Sunday, December 31, 2017

Mother – homage on her birth anniversary

January 1st next is going to be my mother’s 114th birth anniversary. She was lucky to have been born on the first day of 1904 and that too in a very well to do family which in those days was described as “Bhadralok”. Her father was from amongst the landed gentry and was deeply influenced by the social changes that were sweeping through Bengal a little more than a century after commencement of the British rule. Educated in the Western ways fostered by the British in 19th Century Bengal, he became a Brahmo, member of a liberal sect of Hindus that came into being after the Bengal Renaissance. Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Dwarka Nath Tagore were the main progenitors of the movement of Brahmo Samaj that received official approval in 1860, in the process severing the links it had with Hinduism.

My mother’s father was a typical “Bhadralok” if any there was one, as he belonged to the new class of “gentle folk” that arose during 19th Century Bengal. Anybody who could show considerable amount of wealth and standing in society and was inclined towards Western or European values would be a “bhadralok”. Because of his wealth and standing in society he was appointed Deputy Metropolitan Magistrate in Kolkata around the turn of the 20th    Century. In those days it was money and influence that carried the day; merit was to be reckoned with only in the Indian Civil Services examinations held in England.

 He was quite well known to some social and political activists who have iconic status today. For example, he was close to Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, a social reformer of note, who eventually did the estate planning for my grandfather. He was also known to Surendranath Banerji, an ICS of 1871 vintage and later founder of nationalist political organizations. His nephew was married to my mother’s elder sister whose daughter used to live in an old rambling severely fragmented house of the Bannerji estate in the Bow Bazar area, entry to which is now from a narrow lane named after father of Surendranath Banerji. I used to meet her regularly in the mid-nineties when I was posted at kolkata.
Mother’s father was also known to Tagore whose Santiniketan got his children as pupils when it was established in 1901. Mother seemed to have seen Tagore in Jorasanko, Tagore’s house in Kolkata, where his plays used to be enacted. She used to tell us about how Tagore would dance as he sang along during the performances of his dance-dramas. I later visited the place and was shown the courtyard that would be converted into a hall with a stage for performers.

Affluent as the family was my mother and her older sister never had to do any household chores. In fact the family used to live in a house in Brindaban Mallik Lane, near College Street on the upper floor, ground floor was where the kitchen was and was also meant for running her father’s offices. While her eldest brother used to run nine buses in Kolkata under the trade name of Orange William and another older brother was sent to Leeds to do mining engineering, she herself was sent to Bethune College, reputed to be the first women’s college in Asia. It continues to be one of the finest women’s colleges even today according to the Accreditation Council of India. She did the licentiate in teaching and, perhaps, that is why all of us were prepared at home rather well before admissions in schools. My two elder brothers were found fit enough to be admitted in Class VI; I was myself sent away a trifle early and was admitted in Class III. Quite obviously, her teaching methods were a little more advanced than what we saw later as we progressed in our Gwalior government schools. Curiously, schooling at home that was prevalent in the early years of 20th Century is now making a come-back in the West.

From a well cushioned life she came up against hardships that persisted till almost the very end. We do not know for sure how my parents got together to get married. It was an unlikely marriage as each was from a different stream of Bengali Brahminical society inter-marriage between members of which was taboo. Perhaps that is why their marriage was kept under wraps. My father belonged to a “zamindar” (land-holder) family of East Bengal (that is now Bangladesh), but he had renounced his rights to the property and had come away to West Bengal for studies, eventually doing Masters in English Literature from Presidency College of Calcutta. He chose a life of penury and became a teacher in colleges, initially in Lahore, then in Ujjain and Gwalior and after retirement in Morena. Salaries being depressed it was difficult to sustain a family.

So, while my father would take tuitions to make some extra money my mother slogged it out at home. Having never done anything at home before her marriage she was overwhelmed by all that was needed to be done. The problem was compounded as she was torn away from her moorings in Calcutta and brought to Ujjain, a small town in Central India about a thousand miles away which fell in the territory of the then princely state of Gwalior. The very ways of the people were different as was their language. She tried to speak it but carried that inimitable Bengali-ised Hindi right till the end. She did not know to roll out chapattis but eventually mastered the art of rolling out very thin chapattis. Having never been anywhere near the kitchen before marriage, she learnt, presumably from my father, to cook Bengali meals that were akin to spicy and hot East Bengal cuisine. My uncle, who was kind of a connoisseur of East Bengal cuisine used to love the food dished out by her.

Apart from cooking she would do practically all the household chores despite availability of a maid. Never satisfied with the kind of work turned out by them she would sweep the entire house of six rooms in two stories and the verandas around it. Both Ujjain and Gwalior were, and perhaps still are, very dusty places where dust would fly into homes with the slightest of breeze. All the time she was racing against time to have every chore properly done. Finicky as she was about details, she would make extra efforts to keep things prim and proper. It was a middleclass household and yet with her efforts it was maintained in an admirable manner within the limited financial resources.

