Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Ganga from Assi Ghat @5.30AM

 Yes, that is the realization at the end of the journey- the more things change, the more they remain the same. No amount of turbulence all around can change the basics. It’s so true of people and also for places. At least for places, which have seen a lot of changes over the centuries. No wonder it applied to the oldest living city of the world.

Looking back, I wonder why I was expecting that it will change at all. A city which continues to be what it is for centuries-unaware of people who come here, people who patronize it, who destroy it …people who love it and hate it for almost similar reasons. Why was I expecting, it might have changed in last 15-20 years? May be because even then, the squalor and garbage, the broken roads and unruly traffic made me uneasy. I last visited Varanasi as a schoolgirl.  I loved the city, its old charming ways – its narrow lanes, its traditional eateries and of course the river. Back then, I found the nearby Buddhist pilgrimage Sarnath straight out of my history books. It was in Sarnath that I first experienced how powerful would have been the faith preached by Buddha that it broke the centuries old customs of Hinduism in the 6th century BC. In Sarnath, during my last visit, I was amazed to see the spread of Buddha’s dhamma across the world and how it ties the citizens of different countries beyond language and politics. I was also very envious of the students of BHU, the sprawling university campus and the unmatched courses on offer.  

            Then in last 20 years I changed. My gaze changed as well. Now when I looked at the dirty lanes of Banaras, I thought of lanes in historical part of the Rome and compared the two. The two eternal cities – which continued in all times of History, so similar in this aspect and so contrasting in all others. While in Rome there was a constant awareness of the historical context of the place, here it was blissful ignorance. Even the government notice boards and pamphlets do not speak the facts – but merely state the folklore, the “belief” associated with the place. While in Rome even the smallest and most ordinary of churches were very clean, in Banaras even the holiest of all temple, the Kashi Vishwanath temple needed some real faith to ignore the stench and dirt around it. Though I am not a religious person as such, I did not even feel moved at the sight of the temples. But then, temples were in any case not the most favourite sight in the city for me.

            The early morning boat ride was the best remembered part in my memories for Banaras. So we went again for it. The sky was full of monsoon clouds and the river was swelling with flood water from Nepal. The ghats, very uncharacteristically were almost barren. The life of the city, however, slowly started to appear. Priests and foreign tourists, local people and devotees from outside, cows and stray dogs, flower sellers and boatmen…slowly they all took their places on the Ghats. It was from the ghats that we saw the swamp of foreign tourist gathered with their cameras at Manikarnika Ghat to see the cremation as per Hindu rites.  For my mind, it was a very disturbing fact that death too can be a tourist sight! But apparently in the age of reality TV, all emotions attract our curiosity- even the most tragic ones. We wondered about the centuries of history appearing in the names of the ghats and also the naïve ignorance of people. There is something special about the place – something very real and important, but somehow, I had lost the innocent eyes of a child to admire that.
On the Ghats of Ganga

Ramnagar fort and the mysterious fort of Chunar, both places have definitely lost their grandeur and charm. Badly encroached and mindlessly maintained by insensitive government organizations, they no longer remind one about the days gone by. The stories of prince and princesses, spies and romance as narrated by Devaki Nandan Khatri in his ‘Chandrakanta’ seem very remote to the present structures.
Chunar Fort

Is it simply our ignorance about our history or our disinterest in anything beyond basic needs that can make people use a beautifully located British cemetery as a garbage dump?  Even the royal carriages of King of Kashi, used for the annual Ramlila look so ill kept and unimpressive. All along the overpowering thought was about the people visiting the place from other countries. Would they be able to sail through the complicated and tricky madness of the city to find some greater meaning in all this? I am somewhat doubtful of that!

