31 July 2006

Torn between two lovers

“Torn between two lovers, feelin’ like a fool
Lovin’ both of you is breakin’ all the rules.”
[Lines from a song by Mary MacGregor (of the ‘Peter, Paul and Mary’ fame)]

I was born in Calcutta and grew up there. I loved the city. I’ve spent the best years of my life there… that is, the best years of my life until I moved to Bombay in 1995. The reason for my move was purely professional. You see, professionally I’m a marketing consultant, and Calcutta didn’t offer much of a future for me back then. But, I fell in love with Bombay and decided to stay.

Recently I visited Calcutta (now Kolkata), after eleven and a half years, and fell in love with the city all over again. I didn’t feel like returning to Bombay. My old friends in Kolkata and their warm welcome must have been the reason for this… or, at least, that’s what I kept telling myself. Or, was it because I was once again connected with my roots? I’ve heard such things happened.

When I mentioned this to my friends there, they exclaimed, “You’re not going to do an Alex Hailey on us, are you?” No, I promised them. I shall return to Bombay (now Mumbai) peacefully. Return to Mumbai I did, and my friends here promptly asked me: “So, is Mumbai your home now?” Yes, I promised them, it was. It is.

This experience made me wonder what it is that attracts people to places. I understand the lure of job opportunities and money, the economic reasons, but there must be something else besides these. Is there some compatibility, some chemistry, between people and places – just as there is between two people – that we don’t know about or cannot explain? Something that involves us, engages us, binds us, enriches us, helps us to grow and discover ourselves?

And, is this something depended on our personality – our traits, our attitudes, our behaviour? Or, is it genetic and is depended on our DNA? Perhaps, it’s much more complex and is depended on both. Perhaps, it’s just a matter of willingness and adjustment due to convenience. Who knows! For the time being, why don’t I just pass it off as love?

29 July 2006

The city of joy

[With apologies to Dominique Lapierre and his 'The City of Joy' - and the charity he is helping to bring to Kolkata.]

There's something not quite right in writing an epic about a city you've never lived in. You have to be a part of that city, a part of that city's fabric, to blend in. And only then can you realise what that city is all about. Be it London, Paris, New York or Kolkata, you just can't appreciate the nuances of that city with a foreigner's eyes. You need to be one with that city to appreciate its beauty and its benevolence, its demons and its dilemmas.

I learnt this the hard way during my visit to Kolkata. You see, I live in Mumbai now and, on returning to Kolkata after a decade or so, I looked at the city through a foreigner's eyes. I saw how Kolkata was different from Mumbai - not how Kolkata was Kolkata. And in doing so, I missed everything. It was only when I realised that I was a Bengali, born and brought up in Kolkata, did I begin to see things clearly.

Kolkata's joy - and Mr Lapierre is quite right here in using this term to describe this city - is in its bonhomie. It's everywhere. Whether you're asking for directions from a fellow pedestrian, or buying fish at the local market, or attending a meeting with clients, or having a drink at a club, or sitting in on an 'adda' (a powwow with friends or colleagues, usually over cups of tea)… people of Kolkata are proverbially friendly. It is this quintessentially Kolkata trait that makes this city great.

Mr Lapierre, Kolkata is not the melting-pot of misery, violence and struggle for survival that you make it out to be. Its joy does not emerge from misery, but rather from gladness and bonhomie.

22 July 2006

Life between meals

Mumbai problems aren’t matters of great concern for Kolkata. And, why should they be? Kolkata has a life of its own. It’s a place far removed from the hassles of Mumbai such as those faced by Mumbaikars everyday (for instance, distance), or those faced by Mumbaikars every now and then (disturbance due to bomb blasts). Kolkata is a closely-knit peaceful congregation of (mostly) Bengalis relaxing over cups of tea, until it’s time for lunch or dinner – whichever comes first, or next. Yes sir, Kolkata is a relaxed life between meals.

Kolkata loves to eat – and it shows. Meet a friend from Kolkata and before you know it, you’re enjoying a snack or a meal with him or her. Originally a Bengali from Kolkata, I already shared this appetite for life that people of Kolkata have. But, I was re-introduced to its overwhelming power this week when I returned to this city after eleven odd years. Ever since I arrived, I’ve been eating and eating. My friends are glad to have me on board and treat me to a huge gourmet spread of the best Bengali cuisine – and along with it, Bengali culture and hospitality.

So much so that I’ve actually had to rearrange my work schedule around meals and mealtimes. It’s quite amazing really. I now realise what I had been missing for so many years.

19 July 2006

How safe are we?

