Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Christmas Truce

Christmas looms.
You’re thinking, dark clouds loom, last date for filing IT returns looms, but surely a season of peace and goodwill cannot loom?
Well, it does
And the challenge iss to be jolly yet meaningful, to rise above the trite and the maudlin, to get the reader to stop right there in the middle of stuffing that Christmas stocking and mutter, “Now bless my little mistletoes, who’d have thought of that!”
So, I desultorily began to trawl Youtube in search for…well, to tell you the truth, I didn’t really know what. Amy Winehouse’s version of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer maybe? Osama bin Laden’s Christmas day message?
Which is when I stumbled on a recording of the late Walter Cronkite hosting the annual Christmas concert of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. And almost instantly, I was riveted by Cronkite’s narration of an extraordinary event that took place nearly one hundred Christmases ago…
December 24th, 1914.
The war in Europe was five months old, already far too old for one that had been expected to last just a few weeks. What had started as a glorious cavalry charge fired by patriotic fervour had become a sullen, savage battle fought from trenches that would ultimately stretch for 440 miles all the way from the English Channel to the Swiss frontier. Trenches six to eight feet deep that the cold - often four degrees below zero - and the rain transformed into freezing, waterlogged hellholes as winter set in. As one soldier wrote home, “bullets are a secondary consideration to the cold, rain and mud.” And decaying bodies remained unburied because there was no let up in the incessant artillery bombardment for the living to claim their dead.
But that night, the rain had stopped and as Private Albert Moren of the Second Queens Regiment in a trench somewhere near the French village of La Chapelle d'Armentières recalled, “It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere.” And with the rain, the guns also seemed to have fallen silent.
It was an unaccustomed, unnerving silence, eerie in its stillness.
“Grave and tender voices rose out of the mist….”
The song they sang was a beloved, familiar one – “Silent Night, Holy Night”. Except that the words were in German because the singing was coming from the German trenches! When Lovell, a British soldier in the 3rd Rifle Brigade, looked out from the top of his trench, he could see “a sight which I shall remember to my dying day. Right along the whole of their (German) line were hung paper lanterns and illuminations of every description, many of them in such positions as to suggest that they were hung upon Christmas trees.”
And as the singing continued, what followed is one of the strangest and the most beautiful events in the history of war…and peace.
First, cautious heads soon began popping up on both sides; in a few places, placards with Christmas greetings in German and invitations to impromtu concerts written on them. Then voices began to call out to each other, using derogatory nicknames like “Fritz” and “Tommy“, but no one minded. Finally, someone summoned up enough courage to stand up and wave. And within minutes, unarmed soldiers swarmed out of the trenches from both sides on to what was called No Man’s Land, a hideous, shell-torn stretch of land, sometimes just 30 yards wide, that separated the trenches of the two armies. And where till now, it was peopled by only the “unburiable bodies” of the dead, who lay decaying in the frozen mud.
It was an incredible sight. Men who, just a few hours ago were killing each other now shook hands, swapped salutes and cigarettes and gifts; barrels of German beer, plum pudding, uniform buttons and badges, even helmets, tins of jam and beef bully. They showed each other pictures of wives and sweethearts and families that they had left behind. They even visited each other’s trenches and shared their Christmas rations.
There was laughter and singing and even more incredibly, in a few places, there were free haircuts. And soccer matches.
And in the midst of all this, they gathered for a more sombre task. As the 23rd Psalm was read in German and in English and as someone played the Last Post, they buried each other’s dead in massive common graves, giving the poor, frozen, rotting remains of their fallen comrades a hero’s burial.
Suddenly, they were all just men inextricably trapped together in the same terrible predicament of war.
The truce lasted through the night and all through Christmas Day. When Boxing Day dawned, everyone knew that it had to end. But on both sides, they were loath to pick up their guns again and in one unit of the 107th Saxon regiment of the German army, mutiny broke out, the men refusing to resume the war.
But it was a brief rebellion.
At long last, as Captain J C Dunn, Medical Officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, recorded in his diary, “At 8.30 I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with "Merry Christmas" on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He (the Germans) put up a sheet with "Thank you" on it and the German captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the war was on again.”
It is estimated that about 100,000 men - including as much as half the British troops - took part in what is now called “the Christmas Truce”. It was an event so extraordinary that if it weren’t for the hundreds of letters that poured back home and the entries in diaries and journals of those who were there, it would have been dismissed as the deranged imaginings of minds all but destroyed by the savagery of war.
But it did happen.
We may well sneer and say, “and fat lot of good it did”, because the war continued for four more devastating years at the end of which, half of all the soldiers who fought in it were either be dead or wounded. It was supposed to be the war to end all wars, but it failed miserably in its purpose because twenty-one years later, the world was at war again, this time adding Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the decimation of six million Jews in concentration camps to its enviable record of causalities. Then came the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan; the chronic epidemic of wars that regularly break out in Africa and the Middle East and our own wars with China and Pakistan…only to name a few.
But consider this.
Amongst the thousands of British soldiers who took part in that truce was Murdoch Mackenzie Wood, a young Scottish lawyer. Sixteen years later, speaking as a Liberal MP in the House of Commons, he said this about what happened.
"A great number of people think we did something that was degrading… The fact is that we did it, and I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired… It was only the fact that we were being controlled by others that made it necessary for us to start trying to shoot one another again..."
So, maybe that is the message from the Spirit of that Christmas Past, so many, many years ago. That, when left to us, to ordinary folk, war will always an impossible thing.
Some of the men who took part in the Christmas Truce tried to make sure that we would never forget that. In 1999, a group of them went back to the site of the truce in Ypres in Belgium and put up a large wooden cross as a memorial.  On it was engraved this message
The Khaki Chum's Christmas Truce
85 Years
Lest We Forget”


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

There’s a Tiger in our Woods

There’s a Tiger in Our Woods

”Tiger is a model for how athletes should conduct themselves…. He handles himself with class, and he's articulate. There's no silly talk in public from Tiger.”
That is an excerpt from the eulogy that Roger Federer wrote about his pal Tiger Woods when he was listed as one of the 100 most influential people in world by the Time magazine in April this year.
By which time, even if only a few of the allegations that are pouring out faster than rats out of a sinking ship are true, the laundry list of Wood’s very, very dirty linen must have already included the following:
At least 11 er, “lady friends” (some reports peg that number at 16) including two porn stars, one specializing in kinky-sex.
Regular orgies with members of a female escort service.
Sex in a church car park (but inside a car, we are relieved to note.)
And if Jamie Jungers, the cocktail-waitress-cum-lingerie model for a brand of lingerie called “Trashy” (what else) is to be believed, sex with her in Woods’ bedroom while his father lay dying in a hospital. Ms. Jungers also claims that Woods paid for her liposuction procedure.
Naturally, as a public perpetually starved for scandalous bilge, we are delighted.
I know - we should be outraged and shocked, dismissing all of it as largely slander from publicity-crazy gold diggers until we have indisputable proof. (More “sext” messages, maybe?) Well, we’re trying very hard to be but the truth is, we need something to take our minds of the fact that we may be soon buying potatoes in tolas and what better distraction than a juicy concoction of sex, porn queens and voicemail?

(I’m wondering if there would be less snide snickering if there was one less leading-lady-of- Diary of a Horny Housewife and at least one rocket scientist amongst that list
of er, lovelies?) 
But besides that, I have two points to make
First, I’m jaw-hanging-down-to- my-navel awe-struck.
And here’s why
Nobody is a saint but Tiger Woods came so close to becoming one.
Child prodigy, greatest golfer in the world, devoted son, perfect husband, adoring father, American hero, Mr. Squeaky-Clean and buddy-buddy with the President of the United States of America to boot. The cover of the January 2010 issue of Golf Digest has Tiger posing with Obama for a story titled “10 Tips that Obama can take from Tiger.”
And if he hadn’t crashed that car, we’d be all nodding our heads and saying who better than Woods to give the Prez tips on how to run America.
Now, we’re thinking - maybe it should have been “10 Tips that Clinton could have taken from Tiger.”
What I mean to say is that from the looks of it, the countryside is lousy with cocktail waitresses and “ladies of the night” of various denominations that Woods was apparently regularly er, “seeing”. And nobody, not even the American paparazzi had a clue? And please don’t give us that crock about Tiger being a private guy (EVEN if he christened his yacht “Privacy”), that golf is a private, elitist sport etc., etc. I mean the man wasn’t er, cavorting with polar bears in the middle of Siberia for crying out loud. (They would’ve been spotted by Sarah Palin, though  who, on a clear day, can see into your underwear.)
And Elin, you poor, poor dear. I know they say that the wife’s always the last to know, but surely you must’ve smelt a cocktail waitress?
In other words, how did the man do it?
Which brings me to my second point.
Woods started playing tournaments at the age of 3 and winning them before he was 10. He is the only golfer to become PGA Tour Player of the Year nine times and his record of 14 major golf championship wins is only bettered by Jack Nicklaus. Tiger Woods’ participation in golf tournaments can hike ticket sales by as much as 20 percent and television viewership by a whopping 50 percent. He is also the world’s first billionaire athlete
A star as bright as this blazes but once in a lifetime. So will Wood’s sexual shenanigans, however disgraceful they may be, dim the lights on his spectacular achievements?
I think not.
In a perfect world, the most gifted people in the world would also be the best human beings.
In ours, genius often has nothing to do with being a nice guy (or girl).
So Woods will still be one of the greatest athletes in the world. Even if the Tiger-Woods-Mistress index touches 35.
We’re kinda hoping it will – how else are we going to forget that tuar dal, not diamonds, may soon be a girl’s best friend?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Power of One Paisa

