Poverty. Or Lifestyle by Choice. And the Genius of Julius Nyerere.

Poverty. Or Lifestyle of Choice

Poverty alleviation to my mind is a patronising imposition on the unsuspecting impoverished as the rich see the poor. I have seen extreme ‘poverty’ at first hand in many parts of Eastern rim of Africa, East Asia and India in what are some of the poorest regions. Its not that the poor are exactly sending out distress signals for rescue.

Their smiles are broader, worry lines on their faces far lesser, leisure activities and small talks of humour reveal more enjoyable times, families better knit, better at peace with the rest of creation like Animals, rivers, environment, trees, etc. Their care for the rest – elders or younger- seems better and worries about what next and what will overcome their existence near non existent. Yes I am talking of the extremely poor. Of course I am talking of those in regions that would truly be called the poorest by any economic patronizers.

The rest of the paras is about a tribal village that we visited recently in Tanzania located between Gorongoro and Serengeti both world famous abodes of Wildlife – first a conservation area, which means both animals and native people are allowed to live together and the latter a National Park which means no human habitation is allowed.

There is nothing spectacular to further my arguments / conclusion in my description, so be prepared for some disappointment except some heat at the end.

Our Visit and What we were told

When one gets down from Gorongoro’s crater rim one could see from time to time people sleeping on hard rocks in baking Sun with just a crate of water. Or young children – alone or 3-4 at odd places with nothing else in visible distance. You wonder where they live and what they are upto – completely bewildering.

In the middle of nowhere is the tribal village (Bora by name) amongst the vast stretch from horizon on one side to the craters rim and small volcanic mountains on the other side. There is a small stream a KM or so away and a few trees near the stream.  There is a vast area of pebbles, sand grains, mixed with goats droppings, a few blades of grass visible here and there and a disproportionate number of sheep grazing or trying to graze them.

The Village has 122 people all belonging to the same person. He and his 20-odd wives, their children and grand children. They spoke a dialect of KiSwahili. They belong to the Masai tribe which stretches from south west Kenya to west and north west of Tanzania.

The driver called out and a man of the tribe who spoke fluent english (and of 24 yrs of age as i later enquired, Seiko by name) came out to negotiate with us. He had studied Secondary in nearby town in a boarding school and was in line to pursue graduate studies after a year or so – there seemed no reservation for them – perhaps for noone in Tanzania).

We were told that the fees for our visit per person was $ 20 and we negotiated a consolidated $ 100 which Seiko agreed only after checking with his head tribesman.

they performed a dance for us in which they invited us to participate. We never understood the lines but it was all about jumping about with a staff and a kind of oversized wooden hammer shaped like a scoop – spoon. (see pictures). But when we finished some of them asked us ‘Barabar?’ in Hindi with an approval seeking smile on their face.

The Village: The village boundaries are marked with some twigs and Acacia branches, more for warning animals than human intruders. We understand that the whole village takes about 3 years to build but a single hutment about 2-3 months – all entirely made of twigs, acacia branches to lend strength and cow dung and some ash for binding. There must have been 40-50 houses in 2 concentric circles, with a central open space where they were displaying handicrafts for sale.

Their houses have a master bed may be 6’X4’ and an adjoining 4’ X 5’ and a fire pit hardly a foot away from them. The drawing cum dining cum kitchen cum store must have been another 5’X6’ – fire seemed eternally burning. In one corner was some firewood, water for cooking and some vessels in place. It is the duty of women to build and maintain them. They let out the entire village in case they have to shift out somewhere and some other tribe is willing to take it, though i was not sure what that contingency might be.

Each lady of this polygamist society had a separate house for herself and children.

2           Divisions of duties: The society we were told is divided into Children (boys and girls), Women, Warriors and Elders. Children play and sometime help out (of late some attend primary school) in grazing cattle. Its the duty of women to construct houses and maintain them, upkeep of village pathways, raise children, housework and cooking. Warriors are males who are trained to ward off dangers primarily from Animals during migration. They train in using some acacia staves and some wooden hammer (they weigh quite heavy and just one blow might throw the lion or leopard out of its wits and leave the tribe to itself). They don’t hunt for there is nothing that they can or are allowed to. The Elders are the judges, rule makers, administrators, liaison people with external communities or government, deciders of any changes to their customs, etc.

3           They follow a religion called Engarai (not sure if I got that right), which worships the volcanic (long extinct) mountain and fire.   There was a lonely Christian (which the tribe had allowed) who had a neck chain with the cross. Apparently, he had attended some higher school or college in Kenya and had attended some Churches and developed some affinity to the religion. There were also a few others who had been to Iskcon temple but had not converted to the faith.

What to do with the dead seems to be in a state of flux of late. The long standing custom was to sacrifice it back to the God i.e the mountains. In between they thought it should be offered to water. But seas are a thousand kilometres away. So they thought that if they buried the dead they would be carried by the earth to the seas. They tried out cremations but are back to burying in the mountains now. Somehow they seemed undecided as of now, waiting for the next big thing.

4          Marriage custom. They are all polygamists each taking 3-4 wives. and there is no incest. so the women have to come from other villages. Once they come over, their contact with their parent community is near totally lost. The man has to propose and the female accepts or rejects. After the girls accepts, her parents have to approve and then they have to inform the village head which is usually the grand or great grand father. and then the Boys side, although none of them stand on their basic decision. (I could not get any answer as to how such a skewed ratio can be sustained unless the ratio of women to men is also similarly skewed). When the village headman dies his next eldest brother takes over and the line of succession is very clearly laid out.

 

5           Social upbringing. The children are born into the society, we were told – not just to the parents who biologically bore them. Its the duty of everyone to look after and bring up the children and the children in turn have to do whatever duty is assigned to them by the village elders – no saying no if not coming from your parents etc.  Male children take cattle out for graze and females house building, maintenance, cooking etc. So both ways there is nothing individualistic or home centric – everything is village centric – belonging, upbringing, duties and responsibilities.

