Monday, June 24, 2013 6 comments

PILGRIMS’ PERILS


My days of late, have been very depressing. I am haunted by images of hovering helicopters, surging waters, smashed buildings/bridges and ominous weather reports. I imagine myself stranded up on a hill for days together, shivering in the cold and waiting for someone to rescue me. And then, I wonder about the “fruit of pilgrimage” for those people who are there even now under similar circumstances.

Yes, I am talking about the Uttarakhand tragedy!

It is ironic that an ecological disaster like this should strike the land that was home to the Chipko movement in the 1970s. Chipko, literally meaning ‘to stick on to” was a peaceful protest started by a group of peasant women in the Chamoli district of Uttarkhand. The women hugged trees to prevent them from being felled by the contractors who had permits from the Forest Department. Their aim was to protect their traditional forest rights. It gave impetus to large scale grassroot  movements on livelihood and environment protection across the country.

After the freedom struggle, this has been one of the movements that  has  given me a lot of inspiration and pride. Later on , I had the opportunity to meet Shri Chandi Prasad Bhatt one of the leaders of this conservation movement. The few hours that  I spent talking to him were enough to make me want to visit his land. However , when I  did go there in 2009, I was horrified!  I saw quarried hills, barren slopes and buildings straggling along on hill slopes ready to drop down at the slightest movement of the rocks below.

When I see the debates on television about  the “development” needs of this fragile ecological zone, I feel very conflicted. On one hand are the infrastructural needs of the place and on the other hand are the conservation needs. Those ladies who hugged the trees were obviously of a different generation whose aspirations were different. Today’s youth up in the hills are looking at something different.  

Not surprising, that development of infrastructure  in the region seems to be the most important agenda of the state government.  After all hadn’t their demand for a separate state been on the grounds  that the ‘development needs” of the hills were different?  And they seem hell bent on fulfilling these “needs” even if it had a dark side to it! 

The Garhwal Himalayan  region known locally as “Dev Bhumi” is home to some of the most holy shrines for Hindus - Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri.  Being located in the higher altitudes, access to these shrines  is physically difficult and in winter completely impossible. Therefore,  when the snow melts, roads open up and there is an “onslaught” of tourists from across the country. There are thousands of people thronging a region that is probably not designed by nature to hold so many. If we look at the shrines themselves, they are not like the huge fortress like structures encompassing acres of land like the South Indian temples in the plains. They are small and designed to accommodate a few.  The architects of those temples knew the ecological fragility of the zone when they constructed the temples. It was only the most devout and determined who braved the steep climb and grim weather to visit the temples.

But  today the situation is different. The entire economy of the region  appears to thrive on these temples. With easy access to any place and greater disposable incomes people want to travel. And when they do, religious places are the first ones that catch their fancy.  Therefore, religious tourism or pilgrimage has become an important source of livelihood for the people of the Garhwal Himalayas. And the challenge here is that this livelihood is available only for a few months. So obviously, they want to make the most out of it.

I do not want to dwell on the relevance of the development  infrastructure of the hills as I am not informed enough to write about it. However, what I do want to raise in this post is the unsafe pilgrimage conditions that exist in our country. This is of particular relevance to shrines in places that are located on hills and other ecologically sensitive zones.

As mentioned earlier, the shrines themselves are not built to accommodate the crowds that throng the places –whether it is Kedarnath or Sabarimala, the numbers are just too large for the temples. There are no proper systems of registering pilgrims and I am not sure if there are any building permission permits for the local tourist homes, hotels or dharamshalas which houses pilgrims.  What I have seen is a commercialization of the hill sides- slopes being cleared to accommodate these buildings to house pilgrims. With such unregulated construction, the soil is bound to give way and when it does, landslides are a definite bet .And coupled with heavy rainfall, they became the right recipe for a large scale disaster!

The bodies inside and around the Kedarnath temple bear testimony to the wrath of nature. If there is a God, s/he is angry with the way we have been abusing  the nature that was gifted to us. We have been unthinking in our greed, trying to make money out of religion in a most unconcerned manner about the future.  It is not just the Char Dham.  This is just the beginning. Other temples, located in such regions are soon going to be witness to similar events if we do not do something about it now.

We need regulation in terms of numbers of people who can be there at a given point in time in an ecologically sensitive area. There needs to be registration of people who have come and left. Buildings should not be allowed to mushroom up on the slopes like they have. There need to be strict guidelines for their coming up and maintenance. Of course, all of this would affect the tourism based livelihoods to some extent. In order to compensate for that, there should be investment in other sectors so that people are not completely dependent on this one source.

