Friday, February 23, 2007

The Book Seller

It is quite a humbling experience for people like me, who write a few blogs on a free site and consider themselves writers, to see those who are trying to sell their own books at the Kolkata Book Fair. “I’m the author, I’m the publisher and the printer, and I’m the seller too,” one of them told me, “Just Rs. 10 for a book full of funny children’s stories sir. Won’t you take it? Ok, give Rs. 5 then.” A look at his tattered clothes leaves no doubt as to how his business is running. Yet he feels the urge to write funny stories and sell them as books.

While I lead a comfortable life and have the option of not caring whether anybody reads my blog or not, this man has to survive by selling his creations. And I’m sure his writings are not inferior to those of many authors who don’t write that well but just got a lucky break.

What keeps him going?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

An Evening Among Celebrities

When I came to know that Harsha Bhogle was going to conduct the final of our company quiz and 20,000 people were going to watch it, I had thought I would be tongue tied on the stage. In reality, however, it had the effect of loosening my tongue so much that I blurted out stupid answers to questions with negative marks and ended up with zero marks after the quiz.
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But that came later. Before that, when the stadium started filling up with people in the afternoon of 17th February, I had come to know how big the audience was going to be. When I saw the stage being prepared for Sonu Nigam’s show, I understood what the magnitude of the function was. And when Mandira Bedi walked through the ground towards the stage and I ran alongside her for a hundred metres and yet could manage only one shaky photograph, I realized that I was nervous.

But it was fun! Being nervous didn’t prevent me from enjoying the function. Throughout the quiz Harsha kept joking and tried to make us feel at ease (the result of that, of course, I have already written). He seemed to be overjoyed about the fact that Sourav Ganguly had won the Man of the Series award a little while ago “proving everybody wrong” as he put it. He even cracked a joke at coach Greg Chappel’s expense.
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The quiz wasn’t very easy, and we really never had the chance of coming first or second. Maybe we could have been third with a little luck, and since we didn’t have it, we were fifth among six teams. The first two teams were really good and the winner had been all but decided halfway through the quiz. I was representing Hyderabad in the quiz as I had been selected before my transfer.

After the quiz, as the evening progressed, the crowd went berserk with a sparkling presentation of song and dance performances from the competitors in the cultural events. The whole thing felt like a dream when the spectators sitting all over the small Bangalore stadium suddenly decided to switch on their cell phone lights and wave them in unison.

Even before the celebrities had arrived, the crowd had been cheering the athletes as they participated in their respective events. The sports events, which had been held first after the glittering opening ceremony (what a terrible waste of balloons, I must say… some poor bird must have had a nasty shock while flying) had ended by 6:00 pm and the quiz had started soon afterwards. That was when the galleries had become really full.
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However, the list of celebrities whom I saw that evening does not end here. The sports prizes were given away by Kapil Dev. He also gave a short speech. There was also a short speech by our chairman who is a celebrity in his own right.

The spectators were becoming restless waiting for Sonu Nigam, the star performer of the evening. However, his appearance got a bit delayed due to some schedule slippage. Also, his performance proved to be an anticlimax. He had hardly finished singing three songs when the authorities of a hospital next to the stadium demanded that the volume of the music be reduced, hearing which Mr. Nigam promptly thanked everybody and was gone in a jiffy. The function was quickly wrapped up with a magnificent display of fireworks.

Although we lost the quiz, this evening was one of the most memorable events of my life. This was our first function. I hope I will get a chance to win the next one.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Dismantling a city

A couple of months ago, I had written that I wanted to visit the Ardha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in January 2007. Yet, with my transfer happening bang in the middle of the Mela, and a couple of weddings soon afterwards, I was able to make my trip only at the beginning of February, that is, after the Mela had ended. As I went hunting for pictures on the Mela grounds, I witnessed the process of dismantling a city. The Kumbh Nagari, that temporary city with a population of around 50 lakhs (5 million), and the potential to hold around 2.5 crores (25 million) of people for a day, was being brought down, bit by bit, and being carried out to be stored in godowns. Let me share some photos that I took of this process.
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This is a view of a small portion of the Kumbh Nagari at night. All the Akharas and other tents are gone. The lights seen here are only the street lights for the kilometres of roads that are built all over the riverbed. This riverbed lies on the other side of an earthen dam, and as one walks up the dam from the other side, the whole thing jumps into view at once. One second you see empty space in front, and the next second you see a galaxy of lights stretching as far as you can see. It is an indescribable experience.
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This is one of the steel plates used to build those miles and miles of roads. These are needed so that the vehicles don’t get stuck in the sand. These will be removed after most other things have been removed. I have seen camels being used to do the leftover work after that. I once saw these roads being laid and found that these steel plates are so heavy that a dozen men are required to lift each one. The section of the road shown here is actually on a floating pontoon bridge. The pontoons can be glimpsed at the top right corner. Many such bridges were built across the Ganga.

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These are the wooden mazes made on the Mela grounds so that the crowd is forced to follow an elongated path while walking towards the bathing area. This is necessary in order to prevent stampedes.

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This view of the Mela ground shows that most of the tents are gone. A couple of small hut-like ones are still standing.
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It’s not only the tents that have to be taken down and carried away. As can be seen in this photo, these people have the mammoth task of counting and packing up the huge cooking utensils and gas stoves that were used to cook the daily meals for thousands of people.
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There’s a difference in the Mela this year. The little boys and girls running all over the grounds picking rags have come to recognize a digital camera by sight. So I was often pestered by them to take a photo while they posed, and show it to them on the screen immediately afterwards. They know that I’ll delete it immediately afterwards, yet their only joy lies in seeing themselves in that tiny LCD screen.

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If you notice the previous picture carefully, you’ll see that a railway bridge behind the boy has been covered in advertisements. A close up of one of the sections shows how the Mela is used as a big publicity tool by the companies. An advertising baloon is also visible in the distance. This is called religious marketing!

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As I wandered about, I came across this man. They are a team of three. This man carries the loudspeakers used for announcements all over the Mela, while his colleague (shown below) climbs the poles and takes them down. Then he also uproots the poles which are carried away in another tractor standing alongside.

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Before I returned, I stopped on the dam for taking the first photo of this post. A group of army men on Mela duty were sitting nearby. One of them told me, “Why don’t you climb our watchtower? You’ll get a better view from up there.” He was talking about the elevated wooden platform that had been erected nearby for these army men to keep watch (it can be seen silhouetted on the extreme right of my first photo). I promptly clambered up on to the platform and took some photos from up there as well, though they were hardly better.

And thus a city built over two months is dismantled. A tiny part of this will be rebuilt for the Magh Mela next January, but for the real thing we'll have to wait for another six years.