Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Intellectual Sophistry and the David Dan Prize

Just following up the David Dan Prize issue. Its all over the web, i'm linking some interesting pages.

Here is Amitav Ghosh's response, on Margaret Atwood's page:

Here is a follow-up piece, citing Ghosh's open letter, on kafila. The comments are particularly interesting:

I'm very disappointed.

It's the same fallacy, every time. A writer writes, and you, as the reader, assume that he or she has some kind of sympathy, perhaps tending to an ideological leaning. This effect is intensified when they pick topics, locations, characters that seem to address issues of the marginalized, and the dispossessed.

And then comes realpolitik, and everything else becomes irrelevant in the face of a million dollars and recognition from the first world. lovely. I am becoming more and more proud to be Indian.

Well, i'm imposing my own blockade. Neither Margaret Atwood nor Amitav Ghosh are getting any more money from me. Its personal, and its all i can do.

Not that it matters; a million dollars goes a long, long way.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Legal Understanding of What Happened in Bhopal

By Asmita Basu

There’s masses of literature on this issue. I will think of some sources, although I don’t think the ones I read are available online. A recent write-up by Rajinder Puri in the Statesman provides an accurate overview. Here’s my attempt to break down the legal history. (Caveat: readers are advised to read more on this issue to get a better understanding, and apologies if you find this too basic and reductive)

Victims in Bhopal could file for compensation from UCC (the US holding company), UCIL (their Indian subsidiary), and the government/State. A suit for compensation can proceed simultaneously with criminal proceedings.

Points of difference between criminal and civil proceedings lie in evidentiary standards and outcomes. In criminal proceedings the evidentiary standard is proof beyond reasonable doubt, which is a very high standard and the outcomes are penalties to be paid to the State and/or imprisonment of the offenders. On the other hand, in civil proceedings, the evidentiary standard is a balance of probabilities (i.e. proof that one event is more likely than the other) and the outcome is, amongst other things, compensation to be paid to the victims.

As soon as the gas leak happened, “ambulance chasers” from the US descended on Bhopal. Their intention was to file compensation claims on behalf of victims against UCC in the US courts. “Ambulance chasers” are lawyers who don’t charge a fee but take a percentage from the compensation amount they win for their clients. This practice is not allowed in India to guard against exploitation. So the State decided to chase the ambulance chasers out and sue for compensation on behalf of the victims. This was done by a special legislation and under the principle of pareins patraie (sp?), which means that the State assumes the role of a benevolent patriarch over its citizens to proceed on their behalf. This was the first and perhaps the most significant nail in the coffin. After all, how can the State sue for compensation when the State itself is a party to the proceedings? [There was a challenge to the parens patrie law, but it was dismissed (Ms Jaising had appeared in that matter).]

The US courts rejected the suit for compensation on the ground that it was difficult to collect evidence from India (!) (This was done under a principle called forum nonconviniens, which is too complicated to get into details). The civil case was therefore pursued in Indian courts. The State settled the case for a paltry USD 470 million instead of USD 33 billion that was initially sought. (This amount when divided amongst the victims translates to Rs 10/- that I had mentioned in my earlier post). This travesty was justified on the grounds that the criminal proceedings were kept pending (not that the State had an option, since criminal cases cannot be dropped after being filed). And today, after 26 long years, we see the outcome of the criminal proceedings.

The point that I am making is that putting the now senile Warren Andersen behind bars does not translate to any tangible gains for the victims. Nor do the predictably paltry sentences and penalties act as effective deterrents. On the other hand, shelling out compensation would have been a far better deterrent- witness the current reverberations among BP shareholders and owners. But sadly, the Bhopal war had been lost in 1989, when the civil case was settled.

The Bhopal gas leak litigation will go on, I don’t have much hope. At the cost of sounding facile, the lesson to be learnt is that compensation cannot be treated lightly. As I see it, the silver lining in the recent judgment and the resulting outcry is that State has decided (been compelled to??) to retain the supplier’s liability clause in the nuclear deal. Hope there’s no retracting from this one.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Lick a Powerful Ass Day

This post has no point. There's absolutely no reason to write this, except that i want to blow off steam, and express my very deep disappointment and anger at the dance i see taking place around Bhopal.

Bhopal happened in 1984; by conservative estimates, 20,000 people died. After Dow took over Union Carbide in 2001, they insisted that they had no liability for an incident (sic) that happened in the 1980s, and that they never owned nor ran the plant responsible for the disaster.

The Indian government made some sounds that approximated 'please, sir, clean it up',
And then subsided into grumbles which cumulated in an approximated
'ok, sir, but see, we're really upset about this, you've hurt our feelings'.

Big fucking deal. Like Dow Chemicals cares. Like the US cares.

But We Care.