The skin tone was great, no cragginess or folds despite the harsh Sun they have to face thru the year. No worry lines – not at least as much as you see in similar aged people in cities. Smile but no giggle or ridicule, quite disposition no cynicism is how I would describe.

No exaggerated exuberance or garrulousness that is typical of most Africans. It was more a guileless dignified ‘easy to make friends’ kind of welcoming ness.

6     The Culinary. Basically the entire food chain revolves around the cows and the sheep. For a group they claimed to have 3000 cows and an equal number of sheep. Cows give them milk and blood and meat and sheep mainly for meat. They drink the blood of cow every morning for breakfast along with milk. The extract the blood by puncturing some blood vessel and letting it ooze, without killing the cow. There is meat at Lunch and a soup of herbs and plant roots along with meat in the evening. There is no fruits or vegetables for them – ever.

We did not see any cows during our visit. We were told because of lack of grass and water, cows had been taken to a nearby place – 2 days walk, for grazing.

The entire medicine is made up of herbs and plant extracts and only in very rare occasions people are sent to outside towns for surgery etc.  Sanitation is primitive with near total open defecation out in the fields.

7           Economy : The entire economy revolves around Cows and sheep. When we entered they collected our fees in USD. They sell some handicrafts made by the women. The proceeds are used to buy their clothes – which looked neat and clean and i had no clue as to how they kept it that way, all in deep blue and red colour combination. The water in the stream  is hard and incapable of being used for cooking or drinking. They buy their water in tankers (stored them in syntex tanks) and a tanker of 22,500 litres last for about 3 weeks- some economy indeed.

8     The School visit: (see the photo with a man walking towards a small hut. Thats the school). The school is primary and sets them all together for 2 sessions each day one on the morning and one in the afternoon. We saw a glimpse of the 2nd session. The students stood up and sang a song in Swahili – led by one and repeated by others – welcome to Bora, our holy land, Welcome to Gorongoro, welcome to Serengeti, and welcome to Tanzania. The teachers are sourced from within their colony and teach them english and how their native tongue is constructed (that too thru english alphabet) and basic arithmetic.  Beyond that students go to boarding for secondary education and beyond that to distant cities in Tanzania or Kenya for even higher education. But those going outside are limited in number and is a recent phenomenon. The primary school itself was started in 2003/4 only. It will be interesting to see what influence the education has on their culture. There were 4-5 of outside graduates we could see and our guide was one. They spoke good english and one of them had become a Christian by choice and others had exposure to Hare Rama Iskcon movement.

The Warriors are trained in the use of their weapons and have the duty to protect their cattle and cows from animal intruders and from animal during migration. They smear some ash on their face – may be different patterns for different ranks. They don’t eat with others – they prepare and eat their meals outside the village near the stream – wonder what is the reason.

9     The Genius of Julius Nyerere – We also heard of another community of one Boni Louise who had 27 wives, 70 children and rest to make a community of 147 living somewhere in the stretch. The govt had offered to take them on board, provide for education and give them skills and jobs. But the Village headman had refused and the government had no problems with that. The Government made a standing offer for providing teachers for free should the village chose. After long years BL accepted it to forma school for his grandchildren and there ended the govt’s role. Basically Julius Nyerere has done a more commendable job of 2 types of integration after Tanzania’s independence – religious and cultural. Tanzania has 45% Muslims and 45% Christians and the rest making 10%. The population is one and no visible signs of tensions anywhere during the last 50 years. They are Tanzanians first and whatever religion they are, next.

Again he did not force development or education on any of the 120-odd tribes. They were given the option of integrating with the national mainstream but just an option. And where they just wanted to access only education they were allowed without precondition.

The net result after 50-60 years is that we have several societies or village communities who have their own rules and regulations, cultures, law etc. over which the nation has no say. But they also have a strong respect and love for the nation. Finest form of Democracy with no force or pressure tactics used anywhere, anytime – everything by choice. And no militancy or naxalism anywhere – all nationalists by choice. That explains the students’ song. In that respect Nyerere seemed to have done a far better job than his mentor Gandhi or even Mandela.

My Take on the people

The students in the school looked at peace with themselves like any of their city counterparts, seemed competent at what they were doing but not over eager to please us. The men looked healthy, again not too eager to prove themselves or ingratiate themselves as some of the country cousins tend to be when they come in contact with what they think are superiors. They dealt with us as equals I thought.

At a point in time when we asked them questions which appeared invasive, a silent pause to make us understand that we are off limits is exactly how you expect someone who is sure footed to handle a difficult situation. The ‘foreign returns’ and the outside educated did not betray any signs of dis-ease with their native surroundings nor any snootiness over the rest. They seemed well integrated and at peace with their community and no visible or subtle signs of dissatisfaction or Freudian slips anywhere that their true leanings were elsewhere or their desire to be in the cities or towns.

Their politeness, sensitivity, courtesy levels were laced by a sense of unhurried ease secure in the belief that the other person will not run away with what’s yours and hardly betrayed any rabid competitiveness. The village was neat and clean with no litter – even of food remains – to be seen.

On a Philosophical Note

My take is that they have lived exactly same lives the last millennium or perhaps the last million years. Other than perhaps the recent changes in clothing and education. It would be interesting to see how education affects them, whether it leads to any conflict between the educated and those without, whether it leads to younger ones challenging the Elders and all the civilizational conflicts. The younger ones seem to have come back out of choice and happy embracing the village life. As of now it appears that they wont move from their equilibrium. Happy as they are, with what they are, where they are, who they are…with their surroundings.

Their today is an exact carbon copy of yday, day before, last week, last year, probably the last 1000 years. The children would be doing exactly what their grandfather and head of the tribe would have done when he was similar age. The tribes head would be seeing his sons and daughters in law doing the exact thing he had observed his parents do. In a sense everyone had the script with him and his role was frozen in it.  Nothing to strive for or compete for that the society would tolerate. Seniors juniors  and young ones -they all have the same houses. There is no greed in such a situation, there is no competitiveness or need for savings or safety at individual level. Even concepts and words like regret, failure, lack of success, (all about the past) and fear, confidence, optimism, savings  (all about the future) may be largely irrelevant or lot less diluted.

