Monday, June 28, 2010

Love Autopsy

I know, hilariously tacky title! Was trying to come up with a synonym for post-mortem and then suddenly this cheesy track from Music and Lyrics popped up in my mind. And somehow, it seemed pretty apt-corny, but apt.

I read someplace that a man never knows how to say goodbye and a woman never knows when, or maybe it was the other way round. Either way, the fact remains that there is no “good” in goodbyes. They are painful, gut-wrenching and about as close to hell as we will ever come. They can also bear a promise of heaven, with the pure ecstasy of a reunion after a long time spent apart. But then, it wasn’t a real goodbye, was it?

So when and how do we say bye? I think we say it when there is no expectation left from the others, when all our efforts to desperately cling on to the receding vestiges of a memorable past are snatched away from us. And we say it by appreciating what we had and acknowledging how special we felt in that time.

One of Alexander the Great’s most worthy successors was his friend Ptolemy, who gained control of his body and catafalque and used it to rise to become Pharaoh of Egypt. A learned man and a man of letters as he was, he later wrote that with Alexander, the greatest bequeath was not his immense wealth or the vast dominions he left behind. It was the way he made people feel. Ironically, Alexander has been riled as one of the most ruthless conquerors of all time, savage and brutal. Yet, history stands testament to the fact that although possessed with a foul temper, he could make those around him feel very special, very cherished. Ptolemy says that although he did so in a very awkward and eccentric manner, when you were with Alexander, you felt powerful, invincible and unconquerable. No challenge seemed too daunting, no sacrifice too demanding. The world was your oyster and you were the masters of your destiny. And it was this legacy that propelled him towards the supremacy of much of the known world, with even the mighty Persian Empire crumbling under the relentless march of his ardent followers. The legacy which endears him to us and helps us overlook his unyielding ambitions and his rage.

And that is how we say goodbye.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Never Give In

Never Give In was our motto at school, goading us to strive for what we aimed at till the very last vestige of strength and belief in ourselves. And while in school, we interpreted this largely in reference to our gruelling physical exercises, as we struggled to go just one measure farther than our tired limbs were capable of carrying us.

Life, however, has proven over the last many years that the adage is equally true for other domains too. Studies, career, relationships-no matter what the issue at hand, the one thing that will see you through is you yourself. And once this conviction is ingrained into you, it becomes evident that the true joy of life is to be used for a purpose recognised by yourself as a mighty one; to be thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; to be a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

And such firm conviction stems from belief. Belief in ourselves, the purity of our intentions and the magnificence of our goals. All too often, people find themselves in doubt and, like the deer who goes mad looking for the musk, turn to the world to seek answers, not knowing that the answers they so desperately seek are within their own selves. The result is self-doubt, gradually descending into self-pity and finally a complete resignation to the uncaring flow of life.

But this is not how it should be. A ship in harbour may be safe, but that is not what ships are built for. The true joy is in being able to take the bull by its horns and striving to make for ourselves just the future that we want. Sure, it will be susceptible to failure but atleast the journey will be a memorable one. And should we succeed, paradise would need no definition.

An anecdote I remember in this regard is of Lord Curzon visiting the Lucknow Residency to see the spot where his hero, Sir Henry Lawrence, had laid down his life in the Mutiny of 1857. The Viceroy was led to a room where a plaque marked the exact spot where Lawrence was said to have breathed his last. Curzon, however, far from being pleased, left the room with a frown. He then summoned the custodian and asked for the layout plans of the Residency. After studying them for a while, he announced that the plaque had been placed in the wrong room for Lawrence, as best as Curzon’s memory served him, had lost his life in an altogether different wing of the building. Not wanting to bandy words with the Viceroy, the entourage meekly agreed with him. This lack of resistance further annoyed Curzon for he perceived it as an insult to his intelligence and a servile acknowledgement of his office. The matter was dropped right there but years later, when his Viceroyalty had ended and he was back in Britain, Curzon dug into the archives of the Mutiny, went through tomes of reference material and single-handedly prepared a detailed dossier detailing the exact spot of Henry Lawrence’s death. The dossier was scrutinized by the India Office, who concluded that Curzon was, as always, correct. Shortly thereafter, the plaque at Lucknow was relocated to the location Curzon had identified, where it remains to this day!

“But a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a Heaven for?”

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Girl Who Owns A City

“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard”
When I moved to Chandigarh, I had no illusions about the city. Having spent my life wandering across the length and breadth of the country, Chandigarh was just a go-between on my way to Simla. It was good for the occasional stop-over but lacked both the vibrancy of Delhi and the serenity of Simla. You could come here and go shopping, catch a bite to eat or find the conveniences of a metropolis within a small space. But not much more.

Today, after having stayed here for a few years, I still feel the same-a rank outsider. It’s almost as if the city and I just could not adopt each other. Even my favourite haunts seem like they belong someplace else. It feels almost surreal, like viewing everything from a distance, detached and aloof.

So when I stand here on the cusp of my imminent and permanent departure, I should be able to say my farewell without any qualms. After all, I will not miss the lake, the tree-lined boulevards, the planned symmetry of the city. I might remember it once in a while, but not with any special longing.

