Saturday, May 28, 2011

Remembering Ashok

I received an SMS from Western Railway yesterday. The message said “Your hurry could lead your family to worry. Save your life for your family. Use subways and foot over bridges to cross railway tracks”. I would have instantly deleted the message as I normally do, but my mind went back – many many years ago, to a person I knew, who had died while crossing the Railway tracks…..

Ordinarily, it would seem surprising that so many deaths occur while crossing railway tracks. After all, a train is predictable – it is easily visible due to its size, it does not start or stop suddenly, runs on well defined tracks and has much less maneuverability than say, traffic on the road. Yet, statistics indicate that more than 2,000 people die every year crossing the railway tracks in Mumbai alone i.e. six per day. A few months before I was born, my grandmother died this way. And nearly twenty years ago, so did Ashok.

Ashok was nobody. Working as a peon in a government company, Ashok was as nondescript a person as one could be. He was barely five feet tall, frail, dark and wore thick framed glasses. He was soft-spoken, innocent and harmless. Qualities that made him the butt of jokes and taunts in his office. And yet, Ashok took all of it in his stride, never getting angry or upset. He seemed to have reconciled to the fact that this was bound to happen. As if the sole purpose of his existence was to give others a superiority complex. Everyday, Ashok came to office on time, and did his work diligently and sincerely, such as wiping off the furniture, dusting off the heavily stuffed files stacked in rustic cabinets, or brining tea for the staff from outside. He never complained about anything. Occasionally, he borrowed money from me. Hundred rupees, two hundred, sometimes five hundred rupees, promising to repay after the salary day. He always kept his promise. Until the last one.

One evening, Ashok left office as usual, and never returned. He was run over by a train while crossing the tracks on his way home at Jogeshwari. 

When the rich and the famous die, obituaries are written about them, praises sung, and their names immortalized. I am sure Ashok had no such luck. Except for his immediate family who must have felt his absence, Ashok was soon forgotten, and nobody spoke of him ever again.

Until this message that came to me yesterday reminded me about him again.

We all know that we are going to die one day. What we don’t know is, when and how the death will come. When Ashok left office that fateful evening, little did he know that his time had come. And for him, like the two thousand others in Mumbai that year (and every year), God chose the Railways as the engine of death.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Trekking the Himalayas

Recently, I met a couple who have mountaineering as their passion.

Divyesh Muni is a Chartered Accountant by profession. But instead of getting lost in numbers, he would rather prefer to loose himself in the deep ravines of the Himalayas. One month every year, Divyesh takes time off from his busy schedule and heads off to the Himalayas for a dose of trekking and mountain climbing. He has trekked extensively in Garhwal, Kumaon and Ladakh, even going further up north to the Siachen Glacier. Till date, Divyesh has participated in 19 Himalayan expeditions and climbed 25 peaks, several of them more than 20,000 feet above sea level. Not surprisingly, he is a winner of several awards, such as Best Mountaineering Expedition of the year 2005 and the Best Mountaineer of the Year 2009-10.

Trekking is not an easy hobby. You need an extraordinary amount of mental and physical fitness to undertake such treks. Only one who is very passionate about it can do it. The trekking gear is heavy and expensive. You need to learn atleast the basics of first aid. And yes, you need to learn to cook as well! Be ready to trek for days at a stretch, with a loadful of necessities on your back, in a hostile environment.  The climate can change suddenly, and without a warning. Last year when there was a cloudburst at Ladakh, Divyesh was there. Hundreds were killed. Anything can happen. You may lose your way in the middle of nowhere. Or after trekking for days, you may face a peak that seems almost impossible to surmount. How do you respond? You need an extraordinary amount of mental and physical fitness to overcome the situation.

 But the returns are awesome! At times, you are literally at the top of the world. You get to see the true beauty of this planet – stunning mountains, astonishing peaks, breathtaking views from the top. See sights that no tourist has seen before!

A trip begins when you start planning for it. You ready the gear. Plan the route. Often, there are permits to be taken, as peaks in the Himalayas are under military control. Proper maps are either not available, or not shared due to security reasons. Many a times, you have to take local villagers as guides and they become a part of your trekking entourage. Incidentally, Divyesh says, some of the best peaks for mountain climbing are available closer home in the Sahyadris. Here, the trips are easier to plan and execute, and yet all the challenges are still there. On one such trip, Divyesh met Vineeta, and in an instant, they knew they were made for each other.

Vineeta is an accomplished mountain climber in her own right, and has several Himalayan expeditions to her credit. She was one of the first women in the world to have trekked the entire length of the Himalayas in 1997.  She walked over 4500 kms. across the Himalayas, crossing 39 passes over 10000 ft in altitude, covering the entire Himalayas from Arunachal Pradesh in the East to Jammu & Kashmir in the West, going across Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal, Garhwal, Kumaon, Spiti and Ladakh. The trip took more than a year to plan, and seven months to complete! She has also visited the Siachen Glacier and trekked its entire length (72 kms. in all!) to the head of the glacier and reached “Indira Saddle”, at the Northern most point of India. Closer home, Vineeta has been trekking & rock climbing in the Sahyadris for more than 30 years, and has visited almost every Fort in Maharashtra.

When the Munis are not climbing mountains, they are busy doing other good things. Divyesh conducts adventure camps for the children, and has been an instructor for rock climbing. He has given several presentations on various Himalayan expeditions, conducted seminars & workshops. Vineeta has been an award winning painter and a long distance swimmer too! She guides groups to the Manasarovar and Kailash, and is currently writing a book on her experiences in the Himalayas.

