Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Samudra Arati in Puri

ELEMENTS AT PLAY The Maharaja of Puri (in white) and the Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Shree Govardhan Math at the annual 'arati' festivityOn the evening of Pausha Poornima, a unique prayer rose from Swargadwar on Puri Beach. The Bay of Bengal provided a majestic natural backdrop for the resplendent arrangements made by human worshippers. As dusk fell, the beach glowed with lamps, lights, and the holy fire. Chants and devotional music filled the air. Hundreds of Hindu saints from all over the country, the Maharaja of Puri, and other dignitaries gathered for the grand annual Samudra Arati, to be performed by His Holiness the Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Shree Govardhan Math, Puri Peeth.

Behold the beauty

The Samudra Arati is offered to the sea according to vedic rituals. Hymns and chants rise up with the clang of gongs to blend with the eternal rhythm of waves rolling on the beach. Colourful flowers and other ritual offerings surround the holy fire. As lamps spread light through the descending darkness, the Samudra Arati presents a scene of immense earthly beauty.

This prayer to the sea is also infused with deep spiritual significance. It is done to spread the message of peace and harmony among humanity, and the natural world around us. The sea is the abode of Lord Vishnu. Life on earth originated in the sea. All living beings are sustained by water. The sea is attuned to the cosmos, its tides influenced by the pull of heavenly bodies. The vastness of the sea reminds us of the Divine Creator of this infinite universe.

The holy kshetra of Puri in Odisha holds great spiritual significance for all Hindus. Lord Vishnu abides here as Lord Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe. As such, Puri is considered to be ‘Martya Vaikuntha’, or the abode of Lord Vishnu on earth. Puri, along with Rameswaram, Badrinath and Dwarka, are the most holy Hindu Char Dham or four divine sites. Through the ages, saints and sages have come here seeking divine enlightenment. The Adi Shankaracharya came to Puri in the 8th century C E.

Guru Nanak, Kabir, Tulsidas, Ramanujacharya and Nimbarkacharya also visited Puri. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, prayed here for 24 years. Srimad Vallabhacharya visited Puri and performed a seven-day recitation of Srimad Bhagavatam. The maths and meditation spots of many of these saints continue to exist in Puri.
Samudra Arati is performed daily after sunset by the young disciples of Shankaracharya of Puri. It’s a serene and dignified ritual evoking peace and tranquillity. Every year on Pausha Poornima, the Shankaracharya of Puri himself performs the grand Samudra Arati. Pausha Poornima, which falls in January, is considered auspicious for worship, especially at sacred water spots. The sea at Swargadwar (gateway to heaven) is considered most holy, and no pilgrimage to Puri is complete without a dip at this hallowed spot. Guru Nanak and Shree Chaitanya sang devotional hymns and prayed here.

The Samudra Arati was first performed here in 2008 by the present Shankaracharya of Puri as a prayer for the well-being of this beautiful world of nature. At that time, the strange restlessness of the sea terrified local residents. They feared a tsunami may come. Since the Shankaracharya began the tradition of evening prayers to the sea, the sea is considered to have calmed down. The present Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Puri, Swami Nischalananda Saraswati Maharaj, is the 145th in the line of apostolic successors of Jagadguru Adi Shankaracharya, to head Shree Govardhan Math, Puri. The Govardhan Math was established by Adi Shankaracharya. It is associated with Lord Jagannath’s temple, and is one of the four cardinal maths. The Adi Shankaracharya himself had installed the deities of Govardhananatha Krishna and Ardhanareeshwara Shiva here.

The Adi Shankaracharya’s original meditation seat is preserved with care in the math. The spiritual territory of Govardhan Math spans the entire eastern part of the Indian subcontinent. It extends from Arunachal and Meghalaya in the east, to Allahabad, Gaya and Varanasi in the west, and Andhra Pradesh till Rajahmundry in the south. Bangladesh, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan are considered to be within the spiritual jurisdiction of the math.

Great contributions
The Shankaracharyas of Puri have nurtured a time-honoured tradition of scholarship. The 143rd Shankaracharya, Swami Bharati Krishna Tirtha (1884-1960), made valuable contributions to mathematics. Before being anointed as the Shankaracharya, he passed the MA examination for the American College of Sciences in Rochester, USA, from the Bombay centre. His book Vedic Mathematics is the best-known among his many works.

The present Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Puri is also a renowned mathematician who has authored over 20 authoritative books on the subject. He is currently working on a textbook of mathematics for high school students. He is as adept with computers, as he is interpreting ancient religious texts and their relevance in today’s world.
The Samudra Arati is itself a wonderful blend of the ancient and the modern. Timeless Vedic rituals have been incorporated into a recently-launched tradition. The prayers to the sea for universal peace and harmony also touch upon present-day concerns about sustaining our environment.
This is published in Deccan Herald

William Dalrymple, an interview

man of many talents William DalrympleWilliam Dalrymple is a writer, traveller and historian, and one of the co-directors and founders of the annual Jaipur Literature Festival. He is the author of several bestselling books, including Return of a King, White Mughals and Nine Lives. His latest book, The Writer’s Eye, revolves around a collection of photographs.
Curated by bestselling writer and Sensorium Festival co-founder Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, The Writer’s Eye photograph exhibition opened at Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts, on March 18; and will be followed by shows at Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi on March 29; and at the Grosvenor Gallery, London, in June.

How did you start writing?

My writing happened in college, and my first book came about when I was 21. I saw an announcement about a fund for research travel for the college’s medieval historians. I looked up in the library for the longest and most ambitious medieval journey I could think of following. So I applied for following the outward journey of Marco Polo, from Jerusalem to Kubla Khan’s Xanadu in Mongolia. The place names were the stuff of fantasy, and so, I felt sure, was the application.
A month later, I received a letter and a cheque for the princely sum of £700. The expedition remains the most exhilarating I have ever undertaken: nothing I have done since, in half a lifetime of intense travel, has equalled the thrill of that 16,000-mile, three-month journey — walking, hitchhiking and bussing across Asia. It was also a journey that, in a very real sense, changed my life forever. My first book, In Xanadu: A Quest, was the result.

You’ve written on the history of art in India and in other Asian countries; on religions, and on travel and history. Which topic fascinates you most? Among your own books, which is your personal favourite?
I’m a man of many talents (laughs) and interests. Archaeology, history, various art forms, travel and many other subjects fascinate me. What I enjoy most is testing my artistic talents. Artists have the freedom to move and play around; to try and test things.

My most recent book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, is my favourite. It is about the First Anglo-Afghan War, which ended in Britain’s greatest military humiliation of the 19th century.

Which has been your most challenging project?My biggest challenge has been raising funds for the Jaipur Literary festival.
No doubt the festival has grown, and writers are ready to support and participate. But getting adequate sponsors is an ongoing challenge.

The Writer’s Eye is your first book of photographs. You’ve taken photographs since a young age, and your photographs have accompanied the text in several of your books.

Apart from the convenience of your new Samsung Note, what made you return to photography in a major way?

My wife is an artist, and has been an encouraging influence. The idea for this book began from a casual conversation with my friend Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, who suggested an exhibition of my photographs. I posted some of these photos on Facebook and
Instagram, and the response was great. The project took on a life of its own.

I’m a micro-manager for my books. But this book was not pre-planned. I was between books. These photographs are a record of my travels during that time. My camera phone freed me to just concentrate on the images. With it I could do things that were difficult with a big camera. With its complicated attachments, a big camera is too cumbersome and obtrusive. It makes you and your subjects self-conscious. The cell camera has this sneaky quality, letting it catch your subjects unawares. I captured whatever struck me, like the wild landscapes of Scotland; my home which I visit every year.
These are random images from my travels, from Leh to Lindisafarne, from the Hindu Kush to the Lammermuirs across the rolling hills south of Sienna; some of the world’s most remote places, especially in Central Asia. I’ll never forget the astonishing flight last year over the rib-cage of the Hindu Kush to Bamiyan, the dark slopes all etched in ice, each river valley white against the black granite of range after range of folding mountains. In the centre of the Pamirs, on the roof of the world mid-way from Kabul to Bamiyan, there are no signs of any habitation — it is a clear, empty, silent landscape lined with frozen crevice-skeletons of unmelted snow.
Certainly they have been inspired by the same travels and there are common themes — Mughal architecture, the ruins of Afghanistan, the domes of Golconda — but the photographs show, I think, a taste for the dark and remote, the moody and the atmospheric. My writing isn’t bleak or dark at all. I’m quite proud of the finished product.

