Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Family Tree

I know nothing about my family beyond my great grandfather. My grandfather, who was a Sanskrit scholar, and who dabbled in astrology as well, died in the November of 1985. A day before he died, he had been shifted to a hospital. I remember my mother had come home in the evening after visiting him, and, in the night, as my father prepared to lay our beds, she advised him against it. “We won’t require them,” she said. True to her word, a little after midnight, the message came from the hospital. Grandfather had passed away in his sleep with my eldest uncle by his side.

I was too young then – a boy, who would turn ten coming February. And I had no inclination towards knowing about my ancestors. It was only after my grandmother’s death in 2003 that my ignorance turned into a void. I had just returned from Baghdad after covering the war for a news channel. I remember looking at my ailing grandmother, who lay in her bed, her breath running up and down her chest like a squirrel.

The next morning, I left for Benares. The same night, she passed away.

I remember feeling nothing about it after I had kept down the phone. Death, no matter whose it is, leaves my father shaken. I remember offering to return immediately even when I didn’t really mean it. Father, I suppose, didn’t want to ruin my trip.

“Don’t worry, I’ll manage,” he said, while trying to hold back, in vain, his anxiety.

I didn’t turn up for the cremation. After I returned, two days later, I remember sitting at the spot where my grandmother had breathed her last. Still, I felt nothing.

A year later, I began researching for my novel, set around the 1947 tribesmen attack on Kashmir. My maternal uncle – a boy of ten in 1947 – was in the north Kashmir town of Baramulla when the tribesmen came in buses, entering through the border town of Uri and plundering it. Baramulla came next.

One muggy evening, in June 2004, my maternal uncle and I sat on a sofa, in the backdrop of a noisy air-conditioner.

And then he began telling me about his life.

It was till dawn that he told me about those days – on how, along with the Mahura power station, their lives were plunged into darkness. The conversation – one way most of the time – continued for almost a week. He returned to Jammu, where he lives in a one-bedroom flat, nursing his diabetic wife, after their only son was dragged out of the bus by terrorists, in 1997, and shot dead. I kept on asking him, over phone from Delhi, and in person whenever I visited Jammu or when he revisited us, till a complete picture of the family from my mother’s side was evolved.

A majority of those memories forms the basis of my novel.

In the past five years or so, I have made many enquiries about my paternal side. Most of the knowledge I have acquired doesn’t go beyond my grandfather. My youngest uncle, who in his youth has experimented with writing and theatre, and who retired last year from active government service, blames his two elder brothers for lack of interest. He says he was too young when his father and mother could have spoken about the family. I don’t completely buy that argument but I can’t blame him or his two elder brothers. All of them spent their lives – first in establishing themselves in their respective positions and saving money for the construction and, later, the renovation of the house they painstakingly built in what was then a Srinagar suburb, and then dealing with the post-exile trauma in much part of the 1990s, after driven out of the valley.

Today, all I know about my great grandfather is that he was named after the preserver in the Hindu trinity – Lord Vishnu. He was fond of opium and became a widower shortly after my grandfather was born. In fact, I have learnt that after my grandfather was born, he fell seriously ill. His distraught mother – my great grandmother, is believed to have prayed to the God to spare his life and instead take hers.

The same day, she passed away. A day later, my grandfather’s condition improved considerably, and he lived up to his mid seventies. So, whole my grandfather spent his life in the service of the language of the Gods, his father lay dazed in Opium smoke, flirting with married women in the neighbourhood. He had many lovers, and spent most of his time reciting Kashmiri poetry to them.

As a young man, when I would write passionate letters to the women I fell in love with (which was quite often), my father would sometimes discover them, and then remark that I was a reincarnation of my great grandfather.

I am sure he must have also suspected me of experimenting with Opium.

I have two New Year resolutions. One, I strive to write every day. Two, I will visit the holy city of Haridwar and get a family tree made.

I better learn more about a man called Vishnu.

May be I could learn a trick or two about love as well.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Yet another

The response to my Hindi poems has been so poor that I have been contemplating blog suicide. But before I do that, here is another:

तुम्हारे उजले तलवों से दिन निकल आया है
मेरे स्याह माथे पर रात अभी लहराई है
मेरे सीने की नदी में पाँव डालकर देखो
इसकी कितनी गहराई है

I invite readers to share their own poems - in Hindi and English, which has
mention of sole(s), the bottom of the foot.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

For Maya

First, my apologies. It has taken me a while to post some of my poems even after receiving many responses. Actually I had been travelling again, with no access to the Internet. Anyway, here they are, four of them. I hope you like them. Do let me know.

Also, one clarification: though I am a fan of Gulzar, the name Maya is not inspired by the usage of the name in some of his films. Maya is my muse, an imaginary seductress who visited Vincent Van Gogh in his delirium (Please do read Irving Stone's magnificent biography of Van Gogh, Lust for Life, and you will know what I mean).

Thank you.

अकेलेपन का शोर अलग होता है
वो कानों में नही बजता
वो बजता है मन की मुंडेरों पर
संगीतबद्ध होने से बचता

उसे सुनकर बच्चे पीछे नही लगते
न ही गेहूँ बीनती औरतें
सर उठाकर देखती है
काले तवे सा बस वो चपटा होता है
जिसपर आँखें समय सेंकती है
स्मृति पथराये बिस्तर पर
करवट-करवट रेंगती है

सिन्धु सी आवाज़ करता वो
तो मैं भी सिंह सा गरजता
अकेलेपन का शोर अलग होता है
वो कानों में नही बजता
मेरी हथेलियों पर
लकीरें नही
तुम्हारे आने-जाने के
निशान हैं
जब शाम घिर आती है
तो क्या
मेरे बारे में सोचती हो?
उस सरफिरे बाज़ार में
आँखें घुमाकर
क्या मुझे खोजती हो?

जब मैं नही दिखता तो
क्या कंधे भारी हो जाते हैं?
या काफ़ी के प्याले में
घड़ियाल नज़र आते हैं?
कानपुर से लौट आई हो
सूटकेस में
खांसी भर लायी हो
"क्या कर रही हो?"
"खों खों... अनपैक"

जी करता है
तुम्हारे गाल पर
विक्स में चुपडी हथेली से
एक थप्पड़ रसीद दूँ.


Friday, October 31, 2008

Fancy a Hindi poem?

I have been trying to write poems in Hindi for a proposed collection. I need to have at least one hundred poems. By now, I have managed about thirty. I like some of them. I have destroyed some of them after finding them ridiculous. May be a few others also meet the same fate.

All these poems are about love and longing, and are dedicated to my muse, the ultimate seductress, Maya. I intend to call the collection: Laut aao, Maya (Come back, Maya).

Actually, there is one small poem, which ends like this:

Tum bhi to kabhi
dil pe
chot khao, Maya
Laut aao, Maya

Most of the poems have been written in trains and in Delhi’s auto rickshaws. And in pubs across India with names like Flames, Bistro, 4S, Beach Bar, Arabian Nights, Gomti. I cannot write, or for that matter, do anything else during air travel – I suffer from a terrible flight phobia. My legs turn numb and cold sweat oozes out of my palms. Put me in a conflict zone, and I am the most courageous person you’d have ever seen. But an aircraft – that scares me.

But this poetry collection is not what is keeping me busy. I am giving finishing touches to a book on insurgency, which I am writing along with my dear friend, Neelesh. Once that is done, I would like to go back to my novel, The Last Man from Kashmir. It is half done. Recently, I showed some parts of it to another friend, who also happens to be a writer. He liked it very much.

But the question, my dear readers, is: will you like it?

Thank you for stopping by. And ah, one more news. Recently, one of my Hindi stories got published in a magazine called Lamhi. It is edited by Mr. Vijai Rai, the grandson of legendary Hindi writer, Munshi Premchand.(Lamhi is a village near Varanasi where the great writer was born). In Delhi, it is available at the bookshop of the Sri Ram Centre.

PS: Do you want me to post one of my Hindi poems here? I don’t know whether Mac supports Hindi font. But if I get more than ten readers to say, YES, they want to read it, I will post the poem.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Alien cities

After the old waiter, wearing a haggard bow tie, kept my luggage on the table, I tipped him and locked the room behind him. It was an old hotel, and there were rumours that it would soon be dismantled to give way to a shopping mall. The paint had been peeling off the walls, and the damp bed covers reeked of lovemaking. The fan moved about its wobbly wings and the television set’s volume control lay broken. The window, overlooking a residential apartment, would not close properly and the curtains were torn off at several places.

