Monday, December 29, 2008

Wayanad Diary

It takes a trip like this to realize that human beings can only be pale imitators; God’s own country deserves its name for therein lives Mother Nature decked in all her glory. Mortals like us feel overwhelmed when confronted with the abundance of beauty and are left to sing paeans. Indeed, what else can we do??

This trip – my second one to Wayanad – started off quite unexpectedly with Ashish taking the lead earlier by suggesting a vacation and then distancing himself with the initial plans. Deepak and Deepika took the cue and soon, an outline of a plan was ready. When it seemed that things wouldn’t materialize, by a stroke of good fortune, we decided to go ahead, much to the glee of the people who longed for such an outing.

We started off with Ashish and Kumar agreeing to bring their cars. After a quick breakfast in the outskirts of Bangalore, we gathered speed. Due to the bright Sun and partly because it was nearing mid day, when we crossed Bandipur, we were not lucky enough to spot any elephant quenching thirst. Saurabh shared his rosy memories of college days; how FR – Final ragging - scared him and his friends and how later as seniors, hostel life was a heaven.

Check post mania set in just before the state border when Deepak and Saurabh had to find innovative ways to hide the hard drinks we were carrying. We passed one check post after the other that I began to lose count. I had read somewhere that these things sometimes serve only as speed breakers. I am now more than ever inclined to buy this.

At around half past one, we reached the foot of Edakkal Caves following our guide. We were informed by Sunil that “Victoria Garden” where we’ll be spending the next two nights was less than a kilometer away. But the drive belied his claims. We were all taken by surprise at the location of the small house that some of us even wondered if we were being led astray. But, out of nowhere like a phantom metamorphosing, close to huge rocks by the side of a small hill, we saw the place.

The view from one of the huge rocks was breathtaking. Except for a white-red house, all we could see was greenery – here and there, some signs of order in the slopes, due to plantations. The silence was the first thing I noticed. Even in Coorg, since we had stayed close to the road, it was not a deafening silence of this sort that had greeted us. Here, it was a little weird to feel that silence. It was a bit scary at first before we got used to it.

The long drive had drained our energies and the lunch was welcome. As time wore on, we decided to take a walk and have a look at the surroundings. Gopal and I, with Sunil’s help took the shorter route to the parking area to get some CDs for the night. It was like a mini-adventure in itself. The narrow path with all its bends was like traveling inside a dense jungle. We were exhausted once we climbed back but our egos didn’t let us show it.

We found the group lying on the rocks and some eyes were half closed, dreamily. The Sun was about to set. Romance was in the air – nothing like nature to give fodder to the imagination. Ashish, the prankster-in-chief discovered some good shots for our cameras. The expression on the face of the person who was cutting small branches for the late night fire, when Ashish took over his job momentarily would stay with me for some time. It was one of amused disbelief and a playfully faint smile.

The time of the day was an invite to let one’s hair down and indulge to the heart’s content. That was what we did soon after. We started with musical chairs but the merry spirits weren’t quite kindled until Deepak and Vinaya agreed to do some arm flexing. In the midst of all this, we were all rechristened by Gauri!! Then, it was time for some music. Saurabh, Devesh, Vinaya, Kumar and Deepak took turns choosing the songs. We had to make do with the speakers provided and since the place didn’t have electricity supply, we had to rely on generators which added to our problems. But these minor hurdles weren’t allowed to spoil the fun once some peppy numbers came on.

To dance is to be unrestrained and forget to be self-conscious. Some of us made for funny couples while the professional dancers seemed to get tired easily. The first glasses clinked together and thereafter, time flew by. Before we realized, numerous photos had been taken. They make for funny viewing. When one doesn’t realize oneself in some of them, then it really means that one is getting accustomed to different sides of oneself. The majority would agree with me here.

Next morning, an early start was next to impossible. Once all of us got our share of hot water and space, it was nearing ten. I had to take a second bath as I got a most unexpected head massage! The whole group took the shorter route and it turned out to be a most demanding exercise for some.

Our first stop after a long drive was at Pookut Lake. The Christmas crowd meant we had to wait for boat rides and unanimously it was decided to give it a by. View point didn’t impress either with the sun blazing overhead. After lunch at an unassuming place, we reached Soochipara falls.

