Saturday, December 18, 2004

A Nobel laureate and an auto-rickshaw driver

What's common to the two, you might be wondering. Well, nothing offhand. But I had a rather interesting experience with two of them today.

I hailed an auto to get to my destination today and I don't really remember what I was thinking but I was smiling. So the auto driver goes, 'You look very happy that I put the meter on'. Actually, that WAS a good thing - not all auto drivers here have the decency to put it on and often talk to you like they are doing you a favour - but in response to his statement, I said that I was generally smiling to myself. So he responds, 'That's good. It's good to smile'. And thus started a rather interesting conversation, which started off with the weather. According to him, Delhi's winters are not as cold as they should be because of the growing population and cutting down of trees to make way for buildings. This progressed to a discussion on how most Indians today in a city like Delhi are not honest - they attract all sorts of vile people. And the government is not able to manage the growing number of people, a majority of whom are illiterate migrants from places like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, because the people in government are themselves crooks. To add fuel to the fire, I remarked that even if an honest man wants to get into politics, he becomes corrupt in due course. That seemed to go down well with the driver, who affirmed this and said that the number of good people is outnumbered by the corrupt and they are forced to toe the line or else be put in jail on a false accusation, or 'bumped off'.

Next on the agenda was the topic of AIDS. This guy seemed to be remarkably informed and as if he was reading my mind, he said that he watched the Discovery Channel in Hindi a lot. I was quite intrigued. Media certainly is making a difference to the lives of these poor people in India anyway. Apparently he had attended a talk by a lady who explained how AIDS is contracted. As a joke, he remarked that as AIDS has no cure yet, soon everyone in the world would be affected and we would cease to exist as a race! From AIDS he started his discourse on other diseases like diabetes and said that on the whole (a very astute statement, this) women were more unhealthy and prone to disease than men. I rose to the occasion as a woman and argued that this was because we have to bear children and take care of the house, trying to needle him again. He laughed and said that it was because they lacked exercise, and were content sitting in the house, especially in India, while men got much more exercise on a daily basis. I had to hand it to this guy!

Next was India's position in the world today. In his opinion, one cannot say as the BJP does that this is a Hindu land, based on Hindutva. Simply because it is no longer only the land of Hindus. Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and a number of other religions have made India their home. He used the analogy of khichdi (which he told me, is used a lot by his fellow people), to say that just as you cannot separate the different kinds of dal easily once they are mixed - (moong, masoor, toor), you can't separate these different religions anymore. India's national language in itself, Hindi, can no longer be called the national language in a true sense because Hindi in Delhi and Hindi in Haryana and elsewhere sound so different. It is time to make way for English, the international language (!!!!).

And then of course, the philosophy aspect. I was wondering when that would come. He spoke about how when the eyes see something, a bag of money for example, it communicates this message to the mind, which then starts thinking of things like taking some of it, for example. So the mind is very strong, and though the soul should be stronger, often there is a tussle between the two.

I finally reached my destination, quite thankful that the auto driver had managed to keep his eyes on the road during his speech, and thanked him for an enjoyable ride.
The same afternoon, I attended a lecture by Professor Amartya Sen. His topic of discussion was 'India:Large and Small' and he traced India's history to its present-day politics, noting that the fact that India today has a Muslim President, Sikh Prime Minister and Christian leader of Opposition is testimony to its status as a melting pot of cultures. The party in power in 2002 during the Gujarat riots, the BJP, made a mistake when the state government failed to handle the issue adequately, and later on in December when it was re-elected to power, and this was seen in the massive victory that the Congress obtained in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. I was struck at that moment by the fact that what a poor auto-driver had told me just that morning, about India's secular status today, was almost exactly the same as the point that the Nobel laureate was making. One, a globally renowned academic and the other, the man on the street. How different were their education and background. And yet, how different are their lives today. One a global citizen, and the other an Indian from the hinterland.

Who would you say is more aware of the reality of life, and who is more educated?

Sunday, December 05, 2004

It happens only in India

Delhi's traffic is legendary and I have experienced it quite a few times by now, but yesterday was one of the worst traffic jams I have seen.

