Musings, Remembering

Nicotine Dreams: a Remembrance

Be warned, O gentle reader: this one’s a reminiscence of sorts: rather long, very rambling, and rather personal.

It’s May 13th going on 14th … a time of year that always reminds me of my father, R S Paramasivan, mother Jaya, and the closely related subject of cigarettes.

Dad supported, unsung, the lives of tens of thousands of tobacco farmers across the country during his 50 years of heavy smoking. In these worthy and heady efforts he was joined enthusiastically by brother Bala and yours truly once we had entered our teens.  Bala started early as Dad had – at the age of 15 or thereabouts; I took my first puff when nearly 16. Dad initially smoked Wills Gold Flake (it came in a tin of 50 cigarettes till the early 1960s), and later switched to Wills Filter. Bala and I smoked Charminar till well after we started earning our own money; Charminar, to the discerning smoker, was not merely the most affordable but among the best of cigarettes the great and benevolent Goddess Nicotine had ever wrapped herself in for the benefit of humankind.

Initially, both Bala and I made feeble efforts to hide our smoking habits from the parents: but both of us received, in turn, the same gentle but stern admonishment from Dad: to smoke without embarrassment or concealment. By way of example Dad cited his own lesson from 1942; he was sitting in the woodshed at the old ancestral home in Coimbatore, puffing away at a Players’ cigarette filched from his elder brother Markand, thinking himself safe from the gaze of his father (my grandfather or thatha, a formidable old judge with fearsome temper), when to his horror he heard the tap-tap of the old man’s walking stick on the gravel outside the shed. Dad was about to stamp out his cigarette when he heard thatha’s dry voice: “For heaven’s sake, if you must pollute your innards, don’t hide in there…smoke outside here in the fresh air. Besides, you might set fire to the house by smoking in there!”

There was this little ritual that both Bala and I went through on the occasion of our respective 16th birthdays. In both cases, the venue was that renowned shrine of generally ethylated spiritual activity, the Shillong Club. I still recall how Dad solemnly pulled out his pack of Wills, offered me a cigarette, and then lit it for me with the murmured words: “Henceforth, it is not for this coal to call the kettle black. Be open, unashamed, in whatever you indulge in, and bear the pain it brings honestly. A vice is vice only when hidden.  To hide it is to admit you are ashamed of it.”

And what did mother Jaya think of all this, you might ask? Well…quite understandably she didn’t approve of Dad’s smoking, or of our smoking either. Right from when we were kids she called Dad ‘chimney’ in various languages at various decibels, and accused him of ‘setting a bad example to the children’; she severely criticized Dad, and later Bala and me too, for  ruining our health and blowing away all our money in smoke. Her disapproval of our smoking waxed and waned throughout her life; she was utterly delighted when Dad finally quit smoking in 1990 (he was 63 then).

But in her valiant efforts at getting us all to quit smoking, Mom faced a rather unique hurdle, one that Bala and I first became aware of when Bala was around nine and I, seven. We noticed that, ever so often, in the middle of perfectly innocuous conversation, Mom would murmur: “Leave me the eltee, Raj”. …Or sometimes Dad would casually remark: “I’ve left the eltee, Jaya…” or something like that.

Eltee? What in heck was ‘eltee’?

We asked Mom and Dad what eltee was, of course: several times, on several occasions. We never got a straight answer from either of them: we were kids, our queries were deflected by them with the ease all adults have in dealing with inquisitive kids. But they had not reckoned with our shrewd cunning, brought up as we were on a diet of mystery and detective stories written by the likes of Enid Blyton and Arthur Conan Doyle. We observed their movements closely; we sought temporal and spatial patterns in their usage of the term ‘eltee’; we noticed ‘eltee’ was used most frequently in the mornings, when Dad was about to leave for office. And finally, we discerned a distinct sequence of repetitive actions: as soon as Mom called out to Dad to “leave the eltee”, Dad would duck into the bathroom and out again, and then Mom would  hurry toward the bathroom…

Ha.

And thus it came to pass that upon a fateful day, even as the faint echoes of Mom’s ‘leave the eltee’ reverberated off the pinewood rafters, Bala jumped up and overtook Mom as she sped towards the bathroom—and he emerged triumphantly waving a lit cigarette, chased by a frantic and indignant Mom. “Eltee!” Bala yelled. “Eltee’s actually LT!  LT means ‘last three’, it means last three puffs…Dad left the last three puffs for Mom. Mom’s a smoker!”

Poor Mom; we never let her forget that. She was only an occasional smoker compared to us three chimneys, and she quit altogether by the early 1980s…but we gleefully reminded her of her fondness for the nicotine vapours every time she gave us a bhashan about smoking too much…

But now, back to Dad.  The year was 1977. Mom and Dad had shifted to Assam’s new capital, Dispur (Guwahati); I, a college student in Shillong, was home studying for my BSc finals. Bala had become a banker, and was furiously puffing away somewhere in southern India: Cochin, I think.  Upon a day, word came from Delhi that Mom’s father (my maternal thatha) was very ill. So Mom at once left for Delhi, for what was expected to be at least a month’s stay. She didn’t have to worry about how Dad and I would manage in her absence—thanks to her training all three madmen in her family could cook and keep the house reasonably clean and running. But Dad was smoking about 60 cigarettes daily, and developed a cough so racking that it worried Mom no end. At her urging, he promised her he would try and give up smoking altogether while she was away.

