Friday, April 29, 2011

Of flying cattle and more..

During the twister and tornado season in the United States, you hear strange stories. A frequent tale is that of a flying cow, since the winds are strong enough to transport a few hundred pounds of moo from one location to another. And, we keep hearing these stories time and again. But, other than tornadoes, I am aware of only one other mode of air-travel for cattle. Air India.

Some time ago, an Indian minister, Shashi Tharoor, gained notoriety by calling the economy class of Air India, the "cattle class". He had been asked to make better use of taxpayer's money by traveling on economy class. And, at that time, I was reminded of an episode of  "The Simpsons", where Homer Simpson makes a trip to India. Recently, I found a cartoon from that episode. It depicts the deep love and respect we have in India for cattle. And so, if someone treats you like cattle in India, it is not necessarily bad treatment that you should look forward to.

Air India is India's flagship airline. It is owned and run by the government. The same government that does not know how to take care of cattle on land. So, how in the world would they know anything about making cattle fly? Right now, much of India's air-travel is paralyzed, because the pilots of Air India are on strike. One more time.  In the last few years, they have struck so many times that my neighborhood cobra, who was de-fanged recently, told me with renewed hope that he is going to work for Air India now, since the pay is good, benefits are great, and frequently, he will get to strike. And hurt people, which is what his karma is, on this planet.

Every time this happens, we go through the same debate. One more time. Should we let Air India go? Should we privatize this "white elephant" that never makes money, is not known for customer service, and has a pretty bad safety record? Last year, it made a loss of Rs. 5551 crores, or approximately, 1.23 billion US dollars! And all of that, was subsidized by the Indian taxpayer. If anyone in the private sector made that kind of loss, with that kind of money, you could hire ten Donald Trumps, to say "You're fired" for the entire financial year. Nonstop.

But, the taxpayer's subsidy does not just stop there. A friend, who works for the government, told me that they are only allowed to travel on Air India, while on business. That doesn't sound so bad, since a government agency can definitely help out another, right? Well, not if you can travel between the same two points on a private airline, for half the cost.  Yes, Air India flights are considerably more expensive than those run by private airlines. And the difference, is again paid by the Indian taxpayer.

To me, it sounds like a run on the bank. Or, daylight robbery. Or, if you have watched Sholay a thousand times like I have -- Gabbar Singh on a Sarkari horse, carrying a rifle stolen from the government armory, and shooting the police chief with it. That is what Air India is.

My solution to this age old problem is very simple. We should sell off most of Air India, and if we really need a national carrier for national pride and stuff, we can get a few gigantic gas-filled balloons, and fly the national flag on them. Air India has done so much damage to my national pride as an Indian, that I think I will be perfectly all right without it. Oh, and one last thing. Let us say that when the strike is over, and Air India is still around, is there a chance that I  will fly on the airline that makes cattle fly?  

Yeah sure, when pigs fly.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Le Petit Dejeuner

A few days ago, I had one of my usual breakfasts in the morning. But, I got very hungry in a couple of hours. So, around ten-thirty, I  decided to grab some more food. And, while I was wolfing away at some nice idlis and chutney, a colleague saw me and exclaimed, "Early lunch, eh?!" I didn't know what to say, and so, I said, "No, it really is more like a second-breakfast, like the hobbits like to have." I don't think he follows the hobbit-culture like I do. And so, that was pretty much the end of the conversation.

In case you don't know, the hobbits have seven meals a day, if we are to believe what J.R.R. Tolkien had to say. And, there are many cultures around the world, most notably, the Bavarians, that have adopted a second breakfast as a part of their gastronomic routine. But breakfast, for many cultures, is really the primary meal of the day, since you break your fast after a long night without food. And every language, has a descriptive word for this first meal of the day, that includes terms like primary, first, or fast.

But, one would immediately know that the French are different, aren't they? A long time ago, while I was taking French lessons, I was surprised to know that the word breakfast in French is described a little differently. To them, it is not a first meal, but an early lunch. Or, a small one if one likes it that way. So, since lunch is Dejeuner, breakfast has to be Le Petit Dejeuner, where Petit means,..., well, you know. So, to the French, breakfast is really a small distraction from the primary meal of the day, Lunch. With the baguette and the grilled duck breast on the menu. And a touch of honey.

Yesterday, the second high profile arrest was made by the Indian law-enforcement agencies, which have now decided to go after graft. The first one was that of Mr. A. Raja, an ex-cabinet minister, who made a fire-sale out of India's telecom licenses. The second one, was that of Mr. Suresh Kalmadi, who supposedly, cleaned the exchequer out during the commonwealth games. Given the amount of corruption that exists in public life in India, I really think that these two arrests, however high profile they might be, are like the first and the second breakfast. Where the word breakfast, is taken with a full French connotation. With a stress on the word petit. So, I am eagerly looking forward to the lunch and the dinner.

