Wednesday, December 29, 2010

That Solar Cycle

At this time of the year, most newspapers and television channels are busy reviewing things. The top ten sportsmen of the year, the ten most corrupt politicians this year, the top twenty film actors of twenty-ten and so on. And, in a few days, we will be making new year resolutions. I won't smoke this year, I won't let my wife drink this year, I will exercise more this year, I will fight less with my boss this year. Then, on new year's eve, we will party, mostly, sitting on our butts, smoking and drinking, and getting into drunken brawls with everyone including our bosses. Then, in the first week of January, the top ten lists will be gone, the resolutions will be over, and I will get back to reading Hagar the Horrible on page six, admiring the wonderful life the Vikings had. Including their drunken brawls.

Our life is so dependent on the solar cycle. We go around the sun in three hundred and sixty five days, give or take some small change. We have absolutely no control over the amount of time we go around papa Sol. But, we do have control over when we will start our year, when we will party and how we will divide up the year. So, although most of the world starts its new year in January, the Chinese dance with their dragons in their own new year, the Punjabis do their Bhangra on Baisakhi, and the Bengalis do their smoking and drinking on Poila Boisakh.

The first of the year is easy. Just take those three hundred and sixty five days, and start counting from a particular day. That becomes your new year. Of course, it is so much more fun, if the primary agricultural produce of your civilization just gets harvested, and, you can ferment it to make strong alcohol (extremely important). I often wonder why the Gregorian calendar starts in January. Most of Europe is frozen solid at this time of the year, and if you go a little northwards, you get to eat seal blubber and drink last year's beer. Why in the world would you like to start the new year so depressed? And since European civilization became the civilization of the world, we ended up celebrating the new year at this dreary and gloomy time of the year as well.

And then, there is this thing about the months of the year. A few Roman gods here, a few goddesses there and a couple of bald Italian guys. Yeah, the same kind that you see on TV trying to show you how much goat cheese to add on a pizza from Tuscany. Honestly, would you be comfortable with two months of the year being named after two greasy Italian guys called Tony and Guido? Then how come you don't protest July and August, named after the father and son duo of Julius and Augustus? Ceaser, that is just too much.

I like Baisakh. The spring is in the air. The birds are chirping. Trees have new leaves. The mango season is only a couple of months away. And, palm toddy tastes really nice at that time of the year.

I don't know about you, but this year, I am celebrating new year in April. In the month of Baisakh. And between then and now, I am going to start a signature campaign to rename the months of July and August after the new rulers of the world, Beer and Vodka. Can you imagine how wonderful it will be?

January, February, March, April, May, June, Beer, Vodka,  September, October, November, and, oh, what the hell, Scotch.

Are you with me on that?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

I was taking a walk with my wife on the pavement of the main street of a small town in north India. We crossed the only church in the town and there was a big crowd of nicely dressed people, getting ready to attend the midnight mass. Outside, there were the usual vendors in any small town in India. People selling peanuts, golgappas and sweets. A guy carrying a bunch of brightly colored balloons was approaching us.

"Merry Christmas!", he said. We greeted him back and started looking at the balloons. I was a little curious and so, I asked,"Aapko pata hai Merry Christmas ka matlab?" (Do you know what Merry Christmas means?). He looked a little embarrased, "Pata hai sahib. Main Christian nahin hoon. Yeah mera tyohar nahin hain. Mujhe nahin bolna chahiye meri christmas." (I know Sahib. I am not a Christian. This is not my festival. I shouldn't say My Christmas).

The Hindi word for My is Meri, which sounds very similar to Merry, as in Merry Christmas.

Me  and my wife exchanged a very brief glance. I was feeling a little naughty. So, I suggested to him, "Tab, shayed aapko kahna chahiye, Teri Christmas." (Then may be, you should say your Christmas.) Teri refers to a slightly disrespectful form of "you", usually reserved for children and close friends. He smiled back, "Nahin Sahib, thodi izzat ke sath bolna chahiye". (No Sahib, we should speak with some respect).

