Sunday, 25 September 2016

Announcing the departure of...

(Continued from the previous post…)

There were still five hours to go before I would check in for my flight and I decided to grab a bite to eat at this 24x7 restaurant located near the airport entrance before heading in and getting “locked out” from the rest of the world till I arrived at my destination.

There weren’t too many people in the restaurant, which didn’t surprise me as this was the domestic terminal and flights would soon wind down for the day. I was happy to see this as I really wasn’t in the mood to be surrounded by too many people and voices after the conversation Mandeep and I’d just had. The music they had on was to my taste as well : Even Flow by Pearl Jam as I walked in if I remember correctly; so I settled in over a nice cool glass of watermelon juice, leaned back slightly in my chair and let my thoughts flow as I tapped my fingers lightly on my armrest. Pearl Jam gave way to Santana, then came on some Aerosmith, Dire Straits, Deep Purple… It seemed like there were more kindred spirits around me that evening because this was just the kind of music I had grown up on in my college days.

I used to play for this cover rock band in my college days called Troubled Waters. Yes, I believe the name was inspired by a substantial daily dose of listening to Pink Floyd and yes, that was my “mess up completely fine pairs of jeans by tearing them right across the knees” phase. I even went to the extent of sporting a self-made wrist band with “Born to be Wild” handwritten on it (and eventually graduated to a wrist band with a small guitar pinned on). Those were certainly interesting days with lots of rock n’ roll and then some more rock n’ roll. Trust me, the sex and drugs part is way overrated. All of us in the band were basically interested in just the rock n’ roll part of the dream, played some good music, enjoyed ourselves to the hilt with it and have gone on to do pretty well in our lives.

It suddenly struck me that the reason I found myself reminiscing those days was that three songs from Troubled Waters’ eventual “song list” had just played back to back, exactly in the same order, and these were the songs with which we used to open our gigs: Shine on you crazy diamond, Hey you and Comfortably numb, all Floyd songs that were perhaps right at the top of each of our “all time favourite” lists. This poked at me as possibly being a little more than a straight up coincidence and it was somewhere in the middle of David Gilmour’s guitar solo in Comfortably numb that I started to look around the restaurant. And there he was, after all these years, grinning at me from ear to ear with that good old humour and mischief in his eyes, Syd (Siddhartha Choudhary).

Syd is probably one of the finest people I met during my college days. We had met by chance: he studied at St. Xavier’s college in Mumbai and I was at IIT Bombay, and it so happened that one particular year we happened to be on our respective college contingents to a youth festival called Mardi Gras that was held annually at IIT Madras (they call their festival Saarang now and I am really quite happy with this change). And the friendship that started in those four days has lasted till today. He lives in Seattle now and we were meeting after some 9-10 years but that hadn’t damped the warmth of our friendship one bit. I still remember the joy I felt at that moment as I grinned right back and we both got up to give each other a bear hug.

It’s so good to see you man! What the heck are you doing here? Didn’t you move to Seattle a few years ago?

Yep! Still there. Just coming in to attend a wedding in the family and cleared immigration only about half an hour ago. Have a train to hop on to but its running a good three hours late, so thought I would chill here for a while before heading to the railway station. And then look who walked in J! These people seem to have quite a collection of classic rock, so I took my chance with requesting those songs and seeing if it would get you. Got some memories going eh?

You bet man :), you bet! That was pretty cool!


Your family’s based in Patna, right? That’s where you are headed?

Yep. Dad retired a few years ago and my parents now run a primary school up to 5th grade there.

Coolness! And how’re the Mrs and the kids?

Good good. They couldn’t come as the kids have their tests coming up, so I decided to make a solo trip this time around. And you? Still teaching at IIT Kanpur?

Yeah…still very much there.

(Then the inevitable question…)

And music? You still play?

Well, not as much as I used to, but yeah, the gear’s still there and I do plug in every once in a while. There’s also been a bit of expansion of taste…something you probably wouldn’t expect.

What do you mean?

Well, I’ve been taking some Sitar lessons. Got drawn towards Hindustani classical during my days as a post-doc in the US and the interest has persisted.

Whoa! That’s certainly a significant change of taste.

Well, its really more an expansion than a change. I still enjoy rock n’ roll and still play the guitar but I also want to pick up Hindustani, more specifically the Sitar. I’m definitely drawn towards it. So I’m giving it a shot. Let’s see how far I go.

Any particular artists who drew you in?

Yeah, Ustad Vilayat Khan was the first to hit me hard I think. You should hear the way he plays Rag Bhairavi sometime. Then there was my Sitar teacher in Michigan, Rajan Sachdev ji. The Sitar would literally come alive in his hands and he could just make each note carry so much depth. More recently I’ve really come to appreciate Pt. Nikhil Banerjee as well.

Wow! This is really something. I knew you were into light Indian music for some years after going to the US. But I really didn’t see you going the classical way.

Neither did I man :). I never could appreciate those long alaaps for the longest time. Now that’s my favourite part! So as you can see, the seduction has been complete :)!

And that light Indian music part, what was that all about? I mean it used to be rock n’ roll pretty all the time with you when we were in college.

Well I think that sourced from a desire to express the Indian identity to the american community. There are many Indian students at US universities now. The same was true at University of Cincinnati when I was there for my MS. And some of us who played music coalesced to form a group called Desh that played Hindi songs. We gave a couple of performances, the highlight being a two hour concert on 15th August 1997 at Convention Center, Downtown Cincinnati, when the local Indian community got together to celebrate India’s independence.

