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What makes Malgudi days special?

Yes, all episodes of Malgudi days are now available on YouTube. So what?

Click here for the playlist

Why should I watch an old TV series half of whose actors are either dead or about to die? Why should I spend my precious time on Malgudi days when there are so many TV shows to watch ? Why should I care about a TV series which does not use computer graphics, loud background music or is not aired everyday of my living life?

I am not calling Malgudi days as is the greatest show on earth. I am sure there are several shows which are awesome. But Malgudi days matters to India, it holds a huge lesson to the directors and viewers of today’s soaps.

Malgudi days oozes with art. The immersing nature of the series makes Malgudi days a hybrid between a book and theatre. Just take a look at the first episode. So much effort has been put in to create a sense of space and time. The camera does not always focus on the face but zooms out and pans to show how people dressed, how the buildings looked, and how people interacted with the surroundings. Malgudi days makes us enter new worlds and minds.  It is a visual treat.

Today’s TV shows are replete with background music. A loud background music stifles the voice of the artists. Dialogue is what should drive a scene, facial expressions are what should convey the mood of the characters, not some loud music. The screenplay is what makes the delivery powerful and not the constant flashing of lights or crooked camera  angles. Sadly, the plots are recycled with a filling of cliches.

Today’s soaps are made by lazy directors for lazy viewers. Setting the drama as contemporary is convenient. Not much attention has to be paid to the details – No need to build a new set, no necessity to think about what should stay in the frame and what should not. All artistes, wearing a thick makeup that makes their skin look smooth, fair, and soft, appear far from real characters in life. Where is the stained teeth, weather-beaten skin or the shadow of other imperfections that are the reflection of a struggle called life? When characters seem real, they connect better with the viewers.

The last aspect I want to highlight is that of light and sound. Every face is brightly lit and there is always a background music trying to mute the sounds surrounding the characters. The shadows, the darkness, the sound of that river flowing, that bird chirping, or that spinning of the washing machine is what brings the drama closer to the viewers life.

Just seeing someone making coffee with a loud background noise makes the scene look fake and coffee unpalatable. The irregular lighting in the kitchen, that ticking of the lighter that does not light the gas on the first stroke, the that clinking of the steel pot placed on the burner, that sizzling of the milk, that crackle of pouring the coffee into the steel cup, and that cup brimming with coffee of brownish white froth.

Directors, just as writers, should focus on showing and not telling or killing with sound, for that matter.

I am grateful for the works of RK Narayan, the author, and Shankar Nag, the director of Malgudi days.

Pissing tanker, I piss on you!

Please watch the below video and make a note of your reaction.

Either you were amused by it or you felt a pain deep inside your heart.

Who are the people who pee in public? It’s mostly the people who work in the informal sector i.e. people who don’t work in offices or inside any building for eight hours. 94% of India’s workforce is linked to informal sector which includes construction workers, rickshaws pullers, coolies, courier boys, drivers, roadside vendors ( the list is endless) . The people who laugh (mock?) in the above video might not have engaged themselves in any activity that keeps them outdoor 8-10 hours in a day. They all appear to be either middle or upper class Indians who have the luxury of toilet access both at their residence and workplace. If empathetic enough, one can see harassment, borderline violence rather, in the above video instead of the intended amusement.

In a country with 400 million people working in un-organized sector, public toilets must be found within minutes of walking distance. The problem with urban India is that sanitation is never a priority. The municipality or corporation has no pressure from the public, especially middle class and upper class, to maintain the existing toilets, and has no money to buy/rent  space in a newly developed financial neighbourhood to install toilets.

Even the toilets in railway stations and bus stations are not well maintained as there is no accountable structure in the organization to provide basic sanitation services. You will not see the phone number of any officer who is responsible to keep the toilets clean. The officials hide behind the thick veil of bureaucracy.