The Munis are excellent photographers too, something that seems almost a ‘sine qua non’ for someone with such a passion! Thankfully, their love for the planet and its people doesn’t end with their treks. They are active with The Himalayan Club, an 83 years old organization that has adopted two villages in the Ladakh region which were destroyed in last year’s cloudburst. The villages are being rebuilt with funds collected from charity. As part of this, Vineeta and Divyesh organized a photography exhibition recently at NCPA in Mumbai. Funds collected from the sale of photographs would go to rebuild the houses of the villages adopted by them and to a children’s hostel that was destroyed in the calamity. Those of you who may be interested in buying their photographs can get in touch with me for their contact details.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sunday, May 15, 2011

'Left' in the lurch

The landslide victory of the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal is one of the best things to have happened to India in a long time. Not that I am very bullish on Mamata, but the ouster of the Left Front was something badly needed for the revival of West Bengal. As they say, it was a necessary, though not a sufficient condition to revive West Bengal!

To be fair to the Left, the Left Front leaders are honest and non-corrupt.  They have been known to have not compromised on their principles for the sake of power. In today’s political environment, these are exceptional qualities, and rarely seen in other political parties or their leaders. But that’s about it. That’s all that is there to the Left. Unfortunately, that’s not all that Bengal needs, it needs a lot more. And the Left could not give it to them, not in three decades.

There was a time when Bengal was the leading state in a prosperous Bharat. The British East India Company first set up shop in Calcutta, and did business from there. Later, Bengal was at the forefront of the freedom struggle, and produced several exceptional freedom fighters, who in turn inspired hundreds of others across the country to join the freedom struggle. Bengal suffered the most (along with Punjab) in the post-partition riots, but the Bengali spirit survived the blow. In Independent India, Bengal produced several exceptional and talented individuals. Take a look at the country’s think tank – the top bureaucrats, economists, journalists, bankers, sportsmen, artists, or in virtually any other field, Bengalis dominate. I myself have several Bengali friends & acquaintances, who I say are clearly above average, exceptionally sharp and intelligent. Bengali women are extremely beautiful, and the film industry has seen several of them.  

But still, Bengal is dying. Kolkata has already lost the number 3 slot among metros to Bangalore. And outside of Kolkata, things are just terrible. On most of the economic parameters today, West Bengal ranks at the bottom of the list among India’s states. The physical infrastructure in West Bengal is pathetic. The Calcutta Airport is no bigger today than what it was probably a quarter of a century ago, and resembles the airport of an underdeveloped African country. When I drove from Bagdogra to Gangtok in September last year, I was shocked to find the state of the roads even just outside the Bagdogra Airport. There were virtually no roads to speak of, just potholes, big large potholes. I asked my cab driver about it. He said it was monsoon. I persisted, asking him so what if it is monsoon, it is monsoon in Maharashtra as well, but the roads are not this bad. He said nothing. The people seemed to have resigned themselves to their fate. India’s economic resurgence, subsequent to the liberalization of the economy since the nineties, seemed to have completely bypassed this state. Thanks to the Left.

Now that the Left has been left behind, I hope it gives West Bengal a new lease of life.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

All criminals are equal, but some are more equal than others

After the Second World War, Nazi War criminals were hunted down, arrested and tried in Courts of Law (remember the Nuremberg trials, the Auschwitz trials and so on). More recently, Radovan Karadzic, accused of war crimes and genocide in Bosnia, including the Srebrenica massacre where 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed, was arrested and is currently being tried in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. But apparently, a different yardstick applies to criminals such as Saddam Hussain, Osama Bin Laden and some others. No court cases for them, but instant justice. 

All criminals are equal, but some are more equal than others. Obviously, Osama was not one of them.

Monday, May 2, 2011

What Bin Laden's death means for India

Today the U.S. government announced that Osama Bin Laden has been killed. I have not read the comments of political pundits and experts on this development, but my view is that this is a very unfortunate development for India. This is why:

Bin Laden’s death will increase the pressure on United States to withdraw from Af-Pak. Already; the U.S. was committed to withdraw in 2014, now that date may even be brought forward. The U.S. Presidential election is due in end - 2012 and a “successful” withdrawal from Afghanistan will help boost Obama’s low popularity rating. But the U.S. withdrawal from Pakistan, whenever it happens, would mean terrorist organizations such as the ISI, Lashkar – e- Toiba etc. will now have a free hand. They will rule Pakistan, and exercise control over its nuclear arsenal. In fact, I won’t be surprised if it is revealed one day that some ‘insider’ such as the ISI, the Pak Army or some other terrorist element actually betrayed Bin Laden and allowed him to be killed. It was the only way to get U.S. forces out of Pakistan and keep the Pak terror machine intact.

This is happening at a time when India has one of its weakest leaderships in recent times, with a puppet President and a puppet Prime Minister, remote controlled by a lady of mediocre intelligence and questionable leadership qualities, who owes her present status to the fact that she was married into the family of the then Prime Minister of the India.

Throughout their now 7-year old tenure, the Sonia – Manmohan combo have been decidedly pro-U.S. They now need to stop the U.S. from withdrawing from Pakistan until the entire terror infrastructure is destroyed. Otherwise, things will only get worse for India. Manmohan has done nothing positive in his second tenure. He now needs to do at least one good thing for India and its people. 

I am sure Chidambaram must be a worried man. I am.