They are the perfect example of sustainability in my opinion. They have already proved it in my opinion. Lets come back after a thousand years or a million years. The tribes will and can subsist exactly as they are – their lifestyle wont destroy the river nearby (unless it dies by itself), they wont destroy the trees, they wont dig the hills or mountains for minerals or metals, they don’t eat the wildlife, they wont mishandle the cattle since any quick reduction of cattle will threaten their own existence. All the current notions in the developed world seems an apology or euphemism at best, in comparison.

Makes me believe its an ideal most Oriental spiritual heads or religious heads crave for. They live in time zero. Somehow happiness is inextricably fused it appears with time. You move away backwards and you long for or regret yesterdays and with it the unhappiness. You move forward you develop fear, greed, despondence, confidence or lack of it or successive waves of it, and you find people in the most affluent societies walk to their office with heavy worry lines as if they will face the yellow slip on arrival or go back to their residence as if when they reached there their spouse would have deserted them for a better choice.

Choice may not necessarily mean Welfare. Just get rid of the words Greed and Individuality …life can have a completely different meaning altogether. Like particles behave completely unpredictably under zero gravity, greed and individualism seems to make humanity to go berserk – no amount of savings is enough, no measure of success enough to satisfy – we are in a permanent pursuit to prove ourselves to others and earn their certificate, no end to competitiveness to prove others are not as good as you, destroy nature and its various creations in the name of development and give euphemistic proselytization to others.

They may be called poor. But there is no poverty in my opinion. Its their lifestyle. By choice … choice not to move away from what they have seen work. And no good Samaritans have a right in whatever name be it religion, democracy, freedom, women’s liberation, human rights, etc.  have a right to interfere in their choice. For happiness you seem to need equilibrium not necessarily fly around in A380s or zip around in fast cars. And they seem to have that in plenty. They have inherited it from their forefathers and will bequeath it to their successors nth  generation. And in doing so they would not use up an iota of nature, But most certainly we, the development champions,  would have exhausted our Gas.

Team Work – Lessons from animal Kingdom

Lessons from Animal Kingdom – Serengeti
We seven of us from college took a Safari trip to Serengeti – which shall never die – and Grongoro crater. A few interesting lessons.
1 (See picture of Gnus which looks like a long line of Ants). We saw a long march of Gnus in G’ro. All of them one behind the other no jostling, wresting, trying to out-champion the other, no overtaking, almost equidistant from each other. May be 1-2 mile long. They were grazing on one side and crossing over to some other distant place for water of  fresh pasture. They would be grazing one minute and as if there token number had been called, abandon it swiftly and scamper and join the queue and continue their walk along the st line.

Gnus have been made fun of – as a creation when God had a few spare parts left but not the brain after creating all animals. It has the tail of a horse, torso of a cow, face of a bull, mane of a half adolescent lion, and the gait of a Hyena. Quite ugly looking.

But the Military discipline they demonstrated … well i would like them to come and teach Delhi vehicle owners the grace, functionality and benefits of discipline and perhaps anywhere in India the fruits of proper queuing. Cant figure out who is there leader and how he enforces such order.
Ironically we have the gall to call them Wild(e)beasts!!!

2 (Look at the Picture of Zebras- left extreme – some looking one way and others walking in the opposite direction). This was on the morning in Serengeti. We first sighted several Zebras and soon realised as we kept driving it was a whole colony or perhaps County of zebras – may be 20,000-30,000 of them… as much as the eyes could see and where the horizon threatened to meet the plains.
Soon realised they were queuing. There was a small pond on the other side of the road to where the Zebras are pictured standing. The pond must have been a part of a subterranean stream which has surfaced into a small pond in an irregular shaped rectangle of may be 15-20 feet (see picture) which could be accessed only from one side the other side bund being a little high.
One after the other the Zebras were trouping towards the pond to take their may be 30-40 seconds to drink water and return to the grazing side. The pool could max accommodate 15-20 heads at a time … so one after the other as if in a Tripathy Drashan they took their turn. There was a maximum of 15-20 drinking from the pond at a time, may be an equal number behind them and not many risking being on the road…
Again no jostle, no quarrels and no queue jumping, no nudges, no necking (do u see any in the picture?) … I don’t even remember them bleating ..
Such a large colony could not have been from single or a few groups, they must have been several groups but nevertheless the discipline and lack of friction was astounding! If you don’t believe me please verify it yourself next time your are there and observe them in the morning, during dry season (wet weather would make more streams available and hence you may not be able to see this).
Just the assurance that the water from the stream will not dry up seems to have assured them that they can patently await their turn.
Hats off to the Zebras!.

3 Early afternoon we saw two lions on a rock or rather the heads of two. We slowly moved around and found that it was a pride of 19 (as correct as we could be)  – equally split between grown ups and cubs. We soon saw a couple of lionesses approaching them. Don’t know what was the message … but the pride lying down and relaxing … all of them started moving in their direction. We moved keeping track over them and at a distance, may be of a Km or less, we could see that a Zebra had been killed by the two (or more) lionesses and they had perhaps come to invite the rest for the feast. (see picture of lions walking towards the kill).

We understood from the guide’s commentary that the lionesses after killing do not drink or eat their kill without the rest of the pack. They have it together. After the kill the two hunters had gone to fetch the others before starting the feast.
From the Guide we could understand that a Zebra would be full meal for may be 6-7 lions. But that shortage (they were 19-20 lions) did not seem to make the two who toiled to kill their prey greedy and desperate and have it first before inviting the rest.
An hour or so later after we had moved on, we heard from the wireless set that the same pride had killed yet another prey.

