DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

DESTINATIONS: BANGKOK (1982)

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A temple spire in Grand Palace complex
After returning from Nara we had just a couple of days in Tokyo during which the only outing was to the outlet of Mikimoto Pearls. One gets overwhelmed by the lavish scale of the display. Prices were probably lower than other outlets but even then they were much beyond what we could afford. I literally browsed through the store. In any case, it was a dazzling show of ornamented cultured pearls which I will remember for a long time.

Soon, it was time to move on and we were on a Thai Airlines flight for Bangkok. The flight was one of those hopping ones and we touched down at Taipei in Taiwan and Hongkong. At Hongkong the massive Boeing 747 seemed to land through a narrow clearing with high-rises on both sides – quite a tricky landing. A few hours later we were preparing to land at Don Muang Airport in Bangkok. Here I had a day’s stop-over only a year before.

Bangkok had a frenetic pace even thirty years ago. The rush of traffic was amazing; it was not so in Delhi in 1982. Even at that frenetic pace the commuters on four or two wheelers never overlooked the rules of the road. Once, as I stepped on to the road in front of the GPO the traffic came to an abrupt halt. Alarmed, I stepped back and then I saw drivers from both sides urging me to cross over. A pedestrian’s right of way had to be concede regardless of what happens. I experienced it later in various cities in Europe, America and Africa. Here in India this basic right of the
The Royal Palce
pedestrian is not honoured till today. Might is right on the roads– the bigger the vehicle the more superciliously it would muscle its way through the roads driving away smaller vehicles to the sides or even to forcing to stop them in their tracks. In such an environment, a pedestrian has only to bide his/her time to find an opening to rush across risking his life and limbs.

This was the last leg of the Universal Postal Union programme that brought us out of India to the Far East and South-East Asia. Most of the days at Bangkok were taken up by official engagements and with internal group meetings to finalise its report. The only official outing one evening was to the Rose Garden where Thai culture was capsuled in a two or three-hour show. It had everything – from a traditional Thai wedding to traditional dances with dancers wearing beautiful colourful
Thai culture at display in Rose Garden
dresses, the bamboo dance that we too have in our North-Eastern state of Mizoram, Thai boxing, cock-fights etc. On the side, it also had some Thai traditional artefacts on display. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Besides the Rose Garden I had a good look at the Grand Palace complex which is the cynosure of all eyes that seek to see Thai heritage at its best. It took a whole of hot and sweaty day but it was indeed worthwhile. Something of this kind is not to be seen elsewhere. It not only has the King’s palace that dates back to 1782, it also has temples of the renowned Emerald Buddha and the famous shiny huge Reclining Buddha apart from numerous other buildings.

The image of Emerald Buddha is stated to have originated in India somewhere in the middle of the first millennium. Relatively small, it is an image of sitting Buddha made of jade wearing garments of gold. It travelled all over South-Asia before it came and settled down in the temple in Bangkok. That, however, is a
Bamboo dance
long story. The temple by itself is very attractive, highly decorated all over. Its colourful roof and the spire have caught my fancy and I never tire of looking at them.  

The temple of the Reclining Buddha is also located in the complex. The temple also houses a school of Thai massage. It is, however, the image of Buddha that captures the imagination, an image that is to be seen to be believed. Totally covered in gold leaf, the iconic Buddha is a massive 130 ft long and about 45 ft in height. I could not cover the entire figure in my wide-angle lens.  Even the beautifully worked soles of the feet with inlays of mother-of-pearls were too big and given the cramped space that is available between them and the wall, I could cover only a few out of 108 panels of the sole with designs that are exquisite. The reclining posture represents Buddha during his last sickness before his parinirvana. Such iconography is common even in India but presumably has never been of such a magnitude. The temple is more than 200 years old – perhaps the oldest in Bangkok, and, it seems,
Facade if Temple of Emerald Buddha
every king added his bit to make the image and the temple more beautiful and comprehensive to represent Buddha’s life and times as fully as possible.

