Flying high

On the flight from Dubai to Budapest, I had dozed off after a nice breakfast. Suddenly the sunlight on my eyes woke me up, and I was completely awestruck by the scene outside. We were flying over a beautiful terrain, which looked like undulations made in the sand by the little hands of a child. Only the colour of the soil was dark brown, and the undulations were not tiny mounds but mighty mountains, many with a large helping of snow capping them. We were flying over Turkey, and I was, in all probabilities, looking down on the Armenian highlands, which are a range of mountains near the Turkey-Iran border. This range includes Mount Ararat, which is a peak of great historical and mythical value. At 5137 metres, this dormant volcano is no minor hill, and yet, from a height of nearly 15000 feet, they looked like undulations made by a child’s hand in sand! After a while I could make out roads along the mountains, coiling around them like thin ropes. Settlements that looked like clumps of tiny dots could be discerned here and there. As I watched the landscape move and give way to the Mediterranean, which looked like a sea of cotton balls, I pondered about perspectives. The mighty mountains appear insignificant when seen from an airplane, and yet, to the man who has to toil in a village at the foot of such a mountain, walk up and down its slopes tending sheep to earn his daily bread, these mountains are an immense reality.

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Looking from above, nature appears so fragile, so puny, and yet, we are but puppets in the hands of nature, in spite of the great advances in technology that we have mastered. In spite of technology and science, tsunamis kill, famines happen, viruses create havoc. In spite of all our brilliance, we are but specks in the immense landscape of nature, and yet, we mock this immensity every day, flying our machines high up in the sky, and looking down upon the world from our glass domes.

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Looking back 11 years

mukhOsh, our theatre group, is gearing up to celebrate its birthday for the first time on 25th June this year. The countdown has begun, and we are spending our days in a frenzy, busy with the rehearsals and last minute preparations at various levels. Sets, costumes, lights, music, publicity, PR, everything needs to be taken care of by a handful of us, as usual. Ayan and I are leading our dual lives of scientists and thespians while managing the holiday homework of the children and keeping track of everything else. All this seems so familiar yet so unfamiliar. I can’t but help thinking of the past, of the “good old days”, when mukhOsh was just an infant, and we were novices in the field of both theatre and science.

25th June 2006, ADA Rangamandira. A bunch of young people, all budding scientists, were preparing for their first ever “public”performance as a newly formed theatre group. We were staging Parabaash, a well known play by Manoj Mitra.

parabaash1This team had been doing theatre together for quite some time by then, as amateurs, in IISc (Indian Institute of Science), Bangalore. We had tired of seeing the same set of faces in the audience and had decided to explore wider pastures. We had officially become mukhOsh (the mask), then the only Bangla theatre group in the city of Bangalore, and had decided to be professionals in theatre. By then we had quite a steady audience among the Bengali community in IISc, and through networking via emails and Orkut (Facebook was yet to be born, and of course, there was no question of smartphones), we had reached out to quite a large number of Bengalis in Bangalore. We had even found a couple of sponsors to cover the costs of the show. The preparations had been on for over a month. We had been rehearsing post-dinner, late into the night for two weeks, and during the day, my battalion of mukhoshdhaaris (mask wearers is what we called ourselves) spent hours putting up posters in various eateries and cafes in the city, distributing tickets to some outlets, running around first to find sponsors and then to get them to hand over their material to be printed, chasing the printers, procuring the props and last but not the least, selling tickets to friends. I was the taskmaster, pushing and prodding them, allocating duties and keeping everybody busy. Everyone in the group had specific workloads, and none of us got much sleep for the two weeks gearing up to the show. In the middle of all this, we had our twists and turns – quarrels, fights, patching up, it was all part of the game. After all, we were all young, and we were all passionate about mukhOsh, and we were all a family.

Everyone in mukhOsh knew that I had a short temper, which I tended to lose when things got terribly busy. They were used to Ayan getting more and more nervous and me shouting at him, telling him to let me handle things my way. This had happened every time we had done a show in the past, and that day, people were getting nervous because I appeared extremely calm and Ayan did not keep bothering me with questions of how much longer the make-up would take and if the props were all in order. Debu and Mama had been telling me to stay calm and not to lose my temper since the morning. Finally Debu came and asked me to shout at him “a bit”. Apparently, nobody was finding the energy to gear up fully because it was all so quiet backstage. “Please give us a bit of a bashing, but carefully, don’t shout much!”he said. Everybody was being extra careful because I had to go up on stage in a while, and I was 4.5 months pregnant.

