A summer vacation in 1955

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[Editor’s Note: My mother, a late adopter of the Internet, used to write the loveliest of letters to her children pre-Internet era. The letters stopped after I returned to India. In the past few years, after she got comfortable with Internet and gmail, the letters resumed as emails to her children. This is email #4 – a 3-part magnum opus covering her summer vacations in Madras, Vijayawada and Guntur. The earlier ones were A marriage in the winter of 1962Ravi Varma in a Vijayawada home, and Anatomy of a pilgrimage (Sringeri edition). This letter was written on May 13, 2017 so it has (unfortunately) taken nearly a year for the editor to do his job. The email has gone through a minor editing lens without changing my mom’s tone and voice. I’ve italicized the Telugu names and provided translations in “[ ]”.]

Part 1 (Madras)

Dear ones,

Once again I want to bore you with my past memories. As I grow older my mind wanders more to the past. I want to share these with Vasanta, Sasi, and Kaza sisters – vichu will take care of the former and Udaka will take care of the later.

I will make this into 3 parts. In summer, people go to the queen of hill stations (Ooty) and we used to leave Ooty and go to Madras,Vijayawada, Guntur, Rajahmundry, and Kollur. The heat would make my nose bleed and Kakki used to get boils but still we enjoyed our summer vacations.

Our first halt would always be Madras before going to places in Andhra. Only rarely would our father accompany us, most of the time he would join later. My father would do journey planning one week in advance. He would say “Suppose mavayya [my mom’s uncle] doesn’t come to the railway station, you leave the luggage in the left luggage, then take taxi and go to Shenoy Nagar. It is not at all difficult – just a straight road.” I will nod foolishly. My mother will comment from behind “my annayya [elder brother] will definitely come.”

Madras in 1950’s

Nilgiri Express reached Madras Central exactly at 7 am. It was always a happy sight to see my mavayya waiting for us, always with his goggles on (I can’t imagine him without goggles). The next hard thing was our big trunk, packed with all our things. Mavayya would find it very difficult to fit into his car and I used to feel guilty. He was the only one among our relatives who owned a car in those days.

We were very happy to spend time with our cousins (Sirisha, Indu and Bharati). My athayya [aunt] was very affectionate and took care to cook our favorite items – brinjal for me and baby potatoes for Kakki. In those days their house seemed to me like a palace. Mavayya took us to the Marina beach or we would go to the park nearb. Being a doctor, he was very particular and careful and we didn’t go out much. Sirisha and Indu had very long hair, reaching down to their knees. Bharati’s hair was wavy and reached her hips. Sirisha was delicate and graceful (even today she is the same). My Mavayya never sent them to school by bus, he used to drop (and pick) them in his car.

My cousins used to learn dancing. It was a serious business, complete with proper dance dresses and performances too. We went along to one such program in a place called Tada (2-3 hours from madras). We went to Tada in Mavayya’s car, an overnight trip with amma [my grandmother] and ammumma [my mom’s grandmother] staying back in Madrasa. It was a LOT of fun – on the way we had food under pine trees and I felt very proud to watch my cousins’ performance the next day. My cousins then went to Amalapuram (their grandmother’s place) while we spent some more time with my Ammumma and Mavayya until my father joined us and took us to other places.

We spent a number of vacations with my Mavayya’s family including a Ganesh pooja where allrounder Bharati  did everything. Those were unforgettable days. I will write about Vijayawada in my next episode.

Part 2 (Vijawada)

Dear ones,

From Madras we proceeded to Vijayawada with my father. It was quite a busy place. I don’t think you have seen my Vimala Kakki. Six inches taller than Ammumma, she was fair with curly hair and wore a lot of jewellery including kattevanki [gold band worn on upper arm] and oddannam [gold belt of immense proportion]. She was always fully decked-up with ornaments, she looked like a beautiful queen with dazzling diamond ear studs and nose rings. She wore dark colours. We were a little bit afraid because of her strict and loud tone. Sarma kakka was a heavy man with a proud and sarcastic smile. They had 11 children (4 sons and 7 daughters). Eldest was Chandram annayya [older brother] and youngest was Santhi. So naturally house was full of halchal [pandemonium in Hindi].