It’s been a week since the Mumbai train bomb blasts have shaken us and I’m as concerned as you are. On the one hand, it was an act of terrorism which led to deaths and injury to many innocent people. On the other, it was a blatant invasion – and violation – of our safety. For, as we go about our daily lives in Mumbai, we don’t expect our lives, nor those of our friends, family and colleagues, to be blown apart at the push of a button by some faceless, nameless terrorist. We expect our days will pass safely, because safety is one of our fundamental constitutional rights. And yet, before us, we have a blatant violation of this right. What are we supposed to do?

Well, find someone to blame it on, of course.

The situation at hand is a bit murky at the moment. As far as media reports go, no-one’s sure about how things stand. Headlines suggest that there are no clues leading to the terrorists involved in the bomb blasts. The Police aren’t sure what explosives were used. Witness descriptions of suspect terrorists are inconclusive. Many criminals – big and small, including some riff-raffs who may have never thought of murder – have been picked up for questioning. Yet, suspect terrorist and informer information hasn’t revealed anything constructive. Still, some reports say, soon the terrorists will be identified and apprehended.

While this is going on, everyone’s formed their own pet theories on why the blasts happened and who were responsible. All fingers are pointing at the Pakistanis, of course, although there’s no proof of it yet. Why? Because the Pakistanis are taking revenge on us for the Gujarat riots, for sentencing to death three terrorists who were involved in the Akshardham Temple killings, for claiming Kashmir as ours, for hating Muslims in general, for not accepting Pakistan as a country… you name it and there’s a theory attached to the Mumbai train bomb blasts and why Pakistan must answer for them.

Some are talking about flushing out terrorists from Pakistan with the Pakistan government’s help. Some are talking about sending in Indian troops and attacking terrorist bases in Pakistan. Some are talking about going to war with Pakistan if terrorist attacks continue on Indians.

How much wisdom is there in all of this?

Then, there’s the question of safety. What is our country doing to make us feel safe and secure from terrorist attacks? How can we be sure that our lives will not be in danger from another bomb attack… or, for that matter, any terrorist attack? Are our defence and intelligence services ready to intercept and eliminate terrorist attacks on Indian soil and make us feel safe again? How safe are we really in our own land?

13 July 2006

New acts of terror

How do we move against terrorists? Or, for that matter, against others – including organisations, communities and states – that support terrorism? What skill and magnitude of preparation do we need to have to protect ourselves? For, if terrorists are enemies of the people and not just the state, in terms of not making any demands for their acts or crimes, then, no matter what methods or strategies we adopt, they will find ways to break us.

Threats can come from anywhere – anytime. The use of hijacked passenger jets as cruise missiles in the case of the WTC bombings of 9/11 is a prime example of how innovative terrorists can be. On the other end of the terrorist spectrum, you have the simple case of a bomb in a bag as it may have been used in Mumbai last Tuesday. Even if we adopt security measures to ensure that such attempts do not succeed in the future – and that’s really a very tall order for a country like India – terrorists are unlikely to be stopped.

What I mean is, it’s not the innovativeness of the terrorist campaign, nor the complexity of the defence systems we employ to thwart their moves, that are issues here. The issue that threatens us is that of commitment that terrorists have – i.e. their willingness to die for the cause. Motivated terrorists will find new ways to threaten our lives. They will carry out new acts of terror. If a bomb in a bag won’t work, motivated terrorists will doubtless choose something else.

This is not an illusion. India has already experienced the level of commitment terrorists can have. Just think of the assassinations of Indira Gandhi (shot by her own bodyguards in her own premises) and her son Rajiv Gandhi (a bomb in a garland that welcomed him in a customary Indian way at a political rally), and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Weapons of various types and sizes exist – and they can be expected to be used by terrorists anywhere, anytime.

12 July 2006

Terrorism is here to stay

Imagine this: You’re on your way home after a hard day’s work. You board the usual local commuter train to your suburban home. You fend off the rush-hour squeeze from other commuters to get a place. You catch up on some gossip from the daily tabloid. You talk to your neighbour in the seat beside you. You answer a call on your mobilephone telling your wife that you’d be home soon. You stare out of the window dreaming many things… Then an explosion erases your entire life from this planet.

Something like this may have happened in the train bomb blasts of last evening in Mumbai; killing hundreds and injuring several times that number. Of course, some of those tales we’ll never get to know.

The instrument of terrorism was probably very simple: a bomb in a bag in a crowded train. It has been used before against Mumbai; in buses too, besides in crowded places. But more importantly, it has exposed the vulnerability of life in modern Mumbai. The terrorists knew how to exploit this. They planned seven such bombs to go off in seven different trains in a matter of a few minutes – too little time for Mumbai to spread the word to save lives.