4 A little after Noon, we chanced upon another colony of various kinds of Deer, antelopes, Impalas, Gerenuk (a kind of deer that never drinks Water), etc. Again countless … may be 10-15,000 and this time along with some zebras, Buffalos, Gnus, etc. We saw a lioness with a blood oozing fresh kill of a deer in its mouth with another lioness walking behind. We must have watched them walk about 200-300 yards purposefully in one direction. With some difficulty dropping the fresh kill every now and them resting a few seconds before picking up and walk another 25-30 yards. And so on. The guide said that they must be walking towards the rest of the pride to share the feast.
Again no attempt by the two which had killed to have their fill first before calling in the others to join, as we understood. May be the pride had their kids also and the mothers felt it their duty to feed them first and hence the long walk and wait … one would not know.

There may be more than a Lion and 4-5 lionesses in a pride and more than 1-2 may be lactating at a time. We were told that the lionesses feed milk to any of the cubs unmindful of whether they the cub is hers or other’s

5 One would not know the origins of this nasty practice with Lion family. In most animal species, the line of succession is clearly specified … the oldest female (elephants), oldest Stallion (Deer), the strongest, etc. But with Lions they settle it with Wars. Detached young adult lions who are themselves driven out of their pack fight it out with older lions with a pride and if the intruders win, they take the pride. At that time they kill the older lions or drive them out. But they kill off all the young cubs less than one year old, we were told.

Lions also lose a lot of their cubs otherwise. When they go for their hunt they try to hide their cubs but the cubs are killed by Hyenas and Leopards. Hence ironically, the survival rate of the Lions is one of the lowest – 3 in 10. What fate the King!!!

6 Young elephants are accompanied by their mother or sometimes male elephants. But then they get tired fast and have to rest or sometimes even sleep off mid way. In such cases the accompanying big one patiently waits over the young one till it wakes up again to walk – be it mid way, mid road, or pathway or marsh. What baby care!

7 All in one frame. (see picture with Lion in front). This is a picture (in G’ro) with a lion and lioness (and there were three more behind anther bush), hippos (looking like rocks), birds, Buffalo may be at 25 yards distance from lions, zebras may be at a distance of 40-50 yards and deer some more distance. In another place we could see a similar frame with some jackals, hyenas and two large tuskers thrown in, all within a max 100 yards square. What peace with each other and harmony. Secure in each others company. Carelessly grazing unmindful about the threat to their life (or may be secure that once the lions have had their days fill, they are harmless creatures). Only Man treats everyone else incl other men of the same ilk (politicians), sometimes spouses, of other religion, sometimes Boss and reportee with total suspicion, mistrust, etc. And lives in permanent fear of the rest.

8 Finally the Hyenas, the much despised creatures. Scavengers we call them. Everday so many animals must be dying in these parks. You can imagine the stench …but you have to only imagine. All the left overs are cleaned up by the Hyenas and jackals leaving no matter leftovers. They can even crush an elephants heads between their Jaws, we ere told. So as soon as any of their jungle cousins finish with left overs they eat of all that is left and digest it within a short time so that there is no stench whatsoever.

Incidentally on the last day we saw 2 Hyenas near some bush may be 200-300 yards away from us. They went inside the bush and after about 2-3 minutes one of them came out of the bush running helter-skelter, desperate, helpless like someone running to escape from a killer/mugger on hot pursuit running in our direction and taking its first breadth after may be quarter mile distance, sad desolate he looked. I asked the guide ‘what happened to the other one?’. ‘Probably there is a lion inside the bush who must have killed him’.
Even the heartless Hyena seems to have a heart for its mate/sibling/friend… whosoever!
Animals should feel entitled to offer us an MBA in team work, I guess. Or perhaps basics of spirituality.
Remove just 2 words – Greed and Individuality – from the English dictionary, and we will have a entirely different harmonious world I guess!

