Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Treasures Tucked Away - Kanheri Caves

Bombay, the alluring city of dreams, most definitely would seem weird to anyone, what with its crazy hustle and bustle and maddening traffic, a city that never sleeps, a melting pot of Indian cultures, a mix of the old and the new, where the world's finest cars zoom past bullock carts treading the road, just as a train whooshes along the adjacent railway tracks, where you have one of the highest number of millionaires in the world and the most expensive real estate side by side Asia's largest slum, which also happens to be the most profitable slum, where you find a homeless beggar sleeping on the footpath outside the one of the finest hotels in the country, ... the countless paradoxes never cease to amaze me. Maybe therein lies its charm.

It is this mix of the old and new that I love the most, with elegant colonial wonders right in the middle of towering classy glassy buildings and a little bit of history intervening. Our city may not have as much of history to offer as a city like Delhi would, (damn you lucky Delhiites), but we have our own fair share of it. After all, we do have two UNESCO World Heritage Sights in Bombay, the Victoria Terminus Building and the Elephanta Caves. In the shadow of these and other grander buildings that call Bombay their home, a chunk of amazing attractions and places retreat to a nugatory corner, unheralded, and do not get their due recognition. That is the problem with a India, there are just sooooo many sights and a wide variety at that on offer, that it is very difficult to develop and maintain each one of them, and with the paltry sum the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) gets, handling around 3,650 monuments which are of national importance, it is nearly impossible. That is just a miniscule portion of the lakhs of sites which India possesses, for history does not merely run through its veins, it is present in every cell in her body. Through this post and all those upcoming ones, titled Tucked Away Treasures, I hope to do my bit to flash a light on such lesser known wonderful places and sites and bring them out of the darkness and unknownness.

[The Kanheri Caves.]
The first such place that I want to cover, is one that's right in my backyard, but something that I'd never seen until very recently when I went cycling to the Borivali National Park, as I had mentioned in my previous post - Riding the Joy Bicycle; for people always discouraged me saying it's horrible and derelict, abounding in dogs and the homeless and thieves and probably used as a urinal! To think I'd believed some of that! However, au contraire to popular misconception, it is beautiful, picturesque, serene and a must visit for every history buff or art and sculpture freak. I am talking about the Kanheri Caves.

They are situated on a hill in the middle of the Borivali National Park and wherever the eye travels, they see only lush greenery. No wonder the rather reclusive monks chose such a place where they could immerse themselves in months of meditation and reverence to the gods, without anyone interrupting them, save a wild animal. They are rock-cut caves, carved in-situ, out of a basaltic rock outcropping. They derive their name from that basaltic rock. The word Kanheri is derived from the Sanskrit word Krishnagiri, meaning black mountain.

The caves open to the public pretty early in the morning, around 7 a.m. and like most historical sites in India, the entry is very cheap, only INR 5. However, here too, the discrimination against foreign nationals continues, charging them 100 bucks for the same. There is at the entrance, what the locals call a 'canteen', which at best is a ramshackle shack, but a lifesaver in the heat, the only oasis in the desert. No wonder the smart villager owning the cottage charges more for everything; simple economics I'd say. 

[The Chaityaa Hall of Cave 3, with its Stupa, carved pillas and fish-belly style ceiling. Some reckless idiot lit diyaas in the niches in the Stupa. From the pillars on the right, looks like the Chaityaa was incomplete.]
[What a serene pensive face!]
There are in all 110 caves, dating from the 1st century B.C. to the 11th century A.D. and ranging from Vihaaraas, or monasteries and Bhikshugrihas where the monks resided to Chaityaas, or shrines, generally with Stupas, where they offered prayers to Buddha. Most of the Vihaaraas are simple square room(s) with rock-cut benches, where the monks lived. It is the Chaaityaa halls which take your breath away, with beautifully carved pillars and carvings of the images of Buddha and various other representations of Buddha as a Stupa, the Bodhi Tree or footprints. The images are typical of the Mahaayaan sect of Buddhism, while representations of Buddha are  in tandem with the tenets of the Hinayaan sect, which did not believe in having idols of Buddha. There are also images of the Boddhisattva and Avalokiteshwar. A number of caves have splendid carvings. Cave 2 has a whole bunch of Stupas and stories in stone figures, running on the walls, but my favourite ones are the ones in Cave 3, especially an image of Buddha near the entrance to the Chaityaa hall is one of the best carved images I've ever seen, the face so calm and serene, you could sit staring at it there for hours and be at peace. Also striking are the huge standing images of the Buddha, which are probably 30 feet tall. The have a humbling effect on you.

