Monday, August 04, 2008

To Didimum, with love

My grandmother Joyasree Sen would have been 100 if she was with us today. But that was not to be. This is a tribute to her, from a collection of essays that family members have put together for her 100th birthday.

She was a daughter of the Bengal Renaissance – with many of her family members, including grand-uncle Rabindranath Tagore, as the stalwarts who provided the intellectual ammunition that helped in creating modern Bengal as we know it today. Joyasree Sen (nee Tagore) was born and grew up in an era when history was being carved out in many different ways and the young Joyasree was influenced, we have heard, by various social and political movements of her times. She was sensitive to Communist thought and, not surprisingly, Brahmo philosophy had a very early and deep impact on her. But the biggest revolution in her life was probably standing up against the wishes of her genteel and well-known family members and marrying Kuloprasad Sen after a two-year romance, when she was just 19 years old.
Girls from the Tagore family – during Joyasree’s youth - were pioneers in women's education and socially ahead of their times. But not many of them, perhaps, had the courage to fall in love with someone who was not socially or economically their equal and marry despite family pressure. Joyasree and Kuloprasad’s wedding was historic, with Rabindranath as the Acharya or the Brahmo officiating priest. Later, he also composed and dedicated a poem to the two of them as a gift for their wedding anniversary when he was visiting them in Meerut. Joyasree did not show off about such things. As author Chitra Deb was to say in her book, Thakur Barir Andarmahal: “Joyasree is reticent in talking about herself”.

Joyasree’s striking good looks were visible even when she was a child and later in her youth she came to be known as one of the most beautiful ‘Tagore girls’. But quite characteristically, vanity was never one of her vices. It was probably her graceful demeanour, flawless and fair skin, stately bearing and classically well-etched out face that attracted the attention of one of the best-known painters of her times – Nandalal Bose. Joyasree was to be the muse for one of his paintings, where he depicted her as Goddess Saraswati playing the Veena. She was at that time a shy, young girl in her 20s and had patiently posed with her musical instrument, while the already well-known painter created his masterpiece.

Joyasree and Kuloprasad’s romance and their marriage was a fairytale that all of us have heard so much about. She was Mrs K.P. Sen and the significant other in the relationship – but in many areas, including running her household and bringing up her children, she also held her own. She was the mother for all seasons. Mother of triplets and her two elder sons, grandmother and great-grandmother – Ma, Dondon, Didun, Didimum and Boro-Didun! She was often found ministering to the needs of her children and grandchildren who were ill.

And even though, the story of Kuloprasad (Motru) and Joya (Joyasree) together has been told and retold, she lived for more than 20 years without her husband after his death, independently and mostly happy with herself. Though she started off by choosing to live alone because she wanted to keep Shesher Kobita the way he would have wanted it to be kept, she then went on to carve out her own independent existence, which was what Shesher Kobita then came to represent for most of us.

It would have taken great courage for an aged lady, who had never been alone before, to pick up the pieces and to carry on, which she did with great fortitude. She was the new age granny, who knew her Swiss chocolates and played a game of Scrabble with her youngest grand-daughter to chillout. She took all the relationships that her children and grandchildren entered into in her stride and was always understanding and supportive. She even advised a granddaughter to remain single because she felt that was best for her. A voracious reader who enjoyed Sidney Sheldon as much as she enjoyed Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Joyasree also deeply appreciated music and turned to Tagore's songs for peace and solace. She even selected her favourite songs, which were to be sung at the 'sokh sabha' after her death!

It was Joya’s garden which bloomed for all those 20 years after Motru passed away; it was her friends of all ages and social groups who visited her and kept her company. And, of course, it was her close and extended family members for whom she was a focal point. On her 95th birthday, when Srila (her eldest and favourite grand-daughter) had organized a birthday party, all of us who had gathered in Shantiniketan had made a wish – that we come together with her again on her 100th. Sadly, that was not to be and Joyasree fell short of a grand century by just three years. But we are now bringing out this book together – and we hope that she lives on in this effort that we are making together as a family, to remember her and capture our memories in print.

Ishani Duttagupta
New Delhi, June 2008

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Gangotri: The old order and the new and an ode to immortality