Kashmir : A comforting Viewpoint

Vikas Variahwa and the Muslim Hindu relations in Kashmir
I met Mr Vikas Variahwa (VV – name tweaked slightly) at the recent French National day celebrations in the open but tented lawn in their Embassy . He is 81 years of age and former CEO of a leading compressor manufacturer and a corporate Director now in some leading companies.
When I mentioned I was from JK, he mentioned someone’s name and said ‘you can ask him – I had dealt with him several years ago’. He recalled how Mr Mittal (of Arcelor) recognised him nearly after 20-25 years of his meeting with him, when he had sold him some compressors as a Sales Executive, although it was in competition with 6-7 others.
During the course of conversation, I asked him about his place of residence.
I have two bases – Delhi and Srinagar. Spend equal amount of time in both places.
‘Is Srinagar safe’, I ask (his name was obviously Hindu).
Him: ‘Why are you asking? Whenever I am there, I play my Golf every morning at 6 am. I have been born and brought up there and I have lived there for 80 years now’
Me: Isn’t the place violent and militancy dangerous?
Him: ‘I avoid going to downtown areas. And you don’t go into areas which are into trouble. Apart from that i see no difficulty’.
I would at worst say, things are abnormal but not scary or dangerous.
Me: ‘But that’s not the way we hear from the media and TVs?’, i said. ‘Are the TVs and media mis-representing then’.
Him: ‘They may not be. Whatever they are showing must be true. may be overexposing. But i would still say things are abnormal not scary as you seem to fear’ and his gaze locked with mine and he let the statement hang in the air. I was trying to figure out the meaning. A big sigh.
[My Words: The public expects the Government to run as per its perceptions (nothing wrong), public opinion is formed on the basis of information made available by TVs, Newspapers, and now increasingly Social media (nothing wrong again).The media as it is designed is to report exceptions and aberrations to normal (Nothing wrong again. You don’t keep reporting ‘things are normal’ stuff). But the media by repeating the aberrations and exception again and again may make a 2 to 5% abnormality as 50-60% abnormality and thus create misperceptions of degree – lets call it ‘exception trap’. Both the media – even the responsible ones without any ulterior motives or agenda or sides to take – and the general public can get sucked into it. The reality on the ground may be far less intense, harmful or scary like in the eyes of VV, who doesn’t think he is betting his life by living there.
This exception trap is an unexplored dimension of Right to Freedom of speech]
I felt more confident to raise ‘What about Hindu Muslim relations’.
Relations in my younger days … there was a lot of comradery and cordiality. I would say between the elders even now there is no rancour but friendly exchanges. But we have to recognise it is a Muslim majority state. A minor section of youth – i would not call it anywhere close to majority – is misguided and misdirected. But things will be normal. Things do take time to sort out.
(For the first time I was hearing some comforting and confidence inducing words from anyone on the subject of Kashmir and naturally it induced a huge sigh of relief).
Me: What about Tourism?
VV: Yes it is down. Things can be better.
Me: But who will go there if in danger of life
But they don’t kill anyone at random with whom they have no agenda. Look they may also be sensible in a way… but with an agenda.
Me: So there may not be an issue if i travel there?
Him: ‘Look. If a bullet is meant to get you, it will. (I said you are going philosophical now). Let me relate a story … about Arun Kirpal Singh, brother of Army (some high meaning rank he mentioned). He was travelling to Chennai and he came to the airport … had a peg in the lounge and when it was boarding time he reached the gate only to be told that the flight was getting delayed by an hour and half. So he went back and had 2-3 rounds more and passed out’
VV caught hold of someone jostling his way through by his elbow and said ‘Hi.’ They exchanged some pleasantries of long last friends and he introduced him as the Mr Mishra an ex Cabinet Secretary. (Later i gathered he was Naresh Chandra’s batchmate). ‘I was telling him about Kirpal singh’s story. And resumed.
‘When he got up, he went to the counter which was shut after the Aircraft had left. He argued with the station staff that it was their fault blah blah … and the counter staff kept saying that they had paged for him several times but had to let the aircraft go.
‘Disappointed he started back but before he was out of the airport the Public address system announced that his missed flight had crashed. (I tried re-jigging my memory of AI air crashes for flights meant for Chennai 25-30 years back, but not able to recollect).
‘And a personal one. A few days back there was an accident involving Gondola rides in Gulmarg. (i did recollect reading from papers about 3-4 weeks back some such accident which killed 2-3 people). My Sister, her sister in law and niece had gone there and were seated in a cart with some others. The attendant came to them and said that there were 3 more who were part of same family of three who were already seated with them. He conveyed to them that the others want to be seated together and if my sister would be kind enough to move to the next cart. My sister obliged and moved to the next cart. As it happened there was some strong winds due to which a big tree fell on the Cable sending it wobbling and getting stuck. The cart by which the six travelled hit the pole, the glass door opened and some were thrown out resulting in death. My sister and co were dangling for nearly 4 hours in the next cart before they were rescued. But they escaped death’.
I was trying to connect with a French Banker and had messaged and whataspped him 2-3 times about my whereabouts without connecting with him. I told him finally that i would go behind the Beer Bar and stand with an empty Wine glass so he could identify me. We did connect in 2-3 minutes and I wanted to join back with VV and take a picture and quiz Mr Mishra on a few items about Bureaucracy then and now. But they had melted into the crowd.
There was a gleam in VV’s eyes which conveyed success with the past and hope and confidence about the future. I was 2/3rds his age and the curious quizzer – so he could have easily gotten patronizing or pontificating or at least superior sounding (a disease 99% of Indians suffer from). There wasn’t any of these. He kept his enthusiasm also in check – enough to interest me but not going overboard or argumentative or overly critical (another national epidemic). … I hope someday i would acquire those qualities in myself … in this birth or the next.
For the first time I heard someone talk differently about Kashmir and it was energising and confidence boosting… and that too from a man on Ground Zero. I could not thank him for his inputs though.

Triple Talaq – a practical view

 

Triple Talaq – a practical view

My driver in Kolcutta 2 days back was a frail middle aged man. From the Airport, a couple of times i egged him to go faster in somewhat empty roads since i was getting late for the dinner i was supposed to attend.

He refused sternly saying 60 kmph is the limit prescribed. I got put off and lost interest in conversing with him further during the trip.

But after the dinner, i opened with ‘what do you think about Triple Talaq’?

The Driver: ‘Iss galath sawaal ko mea kya jawaab doon?

I did not know what to make of it. After about 30-40seonds i once again plodded.

“aap TT ke khilaaf hai yaa saath?’

‘Bilkul Khilaaf’

‘I confirmed that he is a Muslim (was a clear muslim name, nevertheless i wanted to be sure).

‘aap kya Bangladesh se or India se’

Patna se. My parents live there still.

I continued on TT.

What’s wrong with TT?

Sir. I am not only a husband. I am also a father to my daughter, son to a mother, brother to a sister. How can i turn a blind eye to them.

My eyes went a little moist; there was a small gasp of breath and i hoped he did not notice me.

Supposing the Government brings about a law to get rid of TT, would you support it?

‘If there are 25 others in the Mohalla who are for it, i cannot oppose it alone in public. It is difficult. There are some people who are taking signatures from ladies to present before court evidence against doing away with TT. But what use it is, when most of them are putting their thumb impressions. They cannot read or understand what is written. They simply over power them into signing. Even so, i have told ladies in my house not to sign any such petition and tell them to wait till i get back home. I will tell them what the paper says. I know from their small talk that almost all ladies in the Mohalla are against TT. If my ladies are also against it, let it get it reflected.

How many families are there in your mohalla – 25? or more?

There are 83 families.

How many such divorces TT have taken place so far in your lifetime in your Mohalla?

‘Three. He was jigging his memory. In all cases, the husbands were bevdas, who used to while away their time thru the day and when there was no food when they returned, maar peet.

‘TT is a responsible provision and meant to be used responsibly. And ladies are also given option to ask for compensation for living maintenance. TT is meant to  be used only against betrayal, proven acts of infidelity, or where they just cannot be compatible. It is meant to be done after all counselling by mohalla elders  fails.  Not that you had 10 years, sired some kids and things become difficult just dump them and go.

