The Generalist

The purpose is general, the views personal, reading it optional

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Moving...

The idea of creating a new Blogger blog hasn't survived too long, because of certain features that are not available here, mainly Categories & Tags, and editable templates. So, I've moved this blog, with bag and baggage, here. Please do make note...

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

'Thank you, Mr. Glad!'

I read a Gujarati translation by Vasudha Inamdar of a Marathi novella by Anil Barve. Apparently, Barve became a celebrated Marathi author by this opening work of his. Unfortunately, he passed away in his 32nd year.

The story is such that a translation gives you enough fuel for thought and emotion. It is set in the original Naxalite movement era. A doctor-turned-Naxalite, Virbhushan Patnaik, is handed the capital punishment for killing several policemen. He is to be lodged in Rajahmundry Central Jail for a year before he is hanged.
The jail Superintendent is a Britisher, Mr. Glad, who has lived in India since the end of WW II. He lost his Jewish wife Miriam to the Nazi gas chambers. He had fallen to the feet of the Nazi soldiers who were dragging his wife away, only to be reprimanded by his strong wife to be a man. Their little daughter, Jennifer, had survived the Holocaust and since had grown into a young woman, happily married in England.
Mr. Glad is as cruel and emotionless towards his prisoners as can be, using his stick, belt and shoes as often as he can on them. He drinks a lot of whiskey every night and returns to belt some prisoner or the other the next day. It is in this setting that Virbhushan Patnaik arrives, and instantly disarms Mr. Glad by his polite but firm retorts, clearly showing that he is not just another prisoner.
Through the year, the process of transformation of Mr. Glad on his interaction with the Naxalite continues. So changed a man does he become, he spends entire days without thinking of hitting anyone, insists on the Naxalite signing a mercy petition to the President of India (which he doesn't), gives all help to the visiting wife of the Naxalite, tries to read Marx, Lenin and Mao (but is frustrated by his lack of understanding), and finally, brings his visiting pregnant daughter Jenny to meet Patnaik. The daughter is equally favourably influenced by Patnaik's courage, strength of character and his appreciation of poetry. She requests her father not to hang Patnaik, but to give him a death more fitting of a revolutionary.
The end is deeply moving as the lack of all medical help on a stormy, rainy night, forces Mr. Glad to ask Dr. Patnaik to perform a Caesarean section on his daughter. Breaking all jail rules, Mr. Glad does this, and Patnaik performs the delivery successfully. Just as he is about to enter the jeep which would take him to his death by hanging in a few hours, Mr. Glad calls him 'Comrade' and shoots him in the chest, tearfully clarifying that he had not shot him in the back. Thus, the Naxalite dies a hero's death and Mr. Glad becomes a prisoner in his own jail.
The author does not push any ideology here. The novella is not about any 'ism', but about the play of circumstances and their influence on human behaviour. Its style is appropriate, with short sentences and short and pithy dialogue. It leaves a lasting impression on the reader's mind.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

'Charitraheen'

I read a Hindi translation of this Bengali novel by Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay recently. It is a very finely etched story, too fine, in fact, for me. The emotions depicted in the novel are very fine, and I, whose emotions are too gross in comparison, could not relate with any definiteness to the story and the characters.

The novel is set in Bengali society of the early 1900's. The story has four main women characters - two major, Savitri and Kiranmayi, and two minor, Surbala and Sarojini. The former two are the ones on whom the accusation of being charitraheen (of loose character) is made. It is most interesting that all four characters are totally different. Savitri is born a Brahmin, but poverty has forced her to become a servant, doing tasks appropriate only for a 'lower caste'. She is, and remains, pure of character, and devoted to the man she loves - Satish. Surbala is Upendranath's wife. She is young, pure in character, pious to the point of blind faith in religious texts. Sarojini is educated in the Western style, and is forward-thinking, but hampered by familial circumstances and a forceful mother. She does get to marry Satish in the end, though. Finally, Kiranmayi is the most striking character of the novel. Young and extremely beautiful, she is also very intelligent and argumentative. Her emotions and desires have, however, always been repressed by a husband more intent on learning and on teaching her than on conjugal matters, and by a nagging mother-in-law. She surprises and impresses all the three main men in the novel - Satish, Upendra and Diwakar - but her life is ultimately reduced to a shambles by these unthinking men.

