Monday, December 26, 2011

Over Christmas: Yorkshire Madness

I’m watching the first session of the Boxing Day Test at Leeds- it’s ages since I watched cricket on TV- finishing my ice-cream, basking in the general middle-of-vacation bliss. I’d expected my English Christmas to be mostly solitary, confined to a few outings to Brighton beach and maybe one to Hove. How wrong I was.

Yorkshire has haunted my daydreams for years, and today I’ve scrambled up slippery rocks on Ilkley Moor for a spectacular view of the English countryside, to watch clouds come scudding in and settle like a thin veil on the distant hills. I wanted to see for myself the bleak, cheerless, rain-swept moors that have inspired some brilliant literature; thanks to this lovely branch of the family that I’ve just met, what once seemed like mere pipe-dreams are turning into reality. I’m deliriously happy.

Last Friday, I was met by my uncle at London Victoria and we went on to Maidenhead, where I saw a proper English house, and stayed with family I was meeting for the first time, before driving up north with them the next evening. A three-hour long drive in India would have been greeted with trepidation. Here, it is something to look forward to on the marvellous motorways where you can go full throttle without having to worry about a stray cyclist or cow. It was a treat just watching the names of places on signboards flying by, and to pretend I could make something of them in the dark: Silverstone (with a chequered flag icon beside it- I thought I was seeing some grandstands when I realised we weren’t even there yet), Sherwood Forest in Nottingham (with the trees looming in the dark), Sheffield (of which what I saw was Meadowhall, decked out for Christmas), all telling me that I was really and truly in England and that I could stop pinching myself. Three months on, you see, the incredulity is as strong as it was when I arrived.

The roads climbed uphill as we entered Leeds. December is such a cheerful month here, even if dusk sets in absurdly early. The towns are brightly dressed for Christmas and the houses which haven’t been shut down for the holidays are done up splendidly, Christmas trees all alight, a few from head to toe without looking showy. (If only some women could learn from them!) The roads are chock-a-block with cars and people; the unusually mild winter is probably bringing them out in hordes, despite the recession and consequent reticence in shopping habits. My hopes for a white Christmas have been mercilessly dashed, but I’m rather glad of the fine weather. It means we can go out for walks and I can see a bit of Yorkshire without having to be cooped up at home. I would have liked to watch snowflakes drift down softly, form white sheets on the ground and leave pretty icicles hanging off leafless branches- which is how I suppose snowfall is- but I suppose it’ll have to wait for later. It doesn’t make sense to have everything at once, after all, and what would I do without something to look forward to!

My stay at Leeds opened with a trip to a mall at York for some Christmas shopping. The Yorkshire countryside treat began on the drive to and from York, beautiful vistas opening up on either side of the road, the sun going down in a fiery blaze of colours over vast, open fields, with skies that seemed to stretch out endlessly everywhere at once. The skeletal silhouettes of trees stood out against a silky swirl of rich colours, and I knew I was going to be swept off my feet very soon. Trips to Blackburn and Birmingham were still to come; Bradford was yet to astound me with its cultural incongruity.

Leeds is a lovely city, quite a refreshing change from Brighton. The undulating roads are lined with houses that appear very bookishly English to my enchanted eyes. The sky is almost perpetually grey, and blue patches are rare. This is the kind of weather that really enthuses me, but I’m often hard-pressed to remember that over 300 days of grey weather a year isn’t exactly fun. I was caught in the rain one morning on a walk with my uncle, and I’m quite sure he didn’t enjoy the walk as much as I did. The relatively sunny south has me chuffed about the vaguest prospect of rain.

The rate at which I’m falling in love with English towns is alarming; much as I’d like to scour every inch of the country, practicality rears its ugly head. But I, for one, am going to hold on to my dreams like a limpet.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Dusk descends on the village of Falmer by half-past four every evening. The sun slips into the horizon inconspicuously, making a brief appearance before it sets. It stays blissfully wrapped up in the clouds almost all day, peeping out occasionally like a celebrity who drives past in a car with tinted windows, offering the briefest of tantalising glimpses. The hills in the distance are rapidly enveloped in an all-encompassing blue shroud, inseparable from cloud or tree. A tinkle against the window-panes tells me that it is raining- again- and a sudden barrage of loud clicks on the glass indicates the first hailstorm of the season; tiny bits of ice, nothing dramatic, melting almost as soon as they fall on the window-ledge. The slanting lines on the clear glass disappear almost as soon as they fall, but I can rest assured I’ll never be deprived of rain here. The girl who eagerly sought opportunities back home to get drenched in the rain is easily pleased here.

It has been a little difficult to get used to the idea of little sunshine or daylight; but the romantic appeal of windy mornings, grey skies and clouds looming over rolling hills easily scores over the relentless, sticky heat of tropical coastal towns (atleast for the moment). Added to it is the possibility of snow. I look up at the sky hopefully, not knowing if the large, dismal cloud overhead will dissolve in a shower of softly-falling, ethereal flakes, or simply melt into nothingness. I scan the horizon, and any unusually-coloured cloud rouses my suspicion. Half the fun, as they say, lies in anticipating things.

The blue darkness often reminds me of the Himalayas in Sikkim, and our drive up through treacherous, narrow mountain roads into the tiny village of Lachung. The slight chill that crept over me as I saw the towering forms of the mountains press close upon us was dispelled by hot, milky tea and a simple, delicious meal; right amidst the hills that I considered intimidating, I was being treated to some of the best hospitality I’d ever experienced, by people whose smiling eyes belied the extremely hard lives they lived. Dawn put an end to any lingering doubts I might have had, as the sun rose in a riot of colour at five in the morning, lighting up the snow-capped peaks and making me realise that I was in one of the most beautiful corners of the planet. Little wonder then, a few hours later when we had to set off, I couldn’t bear to leave, and felt that I had some sort of inexplicable connection with the mountains- that I wasn‘t seeing the last of them yet. The Himalayas do that to you, bring you down on your knees in veneration, hypnotise and seduce you.

England, on the other hand, is winning me over slowly but surely (not that, of course, I had any doubts it would, thanks to the Bronte sisters). The trees at Falmer have now been stripped of every single leaf, bare arms reaching upwards, silhouetted starkly in the light cast by the streetlamps that are on almost all day. Past midnight, a single star climbs up into the sky and shines softly through the branches, sometimes accompanied by a thinly-veiled moon. It has become a ritual of sorts for me to look for them, make sure they are safely up there, before I snuggle into bed. Can I confess that I feel a little disappointed when they play truant? I still have the trees for company though, and that’s a comfort.

I‘m quite sure of what I‘ve been fearing and dreading: I’ve lost my heart to this little village, and I’m not relishing the prospect of leaving it. It is perhaps too early to worry about pangs of separation, but I sometimes hope that it’ll temper my ecstasy and make me level-headed; not that there is much hope of my being entirely practical, because you have to be born grown up not to appreciate the little delights that are thrown at you even when you’re in your most unsuspecting, indifferent state. That I live in an English village with pastures and brick houses, am buffeted by cold winds on rainy mornings when I walk to university, and am likely to have one of my wildest hopes turn into reality very soon, should be proof enough that dreams come true. It would be rather silly, then, to try and ruin my enjoyment of things with caution; I’ll only have to choose carefully what I want to wish for, and it’s a dilemma I can live with.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

English Enchantment

"Is this a typically English day?" I ask a classmate of mine who has lived in Brighton most of his life. The quest for the perfect example of proper English weather has apparently come to an end, for he replies in the affirmative, and tells me that the weather will probably continue to remain so till March. Splendid, isn't it, to think of cold, windy days when you can barely manage a decent handshake and your fingers are so numb they constantly long for the comforting contours of a cup of hot coffee, never mind drinking it? The rain begins as I let myself into my room, and dead leaves are being blown off the trees outside my window. They whirl madly on the road before gathering in little heaps. Soon they'll all be gone (and I can't help thinking of The Last Leaf, but that's just me being morbid), and I can imagine the stripped trees now, stark and skeletal on moonlit winter nights. All I ask for now is a bit of snow in December. Could I be living a more enchanted life than this?

On sunshiny days- which are merely bright, but not hot, because the rays rarely manage to make their way down to earth unmolested by cold winds- we walk on the green, verdant slopes around Falmer. It is a Saturday afternoon, and hordes of people, some in blue-and-white striped tees, are walking from Falmer Station to the Amex Stadium for the game between Hull City and Brighton & Hove Albion. We leave 'civilisation' behind for the vast, open spaces that are just a short walk away. The grass is thick and manicured (a friend of mine asks if it grows that way- I need to find out if it does), criss-crossed by cobwebs that shimmer brightly as they catch the rays of the sun. In the distance, the hills arc gently against bright, cloudless blue skies, dotted by plump (or traditionally-built, as Alexander McCall Smith might say?) sheep and cattle. Roads cut through the hillsides, not in the rough, autocratic manner that they do back home, searing deep gashes into them and making them bleed, but ribboning smoothly through only where necessary. The occasional glint of glass reveals a car driving into oblivion. Are there any mysteries in these hills? They look harmless: soft, quiet and friendly. Will we stumble upon a hidden spring or a haunted Victorian mansion? The only thing of interest we do find is a memorial pushed back into the woods, dedicated in 1775 to the memory of Frederick Frankland, Esq., by his son and daughter. (The word daughter here probably means daughter-in-law: the inscription bears the names of the son and his wife, and presumably follows pre-Victorian traditions.) Groups of picnickers watch their kids play football; the shadows are beginning to lengthen and some of them are already stowing bikes and prams away into their cars.