Yes, providing good sanitation facility comes at a cost. But lack of provision costs much more to the society. The social and health cost of lack of sanitation is not borne by all sections of society equally. The poor mostly bear the burden while the middle class or upper class insulate themselves from such woes. India cannot come out of the mess of lack of sanitation in public areas unless there is focus on accountability and enough political pressure from upper and middle class.

Dear “Pissing tanker” – Your understanding of public urination is distorted and your actions perverted. Please stop making fun of people who don’t have access to toilets. Your insensitivity towards the helplessness of people is appalling. Most people who are peeing in public are already vulnerable. You don’t have any right to humiliate those people further. If you can, please give them directions to the nearest decent public toilet, if you can find one. If you are so inclined to pee, try peeing inside a public office instead of aiming water cannons at people. You might get the attention of right people!

Practice makes us perfect

From my Dibrugarh diary:

I received the final confirmation of my ticket at 5:30 pm via an SMS; I had been wait-listed in the AC coach. A wait-listed ticket booked online gets cancelled automatically. Hence I had to buy a new ticket standing in the line. That meant that I had to reach the train station at least two hours before the departure time, 11:45 pm, of my train.

I called my auto driver and asked him to pick me up at 9:30pm from the hotel. thinking that the 7 km ride to the train station should not take more than 20 minutes. The auto driver was punctual and arrived with company, his brother. I loaded my heavy backpack and boarded the auto with a feeling of uneasiness. En route to the train station, a police constable flagged us near a junction. But our auto driver brazenly ignored him and continued.

“Wow! I would never do that to a police constable!” I said with all the surprise I could muster.

“Oh, he tries to flag vehicles every night,” said the driver’s brother.

“Yes, that’s what they do in Bangalore too. They check whether the drivers are drunk,”

“Yes, we are drunk. But not much, you know. We split a 375 ml whiskey bottle between us. We exercise moderation,” replied the brother in a voice filled with honesty.

“Whoa! You guys would have been in trouble had that policeman caught you!” I said with amazement.

“Yeah. But that police guy himself was drunk. He was trying to stop us to get a free ride home. He does it every night and begs people to drop him home. Didn’t you see him wobbling?” the driver asked me.

“No. It was too dark. And it is still too dark,” I cleared my throat. “Please drive carefully. The road is full of potholes!”

“Don’t worry sir. We drink every night and drive. We have practice,” replied the brother confidently.

Terrified by the situation I was in, I shifted to a less terrifying subject to distract myself. “What do you guys think about Modi and BJP coming to power?” I asked, staring at the darkness ahead of me.

Human? No, I am an Indian!

I pity you; do I or should I? It is not my problem that you are born to poor parents, of lower caste, from abc religion, reside inside a forest that has resources beneath it, or live on the wrong side of the dam.

It is not my headache that you are a woman. Nor is it my worry that justice, education, access to health or employment is not reaching you. If your land gets grabbed in the name of development, so be it. Comfort of a few million people matters more than the survival of a few thousand.  We need more industries, bigger towns and wider roads so that I can have a variety of job opportunities. I should be able to drive to those places in my private car faster so that I can come back home and watch TV.

All I am worried about is myself and my family; whether my children go to school; whether I have electricity to watch cricket match or soaps; whether I have a job that provides me with good salary and health insurance; whether there are ATMs in my neighbourhood; whether there is high speed internet and good cell phone connection.

I am not bothered that the farmer who is feeding me is dying hungry, I don’t care that my habits and routines are polluting the environment, I am not bothered that my shopping habits is ruining small businesses.

I know that I am the only species on earth who is capable of thinking. But why should I think or act when all my needs are taken care of. Do you know how much work it is to travel, to talk to people, to read, and understand a complex nation like India? I am too busy to spend time on such understanding. I am happy with whatever media or McDonald’s feeds me. I consume information and food quite effortlessly. I confuse my analytical skills with critical thinking skills and if someone opposes my thinking , I will call them pseudo-intellectuals, pseudo-liberals or, better yet, Congress sycophants.

