Sunday, 24 December 2006

In India

It was the first time that I came to India through Bangalore. We were going to have a regional meeting on traditional medicine. The arrival hall of Bangalore international airport was a shock. Though the Delhi international airport is quite a let down but Bangalore was even worse. All the thoughts about Bangalore being the silicon valley of India and an international symbol of the new resurgent India seemed like a joke when we arrived in that airport. They are building a new airport I was told, but a city that hosts the new infotech giants seems to be taking a rather long time in getting its act together!

Outside, the narrow streets of Bangalore choking with traffic, blaring horns and an unfinished fly-over close to the airport, is in sharp contrast with its bright shops selling top international brands. We were staying on Brigade road off the famous MG Road. The row of shops selling computers and latest infotech gadgets, and the swanky malls seemed out of the first world, squeezed in the third world of old poor India.

The traditional medicine meeting was organised in collaboration with People's International Health University and Ayurvedic medical college of Bangalore had participants from Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. It was very interesting and provided an opportunity for reflecting on the dominance of western thought that relegates everything else to "old, traditional, indigenous" boundaries. That ancient wisdom of milleniums that have resulted in systems of medicines like ayurveda, yunnani and sidha, are forced to "prove" themselves "scientifically" is a sign of that dominance.

Naturally we found time to go around the city for some tourist visit. The old palace of Tipu sultan completed in 1791 is beautiful with its dark browns and mahagony. On the last day, on my way to the airport, Krishna, our driver, insisted on taking me to the Shiv temple next to the Kids Kemp shopping centre. The giant statues of Ganesh and Shiv in this temple are very imposing.

***

On 19th, I flew to delhi. I had some work but mostly these days in Delhi are for family reunions. Delhi is the new home of Luca and his wife Polly. Luca is my old friend Enrico's son and has come here recently. So it was natural that to visit him and to check if everything was ok for their settling down.

Om Thanvi, editor of the Hindi newspaper Jansatta invited me to his home for a party, introducing me to his other guests as "he runs a webzine call Kalpana". Surrounded by his literary friends, I felt as if I was playing a new role, used as I am to be seen as a doctor! It was a lovely evening with wonderful Rajasthani vegetarian food cooked by his wife Premlata. It was also an opportunity to meet some interesting persons like Renuka Vishwanathan and Madhu Kishwar.

Finally I saw the new central park in Connaught Place. The new metro station of Rajiv Chowk has been completed and all the "work in progress" boards have been taken off, replaced by green lawns and flowing water. There was a beautiful exhibition showing off the changes in C.P. in the central park.

***

As usual, the travels to India get over so quickly and I am back to Bologna, getting nostalgic about the India days!

***

Tuesday, 5 December 2006

Mermaids in Bologna

December means Christmas time and it also means "Motor show", one of the bigger annual trade fairs of Bologna. This year, for the annual Motor show, the Swatch people, makers of the small car Smart, organised a Smart Night in the historical central square of Bologna, la Piazza Maggiore. With 12 and 13th century buildings of red stone, this is one the most beautiful squares of Bologna. The Christmas lights were making it look like a fairy land.

The Smart Night brought colourful psychedelic lights, giant film screens, dances, drums, acrobats and high decible pop music to the square, creating a wonderful contrast with the old buildings surrounding the square. The beginning of the show was with Kay Rush, a half-Italian half-Japanese TV show girl, appearing at the top of one of the giant screens, with her huge image on the same screen, to give an explanation of the theme of the event - exploring the different metro-communication languages.

The flying acrobats with colourful skirts, appeared next, flying in the sky, throwing strange shadows on the walls of the old palace, doing song and music routines from some famous films, dancing in front of the giant screens showing the strange art world of Escher.

Then it was the turn of singer l'Aura. She has a real nice voice and a very distinct style of singing. Lovely. She was followed by Piero Pelu, one of the famous Italian pop stars who joined Kay Rush on the stage as a presenter.

And then it was the turn of the mermaids. They had placed transparent tubs shaped like champagne glasses, filled with water, in front of the cathedral. Three girls in swim suits appeared, did some synchronised dancing and then jumped inside the tubs to become the mermaids. All the while the upcoming young piano star Giovanni Allevi played wonderful piano. It was like a dream, though with the cold night and temperatures of around 3 or 4 C°, it reminded me of the Mumbai film heroines who stoically go through dances and songs among snow covered mountains, dressed in the skimpiest of clothes. From the vapours rising from the girls' bodies, I think that the water was quite warm, still it must have been strange to take bath in the shivering cold in one of the oldest squares of Italy!

Here are some pictures from this evening:

SMART night, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2006

SMART night, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2006

SMART night, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2006

SMART night, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2006

SMART night, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2006

SMART night, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2006

SMART night, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2006

SMART night, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2006

SMART night, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2006

SMART night, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2006

SMART night, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2006

SMART night, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2006

***

Saturday, 2 December 2006

Spirit of Dilli

There was a time when Delhi was hardly there in the Mumbai films, except for that passing shot in front of India Gate or South Block with the rashtrapati bhavan in the background. As someone had cribbed after watching Kal Ho Na Ho, films do tend to distort the geography of cities, and if New York could not escape it, how could Delhi do it!

The films are such that you would think that India Gate and Red Fort are close to each other and next to the railway station and the airport, so that if you come to Delhi, you can't avoid passing in front of them.

This year, I have already seen 4 Hindi films where hamari Dilli plays a key role, and the year is not yet over. Perhaps, in 2006 there were other films too, that were based in Delhi, that I have missed. The question I am asking is, which of these films reflected the real spirit of Delhi?

