Monday, November 28, 2005

A history lesson

I'm not a musuem buff.

There was a time when, whenever I had time to spare in a city, I'd hit the forts, the museums, the significant spots that find mention in tourist brochures. But over the last year, I'd developed a rather 'whatever' attitude to visible history, turning more and more to the written word.
Besides, it is all so repetitive - the same swords and daggers in the armoury section. The same brocade angarkhas in the costume section. The same parchment manuscripts that I could not decipher and the same erotic carvings that I couldn't tell apart, era to era.

But an impatient morning in Gwalior - with me tele-stalking a senior police official, appointment after tentative appointment getting postponed, pacing up and down, up and down, the musty hotel room - found me at the Jai Vilas Palace Museum.

And I suddenly realized that 'History' must breathe.
It's decaying living-lessons are all there - whispering in museums that nobody wants to visit because it's all so boringly 'same'.... Nobody but the college kids who don't have any other place to hang out and hold hands in. Nobody but people from out-of-town with time to spare, and a train to catch. But even so, some things have to be seen to be understood.

I re-learnt one of the most important lessons my education has taught me - life happens outside the syllabus.

You never know where you might learn what. What questions you might ask, what insights lurk in which fading artefact... you never know what a musuem is waiting to tell you.

The stuffed tigers... the photographs of row upon row of white and brown sahibs, smilingly jodhpurred, with row upon row of dead tiger, lying at their feet. Neat little ends to neat little afternoons of amusements. It was the done thing.

And now, there are no tigers in these forests of Chambal.... Why do I feel as if, if it weren't for the hue and cry about dwindling numbers, it would still be a done thing. New sahibs, new rulers, old bloodsport.

The Scindia women - originally Maratha - are portraited in silken nine-yard navaris... but that was a hundred years ago. The Maratha came to the Chambal, and the royal women found themselves in close proximity to the Rajasthani Rajputs. They were fast shedding the traditional dress for chiffon sarees, pallus delicately perched on hair piled high... that was how royalty was dressing its modern women everywhere in northern India in the twentieth century. The modern Scindia women wear chiffon sarees. The modern Rajput women wear chiffon sarees.

Was this how the saree came to be pan-Indian, and be worn in pan-Indian ways - is this how we began to think there was only one 'Indian' way to dress? To be?

Across the costume section, a man carrying one child yells at his wife, carrying another, "Hurry fast! Time is going."
Hall to hall, section to section, the broken English follows me around. "Fast-fast... what is there to see?.. .Look fast." The man always begins yelling at his wife suddenly, the moment he sees me.
I cannot understand why.

I linger long in a separate section called 'Leda and The Swan" (Yeats' version). At least one of the Scindia rulers had a taste for erotic art. But the piece that lent it's name to this room, was a poor imitation of the original. It was, nevertheless, as out-there-erotic as could be. This marble Leda was clearly having fun.
The room had several other paintings and statues, all of women in the buff. Some Indian, some western....
I spend a long time here - it is so rare to see women being unashamed of their bodies and the sexual act, in this country. Not even in art. I see too many illustrations of ravaged women, frightened women, coying-cloying women.... This was not art at it's creative best. But I spend a long time here.
I notice that Broken English is too embarrassed to stay; he peeks and flees.

And I wonder - how do you tell a woman from a Yakshi?

In the museum, I try hard to understand this mystery. Ancient carvings of dressed (minimally, but still... dressed) women are marked 'Woman, .... year/century", but a naked statue is marked 'Yakshi'... 'Yakshi with beautiful hairstyle'.
There is nothing to tell a woman from a Yakshi. There is no explanation, about era, context, where these statues were found... nothing. All I can see is the difference between the clothes, or lack thereof....

And I'm still wondering whether even our historians, curators, cannot deal with the idea of women's sexuality. If it's sexual, it's not a woman; it's a Yakshi.... Is that it? Or am I reading too much into merely incompetant labelling of museum artefacts?

