Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Wakeup Call for Cattle

It’s time every cow, buffalo and ox in our city realized that to survive here, in Bangalore, one needs more than just four limbs and a mouth to feed. Why, everyone knows the Garden City is not a bed of roses anymore.

Just the other day, I spotted a cow in Jeevanbhimanagar, lazing by the roadside, obviously on a holiday, chewing gum and thinking her thoughts under a merry sun. Now there wasn’t much traffic on the road, but unfortunately the cow wasn’t at the centre of the road. She was on the side, not realizing the danger of not keeping to the streets while generally lolling around. Down came an autorikshaw, honking loudly, a human with his head thrust out and backward, shouting extremely ear-clogging unprintables at another auto driver passing the opposite way.

I do not know what my cow was thinking of. For, as every beast, bird and spirit knows, the safest place from a moving auto is right in front of it. Even humans know that. No auto travels in a straight line. Whatever you do, do not stand at an angle to an oncoming auto or you are inviting a collision.

My cow had an embarrassing bump on her posterior, right in front of some arrogant dogs who were simply amused at the whole event. I think she’ll know better than to sun herself right on the roadside next time!

In fact, we should realize that the best place to choose while on the streets is the dividing line. Besides, the government has built innumerable potholes for animals to rest in. A pothole is the only thing that uniformly humbles the angular onslaught of autos, the quick cutting bikes, the ego-packed luxury cars and the I-shall-paste-you-on-the-tarmac BMTC buses. It is an ingenious device, a little island of nothingness, that cannot but be avoided by speeding traffic. And most are designed to comfortably cuddle a mother and her two calves, with room to spare.

But talking of BMTC buses, no cattle-awareness campaign is complete without a description of these. The trick in dealing with a BMTC bus is different. Firstly, a BMTC driver, sitting way up there, likes to be respected. It’s so easy for him to smear you down the road. Never chew or wag your tail or lick your ankles. Just look up at him pleadingly, or he might get angry. Besides, unlike the rest of mankind, a BMTC driver always thunders down the wrong side, hardly ever keeping left, even while he stops to pick up passengers. Given this, a cow located anywhere between the centre of the road and the left of an oncoming BMTC, usually lives longer.

God made the cow, and left her on the streets. If she doesn’t evolve in her survival instincts, Bangalore would soon make less than sausages of her. Another tip is, while traveling down a busy road, move slowly, preferably along the line of traffic. Chew gum, dream, do whatever, but do not panic. At the sight of a slow cow, humans generally curse and collide with each other, swerving randomly around the cow. Just don’t lose your nerve, and for God’s sake avoid the sides of the road.

But not all danger is from traffic. How often is it, that while grazing you come across a black, thread-like entity among the grass? This thing, called a wire, is dangling from a nearby post. Every once in a while, when humans cannot find two stones for a fire, they have use for electricity. So every once in a while BESCOM, people who sometimes make electricity, could pass currents through wires. A live wire, when chewed with grass, could leave a bad taste, burn the tongue, give whole-body jerks, or cause incineration. But since BESCOM resorts to power supply but rarely, a live wire is far less likely to prove fatal than a skidding autorickshaw or an airborne BMTC.

So, as we can see, a better aware beast survives longer. Everything – from humans walking arm-in-arm on streets to bikes vrooming up footpaths, from traffic junctions where the front row of vehicles take it unusually easy while back rows honk and scream, from the odd live wire that camouflages with nature, to the looky-me girl the truck driver studies while mowing down creatures – everything, in short, can be overcome. Only, a cow needs to be more aware, have sharper instincts, be better educated, and know trouble before it happens. After all, if cattle don’t wake up to the situation, who will; humans?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

While We Were Young

While we were young we were the smile on the face of the earth. We were the sparkle of dawn that each dewdrop held prisoner. In the world, we were the new introductions to the stage upon which people walked about, strangers going their busy ways.

Those days weren’t easier than now, those nights no calmer. There were questions then. Questions about who we are and where we were and where we were going. But back then, questions without answers weren’t disappointing. They were just little puzzles that needed solving. The little stream that trickled past and disappeared we never knew where. We were sure we’d know someday.

We had to be introduced to the value of hard work, to the importance of not telling lies, to the race against time and the scheduling that goes with every activity that went on around us. But it was all fresh, the wonder of this new world, the mystery of being here and now. While we were still young.