Any particular singers that you particularly like?

Well my favourite by a mile has always been Kishore Kumar.

Well, let’s see if our friend at the restaurant here will oblige us with a few Kishore Kumar requests.

Syd waved down the chap who had earlier played along with him to put on the Pink Floyd songs:

Ranbir ji, aapke paas Kishore Kumar ki kuch CDs hongi? Soch rahe hain ki kuch Hindi gaane sune jaayein.

(Would you by any chance happen to have some CDs of Kishore Kumar? We were thinking of listening to some Hindi songs.)

Sir CDs to hain lekin hamein bola gaya hai ki sirf English gaane hee bajaayein jaayein.

(Sir we do have CDs by him but we’ve been given instructions that we are to play only English songs)

I still remember the sense of disbelief with which Syd and myself looked at each other when we heard this. Both of us were globally travelled, he even lived in the US at this point, both of us had always enjoyed many things the west had to offer (including, of course, music!). But we had always done this without an iota of disrespect for our own cultural identities. I don’t think we would’ve ever imagined that there would come a day when we would have to hear in our country that music in an Indian language was not allowed somewhere. This just made no sense.

We would’ve understood if several other people in the restaurant preferred to continue with the music that was presently playing. That would certainly have been fine as everyone has a right to their tastes and a restaurant would understandably want to cater to what a larger section of customers might prefer at any given time. But this wasn’t about that. There were hardly any people in the restaurant at this time anyway (it was beyond midnight now and there are pretty much no domestic flights during the night – so the airport, and hence the restaurant, were pretty sparsely populated) and there was no indication that Ranbir was denying us our request for some Hindi music because he expected the others present to have an objection. And in any case what one would expect is that a request is taken and then one sees how it goes.

He was very clear. He had instructions that he was to play only English songs. Period.

But Ranbir was hardly to blame. He was simply following instructions. So we asked him if the duty manager was around by any chance. He was and Ranbir asked him to come and talk to us.

Haaanji Sir, service main koi problem?

(Yes Sir, any problem with the service?)

Nahi nahi, Ranbir ji apna kaam bahut acche se kar rahe hain. Service main bilkul koi problem nahi hai. Kuch aur baat thee.

(No no, Ranbir is doing his job quite well. There is absolutely no problem with the service. It’s something else.)

Haanji bataaiye Sir.

(Yes Sir, please tell me.)

Aapka naam kya hai?

(What’s your good name?)

Mahinder Sir.

Mahinder ji, aisa hai ki hamein thode Hindi gaane sunne ka man hai. Kishore Kumar ji ke. To hamne Ranbir ji see poocha ki agar unki CDs hon to shayad woh chala sakein. Ranbir ji keh rahe hain ki CDs to hain lekin woh chala nahi sakte kyonki unhe bola gaaya hai ki sirf English gaane hee chalne chaahiye yahan.

(Mahinder, the issue is this: We were in the mood for listening to some Hindi songs by Kishore Kumar. So we asked Ranbir if he might have some CDs of him to put on. But Ranbir tells us that while he does have a few, he has instructions that only English songs are to be played here.)

Jee Sir. Yeh hee instruction hai. Aur mujhse nahin, yeh aadesh restaurant ke owner se hai.

(Yes Sir, that is indeed the instruction. And its not from me but the owner of this restaurant.)

Lekin baat to galat hai na Mahinder ji. Apna desh hai, aur yeh to desh ki rajdhani hai. Bhala yahan kyon rok lagayee jai Hindi pe?

(But this isn’t really correct right? We are in our own country, that too in the capital. Why should there be any objection to Hindi here?)

Ji Sir. Main aapse sehmat hoon. Khud Hindi gaane hi pasand karta hoon aur yeh rashtriyata ka bhaav mere main bhi hai. Lekin ab yahan naukri kartaa hoon to aadesh bhi maanne padte hain.

(Yes Sir, I am in agreement with you. I personally prefer listening to Hindi songs myself and I also share your nationalistic pride. But since I work here I have to obey the instructions I get.)

Syd was always pretty good at thinking quickly on his feet. And he came up with an idea to try and resolve the situation.

Accha Mahnider ji, ek baat bataaiye, agar ham owner ke naam ek chitthi likh dein jisme ham yeh kahein ki aapne hamaari request pe thodi der ke liye Hindi gaane chalaaye the to kaam ban jaayega? Tab to zimmedaari hamaari hogi. Aap to sirf customers ko khush rakh rahe hain.

(Tell me Mahinder, will this work: How about we write a letter addressed to the owner that you played Hindi songs for a while based on a request from us? Then the responsibility would be ours and you would only be being courteous to your customers.)

This worked. Mahinder accepted this strategy and put on the music we wanted. We also included a note in our letter about the reservations we felt about such an instruction being in place to start with.

Thanks to Syd’s ploy, we had amicably resolved things and enjoyed a full set of Kishore Kumar songs over cups of overpriced masala chais that we felt we absolutely must have to make the experience complete :)! But the overall issue did linger on in our minds and we talked through issues related to respecting one’s cultural roots and expressing cultural identities with confidence. It seemed to us that, ironically, we needed to take a look at the west itself and perhaps take a leaf from their book.

I doubt Italians would object to the Italian language in Italy, French to French in their country and anyone from Spain to Spanish in their own. And the Americans and the British certainly do not object to English in theirs.

