Sunday, April 06, 2014

I Cycled 120km (75mi) and I Would Never Do It Again

Cycles parked at the mid-way breakfast point.
Kamat Lokaruchi, Janapada Loka, Ramanagara.
I'd like to think I'm a fairly normal guy, who occasionally does some inexplicable, crazy things. Last September, I cycled down from Khardung-la to Leh with a GoPro taped to my cycle handle post. The following day, I ran a half-marathon 12,000 ft above sea-level in Leh. Since then, I haven't really done anything crazy. So, now in hindsight, I guess I was overdue.

Bangalore has a fairly vibrant cycling community that has grown in strength (and craziness) over the past few years. Every weekend, hordes of cyclists religiously climb Nandi Hills, a modest hill located about 60km (38mi) outside Bangalore. I've never participated in those rides. I had once tried a 60-odd km ride, and had barely made it back home. Nowadays, my cycle was reserved for commuting to and from French class on weekends - a modest and manageable 8-10km (5-6 mi) from home.

So, when I was invited to a 100km+ ride out to Ramanagara (of Sholay fame), my initial reaction was to dismiss it. It wasn't for me. But the number of riders who confirmed participation kept rising. On Friday, the day before the ride, the confirmations were 200+ and the maybes were 100+. I imagined 200 riders stringing out in a single file on the state highway, and it was a beautiful sight. I wanted to be a part of it. Members of the group allayed my fears and assured me that I could do it. I reasoned this was my best chance to hit a hundred - I'd simply draft behind 200 cyclists. I decided to go for it.

The first warning signs appeared at 5:30am on Saturday morning, as I was riding to the start point - a Specialized bike store on Infantry Road. I didn't see a single rider until I hit the store, and even then, there were only about 20 riders milling about in the darkness with blinking lights on their bikes and helmets. After some instructions and celebratory whoops, we left in the pre-dawn darkness, walking our bikes up the wrong way of the one-way street up to the main road, where we started pedaling.

The initial miles were exhilarating. The cool dawn wind rushed past my ears. I followed instructions fastidiously. "On your right!" I would exclaim as I passed by another cyclist. There was something joyous about that small bunch of cyclists heading out of town as a group.

Quickly though, the group separated as cyclists negotiated bad roads and heavy truck traffic. Mysore Road leads out of Bangalore in a south-westerly direction, and it is a minefield of potholes. I became acutely aware of the rate of descent. Bangalore sits at a lordly 3,000 ft above sea-level, higher than every other place in its immediate vicinity. If you're leaving Bangalore, you're going down. But the rate of descent on Mysore Road was steep, and structured like a flight of stairs. At one cliff-like point, I could see the road stretch out in this step formation; the last step seemed a long way down. I flew down those stairs, like a barrel rolled out by the ape from Donkey Kong. It was fast and fun, and I was trying to ignore the voice in my head that reminded me I would have climb these same stairs on the way back.

I was making great progress, and was soon approaching Ramanagara having hardly broken a sweat. The official turn-around point was Kamat Lokaruchi, a highway restaurant on the other side of town. I was looking forward to breakfast, and to seeing all the other cyclists. I had seen but a few through my ride and had ridden alone most of the way.

The breakfast buffet was delicious. Tables were filled with cyclists (admittedly a fraction of the promised 200) all munching and swapping cycling stories. There was a great sense of camaraderie and of living a shared experience. There were also lots of newbies like me, identifiable by the nervous manner in which they gazed at all the cyclists, and timidly asked, "Have you done these rides before?" or "Is this your first?". Experienced pros joked that we might feel like hailing an auto on the return journey, but advised that we should keep going. (Indeed, I would see at least one auto go by with a cycle, and presumably its rider, packed inside.)

I felt the difference as soon as I started back. The April morning sun had come out in all its blazing glory, and temperatures were rising. When we had started the ride, it had been a pleasant 24C (75F). By the time I would finish the ride, it would be a scorching 35C (95F). The 60km (37.5mi) of descent that I had enjoyed looked very different when viewed from the opposite direction. The laborious ascents under the hot mid-day sun were made more trying by the highway traffic. Being precisely a dual carriageway (and not an inch more), I hugged the edge - and off-roaded frequently - as cars and, more frighteningly, buses whizzed by within a few inches with blaring horns. I knew I was running on empty when I began stopping every 20 minutes for a large swig of water laden with electrolytes.

