Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Been there, done that

Last night I was looking at old college pictures. They were all happy, smiling pictures and they took me right back to the year 2000, when I joined college as a fresher, 18 years old. The Department of Architecture, Faculty of Technology and Engineering, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. All set to conquer the world of architecture , without really knowing what is was all about.
All my friends will agree that they were the most tumulus 5 years any batch could have gone through.

For starters, 2001 saw one of the most devastating earthquakes the world had ever seen. Thousands of people died, buried under piles of debris or simply disappeared underneath the earth, never to resurface again. Though it didn't particularly affect Baroda, many surrounding cities bore the brunt of Mother Nature's 30 second break dance. Ahmedabad, been one of the most badly hit. Huge multi storeys came down like card houses, along with people who never made it to the ground floor.

Bharuch , another small town, my small town, was badly hit too. I was there at home , watching the Republic Day parade on TV. I thought it was my brother shaking my chair just to irritate me. When it got too much, I turned around to shoo him away, there was my Mom telling me to run for my life. It was an earthquake ! I did .. only to realise that I was alone. Neither were my parents with me nor my brother. I started climbing down the staircase, dashing myself against either side of the staircase walls. They joined me soon enough, but we were sure we would never make it to the ground floor. But, we were one of the lucky ones that day. Our old building did not come down and we made it to the courtyard from our third floor house. I saw the building water tank from below. The water was splish-splashing out of it, just like a container would if shook roughly.
Our college was shut for a month and a half in the second semester.

Again, in the second year, that would be 2002, Gujarat saw one of the worst communal riots ever. It all started with that one coach of Sabarmati Express burnt to ashes. I was working in college that day and came back to the hostel for some evening tea and snacks. Suddenly, there was this din which came from the entrance gate. It was Ravi, one of the mess-boys running down the hall and screaming that he heard gun shots and saw mobs of thousands of people with swords and trishuls and guns heading toward the local Muslim slum. I don't remember a lot after that as all of us were told to go to our rooms, shut the lights, bolt the doors and stay inside. And stayed , we did ! I could just about inform my parents that I was safe, with my friends in the hostel and would come back home as soon as it was safe to. I was able to go home only after 5 days when the curfew was relaxed (only for women) for a few hours. I saw pictures of the ill-fated railway coach on TV. The bodies looked like burnt chilly-chicken. The exact number of people killed by the mobs will remain unknown. Most bodies have not even been found yet.
This time around the college was shut for almost two and a half months.

We went back to college only for a few days before the semester ended. Gave exams , as usual and all of us flunked ! 11 of my classmates got detained for that year, some of us just about scraped through with ATKTs. We went on strike, against a teacher whom we thought was responsible for it.
The strike ended in a month.The demands put forward by us were met by the university. We got on with college and life, as usual.

2005 was our last year in the college. It was a week to our final thesis submission. Work was on full-throttle. I had three of my juniors helping me out with my thesis model. I had earlier shifted out of the hostel and was staying with my brother in his ground floor apartment in the Railway colony. My parents had come over to stay and help out. It was monsoon and it started raining. Like it happens in monsoon. But this was no ordinary rain. It did not stop ! It rained like that for 5 days until the dam could no longer hold the water and burst. Flood was declared in Baroda. The lane outside our house got filled with water, just short of the entrance. In my room, facing the garden, the water had reached the sill. I could touch it sitting on my bed.

The Indian style toilet was the first to overflow. Yellow, stinky water came out and filled the adjoining room. Soon , water started flowing through cracks in the wall. I had never noticed those cracks before, until now. My room was the first to be flooded with water (Murphy's Law). My giant of a thesis model was put up on the dining table and all of us were wading through calf deep water. The only semi-dry room was the living room , with a little less than ankle-deep water. We were all sitting there, chirping like birds, with cups of hot tea made by our maid, excited to experience our first flood. Suddenly, there was this “whoossshhh” outside and the entire living room was under knee deep water. There were dead frogs and dry leaves floating. Some body's chappal was bobbing up and down and the plastic garden chair started floating out on its way to the garden. I called my Department head and told him my house was under water.
Thesis submission was indefinitely postponed !

My only regret is that we did not happen to be a part of a Volcano explosion. Maybe, that is saved for another exciting time like this ...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A religion of convenience ?

