Monday, 15 September 2014

Corridor Outside 301

From the bright white light of 301, I stepped into the dim corner of a long corridor on the third floor. There was no tube to light up the sports trophies and medals displayed on a three-racked glass shelf, surrounded by three white cobwebbed closed doors. In any case, students hardly gather around these. I turned right on the corridor where Joshikaka’s chair sat vacant sans the khakhi, facing the other way from the table --- turned around before stepping away. I walked past the well-lit Principal’s door --- the somber closed wood-paneled door making its weight felt, contrasting with the noisy stairs right in front, and its steady flow of students up and down. With bags of all kinds – packs on backs, document folders pressed in hands, mirror-work jholas slung across shoulders. The railing with its vertical bar-ends twisting up to form Ss continued walking with me after the stairs. There was more banter on the grey-netted chairs --- young boys and girls frequently referring to the noticeboard with the ominous heading of “Examinations”. A turbaned Sikh among the most vocal and agitated ones. A young lady speaking in Manipuri over her cell phone, dressed in salwar kameez complete with a dupatta --- not the usual get up for girls in the college, confined largely as the attire of the lady teachers. I went along the office where the gaps in the beige venetian blinds revealed staff members in their cubicles staring at their computers. A harried young man at the counter at the cashiers, probably paying his fees on the last deadline. A few more chairs and more students gathered around a black board, or shall we say, green board announcing the dates of the next college festival, generating a lot of buzz in a mixture of English, Marathi, Hindi and what not, including Kiswahili.

Yes I love the feel of student life --- the energy and enthusiasm of the youth, the romancing couples in the corners, people ambling in at half time and people rushing to classes – sometimes to the wrong ones at the wrong times, shouting your orders over the din in the canteen, caucus outside the gate around the lime juice seller, the exchange of notes between maushis and kakas… After a gap of fifteen years, I am thoroughly enjoying my stint, however short, as a tutee in an educational institute. If nothing else, I can claim my share of experience of being a student in India’s premier students’ city.

Monday, 8 September 2014

An Everyday Mess

The Spiderman lay sprawled on the ground staring at the ceiling. Hansel and Gretel like pebbles made from colourful play dough marked the way from the toy shelf to the rug in the centre of the room, sticking to the bottom of my slippers as I set about cleaning the mess. Lightning McQueen and Tow Mater stood frozen, face-to-face near one of the legs of the dining table, just about to collide. One of the dart bullets was stuck to the glass sliding door high up, a second one affixed to the raised pattern on its ivory-coloured curtain, the third one untraceable. The gun itself was peeking out from under the three-seat sofa; its bullet holders now empty. The Hot Wheels track on the rug improvised and joined together as a structure beyond the imaginations of the makers. Dozens of four-year old palm-sized Hot Wheels cars stationed at the parking lots, in the first storey car wash, on the flyover --- stuck in a traffic jam. Scattered buildings all over the floor --- blocks of red, yellow, blue and green joined together in a random pattern, which only a child-like creativity can conceive. Two spinning tops tilted on the centre table, resting motionless in the same posture since the time their owner lost interest in them. One red “medium-sized” Mercedes Benz stopped just across a make-believe finish line ahead of a similar sized black Lamborghini in a make-believe racetrack around the rug, their remote controls touching shoulder-to-shoulder on the same track. Colour pencils and crayons sprinkled on the dining table, along with three partially coloured A4 sheets, one in front of the chair where the slower child would have sat; two in front of the one on its left. A Ben10 Omnitrix flung over Angry Birds projector watch, their tummies on top of each other on the ground. A rotating single-seat sofa still pirouetting with Jungle Book open on page numbers 4 and 5; even though both spinner and spun have moved on to their next attraction.  

This scene with its many variations, depending on the toys, gadgets, colours, books chosen, and the number of friends (ranging from 0 to 4) visiting my son, is enacted day after day during play hour. The session (on holidays more than one session in a day) will end with a familiar “I am too tired, Mama please help me to tidy up”.  Sometimes at the end of a long day, I get irritated with this tidying up business. But then I remind myself: it is better to enjoy the mess while it lasts --- and before I know, it may time for the architect of the mess to leave my nest, taking all his mess with him!

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Looking Down at Ramganga

“Naaaa I don’t want to fall, I am scared, heeelllpppp” Chitra woke up screaming. For the next few minutes, she lay disoriented; shiny beads of sweat dripping down to the sheet from her forehead. She tried to push the scary dream out of her thoughts. It was the same nightmare that had been haunting her off and on since the past one month. She looked at her cell phone to check the time; it was seven o’clock already. Sleeping again was impossible at this hour, so she decided to get up.

Namita had indicated she was going to pick Chitra up at nine thirty. Then they would pick up Aman and Prateek. And then, Chitra thought happily, off to Rishikesh and Jim Corbett National Park in Namita’s red hatchback. Yes it would be a welcome change from the never-ending dreary office work. With her spirits lifting up, the nightmare already pushed away to a forgotten corner of the mind, she got up to get ready.

Namita was half an hour late, well within the expected deviations by Indian stretchable time --- even Chitra was not ready before five minutes to ten. Crossing Ghaziabad, the car entered the National Highway 58 as the four friends caught up on the lost gossip since their last get together. By the time the enthralling hills of Uttarakhand greeted them, Chitra had no recollection of her nightmare.

At Rishikesh, exhausted by the five hours drive and the post lunch short hike around the lodge, she dozed off as soon as she hit the sack in the night. She woke up to a clear wintery January morning --- to warblers’ chucks-chucks and chee-chees, to a brilliant view of a tree line of sals in the overlooking Rajaji National Park, to animated butterflies flitting from flower to flower. She was the first one awake among the four and eager to start a new day, she dragged the others to the breakfast table in the next fifteen minutes.