It started with Rang de Basanti. In RDB, India Gate was not just a distant shot seen from the windows of the passing car or autorickshaw but it played an important role in a crucial scene along with the spacious bunglows of the ministers, not too far from it. It was essentially a south Delhi kind of Delhi in RDB, where upper middle class lives. There were a few scenes of old Delhi and the Muslim culture but they were more like cameos and didn't affect the overall voice and texture of the film, that remained essentially south Delhi. I felt that, Aamir Khan as the sikh son of a dhaba-owner and his disgruntled companions, suceeded in giving life to the growing up experience in Delhi. I could identify with it. Its language, ambience, people were the kind you find in Delhi.

Then came Fanaa, another Aamir Khan starrer. Here Delhi was just an interlude, a background to the shairo-shayari and songs. The film highlighted the touristy part of Delhi. It skimmed superficially over Delhi, not really trying to look at the life of the city. In spite of the luminous Kajol, I felt that it was a synthetic make-believe world, not really reflecting anything real about the city or its people.

The third film that I saw was Khosla ka Ghosla. It was a more of a west Delhi kind of ambience, people who usually live in Punjabi Bagh or Rajouri Garden. It was also very real. The way neighbours reacted, the way people talked and went around their lives, it was able to catch the spirit of dilliwallas. There was a part of the film dealing with Mandi house and Bhartiya Kala Kendra part of Delhi, the part involving theatre-wallas. This part was slightly less real in the way the two main actors behaved (Navin Nischol and Tara Sharma), but even in these scenes, all the side actors were very dilliwallas. KKG was also quite enjoyable in a Gulzaar-Hrikeksh Mukherjee kind of way, that was refreshing.

Finally the last Delhi-based film that I saw was Ahista Ahista. It was mainly an old Delhi, Chandni Chowk kind of Delhi, around Jama Masjid, Dariyaganj and Red Fort. In the film, at times the way the actors (Abhay deol and Soha Ali Khan) walked effortlessly from Red Fort to Niajammuddin or to Qutab Minaar did jarr a bit but overall, the ambience of narrow streets and the Muslim culture was quite real. However, the film was marred by the actors, their way of speaking, their general way of behaving, that seemed false and out of place in Chandni Chowk. Abhay Deol is a nice looking guy, reminding me of Dharmendra in vintage films like Bandini, but he did not look like or act like old Delhi person. His dialogues did not ring of old Delhi, they seemed very Mumbaiwalla. His other friends, they seemed as if they had come out of the TV serial Nukkad, falsely nice and synthetic. This does not mean that film was very bad, but in my opinion, it could not catch the spirit of Delhi.

So which of these films did catch the dil of Dilli? I think that the real competition is between RDB and KKG. Ahista Ahista and Fanaa were not about real Delhi. I can't decide between RDB and KKG.

It is difficult to decide, perhaps because the two films look at very different parts, people and cultures of Delhi. These two Delhis are quite similar geographically and do overlap, though obviously RDB is not about everyday places and persons (like the shots behind the airport or the shots at the old monuments, the scenes at India Gate and All India radio), while KKG is about everyday middle class Delhi. On just this basis, perhaps KKG wins for me.

And for you - is there a film that represents the spirit of Dilli - Delhi for you?

***

Thursday, 19 October 2006

Against nature?

There was yet another debate on the TV about nature versus nurture, this time provoked by the news that the museum of natural history in Oslo is organising an exhibition on homosexuality in animals.

It is never easy to say what do we inherit from our parents through the genes and what is more a "learned behaviour" depending upon where we grow up. Somethings things that may seem clearly hereditary are not always so.

Like people often said that my voice sounded exactly like my father's. And now on telephone, my son's friends mistake me for him and my friends and colleagues mistake him for me. Is that because of genes or is it because growing up together - did I subconsciously internalised my father's voice and my son did that with my voice?

Illnesses like high blood pressure running in families, have similar confusions. Do you get high blood pressure because your ma or grandma had it or because living in the same house, you share all your habbits of eating, exercising, reacting to stress?

It is much easier to deal with physical characteristics like the colour of your eyes, or the shape of your ears. That you did get through the genes.

There are many practical implications of the final conclusions of such debates, and that is why any conclusion is hotly debated. For example, if we accept that mental illnesses like neurosis are the result of genes, then perhaps all theories of Freud and therapies like psychotherapy trying to find the cause of your illness in the way your mom wrapped your nappies when you were three months old, can be considered as useless!

Another practical example is about criminal behaviour. If we accept that criminal behaviour is because of genes, then what use is putting the fellow in the jail or worse, hanging him? What could he do, he had no choice but to follow his genes?

So to go back to the debate on the TV on homosexuality in animals, the stakes are much higher. Different religions consider homosexuality to be against nature. Here, vatican officially assumes a similar position. If we accept that animals can also be homosexual, such arguments will be difficult to sustain.

Actually such debate is not new. Some years ago there was lot of discussion about some male Humbolt penguins in a German zoo who preferred to stick with their own company while the females were left in peace.

In the debate on the TV, there were similar arguments. They said, for example: it is the stress of living in the zoo, it is the stress of increasing urbanisation, these are not real serious relationships but only playful behaviour in animals, and so on. So it will always go on, each side refusing to be convinced by the other.

***

Monday, 16 October 2006

A symphony for Bombay

It is a beautiful symphony, played by invisible beings, the kind who walk all around you every day and whom you never see. Perhaps, you are also one of them? Symphony is made even more beautiful because, each of those invisible beings is singing a different song, with a different rhythm.