We were politely told to be polite. We were politely told to slink out of the way when people walked their different ways. And then, one day, we were introduced to this parent of ours called Growing Up. Growing Up taught us when to laugh, what selective stuff to frown at. We were gently told to behave, because people who were here longer than us could no longer remember innocence. We were told about the mandatory concept of context. Context was a must in conversations. Also, we were told to hold back a yawn when what we heard weren’t the answer to our questions.

Growing Up taught us the different arts. Like the people who were here longer, we asked only the questions that had answers. We were fed reasoning and religion as mild anesthetics to relieve the discomfort of transformation. So we learned to acknowledge a God we would never meet. That was important. Knowing and loving an invisible God. Now we could wake up in the mornings knowing there was nothing new about this sunrise. It would come again tomorrow. The reasoning was that it had come yesterday, the day before and ever. Thank God, sunrise was no mystery anymore!

Then Growing Up taught us to live with the question. Normal life, it said, was all about not chasing the answer. It was about going our ways. Like everyone else. Curiosity died silently. We were free from it. We had grown up, like them.

And since it is necessary to be happy it was necessary to still laugh, or at least smile. The mornings may not be rapturous surprises but they were dependable alarm clocks. They woke us out of dead slumbers. And when that new entrant, emptiness, hits us sometimes we take what we call vacations. We take breaks. We escape, so we can come back fresh and go our ways again. And anyway, some questions are negative so why ask them?

Like the one about nostalgia. Isn’t that emptiness only a little nostalgia that will pass? It is only a sense of loss at time passing, life slipping by. It goes away when you bury the questions once and for all. Sure, stop to smell the roses if you like them, but move on. Don’t leave the herd to keep smelling them. That’s called abnormal. Never revisit old mysteries. That’s negative. It causes regret. At time passing. At being nowhere near some answer that might not exist anyway.

But there’s one thing about growing up. We’ll never stop doing it. Even though it might mean we’ll stop walking before we see the end of this journey.

And sometimes, very rarely, the questions we buried will break the surface and bloom. Like it is doing now, when I write. Their beauty will haunt us again. There’s no burying for good the question why the sun rises every day, and why we’re sure it will again tomorrow.

Very rarely, we’ll stop to ask again why we are here. On our separate ways, we’ll share the beauty of those questions again. And like a forgotten tune, like the sweet smell of certain wild flowers that once grew in the backyards of our minds, we’ll share a pain no anesthetic can kill. No matter how old we grow up to be, there will still be things we’re seeing for the first time.

For you see, we were once young too.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Garden of the Dead

My first walk through a graveyard was during my early days as a bank clerk. I found the place horrible; the lonely road from one end to the other, the eerie crosses on either side, and the bitter cold in the evening air, all added to produce a kind of evil hue. I had vowed never to take that route again, but I think I was forced to take it twice more. Each time there was the same morbid hate about which I still wonder.

Years passed. I married, had a son, educated him, and he went to America for a job. Gradually a lifetime rolled by. I was now a pensioner living in my home village with my wife Martha. Our son became an occasional visitor, until finally he married an American girl and settled there for good.

And so Martha and I welcomed old age with peace and joy. We strolled along the mountain roads and she enjoyed the evening breeze and the evergreen flora. One day we decided to go picnicking over the hills. Martha was delighted. She packed some tea and snacks as I took out the car. We set out just after lunch and had parked in a lush green area, near the summit, by early evening. As she laid out the tea, I walked around breathing the crisp mountain air.

Reaching a small ridge, I suddenly saw a beautiful burial ground sprawled before me with several crosses mushrooming out of the grass. Little wild flowers formed random designs on the green carpet of grass. Far beyond was a valley studded with small huts.

I told Martha that our picnic spot was in the neighborhood of a cemetery. Curiously, she seemed delighted. “It is not every evening that you have tea with the dead,” she said. In fact she made me move over the things to the ridge so that we could actually see the graveyard – and the valley beyond – as we had our tea.

I still see her in my mind, standing with a cup in her hand, staring with feeling at the crosses. “This is not a graveyard,” she said. “This is the garden of the dead.” I agreed with Martha. People are born, live a life, and then die. They are buried and then merge with the soil. Little flowers, ever so lively and beautiful, spring up in the same soil. And the beauty and joy of a lifetime lives on.