Nobody can sleep beyond 5 am in Vijayawada summer.. even if somebody wanted to.. my Kakki would not allow. I remember the place where she sat with a bowl of coconut oil and a comb – she had to comb 6 girls’ heads (oldest girl Seeta was married by then) and make 12 jadas [braids]. It was a difficult task as everyone had curly hair. She would be constantly calling for the next one to be ready with her ribbons. Before nylon ribbons came into existence, we had to struggle with the task of straightening crumpled ones.

There were no dining tables in those days. All of us [the kids] would eat along with my uncle – the elders would eat later in the next batch. The big plates would be full with a variety of things. Vimala kakki made many types of pickles, odiyalu [fried yummies], oorumirapakayalu [literally translates to town’s chillies] and kandi podi [roasted lentil powder]. I used to wonder how she could do all this. Removing the plates and cleaning the floor was done by Vasumati and Rajyam [the two older daughters].

All of us would go to the gate to see my uncle leave for the bank where he worked. He would go in a cycle rickshaw but his face will be as if he was going in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes car!

Afternoon turned into a workshop. Uniforms of the school-going children and blouses were all made at home. Vimala kakki would cut the material and Vasumati would help her in stitching [they had a leg-operated sewing machine]. Our afternoon snack would be rice again but not in that elaborate way – only pickle rice.

The pre-sleeping duty of arranging beds (once again) fell to Vasumati and Rajyam. It was a tough job indeed – with a lot of arguments and yelling, all the navar manchams [coir beds] were kept outside in the courtyard, piles of beds, covers, and pillows were inside. Both (V and R) would make the beds for everybody including the guests. The next morning it was their job to stow them back.

The only entertainment in those days was movies. As it is Vijayawada people are very crazy about movies. The whole family would go to the movie in different batches – my kakki and kakka would be the last to go. During this entire period, everybody would discuss various scenes and pass comments. Viswam and Purushotham [two of the sons] would sing the movie songs throughout the day.. until they went to the next movie. Not a single day passed without guests trickling in.

Vimala kakki had a cook, a widow named Avvagaru. She stayed in their house along with her son Narayana. They were quite helpful to the family. Narayana was given basic education and my Kakka helped him get a decent job. He eventually got married and settled down in Ongole. Narayana’s children grew up to be model citizenry. Till today he attends all the functions of Tenjarla family [family name of Vimala Kakki clan]. I happened to meet him in one of those functions. He introduced his son who was working as a software engineer in Hitech City. I was touched. I have been told that he performs taddinam [religious ceremony to commemorate progenitors] for my Kakki and Kakka every year. How well he is expressing his gratitude.

Anyway Vimala kakki and kakka were a successful couple. After completing their responsibilities they passed away without much suffering – both within a 2 year gap.

Part 3 (Guntur)

Crazy coincidence: “Guntur” is an Indonesian film released in 1955

Guntur was our last halt for that summer. My heart jumped with joy when we saw Guntur station. We spent a longer time here. I told you all many times about my mamma [her father’s mother] – if not for her we would not be here. If you can imagine a dark tatayya [my tatayya – her father was a very fair man], that’s what she looked like. She was as tall as tatayya and always wore a big bottu [vermilion dot on forehead].

There was a gorintaku [mehendi/henna] tree in their backyard. The very next day itself we would pluck the entire leaves and Ammumma [her mother] would grind it for us. My cousin (Koti Annayya) lived with them.

They had a buffalo, which would be milked by mamma herself. A small boy would take the buffalo out for grazing. Every morning mamma would make buttermilk.. just like Yashoda ma [of Lord Krishna fame] she would tie the rope to a pillar and churn it. She would keep the milk, butter, butter milk and curd carefully in a kavidipette [covered wooden box]. Since curd was special and available in small quantity, three of us would get in turns. She would give buttermilk generously to anyone who came home and asked for it. She would also make mango pappu [lentil dal] and pulusu [a variant of the South Indian dish sambar] in large quantity.

