Wednesday, January 28, 2009

My Word is the Law

“Mangalore Horror!” screams one headline. “The Talibanization of India” proclaims another. When 40 men from the Shri Ram Sena set out to beat up and molest five young women in a pub in Mangalore as part of their strategy to instill “traditional Indian values” in today’s youth, they probably did not expect to create such a nationwide stir. Although the state government tried to sweep the incident under the rug, the media coverage has not let up. Arrests have been made, ministers are making the appropriate noises and women’s groups are promising to see that the culprits do not go scot-free. Just how long this uproar will continue before the incident fades into the remote recesses of public memory is anybody’s guess.

However, the fact remains that moral policing is here to stay. Self-styled vigilantism may be curbed by better law and order enforcement. Nonetheless, our democracy guarantees us freedom of expression and this very freedom also supports moral policing. It makes us free to frown upon another and declare them sinners. While this in itself is not wrong—after all everyone is entitled to an opinion—enforcing your views on somebody else definitely is.

Are we not all guilty of that at some level or the other? People from all walks of life, varying levels of education and different upbringings label certain things “immoral” while completely dismissing others as perfectly acceptable. It could range from drinking, smoking or smoking up, premarital sex, noodle straps, live-in relationships, dancing in discos, friendship with the opposite sex and more.

I have a confession to make. I am guilty of this intolerance as well—I frown upon Smoky Joe (Ducky). Worse, I have decreed that he step outside, even into sub-zero temperature, every time he wants to light up.

Am I in the same league as the Taliban, Shiv Sena, Shri Ram Sena, RSS or even Hitler? For an answer, please check with the human ice sculpture outside with a smoking cigarette in its mouth.

Friday, January 16, 2009

An Officer & A Gentleman

After a long wait in a mile-long queue for a movie ticket at a multiplex, it was finally my turn at the ticket window. “May I have…” I began before I was rudely jostled to one side. “SIX GHAJINI!” yelled a man sporting a bright yellow t-shirt, thick gold chain and spectacles, before proffering me a generous lungful of “fresh” air from his underarms. Recovering quickly, I felt my hackles rise. This was just plain rude and I don’t mean the assault on my olfactory senses.

“Excuse me” I snapped, “there is a queue here.” “But I am standing here, no?” he shot back. Apparently, that was reason enough to be issued his tickets first. I decided that there was really no point arguing with someone who clearly lacked basic courtesy and thought flashing his gold credit card was reason enough to jump a queue. I turned to the man behind the ticket counter and looked at him questioningly. At least, I hope that was the expression I managed considering I was seething with anger. He looked at me sheepishly and then at the waving credit card. I am quite sure he would have favored the bobbing credit card had the person behind me not piped up and voiced his displeasure as well.

At the software biggie where I worked, it was commonplace to see women being shoved out of the way as their male counterparts rushed through entrance doors, boarded company buses, and grabbed cups of coffee from the vending machine in the miniscule pantry. The narrow office aisles only made matters worse for the fairer sex. Women found themselves bunged out of the way, only just stopping themselves from landing on the laps of other employees seated at their desks. The word “lap top” almost acquired a whole new meaning thanks to a bunch of uncouth men. The cliché “chivalry is dead” could not have been more pertinent.

One time, a group of us five women found ourselves squashed into the back of a company bus, unable to disembark because the men were in a hurry to do so first themselves. “Ladies”, I sarcastically called out, “please remain seated, the gentlemen have to get out first, remember?” Apart from a few puzzled looks from the men in question and a lot of horrified “Lord! Let me pretend I don’t know this woman!” looks from my women friends, the statement failed to incite any positive reactions.

I became so accustomed to crude male ways in the civilian world that meeting a bunch of army officers (read: genuine gentlemen) was a sea change of sorts. They stand when a lady enters the room (okay, I agree that this is a bit much), politely greet her, call her “ma’am” at all times (amusing although unwarranted I feel) and offer her a drink. Men offering women drinks out of pure courtesy and no ulterior motives whatsoever are almost unheard of in “civvie” world!

I had some work at an army club office the other day. As I waited my turn, an elderly gentleman stood up and offered me his seat. Although I politely refused for quite a while, he insisted that I sit and would not take no for an answer. So (I say this with some shame) this 20-something damsel sat down while the kindly 70-something old man stood and waited.

My respect for the complete chivalry that officers of every rank and age display knows no bounds. Gentlemen, you offer a complete breath of fresh air amidst smelly armpits.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A Busload of Bellicose Busybodies

“If you can’t answer a man’s arguments, all is not lost; you can still call him vile names.”
- Elbert Hubbard (American editor, publisher and writer, 1856-1915)

What is it with Indians and belligerence? The local populace seems to nurse an innate pugnacity – why else would people flare up at the drop of a hat and go to great lengths to assert their egos over the other?

We are a nosy bunch, we are. We like to jump in and join the fight when the issue is of no concern to us at all. Any little altercation on the road, for instance, becomes something of a roadside circus act, where all and sundry are invited for a ringside view. Then everybody takes sides (after first ascertaining that they are in the majority, of course) and a shouting match ensues. Pull out all stops, every aspect of your “opponent” in question can be insulted and degraded. The sidekicks will nod their heads vigorously and chorus, “Ah! Ah!”

