Thursday, September 21, 2017

Memoirs of an ordinary life


Currently the Town Hall again. In our times it was Regal Talkies
After I stepped into my ninth decade I increasingly realized the distant past of my life was fast receding away from me. My days in Gwalior, from my childhood to adolescence and adulthood all were becoming a blur. The years in service were relatively recent yet many of the facets of my experiences in several parts of the country have been lost to a kind of amnesiac. Some basic features relating to my rather extensive travels, especially at home, I have tried to record in my travel writings.
Mine has been a very ordinary life. Yet my life and times, particularly of more than several decades ago would perhaps be of interest as they would be evocative of life in that era that now seems so distant. It was an era of innocence, truth and simplicity, largely untouched by crookery and crookedness of the current times. Things have changed since then: we think differently, we speak differently, we behave differently and interact with people differently, worship our gods differently, we dress differently and we even eat differently. There has been a sea-change in these more than 75-odd years. As I see it, in many respects there has been a slide and in many others we seem to have gone up a few notches.
 I have been scratching my brain t remember those by-gone days and have been only partially successful. My effort, after all, is that of a man, advanced in years, to peep into his growing-up years. That it was spent in a lower middle class family which was perennially haunted by want and scarcity is another matter. It was my parents who by their doggedness and hard labour kept us afloat and did not allow us to feel the sting of want. Sometimes these memories startle me and make me ponder over how wonderful my parents were in embracing their changed uncomfortable ctrcumstances after uprooting themselves from their very comfortable environment in far away Bengal only to lead an austere life in a land that was alien to them. I suppose only those times could produce such amazing people with formidable levels of fortitude.
Without beating about the bush I would rather unfold right away whatever I remember of those very early days:
My earliest images are of the house in which I grew up and lived till I left Gwalior for Mussourie to join the civil services. It was a rented house – which would be called a flat these days – and we had the first and second floors with open terraces on top of them. Covered balconies ran right along the house’s inner and outer sides on the first floor. The inner veranda overlooked a square courtyard, surrounded by four houses including ours, the ground floor being used as go-downs for grains in which our landlord, a bania, used to trade as a middleman. It had a massive neem tree that used to keep the courtyard shaded and cool in summers. The outer balcony overlooked the junction of four rather broad lanes. The lane in front ran from north to south branching off the main artery of the town known as Indragunj about a couple of hundred yards away with the beautiful structure of the high court on the other side of the road. Right in front of our house was a walled up huge property in the fields of which maize used to be grown after the rains. At the far end of the property an old fashioned building sat overlooking Indragunj. It housed Miss Hill’s School, acknowledged as one of the better private schools of Gwalior. Its Principal, Mrs. R Hukku used to live on the premises and was very close to our family. Clearly, with the vacant lands being cultivated the area was till then in the outskirts of the town.
 Sitting on the junction as the house did, one could see all the four lanes. Our lane originating from Indragunj ran for a furlong or so after the junction towards the South to end up into narrower lanes and alleys heading in two different directions. It too had a walled-up property of a Maratha feudal with houses only on one side with newer constructions of numerous flats right in front of our flat. Only the third lane that took off from the junction towards what was known as Lohiya Bazar in the west separated it from our building. The fourth lane ran eastwards between the two walled up properties and met the road that was known as the Daal Bazaar, the Grain Market. These two bazaars were named after commodities – pulses and iron and steel. Most of the traders in these two bazaars who were banias by caste would trade in them.
 Located on the cross-road the front veranda gave us unrestricted view of all the four lanes. Not that there was much to see as there was hardly any traffic or movement during most of the day. The vehicular traffic was restricted to a few cyclists or an occasional tonga. During my childhood even bicycles were unaffordable for the middle classes and nobody would hire a tonga unless he had to go far with the family or had to carry some baggage.

