandanna, and a Halloween mask." 

The saffron, Gucci and Red I understand. What's the Halloween mask for?

"Er, have you seen the last lot we sent to CST and Taj? Our new world motto is to combine beauty with terror. Would you really care to bare your ugly face on national TV?     

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Saturday, December 6, 2008

World's best crank call, a war that almost was

Time: 2 am IST
Place: Somewhere in New Delhi

Caller A: Haallo haallo!! Operator? Please put me through to Jordaari, immediately.

Operator: Who is this? Who do you wish to speak to?

Caller A: Jah shala! didn't I just say? Jordaari Jordaari! It is a matter of bhery much importance.
Operator: You must have the wrong number. There is no Jordaari here. This is the President House.

Caller A: Yes, yes, I know. I must get Jordaari. Aarey, he is your President or no?

Operator: Ah I see. Just wait a moment while I connect you please. And Sir, my apologies for the delay.

Time: 2:30 am
Place: President House, Pakistan

(Hectic conversations between intelligence officials and presidential aides)

Official 1: It can't be Mukherjee. It just can't, I don't know, call it my ISI experience, or plain intuition, it can't be him.

Official 2: Has your ISI experience taught you when to shut up?

Official 3: Guys, guys, this is not the time for argument. I have checked the call details. They bloody match. It must be him. We have to wake the president. These are drastic times.

Official 2: On your shoulder be it then

Official 1: I knew I should have taken up the offer with the FBI when it came. This could be something major.

Time: 2:25 am
Place: President's bedroom, Pakistan

Operator: Sir, putting your call through

Caller A: About time!.......Hallo hallo Jordaari?

Caller B: (stifles a yawn) Namaste! To what do I owe this very late pleasure?

Caller A: Pleasure! Mumbai is burning and you talk of pleasure! Have you no conscience?

Caller B: (startled out of slumber) Yes, it is very unfortunate. I have sent my condolence via fax, didn't you get it?
I tell you M, the state Musharraf left things in here is simply disgusting. Nothing works. Can you believe it, I don't even get to keep my Blackberry. Although I'm not complaining, I heard Obama also gave up his. When you become president (hint of pride in his voice) what's a few material things, eh old chap?

Caller A: Listen Jordaari, if I had to do tete-a-tete at this time of the night, I would wake up Manmohan no? I have called to lodge serious complaints about you.

Caller B: Me? What did I do now?

Caller A: I am sorry to say you have again, ki jeno kothata, (what's the saying?) ha, 'dropped the ball.'

Caller B: (getting angry now) Look if this is again about Palin, I must tell you I am fed up of this. I only complimented Palin, I swear I never laid a finger on her. She is like a sister to me.

Caller A: DHUR CHHAI! (dammit) who is talking about Palin? I don't like the way you let your ISI do whatever damn well they please. Ui are bhery bhery angry about Mumbai. And let me tell you ui will take sturn action. Ui will make war, yes, Jordaari, NOT LOVE, BUT WAR, with you.

Caller B: (completely awake by now) Wait a second! wait a second! this is not the diplomatic briefing I got! Who is talking about war? We are bhery (dhur chhai!) very sorry it happened. But there is no need to arm twist me.

Caller A: (chilling laughter) He he he, you will see. (Disconnects)

Caller B: (to officials who were eavesdropping outside the bedroom)
Immediately call the White House! Wake up Rice! (looks under the bed), wake up Bush! we are at war! India is attacking us! WHERE ARE MY SLIPPERS WHEN I NEED THEM!!!

Time: 3 am
Place: Somewhere in New Delhi

Caller A: Damn. I ran out of coins. I knew I should have got 20 bucks more in loose change.

The next day is history. Indians living near the Line of Control woke up to see heavy troop movement on the Pakistani side, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew in to Delhi to "reassure India of its continued support", the media went berserk and the Indian Foreign Minister maintained that India is appreciative of Pakistan's support.

This piece is a figment of my imagination. But the incident is true. A prank caller pretending to be Pranab Mukherjee to Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari had both nations almost on the brink of war with few minutes of a midnight conversation.

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Friday, December 5, 2008

This mail is doing the rounds. I am hosting this on my blog as something I have NOT written myself but feel needs to get around.

He is the "manoos", he is the busy "mumbaikar"… he is the youth….he is the aged…he is the oppressed… he is the angered… and today he is just an Indian!!


Thus, with threat of 4 kgs of RDX seized at CST (which later turned out to be true), with the threat of some terrorists still moving about scot free in the neighborhood, with the threat of a political unrest…he comes out from the safe recluse of his daily routine and starts walking through the hustle and bustle of the CST station and Hutatma Chowk, crossing the Flora Fountain, to reach one destination… The Gateway of India!


He must have received a sms or a mail which asked him to be present at the Gateway of India for a cause that affected him…his family…his co-passengers….people he had known.. people he had not known… but today he was there to prove his existence amidst the ocean of humanity by the sea, for his country.
"His Country", a sentiment long publicized to earn money for film-makers, used to gather votes by political parties, a sentiment he felt has been drubbed within the pages of the History Book.

He took to the streets out of compulsion, on the 26th of July, the 11th of July…he was compelled to stay back home on the 27th of July… but today he had had enough.

Suddenly I notice, that this "he" was in fact "everybody"….I did not have a choice but, be a part of this "everybody"…. Well then… be a part of this "everybody", reach the "Gateway of India" and do what?

Hurl slogans to demand resignation of politicians? Demand to curb all facilities for politicians at the cost of public money?

Scream slogans of death for a neighboring nation? Try to establish that we are living in horrific conditions where we do not have a way out? Demand better training and equipment to fight terror for our police?A group of people even went to the extent of demanding the "return of bargirls"….who, they proclaimed, could protect the city better than the politicians we had elected.

The agenda was however, one that of paying homage to the deceased in the blast & shootout and condemn terrorism.Whereas, Slogans that raged on like a storm were blowing fire… the fire of frustration that this city and this country had endured for years… All of them spoke of hatred…they were all protesting against the system that has cut them into many pieces.

As on observer and a participant one opines that there were more to this gathering than just giving way to frustration.