In the afternoon she would read Bhagavatam out loud. She knew how to read but couldn’t write (except her signature). Whenever my father sent 5 rupees Money Order, I would see that the money order receipt was signed as Raghavamma [it was not uncommon to be oblivious of grandparents’ names].

She (Raghavamma) didn’t expect any help from her daughter-in-law [my grandmother – ammumma] but, driven by her own nature, Ammumma helped to the extent possible (especially grinding and drawing water from the well). It was a great job because well water was the only source. Drinking water was brought by mamma from outside the compound wall in the evenings. My tatayya used to keep a mirror and thilakam bottu (black forehead dot made with banana flower) in front of his meals plate – pre-meal tradition to put on the thilakam.

There was a small room where my tatayya slept during day time. During nights everybody slept outside looking at the stars. He had bed with silk cotton and green pillow cover. He would hang a vattvaru tadika [brown coir-based thingy] on the door, and splash water on it periodically, creating an a/c room effect.

There was a shade giving bogada tree in front of the house with wide spread branches  with sweet smelling very small flowers and fruits. There was also a neem tree. We used to play there. Neem and bogada fruits were our refreshments.

There were a pile of bricks and partly constructed portions in the premises. Tatayya had an ambition and long term plan to build houses for his 4 sons and 2 grandsons. He would do this work as and when he got enough funds. He used to get a pension of 15 Rs per month. He had fertile lands at Nallurpalem (near Tenali). Every harvest season he went there. He kept some paddy for his yearly family requirement and sold the rest. He continued construction work with that amount. He didn’t believe in contract labour. Instead, he got the job done using daily wage labourers. He was a tough master. I would see him wetting the bricks and cemented walls every morning. There was another small room [pantry?] where mangoes and vegetables like kanda, pendalam chamadumpalu, dosakayalu would be stored. His favourite mango variety was imampasand.

He rented out one portion of the house. He was very careful in collecting the rent. When we were leaving he bought 3 crepe silk blouse pieces on my mammas request. Mine was brown color. It was more valuable than a pattu sari.

Our Visweswaram babai’s [uncle] family was living in Arundalpeta (opposite Vishnubhotla’s house). We visited their house a number of times while in Guntur – sometimes we stayed overnight also. It was a very small house but who cares? Prasanna Akkayya and 6 boys were there – there was no end to playing. On top of it, they took us to movies. Though my babai’s job was not that great he got free movie passes. We watched movies from balcony seats. We enjoyed Guntur trip very much. Poor thing kakki was suffering with hot boils.

We finally returned home. It was thrilling when the train was nearing the destination. The driver would start the whistle from Fern Hill station. The Blue Mountain Express will reach Ooty at 1’o clock passing by the lake. We would take a taxi to come home. The blooming dahlias, roses, and chrysanthemums gave us a warm welcome. Our neighbour would keep food ready for us.

So that was our vacation when I was 12 years old.

 

Swami Vivekananda on Spiritual Conquest (Part 2)

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[Editor’s Prelude] This is Part 2 of a two-part blog series on Swami Vivekananda’s ideas on spiritual conquest – from a talk titled The Work Before Us delivered at the Triplicane Literary Society, Madras. In the excerpts below, he elaborates on spiritual conquest – “conquest of the world by spiritual thought is the sending out of the life-giving principles, not the hundreds of superstitions that we have been hugging to our breasts for centuries.” Part 1 is here.]