Around Kengeri, still a good 15mi+ from home, the upward stairs began - and they were merciless. Taken together with the dust, the heat, the traffic, and the previous 60mi, I felt delirious. I thought of home and the bowl of salted curd rice that awaited me, and I forced my legs to just please keep rotating. I stopped for coconut water. I stopped for two glasses of sugarcane juice. I crawled in the lowest gear ratio, willing myself to move forward. Every foot forward was a foot closer to home. I hit the Mysore Road flyover and pulled myself through it. I cycled past the grand Jama Masjid, looking splendid and radiant in white. I descended the flyover into the more familiar surroundings of Town Hall. Then came Hudson Circle and Kanteerva Stadium, with Cubbon Park to my left. A right turn followed by a left brought me to Residency Road. I was now within striking distance of home. My brain switched to auto-pilot, and I rolled home eight hours after I had left it.

I expected to collapse when I got off the bike, but surprisingly, my legs felt strong and solid. My neck and shoulders hurt, though, from carrying my small satchel stuffed with water bottles, juice packets, energy bars, and bananas. I also had saddle sores from constantly rubbing up against the seat. What really hurt, however, was how empty I felt. There wasn't a sense of accomplishment or of having partaken in something extraordinary. I had ridden alone for most of the 120km and 7 hours, and it simply hadn't felt like fun. I was quite certain I wouldn't be doing this again in a hurry.

I slept deeply, expecting to be passed out for quite a while. Instead, I woke up the next morning at 7am. I cautiously checked my muscles. Except for some light soreness, I felt fine. As the morning progressed, something strange happened to me. I kept thinking about the previous day's ride. Then, I began to wonder what was 50km out to the east of Bangalore. And the south-east. Would I hit the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border? Maybe I could go explore the following Saturday morning. I opened up a map.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Kaveri Trail Half Marathon 2012 Race Report

We run upstream and downstream.
Pic Courtesy: Runners For Life
Race report: 5 of us - Gopal, Kavi, Jess, Sid and I - drove down from Bangalore on Saturday. It had been cloudy and rainy; so, we were hoping for similar running conditions when the race started at 6:40am on Sunday. The first few km were pleasant enough; the sun was rising on our left to illuminate a scenery so gorgeous that I thought of stopping at one point to click a picture.

The trail ran alongside a tributary of the River Cauvery, with sugarcane and paddy fields on our right, behind which lay the Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary (I saw Ibis fly overhead in V-formations at the start). While this was pretty, the fields would contribute to much of the still heat we were to experience later.

I ran with Gopal for the first few km. We chatted amiably, made jokes and paced each other. After about km6, I pulled ahead and found a guy with curly hair sticking out from under a cap and a cheetah at the back of his yellow shirt to pace with (I thanked him after the race). As we approached the halfway U-turn mark, I was surprised to see Sid already making his way back, a couple of minutes ahead of me. Both Gopal and I hadn't noticed when he had passed us early in the run. As I U-turned and took a sip at the aid station, I felt a competitive spirit rise within me. I didn't want Sid to finish ahead of me; I was going to chase him down.

Km12 was my fastest of the race (5:38). I passed Kavi and Jess going the other way, and I itched to ask them how far ahead Sid was. As we approached the bridge, where the trail kinda double-backs on itself, I caught a glimpse of Sid some distance ahead. I started feeling a stitch in my side and forced myself to slow down. I constantly kept Sid in view, and I could see that I was reeling him in, slowly but surely. By the aid station at km14, I was alongside him. We paced each other through the next 2km, chatting about this and that. At the 16km aid station, I pulled away (he later told me that he had hit his wall there, and was walking for a couple of km before Gopal caught up with him and pulled him through to the finish; they would finish a few seconds apart, seperated by a last burst sprint from Sid, who would also discover after the race that he had developed toe blisters on both his feet).