I happened to google 'Brahmo' today morning. And I am very happy to say that now there is a lot of material to read on the religion. I am also happy that pseudo-Brahmos like me can read up and know where we come from.

Brought up outside Calcutta all my life, I have never got a taste of what the religion I belong to is all about. I do remember that I used to participate in these cultural programmes . I once enacted a children's poem by Devendranath Tagore with 2 other girls. That's all I remember of my participation in an Brahmo social event. Every year my Uncle and Aunt call up from Calcutta to wish 'Shubho Magotsav'. That is all I know of the annual festival Brahmos celebrate. In Calcutta, the hot-seat of Brahmoism in India , it's a week long affair , where there are cultural get-togethers and music and 'aabriti' and of course, food. I am aware of 'rituals' during birth, marriage and death. I was married in a Brahmo ceremony in English. I could understand and appreciate every word of it.

Unfortunately , for all of us , Brahmoism has not been propagated in the right spirit. All I've ever heard from my seniors is that Brahmoism is a superior religion. Why ? The answer given is this : "We don't worship idols. We don't believe in ritualism. We don't believe in the Caste system. We do not believe in taking or giving dowry" etc. Do we define our religion by 'NOT' doing things ? Or is there deeper meaning to this ?

Once I had an argument with my husband. He asked me a very fundamental question . He asked "How does your religion become better just because you do not worship idols ? ". He was right ! That's exactly how Brahmos are looked at. To many who at least know that something like that exists , may be thinking it is a religion of convenience. No fasts , no ringing prayer bells in the morning , no maintenance of a family temple in the house, no photographs of gods in the house, nothing that will tell the world that you are a Brahmo ! I know a lot of Brahmos will tell me that 'we are Brahmo by our deeds' . Very nice , thank you , but what deeds ? Those who at all contributed to the society and brought about social reforms are dead 100 years back ! Those who did something for 'Widow remarriage' ,'Emancipation of Women' , 'Abolition of the Caste system', 'Simplicity and purity of public and private affairs' have done their job and gone ! What did people after them do? Nothing ! They are all sitting in their ivory towers and basking in their fore fathers' glory . All of the above are still very much existent in our society and I would go to the extent of saying that people in general are now leaning more towards fundamentalism. The same things Raja Ram Mohun Roy and Keshab Chandra Sen fought against 150 years ago they themselves been Hindus.

All I want to say that in this era of high fundamentalism in all popular forms of religion, Brahmoism should be highlighted, 'simplified' and propagated in the right way. All Raja Ram Mohun Roy wanted to say when he started Brahmoism was that life does not get better by doing 'Puja' every morning. Neither does it get better by observing fasts. Life dishes out equal measure of happy and sad moments to each one of us. It has always been and will be balanced. There is absolutely no guarantee that one will get a good looking husband if one observes a fast a particular day of the week. There is no guarantee that one will be rich if one worships Laxmi every Diwali. Says who ? It is simply a matter of faith and fear. More fear , less faith. No religion can get better by suppressing its women. Dowry only feeds ones greed. No one has become richer by living off others' money. No caste is better or worse. We do not get to choose which caste we would be born in. So why brag about something one had no control over ?

And no , Brahmos are not Hindus ! The Supreme Court rejected a plea by the West Bengal Government that Brahmos be classified as Hindus in 2004.

Monday, March 2, 2009

To believe or not to believe ...

I would say that I am a very rational and logical person. I do not believe in things which cannot be proved. Is planchet proof that there is life beyond death ? I would say no , but I don't know.

At one point of my life, I started doing planchet with a room mate of mine when I was at college. Our room was very conveniently located within the hostel for such activities to take place. It was the last room of the building with monstrously long corridors. Ours was the longest. No one ever came there, except if she had some work with either of us. We couldn't hear the announcements made on the public address system installed in the hostel. Actually, it was the best room in the house to sleep or study (if either one of us were interested). We did sleep all the time , getting up only for food or attending college.

One day , Sunita , my room mate had this brain wave that we should try planchet. I was as kicked about it. So, we set up the atmosphere with candles , a chart and a coin. With that began our quest to probe what laid beyond death. We did come up with surprising results. We found that every time we called a spirit, someone called Mayur used to turn up. The first time he didn't say anything ( or rather didn't point out anything with the coin ). We realized later that he spoke in Roman letters. What he was saying was actually in Hindi but spelled in English. He said that he had burned himself as he was not able to marry the girl he loved. He even gave an address of a 'pol' in Raopura , in Baroda. I don't remember the address anymore. But that time , both of us were scared out of our wits to even go and ask if such a house even existed in that 'pol' in Baroda.

