Friday, February 22, 2013

Diamond comics

The British PM, David Cameron came and saw the Golden Temple, made chappatis, lauded the contribution of the Sikh community back home in the UK, went on to express surprise, joy, and other such, appropriate to the office he represents. Phew!

But our bechara dil which does not stop mange-ing more, which says, if you give us roti, give us jam to eat with it too, said, ‘Go apologize’!

The man politely wrote of the Jallianwala massacre: "This was a deeply shameful act in British history. One that Winston Churchill rightly described at that time as monstrous..."

“What!” we said. “The cheek of him! The British! Is this why we have to take money under the table to send our kids to international schools so they can go to university in your country? And, it is not just money, it is the essays they have to write! How much we have to beg the best writers to halp. You know, just after twinkle-twinkle, our kids by-heart Byron, Keats and Shelley ? And for your kind information, we also know Shelley ji is a man. And the cold in your country? Do you consider how our kids, used to studying day and night in 40 plus degrees manage? Then we take our LTC and go to see your London. So much expensive everything, even the giant wheel we have in every mela! And everyone wants to click a picture with the red box, which is not functioning only and we’re again reminded of our watan. The younger ones insist on seeing the statues and we tell them we can see real, flesh and blood Salman and Aishwariya for no money at all and no use of spending on putlas. But we come to your country. And we keep to ourselves. Our brothers only, the Pakistanis and the Afghans. They never charge us for food or ride. And you, Whiteman! Apologize!”

“I wasn’t even born then!” PMji insisted.

“Nothing doing! Your forefathers have our blood …our forefathers’ blood on their hands.”

“What is this they are saying about your 'stiff' upper lip?" You got Botox?” 

Like tantrummy kids who must get something on an outing, we google and gaggle and come upon a diamond mine. Mine, ours, we say. Return! We demand.

"I certainly don't believe in 'returnism', as it were. I don't think that's sensible." PMji clarified.

“What’s sense got to do with it, ji? We’re fine with return gifts. We do it all the time. Someone give us, we give someone else, in the end the saree we bought on the 50% discount and wouldn’t be caught cutting into pieces to give to the carwash boy, comes back to us. Perfectly fine. We believe in destiny. Ram Bharose? That which runs our country? Everything. But we are very particular about our jewellery. You have kept it in the Tower of London, that is wrong. Keep it in a bank locker. No need to show everyone.”

“We had not forgotten. It’s because it is 5,000 years old that we had to google and learn that this reduced from 186 carats to 108.93 carats ‘Mountain of Light’, the Koh-i-noor, has passed many hands – from Babur, to the Raja of Gwalior, to the Peacock Throne of the Mughals. Aurangazeb took it to the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore from where it was robbed by Nadir Shah who took it to Persia in 1739. It came back to the Punjab in 1813 when Shuja Shah Durrani, the deposed ruler of Afghanistan, exchanged it for help in winning back the Afghan throne. It was passed on to the British when they conquered the Punjab in 1849, and Queen Victoria got it in 1851.”

“Chalo bahut hua, be good now and give it back.”

“No? Okay, never mind. Enjoy the chikkan tikka masala. It isn’t like we’re really wanting you to give back but we’ll bring this up from time to time, you know how it is, you are a seasoned politician, no?”

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Dear Mr Jerry Pinto,

I’m writing again. I know authors like to hear from readers, at least they say so, the un-smug ones. Others do not ‘come down’ to reply. I’m not likely to pick their books again. Readers can be as vile.

I picked fact, got it reserved in the library and it wasn't easy because for the first two times I went, I couldn't recall the name properly, if I did, I didn't try – it was such a mouthful and, beg your pardon, quite silly for a woman who didn't wear dirty, crumpled salwar and floaters with socks, to pronounce it with serious-looking people who wear blue in their hair and pins in their tongues standing around impatiently shifting their weight from one foot to the other.