There have been great conquering races in the world. We also have been great conquerors. The story of our conquest has been described by that noble Emperor of India, Asoka, as the conquest of religion and of spirituality. Once more the world must be conquered by India. This is the dream of my life, and I wish that each one of you who hear me today will have the same dream in your minds, and stop not till you have realised the dream. They will tell you every day that we had better look to our own homes first and then go to work outside. But I will tell you in plain language that you work best when you work for others. The best work that you ever did for yourselves was when you worked for others, trying to disseminate your ideas in foreign languages beyond the seas, and this very meeting is proof how the attempt to enlighten other countries with your thoughts is helping your own country. One-fourth of the effect that has been produced in this country by my going to England and America would not have been brought about, had I confined my ideas only to India. This is the great ideal before us, and every one must be ready for it — the Conquest of the whole world by India — nothing less than that, and we must all get ready for it, strain every nerve for it. Let foreigners come and flood the land with their armies, never mind. Up, India, and conquer the world with your spirituality! Ay, as has been declared on this soil first, love must conquer hatred, hatred cannot conquer itself. Materialism and all its miseries can never be conquered by materialism. Armies when they attempt to conquer armies only multiply and make brutes of humanity. Spirituality must conquer the West. Slowly they are finding out that what they want is spirituality to preserve them as nations. They are waiting for it, they are eager for it. Where is the supply to come from? Where are the men ready to go out to every country in the world with the messages of the great sages of India? Where are the men who are ready to sacrifice everything, so that this message shall reach every corner of the world? Such heroic spurs are wanted to help the spread of truth. Such heroic workers are wanted to go abroad and help to disseminate the great truths of the Vedanta. The world wants it; without it the world will be destroyed. The whole of the Western world is on a volcano which may burst tomorrow, go to pieces tomorrow. They have searched every corner of the world and have found no respite. They have drunk deep of the cup of pleasure and found it vanity. Now is the time to work so that India’s spiritual ideas may penetrate deep into the West. Therefore young men of Madras, I specially ask you to remember this. We must go out, we must conquer the world through our spirituality and philosophy. There is no other alternative, we must do it or die. The only condition of national life, of awakened and vigorous national life, is the conquest of the world by Indian thought.

At the same time we must not forget that what I mean by the conquest of the world by spiritual thought is the sending out of the life-giving principles, not the hundreds of superstitions that we have been hugging to our breasts for centuries. These have to be weeded out even on this soil, and thrown aside, so that they may die for ever. These are the causes of the degradation of the race and will lead to softening of the brain. That brain which cannot think high and noble thoughts, which has lost all power of originality, which has lost all vigour, that brain which is always poisoning itself with all sorts of little superstitions passing under the name of religion, we must beware of. In our sight, here in India, there are several dangers. Of these, the two, Scylla and Charybdis, rank materialism and its opposite arrant superstition, must be avoided. There is the man today who after drinking the cup of Western wisdom, thinks that he knows everything. He laughs at the ancient sages. All Hindu thought to him is arrant trash — philosophy mere child’s prattle, and religion the superstition of fools. On the other hand, there is the man educated, but a sort of monomaniac, who runs to the other extreme and wants to explain the omen of this and that. He has philosophical and metaphysical, and Lord knows what other puerile explanations for every superstition that belongs to his peculiar race, or his peculiar gods, or his peculiar village. Every little village superstition is to him a mandate of the Vedas, and upon the carrying out of it, according to him, depends the national life. You must beware of this. I would rather see every one of you rank atheists than superstitious fools, for the atheist is alive and you can make something out of him. But if superstition enters, the brain is gone, the brain is softening, degradation has seized upon the life. Avoid these two. Brave, bold men, these are what we want. What we want is vigour in the blood, strength in the nerves, iron muscles and nerves of steel, not softening namby-pamby ideas. Avoid all these. Avoid all mystery. There is no mystery in religion. Is there any mystery in the Vedanta, or in the Vedas, or in the Samhitâs, or in the Puranas? What secret societies did the sages of yore establish to preach their religion? What sleight-of-hand tricks are there recorded as used by them to bring their grand truths to humanity? Mystery mongering and superstition are always signs of weakness. These are always signs of degradation and of death. Therefore beware of them; be strong, and stand on your own feet. Great things are there, most marvellous things. We may call them supernatural things so far as our ideas of nature go, but not one of these things is a mystery. It was never preached on this soil that the truths of religion were mysteries or that they were the property of secret societies sitting on the snow-caps of the Himalayas. I have been in the Himalayas. You have not been there; it is several hundreds of miles from your homes. I am a Sannyâsin, and I have been for the last fourteen years on my feet. These mysterious societies do not exist anywhere. Do not run after these superstitions. Better for you and for the race that you become rank atheists, because you would have strength, but these are degradation and death. Shame on humanity that strong men should spend their time on these superstitions, spend all their time in inventing allegories to explain the most rotten superstitions of the world. Be bold; do not try to explain everything that way. The fact is that we have many superstitions, many bad spots and sores on our body — these have to be excised, cut off, and destroyed — but these do not destroy our religion, our national life, our spirituality. Every principle of religion is safe, and the sooner these black spots are purged away, the better the principles will shine, the more gloriously. Stick to them.