The three men play very important roles in the lives of the four women, but most of the time, their actions are detrimental to the women. They are orthodox, unthinking, and not in control of their emotions. Satish brings about Savitri's downfall and acts strangely with Sarojini till the end, when he brings about a final reunion of sorts on Upendra's deathbed. Upendra helps Kiranmayi a lot initially, but thinks the worst of her relationship with Diwakar, and actually causes Kiranmayi's compulsive elopement with Diwakar. Diwakar is weak-kneed and immature. An orphan, he is delighted by Kiranmayi treating him as her brother, and eventually shirks education. He acts totally irresponsibly after his elopement with Kiranmayi.

There is a redemption of all the women in the end, Savitri being considered a devii, Kiranmayi's compulsions understood somewhat and her ill-treatment regretted implicitly, Sarojini getting to marry Satish, and Surbala dying a natural death. But one feels that this redemption has come too late. Wrong done to the women cannot be righted just like that, even if the women themselves feel so.

The depiction of orthodox Hindu society in conflict with Western thoughts brought in by British rule is good. The character sketches are the best part, and their emotions, swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other, make for thoughtful reading.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

'Nirmala'

This Munshi Premchand novel has always been associated in my mind with the Doordarshan TV serial based on the novel that was telecast in DD's Golden Age of the 1980's and early 90's. However, I was too young to remember the exact story, and so I took up reading this novel.

Premchand's typical style, word & idiom usage continues here, in describing the feckless Nirmala's life. Her life has no real cheer in it, right from her early childhood when her marriage is first fixed upto her death. Forced to marry a once-married lawyer, Totaram, 20 years older to her, she finds herself in strange circumstances. Her father's sudden death changed her life this way, and she suddenly has to mind a household which has three young boys from the earlier marriage of her husband, the eldest son being a year older to her.

From then on, whatever she touched, turned out to have adverse consequences. Her husband's sister is cruel to her right from the beginning, though her attitude softens and becomes much more sympathetic toward the end. Her husband tries a lot of different things, from the noble to the ridiculous, to please her and to assuage his own feeling of guilt, but Nirmala sees through him and remains cool toward him, although serving him faithfully on a day-to-day basis. Her attempt to win over the children results in a terrible misunderstanding about her relation with the eldest son, Mansaram, and this ultimately leads to splits in the family and ultimate ruin. She even, unwittingly and by sheer chance, plays a role in the destruction of her friend Sudha's family. It's not a cheerful story to read.

What Premchand excels in is in exposing the social evils of the day, most of which continue to this day. The custom of dowry is the real turning point in the life of the child Nirmala, when her greedy in-laws-to-be refuse to marry their son to her after her father's death. In orthodox India, all morality comes down to the nature of the male-female relationship, which plays the central role here in the destruction - physical & mental - of not just Nirmala, but her entire family. Nirmala's character is, however, kept flawless throughout the novel - her desires never being allowed to come to the surface, her sense of duty, service and sacrifice always coming to the fore. Her thorough goodness is understood only in the end by her husband, foster sons and her sister-in-law, by when it is too late to remedy anything.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

'Bade Ghar ki Beti' & other stories

I am currently reading a lot of Hindi books, as much to keep in touch with the literary form of the language as to read good literature in general. This post is about a collection of short stories by Munshi Premchand.

Premchand's style strikes you the first time you read him, whether in a short story or in a novel. I think it is both a merit (consistency) and a demerit (sameness). After a certain while, the style, the vocabulary and the idioms used start becoming a bit predictable, and the story or plot itself remains of interest. This is what I thought, as a non-native Hindi reader, while reading the book.
Some of the 19 stories stand out in their plots, and I will mention a few here. 'Naya Vivaah' is about the second marriage by a middle-aged man to a young woman and the subsequent unconscious and unwilling suppression of her desires. The rediscovery of the wife's dormant desires is brought out well.

The famous 'Shatranj ke Khiladi' is a delightful read. Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali's utter callousness toward political reality in Lucknow in an age of hedonism that marked Wajid Ali Shah's reign hits you in the face.

'Do Bailon ki Katha' is unusual, in that the travails of 'mute' animals - two bullocks Heera & Moti - are described as the two animals talk to each other. The bullocks are shown to have distinct personalities. The moving story has a happy ending.

'Gulli Danda' brings out starkly the emphasis on caste differences still prevalent in India, as two people, who were gullii-danDaa friends in childhood, can no longer get back the same innocence while playing the game in adulthood because of the difference in their castes.

'Idgah' resembles O. Henry's 'The Gift of the Magi', with Christmas being replaced by Id and the couple being replaced by a little boy who, instead of buying a toy or eatable for himself, buys a useful chimaTaa for his aged grandmother from the Id fair.

