DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Friday, November 17, 2017

Memories of an ordinary Indian :: 5


http://www.bagchiblog.blogspot.com

(Continud)

Illuminated Mela gate
Abdullah used to often ferry the entire family in his tonga to the now-famous Gwalior Mela (Fair) which used to be one of the most important and perhaps most exciting events of the year in the somewhat sleepy town. As the family would cramp into the tonga I, being the youngest and a mere child, would often jog along on the lap of Abdullah. In the December cold his warmth was reassuring. I would mostly be engrossed looking at the black shiny and muscular croup of the horse and the occasional swish of its tail. I would also keenly watch its ears which would be sticking up and out and would constantly twirl from left to right and right to left –to catch various sounds.

Held in the winter months of December and January every family would try and visit the mela at least once. The hype for it would gradually build up and children and their families would plan visits and shopping in advance. The mela grounds, currently spread over around 100 acres, were ahead of the Race Course which was around 7 or 8 kilometres from our house. The grounds were created in 1905 by that far-sighted Maharaja, Madhav Rao Scindia who ruled over the State in the early years of the last Century.

 Apart from built-up structures for shops there were open grounds for tented temporary selling points. All amenities and services would be provided by the State. No wonder, businessmen and traders from far flung areas of the then undivided country would travel all the way to the fair to display and market their wares.  It was also considered by far the biggest cattle mela in the country where all kinds of animals from camels to goats would be bought and sold. The inevitable food section would have north Indian cuisine served from numerous shops – especially chaat from Haridwar and Lucknow and pethas and pedas from Agra and Mathura, respectively. I do not remember having ever come across south Indian stuff as it was not then as popular in our parts as it is today. 

During the mela fortnight all roads would seem to be leading to it. Young men would cycle down, others would take the scarce city buses then run by the Gwalior Central India Transport or a tonga. Some even took the Gwalior Light Railway (GLR), the narrow gauge train that would run from Kampoo. Near the Gwalior Potteries, to Gola ka Mandir – a little ahead of the mela grounds. The fare couldn’t have been more than an anna or so (1/16th of a rupee). On occasions, father took us to the mela by the train which we would catch from the Elgin Club station situated on what was known as the Private Road, close to Victoria College where father used to teach. It was a tiny little elegant looking station with a small foyer and a room for the station master with a window facing the Private Road for sale of tickets. The journey of half an hour or so to the mela at a speed of a cyclist pedalling leisurely was most interesting. As the toy-like carriages swayed along on the tracks, the train would take us through the Jiwaji (Maharaja’s) Club where we could see people playing tennis. It would then puff along, hugging the Palace walls for a kilometre or two to reach its main station which used to be different from the broad gauge station.

 As the train took off from the main station after collecting more passengers there would be excitement all round as it would soon pass through an underpass created below the broad-gauge lines for the trains of the privately owned Great Indian Peninsular Railways (GIP) that ran from north to south of the country. As the train went into the underpass there would be a roar of excitement in the carriage. Soon it would halt at the Race Course where the famous, now more than 70 years old, Scindia Gold Cup Hockey tournament used to be held during the same season. Even polo matches used to be held around the same time. The train would then reach the Mela station and halt in front of the main gate and one had only to cross the road to get into it. The Race Course and the Polo Grounds were much later given away for opening the College of Physical Education.

 I recall Japanese toys on display at the Mela. We used to have three such toys that had probably been bought for elder brothers. They were all wind-up type. Among the two aeroplanes we had one was a fighter plane – somewhat like a spit-fire with a gun mounted on top in the front. It would really spit fire as it moved after being wound up. The other was smaller, a trainer kind that would go round and round. The third toy was a motor cycle. I don’t remember whether it was a miniature version of a Harley Davidson. Such Japanese toys became unavailable sometime later because of the Second World War.

 And, then of course, there used to be numerous shops of saris including the ones from Dhaka, famous for their fine weave and designs. A very fine sari from a shop from Dhaka was forced by my father on a very reluctant mother because it cost a fortune those days – all of Rs.60. This must have been around 1942 or 1942. She had it for all her life using it very seldom, only on special occasions.