The day after Mom left, Dad ambled into my room. “I want to try and keep my promise to Jaya about giving up smoking,” he murmured, almost shyly. “Will you consider joining me in a gentleman’s agreement?” Of course, I agreed to hear him out. As we walked to the drawing room, he spelled out his proposal. It was simple and ingenious.

First, he announced that he wanted to quit smoking from the following morning. “You can help me in my resolve if you too quit smoking for about a week,” he added hesitantly. “Because the initial one week of nicotine abstinence is the hardest part, especially when surrounded by the glorious fragrance of tobacco. I know it’s being unfair on you, so don’t hesitate to refuse…”

“No, no, of course not, Dad!” I broke in. “I mean, yes! I’ll quit too…no problem!” I meant it too; after all, I too wanted Dad to get better.

“Good, good, thanks!” Dad went on. He reached into his pocket and produced the ever-present Wills packet. He opened it to show that it had precisely eight cigarettes left in it. “This is my last stock,” Dad whispered. He placed the pack almost reverently on the mantel-piece, laid a matchbox next to it, and then, with a sigh, went on: “Now then…as friends who trust one another totally, let us agree on this: if either one of us weakens in our resolve, if either one of us is overcome by the urge to smoke, let us not be ashamed of our weakness. Let us, instead, bravely and honestly, without needless guilt or anxiety for the other, help ourselves to a cigarette from this very pack. Every morning henceforth, each of us shall silently, independently, check the contents of the pack. That way, if either of us finds that the number of cigarettes is less than eight, the one will know that the other has given in…yet we will have only empathy and understanding, and our efforts to quit will continue.”

And so our project began.

I can only tell of my own experience. It was pure, unadulterated hell. Even after six years’ smoking, the agony was almost unendurable, of not having my after-coffee smoke in the morning, then the after-breakfast one, then the elevenses one, the noon one…I will spare you the hideous details. I will say this in all honesty: the only thing that kept me from charging into the drawing room and chain-smoking all eight cigarettes in that Wills pack on the very first day, as soon as Dad left for work, was the realization that Dad must be going through the same agonies as I was, but multiplied a hundred-fold.

And so I stuck to my resolve. And so did Dad. Two, three, four days we stayed off the damned cigarettes. Dad was an early riser; our deal was, he made breakfast and I made lunch, and we made dinner together. I rose usually around 7.30, sat with him over coffee and breakfast, and then he left for work…after which I checked the pack to ensure there were still eight cigarettes left in it. There were…there always were! A stage came when I used to hope, pray I would find only seven cigarettes, just so that I could tell myself, ha! Dad’s given in, so I might as well give in and smoke one too…but no, Dad was resolute.

Sometimes, late at night, I crept up to the Wills pack and sniffed it…but I didn’t dare open it.

The sixth day dawned, bleak, dismal, hopeless, tobacco-less. Both Dad and I looked drawn, hollow-eyed…yet we bravely assured each other that our appetites had increased, we were sleeping better, even breathing more deeply. Dad left for work; around noon, I rose from my books and was chopping vegetables for lunch when Dad charged into the house. “I have to go to Shillong!” he roared. “North Eastern Council meeting…I don’t know how I’ll get through the wretched thing without smoking, these damned Delhi-wallahs drone on and on for hours…and I detest that circuit house food…I only hope I can be back for dinner by tomorrow night…”

In ten minutes he had packed a suitcase and left. I was alone.

I was alone…all alone! For a night and two days, at least. Alone, with the allure of eight Wills cigarettes permeating the house like some siren’s perfume filling my nostrils…

I shook off the cowardly temptation angrily and returned to my chopping vegetables. The rest of the day passed in a haze; I pottered in the little vegetable patch in the backyard, observed interesting hunting spiders and warrior ants, lunched without tasting anything, and spent the afternoon staring at my physics book and comprehending nothing. As dusk deepened into night, I sipped my coffee and knew I’d reached the end of my tether.

It was the work of an instant to slip on my Keds and stride towards the little beedi-cigarette kiosk about 200 metres away. I bought a packet of Charminar, smoked two immediately, and smoked the third over a second cup of coffee on the verandah back home. I was careful to empty the ashtray into the bin…it wouldn’t do for Dad to know that I’d succumbed to temptation. I felt bad about breaking my agreement with Dad and not smoking a Wills as we had agreed to do;  but told myself that I was doing it for his good…Dad was  being so brave about trying to quit,  he must soldier on! By bedtime, I had convinced myself that I would throw away the remaining Charminars the next morning; having given up for five whole days, had I not proved that I could give up any time?

Of course, I didn’t throw away the Charminars the next day. I held at bay the wolves of temptation till about 3 p.m, when I snatched the Charminar packet, grabbed a matchbox from the kitchen and went and stood out in the garden near the picket gate. With trembling, feverish fingers I drew out a cigarette, lit it and inhaled…

Ah, the ecstasy of being filled my mind, all was well with the world again, music resonated from the Cosmos…

So utterly transported was I on the nicotine fumes that the arrival of Dad’s office car caught me completely unawares. Too late, I saw Dad step out of the car and walk rapidly toward me, his eyes fixed on the half-smoked cigarette. I was about to drop it and stamp it out when Dad yelled:  “No! Don’t waste it!” The next instant he grabbed the half-smoked cigarette from my fingers and stood there, puffing away and recounting to me,  in short broken phrases between puffs, what had happened in Shillong. “Bloody meeting started at 9 in the morning… Raj Bhawan, Governor sitting next to me puffing away…Home Secretary was there…also chain smoking…insufferable speeches…terrible coffee…by 10.30 I knew was finished. I asked a bearer to get me three packs of Wills…I’d smoked 10 by the time the damned meeting ended…”

Thus ended the gentleman’s agreement Dad and I had, on giving up smoking. However, our bonds of trust and faith were only reinforced by our shared trauma. And Dad did cut down on his smoking thereafter—to about 30 a day, which was quite something, and of some small consolation to Mom.

