'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

To Russia, With Love...

"A certain man lived in the forest by the Blue Mountains. He worked very hard but there was always more work to be done and he had no time to go home for his holidays. Finally, when winter came, he felt so terribly lonely that he wrote to his wife asking her to come and visit him with the boys. He had two boys: Chuk and Gek. They lived with their mother in a great big city far, far away—there was not a finer city in the whole wide world.Day and night red stars sparkled atop the towers of this city.And its name, of course, was Moscow."

Thus began the children's novel 'Chuk and Gek' written by the Soviet writer Arkady Gaidar. I read it long ago, in a Malayalam translation published from Moscow -those were times when the Soviets were 'our' best friends,. Here is an English translation:

Chuk and Gek and Mother undertake an eventful train journey - which goes on for "a thousand kilometers, then another thousand" and then travel a hundred kilometers in a sleigh thru the 'taiga' - with bears and wolves lurking around... When they reach the Blue Mountain camp, Father is mysteriously absent....

The book had plenty of lovely monochrome illustrations by one Dubinsky and their subtle shades of grey unravelled, to our Keralan eyes, the bleak wintry beauty of the steppes and the taiga ... (the above online source does not have these).


Much later in life, I happened to read this bit by Paul Theroux:

"AFTERWARDS, whenever I thought of the Trans-Siberian Express, I saw
... a clear sight from the window of our green and black steam locomotive. From Skovorodino onward, its eruptions of steamy smoke diffused the sunlight and drifted into the forest so that the birches smoldered and the magpies made for the sky. I saw the gold-tipped pines at sunset and the snow, lying softly around clumps of brown grass, like cream poured over the ground; the yachtlike snowplows at Zima; the ocherous flare of the floodlit factory chimneys at Irkutsk; Marinsk in early morning, black cranes and black buildings and escaping figures casting long shadows on the tracks as they ran toward the lighted station. I thought of the ice chest of frost between the cars....."

For all the rich prose, there probably was not too much *love* lost between Theroux and Russia, for that matter between Theroux and *anything*...


And last week, thanks to Vitthal, we watched David Lean's 'Doctor Zhivago'(*) - although not quite a great film, it certainly has been made with a certain affectionate love for detail...

The highlight of the movie is a journey made by the doctor and family from Moscow to the Urals and beyond in an abject cattle train, in the severest winter. And this 10 minute portion has a *density* of beautifully composed shots, the like of which I have hardly ever seen in any other movie; the doctor opening a tiny crack-like window - braving a sharp blast of chilly air - to catch flashy glimpses of the icy landscape appearing through the dense clouds of 'steamy smoke' from the engine, the train clanging over an iron bridge across a frozen river, a sunset on the Taiga ...

Although it was filmed in Spain/Canada/Finland, I am pretty sure the Ruskis would have been much pleased by this visual tribute to their vast country.


Well, to reveal the ending of Chuk and Gek's adventures, there is a happy family reunion at the Blue Mountain camp and they celebrate New Year with Father's colleagues.

Here is the conclusion of the novel:

"Now sit down, everybody," said Father, glancing at his watch. "The main part of the programme is about to begin." He switched on the radio.They all sat down and waited in silence.At first it was very quiet. Then they heard a noise, and the sound of motorcars honking their horns. Then there was a sort of scraping and hissing, and from far awaycame a melodious tinkle.Big and little bells were ringing a refrain like this:

Teer-lil-lilli-dong!Teer-lil-lilli-dong! Chuk and Gek looked at each other. They knew what that was. It was the golden Kremlin chimes pealing out beneath the red star of the Spassky Tower in faraway Moscow.And those chimes—on the eve of New Year—were heard by people everywhere—in town and hillside, in steppe and taiga, and on the blue seas.And, of course, the preoccupied commander of the armoured train, the one who waited so vigilantly for Voroshilov's(**) orders—he also heard the chimes. Everybody stood up. All wished one another a Happy New Year. And lots ofhappiness. Each understood the meaning of happiness in his own way. But one and all knew and understood that they must live honourably, work hard, and love and cherish the vast, happy land known as the Soviet Union."

I still remember myself wondering a generation ago: "Why such a hyper-strong dose of patriotism?"

The answer can be pieced together now, thanks to Wikipedia.

Arkady Gaidar, a staunch communist, wrote this story in 1939, when the threat of war hung over the entire world.