 The Grand Palace complex provides perhaps the best of old Bangkok style of architecture. The temples are highly embellished and their interiors provide feast for the eyes. Like in many Buddhist temples in India, Buddha’s life is depicted in various ways – in bas relief, in beautiful panels or in writing. A remarkable feature of the complex is the tall ornamental spires that seem to pierce the skies, seemingly, a speciality of the Old Bangkok Style, which most other temples elsewhere in Bangkok are also embellished with but, perhaps, with not such fine and artistic workmanship. The photographs uploaded will probably give some idea of their magnitude and their slim and tapering eye-catching shapes.

While the Thai administration hosted a delectable, though fiery, lunch at one of the high-end hotels the best food, however, was available on Bangkok streets. The Thai cuisine had not yet become so popular in the West, yet one could see numerous Western tourists and back-packers tucking in the delectable stuff off the
Buddha's head - part of Reclining Buddha
streets. Food is something that drives Thai life and the tourists alike. No wonder, Bangkok was reputed to have one of the biggest restaurants of the world and a massive joint of Pizza Hut.

I have had occasion to visit Thailand twice later and every time I was fascinated by it and its people who are so very friendly and welcoming. Bangkok has gradually expanded and so have the amenities for commuting. In 1982 Bangkok had buses – both AC and non-AC – and a huge car population. But to cope with the rising traffic and the expanded city its administration also worked simultaneously to provide better means of public transport. It now has a sky-train system and a Metro. Moving around is far easier than in any of the Indian cities of comparable size and population.

Inlay work on Buddha's soles

The friendship that evolved with a Thai colleague during the UPU programme has flourished. Our families have met and we are in constant communication. On the last two occasions when my wife and I visited Bangkok and Nonthaburi we had a wonderful time with him and his extended family. Both the occasions left us wanting for more of such meets. Perhaps, we will try and make it there again later this year.




A long shot of Gran Palace complex

Friday, July 18, 2014

DESTINATIONS: JAPAN (1982): KYOTO & NARA

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A Zen temple, Kyoto
A couple of days before we were to leave for Osaka we happened to go on a day-trip to Yokohama. Yokohama, according to common knowledge, has been one of the important ports of Japan ever since the country opened up to the Westerners in the 19th Century. Today, however, it is not only a major port for the country, it is a very decent town and large enough to be ranked as its second most populous city. We, however, were not there to have a look at the port. We were there to get a lowdown on the Japanese Post Bank. The Post Bank, we
found, was a massive organisation located in its huge offices in its own building in Yokohama. It was still a part of the Post Office
Yokohama
with its own Director General and it held more deposits than any bank in Japan. Today, however, after Premier Koizumi’s privatisation of the Post Office, the Post Bank has become the world’s biggest deposit-holder besides being a full-fledged member of the Japanese Bankers Association. Commencing its business in the 19th Century as a Savings Bank it traversed quite a long distance to offer now numerous banking services and runs ATMs throughout the country. Incidentally, our own Post Office is now in the process of taking baby steps to convert the Post Office Savings Bank into a full-fledged bank.
Kinkakuji Golden Temple, Kyoto

Soon, we were ready to leave by Shinkansen, as the Bullet Train is known in Japanese, for Osaka. Everyone was naturally excited as it was going to be an experience. We assembled at the Tokyo Station situated close to the business district of Ginza. The sleek white and blue train parked on the platform was a beauty. I went along the cars to have a look at the locomotive that had that typical aerodynamic shape with a pointed nose to cleave the air. Inside the train the ambience and the fixtures were so different that one never felt that one was
Heian Jingu Shinto shrine, Kyoto
travelling in a train. Noise was minimal and it was like what one gets in a jet passenger plane. There was no rocking or jolting; it was more like a smooth glide over rails. One realised the speed only when one looked out of the panoramic windows and saw the telephone posts zipping past at an incredible pace of more than 200 kilometres an hour. It was, however, so smooth that the cup of coffee kept on one’s table in front wouldn’t shake as it does here even in the prestigious Sahatabdi. The trip to Osaka took a little more than three hours. It was a technological marvel at that time; the Chinese high speed
With Pat Kearney in Kyoto garden
trains and their Maglev in Shanghai were all still in the future. However, the French TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse) running between Paris and Lyon had attained speeds of around 300 kmph in 1981. Nonetheless, Shinkansen predates TGV in concept and actualisation.    