Do you have any advice for budding art photographers?

Simply do it, go ahead and shoot what you like. Camera phones give you so much freedom. Photography should always be about the eye, not the equipment. It is the vision that counts, not the camera. The Internet is a democratic forum where you can post your photos and get spontaneous feedback.

Have you considered writing fiction?

No. I’m clear about my choice to continue with non-fiction. My talents are not of a novelist, and I’m happy with what I do. I’m interested in the real word, in giving order to chaos in photographic images; of discovering and artistically conveying the threads that bind facts together.
This is published in Deccan Herald

Shashi Deshpande's Strangers to Ourselves; Book Review

Shashi Deshpande weaves a memorable story about human relationships, the ties that bind people, sometimes stifling or tearing them apart, and occasionally uniting kindred souls. The novel revolves around the ongoing jugalbandi between Aparna and Shree Hari Pandit; two people, quite different, yet having more in common than they could have ever imagined. Through their relationship they explore themselves and the eternal enigma; what really is love?
That Shree Hari Pandit “is a singer, is the main thing about him. That’s his life. He was born with music in his genes, he grew up with music in his ears.” Aparna is captivated by his music, and by him, after witnessing a performance. That mutual instant attraction grows into a deeper relationship, as Shree Hari pursues Aparna with boyish spontaneity. Aparna soon learns that he idolises his grandparents. His grandfather was his first guru, he learnt Tukaram’s bhajans and the Geet Ramayan from him.

She is charmed by his old-fashioned ways, of addressing her with the quaintly courteous tumhi. “I could listen to him all day,” Aparna confides to her cousin Madhu. “Both the language and the voice are so wonderful. And he speaks English with a Marathi accent.” She realises that she’s smitten, because far from judging him from the standpoint of her superior education and command of English, she admits she loves even the way he speaks.

US-trained cancer surgeon Dr Aparna Dandekar comes from a world far from Shree Hari Pandit’s. The only child of a once-renowned Marathi playwright, she has carved a place for herself in a demanding profession. Yet she finds herself seeking common ground with Shree Hari. “Hari’s singing reminds her of a surgeon at work, a precise meticulous search for the place he has to get to, finally getting there with marvellous skill and finesse.” Aparna is also haunted by the tragedy of her late parents, of “their togetherness which had so abruptly ceased. Ended without dignity...”
How can she believe in love, when even her own marriage to a colleague ended because she had mistaken the counterfeit for the true thing? Yet Aparna feels an emptiness in her life, living as she does “in homes that belong to others, among the possessions of strangers.” It’s “so easy to say yes... so easy to submit, to stop thinking,” and go along with the man she loves. Yet she can’t wholeheartedly. Perhaps “it is not marriage, but love itself that Aparna distrusts.” Aparna’s inner struggles are portrayed with delicate nuances, endearing her to the reader and lending dramatic tension to the story. Will she? Won’t she? And will he continue to wait for her?

Shree Hari has also suffered, coming up the hard way, and refusing help from his father. Yet his passionate love for Aparna is almost boundless. “I was singing Tuka’s words, I was addressing Vithala, but I could only think of you. Bhakti, Ajoba said, is another face of love... I’ve sung these songs all my life, but I understand what they mean only now... You are my light, my world, my music.” He would be in his late 30s or older, yet he follows Aparna like a lost puppy, and won’t take her rebuffs for an answer until that last straw cools his ardour. He cooks for her, and is solicitous about dropping her home. He seems to have all the time in the world for her, and he’s exquisitely delicate and hesitant about getting into a physical relationship with her.

Adorable as Shree Hari is, one wonders. More than a flesh-and-blood man, he seems a projection of what a woman like Aparna would want her man to be. This is, after all, a woman-centric story. Shree Hari’s role is clearly secondary to Aparna’s. Other men do make brief appearances. Aparna’s father and her first husband, or rather her memories and impressions of them, surface occasionally. But the women dominate, and their relationships with Aparna throw light on the many aspects of affection and emotional connections.
Jyoti plays a major role in the story. Her relationship with Aparna evolves from patient and doctor, to friendly neighbours, into soul sisters. Ahalya appears as a mystery woman from the past, whose memoirs are found among Aparna’s father’s manuscripts. Jyoti begins translating it to distract herself from her own terminal illness. Soon, Jyoti is drawn into Ahalya’s account of her unusual life, struggles and loves. Jyoti comes across as a positive woman who supports Aparna with her fading strength. Ahalya’s story throws fascinating light on the trials women faced in days gone by, and how they too dared to love, despite all social constraints. She also unveils fresh truths before Aparna. “Jyoti, in getting back Ahalya, has reclaimed the Baba of my childhood... I no longer see him as the suffering, bitter man he became in his last years.” Ahalya’s memoirs in the archaic style of her times, slows down the narrative though. And the revelation that she is a common ancestor to both Aparna and Jyoti seems like a convenient plot device.

Overall, this is beautifully crafted story, a slow and melodious symphony with memorable characters, who stay with you long after the last page is turned.

Strangers to Ourselves
Shashi Deshpande
Fourth Estate
2016, pp 322, Rs 450
This review is puiblished in Sunday Herald

Friday, March 04, 2016

The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom

The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto         Author: Mitch Albom     Sphere      Rs.499/-          Pp 489

This is a turbulent yet soulful love story of a talented musician and the love of his life, who nurtures his inspiration to create life-changing music.  Frankie Presto’s unique talent in singing as well as guitar playing takes him through the universe of Western music. Frankie earns dazzling mastery over classical music as well as contemporary jazz and rock and roll. Music leads him from friendless penury to a place among stars like Duke Ellington to Hank Williams, Carole King and even KISS.  As a member of Elvis Presley’s troupe, Frankie becomes the first successful Elvis impersonator.  Frankie is blessed with dashing looks and a magnetic stage presence, as well as a sonorous voice and mastery of the guitar. He becomes a pop star himself, with runaway hits and adoring fans.  He gives a brilliant performance at Woodstock, but incognito. He meets and impresses The Beatles, Rolling Stones and more. Contemporary western music buffs will love these threads woven into the story. Readers unfamiliar with western music will also enjoy being carried along by the Frankie Presto wave. Number one New York Times bestselling author Mitch Albom has deftly woven music into a fast-paced plot, enriching an exciting story that tugs at the reader’s heartstrings.
Orphaned at birth, Frankie spends his early childhood in revolution-churned Spain. His mother dies immediately after his birth, in a church attacked by revolutionaries. A nun promises the dying mother to look after the orphaned newborn.  Cruelly abandoned by this first guardian, the infant Frankie is rescued by Baffa, the middle aged bachelor owner of a sardine factory.  Baffa and his hairless pet dog give Frankie affection and a stable home. Baffa takes him for music lessons to El Maestro, a talented but moody and alcoholic blind musician.
This peaceful life of home, school and music lessons is short-lived. Nine-year-old Frankie meets, and instantly falls in love with, Aurora York, a British girl, who is drawn to his guitar playing. Their innocent first meeting is violently interrupted. They watch horror-struck as Spanish soldiers execute civilian prisoners and bury them in a mass grave.  Aurora urges Frankie to play “something that says we won’t forget them.”  That defining moment “was the first time Frankie Presto attempted to give his music to someone else.”  This enduring passion for music defines Frankie’s character and endears him to readers.
On that same fateful day, Frankie learns that Baffa has been arrested by the soldiers, and that he himself is being hunted down. With Baffa’s instructions and the help of El Maestro, Frankie is sent to America hidden in the bottom of a boat, with the hope that he will find shelter in the home of Baffa’s sister in Detroit. Betrayed and robbed by those in whose care he was entrusted, all Frankie has left are his guitar, and six strings gifted by El Maestro.  He soon realises that these precious strings have magical powers. Frankie’s music can change people’s lives.  It doesn’t happen because Frankie wills it that way. And when a life is altered, one of the magical strings turns bright blue.
In America at last, little Frankie accompanies musician Django, and learns the gypsy guitar technique. From the wings of the stage in Cleveland Music Hall, he experiences the first blasts from an orchestra. “The elegant twirling of clarinets and saxophones... even the look of the band... handsomely dressed in dark tuxedos... And the crowd! Nearly two thousand people!”  Frankie realises that he wants this applause for himself. His struggles slowly bear fruit, and Frankie progresses from the sidelines to centre-stage.
Stardom, name and fame come, yet Frankie remains unfulfilled. He seeks Aurora, for she alone can give him soul-satisfying inspiration.  An inner restlessness grips this “most purely musical guitarist”, who rebels against the commerce driven music business.  At the height of fame and popularity, Frankie vanishes far from the intrusive eyes of the world. Encouraged by Aurora, he plays freely again: “better, richer, because his music now was passionate, more thoughtful... the way a great painter chooses not just a color but the perfect shade.”  He reappears decades later to give one last life-changing performance.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable read with never a dull moment. The passionate rapport between Frankie and Aurora is convincing. But the strings of coincidences holding the story together seem far-fetched. True, an explanation is given at the end, but it fails to satisfy. The device of using the muse Music to narrate Frankie’s story and linking tributes from musical celebrities, enriches the story with insights. However, the shifting timelines can be confusing at times, as the narrators speak of different times and stages in Frankie’s life.  Overall, this is a first-class entertainer, which could make a great movie someday.
This review was published in Deccan Herald. 