Update: My friend Deepika commented (on Facebook) that Americans are becoming more Hindu in the way they think of God, life and death so perhaps the conquest is not that far off. Which reminded me of this other post I wrote last year – Err… Could we stop the conversions please?

Swami Vivekananda on Spiritual Conquest

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[Editor’s Prelude] Was Swami Vivekananda the first ambassador of Hinduism to the West? The more one reads of his writings and lectures, one begin to realize that he was possibly Hinduism’s first (and most forceful) evangelist. I’ve used evangelist deliberately because it’s hardly used in the same sentence with Hinduism. In his talk at The Triplicane Literary Society in Madras, he holds forth on the subject of spiritual conquest. One normally associates passion, charisma and vociferousness with Swami Vivekananda but when you read The Work Before Us (a talk delivered at the Triplicane Literary Society, Madras) you’ll want to add the word thunderous as well. Without letting the cat out of the bag, let me mention that evangelism and conquest below are very different from mainstream definitions of these words. I’ve picked the most interesting excerpts in this two-part blog series.]

Then for good or evil, the English conquest of India took place. Of course every conquest is bad, for conquest is an evil, foreign government is an evil, no doubt; but even through evil comes good sometimes, and the great good of the English conquest is this: England, nay the whole of Europe, has to thank Greece for its civilization. It is Greece that speaks through everything in Europe. Every building, every piece of furniture has the impress of Greece upon it; European science and art are nothing but Grecian. Today the ancient Greek is meeting the ancient Hindu on the soil of India. Thus slowly and silently the leaven has come; the broadening, the life-giving and the revivalist movement that we see all around us has been worked out by these forces together. A broader and more generous conception of life is before us; and although at first we have been deluded a little and wanted to narrow things down, we are finding out today that these generous impulses which are at work, these broader conceptions of life, are the logical interpretation of what is in our ancient books. They are the carrying out, to the rigorously logical effect, of the primary conceptions of our own ancestors. To become broad, to go out, to amalgamate, to universalist, is the end of our aims. And all the time we have been making ourselves smaller and smaller, and dissociating ourselves, contrary to the plans laid down our scriptures.

Several dangers are in the way, and one is that of the extreme conception that we are the people in the world. With all my love for India, and with all my patriotism and veneration for the ancients, I cannot but think that we have to learn many things from other nations. We must be always ready to sit at the feet of all, for, mark you, every one can teach us great lessons. Says our great law-giver, Manu: “Receive some good knowledge even from the low-born, and even from the man of lowest birth learn by service the road to heaven.” We, therefore, as true children of Manu, must obey his commands and be ready to learn the lessons of this life or the life hereafter from any one who can teach us. At the same time we must not forget that we have also to teach a great lesson to the world. We cannot do without the world outside India; it was our foolishness that we thought we could, and we have paid the penalty by about a thousand years of slavery. That we did not go out to compare things with other nations, did not mark the workings that have been all around us, has been the one great cause of this degradation of the Indian mind. We have paid the penalty; let us do it no more. All such foolish ideas that Indians must not go out of India are childish. They must be knocked on the head; the more you go out and travel among the nations of the world, the better for you and for your country. If you had done that for hundreds of years past, you would not be here today at the feet of every nation that wants to rule India. The first manifest effect of life is expansion. You must expand if you want to live. The moment you have ceased to expand, death is upon you, danger is ahead. I went to America and Europe, to which you so kindly allude; I have to, because that is the first sign of the revival of national life, expansion. This reviving national life, expanding inside, threw me off, and thousands will be thrown off in that way. Mark my words, it has got to come if this nation lives at all. This question, therefore, is the greatest of the signs of the revival of national life, and through this expansion our quota of offering to the general mass of human knowledge, our contribution to the general upheaval of the world, is going out to the external world.