We bought a few balloons and resumed our walk. Behind us, we could hear the balloon-man approaching the next customer. He was shouting, "Aap-ki Christmas! Aap-ki Christmas!"(Your Christmas! Your Christmas!). He was using the respectful form of "you". There were puzzled looks all around.

My wife was giving me one of her furious stares. I whispered, "It sort of sounds like Happy Christmas from here. I think he will do just fine".

To all of you, everywhere. In all languages. Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sandrokyptos, my first emperor

Often, you come across people who have never drunk a drop of alcohol, but they can tell you the finest differences between Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. Or people, who have never smoked a cigarette, but can tell you the differences between Virginia tobacco and Amarelinho. Like that, a Chinese colleague of mine, who often used to join us for lunch at work, and who grew up in revolutionary communist China, could tell you everything there was to know about the history of kings and emperors. One day, he was telling me about China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. And then, he asked me a question that I did not know the answer to, "Who was your first emperor?".

I fumbled for the answer, and then, taking a wild guess, said, "I think it was Ashoka the great. He was a person who unified India. And after a pretty nasty military conquest of a state called Kalinga, he converted to Buddhism. We respect him a lot in India, our national emblem, the four headed lion, was actually a part of Ashoka's royal seal." 

Ashoka? No. I think your first emperor was someone called Sandrokyptos, I read about him in a history book. This was a Greek colleague of mine, who was a proud descendant of the Spartans, and was extremely well versed in history. I was intrigued. Sandrokyptos? I knew that when Alexander the Great invaded India, he left several of his generals in charge of the conquered territories. May be, my Greek friend was talking about one such general in Alexander's army. But, I decided to look this up.

As it turns out, Sandrokyptos, as he was known to the Greek, was a mighty emperor. And, as an Indian, he was indeed my first emperor. It just happens, that we know him by a slightly different name, Chandragupta Maurya. At the age of twenty, he had conquered most of northern India and Pakistan and after his southern conquests, he was the undisputed ruler of almost the entire Indian subcontinent, modern day Afghanistan, and some parts of Iran.Then, towards the end of his life, he renounced everything, became a Jain ascetic and moved to a place called Shravanabelagola in modern day Karnataka. Apparently, he chose to die by fasting, which is supposed to be the highest accomplishment of an ascetic.

Who was this extremely interesting person, my first emperor, who lived the life of a powerful monarch, and chose to die with no material possessions? This very approach to life, makes me very sure, that he was India's first emperor.

The historical records from the times of Chandragupta are very sketchy, and most historians believe that he was a common man, not born into nobility. But, very early in his life, he was discovered by another great personality of those times, Chanakya, who is also known as Kautilya to most Indians. Chanakya has gone down in Indian history as a super-intellectual, who was a brilliant military and political strategist. He and Chadragupta made a formidable team together that shook the very foundation of India. Even today, business gurus write books about the philosophy of Kautilya and the rule of Chandragupta Maurya, to teach would be business tycoons how they should rule, and, how they shouldn't. The first milestone in Chandragupta's path to becoming the first emperor of India was to overthrow the Nandas, who were the kings of Pataliputra at the time. As a child, I remember reading a very interesting story about this.

During the first attack on the Nandas, Chandragupta focused on the seat of power. He attacked Nanda's palace with a small band of soldiers and was swiftly defeated. He somehow escaped with his life. Then, he and Chanakya, disguised as monks, roamed the countryside in northern India, plotting their next step. It was during these travels, that they took shelter in the house of a kind lady, who offered them a warm meal. They were sitting down to eat and the lady's young son, who was barely five, joined them. Being extremely hungry, the boy put his hand in the middle of a hot lump of rice and whimpered in pain. Instead of consoling the boy, his mother chided him, "Why did you make the same mistake that Chandragupta did? Now you have to suffer!"

The two monks were about to dig into their food, but froze when they heard the remark. Curious, they asked,"What does putting your hand in the middle of a hot lump of rice have to do with Chandragupta?" The lady said, "Just like my boy here, Chandragupta put his fingers where his enemy was the strongest. The best way to eat a hot lump of rice is to eat it from the sides, and wait while the rest cools down." 