The famous 'Kafan' is perhaps the best of all these stories. Two people, a father and a son, poor and good-for-nothing, couldn't care less while the son's wife dies in childbirth. Even the materials required for her last rites are contributed by villagefolk. Only the shroud, the kafan, is left, and the father-son go out in search of the cheapest possible shroud. The last shred of respect for the dead is also lost as they spend the money for the shroud on buying liquor, in a moving last scene.

'Gharjamai' is also slightly unusual in that it describes the gradual loss in the respect commanded by a resident son-in-law, as opposed to the travails faced by a wife in her husband's home. The lost respect is never regained, and the man takes it upon himself to go back to his abandoned home and start life anew.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Naini Tale - III

Holi day in a holiday
The next day was Holi (or as we Gujaratis call it - Dhuleti). We had heard contrasting opinions on whether we should move out on this day. Our hotel porter had asked us not to leave our room the whole day. In his opinion, even though the colour festival ended by afternoon, drunkards who have had a holy (or Holi) binge might be roaming the streets all day. By contrast, our taxi driver told us we would never know when this pahaaDon kii Holi started and when it ended.

After spending a cold and rainy Holi morning in the hotel, prospects for the rest of the day didn't look too good either. However, we ventured out in the taxi to the Aurobindo Ashram 1200 feet above Naini Tal to meet a relative we had not met in years. The ashram is located in a rarefied atmosphere where it was really cold and the clouds swept around you. The newly constructed quarters of the ashram were very good and we spent a couple of hours there. It seems leopards were frequent visitors there, their target being the dogs guarding the ashram. On our return, we saw a huge monolithic rock, a hill by itself, called, simply, the Bara Patthar (Anglicized version of baDaa patthar). This was where the ashram organized rappelling camps.

Weather was now deteriorating rapidly, and we took shelter in a restaurant back at the Mall for an evening meal. Thereafter, the taxi driver took us back on NH 87 to the Hanumangarhi temple, which was quite serene and offered a good view of the mountains. However, as soon as we were seated in the car to go back to the hotel, it started raining. No, it wasn't rain, it was hail. It was almost a hailstorm that ensued and chilled us to the bone, covering the entire road in white in a few minutes flat, followed by regular rain. Although very cold, we later felt this was also a good experience. We had no chance of moving out again the rest of the day.
More hills & lakes
The last day of our stay rose bright and sunny, and we were enthused to go on a day-long trip. We began, in a taxi, to Ranikhet, located roughly 60km to the north of Naini Tal, although 2000 feet lower than Naini. Wishing our last goodbye to the Naini lake, we set off. The first major town on our way was Bhowali, which was a meeting place of UP and Uttaranchal for fruit produce and consequently, boasted of a fruit market with good variety.

Our first stop was at a place called Kainchidham (kainchii as in scissors, since this village was presumably inhabited, initially, by people whose main occupation was sharpening the blades of knives and scissors). This place has a very clean and beautiful temple. Besides Radha-Krushna, Hanuman and Shiv, it is also dedicated to a certain Neebkarauri Baba, whose influence goes far and wide. According to the taxi driver, the time for an annual foot march of thousands of devotees from Bhowali to Kainchi was due. After an excellent breakfast of hot pakora-s here, we moved on.

A few kilometres on, the river Kosi started accompanying us, its clear water making its way through the rocky mountains and over smoothened white pebbles. At a certain spot on the river, there was a huge rock which resembled a frog in profile, and someone had even painted eyes on the rock. There was an old, but recently strengthened suspension bridge over the river here and it was a great place to snap some photographs. A few miles on, we came across a town of concrete houses called Garampani due to the hot water springs found here at some time. These no longer existed.

Around 30km from this place was Ranikhet, a place of considerable natural beauty dominated by an Army cantonment. Within this cantonment were large playgrounds, a children's amusement park and Army establishments. There was also the large and cool Mankameshwar temple, a gurudwara and some wool and tweed-weaving units, one of which we visited. Just outside the cantonment on the other side, near the parade ground, was an Army-owned golf links. Slightly further on was the Kalika temple, where a little girl, trained well, rang the huge bell for us and offered us prasad. After loitering around the golf links for a while, we were back on our way for the second leg of our trip for the day.