Now all this happened in 1977; so well might you ask, O patient reader: what in heck has any of this to do with May 13th going on 14th?

Well…bear with me just a while longer, we’re nearly there….

We now race through the following years and decades, to 2001. Dad and I were living together in Delhi, where he and Mom had settled after his retirement in 1986.

Mom had died in 1996, after a shockingly sudden, mercifully brief, illness. That story is for another time, another place…

In a way, after Mom’s passing, for Dad and I it was like being back in Dispur in those 1977 days – only now we knew Mom wasn’t going to come back. Dad had of course quit smoking many years earlier; but the long-term effects of those smoking decades were steadily, increasingly, becoming manifest. I was working out of home by now, which made it so much easier to spend time with Dad and take care of stuff and do the household things and all.  Bala was in Bangalore, but dropped in whenever he could. So all in all, things were going quite smoothly and peacefully…but Dad was growing weaker, the COPD was deep and irreversible, and by May 2001 we knew his end was near. Dad insisted that he be allowed to die without any invasive medical intervention of any kind, just as Mom had insisted in her time. And so, just as Bala and I had given our word to Mom in her time, we gave our word to Dad that we would do all we could to help him pass the way he wished.

And so we come, at last, to the night of May 13th, 2001. I was lying down next to Dad; I’d been sharing his room for nearly a year, for by this time he was so frail that he needed help just shifting position. Also, glaucoma had virtually deprived him of vision, so….anyway, it had been a good day, a quiet, peaceful day like many. Dad had sipped about half of his evening broth, which I thought was all right, and was now fast asleep. We had a little night lamp glowing blue.  I had by then become a very light sleeper, alert to his every breath. I was just lying on my back, listening to his breath, and fell into deep, dreamless sleep.

I’m not sure what it was that made me open my eyes…but I sat up with a start when I saw Dad sitting upright, staring straight at me, with a strange, gentle smile visible in the dim blue wash, a smile that softened the deep lines in his face.

“What’s the matter Dad…” I mumbled, struggling to clear the mind. I looked at the alarm clock next to me: it was just after 2 a.m.

“No, no, don’t worry, I’m all right…I’m all right,” he patted my cheek, ruffled my hair like he used to when I was a kid, and then slowly, carefully lay down again. “I awoke from the most extraordinary dream…” he paused and again he smiled.

I stared at him. He lay there and gazed back and his smile grew wider. “Relax, lie down, I’ll tell you about my dream,” he said with a chuckle. It was a long time since I’d heard that chuckle…it was soft, but took me back down the years and decades.

“Do you remember that gentleman’s agreement we had in Dispur… to quit smoking together?”

I was astonished. I nodded, and after a moment I too lay down.

Dad went on, softly. He took a while telling of his dream, pausing for breath every few words, but his voice was eager, clear. “In my dream, it was as though both of us were back there in Dispur, in 1977…although strangely, even in my dream the house we were in was this house, not the Dispur house.  In my dream I knew there was that packet of Wills with eight cigarettes in it in the drawing room, lying on the mantel-piece – even though this house doesn’t have a mantel-piece. In my dream I awoke…if that makes sense!” He chuckled. “In my dream I awoke, and saw you sleeping next to me, just as you were a little while ago, right there, next to me. I awoke with this huge craving for a cigarette! I didn’t want to disturb you, so I quietly slipped out of bed and crept across to the drawing room, and I found the Wills packet on the mantel-piece, and I took out a cigarette and was about to light it…when it struck me that the smell of the cigarette might awaken you!  So I hesitated, because I knew you were so tired, and I stood there wondering whether I should creep up to the terrace and smoke the cigarette, all the time also feeling bad that you would find out I had given in to temptation and smoked …” He paused and smiled.

“And it was at that moment, when I was wondering whether I should go upstairs and smoke or just get back into bed, that I actually awoke from my dream, and realized where I was, where I am, and I was so amused and amazed by it all, I sat up and looked at you…”

“So that’s why you were grinning!”

“Yes…what a mad dream it was, wasn’t it!”

It was. It was a crazy, wonderful, timeless dream, and I don’t know how long Dad and I stayed awake after that, not talking much yet reminiscing deeply of Shillong and Dispur and Coimbatore times, and smiling a lot and chuckling a little, and I ruffled his hair awhile till he fell asleep, and at some point I too drifted off…

Dad didn’t wake up on the morning of the 14th.

Bala and I are glad he slipped away just as he had in his dream; we know Dad wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Remembering you and Mom with love, Old Man.

 

 

General ravings, Musings

Holland: Remembering Eternity…

It’s 43° C in the shade here in Delhi, with a scalding hot wind ripping the  leaves off trees and propelling kilograms of nano-sized dust particles through the tiniest cracks and crevices in the doors and windows to fill the room where I sit, listening to the air cooler roaring in futile rage, eating juicy chunks of chilled watermelon in between keystrokes and cheering myself with visions of my not-so-favourite netas roaming the streets and campaigning for votes in this infernal weather.

Indeed, there is Dharma in this world.