 The Mela has been much enlarged today and is known as the “Pragati Maidan of Madhya Pradesh”. The government announces discounts on purchases made there and those discounts, curiously, would also be made available to those made in Bhopal and, presumably, elsewhere too. Now even cars, TVs and cell phones are also on offer as indeed a veritable cultural fest. That the legacy of a farsighted Maharaja has been found to be good enough for being continued and vastly amplified by the democratically ruled successor state is a great tribute to its feudal progenitor.

(To be continued)

Photo from internet

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Destinations :: Charleston, SC (1998)





At Myrtle Beach
It is generally said of American towns that if you have seen one, you have seen them all. The same, however, cannot be said about Charleston, South Carolina (SC). More or less  in the same league as New York, Washington, New Orleans, or San Francisco - each with a distinct character and flavour of its own – Charleston is, perhaps, a bit special, being one of the oldest and historic cities of the nation.
While visiting a young relative in North Carolina we made a foray
Once again at Myrtle Beach
into the south to see a bit of the Atlantic Coast. We drove out of Cary in North Carolina (NC) one early morning targeting Charleston. Driving through a few national and state highways, along which lay some sprawling farms offering the passers-by farm-fresh, delicious “pick-your-own” strawberries, we hit Myrtle Beach in South Carolina about two hours later.
Near the Museum
Although a smallish resort by American standards yet it is very well served by lodging establishments of varied categories. We pulled into a hotel in which we had made prior bookings on the net. It was early May and not yet quite the season; perhaps therefore and because the booking had been made pretty much in advance, we got a bargain, a suite with two king-sized beds. Myrtle Beach seemed to offer everything by way of entertainment and
Carriage hiring point
relaxation. Blessed with expansive beaches of white sands that are its main attraction it has much else besides. It is dotted with scores of mini golf courses, nightclubs and casinos to offer enough by way of recreation for a weekend. For a compulsive shopper fantastic bargains can be had from the factory outlets of the biggies of American industry, from Dockers to Samsonite, in the neighbouring mall.
Remnants of an old theatre
Next morning after a hearty breakfast rustled up in the well-equipped kitchenette we drove further south and came upon Patriots Point just a few kilometres north of Charleston. Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum, one of the world’s largest naval museums, is located in the Charleston Harbour. Some of the old and historic US Navy ships are on display but the most important exhibit of them all is the USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier of World War II vintage. 

Charleston is only a 10-minute drive from Patriots Point. The town is situated where two rivers, Ashley and Cooper, join the Atlantic. It is the seat of the Charleston County. Originally named Charles Towne after King Charles II of England the town was established by the English in 1670. It soon became the colonial capital 
Charleston' period houses
and within the next hundred years acquired the reputation of being the richest town in the South. Built on slave labour, hundreds of thousands of slaves passed through this city. It had a thriving slave market. Having been the scene of the Revolutionary War, as also of the first engagement of the Civil War, it, naturally, exudes
history. The old section of the town still retains a quaint charm of the days gone by when it was a city of aristocratic planters and rich
The Market Sqaure
merchants. There are a number of stately public buildings and restored homes with gardens and period wrought-iron gateways.
Among the old public buildings are the Dock Street Theatre built in the middle of the 18th Century and the Old City Market, also built around the same time and still functioning as such. Then there is the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, a custom house before the War of Independence and later converted into a prison on being captured by the British, and then again into a government building. Today it is one of the most important historic buildings of the United States. The West Point Garden, also known as the Battery, besides being historical is remarkable for its beauty.
The presence of many historic churches has given Charleston another name – the Holy City. There are many stately homes, which
In front of the Museum
have since been converted into museums, the most important of which is the Edmonston-Alston House built in the early 19th Century. Another historic house is that of Thomas Elfe who migrated from England in the 1740s with nothing but a skill in woodwork. The house is a must-see for furniture and antiques buffs as it is the repository of some of the finest furniture of 18th and 19th Centuries.
A historic city always offers an enormous lot to see. One could go around walking or join a walking tour. The Visitors’ Centre is finely equipped to cater to the needs of tourists and hands out the bonus of a
USS York Town of World War II vintage
free trip from there to any of the tourist sites. We promptly grabbed a ride to the downtown. Getting around in beautiful antique-looking buses, more or less, like the streetcars of San Francisco, or in carriages drawn by massive horses can be fun. We took a carriage ride and were taken around old parts of the town and the Battery. In the process we saw an architectural style typical of Charleston – from the road one only sees a side of the house and not the front which, in fact, opens out along the road hidden from view protecting the privacy of the inmates the houses.
Charleston can be an ideal base for excursions for discovering its historic neighbourhood. A number of old plantation houses are located very close to Charleston. The Boone Hall Plantation with its three-quarters mile drive known as the Avenue of Oaks, bordered with trees planted in the 18th Century is the most famous one. There are formal gardens, the original slave quarters and a cotton-ginning house, etc. It displays the way of life of a bygone era when cotton was king and great plantations were the backbone of the Southern economy.
 Also in the Harbour is Fort Sumter, a national monument, where the first military engagement of the American Civil War had taken place. The Confederates attacked the Federal Garrison here in 1861. The Fort was later blockaded by the Union naval ships, eventually to fall to them in 1865.
Accommodation-wise relatively cheaper, Charleston offers varied cuisine from its several eateries. For the home-sick Indian there is the ubiquitous Indian restaurant offering a buffet of delectable Punjabi fare for just $ 6.
Well connected by rail, road and air, Charleston SC and its surroundings offer a slice of American history to its visitors through its well-preserved monuments and period houses.




Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Rapes, loots and robberies - frequent in Bhopal


http://www.bagchiblog.blogspot.com


The capital of Madhya Pradesh is seething with anger and outrage at the latest incident of Nirbhaya-like gang-rape of a 19 years old civil service aspirant a few days ago. The victim was returning from her coaching classes and was to take a train to her home town 70 kms away from the local Habibganj Station when she was waylaid by a few ruffians and was raped by as many as six hoodlums late in the evening. On top of this the cops displayed utter lack of sensitivity tossing the victim’s family from one police station to another although the victim’s parents are also cop. They, for a long while, could not decide the matter of jurisdiction of the specific police station that, according to them, could entertain the complaint. In the process, several cops even took the victim’s version of her rape as a “filmy” story apart from making some pretty uncomplimentary comments against her.

Bhopal is a town where women are utterly unsafe. Reports appear in the local newspapers with unceasing regularity about rapes, molestations, stalking and sexual assaults on women. Even as the Police were investigating the latest case of gang rape another was been reported where two brothers were raping an abducted 23-year old for more than a month. And yet, the police force has made no attempts to curb the incidence of such incidents. Rapes continue to occur and they are highlighted almost every day in the newspapers. In fact, readers every morning are confronted with mostly negative news about the town. Whether it is rape or assault on women or violence against them or even robberies, loots and murders, the reports appear with uncanny regularity and yet local police seem to be unable to stem the rot. Though it is the seat of the state government, it appears to prefer to remain a mute witness of the goings-on in the state capital.

Likewise, deaths due to road accidents are so frequent that it has started ringing alarm bells. A huge number of bikers, mostly engineering students, have met their end in the highly disorganized and unmanaged traffic of the city. Year after year people are getting into accidents resulting in grievous injuries and death but no remedial measures are ever taken. The traffic police is more interested in making people wear helmets but seemingly are uninterested in regularizing and systematically controlling the unruly traffic. Traffic rules are seldom obeyed and one mostly finds that vehicles try and get across any which way ignoring the rules of the roads.

 Even the city roads, broken down and decrepit as they are, account for a number of accidents. Open manholes, unrepaired broken down roads or roads with massive pot-holes have killed numerous unwary commuters. While local newspapers are full of reports on bad city roads the chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, made a statement from Washington that the roads of his state were better than those of Washington. On being confronted, he said he had in mind the Indore Super Corridor created for transport of human organs for transplantation elsewhere. But one doesn’t know what the chief minister had in mind – the surface of the road or other amenities. The Corridor itself has no signage, transportation facilities for commuters to offices that have come up on the Corridor are scarce; even traffic management on it is absent resulting in frequent fatal accidents. In any case, 99% of the roads in the state, including in the capital, are far inferior to the Super Corridor. Surely, such is not the case in Washington. The CM forgot that he was comparing his state with the capital of the most advanced nation in the world and that his comparison would be laughable. It will take more than a lifetime for him to build roads anywhere nears the quality of those in the US.

