Tuesday, May 18, 2010


"I bet you are not as strong as I am!" said the old man.

"Oh really? Dare to test that?" said the child beside him.

"Sure. I am balling my hand in a fist, let's see if you can open it."

And so it started, the child's struggle to open the fist. It seemed completely impenetrable at first, and the man kept casting doubts over the diet the child was growing up on if he was so weak. But after some time, the fist seemed to loosen up a little, and then suddenly, a little too suddenly perhaps, the child won. "Well, I am growing old," the man said, "and you are growing up. Can't win all the time!" The child was too happy to realize that even if he was growing up, he was not really strong enough to have opened that fist by himself if the old man had not faked his defeat.

The child grew up into a man and the old man grew older. Now nobody could have cast a doubt as to who was the stronger of the two. And yet, whenever they met, this tradition of opening the fist continued.

"You seem to have grown big. Are you strong enough?"

"Yeah. Want to test it?"

"Yes, let's see if you can open my fist."

Now the pretension was on the other side, but the outcome was the same. The young man seemed to struggle with the hand initially, and then opened it flat with ease. And then both of them laughed out loud at this silly game.

I don't know when this game started as I was too young at that time, but I know it ended yesterday when the old man passed away. I know I will not be opening his tight fist again and rejoicing over my victory.

He was my father's uncle - my grandmother's sister's husband, if that makes it clearer. My American friends will be surprised that such a relation even exists. It is pointless trying to explain what such a relationship could mean. There is no use trying to explain that you can really have more than one grandfather. No wonder we Indians are considered weird - we keep track of such people and consider them relatives. And yet, weird as it may sound, I called him "natun-dadu" which means "new-grandpa."

He was always an equal-aged playmate for me and my cousin, and with him, we knew we could get away with jokes and pranks that our "own" grandpas were too serious for. For instance, once when he was sitting at our house during a puja, I and my cousin competed with each other trying to see who could take out the most things by picking his pocket. We put them all back, of course - we did not have any use for his house keys, his pouch of tobacco and his strips of cigarette paper.

We, the children (I still prefer to put myself in that group), always thought natun-dadu was one of "us" but the truth is, he was equally mischievous with the adults - with my grandparents and my parents. He was notorious for his April fool pranks on unsuspecting relatives every year, and sometimes friends and even mere acquaintances became the victims. Like the time when he sent my grandma and the whole crowd of regular morning-walking ladies of Hooghly to a particular ghat on the Ganga to see the yachts with colourful sails that had assembled there. Who remembers the date when they go on a morning walk?

All that is past now. We don't have to stay alert on April 1 from now on, because most grown-ups are usually too busy to indulge in silly stuff like pranks.

Only, it makes me feel insecure. In the last few months, two of the close relatives whom I met during my last visit to India passed away (the other being my grandma's brother's wife). It makes me realize that when I go home after finishing my Ph.D., home will be a very different place, and many of the people who made growing up such a joyful experience for me will not be there any more.

I may have grown strong enough to open an old man's fist, but I am still not strong enough to not miss him when he is gone.

Saturday, May 08, 2010


Which is the language that the largest number of people sing their national anthem in?

Is it English? Is it Chinese (Mandarin)? It couldn't be English as only 940 million people in the world sing English anthems while 1.25 billion people sing the Chinese anthem. But Mandarin isn't the correct answer either. Bangla is the winner here with 1.3 billion people singing their national anthem in Bangla. This figure is the total population of India and Bangladesh combined. This seems more surprising because we are used to looking at Bangla as a regional language and never think that our national anthem is written in it. I won't be surprised if the rumours floating around the Internet saying UNESCO has selected Bangla as the sweetest language in the world turn out to be true.

Coming back to the national anthem thing, it is a mighty impressive achievement for a language that the largest number of people sing their national anthem in that language, but even that achievement pales in comparison when we realize that all those 1.3 billion people sing national anthems that were written by just one man.

Today is that man's 149th birth anniversary.

Here is my attempt at translating one of his better-known poems. Unlike my earlier translations, this poem does not have rhyming lines. That is because the original Bangla version is also non-rhyming. However, I have tried to maintain the relative lengths of the lines and preserve the alliterations wherever possible.

