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.