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

Thursday, June 18, 2009

"What's Your Problem?!"

Allahabad station. A hot september day last year. Afternoon. I board a Bombay-bound train. Second class sleeper coach. My berth (and seat) is one of the 'main long' ones (not of the shorter pair along the aisle). An elderly lady sleeps on my seat/berth and the space underneath the berth is filled with some heavy luggage; I decide not to disturb her and park on the side seat in the same coupe and temporarily keep my bag under the same seat.

Five minutes pass. I sense a heavy-ish pat on my shoulder. Looking up, I see a bloke of about my own age who presently says in Bhojpuri-flavored Hindi: "APNE seat pe chale jao!" ("you, go to YOUR seat!"). A porter is just bringing in his luggage. I meekly get up and look around for some other spot to park.

"Arey, ee kaa hai?!" ("and what is THIS??") a shocked-sounding remark emanates from the same gent. He has spotted my bag resting under his seat - and stoops with great alacrity and reaches for it: "Nikalo usko!".

I reach forward, "actually, woh mera bag hai..." ("actually, that is mine")

He turns and growls "To kaa hua? hamra saamaan rakhna hai!" ("So, what? I have to keep MY stuff!") and starts dragging my bag out.

I hear myself snapping "Haath mat lagaana!" ("Don't touch the thing!") as I swoop down and snatch my bag away, unmindful of whether it made any hard contact with his person in the process.

"Hey, tumra problem kaa hai?" ("What's your problem, Man?") he demands to know.

"TUMRA problem kaa hai?" I quietly ask back and turn away, looking for a place to keep the bag.

A tense silence. It persists for the next 24 hours until I get off the train at Kalyan.


Ernakulam. A sultry afternoon, last week. I board a 'Reserved' 3-tier sleeper coach in a Bombay-bound express and occupy a vacant seat. I have a 'sleeper class ticket' with which one could (legally) travel as a sitting passenger in day time in sleeper coaches (even in reserved ones, with the consent of the reserved passengers). My destination: Shoranur, 2 hours and a bit away.

Three girls occupy the rest of my berth, all of them, like me, sleeper-class ticketers. A guy stretches out on the top berth and goes to sleep.

The coach fills up with other sleeper-classers and the train leaves. An hour and a half pass.

Trichur station. Our seats seem to be under reservation here on - a large crowd is getting into our coach. I wait, hoping against hope that my particular seat is booked from a future stop (the reason, I am not in very good health)...

A middle-aged couple thrust their way into our coupe with a lot of luggage. The wife survyes the scene and remarks very audibly in Malayalam: "Oronnu keriyangu irunnolum!" (difficult to translate in all its punch but here is an attempt: "Squatting wherever they see, as if...". And then she sternly orders the three girls sitting next to me: "Get up, baba!" (in English). The girls get up and slink away. The husband proceed to pat up the chap sleeping on the top berth.

I stay on my seat - if there were just the couple, I figured I could remain seated for the remaing 30 minutes of my journey (the lower berth could seat 3 people comfortably). But I soon realize the famly has one more member - an elderly lady (probably the mother of either of the couple) follows the couple in and addresses me in malayalam: "Eneettu poyikkoode? ... Varunnathu kanaan paadille?" ("Can you not move it? Are you blind not to see us coming in?"). I promptly stand up - and resist the temptation to say something equally nasty, confining myself to: "Eneekkaan paranjaappore?" ("you could just have told (me) to get up!")

The wife has begun to stuff their luggage under the lower berth and mutters, spotting my bag in a corner: "kettiyangu vecholum!" ("generally stuffing their trash wherever they see some room!") and then switching to English with a declaration "Throw it away, whoever(sic) it is!" proceeds to grab at the said article.

Almost yelling: "Hello, just lay off!" I snatch away the bag. And just as I walk off in a mighty huff, I hear a familiar question from behind, this time in English: "You, what is your problem, man?!"

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


"The hills are lonely, sharp and steep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep."

- a Military-sponsored signboard on the Badrinath-Mana Road, near the Tibetan border.