(Or How to Take Your City Back)

"Over the past 80 years we have been building cities for cars much more than for people. If only children had as much public space as cars, most cities in the world would become marvellous." Enrique Penalosa
Let me tell you a little story.
Vicks Vaporub – that doughty fighter of coughs and colds that has been a household name for decades.
Many years ago, this balm was packed in little, indigo-blue coloured glass bottles, made by only one company that had a very curious name – Paisa Fund Glass Works. But even more curious is how that name came to be.
About a hundred years, when the fire of the Swaraj and Swadeshi movement was being stoked, a poor school teacher from Ratnagiri calleded Antaji Damodar Kale came up with a revolutionary idea that would seed India’s first co-operative fund. It was to collect at least one paisa from every person and use the money to finance earn-‘n-learn educational programs that would in turn generate jobs. The idea caught the attention of the great Bal Gangadhar Tilak who promoted it so actively - even writing editorials about it in his immensely popular newspaper, the Kesari – that many people attributed the idea to him. But more importantly, it caught the imagination of the people. And so, travelling all over Maharashtra and parts of Gujarat, Kale collected 14,000 rupees, a huge fortune at the time.
The money was used to set up a small glass-making unit, more of a training centre than anything else, but in about 3 years time, it became a fully-fledged commercial glass manufacturing factory – India’s very first. And they named it the Paisa Fund Glass Works! A hundred years later, even though the little indigo-blue bottles have now become plastic, Paisa Fund Glass Works is the only supplier of the glass lenses that change the colour of the millions of signals regulating traffic of over 18 million passengers and more than 2 million tonnes of freight that travel every day on the 63,327 kilometres of the Indian Railways
All this with just one paisa?
In other words, never underestimate the might of the tiny drop. Not only does it make the ocean, it is also makes something called public will.
Which is nothing but a collection of our individual one-paisa worth of unshakeable, immutable belief that we can change things.
And that brings me to a second little story.
About a city called Bogota.
Capital of Colombia, nerve centre of the country’s economy, accounting for 30 percent of the country's GDP. And like so many such cities in developing countries, the gap between the quality of life of the rich and the vast majority of the poor is a chasm; luxury apartments and glittering shopping malls cheek-by-jowl with huge shanty towns and slums.
Bogota was also one of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 30,000 tons of contaminants spewed into it everyday, making the New York Times dub it a “snarled, toxic and crime-ridden mess”. Bogotans themselves considered it a divine punishment to live in the city.
But that was till 1998.
When a man named Enrique Penalosa became mayor and decided that it was time to take back his city from the hell that it had been consigned to. And one of cornerstones of his campaign was to declare “a war on cars”. 70% of Bogota’s population did not own a car. Yet traffic congestion and the attendant pollution was one of Bogota’s most crippling problems.
So what Penalosa decreed was close to urban blasphemy.
For two days a week, every car in Bogota had to be off the street during rush hour, three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. Every Sunday, he closed 120 kilometers of Bogota’s main roads to cars for seven hours so that people could come out to ride bicycles, jog or simply gather around. (A million and a half people did so joyously!) And he declared the first Thursday of every February as the annual car-free day!
Today, Bogota is one of the most flaunted examples in the showcase of sustainable cities. Penalosa’s policies freed public space for other quicker, cleaner means of transport. Bogota’s TransMilenio Bus Rapid Transit system, set up a fraction of the cost of subways and flyovers, the favourite by urban planning experts, is so ‘rapid” and so efficient (it even has wheelchair lifts) that 20% of Bogota’s car owners commute on it every day! (Penalosa’s inspiration came from the Brazilian city of Curitiba where the green area per inhabitant is four times the World Health Organization standard and where they recycle buildings and trim the grass of their vast parks with a flock of 30 sheep!
And for parks (the largest is 40 acres and was once a slum), bikeways (one that is 340 kilometers long and one of the longest in the developing world) and libraries , places where Bogotans forgot that they were sardines stewing inside a can and remembered they were humans, entitled to happiness.
Forget the prizes and awards that Bogotá has won, the real measures of Penalosa’s success was that Bogota’s crime rate dropped by 35 % and enrolment in schools went up by 30% and the city is now a tourist destination!
Impossible, you gasp. As impossible as India’s glass industry being started by one paisa?
The success of Penalosa and Kale and so many others like them was based only on one thing – the power of that one paisa.
All of us have it – 7 million people of Bogota city and 6 million Bangaloreans.
So, it is time to spend that one paisa to buy this city back
Because even as you read this, there may be a Penalosa or a Kale somewhere in this city, waiting to collect that paisa fund.
And how about we start with the most simple but most brilliant of Penalosa’s ideas – a vehicle-free day?
That each of one of us choose one day of the week when we will not use our vehicle….

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Rough Guide to Terror Tourism

(Wrote this a year ago, about a week after the Mumbai terror attacks)

“Ram Gopal Varma ki yahi kamayee
Do sarkar banaye, ek girayee.” On SMS

Bungee jumping. Paragliding. Skateboarding.
I mean – yawn.
Because on December 1st, as I watched our dear Chief Minister tour the ravaged interiors of the hotel Taj and Trident, I knew it was time to make way for the hottest, hippest way to take a break, let your hair down, tune out, switch off.
Terror tourism.
Now I don’t know about you fellas but my motto is - “be prepared”. So, I write this in preparedness for the outside chance that someone amongst us might just get as lucky as aapro Vilasji did to tour the latest terror hotspot. I also write this in preparedness for the even more outside chance that a certain male relative of a certain gent who was once known as Maharashtra’s Remote Control might be reading this.  For tips and tippanis for his very own impending terror tour. Which should be happening anytime now?
So, without further shilly-shallying or beating around the bush, let me begin.
First and foremost, this is an extreme sport, not for the lily-livered, the yellow-bellied, the milksops, the pusillanimous chickens. For example, right now, there is a huge misconception doing the rounds that the brave hearts of the Mumbai terror attacks were the NSG commandos, the hotel staff of the Taj and the Trident, the cops etc. etc. What a crock.
Because the bravest of them all was our beloved CM-saheb, strolling so courageously through that ghastly burnt-out shell of the Taj. With nary a thought for the extreme danger that he was putting himself in. After all, any minute, his beautiful white neta-in-mourning kurta could’ve been picked off and blackened by one of those deadly soot-covered walls. Or lurking around the corner could be a deathly bullet hole waiting to ruin his manicure. And we shudder to think what terrible fate awaited his freshly dyed-for-the-telly, carefully coifed hair in the hands of that terrifying rubble-dust.)
In other words, be a terror tourist only if you have the guts for it. And only a few very, very brave people do.
Second of all, if you are one of those me-alone-communing-with-nature kind of people, then it’s best to give this a skip because terror tourism is a group activity, best enjoyed in the company of friends and relatives. And that could include your third grandson’s personal potty-trainer, your fourth second cousin’s ex-wife’s current mother-in-law, your pooch’s psychiatrist, your dhokla-khandvi chef and your dhobi’s donkey.
Not to mention your friendly neighbourhood film director.
I know what you are thinking. You can see how a rousing round of bullet-hole-spotting and musical bloodstains in company of kith and kin help to unwind, unclench those teeth, relax that sphincter and generally aid world peace.
But the film director?
How else could he get people to forget that he made a film called “Ram Gopal Varma’s Aag”?
Third of all, it’s very important to have a tour guide at all times After all, you need as much to be able to tell the blue-bottled fly from the blue-bottomed baboon as you do to differentiate rubble from rabri (no relation to Laloo) and charred ballroom from charred toast. (Ideally, the guide should be the cop who held the terrorists at bay for eight hours before the commandos turned up. Adds globs of “realism” to the enchilada.) The important thing though, while listening to the guide, is to constantly make hissing noises and scrunch up your face in expressions of horrified commiseration. (Don’t worry if it looks more as if you’ve just smelt some very nasty navel jam - you can take tips from your actor son before your next trip.)
Fourth of all, the walk. (I’m sorry, fellas. We do plan to get cable cars and limos very soon, but right now, you’ll have to do it all on foot.) It’s very, very important how you walk through the…shall we call it “terror sanctuary”? What you need is a measured slow amble, all the while sticking out your well-toned, six-paunch, spelling out a pleasant post-beer-‘n-biryani perambulation with wifey on Marine Drive. This will serve two purposes. It will make your bowels move. And it will terrify the terrorists. How, we can’t say exactly as yet, but it will.
(We are thinking of asking future terror tourists to whistle as they walk to make the terrorists even more terrified, but that will be only allowed in a more advanced version.)
I could go on, but for the moment this much will suffice for you to go off and practice your terror tourist moves.
Which leaves two things
First the tricky question that’s trembling on everybody’s lips.
Will one get to see live dead bodies? Or at least a few body parts? After all, after a point, how terrifying can a few mounds of blackened rubble and a few tons of broken glass be?
Lemme put it this way. Terror tourism is taking its first baby steps. (Though with the kind of patronage it already getting, that baby is gonna grow up very fast into a full-blown adult.) So, for the moment, I’m afraid you’ll have to make to with bloodstains. Not much, I’ll admit, but it’s a start.
Finally, terror tourism is the sport of the future and for two reasons. We’ve already covered one - the strike-terror-in-the-hearts-of-those-naughty-terrorists bit. The other reason is that it’s a great stress buster, especially for high-powered folk like chief ministers. This was obvious when our beloved Deshmukhji faced the press the day after that epoch-making terror tour. Fresh as a daisy, not a furrow on brow or a bag under eye, unfazed by all those pesky journos bombarding him with silly questions like, “Do you take moral responsibility for these attacks?”
I mean, for crying out aloud.
Moral responsibility? (Or any other kind for that matter.)
Duh. Wot dat?
(After watching the footage of Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh’s terror tour, I thought that in terms of sheer shamelessness, callousness and crass insensitivity, nothing could beat it. But I was wrong. I underestimated our politicians. This morning’s newspaper said that according the said Chief Minister, the television footage of his visit was provided to the news channels by the government. Meaning him. Of course it was.
Did we not tell you how terrifying that walk was?)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