You see, we mustn't hurt the feelings of the Great North, or they may stop letting us lick their feet. And what a tragedy that would be. Imagine, no powerful Northern feet to lick.

The judgement came out yesterday. Yesterday, it was all over the front pages (except the parts devoted to buying-related advertising, of course/ the show must go on). Today, its slipped to page three and four, and an obituary-like tone has descended over the commentary. Its so sad, says the tone of the writing. Its so sad that this should happen, that our judiciary is inadequate, that we can relentlessly hound, and prosecute individual wrongdoers, but we cannot take to task a company which, which, considering its size and holdings, constitutes a target the size of a murder of Tyrannosaurs Rex.

(What is a collection of T-Rex called? I don't know, but 'murder' seems appropriate. I've never really got why the term is applied to crows, but i can very clearly see, in my mind's eye, why it would be appropriate for a collection of carnivorous dinosaurs.)

But you can't take a T-Rex out with a shotgun. They have teeth, and claws, and they move very fast.
Thats why you need lots of guns, very large and strong nets, people experienced in taking out T-Rex-es, and most important, strategy.

Isn't that the role of a state system in a situation like this? A state system that includes the executive, the legislature and the judiciary? In the happenstance of marauding murders of T-Rex, isn't this system is supposed to kick in with its infrastructure and experience?
It may take a village to teach a child, but it sure as heck takes more than a village to take out deliberate monsters leaking chemicals.

Unfortunately, it also requires will. Will on the part of a system to engage with, and turn its destructive power towards a problem or a threat. This, with the Indian state's 'sir, please give me your ass to lick' attitude is the will it lacks. I'd like to rephrase, actually. The will is very much present, its just turned in Other directions.

More land. More minerals. More FDI, more Northern ass to lick.
'please, sir, i missed that spot of shit, could you turn this way please, so i can lick that clean too?'

It seems that its not just Northern ass either, any ass will do, just so long there is the possibility that measurable rewards are considerable. Theres lots of home-grown asses that qualify in this category, because theres just one parameter for returns. And we all know what that is.

Who says we're a proud country? Who says we have heritage and tradition, and Indian Values? I say the judgement on Bhopal tells us that we have neither pride nor foresight. Nor hindsight, actually. And certainly, no values. Can the Upholders of Indian Values Please Stand Up and Explain to me How the Judgement on Bhopal fits in with Indian Values?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Accepting the David Dan Prize

I don't know how many of you have been following this, but

Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood just won, and accepted the David Dan prize, from Israel.

Now this is a matter of personal choice, of course. No one denies that being offered, and accepting a public prize of this nature is well within the realms of personal choice. But.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Not - Having - Kids

I just read this great post on not having kids, and wanted to add my half-paisa.

I'm 35, so this does come up. In fact it comes up a lot, much more than i'd want, or have the energy and time to deal with.

And I'd like to qualify that I like kids, specially once they're walking-talking human beings. Before that, i tend to fear that they will break, and that the parents will kill me. But once they're human, i get along with them just fine, and beyond the first gap-mouthed stare (kids are smart, they know this smiling face is attached to a fundamentally strange person), they seem to get along just fine with me.

And i'm very glad that many of my friends have kids, the whole aunt thing really appeals. Its just that i don't feel any impulse to reproduce, myself.

So the problem is not me, or, thankfully, my partner. The problem is the rest of the world, who severally feel that this non-reproduction is an act of social subversion, and needs to be discussed. At length.

'How many children do you have?'
(You'll be surprised at how often i get this. The assumption being that someone of my advanced years would naturally have multiple kids. I love this one, will answer 'none' if its a doctor, or 'eleven', if its someone i wouldn't mind pissing off)

'Why don't you have children?'
(None of your business, but if you insist on knowing, i'm sterile. Also, i have nightmares about IVF)
I don't know if i'm sterile, but lots of women are, so the statistical probability certainly exists. And from what i know of IVF procedures, anyone would have nightmares about them.

'Is there a problem?'
Accompanied by a 'you can talk to me' look. I HATE you-can-talk-to-me looks, unless they come from people i can actually talk to. And no one i can talk to would ask me this question.
The ideal answer is 'yes, there is a problem, actually, its people like you', but i've never used that. I usually describe fallopian tubes, and family histories of complicated and fatal pregnancies. None of which is true, of course. I would certainly not put my family's privacy on the line like that.

'Doesn't your husband want children?'
Implying that i'm a selfish bitch for getting in the way of my husband's dearest wish. My desperately unhappy husband, who is hiding his displeasure behind a perfectly calm, even cheerful facade
My answer here depends on how soon i want this conversation to end. 'No, he'd rather have dogs' will shut most people down (ha, ha, she's FUNNY).
Otherwise, a level stare and a 'No' will do it. You have to stop at the 'No' though, because any attempt to explain this will be taken as a sign of wavering.

