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Rajendar Menen: Journalist-Writer-Entrepreneur

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happiness!!

                                                                     

The Core

  • Writing, Editing, Printing, Design, Ghost Writing. 
  • Anything and everything to do with words, pictures, images, visuals, frames.
  • Exports of Indian arts and crafts globally -- love the colours and textures of Indian fabrics.
  • High quality at competitive rates.
  • Articles, books and newsletters written, rewritten, edited, ghostwritten, designed and printed with strict adherance to deadlines and quality demands. Ditto with export orders.
  • Director, India, of Geniusunbound. One-stop editorial and export house.

Stretching It
  • Over three decades of expertise in writing, editing, printing, and exports of exquisite Indian arts and crafts.
  • Over 3,000 articles in more than 30 journals in 5 countries and 15 books, authored, co-authored, included in anthologies, or researched, in print. Began my career with The Times of India in Bombay (now Mumbai), India.
  • Been a part of several international television documentaries on marginalised living.
  • Karma Sutra - Adventures Of A Street Bum, my new book, packs 20 years research on HIV/AIDS, TB, street, brothel and high end prostitution, child labour, homosexuality, Devadasis, Hijras, drug and alcohol abuse, the trafficking of women from Nepal to India including the famed Tulasa Thapa saga, the first 'recognised' HIV/AIDS case in Goa, and corruption, despair and desolation on the Indian street. Kannada and Italian editions to be released soon among a number of other languagesThe unedited version titled Karma Sutra - Essays from The Margin was first published by Saga Books, Canada, in 2007. 
  • International film projects based on the book are also being worked through
  • One of 88 global writers in Wisdom of our Mothers, a collection of essays to commemorate Mother's Day, 2010.   
  • Co-editor Wisdom of our Mothers, Indian edition, 2012.
  • Yoga Stories: Included in an anthology of 90 yogis and yoginis from around the world. To be published in the USA in 2012-13.
  • Ghost written over 40 books/pocket books.
  • Editing several titles on Shri Rishi Prabhakar for the Rishi Vachan Trust, 2012-13.
  • Biography of Dhanvantari Award winner, the late Dr.Jussawalla, 2012-13.  
  • Launched and edited journals of different genres: from general interest to martial arts to health, hospitality, adult and social issues including three newsletters on HIV/AIDS and one on Ayurveda.  
  • Was Sports Editor of Youth Times and Yachting Correspondent of The Times of India, The Daily and Amrita Bazar Patrika, and Editor of Parade. Also Sub-Editor and Reporter TOI, Features Editor The Daily, and South India Bureau Chief of the Blitz group.
  • Won the first Lilian Khare Award for Rehabilitation Journalism for a series of articles on the challenges of physical disability.
  • Lectured on Indian affairs in Europe. 
  • Have a unique body of work on gypsies, street life, HIV/AIDS, prostitution in south asia, yoga, alternate health and erotic fiction.
  • Freelanced for the BBC, Channel 4, France 2, UNFPA, Ray of Hope, ARCON Centre, Tralee Teachers' Centre, Ireland, Gulf News and several other international media organisations.
  • Projects on hand include a book on AIDS & Sexuality in India, a book on chakra healing, a book on the powers of rudrakshas, a book of short, erotic stories and more hands-on research of marginalised existence.
  • Export batiks, wall hangings, jewellery of all kinds, Thanka and Mughal paintings, antiquities, cotton garments, sarongs, embroidered skirts, bed linen and upholstery, scarves, shawls, silk garments, leather goods, peepal leaf paintings, dolls, puppets, paper and other bric a brac. Sourced directly from the manufacturer at wholesale rates. Arts and crafts are a passion. 
  • Travelled extensively through India, Asia and parts of Europe.
  • Special interests include walking, pets, travel, yoga, exercise, collecting precious and semi-precious stones, alternate healing and lifestyles, massage, meditation, offbeat communities and people, sport, mentoring, cow products, silence, tea, astrology, numbers, aura reading, rudraksha power and spirituality. Would love to connect with people of diverse interests, shadows and consciousness.

Opinions

  • Late Dom Moraes, India's leading author, writer, journalist and poet: Rajendar Menen is extremely talented, the best young journalist I know. He has an ear to the ground, diverse interests and many exceptional skills.
  • Excerpts from Out of God's Oven by Dom Moraes, Viking, Penguin Books India, 2002:

" I phoned a friend, Rajendar Menen, a journalist who is also a student of Mumbai. He is a muscular, dark, handsome young man. He is also unusually resourceful and has many contacts.    

" Rajen liked to walk around Mumbai at night, and talk to people who lived on the pavements. Once I went with him. After midnight the whole city seemed different, eerily illuminated by streetlamps and moonlight, the crowds dredged away. Shrouded figures, wrapped in sheets though it was very hot, snored or smoked in the throats of alleys, or in dark corners. 

" We  spoke to some of those who were awake, their kindeled beedis sheltered from the wind in cupped hands. The snores of the sleepers often ended in choking sounds and coughs. Sometimes a name or a pleading phrase was called out, unanswered. Many people I met on this walk had come from the mainland for work. They were landless or had sold their land, and could not now return to their villages. Others were local drug addicts, less communicative, though some of them knew English.

" I met a woman in her seventies who had been brought from her village by relatives and dumped in the street to die. 'Many old people are dumped like this,' Rajen said. 'Their families can't feed them. Most die soon. The police pick some up, but have no way to help them. The lady survived, as you see. She has slept on the pavement the last six months and has been raped twice.'

" He was quiet and meditative on this walk, unlike his usual self. Two days later he took me to the Kamathipura area, where the brothels were. At that time he was writing extensively on AIDS research. The streets of Kamathipura were lined with tumbledown tenements. The windows were barred like prison cells. It was morning and a number of slatternly women sat outside on the doorsteps, some with small children. The mothers, whose sharp, pointed fingernails did not match their tattered sarees, picked lice from the children's hair. Some of them waved cheerfully to Rajen.

" 'They know me well,' he said. 'Sometimes we chat. Former sex workers mostly own these brothels. They pay protection to the gangs and the police. Girls aren't difficult to buy. They're brought from the villagers, sometimes from Nepal. In places like Bihar and Orissa, parents often used to kill girlchildren at birth. Now they have found they have value. They can be sold to brothels.'

" We entered a brothel. The women on the doorstep moved to let us pass. A girl in her early teens came out of an inner room and greeted Rajen with unqualified, puppy-like affection. 'Even so early in the day, they get clients,' Rajen said. 'She's ready for work.' The girl wore a dark blue saree adorned with tinsel stars. Her naturally brown features had been dusted with white powder, and her cheeks and lips indiscriminately reddened. She looked like a small, grotesque doll.

" Rajen led me into a room curtained into cubicles. Old sarees provided the curtains, and each cubicle contained a string bed. 'This is where they fuck,' he told me. 'All kinds of men come here, from labourers to college students, because it's a cheap joint. One girl can service about twenty men a day. They are supposed to have a check-up once a month, but it doesn't work out like that. So there's constant danger of HIV positive. A lot of these guys are married, so one visit here can put a whole family at risk. The government won't admit it, but AIDS is now almost at epidemic level.'

" The room, hot and closed, smelt of disinfectant, old sweat and stale semen, and, though this was possibly my imagination, so did the child. She also smelt of the strongly scented oil that glistened in her hair. She rubbed her head against Rajen's hip, speaking in giglges and whispers. 'She's in love with me,' Rajen said matter-of-fact. 'I'm different from the other men she knows, and she can't be more than fourteen. She wants me to sleep with her and marry her.'

" As we left, the girl started to cry, and was pulled away by an older woman. Raucous film music started to play from somewhere inside the house. 'It's time for the lunch break in offices,' Rajen said. 'Peons and clerks will start to come here soon.' He waved a hand at the girl who, though the older women were trying to comfort her, was crying in brief, violent bursts like a child. 'Once I gave her a doll,' he confided. 'Perhaps I shouldn't have done that.'

" When I remembered the walk though the dark city, and the visit to the brothel, I felt empathy and warmth for Rajen."  

  • Dominique Lapierre, Celebrated author of Freedom at Midnight, City of Joy, Is Paris Burning?, O Jerusalem, And I will Dress you in Mourning and a number of other books: Rajendar Menen is a journalist I admire.  
  • Javier Moro, Internationally acclaimed Spanish journalist and co-author with Dominique Lapierre on the well known book on the Bhopal gas tragedy - It Was Five Past Midnight in Bhopal. Author of the bestsellers Passion India (being made into a film) and Red Saree, the new book on Sonia Gandhi and the Nehru family: Knows Bombay like no one else. Every vendor and every sex worker on the street is his friend. Walking around with him in Bombay is like shaking hands with the city. He writes with great passion. Just read Karma Sutra. I can feel his perspiration running through the pages! 
  • John Frederick, Editor of Fallen Angels and other books, and freelance writer and consultant for the UN and many international agencies. Expert on human trafficking and sex work in South Asia: Rajendar Menen is a gifted writer. His accounts of Kamathipura are unsurpassed. His excellent writing skills are helped by his enormous knowledge of the subjectHave read Karma Sutra several times. It is, probably, the last word on the subject!   
  • Thomas Kelly, Freelance photojournalist for National Geographic,the UN and a number of other agencies as well as author/editor of several pictorial books.Based in Nepal, he traverses the globe: It is a pleasure working with him. His knowledge is immense, and his energy is another thing altogether. He never says never.
  • Jerry Hopkins, Renowned journalist and author of over 30 books, several of them international bestsellers, including the official biography of rock star Jim Morrison which was made into a film: Read your book (Karma Sutra) while I was in Bombay and liked it. It provided a running narrative for what I saw through the window of my car. All the people I talked to (for my new book) were varying degrees of rich. The contrast that you so defty and graphically capture in your book was a real part of my visit. You have to be congratulated for the courage you displayed. 
  • Michel Szulc Krzyzanowski, Pioneering photo-journalist of eminence with several designer books to his credit, who lives and works all around the world like a permanent pilgrim: Excellent writing, superb vocabulary (Karma Sutra).I only wish the characters portrayed were more fleshed out!  
  • Larry Levene, Award winning filmmaker with a special focus on India, China and Spain, and President of ADHN, the Spanish Association of documentary producers and filmmakers: I love Rajendar Menen's approach in Karma Sutra to the daily struggle of the homeless and the dying. Despite it all, these men and women still manage to keep their strength to love and to forgive. Menen's approach is fascinating. 
  • Adil Jussawalla, Well known author, editor, influential poet and critic: Urban studies often sanitise sites of pleasure --- gardens, parks, even red-light districts. Menen, on the contrary, makes desire and the transactions of desire, central to his book. That, in my opinion, is one his chief strengths.
  • Nirmal Shekar, Author, editor and celebrated sports writer: Truly phenomenal work!   
  • Ravi Belagere, Award winning writer, editor, author, publisher, actor, producer and director who lives and works with an offbeat edge: It is real life. I am translating Karma Sutra into Kannada.
  • Hormazdiyaar Vakil, Photographer, chronicler of street life and eminent solicitor: A brilliant, touching, candid and extremely interesting expose of street life which most of us are totally oblivious of. A  must read to learn and understand the realities of life. 
  • Annisya Nisya, Spiritual healer: A fascinating documentation of survival in a mixed world. The rich language captures street life vividly.
  • Carolinda Witt, Author of T5T: The Five Tibetan Exercise Rites & The 10-Minute Rejuvenation Plan: A real insight into street life. I love the way Raj writes --- I can almost hear the characters speak!  His personal insights and those of his street 'friends' struck me with their wisdom and hope.
  • Rowan E. Wagner, CEO/co-founder Istiqbul Dilnoza and Senior Lecturer at Westminster International University in Tashkent: A powerful and wonderfully balanced book that reminds us of the inner strength and beauty that all people have inside, as well as the ugliness and cruelty that still has not been addressed in the world. A must read for anyone with a soul. 
  • Bolla Hajnal, Interpreter of English, Russian, Bulgarian and Hungarian: It is like being in a cinema and watching a film on the topic. But this film is not an easy one, it will involve all your senses, you will feel like you are in the middle of everyday life.
  • Timothy P.Williams, Harvard University, and Researcher, Massachusetts General Hospital: I really enjoyed the vivid and thoughtful style with which you write. You obviously spent a significant amount of time collecting your observations and experiences in order to create such an impressive account of the realities facing men and women on the streets of Bombay. I saw a lot of parallels between AIDS Sutra edited by Amartya Sen and many of the experiences and observations you describe in your book.      
  • Sharvari Karandikar-Chheda, Professor, Ohio State University: Menen's exemplary and animated writing makes Karma Sutra one of the most interesting books of recent times. The book has a unique emotional appeal and reflects the reality of the streets of Mumbai. I am personally impressed by the research done by Menen and his exceptional narrative skills. I have recommended this book, from time to time, as additional reading for students studying issues around prostitution in India.
  • Naresh Kaushik, Asia watcher, BBC, London: Good, orignal work. Could have even been made into two books: one on prostitution and another on street life.
  • Gail Grant, Teacher of  English, Drama, Music and "other mysteries", traveller and social worker, Switzerland:  Your book moved me to tears and laughter. I will recommend it to all those I know. The book is wonderful in evoking, even  for the most thick skinned, the dire misery of the poor. On that level it is up there with the works of  Henry Mayhew -- London's Poor -- and Dickens in his less sentimental moods - Little Dorrit -- and Sinclair Lewis in his less hysterical mode. But it is seriously flawed insofar as it is deeply fragmented and lacks the necessary co-ordination of your substantial materials: twenty years of first hand experience and a real gift in wielding language. Your book could have been one of the most powerful works since those works I have mentioned above, but you published too soon. Unlike those men, you didn't marshal the materials into one cohesive vision of outrage and compassion.  
  • Shubhalakshmi Shukla, Writer, art critic and visiting faculty at Rachna Sansad Academy of Fine Arts, MumbaiThe book is a fascinating read. Its gripping layers open up flexible entrypoints. It is open ended for interpretation as it is deeply researched. It is insightful and involves many voices from the network of margins apparently unyielding and dark. It is not dramatic, but reflects the hard work behind each encounter the writer must have undertaken. If urban non-fiction can bring about social change, this book can!
  • Bob Snyder, American postal service, interested in eastern philosophy, travel, yoga, fitness, politics, investments:  I just finished reading "Karma Sutra: Essays from the Margin", by Rajender Menen.
    It exposes life on the underside of Mumbai, India; the prostitutes,
    brothels, pimps, eunuchs, drugs, kidnappings, criminals, police, the beach crowd, all of it.
    The most important thing about this book is that it is "real". It is
    autobiographical. Raj not only wrote this book; he lived it. He was able to get the stories and interviews other journalists could not obtain,often at great personal risk.
    Raj has a lively, clever, engaging writing style. You will be taken in by it. It lends erudition to the otherwise brutal subject matter.
    The stories are as amazing as they are shocking. It is astonishing how people can survive and even adapt to such unenviable and hopeless circumstances. I don't know if I could make it through even one week in the world Raj describes.
    I wrote to Raj every day while I was reading his book, giving him
    updates, and he constantly asked me for criticism. But I couldn't fault the content (since I don't live there!) or the writing itself.
    It is
    just an incredible narrative of a desperate sector of Indian society.
    If you are reading this site, I recommend that you get your hands on a copy of Raj's book. If you're not sure, buy a used copy! But read it!
    Your time will not be wasted!
  • Dr.Margo Kirtikar, Writer, author of  Cosmic and Universal Laws. counsellor, guide, traveller, spiritual teacher, artist, trainer in personal evolution, continuous education and in self-transformation, mind and consciousness expansion, lives and works in Vevey, Switzerland: Beautifully written, extensive description of a side of India that most are blind to, excellent creative vocabulary and usage of the English language. The reader is transferred to be right in the middle of the scene which can sometimes be quite unnerving and scary. The author is a master in his style of writing, absolutely superb, he plays and tosses ordinary words around to give the reader a vivid scene that either breaks your heart or makes you giggle. Yes, even amidst some heart wrenching scenes, I was surprised that I caught myself smiling or even laughing. Every Indian who can read should read this book, and every non-Indian who is interested in India should read this book. Every writer should read this too, there is much to learn from here on the art of writing. I know that when I travel to India again, I shall see it with completely different eyes. Incredible, fantastic, ailing, dynamic India! It is said that before one can find a solution to a problem one has to face the problem, recognize it and accept it, then one is half way through to finding the solution! The rich and powerful, the educated and the dynamic youth of India should read this, then perhaps they can be moved to do something about it. Bravo to the author for this unique enlightening piece of work. An applause is well earned. 
  • Tamaey Gottuso, Entrepreneur, USA: Raj has shared the in-depth trials and tribulations of a section of the Indian people. Please take the time to read. Excellent! I cried while reading the book and kept it far away from my daughter who has led such a protected life.
  • Bejan Daruwalla, World-renowned astrologer: Menen's book is illuminating and powerfully written. I pray to Ganesha to give this Taurean great success. The language and research are brilliant. Quotes are well used and there is great compassion for the downtrodden. I predict international acclaim.   
  • Lalitha Dhara, Vice-principal, Dr.Ambedkar College, Mumbai: The author has taken the lives of the marginalised people and brought them centrestage, treated them with such love and empathy that they no longer seem marginalised. 
  • Roopashree Jeevaji, Actress in Hollywood. Her recent works include the feature film Taco Shop which is releasing in 2012. She is also known for her television work on NBC's Outsourced and on CSI:Crime Scene Investigation: Rajendar's writing is rich, honest, heartbreaking, dark and yet beautiful. Every page is written with a deep sense of irony.  I found myself smiling at something beautiful and engulfed with sadness all at once. Very very inspiring. 
  • Ramesh Menon, Award winning journalist, author, editor and trainer: A very well written and researched book. Well done. Am sure you will do more books on street life with great success.
  • Kalpana Malani, Business person, outsourcer of bric a brac and antiquities, bird watcher and environmentalist, trekker and conscientious street watcher: Easily one of the best books I have ever read. I recommend it to everyone without hesitation. Karma Sutra is an incredible look at street life. We see so much around us but never give it a second thought in the hurly burly of life. Raj has not just given it a second thought but managed to delve deep into it. Congratulations.
  • Sunil Samant, Technocrat, Tai Chi master, experimental chef, bon vivant, linguist and global traveller: I read Karma Sutra with great interest. I live next to Juhu beach in Mumbai and come to the beach every day. I know Anthony Bhai and a few others mentioned in the book. I also met the author. I marvel at the way in which he has been able to get the stories from all these people who have been left behind by India's economic progress. I have seen Rajendar hanging out at the beach at odd hours and often wondered what he was up to. Now I know! Way to go!!
  • Sarita Manu, Architect, activist, artist, poet, writer and traveller: Accompanying Rajendar on his journeys through this book will have you question, if not shatter, your own ideas of love and desires; virtues and vices; karma and destiny. In Rajendar’s own words, so much of life is inexplicable. How do you explain a beautiful young nurse at Asha Dan (the late Mother Teresa’s hospice in Mumbai) feeling happy, cleaning a leper’s wounds or how do you explain a sex worker who has slept with thousands of men, cooking rice for a man she loves, he says.  
  • Cyndie Marler, Founder and Managing Director of Akesia Wellness. Practiced and studied yoga in the U.S., Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and India, and also worked in the nonprofit sector in the areas of program development and marketing, communications, public relations and graphic design:  Absolutely transfixed by your book - on so many levels. It is relevant and particularly resonant within my own experience of and love affair with India. You have so adeptly articulated many of the complicated feelings I experience in India - no longer do I say 'words cannot describe' when asked why I am drawn to this place - now I will simply say 'read Karma Sutra'! I actually borrowed this book but will have to buy it to read over and over again. Thank you. You have an amazing gift.  
  • Dr.Iqbal Malik, Noted environmentalist and animal rights' activist, founder-director of Vatavaran, an NGO which works for greener surroundings, clean air and blue sky with the help of communities, women and students; Adviser - International Primate Protection League, Member - World Wide Fund for Nature: I just finished reading  sample chapters of Karma Sutra on Flipkart. Your writing shook me. It was  gripping and I had a knot in my throat. I felt I was crying silently but I carried on as I could not put it down. Will buy the paper copy as I want to possess it. I am with a heavy heart. Hope I can sleep. 
  • Nilanjana Ghosh, Soft Skills, Personality Development and Behavioral Trainer and Consultant, who has also worked with several NGOs on women's empowerment and gender issues including juvenile rape. She is also an artist and author: Karma Sutra made me weep and smile simultaneously.Weep,not out of sadness or pain,but out of sheer gratitude that I had been granted a rare peek into the lives of these tremendous survivors. And I smiled because I had just learned to appreciate life in all its colors. Unputdownable! Thank you Rajendar.
Compulsions

  • Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo, Auroville, and the Supramental Man.
  • Breeding fish and snails, planting trees, collecting stones, pets, walking, healing, mentoring, The Five Tibetans (a form of yogic exercise), gardening, design, sociology, biographies, psychology, philosophy, physiology, and the creases of the mind. And, of course, writing.
  • Leading a life in friendship with nature and, as Sri Aurobindo has said, in quest of the next rung in the ladder of evolution.  
  • Magic, the irreverence and wisdom of Osho, and the soul.

Hours

  • Twenty-four-seven. Just ask and it will be delivered!
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(Karma Sutra-Adventures of a Street Bum has been released by Harper Collins in 2012. The earlier version - Karma Sutra-Essays from the Margin - was brought out by Saga Books, Canada, in 2007. Apparently, Flicky, the St.Bernard who is not keeping very well, seems pleased as punch with both the books by his side. We wish him good karma!!!)    

     Excerpts from

               KARMA SUTRA

       Adventures Of A Street Bum

LOVING AND DELIVERANCE IN

             KAMATHIPURA

 

By Rajendar Menen

 

Tara is short, less than five feet, and petite. She is in an orange saree and blouse that wraps her like an Egyptian mummy. An orange bindi, orange bangles and flowing black curly hair complete the image of a fluorescent dervish. Tara always manages a lazy drawl even when she is in a hurry; she drags her feet when she walks, her chappals scrape the ground collecting the dust with them. It is an uncommon walking style. You can't miss it; you can even hear it. Her hands are wildly flayed and her posterior rolls in exaggeration. Her gait is expansive and requires a lot of space to accommodate it. There are flowers in her thick black hair. She has sparkling eyes and a large mouth that often finds the time to smile. She keeps giggling and gesticulating; it's her way. When she is in the vicinity, it gathers you in its turbulence.

 

Tara was married but her husband died of tuberculosis years ago. She looks after two young children back home in her village in Andhra Pradesh from her earnings as a sex worker in Kamathipura. Her father was a farmer and her mother, frail and blind, is still alive. Tara looks after her too. There are siblings but they have been separated from one another by the wiles of time and circumstance. Tara has memories of childhood but they don’t flow as easily as her laughter. She doesn’t know where the others are and doesn’t want to talk about the details of growing up, hungry and homeless most of the time, under the scorching southern sun. Maybe, she just doesn’t want to remember the pain.

 

Tara was gang raped several times, had repeated abortions and several venereal diseases long before she turned eighteen, and finally found deliverance in a brothel she was sold to by her family with the help of an agent. It is the destiny of many girls in her village. Middlemen habitually make the rounds. They know about the poverty that will always refuse to cuddle the girl child and the desperation of those tilling the land made barren by the heat and dust, repeated monsoon failures and over cropping. There are scars on her body, knife wounds and burn marks, but Tara refuses to stop smiling and offers me tea. "If you stay longer, I will cook for you," she says happily. "That's if you feel like eating with me."

 

Her cubicle is tiny, neatly kept, and lit by a tube light. An old ceiling fan, a trifle unsteady, whirs silently. There is a large cupboard in which she stocks up on cash, jewellery and some clothes: sarees, salwar kameezes and undergarments. She has a bank account with a nationalised bank and a passbook she is proud to show. She has eighteen thousand rupees in it. There is a chair, a small table with powder, lipstick and some make-up, a mirror, and pails of water under the cot. A thin brown rope stretches from one end of the room to the other with some clothes hanging on it. They are her clothes, washed, wrung and left to dry. She will iron them later, or the pressman on the ground floor will come to the brothel in the morning, collect all the girls' clothes and send them over in the evening, ironed and sorted out in neat bundles.

 

The room is small, clean, cool and intimate. It wears a good feeling probably reflecting the aura of the occupant. There are shadows lounging around and geckos are mating on the wall. They grab one another with little gurgles of ecstasy. Tara pours me tea in small stainless steel tumblers and we sit on her large bed and talk. The bed sheet is brown and clean and the pillowcase an ugly green. Her eyes shine like expensive diamonds, maybe that's why her parents called her tara or star, and she smiles all the time. I am speechless. I want to know what makes her so happy. I want to know how she is filled with so much love and how she can keep giving without being held back by the sorrow that could have turned into crust in her soul.

 

She lifts her saree and shows me her arms and legs. I can see knife and burn marks. She tells me that even her vagina has been cut up. One nipple has also been sliced off. She says all this in a matter-of-fact voice as though reading out a child's report card. There's no drama, no tears, no look-at-my-sorry state cry. "How's the tea?" she then asks smiling, trying to cheer me up. Tara is in her mid thirties and wants to live in the brothel till the last ebb of life. "I can't go anywhere now. This is my home. I go to my village whenever I want, send money every month for my children's education and hope they will do well in life. There is nothing else in my life. I am a prostitute. It is my job. The lowest job ever. I am like the garbage can. Born to be used. Anyway, forget all this, tell me about you, why are you here, are you married, do you have children, how does your wife look, must be beautiful, what are your children's names, where are they studying?"

 

Tara charges three hundred rupees for a session, which roughly translates to six dollars. A portion is handed to the madam. It is a few times that for the whole night. Sometimes, she is booked for the weekends too. She keeps the tips and the gifts she gets. "I have customers I have known for years. I have loved too but now I don’t love like that I think I have grown up. That mad, desperate love is over, thank God. My mind doesn’t connect to the body. It's just a job. Many customers just want to talk and tell me their problems. They pay me because I listen. No one listens to anyone in the big city. No one has time. Everyone has problems. When I hear them, I feel my problems are nothing. I am sure even you have problems. It is the human condition. We are all supposed to have problems and we are meant to solve them. It is karma. Then we will leave this body and take another form. And, maybe, take on some new problems." 

 

I ask her how she knows all this. "Is there any other reason? Look at my life. Is there any reason for all that has happened? What have I done? I haven't even had the chance to be a bad person. I was raped as a child. So there must be something I did in a previous life and this is my punishment. When I die my punishment will be over. My next life will be good. I have done nothing wrong this life. We have talked about this in the brothel. All the girls agree. There is no other explanation. You tell me. You are educated. If not for karma, why have we suffered like this? It is destiny, nothing else." I look for answers. The happy geckos are also not on the wall.

 

I ask her about God, religion, about her spirituality. Her room has several pictures of deities. Yes, she prays every day. All the girls pray. They have grown up praying to some God and the madam also insists that they pray together. "I am born a Hindu and I pray to all the Gods and Goddesses. I also celebrate all the festivals. Religion doesn’t matter to me. I don’t know too much about all this. I haven’t studied much, but there has to be some power that makes all of us so different. Even the girls in the brothel are so different from one another. How? Isn't that surprising? I feel happy when I pray. So I pray. I don’t know anything else. Maybe, there is no God. I don’t know. Maybe, He is not kind, maybe He is not just, may be He is. I don’t know all this. How can I know all this? I just pray to what, I feel, is responsible for creating life. Prayer makes me feel strong and secure and happy."

 

We have more tea. It is late at night, early morning really. The rooms are full. Business is good like it always is. The cubicle's door is shut and there is no noise intruding our space. A long triangular stretch of light seeps in from under the door. Some girls who have not been taken for the night sleep in the hall outside on charpoys laid on the ground. "Why don't you eat? It is not good to have so much tea. There is some rice and dal. I will heat it. Let's eat," she insists. We eat together in clean, separate plates. She gives me a spoon so that I don’t dirty my hands. Tara keeps talking and giggling like a schoolgirl. She is kind and loving and wants to pamper me. "This grain of rice has your name on it. So it is your karma to eat with me today. So eat as much as you can. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? We haven't seen it."  

 

Do you miss your kids? "I am a mother. Which mother won't? I am here for them. I want to live and work till they are settled. Both are boys. So I am not worried. If they are girls anything can happen to them. When I meet my mother I wonder what dreams she had for me? She must have had some dreams at least. Having become a mother, I understand my mother better. Luckily, she is blind and can't hear or speak too well. If she knew what I have gone through, her heart will pain."

 

She has pictures of the kids framed on the wall. Two little boys, short, thin, tanned, oiled hair and powdered up, in matching blue shirts with white stripes grinning away astride a red motorcycle. It is a studio shot taken in her village. Tara can read and write Telegu and watches a lot of television. She loves Hindi films and sees at least one a day. Sometimes, the girls go to the cinema close by. She likes action and romance and even the scary flicks. "I even saw Sunjay Dutt shooting," she says all excited. "He had come to Kamathipura."

 

What's her daily routine?  She normally wakes up late, but it depends on customer traffic. If the traffic is heavy, the brothel gets a life only at noon. Every girl gets about five customers a day on an average. There are love stories and special customers, and weekend and festival rush. So the numbers vary depending on several factors. Customers can walk in anytime, some even come to the brothel for breakfast. Some stay in the brothel for weeks on end. Customers can stay as long as they want if they pay. But the evenings and nights are always busy.

 

The madam, a former sex worker in the same brothel, wakes up early everyday and looks into the provisions and other details. The girls, who had an early night, help her. Everyone does something or the other; duties are assigned. Some cook, other clean up, and food is also ordered from the several hotels nearby. Customers may want to drink and smoke too. Biryani, tandoor dishes and kebabs can be ordered. On festive occasions the girls cook the dishes they are most fond of. They don’t entertain customers during their menstrual cycle but hang around and chat. It's holiday time then. They also eat out with customers. Vendors come to the brothel with fruits, vegetables, flowers, clothes, utensils, jewellery, with almost everything the girls and the brothel needs. So there is no need to shop unless they need the colours, smells and noises of the bazaar.

 

The brothel is spick and span. There are maids to clean up; normally they are retired sex workers. The two toilets and two bathing areas are kept spotlessly clean and disinfected, water collected in large cauldrons, floors swabbed several times a day, condoms are used always, and great stress is laid on post coital hygiene. The girls and their customers clean themselves thoroughly with water, lemon and soap. Lemon slices are always used as a natural disinfectant. It is used for everything: washing, cooking and eating. A doctor on the street below is always available. He lives above the clinic. Sometimes the girls fall sick, but Tara has never been unwell. "I have never fallen sick, never even had fever, I don’t know how. I am so lucky. Maybe, it's my prayers."

 

There is order and the brothel runs without murmur. Fights between the girls, though not uncommon, never last. There are some 20 girls in the brothel and Tara is one of the senior ones. The others listen to her without protest. They know why they are here. Tara helps them come to terms with the new circumstances and when the old ones get frayed at the ends. The girls fight over new clothes and lovers, but it's not serious. What's a little bit of ego bruising when they have been pulverised by life? 

 

Tara jokes and laughs till the tears trickle from her eyes. I simply can't fathom her and the others in the brothel. I need a constant yoga practice to still my mind and find fleeting happiness. How do Tara and the others keep laughing at life when it has always mocked them?       

The Buddha talked about clinging and non-clinging. If something good happens, you have a reflexive tendency to try to hold on to it, and if something bad happens, you have a tendency to push it away. This clinging response is inevitable if you believe yourself to be the same as or the "owner of" all the desires and fears that arise in you. You become trapped in an endless web of tension and contraction. For most people life is just this.

"He who understands clinging and non-clinging understands all the Dharma," said the Buddha. This is the Dharma of happiness. The alternative to the tyranny of clinging is to fully receive the experiences that arise in your life, knowing them to be pleasant when they are pleasant and unpleasant when they are unpleasant.  Life dances and you have to dance with it. Each moment is a fresh moment in the dance, and you have to be present for it.

Tara and the girls instinctively radiate the wisdom of the Buddha. I spent years with my yoga practice yet was unable to scratch out the images of burn and knife wounds on Tara's body, her dazzling eyes, the wisdom of her words and the smile that roped in all the joys of the world in its loving expanse in a badly lit cubicle of a brothel on the first floor of a building steadily falling apart in one of the most notorious flesh districts in the world.

Life is dancing, and Tara is dancing with it. It’s the last tango in Kamathipura. It’s her last dance of life.  

INDIA AND THE CHALLENGE OF HIV/AIDS

By Rajendar Menen

 

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.

-- Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 - 1968)

 

In countries like India where food, clothing and shelter remain beyond the reach of most people and where old epidemics in new clothes revisit with uncanny regularity, the battle against AIDS can be lost even before the first slingshots are readied. As most of us who live in this part of the world know only too well, even our fire-fighting techniques are obsolete. But, surprisingly, despite habitually blocking up the attic with body and soul to sensitive issues that need urgent repair, the government of India has stretched itself this time. Systems have been readied and battle stations prepared. The immediacy of the situation has magically reached home.

 

India is a large country living in thousands of villages, towns and cities. Randomly throw pebbles from the sky and they could fall squarely on eighth or twenty-first century India overlapping each other without quarrel. Cultures, creeds, religions, beliefs, castes, languages and disparate socio-economic expression live in some argument but still in reasonable harmony with one another. It is another miracle. All this diversity has some unity. But if one were to prepare a national plan for action this diversity can get in the way. Every inch of strategy will have to be reworked in different metaphors and keeping several shades of nuances in mind. A variety of needs and emotions will have to be catered to.

 

Millions of Indians are illiterate and live in considerable material discomfort. All intervention campaigns have to work through the ignorance first before mailing a message of any import. Poverty and illiteracy share a peculiar intimacy. They live off each other. Get rid of one and the other will surely die. As the economy grows and wealth is more evenly distributed, the reach of information will get larger. But this can take time, and a killer disease needs immediate attention. There is little reaction time.

 

There are several other aspects: legal aid for the HIV-infected; medical help that includes indigenous systems of medicine; the legislation of prostitution as it is all pervasive and cannot be done away with; affordable and quality medical care for those testing HIV-positive; compassionate insurance schemes; professional and dignified testing and counselling services; assurance of employment; protracted and effective advertising campaigns; and the involvement not only of the government but the community as well.

 

The media has played a tremendous role. It has pounced on the big story with alacrity. International aid has poured in and celebrity fund-raising jamborees have ensured that money is not a constraint. In January 1998, the government of India announced the draft of a National AIDS Prevention and Control Policy. The prime objective was to get a stranglehold on the virus without wasting time. Women, children and other vulnerable and "high-risk" sections like truckers had to be protected from the onslaught of the virus. The policy also focused on improved healthcare for those affected and decided to adopt new research and approved templates to handle the virus.

 

All blood is now screened for HIV, professional blood donation has been disallowed by legislation, infected pregnant women have access to medicines, sex education has been introduced in schools, alternate sexuality is being viewed with less alarm, condoms are distributed free in the flesh districts, the female condom has been selectively introduced, hospices are being set up, and India has emerged as one of the largest manufacturers of the highly active anti-retroviral therapy (HAART) with a surplus that eyes foreign markets. It is also believed to be close to discovering a conventional and affordable treatment for AIDS with minimal side effects. No medico-social challenge in India has ever been addressed as seriously as AIDS has. It has rocked the front pages and hogged precious time on television and radio, and an entire generation of professionals is working overtime to get a fix on the problem. Indigenous vaccine initiatives have been launched, and with the advent of HIV a new era in medical jurisprudence has taken birth.

 

India still copes miserably with malaria, tuberculosis and several other strains of both old and new epidemics that take a heavy toll of human life. Add natural calamities, endemic corruption and widespread communal and political turbulence to the boil and you have a country that is bent double with trouble. AIDS only adds to the large burden on its back. It is predominantly a sexually transmitted disease and that makes it far more difficult to ambush in a country of so many people subsisting in such diverse cultural sub-texts. Conservative estimates place the number of those infected at close to six million. But those in the know believe that it could be more than double that.

 

Every effort is being made to stem its spread. There's a good chance that India won't spring another leak and allow HIV to blow up its innards like it has done in other parts of the world. It is certainly a situation that is worth watching with a magnifying glass.

