Monday, January 31, 2011

Will it Mean a Transformed Arab

I used to see the Arab world as a swathe of wealthy nations whose people are so content with their wealth that it didn’t matter to them that they were denied even most basic forms of freedom by their governments. No doubt I was ignorant, but many would share my views – until few weeks back.

First, Tunisia went up in flames and then the fire spread to other countries. What was most funny to see was how once the people took to streets, the dictators, who seldom showed any sign of weakness, started quaking. Following Ben Ali’s fleeing from Tunisia, the governments who would have otherwise considered it beneath them to give into people’s demands are ready to agree to anything to quell the fire of protests.

Media reports are attributing the eruption of protests mainly to two things: spike in food prices and absence of political freedom.

A strange part of the protests is that they are not anti-US despite the fact that the dictators are mostly US-backed. The US has many interests in Arab and it should make sure the popular uprising results in political freedom for the people; instead of one set of dictators replaced by another. The US’s fondness for dictators is one reason why democracy couldn’t flourish in Pakistan.

Will the outcome of the protests be a politically transformed Arab? I’m not sure but in the meantime, the protests will give China something to worry about unless they have already blocked the flow of news about the protests into the country.

Landlord on the Run

Earlier I had written at length about my landlord in this blog. He is acting stranger than before. Every month I meet him at a place to give my rent. When I went to the place last time, he appeared almost an hour late and said he had shifted to another place, quite afar, hence the delay. He looked distraught and from what he told me, he sounded like a man on the run.

I asked him why he wasn’t taking my calls and he said his phone was tapped. I was scared. Your phone can be tapped only by government investigating agencies. I asked him why and he said some people were “playing games” with him. “What kind of games and which people?” I asked. He has some real estate properties in Koramangla (Bangalore) and they were trying get them sold, he said. I couldn’t catch what was so wrong with it and how it justified his phone being tapped, but I remained silent.

He accused Jugrajji, who owns a jewelry shop under our building, of being behind everything. It was strange that Jugraj would try to trouble him; only couple of weeks back I had seen the two talk heartily. They were friends.

Jugraj and his friendship had always looked weird to me. They came from completely different backgrounds; Jugraj from a village in Rajasthan who wants to make it in Bangalore; the landlord from a wealthy family with a brother who is a doctor established in England with a Dutch wife.

On my way back home, I summed up what the landlord said and reached my conclusions. The phone-tapping thing was rubbish. I don't think he would be involved in something so serious that his phone would be tapped. But who he was trying to avoid by shifting to another place?

Today (31st Jan), when I met him to give my rent, it became clear who he was trying to avoid.

Having waited for an hour last time, this time I wanted to make sure that I didn’t find myself waiting again. I called him up and asked him to reach the spot and call me; it would not take me too long to walk to the location.

He called me and asked me to come to another place, not where we used to met for rent until last time. When I reached the place, he wasn’t there. I called him; he didn’t take the call. Fed up, when I started walking back home, my phone rang: it was the landlord.

He wanted me to come to another place to meet him. I wanted to snap but held myself back; after all it’s only once in a month, I thought.

When I reached the new spot, I didn’t find him. I called him but he refused to take the call. When I angrily started walking away, my phone buzzed. “I’m here,” he said. I turned back and found him bending and seeing me avoiding a low-hanging branch.

I walked to him and asked, “Why don’t you take your calls?” “If I take calls it becomes easy to spot where I am,” he replied. “Easy for whom,” I pursued; I deserved an answer, I thought. “That guy – Jugraj,” came the reply.

I was correct that no one was tapping his phone. The landlord has a Blackberry and so does Jugraj (at least he carries something that resembles a Blackberry) and there is an app (could someone tell the name, please?) which helps you detect the location of another person having a Blackberry. A shred of doubt lingers. I don’t think Jugraj, who is scantily literate, is tech smart enough to use the app.

Why the landlord is running away from Jugraj as if the latter has contracted a communicable disease? Probably the months to come will reveal.

