Friday, March 27, 2009

Renaissance Visited

I saw. I really and truly saw. With my own eyes.

I saw the Statue of David and the Pieta. I actually stood before them and looked at them. And thought of what the sculptor believed - that a form was always trapped in a stone, and the sculptors job was to liberate it from the stone!

I saw Buonnarotti’s aesthetic extravaganza on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel and on the wall behind the altar.

As a child I had seen them in that gigantic hardbound album of classical art which I couldn’t lift. So heavy it was. My brother Vakkachayan had acquired it from somewhere and it was my favourite pastime turning its pages, from the first to the last and reading the captions and the explanatory notes. Every picture in that book of paintings from the 11th century to the 19th century had a long story behind it. My brother told me many of them, and I poured over those pages almost every day. The Sistine Chapel paintings and the statue of David, I remember, made me blush. I remember the domestic help once teased me for looking at ‘obscene’ pictures.

But last week I saw them all. In flesh and blood(!?). And I looked and looked.

No. I have no trained eye for art. But the idea. Yes. It is the idea that held me enthralled. The idea I had passed on to my students year after year when I introduced them to the Italian Renaissance, the precursor to the English.

Looking up, with my head at right angle to the body, at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the heavily crowded room where cameras were not permitted. I remembered the numerous stories about Michael Angelo. The Agony and the Ecstasy. The spirit of Renaissance reflected in the strange but exquisite co habitation of the Hellenic and Hebraic achieved in the paintings and sculptures of the period. The liberation of art from the straight-jacketed demands of an austere religion. All that I read (without fully comprehending) and taught as part of my profession came crowding into my mind. The feeling was strange. It was like a nostalgia for something I have never seen or experienced – perhaps a nostalgia for an imaginary world I was forced to inhabit as one of the imperatives of my occupation, and which eventually entered my soul and became part of me.

Maybe I’m not making sense.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Return of the Natives - Are You Ready, Kerala?

The reverse flow has begun. The NRIs who kept Kerala going through the ‘Money Order Economy’ are returning in hordes/hoards to Kerala.

Is Kerala ready for them? The Government is offering rehabilitation packages. But how effective they will be, time alone can tell.

But one thing is certain. Kerala will be hit below the belt with the return of these people who buttressed for decades a comparatively non-income generating state. These Non resident Indians slogged it out in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and the USA to sustain a lazy and arrogant people back home. Now, Kerala will not take kindly to their return. And, these people cannot be rehabilitated unless the proverbial Kerala mindset undergoes a sea change, and a climate is created for investing money in business in Kerala

This brings to my mind an incident I witnessed in 1986, while traveling from Trivandrum to Changanasserry in a bus.

The bus stopped in some place after Kottarkara, and a well dressed man in his early forties alighted. I had the window seat and so I had a good view of the gripping drama which unfolded outside.

Apparently, the passenger was employed in the Gulf and had come home for a vacation. He had boarded the bus from the Trivandrum airport. As he got down, the kili unloaded his suitcases from the top of the bus, and left them in the waiting shed. In the meanwhile, the man had hailed a cab and was about to load the suitcases into the cab when a group of head load workers (hereafter will be referred to as attimaris) circled him. The man very politely said that he didn’t need anyone’s help to put those suitcases into the cab. The attimaris became aggressive. Some raised their voices. Others began to get abusive with the taxi driver, threatening dire consequences if he transported the passenger.
“How much”, the passenger asked. Still polite.
“RS. 200” (it was in the eighties, mind you).
The passenger smiled and said, “Come on, brother, you must be joking”. He then offered to give them some money for a cup of tea for each of them.
The attimariwallas became nasty. They laughed raucously; their language and body language changed

“Let’s see if you leave this spot without giving us what we asked”, one of them challenged in the most belligerent, offensive hateful manner.
Another man put his hands on the suitcases.
And then something happened which stunned us.
All on a sudden, without any warning whatsoever, a great transformation came over the passenger. From a polite, peace loving soft-spoken man trying to arrive at a compromise with the attimariwallas , he metamorphosed into a raging bull!
“Take your hands off my box”, he thundered.
Believe it or not, the attimarywalla jerked his hands away as though the suitcases were white hot.
“I slog it out in the desert sun for days and months”, he continued, unstoppable by now, “and you guys cooling your heels here want a share of what I made with my sweat, eh?”(Literal translation)
Then, he unbuttoned the sleeves of his shirt and pushed them up his arms, clenched his fist and said, loud and clear in a deadly calm flat voice.
“Come. Who wants 200 hundred rupees? Come and take what I have to give”, he said.