One hour later, they were on their way to Jim Corbett National Park. Namita loved driving and although others offered to take turns, she insisted on driving herself. Chitra reminded when they started out, “Don’t forget the seat belt, Namita”. The mood in the car was upbeat and amongst the status updates on mutual friends and acquaintances, winding roads over gorges where streams appeared and disappeared out of view, sudden sprouting waterfalls in the boulders, stretches of shesham trees in the backdrop of hills; the four of them did not realize when two hours had passed and they were already in Dogadda, a small town surrounded by mountains.

Chitra had the lowest tolerance to cold among the four. She had the most layers on. Most of the way, she forced the others to roll their windows up allowing just a teeny weeny space for air circulation for others’. Her own window was completely airtight. Now that it was around eleven and slightly warmer, Namita refused to obey Chitra any more and rolled her window down half way “What’s the point in being in high altitudes if you can not feel the mountain air?”

They were climbing a hill now; the hill was itself on the right towards Namita. Respecting the ravine on the left, she kept her speed low and steered clear of it. Chitra seated next to Namita in the front, pointed excitedly to her left down the gorge, “There’s Ramganga again with its rapid currents”. Prateek, who sat immediately behind Chitra said, “You know you can fish for Mahseer in the river. It needs the fast-flowing water and the cold climate to survive.”  Aman seated next to him, now pointed ahead towards his right “The waterfall in the mountain above us has created a stream through the road from right to left”. Namita had seen the stream ahead of her too and paying due reverence to it, slowed down further.  

All the while admiring the vista outside, none of them had paid much attention to a motorbike in the front, or at its sole occupant. Unlike Namita however, the bike driver had not slowed down in time for the waterfall. Before their horrified eyes, the bike skidded on the flowing rivulet, throwing the non-helmeted driver in fluorescent green T-shirt right in front of the incoming tyres of their hatchback. Namita on reflux swerved the car to the left and just about managed to avoid trampling the biker. That was the last time that she could control the car.

It swung to its side and with screams and shrieks from within, found itself partially lodged in a depression at the edge of the road. It refused to obey Namita and with gravity calling to it, tilted decisively to the left. Chitra felt a chilling sense of déjà vu --- she was living out the nightmare! As the car tumbled and spun in full circles along the slant of the hill, Prateek and Aman who had not put their belts on hung to the seats in front for their dear lives. Still every time the car’s roof hit the ground the taller Prateek got a nasty head bump.

Chitra could not make herself to look any more --- eyes tensely closed and fists tightly gripping the seat handles, she dreaded the worst. With each successive whirl, her mind kept switching between the present and the past dreams --- the identical sensations of falling into an abyss, of the incessant gurgling water, of space squeezing on her, of a powerful force pulling her down… Even in the brief few seconds when the tragedy was unfolding, a thought crossed her mind, “Was fate trying to warn me beforehand?” Her mind was busy recollecting, “Did I survive the accident in my dreams?”

Inexplicably the spinning stopped after four and a half turns --- the car thumped down hard on its roof with all four of them left hanging upside down. The stiff necks craned at impossible angles as the ceiling shrunk and crumbled. Nobody dared to breathe. After what felt like an eternity, the tremors stopped. The hushed silence was intolerable now --- Chitra relaxed her eyes to peer out a little. Suspended head down, out of the battered window, she caught sight of Ramganga flowing with brutal ferocity at a steep fifteen feet drop. A muffled cry came out as her eyes involuntarily closed again. She couldn’t decide what was worse --- the height or the water --- she had always been wary of both. Even if one outlasted the fall, leaving aside the fact that she was a novice swimmer, she knew it was not only Mahseer who inhabited the river --- mugger crocodiles and gharials ruled over it. She wanted to cry out loud like in her dreams, but the words choked at her throat.

With great resolution, she opened her eyes back. She felt a sharp pain in her legs --- the front of the car had come caving in around her and Namita’s legs. She found that they had rolled around ten feet from the road. Miraculously the car had been deposited between two large boulders jutting out from the hill. More incredible was the fact that the two boulders had clasped it firmly breaking its fall, breathing the hope of life back into its passengers. Now Chitra realized they were not completely upside down, but at a tilt --- a no small mercy when hanging upside down as blood came rushing to the head. Cold and shivering, she now became aware of the sprinkling water --- the stream crossing the road had found its way through the boulders. Turning away the negative thoughts clouding her mind, she gritted her teeth, “better than a car on fire at least”.

Aman with the advantage of unfastened seat belt was the first to straighten himself, head up. Even the slightest movement in the car rocked it violently, resulting in amplified heartbeats in the four corners. So with as little impact as possible, he tried his side of the door --- it was no easy feat since the door was bottom up. He exclaimed in glee as it opened and led to a foothold in the boulder. He gingerly climbed out; he was free! Prateek followed suit and soon to his relief, he was crawling out through the same door. “Namita, you try next”, he cried anxiously. Namita unfastened her seat belt, rolled herself face up and somehow squeezed to the back seat. As she cautiously stepped out, little unsteady from hanging down and soaked from the waterfall, she had very little time to notice the cuts in her legs. They still had to get Chitra out.

