Friday, November 27, 2009
"Where were you when it happened?"
Every generation has them. Every country, every civilisation, race, culture, anything that binds people together beyond the call of blood. Moments of dread, fear and grief so profound that reverberate in public memory for years . You could ask a complete stranger in the subway the above question and he would tell you as if it happened yesterday. Every so often, we become so innocent, so cocooned in our world of the mundane and usual that it seems like it would last forever. And then something like this shatters that glass palace we live in and reminds us that it's a different world out there, with dangerous misguided men and women and children who kill because they feel it is right and honourable to do so.
When Rajiv Gandhi died I was a child standing at the mezzanine of my grandparents house, wondering why all the adults were so agitated. When the twin towers fell I was at home, idly flipping through channels until I stumbled on CNN. When Benazir Bhutto was assasinated I was at KFC with a friend, talking of this and that.
And 26/11? I was waiting for my nine hour shift to finish, tired and hungry, staring with dread at a blinking red flash on my computer screen that indicates breaking news, because that could mean I would have to stay beyond my regular hours. Of course, I had to stay back, but by then, the dread would be replaced by a completely different kind of dread altogether.
Leopald Cafe was the first battleground. The buzz still was that it was gang warfare, but there was this undercurrent of tension, a certain catch in their voices betraying fear and apprehension. "Maybe if I don't say it out loud" they seemed to think "Maybe it won't be true. Maybe it won't be the worst." Terrorism isn't a word that was suggested for quite a while. But when it was, it was like someone had turned on the tap. Fear, panic, dread, apprehension, anger all came gushing out . Television anchors wailed, people turned white. Bits and pieces of footage were permanently etched to memory. A speeding car rushing by, accompanied by the crack-crack-crack of gunfire and images of people hitting the ground. Security camera footage of a man craning his neck, his posture more curious than panicky, before crumbling to a heap in stop-motion. A human life snuffed out in an instant. Father's rushing by with their children, his body a frail shield even as he looks around fearfully, not knowing when , or where the next strike would come from. Police crouching behind barriers, clearly in over their heads, their ancient rifles and insufficient training no match for the ten terrorists running roughshod over the financial capital of one of the largest countries in the world. A nation brought to it's knees by a few misguided and violent young men armed for death. Blood on the streets . Gunshots in alleys. And then, in that cold November night, flames licking at the dome of the Taj, chilling the heart of our country to its very core.
A maelstrom of images as the siege of Mumbai went on for nearly sixty hours. Battle lines were drawn and the enemy was, if not cornered, at least restricted to certain locations of their choosing. Taj. Oberoi. Nariman House. CST. The death toll was a neverending counter from our nightmares . But after the initial shock, after it had sunk in that this was war, people went on with their duties. After all, an advantage of being a journalist is, tragedy usually means much more work. Shock and anger can be drowned by the sheer slogging necessary to get the job done. So 26/11 went by. So did 27/11. Images replaced other images. Commandos dropping from a helicopter on the roof of Nariman House. Looking through their sniper rifles. Panic turned to controlled chaos, and then, waiting for the inevitable. Nine of them died.One hundred and sixty six of us. Could it have been worse? Sure. But as the ninth man fell, as Ajmal Amir Kasab was dragged out and taken to custody, as the stories of valour rolled out, as names like Major Unnikrishan and Tukaram Omble entered the history books, did we win? I don't see how. For three days these men had held one of our biggest cities hostage. For three days they had killed, tortured and maimed our citizens and our guests. In those three days they told us that even our highest and mightiest could be brought down with ten ordinary men from the villages of Pakistan. Terror was not new to India, but this was a different beast. We lost the battle. Time will only tell if we win the war, or if the war CAN be won.