Aimless walking brings us to the village of Stanmer. Through a line of trees, we catch a glimpse of a large building; on closer inspection, it turns out to be Stanmer House, once a proper house, now used for functions and open to the public only once a week. We save our investigation for later and move towards the imposing church that has caught our eye. It looks very English, made of grey stone, with a majestic spire spiking into the sky. We have to walk through a graveyard to reach the door of the church, and the inscriptions on the gravestones bear the names of Earls of Chichester and other 'distinguished' people. The area around the church is heavily shaded by trees; what would it be like on a rainy day, with the wind howling through the branches and the fragrance of damp earth pervading the air? (I wish I'd brought my MR James along; of course, there's always Project Gutenberg to fall back on, but without the musty odour of mottled old paper.)

We walk further into the village, past some stables and a bit of pasture-land. One of the horses grazing there approaches the fence, cropping grass eagerly and ignoring his feeding-trough; he looks up momentarily as we pass, then his beautiful brown head dips back earthwards, business beckoning. We pass a tea-room- and now I'm really and truly in Storybook England, where men in tweed suits and women in printed dresses sit at high tea, red brick houses with little white gates and smoking chimneys in the background, their village the nucleus of a wide world that may not even exist for all they care. I think back to Enid Blyton and Peterswood, where my love affair with England began, later kept alive and flourishing with the abetment of the Bronte sisters, PG Wodehouse and George Eliot.

The journey has just begun, and there is plenty to look forward to. I live in a state of eternal anticipation, thoroughly enjoying every minute of it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

England: First Impressions

I am in England, and I’d be purple all over if I tried to pinch myself into belief. It’ll take a while to sink in. In the short span of time since leaving Bangalore, I’ve seen a look-alike of Freddie Flintoff and one of Frederick Algernon Trotteville, tried shortbread and cheese-and-pickle, and drunk water purportedly from Scottish and Welsh springs. One of the items on today's agenda is finding some gingerbeer.

My journey started in the usual klutzy manner, with a briefly scary moment on the escalator when my cabin bag almost went tumbling down; it took me a while to recover, because I was obviously not in my senses when I next went crashing into a benign Englishman. He accepted my apology with a gentle smile, and if I thought I’d seen the last of him then, I was wrong; he came up behind me as I waited for the security check, and told me politely that the ladies’ queue was “over there”. I was beyond feeling sheepish at having joined the wrong queue. This wasn’t the first time I’d done it, after all.

The flight was rather uneventful. Though I did feel like we were packed sardine-style into the aircraft, I knew I was lucky not to have been squashed between rotund people. To my left sat the aforementioned clone of Freddie Flintoff, bringing out his Kindle occasionally to read a business manual. He and the Indian man to my right took it in turns to guffaw at the movies they were watching. I tried to lose myself in my copy of ‘Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman’, but for once Murakami failed to rise to the occasion- lack of sleep mingled with excitement suppressed to sobriety had made me delirious.

However, the real flavour of England made itself felt in the drive from Heathrow to Gatwick. Gentle mounds emerged abruptly out of flat stretches of land, smooth and populated by little copses. The trees by the roadside broke into autumn colours at intervals, flashes of magenta appearing in the otherwise uniform green cover. Horses grazed in distant meadows, swishing their tails as they cropped the grass hungrily. We passed some pretty, quaint cottages with creepers climbing up their walls, and it wasn’t quite difficult to imagine a highwayman go clattering up one of their driveways, wanting to see his Bess at the casement window.

As the coach made its way into Brighton, rows of neat brick houses, rather alike one another, came into sight. The winding streets of the town were quiet; as we approached the Brighton Marina, the roads seemed to come to life. People scurried to and fro laden with bags, or took a calm walk down by the Brighton Pavilion (an absurdly Moorish structure, but I need to find something out about it before I condemn it as an incongruity). I caught a brief glimpse of the sea, a nice sleepy blue, glinting in the rays of the waning sun.

The vagaries of the English weather have been slow in making themselves felt, but I know it shan’t be long before I’m talking of constant rain and the perennial absence of sunshine. With a not-too-pleasant summer having been replaced by autumn already, a snowy winter can’t be too far behind!

Distant Shores

I don't wake up soaked in perspiration any longer; at half past seven in the morning, a thick mist envelopes the trees and the highway, and a soft rain falls steadily. It doesn’t sting or hurt or drum down forcefully like tropical rain, but falls as if it was always there, a constant fixture like the air or the sky.

This is England, and I’m actually here; in a different continent for the first time, but in a coastal city as usual.

I didn’t have a first ‘memorable’ glimpse of England, closeted that I was close to the middle of the aircraft, as far away as possible from a window. I don’t know if majestic buildings rose into the sky, their spires and domes getting larger by degrees, or if a lake-dotted landscape came into view. Never mind, though: there is plenty I can do and see, and I intend to make full use of my year here at Brighton.

September is just coming to a close, but autumn seems to be here already; on the road leading away from Heathrow, the leaves are breaking into a riot of vibrant colours, the more staid greens complementing them beautifully. On walks through the campus, my new Malaysian flat mate and I are amused to note how the English girls walk around in short skirts and flimsy tops, while we bundle ourselves up in our warmest coats and prepare for a year in jeans. A brief glimpse of the sun and its soft warmth on our skin feels heavenly; it doesn’t take long for a nippy wind to arise from nowhere and chill us to the bone if we’re caught without our jackets.

My room looks out at a little brick cottage whose purpose I’m unaware of; beside it is a clump of trees at whose feet are strewn dead leaves. The slightest gust of wind sends the dry leaves floating from one of the trees. Another of its kind has already been stripped bare, and stands up like a toothless old man, robbed but proud. The trees absorb the noise from the highway and turn the roar of engines into distant swishes; I owe it to them that I don’t toss and turn in bed all night, but sleep like the dead.

Being thrown in with five new people in an apartment is an interesting experience. We’re all Asian- Indian, Malaysian, Chinese, Lebanese and Pakistani, with Turkey providing a partial European flavour. (Four of these countries are on the F1 calendar- digression.) It has been an interesting experience this far, and the abandon with which we are able to mingle with one another and talk politics and religion has almost surprised me.

The sky is turning a deep, inky blue, without the rose-coloured splendours of a tropical twilight. There is much to see, much to do, and a whole year of learning ahead.

Monday, September 19, 2011

When I first arrived at this house in Vizag, I couldn’t stand the sight of it. I longed desperately to be back in Durgapur, not because I was fond of the town, but because I was familiar with it and the house we lived in there. Vizag wasn’t new by any stretch of imagination: I had lived here for twelve years before work took me away in 2008. However, returning here involved yet another process of forgetting and learning; it might sound silly, but those who have moved frequently and lived in several houses will perhaps understand what it means to get used to new shadows, to leaking taps and trees rustling against window-panes, unusually bright streetlamps or sunlight spilling into the bedroom in the morning at an angle they’re not accustomed to.

I’d visited this house atleast thrice earlier, when I was a schoolgirl, visiting people who lived here. It felt very strange as we moved in, though; without the vaguely familiar dining-table, the elderly Bengali lady in her starched white saree, the senior from my school, this house could have been meant for just about anybody. Thin beams of light fell across the undulating floor from unexpected chinks in the windows, and a sudden movement caught in the corner of my eye would eventually prove to be a branch set in motion by a breeze. The knowledge that a snake lurked in the straggly undergrowth outside wasn’t very comforting. A sudden spell of heavy rain had set the weeds growing, and now the wildflowers ran riot amongst the carefully planted bushes of the previous occupants of the house.

Funny then, that with so many forebodings and misgivings, it took me just about a month to get used to living in this house. The nightly concerts of the insects are a treat, and I like to watch for grey clouds on the verandah, sitting on the sun-warmed steps and waiting for the rain to fall. Butterflies flit busily through the bushes, barely settling on one flower before they’re off seeking the next: how do they ever make a living at this rate? The garden is a riot of colour, and just as old flowers begin to wilt and wither, new ones take their place- it pulsates with life and verve.

I don’t know if it was all in the mind. I don’t miss Durgapur one bit now, and wonder how I could ever have thought I’d be nostalgic for it, notwithstanding its mishti and simple life. Despite having been quite a nomad, I’m in the habit of visiting every little nook and corner I know ‘one last time’, but I also know that I almost always have to move just when I begin to get too attached to a place or a person. I don’t know if it is a universal law: but it does put me on my guard, and I’m learning to enjoy life without letting the strings of attachment burden me.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Passing the Buck Forever

One more attack has come and gone, and all too familiar scenes are replaying themselves. The buck is being generously passed around, no party is willing to admit a lapse of any sort, and the miscreants are willingly claiming responsibility for the hideous act, perhaps secure in the knowledge that there are few chances of their being at the receiving end of any sort of punishment. We keep the accused in prisons, nourish them on taxpayers’ money, debate death sentences, and promptly return to the starting point.

This time, the group claiming responsibility for the blasts is one from Bangladesh. The Prime Minister has just returned from a trip to the country, and of course several pacts would have been signed. Who loves their neighbours better than we do? The sharing of the waters of the river Teesta was the point of contention between the PM and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee; it was cited as the reason for her withdrawal from the Bangladesh trip. But she isn’t the only unhappy person. The agreement on the waiver of tax duties on the import of certain kinds of textiles from Bangladesh has small-scale clothing manufacturers in India up in arms. They worry that goods from Bangladesh will flood the Indian market, and the costs of their production being lower than those here spell tough times for small Indian manufacturers.