The two most brilliant political and military strategists of our land, learned a life lesson from that housewife on that fateful day. They decided to attack the Nandas  from the fringes and eat away at their crumbling empire. Very soon, Chandragupta was the ruler of Pataliputra, on his way to becoming the first emperor of India.

One last thing. I discovered that I was not completely wrong with my answer after all. Ashoka the great, a mighty emperor in his own right, who had a profound impact on our destiny as Indians, was the third emperor of the mighty Mauryan empire. Founded by the mighty Sandrokyptos, my first emperor.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Chai Chai

I have been a great fan of Mr. Biswanath Ghosh for a long time. First, I found his blog on the Internet, On the Ganga Mail, rather accidentally. After reading a couple of posts, I realized that I was looking at the writings of an author of exceptional calibre. Then, visiting his site became a daily routine for me. On some days, there would be enough content for me to ponder over. Perhaps, enough to come back for a second bite after dinner, and perhaps, think deep thoughts about, before retiring for the day. On some other days, the pickings would be slim, but the nibble would be satisfying enough. And, there would  be those dreadful days, when there would not be a post, and I would hope that the next day would bring out the magical carpet, woven with the words and thoughts that Mr. Ghosh is such a master craftsman at weaving.

So, I was delighted when my wife recently handed me a copy of his book Chai Chai. I was meaning to get my hands on the book for a long time, but she beat me to it. Then, I spent a couple of days reading the book and re-reading some of the sections. This post is not supposed to be a book review, but an appreciation of a beautiful work of art, that took me back to an India that I love and very recently, have started missing. Expatriates miss India all the time. They think they miss the place, but only after they come back home, do they realize that they miss the time and not the place they left. I can vouch for this with my own experience. Chai Chai took me to the places that I have started missing rather sorely, but it also took me to the little time capsules, where, strangely enough, the old charm of India, continues to live on.

Places, where a retired engine driver with two free passes to go anywhere in India will come to share his life's experience with you. Places, where you would spend ten minutes at the destination to enjoy the return journey on the train. And places, where unpaid security guards in closed down mills will offer to share their meal with you, even if they don't have enough on their own plates.

Although every chapter in this book is a delightful read, I would like to recount two specific parts of the journey that I  enjoyed. One is the description of a little junction in north India called Mughal-Sarai. Anyone that has ever been to Varanasi from any godforsaken town in north India, has always travelled through this little town. Me included. What was particularly enjoyable, was the description of the life that exists outside the station in this typical north Indian city. What came as a bonus, was the trip to Kashi that Mr. Ghosh took me to, along with the visit to the Vishwanath temple, and all the little trappings in between, that Kashi is so famous for. The second really touching story is that of a small town in Andhra Pradesh, where he visits a Dargah for a Muslim seer, that is patronized by Hindus. At the end of his visit to this place, he provides a rather sentimental description of how the lady who lived there, hands him a packet of sweets. Only hours later, he visits a temple, and a vendor outside sells him a bottle of fake mineral-water. In today's India, there is a constant struggle between the old India of sentiments, familiarity and hospitality, and the new India of malice and avarice. This book took me through a cruise of both Indias, while I was constantly praying for a slightly longer life for the India that I miss, and the India that is slowly dying what many people would perhaps call a natural death.

And yes, just a casual side note. I noticed that Mr. Ghosh seems to be opening a bottle of whiskey at the beginning and end of every journey he makes. While, I do understand that authors cruise the ethereal plane better while slightly inebriated, I would like to see many more good books such as Chai Chai from Mr. Ghosh in the years to come. So, I hope that he can tone down his love of the spirits a little bit, and still be in generally good spirits.

Finally, since I grew up in the cow belt of India, I know that I am giving Mr. Ghosh the highest compliments from my heart, from one Desi to another, when I say, Wah sahab, kya khalis kitab likhi hai aapne. Bilkul desi ghee ki tarah.

(No translations needed.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

In the Strictest Interpretation

In the strictest interpretation.

Sikhism does not allow smoking,
Islam does not allow drinking,
and Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism prohibit beef.

