Sunday, October 30, 2005

Stuck in the middle of waist deep water on Bannerghatta road, with the imposing offices of the likes of Oracle, Accenture onlooking the deluge outside, it certainly wasn’t the best of holidays I had hoped for myself after being away from Bangalore for a long time. The city had witnessed its most fierce bout of rains in 60 years. Water logged roads and overflowing drains were a concept alien to us Bangaloreans; we in fact prided in poking fun at neighbouring Chennai which faces such hardships almost every year with even a tinkle of a downpour. The city has been in the news for all the wrong reasons- infrastructure woes, the ongoing battle of words between the ‘humble farmer’ and the IT honcho ( to be fair to the latter, its more of a hysteric monologue initiated by the ‘son of the soil’!), the industry’s clarion call to boycott the annual IT conclave of the state government organized with a view to increase investment and then as an icing on the cake, the rains and the unprecedented floods all over the city. The driver of the auto I was traveling in (rather inching in) said rather ruely- “ They have ruined our city sir, these IT companies. They are flying birds, come here today, go out the next. But their actions and inactions have ruined our city for good. Its all over, destroyed.”

While I might not fully share this poor man’s pessimism, I must concede that this is the popular sentiment of a majority of Bangaloreans- the traditional ones who’ve settled here for generations and have seen the city grow and now decay. Bangalore with the nippiness in its air and salubrious climate was hailed as a pensioners’ paradise till the early 1980’s. while the weather did impart a slightly laidback attitude to its people it was also a melting pot of culture, of intellectuals, of scientists, artists and thinkers who made it its home. Famous as the City of Gardens, this city of boiled grains ( that was what its founder the Yelahanka dynasty ruler Kempegowda named it after) was a city of vibrant minds, of people known for their softspokenness and hospitality.

And then IT happened! To all those who think the climate was the only reason for industry’s choice of Bangalore, I would say why did they not set shop in Ooty, Shimla or some other hill station? Bangalore had many other pluses to its advantage. Under the erstwhile ruler of Mysore and its illustrious Dewans like Sir M Vishweshwaraih and Sir Mirza Ismail, the city had attained a high degree of industrial growth by the time of independence. Mysore state became one of India’s first states to have a democratic system of local governance. It was also the intellectual capital of India with research centers like IISc and later on IIM and the largest number of engineering colleges in India. Bangalore was also high on the strategic map of India’s defence with HAL, BHEL and similar companies housing their operations here. With such a large pool of talent and advantages, the nascent Indian IT industry- which is more of a knowledge based one, naturally chose Bangalore as its starting point. The initial pioneers of the IT growth in India- Narayan Murthy and Azim Premji being Bangaloreans themselves only helped the city that much more. And with all fairness to our most loved whipping boy- the Government-the Karnataka Governments of the past have given sops to the IT industry that no other state in India have- the 10 year tax holiday being just one of them.

With spiraling growth, rapid influx of talented young men and women, new start up companies of ambitious entrepreneurs rearing to fly in the vast skies that the IT success story offered, the industry gave India a new identity, a new respect in the international community of the kinds that China hitherto had in manufacturing. And Bangalore was the fulcrum of this entire growth story, though the IT bug has slowly bitten other states, AP being the most notable. The IT and ITES sector generated $5.7 bn in exports in 2002 and this figure jumped to $17 billion in 2004-05 with an annual growth rate of about 34%. And the leader of the software exports of India was Bangalore, which accounted for more than 40% of the pie.

Bangalore obviously became the favored destination of people- especially the youth who flooded the city in search of good employment opportunities. The city welcomed them all with open arms and assimilated them in the cultural melting pot that it was. More success stories meant more people getting in and slowly there was the specter of unbridled influx. The city wasn’t expecting growth of this magnitude. It managed to subsume the neighboring rural areas and grow into the “Greater Bangalore” that it is today. Still, for a city that called itself pensioners’ paradise to Asia’s fastest growing city- the journey had been long and too fast to grapple with. Till it landed in the cesspool that it is in today!