'When will you have children?'
(Probably never, but if i do, i'll be careful to keep them away from you. I want them to grow up with a sense of other people's privacy)

'Why don't you want kids?'
Now, really, i would like to know how, and why, comparative strangers feel that i should discuss this with them. Does it seem like something at the social interaction level of current affairs? or the weather? Both of which i would be happy to discuss, at length.
But they don't want to talk about those things, they want to know why I (being a complex, multi-layered, public/private being) don't want kids. I'm supposed to explain, and justify, and bare my soul. Like hell i will.

And its not that complicated anyway, I'd just prefer not to reproduce.

Why is that such a big deal?

Monday, May 31, 2010

Drugstore Truck Driving Man

I heard Woodstock on LP yesterday, after a very long time. And Drugstore Truck Driving Man has never sounded so relevant to the times.

Originally written by Roger McGuinn and Graham Parsons, and performed by the Byrds, but i like Joan Baez's lyrics more -- she makes slight, but key changes. Here are those lyrics:

He's a drugstore truck drivin' man
He's the head of the Ku Klux Klan
When summer comes rolling around
We'll be lucky to get out of town

He's been like a father to me
He's like the only DJ you can hear after three
And i'm an all-night singer in a country band
And if he don't like me, he don't understand

He's got him a house on the hill
And he can play country music till you've had your fill
He's a lawman's friend, he's an all-night DJ
Sure don't think much like the records he plays

He don't like resistance, I know
He said it last night on a big TV show
He's got him a medal he won in the war
Weighs five hundred pounds and it sleeps by the door

He's a drugstore truck drivin' man
He's the head of the Ku Klux Klan
When summer comes rolling around
We'll be lucky to get out of town

As i was listening to it last night, it struck me that the parallels are quite astonishing:

1. Think of the KKK reference as not specific to a particular ideo-geographical configuration, but as an organization or point of view that goes after a non-mainstream/ marginalized people for whatever reason.

2. Think of the 'music' in the lyrics of the song as ideas, of democracy, equality, the rhetoric of the brotherhood of man.

3. The house on the hill. Isn't the hill called Raisina? This could also be read as a general reference to established power.

4. 'Sure don't think much like the music he plays'. Self explanatory, i am thinking.

5. 'He don't like resistance i know/ He said it last night on a big TV show'. well, ha.

6. The medal in the war is a reference to past glory. Just take away the redneck hick aura, and put in the harvard education, and it all falls into place.

I am ending this post with very very dry laughter.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Ascent to Geekdom

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

Main Entry: geek
Pronunciation: \gēk\
Function: noun
Etymology: probably from English dial. geek, geck fool, from Low German geck, from Middle Low German

Defined as below:

1: a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake
2: a person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked
3: an enthusiast or expert

The definitions are telling. It starts out in the realm of carnival, and shock, and ends on a quite positive note. The enthusiast or expert entry was qualified with a ‘especially in computers and other technical fields’; but i took that out, because the word is commonly used in a wider sense than the restriction Merriam-Webster is placing on it.

I’ve always liked geeks, possibly because I’m quite clearly one myself. But i’m certainly not an example of the most evolved, or advanced form. I see myself located at roughly the halfway point on the ‘Not Geek to Uber-Geek’ spectrum, but have the pleasure of knowing people who are almost at the three-forth point, or beyond.

A geek, in my book, is an interesting person, because he or she has Interests.

Everybody has interests, you say, and possibly you are right. But the difference between geek and not-geek lies not as much in the fact of the interest, as in the kind, degree and intensity of that interest, and the distance the person is willing to go for it. That is why it is an Interest, and not a mere interest.

Generally, this interest is not something that is likely to bring concrete rewards, particularly in the short term. A geek will occasionally go professional with his or her geekery, and this may bring rewards; but the behaviour itself is relatively pure, particularly when it begins. The obsessive collecting of books, or music, or any other kind of information -- that constitutes the pattern of geek behaviour is a stand-alone pursuit, as it were. It has to be, because one of its defining features is that there are very few others in the geek’s usual environment who are, to an equal degree, interested in the same aspects of the same things.

Keats talks about ‘negative capability’, something he sees as ‘being capable of eliminating one's own personality, in order imaginatively to enter into that of another person, or, in extreme cases, an animal or an object'. I’m not really addressing the transmigratory aspects of this idea, but the relative elimination of the self in order to immerse entirely in another thing, act or behaviour seems to a quality common to geekery. It may manifest in hours spent over musical notations, camera manuals, baking arcana internet sites, or books of any kind, but those are only individual variations. The ability to immerse in something that is not for direct profit is the big commonality.

Thats why i said geeks have Interests.

Geeks rarely have small talk. They’re also not good at hiding their lack of small-talk skills, so the more courageous among them will almost always go directly to real conversation. This, in many cases, will be in the area in which he or she is most comfortable. To me, this is the best part.