I am not a very religious person in the strict sense of the term. But I believe that God manifests himself through nature and environment. If we destroy them then we are attacking God.  Hinduism talks about the Pralaya at the end of this Kali Yuga. I was left wondering last night  if this was the beginning?

I sincerely hope not. I wish we humans be given another chance. I pray for those who are still up there.  Godspeed those brave men of the Indian armed forces who are working day and night to get people out!  

 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013 8 comments

“I DO” or “ I DID” ?


A rather curious article in the front page of THE HINDU caught my attention today. “Couples who have had premarital sex to be considered married” -High Court. The report is hilarious to say the least. Here are some nuggets from the ruling - “ Couples who indulge in sexual gratification” “ Couples who consummate their sexual cravings”. I had a good laugh-at the article and at all the jokes that are circulating now on social media about this ruling!

But jokes apart, there is a history to it that can be traced back to a couple in the family court in Coimbatore. It was a maintenance case where the  lower court had ruled that as the woman could not prove that she was legally married to the man, she was not entitled to maintenance. While it is certainly commendable that Justice Karnan says marriage does not necessarily mean following all the customs  like wearing a thali , ring etc it is a little farfetched to include premarital sex as the “rite of passage” (so to say) into marriage!

There are many issues here that are being mixed up. First of all there is the issue of “marriage” as a life long  ( well at least we hope it is ) bond and the second is about giving in to your sexual urges. One can be married without any external symbols  or ceremonies. I would say that couples who have lived together for  years without marriage can be considered “married”. But “indulging in sexual gratification” as the court so quaintly puts it, cannot be equated to marriage! It reduces marriage to a physical act! Then there is the question of children being born out of such relationships - no “ legal marriage”,  live in relationship or one night stands! In that case it is pointless declaring the parents as married. Here it is a  question of getting a person to accept responsibility for  bringing another life into the world in such  a careless way. And in today’s times, with so many contraceptive options and with abortion being legal, I refuse to believe that people would be victims of such circumstances.

I cannot understand why we are so obsessed with marriage as the ultimate status of respectability! I remember reading somewhere about the different kinds of marriage that are recognized in the Hindu scriptures – Vedic ( where all rituals customs etc are followed), Rakshasa ( rape !!) and Gandharva ( which is basically about a couple having premarital sex! The Shakuntala – Dushyant union is part of the last category of marriages!)

Maybe centuries ago it was alright to declare forcible sexual intercourse or rape as a form of marriage. But even today there are caste panchayats which force a rapist and the victim to get married subjecting the poor girl or woman to a violence filled life. This premarital sex thing sounds like something similar. If the report in the HINDU is to be believed, it would force a couple who may have momentarily gotten  physical to suddenly think of themselves as married! It takes away from young people the freedom to explore their sexuality. Sure, there are consequences but does responsibility have to begin only after you become pregnant or get someone pregnant ? Responsibility also involves ensuring one does not get into such a situation in the first place!  After all we are not a tribal society which is far more open about accepting the consequences ie the children begotten out of such irresponsibility (just that they do not view this as “irresponsibility” – more as a natural fallout of succumbing to the passion of youth)

Despite going into great depths about how such marriages have to go through divorce before a person can enter into another union and how the partners are entitled to the same rights as those legally marriage,  this High Court Ruling is strangely silent on the issue of extramarital sex. How are they going to define a situation where a married man seduces an unmarried girl/woman ? So there is the premarital sex bit as well as the extra marital one? ( Gosh.. this is beginning to sound like a plot from a B grade film! ). Does such a situation absolve a man of “marriage” or are we promoting bigamy/polygamy/polyandry?

I am really puzzled sometimes by the way our judiciary interprets social issues! They try to be progressive but end up sounding very archaic and pronouncing rulings that are impractical given the times. I mean, how is a person going to provide “documentary proof” that s/he had a sexual relationship and is therefore married and entitled to a share in the “spouse’s” property? It can only hold good if it ws a ‘live in relationship” and not a casual physical affair.  And if it is about maintenance to be paid for child care then the amounts fixed by the court should be realistic and not Rs 500 or Rs 1000! I mean even a woman who does agriculture wage work gets paid Rs 120 at a minimum in Tamil Nadu!

The issue of making “legal” a long standing “live in relationship”  is to be dealt with  independently and not linked to premarital sex because a live in relationship cannot be trivialized as “pre marital sex”. If a couple have lived together long enough and produced children then certainly, they are as good as married! And the breaking of such a relationship is not without its legal consequences!  
Saturday, June 15, 2013 7 comments

LOST AND FOUND , SEPARATIONS AND REUNIONS


(Book Review Series: And the Mountains Echoed- by Khaled Hosseini)

The first chapter is a giveaway! As young Abdullah listens to the story of the Div ( ogre) taking away the little boy Qais , into his castle up in the mountains you can guess what the book is going to all about. Nobody can tell a tale of lost and found characters like Khaled Hosseini does! Like the “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns” this one is also about separations and reunions but with a slight twist.

