Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sadistic Part of Diwali

Today I reacted to a Deccan Herald (an English daily) news item such that you react to a needless tragedy brought by a futile pursuit. The article reported that on Wednesday some people injured their eyes by Diwali fireworks. What was worse is that some of them were not even using fireworks themselves but just passing by others using them. The piece was accompanied by a photo of the poor chaps with their eyes bandaged. The article said passersby are most likely to be hurt by Diwali fireworks because they are least prepared.

It further informed that this despite ‘how to celebrate Dewali safely’ educational campaigns the government has been running. I thought how many of the children playing with fireworks even know about those campaigns and even if their parents know and have cautioned them, how many of them are likely to dampen their Diwali spirit by being mindful of boring government cautions. In fact, why blame kids; even their parents put fire to bomb wicks with the innocence and unconcern that will put their children to shame.

I have nothing against fireworks in general. Some of them form extraordinary spectacle and almost all of them add to the festivity of the occasion. Except one: crackers. There is nothing beautiful or festive about them, only eardrum-shattering noise. And sadly, in the squib community, they are the most used ones. For each rocket that whistles up and bursts forming patterns against the dark sky, there are at least ten crackers that go off giving the festival evening the sound and feel of a warzone.

There is a cryptic mentality behind bursting noisy crackers. Unlike rockets and their ilk which are about delicacy and beauty, noisy crackers are aggressive and assertive. They help you announce your arrival and let others know that you couldn’t care less that the noise was bothering them. In fact, the fact that the noise could bother others makes crackers more preferable to their silent beauty-oriented cousins. There is something sadistic and macho about bursting them. As a kid, when I used to burst them together with my cousins, holding them in your hand, instead of keeping them at a safe distance, to light their wick and then throwing them with an air of nonchalance, as if unconcerned about the risk of the act, was a mark of bravery.

The older you were in the group, the closer to you and the longer you would like to keep the combustible. One of my cousins even used to go to his school and stealthily throw a bomb in a solitary corner and then see it go off from a distance and then brag about it to his friends the next day. It was his protestation against a bullying system. Can you tell me what fun the new-money types derive from bursting long rolls of slender red reed-like patakas sinking an entire neighborhood into nerve-wrecking sound?

But let me not blame crackers alone. All forms of squibs are bad in varying degrees. And their use, however warranted by the occasion of Diwali, puts others at risk. After taking off, if a rocket assumes a crooked trajectory instead of a straight one, it’s anyone’s guess what can happen. Similarly, a rangmashal or phuljhari or fire whirl can be equally dangerous to the user as also a person walking by (as the article suggested). And all this or at least a substantial bit of the risk posed to others can be avoided if only one can avoid using fireworks in neighborhoods and go to an open maidan.

But then the anonymous nature of a vast maidan would hardly help you make a point. If the government is really serious about reducing hysteria-induced injuries, it should consign its educational modules on safe Diwali to flames and simply ban the use of fireworks in public place. My celebration shouldn’t become your agony.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Musings on Russia

Lately, I have been having an affair with Russia. I am reading Anton Chekhov (I have written a bit about it below) and accidentally the other day I heard a program on radio: From Russia with love. I can’t remember the channel I heard it on, but I found it quite interesting. It was a long program where the host interminably read out tit bits on Russia in Hindi, in news-reading style, with very occasional interruptions coming in form of Hindi songs. I couldn’t follow whether it was an Indian-government-backed initiative to promote our relations with Russia. Since then I have heard the program a few more times.

The program covers a wide range of topics – science and technology, literature, healthcare etc -and paints Russia with a very lofty brush. I found some of the stuff amusing. Let me share some of them. Somewhere in Russia, child psychiatrists are conducting an experiment where they are having friendly dogs play with mentally retarded children and after weeks of play and mingling with the canines, the children are showing the signs of improvement in their social behavior.

Now potatoes are an inseparable part of Russian diet, but they were not always so. Many centuries back, when a Russian czar went to Europe, he was introduced to the vegetable and he sent a sack of a particular variety of potatoes to a feudal lord back in Russia and asked him to grow the variety of potatoes in his field. After some years although the consumption of potatoes slightly spread in Russia, it remained restricted to elite circles, being served only at parties where boiled potatoes were served with sugar sprinkled on them.

Then, when famine came to Russia and the country slid into an excessive scarcity of food, the Russian monarchy forced peasants to grow potatoes. Forced to grow a vegetable they were not used to, the peasants revolted. The host couldn’t say what happened to the revolt, but the rise in potato consumption in Russia can be, the host informed, traced back to a few years after the breakout of the revolt.

What surprised me most about the bits of information the host shared is that everything sounded surprisingly novel despite the fact that Russia has been a long-standing foreign-policy buddy of India and the Indian-government has sponsored many TV and radio programs (especially on Doordarsan) as part of its relationship-building measures with the Soviet Russia. (The radio program, in fact, sounded like one of those initiatives which have outlasted their purpose and time.)

Had it been America or say Germany, would things still feel so unheard of? Many of the things would still sound novel but as a whole they wouldn’t sound as foreign and unfamiliar as Russia’s. And remember, the US, Germany nor any other country has been India’s friend for as long as Russia.

Our hobnobbing with Russia started in the post-independent Nehru era, although it was informal due to Nehru’s non-alignment policy. The relationship was formalized under subsequent governments as the cold war intensified with the passage of time and it became difficult to stay neutral. And it got an impetus when Russia sided with India against Pakistan during the Bangladesh war. In the early 90s, after the fall of the Soviet Russia and the start of market liberalization in India, we started getting close to the US and moving away from Russia.

But strangely, this long friendship never led to people to people relationship. Russia remained an obscure place where few people, not good enough to get admission in Indian colleges, went to study medical, engineering and other technical courses. We didn’t know enough about its people and society nor were we really interested in them. For us, Russia was a country behind a veil. Sadly, even after the fall of the Soviet Union, not much has changed about Russia. (Last week I read an article which said Russia is still not well understood by Europe.)

I think to us what glamorized American culture deglamorized Russia: Hollywood. If you see Hollywood movies of the cold war era, Russia was their favorite punching bag. Either it was Rambo outfighting the Russians in Afghanistan or James Bond (who is actually a British character but Bond movies and Hollywood are inseparable) outwitting a Russian spy.

In the cold war days, America fought Russia not just through the CIA but also through popular culture, demonizing everything Russian and lionizing anything American. And it worked, because the Soviet Russia didn’t have an equivalent of Hollywood which could combat US popular attack and sell its point to the world. Or being a communist country, did Russia prefer secrecy to transparency, never creating a Hollywood deliberately?

Perhaps that’s the reason why we still know so less about Russia.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Anton Chekhov's Short Stories

I have been reading a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov, one of the Russian literary greats, regarded as master of modern short stories. What triggered my interest in Chekov is that many short story authors I have read are said to model their style after Chekhov’s.

The most famous of them all are Hemingway and Faulkner; I have reader neither of them. But I have read RK Narayan’s and recently Daniyal Mueenuddin’s and many more well and little known writers’ short works (in books and magazines) who, knowingly or unknowingly, follow the Chekhov style, which bases itself not on an airtight plot but a slow narrative without too many excitements and mostly ends on a sad note. It’s very close to how real life is.

Chekhov lived until 1904 and so the stories show the pre-revolution Russia. The stories are about Russian elite and peasant life (and its miserability). But they don’t make any political comment on the human conditions prevalent before the coming of the revolution.
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