The heat was intense by now; the sun was beating down. After km14 (when I caught Sid), my pace dropped by about 7secs/km until km18. By km18, I was running at a laborious 6:42/km and knew I was struggling. I started talking to myself at this point, egging my feet and legs on, motivating myself every few seconds, and grunting and snorting the exhaustion out of my system. I refused to look over my shoulder because I imagined Sid to be hauling in my slow butt and I didn't need the added pressure; I just focused on myself and putting one foot in front of the other.

I felt a coldness come over me around km19, and couldn't understand how I could be shivering in such heat. Maybe it was me hitting my wall; maybe it was me breaking through my wall, but my brain wasn't processing any of those thoughts. I could focus on nothing else except the ground that lay ahead of me, willing my feet to keep moving. It must have worked; km19 was 6:41, km20 was 6:30 and km21 was 6:35. The finish line, however, simply refused to arrive; I kept turning bends expecting to see a crowd waiting for me, and I got more trail. When I finally did see the finish line, I sprinted the last 50m and felt new muscles come to life.

I hit the line with both arms raised to the sky and shouting 'Yes!'. I had done it; I had finished my first half-marathon. Finishing time: 2:13:35.

The real kicker was yet to come, though. Although I didn't know it then, I was just entering the first stages of dehydration. I felt a little woozy and had a slight headache. I made the mistake of not taking care of it immediately; in hindsight, I realise I should have tanked up after the race on liquids, salt (like electrolytes) and food, instead of giving into my sleeplessness and exhaustion and going straight to the hotel room and crashing. Result: I was passed out the rest of the day, an unintelligible mess as my body fought to come out of the starvation mode it had gone into. Huge props to my friends for hauling me back to Bangalore. At home, my mom gave me a glass of electrolyte water, and curd rice with rock salt (works wonders!). I had slept through much of the day, but I still slept like a rock for a good 10 hours through the night. When I awoke the next morning, I was almost back to normal, and life carried on, except for the small difference that I was now a half-marathoner.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Traffic Karma



Friday evening is traffic jam time. Three of us were driving back from the office, taking our usual shortcut, but we realized there was a huge traffic pile up. So, we turned around to go via the main road, but found ourselves stuck at a junction. As we waited patiently for the traffic to move again, I noticed in my rear view mirror a taxi speeding down the wrong way. He would go up ahead and try to squeeze into some non-existent open space, thereby creating a greater jam.

I rolled down my window and stuck my hand out in a questioning gesture, asking “Where are you going?” I expected him to simply ignore me and continue on, but instead, to my surprise, he stopped beside my car (still staying on the wrong side) and began yelling at me. “Who do you think you are to show me your hand? What right do you have?” Then, he got down from his car and advanced menacingly up to my window, still yelling and hurling abuses at me in Kannada. I simply repeated my questions to him in English. Neither of us spoke the other’s language. Then, he got back in his car with some parting abuses and sped off.

The three of us bemoaned the disintegration of civil society and quietly fumed at the state of human decency and Bangalore traffic. The serpentine queue of cars inched forward. But our karma was yet to complete its circle.

A few minutes later, the taxi driver returned with three burly people. They all had mustaches, wore a lot of gold around their wrists and necks, and looked quite dangerous. I thought the driver had brought some friends of his and I couldn’t believe he was escalating the matter. They tapped on my window and after some hesitancy, I lowered it. The most authoritative of the bunch was asking the driver, “Is this the car? Is this the guy?” Then, he turns to me and says, “What was he telling you? Did he abuse you?” We repeated the abuses the driver had given us a few minutes earlier. The authoritative guy then turned to the driver and started scolding him, “Who do you think you are? Some big rowdy? This guy is telling you to do the right thing; how dare you shout at him?” And the three big, burly guys led the taxi driver away, who now looked very sorry indeed.

The three of us sat in our car in stunned silence. We had never expected retribution for the driver to arrive so swiftly. Karma is usually a long-drawn affair where patience is required. I guess with Bangalore traffic, it’s more a case of Car-ma.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

We Need To Talk


The Week’s Prompt:
{A’s} profession is a hazardous one—aviator, automobile racing driver, steeple jack, “human fly”—and {B} considers this fact an obstacle to their marriage.