Here is another sample from the book. Gek has a nightmare:

"an ogre mean Stood spitting spit that burned and seared
And swung an iron fist and sneered.
Past raging fires, o'er trampled snow!
The soldiers goose-stepped row on row.
They dragged along the vilest dross
A Fascist flag with a crooked Cross"

This demonizing of Naziism was a bit of an anachronism. In 1939, the year when Gaidar wrote the book, Nazi Germany, though not a friend, signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviets (and Stalin collaborated with Hitler in a very cruel conquest and partition of Poland); and 'Barbarossa', the invasion of Russia did not happen for another two years. Maybe this terrifying vision was inserted into a later edition of the novel ...


And when Hitler did invade Russia in 1941, Gaidar, though he was probably medically unfit for military service (he had been injured during an earlier operation against the 'whites' in the Russin Civil War), joined a group of partisans and fought as a machine gunner - and died in action in October 1941, just 3 months into what would develop into the most horrible military campaign in history, the only happy thing about it being the final defeat of Naziism.


And a couple of generations down the line, his grandson Yegor Gaidar would complete an ideological loop by joining the (post-Communist) Yeltsin regime and later founding 'The Union of Right Forces', "considered ... to be one of Russia's parties that support western-style capitalism ... socio-politically conservative..."


'Chuk and Gek' is part of the most cherished childhood memories for a whole generation of folks, especially in Malluland. Here is another bit from blogosphere written by another Mallu:

"I could almost smell the fir trees, feel the deep snow under my feet, glimpse the bears and wolves far off and see the long stream of steam trailing behind the train as it snaked thru the crystal clear Taiga morning."

The source:

(*) - Talking about Zhivago, I sensed a certain resemblance (not a very strong one but ...) between the face of actor Omar Sharif and that of Roger Federer. Folks I asked about it did not really agree. Perhaps I am imagining things and my face-matching is a bit screwed up. Indeed for quite some time I have felt that Ricky Ponting resembles George Bush II; I did not find anyone who agreed with me until someone wrote on 'cricinfo' last year: "Ponting was not only looking like George Bush but acting like him!"

(**) A rather unflattering portrait of Marshal Voroshilov can be read at Wikipedia. And yes, the Mallu translation does not mention him at all and simply says: "...commander of the armoured train, the one who waited so vigilantly for orders"

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Dholka Jottings

A two hour journey from Gandhigram Station in the heart of Ahmedabad by a slow and crowded 'passenger' took me to Dholka, a place that has according to the 'book', at least "three mosques dating back 500 plus years and a carved haveli-like temple". When I reached, it was 11 am and unpleasantly hot and dusty. The town was quite close to the railway station but felt farther.

Dholka is smallish; it appears Muslim dominated, but most if not all boards are in Gujarati and not Urdu. An elderly shopkeeper, whose courteous manners seemed straight out of Lucknow (as it is shown in films), told me: "You will find many mosques here; if you want old ones, there is Jama Masjid, straight down *that* road, Tanka Masjid, down *that* road and then Khan Masjid, a little way away, beyond the railway station.... And where are you from?"

Jama Masjid had its main gate locked. From outside, the building looked like a compact version of the Ahmedabad Jama Masjid, stone-built with pre-Islamic style decorations and flourishes; the two towers flanking the main archway of the building were missing - just like the Amdavadi Mosque's.

I went searching for the Tanka Masjid and failed to find it - maybe I did not search well enough and far enough (I had forgotten to ask the distance)- but came upon a vast tank with a causeway leading to an island with a stone pillared pavilion in the center (very similar to the neat square tank adjoining the Sarkhej Dargah in the city). Across the lake at some distance a very large mosque-like structure rose over the scrub. I asked a passerby and was told that was the 'Khan Masjid'. I decided to walk there.

Back past the railway station and across the tracks, I find a trail thru the scrub. It passes a small Dargah and five minutes later, reaches a vast enclosure - with the large Mosque in the middle. Dozens of local youth hang out in the compound, some absorbed in an intense game of cricket. I see some folks jump over the fence and ask them if there is a proper gate. "Just follow us!" is the reply. I manage to clear the fence with some effort; "Not bad, uncle. You are still young!" one of them certifies.

I walk around the cricket group and approach the mosque. The building rises to something like 40-50 feet, surmounted by three large domes all of the same size and sitting in a row (somewhat like Babri Masjid?) and with two semi-collapsed towers rising a lot farther from both ends of the building (unlike Babri Masjid). The walls are of brick and not stone; most of the plaster has come off and swarms of noisy parakeets have nested in cracks. Some of the arches and windows show some remnants of delicate tracery work; the building, though seriously impressive, looks in pretty bad shape as a whole.

Two stone pillared and domed pavilions stand apart from the main building to the east and west; they look very similar to the front 'Mandapa' at the Modhera temple - of course minus the sculptural figures.