I couldn’t believe what I saw. The attimaris moved back in a group, looked at each other. Then one of them looked at the cab driver and said, “Go on, take him to whichever hell he wants to go to”. Then looking at his fellow headload workers, he said”Let’s not waste time on these good for nothing people”, and they walked off.

Our bus left the stop at this point. The driver, conductor and the passengers were eagerly waiting to see how this drama would end, and I must say that all were happy with the ending.

As the journey continued, I remembered a report which had come in the Malayala Manorama a few days earlier.

A foreign tourist landed in Kochin airport. As luggage, he had only a back pack and a sophisticated video camera with its accessories. The attimaris surrounded him as he came out of the restricted area and told him that as head load workers, it was their right to carry the video camera as it was a fairly big piece of baggage. A fellow passenger, whom the foreigner approached for an explanation of their demands, explained to him the practice of attimary.

The visitor thanked him and walked back to the airport, bought a ticket for the next flight out of Kochin - to Goa.

A Manorama reporter met him at the Goa airport and asked him what made him come to Goa.

“There is no Atti Mary (sounded like attic without the last k sound and Mary, the name) in Goa”, he said.

Things haven't changed in Kerala still. The situation is as bad if not worse.

Now, back to the return of the diasporic population of Kerala, the situation is grim not only for them, but also for the state. Predictions are very disturbing. The most pessimistic prophets of doom see the state plunging headlong into the worst economic abyss with inflation, unemployment, crime rate and suicide rate reaching an all time high. With the elections in the offing, these issues are non-issues to leaders and political parties who, by now, should already have set afoot policies to preempt the projected alarming fallout of global meltdown.

But then, it is too much to expect from our netas a feeling of an urgent need to address these issues. What does it matter to them if the state economy crumbles like a pack of cards? Or trauma grips people across the classes? Or men, women, children succumb in despair to the tribulations of a failed economy?

With political support, unionized labour, Associations of officers and clerical unions in the public sector will continue to agitate for their pound of flesh, totally impervious to the fact that they are highly privileged with an all time high salary, perks and job security in times when retrenchment across the globe is casting dark shadows of uncertainty and insecurity across God’s own country. And what does it matter to our callous netas if this state and its people go to the dogs?

Thank You and Good Bye, Sri Mathew T. Thomas, Our Dear Transport Minister

He belongs to that endangered species among politicians called Statesmen.

He is clean.

He is a performer. He had begun to turn things around for the KSRTC.

He is creative, imaginative and resourceful. He had earnestly set about reviving the ailing KSRTC with innovative moves.

But Mathew T. Thomas, the Transport Minister of Kerala had to go. He had to submit himself to party discipline. But he was stoic about it. Cool as a cucumber, and cheerful. “The minister’s post is not my birthright”, the man said! The most quotable quote from a sphere dominated by Pinarayis and Mayavathis and Lalus and others of that ilk.

I hope they are listening.

And the people of Kerala love him. People love honest and performing ministers. To have committed, competent and upright politicians at the helm of affairs redeems our faith in the democratic system.

On a personal note, his wife is my student. She shifted residence to Trivandrum when her husband became the Transport Minister in the LDF government, and commutes to a town in mid-Travancore where she works as a lecturer. She traveled in the ordinary class for more than a year. The ordeals of commuting in the ordinary class can be appreciated only by those who have done it. A few months back, she took first class season ticket when she realized that the time spent in the train can be fruitfully utilized for preparation and paper evaluation.