 

****************************

 

A few months ago, I met up with John Frederick, the tall, bespectacled American who speaks and smiles gently in the most self-effacing fashion. He is the guru of the street. He knows more about prostitution and trafficking of women than entire governments. We have worked together in the past and decide to check out Kamathipura. We had heard that it was now living in fear after massive police crackdowns. John has come down from Nepal where he runs an NGO called Ray of Hope.

 

We meet up at his digs in Colaba and take a cab to Kamathipura. We check out old places together; we have known several sex workers in the area well and we have gifts and words of encouragement for them. We also talk to local doctors and exchange notes with other NGOs in the field. Then we walk into a little dimly lit bar with a lot of noise. It watches the street and so is a good observation post. We have beer, talk and watch.

 

John tells me about the situation in Nepal. With more guerilla groups attacking the government, the focus on sex work and HIV/AIDS is diluted now. With the increase in population, the numbers in prostitution everywhere, certainly in the developing world, have also grown over the years. "The government is in a mess, the NGOs are trying hard but they are under funded, have dismal conceptual clarity of the issues and are often donor driven," he says. He feels that the Nepali girls in the Mumbai brothels "probably get a better deal than local girls in their everyday slavery/trafficked situation. They appear to live okay. Our studies have shown that they stay in the trafficked/slavery/bondage situation three to five years longer than their Indian counterparts. Probably when they get older, their situation is the same as local girls. But, remember, the work situation differs in both countries. There are no brothel areas in Nepal. The sex industry is a floating population. It is a loose network. Whatever the system, HIV is on the rise everywhere. Our studies have also shown that the police raids in Mumbai have made the brothel communities very paranoid and so HIV/AIDS workers can't reach the women. We feel that AIDS is rising due to the pseudo rescues." 

 

Nepal has an old, informal network of female gharwalis (brothel owners), which is very different from the way girls are recruited to brothels in India. However, irrespective of the type of the organisation of prostitution, John believes that there is a "symbiotic relationship between the police and sex work everywhere. In most big cities, the Mafia too exerts some control over prostitution. Regarding political involvement, I think it depends on the politician."

 

Of all the intervention campaigns he has seen over the years, John rates the Durbar in Kolkata as the most effective. Sonagachi, Kolkata's legendary red-light area, has among the lowest levels of HIV in the subcontinent. The best way to clean up prostitution, he feels, is to "collect and organise the sex workers, give them power to regulate and clean up their own brothel communities with support from others including the government and the police. Strengthen sex worker collectives to reach out to others of their ilk in rural communities and smaller cities and towns. The street and bar sex workers should also be included so that they are all protected and supported at the same time." The bottom line is sex worker empowerment. It's a hard task considering the enormous gender inequity even in more compassionate settings.

 

We pay up and decide to walk around a bit. Pimps follow us with great hope. John is a 'white' man and I look like I have just walked out of a merchant vessel docked in Mumbai harbour. We are choice targets. The pimps surround us. Most of them are alcoholics and drug addicts and don’t believe that we are not flesh shoppers. Earlier, before legislation banned it, they were also professional blood donors. They look like ruins and fit in well with the decay all around. They don’t even understand our disinterest in what is on sale. They recommend different brothels, reel out rates and the virtues of all the girls who, they insist, are pristine pure, highly educated, very sexy, young, healthy, inexpensive and available for as long as we want. I am always amused when pimps everywhere never fail to mention that the girls "are from good families". It almost sounds like a marriage proposal. I tell them that we are from the government and are mapping an AIDS intervention drive. They are not interested and can't be shrugged off. It is irritating and funny too. They keep following us, sometimes tugging at our shirtsleeves. Finally, they blackmail us. "Give us money and we will go." 

 

Kamathipura has changed a lot from the early days. It has been badly kicked in the butt. First, HIV latched on, and now the police have become more aggressive spurred by various concerns of human rights organisations. Quite rightly, there is a watch on children and teenagers entering the profession. But now there are no customers either. They get mopped up in police raids and don’t want to take a chance. As a result, prices have fallen and the women are more desperate. There is talk of leaving the area and moving to other places. New red-light areas are mushrooming all over the city.

 

We talk to Jaya, in her twenties, thin, tall and acne marked, nervously standing on the road, close to a police outpost, looking for clients. She is a 'floater'. She doesn’t belong to a brothel but has visiting rights. If she picks up a customer, she can take him to a brothel she has struck a deal with. She pays for bed space and time wrenching it off the customer's bill.

 

Jaya hasn't had a customer for days. She is worried. There is no money for the family and she doesn’t know what to do or where to go. She also has a lot of competition and there are hundreds like her on the street not protected by the collective economics of a brothel. Her rates are rock bottom now, and she is not standing here, in the noise of traffic and pollution, warding off disease and destitution with all her prayers, for free sex.

 

We continue walking through the maze of lanes and head back. There is nothing to say. Harsh walls of silence accompany us on the journey home.     

 

PREM SAGAR AND ANTHONY BHAI  

 

By Rajendar Menen

 

He waits patiently for me every day. He knows that I come to the beach in the late evening and he has been watching the road and the stretch of beach touching it for hours. He doesn’t want to miss me. Prem Sagar is a short, thin and dark man with bulging bloodshot eyes and a cyst on his forehead. His hair is scanty and his face is hollowed. He smiles with large, broken discoloured teeth. Many decades of a hard life have literally wrenched the flesh off his body. It is raining and his shirt is wet illuminating his bones. He came from Uttar Pradesh to Mumbai many years ago and scrapes around for a living. His family is still in the village. He earns a little and sends whatever he saves back home for his son’s education. “I believe in hard work,” he tells me with evocative eyes. “I have to create good karma for my next life.”

 

But Prem Sagar is not waiting for me for idle chatter or to talk about the afterlife. He has other, more pressing issues to discuss. He is courting a grand obsession. He wants me to connect him with Mallika Sherawat, the actress who smooches, ad libs and drops her clothes without patience. Like millions of other Indians, her voluptuous body fascinates him. “Please,” he begs me. “Just one call. I want to hear her voice. I know you are in the film industry and you can do it for me.” I tell him it’s difficult, that I am not in the film industry, and why bother to talk to her? See her films and go home and fantasise like the millions.

 

“I have seen all her films at least ten times each,” he tells me with more passion than a scholar at the Sorbonne poring over the nutrients of ice. “I have read all the articles on her. I know where she stays and the doctor she visits. But I want to talk to her. I know you can connect me to her.” What will you tell her? You must be decent, no vulgar talk, I insist. “Of course not. I just want to hear her voice and tell her that she is a great actress and that I have seen her films several times. I promise no vulgar talk. I just want to hear her voice, that’s all.”

 

It is difficult to avoid him. He catches me at any corner of the beach. The moment he sees me his eyes light up and a huge smile crowns his face. “Now, please call,” he pleads. I tell him that the time is not right and she is on an overseas shoot. He looks disappointed and then says fine, next time. This happens every day. I can’t shrug him off. Prem Sagar lives to talk to Mallika Sherawat. The summers in Mumbai are harsher these days and the rains ensure that the city is flooded. It may be due to global warming. But Prem Sagar isn’t bothered too much. He will sweat for all he is worth and swim for cover if he only gets a chance to hear the musical voice of the goddess who has snapped up every other reason for his existence on earth.

 

For the migrants on the beach the obsession with Hindi cinema is aggressive. All the Hindi films are seen and discussed several times. Yesterday’s hero Jeetendra walks on the beach in a tight black T-shirt and jeans at a furious clip late in the evening. Whenever they see him they stare. Some follow him and try to talk to him but Jeetendra puts his head down and ups the pace. Well into his sixties and wafer trim, he is faster than the boys who follow him. All the boys have their ears pierced, are draped in bling, and have cut their jeans with blades near the thighs and knees like Shahrukh Khan. Hairstyles, walking styles and drawls are all copied from some actor or the other. I can’t explain it or understand it. Neither can I tell them that their lives should make more sense. They are dead to reason.

 

Everyone on the beach wants to be an actor, director, singer or dancer. They have no education and have run away from home in the badlands. Why do they believe that Bollywood is the last recourse of the illiterate? I can’t nail that reasoning to any logic. Is that what they believe of their demigods?

 

Word has, by now, strangely, got around that I am from the industry and can shape their dreams. They all come, one by one, and touch my feet every evening. It is embarrassing. I tell them to go back home, that I have no connection whatsoever with Hindi cinema, that this is a wasted dream, and time is precious. It will make more sense thrusting their youth on other things. But my words don’t reach them. I also know that they won’t return home. There is nothing to go back to.

 

Mumbai dazzles. It is a heroin fix. Every day unfolds with hope and beckons hundreds of thousands of migrants to its hollows. Once they are plugged to the energy of the city, all sanity is vacuumed. Their only hope now is in slum development schemes, vote bank politics, a life of crime or even something as bizarre as being hit or run over by a rich man’s car. If they survive the accident, there will be good money paid for their silence. If they don’t, the next of kin have a windfall!

 

***********************

 

He knows more about Juhu beach than any other person. His hair and thick sideburns, barring a growing bald patch on the crown, are dyed black and his dark, clean shaved face is proud and chiseled. His smile is an I-know-it-all smirk and he walks ramrod stiff, bent slightly back from the torso as though he is leading the Republic Day parade. His sartorial sense is old world: bell bottoms, leather slippers and a long, loose full sleeved shirt. The beach is his home and his office. Anthony Bhai is in charge of all the little dhandas that operate on the tiny rush of sand between the shut Tulip Star and the new Novotel hotels. Different areas of the beach are controlled by different people. Like the stray dogs who have sharply defined territories, one doesn’t step into the other’s domain. They are also under the jurisdiction of different police stations. So, like the monsoon which chooses which stretch of the city to rain on, the raids on the beach are also selective. 

 

The dhandas are not injurious to health. They include a few games, children’s rides and coconut and bhel stalls. Anthony Bhai employs many people and he just hangs around, smoking cigarette after cigarette, overseeing the work. The municipality raids sometimes and the police are always on hand. But Anthony Bhai does the balancing act well. He knows how to talk and whom to pay, and still manage a good income.

 

I have been watching him for months and we haven’t exchanged a word, but one day, for some unfathomable reason, he comes over and starts talking. Once he starts, he won’t stop even if the city is burning. He also loves repeating his story countless times. He tells me about his life. About his family, his work, the money he makes, the payments to staff and various government agencies and his habits like sea swimming in the hot summer months. “I have written the story of my life in a book but it got washed away in the monsoon. I could have given that to you. It will make a great story. I believe you are a writer. You could have used it. It is a bestseller. You can even make a film on it.” Yes, he wants to be written about and, for a change, I am not in camouflage.

 

He tells me about his lifestyle in great detail. He sleeps before the clock strikes midnight on a thin cloth spread on the beach and wakes up at five every morning, walks to the marketplace across the road for his ablutions and a cup of tea. It doesn’t matter which time of the year it is. Anthony Bhai’s schedule is clockwork without even wearing a watch. “I haven’t had formal education but I have learnt a lot on my own,” he tells me. “I read the papers and sometimes watch television.” He talks about the news channels, how they get advertising, about Animal Planet and National Geographic. There is a lot of wisdom in his words. As I get to know him over the next few months I realise that, yes, Anthony Bhai is a master strategist at survival. He will do well anywhere. Starvation is not in his horoscope. His DNA is wired for success even without Deepak Chopra. 

 

“I don’t do any faltu talk. There is no one to talk to here anyway. They are all illiterate. Kala akshar bhains barabar. I do my job, sleep, wake up early and, sometimes, take a nap in the hot summer months. The authorities don’t want me have my dwelling here and have asked me to vacate. But I have explained to them that I am not building a bungalow here. I sleep here just because it is convenient for my work. I don’t own any part of the beach and it is not my ambition either. Sleeping here is not comfortable. It is just convenience. They have understood me now.”


We have cha and as I feed the strays, he continues, “It is all a money game. What isn’t? You tell me. You pay and you get things done. It starts at the top and goes right down to the bottom. Even a cup of tea costs money. You sit here everyday. You pay to come here and go back, even if it bus fare, and you pay for your cha. So you are paying just to watch the sea. Am I right or wrong? Even watching the sea is not free, even breathing clean air is not free.” I tell him that he is absolutely right and he likes the answer. Now there is no containing him.

 

Anthony Bhai talks loudly, with many gestures, often looking far into the distance, on every topic under the sun. He talks about the sea, the monsoon, people on the beach, his work, which is interrupted by the monsoon and the many religious festivals, and his dreams. The soul of his talk is his life that slides through the undergrowth of words like a boa shedding its skin. He wants to talk and spill it all out before the words pickle inside and crush him. He has no secrets. Everyone knows his story. He picks his audience and repeats it. He also tells me that everyone knows his story as though to confirm that he isn’t lying and it’s the same story that is doing the rounds.

 

He shows me the blue stud set in silver on the middle finger of his right hand. “This ring protects me. When it gets dark and murky it is a sign that things are not going well for me and when it shines I get the message that the bad times have cleared up. Look at it now. It is a bit cloudy. I will show it to you a few days later and you will see the shine. It is natural. I don’t wash it.” He also tells me that he has bought his family a house in the village. But there is no gratitude. He expects nothing from them. It was his karma. “I had to do my duty. Now the monkey is off my back. I am a free man and a new destiny will happen. I also feel that my time on the beach is coming to an end. My duty is over. It is time to get married and have a family.”

 

He was born a Muslim but a Hindu saint prophesied it all and he was brought up by Christians. I love Anthony Bhai’s story. He has no time for religion; work is his only God. Barring his cigarettes and his high protein non-vegetarian diet, he has no other interest. I ask him if he visits the women on the beach. “No way. I have nothing to do with them, no interest at all. My work is my worship. It is their livelihood. Let them do what they have to do. We all fill our stomachs in different ways. It is their way. God bless them.”             

 

He shows me wads of notes in his wallet bulging out of his back pocket. He has a bank account, pays his staff everyday and has saved enough for a decent living. What if he is robbed? “No one dare touch my wallet. He will be caught in no time. They won’t even dream of it.” Why do you carry so much money always? “Lots of payments have to be made to many people,” he says with his usual smirk.

 

Despite his fondness for cigarettes, Anthony Bhai has his own ideas about good health. “The salt water gets into your arteries and cleans it,” he repeats many times. “Sea swimming is the healthiest thing to do. I swim every summer in the high tide and all the impurities are taken away. Look at this dog you are feeding. It has a skin disease because it is the only dog that refuses to get wet with sea water. If it swam a bit like the other dogs it would be fine.” If you know all this, why do you smoke all the time? “Dhanda mein tension hain.”  He also has a light Kingfisher beer every night with tandoori chicken. “Pet bhara hona chahiye,” he says. “Or what’s the point in working so hard? After all, we are working for our stomachs.”

 

Like the others, Anthony Bhai also had dreams of making it in films. But when he couldn’t, he realised that survival was more important. “Look at the films they make these days. Can they act?? The early films had real actors. Today they are nothing. The films don’t run either. There is no money now.” He sweeps a look at all the boys, some of whom work for him. “Look at them. They all think they are film stars. They know nothing. All they do is drink, take drugs and whore. In a few years they will be nowhere. It is the nasha of youth. When it is over, they are as good as dead.”

 

While we chat, a cop in a sea blue safari suit lands up. He greets us and joins the conversation. He is Anthony Bhai’s friend. He tells me that he will be retiring soon after more than three decades in the force. I look at him hard. The close cropped hair and moustache are dyed black, his shoes are polished and there is, surprisingly, no paunch. He looks very trim for a man in his late fifties. He also wears a saint’s demeanor and has large, innocent eyes. He also quotes the Gita and the Vedas. I look harder at him. Is he a Mumbai cop??

 

Weeks later, terrorists from Pakistan create mayhem by taking over the Taj Hotel and shooting at will. A handful of trained teenagers from across the border make the Mumbai police look like awkward schoolgirls at their first prom night. Senior officers are audaciously shot dead and policemen at the Chatrapati Shivaji train Terminus are unable to even load their rifles. They couldn’t even have shot coloured balloons at the shooting gallery run by Anthony Bhai on the beach. The cops are the laughing stock of an embarrassed political establishment. The whole world watches on television how inadequately trained and equipped they are. The entire nation of over a billion people stand up and chorus that the cops are nothing more than a useless, unfit, corrupt and scandalous bunch of gravediggers. India has been saying this for decades. Now thanks to the terrorists some changes in the force may happen.    

 

I am on the beach again having my cha and feeding the dogs when the old cop lands up. He looks dapper in a smart, well fitting police uniform. He has a pistol too which looks menacing in its holster. You guys couldn’t fight teenagers, I chide him. But if there is a rape, some cop is involved. What are you doing with a pistol now after all the carnage is over? “Oh no,” he exclaims. “You don’t know the truth. Do you know what is happening in the force, do you know what a cop’s life is like? I can’t talk now. Let me retire and I will tell you the whole story. I agree with whatever you and the others say but please listen to our side of the story too. Everyone thinks that we are a bunch of corrupt, useless fellows. There are good reasons for all this.” Then he pauses, thinks, and adds, “Do you know that even this uniform I bought with my own money. The uniform they gave me was terrible. So I stitched my own. I wanted some pride while wearing it. Also, let me tell you that every cop is not the same, every finger is different.”

 

I ask him about the pistol. “They have given me this for a few weeks. Then they will take it away. We don’t need firearms for regular bandobast. Also, this pistol can only shoot accurately for a few yards. It loses its accuracy after that.” Have you guys been training regularly? “Please wait, let me retire,” he assures me. “I will tell you the whole story. I can’t say anything now. You have no idea of the pulls and pressures on us.” Close by two teenagers are piling on each other. They have probably hit the beach after telling their parents that they have gone for tuitions. The cop sees them too. They are an ideal target for a bribe. Threaten to report the matter to their folks and they will give you all their change, their jewellery and their mobile phones. I watch the moment. But, this time, the cop isn’t interested. Moral policing has no takers after the terrorist attack.     

 

As we talk, the dogs clamour for more biscuits. Every month new puppies are thrown on the beach by those who don’t know what to do with their pet’s litter. There is also a hungry bitch with several bloated teats and the ravenous appetite of a new mother. It is easy to see that motherhood pleases her. She feasts on whatever is thrown at her and then gets down to the joy of suckling her babies. Like a lot of human beings she has also skipped the family planning net.

