Thursday, May 26, 2011

Toy Story

Kuntala defines a friend as someone from whom she can borrow a blogging inspiration, but for me, a friend is someone whose blog posts feel as if they were written by me. I like a lot of bloggers on the Internet, but there are very few that I identify with. This is the reason why I consider Kuntala a friend. This is also the reason why she is almost useless as an inspiration for me – when she has written on a topic, she has written the exact same things that I would have written if I had chosen to write on that topic, and in a much better way. I hardly ever have anything to add.

So while I can, let me steal a subject and write a post before she gets a chance to spoil it for me. For all I know, she may have written something on toys already that I missed.

What is a toy? As my nephew gets a tablet PC as his eleventh birthday gift, I wonder if that can be called a toy. The boy already shows amazing talent with his Wii console – a thing that, when I was his age, would have been more fairy tale than science fiction. The toys that his younger brother owns make some kind of electronic sound if I happen to step on them lying about the room at night. For me, the state-of-the-art in toy sophistication was a battery operated “remote controlled” fire engine that was actually connected to the remote control via a cable. Anything else that moved, lit up or produced sound was operated either manually or by a wound-up spring.

But even these toys, although they belonged to me, were mostly from my sister’s childhood days. Before that, when I was the only child in the house, things were considerably simpler.

When I was a small child, almost every toy that I played with was a rubber doll of some sort – be it a human baby, a bear or a monkey. The most they could do was squeak on being squeezed (a functionality that didn’t last too long) and everything else was left to my imagination. Even the cars and the airplanes that I owned had to be rolled on the ground to make them move. There was a green rotary telephone whose dial had a spring just like a real one – imagine my delight when I would dial a number and the dial would return to its original position on releasing. If, on reading this far, you think we were dumb, then it’s better if I don’t tell you about the functional telephone that I had for some time – it consisted of cups attached to the ends of a long plastic pipe. Other short-lived toys included monkey-shaped balloons, a paper crocodile fitted with a dried mud wheel controlled by a string (description useless unless you have seen one), or a plastic horse which jumped forward by means of an accordion-like pipe in its stomach when air was pumped via a long tube fitted with small bellows. Probably nobody understands what I am talking about anymore, because these were the days before the battery operated “Made in China” toys hijacked the market.

But if you think our toys were boring, think again. The black Leo submachine gun could have been the perfect prop for a kid playing “Navy Seal Team 6” had such a role playing game existed back then, but it was detested by the elders because it made so much noise, and hence had to be used with moderation in order to avoid confiscation. I also had real sophisticated toys – the boy with the cymbals who clapped them when wound up, the white horse and the furry dog that walked when would up, and the little Leo ladybug that also walked with a buzzing sound when wound up. These were kept in our showcase and I only got to play with them once in a while. And I only wanted to play with them once in a while.

Oh yes, I almost forgot the various kinds of building blocks and one jigsaw puzzle that consisted of a dozen cubical blocks which could be arranged to make six different animal pictures.

As I grew older, toys increased in sophistication. My new gun fired bullets and I soon developed an amazing skill in shooting the plastic bottle that came with it. More and more toys had spring-driven mechanisms. When some rich kids got something new called “video game,” I got the poor man’s version of it which was a small transparent box filled with water. By pumping a soft part of the box, small objects like beads or hoops inside the water could be made to jump about. And when my parents went to Europe they brought that fire engine for me. They also brought cars with – would you believe it – opening doors! It never mattered to me these cars had no driving mechanism; I just spent hours and hours with those scale-models of a Jaguar and a Porsche.

My sister had her own share of toys, of course. She had several dolls that closed their eyes when they were made to lie down, but her favourite was her daughter Timi – the white teddy bear from London. But for most part, even her toys were static things like doctor’s instruments and small kitchen utensils that required imagination to play with. And yet she played with her toys way more interactively than a kid does today. Much later, she got her first Barbie.

In spite of the lack of sophistication and battery power in our toys, we never felt we were missing out on something. Now it may be argued that people miss something only when they know it exists, but that’s not the point here. The point that I am trying to make is that the enjoyment derived from a toy depends mainly on the imagination of the child and not on the sophistication of the toy. That is the reason that I could spend more time playing with tiny metal balls in a circular maze than the kids of today can spend with their Gameboys without getting bored.