Sarnath, unlike Banaras was clean and serene.  Through very deficient in terms of facilities and infrastructure, at least the place looked holy and inviting. It was, in fact, in Sarnath that I realized the answer to my disquiet about Banaras. It was in fact foolish of me to think that anything will change in the eternal city. Even with the new swanky shopping malls selling McDonalds burgers and western-style bakeries, the city will remain the same. It may be the world’s most un-hygienic holy place but it is also one of the most sought after. The city perhaps breaths with faith and not the polluted air. One can never judge this place at a material level. As a philosophical capital of India, the only way one can see and appreciate Varanasi is philosophically. Probably the groups of Sri Lankan and Thai tourists, with folded hands and whisper-like chants of mantras, got this from the beginning. And that is why perhaps, near the dilapidated Ramnagar fort and the ill maintained Chunar fort, the dirty, crowded ghats and just behind the snakelike lanes, with all the pollution and garbage, quiet flows the Ganges.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Tasting 'il dolce far niente' in Rome ...

Even before I learnt my first lesson of Italian language or ate my first slice of Pizza , I knew few things about Rome . I mean other than the history and art stuff. These were images that came from the movies and books mostly . To sum up in three words the image of the city was Vespas- Vatican-Vino . Now several weeks old in this city I still make and revise my opinion about this place every day. It remains a puzzle and enigma for which solutions seems to be just on the tip of my tongue . It amazes me to no end how a city can be so much and much more . Every day I discover some or the other new aspects of the city which entirely changes the equation. But then there are few things you can’t miss when in Rome .

 Rome might have patronized world acclaimed great artists and musicians, painters and singers but there are two arts which most ordinary people practice to excellence- famous La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life), and also Il dolce far niente ("Sweet Doing Nothing" or "Sweet Idleness"). The latter in fact is very curious. It’s not being lazy or indifferent . It means letting your senses be the guide, getting lost, immersing in the place and just watching it live and display, also being impressed by how much beauty can be created by so many non-planned aspects crammed and layered through the millennia.

To a Roman, to see and to be seen, to experience life to the fullest, to love and to be loved, are the very essence of living —and the Eternal City provides an enchanting venue in which to “do it all.” A distinctive feature of Rome in fact is that it throbs with life ticking every second with an enjoyable spirit of enthusiasm, innocence, intuition, improvisation and leisure. The beauty is that they have designed the entire city that way or actually the city has developed over many centuries like that . The ruins , the monuments and history are just the first few reasons to fall in love with this city ...and they are not even the best ones.

There are such crazy facts about Italy that speak for itself .I read in a travel magazine that in a country of approximately 58 million they have more than 63 million phones . An average italian eats 26 Kg bread per year but gulps down 26 gallons of wine per annum. While the Italian economy is at its lowest ebb, Trevi fountain still makes 3000 euros every day in coins. A crazy town where every third building is a church and every fourth is a pizzeria . But like any other great city- Rome grows on you. You love it despite its pickpocketers, its mindless drivers and its inefficiencies . City can be best described as the spaghetti twirled around a fork. It is built up on contradictions. It tastes best because its slippery . In this town, you get the best designer brands as well as their Chinese imitations side by side - one in showrooms other on the pavements . You see a confluence of a buzzing metropolis and a medieval town at almost every turn . You enter a non descript kind of lane and find yourself facing a most amazing church or palace. A very holy and serene church can have a most morbid crypt with sculptures made up of bones and sculls.

The city makes you feel like a greedy child in a candy store. You want to see every church, appreciate every painting, savour all colours and walk every street . But after you have a stomach fill of sights and smells.....all you can do is to sit down in a cafe and watch the town go by. The town reveals its new colours only then. Its only when you get over that compulsive sightseeing that you actually see the beauty of the Rome . The feeling is beyond words, much like the mix of gelati you learn to savour . It was only when I reached this stage that I realized the very sensible il dolce far niente . Its only then I noticed the beautiful white seagulls encircling all monuments and churches of Rome. It appears as if the angels have taken this form to savour the beauty of this place day in and out. Its only then I noticed how beautiful , how kind and how emotional people are .