Speaking of food, I noticed that Mr. Pramod Joshi, who writes a very informative blog in Hindi, which I follow on a regular basis, has written a post, that can be translated roughly as "The jailing of the great ones". And, in that post, he quotes Chanakya, or Kautilya, the legendary Indian statesman from the times of the first empire.

....."कौटिल्य ने अपने अर्थशास्त्र में चालीस किस्म के आर्थिक घोटालों का जिक्र किया है। उन्होंने लिखा है कि यह सम्भव नहीं कि सरकारी कर्मचारी ज़ुबान पर रखी शहद की बूँद का स्वाद नहीं जान पाएगा। यह नज़र रखना मुश्किल है कि मछली कितना पानी पीती है।"
( Kautilya, in his Arthashastra, has described forty types of financial scams. He writes, that it is quite impossible that a government employee will not taste the honey kept on his tongue. It is difficult to keep an eye on the fish to track how much water it drinks! )......

It is amazing that more than two thousand years ago, Kautilya, the greatest political strategist that the subcontinent has ever known, was thinking about food analogies for corruption. While reading all this, I wondered, if Kaultilya, the great one, ever felt the cravings for a second breakfast. Around ten in the morning.

And, did he ever believe that breakfast, was not the first meal of the day, but a small  and insignificant lunch. With much more to look forward to, as the day went by.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Easy access to seventh heaven

Spring has a way of bringing a treasure trove of goodies for us, mere mortals, living in India. And from Holi to Baisakhi, people in several north Indian states have a very ingenious way of achieving a higher plane of existence, using a very local product. Bhang.

This Holi, like everyone else in India, I had my fair share of colors. It was quite enjoyable, since we had a small Holi party in the place where we live. And then, one of my jittery neighbors, pulled out a bottle, full of a greenish fluid, and started mixing it with the thandai, which is a sweet drink made with milk, sugar and crushed almonds. If you grew up in north India, you would immediately realize what was going on. And, if you were a brave soul amongst the uninitiated, you would definitely get ready to take a swig. Yes, the holy concoction of bhang, accompanied by its devoted followers, was blessing us with its presence. And, like Tennyson so famously said, ours was not to reason why. So, I drank my fair share of it. And since this was after many years without, I didn't realize what would hit me in a couple of hours. I had absolutely no idea.

Bhang, as a recreational drug, is a banned substance in most of the world. But, in India, due to historical use in religious ceremonies, it is borderline legal. It is made by grinding the leaves and flowers of the female cannabis plant into a fine paste. Then, it is usually mixed with milk and crushed nuts, with a lot of sugar. And, unlike alcohol, the intoxication is delayed. So usually, you will find out how much you drank, an hour after drinking it. If you are someone who strongly believes that every cloud has a silver lining, then you could argue that after drinking bhang, you don't need a designated driver, if you live a short drive away. If the drive is longer, the chances are, that you will see a rainbow around your clouds, and for some strange reason, you will laugh a lot. Uncontrollably. As if, you are in seventh heaven.

Bhang is extremely popular amongst the vagabond ascetics in India. During the breaks they take between Yoga and meditation, they usually smoke pot. And, if the throat gets too dry, they drink bhang. The devotees of Lord Shiva look at the entire process of grinding cannabis leaves, and making bhang, as a religious exercise, and the holy drink is first offered to the Lord before it is consumed. And then, everyone just sits around and laughs. Uncontrollably.

There is a beautiful Bollywood song from the seventies that captures the bhang drinking phenomenon quite accurately. You can see the entire act of preparation, offering and intoxication in a short, but entertaining video clip. And, the beautiful Himalayas, where Lord Shiva lives, are in the background. So is a small but beautiful temple where he is worshiped.  Enjoy!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The king is dead. Long live the...

I grew up in a culture that was steeped in socialism. In an India, that was still toying with the egalitarian philosophy of  Ram Manohar Lohia and Vinoba Bhave, while trying to make sense of the finer differences between the communism of the Soviets and the communism of chairman Mao. No one had heard of free-market capitalism in those days; it was something that you could publicly scoff at, and be easily called an intellectual. And monarchy, was considered the ultimate form of pestilence, inflicted upon the common people, by the elite that wanted to make them work in the salt mines, while gorging on caviar and champagne.

So, when anything connected with "royalty" happens anywhere in the world, I tend to notice. Usually, with a sense of resignation, since I have never thought much of the people who are "royal" or those, who take an interest in them. Last week, I was looking at the news content from a few major media outlets. The ones, that common people like me tend to read. All over the anglophone world, newspapers are carrying reports of the impending royal wedding in Britain. CNN, which I don't think very highly of, has a front page section on the wedding. And the United States, which it primarily serves, has long been out of the clutches of the British empire. Long enough, that they don't even belong to the British commonwealth.