All the World’s a Parking Lot

(Appeared today in the BANGALORE MIRROR)

We’re drowning in traffic, they tell us. Slowly choking to an agonising death on roads that are more pothole than road. And so, the End of the World – according to some, just a short 1095 days away – will be because we will all fall into a Giant-Pothole-in-the-Sky.
Naturally, with such doomsday prophecies in the air, I have become a keen observer of traffic. And have come to the conclusion that the problem is not only that there are too many vehicles and too few roads. (Forecasters predict that very soon, roads, along with the tiger and the fruit bat, will be extinct and future generations will gaze at pictures of them with the same wonderment as they do of dinosaurs and gasp, “Look, Ma! A road!”) The problem is also that traffic rules are outdated because we have forgotten to take into account a marvel of automotive engineering designed purely to facilitate safer driving.
I speak of course of the cell phone.
So, in order to set things right, I propose a rule that, in one fell swoop, will un-jam the jams(if the Oxford dictionary can have “unfriend” then why not “unjam”?), unsnarl the snarls and make traffic flow faster that a reality show contestant’s tears.
And the rule (heretofore known as The Rule) is this – Never-ever drive without making sure that you’re talking on your cell phone. It is a well-researched fact that talking incessantly on the cell phone improves the bowel movement, shrivels up hangnails and increases the population of fruit flies in Jalpaiguri. How exactly it helps to unjam those traffic jams and make our roads safer we don’t know as yet, but suffice to say that it does.
Now as you do this, you may notice (or not) that you’re hitting things with fairly regular frequency, many of them people. Or vehicles with people in them. Don’t let this bother you because most of the people you hit will also be talk-or-texting on their cell phones and chances are they won’t notice.
Of course, this rule applies to only learner drivers. Once the L-plate comes off, a sub-clause of The Rule immediately comes into force. Which makes it mandatory for you to not only talk on your cell phone while driving but to also read and send text messages, using at least two phones.
Now let me explain why this rule is so effective.
There are many things that have been put on the roads by evil minds to distract you while you are driving.
For example, you may have noticed (or not) strange, mysterious, multicoloured markings and signs that are all over the place. Lines, some dotted, others dashed; some straight, others squiggly. Arrows pointing this way and that; sometimes even squiggly arrows. Some of them are painted onto the road; others are on signboards. Now some poor fools amongst us think that these are traffic signs, meant to regulate traffic. (Whatever that means.) The truth is that nobody knows what they are or what they mean but experts are now of the opinion they could be coded messages left by an alien race of super cockroaches from a yet-to-be-discovered planet who plan to colonise Earth into a giant garbage-dump-cum-public-loo.
(Yup, somebody else beat us to the idea!)

Then there are all those dratted lights. Some are called traffic lights, but are actually leftover decorations from the last three BJP chintan-baitaks, obvious from the way they change colour every few minutes. Others are called indicators and you’ll spot them winking lasciviously at you from the sides and rear ends of vehicles. Nobody knows what they indicate, though it could be the timing and venue of the next Reddy-garus tantrum.
And finally, there are those men in funny uniforms standing inside even funnier kiosks plonked right in the middle of the road. (As if we don’t already have enough congestion problems.) They periodically make strange (though not obscene and thank God for that!) gestures with their hands. Again, the aforementioned poor fools think these chapss are traffic cops (whatever that is) but if you look at them closely, you’ll notice that all of them look vaguely familiar. That’s because they’re actually contestants from Bigg Boss out on their weekly task or politicians practising waving-to-the crowds in readiness for the next state elections. (Which I’m told may happen before we disappear down that Giant Pothole.)
Naturally, the only thing to do about all these pesky distractions is to ignore them completely, which you will automatically do if you follow The Rule because you won’t see any of them since you will be too busy talking-‘n-texting. And we will do our bit to help you by providing regular and lavish supplies of smog, exhaust fumes and other emissions to keep your eyes constantly watering and visibility only enough for you to be able read what’s on your zara-zara-touch-me-touch-me cell phone screen.
(I know, I know – the brilliance of The Rule is taking your breath away! It did mine too.)
I end with a related matter that needs urgent attention - parking space. (According to one estimate, before we disappear down that Giant Pothole, the planet will be one giant parking lot and we humans will be centipedes, slithering our way around billions of stationery vehicles, parked in the same spot for thousands of years ago. Only four roads will be left, all reserved for VIP traffic.) The inspiration for the solution comes from observing the er, nonchalance with which so many Indian men publicly relieve themselves anywhere and everywhere. So I’m thinking, if all the world’s an urinal (forgive me, Shakespeareji), why can’t it also be a parking lot?

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Future Super Power


“Electricity is actually made up of extremely tiny particles called electrons, that you cannot see with the naked eye unless you have been drinking.” Dave Barry

Well, it’s finally official. Karnataka will now have regular load shedding – two hours a day in Bangalore, four hours a day in “other urban areas” and twelve hours a day in “rural” areas. And there’s no need to gasp in outrage about that twelve-hour bit. After all, what does a farmer need electricity for? To watch his paddy grows?
Besides, I have a more important point to make and this realization dawned upon me one relaxed, peaceful day just two weeks ago when we had had no power for almost ten hours. (I mean, we never said there wouldn’t be any  “unscheduled” load shedding, did we now?) As I sat renewing my acquaintance with my navel, (navel gazing was a popular pastime during the Dark Ages and led to the invention of the toothpick and other such marvels that altered the course of human history) I thought to myself - there has to be a cosmic explanation for this.

It has to be beyond the one that we consume more electricity than we make. (Please don’t ask silly questions like “when are we going to make enough?” That’s like asking how many pink salwar kameez outfits does Mayawati own. Nobody knows. Even though our CM did recently say that we hope to end the power shortage in 3 years. But if you notice, he didn’t say three years from what date. So it could be 3 years from 2028, 2076, 2145 etc., etc.)

And beyond the one that there isn’t enough water in the hydel resevoirs. An explanation that held water (pun intended) earlier this year, when the monsoon had failed so miserably that we barely had water to drink. (We’re just a week away from dying of thirst, the newspapers screamed). But that was then. Now we have so much water – especially when we factor in our CM’s recent crying jags- that we’re ready to re-enact Noah and the Flood. Except that there’s a strong rumour going around that there will be room on the Ark for just one politician and not two. (For those who skipped their Bible study classes, God asked Noah to stock two of each kind of animal - one male and one female – so that after the flood, they could reproduce and multiply their kind.)
It has to be beyond the “technical snags” in the thermal power stations and their dwindling stocks of churimuri. (It is a little known fact that neither water nor coal will yield a single watt of electricity if a judicious amount of churimuri is not mixed into it.) Or the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) beating up Mumbai roadside romeos for eve-teasing in Hindi instead of Marathi. It had to be beyond the fight that apparently broke out in the BJP high command as to which sweet dish Reddy-garu and Yeddyurappa-avaru should so lovingly spoon into each other’s mouths before they kissed and made up.

And then it hit me, much in the manner of the apple that plopped on Newton’s unsuspecting head.