Recently, I happened to travel in the same train that she commutes in. She came to hear that I was traveling in the next compartment, from a common friend who had run into me in the station. She came over to see me. I must confess that I was flattered that the minister’s wife had come to see me. But what struck me was that she was the same old respectful pleasant and unassuming student who attended my lectures some twenty odd years ago. A very unassuming, self-effacing person who simply did not think of taking advantage of her husband's position.

Not only Caesar, but his wife also is above blame.

May their tribe increase.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Every Woman Has Her Day?

We have come a long way.
The road ahead is longer
And the ordeals tougher, we are told.

Next is flogging in the maidan
Or is it stoning unto death?
That depends, we are told
On whatever it is that suits Him.

Still ahead it’s begging
By the dusty streets
Of busy towns.
But our manicured hands would betray us.
Though the purdah would shield our wounded pride.

Tougher ones will follow, we are told.
Their numbers ever increasing
Like the hydra headed monster
Two replacing every decapitated one.

Will the ordeals ever end?
Will our destination
Remain ever elusive?

And our protests?
Will they remain ever drowned
In the silence of despair and fear?

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Media and Terror

It is strange how media is playing in to the hands of the terrorists; and how the government is doing nothing to correct it.

Every act of terror is a statement. A major component of the modus operandi of terrorist activities is to go for maximum publicity. The perpetrators want the statement to travel far and wide, and the media is meekly obliging them.

Media tenaciously clings to its rights – the right of expression, the freedom of the Press, and thrashes out at the government when it places restrictions in the best interest of its trouble shooting operations. This we saw during the Mumbai terror attack. There are many who believe that the situation could have been handled with much less causality had the media not been so keen on updates which were being fed to the high tech terrorists through cell phones. In the name of the freedom of the fourth estate, the media cooperated with terrorists, without meaning to. Apparently, media’s concern was only with its own inalienable rights. But, if an exercise of their rights can be achieved only at the cost of general weal, rights no longer remains RIGHTS. Rights stops being rights the minute they encroach on the legitimate welfare and safety of others. But with the cutthroat competition that channels and print media face, one up mannish attitude prevails, but no sense or sense of propriety and discretion. Responsible behavior is often compromised. And most of the time, the dramatic and melodaramatic reporting and the clever punch lines which might win journalistic acclaim are also what the terrorists want to elicit from these passionate guardians of democratic rights.

As for the government, it lives in such terror of the media that it refuses to take a firm stand with it. With some elections round the corner all the time, the government will not jeopardize its position by earning the ire of the all powerful media, which can make or break its chances of reelection.

The result? The media becomes partners in terrorism and the government just watches helplessly.

Ideally, when terror strikes as it did in Mumbai and Lahore, the media should refuse to give it coverage. Of course, it should be reported but no visuals, no discussions till the situation is under control. As a matter of policy, refuse to give terror the visibility it craves for. But invariably, what happens, inadvertently though, is the glamourisation of the terror act, and more often than not, the viewer ends up developing a sneaking admiration for the terrorist’s modus operandi and professionalism. This is exactly what the terror merchants want to tell the world. They want to sell the idea of their professionalism and preparedness to take on the world.

On its own initiative, media will not restrain itself to the extent of withholding visuals and emotional reporting by high profile journalists. A national disaster that can enhance its viewership will be looked upon as a kill, as the occasion and moment to attract sponsorship. For the media, patriotism is only second to commercialism.

So the initiaitive should come from the government. It should either take the media into confidence and arrive at an understanding on how it should behave in times of terror strikes, or it should declare a state of emergency as it is constitutionally entitled to do during war time. For terrorism is war. No denying that. Only, the nature of warfare is different.

Needless to say, all countries battling terror or not supporting it, should do this. Nations of the world should agree on this policy of regulating media behaviour during terror attacks in any part of the world. Otherwise, an effort in this direction by one country will be rendered futile. I know this idea sounds wild and unthinkable and naïve. But the way terrorism is growing across the globe, the governments will have to tread hitherto untravelled paths to combat this danger. Depriving terrorism of publicity is not a complete solution, but is definitely a part of it. No stones must be left unturned to drain terrorism of its life blood.

