Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Cracker of a festival

“Don’t teach me. Don’t try to patronize. Tell me a story so that I may learn.”

Two years ago, I met a friend, a prolific reader, who happened to utter these words in a casual conversation. He was talking of an author whose style he considered rather didactic. It must have stirred something deep in me, for I remember his words, and the lesson, clearly.

And so I will clothe my message in a story. A real one.

The year I joined college, Delhi government woke up to the traffic chaos faced by residents of Palam and Dwarka. Then, Palam was bustling with life and business, and Dwarka had been freshly dug for the coveted metro. Property hawks were, as always, the first to milk the fattened cow, and before we knew, our modest property had become Delhi’s latest desire. Resultant – habitation in Dwarka soared; cow sheds were replaced by buildings and private vehicles zoomed on the roads hitherto dominated by buses.

What the property dealers inadvertently forgot to mention was that the road to this new-found paradise was fraught with a bottleneck called Palam-Railway Crossing. On an average day, when the barricades were up, it took me an hour and half to travel 17 kms to college. And when luck was not smiling on you, the time taken to cover the same distance could range anywhere between 2 to 3.5 hours. It was not people’s stupidity that amazed me. I mean, if it takes discipline to save time and streamline traffic, it must be taking stupidity to clog either of the level crossing thinking that cars will grow wings. But what did amaze me was traffic police’s utter apathy to the situation. The bedlam of confusion, delay and rampant indiscipline could have been fixed by road dividers on either side. And guess what, even today there is none.

I was one among the many middle-class commuters who waited every day for the perennially crowded bus route number 764. Starting from Najafgarh, the bus was usually full by the time I boarded. Of the very few struggles I had to make in life, travelling in the over-crowded and autocratically-run 764 has definitely been one. A sigh of relief escapes me every time the memory comes back. Most of it is a blur now.

But there is one journey in that bus I will never forget. The day after Diwali 2002.

I had been a Diwali enthusiast since childhood. Crackers thrilled me. The deafening sound, the glaring flashes, the risk of the game…I looked forward to Diwali with a tingling itch. Unabashedly, I burned crackers, the louder the better, with my brother as my partner-in-crime. Until that day.

That day, two trains went past the Palam crossing. In what felt like an eternity. An infernal eternity of desperation.

From the moment I stepped out of my home that day, I smelled the burning wrath of the previous night. I took the bus, as usual, and it was bearable by the time I reached Palam. When the driver finally put out the engine for what was to be an hour long wait, little did I know what awaited me. The first symptom was the itching in eyes. I could see my bloodshot eyes in the reflection of window panes. I put on my shades in a weather where the sun was blinded by earth’s smog. Then came the grimy sweating. Yes, in the cold of November, I remember sweating profusely, to my toes, with unease clawing at my throat. The real problem began when I thought I would suffocate and die. In the traffic blockade of nearly 2 kilometers, my lungs bursting and protesting against ingesting the deadly smoke, my knees buckling under the sudden vulnerability of biology, where could have I run to? What could have I done?

I remember a fellow passenger taking mercy and sharing his seat with me. I survived the morning without passing out. And I saw, around me, a swarm of cars. With windows neatly pulled up. The hum of engines indicating the air-conditioning inside.

Suspended particulate matter, which reach the deepest recesses of human lungs, are present at the level of 200 on a normal day. Post Diwali, this figure multiplies by six.

But of course, those sitting inside cars don’t realize this. I speak for those on the other side of the fence. Please, have mercy.

My apologies for not ending it like a story. Let’s say, I took it personally.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Raise your voice, not the sea level

“Silence is a powerful enemy of social justice.” – Amartya Sen

History stands testimony to the fact, that among other things, it takes voice to staunch injustice. Whether it was Raja Ram Mohan Roy or Nelson Mandela, one person with courage has made the majority, riding on the wave of voice and words.

Today, as 52 small island nations across the globe face serious survival threat owing to environmental imbalance, as 1 billion people go hungry day after day, as 13 million hectares of forest cover is erased annually, and as species get extinct sooner than the most pessimistic scientist predicted…humanity longs to hear the surge of that voice of dissent.

Nature knows the best
The planet bequeathed to us by nature has a history of 4 billion years. Through eons of evolution, a gurgling molten mass of material cooled off to become conducive for life. First in the form of singular cells, and later in complex forms, life broke through the chrysalis of uncertain environments, and flourished. Continental plates tore apart and fused to give way to variegated topography. Oceans dissolved surplus carbon and high-altitude glaciers gave birth to rivers. The transformation of earth’s crust segued perfectly with the life above it. Always, at the right time, earth provided its inhabitants with what it took to survive. There was enough algae for the micro-organisms, enough vegetable matter for soil and bacteria, and enough forests and hunting options for the Neanderthal man. Nature, the overarching mother, kept her elements in perfect balance. An orchestra of myriad instruments, none playing out of tune.