[The huge statue had a humbling effect on whoever entered the Chaityaa of Cave 3.]
[One of the most intact inscriptions, this one was in Brahmi outside Cave 3.]
The Caves abound in inscriptions in the Devanagari, Pahlavi and Brahmi scripts, of which only the Devanagari script is still in use. It is the script that is used for Hindi and Marathi to this day. The Brahmi inscriptions outnumber the rest. It is the language from which multiple languages derived their scripts, like Tamil and other Dravidian languages and even the Burmese and Khmer languages. There are even some cave paintings in the post-Ajanta style in Cave 34, though we did not have the time to visit that cave (I'm definitely going to see those on my next trip there).

[The ancient chiselled handrailing still standing intact!]
The Kanheri Caves have huge Podhis or water cisterns, which were cleverly carved to trap and collect rainwater and use it during the hot summer months. They have an ingenious rainwater harvesting system, with canals merging into pools, which are next to almost every cave. The rains transform the caves, enhancing their beauty even further with waterfalls and rivulets running here and there, though they might get slippery. What astonished me was the fact that by the steps leading to Viharas situated higher up on the hill, there were handrails  chiselled out of the same stone and they are still intact!

The Caves are marvellous and provide a great opportunity to study our wonderful history, splendid architecture and ingenious engineering and carving skills. They are so cool on the inside, that one does not even realise that the outside temperature is otherwise ranging between 35° and 40° Celsius. They provide a much needed calm to the souls of restless city-dwellers, irrespective of their religious beliefs; and the greenery around that much needed and elusive fresh air. Although I was saddened by the visible neglect at the Caves. They are not that well maintained. The people who visit them also do not seem to care much about them, littering them, damaging them just so that they could get one cheesy photo and defacing them to prove to their loved ones how eternal their love is. There was not even a single guard to see to it that the site was not being damaged in any way. We must protect and preserve our cultural heritage for the coming generations and for the whole world to see that what a great culture and history we come from, for when the present or future looks ominous, it is always reassuring to have a glorious past to fall back upon, though the way the Indian economy is surging ahead, that doesn't seem necessary, at least for now.

I'd love nothing more than to spend an entire day there. There are more than worth a visit, they are worth a stay!

(This post got delayed despite it being ready as my e-mail account was hacked and password changed. I'll kill whoever did that, unless of course, if it was my hitherto inexistent and dormant split personality.)

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Riding the Joy Bicycle

Having commenced work, every holiday means so much more to you, for you treasure those moments when you are the master of your actions, do what you want, at your own sweet time. On such days, people generally prefer to rest and sleep in late, but I'm quite the opposite. I tend to squeeze all things that I haven't been able to do on other days into that one day, exerting myself. This time around too I ended up doing the exact same, and boy did I enjoy myself! This year I dearly missed those Diwali vacations that we used to get in school and college, which any company could not afford, but nature conspired against them and Diwali fell on a Wednesday, meaning it would be followed by New Year's and Bhau Beej, ensuring a long and rare five-dat break! Yeah!! The Diwali day was well spent, as I had mentioned in my earlier post - A Diwali Par Excellence. And had even better plans for New Year's, at least the Hindu and Jain New Year; we in India might be celebrating god knows how many New Years! - One for our religion, another for our community, plenty for other religions and one with the whole world. We do like celebrations, don't we? I and another friend of mine had decided that we will get up early, which was a bit parlous and unpredictable, for we knew full well that everyone was gonna be sleeping pretty late on Diwali night, and getting up at 6 the other morning would be a task, but we did not let that daunt us. I do not believe in the good old saying, 'Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.' For me, most clichés never apply and here too I have my own tweaked version of the saying, 'Late to bed and early to rise, gives a man more time to be wise.'

[A peaceful path along the pond at the National Park.]
The activity was decided, but we had a lot of trouble finding a location and bicycles on rent; I haven't owned one since I was 13, having found no use for it, being a fat lazy kid hating exercises (I'm glad that has changed) and the repairs and rusting after each monsoon was just annoying. A large number of the shops that gave cycle on rent, gave what I'd like to call dhoodhwaalaa-cycles (milkman cycles), with their typical high designs, weird elongated seats, hard breaks and larger than life mudguards, all designed for a poor milkman to carry litres across the city every morning, and there was no way we were gonna ride those around the city. The few shops that did give decent cycles on rent were right up in South Bombay, where there were no tree-lined roads or sky-tearing scrapers to provide us respite from the oppressive October Heat. We were about to cancel the plan when my friend came across this newspaper article about cycling at Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), colloquially called as Borivali National Park, for we do not care about what politician it is named after. Thank God he came across that article!