Turn up the Radio

For over a century, radio has played tunes to the march of human history, setting the background music for our lives.  As we listen to news and traffic reports punctuated with the latest hits while driving, how many of us reflect upon the invention that revolutionised communication? There’s more to radio than songs presented by vivacious RJs.  Did you know, for instance, that radio signals played a vital role in the rescue of over 700 passengers of the ill-fated Titanic, enabling quick communication with nearby ships? In those days, carrier pigeons were the prevalent mode of communicating at sea. Without radio, it would have taken days for distress messages to reach, and there would have been no survivors of the Titanic.
Those of us who grew up when TV was just a single Doordarshan channel with limited transmission timings, will remember how radio brightened up our days.  Latest news bulletins, talk shows, quizzes, radio plays and of course music to cater to varied tastes; radio constantly regaled us with never a dull moment.  Providing infotainment may still be the most obvious function of radio today.  But radio technology also supports many other marvels of modern life. The story of how radio evolved, a product of research often independently conducted over many years by generations of brilliant minds, is fascinating in itself.  
First, let’s see how good old radio still scores over its arch rival, TV. Indeed, once the whole world thought radio would die a natural death with the expansion of TV. But radio reinvented itself by offering FM stations, which are very popular and offer spunky competition to TV. In its heyday before TV stole the limelight, we relied upon radio to make the dullest things sparkle with life and excitement. The sound broadcasts drew our interest, and excited the imagination of individual listeners to form their own special mental images. In my schooldays, classmates with their own pocket ‘transies’ were the cynosure of all ears. Come winter and test cricket season, work slowed down all over town. In school, we would slump upon our desks and perpetually pretend to tie shoelaces, or search for lost erasers or pencils. Ingenious ploys to catch the running cricket commentary from transies smuggled in schoolbags. Ace commentators’ electrifying voices infused excitement into every wave of the bat and each toss of the ball. During a particularly sizzling international test match, our teacher must have sensed how her best speeches were assailing deaf ears. Choosing pragmatism over authoritarianism, she asked, “What’s the score?” Our terror at the prospect of impending doom in the Principal’s office, made way for smiles. Our teacher joined us to hear the commentary for five full minutes, before turning off all transies and resuming the day’s lesson. After subsequently watching cricket on the field and on TV, I now realise that radio commentaries played a major role in creating excitement and hype over test cricket.  Urged by the vibrant commentary without visuals to bring home drab reality, we actively imagined an action-packed game. Minus commentary, traditional cricket is a visually dull affair with players’ languid movements drawn over five long drawn days. No wonder limited over one-dayers, and IPL with its cheerleaders and hoopla are more popular versions of the game today.
The famous War of the Worlds broadcast directed by Orson Welles shows how radio, with sound alone, could excite the imaginations of multitudes.  Broadcast in the USA as a Halloween special on October 30th, 1938, this series of fictitious news bulletins was based upon H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction novel, War of the Worlds. This radio broadcast sent many American people into a tizzy because they were convinced that Martians were really invading Earth. TV broadcasts on the other hand, show everything while leaving little to the imagination. Thus TV, which encourages passivity in the audience, dulls our imagination instead of challenging it like radio.
News reports of war and violence are clear enough on the radio, without the support of graphic visual images of violence. This is a gentler way of making young children aware that death, war and violence exist, without compromising their natural sensitivity. As little children living in New Delhi during the Indo-Pak War of 1971, we listened intently with our parents to war updates on the radio. Lights stayed dimmed and windows were pasted over with newspapers because of the blackout.  We children would crawl under the bed whenever we heard anything remotely resembling an air-raid siren. We felt concerned and sad for brave soldiers who were fighting and laying down their lives. If we were also constantly seeing visual images of this death and destruction on TV, it is likely we would have grown more insensitive to violence.  Our fear and concern must seem silly to today’s children, who are habituated to a steady barrage of gory images on TV.
Compared to radio, TV with explicit visuals would definitely be a greater culprit in accustoming people to violence by making it a part of our daily routine. Scholarly studies worldwide have made strong statements linking media violence and violence in society. A continuous deluge of sensational TRP-grabbing images in the media (print, TV, movies, video games etc.) can desensitize us by distorting death and disaster which doesn't affect us directly, into prime-time entertainment. When violence and bloodshed is thus presented to be the everyday norm, it is less likely to move us.  This raises deeper and ominous questions. Is the overwhelming graphic violence in print and TV influencing increased aggression on our own city streets? If we are impressionable victims of such subtle brainwashing, then TV would make a stronger impact compared to radio.
Since radio engages only our sense of hearing, it leaves us free to focus our sight and more of our attention on driving, knitting, gardening, jogging and various other things we like to do while listening to broadcasts. TV on the other hand, demands ALL our attention, and turns us into passive couch potatoes.
Music is more enjoyable on the radio, where the focus is on the melody alone. Glitzy visuals do not vie to distract us, or compensate for mediocre lyrics, vocals or instrumental effects. Recently a friend shared a video of a song sung by the inimitable Mukesh.  The visuals were unremarkable, with Mukeshji standing before a mike, while the staid orchestra played behind him. Everyone wore straightforward everyday clothes, and there was no fancy lighting, dancing or histrionics. Mukeshji sang with pure, undiluted passion, and what a song it was!  No special effects distracted attention from the soulful lyrics sung by a timeless, mellifluous voice. Radio supports pure, good music, which doesn’t need to hide behind distracting gimmickry.
Radio has revolutionised mass communication, and is useful in many other ways. Before radio, telegraph was the best way to rapidly transmit information over long distances. But telegraph used a system of codes, while radio carried speech. Telegraph required wires, and could not work across vast areas without wiring. Around 1891, radios began to be used on ships at sea, preventing accidents and helping in rescue operations.  In 1899 the R.F. Matthews became the first ship to use a wireless device based on Marconi’s system, to request emergency assistance at sea. 
Radio spectrum and technology has many applications; from baby monitors and broadcasting to radar and radio beacons. In 1910, Frederick Baldwin and John McCurdy first connected an aerial to their bi-plane, to demonstrate radio’s use for navigating planes. In 1921, the Detroit police first used radio equipped vehicles. Today’s ambulances use radio to monitor and relay the patient’s condition to the hospital.
 In 1902, ‘ham’ or amateur radio was first introduced to the U.S. through a Scientific American article on “How to Construct an Efficient Wireless Telegraphy Apparatus at Small Cost.” Today, there are many ham radio enthusiasts all over the world, connected through ham clubs. Apart from enjoying an interesting hobby, ham operators have been helpful in rescue operations after natural disasters such as earthquakes, when major communications centres have been damaged or destroyed. Their broadcasts have guided search parties and located victims in remote areas.
Radio telescopes pick up radio waves naturally emitted from stars, quasars, black holes and other objects in deep outer space.  This helps scientists to get a better understanding of our vast universe.  Given the infinite expanse of space, it’s possible that other intelligent life exists far away. Radio will play a major role if humanity successfully connects with intelligent extraterrestrial life.
The world has many scientific minds to thank for this wonderful invention. In the early 1800s, Hans Christian Orsted began experimental work on the connection between electricity and magnetism. Further experimental work was continued by Andre-Marie Ampere, Joseph Henry and Michael Faraday. Subsequently James Clerk Maxwell developed a theory of electromagnetism, predicting the existence of electromagnetic waves. Heinrich Hertz proved that electricity can be transmitted in electromagnetic waves. Nikola Tesla wirelessly transmitted electromagnetic energy in 1893.
Indian scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose was a pioneer in the field of microwave devices. He invented the Mercury Coherer and the receiver which Marconi used to receive the first radio communication across the Atlantic over a distance of 2000 miles, in 1901. Guglielmo Marconi is widely credited to have developed the first instrument for radio communication over large distances. He was awarded the official patent by the British Government. Marconi established the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company in 1897. The work of each of these scientists and several others was of vital importance. Ultimately it all led to the system of wireless sound broadcasting known today as radio.
In India, radio went commercial in 1965 with the introduction of ads in Vivdh Bharati broadcasts. Catchy radio jingles won the public’s hearts. Tunes like Tandurusti ki raksha karta hai Lifebouy, Doodh ki safedi Nirma se aaye, and  sona sona naya Rexona stayed on every Indian’s lips. Ameen Sayani, with his rich, sonorous voice, was India’s pioneering all-time number one RJ. He first appeared on radio in 1953-54 to change forever the relatively staid tone of AIR broadcasts. Sayani made broadcasting history by hosting the Binaca-cibaca Geetmala film songs programme for 39 years. At the height of his career, he did over 35 radio programmes every week. My personal favourites among the golden radio voices of yesteryear were Gitanjali Iyer hosting A Date With You, and Melville De Mello’s reading of the English news. Yuva Vani programmes and Bournvita Quiz had us kids hooked.
Today’s profusion of FM channels has produced many talented and magnetic radio presenters or RJs, each with their distinctive brand of delivery. Deadpan humour, talent for sarcasm or spoofs, rich and electrifying voices, the ability to talk non-stop with oodles of confidence even when they make a slip of the tongue, the most popular RJs are celebrities with fan followings. Teaming up with copywriters and producers, they make up the most visible, oops audible, face of an exciting profession.
Radio thrives on, reinventing itself and offering new ways to support technological advances. On World Radio Day, and every other day, let’s celebrate this invention which brings music to our ears.
 This was first published in Sunday Herald
****    ****
Landmarks in Indian radio history
June, 1923: Programmes aired by the Radio Club of Bombay.
November, 1923 : First broadcasts by Calcutta Radio Club.
July 31,1924 : The Madras Presidency Radio Club begins broadcasts.
July 23,1927 : Indian Broadcast Company (IBC), Bombay Station inaugurated by Lord Irwin, the then Viceroy of India.
August 26,1927 : Inauguration of Calcutta Station of IBC.
September 10,1935 : Akashvani Mysore, a private radio station, set up.
January 19,1936 : First news bulletin broadcast.
June 8, 1936 : Indian State Broadcasting Service became All
India Radio.
October 1,1939 : External Service started with Pushtu broadcast.
January 1,1942 : Akashvani Mysore was taken over by Maharaja of Mysore.
1947 (at the time of partition): Six Radio Stations in India (Delhi,Bombay,Calcutta,Madras, Tiruchirapalli
and Lucknow) and three Radio Stations in Pakistan (Peshawar, Lahore and Dacca)
July 20,1952 : First National Programme of Music broadcast from AIR.
July 29,1953 : National Programme of Talks (English) launched from AIR.
1954 : First Radio Sangeet Sammelan held.
August 15,1956 : National Programme of Play commenced.
October 3,1957 : Vividh Bharati Services inaugurated.
November 1, 1959 : First TV Station in Delhi started as part of AIR.
November 1,1967 : Commercials on Vividh Bharati introduced
July 21, 1969 : Yuv-Vani service started from Delhi.
July 23, 1977 : First ever FM Service was inaugurated from Madras