Poster of 7 islands and a metro

Seven Islands and a Metro by Madhusree Dutta is that symphony. The film was released in some commercial theatres about ten days ago. It is rare that I get to see newly released films but this time, Mukul, my nephew and cameraman for this film, brought me a preview copy. Today, while I was watching it, I wished I had watched it while Mukul was here. In some Dvds there is a director’s cut of the film, where the director explains and talks about the film, while you watch the scenes. If I had watched it with Mukul, I could have had a cameraman’s cut of the film! The film is so beautiful that I really regret not having done that.

Seven islands is about some of the different Bombays that exist for its 15 million inhabitants and for thousands coming here every day in search of a living. Each of them sings their song.

Like the persons who hang at the top of the sky scrappers and clean glass for a living. “I like it up here, there is a kind of peace here”, one of them says.

Like the hundreds of I.D.cards with their pictures, and people standing in queues, answering questions about themselves – name, place of birth, father’s name – in English, Marathi, Hindi, Urdu…

Like the line of cement mixers trailing on the highway like giant snails, their snouts raised up towards the sky to catch the extra-terrestrial sound waves, while helicopter drones above.

Like the girl with grey eyes, who says, “I tell people on the face that I am a bar dancer. I am not afraid. You have to be made stronger to live here. Only money counts”, and suddenly her voice cracks with emotion.

Like angry women protesting against the invasion of UP and Bihar walls, “We’ll butcher you like fish.” Like Kulwant Kaur with icey hands in the story narrated by Manto, who listens to her husband brag about the six he killed and the seventh, a beautiful girl, he wanted to rape. Like the Dawood Bohra bank worker who says, “I was born here in 1944. When he said that you should go to Pakistan, I felt so bad. Why should anyone doubt my patriotism for India?”

Like all those dead and living, living together there in the cemeteries, the Europeans, the Church of England Christians, the Church of Scotland Christians, the Church of North India Christians, the Italian prisoners of war, the Japanese prostitutes and cotton traders, the Chinese.

Like the small window above the graveyard, where a swing is moving in a small room and small feet peep out and go back in. Like the tall and well built Reshma, who talks about her tom-boy days and those trying to dial a "wrong number" with her. She is the stunt women, a celebrity in her area, having done stunts for Hema Malini in Sholay. “Take a look at my pictures. In my time, I was also beautiful, why didn’t I become a heroine?” Like all those small, thin men with faces burnt by sun, who rummage through garbage, who bulldoze houses of poor like themselves, and who talk of hunger, “You can wake up hungry in Bombay but you are ready for hard work, you will not go hungry to sleep.”

Like the young man selling chai during the night. Even beggers and vendors buy the tea from them. “They can deflate the tyre of my bicycle, but I can’t give bribe. I don’t earn enough. They can do what they want.”

Another talks about his love for the girl from the other caste and how he was made to leave for Bombay while the girl committed suicide. “For a days labour, you earn 15 rupees in the village. Here I can spit out betel for 15 rupees in a day.”

Cruel, funny, tragic and comic, they all mix together in a never ending kaleidoscope, each staking their claim to life. The young boy extolling the virtues of vegetarianism, almost unaware of the violence inherent in his words. Or those who talk of the riots and because their religion does not allow them to hurt others, how they gave a couple they had discovered to others “more suitable for the job”. And the hope in their eyes that refuses to die. My future will be better, they all believe. In any case, life here is much better than what ever, I left behind, they argue, perhaps more to convince themselves than others.

The only discordant note in the symphony comes from the comments of the two writers, Sadat Ali Manto and Ismat Chugtai, and the effort to add abstract symbolism to the film, like the broken picture of Gandhi or the red shawl. Harish Khanna as Manto is suitably intense and Vibha Chibbar is a delight to watch, but their philosophical posturings sound false and superfluous like the burqa clad women pushing carts with polyfoam Mumbai maps or the burning kite or the red coloured water with I.D. pictures floating in it.

Words of ordinary people are like swords, cutting and cruel unapologetically. “No more Bihari and UP walla bhaiyas here, let them stay where they are”, says a woman bluntly. There is no need to add abstract symbolism, it is already there in plenty.

They all say that it is about money. No one talks about community, the relationships. After leaving the small towns, what communities they create? What relationships sustain them and replace the warmth they left in home towns? The film does not explore them but you get glimpses of it, like the boy running along the train, who is pulled in by others hanging at the door.

The idea of watching a documentary film for 100 minutes is a bit daunting but once the film starts, it is difficult not to get involved and forget time. Bombay never looked so beautiful as it looks in the rain scenes. Music, sound, images, people, everything fits well together.

In the end, I was feeling a bit jealous about Bombay. I have been there a few times, but my heart is in Delhi. I wish someone had made a symphony for my Dilli like this!

Below, some credits of the film.


Title: Seven Islands and a Metro
Director: Madhusree Dutta
Actors: Harish Khanna & Vibha Chibbar
Cameraman: Avijit Mukul Kishore
Editing Reena Mohan, Shyamal Karmakar
Dialogue: Sara Rai
Sound design: Boby John
Music: Arjun Sen

Note: Poster of the film if from the press kit

***

Saturday, 14 October 2006

Ragging lessons

Note (2013): I had written this post 7 years ago, to share my own ragging experiences, that were not traumatising to me. Since then, I have heard and read numerous testimonies of people who have been through harrowing experiences in the name of ragging. I agree completely that ragging is a terrible menace there is no justification for it, and should not happen. I think that people who "rag" their juniors are persons with inferiority complex or lack of self-confidence and sometimes even psychopaths. They require support from mental health professional.

