Friday, May 20, 2011

Neighbour Uncle

Sometimes you come to know a person when you are parting ways with him/her. I had never known Uncle quite as well as I came to know when I found him outside my door one day. He was standing in our common passage and cleaning something. He said he had bought a new flat and would shift there in a few days’ time. Uncle and his family were my next-door neighbors since my first day in the building close to three years back. I used to share basic pleasantries with Uncle but our interactions never went beyond them.

That day he seemed in a mood to talk and he started asking about me. After I was done with my part, he started talking about himself. He grew up in Bangalore staying around Koramangla all his life. He liked old Bangalore as it was calm and peaceful. With the advent of IT industry and migrants from various parts of India, Bangalore lost its quiet charm, he said. He did his engineering in Bangalore.

He worked with Otis, which makes elevators, for 45 years, and the company sent him to Madras (now Chennai) for training. He stayed there for sometime and liked the place but never thought of settling down there as Bangalore was the place for him.

He had two daughters and both of them were engineers. Although an engineer, the elder daughter started working as an HR consultant with a small company and did well there. Her employer knew a person working at Accenture in HR who used to often drop in on him. The Accenture person was quite impressed with how Uncle’s daughter handled everything herself, as the firm was only a few people strong.

He offered her a trainee’s role at Accenture and said the company would sponsor an HR MBA course for her. She joined Accenture HR and it’s been a few years she has been working there.

I had noticed Uncle used to return home late night some days but didn’t know where he came from. One day I spotted him at the club I sometimes visit with my friend who is a member. It was cricket world cup final and the club was full house that day as it had made arrangements for live telecast of the match on giant screens.

I was surprised to see Uncle collecting drinks from the bar. "Being a Muslim how could he do that - drinking is not what a 'good' Muslim is supposed to do, after all?" I thought. Later I concluded that Uncle's drinking squared up well with the fact that his daughters and wife never wore traditional Muslim attire (the daughters were mostly in jeans or normal salwar kamiz and the wife in saree). They were a liberal Muslim family.

I told Uncle I would miss a good neighbour and he said so would he. On a philosophical note, he said, “You will meet people and part with them. Detachment will help to get on in life; attachment will only cause pain.”

It reminded me of Kenny Roger’s Gambler song, which says the key to everything is to know when to walk off.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Voyages of Christopher Columbus: In Pursuit of Gold and Global Supremacy

Picture taken from Google
Colonizing foreign lands under grand pretexts, like democracy and civilization, but actually to exploit them economically was always in practice and will never go out of it. In fact, powerful countries colonizing lands in pursuit of wealth is so recent that the biggest story of this month – Osama’s killing – can be traced back to it: Osama’s main battle cry against the US has always been essentially one, “Free the Muslim lands you occupy.”

And it’s so old that every invasion in history, no matter how long back in time, can be traced back to this motive upon careful examination. This week I finished a book on Christopher Columbus’s four voyages to the Indies, in the 14th century, in pursuit of gold, to take Christianity to new shores and civilize native ‘savages’.

At the age of 20, Columbus planned to sail to the Indies. Columbus went to many royal courts to find funding for his voyages and finally the king of Spain, a country keen on establishing its global supremacy in Europe, accepted his plan and funded his voyages.

The book details the voyages through daily notes taken by people who were part of Columbus’s entourage and also uses biographical accounts written by Columbus’s son on his father. Columbus comes across as a good leader concerned as much about the goal of the voyages as about the wellbeing of its crew.

The voyages were tough affairs. They could put patience, endurance and courage to severe tests - as you could look for a land for days and not sight any, run out of food and add to that the vagaries of the seas. Despite these challenges, Columbus kept the morale of his team up. His good leadership notwithstanding, however, there were many who defected, took up independent voyages and turned against Columbus.

The flora and fauna and the strange practices and customs of the natives of the lands Columbus visited (some of whom were cannibals) are interesting to read. The lands had an untouched beauty and innocence about them and the details bring them out vividly.

Columbus’s voyages met with moderate success. He failed to find gold in most places and people he left behind in the places he discovered either started feuding among themselves or were attacked by natives, bringing very less value to the royal coffers of Spain.

Towards the end of his life, Columbus fell prey to conspiracies, betrayals and broken promises. He also lost his official authority in Spain and died a heart-broken man.

It is perhaps wrong to call Columbus a colonialist because although the basic purpose of his voyages was same as later-day colonialists – discovery of wealth in foreign land and bringing it home – he was mainly a seaman.  However, his voyages are historically important because they took place not long before the big colonialists of later day - France, Portugal and England - would set out towards the East and take the concept of colonies nearer to how it’s today.

By the way, read my blog on Mind Blog


Monday, May 2, 2011

What People of Bengal Think as Bengal Goes through Elections

On my way home from Calcutta airport by taxi, I asked the driver who, he thought, would form the next government in Bengal. “Didi,” he replied. “Does the Left not have any chance of returning this time?” I pursued, trying to provoke him.

“In their 35 years they have not done much. People are leaving the state for economic opportunities. People are fed up with them.” “But will Didi be able to maintain peace?” I continued. “Leftists are also guilty of destroying peace.”

After a while the taxi made a rattling sound and the driver drew it up at the corner of the road. I boarded another taxi and asked the driver who would win the elections this time. He got a little startled by my asking and hesitantly said, “Didi."

West Bengal is going through a historic election where Left, a coalition of left parties which came to power in 1977, might see its 35 years of unbroken stint in power brought to an end by TMC (whose leader is popularly known as Didi), which together with the Congress is the Left’s opposition in Bengal. The election has a global significance as Bengal is among the very few places where you still have a Left government.

Neither of the sides (govt and opposition) is leaving anything to chance. The TMC claims the Left hasn’t done anything expect oppressing people and pushing the State back. So there is a yearning for paribartan (change) among the people.

On the other hand, the Left is going to the people on a note of apology admitting that it has made some mistakes and if given a chance would like to rectify them. The Left alleges that, if brought to power, the TMC would create chaos and confusion in the state.

Verbal exchanges taking place between the government and opposition are adding to the atmosphere. There is nothing new to verbal exhanges between two contesting parties, but here every attack and counter attack flying back and forth seems to be springing from a deep well of loathing for each other.

The fight also has a cultural aspect. The Left in Bengal represents a high-brow cultural space long monopolised by culture snobs who see TMC as challenging it and trying to gatecrash into it, diluting its exclusivity. Budhadeb (Bengal CM) and the leftists in general belong to this hallowed zone and Mamta (TMC chief also known as Didi), being from a lower-middle class background, doesn't.

The Left’s barbs are mostly aimed at the TMC’s low-browism. To counter the Left’s culture attacks, the TMC is claiming to have support of culture-elites (writers, directors, etc) whose views often shape public opinion in Bengal.

But what do ordinary voters think?

There are two kinds of Left enthusiasts: one is the card-holding members and another is the culture-loving snobs. Both types claim the Left will come back again but their self-righteous anger also give away their doubt about their prophesy.  Among them are mainly state government employees.

People with less cultural pretentions, however, display little doubt that the TMC would form the government but they also admit that no one knows what would follow once the TMC comes to power.  They say at least Left for all its flaws is a party of educated ideologues while the TMC is a party patched together with street rag tags. These are mainly ones working in private companies.

There is another stream of thought being given by people with leftist leanings but a rational bent of mind. They suggest if you really want to destroy the TMC, you should give them an exposure to power for sometime. And at the same time, it will not harm the Left to be in opposition so that after being in power for 35 long years, they get an opportunity to introspect and probably come back stronger.

For the uninitiated, it can all become very confusing.

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