In Catholicism,  on lent one cannot have non-seafood meat,
In Judaism, one isn't allowed to combine mutton with a milk treat,
And if you practice Haitian Voodoo,
eating the sacrificed chicken is a can't-do.

One wonders why, so many Bengalis are communists.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Life after Death

As humans, we have always been fascinated by the concept of an afterlife. The ancient Egyptians erected huge pyramids as a tribute to their departed kings, and made sure that they would have enough material comforts in the afterlife. Neanderthal human cultures from about sixty thousand years ago, had rituals for the dead that support the idea of afterlife. So, it looks like we have been sold to the idea of an afterlife for quite some time.

As our understanding of death has improved over the last few decades, so has the definition of when it occurs. Today, it is pretty much determined by the moment when all brain activity ceases in an individual. After that, according to science, we become a part of the bio-geochemical cycle, the various forces of nature take care of our mortal remains. We become one with the elements. Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust.

But, we humans simply refuse to accept that it can end so abruptly, and so mercilessly. If I built that multi-billion dollar business empire, or discovered the furthest galaxies in the universe, or wrote the book of poems that got me the Nobel prize in literature, surely, I deserve better. All this, cannot simply end like this. And thus, came afterlife.

In the ten or so thousand years of human culture, there has not been a single documented, and scientifically verifiable case of a human being, communicating from the afterlife about their existence beyond the cycle of ashes and dust. Yet, the concept persists, and all major religions in the world have a description of afterlife. There are people, who don't subscribe to any particular religious philosophy, but practice the occult, who will give you elaborate descriptions of the nether-world and what happens beyond the grave. I plan to write more on occult in some of the future posts.

Of the major religions in the world, there are two schools of thought on afterlife. The Abrahamic religions, which include Christianity, Islam and Judaism,  believe that there is a day of judgment and resurrection. Most eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, believe in reincarnation, which is a natural consequence of the immortal nature of the soul. But, everyone seems to agree that once we die, everything is not finished, and something continues on. The Buddha, whom I consider to be the foremost philosopher of our times, is said to have remarked:

Life is a journey.
Death is a return to earth.
The universe is like an inn.
The passing years are like dust.

Regard this phantom world

As a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp - a phantom - and a dream.

I once attended the last rites (Shraddha) of a relative, in a Hindu temple in the United States. The ceremony was elaborate and the priest was very accomplished. At the end of the rites, I was deeply moved. I complimented him personally for conducting the ceremony so well. He told me that he actually had done doctoral work in Sanskrit and his specialization was in the funerary rites of the Hindus, about which, he had written a book. He gave me a detailed description of what happens right after the soul leaves the body, as described by the Puranas. What struck me was the amount of detail that exists in the ancient religious texts, on what happens after death. It is almost as if someone experienced the journey, and lived to talk about it.

Many of the important revelations in my own life have come to me on moving trains. I was once traveling in a train (not the Peanut Express), and amongst my co-passengers, was a neatly dressed Maulavi Sahab (A Muslim clergyman). Through the four hour journey, we talked about many things such as politics, education and sports. Not once did we discuss any religion. Then, towards the end of the journey, rather hesitantly, I inquired if I could ask him a metaphysical question. He agreed.

I asked, "Maulavi Sahab, maut ke bad kya hota hai? (Maulavi Sahab, what happens after death?)". I had expected a long lecture on heaven and hell, the day of judgment and religious values, but, with a rather bemused look on his face, he replied, "Are sahab, maut ke bad janaaza nikalta hai. (Sahab, after death, a funeral procession is taken out)".

Friday, December 17, 2010

But Ghalib has a different style

It is that time of the year again. Things are cold and gloomy. People are a little depressed. And alcohol is much in demand. Those who can, write poetry. Those who cannot, simply borrow from others. If you have to borrow, why not borrow from the best?

I can't think of anyone else but Mirza Ghalib. When you need two lines that combine a drink with poetry (shaken, not stirred with gloom), he is the best. They used to say, "....but Ghalib has a different style of describing things (par Ghalib ka hai andaaz-e-bayan aur)..."