They love and love the display of love . They can't talk without a very characteristic movement of hands, they can't step out of house without looking stylish enough to walk the ramp and they cannot help looking like Greek gods and goddesses despite their very modern dressing. And only when I was just about to think that I am the first one noticing all this, I read somewhere that "Rome will reward you as no other city can, by making you feel as all her visitors have for over two thousand years: that you are the first person to really understand and appreciate her, the only one truly worthy of her infinite charms."

This morning when I sat down near River Tiber looking at the vatican bridge on one side and a  streetful of tourists on the other ,  I realised that visitors love Rome precisely because it can do this to them, especially in a global era in which a hectic working pace makes us all forget the taste of life, and its facets. The city gives you an assurance that it will remain here for your next visit and the coin you threw in the fountain guarantees that there will be a next time.

Friday, February 24, 2012

In Memory of my 'Idiot' Phone

It was a basic cell phone taken 6 years back when phones were “just phones”. It remained with me till 2 months back. Six years with  the same cell phone -- I know, I know … it is almost 500 Phone technology years and almost equivalent to 250 years of human age. But the machine – however primitive, stood with me tightly in all weathers, travels and more than occasional slipping off from hand . But finally it was a machine!  First it’s body lost its colour and polish  then one by one the keymarks started dimming and very soon it was barely audible. I still continued with it stubbornly. One day while in the heat of an argument, it just conked off. Well, it was a long life well lived. It travelled with me to 4 countries and numerous cities. Almost forced by circumstances, I had to graduate to a new generation smart phone.

Now with this shining new “smart” device in my hand, I do realize that I missed several generations of phones. Smartness of this new cell is addictive. It dazzles you with its display , impresses you with information, amazes you with accuracy and there are moments when you wonder how could you even exist without it for so long.  The phone is just a tiny step short of living my life for me. It has cleverly consumed all information about me and now offers unsolicited advice on every aspect of my life . 
But then in the heart of my heart I do miss my thick as a brick and dumb as dirt old cell phone. I mean it was an idiot of course. A perfectly rustic and dumb looking idiot . It could do nothing more than a phone call. Could not click pictures, had no clue about my location, my reason to be there and did not even know the road to the nearest Pizza shop. If I ever expected it to do anything but a phone call, I guess it would have stared at me blankly – like an idiot. I have to accept that there were occasions when I was embarrassed by the plain phone in my hand. At times when someone asked me to click a picture from mobile or to send a file through it, I had to grudgingly accept that  my phone cannot perform these feats . There were jokes in my office that I am hoping to get a good deal in antique market for my set one day. But I resisted the temptation to go the “smart” way or rather turn dumb with a smart device. That was mainly  because I liked the simplicity of the device. It had a very clear-cut function of being a phone. No convergence of devices, no multimedia experience hi-fi gadgets …opps widgets, a simple functional machine to make calls .
 But then there is another side of this story  too.  The old idiot phone never bothered me when a new mail arrived in my inbox at wee hours  or when a friend logged in on Facebook while I am driving .  There was no way I could surf internet or even play 3D games on it….leave alone playing videos and chatting on skype. Poor dear was not even aware about the cool “apps” which rule my world these days. But oh God , what a bliss it was to be ignorant!

But come to think of it, my idiot phone  never made me realize how fat my fingers are, as the bulging buttons always got the right hit…unlike, the sleek smart keyboard. It never made me click everyday scenes which have little or no meaning later on. Now two months old in my “smart” phone, I at times wake up in the night and had this urge to check what is going on in the world, at Facebook, and  if I have any mails . Standing at railway station, I get this urge to check out the position of the train (real time) on my smart ass device. It almost sounds like colonization of my mind. I no longer remember numbers, addresses, birthdays or routes. The situation is frightening.
I have come to conclusion that the choice is that either you or your phone can be smart  Just two months with it and I almost feel ignorant and stupid on most occasion without my know-it-all sleek ‘n snooty phone. This one is sleekly discreet about hiding the fat bulges of phone buttons, you don’t actually press the buttons , you  flick your pinky fingertip over them like a plenipotent wizard. At times I fear that one day it may just start telling me that I am taking the longer route, writing incorrect spelling, cooking the wrong dish  or calling the wrong person.

