Sunday, February 24, 2013

dharati kahe pukar ke

It was a cloudy day yesterday. It had rained heavily the night before, lightning tore across the sky, thunder rumbled again and again. It continued to drizzle intermittently as the day dawned. The sky was dull, a chill wind blew, it was a little dreary and depressing. Towards noon, however, the sun peeped through and we decided to make the most of it. Driving down the Faridabad road, letting the wind blow in through half open windows, my husband and I reached Manger, then having passed through the village, we drove around aimlessly for an hour or so in what appears to be a  valley. The soil is rusty yellow as are the large boulders and hillocks that abound in the area. There were patches of green on either side of the kutcha road, sarson fields easily identifiable by the radiant yellow flowers and others. Kikar trees could be seen as far as the eye stretches, and their freshly washed green leaves, that covered the branches in abundance, transformed what could have been a bleak landscape into a pleasing  study in contrasts. A goatherd, his dog, and goats scrambling up and down the steep hillocks were the only signs of habitation. Once, a motrorcyclist whizzed past us. There was no other sound, not even birds. At one or two places, sunrays glinted off the surface of the rain water that had collected in large bowl shaped depressions. The ugly plastic bags and sachets that litter the urban and rural landscape were conspicuously absent. We made an attempt to reach Manger Lake, but the road was too make- do to allay my anxiety that we'd have a breakdown at some point, so we returned with the resolve that we'd go looking for the lake the next weekend. 

We returned home feeling strangely calm and relaxed.

Today, we decided to splurge money on a Sunday brunch. The hotel is newly built, and is adazzle with chandeliers and cut flowers. The service was excellent, the food had a tremendous variety, the other guesst were neither loud nor intrusive. Yet, we returned home with only a fraction of the joy we had experienced yesterday.

True it is that the deeper we connect with Earth, the more the harmony that seeps into our lives. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Maanvan te Dhiian

My mother and I have long conversations over the telephone every day, perhaps, an hour or so. Yesterday, we got talking about the Punjabi poet, Avtar Singh Pash. The conversation then meandered through the poetry of Surjit Patar and Shiv Batalvi, Sahir Ludhianvi and Amrita Pritam, the lives of Gurbaksh Singh Preetladi and his son, Navtej Singh and all the while I wondered why I had never found the time or inclination to have a real conversation with my mother in my growing up years. Her knowledge astounds me, as does her incredible anecdotal memory. She told me of the day Shiv Batalvi mistakenly rang our doorbell, looking to visit my mother's namesake who was also a Lecturer and Batalvi's fan. She told me of the amazing power and passion in Batalvi's voice when he recited his poetry, his rise to fame, his alcoholism and neglect of his wife, the pall that descended over Amritsar when he died. 

We spoke of Amrita Pritam, her fierce independence, the devotion of Imroz, who nurtured and cared for her through sickness and old age and how devastated Imroz's family was by his choices.

We spoke of Preet Nagar, the vision of Gurbaksh Singh Preetladi, and the tragic death of his son. That's a name I remember, I told her. Yes, your grandfather used to subscribe to the magazine Preetladi, she told me, and that she'd herself read the poetry section while she waited in the Reading Room of the public library from where my father used to bring me the books I needed while I prepared for the civil services examination. I googled and found a blog by that name, e mailed the Editor, and have sent in an annual subscription for Preetladi. Today I discovered that its Editor at one time was Sahir Ludhianvi!

What an abiding love for poetry my mother must have had, and I was ignorant of it in all my growing up years, pre ocupied as I was with my own dreams and fears! There was also the fact that my father was my hero , while my mother had the role of the disciplinarian parent who kept us on the straight and narrow path.  Then I got busy raising my own children, and it is only now that I make a new discovery every now and then about my mother's life as an intelligent, well informed, creative person.  I find that I am more like her than I had ever imagined. I understand also her anxiety and repeated reminders to me that I should not lose my own identity no matter how much I love my family.

This year, it is my resolve to have a mother-daughter vacation. We"ll go to Kerala, which is a place she wishes to travel to, a discovery I made only recently, having spent decades imagining that she'd rather stay home than explore the world. Wish me the best, that I may not get distracted by own responsibilities as a mother to lose an opportunity to get closer to the person that is my mother!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

whence joy comes

It was a sunny day yesterday, but not too warm. In fact, it was perfect weather for a walk, but inertia is hard to overcome so I dawdled and dawdled till I could tell myself that tomorrow was as good a day as any to begin acting upon my resolution to walk every day. Then my son called up from his room (yes,he did!) to ask whether I could text him the grocer's telephone number so that he could call for bread to be delivered. True, a floor separated us. I was in the backyard, half heartedly raking the compost khamba, he was in his room on the first floor. That he'd rather call than climb DOWN the stairs was just the wake up call I needed. 