 

One of the old timers, brown and frail, without teeth, is a ‘widower’. He has to munch the biscuits carefully, after a lot of deliberation, with his side molars. He looks at the biscuit, examines it from all sides and feigns disinterest until another dog eyes it keenly. That galvanises his appetite. He has had a long and steady relationship and several puppies with a beautiful brown bitch. One day, she just stopped eating, was reduced to skin and bones, and died. He looked hard at her lifeless body for a few minutes and walked away. I wonder what he was thinking; his partner won’t be around anymore for love and frolic, would he miss her? Does he know about death, would he mourn, would he worry about his own mortality, would he find another lover easily?

 

I call him Horny Atma. He has a human soul with the dog’s instincts in place. He is tactile and wants to be fed and cuddled and loves being spoken to in English. He will smile at your words and wag his bushy little tail. He loves it. He goes to everyone on the beach and they all talk to him and he is happy. You can also talk to him in any dialect. If he is not a linguist, he just loves the sound of human words. Horny Atma comes alive in the rutting season in the cool winter months. He is not top dog anymore and has to cower in submission when the younger studs with full teeth snarl at him. But he still retains the charm and cunning to promise a mate healthy offspring. Even if he doesn’t get the best bitch, he manages to sell a straggler sweet little lies. Despite his slowly depleting hormone charge, he remains the king of con.

 

“Good morning sar,” says a voice from behind me. I turn around and see Mashaal. I haven’t seen him for ages. “Where have you been? I ask. He remains silent and I notice a little boy with snort flooding his nostrils holding torn shorts from falling off his genitals. Who is this, I ask “My son sar.” Congratulations but it may be a good idea to stop at one child, I tell him. Earn a livelihood before you bring more kids into the world. Use condoms or go to a government hospital and they will do nasbandi and even pay you for it. There is silence. “I have one more child sar, this time a daughter.” One more child, but you don’t have money for breakfast?  “What can I do sar? It is God’s will.” Well, then, the God’s must be crazy.            

           

It is all getting too heavy and I decide to visit the loo which once hosted a condom vending machine on the outside wall. The condoms and the coins inserted got stuck and the machine rusted and was finally removed. The urinal is multipurpose and hazardous. I have to step over sleeping dogs and human beings, other men keen on ‘sizing’ me up, and inhale large doses of urea. It is much easier to pee in the sea!

 

Random Notes

AUROVILLE, DIVINE ANARCHY AND BEYOND...

By Rajendar Menen

  

"Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity."

 

Then the Charter:

 

1. Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in Auroville, one must be the willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness.

 

2. Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.

 

3. Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realisations.

 

4. Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity.

 

I was in my late teens when I read this. I read it over and over again. It was quite different from acne and girlfriends and hockey matches. I was doing my post-graduation at Madras University. The large Gothic library where I did most of my reading faced the Bay of Bengal. It lay calm, unruffled, a lazy blue then; a long way from the turmoil it would unleash from its breast in the form of a tsunami several decades later. Old ceiling fans tried to wipe away the humidity dripping from my face and clenched my shirtsleeves in a stranglehold. The sun swarmed all over, seeping into every crevice of this large, ancient building built by the British, leaving it threadbare of secrets. 

 

I continued reading.

 

Then came the Mother’s words: Let your highest aspiration organise your life.    

 

The call had come. I had to go.

 

That evening I took the four-hour bus journey to Pondicherry with a slim bag clutching my shoulders. Buses left every half hour from the terminus next to the Madras central station. The picturesque East Coast Road, which makes the commute quicker and far more exciting these days, wasn't ready then. But the bus ride, packed with an assortment of seekers, had its own distractions.

 

I booked into an ashram guesthouse without trouble and spent the next few weeks exploring Pondicherry and Auroville, 14 kms into the heart of wilderness.

 

It was tough, the sun blared angrily, the long cycle rides over burnt road were both strenuous and dangerous. Large buses and lorries hurtled past, the dust got into your eyes, and primordial India swept past on bullock carts and colourful sarees with pots of water on black, heavily oiled heads.

 

The wide, impassive road leading to Tamil Nadu from Pondicherry turned left into a dirt track and wandered along a while before Auroville finally arrived. It was then a barren infinity, although work on Mother's vision had already begun. Vast stretches of inhospitable red clay zealously guarded several promises for the future. I searched the horizon in dismay. All that I could see were clumps of dry bush, a stray hut, cattle, street dogs, burning firewood, and its smoke slipping into the distance and beyond. There was nothing more. If this was divinity, it was so commonplace.

 

But I thought I could see the waking of a dream. It was unreal. I could feel it in my bones. The vibrations were powerful. They were different, at least. My young mind was still uncluttered and I knew in my soul that this journey was the first of several that I would make in a peripatetic existence spanning continents. I also knew then that this small town and the surrounding villages in this southern tip of India would be the lodestar of all my future wanderings. I would always return, possibly even to stay.

 

There was not much to distinguish Pondicherry from the rest of India. The Aurobindo ashram and the ‘white’ enclave were Spartan. The town was well designed and clean. Road names were French, they met at right angles and the tiny shops that kissed street corners were overflowing with goodies from all over India. Occasionally, beautiful women rode bicycles and school kids trooped out in their house colours. But walk away from all that and the poverty of India hit you in the face. The rest of Pondicherry was materially poor. The roads were jammed with pedestrian and two-wheeler traffic and disease and dismay habitually consorted with one another. A lot hasn't changed today. Parts of Pondicherry are still visibly decrepit with all the problems of an ancient civilisation coming to grips with the seemingly inaccessible mix of spirituality and modernity.

 

Long kilometres away, Auroville had taken birth. Red dry earth, happy scorpions and large Tamil settlements with perennial water problems stared you in the eye. Matri Mandir, the most visible symbol of the new consciousness, to be adorned with the world's largest crystal on completion, was still emerging from the earth. If this was the embryo of the dream that had plans for mankind, I was disappointed. My little mind saw nothing special.

 

The Mother had said that the new world would begin from here. Several people, most of them foreigners then, got down to shorts and T-shirts and started digging. The new world would begin from under the red earth. It would sprout like the green grass, they said.

 

I cycled back to town in a pool of sweat and grime, had a bath, swamped a few beers and slept with many dreams. I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; I lift my eyes and all is born again, said Sylvia Plath, the poet. I was smitten. Was it the red earth, a scorpion bite or the dream of Auroville?

 

I wandered the labyrinths of Pondicherry the next few weeks. I shyly sought the red earth of Auroville again and again. Maybe, I had missed something. Possibly, in the fist of the void that I couldn’t unveil, was the secret dream.  Finally, empty-handed but not disappointed, I went back to my studies in (now) Chennai. But I returned countless times in my thoughts, in my spirit and in my soul to the haunting image of dry, red earth spreading across the border from Pondicherry into Tamil Nadu without care, still hiding the seed of promise along with the pebbles and shoots of grass that gathered on its back. Bullock carts trampled all over it and cobras and scorpions raised families in the large crevices that had forever escaped the benevolence of the monsoon. Yes, without doubt, I was too young and immature to grasp the enormity of it all. But the magic of the unknown remained and I doodled with it.

    

**********************  

 

A few details for the uninitiated:

 

* Auroville is a universal township in the making for a population of up to 50,000 people from around the world.

 

* The concept of Auroville - an ideal township devoted to an experiment in human unity - came to the Mother as early as the 1930s. In the mid 1960s the Sri Aurobindo Society in Pondicherry proposed to Her that such a township should be started. She gave her blessings. The concept was then put before the Govt. of India, who gave their backing and took it to the General Assembly of UNESCO. In 1966 UNESCO passed a unanimous resolution commending it as a project of importance to the future of humanity, thereby giving their full encouragement.

 

* The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity – in diversity. Today Auroville is recognised as the first and only internationally endorsed ongoing experiment in human unity and transformation of consciousness, also concerned with - and practically researching into - sustainable living and the future cultural, environmental, social and spiritual needs of mankind.

 

* On 28th February 1968 some 5,000 people assembled near the banyan tree at the centre of the future township for an inauguration ceremony attended by representatives of 124 nations, including all the States of India. The representatives brought with them some soil from their homeland, to be mixed in a white marble- clad, lotus-shaped urn, now sited at the focal point of the Amphitheatre. At the same time the Mother gave Auroville its 4-point Charter.

 

* Auroville is located in south India, mostly in the State of Tamil Nadu (some parts are in the State of Pondicherry), a few kilometres inland from the Coromandel Coast, approx 160 kms south of Chennai (previously Madras) and 1 0 kms north of the town of Pondicherry.

 

* Aurovilians  come from some 35 nations, from all age groups (from infancy to over eighty, averaging around 30), from all social classes, backgrounds and cultures, representing humanity as a whole. The population of the township is constantly growing, but currently stands at around 1,700 people, of whom approximately one-third are Indian.

 

 

* The Divison of Auroville

 

Peace Area

At the centre of the township lies the Peace Area, comprising the Matrimandir and its gardens, the amphitheatre with the Urn of Human Unity that contains the soil of 121 nations and 23 Indian states, and a lake to help create an atmosphere of calm and serenity and to serve as a groundwater recharge area.

 

Industrial Zone

A 109-hectare area to the north of the Peace Area, the Industrial Zone, a zone for "green" industries, is focused on Auroville's efforts towards a self-supporting township. It will contain small and medium-scale industries, training centres, arts and crafts, and the city's administration.

 

Residential Zone

The largest of the four city zones, comprising of 189 hectares, the Residential Zone is bordered by parks on the north, south and west. Main access to the zone will be through the crown road with further traffic distribution via five radial roads that divide the zone into sectors of increasing densities. This zone wants to provide a well-adjusted habitat between individual and collective living. 55% of the area will be green and only 45% built surface, thereby creating an urban density balanced by nature.

 

International Zone

The International Zone, a zone of 74 hectares to the west of the Peace Area, will host national and cultural pavilions, grouped by continents. Its central focus is to create a living demonstration of human unity in diversity through the expression of the genius and contribution of each nation to humanity

 

Cultural Zone

Planned on a 93-hectare area, situated to the east of the Peace Area, the Cultural Zone will be a site for applied research in education and artistic expression. Facilities for cultural, educational, art and sports activities will be located in this zone.

Green Belt

The city area with a radius of 1.25 km. will be surrounded by a Green Belt of 1.25 km width. As a zone for organic farms, dairies, orchards, forests, and wildlife areas, this belt will act as a barrier against urban encroachment, provide a variety of habitats for wildlife, and serve as a source for food, timber, medicines etc. and as a place for recreation.

 

Presently an area of 405 hectares, the Green Belt - though incomplete - stands as an example of successful transformation of wasteland into a vibrant eco-system. Its further planned extension with an additional 800 hectares will make it into a remarkable demonstration site for soil and water conservation, ground water recharge, and environmental restoration. As lungs for the entire township, it will complete the healing process that Auroville started several decades ago.

 

***************

 

I visited Auroville again recently. It was bustling with people and activity. The red earth was now a green belt. Hundreds of thousands of plants, and birds and animals woke up at daybreak in a cacophony of joy and ran home at twilight satiated by the stirrings of new discovery. Exquisite guesthouses and residences had spawned. Small-scale industry had taken root, healing centres had sprung up and a visible prosperity had visited the land. Two-wheelers roared through the undergrowth and what Mother called the "divine anarchy" of Auroville was in ecstatic bloom. The Matri Mandir shone resplendent in its gold casing on the exterior and a silence that even blocked out the hush of the breeze within it.   

 

I had made several visits in the interim and so the flowering of Auroville wasn't entirely unexpected. I met with scores of people over the years, and am recounting a few of my encounters in no particular chronology or order of importance. Those I talk about don’t represent the core group of Auroville. Neither do they fashion its agenda. But they live in the smatter of its wilderness and are privy to the joys and sorrows of a vision that is unfolding under the patter of their unknown feet.     

 

****************

 

I am at Fertile, one of the several imaginatively named settlements in Auroville. It is December, the winter sun is soft on the skin and, whenever it chooses, a raging breeze hollows through the forest. It is an unusual setting. The forest is vast, thick and wild and in a clearing, in the heart of the green, is a log cabin embroidered by thatching standing on long stilts. It is strategically placed like a lookout tower. From inside, I can see the forest stretching into the cloudless blue sky.

 

The hut on stilts, about 20 square feet, has no doors or windows. The sun wanders in from several corners, even shyly through the delicate thatching, picks up an item to spotlight, and wanders off. Luit Hoffman, tall, thin, almost gaunt, bare bodied, barring a tiny blue shorts, pulls up a chair for me, settles comfortably on the matting, and tells me why he is in Auroville thousands of miles away from home in Amsterdam in the sun and the humidity and in blue shorts sweating away, chasing away the flies, mosquitoes and termites that seem to love his faint, freckled skin. The breeze comes in unannounced, rustles a sheaf of papers, and crawls away with much noise. 

 

"I am a travelling person," he tells me in a strange accent with some Tamil thrown in. "At one time I didn’t feel like travelling anymore. I just wanted to stay somewhere in the tropics. I found India a convenient place to be."

 

It wasn't as simple as that though.

 

"In Amsterdam, as a journalist, I had the perfect bad life. Women, drugs, booze… can't do all that all one's life, can you? I was planning to get away to Egypt. A friend mentioned Auroville. I had a look on the map, read a bit about it, and here I am."

 

Luit has been in Auroville for four-and-a-half years. He works part time for the Forest Group. From his log cabin, he is responsible for the preservation of the forest. The forest has to be saved. That's his agenda. Auroville has to breathe and the forest is the lung. So Luit has a very responsible job. "I have come to good terms with the village people," he says happily. "They don’t cut trees any more. They understand what I am talking."

 

Luit continues talking. There aren't many people in the forest and in the surrounding villages he can talk to and this is a bonus: someone who knows English hanging on to every word of his, even taking copious notes.  "I was married to a woman from Paris, then to another from Finland. I had to communicate with my wives in English. So my cupboard is filled with English dictionaries." I tell him that his diction is clear and I can understand every word. Encouraged, he refuses to stop.

 

"I thought life in Europe was crazy. Unecological and unlogical. The west is spending too much on ecologically defeating items. I wanted to do something with my life and not just do the same things like everybody else. My life is so different here. No meat, no beer, no sex. I live a solitary, introspective life with nature. I eat fruits and vegetables and some rice and chappati and vegetable curry. That’s all. It's a healthy diet. I think I have automatically detoxed my western lifestyle. It is also very cheap to live here and so I can stay on without having to look for paying jobs."

 

Luit lives in sepulchral isolation. He owns nothing. The hut is bare. He is removed from all social contact and spends his time reading and writing. "I came here with almost nothing," he says juggling his pockets. I look for holes in them! "Then I decided to do something. I had brought eight books and a typewriter with me. Three of the books were on China, a pure coincidence. So I decided to study Chinese thought." He is researching the I Ching and is planning to write a book as soon as he gets a publisher. "Chinese philosophy has a deep respect for nature while the western way of life is wrecking the human being."

 

Luit Hoffman, in his forties, has packed his life with experiences and has, for now, chosen to live in the shade of Auroville. As far as the Mother's dream for Auroville is concerned, Luit may be a marginal devotee. He is not privy to the Agenda or the thoughts of Sri Aurobindo that have spent themselves into tomes. But he has an instinctive feel for the "divine anarchy" that Auroville pulses with. 

 

***************

 

Ever since Auroville was conceived, the main thrust has been to prepare a vital, breathing ecosystem. A barren, red earth plateau once, it is now densely forested with a large sampling of plant and animal life. The magic of the forest, by day or night, is always mesmeric.

 

Nergis Pesikaka lives in Certitude, lost, like the other settlements, in the most awe inspiring sights and sounds nature can offer. Nergis is in her seventies, a Zoroastrian from Bombay, frail and voluble, with an unusual zest for life. Once she starts talking, she doesn’t care if you are around, or listening. Most of the people I met in Auroville either kept talking or didn't utter a word. Such extremes!

 

"I didn't know about Aurobindo or anything," says Nergis. "In a way, it was quite an accident. After my husband died in 1959, I was in Madras, and then I just came to Pondy. It was just another tourist spot for me.

 

"I remember it was February 21, 1972. It was Mother's birthday. A week later it was to be Auroville's birthday. There was a ceremony at Matrimandir and we were all given pebbles as a symbolic gesture. I went back and returned to Pondicherry a few times after that, then again in 1974.

 

"When I saw the Mother it changed my life. You see, I am a hairdresser by profession. I take in the hairstyle, hands, feet, the entire appearance of the person. This time there was nothing of that sort. Mother's eyes and face simply overwhelmed me. And her fingers were exquisite.

 

"Then I saw Auroville. It was very beautiful. I read the Charter and knew that this was the place for me. I returned to Bombay and slowly, part by part, transported my things here."

 

Nergis is an extraordinary person. She lives alone in the wild, has had numerous accidents but isn't daunted by it all. She takes me to her beautiful home surrounded by flowers and greenery and birds chirping away under the sunlight. Her home is painstakingly done up. She has a gym, trains with machines, does yoga, and loves gardening, trekking and music. 

 

"It is a very hard life here," she continues. "Everything seems to go against you. There are termites, snakes, mosquitoes and great poverty in the villages nearby. But, how strange, despite all this, when I came here I realised that this is what I have always wanted to do. This is where I have always wanted to live.    

 

"I first came to Utility. It was pure and lovely. I stayed there for four years and then moved to Camp for two-and-a-half years before building this house in Certitude. You may wonder how I live alone in the wilderness at this age, but I never feel lonely. I love my company and can do whatever I want here. No one interferes."  Nergis has had a number of jobs including the backbreaking concreting of Matrimandir. Now she works in Information and provides literature on Auroville to those keen on knowing more.  

 

***************

 

"I came here finally after a long, long journey," says Prabahdevi in English that has a lot of Italian in it. We are at Quiet, a settlement on the fringes of Auroville, bang on the beach. It is a clear night sky. A slice of the moon sidesteps an onrushing cloud and a sliver of light crashes into the ripples below. Quiet is bathed in the shimmer of a gently woken moon and the muted strains of a flute coasting from nearby. Huts of fishermen scatter the beach sands. Their boats, nets and fatigue drone gently in the cool night breeze.

 

Prabha is Italian. The quintessential seeker, she overdosed on life, married, broke up and found Krishna. With it began the long journey to India. The search continued. Finally, several journeys and 'incarnations' later, she found Pondicherry and peace.