I also spend a long time with a carpet. It's not pretty, but is, perhaps, some ruler's vision of us. Or a weaver's fingers toying with the idea of a multi-cultural, multi-racial time-warp. For, on one large capet, he's given us Christ being born, also at the last supper, and there, a gun-toting British soldier, and here, some Nawaab, and there a Mughal durbar, a queen, also Budhha, and what looks like a Rabbi, and a Rajput... it makes me dizzy. Who commissioned this?
But there are no answers.

The banquet halls are very British. Long tables, massive spaces between tables, high-backed chairs, forks, knives, crystal. Tiered chandeliers - they could hold thirty of me. Or a hundred. There's another eating hall. It has Rajput-style seating arrangements, on the floor. I ask an attendant if he can give me some background on who ate there and why the separate halls. He continues to squat in a corner, points vaguely ahead and says, "Go inside and look".

In the arms section, I look at a huge gun, and finally understand the origin of the phrase "kisi ke kandhe pe rakh ke bandook chalaana".
You would have needed more than one shoulder to lift this gun. Yet, one finger on the trigger is enough, isn't it?

The palace itself is very... what is the word... square? And hurtfully white. It is not easy on the eye, yet, in it's whiteness, size, geometricentricity (forgive the term; my layman's vocabulary doesn't know how to describe such architecture), it is a strong image.

Everywhere, along staircases, in niches and corners, there are photographs of the royal Scindia family. Especially of Madhavrao Scindia and his wife and his son Jyotiraditya and his family. Their childhood. Their weddings. Their portraits. It is almost a little too intimate, here.

And I am reminded of me: I put up my nostalgia in the same way - collage on walls - the rush to fill up a place with personal history.... I wonder if it is the royal family's way of reminding themselves that all this is theirs, just like the rest of the palace that continues to be their home, out of bounds for the public....
Yet, these photographs are too intimate, almost, for a museum. Too alive. Too 'now'.

And I remember what a young party-worker had told me a year ago, in Shivpuri. "This region's biggest ailment is Mahal Rajneeti (Palace Politics). The Scindias rule - irespective of democracy. If it's not the brother, it's the sister. Now, the son."

And across a large hall-way, I see a young woman, looking at herself in one of the queen-sized mirrors. She turns to view her profile, then runs her hand over her stomach - there is a slightly swelling belly. Her eyes meet mine, in the mirror. There is such stillness there, such history...

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Journalists, Conversations

Outside the government hospital in Morena, the city's journalists were sitting on dharna.

One of the journalists from one of the Hindi dailies had brought his sick father to this hospital. Apparently, the patient needed an operation. But a certain Dr Sunil refused to perform the operation until some money was forthcoming, although it was a government hospital and the procedure should have been free (or almost free, I assume).

The distraught journalist did not want to argue with a sick father on his hands. He managed to bring back Rs 5000 and told the doctor to please go ahead and perform the operation. The patient/father was taken into the operation theatre, but...

At this critical juncture, it appears, the doctor received a phone-call, telling him that an emergency situation had arisen in his own private hospital. (I cannot, in truth, describe how critical the juncture was, or exactly how far the doctor had progressed) That doctor dropped everything, stopped operating on the 'government' patient and ran to attend to his own 'private' patient.

Naturally, the journalist was upset. Word went round to the local newspapers. They all sent representatives, who gathered outside the hospital. Slogans were shouted and a certain Dr Sunil was already sounding rather apologetic, last I heard.

The journalists of Morena, however, began adopting the 'andolan' habit, much earlier.

It started with what is now referred to as the 'incident of the PNDT Act', which is better known through the flagrant violation thereof. The district collector had ordered that certain nursing homes/clinics be raided and the sonography machines be sealed, until the doctors concerned manage to produce the relevant paperwork.