Again, this is not a new thing. Those of you who think that the Hindus have been always confined within the four walls of their country through all ages, are entirely mistaken; you have not studied the old books, you have not studied the history of the race aright if you think so. Each nation must give in order to live. When you give life, you will have life; when you receive, you must pay for it by giving to all others; and that we have been living for so many thousands of years is a fact that stares us in the face, and the solution that remains is that we have been always giving to the outside world, whatever the ignorant may think. But the gift of India is the gift of religion and philosophy, and wisdom and spirituality. And religion does not want cohorts to march before its path and clear its way. Wisdom and philosophy do not want to be carried on floods of blood. Wisdom and philosophy do not march upon bleeding human bodies, do not march with violence but come on the wings of peace and love, and that has always been so. Therefore we had to give. I was asked by a young lady in London, “What have you Hindus done? You have never even conquered a single nation.” That is true from the point of view of the Englishman, the brave, the heroic, the Kshatriya — conquest is the greatest glory that one man can have over another. That is true from his point of view, but from ours it is quite the opposite. If I ask myself what has been the cause of India’s greatness, I answer, because we have never conquered. That is our glory. You are hearing every day, and sometimes, I am sorry to say, from men who ought to know better, denunciations of our religion, because it is not at all a conquering religion. To my mind that is the argument why our religion is truer than any other religion, because it never conquered, because it never shed blood, because its mouth always shed on all, words of blessing, of peace, words of love and sympathy. It is here and here alone that the ideals of toleration were first preached. And it is here and here alone that toleration and sympathy have become practical it is theoretical in every other country, it is here and here alone, that the Hindu builds mosques for the Mohammedans and churches for the Christians.

So, you see, our message has gone out to the world many a time, but slowly, silently, unperceived. It is on a par with everything in India. The one characteristic of Indian thought is its silence, its calmness. At the same time the tremendous power that is behind it is never expressed by violence. It is always the silent mesmerism of Indian thought. If a foreigner takes up our literature to study, at first it is disgusting to him; there is not the same stir, perhaps, the same amount of go that rouses him instantly. Compare the tragedies of Europe with our tragedies. The one is full of action, that rouses you for the moment, but when it is over there comes the reaction, and everything is gone, washed off as it were from your brains. Indian tragedies are like the mesmerist’s power, quiet, silent, but as you go on studying them they fascinate you; you cannot move; you are bound; and whoever has dared to touch our literature has felt the bondage, and is there bound for ever. Like the gentle dew that falls unseen and unheard, and yet brings into blossom the fairest of roses, has been the contribution of India to the thought of the world. Silent, unperceived, yet omnipotent in its effect, it has revolutionised the thought of the world, yet nobody knows when it did so. It was once remarked to me, “How difficult it is to ascertain the name of any writer in India”, to which I replied, “That is the Indian idea.” Indian writers are not like modern writers who steal ninety percent of their ideas from other authors, while only ten per cent is their own, and they take care to write a preface in which they say, “For these ideas I am responsible”. Those great master minds producing momentous results in the hearts of mankind were content to write their books without even putting their names, and to die quietly, leaving the books to posterity. Who knows the writers of our philosophy, who knows the writers of our Purânas? They all pass under the generic name of Vyâsa, and Kapila, and so on. They have been true children of Shri Krishna. They have been true followers of the Gita; they practically carried out the great mandate, “To work you have the right, but not to the fruits thereof.”