[The shiny new bicycles.]
The National Park had recently started a rent-a-cycle scheme, where they gave bicycles on rent at a very low rate of INR 20 an hour. And given the fact that it had just started, meant that the cycles would be in sparkling condition, before the crazy Bombaiites had had a fair shot at spoiling them. We landed up at the Park early in the morning, all geared up, wearing shorts and donning sunglasses and hats, but to our utter disappointment, the guy who usually arrives at 8 in the morning didn't turn up. We were getting frustrated by the minute and were thinking of going back home, defeated, when he finally arrived at 10! The previous day was a holiday and maybe he had a little too much to drink, so couldn't make it on time. We finally chose our bicycles from probably 50 to 60 of those, which is a lot considering that people these are better of cycling on Wii and in air-conditioned gyms, serviced by servants carrying cups of coffee so that the corporate servant doesn't pass out from doing nothing. And off we went.

[An intriguing bug, that appears translucent under the bright sun. Anyone know its name?]
The National Park is a haven within a polluted crowded bustling city like Bombay, and Bombay has the rare distinction of being the only metropolis in the world to have a thriving National Park within its periphery. And a quite huge one at that, and so green and cool. There's a perpetual canopy covering your heads, rendering our hats useless. There were lots of people on morning walks and nature admirers and photographers with chic Nat-Geo-ic-lenses. And I was amazed to read that the government charges senior citizens only INR 12 for the whole year as entry fee for morning walks. How they manage to even sustain, surpasses my understanding!

[Fascinating patterns made by the disgusting algae and moss on the drying rivulet-bed.]
Cycling was exhilarating. The feeling of the cool breeze hitting your body as you try to go faster than you ever have, and dazzlingly colourful butterflies accompanying you as birds tweet, not vicious jabs at one another, but actual natural tweets and the smell of nature all around you, oh, it's just out of this world. There are a number of gardens along the way, some with tree-houses, (I wish I was a kid again or so light the house could bear my weight!) and some nice serene picturesque pools with trees so close to their surface, one would feel the tree is trying to snog the cool pool. Who wouldn't? We felt like just diving in the pool, but for lack of appropriate gear did not. There are a number of bridges going over what I assume would be gushing rapids in the monsoons, but were now reduced to just a trickle. There's even a tiger and lion safari, for which we went. The first and until that day the only time I had been on those at the Park, was on my only trip to the Park, more than a decade ago. I was really excited to the white tiger. But we were utterly disappointed, for we saw no lions; tigers we did, but is it still a safari is we are in a caged vehicle and they are in cages too? They looked nearly dead, definitely of boredom.

[Monkeys galore. Clockwise from top: A cute baby having its way with a bottle; Homo Erectus 2? Monkey with its deemed favourite food; Monkey (its mouth so stuffed, looks like a goiter) with every Bombaiite's favourite food, Vadaa Paav; Trying to prise open a packet for a tangy chatpata snack; Nothing like a mother teaching her young.]
Apart from that there's plenty more. There's even a toy train, the Van Rani, the 'Forest Queen', which from hearsay is a great ride and a nice way to see the animal the Park abounds in, deer. There are hordes of monkeys too, all smart enough thanks to their years of contact with humans, who now know how to unscrew a bottle or tear open a bag of chips. But for kids, and even me, no sight is more majestic than a roaring tiger, which sadly did not meet our expectations. Oh and not to forget there are plenty of spots where we spotted couples doing what they do best, escaping from the city and its prying eyes to steal a candid moment. Why do people have a problem with PDoA, when there's a clothesless man at every next street corner? 

[The villagers and their ware, a much needed respite in the heat.]
We had decided to cycle to the very top of the hill inside the Park, to the Kanheri Caves, ancient rock-cut caves, dating from the first century B.C. to the tenth century A.D. The uphill climb was taxing, which was partly because the bikes were good, but not meant for climbs, and it was noon by then, and even the protectorate formed by the trees cannot keep put the Bombay heat, which finds its way in like water does from any place. Our water supply, not much, was exhausted long before the climb, and we found ourselves without any for the entire duration of the climb. The only spot in the Park where anything was available was right at the top, where there was a 'canteen', more like a ramshackle shack, which surprised me, given the high number of visitors the Park gets. The only respite was a couple of poor local villagers selling guavas, cucumbers and tamarind along the way, and we stopped on more than one occasion for savour those. Utter poverty and unemployment meant that the entire family would be out there selling these at one stand, waiting for a passing car or hiker to stop by (we seemed like the only brave or what some may call foolish, ones to cycle to the top). The climb isn't much, only a couple of kilometres, but the heat, humidity, lack of water, incline and bike unsuited for the job take you out. By the time we reached the top, after a dozen stops, we were inexplicably thirsty, tired and famished. So first thing we did was rush up to the 'canteen', which is inside the zone of the caves and down a couple of soft drinks and bottles of water. Only then did we admire the beauty of the splendid caves. Being a history buff, it was like heaven for me. I could spend hours there. And they are a marvellous sight. But more on them in my upcoming post, to be titled Treasures Tucked Away - Kanheri Caves.