I love peace. Have you seen how many anti-war pages I have liked on facebook? I am an activist. Have you seen how many online petitions I have signed? I believe in bringing in change. Do you know how much money I have donated to charities?

I know that someone has to pay the cost of development, someone has to suffer for my luxuries, someone has to die so that I can procreate. Colonization, racism, sexism, and slavery made the west a developed hemisphere. Look what happiness development has brought them! They can now buy make-up kits and antidepressants with free same day delivery. Credit cards and mobile phones have made such purchases possible virtually from anywhere.

What’s with the people living in villages and forests? What do they know of happiness or civilization? What is life without greed? What is life without the suffocation of living inside concrete buildings , breathing thick smoke or drinking contaminated water ? Why do they want to hide in the forests or villages? Why are they afraid of the comfortable life a city provides? Cowards! I want to show them, those who want to escape from the realities of life, how to face life and live it. After all, Ache din aanewale hain!

I want show that world that India too can be a developed nation by following the path of kindness. We are not cruel like some of the western countries. We, Indians, don’t have the history of invading foreign countries, subjugating their people, wiping them out if needed, and looting their resources. We believe in self-rule (swaraj) and hence in self-colonization. We have bred for a reason. 1.2 billion people! If we subjugate all the Indian poor, it is like subjugating all the people of USA and Europe put together. The carbon footprint of our violence will be minimal as the victims live next door. And yes, we will make those rifles and grenades locally. Local police and army will be brought in to rape the women, butcher the old, and jail the young. We understand our local people and culture better and hence we are more efficient at exploiting them. We will make the British wish that they had outsourced their colonisation to us.

I know that no other creature on earth can think or empathize the way we, the humans, do. But if I think and empathize, I am afraid that I might use that ability all up. I am saving it for all the people who are going to suffer so that they can think about how it all happened and empathize with their fellow victims.

OK, I am a homo-sapien. But what’s in the name of a species? I am an Indian (by that I mean Hindu + upper caste, upper or middle class + male) and that’s what matters!

Jai Hind! And yes, Vande Mataram!

Question of situation

I get haircuts (even Ripley does not believe this!)

I was visiting World Bank office in Nairobi, Kenya and I wanted to look civilized. Or else the bank might fund more projects in India to make us “look” civilized. I was staying in YMCA and it was too late to go out to buy a razor to shave my head (yes, I have so much hair that it needs to be razed, not cut!) I decided to get a haircut from the saloon inside YMCA.

After explaining my hairstylist, Esther, about my necessity of getting a haircut, I sat down on the chair. Of course, we have to kill time. A shave and a haircut that takes ten minutes is too long a silence not to be broken.

“Which country are you from?”

“India,” I said, wallowing in my exoticism.

“I love India. I have always wanted to visit India.”

“You should visit India soon then. Most Kenyans I have met want to visit India.”

My haircut was over by then! Esther prepared me for my shave by lathering up my face and neck. When she was about to scrape the stubble off my neck, she asked “What’s your religion?”

A hard question for an atheist to answer even under normal circumstances. With a knife to my neck, I was gambling. “I am born to Hindu parents,” I responded.

“Hindu? What religion is that?”

“It is a religion which gives you the flexibility to live life any way you want. But some of its followers want you to live life only the way they want. Not sure how different it is from Christianity”

“Oh my God! Can you take me to India with you? I want to spread the love of the lord who died for our sins.”

“What sins have you committed, Esther?”

“I cannot think of any right now. But I must have sinned right? Why would then Jesus die for us, if not for our sins?”

Not knowing how to answer her innocent question, I said, “Visiting India is a long process. You need a passport and a visa. May be your church might help you to visit India.”

“Oh? I need passport and visa even to spread the word of God?”

“Unfortunately, yes”

FAQs in Bangladesh

If you are a foreigner travelling in Bangladesh, please be ready to answer the following questions:

  1.  Which country?
  2. Are you married?
  3. What is your religion?

Third question was the most ubiquitous in Bangladesh. I did not experience this in Nepal. But in Kenya, it was a different story.