Maybe we did not realize, but probably it was the first instance after the Indo-Pak war that, a non-political mass of people had gathered out of their own will, essentially non-violent, fuming and fretting with anger, chanting "Bharat mata ki jai" and "Vande Matram" making the opportunists tremble with the echoes.

Maybe after a long time the common man had decided to take the onus on himself to fight injustice, not waiting for somebody else to do it for him.

Maybe after a long time, the old and aged would not dare question the patriotic sentiment of youth in this nation, who had worked hard to convey messages of protest against NOT BEING INDEPENDENT in their own country in this gathering.

Maybe after a long time somebody was asked to tear his clothes and make a TIRANGA out of it, when in his spree of enthusiasm he almost tore a flag when he tried to get one for himself from a lady distributing the same at the venue.

Maybe after a long time, the mob did not want to stand in front of the media cameras installed wherever possible, such that their folks back home get to catch a glimpse of them at the venue….

Today everybody wanted to move ahead… they knew that they were not here to have a nice little picnic going.

Maybe after a long time such a huge mob had conducted themselves so well in a gathering where the situation could have gone out hand at any moment. Maybe after a long time, people wanted concrete results arising out of this statement of protest!

They did not want to forget this bruise in a short while………. As the night progressed, the crowd thinned… the wind started blowing stronger by the Arabian Sea….A small tree at the Gateway seemed unruffled with the wind…….

Where a hundreds of candles burnt around the bark of the tree… a small bouquet of roses was kept with a message…."Dear Patriots… We the people of INDIA salute you"A little kid was seen bending down on the sand, beside the tree, trying to light yet another candle there… His father was helping him out against the strong wind that had started blowing. My appeal to all my fellow countrymen…. This time…..let us keep the candles burning!!

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Fighting disasters with humour, camaraderie

This post is all about personal experiences.

After the Oberoi Hotel operation, commando Karamjit Singh Yadav handed a card to commando Bharat Singh who had a part of his ear nipped off by a bullet fired by a terrorist.
The card simply said “Life is too short - 2 inches.” Signifying how close they came to getting shot.

But the message caused a lot of good natured ribbing by Singh's colleagues.
No one would believe these men only a couple of days ago darted through dark corridors, matching bullet for bullet at a bunch of young guys pretending to be grown ups.
If they laughed reading the card now, the commandos wept for Major Unnikrishnan who lost his life trying to save one of them.
It reminded me of another disaster four years ago when a beaten and shattered bunch of people laughed at themselves when they did not know what else to do.
December 2004, the tsunami ravaged parts our southern coast and engulfed withing hours whole thriving villages of fishermen. I was sent to cover the disaster 7 days later and as any paradropped journalist from Delhi, beelined to Cuddalore district where portions of a coastal village was swept away in swirling waters.

I did not know Tamil and my famous hand gestures are still spoken of by the village elders.
When I met the Panchayat head and tried to coax details out of him through my local colleague who also acted as an interpreter, he appeared baffled.

After 15 harrowing minutes and much amusement of the locals who gathered to watch a journalist from Delhi make a fool of herself, I got some facts and figures and decided to call it a day.
It was only when I turned to go away, did he call out to me, in chaste Hindi, asking me to visit any time I wanted and that I was very welcome.
Many of the villagers joined in his laughter as I gaped at him in shock. These are the men who had lost their family members in the tsunami, their boats and livelihood and still they smiled in unadulterated pleasure at the humour in my predicament.
When I stopped fuming I realised that they had every right to laugh. I was a visitor from the distant and posh national capital and had assumed that I would sweep in amidst their tragedy, get cold and hard details and walk out regally. They obviously didn't think so.

And the surprise showed in their eyes as I smiled back at the panchayat and thanked him in Tamil. Gotcha!
To reach the island of MGR Thittu I waded in waist deep sea water for over a kilometre and all the while the locals who walked along with me to retrieve their soggy belongings from destroyed huts joked with each other and teased me about the quick sand that I might step into.
When I gulped and asked them about the quicksand, they replied laughingly and assured me that they were not as dangerous as the coastal snakes.
At the hastily erected community kitchens, the young monks from Ramakrishna Mission ate sitting on the ground with the fishermen. It was pongal, a festival of abundance and the happy cries were missing.
The children played hopscotch inside the camp ground, apparently thrilled to bits about something. I asked a girl who looked about 11 years old the reason behind all these very sneaky smiles.
"Our school is washed away. All our school books are gone."

At the village of Devanampattinam, where actor Vivek Oberoi camped to help the villagers, my introduction of "I am from PTI (Press Trust of India)" was greeted with very hopeful smiles.

I was amazed at my own popularity, till one doctor in Oberoi's camp pointed out that the people thought I was sent by the Port Trust of India with some news about their boats.

These were some of the glimpses of the aftermath of the tsunami as I experienced. the pain of losing lives and livelihood was there, but so were these snatched moments and I am glad I saw both.

Thank god that men, through the bloody ages, have not lost their sense of humour, something that keeps them going when nothing else will.

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

I thank the Black Cats and oh yes, the Sena

(I base this post on a quirky sms doing the rounds.)

Only a month ago Raj Thakeray was all bravado and big talk about how he is the messiah of the people of Mumbai.

I could sit in Delhi and still see the enormous chip on his shoulder as his hired goons methodically smashed taxis run by North Indians and beat up visibly clueless and shaken UPite and Bihari boys as young as 20 years old as they sat government exams.

I could see his men (actually the jury is still out on that) relaxing for a while (beating up people is a tiring job) waiting for the TV cameras to arrive before going at it again with great zeal.

So when the Mumbai attacks happened I expected the Great Sena to tighten their belts, tie their head bands and rush into the fire and ammunition to save the Marathi Manoos from terrorists.

Or wait. I must be forgetting.

There weren't that many manoos in those buildings to save. Only foreigners and businessmen who add to the city's economy and the Sena never had any problems with them.
These types never do. It is the weak, middle class and the poor who want to carve out a living in the all embracing city they are after.

So when the situation looked black and the nation watched in shocked silence the unfolding of Mumbai's horror, the men in Black arrived.