We left the beaufitul caves and the ride downhill was the most fun. It took us barely 15 minutes to descend at top speed, but one must be extra careful for the brakes aren't that good, and so are the roads and often there are speeding vehicles and villagers along the road, with their poultry running amok, and you definitely don't want to harm them and incur the wrath of the entire village for a dead chick.

But for now, I'd say a visit to the Park is a thumbs up. My tip would be carry lose comfortable clothing, plenty of fluids, sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat and you're good to go. Oh and my fast friend and constant companion, a camera to capture all those wonderful sights. Too bad there ain't a device to ensnare the soothing jungle sounds and fresh clean air. I know for sure that I will be returning to the Park, notwithstanding the leg pains the following day, hungry for more.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Got time? Watch In Time in time.

[Time, something priceless, that even your MasterCard can't buy.]
What are the parameters that define how good a film is? Not always does a film's performance or appeal move in tandem with its IMDb, Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes' ratings and reviews. Some films have a star cast that draws the audience, more so in India, irrespective of how horrible the script may be or how mediocre the action sequences and special effects, which are often worse than what Hollywood had as long ago as The Ten Commandments (by the way, they still seem so believable)! Others attract the crowds with great scripts, with unimaginable crooked twists or a simple story made grand, or ride on the amazing directorial or acting abilities. But I like it the best when films come up with something mind-boggling, an unparalleled idea, for they set the wheels of our minds in motion, giving them a chance to break away the rust that had been forming from idleness, and run wild.

The recent film In Time does just that. I absolutely loved the idea that it tried to present. It sets it right up there with the likes of Inception, The Island, Paycheck and such other amazing futuristic films, which I love oh so much. Had Jules Verne and H. G. Wells been alive, they would have definitely been proud, not to mention a bit green; and that has nothing to do with the fact that they come from times when electricity and fossil fuel usage was minimal.

[Catch In Time in time before it moves out of screens.]
The idea that the film tried to portray was a very simple one, 'Time is money', but yet so novel, though now one might say, "Even I could have come up with it"! The entire film revolves around this central theme where somewhere in the future the prevalent currency is time! Your wages are paid in time, you buy your groceries paying giving time, thieves, a.k.a. minute-men, steal your time, banks lend and accept time, and hell, you gamble too in time. The concept of 'time zones', areas divided on the basis of the time their residents possess, their way of setting their standard of living, was a nice touch to it. (Spoiler alert!) When his mother dies in his arms, as she had run out of time and he had just got an entire century on him, yet fell short by just a second, was a touchy moment (wait that was no spoiler, it was way too early up in the movie). There were some witty lines there too, like 'Don't waste my time' or 'Do you come from time?'. The best part about such films is that they play with your mind and you end up arguing over and discussing every detail for hours, and it is worth it. The film was also smart enough to steer clear of some gray areas by not going to explain how humans were created with clocks on their forearms, which, by the way looked so cool (that would be a great idea for a tattoo), or who created time for the first time, for the person who did do those things would have lived forever, or who stopped the biological clocks and made people look like they're at 25, for the rest of their lives, making little women look just like their daughters and grand-daughters? This toyed with immortality, an idea that has afflicted humans since time immemorial.

There was some good action in the film but a couple of goofs, which are easily pardonable. The actors were nice, and my favourite Matt Bomer did a cameo. Justin Timberlake was not all that bad, although I think Leonardo diCaprio would have done the role better justice. It had a decent pace, however towards the end it slowed down a bit, got a bit predictive and the end was not what the fantastic script deserved. I think it would  have done better as a book. Nevertheless, what an amazing theory! Definitely worth a watch.

Rating: I'd give it  (mainly for the script).

