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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

My English Teacher : A life of community service....

One summer morning in 1980,  a small, dark, shy boy with a huge mop of hair was entrusted by his mother to Ms Edvina Fernandes , then the Class Teacher of the 8th Standard in St. John The Evangelist, in Marol, Bombay. 

Though he had been in an English medium school before, it was the first time that  the boy was in a school where the teachers and the students actually spoke English, not Hindi, in class. He was petrified to speak, lest the others poke fun at him; he was at an age where it felt as if everything he did would be inadequate, comical, and not up to the standards.

Then in marched Edwina Ma’am. In every class, she took care to talk to the boy, praise him, and reassure him : she encouraged him to speak, to say what was in his mind, and she made it clear to the other boys that he was under her protection.

The boy blossomed under her, and the under-confidence, that sense of being inadequate left him; for the rest of his life, he saw himself as Edwina Ma’am encouraged him to think of himself. Namely, as bright, bold, brilliant, nay, audaciously brilliant. As part of an intellectual elite.

That boy was me, and those two years with Edwina Ma’am, as my class teacher, who taught me English, changed my life. From a weakling, I went on to become outspoken, confident, and, of course,  very good at English.

That year, we dashed down with  the cavalry of  Light Brigade, and  sailed the Aegean Sea, with Ullyses, and woke up at dawn with Abou Ben Adhem. We were at the Battle of Trafalgar, and we were at the Roundtable with King Arthur and his knights. Ma’am took us on each of  these journeys,  carefully prefacing each lesson with an entire period or two explaining the context of each poem and prose excerpt. The next year, Ma’am taught us Grammar from Wren & Martin, and drilled us day in and day out. The customary school pic taken that year is below : 

Indeed, to boys & girls from troubled backgrounds, she was a counsellor- gentle, firm, a figure of solid reassurance. She never had to raise her voice : she carried gravitas & kindness with her, and radiated peace. For 40 years, she served the community, drawing the humble pay of a schoolteacher, simply dressed and dedicated to the Church & Christ.

I left the school, and many years went by. I left Bombay (as it was called then), and some fifteen years later, made my way back to the school. She had been promoted to Vice-Principal by then, but her office was locked, as it was a holiday. I left a note at her door, saying simply : “ I am what I am because of you”. The note had my landline number.

Another decade and a half went by and she retired from the school. Ma’am’s mother passed away, and as she was sorting her papers in 2013,  she came across the note again. She had tried the number before, but recorded message had always said that the number did not exist anymore. This time, she tried MTNL’s changed number service. Hey presto, she had the new number.

On the eve of Diwali 2013, I picked up the phone, and a remarkably melodious and young voice said, can I talk to Narayanan??  I said, who is it?. And Ma’am replied, I am Edvina. I was stunned. Through the mists of time, some 32 years in fact, I was in touch with my teacher.

I did not know it then, but she was in the last stages of a losing battle with ovarian cancer. The cancer had spread, and chemotherapy was being tried, in big doses, in a futile attempt to hold back the tide. 

Edvina Ma'am had not got married, ànd her brother came down from USA to be with her.

Grateful students looked after her, took her to hospital, and ran errands. She was always puzzled, by her students's devotion : "I just did my duty and taught them to the best of my ability. I don't think there was anything special about my teaching"

Even though time was already running out on her, I am happy I was in touch with her, through weekly phone calls, in the last two years of her life.

When I finally met her in August 2015, 35 years after she taught me,  I prostrated myself in namaskar before her, my Guru, and she raised me, and blessed me, and made the sign of the Cross over me.

The cancer finally claimed her on 24th December, 2015, just 3 months later. Her beloved Christ had finally had mercy on her, a day before Christmas.

She has, indeed, gone to a better place. But she has left an imprint on me, like the way a mother does, on a son. Indeed, I am one of her sons today…..

Friday, December 25, 2015

The forgotten monuments of Bajirao Mastani...

          Out of the mists rising off the lake, the monument loomed : dark, huge, and imposing. It lay at the far end of a lake, impossibly far, and yet, incredibly, unmistakably, out of history, out of another time, another context. 

        The highway ran next to the lake, and for kilometers, you could see the monument, dominating the green countryside.