‘How many people in your Mohalla live with more than one wife?’

‘None’.

What do the ladies do after TT.

They go back to their parents if they are live and able to support them. In some cases the male siblings support them In most cases in our community, they start working as domestic servants cleaning utensils, household work, baby sitting etc. But some are left in the lurch.

How many children you have?

Two – one is in class 3 and the other too young to go to school.

He himself  has studied upto 7th (fail) in Hindi medium and his wife is a 10th pass.

Changing topic, how is Didi doing.

‘Buss woh hi goondagurdhi what CPM was doing but saath saath some good work also’.

What do you think of Modi.

‘Sincere fellow trying to do something. At least not messing up things’.

Will he come from WB next time.

No chance. Didi knows how to manage them. She will ensure he does not come from here.

 

PS: during the SBI Dinner i met some industrialists who once again reiterated that big industry can never come up in WB. But in the last 2 years, the Jute industry has come up very well. Although it is not creating as many jobs as previously, it has created additional 2 lacs jobs in the last 2-3 years. That’s a hell of a lot of primary employment. But i could not figure out what the sudden surge in demand for Jute products.

 

 

 

Ramdev’s Republic

It is 45 years since I visited Rishikesh last. My memories were of floating wood logs, young boys and girls with tins tied to their back jumping into the river learning to swim, and boat rides when even as a kid I could stretch over and touch the cool waters of the new born Ganges. The promise of 4.58 hrs in Google as average travel time was tempting, so we chose Rishikesh as our week-end outing destination  when my niece and nephew landed up.  In the end, we spent the weekend, shall I say, trying to ‘reach there’.

We had our lunch at Ramdev’s ashram (or more appropriately his mini republic in the making) near Haridwar at around 4 pm… on the recommendation of our driver, who always recommend places that fit their standard of hygiene and cleanliness or where they get their food free. Sometimes they kind of force that choice on you. But in this case it must have been more due to affiliation and reasonable prices.

His establishment on the right side of road looked massive, huge herbal gardens, what looked like factories, and Patanjali research centre, Yoga centres, etc following one after the other. The food courts housed with some other facilities are on either side of the road just outside Hardwar towards Delhi. We saw a fleet of cars and buses parked inside the campus (thank him for they were not spilling over onto the roads. He seems to have skillfully estimated his following or having established the facilities created the requisite following). There was a milling crowd even at the time.

Most of the crowd was middle age – people who looked between 35 to 60 years – hardly any older ones (i could have counted them on my fingers), with their young ones in tow. I saw the same kind of devotion or urge in their eyes as when i go to India’s religious places like Tirupathi, Siddhi Vinayak Temple or SriNadhwara. Except here there was no God, it is more Ramdev. He seems to have become a sort of a messiah for the low income or low-middle income class. They were not chanting his name like in Trirupathi, but the vibes in the air was clear.

I may not be able to put a finger on what exactly his USP is – but it is not just religion: it is something more. May be they feel left out by the political process or that their lots have not improved as much in recent years as that of others. Or they are feeling culturally betrayed and need a new sense of identity. Or the rest of India has tried to fast forward traditions beyond what this class is comfortable with and Ramdev is the best bet to put the much needed speed breakers. There seems to be a huge vacant space of serving which marketers and political parties seems to have missed which he is serving which should account for his popularity.

I may not be conclusive – it is not just religion or yoga alone. Or just product benefits, aroma, taste, medicinal value, or environmentality, superior packaging.  It seems much more, much different. May be Ramdev knows or may be he himself does not know but has per chance hit upon the magic, like sometimes you succeed without knowing the reasons for your success. He would require a lot of de-coding. His products are a huge succees and I reckon that even if he were to put Patanjali banions and underwears, they will become instant hits. Such seems to be the sense of affiliation in the Ramdev Republic.

Now on to the food. The food itself was tasty – better than Ammas kitchen (Chennai), or Brahma Kumaris (BK) or Sri Sris (SSR), or Tirupathis Anna Prasadam (free).  Reasonably clean.

While i was waiting for my turn to pick up my Thali, the man ahead started an argument with the counter server. It was about the quantity of Rava Kesari (Sheera) in his meal. I thought it was alright but he was arguing it was less in comparison to his predecessor’s. It filled the steel saucer alright but still the man kept arguing over what perhaps would have been 2-3 gms difference or perhaps the shape it was served. I don’t know what gets our (all Indians and I stand at near the head of the queue) worst guts out when it concerns food. May be long years of seeing starvation around and many of us would have liberated out of that only recently and embedded memories and psyche remain.  Finally when the man behind counter obliged him in sheer frustration, the customer walked away with a smug (or triumphant) smile on his face.

Even while the drama was unfolding at my counter there was some heated exchange at the other. The customer was insisting that the kichdi be packed and the counter man as explaining that there is no such system. With each denial the temper was shooting up. The man behind counter turned around and asked his colleagues if there was some such system. Finally he lost his cool on his own ilk and ‘why don’t they tell at the counter itself that we don’t pack food’. And some mild adjectives to describe their mental state, etc. He was at his wits end … about to become one of the ilk that he himself described moments back. Finally he served kichdi to the brim on the plate (just that it wasn’t spilling over) and sort of threw the plate at the customer. I felt sorry for the counter server. I thought it was too much of a sampling error (2 in parallel) what i noticed. But if true, i suspect I may not last that job more than a couple of hours. Poor man from the interior or upcountry area in search of a daily living by serving people … we can be sympathetic or sensitive to each other a lot more. This is where i find Buddhist countries far more evolved.