While we persist in our efforts to appease our neighbours, why can’t we simultaneously adopt a tough stance on issues of national security? The lack of CCTVs and functioning metal detectors is just one visible lapse; using the excuse of the blast having taken place in a public area and not on the premises of the High Court is a sign of weakness. Is security supposed to be restricted only to the anointed? The verbal slugfests that immediately follow any major incident only worsen the situation, and VIPs ought to know that people are no longer taken in by the hand-holding and sympathising. Patience is running low. That no lessons have been learnt from recent incidents is extremely evident; we continue to worry about our image on the world stage and the signals we send out in the way we treat the accused. The damning statements in Wikileaks on how David Coleman Headley’s extradition was viewed only as an attempt to placate the Indian public show just how serious we are about bringing criminals to book.

India needs a drastic image change. This will not come from mere speeches condemning terrorism, but from action that accompanies and justifies the words. It’s high time we stopped being just impressive orators.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Letters from the Past

Trips to Hyderabad, though extremely enjoyable, are always slightly difficult. They come laden with their baggage of nostalgia, of sunny summer vacations whiled away in bliss, the prospect of adulthood a mere blip on the horizon that scarcely bothered us as children. The adults were there to supply us with Frooti and ice-cream, and all we had to do was figure out which movies and amusement parks we wanted to be taken to.

We're all too grown up now for our own good- it has been eleven years since all of us converged together on the house our grandfather built, its walls abundantly shaded by fruit trees. It still stands proudly on a street where most other old houses have been demolished to make way for ugly, monotonous blocks of flats, swathed in blue plastic as they await completion.

What I like best about this old house is its atmosphere- how seeped in stories from the past it seems, retaining an identity that my cousins and I can only try to understand through anecdotes coaxed out of the adults on lazy afternoons or over a long, leisurely lunch in the kitchen. Poring over photographs from the seventies, you seek in the face of the young girl kneeling amidst unknown people the features of your mother; you realise, through careful attention, that the man with the thick moustaches and the sidelocks is actually your uncle whose only claim to hair now is a thin layer of dyed frizz on a smooth, sun-browned pate.

The best stories come from my grandmother. I'd always marvelled at the manner in which marriages were arranged all those decades ago, when girls were barely educated and had little say in choosing the men they were to spend their lives with, rear children with. Several circumstances came together in these choices, and the cases I found most repulsive were those where a girl married a cousin or, worse still, an uncle. Money was scarce, and if a girl wasn't a ravishing beauty, she was married off to the first reasonably "eligible" man who came along. My grandmother thankfully wasn't in one of these abominable marriages, but of course she didn't have the freedom that we, two generations on, can boast of. She loved and respected her much older husband, but also feared him. However, there was a tenderness between them that becomes evident in her fond reminiscences of him, and letting her talk of him when the mood takes her is my way of learning about a grandfather I've never seen.

During my most recent visit, she told me of the letters Grandfather wrote her. In 1948, as trouble brewed in Hyderabad, she was sent off to Thanjavur to her parents' place. Grandfather, living a solitary life, wrote her a four-page letter everyday, and with a flourish his wife couldn't reproduce in her less articulate replies. She saved the letters (now I know where my penchant for keeping all correspondence comes from- I cannot even bring myself to clear my inbox), and I wouldn't be surprised if she took them out occasionally for a peek at them, for a waft of the bitter-sweet breeze of nostalgia.

I asked to see the letters, and Grandmother agreed immediately to show them to me, but on the condition that I wouldn't read them. Of course I wouldn't, I told her, my Tamil-reading abilities being close to zero. So she took them out of the box she kept them carefully in, spreading open the sheets off-white with age and tearing at the folds. The pages were closely covered in faded black ink, and signed in English. At the top right-hand corner, the two letters I saw bore dates from September 1948. Grandfather's handwriting was majestic; not traditional, perhaps, but imposing and authoritative in its own way. I held the fragile sheets gently, trying to embody with character the face I'd only seen in photographs.

"Sixty-three years," said Grandmother, counting off the decades on her fingers bent with age. Quietly meditative for a moment, she then closed her eyes and slipped into prayer- or maybe a dream from the days when she wore vermilion in her parting and flowers in her hair.

Friday, July 29, 2011

If the rain wants to fall at night when I'm asleep, leaving me impervious to its patter, and to squelch through a good deal of slush the next morning, so be it. I'll still be in love with it. It feels good to know that any moment, I can turn and be surprised by the gentle, hazy contours of a hill, and a cloud alighting upon it.

I think I know now where home is.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I visualise a writer's blog as a massive, solid cube that doesn't budge no matter how hard it is pushed or shoved; only a special drill can bore a hole through it, or an extra-special spell atomize it.

I seem to have lost my bag of tricks.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Awakening A Sleeping Giant

A long line of people snaked down the length of the Coromandel Express at Howrah, waiting to board the general compartments for the much-anticipated journey home, or perhaps an emergency visit. Policemen made sure the people were in queue, not pushing and shoving, a lesson thankfully learnt from stampedes that have had some terrible results in the past. Comfortably ensconced in our compartment, we had the luxury to look around and watch the crowds milling on the platform; what of those, then, who have to camp out at the station for days and nights, waiting for an elusive ticket to go home to their loved ones? The chaos that descends on a platform when a long-distance train pulls into the station is almost maddening. We have a railway system that needs to muster all possible resources to carry to and fro the uncountable number of people who use its services everyday. A large number of lives, mostly those of families’ breadwinners, are in the hands of those at the helm; but responsibility is a bitter pill. Since the departure of Mamata Banerjee from the post of Railway Minister to take charge as the Chief Minister of West Bengal, the Prime Minister has assumed additional charge of the Railway Ministry. It was only yesterday, when the Cabinet reshuffle was announced, that the TMC’s Dinesh Trivedi was named Railway Minister.

While we prepared to board our train at Howrah, the arrival of the Howrah-Kalka-Delhi Mail was announced. Did a shudder run through the crowds thronging the station? Did their minds linger on the photographs of mangled compartments and the stories of the search for survivors of the accident that befell the Kalka Mail on Sunday? The papers in West Bengal are full of quotes from the Bengal-based relatives of those on board that ill-fated train, people trying frantically to ascertain if their friends/families were aboard it, which compartments they were travelling in, searching desperately for any information at all. Two Swedish nationals were among the 67 people killed in the accident, and a third was seriously injured. Reparation will be offered, of course, in the form of the usual monetary packages. What makes this accident a matter of immediate concern is that it wasn’t a one-off mishap; a bomb blast on the tracks caused the Guwahati-Puri Express to derail on Sunday, injuring over a hundred people, and a collision between a train and a bus on July 7 at an unmanned crossing in Kanshiram Nagar, Uttar Pradesh killed 38 people and injured 31. However, life goes on as the trains continue to make mammoth journeys across the country, caution and safety left resting in the hands of the powers that be, because not everyone has the means to choose an alternative mode of travel. For the people coming from the rural hinterlands of the country, travelling far and wide for work, trains, specifically the lower-priced classes, provide about the only means of transport.

The cause of the Kalka Mail accident is still not clear, responsibility isn’t being pinned on any one party yet. The MoS for Railways, Mukul Roy, expected to make a visit to the site of the Assam incident, chose to go to Jangalmahal with Mamata Banerjee instead, claiming that the situation there was under control and his presence wasn’t needed. Dinesh Trivedi, on his first day as Railway Minister, is going through perhaps one of his toughest challenges. How do you answer the families of the deceased, what explanation do you give for three accidents in a row, all of which could possibly have been averted? Safety has to come first on any list; admittedly, there are endless kilometres of tracks stretching out all over the country, but that is why we also have a body committed to maintaining it and ensuring that people reach their destinations safely.

The blueprint for the High-Speed railway system to be in place in China by 2015 presents a study in contrast. The new Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway, equipped to deal with the snowstorms that play havoc with the system during the peak festival periods, which is also when large numbers of people travel home, covers the distance of 1318 km at 300 kmph, making a round trip possible in a single day. Empty trains travel in the morning from each direction to ensure the safety of the line, a task made imperative by the fact that these trains reach a top speed of 350 kmph. Proper and fast connectivity seems to be the top priorities of Chinese railway authorities, but in no way do they compromise on safety. They handle massive amounts of traffic, just like the Indian railways; but were a major accident to take place, would it take this long to find out the root cause of the problem and make sure it doesn’t repeat itself? Lessons aren’t learnt easily in India, though: a fault was detected in the axle of the pantry car of the Bhubaneswar- New Delhi Rajdhani Express, and a major accident was averted, but this inspection took place only at Tatanagar. The blame for the lapse was laid on the East Coast Railway.

That the different zones of the railways should work in conjunction with one another shouldn’t be too much to ask. The horrific casualties of three different accidents in one week should serve as a massive jolt to the slumber that seems to have set in. Importantly, the people concerned should accept responsibility for their areas and work towards enforcing the necessary regulations. It isn’t difficult; it just requires systematic and honest work.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011



There is something about the odour that evokes a strong urge to go spring-cleaning; to rake out everything that clutters shelves and turns them into witches' cauldrons of mixed ingredients, simmering continuously, fuelled and fed by growing heaps of prized rubbish.

I have never found it easy to throw away things or memories. I can't point to a particular moment back in time and say that was when the accumulation began. Many cherished objects haven't survived, but with the amount of shifting we've done, moving across the country and through atleast three houses in every town/city, I am glad of what has remained. I collected letters and birthday cards; I have most of the letters my friend from Bokaro wrote me faithfully, starting when we were nine. I wasn't a very good correspondent, but her letters came to me with unfailing regularity, stickers and sparkly writing all over, much looked forward to and carefully treasured. Then there was (and is) the craze for stamps; I know my collection lies somewhere in a crinkled polyethene bag, and I'll be delighted to recover it, now that stamps are getting dearer. (To all those who still write me letters, thank you!)