Saboor, a poor farmer in the village of Shadbagh, nestled in the mountains outside Kabul makes a trek across the hills with his little daughter Pari and son Abdullah. They are supposedly visiting the children’s step uncle Nabi who works as a chauffeur with the  wealthy Wahdati family. Saboor initially starts the journey with just Pari but when Abdullah refuses to let go of his dear sister  he allows the boy to accompany them.

Abdullah and Pari are more than brother and sister. The love they share is almost like that of a father and daughter. After his mother died giving birth to Pari, it is the young boy  Abdullah who looks after the new born baby like a father.  Once their father remarries, he becomes more  protective of the little girl and she in turn cannot stay without him. Once they reach Kabul the father hands over the little girl to the rich childless couple in exchange for some money and after the heart wrenching description of how the children are separated the story goes on to tell us the tale of the other characters-Parwana , Saboor’s second wife and her  bedridden sister Masooma being one of them.  

The little girl brings joy to the childless couple and the mentally unstable Nila Wahdati is happier. Then ,as her much older husband Suleiman suffers a stroke, she is unable to bear the stress of caring for him. She leaves him moving to Paris. A French citizen and a poet, Nila begins life in Paris with Pari. But soon we realize that she is not cut out to be a mother. The child grows up almost on her own and after sometime taking on the responsibility of her alcoholic and  suicidal mother.

Nabi the chauffeur whose idea it was in the first place to get his brother in law to exchange his daughter for money finds himself cut off from his family as his brother in law is unable to bear the sight of him , reminding as it does to him his own compulsions. Nabi stays behind and cares for Suleiman almost like a wife.  Suleiman, a talented artist had always had affections for Nabi  that ran very deep –almost like a lover. He dies willing his entire property to Nabi. Nabi in the meanwhile is consumed by guilt for what he had initiated – the separation of the children. It is almost a confession that he writes in a letter he leaves behind for his tenant,  the Greek plastic surgeon Dr. Markos before his death.

The entire story traverses almost six decades, taking us through the different phases in the history of Afghanistan, in the way that only Hosseini can. However this one does not deal with the political turmoil in the country  in the detail that his earlier books do. This one takes us through Paris, the United states and a small island called Timos in Greece.

The entire book is written in different narratives giving us the story of each of the characters at various points in their lives. It moves back and forth in a way that I never thought was possible outside of a screen play. Starting from 1947 until 2012, the writer tells us about how the characters grew up but remained unchanged deep within.

The non judgmental way in which he describes some of them like Nila is very commendable. “Some people are more haunted by sadness than others” says Nabi about Nila . And then, there is the  older than her age , Pari who decides to opt for a degree in Mathematics at the Sorbonne University  because “ there was comfort to be found in the permanence of mathematical truths, in the lack of arbitrariness and the absence of ambiguity . In knowing that the answers may be elusive but they could be found. They were there waiting , chalk scribbles away”

The story winds through different lives and places until Pari, now a sixty year old woman is reunited with her brother Abdullah. The meeting engineered by Abdullah’s daughter (also named Pari  after her aunt) is not how we think it would be! That section of the book is the most touching of all! The second Pari is  also a girl who is wise beyond her years taking on responsibilities that are too heavy for her young shoulders. The book ends with both the Paris trying to bridge the gap of time that separates their lives and generations.

Hosseini leaves you with a strange feeling – a bit of sadness , a bit of hope and some happiness! You may say that as a typical Indian and consumer of Bollywood potboilers,  I have a natural liking for  “Lost and found” stories. But lost and found stories do not always make you feel this way. I have read in the recent past another “lost and found” by an author called Mridula Koshy. (I strongly advise you not to read her though   I was forced to  complete it because the book was gifted to me by a very dear friend) Koshy’s story which is also about a lost child, at times makes you feel disgusted. You do not feel the pain of the unwed mother who dies waiting for the son she gave up in adoption to come and see her. Neither do you have any feeling of sympathy for the boy Madhu who is adopted by an American couple and who drifts along in life aimlessly as he leaves his adopted  family when he is a teen.

