December 29, 2009

Break It Like AP

The morning of Christmas. It was a day after crores volunteered to stay at home glued to their TVs watching in awe the hundreds of heroic students, with apparently the right mixture of guiding rowdy sheeters, displaying the power of students and the prowess of youth and the chilling desire of the new generation for freedom and development, through a thorough and detached destruction of public and private property alike. They had already begun feeling victorious and experienced having burnt hundreds of buses and crores worth film sets, having stoned malls and many shops, having patiently asked passing civilians to step out and then tore apart their cars. They always knew that their leaders could get their examinations postponed and annulled and they cannot be blamed for believing that the government and banks and insurance companies will take care of the collateral damage.

Most of us will not forget the generosity of the samaritans for calling off their bandhs on Christmas eve despite the caustic fire in their bellies. Divined with omen, we all thankful souls rushed to the roads not to let go of this opportunity, to get some extra cash from the ATMs, to stock all essential grocery items, and to fill our vehicles with fuel.

I was waiting in a long queue at a fuel station. The fuel station was modestly secured by policemen to the best of their capability. The IG (Vigilance) A R Anuradha had earlier said that while they are doing their best to maintain law and order, they keep away from places like railway stations (the stations where rail rokos happen) because there are too many rocks in such areas. Fuel stations being inflammable are equally difficult to manage, I guess.

It was a double queue, the evolution and servicing models of which I will spare you. Adjacent to our car was a shiny black Maruti Alto Lxi with two men in the front and a woman and a toddler in the back. The dark handsome man sitting at the driver's seat rolled down his window and whistled at the man servicing the two queues, and when he came nearer said, "అన్న, ఈ లైనె కరెక్ట్ గ ఉన్నది. ఇలానే పోనీ. వేరేవాళ్ళెల్తే అద్దాలు పలుగుతై." (Brother, this line is correct. Let those in this line go. If others go, glasses will break.") He then gave us his best smile and rolled up the window. He was wearing a black tee-shirt and black sun glasses and had every look of an aging youth hero.

That dialogue, that cool claim that "glasses will break", chillingly captured the campaign in a single sentence for me. Let there be what I want, or be ready to face dire consequences!

That is the confidence of an ardent pro-democrat who has realized his all-important rights. That for his rights he is not only willing but ready to destroy anyone else's. No wonder we hear about studies which predict that India will be the greatest superpower of the world. With such aggression, that day is not distant.

But I am strangely reminded of a cabinet minister bemoaning the lack of Nobel prize winners from this country. Yes, it truly is inexplicable.

Come to think about it, the leaders expertly manoeuvring their respective fronts deserve the Peace prize. The writers eagerly penning new state songs deserve the Literature prize. The student leaders deserve the Economics prize for promoting the marvelous idea of destroying public property so that new employment opportunities can be created through destroying, repairing and recreating the same things iteratively without the need for new industries. That this iterative process is a natural cure for the boredom of TV viewers and reality show participants alike and thus a great bonus to the National Happiness Index is a finding deserving the Physiology or Medicine prize. I am sure we can find something appropriate for the Physics and Chemistry prizes as well. A clean sweep.

In a country with one-sixth of the world's population, where people are known for their unusually high aptitudes compared to developed nations in the West, that there are hardly any Nobel prize winners is unfathomable. It is possibly a conspiracy of the Swedish, and may be our benevolent souls should also give a thought about expressing their democratic rights in Stockholm, may be picket in front of the Stockholm Concert Hall and the Stockholm City Hall. Or am I still behaving in a naïve materialistic manner?

October 23, 2009

Traveling With a Soldier

On a recent train journey I sat beside a smiling man with a boyish face. I ignored him the way I ignore every other co-passenger. This time I read Laura Lippman's Baltimore Blues while he asked me questions like "Where are you getting down?", "What time will this train reach that station?", "What do you do?". To not come across as overly rude I too asked him what he did.

Army.