 

“I will never leave,” she tells me. “There is magic here. Just look at it. Look at the moon and the sea and the miles of beautiful land. I am blessed.” Prabha lives in a large tastefully done up hut built on two levels. From her bedroom, the sea is visible in its various moods. Sometimes, it calls out to her and at other times pretends to be in slumber. The sea has many faces, and Prabha has seen them all.

 

She has three cats who meow relentlessly for food and walk restlessly around the refrigerator. Surya, the smallest and most pampered, sharing its colours with the sun, is always coaxing her for more. Sometimes, large black snakes slither in and hide, once even the thatching collapsed in the monsoon. “But all this is nothing if you look at the larger picture,” she tells me. 

 

Prabha is beautiful and petite. Her long golden hair falls to her waist. Every day, she gets on her Luna and rides to Pondicherry for yoga and Reiki classes, does seva in the ashram batik department, visits the Mother’s samadhi and returns home in the evening to a simple vegetarian meal. Friends drop in, the classes go on, the heat and the rain pound the land and, sometimes, when she feels like it, even at midnight, she skinny dips in the beautiful blue waters kissing her home.

 

It is a life of peace and contentment. A long journey has come to an end and another, much more significant one, has begun.

 

Prabha gives me another cup of delectable cha. I soon find out that she is also an excellent cook, a great host and a wonderful companion. She can also talk to snakes. While I shudder in fear at the sight of them, she looks them in the eye and tells them that it is not a good idea to share digs with her. They listen, hoods raised, and quietly slip away into the bush without argument.

 

***************

 

Not far away from Prabha, also in Quiet, is Amba Shankar's house. It is still being constructed. The walls are not complete and bags of red bricks and cement lie around. It is another soulful night in Auroville.

 

Amba is in his sixties, tall, tanned and powerfully built like a leading man in a Biblical epic. His clean shaved handsome face with its deep lines seems chiseled from granite and when he smiles, which is often, dimples and two rows of shining teeth light the visage of a rake now slowly being done in by the passage of time. But, despite the years, Amba still remains a striking figure.

 

Amba has been in Auroville and Pondicherry all his life. "I am from the border of Northern Karnataka and Southern Maharashtra, he says slowly. "My father was a big landlord with no interest in worldly matters. He was a true seeker. When he found Mother and Sri Aurobindo, his questions were answered. He realised that they were the divine incarnate on earth."

 

Amba came to Pondicherry when he was four years old. He returned to his village to complete his studies and came back to the ashram as a strapping young man. He wasn't to know then that in the years to come his endless stamina and great physical prowess would whip controversy and legend in the same breath. Everyone in Pondicherry knows him. Mention the word Amba and you hear a gasp of recognition. He has straddled generations.        

 

"The early years were fabulous," says Amba. "Mother was the centre of everything. We were always filled with peace, harmony and energy. The mood continued till the Mother passed away. And then Auroville plunged into its darkest period. Power struggles and petty squabbles depleted the vision. Then the central government intervened and all was set right."  Those were dreary days when the sun had set for a while on the City of Dawn.

 

Amba has done it all. "I was first involved in laying the green belt, then digging the foundation for Matrimandir. But the Play School was my baby. All the children and a few adults met every evening after five. We played, talked, ate and drank milk. We didn't teach anything specific. It was informal schooling. We planted trees, built a gymnasium and a road and recreated Mother's spirit with discipline and love. I have also been to several parts of the world with those who came here to discover Auroville."

 

The last few years for Amba Shankar have been as calm as the early years have been fiery. He poured his energies to realise Mother's call, and with what was left of it nurtured the land he now owns. "I am very happy with the life I have spent here. There are no regrets. I have one fundamental quest in life: to do whatever Mother and Sri Aurobindo wanted me to do.

 

Amba goes to the kitchen and gets us large mugs of delicious tea. He sits barefoot on his haunches on the incomplete parapet of his house and scans the horizon deep in thought. In a few hours, it will be daybreak. Then the lanterns will be switched off, morning sounds will take over the silence of the night, and the tide will surge closer to the shore

 

****************

 

Pitanga and Dana are two of several settlements in Auroville. The road is long, narrow and lonely. It is a moonless night and I ride heavily on luck to get around. The wind is heavy with raindrops. I lift my scooty to full throttle and search the landscape for a route with headlights that sear the night sky. A large scorpion, or is it a twig, goes crunch under the tyres.

 

Celestin is tall, dark and slim with thick shoulder length curly hair. She is in a white shirt and blue shorts. Ordinary canvas shoes encase her feet. We met at a music concert and she pillion rode with me to her home in Bliss, another   settlement not too far away. It is at the foot of a 45-acre settlement of forest.

 

Celestin lives with two cats in a tree house so fragile that I lose several heartbeats stepping into it. She hardly eats anything, munching most of the time on raw salads and whatever else the forest drops on her dining table. It is an offbeat and reclusive existence. But she loves it, and has the guts to walk into the darkness without even a lantern.

 

"I am from Jaffna in Sri Lanka," she tells me. "I came away before the trouble started. I have spent my entire life searching for meaning. J.Krishnamurti influenced me. He came to Sri Lanka for a lecture series. I hung on to every word. I was obsessed. After listening to him I lost all fear. I just changed from inside."

 

At night the forest is filled with eerie sounds. You see nothing, but you hear a lot even at elbow range. You look around frantically, but no human or animal form is visible. The night has its distinct language. Wild cats jump on the table and lap up the spilt tea, then get distracted by a wandering mongoose and decide to chase it. Snakes, owls, rodents and foxes swish through the dark undergrowth. It is a beautiful night. The air is pregnant with rain, tree leaves carry droplets, and the earth, wet, fertile and caressed, is as coquettish as a newly wed bride.

 

The bush is thick. Tiny paths cut a swathe through it. For one unused to the secrets of the night or of the bush, every step can be a frightening experience. But for Celestin, frail and vulnerable and all trusting, the forest and the darkness and its mysterious ways are good friends. "I always wanted to be enlightened. That’s all I ever wanted," she tells me. "Now I am free of that need. This realisation was sudden. Maybe, now I am enlightened. I feel the liberation from inside me."

 

Celestin has been living in Auroville for years. She taught in a school in Isaiambalam and then moved through a number of settlements. She loves the forest. "We are planting more and more trees," she says. Celestin doesn’t want to return to Sri Lanka. That bit of her life is over. "There are dangers here too," she says. "Assaults, burglary, thefts, even rape. No place in the world is ideal. You have to work at peace from within yourself. In fact, there are more challenges here. I do yoga, meditate, and have no fear. I am happy."

 

***************

 

Arpit Aggarwal is tall, dark and slim. When I met him, during one of my first visits several years ago, he had passed out of the Ashram school and studied a bit more before deciding to work in a boutique in Pondicherry. He had just entered adulthood and had decided to live in Auroville.

 

"You could say I was a problem child all along," he says quite happily. "I didn’t study too much. But the Ashram school is probably the best in the world. It has an informal atmosphere that is conducive to learning. Nothing is forced on you.  So you learnt a lot even if you have been a difficult kid like me. Everything is taught with the high principles of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo in mind. This is simply the highest consciousness. There are loads of extra-curricular activities and no examinations. But the education is complete. All the kids from the school have done so well in life."  That's a valuable point. I have been to the school and interacted with the kids. The quality of instruction is exemplary. There is also great input from the outside world; from visitors and travellers who come to seek themselves in Pondicherry. The genius of visiting skills rubs off on them. There is sport, drama, dance, elocution, spirituality, guest lectures and innumerable outlets for other interests. Education at the Ashram school cannot be more complete.   

 

Why Auroville, I ask? Why not stay in Pondicherry or anywhere else in the world. Kids from the Ashram school have settled all over. "It is the brainchild of the highest consciousness on earth, a place the world definitely needs," says Arpit gravely. "I feel very proud being a part of it. Despite everything, it is still the best place to stay. I wouldn't exchange this for anything else."

 

Arpit works in Aurosarjan, a boutique that exhibits and sells garments made in Auroville. The garments are also exported all over the world. He lives in Bharat Nivas student's hostel and commutes to work on a red motorcycle. "I do have the desire to make it big in life, to make money and do something substantial with my life. But all that is on hold now. The desire to stay in Auroville is slightly stronger than any other need now.  I don’t know when the scales will tilt. But right now, this is my life. Every moment here is a challenge. The main difference is that those living here are working with a positive and higher consciousness."

 

The boutique is large and airy with beautiful clothes hanging in clusters. Business is good and Arpit has a never-ending stream of squealing females asking him to help out. He loves every moment of it. I buy two fine white cotton full-sleeved shirts and leave.

 

Life in Auroville is hard. Apart from snakes and scorpions and the intense heat and humidity, even basic provisions have to be procured from the town. "It’s like the wild west," says Arpit.  "I am like John Wayne on a mobike. Every moment is a challenge. It's so exciting."          

 

In the evening, after shutting shop, Arpit will meet with his class fellows for a bit of bonhomie, have dinner and gear his motorbike for the long journey home.  At the start of the dirt track that turns left to Auroville from the main road leading to Chennai, he will pause, looks around for lurking danger, and move ahead full throttle headlights blazing. There are not enough road lights, and buses and lorries are driven by demons. There is also a steady stream of pedestrians and rickshaws to add to the disarray on the road. Of late, to add to the woes of navigation, Aurovilians have also been attacked by drunk villagers. The outlying villages are poor and it is difficult for them to understand the great physical and spiritual renaissance happening in Auroville, right under their noses. But for Arpit and the others who use the road such matters are trivial when compared to the demands of a greater call.      

 

***************

 

S.Martin, in his sixties, is a big, fair, expansive German. He is over six- and- a- half feet tall and is several hundred pounds. He is in a pink T-shirt, blue shorts and large brown trekking boots and white stockings. I bump into him at a café. He is trying out everything Indian. I try to be as polite as I can for obvious reasons.

 

"I read Aurobindo at 18 when I was at boarding school," he tells me with a smile in his eyes that are forever dancing like fireflies. "You know…looking for the truth and all that." Martin has a deep sonorous voice and energy restlessly oozing from every pore. He grabs a paper masala dosa, which is almost a foot long, like a hapless fly and plonks the whole thing into his mouth along with coconut chutni and sambhar. Before I can blink an eyelid politely, he continues, "I went through a lot…the Christain mystics ..Jakob Poehme, the Protestant mystic of 17th century Germany, influenced me. I accidentally saw a German translation of Sri Aurobindo in the Kal Yuga and relaised that this was what I was looking for. In 1964 I wrote to Mother saying I wanted to join the Ashram. I wasn't sure about myself and so I wanted Mother to command me to come. She replied that I would have to make my own decision."

 

Martin gestures wildly, punctuating every sentence with a hearty laugh. "I worked as a librarian for 11 years, broke up with my girlfriend and decided that it was Auroville now or never. And here I am." He laughs and slaps me on the back in friendship. I could have died.

 

"I will drop you," he says. He has a tiny bicycle on hire and I sit behind. Somewhere along the way I hop off and he makes his way silently through the bush. His hearty laugh travels with the breeze caressing the decision he could finally make after so much thought.

 

***************

 

Christain Jacquss from France works in the Auroville printing press adjacent to the Medical Health Centre. He lives in Dana and commutes the distance from residence to office and back everyday on time and in clean clothes like a good office-goer. Christain is fair, slim and bubbly. He also has a distinct nervous temperament. "I came here for the Mother. I don’t believe in the future city and all that. I just came here for the Mother," he says breathless.

 

It is a few moments before sunset and Christian has returned home after work. I am also staying at Dana and so I don’t have to go out of my way to chat awhile. He prepares tea and feed me organically grown brown bread with a splash of peanut butter. It is trademark Aurovilian hospitality. We sit in easy chairs, in his comfortable home, watching the plants and trees, and discuss Auroville.

 

"I have been here ten years," he says. "I also returned to France for two years but left disenchanted as life was useless there. I can't live there any longer. It is over. After Auroville, most of the world becomes unlivable." Christian is in his thirties, has straddled many worlds, and is here to stay. "Here I get energised. I live every moment. I feel Mother's dream will be realised in Auroville."

 

Introverted and uncommunicative until rustled from his corner, Christian locks himself in his room every evening after work and listens to music. He doesn’t socialise or get out too much. He works, returns home, listens to music and meditates for hours. Every morning he jumps onto his motorcycle and hacks the same path to work like one possessed. For him there can be no other way.

      

*****************

 

A representative of urbane India is the stocky and balding sophisticate Sanjeev Aggarwal. "I was a lawyer in Delhi but was dissatisfied with the legal profession. I was searching for something all along. I came to Auroville, saw it, read about Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and realised that this was exactly what I wanted to do," he says with clarity.

 

Sanjeev is in his early forties. He has already spent over a decade in Auroville. "It has been a exciting period," he says in impeccable English. "I have learnt a lot and imbibed a deep spiritual knowledge. But we still haven’t touched the fringes of the Mother's message. There's a long way yet. Sanjeev is involved in the educational aspects of Auroville. "There are almost 20 schools here of all sorts. It is a very different type of education from what is imparted in the outside world." 

 

Sanjeev lives in style in a beautiful bungalow surrounded by fragrant flowers. It is a good life. He attends to the legal aspects of Auroville, travels when required and is committed to meeting the great challenges that lie ahead. "We have undertaken to create a place that is the best in the world. There is no question of leaving and going anywhere else now."

 

We share a few beers and then Sanjeev has visitors who don’t want to be quoted or mentioned in passing. I break free, kick my motorbike alive and hit the track that snakes through Auroville. I can see that my journey is also going to be long one. 

       

*****************

 

La Boutique D’Auroville. in  the busiest thoroughfare of Pondicherry, is the window to Auroville. Tastefully decorated, it exhibits and sells at reasonable rates everything that is manufactured in Auroville. It is a shopper’s paradise and the general sentiment is one of dismay when the entire shop can’t be purchased. So enticing are the offerings on display!

 

Managing the boutique is C.Bhoominathan, a Tamilian who lives in Aspiration in Auroville. Dark, with large eyes and a slim moustache, Bhoomi sports bright, colourful shirts over dark trousers. "I am from Kuilapalayam village," he tells me. "My mother used to work in Auroville. One day she asked me if I would like to study in the Auroville school. I said yes and joined up. I must have been five or six years old then." Other village children joined Bhoomi and they lived together in a sort of campus hostel. Two Americans, a husband and wife team, supervised their work and play.

 

"We stayed in a big house called Udayam. It was great fun," recalls Bhoomi.  "But in 1975 there were problems between Auroville and the Sri Aurobindo Society (SAS) and the school shut down. In 1984 the Last School was started and a different type of education began --- more informal, more fun. We had no degrees or diplomas. We studied only to acquire knowledge."

 

Bhoomi slowly integrated into mainstream Auroville. He travelled overseas for conferences and was touched with the winds of different lands. His education was, in a way, now complete. From an ordinary Tamil settlement, he had become a true representative of the cosmopolitan entity of the universal dream.

 

***************

 

Francois Gautier, the well know writer, lives in Auromodel on an enchanting slice of property. Tall, slim and pleasant, he is a journalist, jogger and environmentalist. Auroville is his base. He travels extensively and is a correspondent for several journals.

 

"I have been here for decades," he tells me. "I just love it. Besides, Auroville is an experiment which should be applauded when the whole world is going to the dogs." Francois is a widely read professional writer. "But what do I write about Auroville?" he asks pleading, very French, his hands in the air. "Words will never be able to capture the spirit of Auroville. We are growing, evolving, experimenting all the time. The moment anyone tries to define it, it may change course and move into another direction."

 

***************

 

Auroville is packed to the brim with stories. Every line can be canned for posterity, every whiff turned into a blockbuster. Every person here has an interesting tale to tell. Even the dogs, cats, birds and fish wear attitude. Auroville is well into its third decade of life on earth. It is thirty-seven. Yet, it is beyond definition and simply impossible to pin down. The moment you even attempt to cajole it into some shape, it slips out of your grasp. It is a working human experiment, constantly evolving and, miraculously, still moving in the direction it was meant to. There have been dark moments when all that was ever attempted precariously perched on the brink of disaster. There were moments of darkness in the City of Dawn. But at every crisis, Auroville rallied to triumph.

 

Like with every other alternate lifestyle commune, Auroville too attracts the most brilliant and offbeat minds. Thrown against a backdrop of such wild, incalculable beauty and a purpose that is constantly crystallising, it is anarchy at is best. A divine anarchy, Aurovilians concede, that may some day show the world where it floundered.

(Book on Pondicherry and Auroville in progress)  

    

Damodar Pandita Dasa

BHAKTIVEDANTA HOSPITAL'S SPIRITUAL COUNSELLOR

 

By Rajendar Menen

 

He is tall, fair and slim. His head is shaved and he is in spotless white cotton kurta and dhoti. His long feet are shod in rubber chappals. We haven’t met in a decade but Damodar Pandita Dasa, the chief counsellor for patients at the Bhaktivedanta Hospital at Mira Road in Mumbai, hasn’t changed much. He is still in the garb of an ascetic. If anything, his smile lingers longer and his gaze is charged with more benevolence. We decide to meet in the Krishna temple in Juhu. Twilight is waltzing through, the lights have come up, kirtan is in progress, and Damodar Pandita Dasa is waiting for me, his arms outstretched, his bright eyes shining like beacons.  

 

Damodar Pandit has had a life of several twists and turns. Born to an upper class Roman Catholic family, he graduated in English Literature, studied law, and then went to Vienna in 1974 for higher training in Orchestral Conducting and Composition. In Vienna, he started questioning the purpose of life, became interested in spiritual matters and returned to Mumbai in 1981 to pursue his spiritual inclinations. He joined the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in Juhu, headed its Public and Cultural Affairs department and travelled frequently to the Far East for fund raising, drug counselling and flood relief. He also met with and fell in love with a devotee. They got married but she left her body a few years later, struck by brain cancer. In 1998, he joined the Bhaktivedanta Hospital and has been actively involved in patient care and child counselling and is a much sought after speaker at Rotary programmes. He is also the advisor to schools on the Cell System of counselling and is the chief coordinator of Bal Samskara Kala Kshetra, a youth group that organises cultural activities for students.    

 

After the pleasantries, I ask him about his work, how does he feel to be surrounded by the terminally ill every moment of his life, doesn’t he burn out, what’s his take on life, death, and the final moments? 