 Osaka, being the commercial nerve centre, appeared to be a very
Garden in Shoguns' Palace
crowded, busy and dusty city. It was supposed to be the third largest in the country. Its approximately 8 square kilometre area was heavily bombed during attacks on Japan in 1945. Most of the city was, supposedly, newly built; whatever had remained unaffected continued to improve. It is the capital of Osaka Prefecture and the largest part of a metropolis that comprises Kyoto and Kobe (the place known for its beef). We did not see much of Osaka. It was mostly made of high rises and busy roads packed with all kinds of vehicles. Instead the emphasis seemed to have been to show us a bit of Kyoto and Nara.

Self in a Nara Garden
A Nara florist
As was said earlier, Kyoto is the part of the Osaka Metropolitan area. The city was the capital of Japan for almost a thousand years until the transfer of the Imperial Court to Tokyo in 1869. Before that, a few centuries earlier Kyoto suffered enormous damage during the wars of the samurais. It, however, escaped any damage during the World War II. Because of its being a centre of culture and learning the United States changed its plans and instead dropped the second atom bomb on Nagasaki. Known for centuries as a “city of ten thousand shrines” Kyoto is a muche better preserved cities. It still boasts of about 2000 Buddhist and Shinto shrines. We could see only very few of the shrines apart
A Nara garden with a sizable pond
from the “Shoguns’ Palace”. Shoguns were the army commanders in feudal Japan and used to exercise real power. The Palace, in fact, a castle was built in the 17th Century as the Kyoto residence of shoguns of the area. I don’t remember much of my visit to the “Palace” but I do remember the garden that surrounded this huge property, perhaps a typical example of ancient Japanese gardens – later to be declared a World Heritage Site. A few photographs have been placed in the album.

The Nara Prefecture borders that of Kyoto. This is also an ancient
A Nara market in an alley
town, having been the capital of the country though only for a few decades in the 8th Century AD. We saw a few shrines here but what interested me most in the town was the way they had converted alleys between two modern buildings into shopping areas covered at the top. This was my first brush with such a convenient arrangement that allowed shopping in a small area. Later, of course, I came across something similar in Venice. Another peculiarity of the town is that it allows deer to
A young cigarette vendor in a Nara alley
roam free all over as also in the well-cared Nara Deer Park. Legend has it that from the inception of the town deer are considered as heavenly animals and its guardians. No wonder, no one ever harms them.


In those narrow alleys I saw some amazing variety of ceramic ware of numerous designs. Japan is known for its porcelain and here it was almost like a feast. From dinner sets to tea sets and
Porcelain pieces bought from Nara
sundry items of daily use and curios, all were there and each piece was of incredible beauty. The aesthetics of each item was just fantastic and one felt like gathering every piece and take off. But that was just not possible – physically or financially. It was so difficult to tear oneself away from the presence of such exquisite creations.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Neymar's injury - creeping aggression in sports

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The Colombian Zuniga’s downing of football’s superstar Neymar that broke the latter’s vertebra took away bit of sheen from the “Beautiful Game”. The violence of this kind does not quite mix with sports, be it football or sport of any other kind. The Brazil game against Colombia was particularly rough with as many as 54 fouls whistled down and of them 31 were committed by the Brazilians. If this is reckoned as beautiful, one wouldn’t know what beautiful is. Then, of course, there is the curious instance of Luis Suarez of Uruguay sinking his rather weak teeth on the fleshy Italian Chiellini only to rue his act later. Photographs showed that he collapsed on the turf holding his teeth in what seemed to be acute pain. Reports say, Suarez is in the habit of biting his opposing numbers. This time, however he couldn’t get away – having been served with a 9-match ban.