مجھ  تک   کب  ان  کی  بزم  میں  آتا  تھا  دور -ا -جام
ساقی  نے  کچھ  ملا  نہ  دیا  ہو  شراب  میں

Mujh Tak Kab Un Kii Bazm MeiN Aataa Thaa Daur-E-Jaam
Saaqii Ne Kuchh Milaa Na Diyaa Ho Sharaab Mein.

When -- in her party-- would a drink ever come to me.
(And now that I have it, I hope).. the bartender hasn't mixed something into it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Doctor, Doctor

I was driving my daughter to the doctor's office to get her a flu shot. At the time, she was five years old. When you are traveling with a five year old, you have to be prepared for a barrage of questions. On all things, that exist in the world. Sometimes, I think that the Gestapo would have done so much better with their interrogations if they had a five year old on their payroll. 

"Why are we going to the doctor?" She asked. "To get you a flu shot so you don't get sick this season". I said. "But, aren't you a doctor? They put Doctor in front of your name in the letters they send you. Why are we going to another doctor then?"  I said, "Well, I am not that kind of a doctor. One that treats people."

"Who do you treat then?"  "I treat machines. I am an engineer, who became a doctor. Well, sort of."

"Then, you are not really a real doctor, are you?"

That hurt. All those years pursuing that Ph.D., and all those caustic remarks from the people who reviewed my research work. Those didn't hurt as much as this one. Coming from my own five year old. But after a while, you get used to it. The fact that although you are a doctor, you are not really a doctor.

Like this incident that happened at the airport some time ago. There was a long line of passengers at the boarding gate. A pregnant lady, who looked very pregnant, was getting some help with boarding. The airline called the names of a couple of doctors on that flight. Dr. Smith, Dr. Babu, please report to the counter. Dr. Smith, in front of me, was a real doctor. I overheard him agreeing to help in case they needed any help with the pregnant lady. I was next in line. Before the lady could say a thing, I put on my biggest smile and said, "I am not a medical doctor. But I can help if you need someone to analyze the turbulence in your aircraft."

"Thank you Sir, we have the help we need." The professional smile, and the quick dismissal. Ah, a lifesaver.

A typical medical degree in the United States requires four years of undergraduate work, four years of medical school and four years of residency. A typical Ph.D. in engineering takes comparable amounts of time. And, if they have their Christiaan Baarnards, we have our Frank Whittles. So, as you can see, we are not really the intellectually inferior beings that we are made out to be. Don't listen to any five year olds that might tell you otherwise.

I was at this party where a few doctors were present. Real ones. I was introduced to a particular one. Dr. Singh, meet Dr. Babu. "Dr. Babu, it is a pleasure meeting you. What kind of a doctor are you?" This time, it was armistice before the first salvo. "Well, Dr. Singh, I am not really a real doctor. I just have a Ph.D."

"No, don't say that. I always wanted to get a Ph.D. I was just not a big intellectual. I think the brightest people get the Ph.Ds. We just fix people. You fix the philosophy. The philosophy of knowledge." Dr. Singh went on and on. In the few minutes I talked to him, I felt as if I was on cloud nine. All that inferiority complex was gone. I was the best of the best. Of the best, in the world. No wait, the universe.

Dr. Singh disappeared in the crowd after a while. I was feeling guilty for not having asked him anything about himself. I was such a conceited person. My friend, the host walked by. "I saw you talking to Dr. Singh. Did you enjoy the chat?"

"He is the best. Loved every minute of the conversation."

"He better be. He charges three hundred dollars an hour for psychotherapy. He is the best shrink in the state. They say, if you have lost an eye, an arm and a leg, a session with him, and you will be ready to run the Boston marathon. He is the best doctor there is." Yes, I noticed.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Cauliflower Lady

What does it take for a thousand ships to sail for you? If you have read the story of Helen of Troy, the beautiful wife of Menelaus the Greek, you know about the thousand ships that sailed to win her back. The Trojan horse is a piece of legend that we all have read or heard about. Another question. What does it take for a passenger train drawn by a steam engine to stop for you, in the middle of the beautiful hills of Jharkhand? Read on.