          The state government officials with me were not sure what it was : they consulted each other, and announced, "It's the Chattri (Cenotaph) of some king or the other" . These were local officials, those who belonged to the area. For them, the fact that the structure was the material fact and outcome of the friendship between two of the greatest heroes in Indian medieval history, was immaterial, and irrelevant.

        For, the cenotaph was built by the Maratha military genius, Peshwa Bajirao I in honour of his father-in-law, the equally famous Maharaja Chattrasal, the founder of the Bundelkhand State, which he carved out as the Mughal empire waned.  Chhattrasal, who was the father of the famous Mastani, the heroine of the historical Bollywood Bajirao Mastani, the daughter born of his marriage to a Persian lady.

        Grateful to Bajirao for coming to his help in 1728, when he was beseiged by Mughal forces led by Mohammed Khan Bangash, Chhattrasal is said to have given his daughter, Mastani, to him in marriage, and one-third of his kingdom (though there are dark mutterings that Bajirao would not leave without these prizes....well, these secularists -)). The story of Mastani is now encased in legend, and the romance between Bajirao and Mastani has come down to us, in both oral and written history.

       Well, when Chhattrasal passed away three years later, Bajirao constructed the huge cenotaph in his memory. Thus, one hero paid homage to another, and this medieval history has come down to us, nearly four centuries later.

     I finally made my way to the Cenotaph, to find it  in a bad condition, great slabs of masonry beginning to break off, bat-droppings everywhere, slip-shod repairs by civil contracters obliterating the original decorations. Sadly, I realized : though he is arguably the greatest hero Bundelkhand had produced in a thousand years, and founder of the Bundelkhand state, the state government and the district administration had neither the inclination, nor the money, nor the regard for Chhattrasal, to keep his cenotaph in good condition.
   The photos below do not show the true extent of the dilapidation, nor the fragile state of the Cenotaph, yet I am reproducing them, to show the magnificence of the structure.

Below is the octagonal raised platform at the center of the Cenotaph, where presumably, he would have been cremated, and a few more photos, including one of the author, to show the scale of the gates.

The octagonal platform at the center of the Cenotaph

A view of the Cenotaph from the side

The imposing gateway to the  tomb,
with the author in the foreground

Long-range shot of the Cenotaph

Another side view of the Cenotaph

Tomb of Chhatrasaal's Queen

The tomb of his Queen, located in almost as imposing a structure, is in a even worse condition : it looks totally forgotten and overgrown with algae and grasses.

Nearby, in Dhubela, where Maharaja Chattrasal's palace is located, is the museum, which is in a much better shape. Here, as a child, Mastani must have played, and grown up, in the harem, under Chattrasal's watchful eye, inculcating the virtue and loyalty for which she became famous as Bajirao's wife. 

When I went to the palace, I was the only person there, and the keeper of the palace/museum told me that visitors were rare there.

Therein lies the irony : millions of people in India and abroad would fork out money to see the film, with its plaster-of-paris monuments and palaces, and the actual palaces, and tombs, and the forts of the real people who were in the story are neglected, falling to pieces, and will be lost, for the lack of money, and interest, and respect for our past.Bollywood would live, and Bundelkhand's heritage perish....

Yet, the architecture would live on : Lutyens and Baker, when they built the magnificent edifices that adorn modern New Delhi, would remember the great architecture of Bundelkhand, and incorporate it in North Block and South Block, paying tribute to the great architectural traditions of India. India's own architects, meanwhile, would turn their back to this great tradition of architecture, and build steel-and-glass buildings straight out of Rotterdam - the same attitude which leaves them indifferent to Chattrasal's Cenotaph and other centuries-old buildings rotting away in the rain and heat.


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Random reflections on Gujarat...

After a long while, i was in Gujarat again last week, and besides Baroda and Ahmedabad, i also went to Patan and Mount Abu. As my train came into Ahmedabad, i saw the familiar landmarks outside major India cities: large piles of garbage, kilometres of it, from my train window. Looks like an area untouched by Swacch Bharat, I mused....
I left from Baroda railway station, and it seemed cleaner than most Indian railway stations. However, what struck me was the extent to which all signboards were in Gujarati.
On the one hand, the state wants to promote itself as major tourist destination, and on the other hand, even numerals were in Gujarati in all the signboards/milestones!
Wherever I went, posters of Modi and Amit Shah dominated the roads, and everywhere I was asked, eagerly, whether I could see an improvement in the functioning of the central government after Modi took over as PM.
The dhokla was as good as ever, and the sculptures at the Sun Temple at Modhera, Rani Ki Vav, and Dilwara temple were mindblowing : only the sculptures at the Chennakesava temple at Halebedu are more exquisite than this...!!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The jargon of american politics....