……. to be continued

Bringing up my girl

I have always wanted a daughter whom I could dress in different colours and designs from head to toe, and I was only too happy to indulge myself when my daughter was born. Even before she was born, I started making little dresses for her, and I continued to do so these last five years, though the frequency reduced as the time needed to make a dress increased. I happily dressed her in all sorts of clothes, including her brother’s old jeans and shorts. Wearing her brother’s old clothes actually made her happy, and she used to ask if she was looking like him when he was her age.

Just before her fifth birthday, I was quite taken aback one day when she refused to wear a beautiful kurta that used to belong to her brother. When I asked why, she said that she doesn’t want to look like a boy, so she doesn’t want any “boy” clothes. She said this every time I wanted her to wear anything that she considered to be boy clothes, including her own jeans, shorts and capris. She only wanted frocks and skirts, and that too, only the frilly ones. Even straight cut dresses were not “girl” enough for her. I was frustrated and angry, but she has quite a personality, and nobody can make her do something that she doesn’t want to do. When I argued that I wear jeans, she simply told me that nevertheless, she didn’t want them. She is very fond of retro Hindi songs, and showed her Zeenat Aman in bell bottoms, which have returned as palazzos. She told me that yes, those were palazzos indeed, much like the ones I wear. “So, you can wear yours too, right?” She shook her head and said that she didn’t like them much, she preferred skirts and dresses like Elsa and Anna. I gave up.

She hates to comb her hair, and I often return home to find her considerably long hair in a mess. But she insists on growing her hair long, just like Anna and Elsa. She loves make up, and begs me to allow her to use coloured lip balm, if not lipstick. She adores her brother and tries to emulate him when they are playing together, but left to herself, she spends hours with her dolls. She loves to play teacher, and every afternoon she lines up all the dolls – whether human or animal, on the balcony as her students. She teaches them, feeds them, takes them to the toilet, and talks to them constantly. If you ask her, she says, that she wants to be a teacher for little children when she grows up. One day she was happily telling me how she had played cricket with her brother and his friend, and had bowled them both out. I asked her whether she has considered being a cricketer when she grows up, just to see how she would react. She promptly told me that only boys play cricket when they grow up. I tried telling her that women play cricket too, but she refused to believe me, as on TV, she has only seen men playing cricket. I showed her women’s cricket videos, and she said, “But see, they are also looking like men! I don’t want to be like them, I want to be a princess.”

The tragedy lies in the fact that I have not made her grow up on the Disney Princesses. When she watches TV, it’s with her brother, who avoids the princesses any way. They love Harry Potter, but while he wants to be Harry, she is happy to be Hermione. He likes Chhota Bheem, and she likes Chhutki. Sometimes I look at her and wonder, whether she is imbibing the social biases and I should be more proactive in inculcating a sense of equality of the sexes in her. After some thought, I have decided to let her be. After all, I played with dolls and wore frocks and was brought up like a typical girl, and I even went to an all-girls school. But that didn’t stop me from forming my own ideas about the world and fighting for the equality of men and women. Let her enjoy her dolls now, there will be ample time to ensure that she doesn’t grow up into one herself.

First Prize

Last weekend we were at my home in Kolkata, and my parents said that there is a Sit and draw competition for kids being organized by a club in the neighbourhood. Ujaan, our son, usually carries his pastel colours wherever he goes, so he was happy to participate. On Sunday morning, he was packed off to the art competition by my mother. Our daughter, Rupkatha, insisted on going too, so my father took her there after she promised to share the colours with her brother without fighting. After breakfast, I decided to stroll down to the venue and take a look at what they were doing. As a kid I had participated in several of these competitions, and I was happy that the kids were doing this. However, just as I was stepping out of the house, Papa came back with Rupkatha. She was chattering away happily, and had a cake and chocolate which the organizers had given as gifts. She told me that she had finished, and these were her prizes. Ujaan was drawing very seriously when I reached the venue. I could see that many of the children around him were doing a much better job than him, though he was trying his best. His shading looked good, but the human figure that he had drawn was completely out of proportion. I empathized with him, as I had the same problem at his age. It was obvious from some of the drawings that the children took art lessons, and definitely from the same person, as all of them were using the same technique for shading the trees and the huts. One girl was particularly good, and it was a pleasure to watch her at work. Ujaan came home feeling quite satisfied, and I told him that it was important that he had participated, and should not hope to win a prize. I was glad when he told me that some of the children had made really nice drawings, and they were much better than him.