~Rabindranath Tagore

In that chaotic early age
When The Creator, dissatisfied with Himself
Was repeatedly destroying His new creation,
In those days of His impatient head-shaking
The angry ocean’s arms
From the eastern earth’s breast
Snatched you away, Africa,
Locked you up under the dense guard of trees
In the inner chambers of meager light.
There, in solitary leisure you collected
The mysteries of the impenetrable,
Learnt the complex language of earth and sky,
Nature’s unfathomable wonders
Were enchanting your superconscious mind.
You were mocking the terrible
Under the guise of dissatisfaction,
Attempting to defeat fear
By turning fierce in the aura of the terrifying
Dancing to the drumbeats of destruction.
Alas, Shaded Lady,
Under your black hood
Your human face lay unrecognized
To the clouded vision of neglect.
They came with iron handcuffs
With claws sharper than your wolves’,
They came, the human-catchers
With arrogance more blinding than your sunless forests.
The barbaric greed of the civilized
Bared its shameless inhumanity.
In your jungle paths steamy with wordless sobs
The dust turned to muck with your blood and tears;
Under the nail-studded boots of the plunderers
That horrifying mass of mud
Put an indelible mark on your insulted history.
At that very moment in their hometowns across the ocean
Worship-bells rang in temples
At daybreak and dusk, in the name of gracious God;
Children were playing in their mother’s laps
Poets were singing to music
Their odes to beauty.
Today, when on the western horizon
Evening holds its breath before a storm,
When the animals have come out of their concealed caves,
And announced the end of the day in their ominous voice,
Come, O new-age poet,
In the last rays before the impending night
Stand at that disgraced damsel’s door,
Say “Forgive us” –
Amidst the violent delirium
Let these be the last sacred words of your civilization.
(Translated by Sugata Banerji)

Thursday, May 06, 2010


The day ended with a happy note for me today as a bit of good news found its way onto my Facebook homepage this evening. It was the news that Ajmal Kasab, the lone terrorist captured alive in the 26/11 Mumbai attack, had been sentenced to death. It was a much awaited decision, and one that I expected to be widely welcomed despite being too little and too late. A little later, I was proved wrong by two friends (and several unknown people on Facebook) who protested vehemently against the decision. So this post is to clarify my stand on this issue.

If, as a reader, you are disgusted at the tone of glee I express at someone’s death sentence, please read on. This post is particularly for you.

I am usually bad at remembering names, but one name got indelibly etched in my memory the day I heard it almost eleven years ago. The name is Ripen Katyal. It belonged to a 25 year old man who was returning from his honeymoon trip to Nepal on Indian Airlines flight IC-814. His crime was the same as mine – being a citizen of India. The plane was hijacked and taken to Kandahar via Lahore. Ripen’s throat was slashed for not following the hijackers’ instructions while a government that prided itself on testing a nuclear bomb in a desert tried to think of a plan. After several days, three of the most dangerous terrorists ever caught in India had to be returned to Pakistan in exchange for the planeful of people. Only Ripen Katyal didn’t return.

I asked a lot of questions then which remained mostly unanswered. One of them was, why couldn’t they have put a slow acting poison in the three released terrorists’ last meal with the Indian authorities? I was told that wasn’t playing fair – as if hijacking a plane was playing fair. But the question that most Indians asked was, why hadn’t these terrorist masterminds been killed already? Although the answer provided by the government was vague and unconvincing, today’s incident proved that Indians seem to have learnt a lesson since then as the judge handling Kasab's case said today.

Describing the 22-year-old Lashkar-trained terrorist as "a menace to society", Tahaliyani specifically alluded to the 1999 Kandahar case in 1999, when an Indian plane was hijacked to free dangerous terrorists who were imprisoned at the time. "Keeping him alive would be a constant danger to government and the state," he said.

Now a number of people, some of them my friends, are arguing about the relevance of capital punishment in civilized society. They say the state should be compassionate. The state does not have the right to kill anyone just because it does not believe in their ideology. Only people like Kasab have the right to kill. Well, ok, my friend didn’t really say that last one, but you get the gist of what he meant.