I put my hand inside the crevice of the old sofa and discovered a bunch of cinema tickets of a film twenty years old. For some time, I could hear noise in the corridor and then it died down. There was silence.

In alien cities, in hotel rooms like these, the feeling of loneliness is most intense.

I had come prepared for this. So, as I lowered my back partially over the sofa, I took out a cigarette and, as the ice bucket arrived, I poured myself Vodka in a shallow glass made for consuming tea. Then I senselessly watched television for some time, letting the extra volume drown me into it. Then I flung its remote somewhere.

The curtains swirled under the fan. Two poems lay unfinished in a small diary, stuffed in my jeans pocket. Words had been failing me. Newspapers, which lay on my bed, made no sense. I didn’t have the patience to read the book on the table, leaning against a thermos. I ended up drinking too much, letting the alcohol drift me towards sleep.

In the morning, I woke up with a headache. The ashtray was full – the cigarette ash had filled the gaps last night. The remote lay sulking in one corner. A new set of newspapers had been slid through. The jeans lay in a heap on the chair, with the unfinished poems still unfinished. I closed my eyes.

In alien cities, in hotel rooms like these, the feeling of loneliness is most intense.

Lucknow Railway Station

Copyright: rahul pandita@2008

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Those days

The power went off early in the evening as I tried to put myself to sleep for a while. Droplets of sweat traversed like Morph Codes across my body, and I lay awake over the check bedsheet, hoping that a thunderstorm would saunter over.

Last night I felt so dead and rotten inside that I suspected maggots might come crawling out of my nostrils. With trembling hands then I took out that old cassette from its jacket scratched so badly as if mauled by a leopard, and put it inside the tape recorder.

It was noisy in the beginning, and from that cacophony emerged my own voice, trotting over the chocolate-coloured magnetic tape. In the autumn of 1995, I was reciting lines from A Moveable Feast:

For luck you carried a horse chestnut and a rabbit’s foot in your right pocket. The fur had been worn off the rabit’s foot long ago and the bones and the sinews were polished by wear. The claws scratched in the lining of your pocket and you knew your luck was still there.

I am nineteen, and, as boys of my age buy greeting cards to woo girls, I am hoping that one day I could visit Hemingway’s grave in Ketchum, Idaho. Every day, I go to the Central Library, behind Chandigarh’s main market square, and get new books issued: Tolstoy. Chekhov. Turgenev. Flaubert. Marquez. Homer. Naipaul. Fitzgerald. Dickens. Neruda. Then, along a shop which has a round-the-year sale, I sit on a bench, holding a Nescafe coffee, and dream of having a café-au-lait with Hemingway.

I watch people pass by: chubby housewives buying cutlery, boys checking out new music albums, old men buying cheap literature on religion, prospectives brides getting their photographs clicked, and hungry workers eating from grimy plates. Then I leave and back at the hostel, I start reading.

By the time it is midnight, I am hungry. So, Gaurav Sharma and I go to Ranjan, who has a parantha stall next to General Hospital. We eat egg paranthas and two glasses each of strong tea. He lights up a cigarette and I also take a few puffs. We chat for a while and go back. He returns to his Statistics and Shiv Kumar Batalvi. I stay for a while, listening to Jagjit Singh pouring out Batalvi’s pain, and then I am reading again till the first light breaks.

That has been my life for many years. And now, thirteen years later, I long for those days. I long for companionship. I long for love.

And I long to leave a flask at Hemingway’s grave, as is the custom.

(Pic courtesy: Erik Hanberg)

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Burn the dreams

Can we burn the dreams again?
So that poems are born
They need canvasses of bodies
To illuminate words and
Whatever meanings they hold
In their varicose veins.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Travels through Kashmir

Copyright: Rahul Pandita, 2008

Two songs, too many memories

When I was, I think, seven years old, a couple of songs, which I heard and saw on a black and white Weston T.V. set, tore apart my heart. Twenty-five years later they still make me drunk. My childhood sweetheart, actress Sandhya features in both these songs. You can see them here and here.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Secret Desire

I have always wondered about ambition. What is mine? Well, becoming a writer. Is it? I don't know. But here, let me share with you a secret desire of mine. I want to become this.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Poems of longing

“Have you read Ritusamhara?” she asked.

The four of them were driving out of the city. Somewhere in the northwest, a mansion lay waiting for them – an old relic of the past, which belonged to a man who had made it big in pharmaceutical business in a city along the Arabian Sea. Ritusamhara. The memories of a decade-old past occurred like a flash, very much like last-night’s perfume, which had now diffused with sweat beneath his neck.

Ritusamhara. He had held the verses close to his heart while sitting on a round-about, next to a news agency. Towards the right, a cinema-hall had been closed for renovation. On one end, a lone man sold cigarettes. A small eatery offered tea and coffee to love-lorn couples.

Even during the nights made pitch-dark
By clouds thundering long and loud
Impassioned women
Set out to meet their lovers
Their path lit by lightning flashes

The year was 1997. And he was in love.

Love? Love was like a coin coated with opium. To be kept hidden behind the cheek as it released its invisible coating in the bloodstream. The ears would turn red. Kalidasa would lend a private audience. Seasons would come gushing in. The cigarette stuck between two fingers would turn limp with sweat dripping from the palm. The pen would sprint on blank pages. The gashes of ink would decorate his hands. And the whole of his shirt in the front. There would be an orgy of words – forty pages by the time the tea-maker brewed his tea. He would then raise the cup to his lips, pretending that he was drinking hemlock.

Ritusamhara. Ten years have passed. More than ten years. The script is lost. The cinema-hall is a multiplex. There is no news agency. It is an Adidas showroom now. The tea-maker is lost. Café Coffee Days are around now. There are no pages to be filled. The coin has rusted; it tastes sour now – tamarind like.

“No, I haven’t read it,” he replies to her, “what is it?”

Ritusamhara. A nail in my heart. Remain there. Make me bleed.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Grenades as metaphors

I have come back from Kashmir, my third trip in the last two months. This time I almost got lynched at Nawhatta, in downtown Srinagar. My colleague, photographer Shome Basu was also caught badly in an incident of stone pelting.

The Kashmiris are too angry.

But in between, we got some time off and, one afternoon, the two of us went to the Ahdoos for lunch. The hotel’s restaurant was empty because, one, it is the month of Ramzan, and two, a strike had been called by the separatists, and nobody was in a mood to enjoy lunch. So, we got the seniormost and, obviously, the most experienced waiter to serve us.

We had rice, Roganjosh and Haakh.

I felt so sleepy afterwards that I was tempted to cancel all my post-lunch appointments. But after a strong Kehwa, I continued my interviews, and also managed to witness a major clash between a bunch of youth and the paramilitary forces.
This was when a young man died – a man who was not even taking part in the protests. He had just stepped out to buy toffees for his nephew when a rubber bullet him, and he died on the spot.

A day later, I met that two-year old nephew of his. He is still under shock and all his chirpiness is gone. He is almost paralysed by the shock.

Back at the hotel, the image of that boy kept on haunting me. Till Muzamil Jaleel arrived, and till midnight regaled us with his anecdotes.
As we invoked Bacchus, 'Z' drooled at Sridevi’s rain dance sequence in a film of 80s. Noticing that, Muzammil made a dig at his alleged virginity at the age of thirty-two.

“It makes no sense to watch someone hurl a grenade; one has to do it himself,” he said.

In Kashmir, only examples of grenades or bullets serve as metaphors.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Life is a half marathon

The well of my stories has not dried up – I have many stories to tell you. Like Anupam Kher says in Santosh Sivan’s forthcoming film, Tahaan, set in Kashmir: Mere liye to zindagi ek dastaan hai.

But it’s just that I am increasingly struggling with right words and a right beginning.

I also have a book to finish and at least two major assignments are to be done from Kashmir. That means I will have to go through bundles of documents on issues like Naxalism and mining in the next two days. In between, I will also have to write mails, make phone calls for appointments, take print outs of flight tickets and money from the accounts department.

Two days later, I will have to be in Kashmir.