Each journey, for me, has a meaning – besides the beginning and the end. Each journey is life-changing, I think, in some way or the other. And this one of course, was a bit more than just another journey – it had many more layers of meaning tucked away into it than many others. So to start with, it was an adventure trip that I had been planning with my nephew Rahul for a couple of years. It was his first trip to the Himalayan heights and not surprisingly, he spent a lot of time chalking out the details and putting together his gear in London - where he lives. Well, Himalayan high altitude may be new for him, but camping and meticulously planning out the details of our trek to Gaumukh (3900 metres) and hopefully beyond that to Tapovan (4450 m) was something that he did with a lot of enthusiasm and ardour. In fact, I found myself increasingly caught up in his youthful enthusiasm as the dates neared.
As for me, Gaumukh was the pilgrimage that I was hoping would perhaps provide some of the answers that I have been seeking for a couple of years now. It was for me another mile on the journey that has taken me to Haridwar, Rishikesh, Pushkar, Benares, Dakshineshwar and Amritsar. Now that we’re back, and as I take stock of whether I have my answers or not, I know that I have some - while others still linger on. As another trip to the Himalayas – which for me is my spiritual home – this was long awaited. The rugged and extreme Garhwal was a region that I had not really encountered before, except for a much less intensive trek to Har-ki-dun. That too was a journey with depth - with a childhood friend who has always been there for me. Back to this one - perhaps it’s fitting that the toughest Himalayan terrain was left for what could well be my last trip to the rugged heights. The experience – in terms of geography and pushing the physical envelope was everything it promised to be. From Gangotri to Bhojbasa and further on to Gaumukh, the glacial snout which is considered by us Hindus as the birthplace of our holiest of holy rivers – the Bhagirathi and the Ganga – provides the most complete range of features that one can hope for. From glacier walks to crossing mountain streams and walking on scree and terminal moraine and even dodging rock falls – the scenery does not disappoint even for a moment. Besides the thrills, the landscape is intensely beautiful too – as one walks along the river bank with the stately Shivling and Bhagirathi peaks for company. There are the chir pine forests of Chirbasa and the Bhuj trees along the way. One runs into company in the form of the mountain goats or the Ber, as they are locally called.
But for me, the trip has taken me beyond just the Himalayan grandeur that was the passion of my youth. Rahul – who the hill folk have decided to call my ‘bachcha’ - much to my delight, did come up trumps. And even though I’m exhausted and can’t even imagine making it to Tapovan – he does it with a fair degree of skill and competence, despite his status of a first-timer. He has braved the steep gradient, the height gain, the lack of oxygen and of any defined paths. And most important, he has enjoyed every bit of the adventure and will probably come back again for more. Besides, along the way to Gangotri & Gaumukh, Rahul also developed a taste for simple Indian food such as chapatis, the delicious pahari rajma and alu paranthas - which my dearest friend Alka, a skilled mountaineer, who's been on many tough expeditions, feels is the best cuisine to tackle Himalayan journeys. And my 'bachcha' has also passed the test of ferrying his own load during the trek, something that I've always failed to do.And while maintaining his composure under pretty extreme conditions, he was only ruffled a little bit when some ugly red scars mysteriously appeared on his forearm at Doon School - at my friend Purnima's home, after we got back to the plains. Probably ruptured blood vessels from a scratch he got from his rucksack or heat rashes. Anyways - nothing that the magic neosporine powder from the little white bottle with a blue cap couldn't take care of!
As for me, I was thinking of my father throughout the trip – in fact, it was a journey made for him in many ways. As I sat on the rocks near Gaumukh with my feet dipping in the freezing waters of the Bhagirathi, I knew that he was definitely there in my life, even though death had taken him away from us forever.
And as I helped my ‘bachcha’ pitch his Summit Series tent at Bhojbasa – battling as we did against the snow-storm, I knew that it didn’t really matter, if I could not ever make it to such heights again. There were the signs of immortality strewn all around me. And I just love to drink it in and absorb it. The Himalayas are eternal and so is life – that’s the biggest takeaway from this journey! And then it's not really a surprise or hardly a coincidence, when soon after our return to Delhi via Uttarkashi and Dehra Dun - my cousin Srila (my Bachcha's mother) sends me a photo of my parents which is one of the best recent ones that I've seen of my good-looking father. The photo must have been hidden away in her albums and she must have suddenly chanced upon it. For me, it certainly eases the degrees of separation and brings back my father much closer to me.
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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Dilip Gupta - my Madhumati connection!