When I looked at the Indian media, there were references to the royal wedding indeed. But those news items were sandwiched between the stories of Bollywood damsels in scanty clothes and cricket players romancing them. And, we still have living people amongst us, who can recollect the union jack flying over their local town hall.

So, one wonders, why the Americans have such a fascination with British royalty? A few hundred years after they chased his majesty's redcoats to the Canadian side. By the dawn's early light.

I have always been fascinated by the American concept of democracy, as opposed to the British one that we adopted after they chose to leave. I like the republican spirit built into the American constitution, which does not place one man above another, and definitely not by invoking the divine powers. And so, I have never quite been able to explain the American fascination with British monarchy.

Is it something they miss, because they don't have it any more? Well, in that case, as fellow citizens of sister democracies, we Indians can provide them with psychological counseling that involves walking them through the various stages of grief. Denial included.

But, I have a more pedestrian theory about all of this. One that still reinforces my belief that the Americans have not given up on the republic. I believe that our friends, the nephews and nieces of Mr. Sam, are treating the entire British royal family as a gigantic soap opera. One, that would put "Dallas" and "The days of our lives" to shame. To them, watching all this on national television, is plain entertainment. And, to top it all, none of the expenses of running this elaborate, but somewhat vestigial part of the government, come from their tax dollars. As an ex-boss of mine, armed with a degree from the ivy league business school of cliches used to say, this is one goddamn piece of a win-win situation.

Isn't it?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Christmas cravings in April

I once had a friend, who used to crave for Holi during Diwali. It was never the other way round. The craving was always for Holi. During Diwali. And once, I asked him the reason for this strange craving. He had a simple answer -- in the winter cold of the hills of Jharkhand, when you are outdoors, trying to light diyas, don't you miss the spring-time bucket of warm water being splashed all over you? And, when the loud firecrackers are driving you nuts, don't you wish that you had a glass of bhang to knock yourself out? After all, that is why God created the cannabis plant.  I had to defer to his superior judgment in this matter.

And that, makes me quite familiar with the idea of craving for one festival during another. Although, I had never really experienced it first hand before. Until today.

I was reading a wonderfully written newspaper article on Lent, since Easter is fast approaching. It was all about fasting and sacrifice. But, my eyes kept wandering over to an enticing picture of two perfectly baked hot cross buns on the same page. To a lot of gluttons like me, the world over, that is what Easter is all about. And then, a thought struck me. In India, which is a country of many religions, Good Friday and Easter for me, have always been the other Christian holiday. The one, that is not Christmas. And then, quite naturally, I was reminded of Christmas.

To me, Christmas was all about being home for the holidays. To a non-Christian kid in India, that is the time of the year, when your school or college sends you packing. Home. It doesn't really matter if you like John Denver or not, and it really doesn't matter if your home happens to be at the end of a long country road. In the plains. Mine incidentally, was in the mountains. But, like everyone else, I had to pack up and go home, for the winter vacations.

I remember as the bus would groan its way through the winding roads in the hills, I would see the golden sky of a typical winter evening in Jharkhand, and experience the chilly mountain air through the half open windows of the bus. Windows, that could never be properly shut, even if your life depended on it.  And, as the bus passed through the small villages, I would smell a sweet smell of smoke, that comes from burning coal with local firewood, with a liberal sprinkling of Sal leaves, that are used to start the fire. And then, I would see the beautifully decorated village churches in the distance. These were too small and underfunded to have the characteristic spire. But, you could tell that these were churches, since they had the right decorations. For that time of the year.

Christmas was all about coming back home. Enjoying a home-cooked meal. And, at night, hiding from the bone-chilling cold of the mountains under a thick and comfortable blanket. With the jackals howling in the distance, and the dogs barking back. And the wind through the Sal and Mahua trees making you aware that  being under the blanket was not so bad after all. Around that time of the year.

Years later, I was on a boat from Miami to the Bahamas. During Christmas. Supposedly, it was a cruise ship, but when you are sailing for only six hours, you are better off calling it a boat. I was on the deck, which had a DJ playing old and nostalgic songs. Songs that people like to listen to, when Christmas is around. I had my back to the stage, and I was looking at the deep blue sea, trying to spot an island or two. With Feliz Navidad on my back, Christmas was in the air. And, there were happy people around me, spreading their contagious joy. Suddenly, through the deep blue sea, I could see the tall trees of Sal and Mahua, and the winding hilly roads of Jharkhand. I could smell the sweet smell of burning firewood and coal. And, behind me, I could hear the DJ playing the all time hit, Gonna take a sentimental journey...