The NSG Black Cat commandos get a gruelling training when they enlist to a job they do extremely well. They do not have international gears and their discomfiture in dealing with a seasoned media show.

But they know how not to care for their lives and do a job with efficiency and cruel discipline. They did just that.
They lost some of their best men in the encounter and spoke in Hindi (wow, imagine their audacity), Punjabi, Tamil, Bengali and a multitude of other languages.

And they won the day.

The crowd waiting for the bloodshed to end, broke into an impromptu applause and patted our men on their backs when they came out of the hotels exhausted, covered in soot and blood and completely baffled by the affection and adoration of common people and the media.

One said on national TV looking embarrassed and solemn at this unexpected fame - "but it's my country and my duty to defend it. This is what I do for a living."

So as an insignificant Indian writing this from the safe comfort of my home, I salute the men in black.
But my even bigger heartfelt thanks to the Sena men who cowered but generally kept their big mouths shut and stayed out of the way of things and helped make the Mumbai operations a success, if you can call it one, after losing so many lives.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

The 'Super Baba' strikes again
























Ever since I heard that Baba Ramdev graced the premises of a news organisation in Delhi and demonstrated his amazing yoga tricks for a healthy living to a bunch of journalist who survive on cussing and stale junk food, I have been itching to share a long lost memory.


As I keep reiterating, I am strictly against all forms of health food.
If I'm having salad, I make sure I have three plates to fill my ample stomach.
My opinion on sprouts is well known. Sprouts are best when planted in pretty porcelain pots by the window sill and not on my breakfast plate.

In these circumstances, it's for the best that Baba and me have not yet met.
We would have formed an unholy pair. Like my good man says during an argument - "either you convince me or I convince you."

I for sure would not be able to roll my abdomen and shoulders and swing my thighs rhythmically while sipping bitter gourd juice. So he would have to tuck into Tandoori chicken and Vodka/lime cordial. I have a nagging worry that he would not.

I'm not entirely godless. I have my faith in the supreme being.
But my fanaticism is reserved for more serious issues. Like why Mc Donald's has increased the price of its Aloo Tikki Burger. Or why Hyderabadi Biriyani House has decreased the quantity of its spicy chicken biriyani while almost doubling the price.

So I do not quite understand what perfectly normal, albeit plump, Delhi women see in the Super Baba to leave their household unguarded and flock to his sessions of deep breathing.

Their eyes shine with a manic light even if the Baba is so much as criticized by the media. I have seen women in formal office wear sitting in the cosy depths of their cars at traffic lights, breathing in and breathing out, trying hard to roll their stomach muscles and wiggle their shoulder blades.

But I know all about mass yoga sessions.

It was the summer of 1997 and around 50 of us had trooped into the Bengali extra class in 11th standard. Some of my close friends and me adorned the back seats of the huge classroom where we could carry on with our mischief undisturbed.

I wasn't ready for the pop test nor the acid tongue of the teacher and was hugely relieved when she announced regally "we will do something new today."
The front benchers looked worried, flicking surreptitiously through their syllabus for additional chapters they have not mugged yet.

"We will do pranayaam." she declared.

She could have well said that she's a descendant of an Italian mafioso family and the effect would have been the same.

"What the hell is pranayaam?" we whispered hopefully. Whatever it is, this means we do not have to trudge through grammar.

She showed us soon enough. "Close one nostril with your thumb and breathe through the other one...." And she wanted pin-drop silence in the room of course.

There's a trigger somewhere in the brain for helpless, uncontrolled laughter especially in situations where it would be severely punished.
And my brain refused to heed to any of my stern warnings of dire consequences if I so much as smiled.
But the girl next to me had her eyes closed with such a silly solemn expression pasted on her face, her blocked nose making a 'wheee' sound every time she took in air and alternated her thumbs for both nostrils, that it was my undoing.
Me and another friend (both of us will burn in hell for eternity) keeled over with silent laughter under the desks.

Laughter that would not stop, even when I imagined past deaths of family members, my breakup with a boyfriend, world hunger, poverty in my home state - the damned laughter just wont stop.

It was novelty of it all. A classroom full of girls breathing in and out while we shook in silent laughter on the floor in the extreme corner of the room, students and teachers passing by on the corridors looking in curiously, sounds of chatter coming in from the next room, contrasting with the silence in ours as 48 odd girls practised pranayaam on command.

That friend of mine and me still laugh over it sometimes, though we still don't get what's so funny about it.

When I imagined the Baba perched on a glass topped table on the Editor's work station, surrounded by surly journalists who normally would not be caught doing exercises during mid-afternoon, the dam very nearly broke again.

I have my utmost respect for yoga exponents and do not mean to berate them, but I have a silly grin pasted on my face as I write this.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Indian on Moon - death of poetry?

Indian poets who make a living off comparing their beloved's face with the moon are dying a slow death imagining a high-tech probe scanning the surface of the "mystical orb of the night sky" for trace of metals.

Really, what is all this to-do about the moon?

From Kalidasa to Banbhatt to modern day poets - hundreds of them have sighed and starved away with a vengeance, wasting reams of precious parchments describing their beloved's beauty to the moon.
Had Kalidasa access to the latest pictures released by NASA of the moon, especially its barren craters and dusty lifeless, airless atmosphere, he would have jumped off the terrace of Vikramaditya's palace.

I came across this post on an Internet chat room, presumably for Indian poets. (No, I'm not a member, I would admit to writing poetry only under torture)

LoveSong21 writes "why are they doing this to the moon? Why are they taking away all the mystery? I do NOT want to know its secrets, when I look up I only see Tanya....glowing like an ancient queen on her throne...Oh Tanya why did you leave me to go out with that jack ass Vikas?"

My heart filled with pity for this emotional heart, filled with tender pain. (Although I do not much care for the name LoveSong21. Who does he think he is? Pavarotti?)

Tanya writes back, a tad carelessly if I might add, "stop giving out my name on a public chat room you donkey. you are not worth Vikas' toenail."

But then the business of love thrives on heartbreaks.