For me, when I was very young the corner of the veranda provided a ring-side view of whatever little action took place in these lanes. Since early mornings, come rain or shine, cows used to assemble a little distance away on the lane running south. Later in the morning they would be collected together and herded along by one herdsman by the name Lachchha, or one of his children, to the pastures out of town. The cows used to be of all shapes and sizes and would either come on their own or were left there by the owners. With them around, there used to be always some commotion. The children from the neighbouring basti would run around collecting dung. Cow dung used to be, and perhaps still is, a very useful resource in the villages. Not only would it provide energy, it would also be used, mixed with clay, to plaster floors and walls by poor people. Children from basti would compete with each other for collecting as much dung as possible and in their anxiety to collect the stuff they would place the vessel they carried under the tail before the cow in question could exude. In the process, fights would frequently break out among them. For a child of three or four like me it was absorbing and I would keenly watch the proceedings. Quiet and peace would resume as the cattle were driven away by Lachchha and after the children had collected the last of the dung from the dusty road. In the evening cows would trudge back towards home raising clouds of dust and mother would promptly shut the doors and windows to prevent its ingress into the freshly swept rooms. It was that typical “godhuli” time (time when cows come home raising dust diffusing the sunlight) of the evening I still wonder where exactly the pasture was where the cows were taken to graze as the cows and Lachchha seemed to be tired.

Photo from internet

(To be continued)

Friday, September 15, 2017

Destinations :: Mandu (1994)


Jahaz Mahal
Mandu is another historical town of Madhya Pradesh. Located on the Vindhya Hills it falls in the Malwa Region of the State. It is one historical place that is not inhabited. It is only a tourist site and the nearest town is Dhar, 30-odd kilometers away. It is basically a fort the remnants of which one can see and savour. The place at one time was the capital of Mandu principality. While the rest of the city has disappeared leaving hardly any trace, the ruins in the fort around 700
A pond and some ruins visible from Jahaz Mahal
years old, now maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, are interesting for visitors.

Mandu has had a very chequered history. Starting off in the 7th Century as a flourishing town, it was taken over by Paramaras who, however, were routed by the burgeoning Muslim feudal warriors who captured it only to lose it after a few decades. Even Akbar apparently had sent his army to snatch the place away from the then ruling Muslim warlord. Anyway, it is a very complicated history of wars won and lost as
Arches along the steps
it turned out to be a long lasting game of conquering the throne and then losing it.

A typical window. 
 What, however, is the most significant memory the Muslim ruling class left behind was the romance between a Muslim ruler Baz Bahadur and a Hindu girl – a mere shepherdess. She was so beautiful that the King, Baz Bahadur, the last Sultan of Malwa, fell neck-deep in love with her. He married her, built a palace for her that fronted the distant River Narmada in accordance with her wishes. So enamoured was he of his consort that he skipped looking after the matters of state and spent his days and nights only with her. Theirs was a legendary romance that came down to modern times through word of mouth and through the songs of Roopmati. Akbar had wanted to capture both of them but, while Baz Bahadur fled away to Mewar his Rani poisoned herself.

The remains are spread over a huge area and one has to have a vehicle to take a look at them. Of note are the Roopmati’s pavilions, Rewa Kund, Jahaz Mahal, Hindola Mahal, Baz Bahadur’s palace. While the Jahaz Mahal and Hindola Mahal were constructed in different eras t
A step-well
hey complement each other as a set of buildings. Jahaz Mahal is very interesting in the sense it is built between two lakes giving the impression of a ship sailing through the waters. It was constructed by Ghyas ud din Khilji more than six hundred years ago.

Hindola Mahal, too, is more or less of the same vintage but it is said that its construction may have started in early 15th Century during Hoshang Shah’s reign but was completed at the end of the century by Ghyas ud
A pavilion in Roopmati Palace
din Khilji. Hindola Mahal could have been used as an audience hall.