He spoke only in Hindi. Apart from being a bad listener, my aptitude for Hindi is governed by Bala Bharati Bhaag II/III. He didn't seem to mind and did most of the talking even though I was restricted to listening, nodding, and replying in staccato yeses, noes and sorrys.

He is the only child of a family that lives on farming. Few people know that kirana and general stores are the best places to get applications for Amry recruitment. Five years ago he was recruited into the Army during the second year of his Intermediate. After one year of training he has been posted all over the map from Rajasthan to Delhi to Hyderabad to Chennai. It is common for them to be rotated across units all over the country. That's alright. They have good facilities and food in all the units.

His unit, wherever it may be, is his home now. They have a total of 3 months holidays annually in the form of CLs and ALs, but several of them are taken away for some special duty or the other. That's alright. For each of these days, their pay is doubled and added to their PF accounts. It is good money. Senior hawaldaars make up to 25000INR as salary.

He hasn't seen his parents this whole year, and when he decided to go now his superior wanted him to instead go on an assignment of some ammunition transport. He strongly resisted, talked to the unit commanding officer, and was finally allowed to take lave. Before anybody changed their minds, he immediately reached the railway station without luggage, bought a ticket for the first available train, and got into it. He did not even buy sweets for the family and the kids in the neighborhood. That's alright. He will buy some sweets after reaching there.

His family now never knows in advance when he is returning home. His dad will joke that he is returning only after they have made the harvest, Soya this year, after all the hard work has been done. For one month, he will eat his mom's food and sleep. He will play in the fields, but five years of continuously wearing shoes made his feet extremely delicate and now a tiniest twig can cut them. He will first have to wear slippers and harden the feet. Throughout the vacation he will keep his mobile switched off, as there are some duties which can't be declined. If the unit calls home, his parents will tell them that he is sick. He will miss his girl friend. That's alright.

There is one other friend who joined CRPF when he joined Army. With their haphazard vacations, they rarely get to meet now. There was one other friend from Chennai, a driver in Army. Once in the Valley, where there are narrow roads which are wide enough for only a single jeep, that friend along with another person accidentally plunged into the Valley, into a river which takes everything into Pakistan.

They have these huge vehicles in Army which burn like five litres of Diesel per kilometre. Some drivers steal Diesel and make a lot of money. Everybody knows but nobody says anything about it. Why would they when their superior officer doesn't? They don't ask questions in Army.

Sometimes they get orders to fire 300 shells. They don't know why. Each Bofors shell costs more than a lakh rupees. 300 shells in a day! That's a lot of noise despite the special earplugs they wear. And they have to run. Today it takes fifteen minutes for a precise reply in the form of another shell to come across the border. In these fifteen minutes they have to run, set up the gun again, and be ready to fire. It is not fun. He was there. South is safer.

Almost everybody who survives stays for at least fifteen years. No one can quit Army easily. Those back home might whisper that he chickened out. More than that, he feels good serving the country, having a purpose in life.

He looked content.

He didn't avail the defence quota because he was in a rush.  So when it was time to sleep I suggested him to sleep on the floor laying a few newspapers on it. He woke up by 0430 hrs the next morning. Before getting down I told him to enjoy his vacation and to be safe. He smiled and wished my family the best.

October 04, 2009

The Country Club

The last time I distinctly remember feeling patriotic was as a kid after watching JP Dutta's Border for the first time. After the movie ended with the jingoistic jig "Hindustan, Hindustan" I jumped on my bed like a zombie. Too excited to sleep, I stared in the darkness of night feeling that India has the most beautiful cartographic image in the world and that the Indian soldiers at the border must be great fearless and patriotic warriors as those in the movie. During the Kargil war I used to tally the number of wounded and dead Indian soldiers against those on the Pakistani side. I watched a lot of movies in the muddled up category of "patriotism and national integration" as a child.