Today, while looking at the hot cross buns and reading about Easter, I was actually craving for Christmas. I never knew that I could crave for a festival that I don't quite observe in a religious sense. But then, Christmas does have a way of taking all of us on our very own sentimental journeys, doesn't it? I think I will have to wait for eight more months until I can make mine.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A saffron and green revolution

I have written about corruption in India on this blog before. And, the amount of public frustration with graft in every sphere of  life.

The past week in India has been revolutionary. In every sense of the word.  Mr. Anna Hazare, a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, did something quite extraordinary. He presented a draft bill to the people of India, that needs to be passed by the parliament to tackle graft. And then, when the government showed great reluctance to introduce it in the parliament, he traveled to Delhi from the heartland of India, and sat down on a hunger-strike. Or, as Mahatma Gandhi liked to say, a fast until death.  Three days was all that it took to electrify the entire country, bring the people out on the streets to observe fasts, take out candle-light vigils, and pray that Mr. Hazare would be all right.

The government blinked first, and it blinked big time. The people got all they wanted, through what is being dubbed as a "revolution" within a democracy. I had no doubts that Mr. Hazare would take his strike all the way, since he is an extremely resolute man, who is willing to die for a cause he believes in. Since most politicians in India do not believe in anything any more, other than self-preservation, they are not willing to die for anything. Sometimes, the person who is willing to die, has nothing to loose but everything to gain. All this, reminded me of a guy called Karl whom I admire a lot, and a manifesto he wrote a long time ago. That one led to a few revolutions as well. A few times over.

I sat electrified through the whole thing, glued to my television. And, since my wife believes more in people power than I do, she dragged me to a local protest gathering, supporting Mr. Hazare. To protest and revel in the presence of fellow protesters, which we gladly did. For a change, it was nice to see the national flag associated with something other than cricket, since political parties have long stopped using the national flag for anything. Apparently, it unites people across party lines.

In the end, it looks like India is going to have a national ombudsman against corruption, called the Lok Pal, right after the monsoon session of the parliament, when most Indians would be celebrating the arrival of their favorite national fruit, the mango. With its own glorious shades of saffron and green, which are the national colors of India.

Thank you Mr. Hazare, for reminding me of a famous couplet in Urdu, that I like a lot. You showed all of us how relevant these words are. Even today.

"Kaun kehta hai ki aasman mein surakh ho nahin sakta, ek patthar to tabiyat se uchhalo yaron." 
(Who says you cannot make a hole in the sky, just toss a rock with the right temperament.)

Friday, April 8, 2011

The ring of fire - final part.

Damru Kalandar got on the six-o-clock bus. The conductor was surprised when Damru asked to be seated on the roof where farmers carrying poultry and goats were usually asked to sit. Damru did not want a lot of prying eyes looking at his sack. In a few minutes, the bus started and he was relieved. Soon, he would be out of the forest area. He was tired and with the rolling motion of the bus, he dozed off.

Someone shook him awake. It was a policeman who had climbed up on the roof at a check post!

"What is in that sack?" asked the policeman. 

"Mahua flowers, Sahib." That was a very common response from villagers at this time of the year. And, the policeman would have let him go had the bear cub not stirred inside the sack at that moment. When the policeman saw the movement in the sack, all hell broke loose. They had received a warning about a Maoist guerrilla leader in the vicinity and anything suspicious could end up costing them their lives.

Before Damru could say a thing, he was in the police station. And then, when they found the bear cub, he was no longer their headache. Very quickly, he was in the custody of the forest department and an extremely annoyed forest officer who had spent three years on an unsuccessful bear fertility program. To him, the bear cub was worth more than its weight in gold.

And Damru Kalandar was in trouble. Big trouble.


Before the reverend could ask his question again, Raju threw him a quick one, "Are you a missionary?" Sometimes, answers have to be given before questions can be asked. The reverend knew this from his years of training on conducting negotiations as a spy. So, he played on. "Yes, I am. But how does that matter to you?".

"Well, then you must work for the poor and the downtrodden. Do you not?", asked Raju. "Yes, I do."

"Then, let me introduce myself as someone, who works for the poor and the downtrodden. I am a revolutionary, and I think you work for the greatest revolutionary of all times, who changed the world. Don't you work for Jesus Christ?"

"Yes, I do. But Christ did not preach violence. He did not go around with a gun trying to convince people that his way was the right way. He won hearts with love, not guns. And I believe that guns are all that you believe in. Don't you?" If this was a discussion on philosophy, it was going to be a long night. But, if the alternative was getting mauled by a bear, what was the harm?

"We don't like violence as well. But we have found that it is the only way to counter violence. You should see how peaceful protests from tribals are treated. We are helping people fight for their rights. We don't hurt people unless we really have to."