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

A Red-letter Day - Part 3 - The Iron Bullet

As I was saying in my Part 1 and 2 of this series, the day 31st October continues to play with India's history. This time, rather than adding to its glory and fame, it has added insult to injury. This time around, the date did something paradoxical, it gave birth to an iron bullet, that will ultimately blow out the juices floating in our brains. Talk about Frankenstein's Monster!

[What a massive mess!]
It was just a couple of centuries ago, in 1805, when the 1 billionth person in the world was born. The journey from 1 billion to 2, took a looooong 122 years; the jump from 6 to 7 billion, took just 12 years. The world, at least huge chunks of it, is bursting at the seams. There seems just not an inch left to accommodate another soul, especially in the continents of Asia and Africa, where population densities are beyond imagination. People are so cramped up in megacities, you know for sure you're breathing someone else's exhaled air; the good news is, your own breath might just come back to you, but not before collating information and germs from millions of million hair-lined noses! And people do not seem to give up so soon; I guess they want a kid in each country, so they never have to shell out the high hotel tariffs!

India, already contributing a sixth to the world population with about 121 crore (1.21 billion) people, has a low growth rate of 1.41%, but with so large a population, even a teeny tiny growth rate could be disastrous. India is already predicted to be the most populous country in the world, ahead of China by the year 2025. More than half the population is below the age of 20 years, and by the year 2020, the average age of an Indian is pegged at 29, which is much lower to China's estimated 37. Currently, we have and in the foreseeable future too, we shall have the youngest population in the world. Maybe, we can take our revenge and colonise the world; we have anyway infiltrated all but 5 nations in the world, we need go only a step further! What it means is we shall have a workforce with probably the best potential and the least dependency ratio in the world. The West may be envious of our young population, for they have an aged populace, that does nothing, but add on to their woes, and with nuclear and disconnected families, adds to the governments' woes, but we should not get carried away. It is like sitting on a bomb that's ticking away. Sooner they will have to be fed and later they will age, and just imagine having that huge a number of old and dependent people and what impact that shall have on our vibrant economy. But what do people care, they throw caution to the wind and bask in the sunshine, not realising that the ice ages are soon coming, or is that the reason they bask now before the impending doom?

[Nargis Yadav of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India, the symbolic 7 billionth baby?]

[Or is Danica May Camacho from Manila Philippines gonna steal the show?]
On the 31st of October 2011, as per the United Nation's estimates, the 7 billionth baby in the world would be born. Some held that it would be born in the city of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh (a state where a baby's born every 11 minutes!) in India, while others claimed it would be in Manila, Philippines. I have absolutely no clue as to how they can make such predictions. Does Uncle Sam's pesky Big Brother monitor late-night and sleepy-afternoon activities in every household? Could be very much plausible, given their glorious track record of interference in every matter in every country. Anyway, it is more symbolic than anything else. It was down to baby girls Danica May Camacho of Philippines and Nargis Yadav of India. Being a die-hard patriot, I would like to believe it was India (whether it's good or bad, always pick your country). And how ironic, that it was a baby girl; in a state that has one of the worst sex ratios in India, the symbol of the future is a girl! Maybe the winds of change are here.

But until change does happen, we must strive to make this world a better place, keep our own population in check, for every new pair of hands need at least a morsel placed between them and an inch of ground to rest their feet that support them. We cannot look at the positives of a young population by turning a blind eye to the negatives. Huge populations are causing unimaginable and colossal problems for India. Whether it's the vicious circle of poverty, illiteracy and hunger or the increased crime rates, increased burden on land, economic tardiness and administration and governance problems, the root cause is always over-population. We must all learn to keep ourselves 'BG with 3G', (just love that !dea advertisement) and stop the baby boom. And if nothing works, send them all abroad, and let them wreak havoc there! But jokes apart, this iron bullet must be turned into something we can defend ourselves with, before it destroys everything we stand for!

Saturday, 5 November 2011

A Red-letter Day - Part 2 - The Iron Lady

Continuing from Part 1 of this series, the date 31st October was one that gave India, one of India's greatest sons, but it is also a sad day in India's history, for it took away our strongest, severest, yet widely loved daughters, Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi.