Bangladesh recognized Akashvani for its contribution in Bangladesh Liberation War. On 27th March, 2012, Sh. L. D. Mandloi, DG, AIR received the award at a ceremony in Dhaka.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

2016 Wish List

People hold balloons during the New Year celebrations. PTI photo
As another year comes to an end, we welcome the New Year with hope in our hearts, and prayers on our lips. May strife and enmity reduce in the world around us, and in our own backyards. May our elected leaders continue to work for improving our economy, our environment and the living conditions of our masses.  May netas bury their hatchets and expend their energies and lung power on nation building instead of launching tirades against their opponents.  May the spirit of freedom and respect for our fellow citizens and for our motherland continue to prevail. May we continue to deserve and value our freedom by also being conscious of our responsibilities as citizens of the world’s largest democracy.  May we also remember that freedom does not mean license to indiscriminately and aggressively do and say as we please. May humanity survive the unending onslaught of wars, terror strikes and growing environmental pollution which are bent upon destroying us and our planet.
In 2015, terror, war and hapless refugees fleeing war, cast shadows all over the world.   Paris began the year with a murderous attack on the office of Charlie Hedbo, a magazine which published, among other things, satirical cartoons of various religions, and religious and political leaders.  Another heinous terror attack upon Paris ended the year. Meanwhile, Mali is emerging as a centre of terror in Africa. Hostage taking, attacks on public utilities are becoming business for insurgents along with narcotics smuggling. Boko Haram has continued to launch deadly assaults in Nigeria, and strife has flared in Yemen and in Palestine. Terror has spread its tentacles to Denmark, where there were attacks near a Jewish synagogue.  Peace eluded Ukraine, while ISIS continued to launch offensives and execute hostages. Somalian militants have targeted non Muslims in attacks such as the one in April 12th on Garissa University College in Northeast Kenya.  The IS claimed responsibility for attacks in a beach resort and the National Bardo Museum in Tunisia.
The tragedy of Alan Kurdi, a cute Syrian toddler whose body was found washed ashore on a Turkish beach, personified the worldwide refugee crisis. Alan Kurdi and thousands like him, died violently while fleeing war in their homelands. The immigration crisis in Europe intensified. Thousands of refugees from war-torn Afghanistan, Syria and turbulent regions of Northern Africa, poured into the Balkans. Many European nations offered refuge to only a few migrants, turning away the rest. European Union officials struggled to reach an agreement on tackling the crisis. Western nations are concerned that terrorists will mingle with genuine refugees to infiltrate their countries. We pray the New Year will bring peace and reconciliation among all the countries and factions at war.
Indians can take justified pride in the fact that India has always been a welcoming haven for immigrants from distant lands, and for victims of religious persecution. The Saint Thomas Christians of Kerala, also called Syrian Christians, trace their origins to the evangelistic activity of St. Thomas in the 1st century, at a time when Christians were persecuted by the Roman emperors. This is among the oldest Christian communities of the world. According to Wikipedia, St. Thomas Christian culture is Hindu in origin with influences from East Syrian, West Syrian, Jewish and later European sources. Our fellow citizens include Jews, and Zoroastrians whose forefathers came to India to escape religious persecution in their native Persia. India has generously sheltered huge numbers of refugees from war-torn Bangladesh in 1971, and later from Sri Lanka. Over the decades, many of these hapless victims of strife have found new lives in our motherland. May the rest of the world embrace the spirit of magnanimity, and continue to shelter unfortunate victims of war and persecution.
Bangladesh born author and literary translator Mahmud Rahman now lives in the US. “Back in 1971,” he says, “I joined millions of my countrymen and women to flee an insecure life in an occupied land. India gave us refuge, and for that I have always been grateful. When I flew to the U.S. with these identity papers (issued by India to refugees from Bangladesh) -- newly independent Bangladesh not yet recognized by many countries -- I could not stop in London for a planned visit with some friends... When I landed in Boston -- I did have a proper visa in my possession -- the immigration official said, "Welcome to the U.S." That was a precious moment. There's no question as to what's right today when it comes to Syrian refugees. It would be a shame if our borders were shut on them.”