All three of them knew getting out Chitra would be harder, she was the one farthest from the foot hold with her side of the car precariously projecting out in mid air. But they never imagined it would be this hard. It started with the jammed seat belt --- it refused to undo at Chitra’s insistent attempts. Increasingly giddy and nauseated, she kept repeating to herself “Don’t give up, don’t give up…” Dozens of witnesses had rushed to the scene to help out; many others were heading along, thin tanned agile men, wearing colourful caps, mufflers and shawls, with generous dab of vermilion on their foreheads, nimbly navigating the serpentine lanes around the hill. The three friends now stood a little far away, too dazed to react to the turn of events that were beyond their control. A young man in his twenties wearing a blazing green T-shirt took charge of the rescue effort, directing others.

Soon a boy in his teens came rushing by with a stationery cutter --- that was the closest to a seat-belt cutter that anybody could find in the vicinity. Through the opening in the driver’s window, as she took the cutter from the boy, all Chitra saw was a blurred face with upturned eyes and prominent cheek bones trying to tell her something. Her mind registered some Garhwali to Hindi translations on how to use the cutter from one of the faces crowding around. The simple act of using the cutter was a strenuous exercise under the circumstances --- with restricted hand movements, laboured breathing, dizziness almost overpowering her. The struggle lasted not less than ten minutes, but at the end of it, she was free from the seat belt.

Then came an even harder part. As she tried to straighten herself she realized her left leg was completely numb --- it was a dead weight unable to respond to any directions from the brain. Every muscle in the body perspiring, the two hands and the right leg, with superhuman effort dragged the body, inch by inch, to the back seat. Then the slow wriggle to get out through the back door began. Once within the reach of the extended hands, they dragged her out gently and steadily, taking heed not to unbalance the car.

With tears in their eyes, her friends hurried to greet Chitra. The ordeal however was far from over. Cold and shivering, Chitra could not stand or walk or bend her leg --- the badly bleeding left leg would not budge. There was a severe back pain --- but there was no time to think about that. The others helped her to sit on one of the boulders with legs straightened. Twice the urge to throw up overcame her --- the onlookers looked worried about the impact of blood accumulating in the head for such an extended period. It was no ordinary miracle that she had made it thus far.

Somebody brought a rope. The volunteers were back in action now; they made Chitra clench the rope like in a tug-of-war game, the end of the rope wrapped around her body. She prepared herself for an inch-by-inch battle again. With two three helpers pulling the rope at the other end, two three more pushing her physically and with encouraging words, the climb up the inclined slope to the motorway was a very long one. There were times when she felt she could not keep up anymore; but then she would jolt back to alertness at others’ prodding. The twenty minutes felt like perpetuity, but it too was over. Her feet were at last on the road --- drenched and aching in the winter morning, smelling of vomit, exhausted beyond imagination, she collapsed as the ground beneath her became level.

After she was somewhat conscious, she was dragged to a nearby school with a dispensary, where the person in charge administered painkillers and basic first aid. The townspeople could help no more; the friends had to decide their next move. Delhi was too far away; Chitra needed medical attention urgently. A frantic call was made to the resort outside Jim Corbett National Park where they had their rooms reserved; the owner assured them he would be able to take care of their immediate medical needs.

Chitra now back at the scene, propped up on a stone with a backrest, saw a crane come into view. When its mechanical arm, twisting and extending, retrieved the hatchback from below, its sight drew a collective gasp from the friends. It seemed fantastical that they had come out alive from the disfigured misshapen mass, contorted beyond recognition. Chitra pulled her eyes away --- she had carried on till this point, she could not allow gloom to set in now.

The four of them got into the crane, which would drop them to the resort, at a distance of around one hour drive from Dogadda. Chitra with her unbending leg could only be placed in the open cargo area at the back. The next steps are a hazy recollection for her: reaching the resort, medicines and injections, massage and Ramganga freezing water treatment for her numb leg, high fever for two days finally brought under control, beginning of some movement in the left leg, agonizing commute to Delhi, calling up Ma Baba to say urgent official work has come up, admitted to hospital for the next twelve days…

She did not see the dream after that. Though her leg healed, her back continues to trouble her on and off. She can see the trauma of the ordeal in her friends --- Namita has completely shut out the world of travel. Prateek goes out of town now only on business. Aman does not call up any more. Barely recovered from the shock herself, Chitra is defiant --- she will not end up like them. It was undoubtedly death that had stared at her from Ramganga down below; but now that she has evaded it, she refuses to die every day with the mere thought of it. She knows the nightmare will continue to haunt her till she can free herself of it --- and for that she must celebrate life, she must savour every moment of her second chance to live.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Marine Encounter

My first short story:

As far as my eyes could wander, ripples of blue-green tinted with orange surrounded us. It seemed quite some time back when Tony had navigated our ferry slowly away from the coast for our sun-downer trip. I had felt a slight chill down my spine when I realized Anjan and I were the only ones on the ferry --- apart from the spooky captain. It was Anjan’s idea in the first place to vacation at this god-forsaken coastal strip. It was his idea to agree for a ferry trip when the lanky Tony emerged out of nowhere and said we could experience the ocean as few had before. I had shrugged the doubts away with Anjan’s comforting arm around me. Now I was not so sure.

Tony had stopped the ferry in the middle of nowhere --- he said it would be the perfect spot to watch the setting sun. Nervous as I was, a part of me could not ignore the beauty around me. Serene limitless waters mirroring the sky as it changed its hues. It was a humbling feeling, a feeling of complete submission to the enormity of the ocean as compared to our tiny presence. My reverie was broken when I heard a splash. We had not seen Tony change into a diver’s suit attached to an oxygen tank. He mumbled something about studying corals and before we could protest he was nowhere to be seen.

