Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Road to Destruction

We are going to attend a condolence meeting to mourn the death of yet another tea planter in our district. Young Tirtho Das, around thirty odd years old, father of two adorable little girls -- the younger just a baby, just one and a half years old -- and husband of Sanchita, was killed in a car accident on the National Highway near Mal Bazaar two days ago. Yet another young life extinguished in an instant on a highway where nothing goes as it should, or stops when it should. This highway isnt wide enough to accommodate the kind or the variety of vehicles that travel on it.
It is a narrow road with dense vegetation on either side, for most of the way. There are no road dividers, and what should be a single lane serves as a double lane. Cattle, goats, stray dogs, and very often elephants are frequently encountered hazards. Two wheelers, rickshaws, pedestrians, cars , buses and heavy vehicles of every description are forced to vie for space. We do have jams, even though we dont have a heavy flow of traffic on a regular basis, now and then. This especially happens at the congested, ever growing towns through which the highway careers on without a bypass route.The highway has claimed the lives of many friends from our district, and many of them young. In the last two years, we've lost three young boys from gardens in the district. There are other victims whom we knew who were not from the tea community. There were others, tourists and bus passengers and pedestrians, an entire marriage party, and even a school-bus load of children who lost their lives and of whom we came to know through local information channels or the next day's newspaper.
It is horrifying to think of the numbers of people who are killed in road accidents, not just in our Dooars or the Darjeeling and Sikkim hills near us, but in all of India. When will something be done to control the occurrence of these terrible collisions of traffic? Are we Indians manufacturing too many lightweight and high speed cars? Do vehicle designers and manufacturers keep in mind the conditions of Indian roads and the volumes of traffic on these roads? Is there no chance of traffic ever being regulated into smoothly flowing lanes and divided by categories, so that all the vehicles can safely move together? Is there ever a chance that we will have a government that takes serious steps to pass legislation against drunken driving? Will we ever have effective police posts manned by officials who take in offenders and test them for alcohol levels instead of reaching out to accept a 'small something for chai-cigarettes'? The image of the drunken cop on duty who waved us ahead majestically at the Matelli Police traffic check post while we were coming back after a late night in the Western Dooars last week keeps haunting me. Let him not be the face of my India in the future.
All the horrors of our unsafe roads come crowding into our disturbed minds whenever there is an accident.
Tirtho was driving along what he thought was a clear stretch of road near Mal Bazaar at a good speed. It was nine o'clock in the morning. Most unexpectedly, a truck backed on to the highway. The collision was inevitable. There was no chance that the driver of the smaller vehicle could survive the impact of that crash, and we are all grateful that Sanchita did, sitting in the passenger seat as she was. Today, she's still in the ICU, after having been operated upon -- a procedure that took around eight hours -- for a broken jaw, broken teeth and a fractured knee and elbow. Merciful God spared the little children from any major injury or worse.
We at the club are all intensely distressed. We are all in a state of mild shock and disbelief, and deeply disturbed by the suddenness and unprepared ness with which this very nice young man met his end. Would he ever have abandoned his family so suddenly if he'd had a chance? But that was just what he didnt have, a chance. Lucky are those who are offered one. I wish we would each one of us count our blessings and thank the Almighty for every good fortune we have ever experienced, because good luck is as little under our control as bad luck. Not one of us knows what fates await us or those for whom we spend sleepless nights praying and worrying. Apart from our grief for this young family there is the grim fear that enters all our hearts : is anyone ever safe? Does anyone ever know what happens in the next moment?
There is an added trauma to the loss Sanchita and her little girls must face. They must vacate the home where they have spent what surely must have been happy years. The family was happy, without a doubt. Even the baby never did anything but smile and laugh when meeting strangers who pinched her cheeks or tickled her chin at the club! Their older daughter goes to primary school and now she must move -- school, home, friends, all will be left behind. Sanchita will leave behind all the dreams that she and her husband would have shared, including maybe dreams of being in really grand bara bungalows some day.
My friend Raj said something so poignant on the phone the day after the accident. 'We all depend so much on our husbands in tea, Gowri.' We do, indeed. The planter husband is a provider. He carries a lot of responsibilities which no one can share. When a planter marries, he undertakes to supply a home and to fulfill all the needs of the family. His wife's responsibility is to manage the resources which he provides. At most, a woman here can have a career which provides a supplementary income and the 'treats' that it can buy. Of course, this doesn't apply to the women who live and work in cities and only visit their husbands on the garden. They have another home in the city. Here, as in many sad cases in the past, husband, father and home are lost in one stroke. Every woman who marries a tea planter knows that it could happen in her life too. What a terrible thing, that so many losses should be borne together.
I know Tirtho worked for a good company and that the good people there will never let his family know want. Whatever happens, though, they will have to move out. I can only hope that our collective prayers will in some way help this young bereaved girl and give her strength, and that life may have some joys in reserve for her and the children.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Those Ringing Bells