The end of 2015 saw mass shooting in the U.S. and stabbings at a London Underground station. Terror links to both incidents are being investigated. Countries around us are in grave crises because of rifts created among their own people. Afghanistan, Lebanon and Syria were peaceful once.  Like India, these countries have a rich cultural heritage, and were home to ancient civilizations. Yet today opposing factions  are killing each other, while ordinary citizens drown in the seas to escape anarchy and mayhem.  The poison of pointing harsh, accusing fingers, and spreading hatred among our fellow Indians, is extending vicious tentacles over our homeland.   We must be alert to nip in the bud messengers of divisions and enmity among the people of India, and prevent our motherland from becoming another Syria or Afghanistan.  
We are most fortunate to be living in a free country. We can rant and rave about the ‘system’ and the powers that be, without being beheaded or imprisoned.  May our democracy continue to prosper, and may we enjoy our rights and freedom responsibly. The mainstream media plays a vital role in disseminating information. The onus falls on mainstream conveyors of news, to provide a balanced and rational perspective, which in turn moulds public opinion and people’s reactions to current events.

 “What's with our media?” wonders literary translator and editor Keerti Ramachandra.  “Unless their callers, panellists, respondents blame government, the authorities...  they are not happy. Anyone who says a good word, shows any appreciation of the government’s efforts, is choked off. Why not highlight the generosity, the helpfulness of the people of Chennai, the constable, the fireman, the staff of the corporation (who, by the way, are also ordinary people whose homes are probably flooded) and yet they continue on duty.” The media is getting really ugly these days, “ says Chitra Iyengar, a young engineer. “I miss those days when news was a 10 minute one every hour and half an hour programme every 3 hours. That news was actual news, useful.” 

The comparative sobriety of the Western news channels in reporting the recent terror attacks in Paris must be appreciated. Our media prefers a shriller, sensational tone. TV news presentations sizzle with histrionics, and invited guests are shouted down before they can speak a single sentence. Newspapers too, abound with aggressive headlines with phrases such as “strikes back”, “lashes out” and “blazes away.” This aggressive tone can help pit people against each other, fan the flames of controversy and deepen rifts and animosity.

When these controversies and enmities move on to social media, a multi-headed monster is born. Malicious rant writers latch on to selective quotes and facts, and spread misinformation and half-truths to further their narrow agendas. Incendiary messages flood our social media feeds, urging us to react and take sides. The facts get buried under the noise and ordinary people like us react wrongly without realizing the sensationalism or spiteful insinuations.  Heaven knows who will benefit from spreading such divisions and hatred. If this poison continues to spread, we will surely die in the cross-fire. People like us must remain cautious and balanced and not hastily react to, or pass on such messages. We must remember that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
Terror is just one among the many dangers our world faces. Climate change and uncontrolled environmental degradation will surely destroy this planet, finishing what terrorists have started. Global warming and the El Nino effect are considered major causes of the recent unprecedented deluge in Chennai and neighbouring areas of coastal Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and coastal Andhra Pradesh. While some parts of the country reeled under floods, other areas such as 50 districts of Uttar Pradesh were declared drought hit. Crop losses due to the vagaries of nature, and mounting debts continue to push our farmers to take their own lives. The Hyderabad High Court recently described the farmers’ suicides and the crisis-like situation of agriculture in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh as “alarming.” Delhi, like most of our urban settlements, is beginning to smell like a gas chamber, prompting the state government to control the number of vehicles on the city’s streets.
“The Paris COP 21 talks could determine the outcome of our immediate history,” says author Amitav Ghosh. Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has supported Prime Minister Modi’s case for India’s growth, saying it will be unjust to make developing nations shift to low carbon emission green energy, when it is much costlier than tradition fossil fuels.
Governments and ordinary people are spreading awareness, and rays of hope are piercing the noxious fumes. India’s total forest cover has increased to 24.16 % environment minister Prakash Javadekar said, releasing the India State of Forest Report – 2015. If pollution is increasing, the carbon sinks provided by forests are also increasing, he added. India has been shown as an example at the Paris Summit. However, pollution continues to grow, and we are yet to attain the desired 33 % forest cover. Meanwhile, various species are becoming endangered and sinking into extinction due to increasing pollution and the ongoing human-animal conflict. The return of the endangered Olive Ridley turtles for breeding on beaches off the Bay of Bengal, delighted wildlife lovers. We hope they and other rare species will survive and thrive to enrich the beauty of our planet. We also pray that our planet itself will survive, and continue to sustain us all.
There’s more good news to cheer us.  India is, for the first time, leading the World Bank’s growth chart of major world economies in 2015, overtaking China’s 7.1 per cent growth rate. The Bank said reforms had buoyed the confidence in India. Concerns over the current account deficit, fiscal deficit and inflation have dissipated with the fall in oil prices. It said new reforms were improving business and investor confidence in India, attracting new capital inflows.
There’s hope on the  international relations front. Prime Ministers Narendra Modi of India and Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan had a cordial impromptu meeting in Paris on the sidelines of the Conference of Parties (CoP) 21 climate summit. The National Security Advisers of India and Pakistan met in Bangkok on 6th December and "agreed to carry forward the constructive engagement". China was happy to see a thawing of relations between India and Pakistan, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said.  In another instance of positive international cooperation, Germany has promised 125 million Euros to help finance green energy projects in Himachal Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.  May our leaders set aside rivalries and work together to nurture these green shoots.

Meanwhile, ordinary Indian citizens have quietly worked to make this world a better place. Indian doctors from major hospitals such as the all India Institute of Medical Sciences, Fortis, Mauling Azad, CMC Vellore and Apollo have conducted free camps for African patients, partnered with local hospitals, organised continued medical education programmes and exchange programmes through the Pan African e-Network Project linking 48 African countries.
During the recent disastrous deluge, citizens of Chennai embodied the true spirit of India as they poured out of flooded homes to help others in greater distress.   The official rescue forces pitched in bravely to do their duty in Chennai, and wherever else their help was needed. Among the many ordinary Indians overcoming narrow divisive forces, were members of Jammat E Islami Hind, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), who cleaned temples as well as mosques in flooded areas of Chennai.
As we remember the Mumbai terror attacks of November 26th, 2008, let us salute the courageous Indians who laid down their lives selflessly to combat terror. Slain Maharashtra Anti Terror Squad chief Hemant Karkare, Assistant Commissioner of Mumbai Police Ashok Kamte, Senior Police Inspector Vijay Salaskar, Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, ASI Tukaram Gopal Omble;  these noble bravehearts are the real heroes of our country and of our times.
All these brave and generous Indians may not command prime time TV, but let us keep them and their ideals alive in our hearts. When confronted by repeated images of animosity and divisiveness, may we the people of India refuse to take the bait to destroy each other.  May we continue to stand together as proud and responsible citizens of a great nation.