A photographer from Jan Darshan landed up at one of these clinics, where the sonography machine was believed to be illegally kept. He got beaten up by the hospital staff; the doctor had him locked up in the clinic, taking away his camera, and there the poor photographer stayed until his colleagues came to rescue him.

When they went to the police, the doctor spun a neat little web of (what seem to be) lies.

He alleged that the said photographer was beaten up because he was attempting to molest one of his nurses. The police officers concerned were not listening to the photographer's side of the story. Which was more credible, in any case. [I mean, it is rather peculiar isn't it, that a photographer should choose to molest a nurse at one of the (suspected) 'tainted' clinics, on the very day that the sonography machine had been sealed by the authoritites.... and if the good doctor had to take away some offending piece of er... equipment, it should not have been the camera.... right?]

Anyway, that was when the journalists of this small town got together and began to protest - against the police, against the doctor, against the persecution of the said photographer who now found himself facing charges of attempted rape.

The tamasha continued for a few days. The nurse admitted, though not in writing, that she'd been pressured by the doctor to make certain allegations. Her husband joined the dharna-side of the fracas. The police buckled. The doctor apologized....

The matter was allowed to rest there.
Which I thought was sad... but well, one step at a time, I suppose.

A conversation:

D: You think the BJP will take Bihar?
Me: Looks like that.
D: They'll be kicked out of MP, I'm sure. Everybody hates them.
Me: Then who will be brought in?
D: Congress.
Me: Congress? But didn't MP throw them out because they'd mis-ruled and the people had had enough?
D: That's true, but now we're realising the problem with the BJP. These people do not know how to rule. Inhe shaasan ki aadat nahin hai (they don't have the habit of administration). They take as much as the Congress took. But they don't deliver.

[D takes out his camera phone at this point and shows me a blurry image of a minor official. You can't really tell much, but there's money being counted, ON the desk.
D says "Many of them don't even bother to take it discreetly. They accept money in office. It's no longer an envelope 'under the table'."]

Me: Are they less corrupt?
D: (laughing) No. But at least, in the Congress' time, people would take bribes and do the job. Here, you pay, yet there's no guarantee that your work won't be held up. Besides, people are being transferred at the drop of a hat. One IAS officer was tranferred twice in a month. How can he do any good work? Forget good work, how can he do anything? .... I'm a struggling entrepreneur. I have accepted that I cannot get anything done in this state without bribing. But give me some assurances... oh yes, if this continues, the Congress is coming back.

And more....

D: I'm interested in journalism. I hang out very often with these journalist friends.
Me (to myself) Amazing how often I hear that... (Aloud) Really? Why don't you join a paper?
D: Where's the time? And there's no money in it. Most of these boys get paid 2,000-2,500 rupees, in local papers. Even the biggest-circulating papers pay very little. You can't survive.
Me: But they do survive... how?
D: You know how it is.
Me: I don't, actually.
D: They manage... like, there's something you know about somebody. You could choose not to publish it..... that's the only way, around here. The boys who enter the newspaper business at all... they do it out of personal interest, not as a career option.

[I do not know what to say. Anything I could, would be inappropriate. We are joined, later, by a very enthusiastic young boy, who cannot be more than 18 or 19.]

Boy: Tell us something, ma'am... I want your guidance.
Me: If I can give any... sure.
Boy: How can I join a big paper in Delhi?
Me: Er... Umm... well, do you know anybody who already works there?
Boy: (small-voiced) You've got to know people?
Me: I'm afraid that's how it usually works. Or you must know people who know people who work there... or you get recruited from a campus, in a media college.... but that's only what I've seen....

Boy: Tell me something else. Something about the new things that are happening there. What software do you use?
Me: Software? I'm not sure.
Boy: Don't you design the paper?
Me: No. I just write. We have designers on the desk.
Boy: Ahhh... and you use the latest?
Me: I'm not sure. The only thing I knew of was Quark.
Boy: Oh that... that's very old stuff. What about Corel? I know all about 9 and 10 but I've heard there's a new 11 version. It must be all over, in Delhi?
Me: (sheepish) I don't know much about this...