I was in the US for eleven years (1995 – 2006) and have met people from all over the world. If there is one thing I have seen repeatedly it is that people from several different nationalities and cultures are very well consolidated in their roots and identities. They respect themselves and the heritages they belong to and express it very naturally while still clearly enjoying whatever the whole wide world has to offer. And that to me is “globalization” taken in its correct perspective. Denying our culture and heritage, that too in our own country, is not globalization. It’s stupidity. Literature, music, dance, art, theatre … these are mediums through which a whole spectrum of cultural identities express themselves and persist. Why in the world would we want to deny what we have to offer? And we certainly have a tremendous amount to offer, both in breadth and variety as well as depth and refinement of expression.

And no, I’m not saying there have been no negatives or ills in our history. But that’s a reality that every culture I know of has to face up to. Its all present in pages of history for everyone to read and know. The way forward, for us just as for any other people, is to drop the negatives, persist with the positives, and offer our share of beauty on the global cultural canvas; not to erase all our colours with a whitener (usage of the word “whitener” absolutely intended). Continuously using references to whatever negatives we may have grappled with to deny ourselves and our heritage in totality is, to use the term once again, stupidity.

Time flew by real quick as Syd and me talked about this and that and soon it was two in the morning and time for Syd to leave for the railways station. So we paid our bill, shook hands with Ranbir amd Mahinder, thanked them for accommodating so many of our music requests and headed out to the taxi stand. And just as Syd was entering his cab he turned around and asked me the question that I had been kind of anticipating all evening.

Say Brij, hardly anything about you surprises me much, but still, what’s up with the Dhoti Kurta? You planning a foray into religion or something?

[I used to wear a Dhoti Kurta at the time: yes, to work as well :) as I taught my classes in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at IIT Kanpur, attended meetings, etc as well as when I travelled, attended social gatherings and the rest. The only reason I don’t today is that I may not get a job if I do. Which is a sad thing to feel in my own country and its my sincere hope that things change for the better soon.]

Ha ha ha…come off it man :)! I’m still the same old rocket scientist, although I do meditate, and I still know good rock n’ roll when I hear it. Its just about wearing a dress that has been traditionally ours and feeling comfortable about doing so. Nothing more to it than that.

And on that note we shook hands once more and waved a goodbye to each other as the cab pulled off.

I decided to get inside the airport now and get a couple of hours of shut eye before it would be time to check in and go through the security check. Sleep came quick as I was quite tired by now and it seemed like just a few moments had passed when my little cell phone alarm beeped to wake me up. I stretched myself up into wakefulness and took myself through the pre-flight formalities before settling in with a cup of coffee at the departure gate. It had been a surreal evening the night before and thoughts of my conversations with Mandeep and Syd were drifting in and out of my mind when the announcement eventually came:

Good morning ladies and gentlemen, we announce the departure of…

(PS: Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't airports fantastic locations to showcase our heritage and culture to the world at large? I mean, people from just so many different parts of the world fly through them...)

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Kindred spirits...

Flight 6E-624 probably doesn’t exist, I don’t really know. And to be frank, I no longer remember where I was flying to. It’s been a while. But I do still remember the awe followed by befuddlement and bemusement that I felt that entire night as I waited at the airport to catch the 6 AM flight.

I had reached Delhi late the previous night and chose to just head to the airport instead of checking into a hotel. This way I would save a bit of money as any hotel that’s even half decent can usually end up costing a fair bit, especially if travel plans have been made at the last minute and one is as ignorant of apps and how to use them to find deals as I often am. Plus I would’ve had to wake up in the middle of the night anyway to arrive at the airport in time for pre-flight formalities.

It must’ve been about 11 PM or so when my cab pulled up to the curb at terminal 1D. It was an old fashioned black & yellow taxi that I had hired from the pre-paid counter at New Delhi railway station. Mandeep, the chap driving the taxi, wished me a good journey ahead; I had just made another friend, although it’s fairly unlikely that we’ll run into each other again : which is perfectly fine with me, for who are we to put bounds of time, space and how often we meet someone on connecting with kindred spirits.

I know it’s a cynical world we live in. No one really seems to trust anyone and most people seem to be guarded and a little too obsessed with their “status” all the time. There are of course issues of safety to stay mindful of, and very correctly so. But there’s a tipping point to every consideration and I dread the possibility that one day we might all live isolated lives with lines separating us drawn so firm that the journey would no longer be quite human. And my way to fight this is to make a conscious effort to try and relate with people around me whenever I can, especially with people who supposedly belong to a “lower” social strata. This keeps me reminded that at the end of the day people are just people; higher, lower and the other are just phases, that too dependent on conditions and realities that extend well beyond our “talents”, “capabilities” and any sense of entitlement that we may happen to possess. Of course there have been moments of heartburn, and times when I’ve felt duped, but I’ve chosen to become more aware and alert with time instead of shutting myself off altogether. The upside of this has been that I’ve met and connected with absolute gems of people too!

Mandeep is one such guy and may the blessings of all the divine beings be forever with him.

While whatever I have said above about making a conscious effort to stay connected is certainly true, I do use a sense of judgment in doing so. I look for some indication that makes me feel that the person in front of me is genuine and decent. It could be just a vibe I feel at times. At other times it could be the way a person behaves with others or maybe something they say that catches my attention.

