September 30, 2011

Pompous Ass

Yes, you heard it right. I finally used a profanity in my blog. But to be very honest, today something happened that made me look back at my own self 9 years back in October 2002 and I started laughing. If anyone had peeped in through my window, they would no doubt think that this guy has gone crazy. Lying on his back on his well flattened bean bag, he is laughing away as he reads intently through something that looks like a magazine.

9 years back I was a pompous ass and it took me all these years to finally get it.

(If you are interested in something called Cactus Flower, dear reader, then go on. Else accept the fact that I have acknowledged my shortcomings and hope you come back for the next post)

Believe me, normally I am not one. Not even when I manage to win a game of Ludo against my sister or burn 402 calories in the occasional trips to the gym. But there was this one instance in my life when I had to be one, to uphold the dignity of something I treasure to this date, to survive.

Every college magazine goes through a cycle which I have termed the Rise and Fall of Pompeii. It reaches its zenith in terms of quality and brilliance of the individual and the collective till the team that guides the magazine becomes more and more estranged from the populace they are about to serve. They glorify their False Gods, they begin to believe in their invincibility till one day suddenly a hand, often that of the masses they have begun to despise, destroys their high pedestal and all that’s left is dust. The worst part? They don’t even realize it.

The task of rebuilding is painful. I know it. Getting trust back in an institution is something that requires major sacrifices, but more importantly it requires time and a proof of the right intent. Humble steps are made till all lessons are forgotten till History repeats itself and once again the mighty Hand comes crushing down. The eeriness with which this pattern plays itself out is unbelievable and yet we don’t learn as human beings are weak in nature and in memory.

2010 and 2003 were similar in many aspects. The Mother Ship was agitated with the nonchalance of one of its most important arms. The stewards of Gondor had come to believe that they were the true heirs to the Thorne of the Great Kings. And Boromir had left them. The Mother Ship could easily cut off the arm.
Gondor, the last refuge of sanity, the last bastion of truth was left to defend for itself and it was left to the sanity of Faramir to protect Gondor.

And Middle Earth will never know but Gandalf knows what the cost of resurrection was. And Gandalf felt proud.

Anyway, coming back to the story – a little girl called Hema one day met an old man called Banjo. They were separated by years. She wasn’t even born when Maradona scored the Hand of God, yet as fate would have it, in the small niche of a group of men and women called Cactus Flower Editors, she was the newest flag bearer. Nothing connected them except a crazy ManU fan and a dusty old magazine which has the immense grit and determination to survive. The moment had come again. My gushing emotions on seeing a previous edition was short lived. I had posted on this very blog how delighted I was with what I thought was one of the better efforts in recent years. What I did not say was the path at the peak was the most slippery. 

And slip it did, 3 years later.

When I had sat down to write my editorial in 2003, I was a changed man, perhaps a little bitter with the entire experience and it had poured out straight from the heart – for two pages and then one page of Epilogue! And since then, true to ancient traditions, thereafter broken with a vengeance by the New Age, I had never written anything for the magazine.

And here was another young comrade, facing the same crisis, perhaps worse, coming out victorious and yet all that she says while paying her tribute is, “the eras go by and we, so often, overlook their passing.”
I felt a little ashamed and that’s when I realized I had done the task I was assigned but I could not rise above it. That’s what being a pompous ass is.

I leafed through the magazine that was delivered at my office desk in an extremely busy evening. I knew it had to wait. It was late by the time I was back but I read through the pages in one go. The brilliance of language was still evident but so were the paucity of ideas, the glitter of individual talent was dazzling and so was the dearth in quantity of that talent. It had tried going back to its roots, talking to people who mattered about the things that mattered. All in all, it was a magazine that seemed to reflect what my alma mater was and it does not matter if I subscribe to what it now upholds as its spirit.

After all, the definition of spirit does change with the ages. What does not change is the Truth.

There are a few things that remain eternal and it is their ethereal magnificence which ensures that whenever trouble looms, a steward will come again to hold the reins and keep Gondor safe.