[And I am thinking: Boy deserves better. At 19, he reports. He designs. He even handles visits to the printing press. He deserves better than to be stuck in this rut of a > Rs 2000 job, where he is forced to resort to blackmail and hush-money. But how? And what am I to do? And what are they thinking of, all these large selling Hindi dailies with the biggest circulations ever? Why aren't they thinking?]

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Getting used to it

One gets used to anything.
One even begins to find - and seek! - amusement through one's own inconvenience.

Like when you are in a third-rate hotel in small town India and the telephone wires lie disconnected. Un-connectable, actually. And therefore, there is no possibility of room service or phone calls. There is no geyser. So no possibility of running hot water.

The curtains are pale, and see-through; the window faces a busy flyover.
The hotel towel is too dirty to be used. Since you have forgotten your own, you use your clean clothes to wipe yourself, speculating in a detached way whether the stains on the hotel towel were rust, or dried blood, and if the latter, whence it flowed, and wherefore?

Like when, you walk down to the reception and ask them to give you a wake-up call at 6 am and bed tea, and then just when you're about to fall asleep, you realise they cannot call you because the telephone is disconnected. And un-connectable.

So, you spend the night restless, waking up every half hour to check on the time. At 6 am, you go down to reception, only to find it dark, with two figures wrapped in blankets, asleep on sofas.
So, you clear your throat.
To no avail.

You knock on the door.
To no avail.

You whisper "Excuse me, bhaisaab."
To no avail.

You scold, loudly, "Hello? Bhaisaab, uthiye!!"
To no avail.

You aren't sure what the behaviour codes here are like and have never before shaken awake a complete stranger. So, you shake the sofa instead. A sleepy head emerges and you say, "chai milegi, bhaisaab?"

Later, at night, since the telephone is still un-connectable, you keep an ear cocked for footfalls and rush to the door when you hear the waiter knocking the door next door. And you yell at him to stop and bring you some food.

When you enquire, he assures you that diet coke is available.

And you are amazed and ask, "Really? You can serve me diet coke? Like in a can?"

And confidently, he nods. "Yes, yes." A cloud of momentary doubt. "Maybe Pepsi?"

"Diet Pepsi?"

"Yes, yes."


Then the food arrives and is accompanied by regular Pepsi in a big bottle.

And you say, "But I asked for Diet Pepsi."

And the waiter grins and points to the bottle and says, "Yes, yes."

And you finally get it (Stop asking for the impossible, you moron!), so you grin back, saying, "Oh cool, thank you!"

Friday, November 11, 2005

Belated view of a 'flop' show I didn't attend

I must say I'm rather amused by the last blogosphere controversy which I awoke to rather late.

I saw the TOI report about the Delhi bloggers' meet the morning it was published. That is, I glanced at the headline, sulked out a thought - "Oh, there was a blogger's meet? How come nobody told me?" - turned the page, and went on scan the fine print for any news of real interest to me. Which, may I please mention (at the risk of adding to the unfounded accusation that our collective favourite pastime is MSM-bashing), there was very little of.

I noticed that the word 'flop' was used. I didn't pay any attention to the rest of the article because it was such a clear sign that the writer did not understand the blogging world at all.

Blogging is a virtual activity. Blogosphere is VIRTUAL.
It is comprised of people who sit in front of computer screens, hitting keys for the pleasure of it, or for a cause, or even for self-promotion of a certain kind. These people will read what other people like themselves are writing. These people will scream, rant, rave, stand up for each other, laugh when they receive legal notices, make fun of those who deserve it....
but these people may choose not to crawl out of the woodwork to say hello.

In any case, judging the strength of a virtual phenomena through a very real-world meeting is silly. That's like having a club of dedicated online gamers and judging their 'happening' quotient through their abilities on a grass court. That's a contrary, self-defeating exercise.