Thus India is working upon the world, but one condition is necessary. Thoughts like merchandise can only run through channels made by somebody. Roads have to be made before even thought can travel from one place to another, and whenever in the history of the world a great conquering nation has arisen, linking the different parts of the world together, then has poured through these channels the thought of India and thus entered into the veins of every race. Before even the Buddhists were born, there are evidences accumulating every day that Indian thought penetrated the world. Before Buddhism, Vedanta had penetrated into China, into Persia, and the Islands of the Eastern Archipelago. Again when the mighty mind of the Greek had linked the different parts of the Eastern world together there came Indian thought; and Christianity with all its boasted civilisation is but a collection of little bits of Indian thought. Ours is the religion of which Buddhism with all its greatness is a rebel child, and of which Christianity is a very patchy imitation. One of these cycles has again arrived. There is the tremendous power of England which has linked the different parts of the world together. English roads no more are content like Roman roads to run over lands, but they have also ploughed the deep in all directions. From ocean to ocean run the roads of England. Every part of the world has been linked to every other part, and electricity plays a most marvellous part as the new messenger. Under all these circumstances we find again India reviving and ready to give her own quota to the progress and civilisation of the world. And that I have been forced, as it were, by nature, to go over and preach to America and England is the result. Every one of us ought to have seen that the time had arrived. Everything looks propitious, and Indian thought, philosophical and spiritual, roast once more go over and conquer the world. The problem before us, therefore, is assuming larger proportions every day. It is not only that we must revive our own country — that is a small matter; I am an imaginative man — and my idea is the conquest of the whole world by the Hindu race.

Wait a minute… “conquest of the whole world by the Hindu race”? Shocking, no? What exactly did he mean? Read more in Part 2 – Swami Vivekananda on Spiritual Conquest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nahin chalta hai

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Tajnagar Railway Station (Pic: courtesy whataworldagain.wordpress.com)

I have watched a city of a million dreams held hostage by 20 or so men who have purged from their souls every trace of humanity – let’s not confer on them the dignity of a religion – and I have felt the blood drain out of me.

I have felt a sense of paralysis and rage. My family and I are safe at home, none of my friends were in the hotels or at the other attack sites; but I am numb, not with fear or personal loss, but something far deeper: a sense of overpowering bleakness.

Thus writes Sambit Bal (Editor of Cricinfo) in his post (unrelated to cricket) – An overpowering bleakness. He has captured the essence of what I too have been feeling for the past 36 hours. Like Sambit, I’ve had a job to do through out the day – which I did, but in a highly unproductive and distracted way. In between scanning the Twitterverse, Rediff, CNN and NDTV, and lunch conversations with colleagues, my heart and mind was flitting between Nariman House, Taj, Oberoi, CST Railway Station, and zooming out to morbid visions of The Clash of Civilizations.

I started writing this post Thursday night partly to stop incessantly reading Twitter/Web coverage of the Mumbai terrorist attacks but mainly to channel my rage, outrage and deep sadness. After 12 hours of following news coverage, I realized that I had stopped referring to Bombay as ‘Bombay’ and started calling it ‘Mumbai’. How is this relevant to what is going on in Mumbai currently? I could not answer this yesterday so I stopped rambling. Today I may have an answer. I had long resisted the switch to ‘Mumbai’, ‘Chennai’ (old name Madras), and ‘Kolkata’ (old name Calcutta) as my personal protest to the wave of regionalism sweeping Indian states. I am part of the unique story of India – we can’t even agree on what to call a city! According to Google Trends, most of India (and the world) has already switched to Mumbai – as far back as 2004. Yesterday marked my personal pledge to Mumbai – not “the city formerly known as Bombay”. This might seem trite or banal to some of you but indulge with me the symbolism for a bit. If this kind of terrorist event does not galvanize the nation’s psyche into united action, nothing else will.