I got to visit Badrinath-Kedarnath (via Delhi) last month - my third foray into Northern India within a year (thanks to Mom!). The week-long, 'conducted' Yatra was too full of images and too hectic for me to have recorded it in some form convertible into a proper journal here. Here is a very sketchy account of what was seen - and felt:

- Haridwar was just what I had expected. The Ghat, the clock-tower, the Ganga Arti, the crowds of bathers,... hot and muggy weather, and the river water surprisingly cold. I wandered the ghat, watching the crowds, the Arti, hawkers selling plastic sheets to Arti-watchers, the chaos,...

A huge Siva statue stands a little upstream, oddly facing farther upstream with its back towards the ghat; Goddess Ganga sits on a pedestal in mid-river, riding a croc. Half-submerged, near the Western Bank are small statues of various divinites, all shown facing east, into the river. Among them is a figure of Guru Nanak, who ought to be facing West(*).

- Hrishikesh was a bit more of the same show. A folly of a temple, 13 storeys tall with sharp spiky towers and painted a glaring red - stands next to the famous Laxmanjhoola. There are Ashrams, all concrete - and over-sized effigies of Gods - all over the place, which has grown into quite a town, a far cry from pre-Independence days when it was described as a secluded spot populated by the odd hermit - and where tigers prowled.

- Beyond Hrishikesh, the foothills (Sivalik range) have a healthy forest cover for a few kilometers but then on, on both sides of the Ganga are burnt-out-looking barren hills, with only cacti and agaves making a few scratches of green. The river looks the color of overmilked coffee.

- At Devaprayag, the Alakanda (which brings the murky, coffee-look) merges with the deep green Bhagirathi to form the Ganga at a turbulent sangam where a large population of foot-long fish thrives. At Rudraprayag, another deep green and slender stream, the Mandakini, loses itself in Alakananda's murk.

- The road to Kedarnath follows Mandakini and starts climbing sharply after Rudraprayag; the hillsides gradually get greener. At Agastyamuni, with the weather still muggy, one has the first vision of snow-mountains - the trapezoidal crest of the Chaukhambha.

At a chai-shop there, I saw a hill-woman in a bright blue sweater and bright red scarf, with an infant strapped on to her - the color scheme and much else strongly reminiscent of Leonardo's 'Madonna Litta' (another member of our party reported witnessing a quarrel featuring the same lady, a "hag" accusing her of having broken her (the hag's) marriage).

An elderly sadhu, whose face was uncannily reminscent of the famous composer Dakshinamurti, lay in peaceful repose under a tree next to the chai-shop; he seemed unaffected by the flies buzzing around.

- The road terminus of Gaurikund is another 30 or so kilometers ahead. A conjested pilgrim-village. A kilometer of shops, dharamsalas and what not lie tightly packed alongside a 3-footwide pathway.

Easily, the most picturesque of all temples in this Yatra is at Triyugi Narayan, about 45 minutes by jeep from Gaurikund. From the temple, which lies at an altitude of 7000 feet, we watched a panorama of rugged mountains in the distance; as one gazes, a small bank of clouds passes over the mountains and the crests briefly gleam with a fresh and generous dusting of snow ... and then, the spectacle melts into dusk.

- A stiff 14 km trek (it took me five hours flat of near-nonstop walking) begins at Gaurikund and picks its way up the hills along the rim of a deep and narrow gorge cut by a very noisy Mandakini. Rhododendrons have just begun to bloom, the odd horse-chestnut is also in form. In the upper reaches, there are a few grassy patches (locally called 'bugyal'), spangled with exotic orchid blooms...

Kedarnath is in the center of a few-kilometer wide plateau behind which rises a wall-like range of mountains, several of which top 18000 feet in height, and which are unfortunately, hidden by clouds at midday, this time of the year (one had caught several spectacular glimpses of the peaks while tiredly hauling onself up the foot-trail; and had to be satisfied with that much).

A handful of sadhus chill out near the temple; one of them had dressed up as Shiva (quite a hard act in this very chilly place) and sat meditatively puffing a beedi and not showing much interest in the few notes that had got deposited before him.

Surprisingly, by far, the single biggest group of yatris to Kedarnath are from far away Maharashtra - tough, wiry villagers, men and women, old and young, determinedly walking up the steep slopes, ignoring the dolies and the ponies; am told by a source with considerable authority that this strong Maharashtran presence is a still persistent effect of the fervent and almost country-wide temple-building activity undertaken by the Maratha queen Ahilyabai Holkar in the 18th century; it was perhaps she who drew up the list of 12 Jyotirlingams, with Kedarnath being the farthest to the North (8 of them are clustered in West/Central Mahrashtra-Western MP-Gujarat).