Delhi’s incendiary summer is a good time to remember the crisp chill of Holland’s winter. I visited Holland in December-January; a dreamy, timeless three weeks during which I re-learned the sublime and long-forgotten art of simply being. Base camp was my friend Udai’s apartment in Delft –  it’s the prettiest little town I’ve ever been in. Delft is young by Indian standards (it’s only 600 years old) but its history is linked closely—oh so closely— to the history of India, indeed of the whole world.  There was so much to see, to experience, to learn…not only in Delft but in Leiden, Rotterdam, The Hague … no, it’s impossible to find words to describe it all, I don’t know where to start, so  I won’t even try – at least not now.

Right now I’m just going to place a few photos of Delft, from here and there. Like this…

I did miss two things, briefly but deeply, in Holland.

One was seeing tulips carpeting the earth out in the countryside like in the photos I’ve seen. Winter is off-season for tulips. So, I plan visiting Holland again, in April/May 2020.

Yayy.

The other thing I missed is actually a person: a friend, the first Dutchman I ever met, I’ll call him Helm, for it wouldn’t be fair for me to use his real name without asking him, and sadly I can’t do that now because Helm and I’ve lost touch since we last met in Shillong in the mid-1970s. I was then pursuing an elusive college degree in Shillong, invigorated in my chase by the healing vapours of garden-fresh cannabis and affiliated psychoactive substances. Helm was a visitor to Shillong from Calcutta, over three successive years, each time just for a fortnight or so. He was a Masters student (of Comparative Religions, if memory serves right) at the Viswa Bharati University, Santiniketan (Calcutta); a few years older than I, tall, broad, strong, golden-haired, ruddy-faced, always clad in white kurta-pajama and clogs. Helm was learned, earnest, serene, yet with a ready smile and a huge laugh that could shake the dust and woodlice off the  rafters. Helm lugged his classical guitar along wherever we wandered—exploring the hills and rills, meadows and forests, taverns and caverns—and when the heady ganja and mellow kyat had soothed the spirits sufficiently and the comfortable silences had settled, he would pull out the guitar and pluck and strum beautiful melodies and belt out folk  songs – Dutch, sometimes English – in a powerful baritone. He even taught me one Dutch song: I only remember the tune now, the lyrics are long forgotten.

I learned much from Helm: about the beauty of all religions and the horrors inflicted across the world in the names of gods and prophets, about humanism, tolerance, the need to remain curious as a child throughout life, how travel can open minds. Helm didn’t educate me on the tulips of Holland, but he taught me a far more valuable life-skill, one that is deeply rooted in India’s glorious heritage and culture—the refined art of making the purest charas (hashish) from the cannabis plants that grow in such profusion in the meadows of Meghalaya. It was a primary objective of his annual pilgrimage to Shillong, to manufacture sufficient stocks of charas to keep him going in Calcutta till the winter break when he went home to Holland.  Thanks to Helm, I and a few friends drastically cut down our ganja-smoking; we switched to charas.

Wherever you are, Helm of Holland, may peace be with you. It was wonderful visiting your beautiful, eternal country: I remembered you, briefly but deeply, when there.  Who knows, the One willing, perhaps we shall meet again someday, in this life or in another, in some timeless rolling meadow filled with music and laughter and companionship and comfortable silences and mounds of stroopwaffel and the divine fragrances of tulips and mellow wine and ripening ganja plants in the sunshine…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Musings, Potshots

Lessons in Economics – from Rahul Gandhi and from Suresh

I must share with you two really profound – and radically contrasting – lessons in Economics I learned today. One, from  Congress President and Prime Minister-aspirant Rahul Gandhi; the other, from my colleague-become-friend of some 24 years, Rickshaw and Thela (wheelbarrow) Operator Suresh.

First, Rahul, who “chose to explain a bit of economics to voters” while addressing a public meeting on April 19th at Bajipura (Gujarat). To quote from today’s Indian Express article [click here to read]: Suresh and Rahul

He (Narendra Modi) has taken money from your pocket, and you have stopped purchasing goods like shirts, pants, watches, and mobile phones.’ Rahul explained. ‘This led to the shutdown of factories in India and many labourers lost their jobs. The unemployment rate is now at its highest in the past 45 years.’

He continued: ‘Under the NYAY scheme, an amount of Rs 72,000 will directly go into the bank account of women. Then you will start shopping, and when you shop, the factory will start functioning, and the unemployment issue will be solved.’

He also said, if voted to power, ‘We will give 22 lakh government jobs in one year, which are currently vacant, and 10 lakh youths will be given jobs in various panchayats.’

Rahul’s insight really made me think, O gracious reader. In a weird and woolly way, it kind of makes sense, no?

Only one thing about Rahul’s economics troubles me: Rahul’s plan to create 22 lakh government jobs (+ 10 lakh quasi-government jobs). Since the 7th Finance Commission, even the lowliest central government employee in India starts with salary of Rs 18,000 per month; that’s Rs 216,000 (2.16 lakhs) annually. Which means that, even assuming that every one of Rahul’s 22 lakh new government employees draw only this minimum salary, the annual salary bill for these worthies will be Rs 47520,00,00,000.

That’s Rs 47,520 crores every year! At minimum government wages…

To me it seems a hell of a lot of money, just for the sake of having 22,00,000 more leech-like sarkari babus making life miserable for you and me and all other honest, tax-paying citizens. Especially so, because that Rs 47,520 crores is going to be forked out every year by honest, long-suffering income tax payers like you and I!

