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India is still a good story

As election fever grips the nation with Rajasthan, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh in poll mode; as the mind grapples with the several grey areas in the charges of sexual assault leveled at erstwhile respected and now much maligned citizens; as I worry about a nation pushing its multitudes of poor further to the sidelines in its current state of enamor for a particular strain of neo-liberal thinking…

In the midst of all this, I read with delight the news about India’s Mars spacecraft successfully exiting Earth’s orbit on its way to the Red Planet. I realized I had been worrying in my subconscious mind about the craft going off track and the profound sense of relief and pride that washed over me was both amusing and heartening.

I have to remind myself everyday that India is a good story. Not just because it is my country and I have more than my share of patriotism inside me, but because I see immense positives everyday. We are not a nation that has given up, we are on the street trying our best everyday. I refuse to believe in that self-created image of Indians as a people happy with status quo. No, we are restless for change and that is hugely hopeful. Let’s not give into the media-created hype of negativity, but look around us at all the success stories and brave attempts being made every day by ordinary people who want to live a good life, do a good job and leave a sound legacy behind for an undoubtedly capable generation to take on.

Revisiting the idea of Patriotism

I often wonder about patriotism. It is a concept I have defended, debated and doubted at various points in my life, but I have always been unashamedly patriotic.On Republic Day, as Nupur and me drove together to a party, we were trying to examine how our concepts have altered over time. Not only in the sense that we now see patriotism very differently as adults in our mid-30s, cynicism and facts crowding our judgement, but also we wondered about how children saw it today.

As a school going child in the ’80s, my consciousness was strongly influenced by adult discussions about Indo-Pak wars in the decades just gone by and we still indulged in a lot of role play that involved skirmishes with the neighboring country. I remember Gautam, my neighbor, would constantly ask stuff like: If you lost an arm fighting against Pakistan, would you want to die or live? I would never know how to even begin answering such a question and would find it hard to try and imagine myself bleeding and cut up in  a war zone somewhere! At school, the Indian freedom movement that overthrew colonial suppression was a large part of what we were taught, through history lessons and every day in the songs we sang and the speeches made at Assembly time for the birth and death commemorations of various national leaders. The glory of our ancient past was yet another refrain that was relentlessly drilled into our impressionable minds.

So yes, my initial ideas of patriotism did involve a muscle flexing superior image of India as a large, powerful nation in the regional context. At the same time, I was also perceiving the image of my country as poor, backward, under-developed and highly inefficient as seen by the West through adult discussions when they returned from abroad or when the various NRI friends my parents had as well as relatives returned for visits. Their disparaging tone hurt me, scared me and baffled me as I struggled to understand the contradictions in the ideas I had about India.

Each year, when I watch the Republic Day Parade on TV, I wonder at the colossal amount of resources that go into that spectacle. I wonder why we need to, in this so-called post-modern era, show the world what missiles we own and how well our bands march and what culture flourishes in our States. This time, I went to see the spectacle for myself. And I was drawn into the old-style tear jerking, chest-swelling-with-pride experience of patriotic feeling. It is a superbly choreographed show indeed and even the cynic in me just decided to shut up and enjoy!

The kids were enthralled, each with their own perceptions. Udai loved the marching, Aadyaa liked the dances. They both practiced the National Anthem in the car, but I realized they are not too sure about which one is the Anthem and which one is the song. And they have no clue about the National Pledge! Those of you who remember the endless jokes about “All Indians are by brothers and sisters” would be having a good laugh. But yes, times have changed. Today’s youngsters have much less doubts about India’s capabilities and see themselves as citizens of this nation with undoubted pride. They associate the image of India with technology and competence, and are less obsessed about military or cultural superiority. In fact, at nearly nine, I think Udai is in more of a global citizen mind frame and is barely conscious of his identity as an ‘Indian’. Quite a contrast from how we were at the same age!

So do we consciously inculcate patriotism in young Indians? And how do we deal with the contradictions in the image we offer to them? I don’t subscribe going back to the hyped distorted way history was often presented to us, for instance. Or do we allow them to develop their own brand of patriotism as they grow, learn more, analyze what is happening around them?

As an unashamed patriot, I know I influence my children without even knowing it to take immense pride in their nation. For its achievements certainly, but also for its diversity and pluralism, and for the simple fact that it is our home.

Busy streets, quiet insides: Peeking into chawl life in Parel, Mumbai

Obviously, I didn’t do much thinking about the architecture of Parel and other parts of central Bombay when I grew up there. Bombay of the ’80s had a distinct flavor about it. I remember it as very working class. The mills were still functional and I have memories of visiting people in the chawls that the mill workers lived in. Now, you drive through a city of dead, decaying mills and tall glitzy (mostly ugly too!) skyscrapers. But what I absolutely love about this part of the city is the street front mixed-use architecture. It epitomizes all the good stuff we keep elucidating about mixed-use. Because the ground floor has street-facing retail shops, pavements must be in good order and there are always people around and about.