Towards the west is a vast square lake, considerably larger than the ones in Sarkhej or in Dholka proper, and very full with water. Large numbers of villagers are bathing and washing there. A board says it is called 'Khan Talav' and is part of the Mosque complex.

As I walk around the main mosque again, I sense that I am being watched by many of the guys sitting around, especially by a pair of youngish fellows sitting right in front of the building. I pause to look again at the noisy parakeets above when one of the two breaks into a Hindi song: "Bada natkhat hai Kishan Kanhaiya!" I wonder if he is referring to me (in spite of my age) but pretend not to listen.

Presently he asks in English, aloud: "You, which state?". I look and confirm I am indeed the one being addressed and answer: "Kerala". He has another question: "H or M, What?" I pretend not to understand and say, in Hindi: "Sorry, I did not understand." He makes the query explicit in Hindi: "Hindu, Muslim, what are you?". I decide to give a 'neutral' reply. "Christian actually." The questioner tells his companion in what sounds like Gujarati: "Ah, Kerala people are mostly Christian!" Then tells me: "If you want to go inside, just ..." he points at a doorway which is barred by a gate which in turn has been broken thru enough to let one man squeeze in. I thanked him and went inside.

The inner hall is not vast in area (something like 100 odd feet by 30 odd feet) and not much of the old decorative work has survived, except for an elevated 'Minbar' on the western wall with steps climbing to it. As I walk around looking at the innards of those huge domes, I hear a familiar voice. "There was a king called Mohammad Begada..." the two gentlemen had come inside. He continues "And there was one Hilal Khan who was his commander. This mosque was built for this Khan. Unfortunately, Khan became a martyr in some battle." I answer in vague agreement: "I see, ... Well, in those days, the kings were mostly fighting...".

I note that it was one of two who has done all the talking. He introduces himself: "I am Asif. Asifbhai". I say: "Ah here, in Gujarati culture, people always join a Bhai to their name right?"

Asif says: "How is it like in your Kerala?"

"Not that much of Bhaichara." I answer.

Asif: Here, in Gujarat, there is genuine cameraderie and understanding between people. But then, sometimes there are riots and then things are very bad... do YOU have riots in Kerala?

Self: Sometimes....

Asif: These politicians... but tell me, someone told me there is a mosque in Kerala which was built entirely of wood. Is it true?

Self: There are some old mosques which were built in the traditional Kerala style which used a lot of timber... but nowadays, Kerala mosques are just like the new ones anywhere else, concrete...

Asif: Anyways, you know another speciality of *this* mosque? It was built in a single day. Actually overnight!... the Jinns built it. There is this world of men and beasts. And there is another world of Jinns which we have now lost touch with... and do you want to go to the top?

Self: Is there a stairway?

Asif: Yeah, come.

I follow the two outside and around; there is a steep staircase which climbs to the 'shoulder' of the mosque. One can see a vast swathe of country from there. There is a further stairway leading up one of the towers. They ask if I have a camera. I say no (as is customary during these solitary wanderings, my bag has nothing but a water bottle and some scraps of food; but this place is indeed 'photogenic' as is the mosque; maybe some other time...).

Asif has plenty more to say about the place as we climb down. "No regular Namaz happens here. Only during Id, there is a large gathering. The place is badly neglected. The rule is that for maintenance of mosques etc., we should not use Government money, bank money and so on. And apart from praying here during Id and of course, this cricket, nobody is willing to spend money and get the place repaired. At least, this wall was built; grazers used to bring cattle and sheep inside and they would make the whole place dirty.... Even the lake, too many people come and bathe there!"

I pause to say goodbye. Asif says: "Just hold on. We are going back to the town, we will drop you at the bus-stand... Actually if you stay some more time, we could go and see other places, the Jama Masjid,..."

Self: But Jama Masjid was locked...

Asif: You would have seen only the main gate; there is another way to get in. We could go there now if you have time

Self: Actually I need to get back to Amdavad.

Asif: Well, what do you do in Amdavad?

Self: I study.

Asif: Study?! What do you study?

Self: Computers.

Asif: I see... (he seems not entirely convinced).

The conversation breaks because we now need to jump over the outer fence; Asif has a brought a mobike and he and his companion have got on; they asked me too to sqeeze on and within a few minutes, we are back at the main road junction of the town.

Asif: Sure you don't want to see more things?

Self: Oh, not that I don't want to see more. In fact I would love to. Now, there is just no time. Maybe some other day...

Asif: Just note my phone number. It goes .....

Self: Thanks. But shall we have some chai. You were a big help.

Asif: No help and stuff! You are our guest. And we were just idling there. So...