I am also seriously pursuing running. When I began a few weeks ago, after throwing a brand new packet of cigarettes out of my car, I could barely run two hundred metres. Afterwards, I would clutch my chest and, sometimes, hold my waist for supporting my back. Now, I can run up to two kilometres. So, between running and walking, I do about eight kilometres every day.

This Sunday, at six in the morning (Yes, I get up at six these days!), along with a mountaineer friend, I went to the Lodhi gardens, and ran the entire jogging track thrice. Later, we had a buffet breakfast at eight at the nearby American Diner inside the Habitat Centre.

I intend to run a half marathon before this year ends.

Some friends have asked for a better pic of my bookshelf. I am finding it a bit embarrassing to do so. But, let me tell you, I have bought eight books in the past one week, which includes an anthology of poetry and A Blue Hand by Deborah Baker.

So far as reading is concerned, I have just finished Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist and regret not reading it earlier. I am now reading Herzog by Saul Bellow. I like Bellow very much and am desperately looking for one of his novels called Humboldt’s Gift. I have also been searching, in vain, for Heinrich Boll’s Billiards At Half-past Nine.

If you find them anywhere, please buy them for me.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Gates open on Sunday

Sunday means thicker newspapers – the joy of reading a ‘Moby Dickish’ piece hidden somewhere between articles on Olympics and obese kids. It means drinking mugfuls of tea and cooing at the plants in the balcony. It means washing your sneakers and cleaning the bookrack with Colin. It means scrubbing your body at leisure while bathing and working diligently on the shaving lather. It means combining your breakfast and lunch – is that what they call brunch? – and then witness Pran Nath Razdan turn into Jonathan Bridgeman in a Hari Kunzru novel. It means keeping your gaze fixed at your toes till you fall asleep. It means holding discussions, while savoring roasted peanuts, with an uncle– on marriages in Jammu and Manmohan Singh’s Independence day speech. It means catching portions of Bergman’s ‘Summer with Monica’ or ‘Satte pe Satta’ on television.

Louis de Bernieres: They say that, for a madman, every day is a holiday, but they also say that insanity has seventy gates.

Let us say that, on Sunday, all those gates open up for me.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Barog's memory pill

I thought I saw you. At the eatery, next to a railway station named after a Sufi saint, you sat in one corner, your hair tied the way it always has been, stirring an empty Styrofoam cup with a spoon. Or so I thought. When the face lit in the bright afternoon sun, I could see that it was not you. It could have been you.

I wish it had been you.

Passing past the shrine, I can see a few foreigners, their eyes red with Hashish, haggling with an auto rickshaw. Next to it is a Methodist Church, which I had never noticed in twelve years. Now, as you warm inside me like a fresh teardrop, I can see the glorious brick building. I feel like stopping and going inside. As if you would be inside, your head bent on the altar. You and your silent prayers. And that faded smile, which was my unguent till its memory became a pill to be kept under the tongue, the moment I were to die.

It is strange how I have gradually stopped feeling anything. The thought of Narcissus in an empty Bombay milk bottle doesn't conjure up as much as a twitch. Or the thought of those wild, red berries in dried milk tins, hanging beneath the moss-laden rooftop of our imaginary cottage. Or the memories of tangy nimbu-soda in the student centre of Punjab University campus.
Or the memories of those mad, vagrant motorcycle trips to Kasauli and, on the way, leaving a dried tulip for the English Engineer, Mr. Barog, who ended his life after failing to make two tunnels meet. Or getting those silly pictures clicked in over-sized Himachali caps. Or singing “Hoga tumse pyaara kaun” like Rishi Kapoor and Padmini Kolhapure, pretending a friend's sofa to be the train top. Or sitting in the last row of a late night show of “Kranti,” using popcorn as a ruse to hold hands.

Today, someone asked me if I had seen a film recently. I looked at her and said nothing. This evening I then went and bought a lone ticket for a romantic film. I asked for the last row. The girl at the ticket counter looked at me for a moment and then silently handed me one. On my way inside the hall, I picked up a bag of popcorn.
The seat next to me remained vacant. I imagined you sitting there, locking your fingers in mine. The popcorn remained untouched. I left at the interval.

Sitting alone at a café later, I imagined being with you. And I thought I would cry. I took out from the secret pocket of my wallet that pearl, which I had picked up from your necklace you said you had worn on your last school farewell.

I kept it like a pill under my tongue, as if I were to die.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Bullshit again

There has been a heavy spell of rain. As it fell on the top of the airconditioner fitted in my room window, I closed my eyes, listening to the pitter-patter of the raindrops. Then I got up and made myself a cup of tea.

I have a bad throat which hurts badly.

Actually I am bullshitting; I have nothing to say.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Geelani's shit and Hindu "hit"

Every morning, Syed Ali Geelani sits on a white porcelain commode, probably imported from Saudi Arabia. His shit, full of anti-India sentiments, travels through pipes to the Wular Lake in his hometown Sopore, in Kashmir, and contributes, on a daily basis, to the shrinking of what used to be Asia’s largest fresh water body. Over the years, Geelani’s morning ritual has been responsible for shrinking the lake area from 202 square kilometres to 30 square kilometres. In Srinagar, meanwhile, his other colleagues, who have been on the streets to force the cancellation of land allotment to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, citing ecological reasons among others, do the needful with the Dal lake, adding their bit to the 35 million litres of sewage, which is pumped daily into the lake. On top of it, they run houseboats, where clueless Indian families bite into succulent Goshtaba and get photos clicked in traditional Kashmiri attire.

Together with the government and a former Governor, the Geelanis of Kashmir have turned our sentiments into a Draupadi, each party gambling with a loaded dice.

Last year, it was powdered ice. On television, they showed the Governor’s men, with their boots on, inside the sanctum sanctorum, enhancing the size of Shivling as if it were a female model in dire need of a silicon implant. Then, this year, we were shown visuals of an artificial, marble Shivling being made in Udaipur, Rajasthan which, we were told, would be put inside to enable the piligrims to have a “complete darshan.”

To hell with you all! You think, people are spending money on their Kashmir travel and they have to have a “paisa vasool” through the darshan of a full-size, artificial Shivling. For you, a visit to Amarnath may be picnic. For us, it’s a way of life.

My early memories of our tryst with Shiva come from an aunt who would, every morning, sing Ateebheeshan katubhashan, Yama kinkar patli…, her eyes brimming with tears, begging Shiv to be present when the Yama took her to another world. It meant decorating Shiv as a bridegroom, with silver foil and bel patra, every Shivratri, when snow would reach till our bedroom window. It meant that dream which my father saw as a young man with a new job, in which Shiv appeared and guided him through some confusing office accounts. It means my sister trying to explain to her friends: “We are Shaivites.”

So, you see, I don’t care whether you get that land or not. I don’t care for your darshan as well. But please, leave that Shivling alone.

Yesterday, in an Indian Express photo, Rajnath Singh was caught offering a ladoo to Venkaiah Naidu. Both men could not hide their glee. In the election season, they couldn’t have asked for more. On NDTV, they are showing five men and a woman in Jammu – BJP supporters – wearing Vaishno Devi bandanas, shouting slogans for the benefit of cameras.

Jo Hindu hit ki baat karega, wo hi desh pe raaj karega.” The woman almost looks like the one in Jammu’s Bakshi Nagar, who washed the walls of her cowshed with cheap distemper, and offered it to my uncle’s family for renting, immediately after our migration from the valley in 1990.

Of course, after almost two decades, we are welcome in Kashmir. Last year, they even allowed the Janamashtami procession. So, as long as we come for a weekend trip, stay in a hotel or a houseboat, buy carpets and shawls as souvenirs for family and friends, we are most welcome. But what about our houses? Our jobs? Our orchards? Errr… you see, Pandit ji, we cannot guarantee your safety. The Afghanis don’t spare us, either.

So, you please stay in Jammu. We will come and visit you. And, of course, you have your ration cards. Pandit ji, you must be a little optimistic. Jammu is not that bad. Now you even have replicas of Kshir Bhawani and Hari Parbat. I must leave now… for Islamabad… sorry, Anantnag.

Meanwhile, 290 kilometres away from Jammu, as those yellow Border Road Organisation milestones would tell you, a man, a free man, sits on a Kashmiri carpet, beside a hookah, tearing apart choicest pieces of lamb. His name is Farooq Ahmad Dar.

You know him very well. He is also called Bitta Karate.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The day Indira died

We heard the news first on the All India Radio. Immediately afterwards, film songs were taken off air and one could only hear strains of Sitar.