I wonder what a sane person would do if the choice is being a dumb guy with smart phone or a smart guy with an idiot phone. But then it’s no longer a choice for most of us. It’s something like Facebook Timeline format…once you opt for it, you can’t go back to simpler times when you have privacy, secrets and discretion. Its fascinating to begin with but once the new-ness goes away from the dazzling new world of smartness, one  can’t help missing  the good old days of simple devices and smart minds using them . 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Officially Anti Social

In my school text book many years back I read that Man is a social animal. I have strong objections against this sentence of 5 words. First why “animal”? Second -what about women? Third and most important, I do not agree with this sweeping statement- not all men (and women) are social by nature. I am very sure I am one of those confirmed anti- socials who are a misfit in any social gathering. I do not understand why such a simple fact is so hard to get. I think this too should be blamed to the school teaching which makes all of us believe that all humans enjoy social gatherings.

I have already shared my awkwardness in attending weddings on this blog. I think my readers would sympathize with me when I say that I dread invitations for lunches and dinners in my office mail. Let me tell you that those who dislike socializing are the most aggrieved and misunderstood group in any organization- may be even in the world. They do not cause any harm, wants to be left alone and yet are considered for some unknown reason, a threat to the organization. We are those who find company of office colleagues and bosses beyond office hours and beyond office work tiring. Yet the uncomprehending majority imposes its own gregarious expectations on us compelling incessant socializing, enthusiastic party-going, and easy shooting of the breeze as norms. I wonder why, our quiet, introspective ways can’t be viewed not as a deviation from standard, but as a different kind of normal.

As long as I was at a small station, these socializing with office colleagues were minimal and it suited me perfectly. Then I came to Delhi and things changed. Delhi follows a very different social code. Here calling on, official lunches and dinners, catching up with colleagues and the underlying networking is widespread. People do seem to look forward to these occasions in bureaucratic circles. To make the matter worse, they notice the absentees. I am expected to have a proper reason for not showing up at farewells and parties, Diwali meet and Holi Milan, New Year High Tea etc etc. That is a tough matter to manage…more so because such events are frequent. At least they seem frequent to me. I mean how often I can schedule a meeting to clash with a party or call my hubby or myself “fallen ill”. How frequently guests are expected at home on the same day and how many leaves I can take just to skip a social meet during the day. I wonder why I can’t be simply spared. No, I do not want my organization to be like my family.

I guess, people with my kind of philosophy did exert themselves in recent times. As a result, about a month back, the Top boss in a meeting rebuked all the absentees (without taking any names) and then looking straight at me issued a milder version of fatwa to refrain from such childish failed-to-turn-ups in future. He seems to think, we avoid socials dos because of laziness. We do not give enough importance to fraternize, to be like a big happy family at workplace. Now, there seems to be no escape!!! But how do I explain to others that I do not want to share meals and small talks with colleagues and bosses. That I feel miserable in such parties and for the life of me cannot appear happy. More than anything, I have no interest in knowing what others in the organization are up to and no, trivia about bosses’ interest does not work as a good appetizer for me. Most of the time when others are entertaining me with tidbits of their past official feats and great aesthetic interests, I do not even appear keen to listen. I mean I do try to pretend but after a while they all sound so same.

It seems in Delhi, people love to meet people-who-matter (read bosses) and they love to eat outside food (however tasteless) and are never bored of same kind of office gossip. I hardly find anyone talking anything interesting and away from work in these parties. On most occasions, to my horror, the music is too loud for any sensible conversation. I mean how long you can exchange pleasantries and praise one another’s clothes. But I realize that I am in minority – anti socials always are! So this dilemma continues.

But then being an uninterested and unattached observer of happenings, I am able to catch what I term top five themes of every official -social get together. Interestingly, most sarkari get-togethers have these invariably.

For some it is yet another opportunity to show off their fine clothes and choice of accessories. Many women flock together and exclaim to each other praising sarees, pearls, handbags etc. Recently some metrosexual men (with purple scarves and even pink sweaters) have also joined the gang. I call this theme Showcasing wardrobe.