All through his three terms the Chief Minister has paid little attention to governance. In every sphere where people’s happiness is involved there has been singular absence of governance. Whether it is healthcare, education or civic amenities, people have been made to suffer for want of facilities. The state has the highest rate of infant and post-natal maternal mortality. Yet he wears the pretensions of being a very effective chief minister and has even set up a Department of Happiness to emulate Bhutan’s experiment of spreading happiness. Bhutan’s is an entirely different story which in no way matches up with that of Madhya Pradesh which continues to be a an illiterate and largely unethical backward state. This is regardless of its proclaimed agricultural revolution that was presumably wrought by big farmers as otherwise there wouldn’t be record-breaking numbers of suicides by farmers in the state.

The lackadaisical attitude towards the environment of the capital is reflected by total inaction for conservation of its biggest asset, the Upper Lake and its catchments. While despite commissioning of various projects sewage continues to flow into the Lake, its catchments have been thrown open for construction against all environment norms. His fondness for builders has made him sit on the report of the Centre for Planning & Environmentsl Technology which was commissioned by his government to suggest ways & means for the Lake’s conservation. No wonder the quality of its waters is deteriorating by the day.

And, yet Amit Shah, the BJP General Secretary, publicly declared that he had given the chief minister of MP 100/100 marks (presumably for that D word – development). Shah seems to have glossed over the reports of alleged corruption against the chief minister. From the very first term the case of dumpers has been hounding him; then came the infamous Vyapam scandal in which he was allegedly involved. He or members of his family were allegedly involved in illegal mining of sand from River Narmada. It was also alleged that the Narmada Seva Yatra was organised largely in an attempt to cover the trails of illegal sand mining.

 Shah stayed in Bhopal for all of three days and sniffed around, talked to various people, mostly of his own party. But it was widely reported that those who were not the sycophants of the chief minister would not be allowed to meet him. Whether they were eventually able to meet their Party boss or not was, however, not reported. But, strangely what stands out is that Shah couldn’t smell the rot in MP and did not get even a whiff of the alleged cases of corruption against the chief minister. Perhaps he did not have the nose for them. A few issues of local Hindi newspapers would have revealed to him the prevailing state of affairs in the state.

Hence, looks like, people of Madhya Pradesh are condemned to suffer another five years of non-governance, lack of security, corruption and progressive regression under a government which, in all likelihood, is going to be of the same colour in 2019 as the present one.

10th November 2017

*image from internet



Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sports and Indian women


http://www.baghiblog.blogspot.com

­­­­­­­
India's Women's Cricket team
Of late TV watchers would have noticed two ads that show just about teen-aged girls displaying their keenness for playing football and basket ball. While pushing their respective products the advertisers seemed like unwittingly giving a social message too – that of need for girls to be active in sports.

From recent trends it is quite evident that girls have come into sports in a big way. Lately they have earned fresh laurels and the current year has brought in a rich harvest of achievements in women’s sports. Earlier in the year, the women’s cricket team came within sniffing distance of victory in the 2017 edition of the Women’s World Cup. They were well on their way to win it but seemingly were seized with an attack of nerves only to narrowly lose the match to England by mere 9 runs. Nonetheless, there were some very outstanding performances during the tournament. While the skipper Mithali Raj ended up as the tallest scorer in the world of Women’s cricket, there were very commendable performances from Punam Raut, Harmanpreet Kaur, Smriti Mandhana, Deepti Sharma, Jhoolan Goswami etc. The whole lot of them deservedly won for themselves the country’s gratitude as well as admiration.

Others have taken off from the eventful month of July this year. The country’s ace woman shuttler PV Sindhu fought hard at Glasgow at the finals of the World Badminton Championships only to lose to her Japanese opponent very narrowly. Like at the Cricket World Cup, it was a matter of so close yet so far. But Sindhu is only 22 and she has a long way to go. Recently she lost to Saina Nehwal in the National Championship. The win brought Nehwal again into reckoning after Sindhu had lately wrested the initiative from her.