There are some people – who are no more – who one would have liked to have got to know better. In fact, there are times when looking back we regret many lost opportunities in interacting with them. For me, watching the movie Madhumati – by one of Bengal’s and India’s best known directors Bimal Roy – was such an occasion, which brought to mind an uncle, Dilip Gupta. He was the cinematographer for Madhumati and even won the Filmfare award for best cinematography in the year 1958 for it – incidentally the legendary Madhumati also turned 50 this year!
What I have gathered from trawling the Net – riding Google – is that Dilip Gupta or Jhunu Jethamoshai as I called him, was a cinematographer in Bollywood between the 1930s & 1960s and was director of photography for Prem Patra (1962), Jab Pyar Kisise Hota Hai (1961), Dil Deke Dekho (1959), Madhumati (1958), Yahudi (1958), Gotoma the Buddha (1956), Biraj Bahu (1954), Deedar (1951), Street Singer (1938/I)... aka Saathi, Street Singer (1938/II)... aka Saathi (India: Hindi title) and Devdas (1935).
Dilip Gupta was my father’s favourite cousin and my father, who was younger, drew a lot of inspiration from him. I remember a couple of family events, where Jhunu Jetha was present and Baba taking great pains to create an opportunity for my sister and me to chat with him. By then, he was aged and showed a great deal of affection for us – unfortunately for me, it just did not occur to me to sit and chat with him about the past and his exciting work as one of the early great cinematographers in Bollywood. Of course, I do remember my father and mother fondly remembering Mr Gupta and his wife and the happy times that all of them had spent together in Mumbai way back in the early 1960s. My father, who was a skilled and creative photographer – drew a lot of inspiration from his Jhunuda and it was Jhunuda who had introduced my parents to the famous Bimal Roy and his wife in Mumbai.
Mr Roy, of course, is among Bollywood’s great directors of all times and his extraordinary career as a director also coincided with a Golden Age for Bengali talent in Bollywood. P.C. Barua, K.L. Saigal, Salil Chowdhury, S.D. Burman and even Ritwik Ghatak have all worked with Bimal Roy on various projects. He started his career in Bengal with New Theatres but later migrated to Mumbai where he was to first work with Bombay Talkies and later to set up his own production company. Some of the most famous songs from Bollywood are from his films, such as Suhana Safar Aur Yeh Mausam Haseen from Madhumati (1958) and Mora Gora Ang Lai Le from Bandini. Music for these films was composed by the two legends from Bengal - Salil Chowdhury and Sachin Deb Burman.
Coming back to Dilip Gupta – I do remember an occasion when he had visited my grandparents’ home in Kolkata and had talked about a film that he was shooting on the life of Thakur Ramakrishna – the famous religious and spiritual leader of Bengal – whose teachings greatly inspired him. Since I was very young at that time, I didn’t have the slightest interest in asking him details about his work – again I look upon that as a huge lost opportunity. By then, he had retired from full-time work and was on a vacation in Kolkata from Mumbai. He along with his wife had spent quite a few hours with my grandparents on that occasion and it would have been the ideal time to talk to him about his work.
I also remember another occasion when I had met him – I don’t remember where this was – along with my father. The two of them had chatted about Jhunu-Jetha’s recent visit to LA, where he had spent a nostalgic vacation amidst memories of the time when he had gone there as a young student of the techniques of film-making. Again – had I listened their chat with a greater degree of attention, I’d probably have got a better understanding of the world of LA than I was to later get from my own visit to Universal Studios – excited at being at the Mecca of Hollywood, all by myself. In fact, my sister, with her artistic sensibilities has probably had far richer interaction with Jhunu-Jetha than me – she’s even visited him at his Mumbai home and had a glimpse of the Dark Lady – his Filmfare award for Madhumati!
I’ve heard from family members that one of Dilip Gupta’s daughters – my cousin – is now working at putting together a book on him with articles contributed by Hollywood greats such as Dilip Kumar and other material that she has with her on her father. I wish her all the best with this project and look forward to its completion.
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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Whole nine yards and beyond....!

This a tale of a traditional Indian Sari. The garment, which belongs to my mother, is far more that just a personal clothing item. Its warp and weft weaves together historical value of great significance.
More than a 100 years old, this sari belonged to my mother’s great-grandmother Gyanadanandini Devi who was the wife of Satyendranath Tagore (1842-1923) - the paternal grandfather of my grandmother Jayashree Sen, and elder brother of Rabindranath Tagore.

He was the first Indian to join the Indian Civil Service. He was also an author, song composer, linguist and made significant contribution towards the emancipation of women in Indian society during the British Raj.
After Satyendra Nath Tagore returned to Kolkata from abroad he had to leave for Mumbai for his posting in the civil services. He wished to take his wife (my grandmother’s grandmother) Gyanadanandini Devi with him. But a serious problem cropped up as to the dress the lady would wear while stepping out of her inner quarters. The solution to this problem came from a French tailor. He prepared an oriental dress for the lady.
Later in Bombay, Gyanadanandini ransacked the market for a perfect dress that would be fashionable as well as fit to be worn in the society. She appreciated the style the Parsi women adapted while wearing the saree. She emulated them and also mastered the use of petticoat, the chemise and the blouse. Thus she became the founder of the contemporary Bengali fashion for ladies. This historic sari belonged to her and was a gift from her to my grandmother's mother Sanga Devi, who later gifted it to my grandmother. It was a present to my mother from her mother during her wedding in 1963. The sari is a traditional Bengal Baluchari sari, which depicts scenes from the contemporary political and social life in Bengal through its designs. Baluchari saris, which have been now revived as a traditional handicraft from Bengal, also sometimes depicted scenes from mythology and Hindu gods and goddesses.
When my grandmother Jayashri Sen (nee Tagore) gifted the sari to my mother, she had also shared with her anecdotes about Gyanadanandini and her huge collection of beautiful saris. My grandmother was a favourite grand-daughter and had spent a lot of time with her grandparents and was deeply attached to them before she married my grandfather - Mr Kulaprasad Sen, who was the Post-master General of Eastern India when he retired.
I’m sure there are many other women such as my mother across India, who possess such beautiful saris which have such wonderful bits of history attached to them.
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Friday, June 13, 2008

Better to stay home!