There are remnants of Hindu and Jain structures scattered in the area. Those may be of specific interests of the community concerned. The jahaz Mahal and the pavilions of Baz Bahadur’s Palace and those Roopmati’s Palace are what lure the visitors to this rather indifferently connected place. Nonetheless, the State Tourism Department has a good outfit for spending a night in comfort.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Bhopal Notes :: 57 :: Need for audit of Bhopal Municipal Corporation


Bhopal Municipal Corporation officials are very innovative in various ways. They can think out of the box and plan projects that do not normally fall within the necessary parameters of deployment of public finances for building useful physical assets. For instance, they devised a project to create an auditorium on the Upper Lake for laser shows on a water screen for which equipment for pumping water vertically up in the air have also been purchased. The idea was to impart lessons to the local people on the history of Bhopal. For this purpose, they transgressed many of the environmental norms for conservation of wetlands and created a platform of concrete right on the waters of the Lake. They seemed to have forgotten that there was a norm, one might even say a law, that no permanent structure could be erected within 50 metres of the Full Tank Level (FTL).

Strangely, on the other hand, during the mapping of the Shapura Lake which is also situated in the city and which is a virtual soak pit, objections were being raised for constructions that fell within the 33 metres from its Full Tank Level (FTL). Such are the contradictions with which the officers of the municipal corporation function and waste public resources. They had erected a laser show auditorium a few years back on the Lower Lake. It was also put in operation. As it gave an overdose of laser shows every day the crowds thinned out and it was eventually shut down. Some of the municipal officials had said at that time that the shows flopped because the location of the auditorium was wrong. According to them, it should have been the Upper Lake. Perhaps the same set of officials has contrived to manage setting up of
this projected show. Commissioner of the municipality told the Bhopal Citizens’ Forum (BCF), the auditorium on the Lower Lake had since been handed over to some government department. The civic body is already starved of funds and the moneys spent on the auditorium just disappeared without any benefit to the citizens. Imagine how many good roads could have been built in that kind of money!  

The work in connection with current project was done surreptitiously but nothing can be hidden from public gaze or that of the media for long. There was adverse reporting in the newspapers that the municipality was breaching the environmental rules. But all this was to no effect; the Corporation went ahead with the project in a bull-headed manner. Even when the erstwhile Commissioner came to explain the matter to the members of the BCF her minions gave a different twist with a presentation that tried to brand Bhopal as a Vedic City. All the members were surprised as this was the first time they were hearing of Bhopal being a Vedic City. It was being implied that the city had been in existence since Vedic times. The Vedic period, as perhaps is well known, stretches from 1500 BC to 500 BC and to brand Bhopal as a city as old as that was nothing but a sheer unconscionably high flight of imagination. This kind of rubbish was supposed to be projected by laser beams on the Upper Lake. One wonders about the intelligence of the bright bureaucrat who gave approval to such a project which is likely to sound the death knell of the already-struggling-to-survive Lake. Curiously, even the Commissioner, a highly educated IAS officer of around eight years seniority, was supportive of the project and said that this was a good way of educating people about the history of their city. She did not think for a moment that it would be imparting false history to children of the city besides being a threat to the Lake.

The project has been controversial ever since it came out in the public domain. Even a couple of days ago the Mayor was asked about the proposal but he said he did not have the details and asked for them. Till now he has called for the details twice but the same have not been shown to him. Obviously, there is something fishy about it. The reports said construction division of the Corporation had not dealt with any such proposal. If this division does not know about it and even the Mayor is unaware of it the question that arises is who gave the go-ahead to the proposal. Was it the former Commissioner who has just been transferred or some self-serving officials of the municipality processed it keeping key officials in the dark

Another vernacular newspaper reported recently that the preparations for the laser shows are in final stages and they are intending to throw it open in October next. Unfortunately, action to put it on hold has not fructified yet. One wonders whether the project would be commissioned by-passing the Mayor.

Though it is the custodian of the Lake the Municipal Corporation has been doing all the wrong things in so far as its conservation is concerned. It has been spending scarce financial resources only on beautification and peripheral matters paying no attention to
improvement in the quality of its waters. A new view-point has been created on the VIP Road and, on questioning, was passed off as an eco-park, a patent untruth. The Corporation has never had any concept of conservation of this very vital Lake and the commissioners, who headed it, though of the premier administrative service, have also been clueless on the subject.