On the heels of this superb performance came the news of victory at the Asia Cup final of Indian Women’s Hockey team. They beat rivals China in a penalty shoot-out. The women’s Hockey team has won the Asia Cup after a long hiatus – of more than ten years. Now that a competent coach is reported to be taking care of the team its performances are going to be keenly watched. The team is likely to prepare hard for the next Olympics.

Others, too, like pistol shooter Hina Sidhu, are also lining up and practicing hard to win laurels for the country. Sidhu recently won Gold along with Jitu Rai in a mixed event of the International Shooting Sport Federation World Cup last month at New Delhi. At the same time, differently-abled Rubina Francis of Jabalpur won another Gold in 10 metre pistol shoot in the World Shooting Para Sport World Cup.

Just the other day news arrived of the fifth Gold won by Mary Kom at the Asian Boxing Championships held at Ho Chi Minh City. She has been consistently winning medals despite her age and increasing obligations. Besides running the family, she takes her duties as a parliamentarian very seriously. And yet she always thanks Jesus for her extra-ordinary performances.

Numerous others have been known for extraordinary performances in various sporting events. Akanksha Singh for one, belonging to the famous Varanasi Sisters, a few years back was acknowledged as the “most valuable player” in the Indian Women’s Basket Ball team. She currently is its captain. Likewise, Deepika Pallikal has earned a name for herself in Women’s Squash championships. She has been playing squash from an early age and is still active in the international arena having won several domestic and international titles.

These are instances of coming good in sports by girls mostly belonging to the middle classes. They have done so despite lack of adequate opportunities. A vast majority do not get even this much despite the huge population of more than 1.26 billion. In a telling article the Financial Times said “With more than 1.2 billion people, of whom 65 per cent are under 35, India would presumably have vast reserves of athletic talent. Yet it has been unable to convert its human potential into global competitive success: a problem not confined to the sports field.” India won only 23 medals since Independence and at the Rio Olympics, though it sent as many as 117 participants, only two won medals and both of them were women.

Indian women are up against various kinds of handicaps that restrain them from participating in sporting events. Firstly, there is pathetic absence of infrastructure for sports, particularly, at the grassroots level in the rural areas. Besides, for centuries the women in the country have been subjected to patriarchy which, in fact, meant outdoor games or athletics were not meant for them. Why, unborn girls in various provinces have been the subjects of male chauvinism. It is a great tribute to the guts and determination of Sakshi Malik and her ilk to pursue a carrier in wrestling in the state of Haryana where the sex ratio is highly skewed in favour of boys and men in the state have had to import brides from the eastern states. Sakshi Malik, perhaps was inspired by her seniors like Phogat sisters, six of whom launched themselves in the wrestling ring and three of them won several Commonwealth Championship medals.
 Apart from Hindu conservatism similar considerations among Muslims do not allow their girls to take part in outdoor events or athletics. Nonetheless, it is a matter of great satisfaction that women In the Muslim majority Jammu and Kashmir have organized themselves into a team to participate in the inter-state women’s cricket championships. 

Women are also held back from sports by lecherous sports officials who also happen to be venal. The fair sex has always had the wrong end of the stick and has cruelly been confined to play their stereotypical role of playing the housewife. Girls from their very childhood have drilled into their heads that activities like sports are for only boys and not for girls as they have to be modest and feminine. The so called “gender gap” is thus built up from the childhood, particularly in the rural areas where education of the girl child is yet to make inroads. Educational deprivation as also nutritional deprivation for girls starts from here holding the girls back from any strenuous sporting activities. The narrow-mindedness of the parents in the rural households is largely responsible for keeping the girls away from schools and its various activities, including sports.

With the 24X7 news and sports channel beaming to majority of Indian households news about sporting activities in the country, things seem to be changing. The regional press publishes numerous items of girls’ creditable performances in the sporting arena. Numerous success stories of girls in sports have stoked what they happened to have witnessed on the TV. The governments at the Centre and in the states have also allocated generous funds for girls’ education and their sporting activities. Hopefully, a decade from now things are likely to be very different.

