Tuesday, September 23, 2008

In Bed with Ghosh

A friend tickled my interest with a teasing text message – “ In bed with Ghosh”. Generally I am a little wary of buying over-hyped books soon after their release. Vikram Seth’s Two lives and Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games were 2 such disappointments in the recent past. I couldn’t go beyond the first 100 pages of the first and not even 50 pages of the second. So, I was a little hesitant in picking up Amitava Ghosh’s latest – the Sea of Poppies despite the rave reviews all over (and, now, also a nomination for the Booker).

Till date Ghosh’ Shadow Lines remains my favourite with the Hungry Tide coming a close second. Somehow his Glass Palace, liked a lot by many, didn’t do much for me – I thought it somehow lost its way between a family saga and a historical epic - tho’ its sprawling canvas and gigantic sweep are truly awe-inspiring. Ghosh’s prose often leaves me a little cold. It doesn’t have the soul uplifting quality that I look for in a great book. While I certainly don’t have the temerity to go as far as Hugo Barnacle to say – “There isn't one badly composed sentence in the book……, there isn't one particularly good sentence, either” , his impeccably constructed sentences fail to challenge the reader's imagination.

Infact, what’s perhaps Ghosh’s singular strength among Indian authors writing in English ( don’t think they use the term Indo-Anglican anymore) – his rigorous research also turns out to be his greatest weakness. His narrative is often weighed down by the copious details – which read like what should have appeared as footnotes in a thesis built into the main body of the text. It reminds me of our student days – when we were well prepared for an exam – we tried to pack in everything we had studied into the answer. Similarly, at times he gives the impression of getting carried away displaying his erudition on the subject – leading the unsuspecting reader to miss the woods for the trees.

For me, the Hungry Tide was an exception – its narrative soared to great heights as the killer tide raged through the Matla. He never let the details take over the story. Even in parts where there was either a historical background or an anthropological data they were seamlessly woven into the plot. This, sadly, didn’t happen – at least for me – in the Glass Palace, where the various strands seemed to come apart towards the end.

Reverse Parochialism

And yet, though I am not usually prone to parochial chauvinism, I end up gifting Ghosh’ books to many a friend. That’s because – among the new breed of Indian authors I find him to be the most consistent and none of his books can be dismissed as bad fiction or being light weight ( something that can’t be said even about Rushdie – who I don’t think has written a single worthwhile book after Midnight’s Children and I find most of his heavy tomes not just forgettable but at times downright unreadable)

I have so far come upto some 150 odd pages of the Sea of Poppies – as the IBIS takes berth in the Hooghly. The description of the of the Poppy fields and the Opium factory in Ghazipur is riveting – as indeed is the tale of Zachary Reid and his band of lascars and serangs who steer the schooner (which was once used for ferrying slaves from West Africa) to its new owner – Benjamin Burnham in Calcutta who had purchased it for shipping opium to China. But, there are times I do wish that Ghosh hadn’t come upon reference material such as “ An English and Hindostanee Naval Dictionary of Technical Terms” or “Anglo-Indian Vocabulary of Nautical terms and the Glossary of Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases”. I find myself constantly tripping over the forced colloquialism – often breaking the rhythm and cadence of the read.

But, I’ll reserve my judgement – for what it’s worth – till the IBIS completes her voyage.

Of Falls and Failings

The other very interesting book I am reading in tandem is Sudhir Kakar’s collection of essays – “Mad and Divine”. In the first article – titled “The Childhood of a Spiritually Incorrect Guru : OSHO ”. All things said, there is no denying that Rajneesh was a remarkable character – deeply charismatic even if a fascinating charlatan. Kakar has tried to unravel the phenomenon that was OSHO by tracing his evolution through the journey from his childhood with not just the insights of a master psychoanalyst but also with the sensitivity of a novelist.

I have always been intrigued at how so many of these self-proclaimed God-men and Gurus - merchants of the Spiritual Bazars as I like to call them - stray from their “path”. A simple Google search would reveal that – almost all ‘big brands’ exported to the West have got embroiled in some sexual scandal or other – starting from the great Mahesh Yogi, Swami Rama, Kriyananda to the latest one in a Texas (Austin) Ashram – who is out on a multi-million dollar bail for charges of paedophilia.

I know many of you would assert that, there was no question of a fall or straying as their chosen “path” was far from straight to begin with. But, I would like to give the benefit of doubt at least to some of them if not all. That’s because – I genuinely believe ( and, here I am not trying to make a case for myself ) that it is the same “vital energy” which drives both the spiritual and primal urges. This is clearly recognized in Tantra. And, it is for the same reason – the ancient sages have always stipulated exercise of abundant caution in climbing up the serpent (Kundalini) as it were – otherwise, face the risk of a grave fall. Ramakrishna and Swami V – who prescribed strict abstinence for the true spiritual aspirant, enunciated the same principles in more recent times.