***

There are broadly two kinds of persons in the world, I thought to myself. Those who live surrounded by transparent shells and life’s woes seem to touch them lightly, leaving them to live in their blissful ignorance, and those filled with angst, their sensibilities weighed down by the injustice of it all, every experience leaving a burning hole in their souls. Probably Sujit Saraf belongs to that second group, I thought to myself, as I read his article on Tehleka about effects of ragging he received at IIT Delhi twenty years ago.

Actually his description of ragging is quite funny:

We did many things in that one month that now appear harmless and amusing. We stood on benches in the dining hall and recited the national anthem; we crawled on all fours and barked like dogs; we brought cigarettes and Campa Cola for our seniors; we cleaned their rooms; we dropped our trousers so they could measure our penises; we formed human trains — each car holding the penis of the car in front — and whistled our way through hostel corridors; we simulated orgies; stripped naked; then wore underpants over our trousers to turn ourselves into comic book phantoms.
The impact of these experiences are summed up by Sujit as, “After so many years, I can list all these forms of ‘ragging’ dispassionately, but no one should be misled. Brutality and oppression remain just that, no matter the name used for them… Ragging is a case study for Freud, nothing more.”

If Sujit belongs to the second group, I probably belong to the first. While he seems to have been traumatised by that experience, his words brought back many happy memories for me.

The first time I encountered ragging was when I went to submit some form at MAMC near Delhi Gate. A pimply seventeen, I was suddenly pulled into a small door at the side of their auditorium. Soon my pants were around my ankles and I was asked to wank. It was slightly embarrassing to admit but I didn’t know what wanking meant!

I knew the words all right, they were used often by boys, but I had no idea that you actually did something. Probably I was too busy day-dreaming or reading or playing, and though it had been many years that I had “wet dreams”, I hadn’t ever thought much more about it. I did have some vague basic ideas of what fucking entailed and that was my sex knowledge. I don't think that I thought kissing caused a women to become pregnant, but probably I was not so sure about it.

My raggers screwed up their noses but were not too surprised, apparently they had seen other ignorant boys like me before? Any way, I was shown the simple practicality of wanking and let off. I won’t bore you with the details of my experiments with that knowledge later that day, but just for that lesson alone, the word “ragging” brings a smile to my face.

The other lesson came in Meerut a few months later, in the hostel. Fifty or sixty boys, running around naked and doing hundred little things like the ones described by Sujit above, was an opportunity for close observation of the variations in that small appendage that is apparently supposed to the centre of men’s lives – the penis. It was the best cure possible for all those anxieties about is it too small, is it too long, is too thin or thick or whatever, that seems to afflict many of us. It did cure me of those anxieties any way. After the first two times of being naked with other boys, any sense of humiliation or shyness disappeared.

It was fun and a way to look at things that earlier, I didn't have the courage to ask or think about.

The third lesson was about female sexuality. Fed mainly on Hindi literature, where sex is hardly ever mentioned directly, I had an idea that sex was something pleasurable for men that was “tolerated or suffered” by women. Both, male and female students of the medical college had their “anthems” full of obscenities, and it was the women’s anthem that opened the magic door for me – sex could be something desired even by women!

Probably I can come up with some more lessons that I received from ragging that perhaps today’s generation won’t care about. I am sure that today’s twelve year old knows much more about sex than what I knew at seventeen. If they don’t know, perhaps internet is better medium to learn than other guys slightly older than them through ragging.

My parents never spoke to me about sex and with friends, one spoke about it but that was more to experiment with words and our developing identities as men, but at least, I was shy about asking any real questions. Years later, when I tried speaking about sex to my teenage son, I soon realised that he already knew much more about it and probably I could have learned somethings from him! How times have changed.

I know that some persons were really traumatised by that experience. One of our classmates, she left the medical college and went back to Delhi to join some other course.

***

Sunday, 27 August 2006

Contradictions

After a lazy sunday afternoon nap, we decided to watch Syriana. I was still a bit sleepy and I had been hoping for something not too complicated, so probably some bits of Syriana passed over my head without registering.

The film is complicated with different simultaneous and parallel story lines spread over different continents and in different languages, English, Farsi, Arabic and Urdu. The main aim of the film is to show how American multinationals involved in petrol extraction with active support from different American institutions, are willing to go to any length to keep on their profits, including the assassination of those who try to fight against their power. At the same time, short term thinking/planning of USA forces sometimes provide sophisticated weapons to those who later use them against American interests.

I was thinking of how so many Indian films are now equally vehement in showing nexus between corrupt politicians, underworld and other corrupted state institutions.

It is a victory of freedom of press if cinema can show such realities in so clear terms, pointing accusing fingers at the powers.

Yet, the fact that films like these can be done time and again and in spite of all the accusations, that do seem believable, nothing changes. Voters go on electing same persons, those same persons keep on doing what they were doing and public does not care. Then periodically, there are some "ritualistic cleaning" with some weakened power brokers who are sacrificed to satisfy the public hunger for justice and everything can continue as it was. It sounds very horrible and cynical and yet probably an accurate description of how "real" life is.

Coming back to Syriana, George Clooney must be passing though that "I am not just a beautiful body, I am a good actor" phase. It does seem unbelievable, his perplexity and confusion in the film, after being a secret agent for all his life in places like Beirut. The decision of Pakistani boys to be the suicide bombers is also not explained properly in the film, since at least one of them is not convinced about religious dope peddled by his instructors.