*photo from internet


Monday, November 13, 2017

Memoirs of an ordinary Indian :: 4


http://www.bagchiblog.blogsot.com

Even the Public Health officials would periodically visit the same crossroad. There used to be a water hydrant embedded in the un-metalled road generally overlaid by dust. They would sweep away the dust and screw on a fairly thick upright pipe that would stand up about couple of feet from the ground. To it they would attach a hose of compatible dimensions and switch on the tap embedded in the hydrant with their implement. Water would gush out of it with a huge force which they would direct to drains on both sides of the roads. The hose used to be long enough to cover most of the drains on the four lanes that I could see.

 The government of the princely state was obviously quite keen on cleanliness and sanitation. The operation would be performed, if I remember, twice a year or so. That the drains of even the lanes like ours used to be washed and cleaned says much about the civic administration of the city of those days. Surely, the main roads too were given similar, if not better, treatment. I recall seeing upright hydrants sticking out of the pavements in some areas like Jayendragunj, like I saw later in Bombay and much later in Central London. I believe not many towns of the size of Gwalior had either drains or hydrants to clean them or to fight fire. In another decade or so, with the advent of independence and, I dare say, demolition of the princely order, all these niceties of municipal services were progressively given a go by. No one knows what happened to the hydrants or to the underground pipes that were connected to the supply source.

***

Another interesting activity used to be of Abdullah, the tonga-walla who used to live in the basti in the lane that went westwards. He used to have a dark, elegant looking horse and he used to take great care of it. After the day’s rounds of carrying people to various places in the town he would leisurely
bring the tonga (horse-drawn cart) to his place and prepare feed for it. Later he would walk the horse to the crossroad down below and let it have a good roll in the dust. Obviously the horse would like it and with gentle persuasions from Abdullah it would continue its roll from one side to another with apparent relish. After it had done with its rolls Abdullah would walk it back to its pad near a tree where he would tether it for the night. In the mornings we could see him massaging his legs before he hitched the horse to his impeccably-maintained tonga for the usual daily grind.


Abdullah used to look quite formidable yet he was a very friendly sort. Tall, dark with a sword-like mustachio he would always be in his white, what is now known in the subcontinent as the, Afghani dress. He would also always have his maroon fez cap perched on his head with tassels hanging on one side. Fez caps have virtually disappeared; now no one seems to be using them. I am not sure but it seems to have been replaced by the crocheted white skull-hugging cap. Abdullah would always look up at our veranda as he went past the house in his tonga and as soon as he spotted me he would call out to me.

(To be continued)

*Photos from intrnet

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Destintions :: Chicago (1998)


http;//www.bagchiblog.blogspot.com

The eponymously named River flowing by Chicago
Approximately 500 miles away was the next place on our itinerary. This happened to be Chicago about which we had read in our Geography lessons in higher secondary level. I still can remember the numerous sets of railway tracks that were shown in a photograph only to display its importance in movement of commodities from east to west and vice versa.

Chicago was also known for its Hoods, the members of the Mafia, also
High rises, the hallmark of Chicago
known as The Mob or the Chicago Outfit. Al Capone was its head for around seven years working his way up from a lowly brothel bouncer. An American mobster, he was also known as Scarface, He became the crime boss during the era of Prohibition in the United States. The Mob was well portrayed in a fictionalized manner in the film Godfather with name changed of the main character as Don Corleone.

high rises through the bare trees
It takes around 5 hours to get to Chicago from Edwardsville. I do not remember whether it was a state highway or a national highway but one could do 100 miles an hour on it with ease. My sister who was driving her car did just that. Around couple of hours later we reached a place which was a pit stop for travellers to relax and refresh themselves. The sandwiches and flasked tea came out. It was a nice place with a large number of trees providing shade to the rough wooden benches and tables. Rest rooms were also available – in short an ideal stop on a highway which Nitin Gadkari would do well to emulate. We sorely lack such facilities on our highways or even at bus stops.

The highway was not like ours which plough through the urban streets.
Chicago from the Skydeck on Sears Tower
Being elevated, branches of it descend down to various areas that are considered important for access to and from a highway. We were to go to Michigan Avenue and as the signage for it appeared down we went towards it off the high way. I found it very interesting and wondered whether these works were taken up during the Great Depression of the early 1930s. I recall having read that the US built roads
Michigan Avenue
and highways during the Depression to boost the sagging economy.