 This is very strange especially when there is so much talk today in the country on conservation of wetlands in view of the prevailing water stress. More so, when the experts of an institution as important as the Centre of Environmental Planning and Technology of Ahmedabad have declared that the Lake would remain useful only for another twenty years if measures to conserve it were not taken immediately. The institution was asked by the MP government to submit a report about the measures that needed to be taken for its conservation. The state government is sitting on the report and seems to be blind to the goings-on in the municipal corporation of its capital.

From what is evident in regard to the Lake it appears people of Bhopal are going to lose it as a source of drinking water. The water body may remain but it would be good enough only for taking selfies from its banks. If sewer lines flowing into it are not diverted to sewage treatment plants its water would contaminate even the neighbouring groundwater resources. The situation has somehow been brought down to a precarious level.

Having regard to all the circumstances, the functioning of the Municipal Corporation needs to be investigated and its expenditures in recent past subjected to audit by Comptroller and Auditor General failing which by the Accountant General of the state. A great many cases of corruption and wastage of public money in the municipality have so far been exposed by the vernacular press. Even the former municipal commissioner, Ms. Chhavi Bharadwaj, recently said that controlling corruption in the civic body was a matter of great challenge. The corrupt are so well entrenched.

*Photo from internet
5th September 2017

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Destinations :: Khajuraho (1986)


A frieze on one of the wall of Kandariya Mahadev temple
There is nothing much to say about the World Heritage Site of Khajuraho. It is already very well known all over the world for its more than a millennium old group of Hindu and Jain temples. They have within their precincts one of the finest expositions of Indian temple architecture and sculpture. The temples are known more for the erotic sculpture on their walls than for their architectural style. There were an estimated 85 temples in the region but ravages of
Excellent workmanship on the ceiliing
time and human insensitivity have reduced them to the current around 25. Curiously, the sculptures on the walls have survived pretty well during the last one thousand years.

Located around 200 kilometres south of Jhansi in the state of Madhya Pradesh (Central Province) the temples have somehow miraculously survived the onslaught of Muslim rulers who acquired ascendancy in Central India during 15th and 16th Century.
MP Tourism Development Corpation cottage
Most of the temples were destroyed during these hundred-odd years; only a few escaped the Muslim hammer. The Muslim travellers Al Baruni and Ibn Battuta apparently visited Kahjuraho around the time when the temples were being constructed. The temples that were left untouched were saved because of difficult and hard approaches to them and, in course of time, nature took over and the temples went into hiding – overtaken as they were with vegetation. They were discovered
A wall-face
only when in mid-nineteenth century people of the region having knowledge of the existence of the temples took British explorers to them and, lo and behold, they came out of hiding capturing the imagination of the entire world.

Another frieze
Depicting the plurality of the Chandela rulers – the builders of the temples – one finds at Khajuraho both Hindu and Jain temples. They were built around the same time. The entire complex, therefore, is known as Khajuraho Group of Temples. The Hindu temples are dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesh, Sun God and Jain ones are likewise dedicated to Jain Tirthankaras (spiritual teachers of Dharma). Kandariya Mahadeva temple is considered the most important, though others like Laxmana and Chaturbhuj, too, are of architectural, historical and religious interests.

 The Kandariya Mahadev temple, is supposed to have around 800 statues and other art works. The temples taken together have several
In the temple complex
thousand sculptures with only around 10% that could be called erotic. The walls seemingly are plastered with them. It is all very mindboggling. One keeps wondering about those remarkable men who conceptualized, designed and executed the construction of these structures taking meticulous care of the minute
The wall that ends up as shikhara
details, keeping in mind the over-all concept and theme. One also wonders how many sculptors and master-craftsmen worked for how many years to create such remarkable array of thousands of statues of such incredible beauty. It is true the temples are known for their erotic content but it seems they are also a kind of celebration of life. Almost all facets of life and every-day living have been captured on stone with fantastic dexterity representing the life and times of the region in the medieval era.