There have been knick-knacks of all sorts, from sepia-tinted photographs and stickers to picture postcards and bookmarks (and books, of course!). I know I'm quite a nomad, but I can't stop collecting things. I need these chunks of memory to tell me where I've come from, what I've been, and what I need to retain as I grow older.

Who says you need to be old to reminisce? Touching twenty-five, I don't know how many years I have ahead of me. But I know I have enough to tell me who has come through life with me and stayed on. I've been to school, college and work, met many people, but managed to forge just about a handful of good, strong relationships. When changes occur, I don't want them to be so overwhelming that they'll erase the past altogether. It isn't right to forget where you've come from and the people you've shared the first genuine laughs with, no matter how much you've grown and evolved.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Birds and Butterflies

The past week has been one of the most relaxing and fulfilling since I returned home in March.

The monsoon has set in- in a way- and waking up to grey skies is a major delight of my life. There is something promising about rainy mornings; the birds seem more active than they usually are, too, and butterflies run riot in the overgrown, weed-infested garden.

The heavy rains have rejuvenated the earth, and their abundance is in evidence all around this 53-year-old house. What I know from hearsay is that it was constructed for the British employees of the steel plant, and they wanted plenty of space in and around their houses. So our kitchen comes with a pantry attached to it, and opens on to a large courtyard generously shaded by neem, guava and mango trees.

Last morning, wiping sleep out of my eyes at a not-too-respectable hour, I was surprised to see a pair of woodpeckers hopping on our slightly mossy wall; one of them then flew noisily away into the jackfruit trees next door, while the other balanced itself comfortably on the wall, then realising that damp cement wasn't exactly to its taste, hastened into the branches of the neem tree overhead. You could spend hours watching the birds and butterflies at play. There are the birds with black-and-white plumage that alight on gates and electric wires, but hardly stay still for a couple of moments. The parrots seem to have abandoned us for the present, but other birds come and go, a flash of colour, a rustle and a chirp being all that I register in the tiny fractions of time for which they present themselves in a clear, unobstructed fashion.

The butterflies, surprisingly, are easier to keep track of. I know of five different varieties in our garden, by colour: pale green, yellow, a lovely violet (whose wings are black-and-white when closed in the act of sucking nectar), a brilliant black-and-blue, and black-and-orange. Perhaps some of them have grown used to my presence- they don't fly away in a hurry, and sometimes even stay still as I steady the stem of the gently rocking flower they're working on. Watching their little limbs grip the flower, their wings slide slowly as they suck nectar, is breathtaking- they're a marvel of biology and nature. The rains have been a real blessing: wildflowers have sprung out of nowhere, mauve, magenta and yellow, and the butterflies visibly have a tough time picking their hosts. The wet earth has also disgorged some not-so-attractive worms, caterpillars and abnormally large toads, but I'll save them for another time.

Mucking about in the garden, watching butterflies and trying to take pictures of them, has reminded me how little I know of lepidopterology or photography. I apparently have a lot to do over the coming week, and I'm looking forward to it. I just hope the rains are on my side!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Coromandel Journey

June isn't the best time to go traipsing through the southern depths of India. Geography and meteorology should have told me as much. However, the lure of travel after three months spent rather quietly in my remote corner of West Bengal was too strong for vagaries of the Indian climate to weaken: so a cloudy, muggy morning found us in Kolkata, crossing the Vidyasagar Setu over the Hooghly into the city to take care of some business, and then the stately Howrah Bridge, to the railway station.

Calcutta, at its best, is very sticky; on a day when the rainclouds were gathering fast and thick, the weather was almost unbearably humid. Throngs of people waited at the terminus, wiping grime away with red cotton towels or nipping in for quick baths at the not-so-clean facilities available there. Train travel in India is an arduous task, with innumerable delays, unscheduled stops and disturbances involved- you almost need an intrepid heart to embark on a train journey that lasts longer than twenty-four hours. You have to pray for good company on the train: no wailing babies or snotty children or snoring men or people who insist on eating everything that emerges from the pantry and displaying the masticated contents of their mouths during their incessant conversations with friends/family. Train journeys were fun once, when you knew endless hours of play and ice cream with cousins waited at the other end- the years have swallowed up the thrill and now present an unattractive picture of practical concerns.

The name of the Coromandel Express conjures up serene visions of a palm tree-lined island, idyllic and pristine, with the grey-blue waters of the Bay of Bengal indolently lapping the beaches. The train never passes along the coast, but courses through lush, verdant valleys watered by the Godavari and the Krishna and the thin ribbon of the Mahanadi, past emerald fields and rolling, sharply rising hills. It covers four states in its journey, travelling through Orissa and Andhra Pradesh on its journey from West Bengal to Tamil Nadu, a route that is quite a treat for the eye.

The train pulled into Chennai Central on a surprisingly pleasant, breezy evening (which made me wonder what all the fuss about the horrid Chennai weather was all about- hasty judgement!), just about 30 minutes late; almost no delay in the mammoth Indian Railways' system. We had a few hours before we took the train to Madurai, so we stepped into the city to be welcomed by the typically southern fragrance of jasmine flowers in the air. A short distance away rose the structure that houses Moore Market, a sort of flea-market that sells about everything from books to parakeets. Not finding much of interest, though, partly owing to our fatigue, we returned to the railway station to wander amidst another multitude of waiting people and munch on murukku. People slept on the floor on newspapers and thin sheets, oblivious of the noise, or drank innumerable cups of coffee. The train to Madurai arrived on time- a 'special' train for the vacations- and we were rather glad when we were finally on the last leg of the journey, coasting towards our destination.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

The Last Train Home

The neon lights flickered fitfully as Lisa walked down the now motionless escalator, one of the stragglers going home at midnight to cold dinners and indifferent beds. She and her companions, acquaintances by sight, were regulars on the last train at night, alighting in ones and twos at the stations on the North-East line. No crowds surged in to push them backwards, imperilling their exit; the bullet-like whoosh was the only sound they heard as the train chugged forward through the cavernous tunnels, being swallowed into the darkness and disgorged again, intact, by sterile, white-lit platforms.

Lisa stepped off the escalator and sat down on the nearest steel bench, sitting down with her back arching uncomfortably against the odd angular curve of the cold chair. She smoothed her brown uniform skirt over her knees and fished in her large, square handbag for one of her newly-bought paperbacks. These were about the only books she read now, fresh off the press but then gathering dust in supermarkets, spines cracked and pages thumbed by various uninterested fingers. She almost felt a sort of pity for these neglected books, lovingly sent into the world by writers who thought their fortune was made at last, but then trashed and denigrated by harsh criticism, ensuring the author was never heard of again. They were books with stereotypical covers, raised gold letters and extravagant blurbs; they didn’t make any demands on her intellect at that unearthly hour, when all she wanted to do was stumble into bed, too tired even to dream.

You read far too much, said her friends at work, when she had first burst upon them, bespectacled and glowing with the pride of her newly obtained college degree. The timing wasn’t too good for her, though- she wasn’t wanted where she wished to go, so off she went disconsolately to assist at one of the numerous fashionable shops dotting the island. There may not have been enough jobs, but there still was plenty of money. The rich continued to buy diamond-encrusted watches for their lovers, and she waited on them. She would meet some interesting people this way, she thought, and write about them. She would be discovered. All she needed was patience.

So when her slightly bemused, vaguely respectful colleagues accused her of reading too much, she had initially waved an autocratic hand at them. Reading feeds the imagination, she had said, thinking of the worlds she fled into when the demons of reality bore down heavily upon her. The idealism she worshipped was the stuff of legend, the halo she imbued herself with existed only in the world she had imagined into existence, piece by piece.

Sadly though, Lisa missed the bus when adulthood beckoned. She forgot to grow up, and realized too late that the companions of her childhood had gone ahead, leaving her behind with her own fairy dust, a grown-up Disney princess swathed in pink gauze and wearing ribbons in her hair.

The transition had been difficult, but almost complete. Realising that she was capable of love surprised her pleasantly; knowing that she could have her heart broken made life seem worthless for a while. She thought a lot, and she thought deeply. The names she assumed changed- she was no longer a Bathsheba or an Irawati, but plain Lisa. Two syllables, rolling easily off the tongue, with no quirks of pronunciation. She was getting herself a new identity, becoming a new individual. She didn’t want a sparkly tiara on her greying hair. The veneer of refinement faded as she settled into her role of working girl, imagining, in moments of romantic weakness, that she was living the life of Lily Bart without the suitors. Those who had started the journey with her had struck out on their own, going their own separate ways, meeting occasionally to celebrate spouses and jobs; she had- by some stroke of misfortune?- kept her hermetic life intact. The real and the presumed still confused her, but she was getting better at sieving the ideas presented to her, learning that the inner child that had to be guarded wasn’t physical, but purely platonic.

The last train whooshed into the station and Lisa looked up with a start. In three quarters of an hour, she would be walking home past the restaurant with its little cluster of smoking men, their cigarettes creating single points of light amidst the silhouettes of the ornamental plants that lined its front. Their beer cans would be crushed and discarded on the pavement in due course, and she would pick her way through them distastefully, muttering at their capacity for idleness, then pull up short as she remembered her own situation. Maybe they were stragglers, and perhaps she belonged with them, too. She’d know in a few years.
I've given up waiting for the rain.