[A young Indira with her father.]
She was born on the 19th of November 1917 to Jawaharlal Nehru and Kamla Nehru and was educated at a number of schools, from Rabindranath Tagore's Shantiniketan to the Somerville College, Oxford, where she met her husband Feroze Gandhi and whose surname she assumed; unfortunately their marriage did not last long as he passed away in 1960. Contrary to popular misconception, she is not Mohandas a.k.a. Mahatma Gandhi's relative (for once I am forced to call him Mahatma). Oh the stupid foreigners, cannot fathom a thing and make doltish assumptions! Born in a family that was at the heart of India's political scene, with her father being the first and longest serving Prime Minister, serving unchallenged until his death in 1964, it was no surprise that she too would one day become a politician, for like most businesses and even professions in India, being a politician too is more like a family affair. And what a politician she made! She was appointed as a member of India's Upper House of Parliament., the Rajya Sabha, and made Minister for Information and Broadcasting in Lal Bahadur Shatri's government, but after his death, she became the Prime Minister in 1966. Dubbed initially by Rammanohar Lohiya as the 'गूँगी गुड़िया', romanised as 'Gungi Gudiyaa', meaning 'dumb doll', she went on to show that she was in fact a 'dangerous doll'. Rammanohar did not live long to see that happen, but Gandhi, or Mrs. Gandhi as she was widely addressed, soon showed that she was no pushover; she was here to stay. She was India's first female Prime Minister, the world's second, and until very recently, the longest serving too! She held the country with an iron grip, outmanœuvred opponents, silenced critics and sewed their mouths shut, and used every trick in the political treatise to get what she wanted. The saying, 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned', so aptly applied to her; however, in her case the last word did not matter. She did not need a reason to unleash her power. She was a wild tigress let loose.

[Clash of the Titans: Indira Gandhi and Richard Nixon.]
She increased relations with the Soviet Union, like her father, and her personal dislike for the then President of the United States of America, Richard Nixon, soured Indo-US relations, and the two nations did not look each other in the eye for a long time. Nixon referred to her as a 'witch; and 'clever fox' in his communications with the Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. At a time, when the USA was interfering in every matter all over the world, she had the guts to give it the cold shoulder. A cold shoulder to the nosy proponent of the Cold War.

During her term, India made great strides in a number of fields. A major part of the Green Revolution, that vastly reduced food shortage in India, was during her reign; and so was the White Revolution or Operation Flood, which did the same for milk production. Together they alleviated poverty and helped move India a step closer towards self-dependency in food and India became a food exporter from an importer. She nationalised 14 major banks in 1969 and 6 more in 1980, which was a master move and what was influential in shielding the Indian economy from international fluctuations, and is applicable even today, which was recently put to test during the global crisis of 2008-09 and it passed with flying colours. Under her tenure, India carried out nuclear tests, in response to China's Test No. 6, at Pokhran in Rajasthan under the code name Smiling Buddha in 1974, and India became the youngest member of the nuclear club, and the only country outside of the permanent members in the security council to possess nuclear weapons. And the tests awed the world and showed them India's potential and power, cementing her position as an emerging economy and superpower.

[Indira during happier times.]
But the reason she became immensely popular was because of her support to the liberation movement in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. The Pakistani (then West Pakistani) army's atrocities in East Pakistan caused migration of hordes to India, more than a crore (10 million) people sought shelter in India, disrupting the economy. So Indira supported the freedom movement and war was officially declared on 3rd December, 1971, when Pakistan began pre-emptive air-strikes across India. India retaliated, and it was war time. The army, navy and the air force were all deployed. Within days, defeat seemed certain for Pakistan. By December 6th, India recognised East Pakistan as Bangladesh on the 16th the Pakistani forces surrendered, but not before butchering nearly 3 million Bengali doctors, teachers, professionals, young men and others, when they were sure of defeat. The war was a severe blow to Pakistan's confidence and ego. They were beaten in all counts. They lost nearly a third of their navy, they lost nearly half their population and a third of their land to a new nation, kilometres of their territory was captured by the Indian army, though this was later returned (I think that was the only major mistake she made), and over 90,000 prisoners of war, which were also released after Pakistan signed the Simla Agreement and agreed to accept Bangladesh as an independent country.

It was during her term that India's first satellite, Aryabhatta, named after the greatest astronomer ever, took flight in 1975 and the first Indian cosmonaut in space, Rakesh Sharma, in 1984. Her conversation with him in space, which was telecast on Doordarshan, India's public service broadcaster, became extremely famous. When asked by her how India looked from up there, he borrowed lines from Allama Iqbal's masterpiece, and said, "सारे जहाँ से अच्छा" (Saare jahaan se achchaa), i.e. better than the whole world.