I could see Anjan was trying to put up a brave face. He immediately took to a careful study of the ferry. I was numb with shock --- with some effort I pulled myself together. No, nothing is the matter; Tony will be back shortly. We were safe; we had food and water to last a few hours. The resort management was surely to miss us at the dinner table. It was Anjan’s idea to leave both the mobile phones back in the room --- “who swims with gadgets strapped”. How I wished I had carried mine.

The setting sun now looked distinctly eerie. Anjan called out for Tony from time to time, despair creeping up in his voice. My mouth turned dry --- I had seen a pair of tentacles coming up the hull. Was I hallucinating? One look at Anjan told me he had seen them too. Instinctively I drew farther away from the “thing”, pulling Anjan with me. The tentacles grew bigger and numerous as a four-feet-long octopus climbed aboard. I pinched myself --- no, this could not be happening! Octopuses do not come out of water. But this one just did that --- it was now sitting with its limbs sprawled all around and carefully watching us. Anjan pulled me to point to another set of tentacles that were climbing aboard on our right. I screamed as the head of a squid appeared. Three fourth the size of the octopus, the squid took up a position on our right. We ran to the third corner of the ferry, keeping a safe distance from both the octopus and the squid. Anjan took out the torch he had carried in his pocket and started blinking it in random directions. Would somebody find us?

The breeze was getting colder. We held our breath as we waited --- not certain what lay beyond. The octopus and squid did not move after they had settled down. It was Anjan again who found the next creature as his scouting eyes saw the new set of tentacles --- or were those claws? I could no longer find my voice as a lobster, twice as large as my arm, perched itself on the ferry. Anjan dragged me to the middle of the ferry --- the boundaries weren’t safe any more. After that we lost count and identification, as marine life --- one after another joined us on the ferry. Were those barnacles, was that a clamp, was that a giant conch? I clung to Anjan --- too petrified to move --- in an ever-shrinking space that we could claim as ours.

Time stood still. We could feel our sweat dripping on each other. The light was just enough right to see our outlines. Was I conscious? It was only Anjan who held my body from slumping down. Why did the creatures keep staring at us doing nothing --- were they waiting for a cue to attack us? Their inaction was suffocating me.

I do not how long we would have stood listless on the ferry. Suddenly there were voices. Were they “real”? Anjan was quick to take out the torch again and continuously blink towards the direction from where we thought the voices were coming. It was indeed a medium sized fishing boat; four sun-tanned men in waist -length lungis rowing towards us. They were responding to the blinking torch. I hung close to Anjan --- uncertain as to what to expect next.

The fishermen called out to the water deities loudly while approaching us with caution. With the men barely inside audible range, Anjan burst out --- pointing hysterically to the creatures. But wait --- where were they? All of a sudden, the ferry was left exclusively to us --- no squid, no octopus, no lobster, no tentacle. The fishermen knew without our telling them what had happened.

After they had helped us climb aboard their boat, the eldest of them told us how five years earlier a middle-aged diver named Tony had died by drowning due to unknown reasons not far from where we were stranded. He was an enthusiast in the study of marine life and often took people on diving trips. Post his death; we were the third set of tourists who had been shown the unique eyeball-to-eyeball experience of the ocean life. On all occasions the visitors were unharmed. I murmured an inaudible vote of thanks. I felt relieved to get back my simple freedoms of wiping my brow and stretching out my legs.

Next day one of the ferries that belonged to our resort, which had gone missing since late afternoon the previous day, was found floating along the nearby shoreline.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

To Wear Or Not To Wear

Most of us have worn something that we did not want to wear. For me it was a nose ring. When else but at my wedding reception. Now, I did not get a hole drilled in my nose, but an appropriate ring was arranged for me that could hold on to my nose like a pair of pincers. Needless to say, on that day I had to wear a lot more other than just a nose ring that I had to be careful about not dislodging every time I nodded my head. A flowing maroon gharara on which I kept tripping whenever I had to be moved (thankfully due to a predominantly seating arrangement for the bride, as is customary in Indian weddings, there were not too many such stumbling trips). A matching dupatta with sparkling golden work pinned to my head just right so that the required measure of the face was visible. A head jhoomar adjusted to the left side delicately balanced with the aid of hair clips and pins. Strings of gold surrounding the neck in increasing order of length, so that each could be displayed without hiding the other. Burdensome eye-aching gold jhumkas slid through the already four-day-strained pus-filled ear holes, only with the help of generous application of Neosporin ointment. Golden and maroon bangles vying for attention over the the thick gold bracelets and Arabesque mehendi flowers. Not less than five fingers, including a thumb, circled by golden rings. With the necessary concomitant of “fairing” facial makeup, rouged cheeks and plentiful dabs of red and maroon lipsticks. All this while alternating stiff not-used-to-ground-sitting urban legs between left and right, surrounded by questioning ladies “is this the necklace that you have brought from maika?”. A distant cousin dropping a plastic lizard on my lap resulting in shrieks and screams from all quarters around me. Countless rounds of salaams and namastes, introductions after introductions that never registered, the fixed smile on my face never getting a chance to fade away. I cannot imagine going through the prolonged discomforting scrutiny again. Even then, looking back now, when many of the faces in the crowd are family and dear friends, I am glad that I did the charade then. I probably enjoyed playing along as well - the captured photo and video albums are now the standing evidences for my active collusion in the whole affair.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Follower of scrapes, tweets and chirrups

I heard it on my morning birds tour – I would not miss the early birds for anything while out on a jungle safari. Well to correct myself, it was not very early. I had overslept after a long drive last night from Nairobi to Samburu. Since Aamir and Adi were still sleeping and the tall trees around the lodge shaded the sun – even in a warm and arid place like Samburu, I decided to do my customary bird walk inside the lodge. Bird walks have never disappointed me – there is always a new creature or its habit waiting to be discovered, and that day it was a scraping sound.