I was about to turn to the last page and cringe at the random words that seem to have been a part of every edition since 2005. It’s like an internal joke of the team but what people fail to realize is that those random set of words destroy a year’s worth of quality literary efforts at one go. And then suddenly I realized the last article was what I would have called an epilogue! And that’s where the Editor became a mortal like a few before her. In an article extremely human, straight from the heart, she prays for remembrance if not for immortality. And that makes her endearing to all who walked before her.

And yeah, that article shows a glimpse of her being a pompous ass as well.

Here’s what best resembles all that we feel every year. The last 15 minutes of Toy Story III.

Here’s to memories, here’s to travelling back thousands of kilometres in a matter of hours. Here’s to hope. Here’s to eternity. Here’s to immortality – not for ourselves but all that we have lived for.

(PS: Thanks to Google. The almost right picture came up)

September 29, 2011

After 34 Years

The change is there in Bengal for all to see. Perhaps the last bastion of communism in the world beyond Cuba has finally fallen down (and the only popularly elected). Of course, there always is the possibility of a comeback but if there was ever an age that could claim to be the end of an era this is it.

34 years is indeed a long time and that is something that has always fascinated me. All through my growing years I have tried to understand what made successive generations of Bengalis embrace an ideology which remained mostly confined to trade unions and tea cups at universities. It also was easy growing up in Calcutta. Communist literature was easily available and every Durga Puja stall of the communist party would have translations of everyone from Tolstoy to Marx.

So as I was growing up, the Nehruvian Socialistic ideals in me were strong and I could not accept Ayn Rand and her passionate support of Capitalism; or even free markets. The Government I believed was still of, by and most importantly for the people.

Ever since Kush had told me about Kalbela, I had been searching for it and last time I was in Calcutta, he and I travelled around to pick it up. It is perhaps one of the most honest accounts of the turbulent times of the seventies and what made it special was that it did not accuse anyone. It was a tragic account of dreams turning into nightmares, of the youth asking questions but not understanding the answers.

What started as an outburst of anger against the system confused everyone around. But there were so many of them who went ahead with the hope of believing the answers would come one day if they stayed true to the ideal. It did not. An entire generation was wiped out and the world almost has forgotten them dubbing them as the first naxalites.

As I see the support for the Anna Hazare movement, I am suddenly wondering – do we as a nation require a solo fighter to rally around? Do we need heroes to lead us to battle or can we sustain as a colony of bacteria where the collective decides for the collective. But probably that’s the reason why the first Vedic Societies around the Indus elected their first king and it became etched in our DNA.

When I was growing up, I also heard a lot about Hollywood propaganda - how Hollywood hoodwinked an entire world to believe in The American Dream. But a chance viewing of a few films made me wonder. The first was “College Ties” – a story of the deep roots of anti-semitism in the early days of the “New World”. The other place where I had seen mentions of it were in “Acts of Faith”, one of the lesser known Erich Seagal novels. The Second was “Mao’s Last Dancer” – an autobiography of a ballet dancer from China who defected to the US in the eighties since he wanted to dance and be free. The film accused no one, did not try to make a point, it just tried to showcase the fight of an individual for his dreams. There was a portent scene where Li asks someone in the US, did he love his President? And when he is told, “Love? I don’t even like him.” Li in his innocence asks, “Are you not scared?” The third movie was Charlie Wilson’s War. Classic Tom Hanks, I think there are not many movies which openly accept America’s involvement in arming the Afghans against the Soviets to end the Cold War. “We want it to be their Vietnam”

The reason I came up with this was because while watching the movie I suddenly realized how so many people were castigated for doubting Anna in a democracy! How posters were torn down when “Fire” was released, how Karan Johar had to get his blessings from political parties before he released “My name is Khan”. And there was Hollywood who could openly make a documentary called Zeitgeist which doubts the very existence of Jesus Christ!

Suddenly I realize nothing compares to that freedom. Not the best gilded cages in the world can compare to the open skies.