As Mandeep took the taxi out of the parking area at NDLS, I couldn’t help but notice the contrast between his manner of driving and what I usually experience in Delhi. He was patient, concerned about pedestrians and rickshaw pullers, and got us on the road with a polite sense of composure that was really quite appreciable. Once we were on the highway and headed towards the airport he checked with me if I happened to be in any rush to catch a flight. I told him to be at ease from that point of view and just drive as he normally would. And if the way he drove was his normal way of driving, then I reckon a whole lot of drivers in India could learn from him. Followed lane discipline, never honked once without reason, did not allow any rashness in his driving, respected speed breakers whenever we went over one and always overtook other vehicles in the correct manner.

I’ve always maintained that the way one drives can speak volumes about one’s personality and state of mind overall. And Mandeep was certainly making a positive impression. So I took my chance and started a conversation. I’m going to switch to Hindi now as I try and reproduce it to the best of my memory. But I’ve included a translation at the end of the post for my non-Hindi speaking friends.

मैं : आपका नाम क्या है?

मंदीप : मंदीप Sir |

मैं : मैं बृजेश हूँ | आपकी ड्राइविंग अच्छी है | आप लोगों का ध्यान रखते हुए टैक्सी चला रहे हैं | अच्छी  बात है |

Thank you Sir.

घर पे कौन कौन है?

Sir माँ और बाऊजी हैं, मेरी पत्नी और तीन बच्चे | एक छोटा भाई है | उसकी आजकल अमृतसर में पोस्टिंग है | Air force में pilot है Sir |

बहुत अच्छा | बच्चे कितने बड़े हैं?

Sir बड़ा लड़का ग्यारह साल का है | सुखविंदर | अभी छटी क्लास में है | फिर twins हैं आठ साल के | एक लड़का, हरविंदर, और एक लड़की, हरजोत. अभी तीसरी में आये हैं |

अच्छा है | पढाई ठीक चल रही है बच्चों की?

हाँ Sir | अच्छे बच्चे हैं | पढ़ाई में भी ठीक हैं और सुखविंदर sports में भी रुची रखता है | हॉकी अच्छी  खेलता है | अगले साल से coaching में डालने का plan है | क्या पता, शायद एक दिन अपने स्टेट के लिए खेलेगा | फिर आगे कितना खरा उतरेगा, वो तो समय ही बताएगा |

तुम्हारी age क्या है अभी?

बत्तीस साल Sir | 1984 का birth है  मेरा |

यहीं दिल्ली में?

हाँ Sir | वैसे तो हम लोग पंजाब से belong करते हैं | लेकिन 1982 में माँ और बाऊजी दिल्ली आ गए थे |

1984 तो बहुत कठिन समय था | आपके parents ने आपको बताया होगा |

जी Sir | मेरा birth Mrs. Gandhi की हत्या के 2 हफ़्तों बाद ही हुआ था | एक हिन्दू family ने हमें अपने घर पे छुपाया था | उन्ही के घर जन्म हुआ था | माँ  बताती हैं की अगर उन्होंने हमें अपने घर न रखा होता तो पता नहीं क्या होता | उनके जान पहचान के काफी लोग मारे गए थे |

बहुत शर्मनाक समय था | शुक्र है आप लोग बच गए | बहुत दर्द होगा आपके दिल में | आपसे ज्यादा शायद आपके parents के दिल में | शायद आप लोग कभी माफ़ नहीं कर पाओगे |

Sir दर्द तो है | उनके कितने मित्र मारे गए | कितने और अपना सब कुछ खो बैठे | पापा  की दुकान भी जला दी गयी थी | बहुत समय लगा था वापस normal होने में | हम यह भी चाहते हैं कि न्याय हो | लेकिन Sir, कड़वाहट नहीं है | कम से कम हिन्दुओं के लिए तो नहीं |

I was a bit taken aback with this last statement. Because whatever the Sikh community in India went through after Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 was truly horrific.

समझा  नहीं |

Sir, हम लोग दिल्ली आये ही इसीलिए थे क्योंकि मेरे parents Khalistan movement से नाराज़ थे | Sir 1984 में जो सिखों के साथ हुआ, वो बिल्कुल गलत था | और उसका न्याय होना चाहिए | लेकिन सिखों ने भी पंजाब में बहुत गलतियां की थी उससे पहले | मेरे parents के कुछ हिन्दू दोस्त भी मारे गए थे | अमृतसर में हमारे पडोसी थे | सिख नहीं थे | लेकिन पंजाबी थे | और उससे भी क्या फरक पड़ता है Sir | यह देश सब का है | हर किसी को कहीं भी रहने की freedom होनी चाहिए | आज भी parents उनको याद करते हैं | एक दिन आँगन में बैठ के साथ साथ dinner किया | और अगले दिन सुबह मालुम पड़ा कि रात को उनको मार दिया गया | बहुत धक्का लगा था मेरे parents को | और फिर 1984 में उनके हिन्दू दोस्तों ने ही बचाया | अगर कड़वाहट और गुस्सा है तो उन politicians से जो इस तरह की आग फैलाने में शामिल होते हैं | हिंदुओं से नहीं | उन्होंने भी बहुत खोया और हमने भी | और Sir, जहां तक बात रही Operation Blue Star की, लोग कहते हैं कि Golden Temple, जो एक धर्म का स्थल है  वहां army भेज के भिंडरावाले और उसके साथियों को मारना गलत था | लेकिन एक बात बताइये Sir, एक धर्म स्थल में भिंडरावाले और उनके गिरोह का रहना, जिनके कारण पता नहीं कितने ही निर्दोष लोगों की हत्या हुई, और वहां इतने हथियार इकट्ठे करना, यह सब सही था? मैं तो नहीं मानता Sir | अगर Operation Blue Star गलत था भी, तो उसके पहले जो हो रहा था वो भी गलत था | ताली दोनों हाथों से बजी थी Sir | आधे सच से कुछ हासिल नहीं होगा Sir | सबको बैठ कर पूरा सच देखना होगा |