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The organizers had told the children to go back at six in the evening, as they would put up all the drawings and announce the prizes. There will be a small prize distribution programme. My daughter kept asking when we can go and take a look. Finally we went to the venue at six, and saw all the drawings. Of course neither had won a prize, and though Ujaan was unhappy, he accepted this quietly. I pointed out the problem in his drawing, and he acknowledged that the man in his drawing had abnormally long arms. My daughter, however, was really upset. She was one of the youngest participants, and her drawing was far from being good. She had drawn a lot of large flowers with two tiny figures amidst them, and her sky had two suns. She said she had drawn herself and her brother in a magic garden. Obviously, the judges had not understood the point about the magic. I tried to show her the other drawings, and she agreed that some of them were nice. “But I was first!” she insisted. She kept sniffing as we walked back and started howling the moment we reached home. She was inconsolable.

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Later, when she had calmed down and I had promised her a prize for her nice drawing, she told me that she should be first because she had finished before everyone. In their school sports, people were given medals for finishing first, and she did not get a medal because she finished fourth. So now that she had finished first, why shouldn’t she win a prize? Logically, she is 100% correct, but simple logic doesn’t always work in life. I didn’t want to tell her this, so I tried to explain that one can be first in many ways, and for different tasks, you get prizes for different achievements. When you run, you need to finish first, but when you draw, you need to make the best drawing. I am not sure she understood fully, but some lessons in life need a long time to be learned, and I am this experience added to her pool of wisdom.

Bottles – not empty

Last week I was attending the annual meeting of the Indian National Science Academy at the National Institute of Science Education and Research, Bhubaneswar. The meeting was quite a feast for the grey cells and we returned quite intellectually satiated. The hosts had put in considerable effort to make the meeting a success, and their meticulous arrangements included elaborate meals over the two and a half days of the conference. The participants enjoyed hearty meals while having academic discussions with their peers. Typically, during meal times, a set of housekeeping staff were engaged in constantly cleaning the tables and removing the trash. However, on the last day, the meeting ended with lunch, and people dispersed from the venue gradually. The volunteers were busy making departure arrangements and the catering team was relaxing, taking their own time packing up. As people waited, they sipped water from mini mineral water bottles that had been the only source of drinking water during the meeting. I was among the last to leave, and as I sat in the lounge chatting with some of the other participants, I was struck by the number of mineral water bottles that were strewn around on tables everywhere. Though these were really small bottles of 250 or perhaps 300 ml, most people had not emptied them and had left them lying around. There were dozens of bottles, but only a few were actually empty. The sight made me sad, angry and dejected.

In this meeting, we, the young academy INYAS had organized a symposium on food security and climate change. We discussed the future of our planet and what could be some of the remedial measures. We expressed concern over climate change and discussed the need to control our ecological footprint. In this very meeting we piled trash cans with plastic bottles, adding to the non-degradable waste of the world. I think we have in some way accepted the inevitability of the use of plastic in our day to day lives, and plastic mineral water bottles are a constant source of irritation for me, but something that I can’t do away with completely in today’s lifestyle.

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More than the plastic, I was upset about the amount of water being wasted in this process. We talk about water scarcity, we express concern over the crisis of drinking water that the world is facing, we hit like buttons and share messages put up by WWF spreading awareness about conserving water, and then we take a few sips from a bottle and leave it lying around and dump it in the trash can without a thought. Is it too much to carry the bottle around and use up all the water that it carries? Do we do this when we actually BUY the bottle of water? Most often, we don’t. But when we have free water available, we don’t hesitate to waste this very precious resource, and we leave a trail of partially filled plastic bottles in our wake.

As I put my little bottle in my bag and prepared to leave the meeting venue, a senior professor came over and congratulated me for the excellent symposium that the young scientists had hosted. He said that it was great to see young people discuss these very relevant social issues, and said how we are the people who can bring in the much required awareness. I glanced at the table strewn with the bottles and thought, “whose awareness?”

Communal (dis)harmony?

Last year, around this time, my son came home and announced that they will have a story telling competition in school, and the theme is communal harmony. We had to give him a good story, as he definitely wanted to clear the prelims. I had a real life story ready for him, about the experience of my grandmother’s brothers during the riots of Bengal in 1946, a year before India gained independence at the cost of partition.