We have tea. They refuse to let me pay for it and ignore my protestations.

Asif: So, in case you need any further help in Dholka in future, remember Asifbhai.

Self: Sure, and (to his mostly silent companion) sorry I did not ask your name yet.

He says: "Asif. My name is also Asif. Actually, there are three Asifs in our group. The two of us are called Asif 2 and Asif 3. Asif 1 is at present in the gulf!"

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Ahmedabad - The Month That Was

"You are moving to an unusual place. Gujarat and Ahmedabad in particular has very hardworking, organized, thrifty people. They are also generally openminded about outsiders coming over and settling down. But, ... yes, of late, a strong streak of religious bigotry has developed; and it has been systematically nurtured by Narendra Modi. And he is again remarkable, no other Indian Chief Minister comes close in efficiency ... and also a certain ruthlessness... So, you are in a very interesting place. Talk to people and you should find out more what really is going on!"

Such was a bit of sagely advice I received sometime back.

A whole month has passed by since we moved to Ahmedabad. I have not got to talk much to people - indeed the last month might well have been the least social of my life so far. But I have been walking around a lot, mostly in the newer western half of the city. And I read the papers everyday, something I did not do for well over a year in Pune.


Amdavad is hyped as a city seriously on the move. 'Nano' is a hot topic. There is also plenty talk about the new park that has come up around the Kankariya lake (I have not been there yet). And even more is being said in papers about the upcoming Rapid Transit Bus system which will have some of the wider roads reserving lanes for fast and swanky buses... and I am not going to say anything about the real estate boom...

I believe almost dogmatically that any city is as functional as its pubilc transport system, no more. On that count, Ahmedabad, with all its wide and smooth (by Indian standards) roads ranks rather low right now, lower than even messy Pune and imploding Bangalore. The main RTC bus station is a horror, dusty, stony and uneven and awfully congested, perhaps worse than 'Swargate'. Most of the buses to satellite towns and beyond, though they run on less polluting CNG, are in pretty poor maintenance. And the city buses (again CNG so they run more smoothly and spew far less smoke and are incredibly cheap) are very few - and farther between - even on arterial roads. The 3 seater autos are somewhat cheaper than elsewhere in India but no, they simply can't replace a robust bus service in a city of this size (equal to Pune and Bangalore in area in my estimate).

The present city development agenda appears to have a 'Let them have cakes' angle to it. I have serious reservations as to how a few special Rapid Bus routes will improve the city's connectivity as a whole. And there is talk about a new fleet of swanky (and more pricey) autorickshaws catering to tourists - and with drivers trained in the city's history and culture. And these will be named 'Modi Rickshaws', and that reminds one of Jayalalitha naming a series of Chennai city buses (among many other pieces of state property) after herself.

The railway system is mostly a sad joke. For instance, there is an apology of a single track meter guage line from Gandhigram to Botad-Bhavnagar.Just 4 slow trains run each way in a day and they are seriously crowded. It may not be a bad idea to double the tracks at least within city limits and maybe run EMUs (this is just one of the half a dozen or so railway lines in the city and even the very busy line to Vadodara does not have 'locals'). The fact is such prosaic measures as track doubling and EMUs are far less interesting these days to Indian city planners than metros, elevated railways, expressways and such(*). And yes, there is also the real possibility that the 'centre' might just be going slow on railway upgrades in Gujarat, ruled as it is by the 'enemy'.


A recent newspaper article was on the present patriarch of the former royal family of Sanand, the area (not more than 20 km from Amdavad limits) where the Nano car plant is coming up. The gentleman in question is in his early forties, fabulously wealthy, owns a fleet of luxury cars and is into very high-end hospitality business. He appears to be held in very high respect by the people of Sanand and feels "it is good when people, children to elders salute you; you have to earn this respect". The Prince also tells the newspaper: "I was born on an auspicious day and it was prophesied that I would do great things for the people. And now with Nano coming over, I sense an opportunity to fulfil my destiny." His advice to his former
subjects: "Welcome Nano. It will bring long overdue development to this backward area(a place where if you break your leg, you can't get an X-ray done)".


I hear conflicting reports/rumors about the Sardar Sarovar project. Someone said the water problem in the city has been conclusively solved by Narmada water. I also heard how several open spaces in the city have been (not always popularly) dug up to store this water, including the once heavily used 'Malik Shabban stadium' in the old city. I did see a river-sized and full canal on the way to Gandhinagar but I also saw several almost dry ones around Dholka, just 50 km from the city.


The other day, I saw a smart car pull close to a small group of shanties by the roadside. Some children in rags collected and a woman in a sumptuous sari and jewelry stepped out of the car and started handing out beautifully gift-wrapped packs - the kids in turn seemed to know how to 'behave' and waited patiently in a line.