We had been booked into Best Western Hotel on the Michigan Avenue. I do not know whether the street was named after the Michigan State where it could be heading or the Michigan Lake along which it ran. The Hotel was right in front of the Lake Michigan. One would imagine that situated as it was on the Lake-front it would offer great views. There was nothing of this kind as the Lake was
Wacker Drive
mostly shrouded in mist. We hardly could see its waters unless we went close to its shores.

The city is full of high rises, in fact, most of them are skyscrapers. After all it was in Chicago and New York that the first skyscrapers came in. The term “skyscraper” came into common parlance around 1880s. I remember to have read a humourous book “How to Scrape Skies” long ago by the European humourist George Mikes making fun of Americans and their

On the Skydeck
way of life and love for big things like their skyscrapers and long and stretched out limousines.

Now that we were in Chicago we had to visit the tallest sky-scraper in the US. It was the Sears Tower that was built around 1970's by Sears Roebuck, world’s largest retailer. I remember to have seen its very fat catalogue in Mumbai once. There was hardly anything in the world that
Another picture from the Skydeck
was not displayed in the catalogue. Sears built the Tower expecting a high growth rate to accommodate at one place all its rising numbers of employees dispersed all over the town. The growth didn’t materialize and competition from various sources in fact cut into the growth. Around the time we visited the Tower, Sears was occupying only about half of it and many of its modules were vacant. Progressively
Shimmering waters of Chicago River
Sears vacated various floors it occupied, eventually vacating it altogether and yet it continued to have the legal rights to its name being attached to the Tower. Only when a British Insurance Company leased a portion of the building and obtained the building’s naming rights it came to be known as the Willis Tower in 2009

The Skydeck is located on the 103rd floor where visitors are swooshed up in 60 seconds or so in high speed elevators. At 1300-odd ft. it is the
Another view of Chicago
highest observation deck in the US and one can see below some pigmy high rises as also view the plains sprawling in front for miles. I could spot Chicago’s busy O’Hare Airport. However, nothing much could be seen through the haze of Lake Michigan. Yes. One does feel the wind up there and Chicago is known for its high winds and is also called “the windy city”. On days of very high winds people visiting the Tower have felt it swaying.

Yet another view of Chicago
As it happens whenever we are abroad we are fascinated to see the “desis” in foreign environment. So off we went to the Devon Avenue (curiously pronounced “Devaan”) where a critical mass of South Asians live, work, do business and thrive. A major east-west street, Devon avenue takes off from near Lake Michigan and ends up a few kilometers away near the O’Hare Airport literally cutting across the town. It is so long that portions of it have been re-named after, inter alia, the leaders of South Asia like Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammed Ali Jinnah and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. One can find on this avenue Assyrian Americans, Russian Americans, Indian Americans, Pakistani Americans, Bangladeshi Americans and numerous other varieties of Americans. The Native Americans, the Injuns, however, remain elusive.


 As we got off the vehicle we trotted towards a shop that had even Bengali characters on its signboard. It was a Bangladeshi outfit indeed
A thoroughbred skyscraper taken from a car window
and the kind of fish they had imported from Bangladesh was remarkable. They had every kind looking bright and fresh for which a Bengali would walk miles to get. Apart from the fish they had the spices that go with the different kinds of fishes. Besides, a young marriageable Bong wouldn’t need to go to India or Bangladesh as he could very well shop here for his elaborate and interminable wedding.


Another outstanding feature of the City is the multilevel Wacker Drive. Most of it is double decked with the upper level is meant for the
Abraham Lincoln's house in Springfield
local traffic and the lower one for the through traffic and heavy vehicles. A part of it has a third level which is known as the Lower Lower Wacker Drive. For some distance Wacker Drive runs along the Chicago River which too has a rather illustrious history. Its flow was reversed to prevent it from carrying our civilisational bye product to the Lake Michigan in the shape of sewage. It was a complicated civil
A neighbouring period structure
  structureengineering project of the 19th Century which involved in creating several canals and deepening some others. We went along this remarkable River and saw its clear shimmering waters in the lights of the surrounding sky-scrapers.