My ears went on high alert instantly. Where was it coming from? A faint scrape, scrape, scrape – I tried to follow. One cautious step at a time to soften the rustling as I treaded on dried leaves. The scraping sound grew louder – aha! I was getting close. The challenge of course was to capture the living being doing the scraping on camera. The sound did not seem like scraping any more, it was more like hard tapping on wood. The next instant, I saw it - a spotted woodpecker with a bright red cap high up on an acacia tree in front of me. And it was a discovery sure enough - I had not seen this bird before.

The bird did not pay the least heed to me – guess I was too low down to be perceived as a threat. It continued its pecking, yes it was a wholesome insect meal in progress. The red crown glittered in the sun when it came into view as the bird went round the tree drilling rhythmically. I steadied myself for the shots – Aamir would always tell me I have my center of gravity wrong. Thank heavens for the automatic feature of the camera, don’t think I would have managed too many pictures of restless birds in the manual mode. And thank heavens for iPhoto and Picasa where I can tweak my snaps a little bit – if nothing else to adjust the exposure when all I can see are some shades of grey.

This time I managed to get a few modest photos and a decent video before the woodpecker decided enough was enough and vanished with flurrrrs and flapppps. It was almost past breakfast hour and it was time I donned my mother’s hat. So I rushed back to our room to start the day for Adi.

We had decided to take the day easy, so in between breakfast and lunch, I could resume my bird investigation. I opened the East African birds guide to check it out – there it was. My morning friend was the Nubian woodpecker. No mistaking the scarlet crest, the spotted body, the tree-grasping toes and the pointy chiselling beak. Scientists had preferred to associate the bird to the ancient region in the neighbourhood – ‘Nubian’ certainly gave a classical ring to the name.

I remember the early morning walks that I always took on visits to Kashid and Mahabaleshwar. I had even been on a birding trip to Bhigwan dam, where the star attraction were the flamingos; and where the instructors tried hard to make me see which was which between a heron and an egret. But it was the experience of Kenya, especially without the busyness of a paid job that brought out the bird enthusiast in me. I can now tell the difference between the bills of bee-eater and that of a sunbird, outlines of a swallow and a sparrow in flight, the neck contours of a heron and an egret – well at least half the times. The avian species have me captivated so much that I take bird trips in my own backyard – creating an astounding image gallery of flycatchers, tits, sparrows, mynas, prinias, munias, starlings and many more of their feathered friends. Rollers or neelkanths, hoopoes or mohanchuras, looking up from my study table or across continents, I am now a self-confessed follower of all scrapes, tweets and chirrups around me.

Male Nubian Woodpecker

Monday, 14 July 2014

Tintin in the Congo - Absolutely Unpalatable

As an avid Tintin fan, I am ready to overlook an occasional caricature or stereotyping in his adventure comics. I can ignore a few not so appropriate brown or red skin characters here and there, for the hilarious conversations between Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus or the ingenious expletives of “Blue Blistering Barnacles” and “Bashibazouks”. But I simply cannot forgive a piece of work like “Tintin in the Congo”.

I knew about the controversies surrounding the particular comic, I still had to read it for myself. After much searching I could lay my hand on to it in Nairobi. The book is all the reports said it would be, and more – it is absolutely unpalatable.

A little background to the book first which I could gather from the internet. Herge first published the tale as a series in 1930 in a conservative right leaning Belgian publication, his second adventure after “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets”. Congo was then a Belgian colony and the editor of the publication impressed upon Herge to write a story based in Africa to promote colonialist and missionary zeal among the readership. Herge had never set foot on Congo and hence the narrative is based purely on the European perception of Africa in the colonial era.

Image after image, the book tells us how simplistic, childish and lazy the Congolese are, and how the European masters are striving to bring about an awakening in a land of total darkness – the symbols of enlightenment planted being the chapel and the western school. The supremacy of the colonialists is a matter of uncontested fact as can be seen when a car driven by Tintin remains unscathed after a collision with a train carriage full of Africans – guess which one topples over? Even a western dog is able to subdue an African lion! The timid Congolese are in complete awe of and subservience to the white man, who all by himself can settle intra and inter tribal disputes, cure malaria in a jiffy, tow a train carriage with a car and kick a leopard. His dog Snowy loses no opportunity in passing snide remarks to stress the “inadequacies” of the locals.

If that is not all, Tintin goes about demolishing wildlife all around – from antelopes to chimp to crocodiles to rhino to boa constrictor to giraffe to elephant – all in the name of game hunting to ivory collection to ‘getting underneath the skin’ for closer photographs of fellow animals!

As a nature lover who has stayed in Africa for three years, for me turning each page was accompanied by a sickening churning in the stomach. From what I understand the comic and the publication was actually a commercial success when the story came out. When colonialism and big game hunting was no longer in vogue in the western world, Herge in later years was embarrassed by what he had written and altered portions in the reprints to make it  somewhat milder, the output still is extremely unpleasant.

I would however argue against a ban on the book. It is a window into the prevailing mindset of Europe in the 1930s - about a nation that was colonized, and colonized with a brutality with few parallels. And it does highlight the scramble for African resources that started in the era, in this particular case American gangsters’ dubious dealings in diamonds.

All said and done, it will be some time before I can give this book to my four year old son to read (or look at the pictures). For now, it is safely hidden away, far from my displayed Tintins collection.

