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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Morning Magic and Auroral Disappointments

A few days ago, avid skygazers were alerted that a possibly sighting of the Northern Lights was in store for Pennsylvania. "Hie thee outdoors at eight o' clock in the evening!" was the command. We eagerly hustled out to stare at a dimming deep blue sky. After standing around for about ten minutes, we decided that like many 'astronomical shows', this one was a no-show.
That's not to say that I have never seen the Northern lights over Pittsburgh.  Maybe a couple of years ago, as I was driving down a little vale approaching my home, a green glimmer lit up the sky above for all of two seconds, and vanished. I looked up the internet that day and it was confirmed.The Northern Lights had come to town on that day, relatively unnannounced, caught in my vision by pure luck.
Yesterday morning, I walked my usual circuit and was treated to the most gorgeous eastern skies that I have seen in a while. Myriad shades of pink, orange, and blue melding together.It was ten minutes of pure enchantment, as the colors glowed, even through the silhouettes of blossoming trees.
I thought of trying to take a photo once I reached home, as the glow continued. I ducked into the house, came out wielding my camera. And just like that- Poof! The magical glow was gone, replaced by dull utilitarian grey blue clouds.
That's the quality of magic, I guess. Try to capture it, and it sometimes decides to vanish.

(Here is the closest approximation that I could find of the colors of the dawn on the web, and the Northern Lights)


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

When Food trumped Food for Thought

Mea culpa. (Please bear with me and read through to the end for the reason.)

I missed out on an excellent demo because of "Paapi pet ka sawaal".

Revisiting the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana this year after a break of many years ( couple of decades, almost), I took the chance to see if I could land a ticket to the much-anticipated 'rock star' of Carnatic music Sudha Raghunathan's concert at the end of March. It was preceded by a 'Melharmonic' symphony of  young Carnatic singers accompanied by both Indian and Western style orchestral ensembles, punctuated by rather stiffly-played cadenzas in the Western style. This ensured a full auditorium even as I entered to find a spot before the main event following.
The organizers insisted on everyone exiting the theater, waiting in the lobby in typical disorganized Indian-crowd style, to show our tickets as proof we had paid to enter for the concert. Things were getting a bit heated as a crowd about 1000 strong gathered in an area too small to hold them safely. But luckily, reason prevailed and they started permitting re-entry.
The concert itself was very good. Sudha Raghunathan was in blazing form, dazzling with lightning fast korvais, a good mix of mostly familiar songs and the occasional unfamiliars (to yours truly, if not the aficionado audience that included the inevitable gentleman in front who insisted on marking taalam for every song, except the one in Khanda chaapu which had most baffled for more than few minutes.)
Here is a sample of the lighter fare (thukkadas) that she presented at the end, following a rather tediously predictable plea for generous donations to the festival.


After all the razzle-dazzle, coming at the end of three and half hours, I was desperate for sustenance of the non-musical kind, being gifted with a stomach that demands its dues at frequent intervals through the day. I high-tailed it to the Comfort Inn across the street, hoping to get my dose of thayir saadam and pickle before it vanished entirely into the maws of the hungry crowds. It took about an hour to reach the food counter, after standing in line. I gulped down the food and rushed back as soon as decently possible, hoping that the usual IST applied to the start of a demo of a new musical instrument of which I had heard directly from the inventor. Alas, it was down to the final two minutes of the demo, and all that I heard was a brief thukkada, too short to make a determination of the full capabilities of the instrument.
Here, however, is restitution of sorts to the missed opportunity. Enjoy the sounds of the Chitravenu!
Now that is Food for Thought, indeed.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Drain Inspector

I refer to Katherine Mayo, author of the infamous "Mother India", criticized by no less than Mahatma Gandhi :
"This book is cleverly and powerfully written. The carefully chosen quotations give it the false appearance of a truthful book. But the impression it leaves on my mind, is that it is the report of a drain inspector sent out with the one purpose of opening and examining the drains of the country to be reported upon, or to give a graphic description of the stench exuded by the opened drains. If Miss. Mayo had confessed that she had come to India merely to open out and examine the drains of India, there would perhaps be little to complain about her compilation. But she declared her abominable and patently wrong conclusion with a certain amount of triumph: 'the drains are India'."