The last time I was there, we had decided not to venture into the waters. This time however, we got into the water, waded close to the falls and sat on small rocks. Droplets of water splashed on to our faces from the force of the falls. Gauri longed to move further close but Ashish didn’t budge. Deepika was lost for a few seconds. The spectacle before us was nothing short of dwarfing our existence. It seemed to mock at man’s vanity and with its sheer force, was the symbol of pristine Nature.

Reluctantly, we climbed the steps back to the parking. Deepak treated some of us to tasty Amlas on the way. Back at the Victoria Garden, the Sun was setting. As the shadows lengthened, the feeling was something akin to a child’s drawing book pulled away much to her disapproval.

We played Anthakshari. Why do old songs rule when it comes to this particular game remains a mystery to me. Is it because they are ageless and transcend boundaries? Is it because of the meaning in the lyrics? Is it because of the simple but soulful music and playback singing of very fine quality? Is it because they speak about raw emotions in a nuanced fashion that has become obsolete now? One would never know!

Somebody came up with the idea of telling out the first thing that comes to mind about every other person in the group. The air around grew dense with expectation and there was a little palpitation. Who wouldn’t be curious when judgments and first impressions are given a vent? Adjectives were hurled thick and fast ranging from smart and diplomatic to infectious and bold.

In an impromptu recital of songs, without any turns, we started singing. Saurabh seemed to know every song by heart. Kumar joined in with vigor now and then. I learnt later that when I left to sleep, the stage was set for a debate.

On the morning of 26th, I got up early and went for a walk. The Sun had just risen and the gentle first light seemed to impart a color like no other to the leaves and branches of the trees around. Nature was being stirred into activity. The first hours of sunlight are the best hours of the day for when the mind is fresh and the limbs strong, one feels immensely confident and happy in the World around.

After a good amount of stretching and delaying, we left at around 11. A long drive to Sulthan Bathery and a good bye to Vinaya followed. We hit the road to Pulpally on the way to Kuruva Island. It was undoubtedly the best drive in the whole journey. Tall trees lined the narrow road on either side and traffic was minimal. The occasional motorist was lost in reverie and more often than not was driving in the middle of the road.

My first ride in a bamboo raft was exciting. The raft floated innocuously, it seemed to take a life of its own and we felt as if we were being gently carried to the other shore. At the other end, we walked to a small water body. On the way, Ashish ingeniously made each of us pose scandalous and there were clicks.

We waded for a small distance in water that was knee deep in parts. The long stretch was beautiful with branches leaning out in deftly contrived angles. Time seemed to punish us when we had to move on to reach Bangalore before too late. A very late lunch at another unassuming place in Pulpally and the cars were loaded for the final leg of the journey.

We crossed the border as the Sun was going down. In the car, there was a minor recounting of the experiences in the last few days. It brought some smiles and some time later, Kumar and I found dreamy eyes. Gundulpet and its generous speed breakers drove sleep away.

As the car hit the Mysore-Bangalore highway, Bryan Adams entertained and kept us awake. Ashish seemed to develop wings and we were finding it difficult to keep sight of him around Mandya. Finally, we hit the city close to 11.

As we said our good byes, we knew deep down that this was one trip that would best be remembered for its share of generous fun, laughter, its high moments, its innocence and its success in drawing the curtains on a year of path-breaking events for this team.

Monday, December 22, 2008

'Curfewed Night' - Beauty wasted by conflict

For all our nation's shortcomings and deficiencies, it is because of our "freedom of expression", that we are able to read a book like 'Curfewed Night' - an account of the "situation" in Kashmir from a son of the land.

Basharat Peer, born in Kashmir and now based in New York, as the cover of the book says, tells the story of Kashmir in a straightforward, honest fashion. Without taking anybody's side, Peer demonstrates how many of us, thanks to our prejudices and refusal to grasp the complete picture, fail to understand the complexity of the situation. Instead, we read about militants getting caught, civilians getting killed, politics being unabashedly played over land day in and day out. We are reconciled and helpless; forced to believe what we are offered. I am not suggesting that we shouldn't, but merely alluding that we take many things for granted.

For that simple reason, Curfewed Night is a must read - to learn more about how war is not distant and how it is very much a reality in a state which we like to forget except when talking about tourism, deaths and cross-border politics and elections.

