To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child , a garden patch, or a redeemed condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A tale of two cities (or many)...

Was reading a review today of a book, 'Invisible City: The Hidden Monuments of Delhi' by Rakshanda Jalil, which brings out how urbanisation is slowly pushing the hitory of the city into the background.  Got me thinking.  Say someone (say, someone from out of India) lands up at Delhi Airport, and commutes to either one of the business hubs (Connaught Place, Nehru Place, South Extension, et al) or, if here for a longer stay, goes to check into one of the tony hotels.  All s/he gets to see during the commute is a 'modern' Delhi (especially in the post-Commonwealth Games era), with all traces of the 'old' face of Delhi neatly tucked away behind facades.  Except, maybe, for some 'World Heritage' monuments like Humayun Tomb which are duly showcased.  But how many casual or business travellers (not counting tourists who may come here specifically to see the real face of the city) pass through the areas where such monuments are situated?  Perhaps not many.

But monuments are just one aspect of history and heritage; the other may be the living communities.  If one is moving across much of South Delhi, all one gets to see is tony residential areas or concrete edifices.  Nothing wrong in that, but is it essential to obliterate all traces of the 'old' feel of Delhi in order to join the 'league of world cities'.  Ironically, if one were to go to any of the big European cities of note, one could see that the history there is meshed into the modernity, and not swepts under the carpet apologetically.  Be it London, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Rome or Venice, the history seems to co-exist peacefully with the modernity, the cobbled streets branching off from the metalled roads, the lively 'squares' providing an alternative to the glitzy malls, and the 'gates' standing tall amidst the traffic of whizzing cars (even in a more 'recently habitated' city like Frankfurt, you may find the old town hall area being the hub of Christmas fair).  Closer home in Asia, while historical sites like Angkor Thom (in Cambodia) and Ayuthya (in Thailand) are of course preserved separately, even modern Bangkok also flows side-by-side with peaceful Buddhist temples and monasteries.

Coming back to India, some cities like Hyderabad seem to have been able to preserve a large part of their heritage by meshing it in with the growing metropolis (though the modern 'Cyberabad' is more of a concrete jungle).  Even, surprisingly, in Mumbai, the business capital of India, one can see the 'two eras' co-exist to a large extent.  Moving from the airport, say, to Nariman Point, the business hub (admittedly a long commute), the scene alternates between modernity and the traditional.  One moment you could be zipping across the gleaming Sea Link bridge, the other moment passing through a cozy 'mohalla' (residential locality) of low slung houses with peaceful Parsi gentlemen (and women!) taking a stroll.  Even in the Apollo Bunder area (leading on to the famour Gateway of India), so close to Nariman Point, the 'galis' (side streets) could be full of Old Delhi style shops. 

Of course, I'm sure many Mumbai residents would say that taking such a romanticised view may be easier for a casual visitor, and only those living there day-to-day would be aware of the actual difficulties, and probably they'd prefer more modernisation like in Delhi!!  But at some level, it may all come down to appreciating what we have (including a passing era) and being thankful for it, and sometimes an 'outsider' may be better placed to point out such things to an 'insider' whose senses may've got enured to such things due to daily exposure.

And talking of Old Delhi, I still fondly remember how, when we were staying in the Delhi Cantonmment area, when someone came asking after our father, instead of saying that he had gone to Karol Bagh or Chandni Chowk, we would go "Dilli gaye hain" (he's gone to Delhi), indicating that the 'real' Delhi was centred around some older localities and the area outside was 'not really Delhi'!  What a contrast with the present day, when the extension of Delhi Metro (the underground mass transit) to Gurgaon seems to provide an avenue, after a long time, to people to actually go and visit 'Old Delhi' after ages!  Because that 'feel' of Delhi is not visible any more in the places we live in day-to-day.  And to think that Delhi may be an older, more historical city than many of the above cities in Europe or Asia!

This is not a lament against modernisation of cities.  Of course we need to keep on modernising the cities, to provide living spaces and better civic facilities for the exisitng residents as also the people flocking in all the time in search of better economic opportunities.  But alongwith that, it'd probably be good to take care that the 'new' city does not obliterate all traces of the old one.  Maintaining a few defined sites as national or international monuments may be one way, and being done commendably by the relevant bodies.  But meshing in the new with the old may be a slightly better way for us to live our modern life while being aware of our heritage.

Think about it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Life - a prism?