A little persuasion later, we locked up the house and began walking at a leisurely pace towards the nearest market. We live in a gated neighbourhood, with more greens than most places in the city. Almost every house has a green patch in front with a madhumalti climbing the edge of the facade, and many, many houses have a profusion of pansies, petunias, salvia and numerous other seasonal flowers at this time of the year. There was barely any vehicular traffic at that time so we walked mostly undisturbed by honking horns. Birds chirped and twittered. 

My son began recounting the discussion he had had the previous day with a couple of his friends on woman empowerment. Our  conversation veered round to the low proportion of women in the field of scientific research, and then to  mathematics. He spoke to me of the amazing work done by Srinivasa Ramanujan, the strange and inspiring life of Paul Erdos, the perfection of mathematics, the spell it casts upon a student who is in earnest. Before we knew it, we had reached the market. 

Shopping done, I asked him to wait while I popped over to the store which stocks organic vegetables, fruits, groceries etc. and whose proprietor is a gentle soul I like greeting whenever I can. 

Naturally enough, when we walked back home, my son and I talked about organic farming, whether vegan diets were a fad, animal rights etc etc. I am so glad you have  reverted to chemical detergent powder, he said. I know you are a caring parent, but the organic detergent is a crazy idea, Mom. Why didn't you tell me, I asked. He just smiled, and I knew he hadn't wanted to hurt me! I, in turn, tactically concealed from him the fact that I had run out of organic detergent, not switched loyalties.

 Back home, he leaned against the kitchen shelf while I squeezed kinnow juice for the two of us. We talked some more, and then he carried his beer mug full of luscious juice back to his room and I returned to the book I had begun reading in the morning in preparation for a Book Club meeting.

What an enormous amount of joy I had experienced in these two hours! I said a silent prayer of gratitude to whoever it is who arranges matters sometimes to give us such joy ----- simple, pure, loving.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

alone, not lonely

Will you watch LINCOLN with me, I asked my son? He smiled and looked away, a little amused that I'd think he'd think mothers are good company when a teen goes movie viewing.  I put the question to my husband ----in my mind's eye! --- and saw his grimace. Should I ask my mother, I thought. She does not enjoy English movies. Call up a friend? In the city I live in, I really don't know anyone well enough to expect that they'd drop whatever they were doing and join me. So I walked into the cinema hall alone, bought a ticket, had a coffee while I waited and then watched the movie with a popcorn bag in hand. It was an exhilarating experience. 

The cinema hall was nearly unoccupied, with just a small sprinkling of mostly grey haired men and women. We watched in silence, broken only by the crunching of popcorn. On the rare occasions that we view a movie together, my husband silently grinds his teeth every time a popcorn crunches. Of course, the question of my buying popcorn or nachos does not arise. I once did, and he shifted to a seat several rows away! Now, I could enjoy the popcorn without guilt gnawing away at me. 

The coffee was hot, and I did not have to worry about spilling it, as I usually do because my sons fidget and re adjust the seats again and again. I savoured the coffee, served in a paper cup, each hot sip tasting better than the one before, even it was a Nescafe from a vending machine.

I did not have to tap my husband's shoulder to check whether he was dozing. I did not have to worry about whether or not my family was enjoying the movie. I did not have to ask the anxious question during Intermission, Do you like it, and struggle to interpret the short,ambiguous answers.  I simply fetched myself another coffee during Intermission.

The second half was better still. I was completely absorbed in the movie, empathising with Lincoln and his tough, pragmatic choices, feeling the moral agony of the character played by Tommy Lee Jones, holding my breath as the votes got counted on the Thirteenth amendment.

The movie ended, and I sat right through the credits, as I always want to but never can because my sons get impatient. When I stepped out of the cinema hall, I walked not to the car parking as we usually do, as if a chore has been put behind us, duly completed, but to the bookshop where I picked up Into thin air, then wandered around looking at new titles. When hunger called, I had a leisurely sandwich at Subway, letting my thoughts wander to questions like whether the vegetables were organically grown, whether felafel in pita bread tastes better, or idli-sambhar-chutney is more nutritious. 

I then returned home, with the firm resolve that henceforth, any movie worth watching I will watch alone ----because alone is not lonely.

