Tuesday, May 30, 2006

It's happening in Tamil Nadu

That's the strangest thing about Tamil Nadu: its politics. For full five years, posters of Jayalalithaa were plastered on walls all over the city. Overnight, they have been replaced by those of a smiling Karunanidhi. It is a 'laughing' Karunanidhi actually: he never smiles in the posters, but laughs -- as if someone has just cracked a joke. Jaya, on the other hand, is always sombre.

The laughing Karunanidhi is going to preside over Tamil Nadu's -- at least Chennai's -- roads for the next five years. But having witnessed the elections in the state for the second time in a row, a few questions spring up to my mind:

1. Why does Tamil Nadu never have a hung Assembly-type of situation? Why does the winning party usually sweep elections in spite of the absence of any apparent wave?

2. Why do the AIADMK and the DMK behave as sworn enemies instead of political opponents? Even the leaders of the BJP and the Congress, or even the Left, are cordial at the personal level? And if Vaiko can join hands with Jaya after being sent to jail by her, why is there no hope of Kanunanidhi and Jayalalithaa ever being at least civil to each other?

3. Why do people commit suicide whenever their political hero or cine hero (often the same in case of Tamil Nadu) loses elections or passes away?

But one good thing about parties getting sweeping majority is that there is governance in the state -- different matter that you may or may not like the style of governance. In other states, governance usually takes the backseat because those in government are preoccupied with their survival in power. The fact that Uttar Pradesh has gone to the dogs is because the state has been having a hung Assembly for years now. That is why Tamil Nadu is no longer seen as a place where "Madrasis" live and where people eat only idli and dosa. Tamil Nadu is happening.


No, you haven't strayed into someone else's blog. The new title is inspired by an article I wrote two years ago: an account of my visit to Haridwar. We are all on a journey: at times it feels like being on a boat in a river; at times we speed like a train; and at times time just flies like a plane. To savour the varied paces of life instead of getting carried away by the pace itself, one needs to sit back from time to time and reflect. Reflection leads to writing, and writing to salvation.

On the Ganga Mail

The Ganga is like a train. It starts from a station called Gangotri, up in the Himalayas, and, after chugging through the plains of North India, terminates at the mouth of Bay of Bengal. Everyday, millions board the train at various stations, hoping to get to a place called Salvation. Nobody has ever seen the place; they’ve only heard about it. Yet, they undertake the tedious journey.

The notable difference between the Ganga and the regular train is that the Ganga doesn’t have any classes — no second class, first class, 2AC or 3AC. It has only one class — faith. And the notable similarity is — well, to find that you’ll have to take the Ganga Mail. It’s like taking, say, the Kalka Mail from Delhi to Kolkata. When you board the train, you find your compartment tidy, the toilets clean enough and there are no ‘unreserved’ passengers squeezing you in your own seat. But as soon as the train rolls into the plains of Uttar Pradesh and then into Bihar, the journey threatens to become a nightmare. You should be grateful to God if you reach Kolkata in one piece. But when dacoits strike in trains in Bihar, even Gods seem to look the other way.

The same is the case with the Ganga. The further it flows, the more corrupted it gets. So while at one place it looks spectacular, at another it looks — rather is made to look — ugly. Here’s a look at two such places: one inspiring awe, another evoking anger. And even while you read this, Ganga’s eternal journey continues.

The April sun shone brightly the morning I walked out of the Haridwar station, all set to take the Ganga Mail. But it wasn’t hot: a cool breeze was wafting down the Himalayas which overlook this holy town. It was the wrong — or perhaps the right — time to be there. The Ardha Kumbha Mela was on and Haridwar was a sea of people. They were trooping in from everywhere, with the sole purpose of bathing in the river on that auspicious day and be blessed.

Traffic was restricted because of the mela and I walked more than a kilometre before I found a cyclerickshaw to take me to a hotel. Which hotel, I had no idea. I left the choice to the wisdom of the rickshawpuller. I was glad I did that. The hotel was not only good but it also gave me a discount that journalists in North India either extract or are entitled to, officially or unofficially.

