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!