You may call it a case of the sour grapes, but I think our toys were way better as playthings. They let our imagination run wild. For instance, we were free to imagine what the teddy bear’s voice would be like rather than having to accept some pre-recorded electronic voice. And we also played with lots of odds-and-ends: broken bits from real world objects that could be put to various uses in the toy world. And lastly, I may not have had electronic toys in my childhood, but most of the toys that I had are still in “working” condition. I would like to see my nephew’s Wii console after twenty years. And there's no way his tablet PC can outlast my tablet - the slate chalkboard.

I agree to what Kuntala says: our childhood days may seem poor when we try to count the things that we didn't have back then, but the things that we did have would surely surprise the current generation kids.

Sunday, May 08, 2011


Rabindranath Tagore's 150th birth anniversary is here, and I am here with the English translation of another Tagore poem. This year, when I was selecting a poem to translate, I came across this gem that reminded me of a little girl whom I had met recently. And although she has a name that her parents selected for her, we, the people who know her (including her parents), like to call her by any name that comes to our minds. So here's a tribute to Tagore that is also dedicated to our Little Gherkin.

~Rabindranath Tagore

There’s a girl that I know,
She rules over our village small
She’s the one who is worshipped
And called little goddess by all.
But let me tell you something
Trust me and hear me out---
That her qualities are godlike
Is what I really doubt.
Early morning, when it’s still dark
Where does her sleep flee?
A row ensues on her bed
By her little shouts of glee.
By her loud chortles
Half the street wakes up,
She runs doing mock fights
Away from mother’s lap.
Arms stretched, she looks at me
I have no choice then,
But to take her out on a stroll
On my shoulder again.
Getting the ride of her choice,
In her great joy she insists
On pummeling me repeatedly with
Her plump and soft fists.
When I hurriedly tell her ---
“Wait a little, stop it please!”
She promptly tries to grab and take
The glasses from my eyes.
With me she quarrels so much
In words un-understood.
What an uproar! Could you ever
Call her manners good?
And yet, it hardly befits me
To engage her in a fight.
Without her, the music stops,
The household feels quiet.
Without her, will flowers
Still greet the morning light?
Without her, will the evening star
Still rise every night?
If the mischief-maker isn’t home
For a moment if we part
It seems impossible to fill
The void in my heart.
Her naughtiness is the southern breeze
It wakes a storm joy-laden
It makes all the flowers sway
In my mind’s flower garden.
The only thing that worries me
Her name, if you ask,
To call her by a single one
That is a difficult task.
Who knows about her real name?
I call her as I please –
Miss Mischief, Little Bandit,
Black-face or Ogress.
The name given by her parents
With her parents let it rest.
Let them find the sweetest name
And lock it in a chest.
One person names a baby
In some ceremony,
For everyone to adopt that name
Is nothing but tyranny.
Each calling as they please is how
Naming should be done
The father may call Chandrakumar,
The uncle Ramsharan.
A Sanskrit name is something that
Our girl can hardly carry,
The only thing it adds worth to is
Cost of the dictionary.
I for one, call her by
Whatever I think of
The one I call knows it’s her,
Let the others laugh.
A hundred different games
That little one plays
Is it right to call her by
A single name always?

(Translation by Sugata Banerji)

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Completely Dead

Rama: Last night I saw a beautiful dream. I saw that Ravana guy was climbing a tall palm tree. As he was climbing, suddenly he slipped and fell and - cadens mortuus est!

Jambuban: Then that fellow must have really died. The king’s dream is never wrong.

Everyone: Never, never, it can never be wrong.

Rama: I told Hanuman “Go and throw the fellow into the ocean.” Hanuman came and told me, “No need to do that – he is completely dead.”

Everyone: Wow! Great! Completely dead! What else do we need? Let us all rejoice!

[Commotion outside]
That’s Ravana’s chariot there, see? And that’s Ravana himself, that guy with the stick on his shoulder…

Everyone: What? Still the fellow isn’t dead? He seems to be quite tough to kill!

Jambuban: This fellow Hanuman here spoiled everything – throwing Ravana into the water then would have settled everything for good – but no, he had to show off his intelligence – “He is completely dead!”