After some time was wasted due to a puncture in a rear tyre, we were back in Bhowali, this time taking the route to Bhimtal. This was a much busier road. Our first destination was Sat Tal (seven lakes). I found this lake to be the most picturesque of all - in a U-, almost an O-shape, with a hill in the middle. We spent half an hour on one of the arms of the U in a boat. The driver was very talkative and quite knowledgeable. He told us that the U represented four kunD-s - the Ram, the Sita, the Lakshman, and the Bharat. Yet another story associated with Ram's vanavaas said that on not finding water anywhere in the region even after 7 days of tapasyaa, Ram fired seven arrows in anger. Water sprang out from the seven places where these arrows hit the ground. Four of these kunD-s were now joined together, while the other three - the Garud, the Nal, and the Damayanti - were deeper in the forest. Adding to the trivia, our boatman told us that a house on a mountain at the far end of the lake was the place where the muhurat shot of the Rajesh Khanna-starrer Kati Patang was taken.

Bhimtal was our next stop. This is another large lake with an island in the middle and with perhaps the quietest waters. A walk along its periphery and a few photographs later, we were on our way to our last spot - the Naukuchiya Tal (nine-cornered lake). This was another beautiful lake, whose waters had entered several nooks and corners. Another long-ish walk along its periphery and some tea on an excellently situated small restaurant later, we finally called it a day.

A couple of hours were spent at Kathgodam where we finally boarded the Bagh Express, which deposited us in Lucknow right on time early the next morning.
(concluded)

Naini Tale - II

Salute to Corbett
The next day, the sun rose and lifted our spirits. In this weather, we could decide to make at least one of the standard tours around Naini Tal. Our taxi driver suggested we visit the Corbett National Park, and we were on our way. The route to Corbett consisted of a descent to the plains, starting from Kaladhungi (35 km from Naini Tal) and then a plain straight road to the park (48 km from Kaladhungi), the road continuing all the way to Haridwar.

The first stop was just outside Naini Tal, at a spot from where the lake Khurpa Tal could be viewed from a height. Breakfast consisted of chhole-puurii consumed in a beautifully situated restaurant in front of a waterfall. The mountainous descent quickly ended in plain country and we reached Kaladhungi, where the first stop was at the Corbett Museum.

The great British naturalist and hunter Jim Corbett made his winter home at Kaladhungi, bought some land there, and settled a lot of native Indians in a village he named Chhoti Haldwani. This house has been converted into a museum. Although aware of some of his exploits, Corbett's life was as yet unknown to me. This was made clear in detail through the illustrated story of his life in the house. The sloping roof and the wood-panelled floor of the house contained memories of Corbett and his sister, Margaret (Maggie), who lived here when the place was much more of a forest than it is today. I was heavily inspired by Corbett's pursuing of something he loved, and also by his multi-faceted personality. I ultimately bought 'The Man-eaters of Kumaon' from a Naini Tal bookshop that evening.

Situated close to this museum, in Nayagaon village, is the Corbett Falls, a moderately big waterfall. The small trek to the fall was in the midst of green, yet rocky, forest land. The fall was beautiful to look at, and the water, as clear as can be. The spot was ideal to picnic in, although that would spoil the beauty of the place. We were on our way again to the park, now along the Haridwar Road, flanked by fields of grain and sugarcane, and plantations of mango and litchi. It looked like prosperous country. Several rivers and streams also crossed our path, occasionally even at road level.

On reaching the park, we found that the next trip into the park was scheduled at 2pm, about two hours away. We made our way to the temple village of Garjia, 7km further away from the park. Garjia is actually a corruption of Girija, and the temple is dedicated to Girija Devi, the daughter of the mountains. The location of the temple is unique and extremely picturesque. It is located on a hill right in the middle of the pebble-laden riverbed of river Garjia. A small footbridge across the then-dry riverbed led to the steps of the temple. The place must be marooned when the river ran full with water.

Corbett country, Tiger territory
Two trips each day of 3-3.5 hours each are scheduled inside the park from the Bijrani Gate. For those more interested in wildlife, and looking out for better chances of spotting the tiger, there was also an overnight trip, with entry from Dhikala. On each day-trip, not more than 30 open jeeps (or rather, Maruti Gypsies) are allowed inside. Each jeep is supposed to have its own guide, who can take the jeep wherever he pleases, and according to the tourists' wishes. We had a vexing, yet humorous, time in the beginning when we didn't get a guide and the young driver coolly told us that they charged for the guide, whether the jeep got one or not. When we finally got a guide, a confused gatekeeper, who had got his gate passes mixed up, asked us where the small child was. When told that there was no child in our jeep, he got even more confused and told us we didn't make an entry for our driver! Now the drivers and the guides were all provided by park authorities, so how is a tourist supposed to make entries for his driver? As suddenly as this controversy had broken out, it died down as the gatekeeper let us go, either after realizing his mistake or being too frustrated to care.