On the way to Gurgaon, the road had bumper-to-bumper traffic for miles and sitting in a car observing what was happening all around was quite amusing but at times downright exasperating. Obviously a few weddings were taking place at some of the farmhouses on that long stretch, because (and while I know for Delhi this is nothing spectacular) almost everyone sitting in the cars was dressed to kill, often bordering on the overdressed! After ten minutes, with traffic moving at snail's pace, I slowly turned my attention to the other side of the road to see if that side had better luck, and my jaw dropped as I noticed that cars were actually going in the OPPOSITE direction on that side of the road, to avoid the traffic jam. At first there were just a few, but deriving inspiration from the brave (or idiotic, whichever way you choose to look at it) drivers who were openly flaunting all traffic regulations in existence, soon I saw a file of cars following suit, with blinkers flashing as if that gave them the right to drive against the flow of traffic. As they say, it happens only in India!

Scene number two: a chariot with a lone driver emerging from a dark side street, all done up in flowers, but with no groom or bride or party of followers. It looked quite forlorn actually, as if it was expecting to be the centre of attraction but had to settle for being a broom thrown in a corner carelessly.

Scene number three: an elephant (rent of hiring it for a wedding: Rs.40,000 per evening approximately) outside a wedding venue, caparisoned and royal, as guests lined up behind it.

I suppose this was nothing compared to last weekend, where it was widely reported that 14,000 weddings took place on one day!! God knows what happened then!

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Koffee with Karan, anyone?

I watched the second installment of the newly-on-air 'Koffee with Karan' on Friday. I don't know yet whether Mr. Johar has got an Ekta Kapoor fixation or whether it is just a coincidence that his name happens to start with a 'K' and he changed the name of the caffeine concoction to synchronise with it.

Anyway, I think the show is quite amusing to watch. The first episode with Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol was hilarious. Obviously the two guests thought so too because they were in splits themselves for a good length of time. The second episode with Rani Mukherjee and Kareena Kapoor was a bit watered down but interesting nevertheless - I think Karan Johar needs to be careful lest he falls into the boring celebrity talk show mould though. What makes this show different is simply the humour (where Karan spares no expense - apart from asking questions that are designed to provoke the stars, he takes the 'insults' thrown at him by his guests very well) and the genuine vibe that exists between most of his guests. Having grown up on a steady dose of Stardust and Filmfare when I was younger (people do go through their phases, you know!!), this show is particularly entertaining for me because it deconstructs the actors beautifully. I mean, lots of the stuff written in spreads is fiction or at the very least, written with a generous dose of masala - I suppose the paparazzi do have to find some way of selling their magazines. And though the possibility of the actors on the show, well, acting, is not entirely absent, the chance of them doing that with a friend (Karan Johar knows most of the people on his show quite well) is much less. Think of Kareena Kapoor and her repeated 'What is this, yaar?!!' to Karan, especially when he beeped what he called a 'lie-o-meter'!!

Anyway, I laugh through a good part of the show and in a day and age where a rerun of 'Friends' is the only other show that make me laugh a decent amount, that makes 'Koffee with Karan' a success in my eyes!!

Friday, November 26, 2004

Oy Punjabi!

I just got back to Delhi from a trip to Punjab – my first trip to Punjab - Chandigarh and Jalandhar, to be precise. And I thought my semi-adventures were worth writing about, so I started this blog. Hopefully more will follow, at reasonably regular intervals.

I went to New Delhi Railway Station on Monday morning to get a ticket for that evening’s Shatabdi Express to Chandigarh. After a short wait at a reservation counter that happened to be for current booking ‘from 2 hours to 5 minutes before the departure of the train’, I was directed to the main reservation area, followed by a fellow traveller who had had the same query as me and was therefore directed to follow me. I WAS wondering actually, how on earth a city like New Delhi, the country’s capital and second-largest populated city after Mumbai, had hardly any crowd in the reservation area. Why, I’d seen bigger queues at Madras and Coimbatore!! My surprise, of course, turned out to be short-lived because at the main reservation area there were enough people to make up for the earlier anti-climax. It was an air-conditioned hall and people were standing in orderly lines. Being a female (which has its advantages, especially in a country like India), I got to stand in the much shorter ladies queue, and was (of course) ‘requested’ by that ‘fellow traveller’ to book his ticket as well. Apparently if he waited his time out in the queue, he wouldn’t have got any tickets for his train that evening. Being the soft-hearted fool that I am, I agreed to help him out. In a few minutes, an argument erupted at the next counter between a man and the reservations clerk. It was settled soon enough. Another thing that never ceases to amuse me in railway station queues is people walking right up to the front of the line without waiting for their turn and doing a horrible job of acting like they had no idea they were supposed to wait! Tickets in order, I handed the chappie his, took mine and went on my way.