Indira Gandhi, the daughter of Kashmir’s most worthy son, Jawaharlal Nehru, had been shot by her Sikh bodyguards.

I remember, father was about to leave for office. In the weak autumn sunshine I was playing my usual game of “Headquarters” – a game in which I would be an Indian soldier, destroying Karachi. Imagining worn-out Eveready battery cells as dynamite, connected by woolen thread, I brought the “enemy’s” port city to its knees almost every day.

And now, I loped after my father, who informed his brother about what he had heard on the radio and together they sat huddled, not knowing what to do. They kept on taking a name, which I had heard just a few months ago from father: Bhindranwale.

Many years ago, before I was born, father’s family had visited Amritsar where my father’s sister, who was a young girl then, was operated upon for an ailment. Among other things, father vividly remembered the serenity inside the sanctum sanctorum of the Golden temple and the piping hot paranthas which he had devoured in a dhaba. Upon Indira Gandhi’s directions, the army had laid siege to the temple, in June 1984, flushing out extremists led by Bhindranwale. I was eight years old.

In retaliation – I couldn’t figure out the connection then – some Muslim men, in order to show solidarity to the Sikhs, had stormed into the Hanuman temple, built on the banks of Jhelum, near one of the seven bridges, in Srinagar, and hurled the deity’s idol into the gushing waters below. It was a sad moment indeed, more so for me, since my sister and I would pass that temple every day, while on our way back to home from school, and, on every Tuesday, sister would buy boondi from her pocket money and offer it to the God. All this while, I would look at the sadhus, who assembled there, their bodies smeared with ash, and matted hair looking like pieces of rope, smoking their chillum.

More than an hour passed. The All India Radio said that Indira Gandhi was taken to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences; they said her condition was critical. My uncle looked at father. He was now turning the knob of the radio. After a few minutes, a crackling voice appeared. It belonged to a BBC news reader.

“Mrs. Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister has died.”

I don’t remember whether father or uncle spoke after that. In the meantime, my sister came back from school. She was distraught; her friends, Mubina and Ghazala had danced on the road outside the school when they heard of the assassination. There was celebration everywhere in the valley.

The time had come to act, I thought. As the family sat glued around the Bush radio set, I sneaked into the kitchen garden. In a polythene bag, I collected raw tomatoes. They were my hand grenades. Tying the bag around my waist, I waited for “them.”

Hilal, our neighbour’s son and few years older to me, appeared on the wall dividing our house. He and his brothers would often sit on that wall, asking us to give them some apples from the tree in our garden.

“Can you sing Jana Gana Mana…?” I shouted at him.

He looked at me as if I had gone crazy. Then he spat at the flower bed beneath him, on our side.

I don’t know when my hand went to my waist and I began throwing a volley of tomatoes at him. One hit him in the eye and burst there. He was caught unawares. He let out a cry and fell backwards.

Soon, we would see images of a young Rahul, who had lost his grandmother, his arms clutched around his father who wore dark glasses.

In Delhi, meanwhile, a massacre had begun. Our old Sikh carpenter was devastated; his sister lived with her husband in a west Delhi colony. Later, we came to know that her husband was killed – a mob put a burning tyre, filled with petrol, around his neck like a garland.

Three days after Indira Gandhi died, my mother’s mother, who had turned senile in her old age, began to see visions of two men aiming at her with a gun. I had grown up hearing stories from her. There was a poster of Charlie Chaplin in my room, and, for many days after I had put it there, she would burn incense sticks in front of it, thinking Chaplin was Englishmen’s God.

On the fifth day, she passed away in her sleep.

In another five years, I would have to leave Charlie Chaplin behind. In another five years, we would be queuing up to receive tomatoes in relief camps.

After all, we were refugees now.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Too much Hemingway

There is some wine in the cupboard and a half bottle of whiskey. A country song is playing on the space radio, and I am drinking some coffee. I cannot have wine; I am on medication – some strange-sounding antibiotics have been prescribed to me for an infection which no one has been able to figure out.

I have been reading too much of Hemingway and, I am mesmerized with Paris, wine, typewriter – not necessarily in that order. I think I will make myself an Omelette tomorrow. I can put slices of tomato in it and perhaps toss a few mushrooms in as well.

My heart beat in rest mode is 65. A friend says that is too good. He has gone off to another city to meet another friend. Probably they would be having beer and talking about me. They might be feeling sleepy now since it is almost midnight.

I think I am sleepy too. But before I hit the sack, I must read more Hemingway.

I think the doctor I went to has a secret lover.

I think I must stop reading Hemingway.

I need to write

There is nothing to write about these days. There is no turbulence; my imagination has turned lame and I have no crutches to offer.

Actually, it is very important to discipline oneself in order to be able to write. The American writer, Philip Roth is believed to have kept for a long time two small signs near his desk: “Stay put” and “No optional striving.” Optional striving, as one profile of his describes, includes everything except writing, exercise, sleep and solitude.

I promise I will have little optional striving if at all I have to have some. From now on, I will write regularly. Today, time is on my side. Tomorrow, it will move on.

I need to write everyday. Without fail. I have to stay put.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Looking at obituaries

Is it important to have a cigarette stuck between my two fingers when I look at obituaries? I don’t pay much heed to this question that only I have thrown at myself. For now, I only look at the pictures of the dead.

The first photo looks like one shot for a matrimonial alliance. Face tilted towards one of the studio walls, lips stuck together, almost in an embrace, and one end of the Sari hiding the seemingly sharp shoulder blade.

And now, the photo of the young woman, sent to a newspaper office along with a few lines, which most of the mourning families usually tend to stick to:

The sunshine of our lives, the prayer of our hearts…

There would be other pictures too, probably stashed away in an old purse or in a cupboard above the television set in front of which the family sat for dinner every night, watching morbid soaps: a picture taken during a college farewell ceremony (remember, she was adjudged Miss Smile), another taken during a family vacation (she wearing a straw hat and staring at the lens, her thoughts somewhere else), yet another at a wedding (she looking dreamily at the henna-stained palms of the bride).

The family is probably still in mourning. Must be, since at least two inches more than usual of newspaper space has been booked.

Memory is short-lived. With each passing day, with each passing moment, she would be remembered only in occasional spasms. And then life will ease itself into a routine. After the mourning period is over, the only person who might remember her is an old, toothless grandmother, as she feels her prayer beads between her feeble fingertips.

Death, I suppose, snatches everything.

I cannot look at the next photo. My cigarettes are finished.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The story that never took off

More than a year ago, I tried working on a story about a man, born in Kashmir, immediately after the land was formed out of the water body.

It went on like this:

In the beginning there was only water.

Even one’s thought could not go beyond it without getting wet. Nothing escaped it. Water overwhelmed. It shocked. Its massive tongue devoured everything.

And then, one day, the Earth woke up.

It yawned and the mountains trembled. The tremors created a massive vent, which sucked the entire water, like marrow from a bone. Someone, I do not remember now who, told me that I was born immediately afterwards.

My ancestors broke up from their group, while travelling through the mountains of Hindukush. My mother was carrying me in her womb when the breakaway group arrived in the newly-formed land.

The water had left its mark everywhere. The land was still a slush at most of the places. But something about the place stuck them so much that the group decided to settle there. And that is where I opened my eyes, escaping narrowly from being strangulated by the umbilical cord.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The professor of Calculus

He walked alone on a frosty winter morning. Fresh snow had fallen in the night, and the sky was overcast. Beneath the soft cushion of the fresh snow lay hidden a muddy crust of ice, capable of breaking the bones of the children and the aged, should they slip over it.

He walked fast, trying to keep pace with the calculations his mind had gotten into. Inside the long pheran, the stitches of which were torn from one side, the thumbs of his both hands moved together over the lines around his fingers.

It was over these lines, many years ago, that his father had taught him counting and, the habit had stayed with him. He no longer attempted simple problems of addition or subtraction. It ran much deeper now, so much so that people around him thought he had gone mad.

Dinanath’s entire life, one could say, revolved around Calculus. A professor of history, who was also a Marxist, had met Dinanath during a marriage ceremony and is said to have remarked later, “Calculus is the opium of the masses.”

Dinanath was still solving equations when he crossed the Ganpatyar temple. The sound of bells along with multiple voices of people singing hymns in praise of the elephant God, Ganesha, could be heard on the road outside, and, in fact, till the last corner of the street.