{Her fight back in 1979.]
However, she did have her annus horribilis, which just did not seem to end and was one of the saddest chapters in the history of democratic India. In 1975 her election to the Lower House of Parliament, Lok Sabha was declared void by the Allahabad High Court on the grounds of electoral malpractices and she was found guilty of dishonest election practices, excessive election expenditure and using the government machinery for her party benefit. She was to be removed from the Parliament within 6 months, and she could not contest elections for 6 years! Without a seat, she could also not hold the Prime Minister's post. So in one of her smartest yet most horrible moves, she asked the then President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to declare a State of Emergency under Article 352 of the Constitution, justifying it as a move to quell the disorder caused by the opposition, which allowed her to rule by decree and suspend elections and civil liberties. She had assumed tyrannical powers. The media was gagged and masses were arrested, mainly from the Opposition parties, which included many future Chief Ministers, Cabinet Ministers and a Prime Minister! She imposed President's Rule in states governed by the Opposition. Her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi conducted forced vasectomies, irrespective of a person's age, in the name of Family Planning initiatives. The atrocities committed were beyond description. It was one of the darkest hours of  our otherwise great history. She kept extending the Emergency till 1977, when she called for General Elections, in which she and Sanjay and many loyalists lost their seats. However, the new coalition government did not last and was dissolved in 1979, and soon the nation realised that they indeed needed her to lead the country with an iron grip. In the elections that year, she won a landslide victory and was back in power.

[The Iron Lady.]

Yet another dark blotch on her résumé was when in 1984 she ordered the Indian Army to march into the holiest Sikh Shrine, of Harmandir Sahib, better known as the Golden Temple in Amritsar, to eradicate the Sikh separatists, led by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who were taking refuge there. They wanted a separate Sikh state of Khalistan. The military operation, Operation Blue Star, destroyed and defiled the centuries old temple, led to the loss of hundreds of civilians, priests and army personnel and scarred the Sikhs' honour, for army tanks had entered the holy shrine, the temple destroyed and many manuscripts and artifacts taken over. Many Sikhs, who form a considerable part of the Indian Army, resigned. This Operation came back to haunt Indira just a couple of months later when on 31st October 1984, two of her own bodyguards, Sikhs, shot 30 bullets into her body to avenge her sacrilegious attack. She was rushed to the hospital, but passed away soon. And a nation wept. Her assassination was soon followed by anti-Sikh riots, which engulfed the country like nothing it had seen since Partition and it resulted in a huge death toll. Towards the end, she had almost become prophetic about her death and was famously quoted as saying, "If I die a violent death, as some fear and a few are plotting, I know that the violence will be in the thought and the action of the assassins, not in my dying.' and 'Even if I died in the service of the nation, I would be proud of it. Every drop of my blood, will contribute to the growth of this nation and to make it strong and dynamic.' And invigorate it did!

[The two tigresses, Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi.]
She was rightly called the Iron Lady. She shared that sobriquet with a number of women, but more so with her contemporary Margaret Thatcher. They both went to the same college, Somerville College, were the first female Prime Ministers of their respective countries, were surrounded by controversies, had a number of assassination attempts, battled and overcame economic problems and waged and won wars!

[A rare Gandhi family photo. From left: Sanjay, Rajiv, Indira, Rajiv's kids Rahul and Priyanka, Sanjay's wife Maneka and Rajiv's wife Sonia.]
She achieved for India what one could only dream of. I did not like her father Nehru or M. Gandhi (I refuse to call him Mahatma), but she is my favourite leader. She may have done some horrible things, and she may be the perfect exemplification of a 'Woman Hitler', but to me she was more like 'Mother India' and most of all, I adore her for she had guts and a terrific personality! She cemented her party's position, at both the state and the national level, where it has ruled the longest since Independence; her son was the next Prime Minister who won the largest ever number of seats, in the Lok Sabha, 404 out of 506, riding on the nation's emotional wave and her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, who appears an image of her, has led the country since 2004. There are countless government schemes in her name, most important being the Indira Awaas Yogna, providing homes to the poor, and the world's largest university with over 35 lakh (3.5 million) students is named Indira Gandhi National Open University after her. And so is New Delhi's international airport. She was also awarded the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian honour. For a long time she was the only Indian lady to have her wax statue at the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in London, until she was joined by my favourite actress and the most beautiful woman, Aishwarya Rai. She continues to inspire women, to surge ahead and make their mark in a patriarchal male chauvinistic society. Her legacy lives on.

Coming up Part 3 - The Iron Bullet.

Friday, 4 November 2011

A Red-letter Day - Part 1 - The Iron Man

A couple of days ago was the 31st of October. A date, which anyone would have missed in their daily grind and never for a second pondered over what was so special about it. It is a date that gave India, iron, blood and life and death and yet again, it has changed the course of Indian history. A red-letter date, and its colour is such not only on account of its importance but also because of its association with blood and iron. On this date, the Iron Man of India, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was born, the Iron Lady of India Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi was brutally assassinated and just recently the 7 billionth baby in the world was born in Lucknow, an iron bullet to India's burgeoning self. A date which has had quite a quiet tryst with India's destiny, yet is so easily forgotten.