 

“The body is the droppings of the soul,” he says gently, the soft smile not leaving him even for a moment, quoting John Dryden, the renowned 17th century bard. “But the Bhagavadgita elaborates on that highly esoteric subject matter in such a succinct but elaborate manner (specifically verses 13-30 of the Second Chapter) that one has no more queries about the dubious distinction between the perishable and mutable gross material body (comprised of ‘pancha maha-bhuta’ viz. earth, water, fire, air and ether) and the immutable, eternal and indestructible spirit soul or ‘atma’. Due to ignorance and delusion, the eternal soul identifies itself with the outer coverings including the subtle body comprising mind, intelligence and the sense of one’s misperceived identity or false ego.

 

“There are four irrevocable phenomena that confront and plague all embodied beings. They are birth, old age, disease and death,” he continues. “Of these, the word ‘death’ generally strikes terror in the heart and evokes a spontaneous response of revulsion – ‘Why me? Not me!’ Within the subtle body, there are 72,000 ‘nadis’ or passages through which the universal energy (‘prana’) flows. As the gross physical body becomes more and more disabled, due to advanced age and terminal disease, this inner subtle body becomes more and more hyperactive, thus compensating for the disability of its gross counterpart. When the process of death commences, the spirit soul (whose dimension is calculated to be the ten thousandth part of a hair tip) ceases to illuminate and activate all gross bodily processes.

 

“In the event of such an internal blackout, the Supersoul or ‘Paramatma’ takes charge and illuminates one of the major 118 ‘nadis’ through which the individual soul may leave the body (along with the subtle body) for judgement by higher authorities under the surveillance of the Supersoul. If the living being has realised and perfected his/her relationship with the Almighty Lord, then the soul (‘atma’) departs for the abode of the Lord, deserting both the gross and subtle material bodies.”

  

I take a deep breath and try to absorb all this. It is a lot for my little mind to receive on a beautiful summer evening with the wind still deliriously kissing the tree tops watched by the faint red-orange glow of the setting sun.

 

Damodar Pandit continues, “As long as the distinction between body and soul is not clear, terminally ill patients are bound to be dragged through the gamut of emotional phases like Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Despair and ultimately Acceptance or Resignation. The human psyche is such an unpredictably complex entity that these various stages could manifest in varying degrees of intensity, depending upon culture, spiritual upbringing, life experiences, and familial relationships and support (both emotional and spiritual). The scriptures explain that Death, for an ignorant being, is more painful than being stung by 42,000 scorpions at one time.

 

“I am honoured and privileged to be of some help to people in the darkest moments of their lives. I am never burnt out. On the contrary, I am energised.”

  

How does he explain all this to grieving next of kin?

 

“It is important to be the bridge,” he tells me. “I help by being with their loved ones and assist him/her traverse the various phases -- from the dread of the dark, unknown and unfathomable to the illuminating vision of the definite mercy of an all-caring and all-protective Father. It is my role to provide the stimulus to gain courage and inspire the patient to enter the sublime process of relinquishing his/her incapacitated body in divine consciousness. The relatives are encouraged to take part in scriptural readings and prayer, either by the bedside or in the lobby. This helps the terminally ill to progress steadily from the morbid to the sublime.”

 

As the spiritual counsellor of the Bhaktivedanta hospital, Damodar Pandit is always at the deathbed of someone or the other. His door is always open and strict instructions are left with the operator to allow every call to reach him any time of the day or night. It is his responsibility to help patients comes to terms with their situation, to facilitate the need for forgiveness by clearing emotional and physical baggage, to deepen already existent familial and fraternal ties with a deep sense of gratitude, and to renew and reaffirm sagging faith in “His divine will.”

 

There have been thousands of memorable cases; so many have died smiling in his arms. He recounts the case of Rubina, a young Muslim housewife who had tried to immolate herself due to family problems. She survived and was brought to the hospital with ninety-two per cent burns. With the permission of her spouse and family members, Rubina heard the entire Bhagavadgita (700 ‘shlokas’) twice. “So dependent were her relatives on the spiritual care at Bhaktivedanta Hospital and the extraordinary efforts of Spiritual Care Nurse, Vishrita Patil, that they insisted that Vishrita remain in the room, alone, with Rubina, read the Gita and put ‘Ganga jal’ and ‘Tulasi’ in her mouth as Rubina was slowly leaving her body,” says Damodar Pandit. “Christians and Muslims, people of every faith, allow their dying relatives to hear readings exclusively from the Gita and listen to the rendering of Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare either alone or accompanied by readings and chants from their sacred texts.”

  

The toughest part is counselling and consoling the relatives. “Death is the most powerful manifestation of God (‘mrityu sarva harash caham’),” adds Damodar Pandit. It is inevitable and yet relatives adamantly hang on to the misconception that their loved ones will not die. They pray for life. When that doesn’t happen, the family members lose faith in God. Instead of putting the onus on God to do the irrational, they could, instead, utilise this phase of intense emotional activity to reinforce their faith in His goodwill. Death is only a physical separation; it is the sublime gateway to an eternal reunion with the Creator.”

 

There are also other, more earthly, needs to look into. Family members can squabble over financial and property matters, and the terminally ill have their own fears. They want to know how much time there is, they worry about being a financial burden on their loved ones, and what would happen to them when they are not around anymore. There are feelings of guilt, hopelessness and helplessness.

 

But Damodar Pandita Dasa is always there with a smile playing on his serene face and kind, shining eyes as he guides them from this life to the next on the toes of the last sonata.   

 

pdamodara_rns@yahoo.co.in/ 9324249183 

 

 

BLUEPRINT FOR INDIAN HOCKEY

 

By Rajendar Menen

 

A lot of noise is being made of the three medals India won at the recently concluded Beijing Olympics. At one level, it is our best performance ever. No one would have imagined a ‘shooting’ gold, and bronzes in boxing and wrestling. Abhinav Bindra sidestepped the system, made his own plans, threw in his own money, and slogged at it for over a decade to enter the zone and grab the gold. If he had worked within the system, he would have been done in. The other medalists too, Sushil Kumar in wrestling and Vijayendra in boxing, from poor, rustic backgrounds, were buoyed by fierce determination and a singlemindedness of purpose. Their self-belief, thankfully, overlooked a haggard sports agenda which has perfected the art of mass producing losers. Like with Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Indian cricket’s wonder boy, their backgrounds helped. They weren’t unnerved by the big league. They had within them the arrogance of confidence which those who live and work with the soil have in plenty. The medalists are billionaires now, have won accolades normally not even dreamt about in the badlands, and the whole nation has seen it. It won’t come as a surprise if these medals kick start a boxing and wrestling boom in the country. With Colonel Rathore’s silver in Athens and Narang’s world championship success, greater shooting glory in the future can also be expected.

 

While we go gaga over these accomplishments, and quite rightly too, we should also remind ourselves that three medals out of a population of over one thousand and two hundred million people is nothing short of abysmal. It is pathetic. If there is a stronger word, I would use it. China is only slightly more populous but strides ahead in the medals tally. We have more people than almost all the other competing nations put together, barring China, and very little metal to show for it.  

 

Hundreds of millions in India live in terrifying poverty. When the state is unable to provide them the basics, it is almost impossible to expect sporting stardom for which very big money has to be made available. The equation is simple: sporting prowess is directly proportional to the money spent on it. Training facilities, stadia, coaches, sports medicine, travel and exposure, right diets, latest equipment, and a host of other factors cost money.

 

The talent is widespread and the hunger to excel is huge. Which Indian doesn’t want to be a world beater?  He has seen the lolly and the plaudits on offer. If anything can draw him out of the hopelessness of Indian life, it is a display of some form of excellence. In the absence of education and no claims to original scientific thought, a sporting triumph will more than suffice. It happens all over the world, even, in fact, at random, in the favelas of Brazil. Samba soccer is favela soccer. It has taken the likes of Ronaldo from grisly poverty to international stardom and big money. In nearby Argentina, the hand of God tweaked the genius of Diego Armando Maradona. The blacks began their renaissance with Jesse Owens in Berlin. Every Indian knows that a medal, whatever the colour, will be a passport to economic deliverance. A sporting nation will also be healthier, more focused and productive and less prone to civil disobedience. Plus, in the absence of war, sporting prowess makes a potent point. So an investment in sport is unequivocally in the national interest.

 

The money angle needs to be put forward with some force. To put it simply, you can’t paint if you don’t have an easel and you can’t take pictures if you don’t have a camera. Likewise, you can’t perform on the greatest platforms of sporting excellence if your dreams are not strengthened by the best facilities. Technology, like records in the heats, ropes in new imagination all the time. Unless we keep pace, brutally put, we will remain a Third World sporting nation for EVER. We need to create an aura of excellence, a culture for sport to breed and thrive. We need a sporting revolution, a change of mindset, a switching of lanes. We need the state to sponsor the cause of sport. This will take time and a lot of effort. But, first, the will has to be there, and in plenty. We need to believe in ourselves, we need to believe that we can make it happen. We need to puff our chests and indulge in some well meaning jingoism. 

 

It is not talent or the dream that is important. I repeat, it is about pumping in money and keeping abreast of the latest developments in sport. Tiny countries have returned with huge medal hauls. A classic case is Australia which has only a few more people than the city of Mumbai. But their systems are in place, the planning is well worked out, and the hunger to win is well supported. Take on the Aussies in any sport any place any time and they are well prepared to kayo.

 

Now over to Indian hockey and to its ungainly demise.

 

We last won the World Cup in 1975 in the humidity of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia in a thrilling and controversial final against Pakistan (2-1) in which Ashok Kumar, son of the legendary Dhyan Chand, scored the winner after the dashing young buck Aslam Sher Khan had equalised with a penalty corner conversion. The Pakistanis protested saying that the ball had hit the post and ricocheted. But Malaysian umpire Shanmuganathan stuck to his whistle. En route to the title we had rattled Germany in the semi-finals. We had the dapper Ajitpal Singh as skipper, possibly the best centre half the game has ever seen and Philips, the black streak of lightning, as outside right, again possibly the best in the business at that time, among a host of other talent. Later, in the partially boycotted Los Angeles Olympics in 1980, under the doughty Bhaskaran, we won the Olympic gold edging out Spain. The talent is still there, but the big podium finishes seem so many light years ago.  

 

The last World Cup win was 33 years ago and the last Olympic gold 28 years ago. For the first time in Olympic history, India did not even find a slot in Beijing. We were knocked out by England in the qualifying tournament. Prior to this we have had minor triumphs, a series of dismal performances in subsequent Olympics and World Cups, and even a highly forgettable Asian Games in which newcomers China, trained by a Korean who learnt the nuances of hockey in India,  shocked us.

 

In all, we have seven Olympic gold medals in hockey which is still an Olympic record. Today, we are placed eleventh in the world even behind Belgium and England. Germany, Australia, The Netherlands, Spain and South Korea are the top five nations. Pakistan, Korea, Malyasia, Japan and now China breathe down our shins for Asian supremacy. On their day, any one of these teams can beat the other. The difference in quality is razor thin; you can’t even push a hockey ball through it. Skills and strategies are so similar that it finally boils down to biorhythms, temperament and staying power.

 

Evidently, India has its work cut out. It has to, first, enter the top ten which should be no trouble, and then take the big leap into the top five. Which is going to be difficult.

 

But how? Where do we start?

 

Thankfully, the Gill-Jothikumaran combine, which ruined Indian hockey with its patent lack of vision along with allegations of corruption, has been axed. The Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) has a new name now – Hockey India, and a new team of selectors which includes highly respected former players. The annual premier league is exciting, and some sponsorship has dribbled in. But all this is a trickle. We are still at the start line.

 

To begin, we need at least 300 synthetic surfaces all over India. This costs a lot of money, well over Rs.300crores plus maintenance and refurbishment costs. Kids should start hockey on these surfaces or the transition from grass and hard mud will be traumatic. Hockey on synthetic surfaces is fast and requires great athleticism. The ball bounces, and passes can curve. The pace of the game can take a huge toll on leg muscles. Special shoes and the latest hockey sticks are needed. Young blood has to be weaned on all this. Young legs have to grow on such surfaces. All sub-junior and junior tournaments will have to be played on synthetic surfaces. There is no option. It is not a matter of choice; it is mandatory. But, strangely, despite the lack of facilities, we still remain a junior powerhouse. What then happens at the senior level? There are a number of theories here, from the age old age scandal to the indiscriminate axing of talent and corruption in selection procedures, but we won’t go into that just now.

 

The traditional nurseries of hockey like Gurdaspur and Coorg need to be revived. There is new talent in the tribal belts of Orissa. They have to be harvested, and the call for talent made as widespread as possible. The big cities like Mumbai have no space to play and so the search for talent will invariably lead to the larger spreads of rural and small town India. Decisive thrusts will have to be made into Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and the old bastions of hockey where talent is in plenty even today.

 

Money has to pour in. Players need monetary security, and talent needs acclaim. There is big money in India and no dearth of sponsors. But those who put money into sport are not selfless. They are making an investment and need to see it grow. It makes monetary sense to pamper the Indian cricket team. There are only ten cricketing nations, and chances are we may win some time. It is a gamble and worth the chance. The same odds will favour Indian hockey if it enters the top five club. Once players become celebrities and endorse products, the spin will benefit the game as well as the sponsors. Over time, the initial investment will bear dividends. A hockey player’s life at the top is short. He has to be assured of a good job and a comfortable pension scheme. If this happens, hockey will become a profession of choice like cricket is now. And then, abracadabra, there will simply be no dearth of talent.

 

Our coaching methods are also outdated. The present coaches need refresher camps. Rules have changed and the coaches need international exposure. Ditto for the umpires.  We need to see them officiating the big games. It will also make sense to appoint coaches for age group teams and the national team for at least four years. There has to be continuity of thought and strategy. The coach and his wards have to work, live and slave like a family without the fights. Professional and generous contracts need to be signed with them. Selection procedures should also be transparent. We goofed up a great chance by not giving Aussie great Ric Charlesworth enough bully room. He could have been entrusted with the national team till the next Olympics and retained or given a larger role depending on the results. But, again, sadly, all this is the past!  

 

Also, all teams flying Indian colours should take part in at least four international tournaments a year. You have to assess your skills against the best all the time. The Indo-Pak series should be revived, constant exchanges with Continental teams made, and, possibly, even an Asia versus Europe trophy initiated. European teams should be invited to play here and admissions to tournaments made free for the public. The coverage should also be comprehensive and not entrusted to Doordarshan alone. Hockey needs all the publicity it can get. More school and university tournaments, and continued national coverage should be the agenda. There should be obsessive recall. Hockey India will do well to appoint marketing professionals to spread and market the game. Support could be enlisted from the highly successful Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), and Federation International Hockey (FIH), the international body, could learn a few lessons from the International Cricket Council (ICC). Look at how cricket is packaged. What gloss!

 

Like with soccer, it is now a case of total hockey. No country can afford to stick to a traditional style. The Aussies and the Spanish have married deft movements to power. There is nothing wrong with the Indian physique or the team’s fitness. It just languishes in confusion. Give the players a style that works best for them and they will adapt. In fact, I think, the Indian physique is ideal for hockey. It is perfect. We are supple, slim and athletic with the right centre of gravity and great wrist work. The muscle tone is ideal. We also have the needed speed and strength. Plus all this talk about lack of a killer instinct is baloney. We are ‘killers’ without a doubt. We just need modern training methods to optimise what is probably in our DNA and genetic make-up, and I am talking of hockey. Excellence in sport is not at all about size. The greatest sportspeople have been small even in contact sports. It is about skill and about heart. I can drop several names here, but since we are talking hockey Aussie Jamie Dwyer suits the context. Voted the best payer in world hockey, he is short and compact (very Indian in build) with a great burst of speed, intelligent off the ball play and a mind brimming with goal scoring and creating opportunities. Anyone who knows the game can see that the long pass, abrupt stops and body play will not suit us. That style makes sense for the bigger built Dutch and the Germans who are still seeking the magic of ball play. We have to deftly incorporate our intrinsic skills and weaving patterns into the speed and thrust of modern hockey. It is not a difficult task. It is only a question of channelising it all in the right direction.

 

What we lack is a plan. We need strategy, video replays, masseurs, a team of the best coaches, psychological planning, morale raisers, the best technology, equipment, training facilities, a whole newly packaged ‘Team Indian Hockey’ backing the players. We simply can’t endlessly go about saying that the video equipment hasn’t arrived or the masseur’s visa has still to be worked on or drop the coach while the tournament is still on. All this is puerile and so completely unprofessional. It just smacks of blatantly poor planning and irreverence to the national game (is it still?). The rest of the world just watches our antics and laughs. We don’t need the ridicule from extraneous factors. The dwindling impact on the game is bad enough.

 

There are several fund raising ideas I can think of. If, for some reason, corporates take their time to support the game, the government can intervene and, possibly, lay a one rupee cess on everyday products like, say, matchboxes, to garner funds for the game. If they proudly propel a Save Indian Hockey campaign, there will be many takers. Indians living abroad are also enthusiastic to help hockey and if tax deduction clauses invite funds, there will never be a dearth of it. I have met so many Indians settled abroad who shed tears whenever India loses. They are willing to back any move to revive Indian hockey. What is required is the vision and the desperate desire to wipe out the past. One tournament win and we are back. The resultant euphoria and adrenaline charge will ride over the past. Winning, like losing is a habit. Like life, sport is about passion, and the winner takes all. We simply can’t keep saying that we WERE a great hockey playing nation. The past is over and done with. Face the mirror and see the warts. It can’t get worse than being eleventh in the world. Or can it?

 

Rink hockey, indoor hockey, four-and six-a-side games should be held at the school level and we should compete in all tournaments everywhere. Thousands of residential sports schools should be opened and talent scouts sent to every village tournament. Our players should take part in foreign leagues and overseas players should play in ours. Hockey is global and no nation can afford to be left out. The exchange is intrinsic to excellence. All this is relevant for the women’s game too.   

 

If we start today and break into the top five at the London Olympics in 2012, the grand revival of Indian hockey will have happened.

 

 

WHAT IS WRONG WITH INDIA?

 

By Rajendar Menen

 

In politics, absurdity is not a handicap.

 

 -- Napoleon Bonaparte, general and politician (1769-1821)

 

When the flag is unfurled, all reason is in the trumpet.

 -- Ukrainian proverb 
 

I am asked this question wherever I go.