The trees are listless and parched, the birds are cooing more plaintively than they normally do; the earthworms, emerging for brief spells, dig back into their burrows again, disappointed. The bank of clouds which does occasionally make its way upward occasionally from the west seems more inclined towards a pyrotechnic demonstration than a rainshower; the sun gleams with a sated smile, knowing that it won't be displaced from power for long.

The monsoons are around the corner, so says the weatherman. Rainclouds, where are you?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Working towards Change

Mamata Banerjee may have ridden to power on the back of the anti-incumbency wave sweeping Bengal, aided by her slogan of 'Maa, Maati, Manush' (Mother, Motherland, People); however, a mammoth task awaits her as she assumes office at Writers' Building. West Bengal, once the hub of culture and education, needs something akin to a reincarnation for a miraculous rise from the ashes of the fire it has immolated itself in.

The top priority of the new TMC-Congress government seems to be the rehabilitation of farmers, and rightly so. The Singur fiasco saw land taken away from farmers, but the proposed Tata Nano plant never came up. West Bengal, once a famous industrial hub, has seen a tremendous decline over the years. The belts that once provided for the inception of steel plants, thanks to their rich reserves of natural resources, deserve much better. The part of the slogan that Mamata would do well to concentrate on, then, is 'manush'.

A fierce storm last Saturday uprooted trees in our part of Durgapur and caused power lines to snap. It took three days for the electricity supply to be restored- endless hours were spent trying to identify the source of the fault, finding contract labourers to fix it, then moving around in groups from one point to another rectifying the problems. The person in charge of the maintenance office had only been shifted there a day earlier; he was clueless about the steps to be taken in case of a major outage of this sort. One of the officials was beaten up for the extremely slow response of the department; with temperatures touching forty and
insects revelling in the sweaty, still nights when not a breath of wind stirred, tempers were naturally frayed. That, of course, doesn't justify physical assault, particularly when the apathetic response wasn't one particular person's fault. Some people were not even keen on reporting the power failure- "Yeh Bangaal hai, yahaan kuchh nahi ho sakta." ("This is Bengal, nothing can be done here.")

The state apparently has a good deal of manpower. Where a job can be done by two people, there is a crowd of five or seven clustering around; men can be seen lounging around in front of small buildings that ostentatiously call themselves a sporting club or sangathan, which turn busy as a beehive come Durga Puja season, but see little activity otherwise. Long tea-and-cigarette breaks, afternoon shutdowns, addas in the shade of trees mean the loss of several hours of work. Add to it the old habits that the state is still painfully holding on- the sale of lottery tickets, the incredibly low travel costs on public transport, and the tendency to strike off work do not bode well for a state badly stuck in a time warp. Ferry rides can still cost as little as Rs. 1.50, and tram rides Rs. 4-6 in the capital city. With inflation so much in evidence all over the country, how does Kolkata manage to survive on its meagre earnings? The number of malls or high-rise buildings isn't the real index of the state's strength; people need money, food and shelter, and the vast areas of slums and street-dwellers foraging for food and sleeping on pavements tell the story of the reality that dwells behind the listening facades.

The people of the state have done their duty by voting for change- the voter turnout percentages as mentioned in the media have hovered in the eighties- and as they wake up to the realisation that they are increasingly getting left behind in the march towards progress, they will hopefully find their dormant giant stirred to activity. For industry to thrive and jobs to be created, some of the jaded policies will forcibly have to be uprooted. Change- the much talked-of poriborton- is never easy; it is fraught with difficulties are turmoil. Once the ground is prepared, though, there can be no looking back. The initial euphoria over, it is now time to seriously get to work.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

To those who've received friend requests from me on Facebook, it is me, really. I succumbed out of necessity. Call it a weak excuse, but it isn't one.

If you haven't received a request, I've only inadvertently left you out. I don't care any more about Facebook than I do about Monica Lewinsky's history, so you'll understand.

Don't rub it in. Please?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Siege of Krishnapur : A Review

JG Farrell was only forty-four when he died in a fishing accident- considering his tremendous talent and the amount of insight he brought to his books, it was a genuine tragedy.

He is perhaps most well known for his Empire trilogy, which consisted of Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip- novels about British colonialism and its effects on the colonies.

I read his Booker Prize winning Troubles a few months ago and found it extremely riveting. Though I had only a basic idea of Ireland's problems with Britain, the lack of a proper background wasn't a problem as I read Farrell's excellent novel about the Troubles of Northern Ireland. One thing that I'd definitely vouch for is Farrell's ability to entrance and keep the reader engrossed; not for one moment did I feel my attention waver, and finishing one of his books always makes me feel as if I were being torn away from a world I've learnt to know and love, despite all its faults.

I have just finished The Siege of Krishnapur. It was a strange coincidence that I read it during the week which, 154 years ago, marked the start of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 (only realising it later). The trouble started on 10 May, 1857, when a group of sepoys rebelled against the army of the British East India Company in Meerut. Discontent had long been simmering for various reasons, and the last straw came in the form of the new Enfield rifles whose paper cartridges had to be bitten off before use; the paper was supposedly greased with animal fat, which was an affront to religious sentiments. The unrest as Meerut spread gradually to various areas, including Lucknow, Kanpur and other parts of northern and central India. Farrell writes an account of the defence at a town called Krishnapur (is it the Krishnapur of West Bengal's Hooghly district?)- as I have always viewed the Great Rebellion from an Indian perspective, it was interesting, for a change, to see it with British (or Irish, to be more apt) eyes.

The Collector of Krishnapur senses trouble, and he begins setting up fortifications around the Residency in the form of much laughed-at 'mud walls'; the British population in Calcutta is amused at his caution as he goes visiting various important people to advise them of the brewing trouble. His warnings are not taken seriously, but he perseveres with the fortification of the Residency, thus dividing the British in the area into two groups, those who are for caution and those for assault.

Gradually, though, in the face of the mounting attack from the Indian sepoys, the Britishers are forced into shelter at the Residency, turning the place upside down with their various possessions scattered about amidst the Collector's prized trophies from the Great Exhibition at Hyde Park. The women are herded into the once-serene billiard room, while the others occupy various other nooks and corners. That the situation outside the walls of the Residency is delicate and there will be a paucity of food and water does not bother its refugees; they persist in maintaining their class distinctions. Petty fights break out among the women over the use of the one maid available; they persist in ostracising the 'fallen woman' who has been talked out of committing suicide and been persuaded to take shelter in the Residency.

Farrell's skill is evident in the strength of the characters, each of them being endowed with just the right attributes that serve to make them what they are, leading to their glory or doom. No one is absolutely good or bad, but in fact possesses the mixture of qualities so apparent in people all around. The Collector, struggling with the need to stay composed in the face of adversity, maintains a tenuous relationship with the cynical Magistrate. The doctors Dunstaple and McNab are diametrically opposite in nature; the one happily kind and comforting, the other a dour Scotsman, the tension between them reaching a climax as one of them goes into decline. Louise Dunstaple and newly-widowed Miriam Fleury forge a friendship based on necessity, grudgingly accepting the 'fallen' Lucy Hopkins and fearing the attraction she exerts on the men of the cantonment. Harry Dunstaple, young and eager to find himself in the middle of action, finds his lot thrown in with the poetic George Fleury, to whom everything must take the shape of words, and who tries to demonstrate his love for Louise as well as he can in the rather constrained circumstances.

The most haunting character, the one that really lingered on in my head, was that of the Padre: walking around distributing tracts, protesting against the heathenism of the natives as he saw the religion he couldn't comprehend (living in Krishnapur, as he said to himself, named after a heathen god himself), spouting theology viciously at the Collector as he tried to grapple with more earthly issues in the offal-strewn lawns of the Residency. He dug graves for the dead before they began to be dumped into a well, and grudgingly granted Father O'Hara a plot for his Catholic dead; spectre-like, he walked around in the early hours of dawn, praying for deliverance and marvelling at the magnitude of the sin around himself.

Honest, earthy and moving in its depiction of human nature, The Siege of Krishnapur definitely ranks among the best books I've ever read.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The only green wave that is spreading across West Bengal is that of Mamata's victory. On Sunday, the local sports club- housed in a squat yellow building with a corrugated asbestos roof (which doubles up as a kindergarten in the morning)- celebrated the trounce of 34 years of Communist rule. A large Indian flag was strung up between two poles, a tree was draped in strings of green bulbs and a small plot of land across the road was taken over for a little party. All day long, the club played Rabindra Sangeet- the melodious celebration of life in Tagore's words- never mind that I understand very little Bengali, just standing there by the hibiscus tree in the afternoon and listening to mellifluous voices herald change was an experience in itself. The feeling of victory and relief was palpable- the change that Bengal has so long waited for is finally on the verge of happening.

The small rooms that house other unions/offices a few hundred metres away still have their members gathered around tables on rickety chairs in the evenings, stern portraits of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and BR Ambedkar eavesdropping on these discussions. The Congress will be in the government with the TMC, and there apparently is much to talk about.

The local 'square', after having thrown around some green powder in revelry, has returned to normalcy. It is business as usual for the vegetable-seller, the butcher, the stationer, the dry-cleaner, the restaurant and the various shopowners. (Yes, we are extremely self-sufficient here in our corner of the world.) The plump brown man with tiny eyes and the brown checked shirt, open at the collar, sits in front of his wall-mounted fan in the corner store. His shop stocks about everything from tamarind candy to croissants. In the dusty caverns of his dark, narrow store lie mounds of rice and pulses and detergent. He wraps up our purchases and nods with cheerful pessimism when we ask him how much longer the heat will last.

"Three months," he says with masochistic pleasure. "When the rains arrive, the heat will subside but the humidity will rise," he explains in his Hindi generously flavoured with Bengali, wiping away the beads of perspiration forming relentlessly on his forehead.