My ancestors hailed from the east of Bengal, now Bangladesh, and erstwhile East Pakistan. Dadubhai, my paternal grandfather, and his brother had gone to college in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and found jobs in and around the city. His uncle was a well-established lawyer here, and the rest of the family had moved to Calcutta long before 1947. Didun’s brothers studied or worked in the city, but her parents lived in Noakhali town near Dhaka, where her father had been the headmaster of a high school for many years before retiring. He was greatly respected in the town, where most men had once been his student, and he had no intentions of moving to Calcutta. Didun was visiting her parents, when the riots broke out in Calcutta, and the usually mild natured, peace loving Bengalis experienced widespread carnage, the repercussions of which spread far beyond the city. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_Action_Day)

Two of Didun’s brothers were travelling back to Calcutta from Noakhali by train. They were both students at the Calcutta University, and lived with their newly-wed eldest brother and sister-in-law. The family was sending several items of necessity for the newly-weds, among which the biggest piece of luggage was a rolled up double bed mattress. The brothers were in a coupe with two other young men, and the coupe was quite filled with their luggage. The young men got talking, and it turned out that the other two passengers were medical students, enrolled at the Calcutta Medical College. The journey was progressing pleasantly until the train suddenly came to a halt. There was a lot of noise outside, and peeping out of the windows, they could see men rushing towards them brandishing swords, knives and choppers, shouting “Inshallah!” The two would-be doctors quickly took control of the situation. They shut the door of the coupe and shuttered the windows. They pulled out lungis from their bags and asked Didun’s brothers to wear them. They put the mattress against the shuttered windows and piled up their luggage next to the door. They quickly knelt down on the bunks and started reciting from the Quran loudly. Soon there was loud banging on the doors and windows, but they shouted out “jenana hai!” (women here), as Didun’s brothers trembled. When the train finally reached Calcutta and the police came and helped them out, there were dead bodies everywhere, and the train’s floor was drenched in blood. The mattress was in shreds, as people had thrust into it with swords. The two young men hugged their fellow passengers and thanked them with tears.

We helped Ujaan prepare the story with enough dramatic effects and he went on to win the competition. He was delighted, and when he repeated the story to Didun (who is now 91), she was quite thrilled. She had told me the story long ago, among many other anecdotes of her life. Not being a great storyteller herself, she had never narrated this story with such animation. Hearing it from her great grandson with all the dramatic effects made her remember those days all over again. The pain of the riots, the tension that the family had been through, the relief when the news of the brothers reaching safely finally arrived, all of it came back to her. I could see that she was actually happy with the remembrance, as time had smoothened out the rough corners and only the glow of nostalgia remained.

But this post was not about this story, in fact, when I began, I didn’t even think I would write the story. But stories have a way of making themselves being told, and so this one just came out. Post facto, I am happy that it did, because this is a good way to collate stories from one’s life, and here I just archived one leaf out of Didun’s book of life.

Two days back Ujaan told us that they would be having a story telling competition again this year, and his teacher had told him to go prepared with a story. She had also told him that given is record of last year, he must make it to the finals this year, and hopefully beat the competitors from other sections. We asked him what the theme this year was, and were quite taken aback when he replied “communal harmony of course!” We did not understand what the “of course” was about, and we definitely did not comprehend why the school would want to have story telling competitions on the same theme for the same set of students every year. Kids have a fantastic way of seeing reason in everything that their school does, and Ujaan quickly explained that this was only fair. Firstly, this was for the third to fifth standards, and so it was not true that “exactly” the same students would be participating every year. Moreover, what was the guarantee that the same student would do well every year? He had won the first prize from his class last year, but this year it could be someone else. And anyway there were always some new students in every class. So he was convinced that this was a good idea, and we had the job of finding a new story for him. Ayan tried telling him tat he can repeat last year’s story, as there would be new people around anyway, but he would not hear of it. So I turned to the internet this time, and I found him a good story, and he made it to the finals. Now he wants to win the contest again, and he is sure to try hard. But this entire exercise set me thinking.

In inculcating communal harmony among the students, the school is definitely trying to mould them into good future citizens of the country. The intention is undoubtedly noble and fair, and this is something we have been practicing as a nation for years. We preach communal harmony on Independence Day, Republic Day and Gandhi Jayanti. We conduct essay competitions, drawing competitions, elocution competitions, dance and music competitions to spread the feeling of unity and communal harmony, patriotism and tolerance among our children. But then, in order to explain what we mean by communal harmony, do we not introduce them to the idea of communal disharmony? Do we not inculcate the idea that some of their friends are different, because they, or rather, their parents, practice a different faith? What does a ten year old understand about religion? When we teach him that he should love his friends equally and share with them equally, irrespective of whether they are Muslims, Christians or Sikhs, do we not plant a seed of differentiation? Do we not create a situation when the child can begin to ask why they should be different anyway?

The more I think about this, the more I am convinced that sometimes, teaching about equality can indeed have an adverse effect on a child. The idea of harmony can only exist if there is an idea of disharmony, just like light cannot be perceived as a bliss unless we experience darkness. Asking a child not to discriminate can actually plant the idea of discrimination where it did not exist in the first place. Perhaps we should keep such teachings for the more “matured” people and let children develop in their world of blissful ignorance as far as discrimination is concerned.