Kakar explains this beautifully, when he writes:

“…..the spirit when it soars pulls up the psyche in its wake. But… the spirit never completely escapes the gravitational pull exerted by the forces of narcissism, aggression and desire in the psyche..”

then he goes on to add – “what may be essential for our gaze, however, is to attend to the vision of the spirit’s soaring, not the oft-repeated tragedy of its fall


I find this resonating strongly with 2 other teachings of Ramakrishna. He used to say “ Jadio Amar Guru Shudi Bari Jaye.. tabuo amar Guru Nityananda Ray” – which roughly translated means – even if my Guru goes to a bar or a brothel, he would still be my Guru. Or putting it more simply, he would say – that the world is full of “Gol-Maal” , it is for us to eliminate the “Gol” and take the “Maal”

The next essay in the book is - “Seduction and the Saint”. I would be dishonest – if I say that, I am not looking forward to reading it a wee bit more than the next chapter of the Sea of Poppies.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Virtual Marathon

As a rookie Management Trainee, I had inherited from him the Barsati at Dr Shirole’s Paediatrics Nursing Home – near the Fergusson College (in Pune), as he - being a confirmed Manager - moved up into a prized ‘River-view’ apartment by the mosquito infested Mulla – Mutha in Koregaon Park (the added bonus was the then buzzing Rajeneesh' Osho Ashram just up his street, pun intended) . But, what he didn’t hand me down was his famed little ‘black book’, which – according to his batchmates – contained the telephone numbers of some 200 girls. In college and at the IIM he was known to be a “killer” and with his mobike, his smile, his manners he was every bit of the guy for whom girls fell – like the proverbial ninepins. His friends called him – not inappropriately, I suppose – “the Geese” (twisting his last name a bit).

Yet there was an innocent and trusting side to him. Very early in my stint, I was sent to investigate a cash defalcation at his unit. All fingers pointed at one man - the affable and genial Plant-in-Charge – who was a ‘god-father’ of sorts to the all the staff. Till the end, before evidence nailed him, Rahul refused to believe that he could be the one who had his hand in the till. The only thing odd about this guy, he said, was that he had never introduced his wife to him. Something we joked was perfectly understandable given Rahul’s rakish reputation and only went to prove the man’s deep and furtive instincts.

'Sweemeing and Break-faast'

We struck a rapport after this little saga and the standing joke between us was to go for "sweemeeing and break-faast” (sic) for which our boss – a vet by training - had invited us as a placatory tactic to cover his embarrassment at our blowing the lid of a scandal which he had tried hard to shove – quite literally - under the huge pile of maize in our Animal Feeds factory.

Soon thereafter, from feeding poultry and cattle, Rahul graduated to selling chocolates and milk powder at Nestles. Between all that, the ‘cat’ was nettled by Jamuna (much to the disappointment, we conjectured, of his country cousin ex-Director, who - we used to tease Rahul - surely had his eyes on him as a prospective s-i-l; tho' his daughter later surprised him by marrying someone - to use his own words - from the ‘cow-belt’). I suspect the “Geese” in Rahul was finally grounded by the arrival of their 2 daughters Diya and Nayana (whom I haven’t met yet) – as daughters are wont to do to their Dads (don’t I know!!).

Track 2

And, before long – we heard the Vergheses had shifted to Chicago, where Rahul had taken up a job with Motorola. We were in touch, very infrequently, mostly on email – speaking a couple of times over the phone when I was visiting the US. While in Kathmandu, I recall meeting his Dad (a doyen among Editors – now a near extinct species) who had come as the leader of a ‘Track 2’ Diplomatic delegation to discuss the ever-so-sensitive issue of joint water resource management with Nepal. The old man told me that, Rahul had taken to running in a big way and was going to take part in the next Chicago Marathons. Not being an athletic type myself, I didn’t know what to make of that. Since we were all by now over the 40s mark – I thought it would at best be jogging across the park rather than around it.

After that, we lost contact for a while until I suddenly came across his by-line in a fitness column of the MINT sometime early last year – thus figuring out that they were back in India. I obtained his co-ordinates from a common friend and spoke to him. We promised to meet up soon and go for “sweemeeing and break-faast”, which needless to add never happened.

On the edge

Next – a few weeks ago on a flight, I saw this article in the Saturday Supplement of the Business Standard titled “On the edge of the mainstream”. It was about, “ A few good people who decided to good jobs for better ideas” and Rahul (Salim) Verghese was one of them.

Reading on – I discovered, quitting his job at Motorola, Rahul had set up his own company Running and Living Infotainment Pvt Ltd (http://www.runningandliving.com/) to promote “running” among Indians. He calls himself the “Chief Believer” of the company. Quite a shift from “Sweemeeing” , I thought.

The concept was - to put it mildly – alien to someone like me. We were brought up in a company culture – where Golf was taboo and any other form of sports or physical exercise was gently discouraged – as it would be seen as lack of 100% dedication to the job. Any mention of the need to keep fit was disparaged with a gentle reminder of the rather generous medical benefits the company provided to take care of any old age ailments and in case you copped it while in harness – the superannuation package was unmatched in the industry (thus ran the adage that ‘ ours may not be the best company to work for but it is a great company to die for or retire from' ).