Even when we homo sapiens arrived on the scene, with our revolutionary grey matter and opposable thumb, nature responded with generosity. Agriculture was rewarded with the birth of civilizations, and surplus led to trade and travel. The ball of invention was set rolling, and man continued to transform earth like never before. Wars, conquests, nations, ammunitions, industry, transport, technology, software, internet…the greed to invent created a society perennially hungry for more. More grains, more livestock, more water, more comfort, more cars, more gadgets, more flyovers, more fuel, more everything. Consumption is the new mantra of a market-driven economy. Factories spew more carbon dioxide. Industries scour forests for more minerals. Real estate is fast replacing green swathes, and wars are being waged for more oil.

In the last 60 years, Earth’s population has tripled. Fishing catches and paper consumption have increased fivefold. 40% of arable land has suffered long term damage. The ice cap is 40% thinner than it was 40 years ago. Global sea level has risen by eight inches since 1870, and the average temperature recorded of the last 15 years has been the highest ever recorded. In this time, Indians have dug 21 million wells, and have had to abandon 30% of them. Over half of the world’s 7 billion population now resides in cities. 5000 people die a day because of dirty drinking water. 30% of coral reefs, the marvel of aquatic life, have disappeared. The geologically disadvantaged, that is the low-lying small nation islands such as Kiribati, have reasons to be concerned. Rising sea level might force them to evacuate. Already, it has started contaminating their drinking water and decreasing food production, as more and more land gets eroded by rising waters.

Environmental degradation is followed closely by unprecedented social disparity. 20% of the world’s population consumes 80% of its resources, and half the world’s wealth lies in the hand of top 2% population.

Man’s greed for more has outpaced nature’s ability to replenish herself. Do we realize, that if and when nature unleashes her furies on us, we might not have the time to take corrective actions?

Stir up the inner voice

The writing on the wall is loud and clear. Speak out we must, but not before we have reflected and introspected on our own lives.

Let’s analyse. How do we go about each day? How do we eat, sleep, travel, buy, consume, expend and invest? Does our lifestyle destroy the essential to create the superfluous? Do we carry a cloth bag to the local grocery or do we accept polybags? Do we use pooled/ public transport for daily travel or are we dependent on a private vehicle? Do we really need the extra car we have? How often do we change our mobile phones? Can’t we live without our modern widgets? Do we know that a leaky faucet can drain up to 200 gallons of water a day? Isn’t it better to have multi-grains in our diet rather than face scrub? How many types of apparel does it take to satiate our senses? How have we contributed in making this earth a better place to live in?

Among Buddha’s legion stories is one where his disciple asks him for a new robe. On that, the saint enquires what his disciple did with the old robe. The student replies that the robe was first used as a bed spread, then a window curtain, then a kitchen cloth, then a floor-swab, before ending as a wick in Buddha’s lamp.

Embolden the outer voice

More paper is recycled and more afforestation is carried out today than ever before. Windmills dot the landscape of Denmark, and solar panels can be seen in mofussil parts of India. Slowly, but surely, the awakened conscience is paving way for vocal voice, and subsequent change. People’s movements can further galvanize governments into action. Compulsory green cover for builders, mandatory plantation by industries, prohibitive taxes to curb profligacy, R&D on alternate energy, ban on chemical warfare, strict enforcement of rules, a culture that rewards moderation and sharing…voice has, and can achieve, the balance where man and nature exist in harmony.

The time to blame past evils for today’s perils is gone. The only way exhaustible resources can be saved is by inexhaustible goodwill, creativity and innovation. The pleasure of pathless woods, the rapture of lonely shores and the bounties of this wonderful planet is not for our generation alone.

Friday, October 10, 2014


Did I tell you I will be ok without you?

Did I lead you into believing that I shall remain intact, my insides in order, even if you were not there to hold my hand every day?

Did I actually ask you to leave, without forcing myself on your path? Smiling, did I tell you that physical absence didn't count where conscience is united?

Was I the one to have guided you on the other hand of the fork, urging you to have faith in the beauty of our union, and the tremendous power inherent in it.

Did I really possess the power to hold your gorgeous face in the cusp of my hands, your milky complexion reddened with grief, moments before we parted, saying I’ll send the kisses through the moon?

You see, I’m updating my restraint diary. I’ve a feeling I’ve been doing a splendid job, managing to breathe, live, behave and love with nearly the same panache.

No, it’s not sadness. I do remember your single-minded desire for me to be happy, and so I settle for a state of being between happiness and sadness. A suspended animation of nothingness.

A sort of routine that forbids crying because of a particular person’s overwhelming concern with my tears. To the extent that tears feel ashamed to trickle.

So even when longing is exploding every grain in my being, blurring my brain, clouding my eyes, deafening my ears…a sigh escapes from the corner of my lips, barely audible, before congealing in a defeated smile.

Strange are the ways in which love alters us. Including our biology.

So you see, I’ve settled for the promises you wanted me to make. What you’ll be pleased to note is that I’ve also made you those promises that you wouldn't make me utter. For I know what you want. And that knowledge is more than enough for me.

Lover is a small thing. I’m your devotee.

Go on, want more from me. I will meet every expectation with aplomb. I will collect my splinters and present a whole. Catastrophe will return from my door unaccomplished. If you desire that I embark upon the path of illumination, I will return a sage, even if alone.