Sometimes it seems that the core of our being is quite like a glassy prism (for those not inclined to math/geometry or physics: a three-sided solid block, sometimes made of clear glass-like substances): it receives light on one surface and (depending on some factors, read on) projects a somewhat changed light through another surface, a process known in physics as refraction.  The important thing is, the light going into the prism and that coming out is almost never the same - it may be at a different angle, or a different colour, sometimes a rainbow of colours.  To maintain this prism of life so it serves the purpose, we seem to have two duties:

One, to keep polishing the surfaces.  If the surface facing the source of the light is not clear, it wouldn't be able to let the light through to its innards, and thus perhaps be unable to give out any light.  The cleaner the receiving surface is, the more light it can perhaps receive (and give out!).  On the other hand, if the surfaces transmitting the light out are not clean, they wouldn't be able to give out the light either, regardless of how much light they receive and of what quality.  Some may be tempted to embellish the transmitting surfaces, to represent to the possible recipients of the light a different face than the actual.  However, remember that too much embellishment can actually affect the transparency of the surface and block the light going through.  Ideally, when the surfaces are smoothly polished, they almost act like mirrors, giving out the light inside but at the same time reflecting back the true image of the one who looks at it.

The second duty, it seems, is to control what goes inside the prism.  Yes, the surfaces of the prism are permeable, able to absorb outside material and vibrations (a process known in physics as osmosis), especially through the surface which is in touch with the base.  Some things going inside can improve the ability of the prism to act as a true transmitter of the refracted light.  However, other things can adversely affect this ability or, in extreme cases, react violently with the material of the prism, causing it to decay and eventually disintegrate.

And once the prism disintegrates, whether due to efflux of time or due to reactions as above, what is left is just a useless mess of particles.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Children and truth

Was reading a novel, set in Ireland, about a drug addict, Tony, and his struggle to regain his footing in life.  One of the main characters is his wife Allie (Alisha) who attempts to bring the hubby onto the right path, while taking care of her two sons, one pre-teen and one a toddler.  There is one scene where Allie returns home devastated, having just learnt that Tony, who was off drugs for a few months after rehab, has taken a 'slip' again, after having left home in a huff having quarrelled with her on learning that it was she who had got him thrown out of his job when she first learnt he was an addict (to keep him off money...  a long story).

Once she's home, she starts thanking the old neighbour who's been babysitting her sons (assisted by his own son, a comic TV artist) for a few hours.  But then she's told by the old man (goaded by his son into the 'confession') that he has been pretending to be Santa Claus to her elder son, who's been writing him letters asking for help on all sorts of things (some of which he helps the child with).  This provokes her to full fury - 'How dare he do this to my son' - and she screams at him "Get out...".  She forgets all the favours the old man has been doing for her family (besides babysitting) - protecting her son from local bullies, getting him a car ride with his famous son, etc.  She also goes on to dutifully check, discreetly, whether the old man 'had interfered' with her son (thankfully, not)!

Got me thinking.  Is the commitment to absolute truth really so high in the Western World?  Not being judgmental, but if something like this had happened with one of us, we would probably have brushed it off as an innocuous incident, at most with the remark that at least it gave the child a few days of innocent happiness.  Part of this attitude may be based on the rich Indian tradition of 'pari katha' (or 'roop kahini') fables, narrated by our grandparents and also published, where children were encouraged to delve into the dream world of fairies and kings, learning some good values in the bargain - the Panchatantra tales and Chandamama magazine may be good examples.

But another part may also be based on the Indian philosophy which seems to hold that truth is only what you perceive (there is only one absolute truth: God), and is dependent on circumstances.  Some scholars hold that even the venerable Bhagvad Gita seems to propound this philosophy of a 'context for the truth'.  And the epic Mahabharata has a famous incident where the God incarnate Krishna encourages the eldest Pandava brother Yudhishthira, known as the upholder of absolute truth, to be 'economical with the truth' ("Ashwatthama hata iti gaja") so that the Kaurava commander (and the guru of both clans) Dronacharya could be killed.  Even in our daily life, and perhaps especially when it comes to children, we seem to hold the view that only that part of truth need be shared which would do no harm to anyone, and truth which harms anyone is probably not worth sharing.

Back to the story.  It turns out that the old man's truth (about pretending to be Santa) was the last straw - the child learns during the evening that his mom had been lying to him about his dad being in 'America' (while he was actually in rehab), the mom had been lying to (or at least not sharing the truth with) dad about having had him thrown out of his job, and now this!  Even when the old man tries to explain that the whole thing started when the child presumed he was Santa 'coz he looked like Santa, and that he went along just to keep him out of his lawn (and he didn't pretend to be all powerful: he does tell the child when he asks Santa to keep his dad off drugs that he can't help and his dad has to find the 'magic' in his own heart), he gets no buy in for the argument.  So what's the big issue here?  Why is the old man's lie such a big deal, among all the other lies flying thick and fast?

And what about the effect of the truth on a child?  The story also tells us that Tony took to drugs while in teens because he could not 'fit in', because he was the adopted child of his parents (he keeps arguing with his adoptive mom Tess that it was she who was at fault, not he! - though he also makes up with her later).  Just wondering: would it have been better for Tony to NOT know the truth about his being an adopted child, at least till he gained the wisdom and stability to handle that truth?  Takes us back to the hit '70s Hindi movie 'Kabhi Kabhi' where the adoptive parents of Neetu Singh (Parikshit Sahni & Simi) decide to tell the daughter (ostensibly a teenager) about her adoption and the identity of her real mom (Waheeda Rehman) - a difficult decision (much crying by Simi!), but one taken 'in the best interest of the daughter'.