The journey was very comfortable and we were well looked after with a regular supply of food and drink. Its no wonder that that particular train had a regular clientele. Of course, your usual few foreign tourists were also on it, on their way to (where else) but Shimla (the train went up to Kalka).

Chandigarh is India’s only wholly planned city and a refreshing change from other parts of the country, as far as orderliness is concerned. The thought that popped into my mind as I went around was why all cities in India couldn’t be this planned. I answered the question myself – I suppose then India would no longer be India. Where would the hawkers go, or the bullock carts that clop along at the speed of one kilometre an hour or the cows that settle comfortably in the middle of the road as cars whiz past them?!!

Places of tourist attraction in Chandigarh include the Rock Garden and the city’s main lake. I ventured to the Rock Garden, which is a veritable maze of charming little figurines made of stones and rocks of all kinds, but also ceramic and glass pieces of many colours. I didn’t have any preconceived image in my head of what it would be like, but it was quite a treat for the first-time visitor. Except that at various points I wondered if it would ever end – it just led from one cave to another gallery to another path which would lead to another cave…..

There were also a waterfall or two, charming bridges, any number of places to rest your rapidly-tiring legs, and a number of nooks and crannies where I chanced upon more than just one love-struck couple sitting quietly or chattering animatedly. The walk culminated in a large open courtyard, with swings hanging from old arches, lined by a gallery with mirrors. If you took the long way back to the exit, you would have to walk through a few more galleries of rock-men, by the way!! A piece of advice for girls who want to venture there alone: try to avoid it unless you can find someone to go with you, and if you absolutely must go alone, stick to families walking in groups.

I took the state government Punjab Roadways bus to my next stop, Jalandhar. To those who haven’t been on one before, a word of advice: take along a cushion to sit on, or be prepared to be bounced along like a stone in a glass jar. Jalandhar is a typical Punjabi city, with none of the peace and discipline that is Chandigarh.

One of the most interesting places to visit here is Haveli, an eatery a few miles outside the main city, which according to my guide makes a profit of Rs.1 crore a month and has Ghulam Nabi Azad as a stakeholder. I was very skeptical about the authenticity of the information but in retrospect I think its actually quite possible! The place has a permanent crowd of at least 60 cars in its parking lot and is open 24 hours, something that is made possible by having politicians as a stakeholder, is what I was told ;-)

Haveli has been constructed like a typical Punjabi village. The story goes that the owner wanted authentic bricks which were hundreds of years old to build the place, and he said he would pay villagers enough to buy a new house if they would trade him the bricks used to construct their ancient houses. Whatever it is, the effect is beautiful. Realistic-looking statues of Punjabi men and women in traditional dress doing day-to-day activities were placed here and there, and I often couldn’t make out which were the statues and which were visitors! The food was typical of the state – home-made white butter with lots of small round naans, parathas and rotis and yummy vegetarian curries like paneer makhani and dal. The waiters are dressed Punjabi-style and insist on feeding you till you feel like a balloon about to burst (but a very satisfied balloon, might I add!!).

I also took it upon myself to trace a childhood friend of mine for whom I had a five-year-old address in Jalandhar. When I went to that address, I discovered, as all the heroes and heroines in Hindi movies do, that the family I was looking for no longer lived there. But I had the sense to check with the petty-shop owner just opposite (thank God for India and its sense of neighbourliness, quite different from countries like the UK or the US where days go by without even knowing if your neighbours are at home or not), and he was able to direct me to an address in the next colony, where I had a very joyful reunion with my friend’s family. My friend had got married and moved to Jamshedpur earlier this year, but it was nice to catch up with people I had known so long ago, nevertheless.

The early-morning train back to Delhi saw me sleep through most of the journey. As we approached New Delhi Railway Station, we passed by huge groups of poor people living right next to the railway tracks. From a lady sitting on a mat with her baby playing right near the passing train, to a group of men having a game of cards, the sights were unsettling to the human mind. At one point, I saw what looked like a massive garbage dump, with kids in tattered clothes and slipperless feet picking out plastic from mounds of waste as others played cricket in an abandoned station. I recalled an article I read which spoke about how the Shatabdi Express, the train I was in, pampered its moneyed travellers while the poor who travelled in sleeper-class in other trains had to put up with more than just extreme discomfort and unsanitary conditions.

I got down from the train as it stopped at the station and walked into the sunlight.