Post 26/11 things happened. Some people lost their jobs. Some people pointed fingers. Anger was palpable. For once, India was one nation. Certain politicians went underground, realizing that their mantra of language based hatred was perhaps not pragmatic when so many men from all over the country had fought and died for Mumbai. Of course they would resurface, and of course people would vote for them, but for a while at least, there was blessed relief. Stricter security measures were announced, some even implemented. Diplomatic pressure was applied to our neighbours, although many would agree, not enough. In a few days, normal life resumed. People walked the streets again, albeit with a little more fear in their hearts. But, it hurt. It hurt because I know that this happened not because they were strong, but we were weak. It hurt because sometimes it feels like there are no Indians anymore. That the social fabric of the country has become so fragile, so infirm, that the slightest tap can send a spiderweb of cracks running through its surface. It hurts because we find it so easy to hate and ridicule each other on the basis of religion, caste, language, class, income. The flag has become a patchwork quilt, coming apart at the seams. As a journalist, I try to be impassionate about things. I try to be wry, and cynical, just so it doesn't affect me. But I feel like I have lost my Country. As if I don't know what it means to be Indian anymore. And it really really hurts.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Today is World Toilet Day. Yes. There is a World Toilet Day. This was news to me. I think at this rate we need more days in the calendar, cos 365 just isn't cutting it any more. Even with the extra one every four years, it's a bit of a tight fit. There are, of course , the big daddies of the circuit. The internationally recognised ones, celebrated world over. The frontrunners of the field. The Children's Days , the Teacher's Days, the Father's , Mother's Days.
Then there are the others. The World Aids day. Earth day. World Day for Water. World Breast Cancer Day. And finally, crowding and jostling for space in a limited calendar like amateurs at the beginning of a quarter marathon, come the also-rans. Now I don't want to say that these are not worthy causes , because they are. But damn if most of them don't make you go 'Huh?!'. World Day for Safety and Health at Work. World Maths Day. World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development. World Day to Combat Desertification. World Day Against the Death Penalty. The thumb rule, one seems to notice, is that the less awareness the day has, the longer and more complicated the name. I firmly believe that somewhere out there there is a World Day for the Reorganisation and Proper Cataloging of Libraries to Ensure that the Thoughtless Idiots who Borrow Books and then don't Return them out of Sheer Laziness, the Inconsiderate Bastards, are Adequately Punished being rigorously observed by one very pissed off librarian.
And the UN, of course. The august body seems to do little these days other than express dismay, send out ineffectual letters to rogue states expressing further dismay and passing resolutions to observe special days. Most of which are met with shocking indifference by the general world population. As an example of general apathy, let us look at the No Honking Day '''''celebrated''''''' on 7th April. Believe me, the extra quotes are justified.. For a while, it even seemed like it would a minuscule difference. Like a singer with limited ability but a good agent, it got it's share of publicity. There were posters all over town, it was mentioned in the 'cool' teevee channels that the kids like to watch, it managed to get school kids off studies for a day as they went around pestering motorists and handing out fliers about the evils of noise pollution (Which is apparently as bad as jamming a syringe full of cocaine directly into your eye socket, if those fliers are to be believed). Hell, it even got the Big B to promo the hell out of it. By that, I of course mean that he put a sticker on one of his cars. Well the newspapers mentioned the hoopla exactly twice. 'No Honking Day today' screamed the headlines on April 7th. 'No Honking Day a noisy failure' they screamed the next day. Yes, the No Honking Day was the equivalent of an Indian Idol copycat reality show winner. Moderate promotion. No real career. Now go back to your daddy's loft and get a degree.
All right,so I'm being mean. The truth is, that even if these special days manage to shake ONE person out of apathy, it has done a good job. After all, none of these issues are minor issues, and hundreds of thousands of people all over the world who suffer need to have the spotlight shone on them. If it needs a special day with an overly complicated name, so be it. And that brings me back to the topic of our discussion tonight. World Toilet Day. Seriously? Not World Sanitation Day. Not World Right to Hygiene Day. Hell even World Proper Plumbing Day would be less ridiculous. Why would anyone choose a name that is sure to generate snickers from the average man? Why would you they with a name that would guarantee, absolutely guarantee newspaper write-ups with headlines featuring cringe inducing puns like this? This is a serious issue. Many, many people die or are severely affected by debilitating diseases because of poor hygiene standards the world over. So why would you choose a name that is almost pathetic in its eagerness to invite ridicule. What kind of organisation would name its special day, the WORLD TOILET DAY ???
Oh. Ok then.
*See what I mean about horrendous headlines?
Saturday, November 14, 2009
What can I say? I'm a fan. You come here, you got to take the occasional bout of superhero worship.