The reverend asked with a very disarming voice, "Have you ever killed anyone?" Raju hesitated. Then, very calmly, he said, "Sometimes, people deserve what they get." 

"How many?", asked the reverend. "How many have you killed?" "That is irrelevant", said Raju. "But, I can tell you that every single one of them deserved it."

Changing topics completely, the reverend said, "Do you believe in hell? A place you will go to, when you die and where you will be judged for your sins?"

Raju was familiar with the idea of hell. And he often wondered if there was an afterlife, since he had seen many of his comrades fall in encounters with the police. Suddenly, his demeanor changed, and he asked rather softly, "Do you think I will go to hell for killing people, even if they deserved it?"

It was time to stop being a spy with negotiations training and start being a missionary. So, the reverend said very quickly, "Not if you accept Christ as your savior. All your sins will be forgiven."

Raju pondered over the statement for a second, and then, with a voice that was almost a whisper, asked, "What do I have to do to accept Christ as my savior?".


The forest officer had almost reached the spot where Damru had last seen the female bear. He looked around for tell-tale signs of the presence of a bear, and there were several. At this time of the year, it was hard to make out bear tracks on dry soil. But, tree-twigs broken in a certain way, claw marks on tree bark and heaps of Mahua flowers scattered with a characteristic signature, were like fingerprints. And, to someone who knew this forest like the back of his hand, it was not very hard to conclude, that the big bear was close by.

The forest officer picked the cub up. He put it in a small cage and set it down in an open area where the wind was strong. He was hoping that the mother was downwind, and the wind would carry the cub's scent to her. Then, he sat  in the open jeep and waited. Above the din of  the chirping crickets and the eerie sound of the wind through the dry leaves, he was hoping that he could forehear the presence of the big bear, so he would have enough time to let the cub out and quickly drive away when the furious mother arrived.


This was the reverend's first baptism in a while. And, performing the rites without a stream to dunk the head in, was rather unconventional. To top it all, the reverend did not even have a Bible with him, and his theological knowledge was as good as what comes with being a spy for years. But, improvisation was the need of the hour. Of course, there was no harm in using the cliche, baptism by fire, since they were surrounded by fire on all sides.

"Raju, do you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior? Say this with purity of heart and the knowledge that you will be free of all sins when you accept Him as your savior." 

Yes I do. 

"Raju. I welcome you to your new life. You are born again!" 

After the quick conversion, they talked about Raju's "past" life and how  the doors of heaven would open for him since he was a changed man now. Then, as they saw the fire waning, they decided to climb up the Mahua tree, since there was every possibility that the bear could attack again if the fire died out. Sitting on two adjacent branches, they talked for a while. 

"Reverend, I have a request for you," said Raju. "Would you please come with me to our stronghold and convert my comrades as well? They have committed many sins and their souls need to be saved." 

Raju had a twinkle in his eye as he said this, but suddenly, the spy in the reverend was back. So, this is what this was all about.  This was a trap! Raju would lure him back to his den so that they could make a hostage out of him. As the reverend knew from his past experience saving missionaries, the phrase missionary zeal was the biggest disadvantage for them. With a bemused smile, the reverend said," Of course Raju. Of course I will. First thing tomorrow!"

In a few minutes, they both fell asleep.

A strange hissing sound woke the reverend up. It took him a couple of minutes to realize where he was and what had happened in the last few hours. The fire had died down, though the embers were still glowing. In the light of the moon, the forest was looking strange, but beautiful. And, he saw a small patch of black in the distance moving away from his tree. It was the sloth bear!

The bear was making a loud hiss. And, it was sniffing quite audibly. Then suddenly, it jumped above a tall bush and disappeared in the forest. Its sniff had turned into a wail that sounded like the scream of a woman. And gradually, the wail became fainter.

The reverend looked at his tree-mate. Raju was fast asleep. This was a good time to disappear! The reverend gently got down from the tree and tip-toed his way across the dying ring of fire. Then, he broke into a run towards his jeep. It was about twenty minutes away.


The forest officer watched from a distance as the female bear approached. He had already let the cub out of the cage. As the wails of the big bear got louder, he started his engine. He could see it approaching the cub. As it got close, he started the engine and drove away. He had a content smile on his face.


As the reverend was driving back to his church, he was trying to recollect the events of the last few hours. He had accomplished something that even seasoned missionaries would be proud to achieve. He had saved the soul of a communist guerrilla! But, as a spy, he knew very well that the conversion was just a big sham, acted out by Raju with such finesse that many actors at Broadway would be ashamed. But, who was the reverend to complain! He was a spy himself, masquerading as a missionary. And, he was pretty sure that with all his experience in life, he was either an atheist or an agnostic as far as personal faith went. He too was putting up a nice show. While he was trying to convert people to a faith, he didn't know if he had any left in him.