Apparently the area had not come under the influence of Muslims as one finds women of incredible physical beauty without any prudery or
Kandariya Mahadev Temple
inhibition indulging in all kinds of every-day activities, including sexual. They are slim, lissome, ethereal and well-formed whereas the ones in Jain temples are somewhat fleshy and voluptuous. Nonetheless, the temples unfold a panorama of visual art, a kind of serenade, that has perhaps not been paralleled ever elsewhere. The sculptures surely reveal the contemporary civilisational mores which appear to be highly emancipated in character in comparison to what we find today after
An amorous couple
more than a thousand years. Freedom is what the sculptures seem to be screaming all the time rebuffing social and cultural suppression and oppressions that are so familiar to us in our so-called advanced times. No wonder cognoscenti find the temples as something out of this world; some have even called them poetry on stone.

 I am no expert on the art of sculpture and, hence, I am unable to describe the technicalities involved in the presentations that we see in these temples. The narratives of the temples, nonetheless, can be admired as they depict women applying make-up, or fixing their girdles, musicians at making music, artisans at work. At the same time, core Hindu values are expressed in various ways – an unbelievable mix of themes. Perhaps, the more one sees them the more would one be able
Another frieze
to comprehend their significance and symbolism One cannot do that while on a whistle-stop tour.

As the temples have become famous, hordes of tourists land up at Khajuraho. There are hotels galore, including the starred ones. We stayed in a Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Corporation cottage. These have been provided with all the modern facilities but are rustic In appearance and yet are light on the pocket. The Tourism Corporation had tried to create a rural ambiance in the temples’ complex creating a chaupal. A chaupal is a central covered area in a village where generally villagers meet after their daily
A rather voluptuous figure from a Jain temple
chores. Freshly cooked food also used to be made available there. This was more than thirty years ago. One wouldn’t know whether the things have improved or have since gone down.

The two-day long experience in the midst of pure culture was worthwhile – far from the busy workaday life. We got the same feeling when we visited the south-eastern temple-town of Konark in Odisha, another World Heritage Site

Monday, August 28, 2017

The neighbourhood bully


Doklam face-off between Chinese and Indian armies
How naïve Nehru was! Soon after independence he asserted India needn’t have an army. He proclaimed there was no use for an army in India as the country had no enemies. This he stated even as the state and non-state actors from across the newly drawn borders were attacking in the North in strength to grab Kashmir. This happened merely two years after the cessation of hostilities in 1945 at the end of what is known as the World War II which had made people sick of war. Being basically a pacifist he could, perhaps, never imagine that after the loss of millions of lives across the world during the World War any country would be foolish enough to embark on a war. He never realised that right next door in the newly created Pakistan they were covetously looking at Kashmir which though opted to integrate with India, they thought, could be grabbed by waging war if not by its own free will.

While the conflict with Pakistani raiders was fought out with great aplomb by the Indian Army despite its unpreparedness, Nehru the pacifist did not allow it to be taken to its logical conclusion, that of throwing the raiders out of Jammu and Kashmir; instead he took the matter of plain aggression ill-advisedly to the United Nations which was not able to solve the manufactured dispute for decades and has since closed the matter as “unresolved”. Nonetheless, the “Kashmir Problem” continues to fester within the Indian polity as a malign cancer till today.

Despite having been unable to solve the Kashmir imbroglio Nehru paid little attention to the immediate need of building up a strong army. In fact, the defense forces were thoroughly neglected and were not given the wherewithal to refurbish themselves with fresh arms and ammunition. In this predilection of his he was ably assisted by his defense minister Krishna Menon. When the Chinese started pushing into Indian territory in various sectors he threw the ill-equipped and ill-prepared army against the Chinese under his newly-devised “forward policy”. A crushing defeat ensued and the heart-broken Nehru couldn’t take the blow from a country which he considered all the time friendly but was proved to be an enemy. His naiveté brought his own demise and a defeat in war for a newly independent country.