Of course, there can be two sides to the coin.  Some may say 'Who are you to decide what is the right age to learn the truth?'  Fair point, but don't we as parents make such decisions - as to what is good for our child and what is not - on a day to day basis?  The argument can go on.  But the point that strikes me is the difference in the World-view in this respect between Oriental and Occidental cultures, as pointed out above.  It also has some relation to the importance given in the Western culture to treating children 'with respect' from a young age - an honorable motive but sometimes abused by the recipients of such favour!  Some would say this is treating kids 'with kid gloves'(!) - look at the huge controversy generated by the book 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother', even when the author Amy Chua stated later that the book was a kind of self-parody memoir.

There are of course no right or wrong answers to this debate.  Each of us has to take a view based on our own judgment and in the best interest of our children.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Remembering Cambodia

I received a query at an online forum recently, for tips to someone visiting Cambodia.  I don't remember whether I've written here before of my visit to Cambodia back in '04, so thought I'll fill the gap now.  The account below is based on my experiences there at that time, and many things may have changed since then.

Phnom Penh National Museum
There are many things to do at Phnom Penh, the capital city. For a start, you could visit the palace (now more of a museum) - besides the intricate carvings, frescoes and panels, if you're lucky you may see the King waving to the visitors from his quarters nearby! In the markets, there are a number of quaint little eating places with quintessential French food, and you may enjoy a healthy breakfast at one of these. If you're historically inclined, you could go visit the quarters where Khmer Rouge tortured & killed hundreds of thousands (some say millions) during their reign - a sad effect is that you'd see most of today's citizens are pretty young!  

For the evenings, one can go to one of the restaurants on the 'riverfront', which overlooks the giant Mekong river which meanders through many countries in that region.  Many of the restaurants are built on 'stakes', on wooden platforms over the marshy area.  The food is a mish mash of local and continental (mostly French) delicacies.  One tip: Cambodia may be one of the countries where the US Dollar is almost legal currency - you can pay for everything with the dollar, and local businesses actually prefer the dollar (the exchange rate being what it is).

The multicoloured plane!
But I guess most people go to Cambodia for the Angkor Wat temple.  The magic at Siem Reap (a short flight from Phnom Penh) starts the moment you land there.  If you're lucky, you'd have been travelling in one of those multi-coloured small aircraft with traditional Cambodian designs painted all over. Siem Reap itself is a pretty laid back town, with old French-style vistas and a narrow canal.  

Siem Reap town

Entry to the famed Angkor Wat temple complex

Angkor Wat totally deserves its status as a World Heritage site. The main structure itself, as well as the surrounding grounds, are full of history, and you feel as if you're yourself standing right amidst ancients! And, be careful about coming down one of those steep open stairways with narrow steps (going up is easier) - don't try it unless your calves are strong, else they'll cry out for mercy.

Stranded midway on the stairs!
What I found interesting at Angkor Wat is the evidence of different period of history strewn about. You can of course see the prominent Buddha images throughout, some still being worshipped. But if you look closely (sometimes behind the life-size Buddha statues), you can see remnants of the Hindu culture and religion which existed before Buddhism, for instance relics of Hindu gods and goddesses. 

Ramayana at Angkor Wat!
A bird's eye view of Angkor Wat

Budha at Angkor Wat

Entry to Angkor Thom
But of course you can't come back from Siem Reap after just seeing Angkor Wat. The real treat, in my personal opinion, lies at Angkor Thom, a whole city in ruins. It takes your breath away the instant you get there, with the phalanx of a neat line of stone images (demons?) welcoming you at the very entrance. Inside the 'city', a whole lot of historical structures beckon you to explore the life of the kings of that period.  Apparently, before the ascendancy of Vietnamese empire (which at one time occupied much of South East Asia and part of China), it was the Khmer kings of present day Cambodia which held sway over that part of Asia.  Quite a contrast with the condition in which Cambodia finds itself now, made worse by the evil reign of Khmer Rouge in the '70s.
Angkor Thom ruins

What leaves one amazed is the giant stone faces (made famous by countless movies), some with long trees growing right on top! Actually, Angkor Thom is more like a jungle now, with the faces and structures strewn about. 
The 'Faces'

Back in the town, you may like to explore the nooks and crannies of local alleyways, while being careful of your belongings (not much organised crime, I guess, but it's always useful to be wary of locallised petty crime). And once done, one can spend the evening at FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) - at a nice buildinging overlooking the main vista with a canal - and start supper with some nice tomato soup! After that, the choice is endless... (well, for that place!).