Its all too easy to lay the blame on the government for its lack of political farsightedness. I mean, the bulk of the blame does lie on its doorstep, as being policy makers its their damn business to plan for the city. But then all of us are to blame for this sad state of affairs in what was India’s indigenous success story and a showcase to the world as a city of the future. The IT firms are equally to blame. With a mere 10 lakh odd vehicles in the early 1990’s to over 2 million today and with an estimated 12 lakh vehicles added every year, which city of the world can cope with such monstrous growth? Add to it the appalling public transport and the increased standard of living of people and the ease with which retail banks offer car and two wheeler loans today, no wonder the city’s roads are clogged with vehicles and smoke. Gone are the times when we barely needed a fan even in the peak of summer. Gone are the canopied boulevards and gardens that dotted the streets- road widening and fly overs have eaten into the very lung of the city.

But what alarms and irritated me more than anything else, is this orchestrated cry from all over the country of ‘Bangalore crumbling’. The media has scripted an obituary much before the patient has slipped into the proverbial coma! Pray which city in India has world-class infrastructure? Having lived in most of the large cities myself, I know that the situation is as good or as bad there as it is in Bangalore. The July rains ruined the image of Mumbai as India’s Shanghai. Did the finance industry decide to leave Bombay for good following that? Mumbai has worse roads (rather potholes) and it takes a helluva effort to ride through the suburbs. The city is choked with its burgeoning slums and uncollected garbage heaps. Gurgaon, where I live these days, and which is touted as a challenge to Bangalore has woefully bad roads too, a drizzle is enough to choke the roads and cause traffic jams. The place has NO public transport whatsoever! Chennai has its own set of problems. No drains, no water, inhuman weather, issues of language and so on. I’am not undermining other cities of India to make a case for Bangalore. What I am trying to say is lack of foresight when it comes to urban planning and governance is a pan-Indian syndrome and Bangalore suffers from the same. Don’t we realize that by deriding and writing off a city that has made the country proud, that has made the world sit up and catch attention of India, which hitherto was never on any body’s priority when it came to industry- we are digging our own grave?

What then is the road ahead? Will we sit blaming each other and let things go worse each passing day or think constructively for a change? There are organizations in Bangalore like ‘Janaagraha’ where I had the privilege of interning for a short while which strikes at the root of these problems. The key is in ‘Participatory democracy’ where citizens ‘elect and engage’ rather than ‘elect and forget and then blame’. Janaagraha’s vision for Bangalore is simplistic, yet effective and logical where the city is broken down into 100 wards and each ward plans for itself. All this in active consultation of and coordination with the local self government bodies who would be the ultimate drivers of these ideas, in a non-confrontationist atmosphere. Cant educated citizens, software professionals, young minds put on their thinking caps and come up with viable solutions to the problems that face their city? The bottlenecks of infrastructure that need our immediate attention are roads, traffic, drainages, garbage disposal (when it comes to power and water supply Bangalore ranks well among India’s cities). Cant IT companies discourage people from using their personal vehicles to office and instead insist that all of them should use a company bus which could ferry them in and out every day? After all these companies which draw so much from the city have some responsibility towards it and need to give back! On its part cant the slumbering government wake up and create a clearly demarcated IT locality- like the ones in Electronic City and Whitefield, which also house huge residential complexes so that the employees working here need not criss cross across the length and breadth of the city for work? Creating self sufficient communities of this kind all along the periphery of the city would decongest the main city to a large extent. Mindless flyovers built over a few meters serve no purpose. Instead comprehensive plans need to be made for building arterial roads, widening and repairing the existing ones- more of the kinds of the numerous ring roads that are a pleasure to drive on.

Equally important in this mad rush is also a holistic development of the city, its cultural hubs and centers. In the recent past the animosity between local Kannada groups and the ‘outsiders’ had reached quite a crescendo, leading to the ban of non Kannada films. Such things don’t augur well for a forward looking city. A sense of mutual respect, a sense of oneness and respect for the local language, customs and traditions on the part of people who inundate the place day in and out is quintessential. More platforms need to be made for the sprouting of the arts- dance, music, theater, literature; even as we proudly host the Elton Johns and Bryan Adams of the world. Its all nice to be called the Pub capital of India, but at the same time one mustn’t lose sight of the quintessential ethos of Bangalore which, unlike Goa is not in booze and wine! Bangalore represents a wonderful picture of how opposites can co-exist and in harmony and this needs to be nurtured for posterity.