So you have someone who has spent a lot of time and energy learning about, say, how the sound on LPs is reproduced and pressed, or why you can’t take certain kinds of shots with certain lenses, or the problematics of Chinese typesetting. They have culled out this information, located different points of views, assimilated all of this, and then formulated their own understanding of the question; including its concomitant issues, modifiers and opinions. And all of this they are happy to tell you, in detail, while answering any questions you may have. What could be a more fortunate outcome?

I guess it depends on your point of view:)

I have mostly met already-formed geeks, or lower-grade geeks, who, while i have known them, have become higher-grade geeks. Very few times in my life have i had the pleasure of watching someone geekify right before my eyes.

In this particular case, its the mountains. The Himalaya, to be specific. It started with a visit to a relatively popular hill town, progressed through volumes of books and documentaries, Google Earth, binoculars, and now stands at huge detailed trekking maps from the Survey of India, a compass to direction-read those maps, and other topographical maps from 1955 downloaded from the online resources of an international library.

And so, to mark my pleasure at watching this process, I write this blog.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Parameter of Responsibility

Lately, i've been in various kinds of dialogue about Green Hunt. Its a terrible, difficult thing, and seems to have brought out particular aspects of people's ideas about the world: how it is, how it should be, and how it got that way.

Some of these conversations have been acrimonious and painful, others informative and enlightening. A surprising number have been all four.

Over the course of these conversations, I have been repeatedly forced to examine my own position, and probe the reasons why i hold the points of view i do. In the process, my own perspective has become clearer and more coherent, at least to me.

Of course there are numberless complexities in this situation. Of course there are motivations, and politics, and profit, and greed, and just way too many threats and weapons. Of course. What do you expect, when you try to pull a 60 year young nation into the gloss of the new world by the scruff of its neck?

And so, i'm glossing over the argument modifers on the multiple sides, not because i'm not aware of them (oh believe me, i am. Some of these conversations have been quite, well, ego bruising:), but because it would be impossible to do justice to their multiplicity and varied understandings in a single blogpost.

What i have been trying to formulate is a sort of macro understanding, something that explains to myself what i see going on, and what i feel about it. Here it is.

There are two houses, neighbours. Things were ok for a while, but then (i'm not going into reasons), one side got a gun, and set it up on the window facing the other house. Whereupon the other side got a gun and did the same thing. Now the first house got alarmed, and got two more guns, so the second house responded likewise.

Now they both bristle with guns (who is to count which one has more) all of which are pointed at each other. There are skirmishes and some people get hurt, but the guns in the two houses continue to point at one another.

So, two houses. You're seeing sort of identical houses, right? Two side-by-side houses in a city, or a small town, or a village. But the difference in this story is that the houses are not identical. One is a mansion, with access to vast resources. There's more rooms for people, more food, more money, more weapons.

The other is the house you were first seeing in your head, an ordinary house. Less of everything.

Now i'm not asking what would be sensible, or who should see the light- if only to protect themselves.

I'm asking whose responsibility is it to lay down the first gun.

Monday, May 3, 2010


A friend came to see me last night

I was in a room heavy with old wood and carvings and glass fronted bookcases —
the sort of room i haven’t seen in a long time

There was so much rich furniture that i felt i had no place to put it all

I moved the desk to be at right angles to the cupboard, one of the bookcases to beside the massive, carved-rosewood bed

And fretted if it all sat right

He walked into the room like he’d been there many times before. He said he’d heard i was sick

And lay down, comfortably stretched out on the bed whose carvings i had caressed with wonder.

So i got on the bed too, less intimidated by the richness, and sat to talk

he was displeased with me, that was clear. I was a bad correspondent, i was always lost in my own head, he got my news from somewhere else

‘Not that i mind’, he said ‘news from you is always so strange that i have to figure out what you’re actually saying, and that takes time i don’t have’

‘If you have so much inside that you can’t pay attention to real things, why don’t you write’, he said, in sorrow as much as anger,

‘then i’ll be able to read it later and know what you think’

I said nothing, aware he was a dream, afraid to commit myself to being revealed

We ate oranges, cut into sections by an unknown hand in an unfamiliar kitchen, while the late afternoon rays of the sun gleamed dull on the old red floor

All the doors were ajar, the windows flung wide

The glass fronted bookcases reflecting the carvings and shadows in the room, hiding more than showing the actual contours

His time with me ran out and he got off the bed

‘I have to go’, he said ‘write.’
Without specifying if i should write to him in particular or to the world in general

I finished the rest of the fruit on the plate, lingering orange-ness on my tongue

Stroked the carvings on the bed, paying special attention to those parts that were hidden from the light

And the dream was over

Monday, March 22, 2010

A True Ghost Story

Many years ago, my father used to work with a small newspaper which operated on a shoe-string budget. This was in the early nineteen-eighties.