The thunderstorms have disappeared, and the weeds that grew profusely as a result of the sharp rainshowers are beginning to look jaded. Green is rapidly turning to brown, the asters have all been scorched to death.

All eyes on the skies. The monsoons are around the corner. Aren't they?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


I filled in a rangoli one sunny morning:

The rain gods, however, had some plans up their sleeve that afternoon:

Surprisingly, I didn't mind it one bit. It goes to prove that all is as well as ever and I love the rain just as much as I did six years ago!

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

What Makes News?

The news of Osama bin Laden's killing yesterday swept everything else off our news channels.

The search for the missing helicopter carrying Arunachal Pradesh CM Dorjee Khandu was forgotten, as was the Air India pilots' strike. The political hysteria that would normally have looked forward to the election today in Singur and Nandigram- two important cogs in the West Bengal wheel- was conspicuous by its absence. The IPL has taken a backseat, as have Kate-and-William's honeymoon plans and the Canadian elections- if they were ever in the picture.

Who really decides what should actually be on the radar of news channels and other media outlets? While it is true that bin Laden's death is major news that will have wide repercussions, was it entirely right to shut out all domestic news in favour of debate and discussion on Operation Geronimo? That India has a lot to worry about in terms of security is nothing new, and analysing the aftermath of the American operations in Pakistan is indeed imperative considering India's geographical and ideological situation. This, however, doesn't mean that life will not go on as usual.

News channels tend to go on an overdrive whenever things remotely of note happen; they have of course upped the sensation levels now that the nearly ten-year-old struggle following the terrorist attacks of September 11 has reached its climax. This still doesn't warrant the blinkered news coverage that was on offer on every single news channel. What happened to unbiased reporting and global coverage? The British media went crazy over the royal wedding, but the BBC did manage to squeeze in a few minutes of international news even as Mishal Husain wielded the mike for hours with the wedding pomp and pageantry for a backdrop.

The constant coverage of the operation leading to bin Laden's death had its moments of bloopers- newscasters kept confusing Osama with Obama. (I admit it must have been a pretty hard day at work for them, repeating the words 'in fact' and 'actually' everytime the camera panned on something they didn't have a script for.) The quality of news broadcasting is determined not just by the people who host the shows, but also by the content. Judging from yesterday's hoopla and the evident lack of original content, our news channels have a very long way to go.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Mrs. Dalloway- A Review

When I first read Virginia Woolf, I wasn't perhaps in the right frame of mind for it; I let frivolity and impatience cloud my first-ever reading of a stream-of-consciousness work in To The Lighthouse, and didn't treat it with the respect it deserved.

Now, having read Mrs. Dalloway, I am in awe of Virginia Woolf. The clarity with which she puts forth the convoluted workings of the human mind are astounding- the various characters who weave themselves in and out of one another's lives as Clarissa Dalloway prepares for her party come together in an intricate tapestry, and how real it seems!

Clarissa Dalloway, recovering from an illness, goes about preparing for a party, reminiscing as she does so over the circumstances that led her to marry Richard Dalloway instead of Peter Walsh, the man with whom she walked the woods and had innumerable arguments. She dwells over her love for brash Sally Seton and ruminates on the kiss they once shared. As she sits mending her torn dress for the party, she is visited by Walsh- now back from his long stay in India, unhappily married, and now in love with a married mother of two. She invites him to her party; he is not sure he should attend. Her husband brings her flowers as he returns from lunch at Lady Bruton's; smarting at not being invited, she asks if she was inquired after. She stands uneasily with Miss Kilman, her daughter's German-born teacher who detests parties and finds solace in religion and food.

Woolf picks people off the streets of London and examines their lives. Fresh from the First World War, people are still putting their lives back together; Septimus Warren Smith, sitting on a park bench with his Italian wife, is pondering over his crimes. He will not get a patient hearing, however, because the two doctors who examine him have diametrically opposing views, and what he does with himself in the course of the day carries its own reverberations to Clarissa's party. She is angered that the misfortunes of a man she doesn't know should inflict themselves on her party in the shape of the doctor and his wife who arrive late, bearing those sad tidings- but she is convinced that the party is a success. Peter Walsh is there, as are Sally Seton and her elderly aunt. Why, the Prime Minister is also present, being talked of with a sort of awe in hushed tones.

The minute examination to which Woolf subjects her characters is admirable. Splitting the day amongst the people who populate Clarissa's life directly or indirectly, she drifts in and out of their heads, tackling the themes of suicidal depression and homosexuality, and life in general. Slights, disappointments, jealousy, inexpressible happiness- the vagaries of life and human reaction to them are duly dealt with. Can't you just see yourself there, in transports of bliss one moment, grappling with trivialies the next? The past presses upon us even as we make our way into the future, the present manufacturing memories that combine and occupy their niches in the subconscious, dormant until roused to sudden activity by the smallest stimulus.

Mrs. Dalloway is a book to be absorbed and dwelt upon- and re-read.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Winds of Change?

I'm sitting by an open window in our several decades-old ground floor house; the rain-cleansed wind bears in the mild fragrance of flowers that have just bloomed. It also carries in the voices that call for change not too far away, petitioning for the valuable votes that could swing the balance in their favour.

West Bengal is in the midst of the Assembly elections, and with just two of six phases completed, Durgapur awaits its turn to vote. Campaigning is on in full swing, and party flags are visible in abundance; loudspeakers broadcast Mamata Banerjee's indignant voice perhaps protesting injustices and calling for change. West Bengal has seen three decades of Communist rule, but the tide just might turn this time around. The trouble with Singur and Nandigram, pitting development against the displacement of large sections of the population, put the government in a dubious situation. It also continues to grapple with Maoist violence and poverty.

As an outsider, I am probably not entitled to sweeping observations. However, from my observations of Durgapur, it is extremely evident that the state desperately needs to change for the better. Development is conspicuous by its absence. The industrial belt of Burdwan district by no means is opulent, and much needs to be done to improve the standard of living. Durgapur boasts an NIT and a new spanking mall endeavouring to bring major brands to the town. Education need not necessarily beget consumerism, and efforts need to be made towards improving the lot of those riding cycle-rickshaws (with corpulent women more often than not, as one cannot help but notice) for their daily wages. The metal buses jostling against one another on narrow streets, precariously teetering under their weight, need to be replaced with effective modes of transport. Vegetable vendors sit under tarpaulin sheets, a single light bulb hovering overhead; where do they go when the sudden summer storms strike the town? Do the party symbols painted on the crudely whitewashed walls of low two-storey buildings promise them any hope?

The campaigners continue to make their winding, fervid speeches; may the best people win, and not renege on the promises they are at this moment making.
This is a house of variety.

Within its ancient walls flourish trees of hibiscus, mango, guava, jackfruit, lime and bel; the straggling grass growing over the hard brown soil has its monotony broken by violet and white asters and yellow wildflowers. Outside the walls, bordering the narrow road, are tall trees with white boles that spread their arms out to the sky in a welcoming embrace. There is a solitary leafless tree, a dark silhouette against the cheer and yellowness of summer sunshine- it has remained so for a while now, surely it isn't dead?

Birds abound; why, you can even spot the lone woodpecker tapping busily on a bark, blissfully lost to the world. Koels call out to one another with cheerful regularity- call and answer- with chirrupping dun-coloured birds hopping across the bed of leaves on the ground adding to the chorus. The backyard is occasionally brightened by a flash of colour; a flock of parrots alighting for a grub, before flying off together to perch on the upper branches of the trees outside.

At times, it isn't difficult to imagine that if I turned around, I would find the house actually perched on a ledge overlooking a verdant valley, watered by a sinuous blue ribbon- and behind me, a looming mountain face, brown and hard but gentle, its slope generously sprinkled with Alpine vegetation. We are about ten hours away from Siliguri and the Himalayas- in winter, icy winds blow through this little town. Now, in these months of heat, clouds creep up quietly (even as we sing the raaga Amritavarshini, hoping to add our prayers) and gather in grey masses tinged with the pearly luminosity of sunset. There is a bit of lightning, a spot of thunder, followed by perhaps a drizzle or two, and just sometimes, a very heavy downpour, sending trees crashing down upon the roads and strewing leaves liberally on parked cars and brave pedestrians. You can see, then, that I'm not too far from a delicious scary story setting either, not in this rambling old house with its blue doors and years of history.

The stock of books laid by for the long summer is being actively dipped into- but because it grows at a faster pace, I do not despair of being left without reading material. Reading The Woman In White has rekindled my romance with thick, winding family intrigues, and I look forward to The Forsyte Saga.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

The Bus to Nabadwip

Dawn is just breaking in the eastern steel town of Durgapur on this delightful Sunday morning, different from the rest in that India has just won the Cricket World Cup and this unpretentious little town is in the grip of a pleasant hangover. The hard mud on the streets is stained with colour, and posters of various members of the Indian cricket team at different stages of their careers flutter in the balmy morning breeze.

At the small, shabby bus-stop at Benachity, there is no news-stand; or perhaps there is one whose owner is still lying in a victory-induced stupor, reluctant to be awakened from his thrilling dream-like reality into the more pragmatic demands of his work. The compact, colourful, slightly dubious-looking bus we have just boarded creaks and groans as the passengers trickle in, settling themselves on its very tiny seats. The driver and conductor linger outside in the fresh air for a last whiff of their cigarettes before shutting themselves in for the long, rather unsettling five-hour drive on not the best roads in the country.