Friday, February 15, 2013

city of goons

Gurgaon is a city of goons and hooligans.

I experienced that when my mother got nearly run over by a car but not even an apology was forthcoming from the Head Constable driving it. He was far too busy talking on the cellphone even as he reversed the car from the spot where it was illegally parked  to take the trouble of honking the horn. I rushed towards the car to stop it, madly beating upon the rear windscreen, and when it did, I asked him to step out of the car. At first, he completely ignored me, talking continuously on the phone, waving me away as if I were a particularly obnoxious fly. Much yelling ensued ( I was the one yelling, while he continued to talk on the cell phone) and when the offender finally condescended to emerge from the car, it was with a highly exasperated look. I am getting delayed for my father's superannuation party, he informed me. When I insisted on getting his and his reporting officer's name, rank and telephone number , he looked at me as if I were out of my mind. I finally got the details, but even as I was scribbling them down, he vanished! Till the last, he had not removed the cellphone from his ear and was continuously engaged in a conversation. That he had nearly run over a grey haired lady old enough to be his mother was of no consequence to him therefore the question of apologising did not arise. I called up his reporting officer and lodged a complaint. No action has been taken, of course. I am told that the police constabulary in Gurgaon is rolling in wealth, and difficult to discipline because of political patronage . One of its critical jobs is brokering real estate transactions. 

My son had a similar experience when he was pacing up and down a shopping mall, frantically looking for the phone he thought he had misplaced. Are you interested in the girls who are sitting beside us, he was challenged by a couple of young men whom he had not even noticed in the anxiety of having to tell me that he had lost an expensive phone. He was so taken aback that he burst out laughing. Of course not, he replied. Yes, you are, those who had accosted him insisted. Struck by the ludicrousness of the situation, my son who is all of 15 continued to smile while assuring them that he had not even glanced at the group. Kiski chaurh hai, they asked. Roughly translated, they were asking him whose ( goons, politicians, bureaucrats etc etc ) support he enjoyed. They would not believe that his smile resulted not from bravado which had such "support" as its basis but the fact that he had committed no wrong. Before a confrontation of the nasty kind could take place, a member of the gym where  my son works out sauntered over and asked the hooligans, whom he knew since they haunt the mall, to back off. They did, not because my son was innocent of any misdemeanor but the youth who had turned up could summon a couple of hundred "supporters" in a trice, with no more than a phone call. He's a local politician's son, and rolling in wealth.

It isn't good enough that you are educated, decent,hard working people, we have been advised by a friend who is a senior police officer. You must "plant your feet firmly in Gurgaon soil"  so that a mere phone call can have at least a hundred people rush out in your support, whether you are right or the opposing party, he says. 

Is it any wonder then that my sons, who were all of 9 and 11 years respectively when they repeatedly watched Rang de Basanti , so fired were they with patriotic fervour, now wish to study and work abroad? Things aren't so bad elsewhere in India, I assure them, but they don't believe a word of what I say. I hope they will outgrow this disenchantment with the land of their birth and realise that if we wish to live in a better world, we must build it. I hope my hope is not misplaced. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

building the Indian identity

Yesterday, the dhobi's mother rang the bell at 11 AM. She is a graceful woman, in her mid 40s, always neatly dressed in a sari, head covered in the traditional manner.The wrinkles on her face may give the impression that she is older, but then she has not had the good fortune of being born in the affluent classe whose members neither struggle with deprivation nor have any paucity of aids (chemical, organic, out-of-the-kitchen!) to slow down the ageing process. Her husband was an alcoholic who abandoned the family. She has two young daughters who live with the extended family in their native place, waiting to get married. Her son, Satbir, is a despondent young man who had to drop out of school so that he could earn a living. He works hard, is scrupulously honest, and the sight of his drooping shoulders made me ask him one day whether he had nothing to look forward to. I was married off at 18, he said, I have a wife, a daughter and a baby son now, I long to educate myself, travel, I wish I could connect to the world the way you do on your laptop but I have far too many responsibilities to throw away this stable source of income. The family migrated from Rajasthan many, many years ago in search of employment having lost the bit of land they had to the mortgage they could not pay off. They live in a one room tenement in a semi slum on the edges of a group of shining, multi storey, gated, landscaped apartment complexes and earn a living ironing clothes. 