But is their money in Marathons (especially in India) – beyond the few corporate sponsored runs in the Mumbai, Delhi and now also singara Chennai? Evidently, Rahul believes there is.

the ADA syndrome

It seems that ever since ADA made running a status statement – Corporate India has taken to running in a big way. A classic example is Rahul and my old company – which has shed its sedentary (and sedate) image and running has become kind of a cult in the organization. It started with, I believe, the previous Chairman, a close buddy of ADA joining him for the occasional long jogs, followed by the expat CEO who came after him, who was an avid runner even in his mid fifties, inspiring along the way some of his other colleagues – young and old – to hit the road with him.

This lent weight to the hypothesis that, the climb up on the corporate ladder happens on a horizontal track. The theory was proven by the appointment of the new CEO – who is not only the youngest, but also - probably - the fittest, to have decisively piped his peers to the post.

But interestingly – the business model of Rahul’s company isn’t based on sponsorships alone. They sell affordable running gears and most importantly conduct leadership and team building workshops using running as a means to promote energy, health, optimism, self confidence and, of course, high performance. Additionally, they mentor running clubs within the organisation so that this becomes a powerful self-sustaining 'movement'.

His company’s brand line reads – “Unleash your Potential: "Do not lower your expectations to your abilities but raise your abilities to your expectations". I say, those who can - run. Others write Blogs. I call it “Virtual Marathon”.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Back to School

Going to Jaya’s school in the monsoons is always such a treat.

Braving the rains on the Lonavala Ghats that puts you just so much on the edge speeding through the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, negotiating the truck-traffic and pot-holes of the Talegaon-Chakan section ( Pune’s new Industrial District ), as one turns off the Nashik highway at Rajgurunagar (Khed ) unending miles of green-hills greet us. Till just a couple of months ago, when we had gone to drop her off at the beginning of the term, they had shades of brown and golden yellow - still pretty like a dusky young bride wrapped in her Maharshtrian saree. But, now suddenly she was resplendent in green – the young wife in full bloom on the cusp of motherhood.

Finishing our mandatory stop for Poha or Chewda just before leaving the highway, we climb in soft pedal up the ribbon-like road towards Bhimashankar. As the town recedes, the population thins out and tiny hamlets begin to appear along the way, spaced afar from each other. It is hard to believe that so close to Mumbai – there can be a place of such unspoilt beauty, still untouched by the city marauders.

We reach the Chas-Khaman Dam which holds back the Bhima River from overflowing into the plains of Pune and get a first glimpse of the lake now full to its brim looking ready to spill over on the paramours lap. At this point one first sees the dots of the school dormitories up there, as if spying on the play at the banks of the lake – like the naughty teenagers who live in them - from a stealthy distance.

Going past the Shambhu Hill – which, as the name indicates, has Shiva temple atop nestled in the forest, we get to the fork from where the road to the school branches off, a short climb up the Tiwai Hill to the table-top plateau where the school is spread over 70 acres. Even in the last 2 years that we have been going there, the young forest – of teak and Jamul planted by the school - has thickened showing its first signs of moving from adolescence to maturity, though still someway from attaining adulthood. But, still it conjures up the feeling of driving through a light jungle.

Up there at the school, the rain-drenched trees and the slushy foot-ball and volley ball fields – with the boys emerging from them like little devils after a mud-bath – make another kind of a sight altogether. Though there are no flowers in this season and the fruits too are not in sight – the lush green all around gives it a certain pristine character.

Though the afternoons tend to get a little warm when it’s not raining, the mornings and evenings are invariably pleasant with a cool breeze coming up from the lakes wafting through the trees. And, an occasional light drizzle gently soaking the skin.

The sparsely appointed (basic yet comfortable) rooms in the guest-house, the home-style and near rustic food of the school canteen and the adds to the feeling of a holiday in the country side.

At sunset – one can walk across to the neighbouring Navalvirayatan , a meditation and retreat center, set up by a Jain foundation, and go till the right edge of the cliff to get an unhindered view of the Bhimashankar Lake – silent, calm and the ultimate picture of serenity - , while watching the sun set over the Lonavala hills afar. And, it’s then one begins to understand a little bit of what Krishnamurti meant by…. To live is to be related (and) there is no right relationship to anything when there is not the right feeling for beauty and a response to nature…

And then, suddenly the reverie snaps - as one hears that in just a couple of years the new Pune International Airport would come up in Rajgurunagar – when the school will be right on the flight path of the jets that would tear thunderously through the skies on their landings and take-offs. Land-sharks have already moved in grabbing the hill-sides smelling the opportunity of making a quick buck. And very soon, one won’t hear the tweeter of the birds and the rustle of the leaves any more. The children – looking up into the skies will count air planes rather than see shapes in the clouds or study the constellations at night. The sylvan landscape will make way for a concretized sky-line and the neighbourhood would be swallowed up by the swelling city of Pune as one of its newest suburb. The Tiwai Hills will be transformed for good. But one hopes that, Sahyadri will still remain a little island of tranquility where children can learn about the totality and the wholeness of life, just as Rishi Valley continues to be even after 75 years despite the onslaught of the environment around it.
Related Blog Post: "Masti-ka-Pathshala" (to read click here)