Mixed use main road in Parel, built in the European tradition

Mixed use main road in Parel, built in the European tradition

Built concurrent with the industrial age in Europe, iron was widely used as a structural material to build these chawls and mainstreet mixed-use structures

Built concurrent with the industrial age in Europe, iron was widely used as a structural material to build these chawls and mainstreet mixed-use structures

Intricate details!

Intricate details!

Parel was one of the original islands of Mumbai and came up as a business and industrial district starting the late 18th century all the way upto the beginning of the 20th century. The mills prospered and chawls were built by both the government and the mill owners to accommodate the men and women who worked in these mills. The chawl typology meant sharing a common entry passage as well as street areas and life was lived as much on the street as inside the home, which was usually overcrowded and dingy.

To put some figures in, in 1865 there 10 mills in Mumbai employing 6500 workers. At the peak of the textile boom in 1980, the mills employed near on 300,000 workers. And then they shut down in 1982 after the Great Bombay Textile Strike.

The residential areas are entered through a street that branches off the main roads creating small self-contained residential enclaves. Similar to the katras of Delhi and the pols of Amdavad, you step inside a world of quaint silence and domesticity, a world in which people know each other and your foreign footsteps break the comfortable humdrum of lives.

I got curious stares when I entered Krishnanagar in Parel. It’s beautiful gates beckoned me in. At the entrance, I saw a group of men sitting and reading papers, their red tikas displayed proudly as caste marks, denoting that this as a Hindu neighborhood. There is a temple inside the enclosure, people seem to know each other. Old ladies sat out on the common verandah talking, stitching, some people were getting ready to go to work, a young man was brushing his teeth while staring down at me, a young housewife in her trademark cotton printed nightie was walking her dog…It was a bustling middle class neighborhood with homes that proudly displayed plants, pictures, ornamentation of all types.

Life inside Krishnanagar had the humdrum pace that was familiar from my childhood in these parts, even though I never lived in a chawl like this

Life inside Krishnanagar had the humdrum pace that was familiar from my childhood in these parts, even though I never lived in a chawl like this

Another shot! Just because I wanted to think about how this might have been a long time ago!

Another shot! Just because I wanted to think about how this might have been a long time ago!

The entrance: Shot from inside Krishnanagar

The entrance: Shot from inside Krishnanagar

Pride in their home is something I distinctly remember. Manda mavshi who looked after me when I was a child had relatives who were mill workers. Their homes were always pretty, clean and organized

Pride in their home is something I distinctly remember. Manda mavshi who looked after me when I was a child had relatives who were mill workers. Their homes were always pretty, clean and organized

The gleaming two-wheelers in front of that stunning entry arch made a statement

The gleaming two-wheelers in front of that stunning entry arch made a statement

One gentleman stopped me to ask why I was taking pictures. He was reassured by my reasonably fluent Marathi and accepted my explanation that I had lived nearby as a child and was revisiting the neighborhood out of sheer nostalgia. His attitude was not threatening, but clearly voyeurism wasn’t going to be tolerated here!

Uncharacteristically, I decided to enter the little temple and pay my respects to the Gods within. Perhaps that’s what helped me make it to my flight later that day, despite many obstacles, just in the nick of time!

The world class Virasat-e-Khalsa museum: An architectural delight! Oct 2, 2012

Aside from having a good time with my girl friends, some new some old, the focus of my outing to the Doab region of Punjab was the chance to see the Virasat-e-Khalsa museum that opened in Anandpur Sahib only in November last year.

Moshe Safdie, an Israeli architect won the international competition to design the museum, then called the Khalsa Heritage Memorial Complex way back in the early 90s. We must have been first or second year students at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) when he came to speak to us about the design, the concepts behind it and his vision for this monument. I remember thinking it was rather outlandish (scroll down this page to see the sketches he must have shown us), but I was impressed by Safdie’s self-assured demeanor and exotic accent!

The museum was our first destination and we went there just as soon as we had dumped our luggage at the Bharatgarh Fort (will blog about that quaint place tomorrow!) and gulped our evening tea! It was a Sunday and the crowds were overwhelming. For a museum in rural Punjab, I was pretty surprised.

Teeming with people…first glimpse

Entrance- At this point, I have no clue what to expect inside!

We were ushered in by a smart police officer of few words who our hosts, the local royal family had requested to assist us. Our cameras and bags were kept in lockers by a smart young man who spoke good English, besides Hindi and Punjabi. In a few moments, we found ourselves in the middle of an audio-visual treat. Orijit Sen and his 13 collaborators have created this 3D panorama of life in the Punjab- a three floor high mural full of color, depicting daily activity, people and cultures, rural-urban transitions, rituals, celebrations, street scenes, architectural sections of traditional typologies like havelis and caravan sarais…..all accompanied to sounds depicting seasons, local music. It’s hard to explain. All I can say is that you start the experience here on a most unusual note; it’s not what you expect from a museum that claims it is about Sikh history and heritage!