As I handed her the bundle of clothes, she asked whether I could help her in educating Deepika, her grand daughter. Deepika is three and a half years old, a sweet, alert, mischievous looking kid who sometimes accompanies her grandmother, wishes me Good Morning, and politely says Thank You if I have a sweet or savoury for her. There is a government school in their vicinity which -----yes, you guessed right ----is nearly non functional and certainly no place for a three year old. The private schools are far too expensive, even the ones run out of pokey little buildings --- the application form alone costs Rs 250, the grandmother told me. 

I called up a neighbour, who runs a school for under privileged children. A couple of years ago, she had arranged for them a performance by a visiting Israeli musician in a nearby park, which performance I had enjoyed as much as the enthusiasm, discipline and cheerfulness of the students. Of course, she said, Deepika is welcome to join, just make sure there is someone to pick her up after school, she's too little to be sent home in a group. 

So Deepika will begin school next week, in a clean, loving environment. I hope that in the coming years I can help her grandmother in her endeavour to give the little girl a better life than her own.

In the evening, I switched on the television news and every channel carried animated discussions on the political significance of the RSS et al raking up once again the Ram mandir issue. The Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) have announced that the Ram Janmabhoomi temple must be built since it defines the Indian identity. 

I am baffled by this statement. The Indian civilization is more than 5000 years old. By some estimates, we have been around as a civilisation for more than 7000 years. Are we yet to evolve our identity? Is that identity, apparently still too diffuse to enamour the RSS and VHP, to be defined by a temple? If it is, how is that identity of any help to those who struggle to make a living, to keep a roof over their heads, to sleep with stomachs full, to access medical care and education ? Will the Ram temple help Satbir live his dream, will it get Deepika an education, will it give her grandmother respite from relentless struggle? Will it generate employment in villages so that millions don't get uprooted from their social and cultural milieu and struggle to find meaning as nameless slum dwellers in a city?

In my very limited understanding, the core values of the Hindu/Indian way of life are spelled out in the Vedic shloka
"Sarve bhavantu sukhinah, sarve santu niramaya,
sarve bhadrani pashayantu, maa kashchid-dukhabhavbhaveta!

An India where every Indian is free of want and disease, where every Indian lives a life of fulfillment, a nation of hard working, educated, progressive people, a nation which subscribes also to the belief "vasudhaiva kutumbakam" ---- that is the Indian identity true to our civilisational ethos, the identity we must strive to be true to.

How can a mandir define the Indian identity?

Friday, February 1, 2013

empowering the Aam Aadmi

Many years ago, when I first got posted to North Block, I'd stop at the traffic light just short of the gentle upward slope that connects Rajpath with Raisina Hill, and wonder: why can the whole of Delhi not have the same level of enforcement of traffic rules? The first few months, I was driven to work and the driver would take extra care once he entered the Rajpath stretch. This is known as the toughest traffic light to cross, he told me, since the size is smaller than most (it is!) and the penalty for violation immediate!! When I began driving myself, I'd frequently park the car to the side and ask the Traffic Constable at busy stretches like Pragati Maidan why more traffic violators were not being pulled out and challaned. The most common response was: I have but one pair of eyes, I get fatigued, standing hours on end in blistering heat, the traffic volume is far too heavy for the manpower deployed etc etc. 

That made sense ----somewhat. I wondered whether the government could use the services of citizens by empowering them to challan traffic offenders, and I discovered that such a legal provision does exist. Section 21 of the Code of Criminal Procedure provides that the State Government may appoint Executive Magistrates ( known as Special Executive Magistrates) for particular areas or for the performance of particular functions and confer on them such powers as as it may deem fit. I discussed this with a couple of colleagues in the police set up and they laughed it down. That's understandable, of course ----- no person in a bureaucratic set up (which the police force is) who has been selected and trained to fill a position of authority is happy sharing his powers with "ordinary" citizens !

So it really gladdens my heart that the Justice Verma Committee has made this recommendation in its report. Here is what the Committee says:

" To augment the police force, there is need to develop community policing by involving the local population. Willing volunteers should be properly and intensively trained before being able to police the community. This would also motivate them to perform their duty as citizens. Respectable persons in each locality could also be appointed Special Executive Magistrates under Section 21, Cr.P.C. and invested power to deal with the traffic offences and other minor offences including eve-teasing. In addition, to assisting the maintenance of law and order in the locality, their presence would inspire greater confidence of safety in their locality."

We ought to be discussing/debating this recommendation and demanding its immediate implementation. "Immediate" will actually translate into several months, perhaps a year or so, as the government deliberates upon and decides the modalities of implementation, so the sooner we begin stridently demanding that the recommendation be implemented, the better.