This was published in Deccan Herald

Wednesday, November 04, 2015


Remember the good old days? Those magical yesteryears when the skies were bluer, air purer, people nicer, music sweeter and life a rainbow-hued fairy tale. In those mythical halcyon days, love and friendships lasted lifelong. Life was all pristine innocence and goodness. Today's crass materialism and soul-stifling lack of morals were unimaginable then. At least that is what we wish to believe when we daydream our way into a nostalgic time-warp.
Most of us at some time or other, have compared the glorious past to the degenerate present. It’s tempting to tell our successors how we were more intelligent, diligent, honest, better behaved and better in everything than them. We forget that we too were at the receiving end of such grievances from our own elders. Our venerable elders would surely have heard similar complaints from their own venerable elders. Our prehistoric caveman ancestors would probably have lamented the hairless bodies, larger craniums and more erect gait of degenerate younger generations. They would have deplored the new-fangled way of communicating with words as needlessly complicating the traditional hominid system of modulated grunts. Those new bone and iron tools would have seemed more cumbersome than traditional rocks and sticks.

Nostalgia makes us gloss over the flaws and cocoon ourselves in an idealized version of olden days. We feel that in the past people lived better lives. But we conveniently overlook the fact that their lives were shorter because of smallpox, cholera and other ailments which can be cured today. Let's carry the argument further. If the past was indeed perfectly wonderful, what about the Thugs who waylaid innocent travelers on the Grand Trunk Road, and the murderous hordes of Genghis Khan and Timurlane's armies? They too belonged to the golden past. Life in the Middle Ages or Dark Ages as modern ignoramuses call it, was a time of faith. Blind faith. The people were discouraged to learn and ask questions. Thus they were protected from unpalatable truths. The Salem Witch Trials and the Spanish Inquisition belonged to the golden past too. In our own land, widows were routinely burnt upon their husbands’ funeral pyres. Human sacrifice, slavery and other progressive social customs prevailed along with all sorts of superstitions and taboos. People dared not cross the seas and travel to foreign lands for fear of being excommunicated from respectable society. Time-honoured institutions, sadly forgotten today.  

In the distant past, cavemen led the purest life. No hectic work schedules; no money, and therefore no need to chase that root of all evil. Issues were resolved swiftly and decisively. They simply smashed opponents with their clubs and either killed, or got killed. The apelike forefathers of the Homo Sapiens lived on a higher plane above their degenerate future progeny. They thrived close to nature with their heads up high, usually in the branches of trees. The remoter the past, the grander everything was. Just think of the dinosaurs. Those primeval monsters truly lived life king size.
So are we the inferior waste products of history and pre-history? Is Darwin’s theory of evolution a crazy myth? Is human civilization hurtling toward a cultural compost pit? Think about it. Is nostalgia deceiving us? Was the past ever perfect? Is the present merely imperfect continuous?

Idealized images from the past have their uses. When the computer gives up its ghost to a virus, or when the Internet grinds to a crawl, it’s therapeutic to go strolling through the tranquil bends of memory lane. Sentimental longing and wistful affection for the past; treasuring selective airbrushed and rose-tinted mental images of times long gone; that’s what nostalgia is all about. It’s but human to long for a home and loved ones, who have changed considerably with time. Even loved things such as old movies or books can trigger feelings of nostalgia. An old Lata Mangeshkar, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan or Kishore Kumar song can unlock the gates of magical memories, depending upon the generation and culture to which the listener belongs.

Nostalgia smooths and softens the rough edges of things from the past. In the words of Doug Larson, nostalgia is a device that removes the potholes from memory lane. Nostalgia can add cheer and joy to our rat-race weary lives. How magical it is to leaf to your childhood autograph book, filled with scrawls from school pals, teachers, and those film stars who shot a scene in your school if you were lucky enough. Oh, that dreamy feeling of reliving old memories as you view sepia tinted photographs in the family album! Have you ever felt more delight and contentment? The aromas of your mother’s cooking; that camping trip you took with your father; the warmth of his hug as you snuggled into your grandfather’s lap and listened to his stories; our dear elders had made our lives worth living. They were only human, and not all-powerful superheroes. But when we were young, they were perfect in our eyes as they lovingly nurtured us into becoming what we are today.  Some of them have left this world, but their affectionate memories continue to guide and uplift us.

Inanimate objects like favourite books, songs or movies can similarly boost our spirits. They gain this power because of their association with our dearest people and happy events from the past. That movie or song is evergreen because we enjoyed it in the company of friends from our carefree schooldays. That favourite book is often the one a beloved parent or teacher gifted us, opening our intellectual perspective in an amazing new way. Whenever I pass a Subway sandwich shop in any city, I am flooded with soft-focus memories of the lively addas I once enjoyed with my children’s author friends in a cozy Subway branch in Bengaluru. We all live in different cities now. Distance and time draws old friends apart. But nostalgic memories can bring back some of that old happy glow.

Pleasant memories can help us tide over hard times. I remember how my late brother was once passing through a rough phase in life. When I visited him, we sat together leafing through old photos of our shared childhood. Then, he brought out his file of testimonials. That letter of appreciation from a visiting dignitary; that photo with a famous film star; a glowing recommendation from a former employer; those newspaper clippings; all helped gradually ease his frown and bring back the spring in his stride. Drawing a deep breath, he then readied to face the challenges ahead with fresh hope and energy. Nostalgia helps us overcome setbacks. It reminds us that if winter has come, spring cannot be far behind. If we succeeded before, we have the capacity to succeed again in our endeavors. Nostalgia can give us hope and courage.

Nostalgia is a great way of creating and nurturing human ties. Families and friends bond over happy memories, sharing experiences and emotions. School and college alumni associations are strengthened by nostalgia. When I attended a meeting of the Lady Shri Ram College Alumna Association in Bangalore, I had hoped to reunite with long lost friends from my college days in New Delhi. I scanned the unfamiliar names and faces of attendees, who ranged from august ladies to youngsters who looked as though they had bunked lectures to be there. I didn’t find a dear old friend, but as I chatted with the others, I realized we all shared memories. Our favourite teachers, discovering fascinating books in the library and bonding over snacks at the college canteen; we had been there and enjoyed the same things. People may have studied different courses, and may be born generations apart. But getting together to celebrate the glory of the shared alma mater can draw diverse people closer.

Our memories of what was good in our past, can guide us to build good things in our future. I sometimes feel nostalgic about dear Melly Aunty, an especially friendly and caring neighbour from decades ago. These memories stand as guidelines for my own behavior today.   Nostalgia can help us understand the things that matter the most to us; the memories and emotions that leave a lasting impression in our minds when all else has passed.

Nostalgia can enrich literature and history. Rabindranath Tagore’s enchanting memoir My Reminisces, brings to vivid life Tagore’s unique childhood world as he grew up in the thick of the Bengal Renaissance. Qais Abdul Omar’s Fort of Nine Towers is a moving account of his personal experiences of the beauty of Afghanistan as it was, and of the horrors of recent decades of violence in his homeland. In addition to being memorable reads, such books also help readers experience past realities which they would otherwise never have known. Such memoirs flesh out the gaps and show us the human side of the past overlooked by dry factual history textbooks.  

It’s easy to let the magical enchantment of nostalgia overwhelm our sense of present day reality. We must strike a balance and take care not to get carried away. “Nostalgia is a seductive liar,” as George Wildman Ball so aptly put it. It amplifies the glories of the past and can encourage people to ignore what they can do today. It can make us resist new ideas, progress and innovation as we yearn for what is dead and gone. Love for a glorious past can blind us to the good things in the present.
This ambiguous and bittersweet emotion can also sink us in the quicksand of regrets. We need to guard ourselves from wallowing in misgivings; of dwelling upon what could have been, rather than focusing on the here and now.  I remember being with a friend as she lamented the lost promise of her youth. If only she had built upon her bright academic career and pursued her dream of joining the Civil Services. Meanwhile her little son tugged at her dress, pleading for attention. She scolded him for interrupting while she was talking. The little one toddled away with downcast head. A crushed flower fell from his tiny hand.