But then, I console myself, Rahul Gandhi has been advised on his NYAY scheme by globally renowned economists like our very own P Chidambaram, Arvind Subramanian, Raghuram Rajan, and also British Nobel Laureate  Angus Deaton and French economist Thomas Piketty. Undoubtedly there’s something  I’m missing, ignoramus that I am…

Enter, Suresh.

At my request, Suresh brought his thela over around 11 a.m and was helping me clear out some old furniture and stuff. As usual, over a break for a banana and chilled glass we discussed the state of the world. “Who will you vote for?” he asked. “I know I will not vote for AAP this time,” I replied.  “I’m more and more inclined to vote for Modi’s BJP-NDA…”

“I too will vote for Modi,” he said firmly. “Of course, I suffered a lot when the note-bandhi [demonetization, 2016] happened. All my earnings are in cash even today;  nobody pays a rickshaw/thela-wallah any other way but cash. And of course with prices always rising, it is a very hard life for a daily labourer like me. Besides, as you know, for much of last year, I could not work…”

In mid-2018, Suresh’s five year-old son was diagnosed with cancer. Thanks to the chemotherapy and the excellent medical care he received and continues to receive at the Delhi Government’s Lok Nayak Hospital, the child is now recovering well…but for Suresh and his wife, it has been a year of indescribable anxiety, physical and mental trauma….with the financial pressures (to raise over Rs 2 lakhs for the treatment, when there was no time to even ply his rickshaw or thela) only adding to their stress.

“But still, I think I will vote for Modi,” he repeated. “I think because of Modi, nowadays the sarkari-log, the babus are more scared to bully and exploit people like me.  The babus and other people are also more scared to do do-numbaree (black marketing). People tell me, arre look at price rise under Modi; but I tell them, I don’t think Modi is to blame for price rise.  I think the real reason for price rise is because people, more and more people, are greedy. People nowadays buy much more than they need, or can use; that’s the reason.”

He then described how, two weeks ago, he was helping a couple in the neighbourhood pack their belongings to move out of the city. “They had two wall-cupboards filled with only chaddars (bed sheets and bed-covers),” he murmured in awe.  “They had more than three hundred chaddars in there, single and double! Most of them were new, untouched.  If one couple buys so many hundred chaddars, why won’t prices of chaddars go up, sir? It’s like that with everything…”

Suresh’s words, too, made me think.

Unlike Rahul, who has a team of illustrious economic advisors, Suresh has none.

But  Suresh has something that I think counts for much more: common sense, that comes from experience of hard ground realities.

I’ll go with Suresh’s insights into economics.

Jai hind.

Musings, Potshots

Balakote: A Post-Mortem for countless Jaish-e-Mohamed cadres

 

Balakote Post MortemAs Indian political leaders, and even some Indian journalists, question the veracity and impact of the Indian Air Force strikes on Jaish e Mohammed facilities at Balakote on February 26th, their questions resemble those of the smug lawyer who was questioning a pathologist in the Coroner’s Court:

Lawyer: Doctor, before you signed the death certificate, did you check the patient for pulse?

Doctor: No.

Lawyer: Did you check for blood pressure?

Doctor: No.

Lawyer: Did you check for breathing? For heartbeat?

Doctor: No.

Lawyer: (triumphantly)  So, doctor, do you admit it is possible that the patient was alive when you signed his death certificate?

Doctor: Well…let me put it this way. The patient’s brain was sitting in a jar on my desk when I signed his death certificate. But I guess it’s possible he was alive; indeed, he might even be practicing law somewhere.

I, dear reader, have no doubts at all about the IAF strikes on Balakote and their impact on the Jaish cadres sleeping in the targeted buildings. The several thousand kilos of penta-erythritol tetranitrate carried by those Spice missiles and thrust through the roofs of the buildings would have wreaked horrific destruction when they went off within – ripping apart metal, concrete, brick, wood, human flesh and bone.

I entirely empathized with the IAF Chief when he curtly told the media: “Our job is not to count bodies.”

Unlike the doubters as well as the gleeful war-mongers in their TV studios and editorial rooms, I do NOT want proof on how many JEM personnel were killed, or how many brooms and hoses were needed to clean up their remains.

Only the post-mortem of the deceased JEM cadres remains to be concluded.

The Coroner’s Court is noisy.

Two groups among those present—one Indian, the other Pakistani—are particularly strident. But strangely, both groups are screaming more or less the same things.

The Modi-led government is lying.”

“The Indian government is lying.”

“There was no Jaish camp in Balakote.”

“Where is the proof that there was a Jaish camp at Balakote?”

“Where’s the proof that the IAF hit their targets or killed any Jaish men?”

“The IAF hit nothing…only a few trees.”

How can Indians and Pakistanis be united in screaming against the Indian government?

Well…

The Pakistani group – comprising the Pak establishment, ISI, army and media – hates India in general and the Modi-led Indian government in particular. This is sad, yet understandable.

The Pakistani group’s hatred has been stoked by the IAF strikes on Balakote, which have gone down well among the Indian public in an election year.

The Indian group – comprising Congress, CPM, TMC and other Opposition parties, as well as large sections of Indian media –  hates the Modi-led government. This is sad, yet understandable.

The Indian group’s hatred too has been stoked by the IAF strikes on Balakote, which have gone down well among the Indian public in an election year.

Easy to understand…no?

I pay no attention to politicians because I do not trust politicians.  By definition, all politicians lie. Nikita Khrushchev put it succinctly:

Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.