Five of us children were sources of enough of worries for her. My father was blissfully unconcerned about the future with no savings to fall back on. She was, however, all the time worried about us and our performances at schools and the college. She would prod us, persuade us or even scold us virtually every day and her disciplinarian trait would come into play very often. She was keen on a good life for us after we finished education and that worry would eat her from inside. She never wanted her children to suffer the hardships she happened to have seen in her life. In the process, she developed high blood pressure very early in life and would fly off the handle on slightest of provocations. We all had to contend with her temper very often which was of formidable proportions.

No wonder some of my friends used to call her “Hitler” because of her strict control over us. We had to have her permission to go out to them and very often the permission would be refused. And yet, she would be only too fond of our friends. Whether it was my eldest brother’s friends or my own she would carry on conversations with them in her Bengali-ised Hindi. The neighbourhood boys who used to be former students of my father would come and chat with her for hours in the evenings.

All this was because of her innate hospitality. She was fond of all of father’s students as also of our friends. My eldest brother’s friends would come in the evenings to just gossip and have tea and refreshments. Likewise, the small number of Bengali boys of the town would come and have cold drinks in summer or tea in winters. Even the Prabhat Pheries organized during the Bengali New Year or Tagore’s birth and death anniversaries would, generally, culminate after rendition of Bengali patriotic songs at our place where tea and refreshments would be served.

 She was hospitable to a fault. One of my friends, after flunking the BA Pass course in Delhi, would go for tuitions in the mornings. On his way he would drop in at breakfast time and have whatever we would be having. Occasionally, Ma would make parathas for him. Another friend would come and tell her before going for a cricket match that he would have lunch with us. She would blow up and shout at him but eventually he was welcome at lunchtime. An ice-cream making contraption was acquired for ice-cream binges in summers where the neighbourhood regulars would be welcome. Again, when all her children had gone away on postings and only I was around she would frequently force one of my friends, a regular visitor, to stay overnight. It seems, his mother got suspicious and one evening came over to check out the Ma he would mention as excuse for staying away from home at night.

 Our old associates even now recount how hospitable she was despite my father’s modest salary. To my mind it was all because of her breeding, the way she grew up at Kolkata. Despite having no solid or liquid assets, mother never really cringed away from these social niceties. She was forthright and outspoken but when it came to hosting friends of father or of her children or even her own she used to be very generous.

She ran her household single-handedly and was always complemented by everyone as a very competent housewife. Apart from running a very efficient household she would stitch all our clothes. I remember during the Great War cloth was rationed and whatever little was procured she would stitch clothes out of them for us, improving her performance with time. Her Pfaff sewing machine is still with me, occasionally used by my wife, otherwise kept as an heirloom.  Thankfully, there was no pervasive system of school uniforms when we were children as all our shirts and shorts were stitched by her. She was very good at embroidery as well. Those days tables were seldom without any table-cover on them; my mother would busy herself embroidering on tablecloths in her spare time. I think I still have some pieces embroidered by her.

On recounting her selfless strenuous efforts I cannot but deprecate myself for not taking care of her the way she deserved. It is so ironic that we seem to realize the worth of our near and dear ones only when they are no longer around us. I feel no end of remorse in not having done all that that should have been done for her comforts and wellbeing - she having slogged so hard to put us where we are today. Even now our friends say very truly that we were successfully launched on our careers only because of her unrelenting and untiring efforts.

It has been more than 36 years since she left us and yet scarce is the day when I do not remember her. That certainly is neither here nor there. Now the only thing I can do is to wish eternal peace for her new abode wherever that might be

Friday, December 29, 2017

Memories of an ordinary Indian :: 8

Raja Man Singh's Palace, Fort, Gwalior
On summer nights we used to sleep out in the open on the terrace over the second floor rooms. It was a biggish terrace which used to be cooled with a lot of water earlier in the evening before the beds were made up right on the floor. We had a water outlet on the second floor and it used to get the public supply with enormous pressure. There were no personal tanks or pumps for water those days. It was 24/7 metred uninterrupted supply with such pressure that it would facilely climb on to the terrace. What is more, we could drink it right off the tap without any fears of infection; it was so well filtered and treated. It seems to be crime today to have wasted all those hundreds of litres of water for cooling the cement terrace that relentlessly received the heat during the long summer days from the overhead sun. But, there was no alternative. Separate lines for untreated water were just not there.

From the terrace we could see the famed Gwalior Fort that was built on a 300 to 400 ft high hill dominating the town on the north. Its ramparts used to face us. Beyond them were the Houses which had the dormitories of the boys of the Scindia School, a public school for the children of the feudal gentry or those who could afford those high expenses on their wards. One such House was visible from our terrace with its dim lights. What was, perhaps, more interesting was that guns used to boom twice daily from behind the ramparts marking the hours of 12 noon and 9.30 at night. I wonder whether these would boom were meant to tell the people the time as most of the households could not afford watches and time-pieces or whether it was a practice continued since it was an army cantonment of the Scindias. The guns ceased to boom after the state was merged in the Indian Union.