I wear 9 pins in my body, no, 7 now after the MRI they couldn't pop two back in and by the time I came home and tried, the pinholes had plopped close. I fear for the rest. In the shower, I keep seeing them flash and fall and look inside and under the pot and other unreachable places. Then afraid I have lost some, I begin to feel, one, two ... and find them all on me. My sisters say I pierce my body because I can’t deal with what I got. Hmm.... Only 9, is it? Shouldn't I look like a pin cushion already?

Back to the library. I wrote the title in block letters at the back of my shopping list and took it to the librarian asking her to please ‘give a search’ – spelling out each letter. Two weeks later, she called me to say that my Hoom or whoever, was got.

I requested Em...only because my Reading Group recommended it otherwise the black cover would not have leapt out at me. If it had, I would have kept it back unable to read the reverse text on it.

But our group – don’t worry I’m not going to add you to it and be unfriended by you because in the first place, I’m not your friend and also because it is called Books and Babes and you are neither – had nice stuff to say. So even if you've heard much nicer lately, this wouldn't hurt, no?

‎’ amazing book, a true love story! A tragedy in every page, dealt with in a humorous fashion, without making it anything but what it really is - a tragedy! I did read in a review that this is a kind of biography - if it is, one has to admire the courage to expose one's life in such candid terms. It is a wonderful read.’

‘... a lovely read. Made my Saturday despite the book being about a mother's madness, it is achingly funny and very sharp tongued!’

So like I told you before, I glided happily into a low reading some and in the beginning, had to stop after every couple of pages to take it in, to keep my balance. But then it sucked me in and I let myself go. Wonderful happiness! Anyone who’s ‘not all there’ knows – the floating highs of illness, of drugs, half sleep, half dreams...

Imelda, who my slightly synesthetic head already saw as green, the colour of emeralds and so she wasn't one with the rest anyway, Page 100 onwards started to talk about me. ‘a book with bad one more reader, one more face down on the bed and I was going to ...lose control.’ It always feels like that.  Yet, every time you pick yourself up, dust yourself and look around for who’s watching, polite people of the family look away and pretend they've seen nothing and you have no option but to give the business of living another shot.

‘Long-distance lovers of books who ‘ didn't go to bookshops to buy. That’s a little bourgeois.’ Never read anything truer, nicer. Chocolate wrapper keeper, scribbler, letter writer, one who ‘plighted my troth over a chocolate mint’ ... how poignantly, succinctly accurate could you get!

I would say to another writer that I look forward to the next. Not to you. I know like you do, can't hurry some.

so long, 

Closing our eyes to see

Shefali Tripathi Mehta, January 20, 2013

Ethical Choices
We can tell right from wrong, yet we continue doing what’s termed ‘wrong’, for the sake of convenience. But, isn’t choosing right, every time, the right thing to do, asks Shefali Tripathi Mehta.

On a break from work, we were having coffee in the busy Bengali Market. Suddenly, my friend, sitting across from me, facing the parking lot, got up midsentence and dashed outside. Puzzled, I rushed after him and was stunned to see him overpowering an angry, violent man who was hitting the parking attendant.

What would you and I have done? Most of us would have resigned to the situation, walked away and said, ‘What can I do?’, ‘These things happen all the time’. Or, we may have been upset or angered enough to tell some others, maybe even share it on social networking sites, to fuel impassioned discussions and bitter condemnations.

Who are those that are moved enough to act when they come across such situations — unfair treatment, exploitation of the weak, brazen flaunting of power or disregard for rules and social convention? All of us are taught the same lessons in school and at home — to be ‘right’, always. Yet, tempted by the ‘easy way out’, we fail in this again and again in life. 

These are not life-changing, moral dilemmas, but the day to day looking the other way, indifference, apathy, cutting corners and seeking shortcuts. We can tell right from wrong, yet we continue doing what’s termed ‘wrong’, for the sake of convenience. Breaking queues, cheating, jumping traffic signals, paying bribes, getting out of turn favours, the list is endless.