After a shower I decided that I needed a drink, for the simple reason that Haridwar is a dry place; and dry places and dry days make you more thirsty. So I pulled out the hip flask from the rucksack along with a guide book on Uttaranchal.

All these years, Uttar Pradesh boasted of Haridwar and Gangotri but today these places belong to Uttaranchal. Uttar Pradesh is left with the part of Ganga which feeds millions, which has sustained many cultures, which has inspired hundreds of folksongs and Bollywood songs, but which you would not like to go to as a tourist. Unless you are one of those hardened travellers who draws a beautiful picture even in an ugly setting.

In Haridwar, the Ganga is not just a holy river. It’s an event. It’s like watching a movie. Every swirl of it has to be watched to understand the whole story. And this is one movie for which you always reach late: even before you see the river you hear its gurgling sound, and by the time you take your seat by its banks, there is already a crowd of a thousand people watching the show.

I also arrived late after strolling through the narrow streets around Har Ki Pauri, the main bathing ghat. The streets are lined with shops that sell everything required by an average, God-fearing Hindu family. And most music shops seemed to play the same song, all the time, Maano to main Ganga maa hoon, na maano to behta paani — If you are a believer, I am Mother Ganga, and if you are a non-believer, I am just flowing water. Either way, the river, fresh out of the Himalayas, is spectacular here and now I was going to witness the spectacle. I deposited my sandals (no footwear allowed) and walked into Har Ki Pauri. It has steps constructed on either side of the swiftly flowing river and a couple of temples jut into the water. Iron chains run along the embankment — in case the current is too strong for you.

Thousands were frolicking in the chilly water. To me they looked more like one huge family out on picnic. While they took the dips, making joyous cries, hundreds of others were busy changing for the bath, unmindful of the onlookers. And there were hundreds more towelling themselves and changing into fresh set of clothes, unmindful of others. A strange paradox struck me. Indian women are a modest lot. They would not imagine wearing bikinis at the beach. They would rather labour under the weight of a wet saree. But here, they change as if they were in the privacy of their bathrooms: the shame is yours if you run into them. Perhaps the holy atmosphere is expected to act as a curtain.

Finally, the sun went down and it was time for aarti (waving of lights). Loudspeakers urged bathers to clear out and take their place on the steps. Religion enforces discipline more effectively than anything else, and soon a mass of humanity was seated on each side of the river — in total silence. Many people stood on the banks, holding leaf-bowls that contained flowers and an oil-lamp. The lamp was to be lit and the bowl released in the water.

At the appointed time, the bhajan, Jai Gangey Mata began playing on the speakers. Bells in the temples rang and priests came out with huge brass lamps, waving them at the swirling black waters, now illuminated by the hundreds of tiny, floating diyas. Har Ki Pauri resembled a stadium witnessing the closing ceremony of an Olympic Games — only that this stadium was linear, not oval.

Faith, they say, moves mountains. And when the collective faith of thousands of people is at work, something is bound to happen. Well, the Himalayas stood still. But the Ganga, with all those floating lamps, suddenly began to look like a bejewelled goddess. One of those lamps was lit by me.

Those pirates struck in the high seas, these pirates strike in the river, rather the confluence of the two great rivers of India which makes Allahabad famous. They glide their boats alongside yours and even before you realise, you've been persuaded into performing an expensive, boat-to-boat puja for the well-being of your near and dear ones.

Since all this happens in the middle of the river, you can't even walk out. All you can do is console yourself watching other would-be victims getting rowed into the trap of the priests and the pandas — as the middlemen between God and mortals are called — who throng the river.
I saw it coming even when I was long way off from Sangam (that’s what the confluence is called). It was 7.00 am but the sun was already merciless and I didn’t know who to feel more sorry for — myself or the rickshawpuller who was carting me to the riverbank. Sangam must have been still a kilometre or two away when a man on a bicycle pulled alongside.