The Fort remained a mystery for quite some time until the family went up to meet a former neighbour who was appointed a teacher at the School. The Fort has two approaches – one from the north that steeply climbs on to the Fort through a series of gates ending at Man Singh’s Palace. The climb was so steep that no motor vehicle could make it to the top in those days. One daring Air Force officer posted at Gwalior during the fag end of the Great War drove his station wagon up to Man Singh’s Palace creating quite a flutter in the town. However, for those who did not have motorised conveyance this was the access that was used as tongas would go right up to the entrance around which the Old Gwalior town had developed. Likewise, for the return trip tongas would be available down below. I remember going with the family climbing the steep slope on foot and then trudging about a kilometre and a half to the House where our acquaintance used to reside being the warden of the dorm.

The other approach was from the west and it was a more gradual climb to allow motor vehicles to go up. It climbs on to the fort with precipices on both sides with thick vegetation down below where tigers were reported to have been seen. On one side, across the precipice, there were huge rock cuts of Jain Tirthankaras on the rock face. This approach was the access for all those who used to visit the Fort or the Scindia School. I have fuzzy memories of the historic monuments located on the Fort but I clearly remember the elation I felt on spotting father’s Victoria College as I looked down from the parapets at the town sprawled in front. The Maharaja’s Jai Vilas Palace, of course, could very easily be spotted with its expansive grounds full of trees and manicured lawns.

Photo from internet

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Our Life, Our Times :: 13 :: Denims catch India's fancy


Denims today have become items of universal wear in India. These seem to have become favourites of every one – whether a billionaire or a lowly workman, urban socialite or a rustic plebian. The differences, if any, will be only in the quality of the cloth or its design and stitching - the basic material however remaining the same, the fabric.

 It is amazing to contemplate the way the things have changed over the last few decades in regard to the usage of denims. In urban India or in its rural hinterland denims have won general favour and acceptance so much so that a retired judge of a high court, while talking of her tenure as a chief justice, made a mention of how she prohibited the staff  from coming to work in denims. It is not unusual to find workers coming to work in government offices in denims. Even in villages denims have become the favourite daily wear, most probably because of its amenability to rough and regular use.

A recent report, however, indicated that the demand for the cloth in the country did not build up in the manner it was expected. Sometime back the demand had strengthened and to meet that new capacity for manufacture of the cloth was added. New mills came up but they are functioning only up to 60 or 70% of their capacity on account of a shortfall in off-take of the fabric. One wonders whether it is a case of shrinking demand or over-capacity in the sector that has pulled down the production. It is well known that we have what is known as a herd mentality. Maybe tat was the reason that more than necessary number of mills came up flooding the market. Denim manufacturers had a flourishing run ever since Kasturbhai Lalbhai group’s Arvind Mills pioneered its manufacture in India. Today Arvind Mills with its capacity of more than 100 million metres per annum is one of the leading manufacturers of denim in the world. It even varies the quality according to the needs of its designers who are based both, in India as well as abroad.

When we were young we knew that the cowboys of the US wore “jeans” – the word that was used for special trousers made for them of denims. They would ride horses wearing them. In fact, their entire outfit including the shirt used to be made of denims. In the wild-west movies actors like John Wayne and those of his ilk would always be in denims with guns sticking out of their holsters that would be within their easy grasp enabling them to be “fast guns”. Their hulk with a muscular and hungry look decked up in denims topped by a Stetson and other accoutrements, made them exude muscle power and toughness that sometimes made even the sheriff in the movie squirm before them.

While today boys and girls wear denims to colleges, or, for that matter, every and anywhere, we had no such luck in our times. Sixty-odd years ago jeans were scarce in India, more so in the backwaters of Gwalior where I was growing up. Once, however, I happened to see my friend Anand’s older brother Jagat Bamroo, a class mate of my sister wearing jeans in the college. I gave it a good look and was impressed by the indigo of the warp and the bold stitches in red along the seams and for the bold patched hip-pockets. The bottom cuffs were turned up like those of the trousers of yore revealing the whites of the weft. That was my introduction to “cowboy jeans” but I did not get into one till much later in life when the cloth started flowing out of the Indian mills.

Denim can be used for all kinds of dresses, particularly for women. While in men’s wear denims find use in making of trousers, shirts, jerkins, fashionable caps, etc., in the area of women’s wear sky is the limit for its usage. Women use it for “jeans”, skirts, shorts, jerseys, dungarees, caps and even shoes or sandals. In India it is used for designing women’s “kurtas” and “kurties”. Fashionistas let lose their imagination and have a field day in designing dresses for their clientele and every year new designs flood the market. Already, the fashion trends for 2018 are in the print media for women to choose from to suit their sartorial tastes and the mix that is there in their wardrobes.