All of us are tempted in big and small ways to take the convenient way — to bribe and use contacts for favours big and small, to pay the traffic cop instead of taking a ticket, buy pirated CD/DVDs, install booster water pumps in the corporation water lines, tamper with electricity meters, litter when no one is watching, not ask for cash memos, use office resources (fax, phone, scanner, printer) for personal work, look the other way when it suits us, like when someone else is being harassed, someone else’s sister/ daughter/ mother/ girlfriend/ wife is being teased, someone’s else’s child is leaning dangerously out of a window; when neighbours employ children or ill-treat house help.

Silencing our inner voice

Right and wrong have no definite, absolute demarcations. “But if you take the wrong path, something deep inside you will feel twisted. There are times when that will be the only way to know the right from the wrong.” (Inara Scott, The Candidates).
We see a person lying on the pavement, seemingly unconscious or hurt or sick, but we are rushing to work, for a crucial appointment, or to catch a train. So we silence that inner voice by telling ourselves that someone else will surely help, someone will call the police or the ambulance, or maybe that person is not really in need of help, maybe the person is just drunk. We walk away, believing what we would like to believe to suppress that inner voice.

Several hundreds of people lost their jobs at a multinational for submitting fake bills for medical reimbursements. Most of us believe that claiming our medical, travel, petrol bills is our right, that our employers owe it to us. But most also assume that submitting forged bills to claim the money that is ‘rightfully ours’ is our right too. This practice is so prevalent that no one stops to think it unethical. There is a queue at the medical stores where for a small fee they provide fake bills. So you can buy talcum powder for Rs 200 and it will be billed against the name of some medicine. But imagine losing one’s job for a few hundred rupees! And our self-esteem for the pittance?

We all know that a wrong does not cease to be wrong if all are doing it, but we also know how much courage it takes to go against the general wave, to stand our ground, to break the circle. To quote Noel Coward from The Blithe Spirit, “It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.” ‘Everyone is doing it,’ is just another way of silencing our inner voice, of remaining in our comfort zones.

Doing nothing

When Baleshwar Mishra of Mumbai saw a girl lying on the railway tracks from his moving train and jumped down to help her even though no other passengers came forward to join him, he was only following the voice of his conscience. It was a random act of kindness and not a premeditated plan to become a hero. He picked her (Roma Talreja) up and carried her, took help from a trucker, got her to a hospital, informed her family, and saved her life.

Doing nothing because ‘no one else is doing it’ is also a form of silencing our inner voice. Traffic curbs due to VIP movement on the road, at airports and hospitals, cause unnecessary inconvenience to other (I desist from using ‘ordinary’) citizens. Instances when someone critically in need of medical help has been denied it due to such traffic restrictions are far too many to recount. It took one Delhi University professor to stand up against this transgression against us which we had silently put up with. “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.”(Roosevelt)

We do everything in our power and within the limited capacity of each to do things in order to get and stay ahead of others. But we fail to assert ourselves where we must. We repeatedly confuse aggression for assertion. When you tell a person who just walks in ahead of you while you’re waiting in a queue, to come in the queue, you’re being assertive. But when he turns around to tell you to mind your own business, he’s being aggressive. When you try to reason this, or even fight it out, you’re still being assertive.

Measure of character

A crime may be punished, but a vice is not, and we all fall for the temptation of ‘getting it done’. A parent seeking admission for his son in a prestigious school was faced with a dilemma when the form required the signatures of both parents and the mother was unavailable. The father had lived the dream of sending his son to that school and could have easily forged his wife’s signature, but his inner voice told him that it would be a wrong start for the son if he got admission by way of a wrongdoing. So he submitted the application without the mother’s signature and it was predictably rejected for being incomplete. The father says he was disappointed, but has no regrets.  