Kedarnath temple is a small, plain and not unattractive stone building. The interior is desperately crowded with worshippers and almost shockingly, there is no security check at any point. The focus of worship is a large, irregularly shaped rocky Lingam, also said to represent the hump or rump of a bull (the resemblance to either needs quite a lot of imagination to visualize) which Shiva turned himself into, in a rather inexplicable effort to hide from the Pandavas, who were desperately seeking his blessings to expiate some sins committed in battle.

- The drive from Gaurikund to Badrinath was a day-long affair. The Chaukhambha can be glimpsed several times, glittering away in the morning sunshine; then, the hot blast from the plains at Rudraprayag, another slow ascent, this time along the Alakananda valley, past scorched-looking hillsides; a sprinkling of jacarandas in bloom, then the deodar and pine forests slowly taking over... Approaching Joshimath, one sees snow again atop distant mountains, one of which has two sharp and almost identical peaks - I decide to christen it the 'Devil' (Note: another, more imaginative. member of our party saw a 'reclining woman' thereabout). I name another distant mountain - many pronged, with sharp tips - the 'Tiger's Paw'.

Our path (called the 'Chetak Highway' after Rana Pratap's legendary horse) descends for a short while from Joshimath and then begins a dizzying climb that gains well over 5000 feet in just about 30 kilometers. Here is a description, by Keralan writer S.K.Pottekkat (c 1965), in free translation: "Charging forward resolutely, then twisting and turning sharply, rearing and recoiling as if in panic and dramatically recovering ... mighty Chetak struggles heroically, as if in vicious battle, against the challenge of the formidable battlement that 'Kuber Shila' truly is. The roar of the turbulent river can be heard from thousands of feet below... This portion of the journey is a profoundly scary experience...."

- Badrinath lies at 10500 feet, near the lower end of a U-shaped and gently sloping and few kilometers wide glacial valley, both walls thereof rising to snow-peaks of 15000 feet and upwards (their hard profiles and snow-caps can be clearly made out even at night, in star-light). Past the straggly town, the valley winds northwards to the village of Mana and then turns North-west towards the glaciers of Satopanth and the Swargarohini Peak, a few tens of kilometers away. It is humbling to think that that during the last ice age, this entire valley was filled by a huge glacier and Alakananda is but a skimpy remnant of that immense sheet of ice...

Neelkanth, the tallest peak in the area is usually hidden behind clouds; all I could get of it was a fleeting glimpse at sunrise, bright orange-yellow and pure white - like a generous helping of vanilla ice-cream with a dash of orange syrup poured over at the top - and flowing viscously down the sides ... (to Pottekkat, half a century ago, the same mountain had appeared as a "silver scimitar thrust into the heavens"; curiously, my own vision of Neelkanth matches rather well with HIS description of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa!).

Badrinath temple has a very colorful facade - all blue, yellow, red and white in their purest shades - and from the distance, looks like a scaled-down carpenter's model. It teems with worshippers throghout the day. and security arrangements are far more stringent than at Kedar and we had to wait 2 full hours in a queue for Darshan - the small, gilded, heavily ornamented idol of Badrinath, flanked by Nara-Narayana and Lakshmi... The town itself is a messy affair, and like most places I saw on this trip, presents a curious and very real problem - electric lines and cables that criss-cross and clutter the sky almost everywhere, spoiling the views of the mountains.

- The trail to the Vasudhara Falls begins at Mana village and follows the glacial valley (the board of a shop where one starts off declares: "The last shop in Hindustan"; China/ Tibet is a further 40 kilometers away, across uninhabited mountains) in the direction of Satopanth - this is also said to be the path taken by the Pandavas on their final heaven-ward journey... The track runs thru a strangely desolate Alpine landscape, flowery meadows, rugged, snow-capped mountains and a persistent, chilly wind. Too sad, I could not trek all the way to the falls, a scheduling problem...