With a few noble exceptions, I pay no attention to journalists because I do not trust journalists. Try this out: take any event or issue, look at five different newspapers or TV news channels or websites, and you’ll get at least 19 different versions of ‘fact’, varying continuously and seamlessly with every passing hour. Breaking news is no longer distinguishable from breaking wind. As Thomas Jefferson put it:

The advertisements are the most truthful part of a newspaper.

Who, then, O long-suffering reader, can we trust to show us, tell us, the truth?

I don’t know about you…but I’ll stick with the Indian armed forces.

Be at peace, O deceased Jaish men.  Unlike your Pakistani army handlers,  I at least acknowledge that you once lived.

Jai hind.

 

 

 

 

 

Musings

Solidarity Day – II

Rev. Br. R B Oman

I still remember that chill morning, early March, 1963.

It was opening day, St Edmund’s School, Shillong. Along with about two hundred other assembled students, I stood shivering in front of the flag staff on the sloping lawn at the main entrance of the school – in those days it was a magnificent, rambling old wooden building on a pine-forested hill. I was just under seven, nervous about entering class 2, about facing a new teacher…and most of all, about attracting the attention of that ruggedly built, auburn-haired, fierce-eyebrowed man in white robes who stood beneath the tricolour and glared at us all.

He was our Principal, the Rev. Brother R B Oman.

Gruffly, he asked us to stand at attention and observe three minute’s silence, in solidarity for those Indian soldiers who had died during the conflict with China in November 1962. He bowed his head: I stood silent in the thin drizzle, not aware of anything beyond my own physical discomfort and anxiety. And then the silence was broken: from the far left of the assembly where the senior boys stood, there rose a murmur and chuckle, quickly stifled. Br Oman glanced up sharply. ‘Silence’, he said softly, but with such intensity that the word sounded like a gunshot over the gentle hiss of the rain.

The minutes passed, an eternity, and then Br Oman looked up. He spoke for a while, then: on the meaning of solidarity, of valour, of duty and sacrifice, of patriotism, of the significance of the uniform to the soldier and to the student, on the transience of victory and defeat.  

I could barely comprehend his words, then, simple though they were: yet their power shook me, lifted my spirits as great music can move and inspire even the most uninitiated.  

It was again from Br. Oman that I had an early insight into the ephemeral nature, even foolish vanity, of ‘identity’.  It must have been 1964: a bunch of us were loitering in the corridors during the lunch break when he came swishing and clomping down the corridor toward us. He acknowledged our chorused ‘Good afternoon, sir’ with a slight smile and nod, and then asked us what we had learned in class that morning.

One of my friends eagerly piped up: “Sir, we learned history.”

“Oh? And what did you learn in history?”

“Sir, we learned that Vasco da Gama discovered India in 1497.” Indeed that’s what we had learned…our history was being taught verbatim from a textbook titled The March of Time, written and published in Britain.

Br. Oman looked solemn. “Well, well…and where were the Indians before Vasco da Gama discovered India in 1497?”

We gaped at him.

“Now, make sure you ask your teacher that question,” he added, with a twinkle in his eye and a wolfish smile.  Naturally, we did as he asked us with immense glee, much to our teacher’s discomfiture.

Over fifty years have passed since I last met Br Oman, but I’ve recalled him fondly from time to time over the years; more frequently in recent years, as the nation, indeed the world,  is being destroyed by selfishness and greed; as humans are being torn asunder, body and mind, by monstrous rabble-rousers who preach war, who teach their followers to pillage and maim and slay in the name of prophets and gods and ideologies and imagined identities.   

Br. Oman died on 17th February 2019, in Goa. He was 96.

The twinkle in his eye, his wolfish smile, his infinite humaneness, endure; they lighten the spirit in these troubled times.

Musings

Dark Noon in Dagshai

“This is where prisoners who created trouble – or who resisted interrogation – were brought,” said Reddy. “There are 16 cells like this one; as you can see, there are no windows.” He turned his wrist slightly, and the torch beam illumined the interior of the cell, arcing left to right along the grey, drab walls, up to the wooden-beamed ceiling, down to the pinewood floor. “The prisoner would be left here all alone. Solitary confinement…” his murmured words were swallowed by the dense, dank air.

And then, without warning, he switched off the torch.

I am not afraid of darkness. But I had never experienced or imagined darkness like this. It was monstrous, a living, breathing, cold, reptilian thing, filled with malice; a thick, suffocating cloak, saturated with dreadful memories…of  pain, screams unheard, endless loneliness, of derangement, death…

I fought down the panic that threatened to swamp my mind, forced myself to take a few deep breaths; I reminded myself that it was a wonderful sunny day outside, that just beyond the foot-thick walls of this room were forested slopes carpeted with wild flower, the autumnal beauty and freshness of the Shivalik hills. But somehow that awareness only made the blackness of the room more intense, more horrific; it was an atrocity in the midst of innocent beauty.

“For the prisoners who were sent here, it was dark like this: hour after hour, day after day.” Reddy’s tone was conversational, almost cheerful, strangely muffled by the choking darkness. “But never more than a week. No prisoner ever lasted more than a few days before breaking down and screaming for release – or losing their minds.”

Suddenly the cell was awash in the light of his torch. I swallowed a cry of relief that rose in my throat. We stepped out of the room. He shut the thick wooden  door to the cell and bolted it; then, he drew the great iron outer door shut and bolted and padlocked that as well.  “After Independence, when the Indian Army took over Dagshai Cantonment and decided to make a Museum here, including this prison, we found all kinds of instruments of torture in these rooms,” he said cheerfully. “But visitors were upset on seeing them…so they’ve all been removed.”