Then comes the biggies with “I am great” written all over their forehead. They are great in work, they are great in party. They have finest taste in wine and they know the best poetry. Well, at least they think they do!!! They demand and get attention because of their position and then go on and on about their unusual feats in office projects, their revolutionary ideas about how others should do their work and the accolades they received from the other greats. In brief, they love to enlighten you about themselves and think you should be grateful to get a glimpse of their fascinating life and times. I call this type Ophthalmologists – the ‘I’- specialists.

A big group is there to get free /subsidized food and booze and gossip about other colleagues. They are recognizable by their ready to please smiles whenever a boss crosses their way. They promptly show their face to all big bosses and their wives and then settle down with glasses in hand in one corner. For rest of the evening they remain oblivious with the proceedings. They appear only when the food is laid on table. Except for their gossip part for first one hour, they are a likeable and focused group in my opinion. With clear priorities and good intention, they settle down to make merry. After an hour of course, alcohol speaks and speaks too much.

The most mobile group however is of people on a mission. Mission to get attention, mission to please one particular boss, mission to build bridges, mission to register presence or for pure and simple networking. They get down to their business as soon as the party starts. Some of them even overdo themselves. They try to talk loudly, even try to play semi-host by inviting others to drink, dance etc. They volunteer for work also. For an observer like me, they are good entertainment. I look at them and try to guess their mission. Usually I am not off the mark. Believe me it’s a funny way to while away time in such hopeless situation.

Then of course there are loners like me- unfit in any group and generally confused with the happenings around them. Some play with phones, others try to engage in talks, few vanish in the corners and wait the torture to end. They are generally first to leave. They often call back home and are found standing silently in the groups looking intently in the glass/ plate.

Yesterday, I was still recovering from my birthday cum New Year euphoria and missed out two official occasions. In the heart of my heart I know, it was intentional but I was too reckless to even think of an excuse. First thing in the morning, I got a censure from a colleague. I am sure more will follow and to save the situation, I would have to be doubly VISIBLE in the next such occasion. Till they realise the futility of making me forced-social , I see no escape from boring evenings , routine pleasantaries and unappetising conversations .  How very pathetic!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Maid in India

Two days before the New Year an Indian couple, now living in Singapore, visited my house. When I invited them in and said that there is no need to take off their shoes, the wife exclaimed that such luxury is possible only on a Friday. I could not really get her, till I learnt that in her house the help visits only on a Friday to clean and for rest of the week they have to be very careful about dirtying the floor. It got me thinking about the luxury of being served, of having a maid, a help, a dhobi and a chauffeur. In India, mostly, we do not realise the importance of these essential elements of our daily life.
In Kolkata, where I first set up my house independently after marriage, I was amazed to find that even housewives do not cook anymore. Neither do most people do their own laundry (despite having fully automatic washing machines at home!). Of course babies need ayahs to mind them and a driver is a must even for a small hatchback car. Very amusingly the term used to define the serving people is “Kaajer Lok”- the people who work. It is almost like that literally – they work and the rest pay. Kolkata is not alone. All Indian cities today have the same “can’t-survive-without-maid” trend. Not that it was very different in the previous generation. I can now understand how spoilt and feudal the Englishman must have felt during their stay in colonial India. They had power to keep an army of servants – and soon they made it a way of life.
One finds many versions of these server-served relationships in a typical urban setting today.  There are full time maids/servants and part time ones. All in one – servant and specialised mali, dhobi, cook etc. They also join the families at different age groups. Some are teenagers. Some are women with families; others are single men who have families back in the villages. Sometimes entire family is in the business of serving in different capacities. Some live with the “master’s” family, others in the outhouse and some even independently on their own. Some eat with the family they work for, some don’t.  But then there are many commonalities as well. They are expected to be obedient and quick, unquestioning and silent. They speak when spoken to. Their needs come at last in sleeping, eating and rest.