- We stopped by at Joshimath on the way back. Sankaracharya is believed to have set up a Monastery here and to have meditated under a still-flourishing tree (looks like a mulberry tree) named 'Kalpavriksha'. As I waited for the rest of our group to finish their devotions, a senior member of our group, who had got to know me fairly well, came up and said: "Thought I should tell you; the priest said if one touches this tree and makes a wish, it will definitely come true. So ...!"

(*) The episode from the life of Guru Nanak, in which the Master chided some devout Sun-worshippers by throwing the Ganga water towards the west at sunrise - claiming he was watering his fields in the Punjab - was where I first heard about Haridwar as a sacred site.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Australia, Half A Century Ago...

Australia and some of its Immigration problems are in the news these days. This post consists mainly of two quotes on Australia's immigration policies from a long-gone era (one quote is brief, the other quite long; some editing has been done here and there but no new words have been inserted). The source is an extended (mostly pictorial) essay on Australia, written and published sometime in the mid 1960's. In my opinion, the quote says as much about the source as about Australia, the subject; and the source shall be revealed at the end.

1. Geographically a part of Asia, Australia is seemingly becoming more and more aware of the southward pressures of that continent's millions, influenced and goaded by an aggressive Communist China. New Zealand is slightly less vulnerable due to its being more isolated across the Tasman Sea.
Australians and New Zealanders, however, are made of stern stuff....

2.... In the external political sphere, Australians feel that their minute population is a constant provocation to overpopulated Asian nations to turn envious eyes upon this empty land. ... But those who speak against (immigration) are now in a minority, and since World War II, Australia has embarked on a policy of massive immigration under which more than two million people have entered the country in two decades, mainly from Europe...
There has arisen a very serious problem: should immigration be confined to Europeans or should Asians also at last be allowed in?

The 'White Australia Policy' is supported by most of the population and by two of teh country's three principal political parties, though everyone, in modern international climate that condemns racialism, wishes this policy were not called openly what in fact it is. At one time, to enforce it, an ingenious device was used. There was no overt questioning ofthe prospective immigrant as to race: he was merely asked to take, on arrival, a 'dictation test' in any European language selected by the examiner. Thus even if the hapless immigrant knew two or ten or even a hundred tongues, one that he did not know could always be chosed for the test. Since 1958, this pretense has been abandoned, and the permission to enter the country is accorded arbitrarily by the Minister for Immigration - who does not have to justify his decision. What this means in effect is that persons of European stock are allowed to settle and Afro-Asians are not.


What are the advantages of this situation? Firstly, of course, that Australia has a more or less homogeneous racial structure. Next - and this point is missed often by liberal critics of the Policy - the Australians are the only people of European origin, who, living in a torrid climate, have done most of their own manual work. The temptation, a century ago and later, to introduce cheap coolie labor on a vast scale must have been enormous.

A curious consequence of the Policy is that in Australia, thansk to the very fact that there is no color problem (unless we include that of the aborigines), racial relations with visiting men of color are harmonious. There is no hostility to an Afro-Asian because he is in no way felt to be a menace.

But what are the disadvantages?... the Policy irritates, Australia's Asian neighbors.... Of course, it may be that these Asian nations close their own frontiers to immigrants; it may be that they have not fully exploited, with their vaster populations, their own potential riches; it may be that Asians would not want to come in large numbers to Australia, even if they could. Nevertheless, the Policy is an obstacle to the extension of Australian trade and influence in Asia and Pacific.

The social disadvantages may be more subtle... On the one hand, Australia eagerly seeks skilled European immigrants, most of whom in conditions of increasing European prosperity, wish to remain at home. On the other hand, it absolutely bars Asians whose labor might be of great value. The feeling is thus growing - though it is still very much a minority feeling - that selected Asian immigrants should be admitted.

A further disadvantage of the Policy is that Australians, racially epaking, live in a sort of vacuum. ... By shutting the doors firmly to Asians, Australia have achieved social harmony at the expense of a deeper understanding of the racial problems that surround them in the world at large.

In the long run, any change of policy will doubtless be based on four key considerations: Woudl Asian immigration diminish living standards? Would it encourage economic development? Would it harm social integration? And would it endanger national security? If Asian immigration were controlled, the answer to teh first question would seem to be "No", to the second "Yes" and to the final two "Perhaps". This is a hard decision, on which it would be irresponsible for non-Australians to pass judgement, since they don not have to live out the consequences of making it.