We will be the ultimate losers if we allow nostalgia to distract us from appreciating life as it is now. It’s important to use our memories of the positive aspects of the past, to improve current circumstances. This can help strengthen our will to move ahead and grow. Sometimes the pain of regrets may be unbearable. That’s when we must delve into our nostalgic impressions of the good times, and remember our positive achievements. This will revitalize our hopes, and help us to forgive ourselves. As a writer so aptly put it, people find it hard to be happy because they always see the past better than it was, the present worse than it is, and the future less resolved than it will be.
Dwelling in a self-created prison of nostalgia can stunt our thinking and vision. Albums, autograph books, school yearbooks and mementoes get damaged or lost as the years go by.  In this never-ending rat-race, the pressures of deadlines, cut-throat competition, soaring inflation and plunging sales graphs all take their toll. We can’t afford to let ourselves be embalmed in old memories. In the course of moving houses, I’ve lost that book inscribed by a long-lost friend. Tears fill my eyes because I cannot find those dainty sandesh moulds my late aunt used to shape mouth-watering Bengali sweets. Physical symbols of our most precious memories fade away with the passage of time, leaving us emotionally orphaned.  I try to convince myself that indulging in nostalgia for what cannot be retained, will make me as obsolete as the defunct past. Instead of mourning the lost sweet moulds, I hope to replicate some of my aunt’s gracious, forgiving attitude. I feel that would be her best memorial.

Dipping into nostalgic memories is a lovely way to soothe and revitalize our souls. But we must take care to dwell just long enough, and not lose ourselves in nostalgia. Our focus should be to use that fresh energy and insight to face today’s challenges with renewed vigour.

This was published in Sunday Herald

Sunday, September 13, 2015

cleaning India

On October 2nd 2014, wondrous scenes unfolded in India’s public spaces. True to the spirit of the Mahatma, Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrated Gandhi Jayanti by taking to the streets with a broom to launch the Swachh Bharat or Clean India campaign. The media was soon flooded with broom-wielding images of netas, government babus, celebrities of motley hues, and ordinary people like us. Over 31 lakh central government employees from all over the country paused from tying red tape, to pledge to clean up India. Since then, Facebook, WhatsApp and the rest of cyberspace are flooded with memes, jokes and publicity shots of who is doing what to clean up this country. The Clean India campaign is an ongoing one, with multiple suitably impressive goals. Meanwhile, we debate the issue in the social media, sign pledges, and sometimes even flourish a mop for effect. We then continue to relieve ourselves at the nearest roadside wall, and toss our garbage at the neighbours’ doorstep.
So is all this flurry of real and virtual activity leading the way to a cleaner India? Will pouring public money into more toilets be enough to keep our cities and villages clean? How can we counter the surge of environmental pollution from industries? What will happen when people misuse the toilets, and then return to squatting behind bushes or emptying their bladders upon public walls, because the toilets no longer work? Will a carpet ever be found, under which we can brush the mountains of garbage being generated by our cities? Will the dream of a clean India remain just a dream? Can people like us help turn that dream into reality?
Half a century ago, V.S. Naipaul observed in An Area of Darkness how Indians defecate everywhere. They mostly defecate beside the railway tracks. They also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the riverbanks, he pointed out. We Indians were profoundly hurt. We blushed, we bristled with indignation and we took umbrage. Yet the more things have changed, things and we ourselves, have remained the same.
This isn’t the first time the government has taken initiatives to clean up our country. The Rural Sanitation Program of the eighties was restructured into the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) and relaunched in 1999. To boost the TSC, in 2003 the government launched an award for overall sanitation coverage, maintaining clean public spaces and open defecation -free panchayat villages, blocks and districts.  This award was called Nirmal Gram Puraskar. Then in 2012, the TSC was renamed Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA). The campaign was revived in a new avatar as the current Clean India/ Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Even more funds have now been allocated, and constant drum beating in the media, among other things, has made this campaign more attention grabbing than ever before. The government’s and our fervent hope is that all this hoopla will translate into tangible and lasting improvements.  While some other developing nations such as the Philippines also have the problem of open defecation, India’s predicament is in a class apart. India has the world’s largest number of open defecators. Therefore, the cleanliness drive is of special importance to us. According to plans, around 600 million Indians who now relieve themselves in public view because they have no choice, will all have the benefit of private flush toilets within the next five years.

We are sometimes embarrassed by the sight of gentlemen hopping out of their Mercedes to urinate upon conveniently located walls. Don’t we all have relatives and friends who indiscriminately generate plastic waste, or toss garbage wherever they like? We hope the awareness campaigns will also change the mindsets of such educated urban citizens like us. The Intensive drive for awareness also hopes to cover people from all social and economic segments in interior areas of the country. We can do our bit here, by pointing fingers at the wrongdoers among us, and hope to shame them into better behaviour. After all, clean households and a clean environment will help us all stay healthy and keep communicable diseases at bay.
The current Clean India campaign is a multi-pronged ongoing drive, and not a short-lived action and publicity blitz. The Prime Minister is keen on involving the entire country, and hopes that the campaign will inspire youth and encourage everyone to follow his steps. Innovative ways are being explored to encourage cleanliness. Social media is being used as a key platform to spread the message of the cleanliness drive. Our Vibrant festivals are also to become occasions for spreading the good word. The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has evolved a new campaign strategy to spread the message of ‘Swachh Bharat and safe drinking water’ at festivals such as the Kumbh Melas, where lakhs of people come together. The renowned Meenakshi Kalyanam festival of Madurai in Tamil Nadu and the Amarnath Yatra in Jammu and Kashmir will soon be occasions to spread awareness among pilgrims coming from far and wide.  Lord Jagannath’s Rath Yatra of Puri, Odisha, Maharashtra’s Pandharpur Palkhi Yatra, and Bihar’s Sonepur Livestock Fair are among the festivals recommended by the Ministry as platforms for launching the campaign.

 By 2019, the authorities and we, hope that Indians everywhere and from all walks of life will know and actively participate in the cleanliness drive. The drive envisages:
  •  Construction of sanitary toilets for households below the poverty line, offering government subsidy where applicable.
  • Upgrading existing dry pit latrines without a water seal, into low-cost sanitary latrines.
  • Constructing village sanitary complexes for women, with facilities for hand pumping, bathing, and washing. This can be done where there isn’t enough land or space within houses, and where village panchayats consent to maintain the facilities.
  • Total sanitation of villages through the construction of drains, soakage pits, solid and liquid waste disposal.
Let’s hope that key people in the government and in the private sector help the Prime Minister make this campaign a success. May this campaign fire the public imagination and involve the entire country. Only with widespread participation and commitment will the dream of a cleaner India be realised.
The path charted out by the Swachh Bharat campaign doesn’t quite perfectly address all aspects of cleanliness. The programme leaves some gaps in the complete sanitation chain, which goes beyond building better and cleaner toilets. What will happen, for example, when the toilet pits fill up? That’s happening in some states like Kerala with high sanitation coverage. Existing treatment facilities are inadequate to deal with overflowing pits. This creates a different health hazard.
The programme stresses upon providing toilets and offering subsidies. But many toilets are later misused and stop working. Sometimes the money is siphoned off by unscrupulous officials and the toilets exist only on paper. Despite all official efforts and in spite of increasing prosperity, access to education and information, too many of our fellow citizens simply don’t care. They will not properly use and maintain what they have, let alone make efforts to improve things.