“Dear?”
“Hmmm?”
“We need to talk.”
“Hmmm...”
“Will you put that paper down and look at me?”
“Yes, dear.”
“It’s about your latest project.”
“What about it?”
“It upsets me.”
“Upsets you? What about it upsets you?”
“Well, the fact that you climb buildings.”
“Sweetheart, I’m ‘The Human Fly’; it’s what I do. Besides, being a human fly is a great honor. My father and grandfather were both human flies. I am proud to be able to continue that family tradition.”
“No, I understand that. It’s just ... do you have to do it without any safety harnesses?”
“If I wore safety harnesses, then I would be just a regular steeplejack.”
“Yes, about the steeplejack thing ...”
 “What about it?”
“Why do you do it?”
“You know why I did it. It was my training to become ‘The Human Fly’.”
“But now that you are ‘The Human Fly’, can’t you give up being a steeplejack?”
“And do what exactly for a living?”
“You had a job before all of this, when I first met you.”
“What, go back to being a mechanic at that dirty garage? I’m no longer that same man, woman. And besides, how do you think it’d look in the papers - “Human Fly a greasy mechanic!” No, it just won’t do.”
“Ok, maybe not a mechanic, but you learnt so much about cars there. Couldn’t you put all that knowledge to good use? Maybe become a driver or something?”
“A driver?”
“Yes, like a cabbie, or you could work for one of the rich businessmen.”
“A driver. You know, you might be onto something there.”
“I might?”
“Yes. Oh, you are beautiful, and your mind is beautiful. I’m heading to the track right this instant.”
“The track?”
“The race track. I’m going to become a racing driver.”
“What? No, I was talking about ...”
“Imagine the headline, “Human Fly a daring automobile racing driver!” Terrific!”
“You know, while you’re at it, why don’t you fly a plane as well?”
“Brilliant! You just don’t stop, do you? I’m so glad I married you. And my mother thought I was making a mistake. “Human Fly a daring automobile driver and a daring stunt aviator!” The press will go crazy for me.”
“I'm pregnant.”
“He'd fly through the air with the greatest of ease/ That daring young man on the flying trapeze/ He’d fly through the air ...”

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"Please to Excuse, Sir. Thank You."

The only way I realised we were in Konark was when I looked through the windshield and saw the dome of the Sun Temple towering over the tops of trees. The ‘town’ of Konark itself is in a pathetic state. The Government is absent, save for a sprawling Yatri Nivas; the entire game has been left in the hands of private players. There are no State Buses, the roads are poor and there are no signs to inform the beleaguered tourist. The ‘bus stand’ is open ground on either side of the lane – again, with no structure or signboard. Matchbox buses kick up dust that swirls into your eyes and mouth on the wind. The conductor had to tell me to alight as this was the stop for Konark; I had to ask shopkeepers hiding from the sun under yellow and blue tarpaulin sheets where the Sun Temple was. If you didn’t know better, there’s a pretty good chance you’d drive right past Konark and the Sun Temple.
My Government-issued guide at the Sun Temple, Jarameshwar Panda, has been doing his job since 1960. He’s done this gig so long that he’s got every move, every compliment, every photo angle and pose all figured out and practiced to perfection. I let Panda work his charm; heck, that’s why I’m here in the first place. He appropriates my camera and interjects his narration with a “Please to excuse, Sir; stand there” *Click*, “Please to excuse, Sir; point at that” *Click*, “Look at that” *Click*.
Panda’s English is poor and his Hindi is incomprehensible; overall, his muffled speech is hard to follow, but it’s obvious he’s making quite an effort to provide an informative, memorable trip. His favourite phrase, apart from “Please to excuse, Sir” is “Thank you”.
“Please to excuse, Sir; hold your hand out like this. Thank you.” *Click*
As Panda led me around the temple area, he stopped and pointed at certain sculptures.
“Please to excuse, Sir,” he said. “Ladies all around the country wear dupattas. That is a modern thing. Do you agree? Thank you. Now, please look at this sculpture and tell me what you see she is wearing. Is it a dupatta?”
I agreed that it could be so.
“Thank you,” he said with a slight nod. “This temple was built in the thirteenth century but you can see twenty-first century things were being used even back then.”
He repeated this process at other sculptures, indicating a skirt, a backpack, a handbag and high heels (which I thought looked more like platforms from the Disco Age). The intricate carvings on the temple walls are erotic enough to make one blush.
The Konark Sun Temple is most famous for its chariot wheels. There are twelve wheels, one for each month of the year. Carvings on the wheel spokes are specific to its month. So, for example, the month of July carries a carving depicting the monsoon. Only one of the wheels is intact – others have a spoke missing or the axle broken off or chunks chipped off – and Panda leads me there.
“Please to excuse, Sir,” he said, “but you can read the time using this wheel. The bottom half of the wheel can show twelve hours. Between each spoke shows three hours and there are sixty dots; so, each dot is three minutes.”
He placed his finger on the wheel axle jutting out from the wall and our eyes followed his finger’s shadow. He muttered some calculations and looked up at me.
“It will be just before twelve o’clock,” he said, “some ten minutes.”
It was ten to twelve on the dot.
“Thank you.”
I paid Jarameshwar Panda, said "Thank You" for his services, and headed for lunch to the Government-run Yatri Nivas down the road where the food’s only redeeming quality was that it filled my stomach. I then headed to Konark’s ‘general bus stand area’ and waited fifteen minutes in the shade of a shop for a matchbox bus to Puri.