Money being an issue, they used to try to do out-of-town stories in areas where employees already had some resources-- the logic being that if you had board and lodging, your expenses on the story would be considerably reduced. This was how my father found himself in the town of Hazaribagh one rainy monsoon night.

Hazaribagh was at the time much smaller than it is now, and considerably less important in the political scheme of things. It was also in Bihar (it is now in Jharkhand, by some complex process of gerrymandering that is irrelevant to this story). What is relevant is that my family had a house in Hazaribagh, and this was where my father was due to stay while he worked on the story he had gone to investigate. However, it was late and visibility quite low, and the only way for him to cover the 8 odd miles to our house would be by rickshaw. Unsure of the house caretaker's whereabouts, my father decided to find a place to stay for the night as close to the station as possible. Tomorrow would be drier and sunny, and then it would be contingent to make the journey to our family house.

He stepped out of the one-shed station at Hazaribagh road into the pouring rain, looking only for temporary shelter for the night. But a small town in Bihar in the nineteen-eighties was not about to yield its secrets so easy, and the hazy slice of township he could see through the pouring rain was all closed. There were no streetlights, which was normal at the time, but there were also no lights visible at windows, which was not. Clearly, the town had used the rain and the lateness of the hour to retreat completely into itself; leaving only a very cold and tired young man on the streets without food, shelter, or any prospect of succor.

The way Baba tells it (and i have heard this story many times since i was a child), he was resigning himself to spending the night in what passed for the station, when a rickshaw pulled up. The whole of the vehicle was swathed in plastic sheeting, which was normal, as nobody in their right minds would be in a late night monsoon downpour without protection. The driver of the rickshaw asked my father where he wanted to go

(and i reconstruct. I was about eight at the time, and safe at home with my mother in Calcutta. I only remember the quite scary aftermath of this story)

Baba said that he was only looking for a place to stay for the night, just the one night. He would be on his way in the morning. Did the rickshaw driver know anywhere he could find shelter, and perhaps food, for just one night? he was prepared to pay, no questions asked.

The rickshaw driver said yes, but it is not safe, and it will need money. Food, you will have to discuss with the caretaker of the place.

Standing in the rain with water pouring down his face, looking at a prospective savior under plastic sheeting, Baba says he heard everything the man said, but truly registered only the 'yes'.

So he got into the rickshaw, with the driver whose face he had not properly seen, and was driven off into the night. One thing you must know about a rickshaw swaddled against the rain is that while complete cover is very effective in keeping rain off you, it is also very effective in keeping you in the dark with regard to where you are going. Any chink in the plastic sheet to look out through is also a gap through which water can get in. So, baba was completely disoriented when the rickshaw stopped after about fifteen minutes.

The driver said that this was the place, and that he could not stop, it was already too late. Left without a choice, my father got off the rickshaw with his small bag and walked up a set of stairs to a collapsible gate, behind which was a largely empty room with an old desk, a chair and a flickering neon tubelight with not a caretaker in sight. The path ahead blocked by a closed gate, and the path of return removed by the rickshaw driver, baba proceeded to lean on the bell as hard as he could. It rang, and rang, echoing hollowly from the insides of the building.

After an approaching-panic five minutes of this, a person appeared. He said nothing for a while, just Baba and the person regarding each other through the gaps in a locked collapsible metal gate. Then he asked what baba wanted.

'A room for the night, cash in advance'.

'This is not a good place', said the man.
What did my father care? They could be cavorting in burgundy velvet around him, all he wanted at the moment was somewhere he could dry off, and a bed.

'Sure', said my father. 'I understand. Can I have a room?'
'Can I get the cash?'
'Unlock this gate. Its raining'

So the gate was slowly unlocked, and cash changed hands. Then the man asked my father to follow him. Dripping water and in a very bad mood, baba followed the man up several flights of stairs. Imagine this, if you can.

It is dark and cold. The only sound is rain. The building is clearly old, with high ceilings and pillars. No one has bothered with maintenance for a long time: sections of the wall have crumbled and not been swept off the floor where bricks, mortar and whitewash lie unregarded in corners. The only reason you can see any of this is because the surly person in front of you, holding a single lantern, is inadvertently throwing light over things as he passes. The other thing he is throwing light on is the doors that line the corridors, all of which are shut and padlocked. Not only are these padlocked, they have the government red seal over the keyholes of the locks. None of these locks can be opened without breaking the seals.

'What happened? why are all these rooms locked?'
'Don't know, sarkari business, before my time'

My father figured that the hush-hush was due to some bureaucratic problem with the premises. Perhaps it was not a guest house at all, but some kind of an office building, thats why it was all locked up. This also meant that the caretaker could be in trouble for sheltering him for the night. Which went a ways towards explaining why the man was being so jittery.