A festive atmosphere is palpably visible even on the almost deserted streets; last night’s revelry has left clear signs of the transports of delight that this town has been sent into, thanks to the exploits of a bunch of much venerated men on the cricket field. As always, sport has proved its ability to unite and uplift, and what can be more fitting in India than securing the most prized possession in the game played in every street, nook and cranny of its tiniest village! A bus passes ours, accoutred in festal adornments, a largely blue poster of Indian cricketers pasted on a corner of its windscreen. Elsewhere, ashes lie thick on two clay lamps on a platform, in front of garlanded, tilak-adorned posters of Zaheer Khan and Sachin Tendulkar- the prowess of the cricketers on the field has indubitably been aided by plenty of prayers.

The bus sails down a section of the Grand Trunk Road, NH2, before taking a detour- which actually lasts almost the entire length of the journey- through various hamlets in West Bengal’s Burdwan district. (Burdwan was actually Bardhaman- I assume an Englishman couldn’t have cared less about the correct way to pronounce the name of an obscure Indian district during the long years of colonialism.) On the highway, this early, vehicles are few; predatory birds swoop down on carrion- probably a stray dog startled by a truck rearing down on it full throttle. Automobile repair shops begin to raise their shutters slowly and send out for their first tea trays.

The ancient springs and joints of the bus creak with the shrillness of a bird in captivity as it jolts over practically non-existent roads, stopping with a sudden jerk in the middle of nowhere to pick up a passenger. We are in the heart of rural India, which, though untouched by much progress and hard-pressed to eke out a proper living, sees tea stalls displaying bright packets of potato chips and sachets of shampoo concocted by foreign experts. A man goes out to relieve himself on a thinly wooded slope; elsewhere, women gather dung in baskets and pat it onto the mud walls of their thatched huts. The drying fuel bears imprints of the fingers of their work-calloused hands. The ’road’ presses past cowsheds where men are having their first glasses of tea, and a warm, not unpleasant dairy odour wafts in through the open window. Breakfast is being made ready in tin-roofed shanties, golden jalebis and samosas sizzling sibilantly in large, soot-blackened frying-pans. It is a hard life here, but these men and women work uncomplainingly. Their brown faces break into ready smiles, and they don’t frown or wince as they pack themselves tight, skin rubbing against sweaty skin, paunch getting in the way, in these tiny buses (or on top of them). The women wear the brightest colours imaginable, their washing fluttering in the wind or spread out to dry on grassy slopes consists of sarees in the loudest hues of yellow, purple, orange and green. They bathe in small muddy ponds and wring their clothes out in the same infested water; these are the people who will play a major part in deciding the future of the state in the forthcoming elections. Greedy vote-seeking frenzy is in evidence on the walls of low-roofed buildings in the shape of crudely-painted party symbols and slogans. Party flags, alternating with the Indian tricolour brought out for the World Cup, are stretched out between poles. What has been done or will be done to improve the lot of these villagers is an open-ended question- the most untrained eye can see the lack of basic amenities in these villages even during a fleeting trip through their roads.

The sun is beginning to rise in the sky and tinge the cool morning breeze with its warmth. The sky is a cloudless, hazy white, forming a pretty complement to the dazzling green of the paddy fields. The smooth low carpet is furrowed by brown irrigation channels, and out of the seeming smoothness startlingly rise small copses of trees- which came first, the trees or the fields? The countryside is generously dotted with ponds, their surfaces glistening and untroubled in the distance, but textured by ripples as they come closer and catch the rays of the sun.

Village follows village on this narrow trail, and occasionally the bus breaks out in relief on an almost unhindered course on a series of potholes, the only obstruction coming in the form of stray goats that wander into the path of “civilisation”, before squeezing itself into yet another hamlet and rubbing shoulders with cycles and motorised rickshaws. The bus halts for a while at Katwa and allows a number of vendors to come on board: ’Pepsi’ in orange, cola and lemon is being sold in the shape of ice candies in narrow tubular plastic covers, as are various other candies, the wares being called out in Bengali in strident, confident tones. Having disgorged most of its burden, the bus sets off again with that last, heartening burst of enthusiasm that comes from knowing that the destination is not far away. Alas, this is the worst stretch of the journey, the most nerve-wracking and joint-wringing of all, and it is with mixed feelings and slightly enervated enthusiasm that we disembark at the rickshaw-stand in the pilgrim town of Nabadwipdham.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Walking Down Bhiringi

When you land in Durgapur, fresh from the sanitised ostentation of Bangalore and the politically charged flag-waving cheer of Kolkata, the sudden quietness of this peaceful small town comes as rather a shock- especially when you realise that this place is going to be home for the next six months. You can no longer complain about there being too many malls in the city, exorbitant auto fares and boring weekends. The numerous trees, clean and well laid out roads and abundant numbers of birds should rightly be more enjoyable than all the trappings of urban living; I admit, then, that three years of living in three different cities have effectively ruined me for a quiet life out on the prairies or the moors (like I'd once hoped to have).

I'd like to conveniently rest part of the blame on living with people my age- you can't even watch Splitsvilla with your parents, let alone curse the copious amounts of inanity on it- but on the flipside, you don't have to worry about which take-away your next meal is coming from, so all's well. Now that I have plenty of time on my hands, I can introduce you to Durgapur. And we begin our virtual tour at Bhiringi More, which opens into a street lined with shops and populated by that portion of Durgapur which isn't flocking to the newly opened Junction Mall.

The shelves in the display case of 'Khawa-Dawa' are lined with metal trays; a man carries in a tray of syrupy brown gulab-jamuns and spills them into a waiting plate. Fingers splayed, he rolls his hand on the sweets, spreading them out, all notions of hygiene thrown to the wind. A customer scratches his ankle with his key before attacking his ras-malai, while his son points to a heap of fly-encrusted mysore-pak. My sanitiser-toting self cringes; but it is a generally accepted truth that food cooked and eaten in unhygienic conditions is delicious, provided you're prepared to ignore the after-effects.

The lights flicker and go off. Emergency lamps, giving out thin slivers of neon light, are turned on to brighten the dingy interiors of not-so-welcoming hardware shops and restaurants. 'Kwality Lodge' next door promises 'veg., non-veg. & delicious food' at the restaurant downstairs- quite a choice there- as floral curtains billow on the balcony in the breeze rising gently now, revealing doors behind which perhaps a budding writer is hard at work. (Yes, I am thinking of Rusty!)

In this part of Durgapur, Bhiringi, the roads are chock-full of pedestrians, rickshaws and two-wheelers. Occasionally, the outrageously coloured cuboidal tin boxes on wheels that pass for 'mini-buses' lumber by; they are packed with people sitting or holding on for dear life as they press against one another in the narrow aisle. The single door is always half-open, kept suspended in mid-air by the agile body of the conductor who calls out for people to join the merry fraternity within the bus. It lurches to a stop without warning, disgorging and swallowing, unleashing frenzied cries from pedestrians and passengers alike. If you're on a two-wheeler, you're sure to be reminded of the "accelerator-clutch-brake" advertisement on TV.

The shops are colourless, much like one another and uninspiring. Dust lies thick on the plastic sheets clothing stuffed toys and the glass counters displaying knick-knacks. A brand new furniture shop, freshly whitewashed and splendidly lit (and evidently provided with a noisy generator), stands out like a resplendent beacon of hope- of what exactly, I cannot tell at this point. A spooky, vine-covered building hulking in the dark turns out, on closer inspection, to be a school; it could well have emerged unscathed from the 1857 Mutiny. The general vapidity and uniform boredom of the area would make an early twentieth-century Main Street in Oklahoma sound like paradise. Some day, though, this place will awake with a start and spring a surprise. I know I should be revelling in the quiet and that not too long ago I raved over the advantages of small-town life. So I'll also warn you now about the difficult transition it can be, when you move down from a city that houses JustBooks, HRC and a house full of boisterous girls.

As I write, an unseen vehicle mounted with a loudspeaker is passing by, extolling the virtues of Monday in Bengali (or so I think). We're waking up already!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Living Off An Imagination

Roddy Doyle thought thus about receiving books as presents when he was ten: "Books weren't presents. I loved books, but they were a bit like food. I loved chicken, but a leg in wrapping paper would have been a huge disappointment." (Look here for the full article.)

I have always loved receiving books as presents. I just realised that when I mentioned that the volumes of Muriel Spark given me by Airborne marked the second time someone had gifted me books, I was wrong. At the end of Class 1, when we were moving away from Bhilai, my class teacher gave me two books; one a children's dictionary and the other a book of short stories.

I have no idea why she chose to give me books instead of a game or a doll as other people were wont to, but I think she was a very wise woman. On a long day alone at home (and newly unemployed, I'm going to have several), there is nothing that keeps you company like a book and your imagination. The book of short stories carried the tale of a princess who loved good things to eat and was thrilled by Turkish Delight, and for some reason I interpreted it as a whole recipe. I was determined to make it at home- I had decided it was something akin to pink-coloured, rose-flavoured ice candy- and I got as far as making ice cubes. I had not the vaguest notion of how to proceed from there, and whiled away the rest of the afternoon sucking at the ice cubes and hoping they'd somehow turn pink and rose-flavoured.

I could have been excused at that age for such ill-informed ideas; but what got into me during one summer vacation when I was fourteen or fifteen, I'll never know. I had grand plans to make reasonable inroads into my father's vast library; I ended up reading only two books in those two months. One was Larry Collins/Dominique Lapierre's O'Jerusalem- I read it very eagerly, appalled and enthralled by turns at the courage of the people fighting for what they believed in, and the means to which they were prepared to resort. I finished it pretty quickly and began Frederick Marryat's The Children of the New Forest, and I still blush to think I took so long to finish it. Part of the blame I can conveniently lay on my imagination- in the dim, curtained room, door closed and AC turned on, it was very easy to believe you were in the depths of a thick forest, the light barely let in by heavy foliage, fighting Roundheads with simple handmade weapons and weeding small plots of land. I stopped short at imagining I was having wild boar for dinner, because my vegetarian sensibilities rule over the romantic.