The immigrants most liked by the Australians are those from northern Europe, Germans and Scandinavians; these people are felt to be energetic, reliable and loyal. Those from southern Europe - Italian, Spanish, Greek, and Yugoslav - are less accepted and admired. This is chiefly because, the northerners are assimilated more easily than the southerners, who are likely to live and work in their own exclusive areas... and fail to learn comprehensible English. Another objection is that the Roman Catholic minority is growing because of immigration. Australia is a predominantly Protestant country and there is some resentment.....


In both Australia and New Zealand, the early white immigrants encountered a native population. Following a period of harsh treatment in the 19th century, each Government has sought to deal fairly with its particular minority group. Australia has the more difficult problem to solve because teh aborigines are among the most primitive people on earth. In New Zealand, however the initially more advanced Maoris have adopted many Western ways and are assuming a major role in the national life.

The source: The volume on 'Australia and New Zealand' from the 'World Library' series published by LIFE. The primary audience for these volumes was American. Quote 1 was from the intro to the volume. In general, the LIFE series is a very interesting (and sometimes arresting) source of information on how the American Mid-Right perceived the rest of the world, during Cold War days.

And for a serious online discussion on what is now going on Down Under, here is a link:

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Railway Stories

Without knowing the word, I have been a 'trainspotter' for long. I am not officially a member of the online 'Indian Railway Fans Association' but I do read their train travelogs with great interest and gaze at their photos which show momentous events like "Karnataka Express, led by a blue and green WDM-2 from the Krishnarajapuram Loco Shed, turns onto the Chennasandra bye-pass line". And over the years, 'Bhagat Ki Kothi', 'Santragachchhi', 'Ajni', 'Bondamunda' (to the uninitiated, locations of depots of locomotives ('loco sheds')), ... have all become rather familiar names, eventhough they refer to places I have not even remotely approached.

And very recently, I met a gentleman, whom I won't introduce here but will only mention as the source of the following three bits on our railways. I have tried hard to capture at least some of the impact these anecdotes had as he narrated them - with great deliberation and loving care.

1. The Erode-Trichy section of Southern Railway got converted from meter guage to broad guage long back, before independence - and this line was for a long while, the only major line in Tamil Nadu apart from the arterial line from Madras to Bangalore/Kerala, which was in broad guage. And this nearly 150 km line was guage converted in ... a single day, indeed in 3 hours flat. Well, the work took a lot longer but 3 hours was the time-span separating the run of the last meter guage train and the flagging off of the first broad guage train!

And there was nothing magical in what happened. Over a period of time, even as the track was in use, gangs of workmen changed the sleepers under the tracks to the longer broad-guage ones and widened the spread of the stone ballast. Then on the appointed day, a large army of workers just - simultaneouly - shifted one of the rails sideways, widening the gap between them to the broad-guage mark; and that was that!

Now, you may wonder why, nowadays, lines are closed for guage conversion for several years and the work goes on and on .... and on! The reasons are purely non-technical and I won't get into them!

2. The Taj Express was some sight in those days. It had a dedicated, lovingly maintained steam loco - its rear half painted a sparkling blue; you know, the loco had a grand name, 'Vir Bundela'. And it would pull a ten-coach rake over the 200 kilometers from Delhi to Agra in 3 hours flat, with a single watering stop in between. And the driver, an Anglo-Indian named Mr. Bean(?), such an impressive man, standing six feet, three and a half inches, assisted by two equally imposing, hefty firemen, it was some sight, them working in perfect unison...

3. Talk of the word 'thorough' - and there was this young executive, who had newly joined our office. He was told to inspect the functioning of the railway level crossings in remote areas. On day one, he takes a train at midnight, travels on the engine, asks the driver to slow to a crawl a couple of kilometers short of a manned level cross, gets off, allows the train to go ahead and walks to the crossing. He finds the guard there fast asleep. Our man wakes up the guard, shows his card and proceeds to read the riot act to him. The guard begs that he be spared - with promises that he would be vigilant and never doze off again on duty.

Our hero lets the guard go with a verbal warning. He leaves, walks six more kilometers down the track to the next railway station, hops onto another train heading in the reverse direction, gets off well before the same crossing and walks over and pounces on the guard .... who had fallen asleep again, perhaps reasoning that lightning does not strike the same spot twice!