Denims come in different varieties. There are crushed denims or stone washed or acid washed denims or even marble denims – each is used by the designers according to the fancy of the fashionista. Then the designers go further up and add value to the garments by working on them with embroidery or patch work and such like. Some go much farther and add laces to the hems to give them a formal or celebrity look. Those who have stacks of money go and get diamonds studded to various parts of their dresses and they do so even with shoes made out of denims. Then there are others who make fashion statements out of ripped or frayed jeans. Some ripped jeans are so weird that a substantial part of legs around the thighs and knees remain uncovered.

The burgeoning population of India’s shanties or what are known as “JJ colonies” have not missed out on denims. One would find boys and girls emerging from them wearing whatever is trending. If it is the current body-hugging skinny denims, they have it and love to flaunt them. A whole new system of marketing has emerged to cater to the demands from this unlikely source. Used clothes markets, or markets that deal in indifferently stitched material or even duplicates of popular brands – all are oriented to cater to this genre of clientele. Some from this clientele are quite choosy as I have known people from these sections who would not be satisfied unless a pair of trousers carried a sticker of a well-known brand on its back pocket.

Denims have thus firmly established themselves in the imagination of Indian youth whether in the metros or in the back-yards of rural India. The traditional “dhoties or pyjamas” of ordinary people have yielded place to garments made out of denim. It is amazing how a fabric originating in France in the 19th Century that somehow getting purchase in far away United States in its ranching days has firmly established its authority world over and, more so, over India. If Indians take home something as their own, none would be able to compete with them, generally, because of sheer numbers. No wonder, out of the 700 million metres of the fabric produced world over 100 million are produced in India, feeding the ever-escalating demand from what would seem to be the Rising India.

*Photo from internet
26th December 2017

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Destinations :: San Francisco (1998)

Before leaving for the US we had decided to buy the VUSA (Visit USA) tickets that were being advertised around that time. It was claimed that they would work out very cheap. We worked on our itinerary and decided the number of tickets we would buy. After all, once we were in USA we wouldn’t be sitting tight at my sister’s place or the place of my nephew, both being small suburban places. We decided
Heading towards San Francisco
on 12 such tickets for both of us. The VUSA tickets used to cost equivalent of $80 per ticket. Constrained by finances we bought only 10 VUSA tickets which covered our long journeys from New York to St Louis to Charlotte and from Charlotte to San Francisco and back. Charlotte is hub of airlines in North Carolina.

At North Beach next Golden Gate Bridge
We drove down from Cary to Charlotte to catch the flight for San Francisco. VUSA used to be patronised by US Air, a flourishing airline which, incidentally, had an IIT grad as its CEO. Almost a six-hour flight, it took us right across from close to the East Coast to the West Coast. On the way we could see the meandering Mississippi and the Grand Canyon country. As we got closer to San Francisco we were seemingly put in queue as the planes ahead could be seen from the window preparing to land one after the other. That only showed how busy the
On the other side of Golden Gate
airport was.

We were booked at Holiday Inn off the Market Street. Market Street is a major artery running for more than 3 miles right across the town practically from the waterfront in the north to the neighbourhood of the region of the hills dominated by what are known as Twin Peaks. The
On the Market Street
Street is pretty historical as the civil engineer who established it once had to escape on a relay of horses for the simple reason that he was under the threat of being lynched for designing an inordinately wide road of 120 feet. The street is virtually the cultural centre of the town as parades and marches are often held on it. There have been occasions when open air concerts have been held here. Later, of course, demonstrations connected with civil rights, gay rights etc. became common occurrences on the street.

Sun Setting over Pacific Ocean as seen from Golden Gate Bridge
We were naturally excited to be in San Francisco, the city that came into being largely because of the “Californian Gold Rush” is now a prosperous part of California. We were more interested because we would be seeing the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. We have been seeing its photographs since we were in schools. San Francisco became part of the United States not too long ago. It was captured un-resisted from Mexico around 1850s. Soon after, it developed into a rapidly growing and prosperous city despite a setback in 1906 when more than half the city grievously suffered destruction because of a massive earthquake.

At North Beach on the banks of San Francisco Bay
Soon after settling down we headed towards the North Beach – the sandy area near the Golden Gate Bridge. It is a suspension bridge that connects northern tip of San Francisco Peninsula with Marin County of California. A six-lane bridge, it came up after much efforts and procrastinations and was thrown open in 1937 making it one of the most internationally recognized symbols of San Francisco. Some people reckon it as one of the most beautiful bridges in the world and, as has
At Fishermen's Wharf next to the iconic statue of a sea lion
been claimed, it certainly is one of the most photographed bridges. I too had taken numerous photographs, some bad, some indifferent and only a few usable. Whatever might be the results of the photographs the bridge is undoubtedly very beautiful and is a sight to behold. We saw it from both its sides and from the Bay, It is indeed incredibly beautiful. The day it was opened an estimated two hundred thousand people walked, ran, tap-danced and roller-skated
At Fishermen's Wharf
on it. Automobiles drove through it only a day later.

