Thursday, December 20, 2007

Nature Notes From Mhow

I remember reading an article in an American website about how military garrison towns in Europe and America often end up protecting flora and fauna because these towns are not allowed to 'develop' the way a normal town has to.

Mhow, where I live, is also a paradise of nature. The East India Company was given this town in 1818 after the Holkars who ruled Indore state till 1947 were defeated at the Battle of Mahidpur and the Treaty of Mandsaur was signed. Cantonment laws prohibit any form of building and the civilian population has its complaints about these laws being outdated and relics of the British Raj. The net result of all this is the sheer profusion of flora and fauna.

The English chose their cantonments well. Mhow, Pachchmarhi, Pune, Bangalore, Secunderabad, Wellington were some of the towns chosen in Central, Western and South India as being fit for training institutions. Pune, Bangalore and Secunderabad have changed beyond recognition thanks to the IT revolution and globalisation. But Mhow has still remained the same. The writer Jaisinh Birjepatil whose novel Chinnery's Hotel is set in a fictional Mhow and has been selected by Khushwant Singh as one of the best post Independence (post 1947) pieces of fiction written by an Indian had told me in an email that he chose Mhow because it has hardly changed.

I have spent most of my life in this small town. A few months ago I decided to make use of a modest sum I earned through my weblog at Sulekha and chose to buy a digital camera. This has enabled me to snap hundreds of pictures which have to do with various aspects of life in this small town. This includes the trees, birds and animals I see here. I am posting these as a series of linked blog posts titled Nature Note From Mhow in my Sulekha weblog.

Click here to see these posts and the beauty of the Malwa region of Western Madhya Pradesh.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Notes from India:

Bashir and Amid are half brothers, eight and eleven years old respectively who I met at the entrance of Golconda fort. They work at a sugarcane juice kiosk all day preparing juice for customers. Their work involves coaxing the tourists to buy a drink, thrusting the raw sugarcane into the squeezer and mixing the drink.
They start around ten and end their day about six, after which they return back home with the wage the Seth pays them, eat the supper their mother has prepared, watch a bit of telly and get to bed. The following day it is the same. This is their routine. On some days they might get to play a local game of cricket in a side alley with the neighbouring kids.

What about school? I ask.
Bashir answers- Iskool mein kya rakha hain? Khaana hain? (What’s there in school, it hardly can feed.)

And quickly asks Kisko bechoge iskool? (Whom to send to school?)

Their family includes seven children of school going age. All of them, like Bashir and Amid work daily to earn wages. They save what they can in between their domestic commitments and pool in money to watch a latest Bollywood movie once in a month which is a big event.

Salman teek hain magar saaaruk mast hain. (Salman is all right , but Shahrukh is the best)

Both of them are ardent fans of Shahrukh Khan, the nation’s most popular star.


A few days before, while waiting to meet a friend in Udupi , we managed to catch up a Shahrukh Khan movie in a charmingly modest theatre. The movie, the flavour of the month in India, is an elaborate spoof of many 1970s Bollywood movies. On an international dais, it is on par with a C grade Hollywood flick. Like a well designed theme park, it is dumb, linear and clich├ęd . Yet like a theme park, it entertains, which was palpable during its screening in that obscure theatre.

The movie grossed 25 crores in its first week of release in India alone and is marked to be the biggest hit of the year. It was produced by Shahrukh Khan’s own company Red Chillies Entertainment which had doubled its production investment of 35 crores by selling the movie’s distribution rights before the release.
Needless to say , part of the share would go to the choreographer, Farah Khan, who has reportedly managed to direct the non-song sequences of the film by gluing in spoofs of scenes from various movies. During the title credits, Farah Khan makes a modest display of her claim to be the director by showing herself to make an entry in an auto rickshaw .

Farah Khan , unlike Bashir and Amid went to a school. In a chauffeur driven car.


Back in my hotel room in Hyderabad, flipping through the channels of Indian media I catch a story . One of the officials of Board of Cricket Control in India has accused Shahrukh Khan of promoting his aforementioned film during a cricket match. The newsreader in the studio is visibly excited, screaming as if she is breaking the news of the century. The reporter covering the story is almost shrieking into the microphone. There are opinions expressed, rights and wrongs. Should he ? Should he not? Should one care? Should one not? Etc.

In the next newsreport after half an hour or so, Shahrukh Khan in a quick interview reacts that he is offended, and emphasises he was at the cricket match only because he was invited. Also, quite actorly, he avers that he would never take his children to watch a cricket match again. And should they wish to go to one, he says raising his voice he is left with no option but to conceal their father’s identity. Lest, they/he shall be wrongly accused of mispromoting.