तुम बहुत गहरी सोच रखते हो | अच्छा है | कम लोग हैं जो इतनी maturity रख सकते हैं |

जी Sir | (With a little laugh) और काफी लोग नाराज़ भी हो जाते हैं अगर ऐसे बात की जाए |

वो तो है |

Sir आप ही बताइये, कश्मीर से हिन्दू पंडितों को इतनी बेदर्दी से निकाल भगाया और अब आज़ादी आज़ादी की बातें करते हैं, महाराष्ट्र में कुछ लोग बोलते हैं कि यहां सिर्फ मराठी लोग रहें | कल बंगाल में कहेंगे यहाँ सिर्फ बंगाली रहेंगे | परसों केरल में सिर्फ मलयाली | यह भी कोई सोचने का तरीका है? इतनी मुश्किल से तो 1947 में आज़ादी हासिल की थी | कितना sacrifice किया था कितने लोगों ने | भगत सिंह, चंद्रशेखर आज़ाद, सुखदेव … और हम फिर लग गए देश के टुकड़े करने | और अगर मैं यह सब गलत मानता हूँ तो मुझे Khalistan movement को भी गलत मानना होगा | सर हिन्दू, सिख, मुसलमान, ईसाई, तमिल, बंगाली, मराठी, पंजाबी … क्या यह सब लोग आज हमारी सेना में नहीं हैं? इनमे से कौन है जो इस देश की आज़ादी और सुरक्षा के लिए गोली खाने के लिए तैयार नहीं है? तो फिर मतलब क्या बनता है अलग अलग होने की बात करने का? इतना बढ़िया देश है सर | सब मिलके रहें, खुश रहें | ये सब कमली बातें हैं और कमले काम हैं Sir | अमेरिका को देखो Sir, नाम भी यूनाइटेड स्टेट्स ऑफ़ अमेरिका है और वो हैं भी यूनाइटेड | और हमें देखो, कोई हद नहीं छोड़ते डिवाइडेड स्टेट्स ऑफ़ इंडिया बनने में | 

पार्टीशन के बारे में क्या विचार है तुम्हारा?

Sir बेवकूफी थी और क्या? अगर नेहरू पहले प्रधान मंत्री बनें या जिन्नाह, यही बात थी, तो सिक्का उछाल लेते | क्या फरक पड़ता | पांच साल बाद तो election होने ही थे | Democracy है | कभी कोई ruling party कभी कोई opposition पार्टी | इतनी भी क्या बड़ी बात थी कि पहले कौन प्रधान मंत्री बनता | सबने साथ साथ मिलके अंग्रेजों से स्वतंत्रता हासिल की थी | और उनके जाते ही लड़ने लग गए | और उस दिन शुरू हुई लड़ाई आज तक लोगों को मार रही है | दोनों side के लोगों को | कितना पैसा भी waste होता है | कितनी army लगी हुई है इसी एक मसले पर | इकट्ठे होते तो आज हिम्मत थी किसी की कि हमसे टक्कर लेता | हम कहाँ के कहाँ पहुँच गए होते सर |

सही कह रहे हो तुम | मैं भी यह ही मानता हूँ कि हमारी कई लड़ाइयां बिना किसी बेसिस की हैं |

जी Sir | और सबसे ज्यादा बेमतलब की लड़ाई है धर्म के नाम पे लड़ाई | उसका तो कोई सर पैर ही नहीं है |

I was smiling now. It was eerie how closely Mandeep’s thoughts were echoing mine. I let him continue.

Sir आप ही बताओ | मैं सिख हूँ | गुरु ग्रन्थ साहब जी के अलावा किसी को नहीं मानता | और ना ही किसी और के सामने अपना सर झुकाता हूँ | गुरूद्वारे जाता हूँ, सेवा करता हूँ, अपनी family के साथ खुश हूँ | अब मुझे क्या मिलेगा यह सोच के कि आपका धर्म क्या है, आप आस्तिक हो या नास्तिक, मंदिर जाते हो या मस्जिद या चर्च, या कहीं भी नहीं | आप अगर मेरी life में दखल नहीं देते तो मैं आपकी life में दखल क्यों दूं? उससे किसी को क्या मिलता है?

मंदीप, अगर इतनी सी बात सबके समझ में आ जाए तो हमारे कितने झगड़े ऐसे ही ख़तम हो जाएँ | और हमें कोई कभी धर्म के नाम पे अलग अलग करके फ़ायदा भी नहीं उठा पायेगा |

जी Sir | Sir मैं आपसे एक सवाल पूछूँ?

हाँ, बिल्कुल | पूछो |

Sir आपके caste system के बारे मैं क्या विचार हैं?

I laughed… बेवकूफ़ी है मंदीप, और क्या | कोई अपने जन्म के basis पे ऊपर या नीचे कैसे हो सकता है? मेरा तो यह मानना है कि बहुत शोषण हुआ है, बहुत अन्याय हुआ है, और शायद यह हिन्दू धर्म की सबसे बड़ी गलती रही है |

तो Sir क्या reservations के माध्यम से यह ठीक हो जाएगा?