When I moved to a tea garden twenty years ago, it dawned on me that life as I'd known it would change for ever. We had no telephone, to start with. There was no way I was going to be able to hear my parents' voice, for who knows how many months! That is something to think about in these days when we have daily chats with children who live far away.
In 1986, Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India and he was farsighted enough to realise the role and importance of telecommunications. What we have today is definitely the result of a process initiated by him. Still, it all took some time.
In 1986, our little Birpara town, the town closest to Birpara Tea Garden where we lived, had a telephone exchange, and one or two telephones in each garden in the district. The Manager's bungalow had a phone with a two digit number. So did one of the Assistants' bungalows. It was something we all marvelled at; a telephone in the Assistant's bungalow. The number was 86. That phone never rang. I dont think anyone ever put a call through it during our three years in Birpara. It had an extension in the Joteswar bungalow which was located furthest away from the factory, where the Assistant who looked after the Joteswar Division lived. The extension phone was, in one sense at least, a cordless phone! 
Many years ago, a Division Assistant who'd grown fed up of Burra Saab's habit of giving him repeated calls on the extension line yanked the instrument good and hard, and pulled it out of the socket. And there that phone lay ever since, with not a cord connecting it to anything anywhere in the bungalow. One could carry that phone around and use it as a stage prop. It speaks for the remarkable solidarity among the Assistants who came on transfer to Birpara that not one of them ever attempted to get that phone fixed.
I survived about a year of garden life without a telephone. I didnt actually lose my mind or start hearing voices in my head or anything. Our elder daughter was born in Delhi, where I spent some months. The news was conveyed to a clerk in Birpara Tea Garden office over a crackly trunk line and he sent a note to my husband. We could not speak to each other over the phone at all. We wrote letters, those days, maybe four and five in a week.
The day my father died, the news that he was seriously ill was conveyed by telephone  from Delhi to a shop in Siliguri which acted as a receiving centre for news for all the company's gardens. They sent a messenger to Birpara and the senior assistant rode around the garden on his bike until he found my husband and told him what had happened. We took the next plane out of Bagdogra, which was the following morning, without any telephone communication with home at all, not realising that we would reach Delhi only after my father's funeral. The news that he'd died twenty four hours ago was something I heard when we called home on arrival at Delhi airport.
Our next garden, Bagracote, offered a slightly better deal by way of telephone communications. We had graduated to three digit numbers by then. We could go to the garden office, which was Oodlabari 254, and wait there for trunk calls which family would make to us.
By 1992, STD had come to stay. The most modern exchange in the Dooars area was Banarhat, and our friend in that area had an STD phone in his bungalow. He actually chatted on it with his sisters who lived in America. We could not get over the audacity of it.

I was hospitalised in Siliguri for a week early that year, and the family, spread all over the world, was grateful, in those moments of anxiety, that Siliguri had STD. Cheerful Malayalee and Nepali nurses at the hospital would happpily carry messages to my bedside from America, Singapore, Chennai and Mumbai. The further the place where the call originated, the more chirpy the messenger would be!
In 1993, we moved to the first ever Manager's bungalow of our experience. It had a phone that worked, with only a three didgit number, true, but a number that allowed us to make trunk calls through the exchange. For the first time in seven years I could call family and chat. Over a real, working, cordless phone.
Mal Bazaar, the closest thing to a metropolis in our lives, was a forty five minute drive away. It had a five digit number preceded by an STD code. We'd sit in the cramped first floor area over Abhinandan Stores and make a twelve rupee call to my brother in Singapore to tell him we were 'there'. At which he'd say 'Hang up' and call back at once so that we could chat with him and with my mother.
Ten years ago, 1996, was the year of our first STD enabled phone. Which meant we could receive calls from friends and family all over the world at home.Ten years on, we have the STD telephone, plus internet, and almost one mobile phone per family member!
What irritation I experience when I cant download all my mail in the morning.How I rage at the display on my mobile phone that reads 'Network Failure'. How lost I feel if I take a trip to the bazaar nearby without my cell phone. 
We got by alright without any of these things. That's how it always is when you recall those good old days that sound so good in the recollection. We got by, we managed or we just accepted our limitations. We went on long drives and couldnt call to let anyone know when we'd be back. We drove through miles of elephant ridden country and terrible roads with our little children to meet friends who might be out. We didnt worry so much when we waited at home for someone who was expected back late. We just had a little more faith, and maybe a lot more patience -- I certainly seem to have less now. Is it just me, or have we all become more difficult as life has become more easy?