Terrorists want to cause terror. Some say, terrorists don’t really want to kill people, but to gain sympathy for their cause. Free Ireland. Jerusalem is ours. Get out of Iraq. Release our comrades from your jails. Quit India. They want to show their power by disrupting peace, or taking hostages, or exploding bombs at places and times of their choice. They do it in order to warn, not really to destroy. What makes last evening’s act more terrifying is that no specific demands were made.

It looks like terrorism is here to stay in Mumbai. How do we prevent it? How do we reduce the damage? How do we save lives?

10 July 2006

A short note on the caste system

If anything has endured in India, sadly, it’s the caste system. Today, caste-related discriminations abound, with no possible solutions in sight. Though it may appear to be a backward philosophy or principle of social structuring, from what I know, it was not meant to be that way. Its origins define it as a system based on ‘occupational specialisation’, with specific tasks allocated to specific groups of people according to their skills and knowledge. And, it must have benefited society at one time.

The caste system in India was probably the first socio-economic concept defining, what we would call today, the service sector. People were grouped into four basic categories (i.e. castes) according to the service they provided to (or in) the society. The Brahmins provided knowledge, especially knowledge leading to God; the Kshatriyas were skilled in the art of war, and provided defence against attackers or invasion; the Vaisyas were skilled in commerce, crafts and management; and the Shudras provided labour for all the menial day-to-day tasks.

No premium was assigned to any particular type of work or skill or knowledge. Each caste had its privileges, with the Brahmins (the priests) and the Kshatriyas (the warriors) given a greater share than the rest, as was the practice of all ancient societies across the world. If a person repeatedly failed to perform his or her tasks in society, the privileges for that person were withdrawn, no matter which caste the person belonged to. The caste system was a means of better socio-economic functioning of a society. In essence, it was a symbol of democracy. Contrary to popular belief, it was never an instrument of racial discrimination.

Somewhere along the line, people began to adopt the socio-occupational structure of the caste system as permanent – assuming it to be their birthright. They protected their social positions as if they were endowed with it, propagating hereditary guarantees to their children and grandchildren. Trouble followed thereafter. According to an article on ‘Caste and Gender Equations in Indian History’ (Tripod, South Asian History) from which I’ve quoted before, “In India, caste and gender discrimination appear to become more pronounced with the advent of hereditary and authoritarian ruling dynasties, a powerful state bureaucracy, the growth of selective property rights, and the domination of Brahmins over the rural poor in agrahara villages.”

Over the years, what may have been an excellent instrument of democracy was defeated.

07 July 2006

The backbone of Indian society

I’ve got to hand it to India. She has a thriving caste system operating in the country – leading to poverty, discrimination, hatred and killings – and she acknowledges it fair and square. There’s no beating around the bush here. No big talks about classless societies. No theories on capitalism replacing traditional stratification of social orders of the past.

The fact is, Indians have always identified themselves with their caste. And, they still do. After all, it’s rooted somewhere in their hearts and minds.

In spite of rising literacy levels, education, foreign aid and influence, the advent of technology and the spread of mass media, it’s still hard to find the free caste-less Indian. Social positions and ties are still ascribed and hereditary, and these statuses are likely to remain permanent with no-one willing to give them up easily.

Of course, the dissolution of the caste system is being talked about in high circles, but nobody is actually sure where or when it’ll happen. The point is, the caste system is the backbone of Indian society. Where will India be without it!

05 July 2006

Modern-world superiority

As long as there’s a world with people, I suppose, there is going to be exploitation of people by people. It has been so throughout history – slavery, European colonisation, the caste system in India, Hitler’s genocide – and continues to be so even now in various parts of the world under various guises of social, political and economic superiority. For, some people believe they are superior to others.

Take the First World countries, for instance, the rich nations of the capitalist West, the ruling aristocracies of the modern world. They not only consider themselves to be the most accomplished societies of our times, they actually enforce their ideologies and expansionist theories through economic and political manoeuvring to uphold their establishments.

Are they opportunists? Is this a survival strategy? Or, is this exploitation of other countries, markets and people based on the belief of individualism, of one group of people believing they are superior to others and, thus, establishing their dominance in the world? Maybe the answer constitutes all of these questions.

The guises of modern-world superiority take on many forms: ethnicity, religion, social position due to heredity or by decree, military strength, wealth, an accomplished culture, or the economic demands of the time. Typically those based on ascribed or inherited statuses… and not those based on equality or those following national constitutions or human rights charters.