India's moon mission has taken off with a bang. and in the next two years scientists hope to get a glimpse of what keeps the moon people ticking.

I do not know if stripping the moon of all its mysteries will do science any great deal of good, but I know for sure it will kill Indian poetry.

Kalidasa's description of a moonlit summer night in Ritusamhara, Sukanto's hard-hitting "khudhar jogotey prithibi godyomoy, purnimar chaand jeno jholshano ruti (all is prose in the world of hunger, the full moon seems like bread to the hungry), Tagore's ode to the moon - over the ages, poets have idolized, worshipped and feted the moon.

And not just in India. Shakespeare writes "O, swear not by the moon, the fickle moon, the inconstant moon".

Not to mention the one million songs written in Bollywood comparing the female lead with the timeless beauty of the moon.
Who will explain to these romantic types that the gravity and atmospheric pressure of the moon is such that it will never support life forms. Its extreme temperature, combined with lack of atmospheric oxygen and water is ideally suited for tourism, if you want a very expensive and violent death.

But will that stop people the world over from eulogising about the moon? I think not. I have a suspicion, that the Indian Poets Association was silent all this while because it was Europe, America and Russia that were intruding the moon.
Since its India doing it now, their hurt, silent, and gentle indignation knows no bounds.
My heart goes out to them and if I were a poet I would not worry so much.
We now know all marine species and life forms there is to know, right?
But has it stopped men from comparing their lover's eyes with the "deep blue sea"?
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Friday, November 7, 2008

Election, politics and good looks - lethal combination?
























At least no one can accuse US President-elect Barack Obama of leading an ugly team.

His Chief of Staff is a hunk of a man called Rahm Emanuel, possessing demonic good looks.
And Obama himself is not hard to look at - combining a cutting charm and classy suaveness comparable only to the Kennedys.

Yes, this time the US elections were unique for the sheer volume of brawn it combined.

Take Hillary Clinton for example. An initial favourite front-runner with the backing and funding of key politicians and the corporate to see her through vote 2008, or so people thought.

Her shortly-cropped straight blond hair and business suit spoke of style and efficiency.

Tipped to be the first woman President in the history of the US of A, Hillary, along with her husband and former President Bill Clinton and daughter Chelsea formed a pretty picture.
Almost a sensory overload of beauty if you ask me.

On the other hand, I have no doubts that Michelle Obama as the first black First Lady in the White House would hold her own. With her couture consciousness and affordable designer wear she is quite (if I may borrow the term) "cool".

I have always wondered why in the US the divorced, convicted or single people are not encouraged to run for President. Following this election closely I now know why.

You might start a torrid affair once you climb the WH walls, but till you are there you have to present to voters the picture of a perfect, cloyingly sweet family. Better even if you're wife is a stunner.

On the Republican side they had their Weapon of Mass Destruction Sarah Palin - a former beauty queen and a stunner even at her age. They needed her, badly, if they were to balance John McCain's grounded grizzly bear looks
on the poll plank.

So many months of watching these beautiful people campaigning in designer clothes, flashing dazzling smiles, waving manicured hands, I was wistful about elections back home.

Lets see what we have.

The average age of our candidates is 55 plus. Most walk with a limp and suffer from arthritis when the weather is damp or on a full moon.
Some have applied to their jail wardens to let them out on parole for campaigning and some cannot read their own posters - having dropped out of school.

It depresses me to see myopic eyes behind heavy glasses, white moustache, white dhotis and pan stained teeth. At least we have our khandaan ka chiraag Rahul baba - the saving grace with his boyish good looks.
A special mention also of Omar Abdullah and his brother-in-law Sachin Pilot - two men with easy grace and clean cut features.
At least we can boast we have the world's best political brains on our side. They are not much to look at, but over 30 years in the dark alleys of Indian politics have given them an uncanny knack of spotting the people's pulse.
But still I envy the Americans for their good looking leaders.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

It doesn't matter if you're Barack or White

























Michael Jackson must be on teleconference right now with his plastic surgeon cajoling him to change him back to black, now that it's fashionable to be black again.

Barack Obama has changed all that.

I say this with the supreme confidence of one in the 'know', since I've had to hear the "ujjal shyam borno" (bright wheatish skin colour) rubbish all my life.

Globalisation is a wonderful thing.
Who would have thought Shoma kakima from college street, North Calcutta would be glued to the TV as results from the US Presidential election poured in early morning.

No, she is not an economist worried about global recession. Her bailout package goes as far as the monthly debt at the local grocery store.

Neither is she one of the rabid social worker type obsessed with world politics.
She is a mother of two and a housewife. Her dark skin colour excluded her from the perks that go with being fair, as she keeps telling us.

Plum marriage alliances from NRI grooms, stacks of love notes at college, sweet adoration at home from relatives, envy of girl friends, in general all the things that women secretly live for.

When I asked her why she is so obsessed with the US elections, especially at the cost of irking her husband and in-laws for neglecting household duties, this is what she said with a strange gleam in her dark doe eyes.

"I know nothing about how voting works in America, I do not understand their local issues. But in New York lives an NRI man who my parents approached once for my marriage. He turned me down, rudely, because not only was I dark skinned, I could not even be passed off as wheatish.

If he is watching today's vote, he will know that it's all changing. I can truly feel in my dark Bengali heart what pain and atrocities the blacks must have had to undergo in their day to day struggle for equality. Obama da has changed all that."

Change. The devilish simplicity of the political campaign strategy of Barack Obama - the 44th American President and the first black to lead the nation.

May be Shoma kakima's reasoning is personal and not strictly objective or informed. But the message is sinking in slowly - the humongous attitude change in a nation where segregation has always remained a sore issue for politicians.

He is the rock star for the moment and my black face is aching from smiling so much at his win - a win for every single one of Americans who once in their life time have put up with verbal or physical abuse for their skin colour.

I had to write this post to vent my surprise at how this win has connected, in the strangest way, a dingy north Calcutta home with so many cheering millions in the US.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Myself Kartik. Nice to meet you. Do you blog?

1974. My parents are taking a stroll beside the Ganges in Calcutta, hand in hand, cooing to each other, probably planning me.