Monday, March 02, 2009

To Smile or Not to Smile

‘What does a smile cost you?’ asked my mother-in-law when I told her about running into a neighbour from our hometown, outside the supermarket. My brother had been with me and we were coming out of the Complex compound when this middle aged thin man started walking towards us, looking as though he wanted to speak to me.

‘Looks like one of those well dressed tramps who come with sob stories and end up asking for money”, I told my brother under my breath. I had remembered a similar story told to me by one of my colleagues just two days before.

The man, walking quickly towards us, reached us. I noticed that my brother was about to say something to him. But the man was already asking me with a smile if I were so & so's daughter-in-law and so & so’s wife.
Yes, I told him. He then identified himself. He was our neighbour back home ( obscenely rich, i remebered the name) and when I didn’t return his smile, he thought he should come up and identify himself.

“How stupid you are”, protested my brother, totally annoyed. “I was about to ask him for some money. That’s the best way to drive off decent looking mendicants”.

My mother-in-law had a good laugh when i my narrated this incident. She tried to imagine the situation where my brother beat him to it and asked him for money, and the explanations I would have had to concoct to be seen in the company of a man who asks for money from total strangers. “Surely, you cant tell him you mistook him for a beggar; also, you can’t also introduce M as your brother too”. Wiping tears of laughter, she advised me not to be so miserly with my smile.
“Nobody will smile at you if they don’t know you; You have such a terrible memory for faces. So just smile back. It costs you nothing. Otherwise you’ll offend people”, she said.

Yes, after all, what does a smile cost me I thought. And I practised her advice, smiled at everybody who smiled at me, whether I knew her/him or not.

And then, one day, at the railway station of the small town where I worked, I was waiting for the Madras Mail. My friends from the other colleges and offices hadn’t yet arrived. So I sat on the bench, and looked around.

Then I saw him.

A tall square faced man with light eyes. I knew I had seen him somewhere. He looked very very familiar. I must have been staring at him for I saw him look straight at me. Then I saw a hint of a smile on his face.

I gave him a broad, charming smile.

I usually look away after smiling at a person whom I didn’t recognize. But before I could do it, I saw a startled expression on his face. Then he too smiled. And started walking towards me.

I was desperately trying to remember who he was, where I had seen him but couldn’t. He sat on the other end of the bench. I looked at him, hoping to place him from the conversation. He turned his head and smiled hesitantly. Suddenly, like a bolt of thunder lighting up the sky, the truth was revealed to me. Yes, yes, with that same abruptness that the law of buoyancy exploded on Archemedes, and which made him rush down through the streets of Greece in a state of undress!
In flash, I knew why he looked familiar.

He looked exactly like Kapil Dev who was a much fêted celebrity then, and so was among the most visible faces in India.

That’s why he looked familiar!

Disaster! I didn’t know the man, and I had smiled at him!

I jumped up from the bench and walked quickly towards the book shop, and searched and bought a magazine I did not want. As I turned to leave the shop, I saw the man standing behind me. Then I rushed to the soft drink counter of the railway canteen and asked for a Fanta, stood there and drank it. Turning around, I saw him standing there, too.

I panicked. As usual I started knocking at heaven’s gate to pull me out of the mess I had got myself into. “Please, pleeeease, God. Deliver me from this stalker!”, I pleaded.

Tanta daang! At the entrance of the platform, my friends appeared – six or seven of them! And they stepped on to the platform laughing and talking.

I bolted towards them.

I must have looked flustered, ‘cos they asked what the matter was. Without looking at the man, I told them that the man standing near the refreshment counter was stalking me.

There were a few very bold ladies among them and they decided to handle him. I pleaded with them not to.

“That’s why these rascals behave like this. They get away with everything ‘cos women don’t react.
“No. no. Listen to me first and then decide whether to give him a dressing down’.

I told him about the blunder I made. They had a good laugh.

“Never smile at a man unless you are 200% sure you know him”, they advised.

Times must have changed a lot since my mother-in-law’s days, I thought ruefully.

Ever since, I don’t smile, even at my husband, if I see him outside the house unless I’m sure it’s him and not someone who resembles him.