Within the solitary wing

“Well…I’m glad for that,” I muttered.

“But the British were imaginative,” he went on. “They didn’t always need torture instruments: here, take a look at these doors. ” He raised his torch to better illumine the two doors to the cell. “Can you see there’s a narrow space between these doors?” I nodded. “Well…the space is barely sixteen inches wide. Sometimes, if a prisoner showed any signs of stubbornness, the British guards would make him stand against the inner door, and then shut the iron door so that the prisoner wouldn’t be able to move an inch after that. He would have to stand motionless, arms by his sides, unable to sit or bend his knees, unable to turn his head, for hours on end…” he fell silent.

I found my voice at last. “Were the Irish soldiers who mutinied kept here?”

“Yes.  There are records. The British were meticulous about maintaining records on Dagshai Jail and all the prisoners who ever saw the insides of it. Including the charges against them, their sentences, their conduct and treatment…and of course the dates of their release, or execution as the case might be.”

“Even Daly…”

“Yes sir, even Daly…”

He led me out of the Jail and into the two-room Museum that forms a kind of annexe to the Jail.  I thanked him for showing me round, we shook hands and he strode off:  Bhargava Reddy, a fine young Indian Army soldier from Andhra Pradesh, in his mid-twenties with field experience in Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu (“on the LOC”, he told me proudly), Ladakh, Rajasthan…and now, Himachal Pradesh. “Dagshai is peaceful after border postings,” he had chuckled. “I’ve enjoyed history since school days…so CO-sir has assigned me the duty of showing visitors round the museum.”

According to legend, ‘Dagshai’ is derived from the Urdu ‘Daag-e-Shai’— a royal mark which was branded on the forehead of those arrested and incarcerated here.

Reddy had told me much about Dagshai and the mutiny in his crisp, matter-of-fact manner.  Dagshai Cantonment had been established by the British way back in 1847, on land obtained free of cost from the Maharaja of Patiala. In 1849, a Cellular Jail was constructed in Dagshai—the only other jail of its kind being the infamous Andaman Cellular Jail. The Jail was little known till 1920, when the mutiny took place.

 

walk-up-to-pinewood-for-kaapi-1.jpg
Dagshai Cantonment – view from Barog

Dagshai Jail - 1
Dagshai Cellular Jail

The mutiny had been led by Private James Joseph Daly, an Irishman attached to a company of the Connaught Rangers who were stationed in Dagshai in 1920.  That was a time when much of Ireland, under the leadership of the Sinn Fein and its military wing, the Irish Republican Army, was fighting for independence from Britain. In January 1920, the British government set up a mercenary army to put down the Irish ‘rebellion’. This brutal army of mercenaries was called ‘Blacks and Tans’ (or simply ‘Tans’) from the colours of their improvised uniforms—a mix of British Army and Royal Irish Constabulary outfits—and was the brainchild of none other than Winston Churchill, then Secretary of War. The Tans became notorious for their atrocities on innocent civilians in Ireland.

Word of the Tans’ cruel deeds reached Dagshai in June 1920, and on the evening of 1st July, Daly led a band of Irish and Indian soldiers, armed with bayonets, in an attempt to raid the company magazine. The soldiers guarding the magazine opened fire, killing two men and wounding another. Sixty-one men were convicted for their role in this short-lived mutiny: fourteen were sentenced to death, including Daly.

Mahatma Gandhi visited Dagshai upon hearing that a number of Irish and Indian soldiers had been sentenced to death for mutiny. Gandhi spent a night in the jail—in relative comfort—as a token of solidarity with the mutineers.

Daly was the only soldier whose capital sentence was carried out:  on the morning of 2nd November 1920, he was executed by firing squad.

After Reddy left I stood awhile in the Museum before a simple framed sheet on which were typed the lines of ‘The Dagshai Mutiny’:

To the tiny homesteads of the West
The recruiting sergeant came
He promised all a future bright
So the brave young men went off to fight
For the Empire and her might

And many’s the victory they had won
Many the hardships they had seen
They fought and died, side by side
Their enemies they had defied

And for a foreign king.

And the drums they were a-beating time
While the pipes did loudly play
When Daly died, the drums did beat
That morning in the Dagshai heat
Now we’ll beat the drums no more

While serving in a far off land
The news had come from home
Of a peoples’ fate it did relate
Of the Tans and their campaign of hate
And we’re fighting on their side
Arise! Arise! young Daly cried
Come join along with me
We’ll strike a blow for Liberty
Our regiment will mutiny and support our friends at home

And the drums they were a-beating time
While the pipes did loudly play
When Daly died, the drums did beat
That morning in the Dagshai heat
Now we’ll beat the drums no more

And the Colonel stood before his troops
Those men who mutinied
He told them of those honours won
But the men stood in the blazing sun
Saying we’ll fight your wars no more
For cannon fodder we had been
For the French at Waterloo at Suvla and Sud Elbar
We fought your every bloody war
And we’ll fight you wars no more

And the drums they were a-beating time
While the pipes did loudly play
When Daly died, the drums did beat
That morning in the Dagshai heat
Now we’ll beat the drums no more

Those men got penal servitude
And Daly’s condemned to die
Far from his home in Tyrellpass
This young man’s died in Ireland’s cause
Far from his native land

And the drums they were a-beating time
While the pipes did loudly play
When Daly died, the drums did beat
That morning in the Dagshai heat
Now we’ll beat the drums no more.