"Do you enjoy poetry?" my father must have asked my mother. (They are both enthusiastic readers of poetry and prose still)

2008. Hola! Myself Kartik. Nice to meet you. Do you blog?

Have I really been as busy as that to not notice when the dating scene has undergone subtle changes?

Where are the pink rose printed writing papers with neat rows of painstakingly written praises of the goddess? At 28 I suddenly feel eons away from comprehension as friends looking for dates casually ask each other "do you blog?"
























Till 2005 my friends in the US asked me with unbridled wonder "Really? you do not blog? how do you take care of all that anger?" "The good old fashioned way," I used to say. "by smashing some one's skull."

Everyone blogs these days. And as a girl friend says "If you are thinking of marrying a man, first read his blogs."

Wait. Isn't that twisting some other saying?

She states firmly - a man who does not blog must have been brought up by wolves. Because his blog gives an insight into his world, his upbringing, his passions and his yin and yang.

Apparently it's as uncool to ask someone "what are your hobbies" as it is not to blog.

Even when people like me, brought up by suspected villagers, let slip that question, the answer is a friendly "you can get all that from my profile info, you dummy. I'll ping you the link."

Privately I always believed that most of this sudden hype about blogging is the sheep-falling-into-gutter theory.

Which is why online peddlers of second rate pornography dare to call their blogs "inspired works of Indian eroticism".

Who will call a spade a spade when it is also apparently "uncool" to leave unflattering comments on what everyone else is hailing as prophetic.

Which is why the vicious who-sleeps-with-whom gossip blog about colleagues was suddenly a rage among journalists some time back.

I get the line "please check out my blog" all the time.

And when I do, sometimes I am pleasantly surprised with original poetry, startling photography and truly humorous prose.

And sometime, as is common these days, I trudge through a marketing page for products as boring as electric heaters.

Despite my cynicism, I have helped some of my unenlightened friends start blogs, sometimes simply because it is a fun thing to do.

I have had to remind them once in a while of course to update what they have created in a moment of unprotected passion.

Sometime I thank god for getting over with the dating scene in the very late 90s.

When swapping Back Street Boys music cassettes was all that was required of me, apart from looking all pretty and flustered of course.

A perfumed note written on fancy paper, caught in the wrong hands, back then would mean a session of tongue-lashing from mom with the suspended threat of "wait till your father gets home."

With my limited knowledge about the Internet and techno jargon, I think I would not have made it very far with a volley of questions about "Do I blog? Am I on AIM? Can I link to your profile? Are you on Facebook chat? Do you Flickr?". Yes, times have changed.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Happy Diwali

Have a happy Diwali!

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Bangal goes to hills (Part II)

Buried deep in every Bengali's mind is a desire to do something out of the ordinary, have a daring adventure even if it means arguing with a Jath ticket collector on Kalka-Shatabdi Express.

This is why they scrounge for the entire year and travel to far-flung places on company LTA.

A Bengali outside home is cautiously inquisitive, sniffing every dish and looking out for the multitude of cheats who dupe unwary travellers such as him of hard earned cash.

He wants his money's worth in everything since he knows he might never have the resources to come back to the same spot twice in his lifetime.

While men from other communities are busy investing in property, building and saving bit by bit for daughters' marriages or the latest luxury car, a Bangal laughs away worries about his EMIs for 10 days and hits the road with 31 pieces of luggage - including his paaner bata (betel leaf case), snuff box, lota and "wrapper" (a scratchy woolen shawl).

In no other community have I seen this compulsive urge to experience the unknown, savour nature, break into impromptu off-key Rabindra Sangeet if the situation calls for it, and yell at their wives and children at the top of their lungs in public.

(Ei Picklu! kokhon theke bolchhi amar haath dhorey thak, kotha shonar naam nei! Marbo ek thappor bodmaish kothakar.)

As I mounted my sturdy horse on way to Kuffri I couldn't help but wonder how the animal will scale the almost vertical road under my significant weight.

The mountainous road paved in slippery round boulders and loose dirt twisted and turned as it took wary tourists for a breathtaking view of the Masu peak.

I had company in my worrying.

A huge woman in her late 40s with the standard unease of one who is wearing a salwar kameez for the first time in her life, loomed ahead in the horizon, blocking the sun filtering through the serene conifers.

"Orey baba ami ghoray chortey parbo na, jodi kamre dey?" (I cant ride this horse, what if it bites me?)

The husband, half her size and only an inch taller, reasoned in a voice trembling with barely-controlled impatience that horses have never been heard of biting anyone.

"Jodi amay fele dey?" (What if he throws me off his back?)

I could almost see his eyes lighting up with a hopeful light as he mulled this possibility.

The pahari horse keeper, his cheeks red and wrinkled in the sun and cold, stood grinning at the exchange. Finally Chowdhury ginni mounted her horse shakha-pola-fitey (ribbon) and all.

It must be the healthy mountain grass that makes these beasts the sturdy animals they are, for if that woman rode my back, I would look for the first ravine on the way to toss her off.

Rolls of fat rippling on her belly through the tight-fit synthetic kameez, the woman almost layed down horizontal on the animal's back, hugging its neck. "Amar jeebon tomar haathey baba, ektu dekhe," she tells the horse keeper.

The sour looking husband (obviously disliking the intimacy his wife has suddenly struck up with the stable hand) trots close behind, torn between a desire to appear bravely nonchalant and throwing up his lunch in the precipices.

As I passed by, the woman stuttered out a greeting, her speech jostled by the horses canter. "ko-ho-th-theke?" (where from?) Delhi, I said.
"Manush-e chorey ei jinish? Ga hath pa batha kore dilo go" (Do human beings ride these 'things'? they (horses) make my body ache).

They might be stuck in a blizzard or forced to ride a mountain horse in a rocky twisting road. But a Bangal never forgets his business sense.

"Ghora gulo koto niley?" (how much did the horses cost?) My riding buddy asked me as we tried our best to hold on to the animal's back.
I mutter "Rs 200 for an hour."

"Oma sheki!" The parrots fly off the trees as her cry pierced the late afternoon calm on the hills. "Amader toh 250 nilo. Ki shoitan!!!" (Oh my god! Ours cost 250! The devil!)