We were all being weaned off our terrible, crippling addiction for that nasty, disgusting thing called electricity! With same loving but unrelenting firmness with which our mothers weaned us off …well, a lot of things too numerous to count including sucking our thumbs and picking our noses.
So that soon a day will come in the not so distant future, when they will come crawling and grovelling to our doorsteps offering us free, unlimited electricity. Every person taking a new electricity connection will be rewarded with a lifetime unlimited supply of free puliogare and gobi manchuri and 8-nights-41-days’exotic holiday in the Reddy mines. It will be then, in that moment of glory that we will blithely spurn them. Because by then, a new kind of power will running everything.
Mosquito power.
Generated by the only thing that is abundantly, freely and perennially available. (Even as we speak, there are reports of an invention that will harness the bloodsucking talents of the mosquito for blood banks.)
The news just out is the Chamundeshwari Electricity Supply Corporation Limited, Mysore, has received an award for excellence in Field Inspection and Technical Assistance Services. We applaud heartily, but for those of you who aren’t quite sure what that means, “Technical Assistance Services” is helping you to find the candles during the 10-hour load shedding when even your inverter gives up.
And “Field inspection”?
Ah. Hold on while I call up “Technical Assistance Services”.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Truth About Calendar Girls and Chastity Belts

It’s quite astonishing how many misconceptions the average pappu-pinky-on-the-street has about stuff. And I count myself to be one such pappu-pinky
For example, the popular belief is that the Miss Universe and Miss World contests and the annual Kingfisher calendar exist because there are many amongst us who like to ogle at pretty women, preferably in minimal clothing.
The real reason  – something that Donald Trump, Julia Morley and Vijay Mallya have known all along – is that every 10-second ogle of a woman in swimsuit saves upto 10,000 Ridley turtles, feeds one million starving children in wherever-it-is-they-are-starving and arrests the meltdown of at least one Antarctic iceberg. Also, the briefer the swimsuit (preferably a bikini), the more turtles saved, kiddies fed and icebergs re-frozen. And if the organisers would be so kind as to consider g-strings next year, it may even end the suicide bombings in Iraq, save Pakistan from blowing itself up to smithereens and smoke out Osama Bin Laden.
Which of course is the only reason why the hunt for next lot of Kingfisher calendar ladies will happen on a reality show on NDTV Goodtimes.
Similarly, like many of my fellow pappu-pinkys, I thought flood relief meant providing food, water, clothes and shelter; massive feat that first involved marshalling enough resources and then distributing them in a way to reach every one of the millions of flood victims. And that this would mean that the entire machinery of the state government would be working 24x7, under the constant, vigilant, watchful supervision of our ministers and MLA’s, the elected representatives of we the pappu-pinkies
Wrong again.
The thing is, food packets and blankets and kanji-centres are all very well. But the most critical part of flood relief work is something else altogether, something that our ministers/MLAs have known all along. It involves one gaggle of ministers (also known as mine-isters) deciding bang in the middle of posing-next-to-the-kanji-cauldrons-for-the-cameras that this is the perfect time to settle unpaid, pending pounds of flesh with the Chief Minister. And before we can say “kanji-cauldron”, the aforementioned ministers with their faithful band of chela-MLA’s quickly rush off to temples/resorts and mutts of their choice. The government teeters and totters, everybody else drops their flood-relief photo-op kit and hotfoots back to base camp in Bengaluru and the entire state screeches to a horrified halt.
Naturally, the question that pops into the mind of the average pappu-pinky is – how will this help the flood victims?
Ah. We knew you’d ask this silly question but we understand - after all you’re just a ignorant pappu-pinky.
So, let us explain. You see, this masterstroke of flood-relief planning envisages that one of two things will happen. First that the flood victims, fed up of waiting for help to come their way, will go way and try and find their own means of staying alive, not to mention staying. Or that they will die.
Either way, the problem will be solved and the thousands of crores of money intended for this silly flood relief work will be saved and can be spent on buntings, bouquets, archways and kesari bhat for the next cabinet meeting. And we all live happily ever after.
Which leaves one more misconception that we need to cover.
And that is chastity belts.
Now, those pappu-pinkys having a smattering of knowledge of medieval history may think that chastity belts are iron er, ladies’ innerwear into which knights leaving for the crusades would strap in and lock their ladies into, to deter any infidelity that the ladies may consider indulging in during their absence.
Well, that may be so, but hundreds of years ago. Today, chastity belts are much roomier than ladies’ underwear. They are the resorts/hotels in secret locations into which politicians secrete their supporters. Not only because they, the supporters I mean, deserve a much-needed rest from posing next to flood-relief kanji cauldrons, though that too. But also so that, it will stave off any temptation to indulge in a bit of “infidelity” with politicians of the opposing camp, hoping to lure them over.
Every five years, they land up at our doorsteps, oily, obsequious and ingratiating, littering the neighbourhood with themselves and their lies.
Bent at the waist, they smile smiles that never reach their crocodile eyes, making promises that both of us know they will never fulfil. And thus, they bow and beg shamelessly for our votes.
And we, the eternal suckers, give it to them.
Shame on us.

(My Column in the Bangalore Mirror today)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Post-Diwali Peregrinations


IMG_2301 I’m confused.
The recession is over, they say. And it must be.
Firstly because the experts say so. After all, aren’t they the ones who warned us about the collapse of the stock market and the Satyam scam, well in time for everyone to pull their money out? And aren’t they the ones who so accurately predicted the monsoons? That the miserable “below normal” trickle would suddenly turn into an “above normal” deluge so monstrous that it would wash away everything in sight?
And because young nieces and nephews, the ink on their software degrees still wet, are back to earning upwards of 40,000 rupees a month. And because the price of gold and the Sensex have dizzily climbed up like an item girl’s hemline, flashing seductive hints that they may climb up even further.
And because though the Diwali firecracker sellers moaned about slow sales, the stalls were up well in advance to make sure that everyone was stocked up on their cocktails of vishnu-laxmi-mallika-sherawat bombs and 1000-feet laddis. Not because we are callous creeps who didn’t care a whit about our poor, flooded-out-of-home-‘n-hearth
fellow Kannadigas languishing in some miserable relief camp without a phuljadi to their name. But to make sure that on Diwali day, they, like the rest of us, would be deafened, nerve-wracked and almost asphyxiated to death and thus be filled with festive cheer.
A display of collective thoughtfulness that moved me to tears.
The final sign came right and early on Dhanteras day, when every alternate page of the morning newspaper was a full-page advertisement displaying a frightening array of everything we’ve always wanted in plasma TV’s and home theatres but were too recession-pressed to buy.
So, I thought to myself as I agonised over microwave with built-in massage parlour versus plasma TV with 1.06 billion colours and automatic candidature for Rahul-ka-Swayamvar – yup, the recession must well and truly be over.
Till a report about the flood relief work on the neighbouring page caught my eye. According to which the amount sanctioned by the government for a house that had been totally destroyed by the floods was 35000 rupees - but only if it was a ‘pucca’ construction. The poor fools who could not afford to microwave their houses and had “kaccha” ones, would be granted the princely sum of 10,000 rupees.
I know. You’re thinking – 35,000 rupees may not buy enough space in Bengaluru to swing a dead cat in but surely in Backofbeyondinahalli, it would be sufficient to build…well, if not a mansion befitting Donald Trump, certainly an abode worthy of a flood-devastated Backofbeyondinhalli-wallah?
Er, no.
I know that many of us, worrying about where our next smart phone is going to come from may not know this. But apparently the cost of a basic one-room kitchen house, just large enough to swing the aforementioned dead cat in and no Italian marble in the swimming pool is about one lakh of rupees.
Even in Backofbeyondinahalli.
Now I’m thinking - why just 35,000 rupees? I mean, money should not be a problem, now that the recession is over and happy days are here again, thumbs up, thumbs up, is it not?
Ah. Good question.
You see, there was a lot of careful, sagacious thinking behind the government’s circumspection about doling out the flood relief moolah. This way, if we were a flood-hit, homeless Backofbeyondinahalli-wallah (which we aren’t, thank God), we build just one-third of a house this year. Then, hopefully if the gods oblige with floods next year and the one-third remains standing, we will know how flood-worthy it is and get on with building another one-third. And then, if the year after that, the gods continue to rain down their munificence, we finish off the remaining one-third, just in time for Diwali.
Gosh-‘n-golly. I never thought of it quite like that. But now that you have explained it to me like that, who would’ve thought that our policy makers are capable of such brilliance.
Anyway, while the Backofbeyondinahalli-wallahs slowly cobble back together their washed-out lives and build their one-third houses, we shouldn’t be too cock-a-whoop about the receded recession. Apparently the floods have destroyed so much of the standing crops that this time next year, a plate of idli sambar may cost more than a smart phone.
Incidentally, I’d like to tell you that I opted for the plasma TV with 1.06 billion colours and automatic candidature for Rahul-ka-Swayamvar. I mean, which woman in her right mind would pass up an opportunity to be Rahul Mahajan’s telly-bride?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

About time, Manna Da!

Belated congratulations to the great Manna Dey! Unassuming and very often looked over because of his more high-profile colleagues - yet no one can beat this man on pure, unadulterated mellifluousness. This, one my favourite Manna Dey songs, amply demonstrates Manna Da’s command over melody. And the composer is another musician who did not get his due - none other than Geeta Dutt's brother, Kanu Roy!


Of all the duets that Manna Dey and Lata Mangeshkar have sung together - and Raj Kapoor's films notwithstanding - this song from the film “Jyoti” has to be one of the most hauntingly beautiful. I can't decide what is the best - the utterly enchanting, sweet singing by both Lataji and Manna Da, S.D. Burman's exquisite composition or Anand Bakshi's poetry...


Not too many peole know that some of the best "comedy" songs have been sung by ...the great Manna Dey...and with great aplomb! This is a great example – film Bhoot Bangla and who else but Pancham could whip up this effervescent foot-tapper!



Finally, after Lata and Mohd. Rafi, Madan Mohan's most successful collaboration was with Manna Dey. And this fabulous composition from Bawarchi is a fine example. Incidentally, one of the female voice in the "chorus" is Govinda's mother, Nirmala Devi!

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Tenth Night – Dusshera!