The funny thing is, I would have loved to agree with them. I would love that because then that would have meant we live in an ideal society where every criminal commits a crime for his “ideology” and reforms himself when given a chance. However, we do not live in such a world, and so, punishment for crime becomes necessary. But is any crime bad enough to award the death penalty? Let’s see what the condemned man did: he is charged with the murder of 166 men, women and children. Of course, some friends had told me after 26/11 that “a few hundred civilian casualties per year is a small price that we are willing to pay in exchange for not having a full-blown war,” but the judge seemed to disagree with that point of view. When the security cameras recorded Kasab shooting indiscriminately into the crowd at the Mumbai CST station, he seemed to enjoy it. Can such a man be trusted to repent what he did and reform himself? And even if he does, what will we achieve? After spending a few crores of the taxpayers’ money on his trial, security and jail facilities, we will have a good citizen. We have about a billion of them already, and we don’t want another one. However, execute him with enough media focus and you have created an example. Like USA did with Saddam Hussain. Personally I would enjoy seeing a YouTube video of Kasab’s hanging, though unfortunately it may be some time before we can see that.

So far I have discussed two arguments in favour of the hanging. Firstly, Ajmal Kasab is like radioactive waste in human form – the sooner we dispose of him, the better. Secondly, his crimes are too grave and chance of repentance too small to make mercy worthwhile. I will end with the biggest reason why he should be hanged: justice.

Kasab came from Pakistan and attacked India, killing innocent civilians without remorse. We cannot really do anything to do justice here – nothing we do will bring back those 166 people. But the families of those people will live a little happier knowing that the person who killed their loved ones isn’t roaming free himself, enjoying life. That, according to me, is the single most important reason why Kasab needs to be killed. Of course, people are arguing that he should be treated with compassion, which we are doing. Ideally, he should have been shot 166 times in non-lethal places in his body and left to die from gangrene. Publicly if possible. But we are a compassionate society – we do not employ such brutal means of punishment which people from Kasab’s own faith prefer in the Arab countries. We are also a spineless society – we do not have the guts to go and do to Pakistan what US did to Japan after Pearl Harbour or to Afghanistan after 9/11. So the only way we can serve justice is by killing this man. We will (hopefully) hang him away from the public eye, in a dignified manner. It is almost like giving the guy an easy way out, but that’s the most we can do. Let’s not hesitate in this little punishment. Some people may point out that he is just a scapegoat, but then, the meat of a scapegoat is just as tasty. I’m sure most people of our country would love to see Kasab hanged.

So friends, I am not convinced by your arguments that Ajmal Kasab doesn’t deserve the death penalty. One killing does not justify another, you say? We can have a nice little argument about that, but after Kasab is hanged. I have to travel on a lot of Indian flights, and I’m sorry if I sound selfish here, but I value my life more than his. I don't want to end up like Ripen Katyal. There is only one way by which you can make me see your point of view, and it is like this: come to me and repeat these same ideas about compassion and the government’s right to kill after one of your parents or siblings or children or a life partner has been killed in a terrorist attack. Nothing personal, of course! I would express my gravest condolences, and wholeheartedly agree with you that although your beloved had to be carried away in four different pieces, killing the captured terrorist wouldn’t serve any purpose.

Oh, and in case you are outraged at my suggestion that such a thing might happen, I think I have made my point.

Update: Check out this video in case you aren't convinced. Beware, it is not for the weak of heart.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

The Little Zoo

Last Weekend I went to see a zoo.

I knew it was a very small zoo – not a large affair with fancy expensive animals. It was just a few enclosures within a children’s park. But even I wasn’t prepared for the star attraction of the zoo – the animal enclosure that had drawn a huge crowd of children and their parents around it.

An enclosure for billy-goats. Yes – simple, bearded goats that roam the streets in India.

The kids were hysterical with enthusiasm – they were trying to feed the goats through the fence. Back home, the goats ate up our garden through the fence and we had to struggle to keep them away.

They seemed undeterred by the typical billy-goat smell emanating from the animals. Back home in India, when we have to describe someone with the strongest of body odours, we compare him to a billy-goat. I agree that animals will have a bit of body odour and zoo goers have no option but to stand it, but we are looking at goats, for heaven’s sake, not tigers that we have to hold our breath and ogle!