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Thoughts in a Garden

(Published in The Statesman, 22 March 2006.Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan)

I have begun to believe that the world is made up of two kinds of people: those who grew up in a house with a garden and those who didnt. I say this because anyone who enjoyed a garden as a child grows up to be a lover of nature.
Anyone who grew up in a house with a garden will remember the smell of a freshly mowed lawn; the heaps of cut grass, so aromatic, so tempting to jump into, and so surprisingly and painfully full of stinging insects. The garden hose pipe, with air bubbles rushing along in their race with the water. Those endless December holidays of my childhood in Delhi, when we would sit on the lawn listening to music or the cricket commentary on a transistor radio, while eating oranges and peanuts. We would chase the warm sunlight into the last corner of the garden before finally giving up and going indoors, shivering.

In the summer, we would carry our charpoys and spread out our sheets by eight o’clock to cool them by the time we went to sleep. The laburnum tree outside the house would be in full bloom then and the street lights would make the flowers look like luminous golden grapes. Oh what freedom it was to sleep under an open sky. The faithful transistor kept going, at low volume now, considering the late hour, and played sentimental hits like ‘Puppy Love’ and ‘Sealed With a Kiss’ on Forces’ Request. The summer nights were too exciting to sleep ever, and while the rest of the family awoke at dawn, when chilly jasmine scented breezes blew, I would lie there fast asleep with a sheet over my face as a protest against an increasingly hot sun.

We children were only allowed out into the garden in the evening after five-thirty, when the heat and the glare had reduced. Then it would be fun to water the plants, and to listen to the hiss that the hot concrete walk made when it was hit by water from the pipe. The smell of that water evaporating off the hot earth or flower pots made us feel like tasting the earth or at least biting into the flower pot.

One doesn’t see oleander trees now like the ones that grew in all gardens then. We children would pluck two of the long leaves and, holding the ends together, we’d bring them close and snap them back to make a loud noise. There was a lovely creeper jasmine with very dark green leaves and flowers that were whitest white on a pale green stem. We’d pluck them when they were still tight buds at five o’clock in the evening, and my mother would bind them into strings for our hair without using a needle at all. She’d then invert a katori over the neatly coiled strings, and within an hour the blooms would open, with a maddening fragrance. We had enough jasmine strings to distribute to most of our neighbours. We’d make a habit of counting the number of buds we plucked, and often it exceeded a thousand!

At fifteen, I sat with my history book open before me, supposedly studying for the Board Exam, but actually looking at the phlox, sweet sultanas, petunias, verbenas and hollyhocks that thrust themselves out of the earth so boisterously! And every bird in the world seemed to be singing in that garden of my childhood, mocking at me who sat indoors!The Delhi in which I learnt to love nature has changed beyond belief, and though I sometimes regret that I’ve left it so far behind me, I'm glad that my daughter, at fifteen, has the same distractions as I had at her age in the place where we now live. 'Ma, I cant study, there's too much to look at in the garden!' she wailed. She will pass it on, I know, this love of the flowers, the seasons, and the rhythms of life.

If you have ever lived in a house with a garden, even one tree, whether spotted out of a car window or during an evening walk ; one flower, one bush in the park, or one bird's song, will bring it all back, all the wonder that you ever felt as a child!

A Letter to my Teenage Daughters

(Published in The Sunday Statesman Magazine, June 5, 2005.Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan)

My dear girls,
Do you remember how in your essay about yourself you said you hate South Indian food? Another time you said you hated being corrected for making fun of the Tamil language. How it annoyed you that something that can so simply be called ‘Alu’ becomes ‘Urulakayyangu’ in Tamil. It is not a crime to dislike what you are force-fed. Or spoon-fed, literally, like sambar.
It is quite natural to rebel against these things at sixteen and seventeen. I guess you cant imagine your mother in the same role, but at your age, every time my 'Paattu Saar'--that's the music teacher--went away after a class, I had to play the Rolling Stones' 'Jumping Jack Flash' at top volume on the record player. I made sure he heard those rocking, mocking opening chords before he reached the end of the road from our gate. My purpose was two fold. One, to rid the air waves in the drawing room of the reverberations of my halfhearted vocal exertions. Two, to get back at the teacher who took an unnecessarily malicious pleasure, in my view, in complaining to my mother about my faulty Tamil pronunciation and my absolute inability to read or write the language.

I had to carry on taking the singing lessons, however little I enjoyed them. However, my mother never stopped me from playing the Stones record at the end of the session. She was really a very wise lady even then!

In time, I came to love Carnatic music. What I really learnt of musical appreciation was definitely from the parents, certainly not from the 'Saar', though I still have the registers he filled in his crabby hand with lyrics (in Tamil) And I can belt out any of those songs at a moment’s notice.