But, he had made up his mind about one thing. People like Raju believed in violence, and they had to be stopped. He needed to go back to his old job, because that is where he could make a difference. It was time to pack his bags.


It was noon in the forest. The female bear was keeping herself close to the cub. They were munching on wild berries. She looked content with her cub close to her. Suddenly, she smelled a strange smell. It was the smell of the man she chased in the forest last night. Then, she heard the sound of footsteps approaching her. She was furious. She would protect her cub with her life. And, she would kill anything that threatened it.  


It took the reverend a whole day to wind up his work in the mission. A helper in the church was going to drive him to the nearest rail head, and he would change trains thrice to reach the city of Calcutta. From there, he would take a flight back home. And there, he would get a new assignment from Langley. Hopefully.

As the jeep was winding its way through the serpentine road between the hills, he saw that the sun was setting. This would be his last sunset in the beautiful forest he called home in the last few years! Then, he saw a large crowd of villagers at a distance. Some of them recognized his jeep and waved him to a stop. The reverend got down from the jeep and walked towards the crowd. They were all standing around, looking down at something. As he got closer, he saw that someone was lying on the ground.

It was Raju, the guerrilla! He was lying down in a pool of blood and one of his arms looked like it was yanked off by a large animal. An old man, who was a member of his church, walked up to the reverend.

"He was attacked by a bear. She had a cub with her. Normally, they don't attack even if they have cubs with them. He must have done something to provoke her, or she must have been scared of something."

"Were you here when he was still alive?" asked the reverend.

"Yes, I was. He asked for water and I gave him some. Then, he asked for you. He said that you had saved his soul and his faith would take him to heaven. He wanted you to do the same for his comrades. They live beyond that hill."

The reverend got down on his knees and bowed his head in prayer. Right when he was beginning to question his own faith, it seemed like he had convinced someone else to have faith. In salvation or heaven, whose existence he did not know about.

"Forgive me lord, for I have sinned."

That was the only thing he could remember at the moment. If they expected him to say a prayer, they would have to wait for later. Right now, the fact that he was silently kneeling, would have to do. In death, Raju had conquered his crisis of faith, but the reverend had just begun his very own.

As the reverend looked up from his prayer, he saw that the sky had turned darker, with the colors being swept away by a wide brush of black. And, thin columns of smoke were rising from the distant hills. His eyes moved to the hill where he had performed the baptism. A solitary column of smoke was going up from a patch of green and brown.

And around the dark column, was a bright ring of fire.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The ring of fire - Part II

Damru Kalandar had been following the sloth bear and her cub all day. For someone like Damru, who had spent all his life with bears, it was not too hard to locate the pair and track it. However, even for him, it was difficult to follow the bears in such a way that the forest wind would not carry his scent to them. This was more of an art form, and even masters like Damru had a hard time doing it right all the time. Perhaps, the aroma of the Mahua flowers was strong enough to overwhelm the senses for the bears, and he was lucky to be in the forest at this time of the year. He had been following the pair for close to twelve hours now, and he was waiting for the bear to get tired. And then, Damru got excited, when close to dusk, the bears stopped near a clump of Mahua trees and the mother started chewing on the flowers lying on the ground. As the night fell, he kept an eye on the pair. The mother was slowly getting drowsy and sleepy and the bear cub was snuggling close to her. Around midnight, both seemed to be fast asleep.

Damru picked a handful of pebbles and threw the first one on the big bear from a distance. Nothing happened. He threw another one. He heard a faint whimper. This one must have landed on the cub. The mother didn't even move. It was time! As he inched closer to the pair, he opened a bottle of chloroform he had acquired from the chor bazar and dabbed it on a piece of cloth. Then very swiftly, he put the cloth on the  cub's nose. There was a surprised whimper, but the mother did not move. Damru picked the cub up, stuffed it inside a sack and moved away from the mother. It happened so quickly, and so efficiently, that even Damru was surprised at his good fortune. And then, he made a hasty exit towards the edge of the forest.

He had to catch the six-o-clock bus that made a brief stop at the village.


Reverend Mike was up before the crack of dawn, which is something he rarely did. But this was a different day. The mission had an old Willy's jeep that had never let him down in the mountains. And today, it would carry some precious cargo for him.

Many people in the mission did not know that not only did the reverend have a weakness for the spirits, he could brew up some pretty mean stuff by himself. And every year, he would do that in a clandestine operation in the store room behind the church, using sacks full of Mahua flowers he collected from the forest on a special day, on which, he would take a break from his regular routine. This was that special day.

It was afternoon by the time the reverend reached the spot in the forest where he liked to park his jeep. Then, taking a few empty bags with him, he started a trek for the top of the hill. That part of the forest had the most flavorful flowers, and not many people bothered to trek all the way up for them. Plus, the view from up there was simply terrific. Once he was done collecting his "supplies", he would sit down on a rock and enjoy the sunset before heading home.