The Tenth Night – Dusshera!
A 1000 too little.....
This is my last post on Navaratri.
The nine nights are over and today is the triumphant tenth day of the power of the Devi - even Lord Rama vanquished Ravana with the secret weapon that he obtained after invoking Her blessings

When I listen to the Lalitha Sahasranama and try to write about it English, I am struck by limitations of the English language that can never truly translate the vast, expansive, expressive grandeur of Sanskrit.
And perhaps some of the most enthralling parts of the Lalitha Sahasranama are those which describe the incredible beauty of the Devi, so dazzling that in one of stotram, the splendor of her toe nails is described as so radiant that it dispels the darkness of ignorance in the devotees prostrating at Her feet!

kamakshi She is Sagara Mekhala - whose girdle is the sea.
Her nose is like a freshly blossomed champaka bud.
Her lips outshine the redness of fresh coral and bimba fruit.
Her smile is so radiant that it floods the mind of Kamesvara, Her consort.
Her eyes, like the petal of a lotus (Padmanayana) or of a doe (Mrugakshi), are so beautiful that She is Kamakshi, the beautiful eyed One.
Her form is so exquisite (Charurupa) and her smile so charming (Charuhasa), that She is Mohini, the bewitching beauty and Shobana, the radiant beauty.

She is sometimes Raktavarna or rosy complexioned,
Sometimes Shyamabha or of a shining darkness,
Sometimes Shuklavarna or white complexioned,
Sometimes Pitavarna or golden.
In fact her beauty is so awesome that She is Mahatripurasundari.

If She is all this, then what else can She be but omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent?
The Devi herself declares in Devi Bhagavata,
“I myself am the knowledge, grace, courage, memory, sincerity, intelligence, modesty, hunger, thirst, capacity, luster, peace, sleep, aging, blood, bone, marrow, nerve, skin, sight, truth, untruth — and everything else in this Universe, believe me, I am. What is there that I am not?”
When the sage Vyasa was once questioned about the birth of the Devi, he said that when even Brahmavishnumaheswara are not capable of thinking about her origin, then how can he?
Om Sri Devi Ma!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Ninth Night - Why not 10 or 11 0r 8?

Divine Nine
For nine days and nights we have celebrated the triumph of the Goddess over evil.
Why nine, you might ask?
Why not 11 or 8 or any other number for that matter?
Well, maybe because nine is quite a number, it seems!
The “Complete” number
From the vantage point of pure mathematics - and we Indians are somewhat of an authority on the subject - the number 9 is considered to be a complete or “puran” number. Why? Because do anything to this number and it remains unchanged, unaffected, like Devi Herself. Multiply 9 by any number and the answer always totals to 9. Add it to or subtract it from any number, the answer always totals to the number or the sum of the one that you added or subtracted, nine remaining serenely untouched, unmoving.
23 x 9 = 207
74 x 9 = 576
5 + 9 = 14
25 + 9 = 34
87 – 9 = 78
13 – 9 = 4
This concept is explained in the Upanishads.
The primordial, celestial number
A human being spends 9 months in its mother’s womb before it is born. At the rate of 15 breaths a minute, a healthy human being takes an average of 21600 breaths in 24 hours or 9 x 100 breaths in an hour!
The number nine also leaps up and strides across the heavens - in the form of the 9 celestial bodies or the Navagraha. Planets, would you say? Well, I don’t really know because only 6 of the planets in the Western or solar system of astronomy figure in the navagrahas. Also by the Western system, the Sun is a star, and Rahu and Ketu aren’t planets at all. And the earth, Pluto and Neptune don’t figure at all which should leave us serenely unaffected by all the recent teeth-gnashing about that poor lil’ dwarf, Pluto!
Sun (Surya),
Moon (Chandra),
Mars (Mangal/Bhaum),
Mercury (Budha),
Jupiter (Guru/Bruhaspati),
Venus (Shukra)
Saturn (Shani)
Rahu and
Also, the navagrahas aren’t considered just planets, but also divine entities to be both worshipped and appeased. Surya, for example is the son of sage Kasyapa and Aditi, while Shani is Surya’s son. Chandra (the moon) is a Deva who took the 27 (9x3!) stars (Nakshatras and daughters of Daksha) as his wives. Bruhaspati (Jupiter) was the teacher of devas, a mighty scholar whose utterances made it into every branch of Indian philosophy. Budha (Mercury) is considered the son of Chandradeva while Sukra (Venus) is a benign deva so wealthy that all the precious stones are in his possession and Kubera lives by constantly borrowing a quarter of his wealth from Sukra!
The Ecologically Correct Number
The navagraha puja gave rise to the concept of navadhaanya or the 9 sacred seeds or grains offered to each of the 9 grahas. And if we look at them beyond just offerings in a ritual, we see the embodiment of life itself and what the principle of what now an eco-fashionable word – biodiversity. Because these 9 seeds and grains are the perfect balance of cereal (wheat and rice), legume (Bengal gram, green gram, horse gram, black gram and red gram) and nuts/oilseed (sesame) which is the principle behind crop rotation in agriculture, now making a “comeback” among agriculturists as one of the most powerful and enduring ways to enrich and rejuvenate the soil.
The divine number
So, I guess the Devi picked the right number, don’t you think?
And nine has a special significance for the Devi in other ways.
In Bengal, during Durga Puja, a special Devi is made out of 9 plants called nabapatrika. Each plant represents one avatar of the Devi - the banana plant for Goddess Brahmani, the colacassia or arvi plant for Kalika, turmeric for Durga, jayanti denotes Kartiki, bel or bilva (wood apple) for Goddess Shiva, pomegranate for Raktadantika, the ashoka tree for Sokrahita, arum for Chamunda and finally rice for Goddess Lakshmi.
Every one of those plants are nutritionally and/or medicinally potent!
But the ultimate divine significance of this number is in the fact that across all religions, the name of God is invoked in multiples of 9. The japamala or prayer beads used by Hindus, Jains and Buddhists has 108 beads. (The Buddhists believe that the 108 beads represent the number of mental conditions or sinful desires that one must overcome to reach enlightenment or nirvana.) The Quran list 99 names of Allah and so the Muslim prayer beads known as the tasbeeh usually has sets of 99 counting beads for each of the names and one elongated terminal bead. The Jains chant the panchanamaskara in multiples of 9. And in Christianity, the word “novena” itself is from the Latin word “novem” or 9 and so this prayer is chanted in sets of 9 – 9 consecutive hours, days, even weeks or months.
The number of life
Finally, let us come a full circle – literally - and rest where we began. With mathematics. Or with the meaning of life itself, depending on how you want to look at it. We talk about the circle of life. The zero as well as the wheel is a circle, without which much of what we call civilization or progress, would not have happened or existed. All the planets including the sun, moon and the one that we live on are, when viewed in one dimension - a circle. And the circle is the ultimate symbol of infinity – that which has no beginning and no end. So then consider this – in geometry, the number of degrees that make up a circle are 360.
Or 9 x 40!
Source material: Puranic Encyclopedia by Vettam Mani

The Eight Night - A Raga and a Rain Song

Naturally, no discussion on the Goddess Saraswati can be complete with music
And her presence in the glorious, infinite ocean of Indian music is all pervading.
Indian classical music and bhakti have always been the weft and warp of the same fabric and not just Hinduism
It is said that the azan or the call for prayer sounded by the muezzin sounded very similar to raga Ahir-Bhairav
The Sikh holy scripture, Guru Granth Sahib is divided into 32 chapters where each chapter has the name of a Raga.
And the first Raga is Raga Sri
Sri - The Devi’s most beautiful name that fits into it the entire universe and more it.
All names of the Devi and all names of ragas.
And almost like a musical Sahasranama, the ragas named after her have lent their magic to countless evergreen Hindi film songs.
Here are a few
Raga Bageshree
Radha na bole na bole re. AZAD , Lata Mangeshkar/ C. Ramchandra 1955
Chah barbad karegi – SHAH JAHAN K L Saigal/ Naushad 1946
Aja re, paradesi – MADHUMATI Lata Mangeshkar/Salil Chowdhury 1958
Ghadi Ghadi mera dil dhadke - MADHUMATI Lata Mangeshkar/Salil Chowdhury 1958
Hamse aya na gaya - DEKH KABIRA ROYA Talat mahmood?Madan Mohan 1957
Raga Madhuvanti/Ambika
Rasm-e-ulfat ko nibhaye DIL KI RAHEN Lata Mangeshkar /Madan Mohan (1973)
Raga Durga
Geet gaya patharon ne - GEET GAYA PATHARON NE Lata/Ramlal 1964
Raga Kalavati
Hai re woh din kyun na aye - ANURADHA Lata/ Pt. Ravi Shanker 1960
Kahe tarasae jiyara - CHITRALEKH Lata/Roshan 1964
Koi sagar dilko bahalata nahin – DIL DIYA DARD LIYA Naushad/Rafi1966
Na toh caravan ki alash hai –BARSAAT KI RAAT Roshan/ Rafi, Manna Dey,Asha Bhosale/Sudha Malhotra/Batish 1960
And of course, Raga Bhairavi.
The raga that gave birth to the glorious musical collaboration of Raj Kapoor with Shankar – Jaikishen in the film Barsaat in 1949. It also made the till then unknown Lata Mangeshkar into a household name with the song "Barsaat mein humse mile tum."
Awaara hoon from Awaara (1951).
Mera joota hai japani, Pyaar Hua Ikraar Hua and Ramaiyya vastavaiyya from Shri 420 (1955),
Mera Naam Raju and Hoton Pe Sachhayi Rahati Hai from Jis Desh Me Ganga Baheti Hai (1960).
Bol Radha Bol Sangam Hoga Ke Nahin and Dost Dost Na Raha from Sangam (1964)
All based on raga Bhairavi
The list of Bhairavi based Hindi film songs is a Sahasranama itself. Accomodating – like the Devi – every kind of music director, every kind of film, every nuance of emotion, every shade of mood. Everything from Ai Mere Dil Kahin Aur Chal from Daag (1952), one of Talat Mahmood's greatest hits to April Fool Banaaya (April Fool (1964)
Saraswati, most popular as the Goddess of learning and the arts, actually represents much more.
moral and spiritual strength,
And as the river Saraswati, she represents the flow and movement from the darkness of ignorance to the light of knowledge.
Source;- Wikipedia and