Our culture, according to the edifying extracts in our school textbooks, was a legacy. It was handed down to us from the generations before us. Our culture represents who we are. This is not something to scoff at, I learnt later in life. On reflection I realise that in addition to being 'Good South Indians' we were also taught at home to be 'good Indians'. Above all this there was a culture, which we were taught to value, and that was the importance of being good human beings who practiced and upheld good moral values. If I had to give it a label it would be Liberal Humanism. These values are tied up with everything I ever learnt as a child, whether it was learning to walk, learning to feed myself, or learning to read. I choose these examples because I can’t remember when I learnt any of these things, and I cant forget or un-learn any of them either. Being good, law abiding, tolerant of other people and respectful of their freedoms was at the heart of this cultural legacy whose packaging may well have been South Indian food, language and customs. There was truly liberal thinking here, live and let live.

When I was young, it was considered important to marry within the community and carry on the traditions we'd practiced. I don’t mean my parents wanted me to marry a cook (ensured supply of ‘kootu’ and rice) or a pundit (who would chant correctly pronounced Sanskrit verses at me) or a Carnatic musician who would cure me of my fondness for Jumping Jack Flash!
Now that brings me to the real point. Jumping Jack Flash was as much a part of the education I imbibed at home as Madurai Mani Iyer's 'Seethaapathey'. More than two cultures could and did coexist without cancelling each other out. I didn’t realise that until I was older (and I hope, wiser). Wodehouse, Georgette Heyer, Woodstock, My Fair Lady, Archie Comics, Mad Magazine. The Beatles, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Kumar Gandharva, K.L.Saigal and R.D.Burman --we were exposed to all these at home. There was a harmonious coexistence of different cultures. Harmony, as you both know, is something that runs parallel to the melody and enhances it. You can have many things running together in your 'cultural heritage' and I think you'll find that you do have them. The more there are, the richer you will be. Even the hard to please music teacher would borrow books from my Dad's Wodehouse collection and enjoy them thoroughly.

I hope you understand that it would be possible for any of us to survive in surroundings where there was either no South Indian --or any Indian-- food or language or music, no Tamil New Year's Day and no Diwali celebration. But it would be impossible to survive without any language communication, any music, any books or any conversation.

And it would be very difficult to live amongst small-minded, selfish, ungenerous or uneducated minds all our lives. So remember that when we speak of our culture we are speaking of something very big, yet something basic, which you'll find among all civilised people. It is something inclusive and evolving. It doesn’t exclude ideas or influences; its existence isn’t threatened by anything new. You could find that you share something of this with someone in Finland or Tirunelvelli or in Assam or Japan. A shared fondness for sambar has nothing to do with it. It's all about not letting your dislike of sambar get in the way of someone else's fondness for it. Dislike it as much as you please, but understand that someone else can like it. Live and let live.

Love always,

Look Beyond the Illusion!

Look Beyond the Illusion!
The smash hit film 'Rang de Basanti’ calls out to a generation that seems to have everything going for it: cash, conveniences and clear consciences. It is about a tragedy that strikes suddenly in the lives of a group of youngsters who seem to live only to party. The tragedy shakes them up terribly and awakens them to the iniquities in the political system. In the manner of anarchists, they wipe out the perpetrators of evil, and get killed in the process. It is a very dramatic death; a thing of moments only, of bullets that kill swiftly: a film scene that has a laughing hero waiting for the fate that he knows is going to get him.
No time for penitence, afterthoughts, or soul searching. Like everything else he’s ever done in his life.

I am worried about how very young viewers will interpret the film. Why is it I find something very wrong with this ‘Rang De Basanti’ generation? It seems to me to be a generation which has never been denied anything by its loving and indulgent parents. It has been allowed adult privileges minus adult responsibilities. It has, in addition, continued to be granted the privileges of childhood.
The parents seem to be saying, Go ahead, beta, you can stay in Papa’s and Mamma’s house for as long as you please, and you can do it all. You can binge on clothes- and shoes-shopping, fast food, parties, alcohol and sex, even guns if you will, and if you should make a mess of your life, we will sort it all out for you in the end.

The lesson we have to teach all children is this: You can’t get away from the consequences of your actions. You can’t kill someone and then put things right after that. Nothing you do will reverse your actions or undo what you have done. Real penitence is a sign of a good character, but it doesn’t wash the slate clean. Nor can you escape from your core self. You have to live with who you are and what you make of your life.

It is difficult to identify heroes and role models for the citizens of our county in the protagonists of ‘Rang De Basanti’. Their heroic deaths don’t come across as a sacrifice, but as the finale to a series of wilful acts of self-indulgent self-destruction.