Suddenly she took my hand. “You know, Mark, these people lying here… we are closer to them more than we are to the living.” She was probably thinking of our son. “When we die there will be two more crosses with only the grass and the flowers to separate them.”

The breeze was getting a little cold. I said: “You think we’ll die together?” It was stupid to ask that just then. “Do you doubt it?” She asked with tears in her eyes. “It will be one such evening and they will bring us both up here, all the way from the village, and they will bury us side by side.”

“And the flowers will live on for us,” I whispered, embracing her against the cold. “For ever and ever,” she smiled assuredly.
Fourteen years have passed. It is three-and-a-half years since Martha left this world. Her prophesy has come true; little flowers have sprouted all over her. There is a vacant place next to her. I mean to fill it up soon and let the flowers live on. As for me, I’ll follow Martha into the timeless world of silence and bliss.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Confession (The Garden of the Dead - 2)

Strange things happen sometimes. Like this early dawn, when I was dreaming past my windows, not seeing the hills beyond. When all of a sudden this young girl - tight little thing - went jogging past my front gates, crunching the grass that had only just woken up from sleep. Call it an old man’s fancy for life, or just plain senility, that girl bounced her steps right into my thoughts and I found myself awake in a cold spring evening, years back, up on those hills with my Martha.

It was yet another of those long walks we used to go on, almost everyday till a year-and-a-half before Martha died. It was so cold, Martha had begun to suggest we turn back. This I found unthinkable, the air being so crisp and somehow strangely persuasive. I remember saying we’d go on till that abandoned graveyard among the hills. “It’s too beautiful an evening. Let’s pay a visit to The Garden of the Dead, then return,” I said.

So we walked on, old man and old wife, shivering yet sweating slightly. That was when this strange thing happened, right here inside my head. Looking at those half frozen violets by the roadside, I touched Martha’s cold palm and made a suggestion: “Martha, do you feel like hearing out a confession?” She gave me her teasing look and said, “If you’ve been gambling with those retired boys over a drink, I’ll forgive you, but only if you agree we go back now. I’m cold and tired.”

And then I began. I began by telling her that this was far worse than rounds of rummy with other pensioners at the club. I went on to tell her about the relationship I had with my boss’ secretary once, and how I had sworn to myself to never tell her, Martha, about it. And I remember the way Martha just heard me out without a word, while we walked far beyond The Garden of the Dead.

“When was this?” she asked once in between, and that was the only interruption to my confession. When she asked it she had that half-blush half-accusation look that easily made her the world’s prettiest old woman.

“Yes Martha, it was after I had met you,” I said, probably confirming her worst fears. “Remember the time I went to Delhi looking for a job so we could get married? Well, she was my boss’ PA in that small joint I first worked in. She was a tight little flirt.” This was during the two-and-a-half-year gap after I had met Martha and before we were married, and that made it worse. But I went on. There was no stopping me today, as we walked on against the breeze, and perhaps against Martha’s desire, but I’ll never know.

I went on ruthlessly, telling her it got physical just this once. Perhaps I expected the vast cushion of time – some thirty years – to take the sting out of my confession. But the most disturbing thing was Martha’s face as she just stared ahead at the small road, walking on, not cold not tired, with not so much as a word.
So I told her it got ‘slightly physical’ just this once, and added because I couldn’t help adding: “I was thinking of you, Martha. She reminded me of you.”

“The tight little flirt? I don’t think she should’ve reminded you of me, Mark. You couldn’t have been thinking of me,” she said with a smile that bore in like a knife. It wasn’t that she was angry or even jealous (come on, it was way too long back to cause jealousy now). That smile came from a clear, irreversible belief. An innocent but unshakeable understanding of a person that can only come from a lifetime spent together. No, not that she could ever have guessed I had kept such a secret to myself for all these years. Or that I could have shared a relationship with two women at a time, anytime, however young I was. I still think she always thought I was incapable of such things.

But on our walk back down the hills she never asked: “Was she pretty?” or “Do you remember her face now?” or even “Why did you never tell me, all these years?” She just walked on, like she wasn’t shocked but only felt a numb pain that she knew was silly and would soon go away.