As I grew up, learning more about myself with each passing year, I realized that I could feel patriotic only when I forcibly pumped that feeling into myself. Since then I have occasionally felt an itch of guilt for what I have become and learnt to live with it. The first time after I left college, took a job, lived independently, paid taxes and donated for charity my itch started to recede and instead has been being replaced with a growing sense of disillusionment and despair.

I am not very different from the billion other people who desire to live on their own and strive for their livelihood and dreams, people who work for themselves, their families and if possible for their communities. I feel optimistic about the opportunities available to the youth, I am inspired by the creativity and capabilities of many of those, and am amused by their naiveté in forwarding to each other Manmohan Singh's résumé or Abdul Kalam's speech about how India really is a developed country and not just a developing one. The latter amusement has in fact shifted from pride to realization and now vacillates between pity and condescension.

I don't particularly like nor respect India as a country. It is very unlike the developed countries that many of my generation truly envy. It appraises property in crores and human lives in lakhs. Nor is it like the war-torn developing countries that not only struggle for survival but also rebuild themselves with alacrity. It takes decades to construct projects, pays its voters hooch money before elections, and confuses fighting terrorism with curbing citizens' rights. Its few achievements are usually those of individuals from whom they have duly been nationalized, and when it does make to the top of a global economic or demographic index in a positive manner it is mostly because of its colossal population. It is at best the largest dysfunctional democracy and in fact the largest mobocracy in the world.

To the critic who questions what I do to change the situation: Bless the man who shot the guy who had said, "Ask not what the country did for you but what you did for the country." The country, whatever it means, is not my ruler and I am not a slave. We have a symbiotic relationship not very dissimilar from the relationship between an apartment building and its residents. The residents pay for the maintenance and a few other funds in exchange for a host of benefits. The residents should not default on their payments and the apartment building (through its elected association) should not fail to provide those benefits. The resident who is unhappy with the functioning of the association complains, and if things don't improve leaves to another apartment building.

September 18, 2009

I Witnessed

a crime. An hour ago.

I walked out of my office debating within whether I should pass another forty-five minutes there for a free dinner. I walked past the few auto wallahs who won't go anywhere and a few others who would if paid twice, and walked towards the nearest bus-stop. Without paying attention to his friend, a man ran behind a bus that I had missed. He stopped near a shorter man, placed one arm around his shoulder and together they walked back.

We have the man, his friend, and the short man, all apparently blue-collar.

As they came closer, I noticed the man tightly holding the short man by the collar and the short man, with a plastic cover in his right hand, walked along without protesting. I thought that they all must know each other, that the short man must have stolen/taken something, perhaps that cover, from the man and his friend. Surprisingly none of the three was barely audible even as they passed me.

The three went down a rocky slope and I thought that they may be walking towards a larger party of interest. It was dark, few streetlights, even though it was only metres away from a bus-stop, and I didn't get a clear view. Suddenly the man and his friend surrounded the short man and started beating him up. My reflex told me to flee.

I started calling them but they wouldn't stop. I was too cowardly to go down the rocky slope and warn them or stop them physically if required. There was nobody else in the bus-stop so I called a couple of other men who were passing by and told them that a couple of guys were beating up another guy. One of them walked along his way unhurriedly and the other stayed back looking here and there.

In a minute the man and his friend started kicking violently. I still couldn't see the short man, who was neither crying aloud for help nor in pain. I reluctantly tried to get closer and fortunately someone else approached from another direction. (He perhaps works in the nearby bank located below the slope.) Glad to have some concerned company, I started down the rocky slope and the man and his friend ran away in the opposite direction, away from the road into the bushes. I didn't try to catch them, didn't run behind them.

I saw the victim lying on the ground, his cover and his cap thrown a few paces away. I looked around for signs of blood and only saw that he was missing his right arm below the elbow. Did he lose it now? Was he like this when I first saw him? I couldn't recall and I looked around for the piece. I went closer and asked him loudly whether he was hurt, whether he would like to go to a hospital. He slowly bent his leg, still lying there, and I was relieved that he was alive.