Despite these inherent stumbling blocks, palpable positive change has happened in pockets in our own country. Best and lasting improvement has been seen where various agencies and the people themselves, have actively coordinated their efforts at all levels to achieve a common goal. In the 1990s, the Nandigram II block in West Bengal became the first block in India to take pride in providing a sanitary toilet for every rural household. To make this success story happen, officials at the district and block levels worked together as a team along with the Ramakrishna Mission. Competent technical support was secured, and funds were released according to needs, and in time. The state sanitation cell monitored the overall process. Similar successful projects later happened in some areas of other states. They were all marked by active involvement and leadership from within the community itself. With the help of strong political and governmental support, the local people themselves helped to usher in positive change.
Success can happen. Ordinary people like us can help make good things happen. It’s time we stopped passing the buck and criticizing the ‘system’.  We are ourselves a part of that very ‘system’ we never tire of blaming. Here are a few ways we can do our bit to clean up our environment:
People like us can help spread awareness and support government initiatives by our personal actions. As members of local citizens’ groups, residents’ welfare associations, or as volunteers with social service organizations, we can help facilitate positive action at the grassroots level. Best and lasting results are seen when ordinary citizens participate wholeheartedly. Aware citizens groups can point out shortcomings in government policies, and offer suggestions for fine-tuning those policies so that optimum results are achieved in their own communities. Knowledge is power. Spreading that knowledge and using it to help ourselves, increases its benefits exponentially.
The Government authorities are making some efforts to address various issues involved in cleaning India. A committee set up by the National Green Tribunal, for example, has suggested that the use of fresh river water for industrial processes, railway and bus cleaning, fire-fighting etc. should be prohibited and made an offence. This will help maintain the minimum environmental flow of the highly polluted Yamuna River. In a seemingly unconnected move by the Government Railway Police (GRP) in Agra, 129 people were fined for allegedly urinating in public, in just three days in June. Noise and light pollution is another problem in our cities. Increasing amounts of untreated sewage, industrial effluents and other waste are finding their way into our rivers. We can help spread awareness about the many ways our environment is being sullied. We can draw attention to the importance and interconnectedness of all measures to counteract environmental pollution, and thus help policy makers and fellow citizens more conscious of the big picture.
The authorities need to clean up their act in implementing pollution control measures upon our industries. Too often, the small fry fall below the radar of the authorities, while big money has a way of getting its own way. Vigilant citizens groups can help by whistle-blowing on such pollution generators within their own communities. Citizens groups can also help pinpoint the sources of corruption, which help polluting industries find loopholes, and siphon off funds meant for public projects or paying sanitation workers.
We need to get over our feudal prejudices, and treat with respect those who clear our garbage and help keep our surroundings clean. We can show some concern for the welfare of the sanitation workers in our own neighbourhoods, by guiding them towards better healthcare or educating their children.
Cynicism is ingrained in many of us. We take it for granted that government measures will fail. We justify our own inaction by averring that others will dirty our surroundings anyway, no matter how hard we try to keep everything clean. The murky side of human nature sometimes surfaces not just in our own country, but elsewhere in the world. Plastic waste ‘islands’ stretch for miles in the Pacific Ocean. Mt Everest’s majesty is being sullied by mounds of waste left behind by mountaineers. Around 30% of the Great Wall of China has disappeared over time, not just due to natural wear and tear, but also because of reckless human activities. Reckless constructions and deforestation are increasing the risk of flash floods and landslides in the Himalayas. It’s up to us to resign ourselves to the elephant of pollution in the room. Or, we can pick up our brooms to help make a difference.
The fact is, that small groups of ordinary citizens with full time jobs and families to care for, have come together to show results. Instead of just talking, they have worked in silence even in our very own namma Bengaluru to clean up spots such as Church Street and Malleswaram’s vegetable and fruit market.  Once they have taken the lead, other folks like us have seen the change and curbed their native muck-tossing instincts.
This brings us to a bigger question of our role on this planet. The rate of extinction of species has been precipitated in recent times by human activities. We have a hand in making our earth less liveable, not just for other creatures, but even for ourselves. We seem hell-bent on transforming our planet into a toxic junk heap someday. If we don’t want to clean up out act and save this world, perhaps we can still hope to discover new worlds to colonize and exploit.  

This essay is published in Sunday Herald

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Flood of Fire :book review

Flood of Fire 
Amitav Ghosh
2015, pp 624, Rs 799

This novel brings to life an exciting chapter in history, as it traces the events culminating in the Opium Wars of the 19th Century, the British acquisition of Hong Kong, and the rise of British imperialism.  This painstakingly researched finale to the monumental Ibis Trilogy extends far beyond dry scholarship.  Rich descriptions, memorable characters and exciting action; this novel has it all. Rife with minute linguistic, cultural and military details, this is a fascinating read.
 History’s mysterious twists and turns, the ironies, fallacies, tragedies and triumphs, are dramatized through the perspectives of interesting characters. They range from fugitives on the fringes of society, to the super rich movers and shakers of world affairs. Diverse as they are, they are tied by the bond of the Ibis, the slave and opium transporting ship, in which they or their dear ones sailed at some time, and where they shared secrets. Through their stories, we see the interconnectedness of things: of how British enforced cultivation of opium yielding poppy in the plains of Bihar can have profound effects in distant China.
Zachary Reid is a young American sailor from Baltimore. The son on a white man and his African slave, Zachary is assumed to be a white man wherever he travels. Compelled to work as a ‘mystery’ or artisan in order to pay off his debts, he has a torrid liaison with his employer, Mrs Burnham. Their affair flourishes under cover of amusing euphemisms and subterfuges. Mrs Burnham gets after Zachary with crusading zeal to cure him of an ‘ailment’ which is considered a normal sexual activity today.  Such touches lends comic relief, and prevent the narrative from being weighed down by the gravity of unfolding historical events.
Zachary’s ambitions are fuelled by proximity to the Burnhams’ riches and influence. Following Mr Burnham into the lucrative opium trade seems to be the best way for a talented but poor young man like himself to make a mark in life. His initiation into drug dealing happens in the lanes of Calcutta. “Through the odour of dust and dung he recalled the perfumed scents of Mrs Burnham’s boudoir. So this was the mud in which such luxuries were rooted? The idea was strangely arousing.” By the end of the novel, Zachary evolves from “an ingenuous, good-natured boy,” into a man of the times, who does not know the meaning of ‘enough’…Anyone who thwarts my desires is the enemy of my liberty and must expect to be treated as such.”
Shireen Modi is the sheltered widow of a prominent Bombay based merchant and opium trader. Braving social ostracism, she dons western clothing and journeys alone to China to clear her beloved husband’s lost reputation, and claim compensations due to him. She witnesses the war for supremacy in the opium trade in China, and the birth of Hong Kong. On the personal plane, this model Parsi wife learns to overcome her shock upon learning of her husband’s parallel life. She reaches out to her husband’s son by a Chinese woman, and opens herself to a new life and love.
Havildar Kesri, the son of a farmer from Bihar, runs away from home to join the British army, the rising power in India. As he travels to China to fight for his British employers, he realises that “in a lifetime of soldiering he had never known what it was to fight” in the way Chinese soldiers did. “For something that was your own; something that tied you to your fathers and mothers and those who had gone before them, back into the dimness of time. An unnameable grief came upon him then…”
Bankrupted and disgraced by the British whom he once so admired, Raja Neel Rattan Halder resurfaces in China as a fugitive from British injustice. He becomes Ah Neel, the linguist and translator who compiles and assimilates information for the Chinese rulers. His diaries and commentaries add depth and perspective upon the advances of the East India Company into China, and the onset of war. His little son Raju travels all the way from Calcutta to China in search of his father, who is reported to have drowned. Raju’s experiences first as a ‘kid mutt’ or servant to Zachary, and then as a fifer in the British army, lends further depth to the story. 
Ghosh sketches the larger sweep of history, showing the sinister nature of imperialism, and on how commerce and the profit motive can be at the root of shaping international policies and war. Battles shape the course of history.
“I suppose this is much how things were in Bengal and Hindustan at the time of the European conquests and even before”, Neel notes in his journals. “The great scholars and functionaries took little interest in the world beyond until suddenly one day it rose up and devoured them.” Baboo Nob Kissin Pander’s observation of the innocent Zachary’s rapid transformation into “a perfect embodiment of the Kali-yuga” is thought-provoking, but lightened by the Baboo’s comic speech and persona. Such passages of reflection and commentary are never too long. They are alternated with battle scenes and action in bedrooms and ballrooms, in military barracks and ships. The rich use of various languages and dialects enlivens the story and prevents it from sinking under the weight of scholarship and political commentary.

This review is published in Sunday Herald