The rest of the galleries- and there are 14 open at present out of a planned 28- did depict that history, but it was far from boring. Fabric, texture, other unusual materials, light and an array of crafts have been used to stunning effect to depict the evolution of Sikhism and the life of the main Sikh gurus. At no point does the content get preachy or overtly religious. Audio visual displays puncture the visuals and text to make it easier on the senses. Hordes of villagers from surrounding areas pass through,awestruck and absorbed. This is a world class museum that isn’t just for the elite and the lovers of history and art. It’s for the people who live the heritage it depicts.

It was dark when we stepped outside again and the magic of Moshe Safdie’s architecture hit us like a punch in the stomach. The lighting highlighted the bold form, the water body created an added dimension of playful reflections. Serene and monumental, the walk around the museum transported me into another world. A full moon added the poetic touch. After a long long time, was I affected this way by the sheer power of architectural design. For all those of you who are architects, or think they have it in them to appreciate architecture, the Virasat-e-Khalsa is a must-visit. Bundled with the peacefulness of the Gurudwara next to it, it’s a pilgrimage for the eyes and for the spirit!

To visit the museum, drive to Anandpur Sahib near Ropar. It is about an hour and a half from Chandigarh and the roads are excellent. The museum is closed on Monday and Sundays are usually crowded. The audio guide is available in English, Hindi and Punjabi and is excellent, we were told by our hosts.

Bhakra, the temple of modernity- Oct 1, 2012

It’s turned out to be a spiritual sort if day, or at least a day of visiting places of worship or belief- Bhakra Dam, Naina Devi temple and the Anandpur Sahib Gurudwara Keshgarh Sahib.
Our first stop and one that took most of our day was the Bhakra Dam, a monument to modernity, a temple that celebrates Indian independence and progress. The dam is a hydro electric power project that powers much of north India. It also supplies water for irrigation to a large area, enabling to a large extent India’s green revolution. It’s impressive certainly and the scenery is breathtakingly beautiful, but the scale is so large both of the structure and the landscape, that it’s a bit hard to take in. There is considerable security. ‘No photography, no parking’ proclaim several large signs and security personnel are pretty sharp about stopping people from clicking and generally putting the fear of God in visitors.
We walked past the dam and peered down to see a mountain of silt and garbage on the other side. All feelings of national pride came instantly crashing down. Irritated, we asked the security boys about this. The garbage is what the river brings in with it and it gets caught on this side of the dam. There is no sophisticated machine to dredge or clean this stuff. ‘By boat, by hand’ the security guy informed us!
Even on the boat ride onto the vast stupefying waters of the Gobind Sagar Lake, I counted an array of alien objects- plastic bottles of course, slippers, medicines intact in their plastic sheath, condom, etc even though it was largely clean. I sat there and thought about how people dump all manner of rubbish into the streams and rivers that flow by and how the lake and the dam have to deal with all that trash.
We also talked about the dam being a manifestation of how man has interfered with nature. We spoke of the complexity of issues rehabilitation of villages drowned in dam projects. Of course, back then when this dam was built people whose village was drowned considered it a sacrifice to the ‘temple of modern India’ or so my mum tells me from her memories of the time. We also spoke of how that very flat enormous lake actually filled a deep gorge and we were floating around on the top of something that went way down!
More about the other two sites later (with pics) and here are some clandestine clicks of the dam and surrounds.



Set in a bygone era, The Artist is really about contemporary issues like tackling obsolescence and remaining competitive- March 1, 2012

Watched The Artist last night. The film is a Guru Dutt-esque visual treat in black and white, each frame carefully constructed. A simple story beautifully told, it captures a bygone era when life was simpler.

It is easy to identify with the feelings of a great artist, someone used to being the darling of his fans, constantly in the limelight, fallen on bad times. What makes it interesting, in this case, and relevant to us in modern times, is that this downfall is a direct fallout of a new technology.

As talkies are invented and gain popularity, the silent film loses its appeal. George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin, is too proud to make the transition. He insists on holding on to the old technique and loses his money in a failed self-produced silent film. The Great Depression hits and he becomes a pauper. Peppy Miller (played by Bérénice Bejo) who Valentin had once patronized when she was an extra, goes on to become the new star of the talking movies. In love with Valentin, she continues to look out for him, rescuing him from near death. Valentin’s ego and pride stop him from accepting her help and he continues to fall into a spiral of self loathing and pity. Ultimately, Peppy innovates him as a dancing star, and brings him back into the limelight.

The real reason for Valentin’s downfall, however, is not his pride, but his complete lack of self-confidence in a changing environment. He is good at what he does, the best in fact, and he cannot fathom the idea of acquiring new skills, changing methods and indeed, working hard, to remain competitive. This is the topmost challenge we face today. Individuals and corporations must adapt and reinvent themselves to stay ahead in the game, or opt out. The Artist reminds us to keep our pride in check, always be sensitive to change, keep abreast of new developments and have the right attitude towards learning, even at times from peers and juniors. Quite a lesson!

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