The caretaker led my father to the very top of the house. On the roof was a single room which was unlocked, and the sight of which made all the questions building in my father's head disappear in an instant. In the middle of the room were two single beds, passably clean, separated by a small bedside table. The little table had nothing on it. The only other furniture in the room was a small three-legged stool in the corner, which held an earthen pot of water- 'for drinking' said the caretaker. Attached to this improbable haven of a bedroom was a bathroom with regular fixtures, also a bucket and a mug.

'Is it possible to get something to eat, i'm very hungry'
'Let me see'

The caretaker left, and came back twenty minutes later with a metal plate, on which were two rosogollas. Engaged in gulping them down, and deafened by the rain drumming on the asbestos roof, baba says that he did not notice the caretaker leaving the room, pulling the door completely shut behind him. He said later that he thought he heard a bolt slide into place, but could not be sure. In any case, the impression was not strong enough for him to get up and check the door at that moment.

All he wanted was sleep, there was travel and work to be done on the morrow.

But the almost-not-heard sound that made him think that the caretaker may have slid the bolt shut niggled at the back of his mind. Very little was impossible in such an alien situation. The caretaker may well have locked him in. He may be used to sliding the bolt of this room behind him, and done so by reflex, or there may be a reason: if he was planning to rob a traveler at night, and needed the person to be locked in, and access at any time.

The thought of robbers foremost on his mind, baba pushed at the door. It was clearly bolted from outside, and also locked, with a lock that was just glint-visible through the crack of the not very solid door. It was the visible fragility of the door that reassured him. If there was really a need to leave the room, he reasoned, this door was unlikely to be a substantial barrier. Then in his early thirties, baba was fairly large and quite strong; and while the prospect of being robbed was not attractive, he did not seriously believe that the situation could unfold in a manner that he would be unable to handle.

He considered shouting for help, and dropped the idea because of the evident futility of the exercise. The house was very large, located god-knows-where, and he had been locked in by the only person whose face he had been able to see in the last few hours. It was still raining quite hard. It was unlikely that there were people waiting around on the roof to find out if he would prefer to be let out. No, really, what could possibly be the worst that could happen?

Bathed and changed he tested the door again, on the off-chance that the caretaker had had a change of heart, but it was still resolutely locked. The only thing to do was to keep within arm’s reach a heavy object that may be necessary when the robbers came, as they certainly would. The heaviest thing he was carrying was a flashlight, one of those big metal-and-glass dumbbell-shaped torches you saw when you were younger, that hold four large batteries. They’re of some consequence, prospectively a formidable weapon -- light and artillery in one shiny, weighty package. I don’t think they’re mass manufactured anymore; perhaps the world has become a safer place.

The right thing to do, of course, would be to keep on the lights and stay awake. But the days travel and the uncertainty of the evening had taken its toll, and baba didn’t think that staying awake in an advanced state of exhaustion would help when the robbers came. Also, putting out all the lights would a good idea. Complete darkness, to which his eyes would become accustomed, may actually act in his favor. Choosing the bed further away from the door and the robbers to come, he put the torch under the pillow and lay down. In a little while, he was asleep.

Some time passed.

The ambient glow of the bathroom light became annoying, and he stumbled muzzily to put it off. But this was surely something that had been taken care of before falling asleep? Never mind, he was so tired at the time, and who could be sure of light switches in such a situation?

Some more time passed.

Lying flat on the bed, barely awake, he registered three separate impressions. First, the rain had stopped. Second, there seemed to be people in the room, and third, the door was shut. It had evidently been opened, and people had come into the room while he slept. Instantly conscious, baba started feeling very angry with himself. How could he allow this to happen? He had been fully aware that this situation was likely to be difficult, how could he have fallen so deep asleep that people could have entered the room, and shut, possibly locked the door behind them? This time, hopefully, they would have locked it from inside, since they now seemed to be in the room with him.

Lie still, he told himself. They’re after money and valuables, let them take anything they want from the bag, and, if you’re lucky, leave. In any case, you don’t know how many people there are, you don’t know in what manner they’re armed, or how desperate they are. Just lie still, and this will pass. Breathe deep, so they think you’re still asleep. Keep your eyes shut most of the way, but see if you can get visual impressions that may be of use if you have to run and break through the door.

Lost in these fearful, confused half-thoughts, evaluating the risks of making a run for it, my father remembers registering another impression. If these were robbers, they appeared to be unusually unmotivated. There was no movement at all in the room. In fact, what had initially felt like several people now seemed to have coalesced into only one person, and that person was doing nothing. Nothing but breathing, and standing still, somewhere near the foot of the bed on which my father lay.