We had a hardware engineer (he gave his name as 'Anwar')come over to set up the system - which had strangely and completely conked off. He was friendly and very talkative. As some automated setup was going on he asked me: "You are from outside Gujarat?" - our conversation had been in Hindi from the beginning.

I said: "Yes, Kerala". He has heard about the Onam festival ("What do you do on Onam?"; he was perhaps not impressed with my honest answer which went: "Nothing much; everyone eats a lot. And those who drink, drink a lot!") and that Kerala has a large Muslim population ("Heard many of our people, Muslims are there.")

I asked him in turn: "You are Ahmedabadi?".

The answer was "Yes, but our ancestors actually came from outside India!".

I guessed: "So, you must be a Pathan, then!"

"Absolutely. How did you guess? ... well, these days with all those cricketers, Irfan Pathan, Yousuf Pathan... everybody knows... My full name also has a Pathan in it - Anwar Khan Akbar Khan Pathan, that is me!"

Once the system was up and running, Anwar said: "Shall I play a devotional song dedicated to our Prophet?". I said fine. He copied a file named 'Nasheed' and played it. The lyrics were in Arabic. Anwar explains: "The Prophet (peace be upon him) once cut the moon into two with a wave of his hand - and rejoined the pieces(**). NASA has some footage which confirms that the moon actually was broken and put back together. They have not released it because then they can't go around claiming Muslims are terrorists!... Then once the Prophet (pbuh) picked up some stones and they chanted the declaration of faith in Allah..."

He went on to legends which say Christians, Jews and Muslims are all descended from Abraham and are half-brothers. "You know, there were so many Prophets. Quran Sharif says there were 124000 of them, some of them may have lived in our India too; just that we don't have their names."

He wants to know if there is communal violence in Kerala. I said: "Yes, probably, less people die there than elsewhere. But, riots do happen. The people in Kerala are just like people everywhere else.". Anwar says: "I agree, people are the same everywhere. I even went to Pakistan for a month, to attend a marriage. Indeed, I even had a marriage proposal from there, but my Abba refused. A cross-border marriage can be problematic - the security agencies on both sides will keep stalking you thereafter. It will be a big pain, he said!"

"Even Karachi is just like Amdavad, the same roads, the same crowds,... no difference. Even now, I don't feel like I am talking to fundamentally different people, you know ..."

He has something to say about people of his stock. "The Pathans *there* are not quite like us. They are very proud and a bit headstrong. Like in a crowded bus, if you ask a Pathan passenger to step forward a bit, he would say: "I fine where I stand, you don't decide where I should stand....". People there say, to argue with a Pathan is like trying to force a camel to sit in a rickshaw!"

His parting remark. "I am happy I got to talk about many things. Especially about 'Ilm' - nowadays, not many are interested religious matters... and yes, don't worry about your computer. It knows it has just been dealt with by a proper Pathan and will behave now. Just in case it gives any trouble, just remember Anwar!"


At the Thaltej crossing on the western edge of the city is a big building painted in a very dark shade of grey. A sombre looking colossal Siva sits in meditation next to it. The board 'Antim Dham' (~'final home') and a long chimney rising above declare the structure is an electric crematorium. The building has a big circular opening and above it is written: 'Prayer Hole' - an instance of the 'Cot-Coat' confusion, which forms a strange bond between Gujjus and Mallus. And elsewhere in the city, I saw an advertisement for 'apartments and *raw* houses".


(*) - Let me give here another instance of urban transport 'planning' from closer 'home'. The city in question is Bangalore - and its long-neglected satellite, Mysore. Not very long ago, a beautiful, tree-lined highway used to connect these cities. Then someone came up with the bright idea of widening the road and all those grand trees were promptly cut down. Then someone else(?) had a brighter idea and work began on an altogether separate expressway and this construction went on and on (probably it still is going on), with allegations flying thick and fast as to who among the local political and other bigwigs ate how much of the allocated funds.

And all along, the sole Bangalore-Mysore railway link has been a single track line with just about half a dozen trains running one way a day. No question whatever of 'locals' (which would have made daily commute an easy and dirt-cheap possibility) and stuff!

(**) - Wikipedia says: the legendary Keralan king Cheraman Perumal, reputedly one of the first Indian Muslims, witnessed this miracle while enjoying a moonlit night atop his palace (in Kerala). The celestial phenomenon made such an impact on Perumal that he immediately left his kingdom and went searching for an explanation - and the journey took him all the way to Arabia where he was received into the then new religion of Islam.