I later caught up with her at the Shimla mall as she bargained for a set of wooden bowls. "Same bati set at Gariahat I get for 25 Rs. Not so costly like here. Hago tai na? (to husband who shrinks into the depths of a display of pashmina coats)

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Bangal goes to hills (Part I)

"Aiyee chhele, ei je, edike aar ek piece machh."

To say I was amazed would be the understatement of the year.

The commanding voice that ordered the Bhutia boy to serve him another piece of fish at a roadside eatery on way to Chail belonged to a Bengali gentleman. A Bangal at that. At an altitude of over 2200 metres above sea level.

Normally I am not a racist person. And I am especially sympathetic to my fellow Bengalis.
But as I turned around to take a look at the owner of the voice, I did a slow double take.

My gaze slowly lifted up his thin legs clad in shiny black pumps with snuff socks, red and black chequered flannel tights and a heavy, fluffy cream cardigan buttoned up to his ears.

The hand-knit wool muffler draped stylishly across his shoulders did nothing to blunt the edge of my shock as I took in the rakish tilt of the brown imitation cowboy hat on his head tied primly under the double chin with a string.

Obviously misinterpreting my gaze on his precious hat, the man gave me a winning smile and informed "50 rupees, bought at bus stand market."
"This is land of dacoits, no?" he politely asked in the same amiable tone.

I did not want to commit myself, especially while being served food by Himachalis in their own land, surrounded by pink cheeked sturdy men on horses.

Shrewdly guessing my origin, he said "diner bela tupi saves the brahmatalu. iye... ki bole, night very cold. Kothay uthechhen? Khabar kemon? Amar abar pet ta kodin theke kharap."
(The cap saves the head during the day time. Where are you putting up? How is the food there? My stomach is upset for the last few days)

Only a Bengali (and then only a Bangal) will tell a complete stranger about his stomach troubles, wearing a fake cowboy hat at a hill station, at 2250 metres.

This is the very reason I escaped to Himachal on a 10-day break with parents.
But as I looked around in horror, I saw only sarees, cardigans, jingling shankha-pola combinations, young honey-mooners in tight jeans and Codak clix cameras and ..... monkey caps.

A sea of monkey cap clad humanity.... all cursing Himachal tourism for their exorbitant rates for everything ("Shob beta dakat"). ("All these buggers are dacoits")

Rohtang...that's where I need to go.
I thought the mountain pass at over 4000 feet hidden under snow for nine months of the year will give me the peace and quiet I need.

Blinded by a blizzard on the Manali-Lahaul route, the driver's risky maneuvers on the edge of a gaping precipice did nothing great for my nerves but at least I can almost hear the silence.

Still I was thankful when he dropped us on the snow covered peak. The figures of tourists on the narrow track ahead of us blurred into specks as the snow gradually collected on our coats and caps. The blizzard got worse and our driver said he would skid off the road into the ravine in this weather. I could not have been happier. I wanted the wild an inhabitable. I got all that and then some.

Till I heard the shrill cry... "Eki Gutli! tupi keno khulechho? Thanda lege jaabey toh! Ekhuni poro." (Gutli! why have you taken off your cap? you will catch your death of cold. wear it immediately.)

(To be continued...)

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Friday, October 3, 2008

Answer is blowing in the wind

The ministry of health has shaken off its last vestige of lethargy and suddenly woken up to the plight of the millions killed slowly by passive smoking.

It has banned smoking in all public places with effect from Oct 2, 2008.

When you consider that worldwide more than five million people die of tobacco related illnesses, it's a prodigious move and I would be brimming with joy if Mr Ramadoss had not attempted to shove it down my throat.

The non-smokers are happy that they do not have to endure the tendrils of smoke wafting towards them at lunch breaks in the cafeteria. They are happier still that they will now not have to slink away sulking when colleagues snub them for protesting against blowing smoke in their faces.

I agree that smokers are an aggressive lot, especially when in pack. They are quick to seek out kindred souls at the workplace - skulkers who are forever looking for chances to sneak away for a quick puff. The best introductions are made over a smoke and nothing breaks the ice like a shared drag.

Even the office asshole holds you in grudging respect if you share your last fag with him, even more if the two of you are guffawing over the follies of some hapless colleague, oblivious to the world.

But I digress.

While I admire the government's extreme concern for our health and its heartfelt desire that we live longer, I must politely clear my throat and humbly ask it to let me choose my own habits, good or bad, make my own mistakes and die my own death today, tomorrow or 80 years hence.

In other words - stop being so supercilious and patronising. You do not know what's right for me and don't start now.

Despite a strict enforcement, the ministry of health is still struggling to contain female foeticide, provide nutritional well being to rural pregnant women, has an alarmingly low record of pre-natal examination and has not made stellar progress in preventing infant mortality.

The government looks like an idiot every time two-bit wanna be terrorists chuck crude bombs and kill, injure and maim scores of people almost every other month. It has so far even failed to crack the case of the murder of a 14-year-old girl even after handing it over to our premium intelligence agency.

So stop telling me what habits I should inculcate and what I should not. I agree that pregnant women, children and in general all non-smokers should not be forced to endure the harmful effects of nicotine just because a arrogant smoker blows toxic fumes into their faces.

But Mr Health Minister you cannot bully us into changing our habits just to pamper your inflated ego. If there is reprieve for non-smokers, there should be some for those who smoke. There should be smoking zones in the city and smoking rooms or open air spaces in buildings where the nicotine-deprived can go to let off steam.

At least get your facts right. You can smoke inside your car, pavements, parks and your homes but not at bus stops? Are you fucking kidding me? You cannot smoke at hotels which have less that 30 rooms and restaurants with seating capacity below 30?

I hear Ramadoss is moving with zeal now to even ban smoking at homes. I have to give him credit for enthusiasm if not for anything else. What does he plan to do? Surprise people at their homes by shouting "put that out!" from their windows?

I regret that the state is attempting to do my thinking for myself. That in a civilized society you have fixed the drinking age at 25, laughable actually when you consider the girls and boys of 12 who exchange sex clips on their phones.