Speaking for myself...
Blogger meets: I've attended only one in the last one year and that was not an official 'blogging' event. It just so happened that Morquendi was in the country and some of us who knew each other only in blogosphere until then, decided to meet.

I'd attend a few, given enough notice, and assuming I'm in town. I like most bloggers I know and it would be a pleasure seeing them....

But I have a job. And some creative writing pretensions. I'm part of two active writing groups. I have friends who have nothing to do with blogs or media. I have more blogs than I know what to do with and they're all crying for updates.

Besides which, I do not have the luxury of blogging full-time. And to think that despite the fact that there's no money to be made, there are hundreds, thousands of bloggers in each city, blogging away like there's no tomorrow, or like tomorrow could be made different by all this blogging.... that does not sound like a flop show to me.

The fact that everyone wants a blog, regardless of whether they use it or not, is another indication of whether it's a hit parade or a flop show.

Besides, the writer assumes that there's some sort of show happening here. There isn't. Meets happen because bloggers may be so inclined. They aren't intended as a media circus, despite so many of us straddling that MSM-blog fence.

Speaking for myself, again, I would not want them to be. I don't want blog-meets to turn into Page3 events. I don't want my mug in the morning papers. And (don't kill me, fellow-blogozens) I don't even want blog-meets to be well-attended. I can deal with 5 strangers, 6 maybe, 8 at a cinch... Any more and I want to run, backing away from the crowd. After which I will promptly go and check a very crowded blogosphere, to see what I was missing...

I have a strong suspicion that I'm not the only blogozen who does this.

On the other hand, if there's a blog I really like, and it is not updated for a week or more, I worry. I wonder if something's happened to the blogger. I send (and receive) apologetic small-voiced emails enquiring after the concerned blogger's well-being (when I get these, I am very kicked, and promptly go back to posting with a real sense of purpose).

Again, I have a strong suspicion that I'm not the only blogozen who feels this.

Besides, look at my bloglines account. More and more people each week. I follow links and peep in, lips ever-ready to curl with contempt. But if the blog is consistently interesting, I go looking for its feed. And every time I add somebody, that's my way of opening the door to a blogozen, saying, 'Hey! Cool stuff... '

Which doesn't necessarily mean that I'll want to meet/hang out with this blogozen in real life...

Monday, November 07, 2005

Connoisseurs and lovers

and the day turns into a caravan of chai-breaks, inching forward along the beaten track of warm conversations.

Kashmiri chai - no, not kahwa - but the chai that Lucknow-wallas like to call kashmiri. The chai that the people of Kashmiri Mohalla reserve for very special occasions: Pink. Flavoured. All milk, no water. Loads of dry fruits, warm syrup. Children are allowed to drink this.

I detest it. I drink it.

A friend had once called me 'chai-premi'. Lover of tea.

My uncle tells me about 'his' tea. He says he's a connoisseur. "Use evaporated carton-milk. A little suffices, and it does not cool down the tea. And Lipton Yellow Label tea-bags. Only Lipton. Only tea-bags."

I smile a secret smile to myself... Connoisseurs are not lovers.

Tea is not about measures of xyz ingredients thrown together, on a flame.
It is about mornings, evenings, headaches, preferences, experimentation...

Hibuscus petals with honey. Ginger with Lemon. Ice with boiling water. Jaggery with cardamom.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.
Some days it works. Some days it doesn't.

Lovers don't dictate terms to the beloved. They are dictated to.

Chai will not always surrender to your whims. No matter how much you coax it, it will assert its independence. It will spoil itself, and thereby your mood.

There is no fixed 'time' for chai.
Or love.

There is no definite method to chai.
Or love.

There is no limit to the variation of form with chai.
Or love.

You don't always get what you want in a cup of chai.
Or love.