Vibhishan: No use shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted…


The above opening lines, loosely translated from the play Lakshmaner Shaktishel, Sukumar Ray's immortal humorous take on the Ramayana, must have been at the top of Barack Obama's mind on last Sunday when the US Navy SEALS finally managed to kill Osama Bin Laden. But Obama was not making the same mistakes as Hanuman. Even though Bin Laden was apparently "completely dead" the US Navy threw his body into the Arabian Sea.

Which brings us to the point of this post. Jokes aside, the act of a hurried sea burial for the terrorist leader only shows the dilemma the US government finds itself in after finally being able to kill Laden. On one hand, the people want to celebrate, to rejoice having avenged the death of their countrymen ten years ago. On the other hand, the more importance Osama gets now, the more free publicity the terrorists get for their cause.

The government, I think, got their act right. Obama made a matter-of-fact speech saying Osama was killed, and they dropped him into the ocean like another nameless common criminal. The media, on the other hand, completely lost it. On Monday morning, every newspaper in the world looked like this:

Could Osama Bin Laden have asked for better publicity? Ten years after he hijacked those four planes, he hijacked the front page of every newspaper in the world. And what message does all this press coverage send? The message that I see here is that you can attack the US and get away with it for ten years. Laden's death sentence was written the moment the first plane hit the north tower of WTC, the only question was when and where. And for us Indians, even the answer of "where" was more or less known. Then why is this such big news? Even Osama himself must have known this was coming.

Moreover, Bin Laden's serene smiling face is hardly the kind of image that we need to mark such a person's death. Sure, the masses are happy, but why can't we have focus on pictures of the celebrations? Anything other than that full-page face would do - the media is almost making a martyr of that man. This is why I feel the White House should have released pictures of the corpse - it would have given newspapers something solid to publish. Now every newspaper in the world is behaving like an Al-Qaeda mouthpiece, giving the killed man a voice beyond his watery grave. Does the word restraint mean anything to the media? As I mentioned once before, the media goes all out in showing photos of mutilated dead bodies after a terrorist attack. Then why can't we have some humiliating photos when the perpetrator dies?

The story that should be of interest now is Pakistan's role in the war against terror. Indians have been crying themselves hoarse for the last few decades about Pakistan's active support of terrorist groups, and USA has always chosen to remain silent on the issue while giving billions of dollars in military aid to them for their alleged involvement in the war against terror. Now, when the Pakistani officers say they had no clue of Laden's whereabouts it raises some serious questions. Firstly, what kind of war against terror are they fighting if they never tried to find out who was living in a million dollar fortified mansion right next to a military academy? Secondly, does USA really trust their allies if they kept them in the dark about this operation for the last few years? And finally, and this point goes against the other two, if Pakistan was indeed in the dark about this operation, why didn't the Pakistani air force detect and attack the US helicopters when they flew hundreds of miles inland over Pakistani airspace to Abbottabad? It is pretty evident at this point that Pakistan has been playing a double-crossing game, helping terrorists to hide on one hand and when under pressure, helping the US find them on the other. The government is too scared of a backlash from the fundamentals if they accept they had anything to do with Osama's death. On the other hand, if they deny it, they lose face in the international community.

When I saw the people in New York City celebrating on the streets, I knew exactly how they felt, even though I also knew the war on terror was far from being over. Almost exactly a year ago, when I had rejoiced at the death sentence to Ajmal Kasab (a sentence yet to be carried out), I had faced a lot of criticism from my friends. "How can you express happiness at the death of another human being?" one friend said, while another reminded me that killing Kasab was useless since it would do nothing to stop terrorist attacks in the future. I had said at the time that I wanted Kasab to die because that was justice, and today, when thousands of Americans feel justice has been done to their dead relatives and friends, I completely agree with their feelings. "Civilized nations such as the US don't hand out death sentences," another friend had told me. I would like to know what they feel about this now. I don't believe the highly trained Navy SEALS couldn't have captured an old man alive if they wanted to, when he was trying to hide behind a woman. But they chose to shoot him in the head - an excellent decision to ensure that he was indeed completely dead.

I just hope he is completely dead. As a friend pointed out, he may have horcruxes, and that would really spoil the party.