Because once you’ve spent your life with someone, you were a part of him. You shared his guilt. His misadventures are yours too, past or present.

All these were only my wishful interpretation of Martha’s mind that evening. She was silent most of the way, sometimes holding my arm, sometimes plucking a leaf to twist in her fingers, sometimes mumbling absently: “It’s nearing winter, we better get the woolen stuff dry-cleaned.”

Martha lived another few years after that evening, but she never once raised the topic of my confession. Neither did I. And now, as I see the day growing up against my window, my mind again walks among those hills, alone this time. And I ask myself what made me confess in the first place. Was it a purely self-centered desire to come clean, perfectly clean, once and for all? And did Martha forgive me? If she did, was I forgiven too easily? But of course, the answer to all that lies up there too, where she lies now. The answer to that will perhaps be there in The Garden of the Dead, among the beautiful little wild-flowers that clothe her grave.

Strange things happen sometimes, but I think this evening I’ll be the world’s oldest man to ever climb those hills again.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Reality - A Show

I don’t cry often. But the other day I was moved to tears by nothing more consequential than a reality show on TV. I saw Asha Bhonsle crying. Yes, the same legend who moved us to tears with her magnificent Umrao Jaan numbers! In those songs were contained enough pathos to move a nation of fans to tears, and we didn’t need to watch Asha herself crying that time.

So what made Asha Bhonsle cry on TV now? No, no great leader had passed away. It wasn’t a show about the hungry children of Somalia either. It was just a reality show. She cried because one of the participants – sure, one of the more passionate and deserving ones – was disqualified from entering the finals. Because, guess why? Why, he didn’t actually sing quite well enough! And it was a competition. Someone else sang better. So the camera focused on Ashaji, tears flowing down her cheeks, while the whole show went dead silent and a tragic, deeply melancholic music played in the background. Going by the moroseness of the situation, the participant himself should have neatly committed suicide, or at least plunged into chronic irreversible depression.

I mean, what else can life throw at one? It can strike one with a torturous, slow-killing ailment, dish out hunger, insult, deprive one of his near and dear, or even prevent one from qualifying for the finals in a reality show! Wow! So many reasons, one better than the other, to switch on the old lachrymals.

And that’s the point when my own eyes welled up with tears. How pathetic, how degraded must a society be, if we think it’s time to cry when someone fails in a game. Haven’t the same people gone out on any of India’s streets? Haven’t they seen the suffering, hungry masses who share this planet with us, shouldering an unfair amount of simple bad luck? What keeps the same people from having their hearts broken immediately at the sight of so much unmistakable suffering? If they are indifferent to the real suffering out there, what is this reality they are switching on and airing on TV?

I agree that the value of a TV show shoots up phenomenally when the stakes are shown high enough to be worthy of a celebrity’s tears. If a candidate fails and people, including the esteemed judge, shed tears, it means success would have been that much more sweet, more coveted. It means it’s tough, very great, very vital to win at such an important show. Loss is unbearable. Defeat, unthinkable. So let’s all cry because someone lost. Someone else won, but that shouldn’t stop us bawling. We are such simple souls, we can cry when someone loses at a game. And yet there will be no Buddha reborn among us while the real woes of the world continue to call out to us, from all around, from day to night.

The act of crying is a God-given way to manifest one of our deepest, sincerest, most spontaneous emotions. Should we train ourselves to cry at will? I think not. And purely for show sake, what do we do if we exhaust this symbol and then come across a genuine reason to cry? If we are really sad, really sorry, we’ll only have to shed the same old tears if we want to show it. All the world is a stage, but we simply won’t be able to live up to the drama of that one moment. Would we make poor actors then!

So it’s time we stopped crying and tried to help out those in real misery. Meantime, if we need to watch something more real than the world around us, let’s play the Hiroshima bombing over and over again. 1,40,000 people were burnt to death in that one. Surely that’s more of a tragedy than what a reality show can entail. And the tears that’ll come from watching it will not be entertaining. They’ll be scalding tears we would rather not have shed. Of course, our hearts would still be unbroken. We’ll still get on with our lives. But in all probability, we’ll learn to cry a lot less frequently, a lot less in vain. We’ll learn to cry with a lot more respect for the real reality that surrounds us.