 

At roadside chai shops, in nondescript rural hamlets, by the very poor and desperately impoverished, and in more genteel surroundings by the middle and upper classes. I am also constantly emailed this question. Everyone wants to know what is wrong with India? And there are as many answers as there are people.

 

It is not that I am privileged in any way or privy to the rumblings in parliament or to the uncensored blurps of the finance minister. I am just another everyday, ordinary bloke with no deep throat pretensions. I am also, like all of you, fed up of the system and filled with a seething anger. I pay my taxes on time and wonder why an elected government can’t even provide me a proper road to walk on. Asking for a comfortable lifestyle may sound too demanding in the circumstances. And I am a part of the educated middle-class; the hundreds of millions below this bracket have more basic and unfulfilled needs. The question – what is wrong with India? - is being bandied about to just about everyone and his first cousin. The world wants an answer. India is certainly the flavour of the season, and for so many reasons!  

 

‘What is wrong with India?’ is repeatedly asked even when I travel out of the country. The globe has shrunk and Indians are everywhere dazzling their peers with their brilliance. The Indian Diaspora is charged with talent, integrity, ingenuity and ambition. So the rest of the world is even more confused and surprised. How come a nation of over 1,300 million people, with such breathtaking skills, can’t get their act together even once on their own soil?

 

The rest of the world has also come to India and they love what they see and smell despite the all-pervasive squalor. It is not just the exotica. There is, without doubt, a magic and aroma about the Indian bazaar, and the sun shines so bright all the time. But, somehow, despite the warmth and friendliness, spices, brains, ayurveda, yoga, passion, Vedanta, epics, sages and ancient wisdom, emotion, diversity, culture, dance, music, art, cuisine, fabric, beauty and colour, gods and goddesses, festivities and so much more, nothing ever seems to work in India.

 

In this Aquarian Age with its information and spiritual overspread, when moon and mars missions are commonplace and the Antarctic has been searched and re-searched, and records tumble to sporting excellence, and so many slices of the planet are partying non-stop, and the good life spills its charms to all those who can afford it, and a large chunk of the world can, India is still unable to provide its people water, food, shelter, clothing, education, medical aid and some entertainment outside of the political shenanigans.

 

There is progress but it is far from equitable.

 

The poverty is gut wrenching, and growing faster than the Indian billionaire club which is also swelling by the day. Even after sixty years, the political system doesn’t work and chances are it never will in its current avatar. The corruption is endemic; cross border infiltration is increasing; the Kashmir deadlock is far away from a solution; caste and communal tensions are growing; the nation is being bombed at will; hunger, disease and destitution are taking a heavy toll; there is a colossal power and water shortage; ordinary housing is beyond the reach of most Indians; police excesses are commonplace; the integrity of the judiciary is in question; the dignity of the individual and any semblance of human rights gets a kick in the butt every moment; women are still low down in the social pecking order and their emancipation and empowerment seem aeons away; the population continues to grow recklessly; insurgency is rife; several parts of India are torn by civil strife; petrol prices are rocketing; inflation is sky high; the investment in military hardware has risen phenomenally; the environment is being savaged; any type of integrity has been neutered; civic planning has long been dead; migration to urban areas is increasing manifold making for more refugees than ever; the medical system is in intensive care; employment avenues are not keeping pace with the population growth; communal attacks are on the rise; a miasma of gloom, doom and hopelessness has gripped the land; and the morale of the people has touched rock bottom. As I write this, the markets have also collapsed and a global economic meltdown is shutting, at least for now, the last windows of commercial opportunity.

 

In short, India seems to be running amok like a headless chicken and bleeding at will.

 

Worse, the neighbourhood, very important in this context (responsible for the colossal military spend and the proliferation of terrorism), is also on a tricky wicket. Pakistan is deeper in trouble with new bombs terrorising its new democracy; China, rich, healthy, ambitious, and blustering away, is a superpower eyeballing the United States; Sri Lanka is torn by a long ethnic war; Nepal has become a poorer and more dangerous place; Bhutan is still waking up to the world; Myanmar is in eternal siege; Tibet has been devoured by mainland China; and Bangladesh is worse off than most countries in the world. Nuclear arsenals are piling high all over the region, in the midst of extreme poverty, desperation, hopelessness and religious fanaticism, and it only takes a moment of insanity to unleash furious destruction. Unfortunately, without the erstwhile Soviet Union, we need the ‘benevolence’ of Uncle Sam, now on the economic rack, more than ever before to restore parity in the region. So all talk of non-alignment in a global village is hogwash. It always was.

 

Ironically, while Coca-Cola, Nokia, LG, Adidas and Nike and other expressions of material progress are easily available at the corner shop, the simple act of going to court or to the police station to lodge a complaint is terrifying. Lawlessness rules, new flyovers develop cracks even before the cement dries out, the lights go off at will, the taps are dry, and when the water flows it reeks of chlorine, pesticides or germs. Will an entire nation of over a billion people be reduced to drinking water sold in plastic bottles to save its body? Its soul and its soil are already spent.       

 

STATISTICS OF POVERTY, INEQUITY AND CORRUPTION

 

I generally don’t take recourse in statistics and official quotes to garnish a point. It seems foolish to sit with a calculator and make seemingly clever additions and subtractions to embellish an argument. And official quotes say the same meaningless nonsense all the time. They are normally an escape hatch to slither out of a tight situation. We have all heard everything that has to be heard on the subject and, honestly, we are simply fed up of the drivel. 

 

But a recent report released by the US-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) caught my eye. India is worse off than I had imagined. Punjab, the granary of India, home to the green revolution, and the best performing Indian state in terms of hunger levels, ranks below countries like Gabon (have you heard of it?), Honduras and Vietnam which are low down in global ranking. In the Global Hunger index 2008, Madhya Pradesh, India’s largest state, ranks between Ethiopia and Chad. “India is home to the world’s largest food insecure population with more than 200 million people who are hungry,” says the India State Hunger Index (ISHI). India stands 66 in the 2008 global hunger list of 88 nations and it does not have a single state in the ‘low hunger’ or ‘moderate hunger’ categories. India’s malnutrition rate is higher than most sub-Saharan countries in Africa. Twelve states fall into the ‘alarming’ category, four, which include Punjab, Kerala, Haryana and Assam, fall into the ‘serious’ category and Madhya Pradesh falls into the ‘extremely alarming’ category.

 

Mauritius, China, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan are all better placed in the hunger index. Thankfully, if that is some consolation, we are ahead of Bangladesh and Congo.

 

G.K.Chadha, member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council released the report in New Delhi. “Figuring in the 88 countries itself is shameful for the country,” he admitted. High GDP growth is not sufficient. Inclusive growth is necessary.” Child underweight, calorie deficiency and child mortality was dragging Indian down in every country comparison made by watchdog agencies.           

 

A UN report says that four in every ten Indian children are malnourished.

 

The World Bank adds that one-third of the world’s poor live in India. Based on its new threshold of poverty - $1.25 a day – the number of India’s poor has actually gone up from 421 million in 1981 to 456 million in 2005; it is still growing. 

 

In the UN’s Human Development Index which calculates life expectancy, literacy and standard of living, India ranks 128 out of 177 countries.    

 

There are other reports, one more depressing than the other. In the World Prosperity Index 2008, India ranks 70th of 104 countries. Australia, Austria, Finland, United States, Germany, Denmark, Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand are among the most prosperous. We are, of course (?), better off than Pakistan and Bangladesh. Low quality of secondary education, high cost of starting a business, lack of government effectiveness and overpowering corruption are some of the reasons for this dismal position.

  

The crush on space, such a scarce resource even now, is going to be more telling. According to a 2008 UN-Habitat report Mumbai and Delhi will be most populated cities in the world after Tokyo by 2025. The State of the World’s Cities Report 2008/9 adds that Indian cities will witness an “inequality trend” as a result of economic liberalisation and globalisation. The study also says that the most egalitarian cities in the world are in Western Europe thanks to economic performance, and the regulatory and distributive capacity of the European welfare states. In the developing world, one out of three people in a city lives in a slum. In the last two decades, an average of three million people a week has been added to the urban population of the developing world. By 2050, the study estimates, 70 per cent of the population in the developing world and 55 per cent of that in India will be urban.


The report, I quote, puts the current ecological footprint of humanity as 2.2 hectares per person, while the earth’s biocapacity remains at 1.8 ha. China and India have ecological footprints that are twice their biocapacity. In other words, what the population consumes in a year, their area of earth will take two years to produce. Other challenges facing cities are mobility, waste management and environment. The World Health Organisation estimates that more than a billion people in Asia are exposed to air pollution levels that exceed its guidelines.

 

According to R.K.Pachauri, chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “India has miles to go in improving human development indicators. For instance, of the nearly four million deaths of new born children globally in 2007, 28 per cent occurred in India. Despite massive efforts towards immunisation, 40 per cent of the world’s children who are not immunised live in India. After 61 years as an independent nation, over half of India’s population practices open defecation (more than 500 million people). Despite efforts to popularise primary education, more than one in every five of all primary age children out of school, are in India. Of the 1.6 billion people who have no access to electricity globally, 25 per cent of them -- or 400  million -- live in India.”

 

Professor Lant Pritchett of the Harvard University, who has been studying the social development parameters of several countries, has called India a “failing state.” According to him India is worse off than even Bangladesh and Indonesia. More than 40 million people joined the ranks of the chronically hungry in 2008, taking the world further away from its millennium goal of reducing hunger by 2015, according to preliminary data released by UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. There are now an estimated 121 million more hungry people in the world than there were in 1990-92, the base year on which the goal of halving the number of the hungry was based.

 

In FAO’s latest report, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2008, the developing countries account for more than 93 per cent (901 million out of 963 million) of the world’s hungry. Out of these, 65 per cent are from seven countries alone — India, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Congo, Indonesia, and Ethiopia.

 

India is home to the largest number of hungry people in the world, accounting for more than 20 per cent of the total.

 

According to UNICEF’s 2009 State of the World’s Children report, 60 per cent of pregnant women still deliver their babies at home in India. More than two-thirds of all maternal deaths occur in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan and Assam. In Uttar Pradesh one in every 42 women face the risk of maternal death. UNICEF chief Karin Hulshof adds, “Of every 100 children born in the world, 20 are from India. Of every 100 children who die globally, 22 are from India.” One-quarter of the world’s unattended deliveries take place in India, only one in four babies is breastfed within an hour of birth, and around six million babies born in India each year have low birth weight.     

 

The report adds that a woman in India is 300 times more likely to die in childbirth and from pregnancy related complications than one in the USA or England. Avoidable childbirth complications  kill 78,000 women in India every year; on an average a woman die sin India every seven minutes from pregnancy complications.

 

CORRUPTION ACROSS THE BOARD

 

Indian companies have been perceived as one of the worst bribe-payers while engaging in business abroad, ranking along with firms in other BRIC countries - Russia and China - according to anti-corruption organisation Transparency International 2008 Bribe Payers Index.

 

“The BPI provides evidence that a number of companies from major exporting countries still use bribery to win business abroad, despite awareness of its damaging impact on corporate reputations and ordinary communities,” said TI Chair Huguette Labelle in a press statement. Belgium and Canada shared first place in the 2008 BPI, with a score of 8.8, indicating that Belgian and Canadian firms are seen as least likely to bribe abroad. The Netherlands and Switzerland shared third place on the index, each with a score of 8.7. On the other end of the spectrum is Russia, which is ranked last with a score of 5.9, just below China (6.5), Mexico (6.6) and India (6.8).

 

The BPI also shows that public works and construction companies are the most corruption-prone when dealing with the public sector, and most likely to exert undue influence on the policies, decisions and practices of governments. In the first of two new sectoral rankings, companies in public works contracts and construction; real estate and property development; oil and gas; heavy manufacturing; and mining were seen to bribe officials most frequently.

 

Transparency International recommends the Indian government to sign the international anti-corruption conventions, ratify the United Nations’ convention against corruption and also exhorts it to pass laws like the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977. “The unfolding financial crisis has shown us just how integrated the world’s markets have become. Accountability must be guaranteed across borders, include improved risk management and reach all the way down a company’s supply chain,” said Cobus de Swardt, managing director, TI.

 

India stands at a low 22nd rank among 24 countries surveyed in preparing and disseminating reports by banking and other monetary bodies for cases of illegal financing and shady transactions. The survey was conducted by anti-fraud consultancy service provider Indiaforensic Consultancy Services (ICS). 

 

All this inequity has made our cities unsafe. Delhi seems to be the most unsafe city among the four metros. As per government data the whole of Delhi, including the rural areas, registered 598 rape cases in 2007 which is one rape every 879.9 minutes. Kolkata is the safest metro with a rape reported only once in 11,945.5 minutes. Nagaland was the safest state with a rape reported only once in 40,430 minutes. The statistics were prepared by the National Crime Records Bureau(NCRB).

 

Bribery in the World Bank’s lending methods is as rampant as ever, says a former Bank official who has written a book on this corruption. Steve Berkman contends that Indian IT majors Satyam and Wipro, who were barred from World Bank projects for offering their stock to Bank officials, represent a miniscule problem compared to the kickbacks and commissions that go to government officials for approval of Bank projects.

 

Berkman, who was an advisor to various project teams within the Bank on human resource issues and capacity building, retired from the Bank in 2002. He is the author of an expose on corruption in this multilateral institution titled, The World Bank and the Gods of Lending, based on his 16-year experience auditing Bank projects, including the $800 million loan to health sector projects in India. While most of his experiences were in Africa and Latin America, he said the corruption “I’ve seen in India is no different than what I’ve seen in Africa and other places. My experience has been that -- and again, one of the things I was trying to shed some light on in my book -- is that almost always corruption emanated from government officials in these developing countries. In my experience, they have always been the catalysts for the corruption and the fraud. Everybody seems to be talking about the companies that bribe these officials, but what never seems to come out is that in fact, it is the officials who are the catalysts for this and they are the ones that are more of less coercing the business. That if you want a contract you have to pay us -- that kind of thing.” In most developing countries, Berkman said, “Nothing is done for the benefit of the people. It is merely for the benefit of the people who are running the show.”

 

In the case of the $800 million loan to health sector projects in India, a team of investigators found dummy companies that were paid by the Bank for products and services that were never delivered and a plethora of bribes and kickbacks that went into the pockets of senior government officials.

 

At the time, it is believed, that when Wolfowitz had written to then Indian finance minister Palaniappan Chidambaram about the alleged corruption and the Bank's concern over corruption in India projects, an angry Chidambaram, irritated by what he believed was the Bank president's patronising tone, had curtly responded that India was as concerned or more about corruption and implying that New Delhi did not need lessons about fighting corruption from 'a holier than thou' Wolfowitz.

 

India is the largest beneficiary of World Bank lending.

 

 

ACTION PLAN FOR CHANGE

 

So what is to be done?   

 

A mammoth agenda for an ancient country cannot be reduced to a few typed sheets and brought within the ambit of an article. It has to be worked on ceaselessly by several clever minds. Here is a tiny attempt, within the confines of the paradigms I have just mentioned, to steer India from further collapse.

 

* The first task, obviously, is population control - to circumcise the bottom of the pyramid. India will soon be the world’s most populous nation – a terrifying prospect. No solution is possible without a harsh chop on family sizes. Reining in numbers can become a sensitive religious issue and one has to tread carefully. Remember, India lives in several time, economic, religious, geographic, political and cultural zones. To further dampen and retard the enthusiasm of any type of reform, remember also that India has been used to dissent and anarchy in the name of democracy for over sixty years. So every move for change will be opposed however well intentioned and long lasting. 

 

* Instead of forcing the population issue, the government can start with gentle incentives and disincentives which are bound to work. For example, no one with more than two children should be allowed to run for any office. Certainly not political office. Those with girl children could be given monetary rewards and those without children assured of a pension after the age of 55. All promotions and monetary incentives in government and private offices could also be based on the number of children the person has. Earlier, when the government wanted to promote Hindi as a link language, they pushed through an incentive package. The same strategy can work for population control.

 

Children are a pension fund in India. They are also early wage earners (since most of them don’t go to school) and contribute to the family kitty. If a pension is provided by the government, there may not be the need to have children; certainly not many children, and there may also be a good reason for children to go to school. Incentives for having daughters can also restore the gender imbalance which is threatening to get out of hand. The media is used aggressively when it is time to pay tax. Now the media can be used equally aggressively to help control family sizes. It will be a happy and able ally.   

 

* Now let’s move to the burning question of politics. Today, Indian politics is the last refuge of the freebooter. It is packed and spilling over with the dregs of Indian society. As I mentioned earlier, no one with more than two children should be allowed to contest any election. This will cut the numbers straight away.

 

* Then, let there be qualifying standards in place, if not an entrance examination. If every other job in the world is competitive and needs written and oral tests, why shouldn’t the job of leading the state or the country, in a nation where there is a desperate need for quality leadership, have stringent qualifying rounds?

 

This will ensure the arrival of the educated, ethical professional into Indian politics.

 

* In an ‘illiterate’ democracy, the chances of an illiterate person winning the elections are very real. A fair, busty starlet will always be more visible than a Nobel laureate. She is generous eye candy for an intellectually and physically starved electorate. So she is bound to thrash him at the hustings.

 

* Now, replace adult franchise with literate franchise. Ensure that only those who have, at least, passed the tenth standard, to begin with, be allowed to vote. This way, you hit many birds with one stone: the voting gets more qualitative, better people aspire for positions of authority, the opposition in parliament and other bodies gets more educated too, and, even better, more people will start going to school. Adult literacy will also gain strength. Once this gains momentum, raise the qualifying standards for the electorate to a graduate degree.  

 

* Those standing for elections should also be examined medically and not allowed to drain the exchequer with medical treatment abroad as they are doing now.

 

* There should also be a retirement age for politicians like with every other job. It can safely be placed at age seventy after the relevant medical tests. After that, whoever wishes to be associated with politics can do so in a consultative capacity.  

 

* They should have no court cases pending against politicians and they should declare all assets to the voting public before, during and after the period of office. Any citizen of India should be able to access the bank accounts of politicians and their families. The Supreme Court of India should allow it.

 

* A call also has to be taken on the extensive police and military protection for politicians and their relatives.

 

India can’t afford it.  