I believe I have the right to choose how I live as long as I am not discomfiting anyone or encroaching their personal space. Give us credit for not being absolute vegetables that have to be hand guided through life's good or bad, on how you interpret them.

But the good news is the deviousness that characterizes India and its people is already at play. I hear colleagues, friends and relatives devising elaborate, cunning schemes to get their 5 min high at workplaces. It's only a matter of time before we buy the police and blatantly ignore diktats to go about our horribly unclean, unhealthy routine lives.

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Workplace decorum... what's the fuss?

My father worked in the same office in Kolkata's cluttered Bentinct Street for 28 years before retiring with pension. From the office peon to his subordinates he was called 'Bhowmik-da' by everyone.

He was invited to every 'chhat' puja and celebrations at his Bihari driver's house.

And his colleagues, by his own admission, were no more than graduates from Calcutta University, who would dig into boudi's (my mother) cooking with great concentration when they came over to our house.

It must have been confusing for him when the office hired a new CEO with a bunch of abbreviations after his name with an advanced degree specially in office management.

The peon and driver of course could not come to office dressed in faded half sleeved shirts and semi-clean trousers. Out comes swanky uniforms complete with caps.

The smoking area was revamped with potted palms and an ugly brass frog with coins in its mouth, squatting on what looked like a pile of human remains.

The 'ladies' were given an e-mail IDs where they could complain anonymously of any harassment from their mail co-workers.
("What a dratted nuisance, now I have to learn how to operate emails to lodge a complaint?" The 40-year-old typist who brought her stitching to office was heard grumbling)


I don't know if the productivity had gone up (the CEO's yearly appraisal was apparently based on that objective), but the peon and driver were tolerant in their criticism of the affairs.

("I wouldn't mind these god-forsaken $%^&#$@ uniforms so much if they weren't starched")
Swearing in office was another taboo. "Shala, what's wrong with a well-rounded healthy swear word?" Bewildered Chatterji babu asked around.

Now coming to my office, I would say it is a pretty formal place. But as is true everywhere, half its population comprises Bengalis - a breed infamous for taking possession and giving a homely touch to even a railway station waiting room, if they happen to stop by for an hour.

I had my reservations initially about the place because I came from an Indian news agency where decorum meant waiting to see if you are around before casually stealing your "bread pakora" (not speaking metaphorically) during tea time.

The boss (Editor in my case) called me Ria, Rupam and Rohini for the first one month of joining and looked genuinely surprised when I politely pointed out that my real name is Rituparna. He apologised and called me "Oye ladki!" from next month on whenever he had any instructions to give me.

So my current workplace looked very daunting and proper, where people did not greet each other with friendly expletives. Until my deep dark secret came out one day. I'm a compulsive foodie (don't judge me). I have to munch on something whole day. Yeah, yeah, I'm getting help and am much better now. But people here looked on me with great wonder as I demolished peanuts, chips, lunch, breakfast, tea, coffee, dinner, biscuits, crackers, chocolate, sprouts, and chewing gum.

It was probably too much. So the good natured ribbing started. Whenever there's no food present on my desk (between meals) they would ask solicitously about my health.

I was so wrong in thinking that these people were cold-hearted monsters.
The formality dispensed with, they threw office decorum to the wind and started calling me fond teasing names like "pagli" (mad) and "bhootni" (female ghost).
Both of which I'm sure calls for a case of harassment.

I added to the general lack of formality I confess, with my horrible slips of tongue.

Like the time I was complaining to a senior colleague how I'm always forgotten somehow when he asks people to share his dinner. What I wanted to say was "It's like I'm always in the fringes."
What came out was "I'm always a fringe benefit." To much laughter and teasing.

So what I'm trying to say in this long rambling post is, its good to have rules in offices to keep people disciplined. But lets not overdo it. Look into your heart and honestly tell me how satisfying it is to say "shala bunchot" when you want to let off steam. Or in my case continuing the great tradition of my old place and stealing boiled eggs from a colleague's plate when he is looking the other way.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Delhi Blasts - some disjointed thoughts

(Picture courtesy: Reuters)
Pardon this disjointed post.
Five serial blasts in the heart of the national capital, New Delhi, which is also my second home now, killed 18 people. One blast occured on Barakhamba Road where my office is located.

It could well have been me.
The location of blasts is what made me write this post.
There was a time when terrorists used to strike at India's security infrastructure - its army vehicles moving in single file in the Kashmir Valley or at its police camps. But the Parliament attack had changed all that. The daring attack which exposed vulnerabilities of our security system posed a chilling question.

Are we ready to intercept and halt such strikes or will we be caught off guard every single time a fringe amateur group makes up its mind to seek its 15 minutes of fame, helped undoubtedly by cross border peddlers of terror? The answer is quite clear. This is a chronology of terror strikes in India in last five years - (http://www.reuters.co.in/)

March 13, 2003 - A bomb attack on a commuter train in Mumbai kills 11 people.
Aug. 25, 2003 - Two car bombs kill about 60 in Mumbai.
Aug. 15, 2004 - A bomb explodes in the northeastern state of Assam, killing 16 people, mostly schoolchildren, and wounding dozens.
Oct. 29, 2005 - Sixty-six people are killed when three blasts rip through markets in New Delhi.
March 7, 2006 - At least 15 people are killed and 60 wounded in three blasts in the northerly Hindu pilgrimage city of Varanasi.
July 11, 2006 - More than 180 people are killed in seven bomb explosions at railway stations and on trains in Mumbai that are blamed on Islamist militants.
Sept. 8, 2006 - At least 32 people are killed in a series of explosions, including one near a mosque, in Malegaon town, 260 km (160 miles) northeast of Mumbai.
Feb. 19, 2007 - Two bombs explode aboard a train heading from India to Pakistan; at least 66 passengers, most of them Pakistanis, burn to death.
May 18, 2007 - A bomb explodes during Friday prayers at a historic mosque in the southern city of Hyderabad, killing 11 worshippers. Police later shoot dead five people in clashes with hundreds of enraged Muslims who protest against the attack.
Aug. 25, 2007 - Three coordinated explosions at an amusement park and a street stall in Hyderabad kill at least 40 people.
May 13, 2008 - Seven bombs rip through the crowded streets of the western city of Jaipur, killing at least 63 people in markets and outside Hindu temples.
July 25 - Eight small bombs hit the IT city of Bangalore, killing at least one woman and wounding at least 15.
July 26 - At least 16 small bombs explode in Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat, killing 45 people and wounding 161. A little-known group called the "Indian Mujahideen" claims responsibility for the attack and the May 13 attack in Jaipur.
Sept 13 - At least five bombs explode in crowded markets and streets in the heart of New Delhi, killing at least 18 people and injuring scores more. The Indian Mujahideen again claim responsibility.