Written for the Expedia contest on IndiBlogger. Visit Expedia at http://www.expedia.co.in/.

Dark Secrets of the Tantric Goddess

Puri is a very trippy sort of town located in Orissa on the Eastern shoreline of India. It was on the original hippie trail that extended across Asia, and remains extremely popular with foreign backpackers  today. Although its population is around 150,000 people, the numbers swell especially around the annual Rath Yatra (Car Festival) held in July. The Rath Yatra is a religious procession where the idols of Lord Jagannath are slowly paraded up a street in an expensively-decked out chariot; it is the only opportunity non-Hindus have of setting eyes on the idols since the temple itself is off-limits to them. The balconies and apartments lining the street are booked out well in advance for Rath Yatra sighting parties.
For dinner a couple of evenings before the famed Rath Yatra, I went to ‘Honey Bee’s Bakery & Pizzeria’, where I ate an expensive, but poorly-prepared, lasagne. However, I was given my money’s worth – paisa vasool – with the conversation at the only other occupied table in that five-table restaurant.
A bald, white man, wearing a kurta, was sitting alone and reading. Another white man, also bald and known to the first, entered the restaurant and joined him at the table.
“Dark Secrets of the Tantric Goddess!” the newcomer exclaimed and wiggled his fingers, when he saw the other’s book. “You know I want to get my hands on that.”
He sat down and the two of them began a spirited discussion about why the religion was called Hinduism, which was the best place to see the Rath Yatra from, and how the Vedas fared when compared to the Upanishads.
“I used to be a heavy practitioner,” drawled the newcomer while refusing the salad his companion had offered him, “but then, I was faced with the question, ‘What do I want to do?’ I could either become a monk or an academician. Then, I got into a really good graduate school, and found that I really enjoyed the academic part of it.”
He went on to talk about his role as a teacher of Hindu scriptures and Hinduism in a foreign university. As I listened, I thought to myself how Americans (for his accent betrayed him to be one) pursue a subject relentlessly, seeking knowledge and understanding. It is a quality I – and a lot of Indians – would do well to appropriate, rather than getting stuck in archaic belief systems which may or may not be true for my situation.
“But then,” the teacher concluded, “if I find my true Guru, all this goes out the window.”
“I have nearly come to blows with ISKCON devotees,” he said at another time. “They were, like, “Jagannath! Oh yeah! He’s a reincarnation of Krishna.” I said, “You take that back right now.” Then, I calmed down, went home and called an Indian friend of mine and said, “You know, they’re saying Jagannath is a reincarnation of Krishna.” For a few minutes, there was a lot of cursing and fighting on the other side of the phone.”
“So, who is Jagannath an incarnation of?” asked his companion.
“Jagannath,” the teacher said in all seriousness, “is most likely an incarnation of Vishnu.”
A little while later, the teacher rose.
“Excuse me,” he said to his salad-eating companion. “It’s beer o’clock; time for me to go get a ‘big boy drink’. I’ll see you at the Rath Yatra.”
And the bald white man left - that teacher of Hindu scriptures and religious beliefs, that defender of Lord Jagannath’s ancestry, that organiser of Rath Yatra viewing parties, that seeker of his true Guru - lighting up a cigarette on his way out.