We all agree that the measure of a man’s real character is what he would do if he knew no one is looking and he never would be found out. But life has conditioned us to live more for a social face than with a sense of fairness or integrity. We, who will not litter or spit in the streets of Singapore for fear of fine or of being caught, will think nothing of rolling down the windows of our cars and disposing an empty bag of chips right on a busy road. 

The most effective way of making defaulters pay dues has always been to put out their names on a list for all to see. Loss of face and public shaming is what we dread most. Mostly, it is not a sense of correctness or duty, but the fear or awareness of being found out that stops us from doing what is considered wrong.

We may read out stories of heroes to our kids, but when we lie about their age to get them into an amusement park, it makes children think that cheating is okay. When our child gets more marks in an exam by mistake, how many of us tell them to go back and tell the teacher? How many of us, in the name of help, do their projects and assignments for them? When we pay at temples for a quick darshan to avoid standing in long queues, they learn that shortcuts are fine.

Bad stuff happens to others

A friend feels that if there are no vehicles at the traffic signal, it is okay to not wait for the signal to turn green. But, just like we all feel that ‘bad things’ will not happen to us, till they do, consequences of these little slipups, these easy ways out, can be life shattering. What if you fail to see the one rashly driven vehicle that suddenly comes from somewhere? What if just as you decide to cross, a pedestrian, seeing the stop signal, is also crossing the road in front of your vehicle?

In driving, flying or performing surgeries, we have seen grave mistakes, great catastrophes unfold due to a small error in judgement. Accidents such as car crashes or house fires happen due to what we would like to believe ‘that one time!’ But ‘that one time’ can happen anytime, and with disastrous consequences.

So many people cross the railway tracks daily risking their lives and limb for a short cut. They may have all started out cautiously, then watched others and felt more assured, and with time grown complacent, even careless. Daily, people get killed crossing the railway tracks. Those that meet such fate also believed that bad things happen only to others.

So we continue to ride on pavements, dig and leave sumps, manholes, borewells uncovered, believing nothing will go wrong. Yet, youngsters die of speeding while driving; not wearing helmets and performing foolish acts of bravado. Children fall into borewells abandoned by contractors and their clients who seem to have no concern for others’ lives. Two Mumbai boys who were filmed performing death-defying stunts on moving local trains were, contrary to their expectation of being hailed heroes, nabbed by the police for putting their own, as well as other peoples’ lives in danger.  

People play pranks for a laugh. But sometimes, they may lose sight of the consequences. Pranks can go horribly wrong, like the Australian RJs’ prank call to the UK hospital that distressed and may have led to the Indian nurse’s suicide. The RJs are regretful and sorrowing, but it cannot undo the tragedy. The Brazilian video of a ghost girl in the elevator, being dubbed as the scariest, most terrifying video, is a rage on social networking sites these days. It is being termed the best prank in the world. Yet, there is a raging debate on its appropriateness, the outcomes that could have been devastating for someone with a heart condition, or if one of the ‘victims’ had actually attacked and hurt the child who was playing the ghost.

Choosing right, every time

The threshold of right and wrong is never distinct. Why do people, who at the height of success, fame or at the fruition of their lifelong dreams, fall prey to an error in judgement? It is usually not one incident, one slipup, but a gradual silencing of the voice of conscience, the smugness of being invincible, and the short-sightedness of life’s purpose.

Why would a young, bright Indian-American, enrolled in Harvard, stoop to plagiarism and be shamed like she was. But Kavya Vishwanathan, whose book was 32nd on The New York Times’s hardcover fiction bestseller list, and who was inundated with book deals and advances, was found guilty of plagiarism. Why would a business leader of the stature of Rajat Gupta, the managing director of McKinsey and Co, put his reputation on the line? Yet, he did.

These can be attributed to an error of judgment — that decision that you take while standing at the threshold of right and wrong. The woman who gate-crashed into the London Olympics opening ceremony, marching along with the Indian contingent, regretted the incident and attributed it to an error of judgement.