Starting from his early childhood when "Nobody had killed a man in our area for decades", he moves on to describe the city thus: "Srinagar is a medieval city dying in a modern war. It is empty streets, locked shops, angry soldiers and boys with stones. It is several thousand military bunkers, four golf courses, and three bookshops. It is wily politicians repeating their lies about war and peace to television cameras...It is staring back or looking away, resigned. Srinagar is never winning and never being defeated."

This is prose at its very non-flamboyant best. The focus is on the ordinary lives of the people of the valley, their unfulfilled dreams, their rebellion, their resignation, their grief, loss and despair. The canvas he has chosen to throw light on is vast. By speaking about his association with his ancestral village, about how Kashmir retained center-stage wherever he went, the reader is drawn to see, empathize and understand with the author.

The rise of militancy in the nineties, how it affected ordinary lives, the role played by the Indian state, the brutalities of the army, the tales of "disappeared" people, the intrusion of the military into the everyday life, the alarming frequency of hartals, deaths and funerals, the influence of cable TV - it is a tumultuous existence. Never once is the author accusing or pointing a finger. He seems to search for that element that has wrecked the lives to a state of misery.

In the influence of Bollywood, in the premium placed on education, one catches glimpses of mainstream society. Otherwise, it is shocking to read the book. The book has moments of sheer beauty, naturally given the subject, they are few and far between.

A child asks the author on his return, "You do not have an identity card! Why? Don't you have police or army in Delhi?" This best sums up the incredulity of the child.

Some passages are chilling:

"Children born just before or after the armed rebellion had become far too intimate with war and fear. My cousin, who was born in the early nineties on a day a gun battle was raging outside the hospital, played a game called 'army-militant'".

"Two words had remained omnipresent in my journeys. Whether it was at a feat or a funeral, a visit to a destroyed shrine or a redeemed torture chamber, a story about a stranger or about my own life, a poem or a painting, two words always made their presence felt: militants and soldiers."

The distinction between Kashmiri militants and the Pakistani Islamist militants, the encounters with people who had suffered unimaginable injuries are both a revelation and a lesson.

With fear, the human longing for support and faith intensifies. "God and his saints seemed to have become the psychiatrists with the largest practice in Kashmir; faith was essentially a support system".

"I heard echoes of Kashmir in the pages of Hemingway, Orwell, Dostoevsky and Turgenev, among others. I wondered if one could write like that about Kashmir but kept the thought to myself." - writes the author. Thankfully, he hasn't kept his experiences to himself.

Rich in detail, the book is an education and a rare glimpse into the troubled lives of ordinary people. The news of a gun battle in Kashmir will never be the same again.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Countdown to the Lok Sabha Elections begins...

With the outcome of the recently concluded assembly elections, the countdown has begun well and truly for the Lok Sabha polls around March-April next year. The signs don't augur well at the outset.


Sheila Dikshit was voted back for the third consecutive time - This means that the electorate did not have a better choice and chose the lesser devil of the two. For a person, who has shot herself on the foot through several indiscriminate and unthoughtful public comments, the recent one being after the murder of Soumya Viswanathan, the public clearly felt BJP would be a worse option.


The outgoing CM played with fire while promising reservation in the election campaign and had to face immense public scrutiny and shock over the Gujjar agitation that followed as a result. Anti-incumbency played a role here though not as heavily as many had presumed.

Madhya Pradesh:

It was a vote for populism and people again realized that they would be worse off with the opposition in power - the subsidized rice and promise of bicycles together with the perception of development and the image of the CM played a definite part.


In voting back Raman Singh, people have approved of the strong anti-naxal action image of his.

What is crucial is that BJP was unable to capitalize electorally on the question of terrorism and tough anti-terror laws. But despite our press believing so, I feel that the people have voted smartly - they realized that it is the central Government whose role is critical for strong measures. They have also decisively lessened the impact of anti-incumbency. No analyst worth his salt can henceforth rattle off that jargon. Three states have defied that and quite impressively in at least two!