It isn't always easy to adapt a book on film, and several movies manage to warp the very idea of the book and create cardboard characters who seem the very antithesis of their originals in the book. Watching a movie made out of a book can be a very traumatic experience particularly if you live and swear by the book. Looking up adaptations of Little Women this morning, I stumbled upon a 1978 version, where the actress playing twelve-year-old Amy looked older and wiser than I do at this ripe old age of mine. An adaptation of Anne of Green Gables featured a pedestrian-looking Anne Shirley, without the spark of the eyes or the vim of speech that makes the legendary redhead the heroine that she is. An insult to the writer's imagination is what I call these shoddy adaptations.

Skipping lunch and writing this makes me feel a bit like Jo March, but I don't have a garret, apples, or a wonderful idea for a story, so I'll just rise now and betake myself to my simple lunch of cold rice, curd and potato chips.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Visitor

This article reminded me of a visitor at home in Vizag ten years ago.

On a train journey from Vizag to Hyderabad, my father met a few Sri Lankan people who were in India for some sort of navy-related training (that I cannot correctly recollect). He was coming to join my mother and me in Hyderabad, from where all of us were supposed to go back to Vizag together a couple of days later. It was rather a surprise, then, that the Sri Lankans were also travelling back by the same train. I had never spoken to any foreigners, and I was pretty excited at the chance to meet people from abroad and know what they thought about India. I didn't ask any profound questions, I just wanted to know if they'd enjoyed their stay here, and was delighted when they told me they had.

A few days later, one of the men from the group visited us at home. My father picked him up at the bus stop where he'd alighted, and as soon as my mother opened the door, prostrated himself full-length at her feet. "In our country, we venerate women," he explained, and insisted on calling her Mother. He referred to me as his sister- "I don't have a sister, but now I feel God has given me one."

He was of average height, with a serious face and a beard. He wore glasses on a string around his neck. This was around the time when Afghanistan was in deep trouble, and the Bamiyan Buddhas had just been destroyed. A Buddhist, he had been shaken by the incident and asked to see the newspaper as talk veered around the destruction of the Buddhas- he pored over it seriously, at the gaping cavities in the sun-backed rock where the statues had once proudly reigned. He was evidently disturbed, and his already reticent self seemed much quieter.

In a while, he handed my mother a light green tin of apricot-flavoured Ceylon Tea, saying this was something that was to be expected from a visitor from Sri Lanka. He rose to leave, prostrating again at my mother's feet, and saying quiet goodbyes. He called us once later to thank us, but we haven't heard from him since.

A decade has passed, and things have changed so much around the world, in the countries around us, in Sri Lanka and India. Afghanistan was followed by Iraq, the tsunami struck in 2004 and killed thousands of people, the LTTE was routed a couple of years ago, the fishing boundaries between India and Sri Lanka and the rehabiliation of Tamil refugees continue to be dicey questions. India grapples with its own domestic problems and corruption, and struggles to bring to book criminals who rape and plunder in broad daylight but evade punishment for long periods. If ordinary people can get along with one another and make things work, what really goes wrong at centres of power?

I don't know where our visitor is now, but I do hope he is happy and flourishing. Our bilateral ties with Sri Lanka might be steady, but a lot of work needs to be done on the points of contention. We need to move beyond mere civilities now and work with our neighbours immediately to improve the situation in the region.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Grudges and Discoveries

One of the few pleasures of work is a browse at the bookstore in office. Push open the door to this other world, inhale deeply, and you immediately shut out the noise of the clanking glasses at the juice kiosk and the relentless chatter of the crowds thronging the supermarket. Lunch, however, isn't always the ideal time to go in if you fancy being alone with the books, for there will always be those idiots- yes, I said it- asking at the counter for Chetan Bhagat, when their uninviting spines are already staring them down in the face from the shelves in the Indian authors' section, ranged alongside the more smug types like Shashi Tharoor and Arundhati Roy.

It takes all kinds to make the world, though, and none of us is above the occasional leave-your-brains-behind easy read, so I'll move on to my next, more reasonable grudge- people who talk loudly on their cell phones in the otherwise quiet confines of the bookshop, or worse still, let them ring loudly on. Why anybody should be interested in their ring tones I really don't know. A bookshop should be as sacred as a library when it comes to peace and quiet, but the fact obviously sails smoothly over some people's heads, so they'll laugh and giggle and organise games of tug-of-war in the aisles when you're trying to find a quiet corner where you can forget your latest confrontation with your team lead.

Despite these aberrations, though, the bookshop is still a happy place, thanks to the discoveries you can make. You must know the joy of having coveted a book very, very long and suddenly realising that it is no longer as expensive as it once was- and then you're prepared to worship the hordes of people who've conveniently ignored Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene in favour of Stephenie Meyer. I stumbled upon hardcover editions of The Heart of the Matter, Brighton Rock and Vile Bodies in this fashion. (Only Decline and Fall remains unbought, and I'm going to get a copy very soon.) They were sold at throwaway prices for hardcover books, the original price being a prohibitive GBP 5.99. Only Christopher Columbus could have been slightly more ecstatic when he "discovered" America, but on that particular day, you could easily have spotted the happiest person in the world.

However, I did make another discovery today which was by no means as heartening. A sudden impulse to revisit Heidi made me look up the Wikipedia page, and I discovered that its English translator, Charles Tritten, had taken it into his head to write sequels about Heidi's life as an adult, and about her children as well. I read an abridged version of Heidi when I was around seven, and Heidi has more or less stayed the same age to me. I definitely do not want to think of her as an adult with a family of her own.

One of the charms of the books we read as children lies in the eternal youth of their characters. I have never enjoyed the sequels to What Katy Did or Anne of Green Gables as much as I enjoyed these wonderful celebrations of the captivating innocence of childhood. It's bad enough for me to have to grow into an adult- so why on earth would I want to be bothered with Anne's fretting over her children's attacks of whooping cough? Childhood is about abandon and having somebody else worry for you, trusting and liking everyone you know, throwing tantrums and being ingratiated. Watching young boys and girls grow into adults in books is a premonition of the future, of the distant days best avoided as long as possible (which, with the endearing ineptitude of childhood, you don't really realise till you're a full-fledged grown-up). These chronicles of adulthood should be saved for their readers' own adulthood, when people begin asking why on earth they would want to read juvenile fiction- oh the travails of life!

Only JM Barrie really understood this, and if I knew where Neverland was, I'd be getting on a plane this very moment.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Power to the People

For a change, the cricket World Cup is taking a backseat on Indian news channels.

While the Centre and various state governments have long been guilty of or struggling with scams, corruption and social unrest, there now seems to be a sudden spurt in efforts to bring the culprits to book. Whether they will endure and be brought to closure is yet to be seen, but any step forward is welcome. However, as the investigations proceed, it is evident that the rot runs deep; the scams have resulted in massive losses to the exchequer, and with evasive replies and cover-ups, the government is not helping its cause. The Prime Minister's press conference was a disappointment. No substantial answers were received, and if anything, it only threw up more questions on the methods through which the wrongdoings of various parties would be reversed. Equating the financial losses to subsidies and pinning the blame for corruption on coalition politics are examples of a weak defence. It smacks of the idea that the only intention of those in power is to stay there at any cost, and the interests of the people do not come into consideration at all. If this is the way a democracy functions, it makes you wonder what the countries in the Middle East agitating for democracy are in for. Stabilising a democracy is by no means an easy task, and considering the responsibilities the new governments will have to take up, the road seems to be going only uphill.

Interestingly, while the Middle East grapples with political problems that involve dethroning the existing leaderships, Belgium is facing a situation of an entirely different nature. The political impasse since last June's elections has gone on for 250 days now, which means the country has existed without a government this long. It now holds the dubious distinction of having had no government for the longest period in recent times, taking the mantle from Iraq. While this has been a source of some hilarity in Belgium, it isn't quite the ideal situation, the differences between the Flemish and the French areas asserting themselves and preventing political stability. How much authority does a caretaker government assert, after all? The monarchies of most European nations aren't involved in major decision-making; they need properly elected governments at the helm of affairs, especially considering there might be important steps to be taken with the unrest in the Middle East. The volatile situation here might be a threat to oil resources and transportation in the Suez Canal. Trade will be affected, and so will the livelihoods of the large numbers of immigrants in the region. Bernie Ecclestone has indicated that the Bahrain Grand Prix, the season-opening race of the 2011 Formula One season, might not go ahead if the state of affairs doesn't improve. This, however, may only be the tip of the iceberg.

One positive aspect that the protests have made visible is the power of the media- and not just the traditional versions, but new media as well. Facebook and Twitter were used to rally support and mobilise public opinion; though restrictions were eventually imposed, it is apparent they played a huge role in helping the public channelise its hopes and ambitions.

Change is in the air, and hopefully things will take a positive turn here on. It is a rocky road and several difficult issues need to be tackled. It is important for these movements not to lose momentum but to sustain their initial enthusiasm and continue to work for reliable leaderships which will lift them out of poverty and aspire to meet their citizens' needs. As for democracies like ours, we need to ensure that the corrupt are punished and the country's wealth properly used- easier said than done, yes, but we have made a start, and there is no reason why we shouldn't keep going at it.