In Chittagong, near Sitakund, I met with a group of 8 to 12-year-old children playing cricket in the back alleys.

From a distance a kid hollered, “Which country?”

“India”

The kids stopped playing cricket and approached me to ask a more important question, “Which religion?”

“Humanity,” I replied with a smile.

“No, I am not asking about how you look. I am asking what religion you follow,” blurted a kid in the group.

“I don’t have any religion,” I reassured them.

“One always has a religion”

“See, you are wrong. I don’t have one and I am alive, so far”

“You are lying!”

No meat, please!

My family does not eat meat for religious reasons. Now that I have disowned my religion, I can eat meat. But I don’t do so as to continue patronising my friends who eat meat.

Today, on a ferry, I met a Bangladeshi who was kind enough to befriend me and join me for lunch. In my broken Bengali Hindi hybrid language, I explained him that I don’t eat meat. He told waiter something and a plate with what looked like meat was placed in front of me by the waiter.

“I said I don’t eat meat, only vegetables”

“But this is not meat. This is chicken”, said my friend.

“I don’t eat chicken”, I said pushing the plate aside. The waiter went in and got me another dish. Even that had a flaky bone in it.

“Is this fish?”, I asked with all the calmness.

“Yes”, said my new friend with the “how can you not recognize fish?” look.

“I don’t eat fish.”

With a look full of confusion, my new friend said, “But you said no meat and you don’t eat chicken and fish? “.

“No! No meat, no chicken, no fish. Only vegetables”, I replied with my face beaming with pride.

My friend said something to the waiter in Bengali and the waiter placed a blue plastic mug in front of me. I peered into the mug to find a familiar liquid – dal.

Looking at me pouring the watery dal into my plate of rice when everyone else was enjoying fish and chicken curry, my new friend leaned over to me and whispered in my ears, “do you have any disease that forbids you from eating anything other than dal?”

Without realising who was patronising whom now, I said, “No” and continued eating. The already watery dal seemed even more tasteless.

When can one get married?

Yesterday for the first time I entered a country by road. It was a great experience.

After crossing the border, I took a bus from Satkhira to Khulna, my first bus ride in Bangladesh, and it was full of surprises. The guy next to me told me that he got his daughter married last week. I responded back complimenting him saying, “You look quite young. I would not have guessed that you had a daughter of marriageable age!” (I know I sound as if I am hitting on a woman in a bar!)

“I am forty and my daughter is 16 years old. How old are you?”, he replied with a smile that exposed his brownish teeth.

“34”, I replied.

“Are you married?”, he asked.

I said, “No.”

“Why?”

“Things somehow did not workout”

“One should always get married. You have beautiful women in India. I love Indian women. I dream of them all the time. But I could get married only to a Bangladeshi woman. But you should find an Indian woman and get married soon”, he implored in a way.

“I am an old guy as per Indian family standards. Which family will give me a girl?”, I responded jovially.

He chided me and said, “If you have gold and a good erection, you can get married any time!”

“What?” I asked in shock, not believing what I had just heard

The man this time yelled over the hum of the engine, “I said, if you have gold and a good erection, you can get married any time!”

I did not know how to respond to that statement, “Oh, this bus is going very slow, isn’t it?” I changed the topic and saved myself from some more public embarrassment (or at least I hope to think so).

How to go to Bangladesh by road?

When applying for Bangladeshi VISA, specify that you want to travel by road. One can reach Bangladesh by road from Kolkata either via Benapole or Basirhat crossing. If Dhaka is your destination, there are direct buses from Kolkata and Agartala.

I had to go to Khulna. Khulna has no direct buses from Kolkata and here is how I came to Khulna by road today.