 He had always believed that China would never wage war against India. Not only Nehru, many at that time did not know the mettle Mao tse Tung was made of who even picked up a fight with the fellow-communist country, the then Soviet Union. China should thank its stars that the consequences of the conflict did not turn out to be  serious.

To start with, India and China were more or less at the same developmental level. But China somehow was never comfortable with India; there was an element of competition. While India continued to be a lumbering elephant, China brought in economic reforms switching to capitalistic mode to build itself up into an economic giant. While earlier the trade balance with India was adverse but today it is positive for China. While Indian exports continue to stagnate at $10 billion – mostly because of unethical non-tariff barriers – China has mustered a trade surplus with India of $50 billion.

That China was inimical towards India became apparent when it started cozying up with Pakistan and progressively the relations became so close that Pakistan ended up becoming a client-state of China. The whole idea for both of them seemed to be to undermine India’s economic progress and international stature. Both of them are loath to see India as an Asian power. Hence, Nehru’s understanding of the dynamics of international politics in the country’s neighbourhood was utterly flawed.

Because of his weak policies and rather confused approach to matters of foreign policy he ceded Aksai Chin to China and is reported to have given the alibi “Not a single blade of grass grows there, why was the Parliament wasting its time” over it. He apparently had no concept of strategy. Finding India weak, China used it as a punch bag and continued to keep the Line of Actual Control (LAC) hot, the dividing line between the two countries over the Himalayas from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh. The incursions by China were mostly deliberate and were dealt with by India according to the military understanding of engagements between the two countries. Until the ongoing Doklam stand-off came about. Only two other cases of infiltration were of very serious nature.  The first one was in 1967 when the Chinese used artillery fire to stop Indian soldiers from fencing the border at Nathu-La. The Indian retaliation with howitzers put paid the Chinese attempt to browbeat Indian soldiers. The action lasted for three days and the things quietened down. Again 1986-87 the Chinese crossed the LAC and set up a military camp by the side of a river in Tawang District in Arunachal Pradesh. This time it was the T-72 tanks and armoured personnel carriers which were used by the Indian Army. The stalemate lasted almost for nine years before the situation eased off.

As the reports suggest the Chinese have been brazenly intruding into Indian territory in an effort to bully the Indian soldiers and border guards. Indians have maintained restraint but the intrusions have only been increasingly more frequent. During the two most serious incidents referred to earlier, unpleasant consequences were averted as the Indians had taken the bull by the horn and successfully repelled the intrusions. However, now the situation has changed. China has become big with a giant-sized economy and a giant-sized ego. Its prosperity seems to have gone to its head and has given it airs of superiority. It, therefore, does not care for sensibilities of others, more so of India.

 Hence more such unilateral actions should be expected from it. It thinks that it could bully its neighbours. During the Doklam stand-off while the Chinese troops were slugging it out and exchanging fisticuffs with their Indian counterparts, the Chinese official media from Beijing was spewing fire. Apart from belligerence and anti-India propaganda that kept warning India of terrible consequences, it resorted to bluff and bluster claiming facts that were wholly untrue. But what gets highlighted out of the stand-off is that India is up against a new sinister and assertive bully which is conscious of its economic power and military muscle and wants its neighbours to be wary about it. The former Indian Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran, gave the best prescription to counter the bully in a recent interview. He said “don’t get bullied” – a simple and straight-forward prescription where one does not succumb to bullying. A bully mostly backs down if he is stood up to and China, given the strategic environment, is seemingly no different.

To be able to do that, however, India needs to build up its military power to create a formidable border force, cut out the needless Chinese imports to reduce its trade deficit with China. A rapidly shrinking market as big as that of India would hit China where it hurts. Its economy is already on a downswing. The other aspect that needs to be taken care of is to weaken China’s nexus with its side-kick, Pakistan, which needs to be kept engaged in dealing with the brewing turmoil in Baluchistan, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, Sindh etc. For India these two constitute the axis of evil who have to be dealt with squarely.

*Photo from internet

23rd August 2017