 

* And, since a politician is technically a servant of the people, he should be awarded reasonable middle-class perks and housing which is not too removed from the lowest common denominator he is meant to serve and who has elected him to office. If over 700 million Indians live on less than two dollars a day, how can their elected representative be allowed to spend over several hundred times that amount in the same period? The ‘servant of the people’ should be provided a modest lifestyle to allow him to do his job well. Not more; he shouldn’t be fattened by the state. Politics should be made a tough, responsible and sacrificing area of activity and not be reduced to a hospice for the corrupt.       

 

* Most important, India has to end dynasty rule. A billion plus people cannot be governed for eternity by one family alone. India is not the personal property of anyone. Emotional voting is the privilege of the mob. Replace it with the ‘educated’ vote. Replace it with people who have a stake in the country. Replace it with people with vision, who can chart imaginative directions to take India out of terrifying and widespread poverty.  

 

* If a dynasty insists on ruling, let it prove its mettle. Being born to the ruling class or, worse, being married to it is no qualification for leadership. If Indian society is looking for equitable economic and caste and communal representation with reservations across the board, let the dynasty’s representative also be chosen on merit. Make military training and a year’s service with a unit on the border mandatory. Let no one just ‘talk’ patriotic. They have to live it and prove it. If you are asking for the country’s highest position and the opportunity to shape its destiny, be capable of it.

 

This rule should also apply to other families with similar ambitions at all levels.

 

* As a rule, families in politics should be discouraged if not banned entirely. 

 

* India should also adopt a two-party system or, to stretch it a bit for more practical reasons, maybe a three-party system. At present the party that loses aligns with anyone keen on joining the circus, and comes to power. Votes and ministers are openly bought and sold. The whole world has recently seen it happening in parliament. There are multi-party alliances. So the entire voting exercise, which takes years of logistic planning, considering the size of the electorate and the vast security concerns in the mammoth diversity of the country, goes to waste. Suddenly, sworn enemies, sensing failure at the hustings, come together, head for power, share the spoils, and the voter and the nation are conned. And then the rape of the country begins in earnest.

 

So this opportunistic collation politics, horse trading and the sell-out of the country has to end.    

  

* Merit should be the sole criterion for any political appointment. The education minister should be chosen by academics, the health minister by doctors, the defence minister by the three service chiefs, the sports minister by leading sportspersons, the railway minister by members of the railway board, and so on. Only highly qualified and skilled people should be handed ministerial portfolios. Right now anyone can pick any portfolio depending on his clout in parliament. Read that as a person with a large vote bank.

 

* Vote bank and communal politics should also be banned.   

 

* Every state should be run by CEOs. No career politician should be allowed to govern. If he wants to be the CEO he should not run for popular office, and be chosen for the job purely on merit. The Prime Minister need not necessarily have an electoral base. Mass popularity is not synonymous with statesmanship and skills at governance. If mass popularity were the criterion, only film stars would hold office. He could be a person of considerable accomplishment in his chosen field and can be decided on by members of parliament. He will be the nation’s CEO. I have to add here that the CEO also gets sacked for non performance.

 

THE ONLY CRITERION FOR ANY OFFICE SHOULD BE THE DESIRE TO TAKE INDIA OUT OF DESPERATE POVERTY ONCE AND FOR ALL TIME. ALL SYSTEMS TO MAKE THIS HAPPEN SHOULD BE MADE AVAILABLE TO THE INCUMBENT. 

 

MERITOCRACY  SHOULD TAKE CENTRESTAGE.    

 

* Any corruption charge should be addressed immediately. If the person in office is found guilty, he should be given the death sentence. This will have a profound impact on the country. The message should be clear – ANYONE WHO IS ANTI-NATIONAL, WHATEVER HIS/HER ECONOMIC, POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS CLOUT, WILL BE GIVE N THE DEATH SENTENCE.

 

* The death sentence should also apply to terrorists. Human life is valuable and no one will be allowed to bomb public places and get away at will. Special fast track courts should be set up specifically for this and the guilty punished with urgency. Today, the law is filled with loopholes and it is so easy to get away with murder.

 

* Deterrents to terrorists should also be set in place. Any person disturbing the peace, in any manner whatsoever, should be put behind bars. Democracy in India is synonymous with anarchy now. So stringent action should be taken against anarchists, be they terrorists or those indulging in civil disobedience.

 

* The lumpen element rules the country. Anyone instigating the lumpen element (in most cases a politician who threatens the state of more violence if he is arrested) should be immediately dealt with. (It seems puerile stating the obvious but, unfortunately, this is the reality of Indian life.)

 

* All open spaces, which include pedestrian plazas and vacant land, have been illegally taken over by mobs and leased out. The state has to reclaim the land and make life friendly for the tax payer. Squatters have now taken over vast tracts of prime real estate and twisted the law to extend their stay indefinitely.

 

* Thousands of crores of rupees are collected as by the state in direct taxes. The Supreme Court of India should ensure that the people of the country have accesses to an audited balance sheet of the government. Today, no citizen knows where the money goes. The taxes increase every year while the quality of life plummets. The people of India want to know what is being done with their money.    

   

* India has hundreds of millions of people, probably more than the entire population of Europe, and certainly almost double the population of the USA, below the age of forty and in extreme poverty. If young hormones are not reined in and given something tangible to do, more civil disturbances will happen. The frustration is seething. If it doesn’t get something to chew on fast, it will burn.

 

* Open thousands of sports hostels and playgrounds. Make a year’s military training compulsory for all able bodied youth. This will impart discipline, and their time and energy will be well spent. Social service at the school and college levels should also be compulsory. 

 

* It is important that India makes a mark in international sport. The best facilities should be provided and money pumped into sport. It is embarrassing to have over a billion people and own just one Olympic gold medal. 

 

* Everyday laws should be strengthened and the delivery system streamlined. No one wants to go to court if it takes a lifetime for justice. More courts should be opened and more judges appointed. Today, generations of litigants fight the same losing battle. It is farcical. The Right to Information (RTI) Act has opened a window for justice. But it also needs to be pushed through fast. All roadblocks to justice have to be removed.

 

* The police force should be freed from political interference. And central forces used with discretion. The police should also be trained and equipped better. Third degree and encounter killings may be necessary at times. But compassion and neutrality should be inculcated in the force. This will happen when a neutral CEO runs the country and the states.  The army should also be kept away from controlling civil disturbances.

 

* The rampant corruption should also be pounced on. Every step of Indian life is bought and sold; from the cradle to the grave and even to the afterlife. Both the giver and the receiver of bribes should be given severe public punishment. If more police personnel are required, recruit them. If tough laws are to be enacted, enact them.

 

* There should be strong laws to protect the environment. Urban centres should have mandatory lungs. Town planning should include zoos, museums, parks, playgrounds, mangroves, nurseries and open spaces. Urban sprawls should be greened with a vengeance. Stray and sick animals that roam the land as though it belongs to them should also be impounded.  

 

* The smaller centres of India should be developed. Villages, towns and two- and three-tier cities should host the indices of progress. Employment opportunities and entertainment avenues should be provided. This will prevent the large-scale migration to big cities. Today, it makes more sense to sleep on the street or in sub-human tenements in the big cities than to live in the villages where even water, electricity and basic human rights are scarce.   

 

* Rivers, lakes and other waterways should be garlanded through canals. Often, parts of India are submerged in water and the other parts don’t even have a drop to drink. This has to be remedied. India is flush with water and other resources. The rainfall is heavy, India has the sea on three sides, the world’s greatest rivers, and the Himalayas in the north where the water melts and the supply is copious. The sun shines most of the year and solar energy is an easy option. So are wind mills and water harvesting. But all this requires visionaries at the helm.

 

* The education system in India, despite having the world’s oldest centre of learning in Nalanda, also needs serious beefing up. We mass produce graduates who are unemployable. We have very few institutes of excellence that can match the best in the world. Corruption has seeped into education too and question papers, mark sheets and degrees are bought and sold. All this has to end. Only excellence should be prized.

 

* India should adopt a three-language formula – English, Hindi and the regional language. This way we work with the world in English, are connected to the rest of the country through Hindi, and knowledge of the local language will help bond with the local culture and facilitate everyday transactions. This way there will be no language quarrels considering the fact that we have 28 official languages and thousands of dialects.

   

* Alternate sexuality, live-in relationships and prostitution should be legalised. India has several millions living with HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, arguably the world’s highest disease burden. It is impossible to treat STDs if sex is a hush up job. It will also be easier to reach red-light areas and other sex workers across the land with medical aid if all such activity comes under legal purview.

 

* Euthanasia should also be looked at carefully in a nation teeming with people. When there is no money for medical aid, and the medical fraternity, the next of kin and the self have given up, what is the point of living? Even in the best of circumstances, life is tough! When one loses the handle on life, why not let it go legally?   

 

* We should maintain our old monuments and the rich tapestry of a land blessed by the gods. India is so many countries put together with such an incredible depth of flora, fauna, landscape and peoples. Arunachal Pradesh and Kerala, for example, have nothing in common barring the tricolour. ‘Incredible India’, buoyed by its poor rupee, should have more tourists than all the other Asian countries put together. Yet, there is only a trickle. Obviously, the tourist, be it the backpacker or the well heeled one, has better options. Thanks to obsolete systems and an uncaring attitude we haven’t been able to seduce him. Sadly, another blot! Isn’t atithi any longer deva?

 

* We should also promote yoga, traditional martial arts and indigenous systems of healing. The hold of allopathy is all pervasive and India has emerged as a much sought after destination for medical tourism. While this is laudable, Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha, traditional massage and other ancient medical systems shouldn’t be neglected. They should be sponsored by the state; thankfully homeopathy has many adherents.

 

* Our culture is rich, colourful and diverse. We need to promote it big time. Cottage and rural industries should be injected with fresh hope (read money). Our ancient martial arts like kalaripayatu are fading from memory. Let’s revitalise it. We have a rich tradition of neem, tulsi, ashwagandha, lasuna, thousands of other herbs and amazing cow products with miraculous curative properties. They are also easily affordable. The state should ensure patronage so that they reach the far corners of India. More input into R&D will also fine tune their efficacy.

 

Why should the best of our culture be patented by the United States?  Let us proudly tell the children of the world that sugarcane juice is better than Coke and that India is the mother of yoga.

 

* Let us take pride in ourselves and let the world admit that Indian goods are far superior to theirs. Today, Bollywood hip and tit movements is India’s calling card. What an embarrassing statement for such a culturally rich nation? Don’t we have anything else to showcase? 

 

 * We also need to develop a scientific temperament. We need to get Noble prizes for new thoughts and not keep importing them from the western world. We need to develop intellectual property. We keep borrowing worn out ideas and goods, and are never in step. The world is changing at the blink of an eye.

 

* The only way we can walk shoulder to shoulder with the best in the world is when we eliminate cutting edge poverty and infectious and communicable diseases. Until the living standards of the country’s lowest common denominator is raised we will, forever, be consigned to ‘developing’ country status. The nation’s bottom is too big. It can’t move fast enough.    

 

Do anything and everything that is required to make India a great nation.

 

The state is above the individual, the family and religion. If there is no state, there will be nothing. The world is a small place now and every nation lives in a glass house. The rot that afflicts India is seen by the whole world. Just walk into any Indian airport, train or bus station and you know what it means to be in the ‘Third World’.

 

Most important, why should a soldier die for his country when civvy street is bleeding it? His patriotism and edge gets a beating when he returns home on furlough and sees the mess he is supposed to guard. Why should he then step out of line in the blaze of enemy fire to secure a nation that is being subdivided from the inside by its own people and by its leaders?

 

If we embark on a Save India campaign right now we may get close to what Singapore is today in a hundred years. In parts.

 

 

WHY DO WE WATCH CRICKET AND NOTHING ELSE?

 

By Rajendar Menen

 

Have you ever wondered why a nation of over a billion people plays and watches only cricket? Of course, there are a host of other games but its cricket, and only cricket, which grabs the imagination so compulsively. Why?

 

Football has over 200 playing nations (the qualifying rounds for the World Cup alone takes two years), and every other sport, including field hockey which was once our national game (I just hope and pray it still is), has at least 25 competing nations. And now look at cricket: India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh constitute the Asian challenge; Australia, New Zealand, England and South Africa add quality to numbers; there is the former powerhouse West Indies; and then ragged Zimbabwe and Kenya. Eleven teams at best. The West Indies is a shadow now, Bangladesh is still learning to bat at the highest level, New Zealand can spring a surprise, and Zimbabwe and Kenya are easily beaten. So, whichever combination you choose, there are just six nations competing for the top slot.

 

The International Cricket Council (ICC) is doing its best to popularise the game, and recent reports suggest that China, another populous giant, is taking to it! If that happens in earnest, we could well look at a future champion. But, right now, under Mahendra Singh Dhoni we are on a winning spree and in the throes of applause. There is a lot of cricket on the calendar which will climax in the London World Cup next year. But even when we lose, which is most of the time, cricket makes so much noise! Football is widely acknowledged as the world’s number one game, and yet its cricket that grabs the eyeballs in India. Why?

 

To my mind there are a few reasons for the insane popularity of cricket in the subcontinent. I should add here that it is a secondary sport in other cricket playing nations; thankfully they have other diversions. They all have rugby, football, swimming, countless other sports, and formidable track and field performances. There is no mass hysteria there barring the excitement generated by the Indian Diaspora. Just watch the matches in England, New Zealand and Australia and count the brown skins!  

 

The foremost reason is the aggressive hype generated. Cricket is well managed and marketed. Over a billion people, possibly more than two billion around the globe, watch it. Cricket makes advertising sense: imagine the recall value of an ad which returns to hit you for a six, over after over, for five consecutive days? When so much money is pumped into it and special programmes and editions drummed up on multiple television channels and the print media, the watching and reading public is hypnotised. It’s a bombardment of the senses. There is no escape. Add the 50-over and the 20-over versions to the classical Tests series, ostensibly brimming with tradition, nostalgia and elegance, and there is enormous entertainment value. Day-night matches, coloured balls and clothes, new rules, lush premier leagues, smaller grounds, player auctions, prizes for every run, viewer involvement, endorsements, cheer girls, fame and fortune at the flick of a wrist, nymphet liaisons, controversies, and a cavalcade of offerings lift the game to a surreal pitch. Even commentators and statisticians are deified. Cricket has entered the consciousness -- a soft drink ad parrots, quite rightly, that people sleep, eat and drink the game!    

 

No other sport is as well managed as cricket. The Board of Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) is the richest cricket body in the world and its power and influence is well recognised by the ICC. Place an ad in a cricket match India plays anywhere in the world and it will be seen by billions. Play the game in the sub-continent and ticket sales zoom. Ricky Ponting can probably shop in a Melbourne mall unnoticed, but imagine what would happen if Sachin Tendular walked into a suburban Big Bazar in Mumbai?!            

 

The point, of course, is about numbers. Add big numbers (India has more cricket players than entire populations of nations and more people than the entire cricketing world put together; as I write this India is playing New Zealand which probably has less than half the population of North Mumbai) to a complete lack of entertainment in a nation still being suffocated by poverty and dead dreams. Cricket and Bollywood allow the masses to vicariously live out their lives. Success in cricket allows for jingoism. It feels good to beat the white man in a game they invented. It feels good to know that, somewhere, somehow, all is not lost. That even without the basic amenities of life and the cloud of corruption that chokes all aspiration, we can still be world champions. It makes for consoling conversation. When India wins, the talk veers from empty taps, broken roads and corrupt politicians to victory mode.    

 

We barely manage to squeak into the top ten in world hockey, languish at around 150 in the soccer ratings, have finally managed an Olympic gold medal, and can counts the sparks of collective and individual sporting brilliance, spread over six decades, on the fingers of a few hands. So when the cricket team wins a World Cup there is, understandably, unadulterated mass euphoria. If they are on a roll, they are the new Gods of the ever expanding celestial pantheon. The cricketers are easily India’s greatest entertainers!

 

There is also the ease with which one can play cricket. Anyone can play it. A wooden bat, even plastic at the basic level, and a ball, any ball, will do. One bowls, the other hits and a few fielders hang around in the hope of a run-out or catch, and a batting chance. A cardboard box can be used as the wicket. Rules can also be altered to suit the playing conditions. So, it’s very easy to start a game. In the smaller towns and rural areas there is enough space to play cricket. In the more populous bigger cities, verandahs, corridors, gardens, parks, maidans and gullies make sufficient room. Gully cricket is intense, and even the great Sachin Tendulkar perfected the straight drive in the little area that his middle-class housing society allowed him to play cricket. A lofted ball would have broken window panes. The maidans of Mumbai are packed with cricket matches. Walk through them on a holiday at your own risk as balls from several teams ricochet in different directions. It requires some cunning to figure out who hit what. And in that conundrum of heat, dust, poverty and ambition are born great champions just like the soccer demigods thrown up by the Brazilian favelas. Cricket also ensures that India is well represented. Anyone who can hit the ball hard or bowl well, anywhere in the country, has a chance for national selection. It is more democratic than the electoral process, is performance oriented and not dependent on pedigree. It is an equal opportunity employer. More than half the current Indian team has emerged from the traditional badlands. Their success is percolating right down to the grassroots.

 

The mass appeal of cricket is also easily accessed on an everyday level. It is a viewer friendly sport and lasts days if you have nothing better to do. There is a lot of time to waste in the developing world and watching cricket is not a calamitous diversion. Imagine following an Enterprise or Seabird on the Arabian Sea. There is no connect at all; there is simply no mass appeal. Plus you don’t need expensive racquets and gear like in tennis, squash, badminton, snooker or table tennis (to name a few sports); you don’t need boats like in yachting; even hockey needs several sticks and, now, an artificial playing surface. It’s only when you graduate to the bigger stage that more expensive equipment comes into play which local associations and sponsors take care of.

 

If it is so easy and relatively inexpensive to play cricket, and if that’s the sole reason for its popularity, the obvious question that comes to mind would be why aren’t Indians world beaters in running, carrom, chess, football, cycling, walking and so many other activities which cost very little? But the answer is not only about finance. It is about organisation, appeal, hype, and a few victories under the belt. Tradition too plays a role, but then hockey had it in abundance!  

 

It is not easy for a sport to get under a nation’s skin. Once it is embedded in the soul, it is also not easy to eject it. Cricket in India has done just that.  

 

(The statistics in some of the articles could be dated as they were written in another time and space. But the theme continues to haunt relentessly.) 

    

 

 

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