This, baba says, was when he started to get really afraid. He remembers telling himself that there was nothing to be scared of. One person, no matter how heavily armed is after all only one person. There was no reason for this irrational wave of fear that was washing over him, leaving the darkness fraught with invisible danger. The person was just standing there, after all, in the dark. The man, for it must be a man, did not seem to have malevolent intent, or surely he would have attacked by now. As fear made his breathing ragged, baba become more and more convinced that the person was, in some intangible way, not actually there. There did not seem to be a shape, or an outline, or even a thickening of the darkness at the foot of the bed, as if all that represented the person in the dark room was his breath. In, out, in, out, a heavy, strained rhythm, as if the person had asthma, or was under a lot of stress.

Paralyzed with fear, unable to reach the torch, unable to grasp what he might see if he were able to shine a light, baba sank into a trance of slow terror.
Then, the presence in the room began to move. It started to walk, up and down the room. Eyes now shut tight, baba knew what it was doing because he could feel a slight disturbance in the air, like that made by a passing person, on his left arm as the presence passed, walking the length of the room. Between the two beds, through the bedside table like it wasn’t there, to the far wall, and back again. Breathing, heavy and rough, pacing quite fast, in what felt like agitation, and maybe anger, maybe fear, maybe despair; just passing through between the beds, again. And again. And again. And again. It was impossible to count how many times the presence passed, each time almost brushing my father’s arm. Almost, but not quite.

Through the haze which enveloped him, baba remembers hearing the chink of the metal glass being taken off the earthen pot of water in the corner of the room, the sound made by water as it is poured out of a pot and into a glass, the sound of water drunk in haste, perhaps spilled because the person is otherwise mentally occupied. The sound of the glass being replaced. Quiet. Ragged breath. Resumed pacing, up and down, a complete absorption in its own predicament, whatever that might be.

At some point in this interminable darkness, my father lost consciousness.

The next thing he remembers is the caretaker’s face. The face was concerned, clearly, and talking quite loud; urging him into revival. But a fever had set in over the night that made movement, hearing and speech very difficult. So while what baba really wanted to do was to hit the man, who had certainly had some idea of what the room contained; all he could do was ask him to – please – arrange some kind of conveyance back to Calcutta.

The caretaker helped him down the stairs. From within the cloud of sensory loss that cocooned him, baba asked the man why he had done this, locked him with the thing.

‘You needed a room’, said the man. ‘You had nowhere to go. I thought, it doesn’t always show itself, and in any case it never does anything, you may sleep through it all. But the door had to be locked, because sometimes people get scared and run out onto the roof and jump off. It’s a high building. That happened one or two times, so I lock the door.’

There’s several questions here, thought my father, and decided that he was in no condition to ask them all. He decided to go with the obvious

‘What happened here? Why did they lock all the doors?’

‘Because of the suicide of the caretaker. He gambled a lot, had lots of money problems. They say there was money owed, to bad people. Then he killed himself in his room, the one on the roof. Its not like they would shut down the building because the caretaker killed himself, but then people started seeing things’

‘What things?’

‘Who knows, then one or two people jumped off the roof, and they shut the building down, sealed all the rooms. I get very little salary to mind this whole building. sarkari business, what can you say?’

‘That room where it happened, why is that room open?’

‘I don’t know, it was open when I came here. Sometimes they will come from the municipality to check the locks of the doors, but they never climb as high as the roof. Then someone will need a place for the night, and the room is open… its not like it shows itself all the time. But I always lock the door.’

Baba does not remember how he got to the station, but someone must have taken him, since he was clearly in no shape to go himself. Someone got him a ticket, then, and put him on a train home.

I remember ma going to the station because baba had called and was coming back from somewhere, sick. I remember ma being very worried, and baba being very ill for a while. He didn’t talk much for a while, not at all about what had happened for a long time. I heard it first many years later.

A few years after the encounter, he went to Hazaribagh with the specific intention of locating the house. He took rickshaws and walked, covering as much ground as possible, looking at buildings that fitted his very fragmented memory of the place. He did this more than once, combing the town, asking people if they knew of places that fitted his description.

He was never able to locate the house.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


The previous story, 'A True Ghost Story', is for Toto.

Not the events on which it is based, which form the constitutive frame of the narrative, that's my father's; and is not mine to dedicate. But this narrative, this telling of the story, this is for Toto.

At the age of twelve i had a quite strange experience. Three nights running, i had a sequelized dream. A filmic narrative in three parts, which, end to end, was a fairly complete story. I don't remember much about it now, except that it involved deserts, camels, and many shades of red and yellow. Its a pity about the fading, because the only person i told the story to when it was vivid doesn't remember any detail either.

So we're twelve, visiting toto's father in Tribeni, and we have a huge room, just for the two of us. Its about midnight, we should definitely be asleep. But toto wants a story, and the three-part dream is still glowingly inscribed behind my eyelids. So i told her the story, and i wanted to be good, so wove in every detail that i remembered.