The Peanut Express was winding its way through the beautiful hills. Some parts of Jharkhand are so beautiful that you would think that a local artist was inspired by the rolling hills of Scotland and painted a masterpiece on a canvas with a delightful smattering of colors. Then, he threw in a herd of cows and goats for good measure. I was looking out the window and enjoying the scenery. When the train went across a small clearing, and I was beginning to admire the next hillock, I saw a woman with a basket of cauliflowers on her head, hastily making her way for the train. To my surprise, the train slowed down, and came to a grinding halt. A train belonging to the mighty Indian Railways, had stopped in the middle of nowhere. For a cauliflower lady.

To say the least, I was curious. Once the lady was aboard, I struck up a conversation with her. She was about fifty and had half a head of gray hair. She was wearing a lot of silver, so much that one would think that she preferred to keep her family silver with her all the time, unlike the rest of us, who like to keep it in the china cabinet.  She had a few missing teeth and it looked like she kept her local paan (betel leaf) shop in good business. I had never seen a more beautiful tribal woman before.

Her basket was full of small cauliflowers, probably grown with the help of cow manure. In those days, I was quite taken with the advances in agriculture, and wanted to give her some unsolicited advice on how a little bit of urea or potash would help her grow cauliflowers twice the size she had. Much later, hanging out with the hippies in America, I realised that people would have lined up to buy those small  cauliflowers, blessed by the rear end of a cow, since organic is the word that has defined agricultural produce in the last decade.

She told me about the cows and the goats she had. About the cauliflowers that were the tastiest in the whole district. And that she was headed for the local haat (country market), where she hoped to get a good price for them. I was itching to ask the question, and so, I finally did. Why do you think the train stopped for you in the middle of nowhere, miles from any station in either direction?

She smiled. Pata nahin babu. Ham to haat utha dete hain. Aur terain rook jata hai. (I don't know babu, I just raise my hand and the train stops).

I did not see her buying a ticket and obviously, she didn't pay anything to the ticket checker. So, money was definitely not the reason. So, what was it? When I reached Ramgarh, I could not control myself any more. So, I walked over to the ticket checker and asked him why the train had to be stopped in the middle of nowhere for a cauliflower lady. Of course, I told him I was not complaining about it, I was just curious. 

"Kya karein Sir." He said, "Injun driver ki Biwi hai. Becharey ko shaam ko ghar jaana hai ki nahin?". (What can I do Sir. She is married to the engine driver, the poor man has to go back home tonight.)

I had my answer. If you are carrying a basket of cauliflowers on your head in the middle of nowhere, and want the Peanut Express to stop for you, you don't have to be the beautiful Helen of Troy. You just need to be married to the engine driver.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Of bricks, mortar and land

"You need to buy a flat soon. Before the prices go up!" One of my colleagues was advising another over lunch. There was another colleague sharing the table, who recently moved back from the United States and lost a boatload of money in the real estate bust there. He was quiet for a few seconds and then advised exactly the opposite, "Don't buy, even if your life depends on it!". He was usually quiet over lunch. While we would talk about politics and sports, he would simply enjoy the Daal or the Sambar, as if this was the last year India was going to have  the monsoons. But today, with real estate as the discussion item, it seemed that we had touched a raw nerve somewhere. And a floodgate of information was suddenly opened.

"You should know that real estate in India is in a massive bubble. Don't you know that in a big city, your rent is a fourth of the EMI you would pay to buy the same place? That is simply ridiculous. Plus, all the black money generated from tax evasion and  bribery in India is invested in real estate and that is what has pushed the prices up. Wait till the crash comes, the bubble is about to burst."

It took me a few seconds to digest all the information. The Sambar was so hot that half of my brain cells were engaged in making sense of the fire in my tongue. "How do you know so much about this?", I asked.

"Well, as you know, I lost a lot of money in American real estate when the market crashed. One learns a lot from past mistakes. Plus, there is this blog called India's housing bubble. It is tracking the bubble for a while, and I have learned a lot from it."

I was intrigued. "So, what is your advice to mere mortals like me?"