I pulled out my cell-phone but couldn't decide whom to call. I couldn't recollect any ambulance numbers in my phone book and didn't want to call the control room. I told the fellow still standing near the bus-stop to call an auto. He turned towards the road looking for an auto and turned back to the scene of crime. In the meantime my concerned counterpart, a louder middle-aged man, walked to the victim and asked him who those two-three men were and why they beat him. I corrected him that it was two and once again told the fellow standing near the bus-stop to call an auto. The victim slowly moved his feet a little more and then brought out the right arm that had been underneath his head. I couldn't see it before in the darkness and now think that he may have tried to protect his head with it.

The middle-aged man asked me who I was. I was afraid that he may be blaming me to be an acquaintance of those two brutes, blaming me to be an acquaintance of the victim or blaming me for not acting like the young man I am. Another man, perhaps an assistant of the middle-aged man, came closer to us while a woman stood near the side-gate of that bank. I once again told the fellow near the bus-stop to call an auto. The middle-aged man shouted at the victim to pick up his cover and cap and get up. As he tried to, I asked the victim whether he could walk, and the middle-aged man's assistant recognized the victim as an acquaintance and helped him stand. The victim asked me if I had a vehicle. I didn't. The middle-aged man then shouted at the assistant to bring the victim along and so they went on their way towards that bank.

I stood there cursing myself and then climbed up the slope. "They would have killed him had we not been here," the fellow near the bus-stand said. We were there, I was there, and they still beat him. We did nothing, I did nothing.

April 30, 2009

Cybercafé Thanks to Indian Railways

It must have been at least two years since I visited a cybercafé.

Tonight, I was to board a special train to Hyderabad from Pune. Procuring a ticket was an adventure in itself. I am sure you have better things to do than read about an idle dork's tales about buying tickets through a travel agent with connections. The climax: I ended up buying my first ever AC II Tier ticket. You all know how good this could be. Instead of squeezing yourself between thirteen sweating men in a cabin with eight or nine berths, you could sit in a spacious cabin with six berths spouting about the sins of politicians with six skinny sweeties (five plus their friend). They don't know that you haven't voted.

Yeah, about that. It didn't turn out that way. After all, it is I and not you in this situation. Even if it were you, cross your hearts and tell me, would six girls have ever listened to you?

My train got delayed by three and half hours. To 0140hrs of tomorrow. I couldn't go back to my apartment because transport at that hour is impossible, unless you counted my roomie dropping me on a friend's bike, which thanks to Pune roads would make you a stupid again. So I decided to spend my time in the railway station.

First, law. I bought a platform ticket. I had to spend twenty-two rupees to get three rupees change and then dropped it in a platform ticket machine, which is another first for me. While sitting on the pavement outside the station -- breeze there -- I saw this "24 HOURS Broadband Internet Cafe".

So here I am. After presenting an ID proof.

Being the careful and conscientious guy I am, I cleaned up the cookies, history, and cache in the browser. Yeah, they still use IE6 but also Quick Heal, a well-known anti-virus product in. No, I didn't check out the address bar for previous addresses, the search strings in Google, nor the usernames in Gmail. Would have been great fun. On top of it, the previous person had used Windows Messenger with a status message "L'amour est le sens de la vie , que c'est beau si cet amour est accorde au Createur" and left without logging out. You're welcome, dude, I won't reveal your username but promise me that you won't forget logging out next time.

Then I heard a woman come in and ask the guy sitting in front of me for five minutes of his computer time. Time is money, so he declined. I offered, she took a couple of minutes to cancel her ticket (she could have been one of those accompanying me in the train), and left.

Too bored to surf, I began tweeting my sob saga. Being a verbose old-fashioned fool, I soon shifted to blogging and finally posted something on this blog after almost a year. Thanks for listening. The girls in the cabin wouldn't anyway because I won't be awake in the train.