Here is the link to the comic in its black and white version:

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

A Paean to the Plain Bhaat and Macher Jhol

As submitted to

Think of Bengalis, and can bhaat (rice) with macher jhol (watery fish stew) be far away? For the first two decades of my life, before hostel food, self cooked food and mixed marriage food took over, the combination was the food that I had for most of the meals, with only a few gaps in between. I have always taken it for granted that traditional Bengali households consume this with great regularity, but have never really got down to dissecting the reasons for the same. The obvious ones are the geography and the local availability. The plains of Bengal make the area ideal for rice cultivation. And the rivers flowing through the plains provide for plentiful fish. Before the advent of the food distribution network, where we get all kinds of food everywhere, albeit at a cost, local availability was the deciding factor in the choice of food. And not everybody needed to go to rivers for fish; for some there were enough to catch in the house ponds as well. I can picture a scene very well before my eyes (now mind you that was before ladies like me did the shopping): the head male in the family arranges for the rice and the fresh fish. The fish could be a big one in the league of rui (rohu) or catla (Indian carp), or numerous tiny ones like mourala (a variety of gourami) or puti (swamp barb). At this point the ladies of the house take charge; folk songs talk about the ritual of preparing the fish for the meal: removing scales, cutting into appropriate pieces so that everybody gets a fair share. As meal time approaches, while the rice is cooked, the fish is fried. In go the nigella seeds in spluttering mustard oil, followed by chopped tomatoes, green chillies, ground turmeric, ground ginger and ground cumin, optionally with one or more vegetables: potato, cauliflower, eggplant, likely to be fried in advance. In go salt and water, and once the vegetable if any is cooked, floating coriander leaves go in the bubbling water, soon joined by fried fish steaks. The gravy is left intentionally watery so that it can be mixed with rice. The quick turnaround time, the easy digestion and relatively less expensive constituents are certainly aspects that ensure that the dish is cooked at such frequency, over the numerous other fish recipes that Bengalis have up their sleeves: be it in mustard gravy, be it with grated coconut, be it in onion-tomato gravy - which by and large are reserved for occasions (though needless to say rising prosperity today means special dishes are not special any more). But above all, what makes the stew a top favourite is the fact is that it is simply delicious to eat when it is piping hot with the freshness of the fish and the mild aroma of the spices. Today in Nairobi, where the freshwater fish that I get is a frozen fillet sent at least two days back from Lake Victoria, I am reminded more and more of the taste of the macher jhol, just as my mother cooks it.

Monday, 27 May 2013

From Disability to Superability

As submitted to for English Writing Composition I:

Amidst the tragedies, calamities and images of doomsday that is part and parcel of newspaper reading these days, May 22nd edition had a rare, bucking the trend, glimmer of cheer. On the day before, Arunima Sinha, a gutsy lady in her mid twenties became the first Indian amputee to scale Mount Everest.

A former national level volleyball player, she had the misfortune of being pushed off a train carriage by thieves while reportedly resisting a snatching attempt two years back. She found herself in front of another passing train which cost her one of her legs. Refusing to be an object of pity, with the help of prosthetics, she donned a new leg and a new occupation – that of a mountaineer. Ascent to the world’s tallest peak is no mean feat for a person even with two able legs. And I shudder to think what a test of supreme resolve and resilience it would have been for her at such inhospitable altitudes.

Arunima’s struggle reminds me of what Daniel Coyle referred to in his best-seller Talent Code, when he talked about capturing failure and turning it into skill. Arunima shows us how we can leverage ourselves from the lowest point in our lives to spring ahead instead of drowning ourselves in our negativity. It indeed would have been “deep practice” when she would have taken the many small steps right from standing to walking to trekking to mountaineering, with few victories and numerous failures along the way. Arunima was literally “seeking out the slippery hills” and “operating at the edges” of her ability, when she made the seventeen hour long slow arduous trek to the summit of the earth.

Last month, Jothy Rosenberg, another shining example of somebody who has turned disability to superability, came out in support of persons who lost their limbs in Boston marathon blasts. At sixteen, he himself had lost one of his legs and at nineteen, one of his lungs to cancer. Today he is a serial entrepreneur in the high-tech industry, has written three technical books, is an extreme athlete in skiing, biking and open water swimming and has completed his 20th Alcatraz swim across San Francisco Bay! As somebody who does not even have a single adventurous bone to boast of, I am flabbergasted: how does he do it; while he challenges the world “Who says I can’t?”

Jothy’s and Arunima’s accomplishments ultimately are not tales of physical endurance; rather of human domination through mental might. Their stories tell us however daunting a task it seems to be, the naysayers within us and around us can be silenced and overpowered. In a day when the Indian newspapers are flooded with accounts of spot-fixing in cricket IPL, we may tend to grieve the death of expertise and narrowness of human actions; but small headlines of triumphs like that of Arunima’s inspire us to celebrate the best of what it is to be human – and to rejoice at the best of what humans can achieve if they have committed their minds and bodies to the endeavour. Arunima, for our own sakes, we eagerly await the news of your further conquests.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

He Thought, Therefore He Wrote

As submitted to for English Composition I:
I need not look far in search of greatness and people who epitomize it. As a culturally involved Bengali growing up in Chittaranjan Park in Delhi - for those who do not know, the locality is a mini-Bengal away from Bengal; - and as a student of Indian Classical Ballet for eight plus years; Rabindranath Tagore, 1861-1941, was the towering influence on my life. For the benefit of my international audience, as a native language of 3.05% of the world’s population, Bengali with its millennium-old literature is the seventh most spoken language in the world - after Mandarin, Spanish, English, Hindi, Arabic and Portuguese in the same order. And if 202 million Bengalis have to recall a name, it would be that of Tagore - the spinner of elegant prose and magical poetry; the “myriad-minded man” who was all of poet, short-story writer, song composer, novelist, playwright, essayist, painter and educationist (Dutta and Robinson).