 It is somewhere in our genes.  We love to have people to lord over. If you are born in a certain affluent class – you expect the servility from these workers unquestioningly. Why only domestic helpers – even in hotels and trains, how many of us say “ thank you “ to those who serve or for that matter, even acknowledge their presence by a nod or smile. There is an underlying, unspoken acceptance of their inferiority in “class”. Sounds very feudal isn’t it? Many stories of exploitation of domestic help, inhuman treatment of children working as help must have crossed your mind. They are mostly true. The sad part is that somewhere in our heart, we also expect the children of these workers- inferior to our own. We kind of assume that as our children will replace us in professions, they will replace their parents. In India like most other such complex societies, we do not expect a certain section of society (read poor) to dream. To our convenience we would always like some people lesser privileged than us.  We have a different yardstick to measure their Dos and Don’ts.  The existence of servants in a house is taken as a status symbol.  The new affluence is often recognised by the neighbourhood when an expensive full time maid is hired by the family. 
But then things are changing even for them. The old days of family retainers that lived in servitude of a family for a lifetime are increasingly a fading memory, and today's generation of servants are very clear that this is not their eventual goal in life, and most certainly this is not what they are preparing their next generation for. Most send their kids to school and hope a better future for them some day. I often feel that it’s not them but us who needs this retinue of workers to do our daily chores. That we ill-treat or look down upon them is doubly unfortunate because it’s us who are unskilled to run our lives, look after our kids, cook our food and clean our houses. Interestingly, we are also the ungrateful ones who love to circulate stories about criminality, callousness and unpredictability of our servants to somehow portray as if we are the victims of bad services at a high cost.
 In reality, we often rate the work done by them with a soap opera like evil Mom-in law. No amount of sincerity and hard work satisfies us (it’s a given ....we pay them money after all!) but an isolated case of negligence is worth quoting as often as possible. Oh yes, fascism starts at home.
But that is just one side of the story. There is a bright side of this relationship too. The side which often takes a comical turn . The side which found portrayal in the media and literature too .

In a typical middle class urban setting, maids are also big binding force. A colleague with whom I share my maid rightly claims that we are “maid-sisters”- persons who share the woes and stories of maids. Maids are also great company to many people living alone. They supply information and stories about neighbours free of cost. For many of us they are a mirror to the rest of the society. Their family life, their beliefs, their compulsions- there is so much to learn and compare. I have very fond memories of people who worked in our family in different capacities and became almost like family members. Many keep in touch even decades after the employer –employee relation was over. Some of the skilled gardeners in my parents’ house are responsible for my love for gardening. Some of the “family” recipes actually came from the cooks we had at different stations and are always credited to them. I had my driving lessons from my father’s chauffeur and my mom cannot complete one story about my childhood without mention of one or the other help she had at that time.
There have been many depictions in literature and movies of this servant- master relationships. Some comical and some bittersweet. Some even tragic. I still remember one short story titled Bahadur in our course syllabus is school. Bahadur is often the nickname of people from hills or Nepal coming to serve in the cities. The story tells about one such boy who was working faithfully in a family as domestic help till a false charge of theft leads to his expulsion. The story depicts the sad tale of unequal and often unfair relationship that exists between the two classes . It is still  a relationship which largely depends on the benevolence of the master rather than a fair work contract .

Recently, my poor maid went through hell of a time because of her family and health problems. None of this ever made her even one inch less sincere in attending to her work. So much so that at times I had to warn her from overdoing her bit. Undoubtedly, it takes a superior heart to adopt an unknown family with such sincerity as she has adopted mine. These domestics practically run the show at home, especially in the metros where both husband and wife are in busy earning the family bread. Their world would go topsy-turvy if these servants The numerous maids who rear children of others with care and affection while the mothers go to work/ party are contributing much more to the society than we can measure in purely material terms.  It is they who give us the taste of “home-made food”. Children often learn their language more from the maids and nannies than from the parents. It is because of these men and women that today’s young couple manage their newly set up homes. And yet we consider that we are the masters and mistresses of their fate!