मुझे तो नहीं लगता मंदीप | Problem है, उसका हल भी निकालना है, लेकिन मुझे नहीं लगता कि reservations से problem solve होगी | अगर कोई मुझसे पूछे, तो मेरी नीति यह होगी:

१ . हर ऐसे नागरिक के लिए जिसकी आर्थिक व्यवस्था एक level से नीचे हो, उसके लिए ग्रेजुएशन तक की पढ़ाई बिल्कुल free हो | और एक कानून हो कि कोई भी स्कूल या कॉलेज caste के basis पे किसी को admission मना न कर सके | सब लोग, चाहे अमीर या गरीब, चाहे किसी भी जाति के हों, साथ बैठ कर पढ़ें |

२. किसी को भी पढाई में extra help चाहिए हो, उनके लिए शाम को extra classes रखी जाएँ | और इसमें भी caste, अमीरी या गरीबी से फरक नहीं पड़ना चाहिए | जिसको भी extra help चाहिए, उसे दो | और इसके लिए अगर extra teacher चाहिए हों तो extra teachers को hire किया जाए | और यह सुविधा गाँव गाँव तक पहुंचनी चाहिए | पढाई लिखाई का माहौल बन जाएगा पूरे देश में |

३. हर education level के अंत पे एकदम fair और transparent exam हों, या तो अगले education level में admission के लिए या फिर नौकरी के लिए | Fees की मदद मिले, जहाँ पढाई लिखाई में extra help चाहिए, मिले | इसके बाद अपनी मेहनत के basis पे exam clear कर के लोग आगे बढ़ें | मेरे हिसाब से तो यही सही है |

४. और जो लोग बहुत ही गरीब हैं, चाहे किसी भी जाती के क्यों न हों, उन्हें अपना कोई छोटा business शुरू करने के लिए सरकार कुछ पैसे दे और साथ में उनको थोड़ी बहुत guidance भी दे अपना business चलाने में |

इस सब में खर्च तो होगा लेकिन अगर अच्छे से किया जाए तो मुझे लगता है कि कुछ ही समय में बदलाव आएगा और हम जाति भाव से ऊपर उठ कर साथ साथ आगे बढ़ पाएंगे | तुम्हे क्या लगता है?

Sir पहले इस दिशा में सोचा नहीं है | आपकी बात पे गौर करूंगा Sir |

We were just about entering the airport premises now. There was a very calm understanding silence between us. We were kindred spirits. I asked him one last question:

मंदीप, तुम कहाँ तक पढ़े?

Sir, 12th के बाद father के साथ काम करने लग गया था | घर पे मुश्किल थी | लेकिन अभी 2 साल पहले ही correspondence course से पंजाबी में B.A. की है | M.A. भी करूंगा |

This is just about when he pulled up to the curb.

लीजिये Sir, आ गए airport |

बहुत अच्छा लगा मंदीप तुमसे बातें करके | आशा है तुम और तुम्हारी सारी family खुश रहेगी | अगर फिर मिलेंगे तो ज़रूर पूछुंगा तुम्हारी M.A. की पढ़ाई के बारे में |

Mandeep responded with a genuine smile: जी सर, ज़रूर | Happy journey sir. रब का आशीर्वाद हमेशा आपके साथ रहे |

Thanks Mandeep! Good luck and goodbye!

And he drove off. Leaving me in utter awe of the depth of humanity and wisdom this simple soul possessed.

(to be continued...)

Translation of my conversation with Mandeep:

Me: What's your good name?

Mandeep: Mandeep Sir.

Me: I'm Brijesh. Your driving's good. You are taking care of people around you. That's a good thing to do.

Mandeep: Thank you Sir.

Who all are in your family?

Sir, My Mother and Father, wife and three kids. One younger brother who is a pilot in the Air Force and is currently posted in Amritsar.

Very nice. And how old are the kids?

Sir the eldest, Sukhvinder, is eleven. He's in class 6. Then there are eight year old twins: one son, Harvinder, and a daughter, Harjot. They are in class 3 now.

Great! How's their education coming along?

Good Sir. They take an interest in their education. Sukhvinder is also into sports. He plays good hockey. I'm planning to put him in coaching starting next year. Who knows, maybe he'll qualify to play for his state one day. Then how far he goes after that, that only time will tell.

And how old are you?

32 Sir. I was born in 1984.

Here in Delhi itself?

Yes Sir. As such we're from Punjab. But my parents moved here in 1982.

1984 was a difficult year. Your parents must have told you.

Yes Sir. I was born about two weeks after Mrs. Gandhi's assassination. A Hindu family had kept us hidden at their home. I was born at their home itself. My Mother tells me that if they hadn't hidden us in their home there's no saying what may have happened. A lot of my parents acquaintances and friends were killed.

That was a very shameful time. I'm glad you folks escaped. You must carry a lot of pain in your heart. Your parents perhaps more than you. I don't know if you will ever be able to forgive.

Sir, there is certainly pain. So many of their friends were killed. So many others lost everything they possessed. Father's shop was also burnt down. It took a long time for us to get back to normalcy. We also want that there should be justice for what happened. But we are not bitter Sir, at least not towards Hindus.

I was a bit taken aback with this last statement. Because whatever the Sikh community in India went through after Mrs. Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984 was truly horrific.

I don't understand.