In 2008 alone 127 people have died of terror strikes.

But what chills me to my bones is the change in strategy of the terrorists. Since 630 pm I have been flooded with calls from friends and family asking me just one question - "Are you all right? It's a weekend so we were worried that you might be out shopping at any of the markets or hanging out with friends..."

The blasts mostly took place in Delhi's posh and popular markets and at a park where youngsters hang out in the evening. Police found and defused a bomb near a children's park at the India Gate. Another was found inside a building housing a cinema hall. On all television channels distraught relatives wailed "he went out for an ice cream..." "he said he would pick up a pair of trouser..." "he was out with friends at his favourite restaurant..." It's a Saturday and people are busy unwinding like anywhere in the world. They were out there to make up for the fun they miss out on on weekdays.

So is this going to be the norm then? Being hit when we are least prepared and at our relaxed best? In a way this tells me that it's an open war not just against our country but particularly against our lifestyle.

Our markets, our economy, our leisure, our laid back attitude as compared to a stark fanaticism that ravishes all goodness, despises and denounces anything that gives pleasure to the senses. In short whatever is sinful. This is the email address of the group that claimed responsibility for the attacks. al_arbi_delhi@yahoo.com - a group that calls itself Indian Mujahideen.

Their message: "the Message of Death" - "In the name of Allah, Indian Mujahideen strikes back once more. ... Do whatever you can. Stop us if you can."

Minutes after the blasts, the Leader of Opposition blames the government for failing to provide security to its teeming millions. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi gloated that it was he who kept pushing for the POTA. The Congress spokesperson responded in kind saying these allegations were quite on expected lines.

The links to the disaster hangs on the testimony of a 12-year-old balloon seller who may have seen the perpetrators. The fate of a billion hangs on the bickering of a government which will make some noise for a while, let the issue die its death, and be roused again at election time when undoubtedly the BJP will raise it from its slumber.
A mother who has lost a 25-year-old son will give 13 TV and newspaper interviews, collect her 2 lakh compensation package and live the rest of her years in blankness.
I might as well say - lights out, pack up.

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Saturday, September 6, 2008

When Sita sold detergent

The deserted streets, the gutkha chewing rickshaw-wala perched on his seat at our living room window, my grandmother touching Arun Govil's feet on the telly screen, our maid calling my mom from the kitchen - "Boudi, Ramayana shuru hoye gechhe!" (Ramayana has started)
Those were heady times. Especially a saree-clad Deepika who plays Sita one day in Ramanand Sagar's 'Ramayana' selling detergent powder on TV on the next. A friend (pissed I'm sure at having to make tea while visiting me at my shack) commented on a packet of Homelite matches on the counter.

"Do you remember how Homelite used to be a status symbol?" When I was growing up in a one-room hovel in a galaxy far far away, my mother would save on monthly expenses by getting a 10-pack Ship matchbox. I had much use for the empty match boxes.

I would cut out a portion of the cover, wrap three rubber bands around the box and develop a toy guitar that I would strum around the house to my mom's irritation. Or bury a dead fly in an empty box that would double as a coffin. Or wrap it in old gift wrappers and make tiny gifts to place at the foot of my toy Christmas tree.

I always looked at Homelite boxes in awe, thinking of the things I could do with them. For one, they were much bigger than the average match boxes, plus they had compartments inside! And cost more as well.

With booming consumerism, we are now spoilt for choice by the big multinationals. If Homelite was a stranger at our house, so was Maggi instant noodles. Ten bucks a packet was a princely sum for my parents especially when locally-made chowmein packets in transparent wrappers cost Re 1 a pack. Toh koi ye kyu le, woh na le?

Every time the Maggi jingle would come on TV I would fantasise about a home where a mother would not act as if I had just eaten her pet dog every time I nagged her to buy Maggi.
"School se aate dhoom machate..
Ek hi baat ye dohrate..
Maggie Maggie Maggie...
Do Minute..
Pal Bhar mein tyaar
Khaaney mein mazzedar..
Maggie Noodles"

That is how it used to go.

Nirma washing powder was a regular buy. What with a school uniform that felt like jute overalls, nothing would get mud (and sometime blood) stains off without the tough love that Nirma had to offer. In pre-Revive days my mother would strain the rice water daily (she still does, bless her soul) and soak my clothes in it so I would go to school wearing what felt like a starched bullet-proof jacket.
Coming from a family that gathered at 5 pm for the merry Ho Ho, my mother (the same one who starched my clothes to distraction) would bring out the tea and papadums.

Lijjat was a winner all hands down. For some strange reason the rabbit in the Lijjat papad ad scared the beejeesus out of me. It wasn't cute and clearly it was a man in a rabbit costume.

My father, a strong believer of the mysterious healing powers of Boroline, applied copious amount of it on his hands and face. That is the smell I still associate with him. Boroline is still going on strong, but what cost him Rs 5 a packet is now Rs 20. And he has expressed his desire many times to write to the company as a consumer dedicated to the product.

Those were the times of consumer loyalty. Sometimes simply for the lack of choice. Some ads were surprisingly progressive for their times.

"When history gets a real drag,
and the teacher is a real old nag
Zing it up
Zing it up with the zing thing
Goldspot the zing thing
Goldspot..."

Was the Goldspot cold drink ad. If I had a penny for the number of times I sang that song in history class, albeit under my breath, I'd be a millionaire by now.

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