Many Americans decided to stay home during Memorial weekend and not go on their usual long-weekend trips. I was delighted to find a new word that they had coined – STAYCATION. And it’s not just staying at home during long weekends – wheel-happy folks in the US are buying less SUVs and even choosing to travel by train. Obviously, the zooming oil prices are having an impact on everybody’s lives.

What is interesting is that, recession and high oil prices are forcing people in America to turn to thrift. In India, we’d always been taught not to waste food. When we were young, crass consumerism was by and large frowned upon. It was things like “don’t waste food” or “you don’t need any more clothes” etc. My grandmother had painstakingly taught me frugal values – she told me to try and keep my needs at a minimalist level.
But, economic liberalization brought with it the concept of ‘consumer is king’. And thus, it became very un-hip to not buy lots of clothes, not turn into foodies and not take foreign vacations. So the middle class in India went in for the kill armed with plastic money and bank loans to buy big houses and bigger cars. People who still wanted to keep their consumption at a minimum level were either looked down upon as not fashionable Gandhians or even condemned as Communist conspirators.
Seems like now the wheel has come full circle – with America teaching us to take Staycations and buy smaller cars. Besides helping us to save money for ourselves and reduce the overall oil bill, Staycations will undoubtedly help save scare resources for our geNext as well. Really hope that the Delhi-ites - with their passion for bigger cars, better houses and larger plasma TVs - are listening.
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Friday, June 06, 2008

Good news ! It's soon going to be too expensive for people to shoot people !

Apparently the cost of bullets has risen to such a level that shooting is getting to be an expensive proposition, to the extent that Police Departments in the USA have cut back on target practice. I'm not joking !

The main contributory factors are the rising cost of copper and lead globally, fuelled by increased demand in countries such as India and China, and the enormous demand from the U.S. Army which has used 1.8 billion rounds of ammunition in Iraq, according to one report. Incidentally the same report goes on to say that “..About 75 percent of the ammo expended in Iraq (both sides) is supplied by China..” ! There's got to be another story there somewhere.

In the case of at least one police department in Ohio the cost of practice ammunition has risen from $128 to $211 per case, while a case of bullets for on-duty use has skyrocketed from $73 to $180. Hunters and other gun users are also complaining.

The situation has created enough impact in the USA to inspire the standup comic Chris Rock to create a routine in which he declaims

“I would blow your head off…if I could afford it. I’m gonna get me a second job, save up some money, and then you’re dead !”

Since rising costs are now a global phenomenon, we suppose this ammunition inflation must have reached India. Can we hope it will inhibit death by shooting in India , too ? Read more!

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Original Argumentative Indian and the Politics of Food

Our blogsite pays homage to Amartya Sen and his concept of the Argumentative Indian. Dr. Sen himself has now stirred up a veritable storm of argument with an article in the New York Times on the looming food crisis. Within 24 hours the article generated so many responses that the New York Times had to declare that it could no longer entertain any more comments on the subject !

In the article, entitled The Rich Get Hungrier, Dr. Sen has chosen to place blame on misdirected Government policies such as alternative land use, growing purchasing power generating more demand than hitherto and imbalance in wealth distribution.

The comments from readers range from the downright dismissive, such as

“There is nothing new which Prof. Sen has brought out. The better thing would have been if Prof. Sen had come up with the solutions of the problem”

to more reasoned analyses and differences of opinion.

The fact that a voice as eminent as Dr. Sen's has now been added to the whole discussion of food will have the welcome result of focusing private and public attention more intently on the whole subject.

And not too soon either, considering that (according to a summary of studies conducted in the U.K.)

  • Over 9 million people die worldwide each year because of hunger and malnutrition. 5 million are children.
  • Approximately 1.2 billion people suffer from hunger (deficiency of calories and protein);
    -Some 2 to 3.5 billion people have micronutrient deficiency (deficiency of vitamins and minerals);
  • Yet, some 1.2 billion suffer from obesity (excess of fats and salt, often accompanied by deficiency of vitamins and minerals);
  • Food wastage is also high:
    In the United Kingdom, “a shocking 30-40% of all food is never eaten;”
    In the last decade the amount of food British people threw into the bin went up by 15%;
    Overall, £20 billion (approximately $38 billion US dollars) worth of food is thrown away, every year.
    In the US 40-50% of all food ready for harvest never gets eaten;
  • The impacts of this waste is not just financial. Environmentally this leads to:
    Wasteful use of chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides;
    More fuel used for transportation;
    More rotting food, creating more methane — one of the most harmful greenhouse gases that contributes to climate change.
  • The direct medical cost of hunger and malnutrition is estimated at $30 billion each year.