  Fouls are certainly committed in inadvertence but, as one noticed, players were being pulled away or being deliberately downed to prevent them from carrying on with the game. And this happened not once, or twice; it happened umpteen number of times in the games I happened to watch. To me, this does not appear like sport. One plays a game, after all, for pleasure and to extend pleasure to the spectators. It is neither a matter of life and death nor is it a matter of national survival. Then why go and do something like breaking somebody’s back – literally – or even have a go at somebody’s flesh.

True, Football and Hockey, Rugby, Ice Hockey, etc. are what are known as “contact sports” where players of two teams have to have physical contacts with each other. In Rugby and Ice Hockey players even wear protective gear to ward off injuries. After all, for retrieving the ball from the opposition and scoring goal is the objective. In the process players have to tackle those of the opposition and in doing so they could hurt each other. That would be incidental to the game. But what we saw in the World Cup matches was some deliberate contacts with the opposition player only to deprive him possession of the ball or to keep him away from it. In this act everything seemed to be fair including bringing him down or stepping on him with one’s nailed boots or, for that matter, kneeing him on the back. If one thinks of preventing the opposition from playing ball, in my opinion, why play the game at all? But then, even sports have become highly competitive and then there is a lot of money and prestige. It is virtually a soft kind of war, highly hyped up as it is.

I suppose, that is why some of the no-contact sports like cricket and tennis have been described as “Gentlemen’s Game”. Cricket used to be and continues to be gentlemanly. One sees these traits especially in test matches. A batsman or a bowler attains a milestone and he is congratulated by the members of the opposition or if a bowler takes more than five wickets in an innings he, instead of the captain, is made to lead the team back into the pavilion; there are hardly ever any protests against an umpire’s decision. There are many such healthy, gentlemanly conventions that are observed till today highlighting the spirit of sportsmanship. However, aberrations are creeping in and the healthy traditions are gradually yielding place to aggression, more so in the limited-overs matches. Expressions of extreme exuberance verging on being aggressive and intimidating after capturing a wicket have been noticed in numerous limited-overs international games. Showing the way to the pavilion haughtily to a batsman after capturing his wicket– a show of brazen immodesty – is certainly not gentlemanly.

During the Indian Premier League limited over cricket matches I noticed on any number of occasions bowlers aiming the ball in “death” overs close to the line that indicates a “wide” on the Off Side far away from the batsman. On the Leg Side such a ball would be a called a “wide” but not on the Off Side. There must be some reason for this what seems like a wacky rule but that is how it is. The bowlers’ intention is to keep the ball as far away from the batsman as possible so that it is beyond the latter’s reach. This practice is adopted more in matches that progress towards a close finish. If the bowler’s intention is not to allow the batsman to be able to even touch the ball, leave alone score runs off it, then I ask the same question again: why play the game at all? The bowlers could well claim to be bowling within the rules but not the spirit of the, supposedly, gentlemanly game.

Aggression is on occasions seen even in tennis which is also reckoned as a gentlemen’s game. One can often see rather assertive exuberance in players after winning a crucial game or a set. It wasn’t so earlier. With the onset of “boom boom”, serve and volley game, tennis seems to have lost that softness of yore. But, then today the game is played with intense passion after years of preparation of the mind and the body and huge investments in time effort and money. It is all reckoned as worth it as there is such a lot of money tagged on to professional tennis. And, yet I find Roger Federer not quite gelling with the crowd. He is different. A legendary tennis player, having been conferred with numerous awards– even off the tennis courts – for the qualities of his head and heart, his equanimity after a win is admirable. His exuberance after hitting a winner and scoring a point is always subdued, is never jarring or strident. Even after a win his elation and exultation are mostly composed and are to acknowledge the cheers and appreciation of spectators and also, probably,  to internalise them – to allow them to seep within.