What better moment to remember him than the twin occasions of centenary year of Nobel Prize awarded to him, and his birth month; - 7th May being his birthday, celebrated with great gusto by Bengalis every year. In 1896, he wrote a poem in Chitra titled “The Bengali Year 1400”, a date corresponding to 1993 AD; which begins with: “Who are you, reader, reading my poems a hundred years hence?” To my pleasant surprise, as I found out last year, in an event hosted by The Kenyan Bengalee Association on the bard’s birthday - an annual feature actually, his works are read to this day even in far flung Nairobi!

The legacy that Tagore left behind is staggering by its sheer volume – a cornucopia of poems reaching out to all ages; thousands of songs – a form of its own, popularly known as Rabindra Sangeet or Tagore music; 13 novels and novellas; 4 collections of short stories – a genre that he originated in Bengali; numerous plays, essays, memoirs and travelogues; about 2000 paintings and sketches; and last but not the least Visva-Bharati University. The immensity is certainly not without its substance. His poems show “astonishing technical control” – “the unerring use of metre, rhyme and verse structure”; and the “energy and vitality of language” with “vastness of [its] vocabulary” (Radice, “A lecture”). His music, “a breath taking fusion of his musicianship and poetic genius”, is a “symphony of words, moods and beats”; etching every shade of human emotion and sentiment (Sengupta). His short stories give life and spirit to not only his characters, but also to their houses, the surroundings and atmosphere (K V). His sketches and paintings, “filled with bold lines and vivid colours”, are slowly receiving the acclaim that they have long deserved (“The last harvest”).

Audacious as it may sound, I set out to unearth the raison d’être behind this greatness. Can the phenomenon be explained through Colvin’s argument of the ten-year rule – to become world-class, most accomplished people need minimum of ten years of continued deliberate practice? In other words a decade of ceaseless gruelling hard work specifically aimed at bettering oneself, driven by results-based feedback. As I read more and more about Tagore, I realize his life can be regarded as the beau ideal of deliberate practice. He started writing poetry at the age of eight and released his first substantial poems when he was sixteen. A dropout from the conventional system of education, he prepared himself instead through a life-long intense study of languages, literature, art and music – spanning across poetry of Kalidasa in Sanskrit to Shakespeare on one end; and across Bengali semi-classical music to Irish folk melodies on the other. “His respect for scientific laws and his exploration of biology, physics, and astronomy informed his poetry, which exhibited extensive naturalism and verisimilitude” (“Biography”). A “peripatetic litterateur”, he drew his ideas from understanding of places and people - from rural Bengal to Dalhousie in India, to that of the thirty plus countries that he visited during his life time (“Biography”). He was not afraid to take up a new challenge in the form of painting at the ripe age of sixty. I would think there would have been ample channels for feedback for him with an artistically gifted extended family close at hand. And throughout his more than six decades long illustrious career, he constantly went on “modernising and refashioning himself” in all spheres of his work (Radice, “Gazing”).

Master craftsman though he was, Tagore’s works transcend the beauty of the visual imagery in his compositions. It is not simply how the message was conveyed, but his appeal lies more in the message itself. “For Tagore, the feeling behind a work, what he liked to call its rupa-bheda or ‘emotional idea’, was central and primary. No feeling, no art” (Radice, “A lecture”).

As a poet and writer who was “prepared to tackle the deepest, most cosmic” themes; the ideas of life, death, riddle of existence and God can be found in many of his writings (Radice, “A lecture”). Not restricted to the spiritual domain alone; his works portray human psychology through its hopes and aspirations, disappointments and frustrations, joys and sorrows, humour and wit; and there lies their universal allure. Child-marriage and dowry-system; bigoted orthodoxy; the political frustrations of a rising educated class; the growing gulf between town and country; man’s intimate relation with nature; dehumanizing poverty; cruel and corrupt officialdom – he has written about them all (K V). “His essays range over literature, politics, culture, social change, religious beliefs, philosophical analysis, international relations, and much else” (Sen). As an exponent of Bengal Renaissance, which contributed significantly to the Indian freedom movement; Tagore opposed imperialism. But over and above that, he “spent his life rebelling against the hemming in of human life, the blinkering of human vision, and the curtailing of human freedom and aspiration” (Hatcher). A manifestation of his values was the university of Visva-Bharati – created as a synthesis of local and international elements, with an emphasis on self-motivation and intellectual curiosity rather than on discipline and competitive excellence; – which later went on to foster many great minds including Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate in economics and Satyajit Ray, Oscar winning filmmaker (Sen).