The news-piece carries the clip of the alleged interview that was held during the cricket match. Rameez Raza, a former Pakistani cricketer turned commentator, hired for the sole reason of being one of the very few cricketers from his country who can manage decent English speaks to Shahrukh Khan and one another official from a local cricket board. The interview, presumably arranged as a promotional insert is haphazard. It seems none of the three men know the agenda for the interview, if there was one really! Anyway, what is the deal? Even George W Bush Jr. can tell you that promoting cricket in India is like gilding a golden lily every day.

Except for a new Cricketing Academy that is coming up in Rajasthan (which according to the chap, is one of the finest cricketing academies in the world but just not ready), the chap blurts out some ground report.( ….people love it out here, everybody loves to come here, weather‘s great…etc )

When asked to comment on one of the bowlers in action, Shahrukh Khan, for reasons unknown, quickly presents a rehearsed summary of how the youngsters are given a golden platform in the game. To the subsequent questions further in the interview, between chuckles and laughs, he goes on to add remote and irrelevant thoughts such as how Pakistan is going to follow India’s example and achieve balance etc. All, in one mentally rehearsed take.

But as if the interview so far wasn’t ridiculous enough, Rameez Raza is intent to make it more hilarious. He caps it all with sharing the schedule of his family who, we are told are visiting from Pakistan. He goes on to declare that he has been asked by his family to arrange tickets for this great Shahrukh Khan movie, which in his own words is a massive hit! All on national television beamed live.
It doesn’t quite end there. To place the cherry on top he holds the microphone to Shahrukh Khan as if expecting him to announce the tickets reserved for his family. But Shahrukh Khan with the rehearsal done with, extols on the specifics of the hit, thanks the audience who, have been kind and the great god who has never been more kinder to him. Forgetting both that he is live on national stream, and the tickets for Mr Raza’s family, Shahrukh Khan converts the interview into a pub conversation:
Have you seen it?
Oh you should see it. Its great entertainment
or something like that. Rameez Raja, it appears, suddenly is in quite haste to finish the conversation and hurry over to book the tickets.
Meanwhile, somewhere not far away Murali Karthik has bowled the twentieth over.

On another day, Richard Branson is in Delhi for his Indian Radio station launch. In one of his exclusive interviews he is complaining how Indian economy is not actually what it is made out to be. He suggests India should open up more and cut down on regulating. He also laments about how he is a not permitted to name the Radio station after his company.
The next morning in the complementary newspaper that is delivered to my room by the prompt Syed, I notice a colourful photograph of Richard Branson, draped in somewhat Indian looking attire, wearing a tilak flanked by a few others, trying to do a Bhangra at the launch ceremony. I show it to Syed who although has failed SSLC, would beat any Marriott staff at efficiency any day. He gazes at it for a moment. First he grins hesitantly and then breaks into flowery laughter asking: Arey ye Firang kya kar raha hain saab? (What's the white man upto?)

Perplexed to find a suitable answer, I think of something quickly and reply: Ye naach-gaana banane aaya hain.(He has come here to sing, dance) to which he chuckles peering dismissively at the snap and walks away. I note the radio station is called Fever 104.

I try to imagine how Syed would guffaw with a Aap mazaak kar rahein hain saab!, (You are kidding!) if I tell him that Fever 104 means Bukaar ek so chaar. I admit to myself that it has a nice ring to it. It is just waiting for someone from Bollywood, someone with the similar taste of Farah Khan to make a misery and money out of it.


On the return flight, I wondered how even if I had tried , I wouldn’t have been able to explain to Syed who was Richard Branson and what really he was doing here in India. I thought how odd it was to have such a feeling- to be an Indian and yet be unable to explain to a fellow Indian what was happening in and to India.

As I ruminated over such thoughts I realised something, whatever was the reason behind such a feeling, it ought to be the same reason why, even if I get to meet all of them, I would not be able to explain to Shahrukh Khan that beyond fame , money and success was conscience or that a celebrity is accountable to a society which has created him or to Farah Khan that to direct means conceiving a scene and realizing it, not having a laugh at others and feeling proud about it. To Rameez Raza, well , simply not to watch too many Bollywood movies. As well to Bashir and Amid’s father, and thousand other such potential fathers, that two is enough.

I realised it was also the same reason why Richard Branson who wouldn’t dare to attempt a Samba in South America or a Flamenco in Spain would try a Bhangra and get away with it.

The plane roared farther away from the west coast and higher over the Arabian sea and through the receding mists, the reason took a clear shape and form, standing out as a gigantic stretch of land, on its own, like how it had stood for centuries, so vulnerable yet so very unconquerable, so very inexplicable - India.