India, within its own boundaries, offers one such tragic example to the world: the exploitation of the Dalits based on the Hindu caste system.

The Dalits (or outcastes) constitute a large group of people (over 170 million – 16% of India’s population) belonging to the ‘shudra’ caste, the lowest of the four Hindu castes. They make up people whose occupations involve lower-order tasks of society such as clearing waste or dead bodies, working with leather, scavenging for refuse, peasants and labourers. The Hindu caste system classifies them as ‘untouchables’.

According to the Constitution of India, it is illegal to discriminate anyone on the basis of caste. Still, the caste system is a reality in India today, and untouchability is still a part of the daily lives of millions of Dalits. They are shunned by society and have no choice but to stick to their own communities in the outer fringes of civilisation.

The Dalit population is still disproportionately below the poverty level, both in rural and in urban India. They have significantly higher rates of unemployment and landlessness than non-Dalits, and less access to educational, administrative and judicial resources. Discrimination against Dalits is common and atrocities against them are rampant in various corners of our country.

India may be the largest democracy in the world, but modern-world superiority has its own unique way of operating here. And, the tragedy is, nobody knows when and how it’ll all end. I guess, when it comes to notions of equality, amity and social well-being, there is still progress to be made even in the world’s largest democracy.

[Citation & following quotes from Friends of South Asia (FOSA)

Extensive list of atrocities against Dalits documented on website of National Campaign of Dalit Human Rights
http://www.dalits.org/atrocities.html and a special report on Dalit houses being burnt down in Gohana can be found at http://www.dalits.org/Gohana1.htm.

In his presentation ‘Dalits and Globalization’ delivered at the World Social Forum held in Mumbai, Professor S K Thorat presented important data on socio-economic indicators of the Dalits. In 1999-2000, nearly 75% of the Dalits were landless or near landless; 65% of Dalit households were dependent upon wage labour; the literacy rate for Dalits was around 37% as opposed to 58% in non-Dalit; 43% of Dalits were below poverty levels, almost twice as many as the non-Dalits. During 1980-2000, a total of about 300,000 cases of human right violation and atrocities were registered by the Supreme Court with the police.]

03 July 2006


We are all equal in the eyes of God, right?

Well, that’s what religion promises us. But I’m not so sure of it. So, I appease myself with the answer: Yes, we are all equal; but perhaps, after death. In this living world, we have to face the consequences of our birth – and all that we try to achieve ourselves. Because, this living world is full of inequality; and that’s the reality of the situation.

Many human beings feel inequality is a reality for them. Think of a child’s feelings when he or she is forced to eat a bowl of insipid porridge when the parents gobble up scrambled eggs with bacon and toast, and you’ll get the picture. You don’t have to belong to a specific race or religion or gender or social class to be stripped off your rights as a human being. It can happen to anyone.

Just for a moment, imagine this: It’s some time in the future. Things have gone out of control and you suddenly find yourself as a slave to a person who considers himself or herself, by some decree, superior to you. What would be your notion of equality? Would you feel like one of the human prisoners of Pierre Boulle’s ‘Planet of the Apes’? Or, would your world be something different?

While you think about this, here’s an excerpt from ‘The Newness of New World Slavery’ (from African American Voices, Digital History, University of Houston) about the lives of slaves in the ancient world:

“In Homer’s Greece, it was not a crime for a master to beat or kill a slave, and the testimony of unskilled slaves was not allowed in court unless it was obtained through torture. Nor does the Bible prohibit the beating of slaves. In the Roman Republic, a master might kill a slave. Vedius Pollio, a citizen of Rome, reportedly fed the bodies of his slaves to his pet fish. Flavius Gratianus, a fourth century Roman emperor, ruled that any slave who dared accuse his master of a crime should be immediately burned alive. Roman slaves who participated in revolts were crucified on crosses. In ancient India, Saxon England, and ancient China, a master might mistreat or even kill a slave with impunity. Aztec Mexico publicly staged the ritual torture and killing of slaves…

…slavery in the classical and the early medieval worlds was not based on racial distinctions. In ancient times, slavery had nothing to do with the color of a person’s skin. In ancient Rome, for example, the slave population included Ethiopians, Gauls, Jews, Persians, and Scandinavians. Unlike seventeenth, eighteenth, or nineteenth century Europeans, the people of the ancient world placed no premium on racial purity and attached no stigma upon racial mixture. Ancient societies, however, did tattoo, brand, or mutilate their slaves as a symbol of their debased status.”

Slavery is, perhaps, an extreme form of social inequality. But, it aptly demonstrates the lack – and the purposeful destruction – of human rights that we all believe is ours from birth.