I had been to Ammas kitchen a year or so back. They served too much of kichdi. I tried reasoning (when i argue with the counter clerks, i call it reasoning, pl note) i was imply incapable of eating their serving … it may last 2-3 sessions etc. and that she could serve as I deem full. But she said that she had to serve 275 gms (or 375gms) as the board announced and nothing short as per strict instructions, and that i could throw the excess if so desired. Some such similar disciplining happens in Tirupathi as well (they won’t serve anything in side cups or rasam and Butter milk in tumblers – impossible). I realised the value of standardisation of serves after seeing the quarrels.

A simple board announcing ‘No packing of food’ and just keeping a weighing scale near the counter and mentioning the size of serving (gms) would have quelled both the ‘Beja Frys’ I thought.  In both cases, my sympathies were overwhelmingly with the counter salesman.

Rating wise Ramdev’s food was tastiest, Tirupathi service quality the best (for the volume they handle anything less would be chaotic in no time), and for overall experience Ammas kitchen stands out. Ramdev must be recovering full cost at least and others don’t.

Whatever it is Ramdev Baba stands for or preaches, he could also teach them some basic courtesies, politeness, respect for rules and queues and sensitivity towards others. I have not found ground level sensitivity being taught at SSR, or BKs either. The 11 year old boy at Ramakrishna Ashram who showed me around in 1994 near Trichy was dignified and self assured. I wonder if they have such programme. He could have a huge impact. They all have raw love – if i fall ill on the road or down with an accident these are the very same people who would most likely rush to my rescue, not the priests of polish and outward politeness – it is the just the briefing which may be the missing link. Ramdev may be the best placed to bring about that welcome change.

May be he could teach them some basic hygiene, cleanliness and lessons on littering. They could become a million walking advertisements for his enterprise and convert a lot of the as yet unconvinced.

The Indian Intolerance debate and Lessons from Paris Attack.

 

This is based on my conversations with several drivers, some corporate executives in The Hague and Paris and the pantry car/bar sales guy in the Thalys high speed train between Rotterdam and Paris, during the last week. All these conversation were for 15-20 minutes over drives except 3 which were fairly lengthy. If there is a surprising lack of rainbow of opinions that is the way it was. You are perfectly welcome to be sceptical about what I have written below. I am recovering from the surprise myself … so no offer of explanations or rationalisations. (Also pardon my grammar. Of late I have started seeing it more as a nuisance).

I was curious about the impact of the Paris bombing on life in Western Europe.

  1. In The Hague our first driver was a Mohd Rafi listening, Hindi speaking Surinamese. I was surprised that several generations after migration there is still such a strong cultural affinity in him. He dismissed having to face discrimination on Colour or nationality or religion in The Hague where he has been for the last 19 years. He is a Hindu.
  2. Our next driver, a Pakistani. I enquired if there was any animosity towards him in general and if after the Paris attack he is facing any animosity due to his religion (one could make out his religion easily). No not all. During the conversation, he mentioned that things in Holland, Belgium and France are not like the UK where discrimination is visible, perceptible and rampant according to him. I asked him how he knew. His dad migrated to the UK several years ago and he himself came to Holland in 2000 from UK and keeps going there every once in six months or so.
  3. In between I had spoken to 2 Algerian Muslims, an Afghan, 2 more Surinamese drivers (both Hindus), 1 Moroccan and a 3-4 Africans (i had language issues with them esp. in France) the views were pretty much the same. Only the Pakistani chuckled and said ‘unless the locals huddle secretly and talk behind my back’ … obviously to satisfy me more than out of conviction. An Iranian driver who appeared suave and erudite claimed that he has been in Holland for last 30-odd years and he has not felt any discrimination. He was aware that a blast took place but then he does not keep pace with daily news regularly and dismissed the whole conversation with a ‘shrug of shoulder’ – inconsequential it seemed to suggest.  (so many drivers since we were shuttling from place to place in taxis)
  4. Subsequently in Paris we were driven around by an Algerian Muslim who has been in France since he was Seven. He must have been with us for 7-8 hours through the day. I also spent about ½ hour with a Muslim (did not ask his nationality) owner of a street corner shop (Kirana store) right (actually on the left) next to Moulin Rouge while waiting for the show to open. Pretty much the same stuff.
  5. We had a dinner at Safron (Indian restaurant) near Notre Dame. It is co-owned (part) by a Hydrabadi Muslim, a civil engineer by education. He first spent 11 years in Baghdad in the late 70s and 80s (he quit in 1987 to come to Paris and has been in Paris since then). He had happy memories of Baghdad. Unlike some other countries in its neighbourhood, Baghdad did not prohibit drinking or smoking. There were also dance bars, music clubs, and some night life. On my question of discrimination he said, ‘We all work together and know each other and in our daily life interact so much. There is so much bon-homie and give and take. Before or after there is nothing of the kind you are enquiring after’ was his refrain. He did confirm that the Business had gone down sharply. At this time (9.30 pm) this place would have been milling with crowd; it is not the locals… they are out as usual: it is the foreigners who have stopped coming. It would take 2-3 months for things would revive. He works in Transportation business during day time (don’t know what it means) and evenings in the restaurant. He last went to India for his mother’s death (Hyd) in 2007 and could not go for his Fathers in 2011. His two brothers continue to live in Hyd.
  6. After the initial opinions counter to what I thought would be the case, I also spoke to my host professionals (3 Dutch and 2 from Paris who were very much there during the days of blast). And a 10-15 minutes talk with a slim, near 7 footer, humorous and garrulous Portuguese waiter at the restaurant (while we were waiting for the taxi and were perhaps the last ones to get out after a formal Dinner). They all had similar opinions and denied witnessing any discrimination. Perhaps one should not attribute the same level of significance to their opinions as the other set.
  7. I asked the Paris guys how life had changed for them since the attack. ‘Not much actually. The Government has done a fantastic job and will sure trace the remaining bits also and get the theatre up and running soon… We don’t believe it is the locals. Most likely they are from outside, perhaps Syria… There are 6 million Muslims in France and we have to live with them. We know most of them are more worried about their daily life, jobs and employment and income, like the rest of us and not much bothered about waging wars’. He gave me (on my asking) the names of places that were hit and told me that all of them were back to running and only the Opera or theatre hall at Le Bataclan is still under repair. There was no agitation in his (or his accompanying colleague) voice or gesticulations or expressions except for a trace of sadness. Similar conversations in India tend to fill up buckets of bile within minutes.
  8. I must mention however, that one of the people attending our meeting was a bearded Indian (Hindu actually) and he was frisked for 20 minutes at Schipol Airport.