What  relevance does Mayo have, after all these years, especially with 'India Shining' as one of the brightest in the firmaments of new economic stars?
Having never read her book before, I finally got around to skimming through it online. There is some hyperbole on par with the travelogues of old (Herodotus, Alberuni, Fahien et al.), fantastical tales and too-broad brush strokes painting people that are far more diverse than simple dismissive statements can suggest.There are  several defamatory statements impugning the manhood of the Indian man.  One could argue that such statements may have arisen from the heat of the moment, especially with the horrors that she had heard of, being perpetrated on hapless Indian child-brides, which would lower her opinion of  both Indian men in general and those 'cautious' elders who went all out to defend the status quo. But there was much truth to what she said of India in that day and age (c. 1925), that still holds true not quite a century later.
Her contention regarding her description and assessments:
"This subject has not, I believe, been presented in common print. The Indian does not confront it in its entirety; he knows its component parts, but avoids the embarrassment of assembling them or of drawing their essential inferences. The traveler in India misses it, having no occasion to delve below the picturesque surface into living things as they are. The British official will especially avoid it--will deprecate its handling by others. His own daily labors, since the Reforms of 1919, hinge upon persuasion rather than upon command; therefore his hopes of success, like his orders from above, impose the policy of the gentle word. Outside agencies working for the moral welfare of the Indian seem often to have adopted the method of encouraging their beneficiary to dwell on his own merits and to harp upon others' shortcomings, rather than to face his faults and conquer them. And so, in the midst of an agreement of silence or flattery, you find a sick man growing daily weaker, dying, body and brain, of a disease that only himself can cure, and with no one, anywhere, enough his friend to hold the mirror up and show him plainly what is killing him.
In shouldering this task myself, I am fully aware of the resentments I shall incur: of the accusations of muck-raking; of injustice; of material-mindedness; of lack of sympathy; of falsehood perhaps; perhaps of prurience. But the fact of having seen conditions and their bearings, and of being in a position to present them, would seem to deprive one of the right to indulge a personal reluctance to incur consequences."
In the current context of Indian media reporting, an epidemic of  gang rapes of women young and old has 'suddenly erupted'.
Only this time, the drain inspectors are largely Indian, with the many gleeful "I-told-you-so" voices added from the popular media in the West, happy to pile on with the general opprobium.
It is good that such questions are being asked, and more attention being paid to the cultural woes of India than before.Whether this will lead to the lessening of such incidents occurring, I cannot say. There are still too many socio-economic factors that would prevent it from happening soon. But the awareness will hopefully cause the cultural change that is needed to move away from such behaviors, even if it takes a couple of generations to achieve it.

As a young and impressionable kid, I was once gifted a pair of English translations of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, both rendered by C. Rajagopalachari in fluent, easy to understand English. I rapidly read through the various episodes that were relatively familiar, thanks to the pictorial wonders of Amar Chitra Katha stories. But the tale of 'Yavakrida's end' gave me pause.  There was a clear and concise description of rape, which left me with an ominous warning of what not to ever do in terms of walking around alone.
"It was springtime. The trees and creepers were beautiful with flowers and the whole
forest was gorgeous with color and sweet with the song of birds.The very earth seemed to be under the spell of the god of love. Paravasu's wife was strolling alone in the garden near the hermitage of Raibhya. She appeared more than human, in the sweet union in her of beauty, courage and purity.
At that time Yavakrida came there and was so overwhelmed by her loveliness that he completely lost his sense and self-control and became as a ravening beast with lust.
He accosted her and taking brutal advantage of her fear and shame and bewilderment, he dragged her to a lonely spot and violated her person.
Raibhya returned to his hermitage. He saw his daughter in-law weeping, broken-hearted and inconsolable and learning of the shameful outrage perpetrated on her,he was seized with implacable anger. He plucked a hair from his bead and offered it to the fire reciting a mantra."
And retribution in form of a fiend killing Yavakrida ensues, etc. etc.  For all we know, this is a cautionary tale inserted into the Mahabharata to warn generations of young women who grew up listening to this work.

Several years later, I ended up moving to a country where such things do not normally happen (or do they? Probably just in different form, vide Central Park Jogger, who grew up in my neighborhood), and do walk around in the spring, enjoying the flowers and birds. But I try to keep a watchful eye out for the potential attacker, just as a caution from that early memory.
 No oblivious listening to i-music for me. Always be aware and watchful, never let your guard down. Pay heed to the voices of the drain inspectors of the world, starting with the Mahabharata writer(s),  Mayo and others.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Unsilent Spring

Walking through the winter mornings, the one thing that strikes you is the absence of birdsong. The skies are dark, the stars glittering occasionally on clearer nights. The deep blue lightens, but all is silent around you, even as you hear the traffic on the main roads rising as a muted roar.
This morning, walking towards the Big Dipper, I heard a tiny tentative tweet. "Is it time to rise and fly yet?"
"No, not yet. It's just that crazy human who likes to walk in the dark."
The tree tops still maintain their lacy profiles against the lightening sky. The moon is waning, a thinner crescent with the rest of the sphere in deep shadow. The birds start to take up the refrain as I continue to walk, circling back towards home.
I retrace my steps on the last leg. The tweet has now erupted into a full-fledged bird chorus, as more join in on the Welcome to the Dawn. The east is now rosy with promise.