She woke up with a start. Something was amiss. Then she noticed. Her cub was gone!

She couldn't pick up its scent.  The aroma of the flowers was in the air. And, there was a strange but sweet smell that she couldn't associate with anything in the forest. She was furious. Something had taken her cub. And, she would not give up so easily. She raised her head and took a deep breath. She was trying to identify anything that smelled different from the things in the forest. Anything, that would lead her to her cub.

Commander Raju was on his long trek towards the top of the hill. This one, and then another one, was all that was left between him and his comrades. He was almost near the top of the hill, when he heard the sound of human feet on the dry leaves in the forest. He decided to hide behind a clump of bushes and investigate. Then, he saw the strangest sight he had ever seen in his life. A white man in a Hawaiian shirt and jeans, with a long flowing beard, was lugging a few sacks towards the top of the mountain. And then, the man stopped under a  Mahua tree and started filling an empty sack with the flowers under it. This was a very strange man indeed, unless he was a lunatic who had escaped from an asylum. But, the man didn't look like a lunatic, and he seemed very purposeful in what he was doing. May be, he was one of those American missionaries in the tribal villages. May be.

Suddenly, and idea crossed Raju's mind. What if he could overpower this man and hold him hostage? His comrades could negotiate a big swap for a foreigner. Just imagine the amount of media coverage they would get! This would greatly help the revolution. So, he decided to follow the white man, maintaining a comfortable distance between them.


The reverend had been a missionary for a few years now, but he never forgot that he was a spy waiting for his next assignment. And, he had never let his instincts fade. So, very quickly, he was aware of the presence of a man in fatigues trailing him. He had no idea what this man was after, but he was pretty sure that the intentions were not good. So, he decided to cancel his idea of enjoying the sunset from the hill top and  gathered his bags of Mahua flowers. Then, he hurried back to his jeep, keeping an eye out for the man in fatigues.

The sun was going down behind the mountains. The sky was unusually red. And the reverend was sad to miss his sunset. As the sky got darker, he could see the fires being lit on the remote hills. Some were probably being lit on this hill as well and he would see those as he headed close to his jeep. It was almost an hour away from where he was.

As it grew darker, Raju decided to sneak closer to his target. He had some rope in his bag. And, he was pretty sure that with his combat training, he could take this man down easily. When they reached closer to a clearing in the forest, Raju decided to make a move. With a few strides, he was close enough to the reverend to attack. And, the reverend was fully prepared to defend himself.

Right when Raju would have struck, he heard a fierce growl behind him. Both men turned and saw a three hundred pound sloth bear charging at them. Both turned and ran for their lives. About a hundred yards ahead of them, they could see a wall of fire. It must have been lit in the last hour and it was burning fiercely. Both of them ran towards it because they both knew that bears were afraid of fire.

As he got close to the fire, the reverend turned quickly to see where the bear was. It was still charging. And the man in fatigues behind him, stumbled on a rock and fell.  Almost instinctively, the reverend grabbed his hand and dragged him behind the wall of fire. The bear had stopped charging. It was sitting outside the ring of fire, wondering what to do. Raju realized that the white man just saved his life. He got up and extended his hand in thanks. Instead, he felt a strong punch on his face and fell down for a second time in a few minutes. From the way the punch connected, Raju could tell that this man knew how to fight. "Who are you and why were you following me?" demanded the reverend. Raju tried to smile.

This was going to be a long night. With both of them trapped.  Inside a ring of fire.

(To be concluded)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The ring of fire

It was a special day for Reverend Mike. The sun was setting behind the green hills of Jharkhand and the western sky was covered with shades of red and magenta. As the sun was disappearing, the colors were vanishing as well, behind a solid curtain of black, leaving a slight aura around the edge of the mountains. And, there was a noticeable cloud of smoke covering one of the mountains. The reverend sat down on a single chair on the terrace of the small church which doubled as his residence. He had an old guitar with him and he started plucking the strings. Suddenly, the quiet of the forest was broken by the sound of the guitar, and the baritone voice of the reverend, singing a famous old country song by Johnny Cash, "I went down, down, down and the flames went higher. And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire. The ring of fire."

And suddenly, as if by magic, a ring of fire appeared on the tall mountain in front of him. The reverend looked up and smiled. He kept singing his favorite song, since this was a special day for him.

No one in the mission knew Reverend Mike's full name, and it didn't look like anyone wanted to know. The reverend was no biblical scholar, and nor did he have any control over the worldly temptations. In fact, most people in the mission had a tough time believing that the reverend was a missionary at all, about which, they were right. But, few knew that the reverend was actually a favor. A big favor owed to the big boss of a government agency in Langley, by the head of their evangelical church, based in a mid-western town in the United States. A favor, that required reverend Mike to be provided with a new name and occupation for a few years for saving several missionary lives in a nasty rescue operation in a little known country in south America.