    In India, with its stark contrasts between lavish feasts and widespread starvation, the situation is made even more poignant by the fact that according to Government sources from the Ministry of Food Processing, the annual food wastage in the country due to inadequate storage and transport infrastructure is Rs. 58,000 crores annually (close to US$15 billion)

    In order to forestall a shortage, the Government of India has now placed restrictions on the exports of rice from the country, provoking an outcry from traders bemoaning the loss of foreign exchange earnings in a rising market. It is worth remembering what Mahatma Gandhi said “There is enough in this world for man's need but not for man's greed” .
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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Recipes for the Melting Pot – further insights on immigration

“Assimilation Factor” is the new mantra in the Great Immigration Debate that is now raging in the USA and Western Europe. The extent – or lack – of this “Assimilation Factor” is causing great apprehension among European traditionalists. In a 2007 article entitled “England is Vanishing” by Cal Thomas in the blogsite this fear is expressed in the following words

“..a record influx of foreigners is threatening to erode the character of the land of William Shakespeare and overpowering monarchs, a land that served as the cradle for much of American thought, law and culture..”
In the article Thomas makes it clear that he is taking aim at legal immigration, i.e., a “record influx of foreigners” that has been sanctioned by the U.K. Government, presumably because it was deemed to be in the interest of Britain. He goes on to offer his own diagnosis of the situation

“..The difference between many of the current immigrants and those of the past is that the previous ones wanted to become fully American or fully British. The current ones, in too many cases, would destroy what makes our countries unique...”

Is this just Eurocentric xenophobia or is there a wider issue here ? After all, the force of home-grown immigrant terrorism has been felt in Britain when British-born Muslims from South Asia staged a deadly attack on the London Underground. And in Belgium, Malika el Aroud a woman of Moroccan origin who is now a Belgian citizen, is openly advocating Jihad and support for Al Qaeda on her website, according to a news item in the New York Times – while drawing the equivalent of US$ 1,100 per month in welfare benefits from the Belgian Government ! The Belgian courts have refused to convict her, accepting her defence that exercising her freedom of speech is by itself no crime. After all, Malika knows the rules. “I write in a legal way,” she said. “I know what I’m doing. I’m Belgian. I know the system.”

In the U.S.A., the Manhattan Institute of Policy Research has published a report dealing with the Assimilation Factor of immigrants. As may be expected from this prestigious institute, this is a serious attempt at an objective and scientific evaluation of the Assimilation Factor. The study deals, among other criteria, with cultural assimilation which it defines as
“... the extent to which immigrants, or groups of immigrants, adopt customs and practices indistinguishable in aggregate from those of the native-born. Factors considered in the measurement of cultural assimilation include intermarriage and the ability to speak English, which have been the focus of many previous efforts to track immigrant assimilation in the United States. Cultural assimilation also incorporates information on marital status and childbearing.”

An unexpected (to me) conclusion of the study was that Chinese and Indian immigrants are the least integrated culturally with the American populace at large ! Those interested in the methodology that gave rise to this conclusion can read the full article.

Far from being xenophobic, the Manhattan Institute is careful to point out that
“..It is important to note that cultural assimilation is not a measure of a group’s conformity with any preconceived ideal. Changes in the customs and practices of the native-born can promote cultural assimilation just as easily as changes among the foreign-born.”
Could it be that the ideal of a monotonously uniform cultural pattern is not the most desirable scenario ? New York's former mayor David Dinkins may have defined the correct objetive when he described his city as no longer being the “Melting Pot” but a “Glorious Mosaic”. The question is how to make the different elements of the mosaic blend into a harmonious pattern.
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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Bollywood in bed with Hollywood ?

The party scene at this year's Cannes Film Festival is apparently buzzing with news that Indian interests, led by Reliance Big Entertainment (an affiIiate of Reliance Industries), are moving into the world of Hollywood film production. Reliance is reportedly providing substantial development financing to a number of Hollywood production entities, including the production vehicles of megastars such as Jim Carrey, George Clooney, Tom Hanks' Playtone Productions and Brad Pitt. After MGM and Paramount, will Anil Ambani be the next dominant force in La-La Land ?