“Sir, I am boatman. You want boatman,” he asked in English. He looked too healthy for a boatman. I told him that I was a local guy, and that I did not need him or his boat. He was undeterred. He kept pace with my rickshaw and soon reopened the conversation:

“So you are from Kanpur. We used to make our boats there. It took three days to row down to Allahabad.” I merely nodded, hoping that my silence would shut him up and send him way. But this man had smelt a prey.

“Sir, you are one of our own. I will show around like no one else will do. I will show you the exact spot where the Ganga meets the Yamuna,” he pleaded. I knew I was trapped. I will spare you the details about what happened from then on till the time I sat in the boat. But he had still not said how much he was going to charge. “You are our guest, sir. Money is not at all a problem,” he kept saying.

Only after he had untied the rope and stepped into the boat, followed by an emaciated old man, he said: “Give me Rs 400.” As I had suspected, this man looked too healthy to be rowing a boat. He was just a pimp. The old man rowed the boat.

From the boat I could clearly see the green waters of the Yamuna meeting the muddy waters of the Ganga before the two, together, head eastwards towards Varanasi. A few metres away from the confluence is a spot where water is only two feet deep and which is surrounded by dozens of pilgrim-laden boats. That's where people bathe and wash away their sins and immerse the ashes of the dead.

Before I could reach there, the pandas attacked. A boat came up from nowhere, and in a flash I found myself holding three shrivelled coconuts. I was also giving out my father’s name, my mother’s name, my gotra and was soon repeating mantras that the pirate was chanting. Reality struck me only when he asked for the money: Rs 501. Once again I’ll spare you how I extricated myself, but not before shelling out Rs 100 (saving of Rs 401!).

“This is nothing. They extract thousands of rupees from people who come for pind-daan (a ritual for the soul of dead relatives),” the pimp on my boat said with a grin.

If the pandas make their living from the departure of souls, there are people who make a living —and occasionally a fortune — from the ashes. They are the gotakhors, or divers.

I saw a man, his head freshly shaven, leaning from a boat and emptying an urn into the river. Suddenly two gotakhors swooped in on their boats and plunged iron sieves into the spot where the shaven-headed man had just finished emptying the urn. They were looking for ornaments of the deceased but all they could net was tiny, sparkling pieces of bone. Salvation, even for the dead, does not come without the humiliation of their bones being sifted for gold.

A sense of disgust overcame me. I wanted to return to Haridwar. But then I remembered that the Ganga is a Down train: it does not make a return journey.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Thought Processor At Work

Thought processes can be alike. But I never realised there would be three 'Thought Process' in blogspotdom, yours truly included. Curiously, the other two turned out to be Indians as well. Seeing their pages, I for a moment thought someone has played mischief with my font and colour. (I guess they will feel the same if they chanced upon my blog). After I got over the surprise, I felt as if... well, it felt like this: you pass by a Lee showroom and fall in love with a shirt and buy it; and the next day you find someone else wearing it as well!
Moral of the story: I need to come up with a new one. The thought process would be the same, but the signboard newly-painted, with a new title. Till then...

Monday, May 22, 2006


All dressed but nowhere to go: that's the situaton I find myself in very often these days, especially since I bought the laptop over a year ago. A fairly decent collection of fountain pens, a few bottles of ink (black, blue, blue-black and green) and several handful of ink cartridges (Reynolds, Cross and Waterman). But nothing to write.

The nature of my job in Chennai gives me ample time, unlike my Delhi days when you had to rush out to the spot, rush back to office and type out your story, and then rush out again. Even since I came here five and half years ago, till I acquired the laptop, I used to handwrite every story before typing it out in the office. The handwriting would be careful in the beginning, with the opening paras being written and rewritten several times. The style would have to match the ideas: that's when the alcohol was yet to have its effect. With the first kick of the booze, the thought process would get uninhibited and I would start taking liberties with the style: the handwriting would not matter much. After the third drink, the style or the handwriting would not matter at all -- only ideas. They kept coming, I kept jotting. The next morning, I would rewrite most of the stuff while typing on the computer and turn out a rather decent story. No longer. Today I go more by the appearance of a sentence on the screen.