***

I always had an admiration for Isreal. There was a long time that I was convinced of having been a Jew in a previous life, who had lost his life in the holocaust. And I am deeply distrustful of religious fundamentalism of any kind, these days, especially the islamic kind. Yet, in the fight between Isrealis and Palestinians, I feel that Isreal is renegating its legacy of suffering and is behaving like the oppressive forces in nazi Germany, uncaring about the countless civilians that Isreali forces seem to crush with uncaring abandon.

Probably this feeling is because for me, this fight is not perceived as between Jews and Muslims but is seen as unequal force of strength between uncaring and powerful isrealis and desperate palestinians, trying to hold on to their homeland.

***

Saturday, 26 August 2006

Journeys and People: Together in the beehive

The train journeys used to take for ever and the preparations started days in advance. Letters were written for the friends on the way, who were going to host us in their homes for a night or two. Holdalls were prepared with blankets and gaddas, thin mattresses filled with cotton, and we pulled on the straps till they all rounded up like footballs. Biji, my grandmother, prepared a big basket of puris and fried potatoes along with mango and water chestnuts pickles for the journey.

Going to Hyderabad needed two nights and we stopped on the way in Bhopal. Going to Alipur Dwar in the north-east took three nights and we stopped on the way in Lucknow and Siliguri.

In the second class compartment of the train with three tyres, train seats were wooden planks and best was to have the top berth, because then you could go up and forget about the others. The bottom berth was where everyone sat while the middle berth was kept closed till it was time to go to sleep.

As you entered the compartment you immediately measured the others sharing the space with you. Were their faces smiling or were they sour faced? How did they react to, "Uncle, can I put this here?" And then soon everyone beamed with relief since the companions of our journey were as anxious as we were to find friendly faces.

Before you knew, everyone was talking to everyone. Children sharing comics or playing ludo or exchanging stories. Women together chatting as long lost sisters from a Manmohan Desai film. Men looking with understanding nods at their wives, and talking about their own things. Didi, bhabhi, bhai saheb, dada ji, aunty ji, soon everyone had found the right words to address the others. From the open window of the train, on a curve you could see the steam rising up from the engine and specks of charcoal came inside the compartment and coated all the faces, got stuck in the hair and went down the neck into the shirts. Chuk chuk chuk, the train went, with the compartments swaying as everyone spoke to everyone else.

And by the time the shared journey came to an end, we knew lot of things about each other, and saying goodbyes was like we were leaving friends. "Write to me", "If you come to Delhi, come to see us", were exchanged with addresses. Of course, we never saw each other again, those other lives were soon forgotten, the memories of faces and names fading quickly with time.

Every time I stopped to think about it, I could see the round ball of earth buzzing like a beehive, hundreds of thousands of small cells next to each other, each with its own family and relatives and lives, each family facing ups and downs, each with children growing up, persons dying, persons getting married. Even if I didn't know about them all, I could imagine them, each family like our own, a little different in somethings, but underneath every thing else, quite similar.

***

Now even in India, there are no steam engines. Those long journeys have become shorter. Here in Europe, even when I do travel on train, mostly I avoid eye contact with others, I almost never offer to others the food I am eating, I hardly ever (actually never) take puris and fried potatoes with me and anyway, most persons have a sandwich and a paper glass with some drink. On the planes, people sitting next to me, some times smile but it stops there. Talking to others that you don't know means "disturbing them" and so everyone looks out of the window or reads or closes eyes and feigns sleep, all lost in their own worlds.

Instead, when the urge to "meet" others comes, I do blog hopping. Like, going to a site like Desipundit and clicking on a blog.

Blog-hopping makes me "meet" other persons. That boy with the red scarf around his neck and his graduation at some IIT, his face full of hope for the future. That lady next to him must be his mother, she looks so proud of him. The girl he is looking at with so much adoration on his face, is she is wife or his girlfriend? There is no picture of his father in that album, why, what had happened? After the pictures, I want to read about the things that boy has written in his blog. And then I click on a link on that blog, then on another link, hoping from one person to another. That girl, she went to India for the first time. Her name is south Indian, perhaps she was born in USA? How does it feel to be surrounded by all Indian faces for the first time in your life, when you realise that you are like everyone else? Jumping between cities and continents. Looking at photo albums and reading about the persons is so much fun. In half an hour, I have gone through three blogs, looked at their pictures, read about their profiles.

Tomorrow, I won't remember them. If not tomorrow, perhaps next week I will forget them. I never remember their names any way. And I never tag them. I like them as they are, random, unexpected, like ships crossing and the passing glimpses into other parallel universes. Sometimes interesting, sometimes ordinary. Sometimes, I don't like them so much.

They are like the companions on a long train journey from my childhood. And I think of the giant beehive, all round the world, every where people with hopes, joys, illnesses, memories, sadness, visting beautiful places, missing places and people. It is good to be part of that beehive.

***

Tuesday, 15 August 2006

Masala addiction

There is something in the spices, in the masala. You just have to taste it a couple of times and it enters your blood. The cells taste the fragrances enclosed in its molecules. And, then you can't resist its call. Days can pass without feeling the yearning for it. Yes I have outgrown it, you think. But the yearning comes back suddenly while you eat the wholesome nutritious, bland, spiceless food. If you are a masala lover once, you are a masala junkie forever!

Hindi films are like that. Once you have tasted them, you can't forget them. In spite of their silliness, their exagerated emotions, their illogicalities, their absent storylines, their corny songs. No, they are stupid, you tell yourself. Give me a hollywood blockbuster any day, I tell myself. A nice French or Italian flick. And then suddenly one evening, you are running to your friendly neighbourhood pirated video store, the hollywood blockbusters forgotten, your heart yearning for some song and dance masala laced with crying mothers, lovetorn couples, destines singed with unsurmountable barriers, that yet once again avoid the tragedy just by the nick. The wonderful world of Bollywood.