So for once, why cant we junk our characteristic cynicism of ‘nothing can happen in this country’; why not junk the senseless ‘sons of the soil’ who have absolutely no vision and whose diatribes border more on the comic and come up with practical solutions to this problem of plenty. The government is also, after all run by human beings, not demigods or magicians. Its all too easy to say ‘ the government must do something about it’ but then when we actually sit down to think about quantifying that ‘something’ and how to go about it, we realize that it aint an easy task. At this point of time, it really doesn’t matter if a few companies get frustrated and leave Bangalore… ‘cos wherever else they go, be it a Hyderabad or Pune or Noida and Gurgaon- the issues that Bangalore face today will come to haunt them as well some day in the future; because town planning has never been an Indian virtue! We bask in temporal successes and forget larger issues! So it would actually be foolish for companies to leave a place which has given them such a head start and reinvent the wheel in a new location. Instead why not fix the bruised wheel before it gives way?

While I think of all this, my auto has managed to inch a bit ahead splashing the puddles of water all over, with people on their road-rage best, honking, abusing, trying to cut lanes and speed ahead. I can barely conceal my smile when, after being out of this mega jam of over 70 minutes, my pessimistic auto driver shakes his head in dismay again and says – No hope for this city sir, no hope!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Continuing with my present state of disillusionment (refer previous post for details), this one comes along as a sequel. The issue of ‘faith’ has always puzzled me beyond question. It could be something as obscure as the faith that many of my female colleagues in office have of fasting today to ensure a long life for their husbands (ok lets not get feministic by arguing why can’t men keep a similar fast on the lines of karva chauth or is it that they don’t want their wives to live long enough!) or the trend these days of falling a prey to the million faith-peddlers who hold sway on the unsuspecting millions. Without getting into names or individuals, it is no secret that ‘spirituality’ of the 21st century is a big booming business. They are run like corporate houses, they have precise market segments and market research to target their most vulnerable ‘customers’, they have super size marketing and publicity blitz, they flood TV channels ( for those who haven’t been caught napping surfing these faith-peddler channels like astha, sanskar, God and ones on quran and Arabic faiths- its almost as big a business as ekta kapoor’s daily soap opera tortures!!!), have modern-age gurus and matas cris-crossing the world with a frequency that would put business honchos to shame. And this phenomenon is not religion or country specific. It has assumed menacingly huge proportions on a global scale. For all those baiters of Indian jet-age gurus, we had a huge conclave of an evangelist in Bangalore last year ( of course amidst protest from our loony Parivar brethren) , who claimed to touch people and cure them of their sickness- all in an atmosphere of intense , artificial and generated mass hysteria!

We all agree that the man ( and woman of course!) of our times is much more literate, much more scientifically inclined, rational and all that is good with the neurons. Isn’t it intriguing then that such people still resort to the likes of touch-and-cure healers? I mean, biology and medical sciences could go on a vacation for all they care?

But then to be fair to the ‘best practices’ that our corporate gurus employ, its no longer mumbo jumbo that would’ve charmed your grandmother or her mother that these chaps use…we have gurus talking science…about how de-stressing their techniques can get and which enzymes and neuro-transmitters change and to what percentage and so on! And with all this high-end medico-statistical analysis in place, a huge trap is laid on a multi-national scale to lure (read ‘serve’) more and more human beings! Miracles are performed, holy ash falls from nowhere, lepers start running, cancers get cured, the night skies turn red and wonder what else happens and we have this huge mammoth gatherings of ‘devotees’ swaying their hands in orgasmic ecstasy of having realized their very Selves! May be they have, but then if the entire process involves a huge dent on my wallet, I am pretty satisfied with my current ‘unrealized,’ ignorant self!

It also makes me wonder how these holy men and women acquire huge tracts of lands to build their palatial ashrams. Wasn’t sanyas all about renunciation or was I just being way too stupid? Wonder what it is with these men-in-holy-robes that attracts those in power? Invariably the hobnob between them and the ruling class exists; while I understand the need that our divine men and women have for those in power to get all their goodies and freebies, what do the power czars get in return? What makes them vacillate in front of people pulling out ash or doing any other inconsequential and totally meaningless miracles?