So here's Part 1 - The Iron Man.

[A pensive Sardar Patel.]
On the 31st of October 1875 in a sleepy Gujarat village under the British Raj was born a man who was to change India's destiny, Vallabhbhai Jhaverbhai Patel or as he was fondly called Sardar Patel, the Iron Man of India. For a man that important, he had very humble beginnings and was self-educated and yet he became a lawyer. He was known for his iron will and steely resolve and great diplomatic skills and unparalleled acumen. Born at a time when almost every man had participated in the freedom struggle against the wily British, he too started out early and partook in many peaceful and non-violent anti-British movements, and he rose to prominence when he was elected the Congress president in 1931 and soon he became one of Gandhi's confidants.

[Sardar at work.]
He was one of the few Congress members to accept the Partition of India as an end to the communal clashes and violence. His most important role was when he was handed the task of convincing 565 out of over 600 Princely States, states which were not administered by the British and had control over their running, to join the Union of India after Partition, as opposed to joining the Dominion of Pakistan or remaining Independent realms; and boy, was he successful? With the exception of Jammu and Kashmir, Junagadh and Hyderabad, the rest joined the Union of India. Can you imagine having hundreds of tiny nations in India? I can't imagine how the people in the European Union live. Some countries are so small, even Bombay's bigger than them. And against these 3, he used military force to prevent their secession. He was even responsible for the inclusion of the Lakshwadeep Island in India. Just a minute late on them, and they would have been lost to Pakistan, for the islands, being cut of from the mainland had got no news about Independence, and one of India's ship beat a Pakistani ship to it and hoisted the tricolour in the nick of time.

[The top leaders, from left, Jawaharlal Nehru, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Kahn, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad (his photo seemed to have been added later on. Beginnings of Photoshop?) and Gandhi.]
After Independence, he played the most important role in integrating a nation as diverse as ours. He is also regarded as the Otto von Bismarck of India for his role. The only kingdom that he did not take care of was Kashmir, which at Nehru's instance was handled by the latter and even today it is still not under federal control! At Gandhi's request he stepped back from the Prime Ministerial post. Had he been the first Prime Minister, India would have definitely been a better place. It is said that he wanted to divide the country into 5 zones - Central, North, South, East and West; however, Jawaharlal Nehru divided them on a linguistic pattern to please voters, but ended up creating an eternal problem and an unending drama, that we are still trying to sort out. He formed a triumvirate with Nehru and C. Rajagopalachari and took the reigns of the young nation for a couple of years after Independence. He had great foresight and advised Nehru against seeking the United Nations intervention in the Kashmir issue or giving the Pakistani Government Rs. 55 crore and insisted on military action to seize Goa from the Portuguese, but Nehru in all his wisdom did not act on them, save the last, but that too, very late. He was India's first Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, he played an important role in Rajendra Prasad becoming the first President of India, in establishing the Indian Administrative Services, in B. R. Ambedkar's appointment as the Chairman of the Drafting Committee to frame Constitution of India, the world's longest and most detailed Constitution, in restoration of the spectacular  Somnath Temple, that was plundered 17 times by Mahmud Ghazni, and also had a hand in the formation of Amul, currently the world's largest pouched milk brand that ushered in the White Revolution in India.

[Sardar Patel on the cover of the Time Magazine of January 27, 1947.]
All through 1949 and 1950, his health was failing and his body ailing, and on the 15th of December he passed away. His funeral was attended by throngs and Nehru, Rajendra Prasad and C. Rajagopalachari among other prominent persons. For all that he did, he was widely critiqued and often called anti-Muslim and for a long time his contributions were forgotten. He often had issues and fights with Nehru, though he always supported him and extended all the help that was needed to tackle any situation. It was only in 1991, a good 41 years after his death, that he was awarded India's highest civilian honour, the Bhrat Ratna, but what purpose did it serve to a dead man? However, in Gujarat he was always loved. There are numerous museums, universities and institutions in his name and even the largest dam on the Narmada is named in his honour as Sardar Sarovar Dam. The current Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi is planning to build a 182 metre tall statue of his by the dam, which if built, would be the tallest in the world. He truly was the Iron Man of India, without whom, out nation would not have been what it is today.

Coming up tomorrow Part 2 - The Iron Lady, and later Part 3 - The Iron Bullet.