Written for the Expedia contest on IndiBlogger. Visit Expedia at http://www.expedia.co.in/.

An Evening On Marine Pde., Puri

Marine Pde. gets really busy in the evenings. The beach, which stretches straight as an arrow to the horizon, is packed with vendors, strollers and swimmers, along with animals like horses and camels. The wind is ferocious, buffeting me and firing prickly pellets of sand against my legs.
The OTDC (Orissa Tourism Development Corporation) counter is on Marine Pde. I had telephoned earlier in the day to enquire about dolphin-sighting boat tours that OTDC conducts on Chilika Lake, about an hour from Puri. An energetic Mr. Madhusudan informed me that due to a bloody rift between two villages in the area – seven people had died thus far in firing – all tours originating from Satpada had been cancelled. However, tours that started about five kilometres away from Satpada were still available. I signed up over the phone.
“I have booked your ticket,” said Mr. Madhusudan. “You come to the counter and ask, “Are you Madhusudan?” I will say “Yes, I am.” Then, you give me the money and I will give you your ticket.”
After I had picked up my ticket, I walked a few paces down the Pde. to Mongini’s, a famous cake shop that had originated in Calcutta some eighty years previously. The shop was small but packed, and the three men behind the counter appeared harried. An elderly Bengali couple were in the middle of their order as I entered.
“So, that is fifteen of this pastry and one 7-Up bottle,” the grey-haired lady said. Her voice was pleasant on the ears and she spoke in a mix of crisp English and accented Hindi. She turned to her husband, a small gentle man.
“Do you think this is enough?” she asked, and they thought aloud about who was expected, and how many people were coming from each family. The salesman behind the counter waited patiently, as did the other customers behind the couple, who decided their order was sufficient. However, when the salesman took out all the pastries and put them in a box, there were only ten. When he communicated this fact to the couple, they were puzzled.
“But, we asked for fifteen,” the lady said.
“Yes, but we have only ten,” the salesman said.
“They have only ten,” she repeated, turning to her husband. Then, she turned back and said, “So, then give us five of these other pastries.”
The salesman took out two of the newly-selected pastries and began to stuff them into the same box.
“Don’t do that,” the lady barked. “You’ll crush them; put these five into another box.”
“But, ma’am, there are only two.”
This pushed the couple into another discussion. Meanwhile, the crowd started to press forward and the salesman began to respond to other customers.
“You finish our order first,” said the agitated lady. “Do you have fruit cake? Give us five pieces of that instead. But show it to us first.”
He did; it was approved and went into the box.
“Is the 7-Up there?” she asked.
“Yes ma’am, I’ve already put it in.”
The lady spied the beverage fridge and called her husband over. Another discussion ensued. They turned back to the counter, but their salesman had gone to bill their purchases and another salesman stood in his place.
“We’d like two bottles of Nimbooz as well,” the lady said.
“You can open the fridge door and take them,” said the new salesman.
“Have you got the 7-Up?” the husband asked.
The new salesman unknowingly said no, he hadn’t. The original salesman-behind-the-counter heard, but before he could say anything, the elderly husband pulled out a bottle of 7-Up and handed it over. The original salesman quietly pushed aside the bottle of 7-Up he had, accepted the bottles from the couple and billed them.
“You heated up the pastries?” cried the lady. “Who heats up pastries? I’m going to talk to the head office in Kolkata! They are going to hear of this!”
With this parting shot, the couple left. Everybody in Mongini's, including the customers, heaved a sigh of relief.

Written for the Expedia contest on IndiBlogger. Visit Expedia at  http://www.expedia.co.in/.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Isn't The National Anthem For All Indians?

I have a huge problem with Times Of India's new marketing initiative centred around the National Anthem. It's nothing but an ego trip. Called "Jaya Hey," it rubbishes what school children sing everyday as being only a fifth of what Rabindranath Tagore originally intended, and proudly unfurls the remaining four stanzas that have now been set to music.