My heart might be bleeding, my spirits sagging, every part of me torn asunder with the singular desire to be with you, but there will be no stopping me, from getting what you want. Because the only thing I value above you, is your word.

I will chase your vision to the point that I become a reflection of you. And there my worshipped, no one and nothing, will stand between us.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

An essay on Cleanliness

“Don’t throw it outside.
Because there is no outside.”
The statement above, taken from an award winning campaign against littering, bespeaks the fact that this shared planet is everybody’s home, and hence, everybody’s responsibility too. Cleanliness is next only to Godliness, is a proverb we’ve all heard in school, and in this essay, I shall try to understand and explain its multifarious facets.
The topic of cleanliness reminds me of an anecdote narrated by a senior during my Plant days, seven years ago. During his official tour to Australia, while sauntering on the spic and span sidewalks of Sydney, he happened to drop a wrapper on the pavement. Unmindful of his act, he carried on without qualms. An elderly woman, walking a few steps behind him, lifted the wrapper and put it in her bag. Stumped, our man stopped in his tracks, as the lady went past him with a nod and a smile. “I learnt the lesson for once and for all,” he confessed.
The eloquent silence of that woman was pregnant with lessons. First, what goes around, comes around. Second, as long as cleaning is accorded the status of a ‘menial job’, we won’t be able to rise and shine, literally. As per Forbes’ Report, India ranks 123 in the list of clean nations, while Japan, with a comparable population density, ranks among the top ten. The founder of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi, was himself an example of clean living.
The Holistic Perspective
Neatness is not cleanliness alone. Mumbai is a glaring example of a city with shiny skyscrapers but filthy backyards. If cleanliness is to be sustained, it must be holistic. The parameters of cleanliness should therefore include air, water, eco-biology, forests, mountains and all such dimensions of our life.
One of the explanations offered for poor cleanliness is the sheer quantum of waste. This shifts the focus from ‘how to clean’ to ‘how to minimize waste’. The second question is a much more fundamental and imperative one, as it is closely linked to the socio-cultural mores of a society.
Waste is created when we consume more than we need. The reason – greed. A witty one-liner says: It is better to live as long as you want than want as long as you live. There was a time when our society appreciated thrift and prudence, and propagated the values of preservation. But in today’s market driven economy, led by the mantra of consumption, we’re buying more and wasting more, leading to more and more depletion of resources. How many times do we stop to ask ourselves, when is this thirst for possession going to stop?
This takes us to an episode in Buddha’s life, when one of his disciples asks him for a new robe. On that, the saint enquires what his disciple did with the old robe. The student replies that the robe was first used as a bed spread, then a window curtain, then a kitchen cloth, then a floor-swab, before ending as a wick in Buddha’s lamp.
Small Leads To Big
So, how do we tackle the issue of waste. Whether it’s home or office, we need to watch out for the small things, for they eventually constitute the big ones.
Let’s dig inside. Do we throw the snack paper outside from the moving car, or do we take the pains to hold it till we find a dustbin? Do we wait for the office cleaner to wipe the dust off the separator panel, or do we actually use the dust cloth given to us as stationery? Do we allow the used paper to run amok in piles of garbage, or do we have the will and patience to recover and use it? Do we take due precaution while disposing electronic wastes, or do we wriggle out the easy way? Do we religiously carry paper/cloth bag to the market or do we accept polybags as an alternative? These are small actions, but when multiplied with a population of 1.25 billion Indians, can have staggering effects.
Moving over to the big things, we know as a fact that the only thing that can’t be recycled is wasted time. As a company, do we a have a policy that necessitates use of recycled paper? Do we follow the 5-S housekeeping system in true letter and spirit? How often do we conduct cleanliness and hygiene checks across our shopfloors and offices? In our daily life, what kind of examples do we put forth for our children to emulate? As iron and steel manufacturers, do we have a tolerance limit for the amount of scrap lying unused in the Plants? Are we working to adopt production techniques that are able to replace virgin raw-material with scrap-based input?
The Road Ahead
The very fact that the world’s largest democracy is gearing up to the cause of cleanliness gives us reason to cheer. Action is being taken on war footing to clean our rivers, such as Ganga and Yamuna, and the baton is now in our hands to further this mission. Monks in Tibet are known to have built temples out of plastic bottles. A teenage boy has thrown up a plan to clean half of Pacific Garbage Patch in ten years. Solutions are there, actions are needed.
Generally, people are believed to belong to three broad categories. The positivists, the neutralists, and the negativists. While the first and third kinds are present in minority, the bulk lies at the centre. If we glorify and exemplify the first, and penalize and disgrace the third, the bulk will sway accordingly. The Singapore government levies a fine of $1000 fine for littering. Where the carrot is not taken, the stick can be made use of.
In any case, waste and dirt simply can’t be wished away. Concerted action with appropriate technology and single-minded commitment can ensure cleanliness at every level. If the Prime Minister of this country can place Toilets before Temples, we should have no shame in placing Cleanliness before Worship.