In between these I met the guy (pantry/bar salesman in the train). I had gone there to take a tea, some snacks and water. He gave me those and a chocolate stick the size of index finger as bonus with a half-bestowing, half-‘I enjoy my work’ kind of smile, giving me the opening for a long conversation, interrupted many times by others approaching him for sales. He lives in Paris. Spoke English fluently.

1    I began by asking him, ‘how is life after the attack’. He was relaxed and did not burst forth with any pre decided answers like I used to jump at well rehearsed questions in my childhood years. “Yeah it was bad. But the government has done well to restore order quickly’.

‘How is it for you as an individual’

‘So long as you don’t believe the media and are sceptical about what the politicians say it will all be OK’. (A blast of a statement from him, I thought. They both (more so the former and less the latter) need some punching. I thought Indian media is the worst aggressor but things look same elsewhere too. (Later we discussed the media’s immaturity in some other context)

‘So no effect on you’

‘I do sympathize with the Victims and more their near and dear ones. But then I have to worry about my job, my family, children’s education, income and neighbourhood. Things are normal with these’.

‘So what do you think caused it’

‘I guess it may be the reaction to France’s bombing of Syria. But then the right wing was also getting increasingly edgy and aggressive here. But I don’t think it is the locals. There are many Muslims and we adjust to each other and we have to co-exist (some similarity of opinions there with my host Parisians)’.

2     Me: ‘You had mentioned about right wing. What is Mr Hollande?’

Him: ’He is Leftist. But you know all politicians are same. Till they are elected they are left, they are right, but then once in power they all do the same thing… Work for their own welfare, protecting their power base, etc. In that sense he is as right or left as any. And if not now will sure become a right very soon’.

‘What would you have done differently on this incident’

‘The Government pretty much did the right thing. They restored order quickly. Rounded up many involved and brought them to justice and will perhaps erect some monument or something for the affected. They saw it as a law and order problem’.

‘So nothing that you think could have been done better’

A slight shrug of the shoulder.

3     Me: ‘How do you think this problem can be solved?’

Him: ‘We should be conscious that a similar attack can take place and hence security at times has to be tighter. New entrants should be thoroughly checked and the border posts vigil has to be tightened’. (Must admit after his initial responses, this disappointed me somewhat).

‘What can France do about it as a nation?’

‘I think one of the reasons also may be we side with the US and since the disgruntled can’t hit them they hit us. That is a possibility. But then we can do very little about this. We need the US and we live similarly’.

We meandered on several other topics and came back to this topic.

4    ‘What can be the long term solution,’ I asked.

‘Both sides have to realise that this is circular. But we (he meant France and the Western World perhaps) have to realise we have far more to lose. I have my income, job safety, and my children go to schools, there is future for them. We have a good administration, a system which functions well. Most are well off and we have everything to lose. But what do they (terrorists) have to lose. Nothing. In that sense it is unequal warfare which we are destined to lose anyway. So if we are bombing them for Oil or religion, it’s time to stop it. We have a lot more to gain if this violence stops and we should be conscious of it’.

‘You think France can do it?’

‘Humh! France? There may be no one of that stature in France. But then what can we do alone? Our society and economy are so intertwined with the rest of Europe. And I don’t think they will allow us to do anything of that sort.

Me: ‘So it’s a problem which will linger’

Him: ‘Unless someone like Dr Mandela or Gandhi can rise to the occasion and stop it, it is not likely.

‘But then there is no one in the horizon. It is unlikely someone from Politics will do this’. (I did not know what to make of his last sentence. But then the interruptions were becoming more and i felt apologetic about disturbing him and wound up with a selfie. (I have however not posted the same since I have not taken his permission and it would be unethical to expose him without his consent)

 

I was deeply impressed with the maturity of his views, calm response to a disturbing national tragedy and the way ahead. As well as the calmness of my 2 Parisian hosts. I forgot to take his name or email id but he does the Amsterdam- Paris duty in the Thalys. (Unless the roster keeps changing).

I know it sounds surreal and unrealistic to see so much patience, tolerance from both sides, I did not expect it to be so one sided. I thought I would get a cross section of opinions. No luck. I have to blow my kisses to the people of France and salute their leaders and administration. For their extra-ordinarily mature and peaceful response. The politicians have not tried muddling the issue further. They have primarily treated it as a law and order problem and dealt with it. They have not tried ‘religionising’ it. Even if there was some right wing simmering, it was well controlled or they themselves perhaps saw it as not the fit occasion. My salutations to the Dutch as well on the issue of racialism or discrimination.

I would like to believe that i am a 100% Hindu, 50% Muslim (i have seen several of their places, read some of their literature and understand that the purpose of all the religion appear so starkly similar), 25% Christian and a large influence, of late, on my social behaviour from Parsis. But must admit in comparison to what i saw in my trip, that I(ndians) am racial and discriminatory and intolerant. I would reckon most of my friends are even more so. I don’t think it is the work of any politician in the last 12 months or 18. I don’t think anyone can bring about tolerance or intolerance within such a short time. It’s the way we are. We use every differentiating factor to mentally feel discriminated or administer it – caste, region, religion, colour, place, rich vs poor, etc. So if you are from the same community the benefit (and bias) will go in your favour, likewise same cadre, same service, same class (poor/rich). We are brushing too many things under the carpet named Gandhi…so instantly we become champions of secularism, non discrimination, non-violence and all other things nice to hear.

Know I am sounding pompous and preachy, but I think there is a lesson there from Paris and the way their people have responded, which we Indians are missing.