While this is a noble task by itself, what really gets my goat is the way TOI has gone about it. It's a ten-minute video that attempts to sell unabashed patriotism (through visual indicators like pained puppy dog eyes and upturned palms, as if invoking the Almighty), but in a manner that makes TV infomercials look like works of art. This video is an exercise for TOI's clout, nothing more. By pulling in 39 singers and musicians (who, I'm sure, have all worked for free because, really, how can you put money over patriotism?), TOI is essentially telling us, "Look at the connections I have. I am all powerful. Bow before me."

What's troubling, however, is what this video implies.

1. The National Anthem is not an individualistic song; what makes it truly powerful is the collective aspect of it, the fact that whoever you are, wherever you might be, when you hear "Jana Gana Mana," you stand at attention and sing along. Do you sing the National Anthem alone? No, you're usually singing along when it's playing in the theatre or at a flag hoisting or with your classmates in school. And yet, this video shows 39 well-heeled singers and musicians, dressed in their finest silk ethnic wear, performing individually for the most part. Essentially, when each one had some free time, they came into the studio, recorded and filmed, and left.

2. You all know the numbers - 1.2 billion people, 30 states, so many languages and religions and dialects, etc. Do you see any of that represented here? If you do, let me know, because I sure don't. It doesn't appear like TOI bothered to step out of their air-conditioned offices/cars/studios to go out on the streets across the country and let the people of India sing their National Anthem with pride. No, because how on earth are you going to haul all that recording equipment everywhere and still get quality sound while keeping costs low? What's that? Bring the people into the studios? You mean, poor and middle-class people who mean nothing to me or my ratings? Plus, we'll have to pay extra to sanitize the studio after the construction labourers come in with their dirty snotty kids and infect everything with their grubby paws. Instead, let me just call the famous people who can sing or play an instrument and have high hygienic standards.

3. Is this a TOI paean to India or to Rabindranath Tagore? I counted at least five portraits of the man. Oh wait, I forgot, it's a TOI tribute to the 39 well-heeled singers and musicians. India, meanwhile, can be represented through stock photography (which I'm hoping they paid for). More prioritizing of the individual over the collective. "National Anthem," indeed.

4. Rabindranath Tagore did not write "Jana Gana Mana" for it to be the Indian National Anthem. The man passed in 1941, while the National Anthem was adopted by the Government of India in 1950. So, TOI cannot say this is what Tagore originally intended when he wrote the song in 1911. The Government chose a stanza to make the National Anthem in 1950; TOI chooses to make a music video on Tagore's entire song in 2011. This marketing gimmick is NOT the new National Anthem.

A far better example of capturing the Indian essence, of unification of the whole over singling of the individual, is the "Mile Sur Mera Tumhara," a 1988 film about national integration and unity. (The redux, "Phir Mile Sur Mera Tumhara," released in 2010, was D.O.A.). Sure, it was conceived and delivered by an advertising agency for a government body, but what matters is the final film. It is representative of India, the lay of its land, its people, traditions, customs, languages. It emphasises the collective over the individual and stays true to its refrain of "One tune."


Saturday, May 21, 2011

In Search of Peace

The following is a 500-word story I wrote about my travels as part of a Travel Writing Scholarship competition on World Nomads.

In Search of Peace

‘Where can I find Ashoka’s rock inscriptions?’

The photographer glared at me. I was interrupting his business. A couple waited impatiently. Behind them, the white pagoda of the Shanti Stupa loomed.

I was at Dhauli, eight kilometres south of the capital city of Bhubaneswar in Orissa, India. Around 261 BC, Ashoka The Great – the legendary Mauryan Emperor whose vast empire covered present-day India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan in their entirety – waged the bloody Kalinga War at this site. Over a quarter of a million people were either killed or deported. Appalled by the bloodshed he had caused – the nearby Daya River is said to have turned red with blood – Ashoka devoted the rest of his life to Buddhism. He propagated his dharma by inscribing his edicts on a rock face.

In 1972, the Japan Buddhist Sangha built a Shanti Stupa (Peace Pagoda) atop the hill overlooking the sprawling farmland countryside, and Dhauli became a tourist destination. People flocked to the Stupa in droves, prostrating before and clicking photographs of the four idols of the Buddha. Stalls sprung up selling film rolls, deep-fried snacks and water bottles. Behind the Stupa stood the reconstructed Shiva temple and Ganesha shrine, where priests yelled at devotees and tourists alike to go here, do this and pay so much. It was a racket and I wanted out, fast.