It is rarely excessive - as Kashmiri chai is - and when it is, you sometimes say 'no' to chai.
Or love.

You get burnt if you don't wait before you take the first sip of chai.
Or love.

And like I said, mamoo-jaan, connoisseurs are not lovers.

Lessons, the rail way

Train journeys have a special significance for me. When they aren't teaching me about society and humanity, they're telling me things about myself.

When I last travelled, my ticket was not confirmed. The day I was supposed to travel, I asked a railway official what I could do, and whether I should upgrade/take a chance/cancel?

He responded by telling me not to travel at all.
Which made me lose my temper, march towards the 'general' unreserved dabba, throw my bags and myself inside, cursing.

I'll admit I was unnerved.

I've traveled 'third-class' before, but never alone. And this time, I was in UP, which has given me memories of being theatened - politely , as Lucknow-wallahs are taught to speak - out of my pukka (reserved) seat.

But, like our wise ancestors have said 'jab okhli mein sar diya, toh moosli se kya darna?'
Besides, I was still fuming at the rude railway official and was determined to travel by this very train, this very day.

I nudged, 'excuse please'd and pushed until I found standing space, and a place for my bag on the overhead rack (where several young men were sleeping, cushioned by our collective baggage).

I must have stood for 3 minutes when an old man asked his old woman to shift and accomodate me.

I sat on the outer edge of a hard seat, at first (strange... did the railway ministry think that people who don't have reservations do not deserve to sit on cushioned wood?).

As the crowd swelled and a man's crotch began hovering too close to my face, the old woman placed her arm round my body, protectively - as if it were a shield. When she realised it was just going to get worse, she asked me to exchange seats. For the rest of the journey, she would, by turns, slap and pat the heads of 3 young rickshaw-pullers, who were squatting at her feet, dozing off into her lap.

Many stood for 5 hours. A few stood for 8 hours. No fights broke out. Those who could not sleep, smiled at nothing in particular, or cracked jokes.

A man dumped his baby nephew in my lap, when the mother grew sick of feeding him. Later, the family advised me to join 'door sanchaar', because "there is no money in writing, is there?"

The old man... he would not let me buy myself a cup of tea. I called him Baba once, and for the rest of the journey, I stayed under his wing. Cups of tea. Mineral water. Boiled chana. Peanuts... "Eat! This is not food, this is timepass."

His old woman... she told me of her dead daughter, as old as me when she died. And she broke down. Then she showed me the wounds left by broken glass bangles.

I asked her the history marked out on her tattooed arms - "this one for myself, that one for my husband, and that for the mother-in-law"... a peacock, a clove, a tree, a name...

When they found out about me, they reacted with a sombre nod. "Yes... learn to walk alone."

When I stepped off the train, I touched Baba's feet. The gratitude was not on account of the peanuts or the chai, but for reminding me of what a society could be.

For all that, it was not a comfortable trip. My body hurt. My head spun. There was no question of visiting a loo. But I am glad my ticket wasn't confirmed.

I do not know if 'destiny' is all it's made out to be, but I've been told that whatever force controls our lives, whoever guides our destinies, wants us to learn - and remember - some lessons, and fight some fears.

I had forgotten my lessons. I had lost touch with, and therefore grown afraid of, my own people. I had forgotten why people are worth it all, and what makes them worth it all.


On the way back, I was reminded of why I'm not afraid of traveling alone in this country: chivalry is not quite dead.

My dear mother had done me the favour of packing me a Bakas - a large 30-year old tin trunk, weighing half my body weight.

But at 3.30 in the night, there were no coolies volunteering their services.

I looked at the trunk, I looked at the night.

I sighed my dilemma to a young man. He helped me carry it until I found a coolie. At the taxi stand, another young man stood guard over my luggage while I went looking for a taxi....

And chivalry is not quite dead.

(All the same, mom, next time, I WILL NOT carry a tin trunk!)
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