Category Archives: Questions

One world

Many thousand kilometres from my home in the Deccan, I sit under a clouded English sky, ancient hymns playing the background, reading about elections in Israel, chatting with a colleague from Pakistan.

And fail completely to understand why we war.


Bangalore, Ahmedabad

Update: This was written soon after the Ahmedabad blasts, when the toll hadn’t risen beyond 12.


I haven’t been reading the reports. I can’t bear to. Yes, they were low intensity blasts, yes, fewer than twenty people died. In a country that regularly loses hundreds to floods, train and bus accidents, and spurious liquor, this seems like nothing. A friend in Bangalore called it a “lame attempt at terror”. Indeed. The dead barely ran into double-digits. When did we become so cynical?

But Bangalore is almost home. Madivala is where the KPN office and pick-up point is. I’ve sat on the steps of that complex dozens of times, unwillingly waiting for the 10.30 pm bus back to Madras. Adugodi is where I took many a flirty walk with a suitor, winding our oblivious way through narrow, noisy, dusty streets where every other shack is a two-wheeler garage. Mysore Road is where, years before the maddening traffic arrived, newly bought two-wheelers were driven way above the speed limit, causing me to feign fear and tighten my grip on his shoulder.

And Ahmedabad. The city of my childhood. Raped and pillaged, not by barbarian hordes from central Asia, but its own people. An Ahmedabad I have been terrified to visit in recent times, for in my mind, rivers of blood still flow on the ‘city’ side of Ellis Bridge. But also an Ahmedabad I knew when it was gentle, laid-back, generous and most of all, safe. An Ahmedabad of summers that began right after the riotousness of Holi, where sand storms blew grit through the windows, into your teeth. An Ahmedabad of spectacular processions and never-ending dandiyas, where, yes, Muslims too danced the night away.

I cannot help but wonder – the Bhajpa is in power in both places. Is that why? Is this revenge? Is this the beginning of a counter strike? In which the targets are so random, so unspecific as to be almost democratic? Is this a message – vote killers into power and prepare to die yourself? The murmers have always existed, haven’t they? But one only begins to hear and fear them, when they are uttered so close to home.

Imagined futures

The evening was spent with my 5-year old nephew. A model child who does not fuss about food, who puts his toys away when told to and who doesn’t ask for chocolates when accompanying his mom to the shop, he sometimes unnerves me with his perfect behaviour. Before the sun went down, we were in the garden playing something not unlike Calvinball. When it got too dark to be out, we went indoors, got ourselves some banana milkshake and settled on the couch.

His parents work. While they are dedicated to their children and do an admirable job of managing career and family, there is little time for some small luxuries like story-telling. Oh, of course my nephew has books. Tons of them. They read a few out to him each night, not once do they forget. And he in turn loves being read to. What he does not get though, is a simple story, without the aid and input of illustrations, one that forces him to rely entirely on his imagination for the pictures.

Storytelling takes time. Even if you know the story thoroughly and are familiar with each detail and nuance, the narrating of it all is a fine art. Some people are natural, some learn through a lifetime of telling and retelling. It is a demanding exercise, one that requires you to provide answers to endless questions, to adapt to the listener (Teacher says we must not cut trees. So the woodcutter is a bad man!) and to embellish.

Appa is a marvellous story-teller and so are many of my aunts. My childhood was filled with thousands of stories, from traditional sources like the Mahabharatha and not-so-traditional ones like Ananda Vikatan (a post on those delightful mama-mami kathais soon!). My nephew, however, is not as lucky. His parents do not have the energy at the end of a working day for the involvement of an original narration, it is easier to depend on (gorgeously illustrated) books and comics to create the magic.

This evening I decided to tell him a story, the time-tested way, seating him on my lap with some milkshake for nutrition and vadams for nibbles. He was a little puzzled that was no book to look into, but decided to give me a chance nevertheless. I wound through the trials and tribulations of Hansel and Gretel’s young lives and he listened carefully, almost never interrupting. When we reached the end, he jumped up and said he wanted to hear another. After dinner, I told him. Ever obedient, he nodded happily.

Having sent him off to his food, I turned to my computer and found an email from a friend with a link to this article in Slate. He had sent it along because he does some peripheral work for the OLPC project, and was concerned that studies like the one reported may derail what he sees as an important and necessary effort. Discovering that PCs may take away from homework and other activities is certainly disturbing, but I don’t see this as very different from the fears expressed about the effects of TV on an earlier generation.

What does bother me is that technology is increasingly substituting imagination (not a new concern, this) – my nephew finds it unusual not to have a book with pictures to accompany a story. Will his children find it strange to see books in which pictures don’t move? I worry that being constantly exposed to someone else’s vision of the world, we may never learn to create our own universes. I may be old-fashioned, but I cling to my mental pictures of the Enchanted Wood, of Narnia, even Hogwarts and fear that watching the movie versions will erase the “original” in my mind.

For all the doomsday predictions made about TV, the idiot-box generation has survived, with its imagination intact. In fact some of the most stunningly original, vivid and spectacular narratives of today that appear in the form of video games are the work of that cohort. Stories and novels continue to be written and read. More books are sold today than ever before. More prizes are given and more continue to be instituted. It is a victorious refutal of predictions that this generation would lose its way, its ability to imagine better worlds choked by the constant barrage of stimuli that fills modern lives.

Despite all the that, my original concern remains. Are we losing the ability to engage ourselves without need for external contrivances? As our worlds get ever more filled with devices of distraction, will we lose the ability to be good enough company for ourselves? Will my nephew, on a day without books, without electricity, without his football, still manage to have a good time?

Want to know, but afraid to ask – 1

What do the blind see in their dreams?

Good news. Not.

Someone has made the ‘ideal’ Google news page, complete with all manner of ‘good news’ ranging from freedom for Tibet to new books in the Harry Potter series. I smiled, giggled even. Then I clicked the links.

The Chinese withdrawal from Tibet links to a real-life story about the al-Queda resurfacing in Pakistan. The one about Iraq goes to a report on explosions in Islamabad. Potter news links to a bitchy piece about Victoria Beckham. I didn’t want to click anymore.

The contrasts wiped the smile off my face, reality was a resounding slap.

Perhaps not knowing that better things are possible is preferable. If we think this is the best we can have, we may actually learn to be be happy with it. Won’t we?

Cab drivers to unite the world?

A short, interesting piece in the NYT about things lost and found in the city’s taxis. The stories are about the things returned, of course, some of enormous value (case containing 31 diamond rings, a Stardivarius violin, etc), and not about those lost forever.

Still I couldn’t help noticing that of of the five honest cabbies in the story, the three whose names are mentioned are Muslim. And one of the beneficiaries of their honesty is an orthodox Jew.

Maybe its time we gave them new jobs as ambassadors of integrity and peace in the world. Oh wait, that’s the job they already have.