And then I found bwcinema dot com. Goodbye to pirated disks, that suddenly block in the middle of Shahrukh Khan telling Kiran Kher, "Mother, I am back!" You just need a good connection and you can watch all the masala without going out of your homes. Three days of unlimited films for as low as 3.99 dollars, the site said, and the suddenly the four day long weekend had found its purpose. And perhaps, this time, I am not going to fatten the Bangladeshi or Pakistani shop owners and be a traitor to India, I had thought. Perhaps, the film producers will get a percentage for each download.

I started with Morning Raga with its lovely carnatak music and a wonderful Shabana Azmi. IFFA awards and Filmfare awards followed. The first day ended with the reluctant patriotic fervor of Rang de Basanti.

I hardly slept that night, waking up at five in the morning to watch Ankahee, the Vikram Bhat-Sushmita Sen autobiography. And then I crashed, falling down asleep for eight hours straight. Chup Chup ke with crazy Paresh Rawal and Rajpal Yadav accompanied my hurridly cooked chinese noodles. A pity they had to spoil it with Shahid Kapur and Kareena.

The third day started with Corporate and I was starting to get over my yearning. I tried to follow it with Kabhi Alvida Na kehna, that had lousy print and even worse sound worthy of friendly neighbourhood pirate video shop. Is it legal, I asked myself? I mean, four days after the release of the film, here they are showing it on internet with a pirate print and they are based in USA and no one can do anything about it? May be this site is run by sons of Al Capone? Anyway, I gave up after fifteen minutes. Then I tried with Onkara. This print also looked pirated with the screen wobbling, as happens with camera prints, when someone tries to shoot the film with a handheld handycam in a cinema hall. So I shifted to Fanaa. This time the print was good even if the film's faked emotions were irritating in spite of wonderful Kajol. Finally to finish the feast, I had Chicken Tikka Masala, all about British humour about parents trying to marry off their gay son.

Now I feel like puking. My head hurts. If I look at the TV screen, red and blue spots float in front of my eyes. Wish I can burp. It is indigestion. I just want to curl up in my bed and not to think of any masala movie for a year. The yearning is gone and it seems it won't be back for long long time. Now from tomorrow, I can go back to my sane hollywood blockbusters and the intelligent Almodovars.

Hindi films? I screw my nose. They suck, I tell myself. Till the yearning comes back again, I am free.

***

Monday, 31 July 2006

Climate change in Europe

Last week I was in Geneva for a meeting. As usual, World Health Organisation (WHO) had booked me in a hotel near the central railway station. When we landed in Geneva, it did not seem like very hot, compared to the hot Bologna that I had left behind. But, when I reached my room in the hotel, it felt as if I had entered a furnace.

While the bed had a woollen blanket as usual, there was something new in the room - a small table fan. Switzerland had always been nice and cool. In the summers, it did get warm in the day but most of the time, nights were cool, needing something warm.

After the arrivasl of fans, how long is it going to take for Switzerland to turn from paradise to hot baking furnace?

During nineteen eighties in Italy, I had never seen a fan in any house or office. To be honest, I had never felt even the need for it. I think that our first table fan, we had bought it in 1993 or 1994. Then in the next years, we bought more of them, so that we had one for each room of the house. During the same years, fans were installed in our office as well. Finally, this year, we have air-conditioning, at home and in office in Bologna (Italy). Everything has happened in the last 10-15 years.

Any way the hot temperatures in Geneva had some nice side-effects also. People were having fun with the summer along the lake in Geneva. Drinking beer along the small pubs, sitting and chatting on the grass wearing bikinis and swimming costumes, swimming in the lake.

****
In Geneva I met Gregor Wolbring. He spoke about new technologies like synthetic biology and nanotechnology, and their convergence that is going to change the world completely as we know it. It is all going to happen in the next ten or twenty years, he says, and the real disabled persons will be those will not be able to afford the new technologies for enhancement of their bodies and minds.

He has a soft smile, gentle way of speaking and dreamy eyes. And he has a special wheel chair, that looks simple and has side bars, that you need to move gently to move ahead or back. Listening to him, I feel as I am transported in the world of Asimov.

Yet, take a look at his webpage and his coloumn, and check his credentials, he teaches in the university and is part of some important sounding committees. So it is no science fiction but a new reality he is talking about. He tells about it in a simple way, making it easy to understand.

For a moment, I daydream about enhanced human beings but then that images contrasts so strongly with the reality of poverty, lack of most basic things, disease and death that stalks lives in so many parts of the world! Would that dream be for all of the humanity or will it be sold to the highest bidders, I ask myself.

****
In the pictures below, I am with Gregor Wolbring.



***

Sunday, 18 June 2006

Virtual holdup & hijacking

It has been sometime, while navigating on internet, suddenly a sign appears "Attention, the scanning of your system is not complete, your system is unsafe, if you want free scanning of your system to identify errors ...". I have tried to ignore it. I have tried to click on "cancel". I have tried to click on the cross at the right hand corner to close it.

No matter what I do, it takes over the webpage I am looking at and hijacks it to "www.it.bloodyerrorsafe.com", leaving me trembling with rage each time. (The "bloody" in the address has been added by me, I don't want them to claim that they are so popular that people are linking their blogs to them)!