This is what sets a person apart then — integrity. All our heroes are those that decided voluntarily to do the right thing when faced with a choice. We always have a choice. And we always need to choose the right thing to do in every situation. Unless it becomes a habit, we expose ourselves to a slipup, of falling prey to that error in judgment, and be faced with consequences we do not wish for. There is no ctrl+z on the keypad of life.

Waste people

Shefali Tripathi Mehta, Dec 23, 2012

Mother Earth refused to take our dump. Landfills filled full and mountains of garbage threatened to flood back to drown us in our own muck.

Then Bangalore sat up and groaning under its load, implemented waste se-gre-gat-ion. Bangalore piles up 3500 tonnes of garbage each day. The farmers around the landfills took up scythes and a desperate administration implemented desperate measures.

But inside homes rubbish happened. On my floor alone there is a garbage thug that leaves it out in the common area each day, and has never been caught litter-handed. Can Houdini’s blood brother/sister be expected to comply as long as they can get away with trashing like this?

And here I am with a pile of garbage before disposal bins that are labelled Wet, Dry, Kitchen waste, Biodegradable and not-that. Not-that is further split into – Recyclable, Toxic, Soiled. Where does my milk packet – its inside milk-licked go? Why the sanitary pad that the ad says always dry, not so? The food foil, the toffee wrapper goes into Dry but is not recyclable. I never messed with such, I swear. 

The house-help finding her position threatened, assumes authority and informs me that it is simply ‘kitchen waste’ and ‘all else’! So garden leaves, she says is not kitchen waste but ‘all else’. If the discarded palak leaf is ‘kitchen waste’, how dare she discriminate against the fern! She challenges, ‘Eat and show?’ So I stuff the fern leaf – no, not in mouth but into another big bag I call Moot!

Kleenex and noses! How the muck did we land up with so much garbage!

Two decades ago, when foreign-returned talked of the pile up of junk in foreign and said in foreign they don’t repair, just ‘dispose off’ – cars and refrigerators of all things, everyone listened wide-eyed.

We had an army of grime-collared and amazingly efficient men who mended, oiled and painted to ‘brand new’ everything they could lay their dirty nails on. There were drycleaners who darned and dyed, repair guys that mended mixers, geysers, coolers, fans, even flasks; the sofaman squashed back jutting out sofa springs; tailors and mothers came together to turn old sarees into jholas and cushion covers, faded sheets into mattress covers, which by the way, weren’t foam or poly-fill but cotton that was beaten and fluffed out and added to when flattened out. Ditto with razais and pillows. Nothing had to be thrown away, shoe boxes were amassed for craft projects; fused bulbs carefully tipped out to grow money plants. 

There were cows in the aangan or the neighbour’s aangan to be fed the leftovers. The kitchen did not generate waste that could not be dumped in the garden to turn into compost. Frugality wasn’t frowned upon because nothing was two-minute. No snip of scissors produced ready-to-cook or to eat rice, curry, paste or puree in tetra or plastic packs. When bitter gourd was served for dinner, we knew what was coming for lunch the next day - its skin. Milk came in glass bottles that had to be washed and exchanged for more. So did soft drink. If you broke one, you repented. 

Birthday and unbirthday parties had people borrowing plates, spoons and glasses from neighbours. Wash and use was the mantra. One person was engaged to wash all evening for a continuous water-dripping stream of plates and spoons. It did not matter that some people had to wait because patience was not in short-supply.

 If the Sunday morning breakfast was to be got from the bazaar, steel tiffin carriers and dabbas were taken along, no eatery offered take-away plastic dabbas even for the price of Rs 2 and 5 we pay now. Atta was stored in Postman oil cans and dal in Sixer biscuit tins. Pearlpets, Tupperwares shelved those out. Cling foils, bubble sheets, zip pouches—how much plastic, polythene...we cannot do without! Even our soap, shampoo and ointment look delectable in shiny plastic containers on supermarket shelves. 

Waste people, all of us have become! Wait till treating someone like dirt becomes a term of reverence.