Last time, when I had written about how Jugraj was pilfering power from me causing my electricity bill to shoot up, Elen had commented that I should find myself another accommodation. While coming back home today, I thought the same.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Masque of Africa - A difficult Act to Pull Off

Have you heard of a travelogue about old beliefs, myths and rituals of a place? That’s what Masque of Africa by VS Naipaul is all about. The book excludes (or includes very briefly) everything that a reader interested in Africa would like to know, like its current economic prosperity, its effects and politics. The Masque of Africa is about how the continent’s medieval beliefs and practices have survived the wave of modernity in Africa.

Naipaul focuses on economic development in Africa only to the extent of pointing out the lack of it, eloquently describing impoverished children devoid, as he argues, of any future, lack of hygiene, bad roads etc.

But frankly, despite these deficiencies the book works. The book is well researched and presents a lot of information that, however repulsive, will hold the reader. We all know Africa is a land of strange practices but we didn’t know how strange they could be. Some eating habits – like cat and bat meat – and rituals are really strange. In South Africa, a cruel ritual performed in the streets takes Naipaul aback challenging his belief that liberation would have softened a people.

The book does not completely steer clear of worldly pursuits like politics and history. It documents the history of many places; one of them is the anti-apartheid movement. Naipaul also presents an interesting biographical piece on Gandhi.

This was my second Naipaul travel book. After reading his Million Mutinies Now, I had been looking forward to the arrival of this book. I’m not fully satisfied, nor does it compare favorably with his Million Mutinies Now. But to hold your reader with a topic as staid as African belief is a feat not many can achieve.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Calcutta Diary

This December I went to Calcutta after one and half years. To avoid traffic, the cab driver chose a different route from the airport to go to my home. On the way I encountered the changes that have taken place in the city.

I saw IT complexes, some already made and others under construction. I also saw swanky malls; nowadays you find them everywhere in Calcutta. But as the cab went past Salt Lake – a place which was developed later and remains unlike the rest of the city – the optimistic mood sank. I met old buildings awaiting repair for years, narrow by-lanes, traffic gridlocks, dust and grime and a sea of people.

This part of Calcutta introduced me to another change. Unlike few years ago, when where ever you went you saw red Left posters, now you mostly see green buntings and hoardings of Trinomool Congress (the opponent of Left in West Bengal).

The driver informed me that a political procession was out clogging all important roads of the city, hence the traffic jam.

After reaching home, I read in the newspaper that the strike was called by the Left parties. I thought in other cities ruling parties rarely call strikes that disrupt the normal city life.

After a few days of my stay in Calcutta, my niece got engaged. On the engagement day, I met many family members and friends I had not met in a long time. There were discussions on various topics but the one that got me involved was politics. State assembly elections are nearing in Bengal and I wanted to guage public mood.

There were various views on the decline of Left government in Bengal and while everyone was disappointed with Left, no one seemed to offer an alternative. They seemed upset with the Left but not happy with the prospect of Trinamool coming to power. “So would a coalition of Congress and Trinamool with a Congress CM work?” I asked. Some agreed with me. (But I read later that Congress has a very weak presence in Bengal and many of its leaders are moving to Trinamool Congress.) Later regreted sounding too political.

One of my cousins, who was once a card-holding member of the Left, said in Karnataka people are happy and prosperous in cities while farmers in villages are committing suicide. “Farmers are committing suicide in Andhra Pradesh and not Karnataka,” I retorted. My cousin was a little surprised to see my sharp reaction.

Winter is a season of book fairs in Calcutta. The one held at Maidan is a grand affair visited by noted Bengali writers. Budhadeb Bhattacherjee, the CM who is known for his literary inclinations, visits the fair every year. This time at the fair he said the end of Left in Bengal could be the end of everything. It sounded like the last flickering of a dying lamp.

Few days after the political debate at my niece’s engagement, I tried to figure out why I reacted so sharply to my cousin’s comment about urban Karnataka being happy while the rural Karnataka suffers – and identified the source of my anger: Traditional Leftists have a way of discrediting others’ success to underplay their own failures. But for this reluctance to learn from others, Calcutta could be a different story today.

On my way back to the airport, I saw those IT complexes again and left the city with optimism.

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