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Seventh Night - The Veena and the Jackfruit

goddess_saraswati_playing_veena_tp18 Veena Vadini
One of the many names of the Goddess Saraswati and so her association with the veena is fairly well known. But what has the lumpy, unprepossessing jackfruit have to do with the veena?  
Well, let me start with the veena first….
The veena, one of the oldest instruments in the world, symbolizes both the divine and the primordial. Its physical form is said to represent the human spinal cord and the sound that it creates is said to be closest to the human voice. Said to have been invented by Narada, the celestial musician and son of Brahma, many deities in the Hindu divine pantheon played this instrument including Lakshmi, Parvati, Hanuman and Shiva.
But apparently the maestro of the veena was Ravana who played this instrument with such expertise that he could please any divine power with his music!
There are several references to the veena in the Puranas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. As the story goes, Valmiki, after completing the Ramayana, said that when it is recited/sung, the instrument most suitable to accompany it was the veena.
But it is the association of the veena with the Goddess Saraswati that remains the most enduring and profound. Presiding deity as she is not just of knowledge and wisdom and the arts, but of all sound, musical and spoken (one of her many names is “Vach”) it is but natural that the veena should be such an integral part of her divinity.
In her hands, it symbolizes more than just music. It symbolizes harmony, not just musical harmony, but harmonious existence of all living things, it symbolizes the music of the universe, the eternal sea of sound in which rest all of creation, all of knowledge and all of healing.
19 Veenas, one music
Across the splendid expanse of its ancient history and in consonance with its image as the musical instrument of the gods, the veena has had as many avatars as the divinities that played it. Among the 25 or more known avatars of the veena, here are some of the more interesting ones
Veena Parivadini - Said to possess strings made out of gold and was performed by the Pallava king, Mahendravarman
Mahati – 20 stringed veena said to have been played by sage Narada
Pinaki – played with a bow.  Lord Shiva is also called  “Pinakapani” or He who holds of the Bow.
Rudra – Shiva’s instrument, named after him and is the veena currently played in North India.
Brahma veena - has only one string
Satatantri – the 100-stringed veena which existed over 2000 years ago and said to be the ancestor of the santoor.
Kinnari – mostly widely seen and mentioned in Sanskrit literature, paintings and sculptures.
Vipanchi – the 9 stringed veena which is mentioned in Adi Sankaracharya’s 'Soundarya Lahari'
Ravanahatta – the veena supposed to have been invented by Ravana and named after him. It is still popular in Rajasthan
Audumbari – the veena played during Vedic times by the wives of the sages when they recited the Vedas during sacrifices. “Audumbari” means “papal” in Sanskrit and it is possible that this veena was made out of the wood of the pipal tree.
Finally of course is the exquisite Saraswati veena that is to this day is played and is the most popular in Carnatic music
Which leaves us with the bit about the jackfruit…
Which is what the modern day veena is made from - the wood of the jackfruit tree! Chosen because of its particularly resonant quality. But I like the explanation given by Mangalam Muthuswamy, a well-known vainika. According to her, the tradition started in olden days, when the wood was taken from jackfruit trees growing in temple courtyards because it was believed that they had absorbed the resonance of the temple bells!

Magical jackfruit!


And the fruit that looks like a cross between a lumpy green hippo and a porcupine has other magical things about it….
The jackfruit grows all over Asia and in many Asian countries like Sri Lanka and Cambodia; one of the foods believed to increase breast milk production in nursing mothers is tender jackfruit!
And why not? Look at the nutrition that it packs in! Starting with beta-carotene, cued by the beautiful yellow-gold colour of its insides. Beta carotene, apart from being one of the most powerful disease-fighting antioxidants, is also the raw material, which the body converts into Vitamin A, the deficiency of which causes millions of children in developing countries like India to go blind. The jackfruit’s cache of Vitamin A is high enough for it to be recommended in the Bangladesh government’s campaign to combat vitamin A deficiency.
Then, like so many other tropical fruits, jackfruit also is an excellent source of minerals like calcium, potassium, iron etc. In fact, it is said to contain more calcium and magnesium than the banana!
The jackfruit is also an excellent source of complex carbohydrate and dietary fibre, making it a great energy food. In fact, the jackfruit’s nutritional profile makes it the perfect staple food – which it is, especially among poor Asians. T
he seeds are even more impressive - dietary fiber, vitamins A, C and certain B vitamins, calcium, zinc, sulfur and phosphorous, apart from a whole range of antioxidants! In Kerala, many even say that kanji eaten with “spoons” made of the leaves of the jackfruit tree is good for respiratory problems!
Today and for the next 3 days, we worship the Goddess Saraswati, one of the Devi’s five avatars. Wellspring of all wisdom, all art. Awed by this, the Lalitha Sahasranama reels of a hosanna of names.
Veda-Janani - Mother of the Vedas, who feeds not only our bodies but also our souls as Gyanada - the giver of Supreme Knowledge.
Gayatri or the Gayatri mantra itself.
Without her we would’ve been mute, because She is Gomata - the source of speech.
Bhasharupa, the embodiment of language.
Kalanatha, Kalanidhih and Kalavati - the fountainhead, the presiding deity, the very embodiment of all art.
Kavyakala - the art of poetry.
From her springs rhythm and music because She is Layakari.
She is not just Yogini but also Yogada and Yogananda who blesses us with the wisdom and bliss realized through yoga.
And finally, She is Vedyavarjita - She who being all knowing, has nothing more to know.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Sixth Night - What is Brinda doing in Your Medicine Cabinet? (Or for that matter, Gauri? Madhavi?)

Some would call her a herb but that would be the most inadequate of labels because she is so many things. Medicine, antiseptic, health food, tonic, insect repellant, air purifier. And as many think her to be, even your passport to heaven. She has been a part of our homes, our temples, our rituals, our everyday lives for centuries.
We name our daughters after her.
And she even figures in India’s most watched television serial.
But, lest we forget, she is also a Goddess.
Today is the 6th night of Navratri and the last one dedicated to the Goddess Laxmi. So what better occasion than today to tell you about Her most wondrous avatar.



Its English name “basil” is derived from Greek basileus which means “imperial” because the  fragrance of this herb is considered royal. In Latin, it is called Ocimum sanctum , ocimum said to be from the Greek word 'to smell,' and sanctum meaning holy or sacred. But it is in India, the place of its birth, where it has not one but many, many beautiful names.
Patrapuspha, Brinda, Gauri, Haripriya, Krishnamula, Madhavi, Manjari, Vaishnavi.
And of course - Laxmi

Nature’s GP
Remember that now almost extinct species of doctor called the general physician? Whom you went to not only to treat your ingrown toenails and your baby’s influenza, but also your mother-in-law’s dicky heart? Whose bedside manner was almost as healing as his medicines? Well, you could say that the tulsi plant is Mother Nature’s GP. Just look at the vast range of ailments that it can treat – coughs, colds, bronchitis, asthma, influenza, headaches, skin diseases like ringworm, bad breath and pyorrhea, digestive problems, heart disease and insect bites.
Impressed? Wait – how about that if I tell you that it can sharpens your memory, is a nerve tonic, anti-malarial drug and painkiller!
Its wide-spectrum curative powers seem to be coming primarily because of the presence of two things. First, a chemical in tulsi’s volatile oil called Eugenol, which basically acts the way many anti-inflammatory medications including aspirin and ibuprofen work. This along with a whole host other chemicals in tulsi’s volatile oil, also makes it a very potent anti-bacterial agent, effective against all kinds of nasty microbes including Staphylococcus aureus (the food poisoning villain), Escherichia coli O:157:H7, (causes stomach problems like dysentery and diarrehea) and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, (the lung infection baddie).
Secondly, tulsi is rich in antioxidants, particularly beta-carotene, which is the source material from which the human body produces vitamin A. And it is the presence of this that makes tulsi so effective in the treatment of heart disease, lowering cholesterol and treating eye disorders like night blindness. Incidentally, along with vitamin A, tulsi is also a good source of iron (7.15 % of your daily requirement in just 2 teaspoons of leaves) and calcium (6.3 %) and of potassium and vitamin C.


I know – many of you are going, “huh?” As I did too. Well, put in layman’s terms, an adaptogen is anything that helps prevent the onset of illnesses by strengthening the body’s immune systems and make you able to adapt and cope with a wide range of physical, emotional, chemical and infectious stresses. Did I just use the word “stress”? Yes I did! And this perhaps is the tulsi’s least talked about but most impressive attribute. That it is considered as a powerful adaptogen, a stress buster, strengthening the immune system by increasing antibody production with its antibiotic, antiviral, and antifungal properties. Dr. Andrew Weil, that high-profile, high priest of integrative medicine in the West talks of a “study, published in 1991 in the Indian Journal of Pharmacology, compared tulsi to Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and found that holy basil was the most potent anti-stress agent of the three, and also had the highest margin of safety. However, this study, as well as a dozen others I found in a search of the medical literature, was conducted in laboratory animals, not humans….”