  • 10:25 am – Left my hotel in Salt Lake City, Kolkata. Cost Rs.250
  • 10:45 am – Reached Sealdah Station
  • 11:05 – Bought my ticket to Basirhat (12:12 Hasnabad train). Cost Rs.15
  • 11:35 – Train arrived on platform 6
  • 12:15 – Train departed Sealdah
  • 2:20 – Train reached Basirhat (about 70km from Sealdah)
  • 2:30 – Took a rickshaw from the train station to Bodh ghat (it sounded something like that). About 2km. Rs.7
  • 2:50 – Auto-rickshaw to Bhomra- Gojadanga border. Rs.15 per person or Rs.100 if you want the auto for yourself. 9 km
  • 3:15 – Reached border
  • 3:25 – Done with Emigration
  • 3:35 – Done with Land Customs
  • 3:40 (4:10 Bangldesh Local time) – Crossed the border
  • 4:20 – Done with Bangladesh Immigration
  • 4:30 – Done with Bangladesh Customs
  • 4:40 – Boarded Baby taxi to Satkhira. Tk.25, 15km
  • 5:20 – Reached Satkhira
  • 5:25 – Rickshaw to bus station (Tk.5)
  • 5:35 – Boarded bus to Khulna. 60km, Tk90
  • 8:20 – Reached Khulna

The other option is to take a bus bound to Dhaka from Kolkata (International Bus Terminus, Salt Lake City or Shohagh Paribahan, Madhyamgram) and get down in Jessore and then take a bus to Khulna.

I did not pay anyone to cross the border. People will approach you to help you with filling of forms and then ask you for money. Avoid them all.  It is better to carry a declaration of all the electronic items you are carrying and get it certified by the customs officer.

My entry and exit points are different. I am leaving Bangladesh via Akhaura crossing to Agartala.

How am I fighting winter at Berkeley?

Winter in Berkeley for me has always been dreadful – I get to see the Sun for less than 8 hours (50% less than the usual 12 hours of sunlight I am used to India.) and there is no warmth in the light. This pushes me to hibernate. I wake up late, I am drowsy the whole day and I go to bed early. October to February is a disaster. I don’t know what I would have done had I accepted my admission to SNRE at University of Michigan or Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

My PhD qualifying exam is 40 days away and I have a lot of reading to do. So I want to wake up early to get some quality reading time. I find mornings very productive. But I have to fight cold and drowsiness. I never had this problem when I spent summer in Kathmandu. There, the chirping of the birds woke me up at 5:00am. A cup of chai and some breakfast got me going. Here, in Berkeley, nothing is helping – Coffee or Tea has random effect on me. Sometimes, Caffeine keeps me awake and alert but most of the times I go to sleep within 15 minutes of having a cup of black tea. So I came up with a plan.

I went cold turkey with Caffeine. I stopped my caffeine consumption completely. First three days, I suffered severe headaches. Next three days – lethargy, body pain, nausea, lack of appetite. It slowly started getting better after a week. Within 12 days, I was feeling better. In two weeks, caffeine was out of my system. After this exercise, I don’t get any headaches when I miss my afternoon tea or coffee. I am now very sensitive to caffeine. If I have caffeine after 2pm, I cannot go to sleep before midnight. Caffeine now has a very predictable effect on me. My goal is to stop consuming it fully by January 2014 (soon after my quals).

If I can get out of bed early in the morning, there is caffeine to keep me awake. But the challenge is to get out of the bed. To combat cold and to feel comfortable when I am out of bed, I now go to sleep with a pair a socks, beanie, and thermal wear next to me. When the alarm goes off in the morning, I wake up, put on all the layers and then get out of bed. I don’t feel any cold. I am active as soon as I get out of the bed 🙂 It has been almost a month. The practice has been quite effective

I have realized that sitting and reading on bed puts me to sleep (what was I expecting?). I now read either at my desk or in the kitchen. I walk around and read out loud when I feel sleepy. I have to print dense readings as I easily lose track when I read on my computer or tablet.

I am finding qualifying exam as a great opportunity to push myself to confront some of my chronic habits – waking up late, consuming too much caffeine, exercising and meditating infrequently, spending too much time on the internet, not allocating time daily to read and write. My hope is to pass my qualifying exam while fighting these bad habits.