Coming now to the title of the post – nahin chalta hai (Hindi phrase translates to “it is NOT ok” or “we won’t stand for it”). Essays can be written about the various nuances of the Indian chalta hai attitude but here’s the crash course version. When the city’s roads are a maze of potholes and the motorists put up with it without taking the municipality to task, that is chalta hai in action. When a traffic cop demands a bribe from a motorist and he just pays up because that is how the Indian system works, that is chalta hai. When a city like Mumbai which has had a record 14 terror attacks in the past 15 years and, following the customary mourning, outrage and media attention that follows the aftermath of each attack abates and the incredibly resilient Mumbaikars ‘move on’ and not demand more from the government, that is also sadly chalta hai.

Well, dear friends, Mumbaikars & fellow Indians! it’s time for us to declare to ourselves (and the government) that yeh Nahin Chalta Hai. Let this be the last major terror incident on Indian soil. Let us admire the resilient Mumbai spirit but please let us NOT forget the carnage, outrage, pain and humiliation. Jagadish Santhanam has this exhortation to Mumbaikars:

Mumbai, please stop getting on with life. Cry! Become angry! Riot! Do something to let those in power know that they can’t go off to sleep and let another terrorist attack happen, knowing well that the Mumbaikar’s resilience and spirit will ensure that they don’t get blamed in the end.

I agree with everything Jagadish has to say except the rioting bit. I was talking to my childhood friend and classmate from Bokaro (who has been living in Mumbai for the past 10+ years) last evening and was encouraged by his words. His words were: “this time it’s different. there’s a lot more anger among Mumbaikars about the brazenness of the attacks.” He expects a citizen backlash (more like “citizen action”) that will hold the state and central government accountable.

You may or may not agree that the current Mumbai terror attacks are India’s 9/11 but it’s hard to refute Vir Sanghvi (Hindustan Times) in The Longest Day:

..India is now part of the global terrorist battleground. If the international jihadi network decides to treat us on par with Israel, England, America and other countries that are seen as enemies of its twisted version of Islam, then the Bombay attacks may only be a beginning. Worse may follow.

No more anger. No more promises. It’s time to act..

WHAT CAN WE DO?

There are all manners of experts and citizens opining on this subject. My 2 cents on the subject are:

  1. India needs a national plan to combat terrorism. Should be a cabinet-level position. Even if we had a competent home minister (and god knows how useless the current one is), an anti-terrorism (or overall intelligence czar) is urgently needed.
  2. Secure the borders please! This includes naval & land borders with all neighboring countries (since none of them are India well-wishers).
  3. Start a national Nahin Chalta Hai campaign. We have been a nation of ‘chalta hai’. I say Enough is Enough, damn it! Let’s get the Bollywood stars to produce an entire series on how “we the people” will not tolerate this nonsense anymore. We need a collective change in attitude. Thanks to my friend Shanthala for alerting me to a Hollywood-stars-produced video inspiring young Americans to vote in the presidential election (youtube video embed at the end of the post).
  4. As Prem Panicker rightly commented on Twitter, let us drop this national obsession (by our Prime Ministers) to win a Nobel Peace Prize. It is more important for India to take its national security seriously than for it improve diplomatic relations with Pakistan.
  5. I also agree with the prevailing sentiment on the Twitterverse that it’s not just the government that needs to do the work. My friend Mekin tweets that we citizens CAN do, is not let anybody forget this. Life is not the same again & we need to tell each other. Moving on … basically makes these events fade away and the precautions & paranoia that we need to have evaporates.

There’s a lot to be learned from the experiences of other countries that have borne the brunt of terror attacks (namely US, UK, Israel). The world wants India to be safe and successful so let us be receptive to any help extended to us in this regard.

And a final request, could we please have the Prime Minister or Sonia Gandhi or Vilasrao Deskmukh (heck, all three of them) make a slightly more impassioned speech to give some semblance of confidence to the Indian citizens? Show some spirit, spunk and fire in your belly, people! I have a zillion reasons to detest the current American lameduck President George W Bush but… when he gave the speech in the aftermath of 9/11, most Americans felt united and emboldened (even if you discount his Texan-style “we’ll smoke them out” comments).

An example of a celebrity produced (in this case Hollywood stars) video inspiring young Americans to vote in the recently concluded USA presidential election.