While tolerance to differing viewpoints is slowly becoming a rare trait in India, I suddenly feel proud of my state. After 34 years there was a regime change. And yet, contrary to all that was being prophesized, there has not been any major backlash or retribution in Bengal barring sporadic incidents of post poll violence.
I hope we rebuild our state. The mandate that was given to a calm and composed Bhattacharya 5 years back yielded no results as the system crushed all hopes of a turnaround. Today a mercurial Banerjee has been given the same mandate and if the press reports are to be believed, the scum has just changed colours at the lowest levels of society and corruption continues unabated.

But I believe and this year when Bengalis pray to their Mother Goddess in Durga Pujo, they will pray for the killing of more than one demon.

Subho Mohalaya.

September 20, 2011

Stop Over 2 – Bangkok – Part II

It must really be unfair if I talk about a city without talking about how lively its night markets are, how innovation spills out from the imagination of its street vendors, how the food that get served on the streets attacks all your senses at once.

KSS typically puts us up in decent hotels, allowing us easy access to the city centre and for Bangkok, it must be Sukhumvit. From the Sukhumvit Station, down to Chitlom and onwards to the National Stadium, the streets are as close to heaven as it can get for a shopaholic. From the glittering malls of Paragon, Siam Discovery, Central World, to the Indian favourite MBK, all that you can ask for, is under a few roofs.

I remember when I was still in Pilani, Tantra T shirts were a rage. And then like all industrious Indians, the shops in Palika BAzar started hoarding up on T shirts that proudly proclaimed – “Beer Belly” or “My Dad is an ATM”. However, they were still very expensive for a college kid who had spent up all his money buying T shirts from every department in his college.

As I walked around Erawan, I realized that same kid had grown up just a bit. His T shirt collection had changed to a much sober, much branded and completely collared version of his former self. He had the means now, but not the heart to wear T shirts which said, “King Size” with an arrow pointing downward!
And I sighed and walked on.

But surprisingly, a few shops down the line I was thrilled to wear a strange shop, selling a Brand of T shirts called “No problem”. Somehow, it resonated instantly. You see, my teeny tiny ego always refuses to accept that there might be a problem. So for me it has always been “No problem.” But the catch lay elsewhere. This shop was made for well nourished people. The Large T shirts that they had were the ones that typically would go for a XXL in other countries and brands. What followed is easily imaginable.

The street food in Bangkok is something to look forward to. Where else will you have bananas in a stick, fried over the fire and then beaten down to release the aroma to lure the passer by? And it does not end in just that. Take a walk in the wet markets of the city and you will find exotic fruits and vegetables you probably would never had thought of, if you were from the Western World. The vegetarian in you will shudder to see the variety of meat on display and the Bengali in you might just want to kiss the vendor, not only because she’s super cute, but also because she has the most amazing variety of fresh Fish.

Madam Tussad’s is something perhaps best seen in London, but if you have never been to Europe, you might just head there like I did and click a photograph with Mr. Gandhi who you meet as soon as you would have bowed to the King and Queen and yeah, perhaps sit at the Oval Office with The First Family in Washington looking at you.

Strangely the roads in Bangkok are broad but the traffic is worse than Mumbai, so it’s always a great idea to take the trains or walk. You will come across the huge statue of Rama I and the beautiful Lumphini Park. It’s a peaceful area and you will find the Thais coming there after a hard day’s work or to jog in the mornings. And in the evenings if you have some spare time, you might want to head to the Erawan Shrine (named after the celestial elephant) where the Four Headed Buddha (Actually the Hindu Deity Brahma) watches silently as devotees pour in. The faces are the “Face of Peace and Health, Face of Good Fortune, Face of Good Relationships and Face of Protection against Evil.” It’s also the place where probably you will find the traditional dancers helping you to make a connection to the World beyond, helping you get your prayers be heard. It apparently is sort of a customized prayer service that you can request for. Bangkok is also the place where I have seen devotees place bottles of Fanta as offerings along with traditional coconuts. Maybe because a lot of shrines were traditionally spirit houses which protect the land and its inhabitants.