Guess every country has a jargon of its own, developed to deal with its own political institutions and the situations that arise from them, even if superficially, they are all writing in English- USA, or India, or Britain.

In 2000, the US jargon for a presidential race that was nailbitingly narrow was "too close to call".

Most Indians had never heard the phrase, and even less had even the faintest idea of what it meant; "to call", meant, for us, to call someone on phone!!!

Fascinatingly, as the US heads for another close elections, new phraseology is tumbling out of the US media.

'Minnesota and Nebraska have come into play" : which means that they are now being taken, by one side or other, or both, as swing states, after having been seen as solidly Republican or Democratic all this while.

'Obama and his surrogates have flown to Ohio" : surrogates means those who represent the candidates, and are in  a sense, an extension of the canddiate, such as Michelle Obama or Bill Clinton.

"spin rooms"- where the candidates' political and publicity managers interpret and try to put their candidates in a positive light, especially after a debate

'endorsement"- wherein a newspaper or politician endorses a candidate's views, and asks the electorate to vote for him.

And many, many, more, which are intelligible only to Americans.

Just like, "booth-capturing', 'defection", 'vote-bank", "tent-wallah", etc are unique to Indian's politics!!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Shibboleths of American Politics....

The Wikipedia (the only dictionary and encyclopedia in vogue these days!!) defines a shibboleths thus:
"A shibboleth (/ˈʃɪbəlɛθ/[1] or /ˈʃɪbələθ/)[2] is a word, sound, or custom that a person unfamiliar with its significance may not pronounce or perform correctly relative to those who are familiar with it. It is used to identify foreigners or those who do not belong to a particular class or group of people. It also refers to features of language, and particularly to a word or phrase whose pronunciation identifies a speaker as belonging to a particular group."

Like so many other Indians, I have been watching the run-up to the Presidential elections in the United States, and it is fascinating to look at it, especially from the viewpoint of an outsider. Nikita Khrushchev (as did, indeed, the entire Communist movement) had a simple view about this whole thing, when asked whether, the debates, the advertisements, the primaries, the caucuses did not really prove that the USA is the most democratic country in the world, with the fairest election processes: Khrushchev claimed that well, the whole discourse was conducted within some narrow doctrinal parameters, which were never questioned by either of the candidates, and that what looked to everybody like two alternate approaches was just the sparring between two elites for control of the state. In other words, the US system did not allow truly divergent or new views to emerge.

I rejected the Communist/Soviet view of the US elections a quarter century ago, but now, as I grow older, I am struck by the correctness of that description.

Each Party, and its candidate have some views, which is neither questioned by their own people, or even by their opponents. Even more, both parties have identical views on these topics, even if nobody else outside the US accept it.

Some examples:

1) Both parties spar over how close Iran is, to building a nuclear weapon, and how to put an end to it. No one, not a politician, not a single TV/Internet columnist even asks, do we have a right to stop the programme, even Iran is really building one? In the rest of the world, or atleast the developing world, in India or Iran, the debate would be larger, and  the first question that would be asked, would be, what right do countries which themselves have had atomic weapons for 60 years, to stop others? Not only that, but also, if Israel can have weapons, why not their opponents? Like Khrushchev predicted, the debate never addresses the larger issues of disarmament or even-handedness in dealings in the Middle-east. It is a shibboleth: only some countries can be allowed nuclear weapons.

2) Not in a single debate or in any video clipping or news article have I come across a figure for what percent of GDP the US fiscal deficit is. In any other part of the world, countries would be judged on their deficit using this tool, as also whether they are falling into a debt trap because of excessive borrowing. The most basic of economic textbooks always make this distinction: borrowing may be bad for an individual, but not necessarily so for nations. Since a large part of the US electorate thinks  that government borrowing is "morally" wrong, this is another shibboleth that cannot be demolished. Unlike what both parties think, in the rest of the world, the view is simple: you can neither tax your way out of a depression, nor cut spending: it will only make a recession worse. A country's borrowing can be said to wrong, in economic terms, only if the debt servicing takes up a unacceptably large portion of its expenditure. I am yet to come across figures indicating that such a scenario has come about, and yet, this is a shibboleth, which neither parties question: the deficit is bad, and we have to have "balanced' budgets...