Beside the temple, the old milkman was beginning to set up his shop. He sat on a goatskin with a Kangri kept next to him. From the circular loop of wicker, on the top of the earthen pot, hung a silver spoon, used to stir the burning coal inside.

“Oye Dina,” the man shouted when he saw him, “where are you headed towards, in this cold wave?”

Dinanath stopped. His fingers stopped as well. He turned his head and looked at the milkman. And then, without uttering a word, he moved on.

On the wooden bridge – one of the seven built over the river Jhelum, Dinanath stopped. He leaned over the railing and looked at the water. That was when his neighbour, Ratanlal spotted him.

“Dinanath,” he said sarcastically, “are you done with your mathematics? Are you contemplating jumping into the water?”

Dinanath looked at him and, then, he looked back at the grey waters.

“I don’t need to jump over to establish contact with water,” he said slowly, almost weighing his every word.

Ratanlal laughed. “What do you mean, my learned Sir?” he asked.

Dinanath touched the railing and, with the knuckles of his right hand, he began hammering against it. And then he said: “You see, Ratanlal, I am on the bridge, the bridge is on water; bridge bridge cancel, I am on water.”

And then he let out a smile. As Ratanlal looked, Dinanath’s hands went back inside the pheran. It was time for some more Calculus.

(In this story, I have tried to imagine the world of a man, who is believed to have lived in Srinagar around the Habbakadal area - a man who, it is said, was in love with mathematics and philosophy)

Photo courtesy: kplink.com

Friday, May 02, 2008

Three cheers for daughters

Just like that! With this sentiment, Avinash of Mohalla started a new blog after he became the proud father of a baby girl. Aptly titled, Betiyon ka Blog (Daughter's Club), this little space became a meeting point of all proud fathers, and of course, mothers.

, for example, put a few sound clips of his daughter Tanini's attempt at singing. Vibha Rani wrote about how her daughter Toshi is trying to spend her holidays. Kavita wrote a heart-wrenching poem on female foeticide.

The blog has now won the Laadli media award for gender sensitivity.

If you are a proud father or mother of a girl, you are most welcome to become a member of the blog. Since I am still growing up myself, I plan to put a few anecdotes about my darling niece, Sharanya. Among other things, we both love to watch Mr. Bean movies. Sharanya thinks I look like Mr. Bean.

As far as I know, that is the best compliment she can give to anyone.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A graphic novel on Indian television

A couple of years ago, I created a mini graphic novel for Sarai. A friend, Irfan, who is the only sensible guy in the entire Radio FM industry had been trying hard ever since to put this novel online. I sent a CD to another friend, Avinash, who runs perhaps the most popular blog in Hindi, Mohalla. But owing to my rich technological skills, the CD was found out to be blank.
After waiting for any initiative on my side, and getting tired of waiting, Irfan has finally taken pains to scan a copy, page by page, and now, it is online.
You can see it here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Gods' court marriage

I am late again. It is close to midnight as I drag my feet, climb the eighteen stairs that lead to my first-floor flat, and gently knock at the door with my car keys. A faint cough sounds from inside – that is my father’s way of telling me that there is no need to knock again, he is awake. In a moment the door opens and I am let in.

My clothes reek of cigarette smoke. My dinner is kept on the table, covered with my mother’s old shawl to keep it warm. After tearing open the day’s posts – bank statements, old copies of magazines which should have arrived a week ago, books, free passes – I sit down to eat. On the table, beside a reclining Ganesha, there is an almanac and a tattered copy of Shiv Mahimnastotram.

“Don’t eat anything impure tomorrow, it is Ashtami,” my father’s voice almost gets drowned in the hum of the ceiling fan. A siren begins to blare somewhere and, on the road below, the watchman, probably drunk by now, strikes the electric pole with his cane.
By “impure”, my father implies eggs, meat, and, if possible, alcohol also. Every month, a day before the Ashtami, my father issues this advisory.

I don’t know how to use the almanac that has guided my family and thousands of others for generations. For us, the Kashmiri Pandits, the entire life cycle is dictated and, perhaps, led by the minute calculations of the planets. For as long as I can remember, a thick, blue book has been arriving at our home every year around Shivratri and then, for the rest of the year, our lives are governed by it. Every month, on Ashtami, for instance, my father keeps a fast, after consulting the almanac.

The almanac decides everything for us – when to get married, when to enter a new house, when to buy a new car or when to join a new job. The last one is a very touchy issue at my house since I change my jobs so frequently that even the muhurat – the auspicious timings – fall short.

Over the years, though, the almanac has somewhat faded from our spiritual consciousness. There are times when my father no longer remembers the Shraadh – the death anniversary of my grandparents; on those days he is supposed to keep a fast. After he has had his breakfast, he then remembers it all of a sudden. But by then it is too late.

He spends the rest of that day looking at the wall in front of him.

Barring Ashtami, no other auspicious days such as Amawasya and Purnamasi are remembered any longer. Even if they are, no one cares about them any longer.

Even our festivals and marriage ceremonies have changed altogether. Shivratri, for instance, would be at least a week-long affair back home in Kashmir. I remember, as a child I would accompany my father to Habbakadal, built on the banks of the river Jhelum. We would get fresh fish and then earthen pots required for the puja from the Muslim potter.

For other puja paraphernalia, we would visit Kanth Joo’s tiny shop. The old, toothless man would be sitting on a cushion and over his head was a pulley through which ran thread used for tying up small and big bundles of almonds, cashew nuts, silver foil, vermillion, lotus seed, sugar cones, chestnut flour and what not.

At home, mother would cook three varieties of meat and fish curry apart from spinach and, of course, the Haakh. The electrician, sweeper and many others would come and ask for small tokens of money. The children would play with sea shells and men would gamble for the sake of fun.

In the spring of 1990, no ceremonial conch would be blown in the Pandit households. We were too scared. On the roads, young men, their LT jackets stuffed with weapons, roamed around, looking for potential targets.

On the fourth day of Shivratri, a hush prevailed on the banks of the river. Families arrived silently, to immerse the gods in the water.

In the dark waters, devoid of floating earthen lamps, the newly-wed Lord Shiva and the goddess looked as if they had eloped and then solemnized their marriage in a court.

In Jammu, and elsewhere too, we now have Chowmein stalls in marriage parties. Instead of Lalded, the youngsters would rather listen to Latino. The marriage ceremony itself, which took close to eight hours, is now finished in two or three. Nobody has time.

Jobs are waiting. Traffic signals are waiting. Friends who don’t what Ashtami is are waiting.

The next day, I am at the press club with a group of friends. There are fish fingers and grilled chicken on the table. I pick up a piece and bring it closer to my mouth.

Suddenly, I remember last night.

I remember the look in my father’s eyes and the cream-coloured wall.

“One fresh lime please,” I tell the waiter.

Monday, April 07, 2008

To Sir, with love

The story of an award-winning, upper-caste Geologist who is silently changing the lives of underprivileged children, most of them from lower castes, in a remote corner of India.

A fan has finally started working. But it is not that electricity has reached Kunaura, a small village, around 23 miles from Lucknow, the capital of eastern state of Uttar Pradesh, one of the major centres of rebellion during India’s first war of Independence in 1857. It’s because of a few solar panels which have been erected on the top of the Bhartiya Grameen Vidyalaya (Indian rural school) building, which has been running here for the past 35 years.

More than the blades of the fan, this new development has energized Dr. S.B Misra and his wife Nirmala. With the searing summer heat already knocking at the doors, they are glad that at least children in one classroom can breathe easy now.

The fan is a milestone in a journey which began in Canada in 1967 with three words: Kya kiya jaaye? (What to do?). As a young Geologist, Dr. Misra had come a long way from his village, adjacent to Kunaura. Though the village was not very far from Lucknow, it was light years away from development. As a child, Dr. Misra had walked for hours on non-existent roads to attend school. He had studied hard during hot summer nights, devoid of electricity. And now, in Canada, his entire future lay in front of him – bright and promising. More so after he had made a very important discovery – a 565-million-year-old fossil that is the oldest record of multi-cellular life on earth.

But 1967 was also the year when parts of India reeled under a severe drought. And then there were those three words: Kya kiya jaaye? which Dr. Misra and his friends had scribbled on a notebook.

It was time to make some tough decisions.