Introspection time:

It is time for all the key players to introspect which our political parties and their leaders can hardly be expected to do. For the BJP, the sooner it comes to terms with the fact that narrow agendas won't work anymore, the sooner it can hope to make gains. LK Advani as the choice in itself might distance some traditional loyalists who have voted for the lotus because of Vajpayee's image. It needs to tread a cautious path with its known well wishers so that it remains firmly mainstream.

The Congress is by far the gaining party in the equation but not without riders. It should focus during the next three months on the decisive handling of the current mess at the center and in Maharashtra in particular. Economy and diplomacy are the keywords and much depends on our PM and External affairs minister in the current scenario. A strong candidate backed by shrewd strategy management is absolutely necessary for the congress to return to the center next year.

The BSP and its dreams lie shattered. The Left is making some seemingly smart political moves but in doing so, the image of a squeaky clean party is taking a severe beating. Alliance with Mayawati and Jaya can tarnish that in due course. Its influence is confined to pockets of the country and hopes of a third front are still very romantic at best.

With a picture that is delicately poised, it is anybody's guess as to how the Lok Sabha polls might swing. It looks as if the voter is not yet decided. The next 3-4 months are hence all the more critical for all the major political players. Did anybody speak about the nuclear deal by any chance?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Unity in Diversity in divisive times!

Over the last few days, thanks to our news channels and journalist friends who risked their lives to bring us almost live pictures, the lines between private agony and public display of shock and sympathy almost certainly blurred. If not for this kind of coverage, it is hard to think whether world opinion could have been mobilized so much in our favor!

What Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Delhi could not do, Mumbai did this time around. It made the home minister step down and jolted the Government into some make-believe action. It is very difficult to stem a rot that has taken so strong and ugly a root. The people would be closely monitoring the new home minister who has his task cut out.

Stories of personal valor, escape and grief leave very impressionable marks. It is impossible to imagine the effect of these terror attacks on the lives of innocent children who have lost their parents. Our involuntary response would be anger and a desperate need for some revenge. As things stand, neither would help peace.

What we need instead is a reaffirmation of what has always been our nation’s core strength. When Kargil happened, there was a collective support for our army and outpouring of help. The same was the case with the Gujarat Earthquake and more recently the Bihar floods. Natural disasters certainly don’t mark out religion and caste and later hunt the marked. In a sense, even though in their brainwashed minds, the terrorists might have been looking for revenge, there were many Muslim brothers and sisters among the dead.

I am not in any sense suggesting that the public anger should not find any outlet. A colleague of my mother, born and brought up in Mumbai is deeply hurt and sad at the turn of events even though she has been living in Chennai for more than 20 years now. If such is her anguish, what would the Mumbaikar feel? It is instead crucial to canalize our energies on those things to which, we, the public can make a difference. Voting for the right candidates, electing people who’ll stand up and take responsibility and who’ll give a no-nonsense leadership is certainly one of those things!

The Taj, Oberoi and the Gateway of India symbolize the hospitality of this nation that has always welcomed and embraced different cultures. Indeed, Mumbai with its Anglo Indian and Parsi population bears testimony to this fact. The needle of suspicion is extremely dangerous when used inappropriately. The role of the print and the electronic media in times such as these calls for responsibility and certainly not exaggeration and minute by minute tickers of the dead and the injured. Bearing this in mind, we should have our hearts in the right place and not lose our encompassing spirit.

If we as a nation start viewing our brothers and sisters with suspicion and doubt, the terrorist will have won. We should constantly ask ourselves how we can in our small ways usher in a safer atmosphere. Words and terms coined by the minute shock me due to their spewing of venom on communities and sections of people. To call a spade a spade requires courage and it doesn’t help if certain political parties give the impression of protecting perpetrators of atrocities by sitting on judgments and certain others, use different yardsticks for spades of slightly different color!

What we need is a mature political class that doesn’t resort to blame games and which can provide unifying leadership in divisive times. All sections of a society cannot be pleased at the same time. If there are encounters, some sections question the authenticity, if there is a crackdown, some would protest the violation of privacy, if there is a drawn out trial, some would blame the justice delivery system. In short, as the axiom goes, a Government which spends time waiting to take the right decision will end up eventually displeasing some section or the other.

In these times, instead of blaming every Tom, Dick and Harry, let us get behind the central and state Governments, support whatever concrete steps they take, not forget the foundation of our nation and above all act and speak responsibly having the greater common good in mind!