That was one sight put away although we would off and on see the Bridge from various locations. In the Bay area we would often visit the Fishermen’s Wharf where the Pier 39 has acquired, again, an iconic status. The Pier is a tourist spot with its
At Fishermen's Wharf
shopping and dining and amusement for children including live sea lions – as live as they can be. I set my eyes on a sea lion for the first time from Pier 39. In the midst of it all there is a famous statue of a sea lion in the circulating area for the restaurants. The sea lions seemed to be hanging around most of the time mostly grunting and on occasions playfully diving into the waters in front. Massive of build, they are confined to the rocks that form the wall for them against the Bay with a small body of water in front to keep them at a safe distance from humans.

At Pier 39 you get mostly sea food – from prawns and lobsters to crabs, octopuses and what have you.
Illuminated representation of San Francisco outside Aquarium
Close by there was a shopping centre where I espied a Harley Davidson store that had all the associated gear for the Harleys – all in black. We had often seen young men riding Harleys in groups wearing the all-black motorcycle gear including the boots, gloves and helmets. The Harleys then were yet to make their way into India and hence my curiosity overpowered me and I took in visually all that was being made available to riders of the iconic bike.

On the other side of Golden Gate
From the Fishermen’s Wharf one can see Golden Gate and two islands, one of them known to history as Alcatraz. Here on the rocky outcrop is what once used to be a massive military prison converted later into a Federal Prison. Today it is included in the San Francisco Recreational Area and is open for tourism. While on a Bay cruise we climbed up the rocky island to get a view of the innards of a reputed US prison. It seemed to be a good place to lose your liberty and freedom with the waters of the Bay lapping away on the Island’s
On the other side of Golden Gate

The Fishermen’s Wharf also had an aquarium the like of which many of us would be stranger to. We have read about them being located in various cities of advanced countries but have never heard of any such aquarium in any developing country. Basically, it is like a tunnel and all around you is water with the creatures of the seas taking a peek at you before moving away. The transparent walls enable you to see around twenty-
On top of the crookedest Street
odd thousand fishes and other creatures of water, some of which are unique to the Bay area. It was very interesting to see sharks and other curious sea animals like jelly fishes pass by without showing total unconcern for you

 San Francisco has streets named after men like Columbus, Kearney, Castro, etc. One day we thought of walking on the Market Street away from the direction we
A car negotiating the crookedest Street
were regularly taking to go towards the sea-front. It was around mid morning and we couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw a few men were just getting out of their sleeping bags spread on the pavements. Some of them had already got up and were packing away their belongings into bags kept next to street planters. It was quite
Fried prawns at Pier 39
shocking – sort of eye-popping – as we never expected to see pavement dwellers in this affluent corner of the United States.

As we progressed further, on the same road we came across a “Hindu” restaurant that served “satwik” food. Further up as we went we saw some beautiful shops selling curios and home-d├ęcor stuff. A few people were seen gossiping on the pavements but their get-up and behavior seemed to
Union Square
be strange. They wore weirdness on their sleeves. True enough, we had stumbled into the city’s gay area known as Castro. Feeling not quite comfortable, we rushed back to the safe confines of our hotel room.

A tram loaded with tourist at Union Square
The best of shopping and dining is supposed ro be at the Union Square. The major stores here were of Macy’s and Tiffany’s spreading over yards and yards of real estate. Once again, off the Market Street, it is a treat to watch the crowds that are moving around on their errands or gossiping by the roadsides or tucking in refreshments accompanied by beverages in open-air food joints or simply posing as live statues
Next to a live statue at Union Square
painted in gold for the enjoyment of onlookers. One such “statue” caught the fancy of my wife and we hung around him for quite some time forcing him to hold the attitude that we saw him in giving him, in the process, the creeps.

More than a decade ago a serial by the name “Bold and the Beautiful” became very popular in India telecast by a popular English language channel. In this serial the Palace of Fine Arts of San Francisco was used as a location. We happened to stumble on it while walking around. It is close to the North Beach and was built about hundred years ago to display works of art that were exhibited in Panama-Pacific
At the Academy of Fine Arts
Exposition held here in 1915. Most of it has apparently disappeared but the main structure has been repaired and stands beautifully in the midst of the lagoon. It is reportedly used now less for artistic displays and more for social events like weddings, etc. It is a great tourist draw. We too spent an afternoon out there despite a rather sharp Californian sun.

Once again on a walking expedition we came across the San Francisco Civic Centre located off the Market Street. It has some marvelous
At the Academy of Fine Arts
classical style buildings and this is the place where the UN Charter was signed. It is also the place where the weekly farmers’ market is organized. The plaza is magnificent and has great recreational value. An opera house, a performing arts centre and a library form the nucleus of Centre. A remarkable building of familiar architectural design is the City Hall which is the seat of the city administration as well as that of the San Francisco County.

China Town gate
The China Town of San Francisco is the oldest and the largest Chinese settlement outside China. We walked through the imposing gate and got into a crowded street with shops on both sides packed with stuff. The stuff available was mostly Chinese but we saw some remarkable Chinese porcelain. Many Chinese seem to be walking around sleepy eyed, somewhat unkempt with irregular
San Francisco from Twin Peaks
untended beards. The language spoken is Chinese and it is said that many of them have lived through their lives in China Town without ever uttering an English word.