Well, laboratory animals or not, I for one don’t need more research to convince me. Because I think that with that spectacular bio-date of nutritional and medicinal properties, it’s more than likely that the tulsi is indeed a potent tonic.
Which is why like the rudraksha, it is worn – especially by Vaishnavites – as a necklace so that it remains constantly in touch with the body. Which is why often, Hindu and Buddhist japamalas are made of tulsi wood. And why among with all the protective mantras or “kavacham” that supplicate Durga, Narayana, Mahalakshmi, Gayatri, Shamugan there is one for the Tulsi as well….
Holy Herb
There are so many references to the tulsi in the Hindu ancient texts, both medicinal and religious, that it is the subject of a thesis and a book. But, the essence of it is that the tulsi plant, avatar of the Goddess Mahalakshsmi, was churned out of the ocean along with Kamadhenu the cow, the parijata and Dhanwantri, the deva who became the preceptor of Ayurveda. Considered so sacred that in the Padma Purana it is said even the soil in which it grows is sacred. That just one twig, is enough to cleanse the soul of the most heinous sinner, when placed near the dead body. So pure that many consider that it purifies the air around where it grows.
And since the Goddess Laxmi is Lord Vishnu’s consort, so the tulsi is His most beloved, so much so that it is also called Vishnupriya.
Which is how Brindvan got its name.
IMG_2090 You see, Lord Krishna, his most favourite playground was a spot near Mathura, which  – as one story goes -  was a lush tulsi grove. And  'Vrinda' is also one of tulsi’s many names. And so, to this day, the traditional pot in which the tulsi is grown is called a vrindavan.
I end with this beautiful little legend. It is said that Krishna, after completing his work on earth, continued to live in Dwarka with his wives. But the gods therefore wanted him back in heaven. So they kidnapped him. Rukmini and Satyabhama were inconsolable without their beloved Krishna. So, Narada, that Grandsire of Negotitions, brought the ladies a celestial deal. It was this. That the gods would return Krishna to them if Rukmini and Satyabhama could outweigh him when he sat in one pan of a weighing scale {tula).
”Done!” said the ladies and Satyabhama had the first go, heaping all of her vast riches onto the pan of the scale. But to no avail – it floated up light as a feather! Now it was Rukmini’s turn. She first cleared away all Satyabhama’s riches, then plucked a few leaves of tulsi and put it in the scale. The pan dropped down immediately, the one in which Krishna sat went up….
And he got to stay with his beloved wives.
Namastulsi  Kalyaani
Namo  Vishnupriye  Shudhe
Namo  Mokshaprade Devi
Namaha  Sampat  Pradaayike
Happy Navaratri!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Fifth Night - A Lotus in Your Frying Pan

white lotus flower

Padma – Lotus
Padmavarna – She who is the colour of the lotus
Padmapriya: She who loves lotus
Padmalochana – She whose eyes are like the lotus
Padmalaya – She who is the abode of the lotus
Padmagandha – She who is the fragrance of the lotus
Padmakshi: One whose eyes are as beautiful as a lotus.
Padmahastam: One who holds a lotus
Nelumbo nucifera, Or as you and I know it – the lotus.
The most recurring association of the Goddess Lakshmi is with the lotus flower. “The meaning of the lotus in relation to Shri-Lakshmi refers to purity and spiritual power.” Wikipedia
That it is sacred, we all know.
The East has always regarded the lotus as sacred, pure; the symbol of beauty, eternity, fertility and prosperity. It also considered a sign of spiritual consciousness rising above the dross and the material because though its roots grow in mud and swamp, the stem carrying the bloom always rises above the water.
It also considered a sign of spiritual consciousness rising above the dross and the material because though its roots grow in mud and swamp, the stem carrying the bloom always rises above the water.
Virtually every God and Goddess of Hinduism are often shown sitting on the lotus, holding a lotus flower in their hand and have names associating them with the lotus.
In yoga, one of the most serene yet powerful of poses is the padmasana, the posture for meditation and one assumed by the Jain Tirtanthakaras (the 6th Tirtankhara’s name is Padmaprabha) and by the Buddha.
But did you know that the lotus leaf is no less a source of wonderment?
Scientifically speaking, that is.
You see, scientists have for years been fascinated by the fact that even though the lotus grows in swampy, dirty, muddy waters, it never gets wet or dirty. And that is because it is an astounding example not just of natural water proofing but also self-cleaning. If you have ever noticed the surface of a lotus leaf, it seems to have a wax like coating. Actually, this “coating” is thousands of microscopic bumps which ensure that when water falls on it, very little comes in contact with the leaf’s surface (only 2-3%!). Which is why water “rolls” up into little mercury-like beads, leaving the leaf dry and untouched. And every time these beads of water roll around the leaf’s surface, they also roll up all surface dirt and dust, leaving everything clean and and beautifully dry.
These amazing water-resistant and self-cleaning properties of the lotus leaf were first studied in 1997 by the German botanist, Wilhelm Barthlott. Since then, everyone from Dupont, the non-stick rajahs to manufacturers of aircraft windshields and computer hard disks have been researching and trying to mimic what is now called the “lotus effect”. And research continues to try and mimic the lotus leaf to coat airplane wings to keep them from icing up, to line the hulls of ocean liners to make water roll off them more easily and therefore make them move faster and of course for more efficient waterproof clothing!
Today is the 5th night of the Devi, dedicated again to her most enthralling avatar – the Goddess Lakshmi.
She is Lajja or modesty.
She is Tushtih or contentment
She is Pushti or nourishment and health.
She is Kantir - radiance,
She is Shantih - peace.
Matir - wisdom
Nirmala or Purity.
Dhrutih or Fortitude
Chinmayi or pure Consciousness.
She is limitless (Nirantara).
She is the oldest (Vrddha), yet She is the ever young (Taruni).
She is Murta - who has form yet She is Amurta -who is formless.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Fourth Night – A Poet, A Goddess and A Pot of Buttermilk

Today is the first of the three nights of Navaratri dedicated to the Goddess Lakshmi


As MahaVishnu lay resting on a fig leaf in the form of a child, he began thinking as to who he was, who created him and how he should act, when a celestial voice said:
Nanyadasti santanam.”
(All that is, I am. There is nothing eternal but me.)
It was the voice of the Devi.
Consort of Lord Vishnu and considered The Devi’s most sublime form. Because we mostly propitiate for wealth and good fortune, not many of us remember that She is also considered the seat of compassion, peace and all things good and beautiful….
And I am reminded of buttermilk and a man called Puranadaradasa…
A few months ago, a folk singer landed up at my gate, as they often so. A young man with skin like dark chocolate and large, liquid eyes to match, he wore just a saffron dhoti and shallu. The tiny harmonium slung around his neck was so old and beat up that it was difficult to make out some of the black keys from the white. But when he began to play and sing, it was pure, divine magic. His fingers flew across those cracked keys, coaxing out the notes of Raga Tilang. His voice was like graveled, melted jaggery. And the song? A Purandaradasa devaranama. I listened enthralled, at one point moved to tears. And marveled at a man called Puranadaradasa who, nearly 5 centuries ago, with his pitara of magical songs must have roamed the land, touching the hearts of people just as this young singer touched mine – with the very same songs. Five centuries later. his compositions like his bhakti are like little pools of crystal clear water, uncluttered by affectation and needless ornamentation.
Even though he is called the “Pitamaha” of Carnatic music, Puranadaradasa was essentially the people’s poet. His compositions like his bhakti are like little pools of crystal clear water, uncluttered by affectation and needless ornamentation. You dip in and come out refreshed. And the language is simple and homespun but delicious, making the compositions go down like a glass of cool, spicy buttermilk on a hot summer afternoon.