The Indian foray into film production in the USA is not new of course. Ashok Amritraj, the brother of the tennis stars Vijay and Anand, has been active in this area for several years now, with at least a score or more of TV and big screen films to his credit. The appearance of a $100 billion conglomerate like Reliance has stirred the pot to the point that even the Wall Street Journal has sat up and taken note. With more and more funds coming on to the international investment scene from India, there have been other alliances reported as well, such as a pact between the Lionsgate organization of Hollywood and Kishore Lulla's Eros International Group, for reciprocal arrangements to release Lionsgate's English language productions in India and Eros's Bollywood films in the USA.

The Reliance investment package includes plans to spend $1 billion to produce over 60 feature films in nine languages over the next two years. As a result Reliance will gain Indian distribution rights for these films.

And it's not just the area of film production and distribution – Reliance, already India's largest operator of movie theaters, are also moving ahead with plans to open a chain of 250 cinemas across the United States, according to other Press reports. Will cinemas screening Indian films be as prolific in US neighborhoods as the burgeoning Indian restaurant scene ?
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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Triplets and more...

We love it when people read our blog and send us their comments, reactions, responses, appreciation etc. My post on my mother and her triplet brother and sister got such a response when NDTV India - one of India's leading Hindi news channels -called me asking for contact details of the three of them for a programme that they were doing on twins & triplets. So now the triplets - who were famous within our family - will be seen on national TV! For those interested in watching this programme - Salam Zindagi on NDTV India - the details follow. Telecast timing: Friday May 23 at 8 p.m. IST and repeat telecast again on Saturday 2p.m

The link to NDTV India for those who can't tune in from overseas etc is Read more!

No Darkies please, we're Indian !

When it was announced that U.S. style cheerleaders were being imported to spur on the teams in the India Premier League, everyone agreed that this move would add colour to the traditionally sedate cricket scene. Here is the link to the story on Economic Times. Apparently, however, on one occasion this added more colour than the Desi audience could stomach. It has been widely reported in the Indian press that two cheerleaders, part of a group imported from London, were unacceptable to the organisers of a recent match at Mohali, and asked to leave the grounds. The two unfortunate young ladies reportedly exited in tears. Their shortcoming ? They were black !

The Indian yen for light complexions is not a secret, of course, especially to those who have perused the matrimonial ads. These are full of insertions that sheepishly admit to “wheatish” or proudly proclaim “fair” on behalf of their candidates. None claim to be glowingly dusky. Then of course there have been reports of monkey gestures directed towards black athletes of visiting teams. In Australia, Harbajan Singh barely got away from the charge of racism, he denied describing Symonds as a “monkey”, pleading that what he had actually said was “Teri Ma ki..” an expression at which I personally would have taken greater offence if directed at me !

In spite of all this, Indians are generally quiet about their colour complexes in public, and much given to vigorous protests when at the receiving end of racist slurs. The recent case of Shilpa Shetty comes to mind. The outrage her experience caused in England was shared around the world, and the sympathy factor propelled her to even higher levels of celebrity (much deserved – I think everyone will agree she is a delightful personality, who handled herself with great dignity during her ordeal)

Undoubtedly the case of the two unfortunate black cheerleaders will be widely reported in the English press, and the Indian reaction to this incident (official and unofficial) will be interesting to follow. And to think all this is going on while in the United States a black candidate is gathering massive support as a Presidential nominee !
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Monday, May 19, 2008

Plus ça change....

A look backwards took place in my mind on returning from a recent trip to India – a country undeniably on the edge of great things, with a prosperous new middle class (300 million + ?) fueling rapid urban development. Lurking among all the buoyant statistics though is another which says that 300 million people live below the official poverty line and another 300 million or so inhabit the shadowy world between the very poor and the middle class ranks. These 600 million are now faced with the phenomenon of rising food costs worldwide. A recent New York Times report stated that working class families in New Delhi were having to do without milk or meat in order to buy rice. One wonders what else they are forced to give up.

Trying to explain all this to myself took me back again to India – this time in memory, to a hot summer day in 1967, when four of us sat for hours in a suffocating, dark room - air conditioning and lights turned off by an angry mob of striking workers. We were in a factory, 40 miles from Calcutta in the town of Kalyani. As I sat there, sweating, there was ample time to think back on the events which had landed me in this situation.

At that time I was the head of Finance and Administration of a British engineering company.

Business organisations all over the post-war world were embracing new developments in automation, computerisation and modern management techniques to survive. Calcutta too and the rest of West Bengal, traditionally the center of India's engineering sector began to take steps in that direction. India's first school for graduate business studies had been established in Calcutta in 1961 with MIT collaboration, funding from the Ford Foundation and with a young eager faculty, some of whom were my friends. Companies such as IBM set up operations in Calcutta. Professionals like myself now had access to courses and seminars that put us in touch with the latest developments in management thinking and technology of the '60s. There had been very little fresh investment in India's manufacturing sector since World War II and we were all excited by the prospect of being able to participate in the transformation of West Bengal's Rust Belt into a modern industrial environment.