One supposes that is how a sportsman should conduct himself. But, that would be idealistic; all kinds assemble in the sporting arena contributing to the rough and tumble of competitive sports and that, perhaps, makes things more interesting in today’s world.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Indian Railways need a makeover*

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Derailment of the prestigious New Delhi- Dibrugarh Rajdhani Express the other day near Chhapra in Bihar is virtually a wake-up call for the Indian Railways and its newly appointed minister. It is not yet certain what caused the accident that reportedly took four lives. Whether it was sabotage or plain neglect and incompetence on the part of the tracks inspection staff is yet to be ascertained. Inquiries are going to be conducted but a later report said that the Intelligence Bureau had sent an alert about a Maoist threat. The area is Maoists-affected. Nonetheless, it would be premature to arrive at any conclusion.

The fact, however, remains that there have been far too many railway accidents of late. This year alone has witnessed more than half a dozen accidents which have taken many lives. If these occurred because of negligence, inadequacy of equipment due to unavailability of funds or lack of supervision or monitoring, the Railways will have to contend with them as soon as possible taking lessons from the findings of the inquiries to allocate suitable financial, human, and material resources. This is one aspect of railway accidents in India. The other is terror. Terror lurks in this country almost at every bend of the road or a railway track. It could generally be of Islamic variety or of Maoist type. Acute watchfulness is necessary to ensure that they do not harm innocents travelling in a train or wantonly destroy railway property. They are desperados ruthlessly waging war against the State. Safety, therefore, has become an issue of prime importance for the travelling public and the Railways will have to see their way through to provide it.

We run a big railway system, the fourth largest if one goes by track-kilometres. But that is about all. It has only marginally improved since the British left and the erstwhile railway companies were amalgamated into one monolith of Indian Railways. Although considered the lifeline of the nation we failed to take railway transport to a higher level efficiency as some others in Asia, especially China and Japan, have done. We have always suffered from resource constraints. For the last decade or so the populist budgets with no fare hikes in the face of rising costs of inputs, particularly formulated by regional politicians who happened to be at helm, have worsened the situation.  Working only to nurse their respective constituencies and handing out freebies to different sections of the privileged, they neglected the railway finances and allowed them to go to seed.

Indians are, therefore, unused to face railway fare hikes for quite some years. No wonder there have been mass demonstrations against the recent hike announced by the new Railway Minister – a virtual necessity to avoid complete “operational and financial collapse”. The Opposition, the Congress party, is crying hoarse about it but its protests, as in many cases, are hypocritical. The hike in the fares was approved by the last Prime Minister but his minister was not man enough to implement it. That is precisely why one tends to think that the Congress never worked for betterment of the country; it only worked for votes.

With the Rajdhani accident questions are, therefore, justifiably being asked whether the fare hike would make railway travels safe. While no such guarantee can ever be extended but the Railways have to give a serious look within to diagnose what it really ails from. It has to look at the issues of repair, renewal and upgrades in every aspect of its functioning that have remained unattended for a long, long time. We had got a head start at the time of Independence when Japan was recovering from the battering of the World War II and China was in the midst of a revolution. And, yet in the 67 intervening years they have stolen not a, but several marches on us, especially in the field of development of railways and taking them to heights that we will take years to scale. Nevertheless, efforts have to be made and these cannot, certainly, be populist.

The Indian railways need enormous amounts of attention, upgrades and finances. All cannot be attended to at once. One feels that it needs to prioritise and start working on things that presently hurt the most. Everyone is talking about its collapsing finances. Like the Union Government, it, too, has to start economising. Last year Pawan Kumar Bansal, the Minister for Railways had announced (DNA 26-02-2013) that as the organisation was staring at a loss of 24000 crores “austerity and economy” would be practised rigorously. No such effort, however, ever hit the headlines. No effort was made to cut down and/or improve the productivity of its 15 lakh personnel and no effort was made to restrict the numbers of freeloaders who travel without paying a pie. Every budget virtually has seen their ranks getting enlarged. One can imagine the losses to the Railways if 15 lakh employees and an equal number of pensioners travel free of cost on it every year. Privy purses of the princes were abolished forty years ago but the erstwhile railway companies’ legacy of free travel for railway employees, even post-retirement, continues till today. Is there any logic?