So, of Purandaradasa’s many, many compositions - an astounding 4,75,000 compositions at last count – his sweetest, most beautiful and the one dearest to the hearts of us Kannadigas is the one he composed to the Goddess Lakhsmi. For 500 years it has been sung in a million different ways, spanning the entire musical gamut from Carnatic to folk, but however you sing it, the simple magic of the words never lessens as he begs for a visitation by the Goddess Lakhshmi……
“Sowbhayda Lakshmi baaramma
Namamma Ni….
Gejjekaalgala dhwaniya torutha
Hejje mele hejjeya nikkuta
Sajjana sadhu poojeya velege
Majjige volagina benne yante
Bhagyalakshmi baramma”
“O Goddess of Good Fortune, come
O Our Mother, come…
To the sound the anklets on Your feet
As You walk
As the good people get ready to pray
As butter emerges from buttermilk
O Lakhshmi of Good Fortune, O Mother

She is Bhagavati, the supreme goddess.
Bhuvaneshvari, the sovereign of the universe. Maha-Shakti - the Greatest Power, Mahabala - the Greatest Strength
Mahavirya – the greatest valour.
Mahabuddhih - the Greatest Intelligence,
Mahasiddih - the Greatest Fulfillment.
Maharatih – the Greatest Bliss,
Maharupa –the most magnificent form.
Maha-Pujya – the most worthy of worship, even by Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Third Night

When Bri. Maya Tiwari was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer at the age of 23, and at the height of an extraordinarily successful career as a fashion designer in New York, her doctor recommend that she die painlessly with "heavy doses of morphine." Instead, Maya went on a self-healing process using “the wisdom and healing practices of the Vedas”. She realized that not only was the source of all disease and healing within us, but also that disease was an opportunity to go inwards, to re-establish contact with our own forgotten powers to heal us physically, emotionally and spiritually.
And to share with the world this personal journey from sickness to health, she wrote The Path of Practice – A Woman’s Book of Ayurvedic Healing, a glorious celebration of being a woman and of feminine power.
"The Divine Mother endowed all females with two gifts: the power to nurture and the power to protect. Shakti is more than the energy of reproduction. It is the spirit of protecting the sacred, gathering food, worshipping the Divine and giving birth to children, to inspiration, to idea and to art."
The book contains this amazing anecdote about the Lalitha Sahasranama
“Not long ago, I met Anna, a fourteen year-old girl who had been diagnosed with anorexia.  Anna said that her reason for not eating was that voices in her head were ordering her not to touch a morsel of food or else she would be severely punished…..As I meditated one day, I realized that she needed to be bathed in sounds of Vedic chants. I recorded a powerful chant for her that evokes the Divine mother’s presence – Lalitha Sahasranama, a thousand names of the Mother. Anna’s parents later described to me her reaction the first time that they played the tape in her presence. She suddenly became very quiet and her ex-pression became fixed, almost as if she was in a trance. As soon as the tape ended, she saked her mother to play it again. “I love the voice. I love the music,” she said.

She listened to the tape repeatedly throughout the next week.  Then she announced, “The voices are gone. I don’t hear them anymore. All I hear is the voice of the chants.” Anna is now eating normally and on her way to recovery.”
She is the Mother who guides us to walk the right path.
Because She is Madanashini, who destroys all pride and ego because She herself is Nirahankara – without ego;
Lobhanashini, who destroys greed because She herself is Nirlobha (without greed), Samshayaghni, who obliterates suspicion and doubt because She is Nishamshaya (without suspicion).
She is Krodha-Samani, who smoothes away anger since She is eternally Nishkrodha or without anger.
She is the mother who empowers us because She is Iccha-shakti-Gyana-shakti-Kriya-shakti- Svarupini, the Power of will, knowledge and action.
In her presence, obstacles melt away because She is Vighna Nashini. In her purifying radiance, we are freed from sin because She is Parampaapanashini.
With her blessing, we earn the fruits of good deeds because She is Punyaphalprada.
And so, She is Vandaru jana Vatsala – who loves her devotees like a mother.
Or then, She is just simply – Mata.

lalitha devi

The Second Night of Navaratri

mahishasura2 Tonight is the second night of Navratri
The Garba dance that is part of navratri celebrations comes from the word “Garbha deep”. Garbha meaning "womb" and “deep” meaning light. On the first day of Navratri is the ceremony of Ghat Sthapana, when a beautifully decorated earthen pot with holes in it is set up and worshipped.
That pot represents the Devi and her most beloved aspect – The Mother
Because she is the place where it all began.
And so the Lalitha Sahasranama is replete with names for the Devi in her most powerful but most benign aspect – the Divine Mother.
Vishvagarbha or She who has the universe in her womb.
Brahma-janani - the Mother of everything.
Sri Mahi - Mother Earth.
Pranada, the Giver of life
Pranesvari, the Queen of all forms of life.
Annada – the Giver of food and nourishment.
Karunarasa-Sagara, the ocean of compassion

Dayamurtih – compassion itself.
We fervently invoke her presence because She is Duhkhahantri, who ends all sorrow, but like a mother, doesn’t stop there and becomes Sukhaprada, enveloping us with peace and joy. There is room for all in her compassionate embrace, because She is Bhedanashini, destroying disparity and why not, because She is Nirbheda – without any differences.
Where She is, there is no fear because She is Raakshagni, the destroyer of the demons that rage not just outside but also inside us. But most of all, because She is Mrutymathani, the destroyer of that terrible fear that haunts all who are born - the fear of death.

In my hometown Mysore, we have a very special relationship with the Devi.
As the story goes, we were once terrorized by the terrible demon Mahishasura and that the Devi took it upon herself to liberate us, appearing as the Goddess Chamundeshwari, who, got her name because her habit of slaying demons,  got her name when she made short work of 2 other fearsome demons, Chanda and Munda. After she destroyed Mahishasura, She decided to take up residence atop a charming little wooded hill. Or so we like to believe and so, in gratitude, we Mysoreans named the hill Chamundi in Her honour, built Her a fabulous temple with a 120 ft high gopuram that you can see from almost any point in Mysore. Actually, the temple was a gift to Mysore from the Hoysala king Vishnuvardhana in1128 A.D. And in case the demon had any ideas of resurrecting himself (demons are known to do such things), in a cunning sleight of hand, we put up a massive likeness of him on top of the hill so that he’d scare himself away.
We also called ourselves Mahishasura Ooru, now corrupted to Mysore, because in a way, we’re indebted to the demon too.

After all, he did bring us the attention of the Devi!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Goat and a Gyani (not Zail Singh)

goat This is a  story about a goat, a Gyani and his shisya, a wonderful insight into  human nature

Once upon a time there a Great Gyani (heretofore referred to as GG) who had a devoted shisya

One day, the shisya lost his only son
Cut to GG's kutir
Enter Weeping Shishya
Falls at GG's feet and narrates his sorry tale

GG implacable, doesn't bat an eyelid, pats a there-there on  shishya's back and tells him to be like the Banyan Tree (heretofore referred to as BT) in Buddha's teachings.....unmoved, come rain or storm, joy or sorrow etc., etc

shishya goes home, desperately practices his BT asana....

....without much success, acquiring an attendant slipped disc, but persists

One day, while practicing aforementioned BT asana, shisya sees GG weeping inconsolably under a...yup a BT!

Shocked, shisya unasana-s himself and rushes to GG, concernedly enquiring cause of such devastating anguish

in between wracking sobs, GG tells shisya that his only goat died

shisya is first sympathetic, wipes tears, administers there-there pats

Then suddenly, PING!
Glob of crow guano from BT falls on shisya's head a-la--apple-on-Newton.
Penny drops
Shisya remembers the BT guru-updesh
Reminds GG about it

GG takes few seconds off from weeping and wailing
Slaps shisya hard across face

Shocked shishya asks , "WHY?!!"

GG flings dirty glance at shisya and says

"Woh toh tumhara beta tha.."

"Yeh meri bakri hai!"

End of Story

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Nine Nights and a Thousand Names – The First Night of Navratri


The First Night of Navaratri
Aditi, Aparna, Malini, Nalini, Nandini, Sandhya, Medha, Ranjani, Rajni, Gauri, Nirupama, Savitri, Madhumati Yashasvini Sandhya, Vidya, Damini, Jaya, Sridevi, Meenakshi, Mohini, Lalita, Jayanti, Sita, Uma, Madhavi, Prabha, Indrani, Shalini, Arundhati, Nidhi, Sudha, Amruta, Shraddha, Radha, Tara not to mention Saraswati and Lakshmi. Just think of how many girls or women you know who have one of these names. All names of the Goddess. It’s my guesstimate – and probably a conservative one - that over half of all the girls in India have been named after Her. I recently heard a beautiful explanation about why we name our children after our deities.
Other than because it is auspicious etc., etc., it is also so that if in no other way, then in each time we call out their name, we have remembered God!
Today is the 1st  of those 9 days in the year that we dedicate to the Goddess. Navratri. Though there are different nuances to this festival in different parts of India, everywhere for these nine days, we celebrate and exult in the Goddess, in her many forms and manifestations. But “Goddess” is a miniscule description of She whom we so often call “Devi.”
Because it is with her that everything began, begins and will begin. And so, nothing, not even a million names and descriptions would ever suffice to describe the infinitude of Her. But the Lalitha Sahasranama is a beautiful place to start. “Lalitha” meaning one the Devi’s most beautiful incarnations and “Sahasranama” meaning a thousand (sahasra) names or descriptors. The sage Agastya dismayed by the way people had become steeped in ignorance and in the pursuit of worldly pleasures, worshipped the Devi Kamakshi at Kanchi for a solution. Lord Hayagriva (an incarnation of  Lord Vishnu) appeared before him and  gave him the Lalita Sahasranama as the best way to worship the Devi.
When you first hear it, just the sound of the Lalita Sahasranama being chanted, even if you didn’t understand a single word, grandly rumbling and resounding like a symphony of some distant, divine drums have a strange effect – calming, yet energizing; washing over you in wave after wave. But after a while, the meanings begin to filter through. I’m not a Sanskrit scholar, but even to me, who could understand just a few of the thousand names, the awesome beauty came through.
So, this Navaratri, every day, I would like to share with you a few small glimpses of the Devi through extracts from the Lalitha Sahasranama, in the hope that you will be both touched and blessed by Her …..
Tonight is the first of the three days dedicated to Goddess Durga. The name “Durga” in Snaskrit means invincible. Just before the start of the Mahabharata way, Lord Krishna asked Arjuna to pray to the Goddess Durga for victory…..