Unfortunately, the modernisation of businesses in the 1960's invariably involved downsizing through automation and outsourcing (not unlike developments today). And also not unlike today, it was a difficult social argument to promote a degree of immediate unemployment in return for future growth. It was an even more difficult argument in Calcutta and West Bengal generally, which in the '60s was the nerve center of the Communists and Leftist movements of India. In 1967 they had come to power in the State Government and were not about to acquiesce in the loss of jobs. Closures or downsizing provided an obvious target as another example of capitalist exploitation. In the case of a British-owned business, the imperialist bogey could also be trotted out for good measure.

While all this was taking place our company had drawn up plans for modernization that would involve closing some processes. Approximately 75 of a total force of 500 would be made redundant through a Voluntary Retirement Scheme.

With the intention of finalizing these plans, a meeting was arranged with workers' representatives in the factory. The company was represented by our British Managing Director, myself, the Works Manager and a personnel executive. We soon found out that there was no negotiating intended on the other side. The Trade Union officials were under political instructions. We were summarily asked to withdraw all proposals for staff reduction. When we refused, we were advised that we would not be permitted to leave. The doors were locked, the power turned off, the phones disconnected and we realised that we were now being "Gheraoed" – i.e., subjected to a compulsory sit-in. We sat listening to the workers chanting slogans - inspiring ones at first such as "Long live the Revolution" - but as time wore on, more personal and offensive sentiments began to be expressed. I envied our British Managing Director, who couldn't understand a word of what was being shouted.

There had been instances of Gheraos continuing for 12 hours or more, until exhaustion or threats had forced the employers' representatives to capitulate or be carried out in ill health. We wondered how long our ordeal would last. Initially we did not really feel physically threatened. As the hours wore on though we all remembered with discomfort the infamous Jessop Steel Plant incident in 1949, two years after Independence, when a labor dispute turned murderous and a British engineer and his Indian colleague were pushed into a blast furnace. We had no blast furnaces in our factory, but there was no shortage of iron rods in an engineering establishment. We loosened our shirts in the heat and reconciled ourselves to waiting things out, since we did not really have a choice. There was an air of unreality about the whole proceedings.

Looking back on events, it seems incredible to me now that we sat through eight hours of this noisy confinement without food, water or access to bathrooms (Don't ask !). Suddenly the noise subsided, the door opened and we were advised we could go home. The union gave us notice that the workers were now officially on strike, and the management would have no access to the factory until the Company agreed to abandon any thought of labour reduction. We learned later that our workers had refused to be more harsh with us and insisted that we be released without further physical abuse.

We were eventually able to resolve the issue through measures which included protracted negotiation, some legal action and token improvements on our initial offer. The process took several weeks, during which time the striking workers received no wages.

Some time after these events, during one of my factory visits, I was talking to one of the workers and asked him how he had fared through those weeks. He told me that the strike had erupted during a period when he had fallen into debt because of the serious illness of his 2-year old child, who had then died as he could not feed his family and continue all the treatments at the same time. There was no animosity in his attitude - just an air of quiet resignation that I found more wrenching than any demonstration of rage or grief.

Management school theories seemed far away. I felt I was back in the Industrial Revolution, when conditions had prompted Thomas Hood in 1843 to write the lines

“Oh ! God ! that bread should be so dear,
And flesh and blood so cheap !”

As the French say “.. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.” ( “The more it changes, the more it's the same thing” )
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Sunday, March 16, 2008

It Is Within Walking Distance

Way back in 1976, my parents along with our good friend Debashis Sengupta, went on a hike from West Bengal's industrial town Durgapur to Tagore's educational hub Santiniketan. Here's an account that my father wrote about the trip in AVB News - the journal for employees of the company where he worked. As I typed this out, time and space were totally muddled in my mind, and I was completely transported back to my childhood long, long ago...
BY R.K. Datta Gupta
From time to time man gets restless to refresh himself in a big way from the monotonous routine of just living, and feel youthful again, never mind the age. With such an urge, when someone suggested one evening at our Club a long walk in the countryside, the idea immediately registered with three of us in a very objective manner.
Although walking is generally associated with the constitution of the stout or the aged, a leisurely trip to the nearest bazaar or the only means of locomotion for the have nots of mechanical transport we decided to give it a try as a source of refreshment. Come winter and we hatched our plan. Be it noted that this season is the finest for long walks in this country, especially in the plains. The air is cleaner, the temperature more bracing and appetites more whetted. We agreed that the walk should not be restricted to the countryside but stretched to cross country. Inhibiting thoughts such as getting waylaid and injured in lonely country or facing hostile villagers were conveniently brushed aside with the motto “No risk, no walk.” A conditioning walk took us sixteen kilometers around Durgapur one night through such ways and byeways which at other times would give one the creep on account of association with danger.