" I have decided to wait for the bubble to burst. But, my advise to you is that don't buy a flat in a big city, even if you live and work there. Just keep renting. You are better off buying land in a smaller town in India. You will get a much better deal. "

"You mean some place like Jhumri-Talaiya?" 

 If you grow up in North India, it is your God given right to invoke Jhumri-Talaiya, every time someone talks about a random town. It is like the Desi version of Timbuktoo.

A few weeks later, this colleague of mine called me. "Well, since you suggested the name to me, I should give you first-dibs. You see, I found this ten acre piece of land in Jhumri-Talaiya at a fabulous price. I have entered into a partnership with a developer friend of mine and we are going to make flats. If you are interested, I will give you a very good deal".

"But, what about the real estate bubble you told me about? You said there is a blog post on it that people frequently visit."

"I don't think there is a bubble any more. Plus, that web site hasn't seen much traffic lately. Although I don't think you can double your money in a year any more, two years sound more like it. So, let me know. We can even arrange a loan for you through a major MNC bank."

I am headed to Jhumri-Talaiya next month. I understand that the last fifty kilometers have to be negotiated on a bullock cart, and there is no electricity or water at the site my colleague is developing. But, just wait till the wealthy NRIs hear about the project. We will all be rich.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Last Gyalmo

You are two years old, and your parents are already gone from your life. Your grandparents take over, but rather reluctantly. By the time you are fifteen, they are gone too. And then, at the age of nineteen, you travel half way across the world to a remote kingdom in the mountains, and meet the prince, who is twice your age. You fall in love, marry and your life becomes the stuff National Geographic and Life like to print. But wait, this isn't really a fairytale. Your prince charming becomes king, but soon loses his kingdom. And you go back to your homeland, raise your children and become a historian giving walking tours to people visiting your vibrant city. And, you are still going strong at seventy.

No, I am not talking about a movie I saw recently. This is a true story. This is the life of Hope Cooke, the last Gyalmo (Queen) of Sikkim, wife of Palden Thondup Namgyal, the last Chogyal (King) of Sikkim.

I was in Gangtok recently, it is a beautiful city in the heart of the Himalayas, and the capital of the Indian state of Sikkim. India had a lot of princely states in the past, and most of the erstwhile royal families have turned their palaces into hotels or museums. So, when I was in Gangtok, I asked every single tour guide I met if I could take a tour of the Chogyal's palace and I was told by every single one of them that the palace was off-limits to tourists like me. Entry was strictly by invitation. I was curious because I had seen a beautiful view of the palace's dance hall in Dev Anand's Jewel Thief, where the famous Hothon Mein Aise Bat Main Dabake Chali Aayi song was filmed. Since I couldn't get in, my curiosity grew, and I decided to find out more about the royal family of Sikkim. That is when I came across the story of Hope Cooke.

What I wrote above pretty much sums up her life. It seems that her marriage was not a very happy one and you can obviously read up on her life on the internet. There is so much stuff that you will probably need hours to go through it. But what I wanted to write about is the hope in the life of this lady named Hope. Losing anything is difficult. Losing your parents even before you understand what parents are, is tough. Becoming a queen and losing a kingdom is incredibly tough. But then, where do you get the strength to pick up the pieces and start over?

I don't really have an answer to where inner strength comes from. Perhaps, you go through a period of extreme depression, and then, pick up the pieces. I know many people who have done that. Perhaps, there is something more to this. I do plan to find out.

One more thing. Just last month, the Indian government lifted restrictions on Satyajit Ray's documentary called Sikkim. Apparently, it was commissioned by the last Chogyal and his Gyalmo, Hope Cooke. I am a big fan of Satyajit Ray and apparently, all prints of this documentary were destroyed except one. It was recently exhibited at the Calcutta film festival and since I missed it, I am dying to watch it. 

Someday, I will get to watch it. I hope.

The Peanut Express

Many years ago, I took a train from nowhere to nowhere.