Asking for ‘the big rock with things written on it’ drew blank shrugs, until a taxi-driver believed it to be at the base of the hill. I walked the few hundred metres, rounding a bend and leaving the ruckus behind. Three cattle egrets fluttered ahead of me, catching the sun on the yellow-orange brushes on their plumage. I came upon a garden where a uniformed caretaker was sweeping dried leaves.

‘Where can I find Ashoka’s rock inscriptions?’ I asked.

He turned and pointed to a grill-protected, glass-fronted building, about ten feet high and fifteen feet wide. An elephant was carved above, into the side of the rock. ‘This is it,’ he said.

I pressed my nose against the glass. Ashoka’s eleven edicts were scrawled into the sloping rock in the ancient Brahmi script of the Pali language. A nearby signboard translated them into English, starting with prohibiting the killing of animals in the royal kitchen, and including gems like ‘officials should be free from anger and hurry’. The sculpted elephant, considered to be the earliest rock-cut sculpture in India, symbolised the birth of the Buddha.

Buses raced past. This featured on no tour operator’s itinerary.

I wandered into the sprawling garden attached to the rock edicts, maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. The air was hot and still with monsoon humidity. A solitary Myna chirped. The gardeners’ stiff brooms, made from the spines of coconut leaves, scratched at the grass. Their shears clipped rhythmically. Under the shade of a flowering patoli tree, I sat cross-legged and meditated. I searched for peace in the same place Emperor Ashoka had, 2,270 years ago.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Loss Of Friendship

Since December, I haven't been doing well at friendship. I have burnt many bridges, broken many connections, all of them which I thought were strong and unshakable. It turns out they aren't as infallible as I thought they were. Maybe the seeds for their downfall were sown much earlier. Maybe I'm just a bigger dick than those people deserve.

It started when I ended my relationship in early December. That was the best relationship I had ever been in, yet I felt the need to end it. What made it worse was the manner in which I broke up with her. Given the strength of our bond, we stayed in touch for four more months, swinging back and forth between not talking to getting back together. Finally, in mid-April, she said the same thing to me that nearly ever woman I have dated before has said: "Don't call or write."

In January, I was honest, maybe brutally so, with a woman who I thought was good friends with me. I told her what I thought people might interpret her behaviour as, and I told her I had feelings for her. After months of hanging out with each other and years of knowing each other, she stopped talking to me following that evening. No calling, no writing.

In early April, I got into a bitter fight with a woman friend by defending another friend. I would hang out with this woman friend regularly, but since that incident, there's been no contact. No calling, no writing.

This weekend has been particularly bad. Last night, I lost my temper and put one of my oldest friendships - one that defines the very person I have grown up to be - under the scanner. I fear that we have grown apart so far that we have lost touch of the very fabric that forms the foundation of our erstwhile rock-solid friendship. I fear this guy, who I was once best friends with, has replaced me and I have been rendered inconsequential or, worse, a liability.

Today, I was put in my place for pushing boundaries and crossing limits. I immediately removed myself from not only that fledgling friendship, but all the ones associated with it as well.

This is a scary time for me. I'm petrified at this seeming inability of mine to maintain friendships. I've known for some time that I suck at relationships, that I'm very good in the beginning but I have to work hard beyond the initial period. But to face the possibility that I might not even be able to maintain long-lasting friendships. How useless am I if I have to keep creating new friendships, all doomed like their predecessors, to replace the ones I keep destroying?

As is wont with me, I instantly tried to find an external source to blame. We bought a new car at the end of Nov. That must be it. With two fender-benders already while driving that car, it must be unlucky. Or it must be because I stopped doing my kriya in early Dec. Life was better when I was practising the Sudarshan Kriya.

I'm not sure what to do. Every bone in my body is screaming out for solitude, to limit the extent of potential damage I can create to myself and those I come in contact with. But a person important to me has told me more than once that if I screw something up, I must go out and fix it. Something is very wrong with me, in my head, and I need to fix that before I can fix anything emanating from me.

What is wrong with me? Why am I so terrible with people, especially the very close ones? Why am I so intent on burning the forest I live in?