Now making our way into the park, the guide told us the park was divided into three concentric zones: the outermost buffer zone, which also had a village protected by an electrified fence, the middle zone, and the inner 'rest' zone, where these cars were not allowed. We saw a lot of chital and a few sambhar-s in the buffer area, grazing patiently. These are, doubtless, the most common animals to be spotted on day trips.

After a short break in a large clearing where a souvenir shop and an eatery were located, the cavalcade of jeeps moved on into deeper jungle - the middle zone. A watchman's hut with a moat dug on all four sides to protect it from elephants was where the jeeps registered their entry into this zone. Dense forests were interspersed with some clearings and smooth-pebble-covered riverbeds. The jeeps splashed water all around while moving through these beds, and more deer and sambhar-s could be seen on the edge of such clearings. At a point in this forest, the jeeps stopped as we saw a dormant python lying on the side of the road, its belly swollen. According to the guide, it had swallowed a whole langur and had been lying since the previous day, trying to digest after overeating.

After some anxious moments here when our jeep had failed to start, we were on our way again. Now we were separated from the rest of the flock and moved into much deeper, denser forest. Animals were scarce, but the experience of going through deep forest was quite thrilling. The weather added to the thrill, because it had been cloudy for some time and threatened to rain. We surprised a huge male sambhar chewing its food, and after trying to run away, it posed gamely for a photo. Another female sambhar stood right there on the road for another snap. We were also lucky to see a small barking deer. On the way, we also surprised two wild boar who ran on the road in front of us before moving into the brush. On finally meeting up with a few jeeps, we stopped at a tree on whose bark a tiger had made claw marks. This was its attempt to clean its claws after a kill, and it also marked its territory this way. The rest of the trip remained uneventful, marked only by the sight of an eagle perching low and a couple on an elephant ride - the only elephant we saw. So, it turned out, it was an expensive trip, but worth it if only to experience the jungle atmosphere.
(continued...)

Naini Tale - I

This is an account of a trip to Naini Tal and other places nearby that I undertook with my parents recently. It won't make for good literature, but is enough to capture some memories. On account of my being at Lucknow, my parents had come there and our journey began from there.

Reaching the Tal
The beginning was inauspicious as the Bagh Express (bagh as in tiger, not as in garden) was very late coming into Lucknow. Fortunately, it compensated for some of the lateness during the night and we reached Kathgodam - the base railway station for Naini Tal - only an hour later than scheduled. The climb up the mountains took another hour. The road, a National Highway (no. 87), was in excellent condition.

Fickle companion
The weather remained a fickle companion throughout our four-day stay at Naini Tal. While Kathgodam, at a very low altitude above sea level, had enjoyed sunlight, Naini Tal looked gloomy under swirling clouds as soon as we reached. The whole of northern India had been in the grip of the activity of a so-called western disturbance leading to rainy weather and although the skies had cleared in Lucknow, it was a different story at this mountainous place.
The Mall and the Tal
We stayed at a hotel in Tallital, which is to the south of the Naini lake. The sudden cold weather was slightly difficult to cope with, but we decided to pay a visit to the town. The first glimpse of the Naini lake was decidedly spectacular, even in the gloomy weather. The lake is in the shape of a huge inverted comma, and all along one of its banks is the Mall Road of Naini Tal, ending toward the south in Tallital and toward the north in Mallital. Shops included several shawl and woollen stores, tour & travel agencies, eateries & snack shops, etc. Curved driveways marked the St. John's Church, the Elphinstone Hotel and other places. The major means of transport on the road was the cycle rickshaw. In Mallital is the Naina Devi temple, which gives Naini Tal its name. There is also a big playground, perhaps created by the British, for there is a cement cricket pitch right in the middle of it. Thunderclaps sounded ominously on our return journey, and we hurried to our hotel as rain threatened to come down heavily. It didn't, however, and we made our way back to Tallital bus depot for a dinner consisting of aaluu, muulii and onion parantha-s.
(continued...)

Setting the context

I hope this will be the second blog that I will maintain as a 'going concern'. My first sustained attempt at blogging has just been put to an end as that blog was meant to cover only the period when I was pursuing an MBA at IIM Lucknow.

This blog, by contrast, is not meant for any particular purpose, and will consist of some news, some views, some opinions, some descriptions, and such other completely general stuff, not burdened by the question of relevance. My time starts now!