For the aam-aadmi of our times, I guess spirituality of the hip-hop variety gives a convenient outlet. With the breakdown of our traditional joint family set up, nuclear families are increasingly becoming a thressome- man-woman-kid affair. Insecurities, loneliness, depression, absence of an elderly shoulder to cry upon, lack of sagely and experienced advice plagues us all in the modern society. And these czars and czarinas of the soul conveniently cash in on these very insecurities and make big moolah. I agree, that many of them also indulge in a lot of social work. But then that is more of an eyewash, a lid to cover the muck that their financial irregularities have generated. One casual look at the standard of living of the near-and-dear ones of the said God man or woman before and after he/she declared himself/herself as such is enough to drive home this point! Hitherto average middle class family members would now have chauffer driven limousines, have a battery of servants, would’ve toured the globe a million times, sent their kids to the most expensive of schools abroad. And since the power masters of the day are also in tow, the entire drama carries on unabashed, uninterrupted!

While my agnostic self prevents me from giving an ‘all-pervasive all-knowing entity that oozes with compassion’ image to the concept of god ( ‘cos if he were that compassionate and wonderful, humanity wouldn’t be in the throes of misery that it currently is in), it simply seems out of question to me to raise a mere mortal to a pedestal of divinity. This man in sacred robes is as human as me; he has the same body structure as I have of two eyes, one nose, two ears and the rest, has more or less the same kinds of urges ( of food, water, of nature calls!!), the same kind of passions and desires (ok, may be in a lesser or who knows larger proportion that the very-ordinary me!), falls prey to the same kinds of viral infections and diseases- then what on mother earth makes him an incarnation of God?

But all said and done, the malaise is deep. Religion they say is an opiate for the masses and as long as people remain people- insecure, timid, craving for external strength- so long will our wonder-gurus continue to rule the roost! The show, as they say, would go on and that is what it all is at the end of the day- a huge huge trickery show!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

I am back and this time around its been a really long incognito…well the usual excuses I guess- that i was too held up, had loads of work, was just a tad too lazy, didn’t want to be seen blogging in office, there were just too many upheavals at my end that documenting the same didn’t seem a very interesting activity! But then, finally felt this tearing need to break the pause that was getting threateningly long- realized that when I forgot the password to my blogspot ! also had quite a few regulars asking me where I had disappeared ( ooh! As always so flattering!)…so ultimately landed back, not with any vengeance though!

With Ma, Roopa and Vishnu landing here in Gurgaon over varied time lines, life certainly changed for the better. At the least you have someone to return home to; not empty walls looming at you dispassionately. Last week we embarked on this trip to Agra, Mathura and Vrindavan. I was looking forward eagerly to the visit to Vrindavan; remembered a Hindi verse that I had read many summers ago which summed up to something like this:
When will I renounce the circle of material family life, and, drowning in transcendental bliss, go to Vraja bhumi? O Lord Hari, when will this be?
When will I see Govardhana Hill, my eyes filling with tears? When will I reside at Radha-kund? When, as a result of constantly wandering in Vrndavan, will this body fall down?
When will I become pure at heart by bathing in the waters of the Yamuna?
When will I circumambulate the land of Vraja, wandering from forest to forest? When, becoming fatigued, will I stop to rest on the shore of the Yamuna?
When will I be able to see the gardens of Vrndavan where the great devotees worshipped the Lord?
When will I find relief from the heat of midday by resting in the cooling shade of Vamsivata? When will I associate with the Vaishnavas in the groves of Vrndavana?”

The image of Vrindavan in my mind’s eyes was one that reverberated with Its glorious past with the all pervading looming presence of Krishna in everything and everyone. Well, my fault perhaps as there is certainly no utopia in this world. These images were to take a massive beating through the course of the long day that I spent there.