But there is a void somewhere. For I am also leaving behind a lot of people. People I worked with, people I dined with, those that I fought with and those that I laughed with. Be it the paan shop which always had an interesting anecdote to offer or the old man who always overcharged for his wares. In their own special way, each of them wove threads into the fabric which makes up life. I got to enter their homes and feel the warmth of a homestead, make unreasonable demands and claim a right on them, deflate their tyres and experience the antagonism that unites dear friends. All in all, a remarkable montage of life, compressed into the span of a few months.

One of the peculiarities of life is that it is with the most arcane of things that we develop a very strong sense of connection. It could be the smell of meethe-chawal that brings back memories of childhood. It could be a song that takes you back to the carefree vagrancy of college. It could even be a cologne that you put on after a long time which brings with it the fragrance of a special someone. Regardless of the trigger, each thing is associated with just one particularly memorable event or person. Despite having stayed in over a dozen cities across India, I still connect each of them with just one thing- Assam is all about cricket just as Bengal was all about reading, Jammu is the land of my grandmother, Delhi is the place I found myself and Simla is the perennial sanctuary.

And as I leave Chandigarh, there is, above all else, just one thing I will remember it as-the city of a girl. A girl I met in my first few months here and who was always with me in all our sojourns around town. The girl with a lilt to her walk and a spring in her step. A smile to light up the room and a frown to humble the darkest cloud. With a million questions and a billion answers. Funny, intelligent, vivacious. And much more.

The girl who, to me, will always own the city of Chandigarh.

"I went my unremembering way,

I went and took with me

The pang of all the partings gone,

And partings yet to be"

Monday, June 7, 2010

If youth knew, If age could

The genesis of most problems facing the Indian state today can be traced not as much to the presence of ubiquitous corruption and apathy as to the absence of able stewardship. One of the most denuding commentaries on the miscarriage of democracy in India is perhaps the fact that in the six-odd decades since our independence, the people have not failed the state but have failed themselves. Time and time again, we have chosen for ourselves leaders even the best of whom fall woefully short of the expectations of their respective offices.

A cursory look at the incumbents of high office in India reveals the dismal fact that we seem to prefer age over merit. The youngest of our Presidents has been a sprightly 64 while the oldest of our Prime Ministers was a seasoned 81! With the sole exception of Rajiv Gandhi, who elevation to South Block was for the most part through fortuitous circumstances, there has been no other incumbent to have entered upon either of these august offices even in his fiftieth year. In stark contrast are the relatively diminutive ages of leaders across the globe which, in no small measure, are a reflection of the vitality and dynamism of their growth trajectories. Even Abraham Lincoln, whose visage towers over that of the other occupants of the Oval Office much akin to an aging patriarch, was merely 52 at the time of his inauguration.

This is not to say that an advanced age necessarily implies decrepitude or senility. There are abundant examples strewn about history which lay testimony to the benefits that come with time. However, continual doses of a similar approach towards policy can be detrimental. One of the most evident susceptibilities in such a scenario is the widening chasm between the expectations of the populace and the mindset of the leaders, which is mournfully out of sync with the ground realities. Consider M.K. Gandhi-at a time when the entire world had realised the implications of industrial might, he could not shake off his staunch convictions towards individual and cottage industries; so much so that even Rabindranath Tagore, the very man who had christened him “Mahatama”, wrote a scathing article condemning “The Cult of the Charkha” that Gandhi was perpetrating.

Another problem with choosing leaders approaching the twilight of their lives is the burden of expectations and obligations that they each carry. The road to the top is fraught with many an impediment and in the cumulative journeys of a few decades, any individual would find himself saddled with the ghosts of antiquated aspirations as also the need to oblige those who stood by him along the way. So pervasive is this phenomenon that while the world has long outgrown the traditional “spoils” system, we in India view such instances of nepotism as valid compense for fidelity and support. Perhaps it was similar considerations that led Vajpayee to shower onto Advani the oblivious indulgence that may well have given us, just last year, an 82 year old PM-regardless of his egocentric ambitions, his specious secularism and his middling record as Home Minister.

But the most damning effect of over-ripened leadership is its proclivity towards a patronizingly paternal instinct. Too often have our leaders chosen to direct our destinies onto paths that were in sharp conflict with their mandate. Personal preferences are given the impression of national policy and thrust upon an impotent populace. Nehru gave us dams when we were hungry, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed allowed Indira to rule by decree, Rajiv took us to fight the Tamils and Manmohan Singh feels that focussing solely on the abjectly penurious is adequate. Towering personalities all, their charisma alone nullifies any chance of a protest against their vision, no matter how ill-conceived the intent may be.

Plato, writing at the time of the very inception of democratic ideals, said that the guardians of the state must be unaffected by and impervious to their past. They should, instead, be groomed in the art of administration and taught to apply themselves to the milieu in which they operate. Furthermore, in doing so, they should look upon those who they govern with a certain sense of detachment so as not to yield to sentiments of either dominance or compassion. Naturally, the earlier such incumbents enter upon their office, the lesser their chance of being conditioned by the extant system.

And it is exactly this form of disinterested guardianship that India most severely needs at the moment. A breed of individuals specially reared and trained for the sole purpose of governance. Prepared for the high offices they are ordained to occupy through the rigours of hard study and discipline. Free of prejudice, unencumbered by their precedents. And cognisant of the fact that the foremost task of those who govern is to govern themselves.