By the time Misra returned to India, and got married to Nirmala, the foundations of Bhartiya Grameen Vidyalaya (BGV) had been laid.

In 2008, the roll-call in the school is 720 students. A majority of them are from the lower castes. It’s not that they don’t have an option of studying in the nearby government schools. “It’s because BGV is as renowned as Welhams (a very renowned school in India) here,” quips Dr. Misra.

As we enter the school premises, the classes are on, and except the sound of recitation of tables from a junior class, there is not a whimper of sound to be heard anywhere. Nirmala, who is the principal of the school, looks at the campus and a faint smile appears on her lips. “It was my husband’s dream, but for me it became the greatest challenge of my life,” she says.

On May 14 in 1972, Dr. Misra and Nirmala got married. Dr. Misra had laid only one condition for marriage: The girl should share his vision of a school for the rural children. Before marriage, Nirmala had never seen a village but she had a passion for teaching. In less than two months after her marriage, the couple landed at Kunaura. Initially, Nirmala would make a round of villages, asking people to send their children to the school. “In order to avoid offending local customs, I would draw a veil over my face while talking to them,” remembers Nirmala. In between, a rumour spread that Misra had come back because his mental condition was not fit and he had been advised to take rest. Nevertheless, in the first year, fifty students joined the school.

A few of Misra’s colleagues, who shared his passion also helped initially. One of them was VVN Rao, a physicist, who helped build the school building.

But in two years, all of Misra’s savings were exhausted. So it was decided that one of them would have to take up a job. “Since it was I who would earn more salary, I left,” says Dr. Misra.

Meanwhile, Nirmala had given birth to twin sons. And now, in the absence of her husband, she was required to run the school. That meant a walk of eight miles to school and then the same distance to reach home. There were no roads and during monsoons, the narrow path would turn into a swamp. “Nirmala didi would cross through knee-high slush of mud and dung and then, after reaching school, she would change into a spare sari kept in her bag,” remembers a teacher, who has been with the school since beginning. Later on, the kids joined their father in Nainital where Dr. Misra had taken up a job, while Nirmala kept running the school.

In all these years, BGV has literally changed the face of this part of Uttar Pradesh. The first child who went to school from a village called Jafarpurua – known for producing dacoits – came to BGV. Today, another boy from this village, who studied at this school and went on to complete his Masters in Economics teaches here. Another teacher, Banke Lal cycles to school every day from his village, 13 miles away. “Every day, a few staff members of a nearby school accost me, and put pressure on me to join them, but I always refuse.”

For parents here, it’s a tough decision sending their children to BGV. In government schools, they provide children with meals, something that BGV cannot afford. “One day I asked a child if he was feeling well. He said no; he had a stomach ache. I realised later that he was simply hungry,” remembers Dr. Misra. Another positive development has been a steady increase in the enrollment of Muslim children. “Those families now prefer our school to their madrassas,” says Nirmala.

Even after these years, the lack of funds means that there still is no electricity in the school. “Bringing it to the school will cost 50,000 rupees which we don’t have right now,” rues Dr. Misra. Recently an Indian company and an NRI has donated some money but there is a lot that needs to be done. The temporary roof over few classrooms needs to be changed. Pointing towards her chair, Nirmala says, “ This is the chair I got here in 1972.”

How difficult has it been to run this school? “It’s a battle between Eklavya and Arjuna,” says Dr. Misra.

In the meantime, the fossil Dr. Misra had discovered in Canada has just been named after him – Fractofusus misrai. Initially, a deep conspiracy had taken place, hatched by Western scientists to deprive Dr. Misra of his credit. But his family fought a sustained battle; one of his sons actually learnt HTML programming to put his father’s case on the Internet. And finally, the Misras won.

Dr. Misra is now writing a story of his life in his book, The story of an ordinary Indian, which will appear later this year. But for him, it is, perhaps, this school which is his reply to the eternal quest of Kya kiya jaaye.

(The school really needs support. Those who want to help can contact Dr. S.B. Misra at 91-94155-60309 or 91-522-4010 640)

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Not without my father

Away from the pseudo-activism of the Bollywood glitterati, a young assistant director of Taare Zameen Par fights for her father, who is under arrest on charges of being a Naxalite commander. Rahul Pandita reports.

Aamir Khan has probably never heard of Prashant Rahi. But on the day his maiden directorial venture Taare Zameen Par was released to critical acclaim, a young assistant director of his production team lay huddled, crying silently in one corner of a Mumbai apartment. Like the rest of the production crew, Shikha was very excited that the film for which she had worked really hard for months had finally hit the cinema halls. Her friends and relatives had begun to call since morning, and, in the late afternoon when her mobile phone rang again, she took it for yet another congratulatory call. But that phone call changed everything. It was a phone call from the police station.

In the newly-built state prison of Uttarakhand, on the outskirts of the capital Dehradun, a line from Iqbal’s immortal Saare jahan se accha Hindostan humara, written on a wall in front of the jail superintendent’s office reads, Hum bulbule hein iski (We are its bubbles) instead of Hum bulbulen hein iski (We are its bulbuls).

“So you have come to meet Prashant Rahi?” asks the young deputy jailer, and then instructs his junior, “Photo khincho inki (Get his picture clicked.) Anyone who comes to meet Rahi has to get his picture clicked first. A young man, perhaps a prisoner on duty, does that job, with a camera attached to a computer. He also then takes a printout of that picture.

In the visitor’s hall, 49-year-old Prashant Rahi receives his visitors with a warm smile. “Imagine, the policemen who claimed to have recovered a laptop from me did not even know how to operate that; they actually sought my help in getting it started,” Rahi tells this laughingly to anyone who cares to listen.

The Uttarakhand police claim to have arrested Rahi three months ago on December 22, from a forest area near the state’s border with Nepal, which they say was a temporary base of the Maoists. He is charged of being the zonal commander of the CPI (Maoist). Apart from the laptop which Rahi mentioned, he claims that some Maoist literature, which included books on Mao and a few pages of a magazine, taken out by the CPI (Maoist), was recovered from him. But senior police official refute that claim. “We also recovered a complete blueprint of the Naxalite movement in Uttarakhand which was commissioned to him by the top Naxal leadership,” says a senior police officer, who supervised Rahi’s arrest. The officer says that in the blueprint Rahi has written clearly that earlier he was a member of the People’s War Group, which merged with another Naxalite group to form the CPI (Maoist).

Rahi, a former journalist with The Statesman, says he was picked up from Dehradun itself on the afternoon of December 17, while walking on a road. “I was immediately blindfolded. The policemen in plain clothes said I was someone called Ram Singh who had robbed a businessman in Bijnor,” he says. It was only after senior police officials came to interrogate him, he says, he realised that he was being charged of being a Naxal leader.

Rahi is a very well-known face in the intellectual circles of Dehradun. He is believed to have translated a number of literary classics into Hindi. His friends say he was also very active during Uttarakhand’s movement for a separate statehood. He had also been trying to organise landless labourers against landlords.

“Let’s put it this way: Rahi always felt the urgency of doing something for the voiceless more than we do,” says Ashok P. Misra, a senior journalist and a former colleague of Prashant Rahi. “But to think that he was an active Naxalite commander is too far-fetched; I have a problem with the way the state has dealt with it,” he adds. Another former colleague and senior journalist, Rajiv Lochan Shah said that the state was trying to exaggerate the Maoist threat by arresting people like Rahi. “After the PM’s statement that the Naxalites posed the maximum threat to the country’s security, it seems that the Uttarakhand government wants to bite deep into the cake of Central funds allotted for fighting Naxals,” he said.

“If Rahi was indeed a Naxalite commander how come not even a tamancha (country-made pistol) was not recovered from him?” Shah asked. “The fact that we didn’t plant any arms proves that our recoveries are perfectly legal. Let Rahi’s fate be decided by the judiciary,” Inspector-General (Law and Order), Uttarakhand Police, M.A. Ganapathy said.

Rahi alleges that he was tortured brutally while in captivity. “At one point they said they will bring my daughter and force me to rape her,” he alleges. He says he was even forced to sign his confessional statement. “When I wrote ‘signed under duress’ they did not understand what that meant,” he says.

The police has filed a charge sheet against Rahi and, as per his lawyer, the chances of his release on bail in near future are almost nil. “There are lessons to be learnt from Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh,” says the SSP of the state’s Special Task Force, Abhinav Kumar, “It doesn’t make sense to wait for anything big to happen and then act.”