I call the people running that site by all names possible. I walk around in the room to calm me down. And, of course, I close the internet explorer. Some times I disconnect and reconnect, hoping that they are gone. Cursing them all the time, scumbags, oro-genitally mixed up, òç*+#ò@... And I take deep breaths and tell myself, "This world is pure maya, no need to get so heated up son. Relax. It is hurting only you while those bastards, they must be smiling their way to the bank with all the money they can get from people clicking their site!"

I try to imagine where they can be based. They must have an office in Jersey island, with another hack who can't find anyone to love him hiding in Cayman island and their server running from Easter islands, with the boss sitting in Florida. Do you think I should go and apply to the international court of justice in the Hague to persecute them?

Or is it the duty of our Government to protect us from unwanted intrusers even if the gang is scattered in all the corners of the world and worse still, even if, the brother of the big boss is governing (ha, ha!) Florida!.

The list of modern stress syndromes is getting longer every day.

Like all those people sitting in their cars, stuck in the traffic and snarling with rage. Their stress has been recognised. Even people typing continuously on their keyboards have legitimate stress. And those looking at the computer moniters all day long, they are indeed stressed.

Perhaps it is time to add another stress diagnosis. Internet holdup and hijacking.

If you have gone through it, you will agree that there is no virtuality in this stress. You have no psychological pleasure in it like collecting the spam mail and throwing it in the rubbish bin and then watching it pass through the thrasher till the bits and bytes are flushed down the cyber-toilet.

So there is no other way, except to take deep breath, hold it and count up to seven, then exhale slowly. Repeat it five times.

How do you feel now brother, ready to forgive them?

Forgive those scumbags, éòù+è#@ ... Ok, let's do it five more time! Take a deep breath, hold it, count slowly upto seven and now exhale slowly.

Sunday, 11 June 2006

Ignorance is better?

We were in a rural area. It was a refugee camp and I was there with a delegation of United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). We were looking at issues related to persons with disability in the refugee camps and before that visit, I had already been to some other refugee camps in Africa.

The road leading to the refugee camp, left the city to meander through fields dotted with small huts. Thin and dirty children in tattered clothes occasionally stood by the roadside to look at our big UN vehicles passing.

If outside was poverty, inside the refugee camp seemed like the land of plenty. There were lot of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with lot of expatriate staff. In the health centre, their was plenty of staff and no medicines seemed to be lacking. I had a long conversation with an Australian speech therapist working with children who had speaking difficulties, asking her about the general conditions inside the camp and the different services available there.

"What about the local people living outside the camp?" I had asked. Persons outside had looked malnourished and without any services, left to fend for themself in an isolated remote area. "No, we can't provide any services to the locals", I was told. It was because of policy decision by government here. UNHCR staff and international staff were responsible only for the refugee camp and they were prohibited from having any kind of interaction with the local population.

But international NGOs could have started separate projects for the surrounding countryside, I had insisted.Isn't it terrible to pass in front of those huts everyday and see them so poor and so vulnerable? There are only funds for emergency, no one gives money for ordinary poverty, they said.

The person showing us around took us to the high school in the refugee camp. It was a wonderful place with nice uniforms, a large field where children were playing, and some committed expatriate teachers, who explained their work including the use of internet to bring the world to the refugee camp.

I was a little upset. I thought it was discriminatory with all these resources that they had in the UN, giving the world to the refugees inside the camp walls, while just outside those walls, people of the same skin colour, same language, similar facial traits could die of hunger, their children faced malnutrition, and died of usual simple illnesses like diarrohea and mealses. So perhaps, I was condescending in my interaction with the students of 12th standard. I don't remember the exact words of my question. Perhaps it was something to do with their future.

A young man sitting at the back stood up to answer me. I think that he said some thing like, "We are prisoners in this cage. This wonderful school, these wonderful teachers, our learning internet, our learning French and English, what use is it? It only serves to make us feel worse. We have no future. UNHCR can provide only school education. There is no university here and I can not go outside the walls of this camp. And, after passing 12th, all these wonderful programmes finish. Then we go back to our families in this camp, to work in the fields. For working in the field, I don't need any of this knowledge that I have got, it will only serve to remind me about the wretchedness of my life, to know how much we are missing. It is terrible to know what we could be and be forced to be nothing."

I was suddenly reminded of this episode while reading the story "Sudama's children" about poor kids in rich private schools in Delhi in the latest issue of Outlook. "There are two kinds of pain—the pain of growing up in a jhuggi with little hope of change, and the pain of adjustment in studying with well-off kids in a private school. How do we know which is worse?"

I think of that youngman's heartbreaking answer in the refugee camp and the choices he had. Yet, compared to the life of living in poverty, outside the refugee camp, where hunger and disease are likely to kill you young and at the best, you will grow up to eke out a miserable and difficult life from the fields! What would you choose if you had this choice?

***

Wednesday, 17 May 2006

One up for the talibans

The headlines, "De Vinci code banned" depresed me. Even though there were some protests when "Sins" was released, in the end, the film was released without people burning down theatres or cars. Reading the news was slightly better. It does not say that the film is banned, it only says that a group of persons will watch the film and decide. I hope that they decide to show it.

We need sane persons in India. Very badly. It seems we are running out of them.

Every group of religious louts is just waiting to pounce on the slightest provocation.

Now Aamir Khan is warned, how dare he speak about Narmada Bachao or against Narendra Modi? They will not let his Fanaa to be released in Gujarat, they say. Show him the Hindu might?

The Sikhs have done it too. Jo Bole so Nihaal is a caricature. The child in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is a caricature. How dare they?

The Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, everyone is ready with the petrol cans. They define themselves as saviours of their religions. Dissent is equal to blasphemy they feel. Armed with hockey sticks or worse, they come out with their torches. And the soveriegn Government representing the people bows its head and presents its butt so that it can be kicked by any thug, ready for banning any thing so that "it does not disturb public order" (except when you dare to protest against the Government, then the police is ready for the lathi-charge).

So we are going for a taliban rule in India. Only insecure louts will decide what we can read, see or think? I am not saying that we have to be agree with everyone but you can disagree on something and still be civil? Amartaya Sen talks about the ancient traditions of dissent and criticism inherent in Hinduism and in Indian culture in his book "The Argumentative Indian". Yet, those traditions are being corrupted everyday and we are prisoners of fire-wielding hardliners, who have decided that we Indians are not mature enough, we need censorship, and that they will decide for us.

If a country (Italy) that hosts the Vatican itself, can show De Vinci code, it seems strange that India has to worry about the feelings of few sensitive Christians who do not like it!

Friday, 28 April 2006

Heaviest element known to science

Got this from a colleague in an email (I don't know who originally wrote it but it is wonderful):

A major research institution has recently announced the discovery of the heaviest element yet known to science. The new element has been named "Governmentium". Governmentium has one neutron, 12 assistant neutrons, 75 deputy neutrons, and 224 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312.

These 312 particles are held together by forces called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of particles called peons. Since Governmentium has no electrons, it is inert. However, it can be detected, because it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact. A minute amount of Governmentium causes one reaction to take over four days to complete, when it would normally take less than a second.

Governmentium has a normal half-life of 4 years; it does not decay, but instead undergoes a reorganization in which a portion of the assistant neutrons and deputy neutrons exchange places. In fact, Governmentium's mass will actually increase over time, since each reorganization will cause more morons to become neutrons, forming isodopes. This characteristic of moron promotion leads some scientists to believe that Governmentium is formed whenever morons reach a certain quantity in concentration.

This hypothetical quantity is referred to as "Critical Morass." When catalyzed with money, Governmentium becomes Administratium - an element which radiates just as much energy as the Governmentium since it has half as many peons but twice as many morons.

***

Wednesday, 26 April 2006

Democracy and extremism

Yes, I know it is long time since I wrote anything on this blog, except for publishing friends' appeals from Nepal. Now it seems the King in Nepal has decided to give in to the people's movement and peace may return to this beautiful land.

I am thinking about Maoists and if they pose a threat to the country.

I have always maintained that dialogue and democracy are the best way to deal with extremists - by extremists, I mean, those who believe in extreme changes, not necessarily violent. In that sense, I don't agree with repression, banning, jails and fighting to overcome or to contain those we consider "extreme". I believe that if extremists can be made to participate in the democratic dialogue and if they find public support, to be the government, their extremism will be tempered and they will need to become less extreme to fit in with the system.

The increasing forces of globalisation, meaning increasing inter-links between people and countries, should be a safeguard since extremist governments, even if elected, can not break those links and live in isolation.

Another aspect of globalisation is the increasing presence of media, so that when "news" happens like dead bodies floating in Victoria falls in Rwanda, the world will see it. Thus violent abberrations, sooner or later must go away other wise you become an international pariah.

Unfortunately, both aspects of globalisation can be easily manipulated. When economic interests are there, other countries become tolerant of dictators and murderers, and close one or both eyes. And, the international media is fickle, it comes to catch the goriest pictures but here the supply is greater than demand, so it soon leaves to catch other gorier pastures.

So I think that maoists in Nepal should get a chance to participate in the elections and if they win the elections, they can get a go at the system. Yet, I am worried if the democracy rules are valid for everyone?

How about people or groups, who think that they don't believe in democractic ideas but play along only to get into power and then start their dictatorship and repression? And if through democracy, we end up with a Pol Pot and millions of dead, whose fault was it? Or with Talibans?

***

Sunday, 19 March 2006

Falling sick in UK?

I was in London last week.

I went to see Pam at her home. Pam had been in the hospital for back pain. Pam told me about her experience in the hospital. She saw the doctors only on the day of her admission. After that for the next two and half weeks, she never saw her house officer.

The British NHS, national health services had such a reputation with people coming from all over to benefit from the British standard of medical care, what has happened to it?

In the night, the news on BBC mentioned a Mr. Gonsalez, who had killed many persons and the court has sentenced to a mandatory prison for life. There was also an interview with the grandmother of Mr. Gonsalez, who explained that if her grandson was guilty, the state was guilty as well. It seems that she had been complaining about the deterioration in the psychological condition of her grandson for months without any response from social services or the psychiatric services. In one of the letters, she even wrote, "Would you do something only when he kills someone?".

In the morning, flying back to Bologna, I saw the headlines in the newspaper, a private hospital in London is "forced to cut 1000 jobs because of lack of funds".

But UK has the most booming economy in Europe, how can this happen there? While rest of Europe is fighting recession, only UK seems to be going strong, then why did they cut their health service so drastically? It sounds more like a government hospital in India.

I am afraid for our health care services in Italy. With all these magic words of greater efficiency, reducing wastage of resources, more autonomy and privatization, the future does not seem very bright for the right to health.

***
I have a new Hindi-English-Italian photo-blog, Chayachitrakar. There are mornings, when I don't feel like writing much. It would be simpler to stick in a nice picture and it will be done. That is the logic behind it. I have just one camera, a digital kodak, and I don't know about apertures and time of exposure, etc. I can't even take very sofisticated pictures and I don't like special effects, most of the time. But I think that my pictures have good human angle. May be that is not very modest, but I like the pictures I take!

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