It was late afternoon when I set out to walk back down from Dagshai to Barog. A slightly chill breeze carried the fresh, bracing scents of pine resin, wildflower, damp earth. The silence, the sense of timelessness, was somehow intensified by the hum of dragonflies, the whisper of pines, the rustle of undergrowth as an agile cow clambered up a precipitous slope to munch on a delectable bush. The azure sky was flecked with tissue-thin streaks of cloud…translucent islands in an infinite ocean.

Dagshai is such a quiet, beautiful place.

It is a particularly terrible place in which to be imprisoned in torment, in darkness.

The road to Dagshai has portraits of many martyrs, from the Indian armed forces.  Dagshai is indeed a good place to remember martyrs. Patriots.

Daly doesn’t have a portrait in Dagshai. But his memory lingers.

Martyr 2Martyr 1

Martyr 3Martyr 4

On the way

On the way-3

 

 

 

 

 

 

General ravings, Musings

Jai Vijaye Bhava,T M Krishna!

The other evening – 17th of November it was – I went with a couple of friends and heard T M Krishna sing at the Garden of Five Senses, Delhi.

It was great!

Krishna was in fine voice; a voice I’d heard only a couple of times earlier, rendering Thyagaraja krithis as smoothly as folk songs. Oh, and also singing in a short but powerful campaign video against Unilever for dumping toxic chemicals and endangering the people and ecology of Kodaikanal (click here to see it)

That’s all I knew of Krishna till around the 14th of November; that he was a great musician, innovative, that he sang for good causes.

And then this great big thing blew up in our faces, amplified to megaton levels by media: that Airports Authority of India  and Spic-Macay had abruptly cancelled a scheduled concert on 17th November featuring Krishna, among other artistes. AAI gave no reasons for the cancellation; but I understood, from editorials print and online, that Krishna was regarded by BJP sympathizers – and therefore, the Central Government, and by inference, AAI too— as ‘anti-Hindu’ and ‘anti-Indian culture’, all because he, Krishna, conveyed pithy political and social messages through his songs. I also heard and read that Krishna had been cruelly trolled by ‘right-wing Hindutva’ nuts.

All this I found profoundly disheartening, disturbing, disgusting.  I hoped, over those two days that followed, for some strong reaction from the Central Government, from AAI…but there was only stony silence.

And so, when Delhi’s AAP government announced that it would host a performance by Krishna on the 17th, I decided I must attend. Not to convey some glorious ‘secular message’ or make a ‘political statement’ or anything pretentious as that, but to simply hear Krishna, a musician who just wanted to sing from his heart about things he felt strongly about… and had been cruelly treated for wanting to do that.

Given the circumstances, I was a little worried about the event becoming more a political jamboree than a music concert. But credit to AAP leaders Kejriwal and Sisodia, not only did they arrive only about 20 minutes late, which is incredibly early by Delhi standards, but their bhashans were mercifully brief and non-incendiary. Krishna himself was all dignity: he murmured that he was there not to speak but to sing…and so he did: wonderfully, passionately, movingly.

Now, clacking out these words, I wonder: why must we taint everything in our lives that brings joy, with the corrosive acid of divisive politics?

My music or writing or theatre, my art, my rendering of what I think of as art, might not be to your liking, and vice versa; but surely we can each find the art we like and peacefully enjoy it without having to mock, disfigure, destroy others’ likes, others’ art? Without hurting others?

Just as you, gentle reader, might hold the view that I can’t write for nuts (doubtless with great justification). But that shouldn’t drive us – and our fans, our acolytes, assuming we have any – at each others’ throats?

Like:  I never liked M F Hussain’s paintings. M F Hussain, in my view, couldn’t paint for nuts. I have said so to friends who like M F Hussain’s paintings. It hasn’t affected our friendship.

I remember even writing so once (in Indian Express, in a letter): in the late 1990s, a time when, weirdly, it had become the politically correct thing to like M F Hussain, and you risked being branded ‘Hindu communalist’ or ‘fascist’ if you said you didn’t like Hussain. Well, I wrote I didn’t like M F Hussain’s work, not because his work offended my religious or cultural sensibilities but because his work offended my artistic sensibilities. But (I added) that didn’t mean I had the right to burn his paintings or run the man out of the country.

You, I, anyone at all, can take on T M Krishna fair and square, one-on-one, for his political views, such as they are…just as Krishna has the right to take on any of us fair and square for our political views, such as ours are.

But when Krishna the musician is invited to present his music, we must welcome him and respect him as musician.

I have heard Krishna, I love his music, I admire his politics. But that’s my opinion; you can think differently, it’s okay.

But none of us, none of us can allow a government institution like AAI to judge  an artiste, any artiste, by his or her perceived ‘politics’.

It is terrible, the way AAI has capitulated before a gang of nameless, faceless e-thugs whose claim to represent ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Indian culture’  is as well-founded as Lashkar e Toiba’s claim to represent ‘Islam’ or ‘Islamic culture’.

It is good that Delhi’s AAP government gave Krishna a chance to play at the Garden of Five Senses…and us the chance to hear him.

As of today, 19th November 2018, I am a votary of AAP.

But I shall watch AAP’s future activities with considerable interest before taking the call at the next polls. Knowing our politicians, be they from Left, Right or virtually non-existent Centre, chances are high that the AAP will commit some colossal balls-up ere long…

That’s why we need you, T M Krishna! Jai Vijaye Bhava! Jai Hind.