Meanwhile, the battle has just begun for Shikha. A letter written to her by her father on the International Women’s Day is clutched hard against her chest (“He asked me to be strong”). Away from the pseudo–activism practiced by the glitterati of Bollywood, she is hoping that her father is freed soon. “There is a strange rule in the jail manual – I cannot send sweets for my father which he likes very much,” she regrets.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The making of a Naxalite

In his first ever interview, top Naxal leader Misir Besra tells me how a jackfruit tree led him to the Naxal movement.

When the police party approached the car in which Misir Besra was travelling, he did not run away. The strategy was perfect since Besra’s photo had never appeared in the police records. And looking at his face and physique, no one would ever suspect him of being one of the most-wanted Naxalite leaders.

But this time, the police were not taking any chances.

Besra was detained and his photo circulated among jailed Naxalites. In no time, his men identified him. After all, Misir Besra alias Commander Sunirmal alias Bhaskar was no ordinary foot soldier. As a member of the CPI (Maoist)'s politburo and the Central Military Commission, Besra headed the Eastern Command, supervising the party’s activities in Orrisa, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and lower Assam. He was also the incharge of the Military Intelligence wing and helped the party procure arms and ammunition.

Besra was feeling cold when I met him in Jharkhand. This was his first ever interaction with the media. Upon being offered a cigarette, Besra politely refused saying he had quit smoking. “I had come to drink tea when the police came and picked me up,” he said with a smile on his face.

Besra has come a long way having spent 22 years in the jungle. While studying at a school in the Giridih district of then undivided Bihar, Besra says he witnessed a lot of discrimination against tribals. Later in 1985, as a student of Hindi Honours, he also showed keen interest in Political Science and read about the lives of revolutionaries such as Bhagat Singh and Khudiram Bose. “One day, I took mahua (local brewed liquor) to a shopkeeper and he refused to pay me. He asked me to run away or he would thrash me,” recalls Besra. Soon after this incident, an old jackfruit tree in his village was cut down by a few landlords. “They took away the branches but I decided that I would not let them take away the trunk,” says Besra. Along with a handful of friends, Besra guarded the trunk. “The Block Development Officer and the Tehsildar tried to convince me to let the affluent families take away the trunk but I did not budge,” he says.

According to Besra, this incident left an indelible mark on him. “Earlier, I was even influenced by Shibu Soren’s Jharkhand Mukti Morcha but soon it would appear to be a false movement to me,” says Besra.

In October 1985, a troupe of left-wing Akhil Bharatiya Krantikaari Sammelan came visiting Besra’s village. After listening to the revolutionary songs, Besra decided to join them. “I slipped away with them after the programme was over,” says Besra.

There was a time, Besra remembers, when the Naxalites were only in possession of a few double barrel guns. “Initially we were treated like dacoits by the villagers,” he says. But gradually things changed.

This was the time when disconnect between ‘Bharat’ and ‘India’ was widening. People in this area were increasingly getting discontented with New Delhi. People were increasingly going to bed with empty bellies. Healthcare and education were nonexistent. More than two decades later, nothing has changed in these parts of India.

Initially, the new recruits like Besra received training from the rebels of the People’s War Group (PWG), active in Andhra Pradesh. In 2004, PWG and the Maoist Communist centre (MCC), active in Bihar and Jharkhand, joined hands to form the CPI (Maoist).

According to Besra, many recruits leave after being inducted since they cannot handle the rigours of jungle. But most of them stay since this at least ensures that they get food to eat. Moreover, a gun in their hands also gives them a sense of empowerment.

During the 9th Congress of the party, held in Bhimbandh in Bihar, Misir Besra was the incharge of security. While returning back, his company raided a police picket in Lakhisarai district of Bihar, killing four police personnel. In 2004, Besra is said to have planned and executed an ambush in Baliba in Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum district in which 29 police personnel were killed.

In 2003, Besra met the chief of the CPI (Maoist), Muppala Laxmana Rao alias Ganapathi in Jharkhand. During interrogation, Besra told the police that Ganapathi dyes his hair. He keeps trimmed moustaches and sometimes shaves them off. Another top leader, Mallojula Kotheshwara Rao alias Prahallad is deaf and also suffers from severe health problems. Another top party functionary, Pramod Mishra, who is the incharge of Punjab, Haryana, New Delhi and J&K, is a fine sports person. Also, there is only one female member in the 17-member Central Committee. Her name is Anuradha Gandhi and she happens to be the wife of politburo member Koppad Gandhi, who is incharge of party documentation.

Besra says that the state committees of the CPI (Maoist) also exist in states like Delhi, Haryana and Punjab. “Without the participation of middle class, there will be no revolution,” says Besra. So how much success have they achieved in urban areas like Delhi? “Not much,” Besra confesses, “but our members are active there.” Besra’s admission is confirmed by the fact that recently Maoist literature and propaganda CDs were recovered in Haryana. In Delhi, an undercover Naxalite was arrested from Sangam Vihar in Delhi. An intelligence report by the Home Ministry states that Maoists are trying to engineer cast conflicts as a part of their strategy in states like Haryana. After the clash between the police and the workers of Honda factory in Gurgaon in 2005, a Honda showroom was attacked in Haryana’s Kaithal. The attack was led by Ravinder, a member of a left-wing organisation.

According to Besra’s interrogation report, Naxalites were also planning to target at least two police officers. One of them is H.J. Dora, former Director General of Andhra Pradesh Police, who lives in Delhi.

The Naxalite leadership is also looking for experts like Computer engineers. According to Besra, the Central Committee had asked for allotting a Chemist and an Electronic Engineer as well.

How does he spend time in jail? “I read a lot; I have just finished reading a novel by Agyey.

Is he in touch with his comrades? “No,” replies Besra in a matter-of-fact tone, “since I am under arrest they won’t trust me any more.”

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Who is Manmohan Singh?

Coke and Haldiram's have reached the worst-affected naxalite areas of Jharkhand but not the government. On the budget day, Rahul Pandita travels through the state’s remotest villages to discover that almost nobody has ever heard of Manmohan Singh, leave alone Chidambaram.

That day, the Block Development Officer, Lalan Kumar visited Gitildih village for the first time. He brought along with him a cheque of 12,500 rupees, 10 litres of kerosene oil and 50 kg of rice. But by then it was too late. A week ago, on February 3, when the entire national media was going gung-ho on the war of words between Jaya Bachchan and Raj Thackeray, a landless Adivasi labourer, Turia Munda climbed a tree and hung himself with a rope. Employed under the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) scheme, 48-year-old Munda had not been paid his wages for more than a month.

A year ago, Munda’s wife had died because of diarrohea, which takes many lives in this small village, 55 kms. away from Jharkhand’s capital Ranchi. They leave behind four children. Three of them now live with their maternal uncle while the youngest, 12-year-old Jholu Munda has stayed back. A student of sixth class, he has stopped going to school ever since.

Gitildih village is a stark reality. It is because of villages like Gitildih that many people are left with no option but to join the Maoist fold. There is not even a sub-health centre for a population of 1,000 people. Only a nurse comes once in a week. The nearest hospital is ten kilometres away and the road is non-existent. When a person in Gitildih falls ill, the family prays that Ravindra Singh Munda has not gone anywhere. Ravindra is one of the four persons in the village who own a motorcycle. So the patient is taken on the motorcycle to Bundu town. But during monsoons, the road is submerged under water and the sick person has to be either taken on a cycle or somebody’s back. “My motorcycle is known as the village ambulance,” says Ravindra. In the months of July and August, diarrohea strikes Gitildih. In November and December it is malaria. Children die. Women die. And so do able-bodied men.

There are a few handpumps in Gitildih but most of them are dry. And those that work have contaminated water. So the villagers drink water from a nearby river. During summer the river dries up too. So they just lie down on string cots and stare at empty spaces.

There is no electricity either. Only a few boys have seen Jharkhand’s own Mahendra Singh Dhoni play cricket on a television set in the town.

Jagan Nath Munda is 65 and he collects firewood from the nearby forest to buy rice, salt and oil. Out of 20 other people who have assembled outside his house, only Munda knows that the Prime Minister of India is Manmohan Singh. “But I have never seen him; how does he look like?” he asks. Does he know which party does Singh belong to? Munda scratches his head for a while and then replies, “I think he is from a party called the BJP.”