Artistry can possibly be mastered though training. But can we say the same about profound thinking of such depth and expanse - the fruits of which still draw audience in such numbers, after 150 years of his birth, across religious and geographical boundaries of India, Bangladesh and elsewhere (Radice, “Gazing”)? For me, nothing expresses better the beliefs that he stood for, than a poem from Gitanjali - a verse whose recitation in both Bengali and English, as part of assembly prayers started my day for twelve years while at school. An ever relevant living testament to this great man’s greatness of thought.
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action -
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Works Cited

“Biography of Rabindranath Tagore”. Web. 20 May 2013. <>.
“The last harvest of Rabindranath Tagore’s paintings”. FirstPost. 23 Apr 2013. Web. 20 May 2013. <>.
Colvin, Geoffrey. “What It Takes to be Great.” Fortune. 19 October 2006. Web. 20 May 2013. <>.
Dutta, Krishna and Andrew Robinson. Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man. London: Bloomsbury, 1995. Print.
Hatcher, Brian A. “Aji hote satabarsha pare: What Tagore Says to us a Century Later”. 9 Oct 1999. Web. 20 May 2013. <>.
K V, Dominic. “Tagore’s Short Stories”. Muse India. Web. 20 May 2013. <>.
Radice, William. “A lecture delivered by invitation of Rabindra Bhavan”. 24 February 2003. Web. 20 May 2013. <>.
Radice, William. “Gazing at the Sun: Bangladeshi Poets and Rabindranath Tagore”. Web. 20 May 2013. <>.
Sen, Amartya. “Tagore and His India”. Web. 20 May 2013.   <>.
Sengupta, Malabi. “Rabindra Sangeet. The Sweet Sound of Music”. Down Melody Lane. Web. 20 May 2013. <>.
The Complete Works of Rabindranath Tagore. Web. 20 May 2013. <>.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

For Triumph He Toiled

As submitted to for English Composition I:

Photograph source: Mike's writing workshop and newsletter

The black and white photograph captures Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway, one of the most renowned author and journalist of this era, in a moment of intense concentration – the camera looking straight at the legend, recording a snapshot of him for posterity.

We find the writer seated facing the viewer, leaning towards a wooden table. One can feel the right hand moving - the pen leaving its mark on a notepad on the table. Peeping out from beneath the pad, are sheets of paper, the free portions curling back at it. The folded left hand is supporting the bent torso, with the elbow resting on the table. The dark-banded watch on the left wrist finds itself over a small pile of a book and notepads, while its fingers are feeling the pad on which the partner hand is busy scribbling. The left elbow is poking its nib at another small book-over-notebook stack - the paperback cover for this book however, sans any weight above, has found it easy to separate from the pages at the not-joined end.

The silver moustache-beard and the grey receding hairline hint at the timeframe of the photograph to be somewhere in the last decade of the life of this great personality (he died few days before his 62nd birthday[1]). The famed outdoorsman that he was[2], the writer appears to be inside a tent, could be in the African savannahs (he was in Kenya, Rwanda and Belgian Congo during 1952 to 1954[3][4]). The wooden table looks typically African, wood being mercifully plentiful in most parts of the continent even to this day. Cartons on the ground at the back noticeable from under the table could be essentials accompanying the owner on his safari. The weather is clearly on the warmer side as evident from the cotton/linen-like wear, rolled up sleeves and the open top button in his shirt. Natural light in the photograph suggests day time – the author usually wrote from early morning hours till about noon[5].

There is no mistaking the point in time to be a casual moment – Hemingway is at work. The eyes behind the thin-rimmed glasses, oblivious to the photographer, converging down at what is likely to be a manuscript of his creation. The lips set together in an expression echoing the mind’s absorption. The left-tilted face an illustration in purpose and single-mindedness. The tension apparent in the upturned heel that refuses to rest on the ground. Books and notepads ready at hand on the table awaiting their call to service, some more reference material on a shelf beyond the table just about butting their heads inside the photograph frame. The absence of a typewriter can be explained by the fact that he favoured the machine for writing dialogue only.[7] And not to be missed is a glass behind the left elbow, half filled with coffee or alcohol - he was known to have his time with alcohol[3], probably even during writing. Though he stood while writing as a norm[6]; he may have made an exception in this case being outdoors; or he could be taking notes from his travel encounters.

So does the photograph reveal anything about why the man achieved what he achieved? Is he inhabiting the sweet spot as Coyle would say – where he is trying to go beyond his abilities? Is he in deep practice - where he is intentionally seeking struggles in search of greatness?[8]

The answer is an unequivocal yes after a peek into his life. His was a tale of constant yearning and endeavour for excellence. An interview with New York Times gives an insight into his feelings when he was striving to overcome his failure from a mediocre To Have and Have Not by an inspired effort in For Whom the Bell Tolls[9] - the latter novel did indeed successfully re-establish his literary reputation[10]. Deep practice it is: his work the end product of polishing by an obsessive reviser[11]; with thirty nine rewrites to the last page of Farewell to Arms[12] and more than two hundred rewrites to portions of The Old Man and the Sea[13]. His journalism years nothing but training for his incarnation as a short story writer and novelist.[14] His journey a quest for brilliance as he sought one unfamiliar terrain after the other[15]living the life and writing what he lived. The location coordinates of the photograph is possibly a testimony to the challenges that he pursued. But above all the image is that of an engrossed man toiling for triumph, a slave of a self-induced habit of writing discipline[5].

But is it merely as he says “It's none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”[16] The concise, vivid dialogue; the rich imagery of places and things; the subtlety of emotion; the distinctive prose of direct, personal writing, still recognizable by its economy and controlled understatement[17][18] - can it simply be acquired? Or did the man have what others have not?

  1. Top right table
  2. Section: Early Life
  3. Section: Cuba and the Nobel Prize
  5. Paragraph immediately preceding the interview
  6. Fifth paragraph
  8. Daniel Coyle (2009). The Talent Code (Chapter 1: ‘The Sweet Spot’)
  10. Section: Spanish Civil War and World War II
  11. Third paragraph
  12. Answer to question regarding the same
  13. Second last paragraph
  14. First paragraph
  15. Chronology
  17. Second and last paragraphs
  18. Fourth and last paragraphs