One night, we were up to our usual planchet activities after an exceptionally bad dinner at the hostel mess. You know , to release our frustration till the canteen opened for the night, someone called Robert came. We did out usual asking questions and getting answers thing. It went on for some time till it was time for the canteen to open. It opened and shut . That guy wouldn't leave. Then, we did something no self-respecting planchet-women would do.... we left midway and slept in our friends' room for the night. We were too scared to sleep there that night.

We continued planchet every night for more than one and a half years. We used to go to the extent of asking what questions would come in our exam papers the next morning . OK ! I know that was too much ! But it is the truth.

There is no reason for me not to believe that there exists a world beyond ours that we sometimes are lucky enough to get glimpses of . How can someone who has loved and lived all their lives here with all friends and families just go away in a matter of a few seconds ? It is not possible. The pull of the real world is too much for any one to leave behind in a jiffy. Those who have been able to cut loose all ties with their worldly life are truly liberated and are resting in peace. Hats-off to them. But, those who haven't been able to , I don't blame them. Its, after all the 'maaya jaal' . All these were, after all, people at one point. And are doomed to roam all the 'rest' of their dead lives wanting something they could never have .....

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


It was the beginning of the year 2008. I was engaged to be married to the love of my life. I had started slightly liking Mumbai because I knew I would be leaving it soon. Thankfully. I was staying with family in a very posh part of 'town'. Only I quite didn't like staying there.
One morning , I was travelling as usual to my workplace, I got a phone call. I would say that it was a defining phone call of my life. The next two days , let's say, was 2nd in the list of "the worst things to happen to me". Something happened because of which I had to leave the house and look for alternate accommodation. I say defining because I concluded a lot of things about human

nature and how we, as a family ,function. Maybe another post on what I concluded.

So, anyways , I got in touch with an agent and she took me to this huge flat at Nana Chowk. There was a lady who stayed there , all alone, apart from a caretaker. I had been to that place earlier , as one of my friends stayed there. Only when I went to meet her there , I never knew I would be moving to the same place someday.

I would be staying in that house for a little over a month. So , I didn't really take any interest in knowing my landlady. I had a room mate too, whom I didn't meet more than twice during my entire stay. On the first day ,I came back from office, locked my self in and started reading a book . The second night in that house , my landlady (I called her Aunty) came knocking at my door and gave me a bunch of takeaway menus. The next morning , I saw a cup of tea and biscuits outside my door. I looked up and saw Aunty peeping from her room with a sweet smile on her face. "It's complimentary" she said , "you don't have to pay for it !".

Here began my friendship with an 87 year old who had stayed all her life in this musty flat. I began looking forward to meeting this petite lady every morning over a cup of tea and biscuits. In the evenings , I stared visiting her room and she would talk about how this house used to bustle with energy in the "old days". We would watch K serials and the new Ramayan which started that time on the Idiot box, together. Aunty had this old glass shelf which was filled with curios . She once told me a man came and took many nick knacks from there and payed her 4000 rupees. I think he cheated her because a lot of what was there were antique silverware and Ming Dynasty china. She told me about a famous face reader and astrologer who used to come to this house frequently. That man also happened to be based in my hometown , in the south of Gujarat. She wanted me to look for him. She was out of touch with him for the last 20 years and needed to consult him.

I spent many pleasant evenings with Aunty watching serials and over dinner. I learnt that she was very well travelled and that she was a pioneer in a lot of social service initiatives in Mumbai.

Very soon , my stay at her place came to an end . I was leaving for Kolkata to get married. She gave me a pendant as a wedding gift. I believe it is a talisman of some kind.

All she did was to talk to me and give me tea and biscuits. And she has no idea how soothing that little act of kindness was, when some people in my own family have never bothered. I gradually got over what happened and she had applied the first coat of soothing balm. I haven't visited her after I left Mumbai, me been my lazy self. I don't know if she is even there in that giant musty flat of hers. She used to say she couldn't afford it any more. She reaffirmed my faith in people. I don't know how she is doing now , but I will always wish the best for her.