Pablo Neruda once said that writing needs to be done with minimum tools at your disposal. Just a pen and a piece of paper would do. One cannot agree more. When all you have is a pen and a piece of paper, your mind works the most. When you type on, say, Microsoft Word, distractions are plenty -- from the spellchecker to the word counter. You get so caught in technology that you forget to push your mind hard. A stray thought, which could have been immensely useful, risks being blocked like a pop-up just because you are so focussed on the screen.

Back to pens. Fountains pen have always fascinated me. Nothing like the ink flowing smoothly through a thick nib. As a child I mainly used a pen called Usha. It had a transparent body, which kept showing you how much ink is left. It cost, if I remember correctly, Rs 2 or Rs 3. Occasionally, I would be treated to a Camlin, or the Chinese-made Hero. I wrote my class 12 exams with a fountain pen whose brand I can't even recall: it was local-made and must have cost not more than Rs 10 at the time.

By then Reynolds had come, and so did pens with jotter refills. I don't remember when exactly and why I switched loyalties, but for a long period starting from college I used ball pens. Maybe at that point other things mattered more than pens. Then, in 1991, we went to attend my uncle's wedding in Bengal. I carried a camera and took pictures. And elderly relative, who we had never met before, wanted some of the pictures to be sent to him. To write down his address, he took out a fountain pen: a cheap one, but well taken care of. The way the ink flowed made me salivate -- yes, salivate. I returned to my first love.

There are two things I don't like about ball pens. One, the ink-flow becomes uneven after a point. Two, it leaves an obnoxious impression on the back of the page. Roller-balls are fine, but then, you can't beat the bottled ink.

While working in Delhi, the first expensive fountain pen I bought was a Flair President. It had cost me Rs 450 in 1995 (Parker hadn't come yet). That was the best pen I ever possessed: I wrote countless letters and articles with that. (It is still lying somewhere in my cupboard, broken). Then I started buying Parkers. By now I realised that I was not the only one with a passion for fountain pens, and that a good fountain pen was also a statement of style. M.J. Akbar, one of my editors in Delhi, always carried a Mont Blanc in his pocket -- the white star on the cap signifying the superior status of the owner. Whenever he was travelling, he would write out his column, Byline, in longhand and fax it to the office: flawless pieces with no words or sentences struck out.

Mont Blanc, at that point, was out of reach for me: Rs 10,000 in 1996 or 1997. But I kept buying other stuff. I got pens as gifts too, from the dearest ones. Today, my collection is fairly decent: several Parkers, two Hertig, one Lamy, one Cross, two Waterman, one Camlin (for Rs 50, bought in Trivandrum), one Pierre Cardin, and now, one Mont Blanc (a wedding gift by my wife). Another Mont Blanc is on the way, thanks to a very special friend. Isn't life wonderful?

All I need to do now is justify the possession of so many pens by switching off the computer and grabbing a piece of paper. Neruda was right, after all.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

What's Your Caste?

A couple of years ago, a friend had thrown a small party at his flat in Chennai, where I met a very attractive girl from Kerala. As luck would have it, I found myself alone in her company quite a few times during the evening. Since I had been to the state quite a few times, I sought to impress her with whatever little knowledge I had then about God's Own Country. Luck seemed to be going in my favour till I made a terrible faux pas. I happened to ask her, “Are you a Nair or a Nambiar or a…?” She cut me short, penetrating my eyes with hers, “In this day and age, how can you ask someone's caste?!” I wished I could bury myself in the concrete floor. Read more

Friday, May 12, 2006


And I thought those good days had ended with marriage. But marriage, I am realising, endows you with certain respectability and trustworthiness which give you access to more and more women -- wife's friends, wife's colleagues, wife's relatives and so on. These are women who consider you by and large harmless and therefore don't mind letting their guard down in your presence.

So there I was, sitting with my new wife and two of her friends -- both married for a few years and both to busy IT guys. The subject of sex came up, though I don't remember how.

"Sex!" one of the friends exclaimed, "Sex is now like (Durga) Puja, it comes only once a year."

"Exactly," the other friend giggled.

I was listening.