The heat on the street's giving way to
A silent moon
Faded and cold by the clouds
Lies in ruins
It dies stillborn
Black shadows cover it like a shroud
The noise is loud
In his head, theres doubt
In his heart, steps he takes
Like a runaway car
He's cut the brakes
He's moving on, no telling when he'll stop
Don't tell him now,
Too late anyhow
Just another angry strike
There's nobody there
The ground slips away
He's falling in empty air
He wants to live, but doesn't know
How to live he can't grow
Out of the shadows, he'll crash and burn
Tumble off the edge and into the urn
Darkness spring to life
Strangle, choke, the clubs and knives
Teeth and claws
A bloody mess
He's begging them to stop
He don't know why
His fear real, his life a lie
A breath of air, wafts in from the dark
He holds on, sputters back to solid ground
In the knight sky, shining like an ark
Brighter than the sun, he has found
His primal call, training takes over
No more ducking for cover
Moves like a serpent, a cobra's strike
The shadows scatter and run
Now he's having fun
The crack of skulls, the snap of bone
Anguished screams of those who hide
He's larger than life, the streets are his own
Alone he will answer, the call for a saviour
He's the darkness that stands in the light
Fear itself, he's the darkest knight.
Saturday, November 7, 2009
Remember the feeling of settling down with a book?
The warm summer afternoons, with what seemed like an infinite highway vacation time stretching to the horizon. The heat would be burning up the dusty alleys outside, but if you closed the windows, turned the fan on and kept an ice cold bottle of water at hand, things would be just right. Dad was off to work, mom taking her afternoon siesta. The bed would be the softest thing you ever touched, and the pages would be crackling with promise. The window would be open just a crack, so a stray sunbeam could brighten up the pages. Along with it would come smells and sounds of a summers day. The muted chirping of pigeons and sparrows, the smell of dust. It was a world worth getting lost in.
Reading was something to be done for pleasure . I never read to learn. Never read to 'improve myself'. I would flitter merrily from book to book, freely dipping into Dickens, Bibhutibhushan and the scholarly works of Franklin W. Dixon with equal relish. I would laugh, cry, whimper, rejoice and sometimes despair. I would dream myself into the stories and do the right thing. I would shelter the homeless family shivering in the gutters. I would explain things to the feuding brothers so they could get along better. I would take down the vile, cackling monster. Reading empowered me. Reading gave me courage and knowledge and faith and all those things that make me what I am. And it did it on the sly. Here I was, thinking I was having some innocent fun, and somehow, it was slipping me life lessons?!
I didn't have favourite authors then. Nor favourite genres. Never had the luxury. Books were there to be read, and so I read them. All of them. Anything I could get my grubby little hands on. I didn't know treasure from trash. I read 'em all, and learned to separate the grain from the chaff later. My parents didn't mind care much about what I was reading, so I had a free reign. Selection based on literary merit was something that happened to other people in other worlds. I read to fill a gigantic hole in my being that, thankfully, never filled up.
I have so many books to read now. Every single one of them bought for a purpose. There's a Raymond Chandler I bought because, well, I was in the mood for a noir novel. I bought The Ascent of Money because I wanted to learn more about the financial crisis. I buy books to learn about history, philosophy, science. And sometimes even to entertain myself. I have been looking for a thriller for a while now, but of course I steered clear of Sidney Sheldon. He's fluff, you see. I have choices now. I have specific wants and desires that need to be fulfilled by books. I have critical thinking so I know what's bad and what's good. If I go back to some of my childhood tomes, I know I would be amazed and mortified at some of the stuff I digested. And of course, it is inevitable. It is, after all, evolution. It's what happens to human beings. Choices according to personality. Books divided into fiction and non fiction. Classic and modern. Science fiction and fantasy. History and Science. A hundred more labels. There are internet forums and reviews to help you choose. Little boxes on websites labelled 'Customers who bought this book also bought...'. Pick and choose. But sometimes I miss those summer days of simplicity, when a book was just a book. A mystery between two covers. And you never knew what you were getting into, and what you would get out of it. I miss not knowing what to expect. I miss seeing a book and feeling I HAVE to read it, just because it's there.
There are so many books for me now. It's just that sometimes, sometimes I wish I could go back to the days when there was just one me for all the books in the world.