Near the entrance of the village, Samla Munda points towards a building which looks like a building from Kabul after September 11. “This was supposed to be a health centre. But no doctor has come here for almost two years now,” he says.

Narsighpur and Mirgitand in East Singhbhum district are the last twin villages in Jharkhand, bordering West Bengal. 15-year-old Jhumri collects firewood and then walks barefooted on stones and thorns till Galudi town which is 14 kilometres away. If she is lucky, she might get 20-25 rupees from a dhaba owner. Then she will walk back to the village after buying rice from that money. If she fails to sell the firewood, she will have to remain hungry. Has she heard of Manmohan Singh? “Who is he?” she asks.

Like Gitildih, there is no electricity in Jhumri’s village. A High School is 14 km. away. There is only one well for water. A sub-health centre is 4 km. away. “But that exists only on paper,” rues a villager. “We are getting mowed down by elephants, wild pigs and naxalites – in that order,” says a teashop owner. “20 years ago, life was better. We had tough life but we were happy,” he adds. Has the NREG scheme made any difference? A villager laughs and says, "NREG is for the rich, not for the poor.”

Meanwhile in Gitildih, Jholu Munda kills time by killing birds with his sling. The naxalites have been urging villagers to join them. Next time when they pay a visit, at least one person from Gitildih may join them. The sling may just be replaced by an AK-47.

(This report appeared in the recent issue of The Sunday Indian weekly)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Times like these

How does one live
In times like these?
Does one have to live
In times like these?

I don’t remember last night. It rained heavily and I only have faint memories of being held up at a traffic intersection. My shirt collar was still wet when I felt it this morning; I had not changed my clothes. While I was asleep, the maid had kept a cup of tea on the side-table, covering it with a tattered copy of Humboldt’s Gift. And now my tea tastes of damp earth.

I take out a cigarette from a pack, crumpled in my jeans pocket. The match sticks won’t burn one after another. I get up and stumble towards the kitchen. I light the cigarette with the flame of the gas burner; I think a few strands of my hair also get burned.

I stand there, taking stock of things, and of my own life. I open the cupboard and peep into the small bone-china containers. There is no sugar. Only a little bit of tea leaves is left in another. A lump of ginger lies withering in one corner.

I close the cupboard and then return to the bed. The cigarette ash falls on the bedsheet. I remove it with a stroke of my hand. It leaves behind a grey line. I throw the cigarette in one naked corner of the room and slip back into the folds of the blanket. I try to remember last night.

I can’t remember last night.

What does one remember
In times like these?
Is there anything to remember
In times like these?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Could I ever sleep?

On the road below
They keep on creating noise:
Hawkers looking for
Stale newspapers and empty
Whisky bottles
Beggars masquerading as ascetics
With a tin God immersed in mustard oil
Salesmen selling aluminum foil
And those who clean gas burners
And herbs for slow learners

I try to sleep
Over yesterday’s headlines
And hangover induced at midnight
And the stains that won’t purge
But the shouts that emerge
From the road below
Won’t let me sleep

A child begins crying too
And a scooter won’t start
A plane also flies overhead
While I toss and turn in the bed

During the night too
Someone snored in the other room
And the walls won’t keep it
To themselves
The sound kept on tumbling in
From racks and shelves

Can I sleep peacefully now?
Or do I have to wait till
I turn old
To sleep in my grave
Without hearing a whimper
As if in my ears
They have poured
Molten gold

The man with a tie

I like it when people pay attention to my stories. For a living I sell medicines – promote them, to be precise – but my real talent, if you really ask me, lies in storytelling.

Six days a week, I wear a tie brought from the underground Palika bazaar, comb my hair backwards, eat my breakfast of two boiled eggs (except Tuesdays), wash it down with a glass or a cup of tea, depending on my wife’s mood, and then make rounds of clinics and hospitals with my leather bag, telling doctors that the medicines and drugs produced by my pharmaceutical company are God’s gift to mankind.

Some of them are busy treating patients and ask me to come later. But some of them invite me in. They shift uneasily on their chairs while I tell them about new medicines introduced in the market. They quickly take free samples I offer, putting them inside drawers.

“And, what else?” the moment one of them asks me this, I assume my hidden role and regale him with my stories. There are so many anecdotes I know. Like about this neighbour of mine who dropped his wife from the back of his scooter in the midst of a bustling market and drove straight home, only to find his wife missing. It is rumoured that she did not come back for six months, choosing to stay back at her parents’ house. Or about this friend of mine who attended a meditation session and, afterwards, began to suspect that his mother was a monster. Or about this distant relative of mine who committed suicide one wintry afternoon. He was ironing his trousers as he waited for an official pick up. He had ironed one of the legs when he suddenly decided to end his life and did so by hanging himself with a Bombay Dyeing bed sheet.

Sometimes, I invent my own stories. I cook them up. Sometimes, I also offer diagnosis to doctors who know me for long now. Recently, one such young doctor looked sullen when I entered into his room. This doctor is also a writer, or at least he claims to be one. Behind him there hangs a portrait of Ernest Hemingway. Between thick medical encyclopaedias stacked on a shelf he has kept copies of The Old Man and the Sea and A Moveable Feast.

The young man is restless as I can see. I rub my fingers on my striped tie – the two fingers of my right hand between which I hold cigarettes. The fingertips have almost turned yellow and they perpetually smell of cigarette smoke. Adjusting the knot of my tie, I speak to him.

“Doctor sahab, it seems you are stressed out with work. I think you badly need a vacation,” I throw the bait.

He lets out a guttural laugh. He takes out his spectacles and keeps them gently on the table. “Do you really think so?” he asks. And then without waiting for my answer, he continues.

“Actually what I need right now is to be able to spend time with a
like-minded person who is either a painter or a writer. She (There he goes, I think, so he has facing difficulty with his spouse) and I could go somewhere in hills where we could create our own mini workshop. She could do her own thing and so would I and, in the evening, we could go for long walks, drink tea at roadside stalls.”

I see dreams floating in his eyes. Then I know that this is the time.

“Let me tell you a story, Sir, about this man who had this habit of rubbing his fingers over his tie…” And so I begin…

Friday, February 15, 2008

Our own Kolkatas

In the miasma of darkness, cars moved along the tall building. Their high-beam lights shone on the glass façade for a moment and then moved away quickly. Men did not have that virtue. They would slither through silently, some of them on rickety bicycles, their bottoms turned sore by cushion-less seats.

From the third-floor window of a restaurant, he watched it all – the grand trapezium of light and darkness, muscle and bone. The cigarettes, one after another, weighed heavily on his chest, like a secret kept for long. The dark rum numbed the pain in his lower abdomen. But it would return, as it did every night, keeping him awake to nurse hopelessness.

By the time he was on the road back home, the city had been put to sleep. Towards his left, the Qutab Minar stood absolutely still, its reverie broken at times by honking drivers who probably were in a hurry to reach home or elsewhere. But nothing awaited him; he was in no hurry.

In few hours, the flower market adjacent to the monument would buzz to life. Florists would arrive and haggle for better rates. Afterwards, they would carry huge bunches of flowers on their scooters. Later in the day, people would buy them for sustaining love affairs, decorating marriage venues, brightening up small office cubicles and even for feeling good while shitting in bathrooms.

A little ahead, frail men, wearing bright, fluorescent helmets on their heads, worked in an almost geometric pattern, trying to build a metro rail system for the people of the city. Many of its users would consist of men from their own villages, from the eastern part of the country, who would have gone to Kolkata once upon a time but now chose Delhi to be able to send modest money orders.

Eiy sajni re, eiy sajni re, eiy sajni
Piya gayen Kalkatwa eiy sajni
Kaisen chalan rahetwa, eiy sajni

How would it work for young brides when their grooms went away, a few days after marriage, to far and distant lands, only to come back once a year, or once in five years, or never? When the rain arrived, would they let it needle their anaemic skin?

He stopped his car. A car whizzed past him. Then another. He counted them for a minute or so. His last count came to around eleven. Or may be it was twelve. He opened the back of his car and took out a half-finished bottle of rum.

No one he knew had gone to Kolkata. But Kolkata, sometimes, could also be a state of mind. And now, he needed to find his own needles.

(Pic courtesy: Preeti Paul Kannath)