Music fills you as you walk the streets of Bangkok and you realize that there is so much to see and so little time that you will yearn to be back... soon.

September 16, 2011

Stop Over 2 – Bangkok – Part I

There is a place in this world, unknown to most, where the King and the Queen still reign supreme. And the people love them and adore them and celebrate the monarchy. It’s not the mountains of Bhutan or the Sultanates of the Middle East or the loyal subjects of her Majesty the Queen. But in the farthest corners of the Eastern World, there is a country which has never been colonized by any western power or Japan. In the days gone by, the maps of the East India Company used to call the land – Siam.

Having never faced the humiliation of a foreign rule, the Thais are a proud nation and yet the most respectful amongst all the races I have come across in my life till date. While Japanese demonstrations of respect are well documented by Hollywood, the Thais can match up to the best of them.

At times, I feel ashamed as an Indian, who considering himself a global citizen, always extends his hand out for a firm handshake. And yet, I feel a strange sense of joy when complete strangers in a corporate setting or outside, fold their hands together, bow and greet the traditional Thai way – Sawasdeeka.

Namaskar might be dying in India, except perhaps during weddings and family gatherings, but in a country far far away, it lives on. I love the concept of Namaskar as to me it embodies the very best of the Hindu way of life. It tells the person you are greeting, “I accept that there resides a God within you, and I bow to that Supreme Power.”

Coming back to Bangkok and the Thais, I sense an inner struggle so very common to India and many other nations which are grappling with a changing world view. The best example of this confusion is perhaps the Suvarnabhumi Airport. It is a beautiful airport, one of the better ones that have been built in recent years across the world. As soon as you enter, you will come across relics of the Budhha and huge statues straight out of the pages of mythology. And once you are done with immigration, while travelling out of the country, you will be greeted with one of the most amazing scenes from Hindu Mythology – the churning of the Oceans. And you will feel excited that this airport perhaps has something unique to offer, something that you can take back and treasure. Yet, in an effort to entice the global travellers, the airport loses itself in the standardization that is slowly becoming a curse in this world.

You might be wondering why a post on travelling to a new city is about an airport. I have realized over the last 2 years, my priorities in travel have changed. From the wanderlust backpacker, as I grow old in my job as a marketer and start having my first grey hairs, I have become a student of human emotions. I like nothing better than to understand a country from her people, from what they think, do, love, like, hate and eat. And that’s why I spend weekends in consumes’ homes learning about them, observing them and finally falling in love with my job all over again.

The city is surviving better than the airport. The Orange robes of the monks are often noticed, so are the evening chants from a temple in a busy street corner. Bangkok may be a modern city but it seems to have not forgotten itself in the process.

The Thais are of course the best cooks in South East Asia, in my humble opinion, but perhaps I am a bit biased being an Indian after all. The Thai cooking is full of herbs and flavours and the fight over whose mom makes the best Tom Yam Soup is still a bone of contention amongst friends. If there’s a recipe that can create a symphony in your palette, it must be Tom Yam.

You must have made multiple versions of “authentic” Thai green curry, but to me having a green curry at a roadside restaurant in Thailand is almost the same as seeing The Taj with my own eyes, rather than on the internet. But there are 2 dishes I have fallen in love with – first the Thai Omelette. Extremely unhealthy and supremely delicious, it can give Egg Bhurji, the Indian favourite, a run for its money. The second is the burnt coconut. Apparently, the Thais burn the coconut while it’s still in its shell and then peel the outer coating out. This gives the water a strange but brilliant flavour and while I have drunk almost litres of it, I am yet to put a finger to it – Barbequed Coconut Water is what I call it for lack of a better expression.

Till I figure it out, happy imagining the burnt coconut water, chilled in the freezer of Master Chef of KSS Thailand, Penrung, slowly moving down your throat to the ultimate goal it was destined for – your stomach.