On our way back around 200 miles down the Highway is Springfield, the capital of Illinois State and also the repository of the heritage of
On the road in front of Lincoln's house
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the US, a favourite American of mine despite his many flaws. We visited his house in the National Heritage Centre that has been created for its protection. He lived few years of his life in this house where he fathered a few children and lost one. The house has been kept as it was in Lincoln’s time with the same furniture and other fixtures. A double-storied affair was imposing enough for a President-to-be considering the several other restored structures in the neighbourhood that seem puny in comparison. Nonetheless, these roo have been restored and thrown open to visitors to enable them to get a feel of the life and times of Lincoln.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Memoirs of an ordinary Indian :: 3


http://www.bagchiblog.blogspot.com

The shocking picture of manhole cleaners is from internet
Although generally quiet with very few people moving around, the crossroad, nonetheless, was never short of activities. One of the sights that was eminently watchable for a toddler like me was that of a man disappearing into a manhole located in the middle of the crossroad. It wasn’t visible in normal times, overlaid by dust as it used to be. The municipal sanitation workers, however, used to know its location as, indeed, they would have known of numerous others that were allotted to them for giving them their kind of treatment.

Two sanitary workers would periodically arrive at the site and sweep away the layers of dust accumulated on the lid of the manhole. They would then force open the lid to expose the manhole. Putting away the lid, one of them would peer into the darkness of the hole, tie a longish rope around his waist and climb down into the hole with a biggish dirty-looking bucket tied to another rope. Obviously, there were steps leading to the bottom. After sometime the man in the hole would holler and the other one standing by its side would start pulling the bucket up. I could see it was heavy as the man would use all his strength to pull it up. The vessel used to be full of dark gooey muck and would be emptied on a side of the road. The process was repeated several times until the sewer lines were cleared. At the end of it all the man in the hole would emerge from it, dirty and sweaty and the muck sticking to his body. The men would then replace the lid on the hole and leave for the next manhole. They would, however, leave a small mound of black earth to be picked up and taken away later by other sanitary workers.

The practice seems to be prevailing even till today and that too, of all the places, in the capital of the country. A few weeks ago there were at least two reports of sanitary workers being killed as soon as they descended down into manholes knocked out by the noxious gases. The municipal corporations of Delhi are rich and at least a couple of them have mechanical equipment to suck out the muck to clear the sewer lines. But apparently there is lack of coordination among them and, in all probability, the equipment are lying in disrepair for want of proper maintenance. The reports said that the work of cleaning up the manholes is contracted out but the contractors employ daily-wagers on a pittance and make them work without any protective gear – gas masks, gloves or gumboots or whatever. All this is happening in this day and age in the capital of the country seems anachronistic ... and yet life goes on. A man dies in a manhole but there are many others who offer themselves to take his place.

***

Today manual scavenging is under attack and rightly so. Back then it was all considered normal – something that was not out of the ordinary. I remember a very dirty old man of low caste, a “dalit” in today’s parlance, in soiled clothes would routinely pass by carrying night-soil on his head collected from the area’s service latrines and dump it all in an open-top metal cart parked on the lane that went Eastwards. The same cart he would occasionally take away, I don’t know where, pulled by an equally filthy looking buffalo, presumably to dump the smelly contents in another dump. Sometimes I would see his children of around my age would be sitting on the sharp edges of the cart and seemed to be quite happy to have the ride; the foul smell didn’t seem to bother them despite being in such close proximity of the muck. The same man would periodically come to our house to clean our flush latrine – clearly a rarity in Gwalior more than seventy odd years ago. After he left, my mother would follow him pouring buckets of water on the inner veranda and down the flight of stairs that led out of the house in a bid supposedly to wash away all the infection that he carried.


 Looking back one can only wonder at the nonchalance with which such irrational practices as untouchability were accepted by the community. Those who grew up within the caste system never probably spared a thought for the practices that were so dehumanising. A dalit clearing away night soil and carrying it on his or her head to dump it a furlong or two away was accepted as normal and routine even among the educated classes. The practice of carrying night soil on one’s head has largely been discontinued but the abhorrent practice of untouchability continues – in some places with much greater vehemence, especially in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The vehemence with which the caste system is observed can be judged from a recent report from the south which said a young dalit was badly roughed up by upper caste boys for daring to keep a moustache twirled up at its ends – seemingly a prerogative of the upper castes.