On the other end of the town is an area which is known as Twin Peaks. The two peaks are about a 1000 ft high and around 500 ft apart and is approached via a
Both of us at Twin Peaks
boulevard that makes the figure of eight around them. One gets a magnificent view of the city sprawled down below with the Market Street running right through its middle. It was an interesting excursion.

About 25 kilometres north of San Francisco is located the Muir Woods National Monument. I should like to think it is a monument, firstly, to those giant redwood trees that once flourished in
At Muir Woods
the entire North American lnd mass but are now confined to a narrow tract in coastal California. Secondly, the other distinctive feature is that it is also a monument to an environmentalist John Muir who was a friend of William Kent, the Californian politician, the brain behind establishment of the Monument. Because of his good offices around 600 acres of land with red wood trees – also known as Sequoia – have been protected and preserved. These are the trees that grow to more than 250 ft. in height and survive for eight to nine hundred years. These fantastic trees were virtually wiped out by the lumbering industry. A few hundred acres of them survived
A redwood tree
because of the initiatives of men like Kent

There are two other distinctive attributes of San Francisco that must be mentioned. One is the Lombard Street that is known as the Crookedest Street in the world. It takes one from Market Street down a steep incline with as many as eight hairpin bends within perhaps a block. It also is a very colourful street with patches of flowering plants and green well-watered lawns.

The other attribute of the city are its street cars. They are among the touristiest of items apart from Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island or
The San Francisco street car
the Fishermen’s Wharf. The cable car system dates back to the 19th Century but several lines have been shed or combined to make it serve the current purposes, especially of tourism.  It is said that these street cars with vintage appearances and manually operated are more patronized by tourists than by the locals. One would find tourists commuting by them even if they have to hang by its sides.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Memories of an ordinary Indian :: 7

The inner veranda had different sights on offer. It was dominated by the huge neem tree that must have been 40-odd years old even then. It had a massive trunk and branches that spread out on all sides providing shade in the open area that was surrounded by four flats. Periodically, its branches would be chopped up to keep its spread within limits. On occasions its branches would extend so much as to almost touch our veranda from where young leaves could be plucked for our Bengali bitter delicacy of neem with egg plants that was supposedly also a prophylactic for ailments associated with the onset of summer.

The tree had its own ecosystem. It hosted colonies of ants – both black and small red ones – and I would watch them being busy in going up and down the branches on errands that only they knew. Then it attracted a large number of parrots who would come in flocks for the yellow fruit of the neem. Parrots were aplenty then and were a prominent bird species in Gwalior. Surprisingly, I don’t see many of them where I live. The neem tree would also attract pigeons and gray doves which, again, are a rarity today. Then, of course, there would be squirrels climbing up and down the branches always in the lookout for something to nibble at. Once, a very young one was even adopted by my second brother who took care of it for some weeks before it just disappeared one fine morning. It was fed milk, to begin with, and then was given small pieces of biscuits to nibble on. But then, it didn’t hang on with us.

In the inner veranda, as in the outer veranda, my mother had big planters from some of which she had raised creepers of Morning Glory. Over time they had become thick and meshy with plentiful blooms attracting swarms of noisy sparrows. I am yet to see so many sparrows together kicking up a racket like they used to on our verandas. They used to be all over our house, flitting from one end of the room to the other. After more than fifty-odd years, sparrows have become a rarity for reasons mostly unknown. Speculating on the reasons some have found the radiation from the mobile phone towers to be the villain and some others ascribe their disappearance to the kind of houses we live in today – the flats in apartment blocks that are not conducive for them to cohabit with us. Their numbers have declined so alarmingly, at least, in urban India that a campaign for revival of this little chirpy bird is being carried out by the Bombay Natural History Society. After all, every species has an ecological role and the total disappearance of this little bird will surely damage one way or the other the ecosystem we inhabit.


The trunk of the neem tree was also used by the dhobi to tether his bull on which he used to bring the washed and ironed clothes of our family as also those of many others in the area. His black bull would be loaded with huge bundles hanging on both its flanks held by a sheet that went across its back. Generally the dhobi would arrive every Sunday to deliver the clothes and take away the ones that needed washing and ironing. If I remember, the charges for his labours were, to start with, only Rs. 3 per hundred clothes and then as the prices rose my mother had him agree to Rs. 6 per hundred a few years later – a price that would seem ridiculously low today.