Sir, we had in fact relocated to Delhi because my parents were not in support of the Khalistan movement. Whatever happened with the Sikhs in 1984 was certainly wrong. And there needs to be justice. But its also a fact that many Sikhs had gone wrong in Punjab before that. Some of my parents' Hindu friends were also killed during that period of militancy. They were our neighbors in Amritsar. Not Sikhs, but they were Punjabis. And how does even that matter Sir? This country belongs to everyone and people should have the freedom to live wherever they wish to. Even today my parents remember them. They had dinner together in our courtyard one evening. And the next morning my parents found that their friends had been killed during the night. This hurt and distressed my parents very deeply. Then again in 1984, it was their Hindu friends who saved them. If we are bitter and angry today, it is with those politicians who stoke communal fires. Not with the Hindu community per se. They also lost a lot just as we did. And as far as Operation Blue Star goes, many people say that it was wrong for the army to storm the Golden Temple, which is a sacred place of worship for the Sikhs, and kill Bhindrawale and his friends. But tell me Sir, was it right for Bhindrawale and his group, who were responsible for the murder of so many innocent people, to hide and stock up arms and ammunition in the Golden Temple in the first place? I don't think so Sir. If Operation Blue Star was wrong then so was whatever preceded that. It takes two hands to clap Sir. Half truths won't lead us anywhere. Everyone will need to sit together and face the whole truth.

You are speaking with depth Mandeep. Not everyone displays this level of maturity.

Thanks Sir. (With a laugh...) And many people take offense when one speaks in this manner.

That's quite true.

Sir, think about it, Hindu pandits were driven out so mercilessly from Kashmir and now people there keep asking for independence, some people in Maharashtra say that only Marathis should stay there, tomorrow people in Bengal will say that only Bengalis should stay there, day after tomorrow it will be about only Malyaalis staying in Kerela... Is this any way to think? We had obtained independence with so much difficulty in 1947. It took such immense sacrifice from so many : Bhagat Singh, Chandrasekhar Azad, Sukhdev ... and we are already back to breaking the country into pieces. And if I feel all this is wrong then I also have to accept that the Khalistan movement was wrong. Sir, today aren't there Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Tamilians, Bengalis, Marathis, Punjabis, ... all of them ... in our army? And who among these is unwilling to take a bullet to safeguard this country? What sense does it make then to even talk about breaking up into pieces? It's such a wonderful country Sir. Everyone can live together, be happy. These are all mindless words and acts Sir. Take a look at America Sir. The name's United States of America and they actually are united. And look at us, we spare no effort to become the Divided States of India.

What are your views on the partition of our country into India and Pakistan in 1947?

Sir it was stupidity, what else? If it was just about whether Nehru would become the first prime minister or Jinnah, they could very well have just tossed a coin! How would it have mattered? Elections would've come around after five years. It's a democracy. Some party rules for some time and the same party can be in the opposition another time. Why was the matter of who would be the first prime minister such a big deal? Everybody had fought together to gain independence from the British. And then we started fighting the minute they went. And the fight that started that day persists till today. People are still dying. People on both sides. It's such a waste of money as well. So much of the army stays involved on this one issue of India-Pakistan conflict. If we had been together just imagine how far we could've gone by now. And would anyone had the courage to raise an eye on us?

You are right. I also feel that many of our fights are without any basis.

Yes Sir. And the most baseless fights are those that are fought in the name of religion. There's no head or tail at all to those fights.

I was smiling now. It was eerie how closely Mandeep's thoughts were echoing mine. I let him continue.

Sir you tell me, I am a Sikh : I do not believe in anyone except the Guru Granth Sahib (the sacred text of the Sikhs), and neither do I bow my head in front of anyone else. I go to the Gurudwara, I do sewa, and live happily with my family. Now what will I gain by worrying about what your religion is, whether you are a theist or an atheist, whether you go to the temple or mosque or church, or maybe nowhere. If you don't interfere with my life, why should I interfere with yours? What does anyone get from doing all this?

Mandeep, if this simple little matter was so clear to everyone so many of our fights would just stop by themselves. And no one would ever be able to derive advantage from dividing us in the name of religion.

Right Sir. Sir, can I ask you a question?

Of course, please do.

Sir what are your views on the caste system?

I laughed... It is stupidity Mandeep, what else? How can anyone be higher or lower just on the basis of their birth? I believe that much exploitation and injustice has happened because of this caste system and this has perhaps been the Hindus' biggest mistake.

Sir do you think things will become alright through caste based reservations?

I don't think so Mandeep. Yes, there is a problem and it has to be solved. But I don't think the answer lies in reservations. If someone were to ask me, I would suggest the following strategy:

1) Every citizen below a certain economic status should be provided absolutely free education till graduation. And there should be a law that no school or college can deny anyone admission based on caste. Everyone, whether rich or poor and irrespective of caste, should sit and study together.

2) If anyone needs any extra help with their studies, it should be provided and extra classes in the evening should be held for this purpose. Caste and economic status should play no role in this. Whoever needs extra help, give it to them. If it becomes necessary to hire extra teachers for this purpose, then that should be done. And this facility should reach every village. This will lead to an atmosphere of sincere education across the whole country.

3) There should be fair and transparent exams at the end of every education level; either for admission into the next level of education or for getting a job. Help should be provided with fees wherever needed, extra help should be provided with studies wherever needed, and then everyone should make progress based on hard work and performing well in exams. That's the right way as per my thinking.

4) For those people who are very poor, some financial assistance should be provided by the government to start a small business along with some guidance on how to run their businesses effectively.

A fair amount of investment will be necessary to make this happen. But if done properly, I think we would see change fairly soon and we will be able to rise above caste lines and move forward together. What do you think?