 Then, every budget has seen introduction/extension of trains. Even Bansal, after talking of austerity introduced 67 new express trains and 27 passenger trains. Whether necessary traffic surveys were conducted for all of them is not known. From what happened with the Bhopal-Indore double-decker train which, on introduction, was starved of passengers and is yet to find a viable route to ply on, one would not be sure. Conserving and optimal utilisation of the available resources should be the watchword.

Today, with several accidents in the recent past safety in the railway system has acquired prime importance. There are two sources of threats – internal and external. One is from within the railways because of failure or ageing of equipment, carelessness, lack of commitment of workers and lack of modernisation. Comparatively, the US and China have recorded far lesser numbers of accidents than India. If and when the high speed trains become a reality safety on Indian railways will have to measure up to the ultimate standard. The other source, the external one, will have to be taken care of by utmost vigilance not only by the railways’ own inspection and security establishments but also by other available internal security forces. The elimination of terror on the tracks is necessary.

The internal governance of the railways will have to be tightened since that has direct fallout on passengers’ facilities and conveniences. It cannot remain untouched by the ‘Modi effect’ that has overtaken the Centre which has perked up its offices, breathing new life into them. Sanitation, hygiene and other sundry facilities including punctuality, as indeed the technology currently used, need to be enormously upgraded.
The Indian Railways need a change in its profile.

*The blog was written before the Railways budget was announed

Photo:From the Internet


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Our cultural baggage of filth and squalor

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A few days ago I happened to drop in at the new shop of the famous chain of “Bikanerwala” located next to the outlet of Reliance Fresh on the Sultania Road. The shop has its usual stock of numerous kinds of salty and sweet snacks for which Bikaner has lately become famous. Even the Michelin Star Chef Vineet Bhatia had mounted a programme on the TV on his visit to the mechanised factory in Bikaner where these snacks are prepared. However, what is important is that I was in for a surprise.

For the first time in Bhopal I did not see salesmen using bare hands to take out stuff from the jars or to weigh them. They were using plastic gloves – a very welcome sign. I don’t know how many times I had suggested to the owner of now famous sweetmeat shop near New Market to enforce use of gloves by his salesmen. Presumably, he could never forcefully insist on them to do so. They continue to use bare, in all probability, unclean hands to hand out edible stuff to the customers. They are just not bothered, or probably they are not aware, that their hands could contaminate the food stuff and transmit infection to their customers. Apparently, for their own convenience they wouldn’t go by what their employer says and have no qualms about putting the unwary customer to risk. Those who run “Bikanerwala” are quite clearly more enlightened and that is why their outlet is a welcome addition to the town.

The India TV channel the other day covered the pantry cars and kitchens attached to several well-known long-distance trains running from east to west and north to south. With hardly any exception the channel’s reporters found the conditions far from satisfactory. The pantry cars were filthy and so were the kitchens; the workers were sweaty and using filthy dusters and, of course,
handling food items with bare hands even though plastic gloves have been supplied to them. The kitchens were littered with waste, the utensils were unclean and cooking oil was seen being used over and over again. Millions of travellers are consuming these food items unaware of the filthy conditions at their source; nobody knows how many fall sick as no count or survey is ever made. Curiously the managers and supervisors were found to be taking everything very casually. In fact, the India TV survey was a disaster for the Indian Railways and their catering services. Cleanliness, hygiene and sanitation


The lack of a sense of hygiene and sanitation is apparently prevalent amongst us, especially in the under-classes, because of cultural factors. Our rural areas exemplify this. Migrants from there carry with them their cultural baggage – ignorance about cleanliness and hygiene is one. The Indian urbanscape has, therefore, not remained untouched by it. I suppose, it would take some more time for everyone to learn to imbibe finer sensibilities and shed some of the undesirable cultural traits. However, wherever this trait is likely to affect multitudes of people, like in trains and public places, the concerned should be checked, educated and suitably advised. Constant monitoring in this regard would seem to be of the essence.    

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Photos: From the Internet