 Dhobi with his ill-fed bull with bundles of ironed clothes hanging from its sides, as an institution, has in fact disappeared from urban India with the advent of detergents and washing machines. Clothes are washed at home and households, at best, engage a man today only for ironing who commutes on automated two-wheelers. In metros such people do this job in almost every multi-storied complex in an obscure nook or cranny. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Memories of an ordinary Indian :: 6

Right at the junction and in front of our house there used to be lamp which would be manually lit in the evenings and put out in the morning.  It was a gas lamp and a man, in the gathering dusk, would trudge slowly down the lane carrying on his shoulder a ladder that was just long or tall enough for him to be able to reach up to the lamp to light it. There were, if I remember, three such lamps down the north-south length of the road and he would go to them one by one to light them. He would observe the same routine in the mornings but only to extinguish the flames by merely capping them for a while. This must have been very early in my life, maybe in the late 1930s or even early in the 1940s. Some evenings the man wouldn’t appear at all and the lanes would remain dark and forbidding. Nonetheless, what occurs to me now that the town, obviously, had gas lamps in some areas, if not all, and had to have pipes to take the gas to them. That a feudal administration had thought of providing such an amenity in those early years of 20th Century takes it a few notches higher in my estimation. Eventually, of course, the gas lamps were replaced by electric lights but that was much later – around mid-1940s.
At least once a year we would have farmers as close neighbours. They would come after the harvest in their bullock carts loaded with their produce and also with the essentials for their sustenance for a stay of a week or two. They would line up their carts along the high wall in front of our house. The carts used to be fully covered with hessian to protect the crop that they brought for sale. The bullocks would be freed as soon as they parked the carts and would be provided the feed which too was brought along with their own rations. They would be all stocked up and cook near the carts their daal and chapattis. Daal would be cooked in a brass vessel over a chulha made of sheer clay and cow-dung using firewood to raise a fire. The aroma of the freshly-made daal and freshly-baked chapattis would drift up to us in the gentle breeze forcing us children to get out on to the veranda to get more of it. Those days there was no chemical farming; it was only organic and the fragrance of the daal and baked atta was, quite frankly, out of this world and so must have been the taste.

5th December 2017
*Photo from internet

Monday, December 4, 2017

Our Life , Our Times :: 11 :: Cricket in heavily polluted Delhi

Sri Lankan players durin a disrupted session
I think it was surely the first time ever that a cricket test match was being played anywhere in the world in very poor light and poor quality of air. The test match was being played in Delhi between Sri Lankan and Indian cricket teams. It is the third and final Test that was being played in heavily polluted air of the Capital. 
Quite a few Sri Lankans came out to field on the second morning wearing facemasks. Later there were interruptions because some of the substitute Lankan fielders refused to come out and field in the polluted environment. Perhaps they were right because the Central Pollution Control Board described the air quality in the area as “very poor”. Prolonged exposure to such air could lead to respiratory ailments. The most dominant harmful pollutants were deadly PM 2.5 and PM 10 which were at very elevated levels from the safe levels of 60 and 100, respectively.

With Lankans taking a serious view of the poor air quality one wondered whether the play would continue on the third day and thereafter with no expectations of the smog lifting up anytime soon. And yet the play commenced on the third day in heavy smog with poor visibility. The paying audience of the game got a raw deal with even the telecast of the match showed how poor the visibility was.

The media cried blue murder blaming Sri Lankans for depriving Kohli of a score of 300 or more. Also, the media story was that Kohli, having been exasperated by the interruptions lost his rhythm and was soon given out lbw. It was also speculated that Kohli declared the innings even as discussions were being held for continuance of the play only to show that Indians would readily field in the same environmental conditions which the Sri Lankans found unplayable.

With the smog prevailing over Delhi for weeks now, perhaps, it was not a good idea for the BCCI to have scheduled a test match in Delhi during this period. While the expectation was that the smog would lift by the end of November and this kind of overbearing pollution would not be sustained for long, the things panned out differently with the smog persisting.

 The stubble burning in the neighbouring agricultural fields is the main reason for the heavy pollution of the Delhi air. The Delhi-ites have had so far the worst of two winters. Making the international players play in such heavily  polluted air would amount to playing with their health and wellbeing as also their cricketing careers. Even the Australian Cricket Team had issues with this kind of air in and around the Stadium a few years ago.

One cannot but have sympathies for Delhi-ites who are riding out over this kind of smog for days, weeks and months in Delhi. There seems to be no respite from it. It is like a gas chamber out there and respite for those who are suffering appears to be far away.

Cricket has always been a winter game in India. Only because of the professional leagues of the shortened versions of the game it is played in summers – mostly after sunset. But from the look of it, it is increasingly becoming clear that the game, especially the longer version of it, may not continue during the winters in the northern parts because of heavy smog with air pollution rising by the day. One cannot really put air purifiers on the ground to enable the game to go on.

 There are numerous towns in south, central and western India where the air quality is within the normal parameters and where adequate arrangements exist for holding a five-day test match. If these centres are not properly equipped they should be refurbished to make available alternative venues in case the traditional venues, especially in metro cities suffer from debilitating environmental sicknesses.

4th December 2017
*Photo from internet

Thursday, November 30, 2017

From my scrapbook :: 4 :: Sanjna Kapoor's distinguished geneology

Geofrey Kendal as Shylock and Laura Liddel as Portia
A piece by Sanjna Kapoor in the Indian Express a few weeks ago took my mind 55 years back when I was doing Intermediate. In those days, there were no higher secondary classes; we were in 10+2 system – one had to do intermediate after matriculation and before graduation.