Sir, I have not thought along these lines earlier. I'll think about what you are saying.

We were just about entering the airport premises now. There was a very calm understanding silence between us. We were kindred spirits. I asked him one last question:

Mandeep, till where have you studied?

Sir I had started working with my father after 12th as conditions at home were not so great then. But just two years ago I completed my B.A. in Punjabi through a correspondence course. I'll also do a M.A.

This is just about when he pulled up to the curb.

Here we are Sir, we've arrived at the airport.

It was really good talking with you Mandeep. I hope that you and your entire family will have happy times ahead. And if we meet again I'll be sure to ask you about your M.A. studies.

Mandeep responded with a genuine smile: Absolutely Sir. Have a happy journey. May God's blessings always be with you.

Thanks Mandeep! Good luck and goodbye!

And he drove off. Leaving me in utter awe of the depth of humanity and wisdom this simple soul possessed.

(to be continued...)

Monday, 29 August 2016

The long road home...

Hurried footsteps
Back and forth
Breathless existence
A life to loathe

Wanting this wanting that
Obsessions driving you mad
Sticking the knife in if you must
For every victory must be had

Running in circles all your life
Still where you were
Seasons come and go
Your whole life is a blur

Here to there and there to here
Like a madman you run
Eyes rooted to the loot
It's the way of the gun

Just stop you idiot
And for a moment breathe
Feel the moment
And its eternity

Silent meadows
Lonesome flute
Whispering breeze
And you are complete

Many suns shall set still
And many a war fought
Let the world and its madness be
You are you, what else is to be sought?

An entire creation awaiting your love
Many a blessings to be given and received
Come my friend, today let's walk slow
And peacefully take the long road home.


That rose out there.

Unburdened with thoughts

Of yesterday's winds
And tomorrow's weather


Here and Now

It just is.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Karma and Dharma

It may be someone's Karma that they are facing tough times today. But it's your Dharma that you help. You focus on your Dharma, let Karma be.

It may be someone's Karma that they have a great life today. But it's your Dharma to not waste your time and mind in jealousy but stay focused on making your life better through righteous actions instead. You focus on your Dharma, let Karma be.

It may be your Karma that you have a great life today. But it's your Dharma to not let it make you arrogant and elitist but help those who are less fortunate than you instead. You focus on your Dharma, let Karma be.

It may be your Karma that you are facing tough times today. But it's your Dharma to not be caught up in self pity and become dejected but make efforts to improve your situation instead. You focus on your Dharma, let Karma be.

It may be someone's Karma that they are more knowledgeable than you today. But it's your Dharma that you be humble and learn from them. You focus on your Dharma, let Karma be.

It may be someone's Karma that they are less knowledgeable than you today. But it's your Dharma to share the knowledge that you have. You focus on your Dharma, let Karma be.

It may be your Karma that you are more knowledgeable than others today. But it's your Dharma to not let it make you arrogant but be willing to share your knowledge instead. You stay focused on your Dharma, let Karma be.

It may be your Karma that you are less knowledgeable than others today. But it's your Dharma to not let it affect your self confidence but just be humble and willing to learn instead. You stay focused on your Dharma, let Karma be.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Something that has served to inspire me

I came across this interview some years ago and it has stayed with me somewhere at the back of my mind. Its an interview with a persona from a different generation : so there may be points at which agreement doesn't happen. But there is an essence to it : an idea of what it can take to be truly great in something, what it is to really follow one's interest and arrive at a stage of some perfection, some brilliance, some greatness, some fulfillment of promise. That I think is worth picking up.

Here goes:

Friday, 8 April 2016

A possibility: Periodic extended discourses by academics

So here are two challenges that I think we are facing in academics. The first one might be more prevalent in India than other countries while the second is probably a global phenomenon:
1) There seems to be a disconnect between what's happening within universities and institutes and the society at large outside. The knowledge that is being transmitted / generated might be just limited to a notion in people's minds. Take science for example: People in the society perhaps appreciate that something called science is being taught and conducted inside universities but a very large number of people probably have very little idea about what that science actually is. I think this disconnect is too steep and there needs to be more interfacing.
2) In terms of scientific advancement (i.e. research) I think two extreme scenarios have emerged: (i) There are those who don't do research at all. I don't think an academic life can be considered complete if the element of "a quest for knowledge" is missing. Hence I don't think this stance can or should be encouraged. We want those people as profs who have the desire and commitment to dig deeper. (ii) On another extremity I think we now have people who are basically "chasing numbers". I don't this paradigm is healthy either as it can discourage a mindset of settling down on more serious / difficult / deeper problems that can take time to solve: and these are the problems which actually should be higher on our priority.
Here's an idea that can potentially address these issues. The logistics may be sticky but I think its worth thinking in this direction.
Every faculty member can perhaps be required to give an extended discourse of his or her work once every three years or so. And the modality could be something as follows:
Part 1: About an hour long seminar to the public at large where one's field of work can be explained to a general audience in terminology that is accessible to them. With today's multimedia capability I reckon a fair amount should be possible in terms of connecting members of the society at large to different scientific disciplines and the progress being made in them.
Part 2: About a two hour seminar to colleagues, peers and experts in the specific field(s) one is working in that displays one's command over the breadth and depth of the field(s) in question and elaborates on the specific problems one is working on and how one is going about trying to solve them / make progress. Such seminars might spark off serious discussions amongst peers on important problems. Plus this kind of a paradigm might guard us against engaging ourselves in non-serious work.