Some children were teasing the goats by tempting them with food, and then running along the fence while the goats ran after them greedily. Alas, these children have never had the experience of being chased down the road by a billy-goat as large as a calf that really meant business. Oh, the joys of growing up in Allahabad! On one hand, it prepares you for all kinds of situations you may find yourself in later in your life. On the other hand, your mind forms certain rather unfavourable and inflexible generalizations about the behaviours of certain species which you may find difficult to change later in life. I, for example, have learnt to adore goats, but only when they are on my plate.

The next enclosure held roosters and hens. The only difference that I noticed between these birds and the ones that are found around our house in Hooghly is their increased self-confidence. These chickens were trying to fly. Every now and then they flapped their wings frantically and made a glorified jump of a couple of feet or so. Or it may have been due to their heightened stupidity. I could not tell which, so I moved on.

The next in line was a fox. The raised ears, the bushy tail and the clever eyes reminded me of the little fox that I had nearly tamed back in Hooghly five years ago. He was a wild creature who lived in an overgrown plot of land close to our house. I had not read Antoine de Saint ExupĂ©ry’s “The Little Prince” back then, but my interactions with that doglike yet vastly different creature went just as described in that book.

"What must I do, to tame you?" asked the little prince.

"You must be very patient," replied the fox. "First you will sit down at a little distance from me – like that – in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day..."

The next day the little prince came back.

"It would have been better to come back at the same hour," said the fox. "If, for example, you come at four o'clock in the afternoon, then at three o'clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o'clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you... One must observe the proper rites..."

I had observed the proper rites. I fed him bread every evening at six, until I had to leave for Chennai to join my first job. Now all these incidents seem as if they are from a previous birth. My fox was a free creature. This one was in a small cage. It made me sad, so I moved on.

There were raccoons, coyotes, a sleeping boa constrictor and some birds (geese, doves, pheasants) in the next few pens. There was one marked “pot bellied pig” and I was almost thankful that it was empty. I have seen enough free pigs since my childhood, pot-bellied or otherwise, to want to see one in a zoo. Why, there was this gigantic pig that lived right next to our gate in Allahabad, and whom we jokingly called our guard. The glum faces of the children around me told a different story though – they wanted to see what a real pig looked like, I mean outside the cartoons, and they were disappointed.

I was also thankful that the donkey enclosure was empty. I think a donkey is one of the most thoughtful and serious of God’s creatures. We used to see the free donkeys (probably not really free – they were just out grazing while their masters washed clothes) near the Allahabad University while returning home from school. They were always so deeply engrossed in thought that it seemed the busy street had ceased to exist around them. Running and jumping are for frivolous creatures like horses – a donkey enjoys a life of procrastination. In fact the only creature that I have seen enjoying procrastination more than a donkey is a Ph.D. student, but I’d rather not get into that right now. The donkeys in this zoo were absent and I preferred absent donkeys to absent-minded ones behind bars.

As we approached the next plot of land, we saw something that can be described as a dwarf horse. Horses are, of course, quite abundant even here in the US. I have seen police horses all over Newark and New York City. Horses were even more abundant in Allahabad where I grew up. In fact there was an old one that was kept tied to a park railing in front of our house. The black horse in the zoo was, however, very different from the horses that I had seen before. This one was about as big as the billy-goat that had chased me in Allahabad and had really long hair on its neck and tail. It seemed too bored to even walk around inside its enclosure. Or it may have learnt a lesson or two in philosophy from the donkeys next door.

Next there was a llama, a couple of emus and a deer. They were pretty interesting creatures on paper, but were quite boring in reality. The emus chose the corner farthest from us to engage in their domestic conversation, the deer behaved like the goats next door (yes, there were more goats next door – they could have supplied a banquet) and the llama was the most shabby looking creature I have ever seen. It may have been unfair of me to expect it to come close to me and spit on my face like the ones in “Prisoners of the Sun” did, but at least it could have given some indication that it acknowledged my existence. Nothing. Quite insulting, really!

But the question that comes to the mind after this zoo visit is: which is a better environment to grow up? One where you have to dodge buffaloes while stepping over cow dung every time you step out on the street, or the one where you have to visit the zoo to see goats and pigs? I don’t know the correct answer to that question, but I definitely know which one I prefer.