Around 150 km south west of Delhi, Vrindavan is off the Delhi-Agra Highway and it took us about 4 hours to get there from Gurgaon. Even as your car takes a turn to get into this hallowed township, you get blocked by a huge group of men sporting tilaks and wearing saffron scarves, looking much like their brethren in the much-talked about ‘Parivar’ of Indian politics! They insist that you need to take a guide along with you, as there are almost 5000 temples there and as a newcomer you would simply be lost trying to find your way through and also deciphering which temple is ‘important’ from whatever point of view! Of course it just costs you 31 bucks for this and so we let a lanky lad hop into our cab. He began with a long harangue about how we were the very benefactors of lady luck that made us step on the Holy land of Vrindavan, about how others would’ve just dreamt about this but never accomplished the feat ever, about quotes and sayings that he had memorized to perfection ranging from Sur to Meera to proverbs in the local lingo. Basically a lot of harmless mumbo-jumbo which i seriously didnt mind listening to!

He took us to a temple of ‘Ranganath ji’ built in the typical South Indian style. True to his profession he gave us every possible detail about every possible pillar and brick of that temple, much to the chagrin of Ma who wanted to spend some time in peace there. His focus however ended with materialism about how many kilos of gold were used to embellish the tower, how much silver was used to make the deity, what eatable is offered and when---none of which was of any significance to any of us. Then the strange practice of putting your hands up, clapping and laughing aloud in front of every deity; which he said was absolutely necessary ‘cos those who laughed in Vrindavan would lead joyous lives and those who remained mum or morose would end up ruining their lives! While Ma refused to indulge in these antics, Roopa and me decided to humor the poor guy…thought it must be part of some folklore or belief---which is what all religious places are supposed to be abound with---and laughed like crazy nuts at the sight of every idol !

So far so good. Till we made our way through the narrowest of lanes- the kunj galis of Vrinadavan where Krishna was supposed to have had a rollicking time with his childhood friends and the gopis. We entered one of Vrindavan’s oldest temples- the Banke Bihari temple. Legend has it that the deity of Banke-bihari was discovered by Swami Haridas, the guru of the famous musician Tansen.

The initial aura of the place was truly wonderful—something that even an avowed agnostic like me must concede. It truly did resonate of Krishna’s presence- He seemed to live there to this day, in those narrow lanes, in that huge peepal tree outside the temple, the pond nearby, in the devotion of the numerous old widows who had their abode outside the temple, who were condemned to a life of penury by the existing social customs of the times. It really felt ethereal and I did have my hairs standing at ends for a while.

‘For a while’ I said, ‘cos then we were ushered in to the sanctum by our dear friend. The main priest of that hallowed temple seated us in front of the deity, made us mutter some things in Hindi, rambled a few sentences in a matter-of-fact manner about the supposed miracles of the place and then presto! Took his receipt book out! Then he began reeling out the different ‘rates’ to salvage mine and my ancestors’ souls- starting for a measly 1000 bucks and extending till where our imaginations could lead us to! All along our ‘benevolent’ friend goaded us to make the maximum of this unique opportunity and pay up as much as we can. The priest wouldn’t open the curtain and show us the deity till we gave him a quote. When I protested and said it wouldn’t be possible, ‘pandit ji’ started the bargain in typical vegetable vendor style- “ok, tell me how much would you be willing to pay’? since we settled for a very small amount, he pulled the curtain for a minute or so, frowned at us and closed it off in a hurry and dumped some Prasad in our hands and signaled us to leave! It was such a relief to be out…we felt liberated! It was intense fear and blackmail that happened inside and the feeling outside was so refreshing!

The same sordid affair repeated itself in the palace of Nand where Krishna supposedly grew up as a child. But this time we were once bitten and hence more cautious and simply walked away before we could be put on the hot seat with a million people imploring us to wash our sins off through higher offerings! If any one of them truly believed in the God that they eulogized, they would have read His story where it was a mere tulsi leaf offered with utmost devotion and dedication and not riches that satisfied Him.

I left Vrindavan with a sense of shock, disgust and disbelief. If this was the scenario in the birthplace of one of India's most worshipped heroes, i shudder to think how bad things could be in other places! No wonder then that ‘Hindu culture’ as I know of it is conspicuous by its absence in the bad lands of Northern India. Many south Indian temples including the famed shrine at Tirupati is also undoubtedly steeped in corruption. But then once you enter the sanctum, the entire focus is on quiet introspection and the focus remains the deity there. It never is a tomato-carrot kind of bargain that Ma indulges with her vegetable seller each day! No wonder then that the North shall remain the North and the South shall remain the South and never shall the twain meet! Thank God for small mercies, after all !