3) 'Shipping" jobs out: the reason the standard of living in the USA is so high is because of free trade, which has led to cheap goods from across the world landing up in the US,  at prices which are low because of  the cheap labor costs abroad. If Americans would carry out manufacturing at home, sure, unemployment would go down, but then the costs would rise, and the US would become a high-cost economy, like the European Union, and unable to compete in export markets across the world, like the Europeans. It would probably make more economic sense to just continue to import workers, and goods, and have a high standard of living, and pay out unemployment allowances, than have a inflationary, uncompetitive economy, but, again, this is a shibboleth, and China and India are the bad boys....

And a thousand other shibboleths, on abortion, on foriegn policy, on taxes, on the military,...any of which would be debated, if only by a fringe party in the Westminster-style democracies, but not here, in the world's 'greatest democracy"....

And, funnily enough, the last shibboleth: that the presidential system, with the executive being closely tied to legislative sanction, which has deadlocked the US in a deadly class warfare, is the any other country, overhauling a system put in place 230 years ago would have been an election issue....not here, though!! In other words, whether the Republicans win or the Democrats do, it will have little effect, as the other party would ensure that none of their agenda is implemented, by controlling either the House of Representatives or the Senate, or both.

Sitting in the sunny and benign autum of Delhi, reading both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post on my Ipad, and watching the campaign on Fox and CNN,  I feel as though I  am watching gold-fish in a bowl, interminably circling each other, unaware of the large world outside their bowl....fascinating....America has perfected the art of navel-gazing!!!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The New Age Woman?

Today, after 17 years of tying rakhis to cousins, friends, sundry relatives, my daughter simply refused to tie any rakhis to anyone: her reason: she did not need any "protection" from anyone, and that she could take care of herself. More pertinently, she did not like the attitude of weakness it conveyed. So her puzzled cousins met her, paid her the "fees" for tying the rakhi, even though she did not tie one, and she sat there, a principled objector to tradition. Guess it reflects the 21st century woman: one who sees her male peers as not only equals, but also finds it difficult to accept societal conventions which imply  inequality. May her tribe increase!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The true life of villagers living in Sanctuaries...

I'm just back from a trek to the Govind Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttaranchal, and it has caused me to question my longheld beliefs about Sanctuaries, and about Government policies towards those villagers who live in them.
Govind Pashu Vihar is a 995 square kilometer sanctuary for snow-leopards, musk deer, civet etc etc, and I trekked through three villages- Sankhri, Taluka and Seema.
The villages had no power, no running water and no electricity. There was no mobile or landline connectivity. And ofcourse, no roads. And no fuel, except firewood.
 All this, because the forest department does not allow roads, or power pylons, or water pipes in a forest reserve.
To talk to each other or the outside world, villagers have to walk for days, to Purola, the nearest town.
With basic amenities absent, the other signs of civilization, too were absent, such as medical care.
Wherever I went, i was approached by villagers asking for medicine for fever, or stomach-ache, or diaarhoea.
There is no employment, and the villagers have, the locals say, taken to poaching and illegal collection of rare Himalayan herbs to supplement the income they get from their meager fields.
The villagers have reportedly been offered land outside the sanctuary, near Dehra Dun, but they have declined, as they feel it is too less.
Prices are stratospheric: Maggie costs 40 rupees a pack, and without roads, a porter takes 400 rupees a day to transport anything to anyplace.
All these days, I supported the classic government policy : no development inside Sanctuaries, and allow the villagers to stay inside, as they have for centuries, with the rights to collect forest produce.
But now, after the seeing the blighted lives of the villagers, my views have undergone a change: do not build roads, or allow electricity, or have water pipes, but do relocate them. Forcibly, if required.
However, whatever happens, let there cellphone connectivity in the sanctuary: this is the 21st century. Solar panels are used to recharge phones in the villages, and the  phones are used as torches and for playing songs. The panel below cost 2500 rupees:
Imagine catching water from a stream, and then picking up firewood, and then tending a fire to cook the food, and then walking for hours to talk to someone, and then as darkness draws near, lighting a lantern for light: and all this, just 500 kilometers from Delhi as the crows flies, in the 21st century. Sounds romantic? Try doing it for a lifetime.....