 Sanjna, as is largely well known, is the daughter of Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendal, both being steeped in the tradition of theatre. Sanjna runs the Prithvi Theatres established by her grandfather Prithviraj Kapoor who would call it Prithvi “Jhonpra”, (hut). She wrote the piece eulogizing Prithviraj Kapoor and Geoffrey Kendal, grandfa- ther from her mother’s side on behalf of “Not In My Name” as a measure of protest against the current intolerance that is all too visible in Indian society.

Sanjna”s reference to her paternal grandfather reminded me of the day when Prithviraj Kapoor visited our Victoria College in Gwalior sometime in the early 1950s. Our Principal was one Prof. DN Bhalla, a Cambridge graduate, who used to know Prithviraj and had invited him to the College to speak to the students. The impressive Union hall was overflowing with boys and girls. Prithviraj arrived in his trademark white kurta-pyjama with a black shawl draped round his neck. He looked every inch a man from show-business. Tall like most Pathans, he was very well built and had a very handsome and expressive face.

His address was full of humour. Speaking in English with an educated accent, he floored everybody in the audience. The boys knew that while he was a renowned Hindi theatre artist he was also very good in enacting English plays, especially those of Shakespeare. Soon enough there was a request for him to recite the cry for revenge from Shakespeare’s play “Othello”. And he readily obliged. I still remember how the word “revenge” that was uttered twice in high pitch with the last ending up at a very high pitch. It became more effective because of Prithviraj’s booming voice.

Though those were the sunset years for the travelling theatre, he was still going strong travelling III class with fifty to sixty artists with all the props. Having migrated from Punjab in the early years of the 20th Century he joined the fledgling Indian film industry during its “Silent era”. A handsome man as he was, he was highly successful in the world of celluloid. However, by 1944 he temporarily gave up his film career and took to his first love – theatre. He produced some politically and socially relevant plays. His was a travelling theatre mainly to inspire the audiences to participate in the Indian Independence Movement.
 A play depicting Hindu-Muslim unity called “Pathan” was highly successful and was reported to have been staged more than 600 times in Bombay (now Mumbai) alone. Along with “Deewar”, 

“Ahooti” and “Gaddar” the plays constituted the “Partition Quartet” in which Prithviraj not only displayed his prescience in so far as the consequences of Partition were concerned, he also fervently pleaded for Hindu-Muslim friendship or bonhomie, whatever one might call it. At the end of every play he would deliver a speech to promote his favourite themes of Independence Movement and Hindu Muslim Unity. Later after the plays he would stand near the exit door of theatres with his black shawl spread seeking donations for the welfare of those who were uprooted from their hearths and homes as a consequence of Partition.

Sanjna’s maternal grandfather and grandmother, too, were distinguished theatre artists. Her grandfather Geoffrey Kendall was a member of travelling theatres in England before his troupe was asked to entertain the British troops in various corners of South-East Asia during the World War II. Travelling through various countries, he along with his troupe that included his wife Laura Liddel and daughters, Jennifer and Felicity landed up in India during the 1940s.

He came and fell in love with the country – a case almost of love at first sight. He organized a few artists who were British as well as Indians and created the theatrical outfit called “Shakespareana”. He along with his family and fellow artists travelled the entire country staging plays of Shakespeare. With his perfect stage sets, props and innovative lighting the plays were effective in evoking the times of Shakespeare’s plays.

During his travels he hit Gwalior in 1952 or 1953 and staged plays in our college, the local girls’ college, Scindia School and even the local club associated with the Scindias. We would see the party arrive in tongas with boxes full of equipment – dresses, drapes, period furniture etc. They made quite a stir among the College boys as none of us had ever seen so many white people all at the same time and at the same place. If I recall, Shashi Kapoor had not joined the outfit till then. The plays were ticketed and my parents had no reservations about parting with the necessary money.

I was lucky to have seen two plays – Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” and “Arms and the Man” of George Bernard Shaw. Both of them were being taught to us as parts of our English courses. Geoffrey Kendall played the role of Shylock the Jew and most of us were taken in by his enactment of the role I still remember his scream of “oh my daughter, oh my ducats” when he realized that his daughter Jessica had eloped and gone away. He brought to Gwalior for the first time new ways of preparing realistic sets and effective lighting. I still remember how cleverly moonlight outside a window was created by using blue light in “Arms and the Man”.

Having seen such emancipated men like her two eminent grandfathers Sanjna has every reason to bemoan the prevailing radicalism in the society which has only engendered pervasive reign of fear extinguishing the light of freedom of expression and speech. Sanjana is right; in a mere half a century we have fallen steeply from lofty heights only to become puny, narrow-minded men straddling this once-noble country.

30th November 2017

*Photo from internet

DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION Rama Chandra Guha, free-thinker, author and historian Ram Chandra Guha, a free-thinker, author and...