I guess when we read the lost and found stories we like to imagine that those who were lost emerged stronger as they grew up and when they found each other realized what they had lost. That feeling of hope is what makes sadness seem less bleak. But I am digressing….! Let me come back to Hosseni

The one thing that makes me want to read Hosseni again and again is the way he portrays his people- the Afghans. He does not rob them of their dignity even while describing their poverty and misfortune. This country nestled in the Hindu Kush mountains, has had a tumultuous existence through history. In many ways, close to us in cultural values, it has an ethnic identity that is very heterogeneous. Though the Soviets and Taliban played havoc with the country what they could not touch was the spirit of these mountain people- their determination to survive it all and emerge stronger. It is that spirit that Hosseini’s books celebrate!

And for every one of us who believes that there is a silver lining behind a cloud, reading Hosseni is a must !
Saturday, June 8, 2013 6 comments

DESCENDING FROM THE IVORY TOWER


We were at the Phoenix Market City mall. Being a weekend, this most “hyped” and newest addition to the Chennai Mall list, was like the  inside of a packed bus. Just as  I was just trying to make my way through one of the entrances ,a pretty young woman in a white dress breezed past. She was followed by a throng of people, many of whom had their phones high up in the air, trying to work their cameras and take a picture. I wondered who it was? Obviously some celebrity..!

The crowd surged making it necessary for us to take refuge inside one of the shops.  The shopkeeper, a kindly fellow, looked at my puzzled face and said by way of explanation “ Adhu Andrea Madam”.   When I continued looking puzzled he said “ Vishwaroopam- haven’t  you seen that movie?” !!! Enlightenment finally dawned!  I nodded as he beamed happily that  he had finally succeeded with this moron!

This is not the first time. It has happened to me on a number of other occasions when I have been with people who are celebrities but who I have failed to recognize- the last one being about twelve years ago when my daughter was taking ballet classes. She had made friends with a child called Subbalakshmi whose mother seemed vaguely familiar. It was not until much later when Kamalahasan in his complete mustached  “Virumandi”  self came to pick up mother and daughter that I realized that the mother was some sort of a celebrity. Another mother educated me saying “ That is Gauthami and she is living with Kamal now”.

I have often cursed myself on my dysfunctional celebrity meter.  It is quite embarrassing when an entire crowd is gawking at someone who means nothing to you at all! You wonder what is the matter with you?

But thinking back, I feel it is not so much my inability to recognize a celebrity that bothers me but the fact that I am probably very isolated from what or who  matters to the general public!  It worries me that I am losing touch with the immediate reality of my surroundings. I do not watch much of television and when I do it is only movies – English and off beat Hindi movies!  I watch some of the news channels and some cookery shows too!  When it comes to music, I listen mainly to Hindi songs   yet  I know none of the new songs.

I would like to believe that I am not some sort of an intellectual snob. So what am I ?  I wonder if it is a generational thing? Have I outgrown what passes for entertainment in mainstream media today? I find myself limiting my  friendship to people who are like me – other inhabitants of this ivory tower.  The fact that I work out of home keeps me further imprisoned here! I do go out -far out into what may be termed as “wilderness” but that is a different sort of interaction- we don’t exactly discuss movies ,politics or fashion with the people in the villages I work with!

It was therefore like a breath of fresh air to attend a bloggers meet a couple of weeks back at Chennai.  I met so many people from such different walks of life! What was most refreshing was that most of them were so young! Let me confess- this was the first time I was meeting the contemporary youth of this town.

I felt that I was finally descending from that tower. I saw youngsters as they are today! Girls who are not bashful about talking to strange young men and young men confidently speaking to the fairer sex ! Strangely, as someone who was probably among the older minority in that crowd, I did not feel excluded.  I realized what was different. We were here wearing that common cloak of the blogging  identity!

It is probably one of the biggest and most silent revolutions that is sweeping our world today. It is connecting residents of the ivory tower like me with the people who are more “in” with the times. One of the young men from that meeting called me a week ago and asked if I would be interested in joining him and a couple of others for an informal get together. The idea was to discuss the formation of a bloggers community in this town.  Well, we still have not got down to having  that meeting but I like the idea and I must congratulate the young man who has taken the initiative.

Before I sign off, I want to make it clear that I am not attempting to change myself. I am proud of who I am despite all my quirks. But what I think  is that ,as someone who is into communication, I need to  be in touch with the popular culture. It is important because it helps you understand what the pulse of the people is.

Times change. We may not like what we see now ,reveling in the glory of the “good old days”  but considering that nothing is as real as the present, I have realized the need to expand my definition of this reality. I may not be ready to give up residence in that tower but I am willing to come down for frequent outings.

Simply put – I am trying to bridge that generation gap. The blog world is one medium through which it can be done successfully  but unfortunately my experiences are probably limited to that tower and what I see from  up there. (The blogs I visit are also those of people who are probably as old as me and who think similarly)  I hope to be able to expand the scope of my writing and reach out to more people- after all isn’t that what effective communication is all about?
 
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