Toto's always been a very good listener of stories, in part because she treats it like an exercise in qualitative research. She's convinced there's vital detail you're hiding from her, and addresses your unwarranted (maybe unintentional) secretiveness by asking questions. Lots of Questions, demanding Much Detail. The answers to many of these questions is perforce 'I don't know', but what it does do is blend all varieties of craziness into the mix. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but you have to try because she's not going to take a no.

In my own estimate (and hers) the last good story i told her was when we were twelve. And i finally wrote a story. Its not mine, as she has pointed out, but what mine to give is being dedicated:

To Toto, with thanks for the faith.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


This one's with thanks to Mandakini, who revived the joy of holi for me

As a child, Kali Puja (Diwali in North India) and Holi were my favorite festivals. The former was a festival of fire, of which i have always been a little scared, especially after the one kali puja my brother set me on fire/ a mistake he said/ as all the aunts and uncles pitched into him, but me, i wasn't so sure:)

The latter was a festival of colour, holi, to which there seemed to be no apparent downside at all.

I remember hiding under the bed when people come to visit with colour, getting dragged out giggling wildly, and being dunked mercilessly in buckets of coloured water/ this being the memory, i could not have been more than seven or eight years old, i don't think you can dunk a person older than that in a bucket, however large.

The colours in the sunshine struck me as extraordinarily beautiful, and more importantly, sort of wild and uncontrolled. i've always hated colouring within the lines, and reserve the deepest contempt for the sort of person who says things like,' there's too much bright yellow in that picture'. This has also, very often, turned out to be the sort of person who then asks you to use yellow ochre instead, or, lord forbid, brown (not that i have a problem with brown, but everything in its own place you know)

Theres no ochre in holi, and no sienna either. Just RED. and YELLOW, and PINK and orange, and GREEN (dark and light, but both startlingly bright)and / joy oh joy/ PURPLE. I don't know what godawful chemicals they're using in these things, and honestly, here's an area in which i don't care. All i know is that the organic pinks are just not as PINK -- if you get what i mean, and the organic greens don't light up quite the same way in the sun. And that organic colour slides off your skin and hair in the shower (whats the point of playing if you don't get a different colour of foam every repeated time you shampoo, as the various layers of colour get washed off???)
I proudly state that i once had to use detergent to get colour off my hair. It was horrible for my hair of course, but a couple of days of oiling made the detergent memory disappear.

Oh and theres the intoxication aspect

Bhaang. I have just learnt how, so heres the recipe:

Bhaang leaves (from sweet and very obliging maid)
Shondesh (preferably knachagolla)
Condensed milk
almonds (roasted and crushed)
Thandai Powder
Rudder (not added to mix, just essential to create it/ so possibly the most indispensable ingredient)

You put the ingredients on a clean workspace, plug in the mixie, and invite Rudder into the kitchen, and VOILA!!! the most magnificent tasting (and efficacious) bhaang emerges...

Then you go downstairs with all the people you want to use as canvases, and regress approximately twenty years. About an hour of regression, yelling, targeting non-coloured spots and general mayhem, and this is what you get:

I rest my case.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Travel Tales From India

Travel Tales From India

Plagarism and HT

Travel Tales From India

Media and plagiarism/ theft, courtesy HT. I'm changing my subscription, but i suspect they all do it... its really depressing.

Thanks, mad momma, keep up the good fight.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Kolkata: A Travel Argument

Kolkata lies at the confluence of a variety of influences. Many cities do, but the interesting thing about Kolkata is that a visitor can see many of these influences while walking around. British colonial architectural influences are foregrounded by street-side homegrown Chinese food, Hindi speaking taxi drivers ferry all, the north Indian kebab is adapted, spiced, and served up in the delicious ‘roll’.

Because the palimpsest of Kolkata is open to the view of the visitor, it is wise to remember that the city is about both the journey and the destination. So go and see St Paul’s Cathedral and the Victoria Memorial, but don’t forget to walk around Park Street and Free School Street. Browse the bookshops on College Street, see the figured wrought iron and green shuttered windows of North Kolkata, sample Bengali confectionary. The city, you will see, looks both forward and back with equal ease.

This is the place from which the British ruled a large part of South-East Asia for close to two centuries, and the seat of a cultural influence that has been significant in the making of modern India. This new India is visible in the streets, shops and cafes, but surrounded by an old world charm that makes most visitors to feel that almost any length of time is too short for an adequate exploration of the city.

Don’t worry about walking around, people on the street are friendly, and some knowledge of Bengali, although useful, is not essential. Many locals understand English, and Hindi also forms part of the popular linguistic repertoire. In keeping with the local ethos, getting directions, or what-to-see-next type of advice from strangers on the street is never a problem -- so do visit Kolkata, it’s an unique experience—a big city with the heart of an old world town.