Reverend Mike was hiding in the jungles of Jharkhand. He was doing it in full public glare, as a missionary, trying to win converts. And, he seemed to be enjoying the entire experience of hiding like this.

The reverend had not won any converts in the last year. But, he had quickly converted to the local brew of the tribals, since he did have a weakness for the spirits of the other kind, the ones he was not trying to save. The brew, made from the flowers of the Mahua tree, was extremely potent and was quite popular in the mountains of Jharkhand. In the months of spring, as the trees would drop their fleshy flowers on the ground, the sloth bears in the mountains would get joyously drunk by chewing on them. And the tribals would try and protect their share of the heavenly brew, by taking groups of Mahua trees in the mountains, and lighting up overnight fires around them. Every spring, when seen from miles away, these controlled fires in the forest would look like little rings of fire. And this spring, the reverend had decided to welcome the arrival of the potent brew with his favorite Johnny Cash song. The ring of fire.


Damru Kalandar was almost done with his search. He had heard from the villagers that a large female sloth bear was in the vicinity, and she had a small cub with her. Damru belonged to the Kalandar tribe in north India, which tamed bears, and used them to entertain people on the streets. This involved taking bear cubs from their mothers while they were still too young to remember anything and then, subjecting them to inhuman acts of training, which started with the piercing of a hole in the nose, where a rope would be inserted for life. Many organizations were trying to phase out this practice by encouraging the Kalandars to adopt alternative occupations. Many had already made the switch. But Damru was an exception and he wanted to die in the profession of his ancestors. And today, he was in search of a bear cub in the mountains. He knew that a sloth bear was bound to be where the Mahua trees were flowering.  The bears loved to chew on the Mahua flowers and get drunk. And when that happened, a fierce and protective mother would not be in her senses to protect her cub any more.

And Damru, would be in business.


Commander Raju was on a slow and steady trek through the hills. He got down at a small railway station and kept a very low profile till he reached a village where a contact was waiting for him with supplies in a backpack. Then, he had to make the lonely trek through the forest for two days till he would reach the stronghold of his comrades. Commander Raju was a newly appointed leader of the Maoist guerrillas  in the forests of Jharkhand. And, he was on this long trek to deliver a very important message to his battalion in the mountains. A message, that was from the top leadership.

While he paused to catch a breath, he saw the beautiful sunset through a gap between the hills. It was getting dark, and he saw that the distant mountains were lighting up with rings of fire. He had heard stories of the legendary Mahua flower and the bears getting drunk on them. It was the first time he was actually witnessing how the fires would look. They were beautiful.

(To be continued)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Astrologers: then and now

Cricket has changed a lot in the last few decades. I remember the days when cricket matches would be played over  five long days. People would be dressed in all-whites, and no one could even imagine that a small patch of colorful advertising would adorn the sparkling flannels. The matches would be played all day, under natural light. And between the five days, there would be a day for rest, as the gentlemen who played, needed to put their feet up and smoke their pipes. And, drink their whiskey.

Right now, Indians don't have time for anything. The entire country will come to a standstill for the final game of the cricket world cup this afternoon. As cricket has become more popular amongst the masses, their superstitions have found their way into cricket as well. Recently, a bunch of people in a small town somewhere in north India, got together to propitiate the gods by making a fire offering (yajna) with a bunch of priests chanting from the Vedas. In the old days, they used to do this stuff to please the rain-god during droughts. Nowadays, it is done to get more runs and wickets.

And then, there are the astrologers. I came across an interesting news story on an astrologer's prediction on who will win the world cup. Looks like Jupiter and Saturn have a new job now, given that the recession has taken a toll on every body's day job. So, the planets are now being used to predict the results of  big games. I am not very surprised, since the amount of money involved in the cricket matches now can easily surpass the GDP of a small country. As Kenneth Grahame would probably say, "There definitely is a lot of wind in the willows".

And, it is quite a strange coincidence that recently, I have been browsing through the pages of a really old journal. It is called the "Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register".


It was published in the year 1831, and it has many beautiful accounts of the journeys made by the colonials in an India that was still not officially a part of the British empire. These are the stories of a different time, and of a world which may be a part of my history, but a world that I can scarcely identify with. And there, buried between voluminous accounts of various journeys, I found a piece of gem on Indian astrologers in the year 1831!

It did bring a smile to my lips that back then, we still had these smooth operators predicting the arrival of pestilence and rainfall. Looks like they eventually made a fiscally prudent transition to the game of cricket. Jupiter would be so proud!