No, really. It was an amazing journey. I was traveling to a place called Ranchi in the state of Jharkhand (It used to be Bihar back then). I took the night train from Calcutta and that being the month of May, when the orange sun turns red, I was hoping to get some cool mountain air in Ranchi. There is this place called Muri Junction, about sixty kilometers from Ranchi, where the plains end and the mountains start. In those days, they would stop the train for an hour and change the engine, as if they were feeding the mules before the tough trek began. Sometimes, the mules would refuse to budge and there would be a two hour delay. Then, they would stop the overnight train and let the other trains pass, since those would be the ones on time. After a while, an hour would turn into a few hours, and sometimes, half a day. This was one such half a day.

A fellow passenger asked me what I was going to do in Ranchi. When he heard that I was simply escaping Calcutta for the hills, he suggested that I try a quieter place called Hazaribagh. Apparently, I could just hop on to a passenger train from Muri and go to a place called Ramgarh, though not the same one where Gabbar Singh once lived and (presumably) died. This was a different Ramgarh, but I could take a bus from there to Hazaribagh, which according to him was cool enough to shelter a thousand tigers at this time of the year. It just happened to be a coincidence that the passenger train was on the next track and ready to go. I was not known to be an impulsive creature. In fact, if I ever faced the dilemma of Mr. Indiana Jones, on whether I should jump off a cliff to escape a group of marauding cannibals, I would have probably opened my book on negotiations and patiently read Chapter 12 on Negotiating as if your life depends on it.

But this, was a different day.

The Muri-Barkakana Passenger, as it was officially known, became my ride to the city where a thousand tigers were waiting for me. As I found out later, it was popularly known as the Moongphali Express, or The Peanut Express, since the floors were seldom swept and were full of peanut shells. But this train changed my entire perspective on life, and how to live it. By writing this blog, I am simply paying tribute to the many nameless passengers I travelled with on that fateful day, when,  like the Buddha, I attained my own Nirvana.

Bihar was an extremely poor state with a complete lack of governance. The southern part of it, where I was travelling was the neglected stepchild. Yet, when the engine hooted, a lot of people I was travelling with clapped with joy. I found much later that Italians applaud when airplanes land. Apparently, they too are a very happy group of people. After a while, I realized that I had lucked out. I was actually traveling on a train pulled by a steam-engine. It is every schoolboy's fantasy to ride on a steam engine, I actually got to ride on one that would get phased out in a few years. And my fellow passengers were totally oblivious to how spoilt they were. 

My fellow passengers could actually be described by the phrase "motley crowd" very well. There were a few well dressed people, probably government employees in this part of the world. Then, there were a bunch of people who looked like miners that had just finished the night shift, since they were all covered in dust and soot. There were farmers, with their vegetable baskets. And yes, there was a guy carrying a small goat. You simply could not travel on a train in Bihar in those days, and not see the guy with the goat. He just had to be there. There was a cauliflower lady, about whom, I will write a separate post some other day. And there was a ticket checker, who did not check any tickets.

In that three hour journey on that day, I came as close to seeing a boatload of happy people (no pun intended) as I have ever seen in my life. These were poor people back then, and unless there has been a real estate boom in the backwaters of Jharkhand since, they must be poor people now. Since then, I have travelled halfway across the world, met people from many cultures, seen the stock market go up and down many times, seen a few booms and busts and become a more sombre human being, as far as looking at life goes. I have tried to search for happiness amongst things around me, but I don't remember seeing such a happy group of people ever again.

In my Blog, I will try to write about those people on the peanut express and why I think they were so happy that day.  I will also write about the things that make me happy or sad or the various shades of gray in between.

Today's India is intimidating. There are no tigers left for Jim Corbett to shoot, and the  people responsible, are probably scarier than anything Mr. Corbett would sign up to shoot. The gray mountains of  Ruskin Bond are dug up for iron and steel that can be shipped to China for the cheap bicycle in my neighborhood store. R.K. Narayan's Malgudi has a few high-rise buildings now and I hear the local MP is pitching for a three lane bypass to the six-lane highway, where the archaeologist, Dr. Bandhopadhyaya, dug up the Roman statue. And, Mr. Khushwant Singh is writing about what it means to be old, in an India, that is getting old.

Stay tuned, I will be here, sharing my thoughts of the India that I love and miss. More later...