One such debacle sparked off on a bus that Ducky and I once boarded from Bangalore to Kundapur, near Mangalore. A passenger wanted to recline his seat to catch a nap and the person behind him objected. Why design a bus with reclining seats, or more importantly, why board a bus with reclining seats if you’re going get so sore about it? Anyhow, logic does not go down well with natural crabbiness.

An argument ensued, which slowly boiled over into a clash of communities. As luck would have it, the two contesting parties were from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu – arch rivals of South India. Each side yelled about how their state was better than the other. I was trying to catch a wink and was getting increasingly annoyed with the cacophony. “How about I stand up and yell that I can spit in their primary water source and they wouldn’t even know it?” I mumbled. Not that I have… or will… or even plan to… but I COULD. (For the lesser informed, Coorg, from where I hail, is the birth place of the Cauvery river, which feeds both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.)

As the voices became more raised, more and more curious necks craned over their seats for a better view. Our neighbor, seated at the front of the bus, finally decided that he would lay down the law – even if he wasn’t in the least way connected to either of the parties. In fact, I suspect, he did not even have a clue about what they were arguing about.

In any case, loudest and most enduring foghorn wins – that is a given. Also, he silenced both parties by yelling in Tulu – a language local to the Mangalore coast and quite foreign to both Kannada and Tamil-speaking debaters. However, he had some stiff competition. After a series of “Ah! Ah!” indicating agreement, another neighbor stood up and yelled in Tulu. Then to completely drive home the point, he roared in Kannada and Tamil. I was quite flummoxed as to who exactly he was challenging. Nonetheless, his polyglottous show of strength silenced all opponents. All except our neighbor, who added another “Ah!” and a head waggle for good measure.

Suitably silenced, all parties sank down in their seats – reclining or not is anybody’s guess.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Dirt on Darjeeling

I have very little to say about Darjeeling, and even the little that I do have to say about it is hardly flattering. Touted as the “Queen of Hills”, Darjeeling really is about as attractive as the present Queen of England. You would do yourself and the filthy, crowded hill station a huge favor if you choose to give it a miss!

The Himalayan Zoological Park here (for me it’s all about the four-leggeds, huh?) houses quite a number of animals and boasts of a successful snow leopard breeding program. The snow leopards here have far too much attitude – or so I say because I am rather peeved after I narrowly missed being peed on by one audacious kitty.

If museums and stuffed dead beings in glass cabinets are your things, then a visit to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute is in order. This has a huge amount of information on the history of high altitude climbs and is the place where Tenzing Norgay was laid to rest.

The Japanese temple and Peace Pagoda are also places of some note and relatively uncrowded. Tourists are too busy gawking at the tea-field covered slopes, snapping pictures of a hazy Kanchenzonga, or haggling at the curio shops in the market and getting ripped off.

Chunnu Summer Falls (yes, that is the name, I fool you not) and the Rock Garden also offer some good photo ops. We were fortunate enough to have my enthusiastic cousin along who more than willingly draped herself in the traditional Nepali garb being rented at the place and posed brilliantly, even braving our hysterical laughter and mockery.

Batasia Loop is a Gorkha war memorial, which has a good view of the Himalayas. The Himalayan railway track loops around the garden, giving the place its name.

The drive to Kalimpong from Darjeeling was quite pretty – lush green coniferous trees dotted with colorful flowers and fluttering Buddhist prayer flags. Kalimpong is a street shopper’s haven. At this time of year, the markets have an array of jackets, jumpers and sweaters to choose from. The pavement vendors also offer a lot of “Abibas” and “Roobok” gear—so much for brand consciousness.

If you’re looking to set up a house with dainty crockery and bone china, this place is a steal! I almost bought out the first store we entered – tea sets, little bone china bowls with prints of the Chinese zodiac and geishas, delicate paddling porcelain tortoises – all at significantly lower rates than places like Gangtok.

Two words for Darjeeling: “Pooh pooh!” All right, if I sounded too harsh, then here’s something in its defense – buy the oranges, they are divine! There is plenty of the famous Darjeeling tea to be bought too, but overall, this tourist hotspot barely even qualifies as Sikkim’s poorest and ugliest cousin thrice removed. As for Kalimpong, shop till you drop, but it is best if you know someone local who can function as a guide.

Gourmands in Gorkhaland

Having heard a lot about the place, we visited what appears to be the one decent pub in Darjeeling – Glenneries. The place was about as lively as a morgue. The waiter brought us our bill at 9:15 p.m. unasked and shuffled around making it quite clear that they’d really like to call it a day and soon.

A pleasant surprise was a recommendation by a friendly salesman at the Nathmulls tea shop, where we’d gone to pick up the famous Darjeeling tea. He suggested we try this tiny, unimpressive looking restaurant called Kunga for good Tibetan food. The waitress laid a pen and stack of paper in front of us. It took us a while to figure out that there would be no “order taken” – customers have to write down what they want and that slip of paper is then handed over to the chef. The food was delicious and value for money – our servings of fried momos and thupka were enough to satisfy a medium-sized hungry lion.

At Kalimpong, we lunched at The Park – a short but rather steep and winding drive away from the main market area. We quite enjoyed the food and ambience – the hotel seems more like an old plantation bungalow with a charming compound than a commercial establishment. A snoop around the attached souvenir shop yielded an interesting engraved silver ashtray for Smoky Joe.