Knapsacks and rucksacks were taken down from storage, dusted and repaired, lists were drawn for minimum personal requirements of food, clothing, blankets, shoes and medicine were procured. Maps were obtained from the Town Planners and others, to collect maximum information of the proposed route. It may seem pretentious, but a two-day walk took about a fortnight’s planning and preparations.
Santiniketan on the opening day of the annual Paus Mela was unanimously selected as the destination which meant a two-day walk with a night’s rest. Starting at 6:30 a.m. on 21st December, Debashis, my wife and I walked into the orange hued sunrise along an unfinished road behind the FCI Colony due east, till we came to Arra village. Here we swung NNE and kept moving at a jolly pace of 5.6 kph. The surface was hard earth and was comfortable for our feet. The way weaved through the villages of Rupganj and Kuldiha, around ponds and harvested paddy fields. Each of these villages boasted of a primary school. Beyond Kuldiha we struck across paddy fields but found it rough going through the stubs. We passed a colonnade of stately palms on the left, across the river Kunur with its sluggish green water to the mouza of Malandighi. Sri Sarkar a veterinary, who runs a dispensary for sick animals, got off his bicycle to walk with us for about a mile, taking a healthy interest in our mode of travel and commenting when one of us said that he must be taking us for mad to go walking like this, that, what was not madness anyway! Some people were mad about eating, others for drinking, some for reading and many for talking, so what was wrong with our walking! We took leave of this friendly soul just outside Malandighi and made for an Acacia and Sal grove for a breakfast stop. It was 9:10 a.m. and we had walked about 11.3 kms. Breakfast was a picnic of bread, butter, eggs and cheese. Through Malandighi haat we plodded, making a five minute stop to find out the best route Ilambazar. A young resident of the village who is a trainee with AVB exclaimed to his friend, an employee of a neighbouring organization, when he saw a female among us, “see, see could your chaps do such a bold thing? You are always bragging of your organization outdoing ours, you bighead!” This spontaneous outburst gave us a cheer and a hearty laugh and many of the villagers joined us.
Taking the route to SHibpur we entered a forest and walked for an hour and a quarter, finding the going very drab and monotonous. The road was a surface of churned dust and even the Sal trees on either side wore a browned off look under the midday sun. Our feet were pinching as blisters were in the making. We rested somewhere between Jamban and Jatgaria villages (on the left beyond the thick screen of Sal). On the right we had left behind Saraswatiganja and entered the large mauza of Bistupur. It is a great pity we could not go through these villages and meet some more people in their habitat. A man in his village feels like a knight in his castle or a lord in his manor. He is not subdued by affected inhibitions, but feels free to talk with confidence, and it is an exhilarating experience to meet him there.
Just after midday, we walked out of the forest and arrived at Sibpur medical centre. A long and cool drink from the local well refreshed us, and we plodded on through Sibpur village(the bus terminus on the south bank of Ajay) past three waiting buses with their conductors gaping at us in anticipation. Arriving at the sand bank of the river, we met an old woman who had just crossed it. My wife struck a dialogue with granny and I invited the two to pose for a photograph. Our blistered feet were amply soothed, wading through knee-deep water of the Ajay. Clambering up the north bank of the river we stepped on Joydeb Kenduli at a distance of about 21 km from Durgapur at about 1:30 p.m. Loads were unhitched at a tea stall by the terracotta temple, and we stretched our legs to rest and consume tea by the litre. There was some excitement about the forthcoming Baul mela, an annual event during Paus Sankranti. AT 2:50 p.m. we set out again by the shorter route to Ilambazar, through the villages of Janubazar, Sugor, Nohona to the right, Kanur to the left, Bharatpur and Gangapur. The road lay due east parallel to the river bank and was more of a bullock cart track; we frequently got into a rut in the true sense of the word to the utter distress of our feet. Munching chocolate bars as we walked did for lunch.
Whenever we asked anyone, if we were on the right track, back came the tirade of cross questions, “where are you coming from, where are you going, why did you not take the bus from such and such a place?” We answered back in crisp but polite comments, sometimes spinning a yarn and sometimes telling the truth. About a mile away from Dumrud village an inspector of police, driving along on his Enfield ‘Bullet’, stopped to advise us that his odometer showed 10 kms from Ilambazar. This came as a slap on our weary spirits, as we had obviously covered only 6.4 kms from Joydeb, and still had a long way to go. We called a halt in a mango grove by a sparkling pond, to collect our wits together and muster confidence anew. The time was past 4 p.m. and we started having misgivings of reaching Ilambazar before dark. A rustic passer-by advised that we should cover the distance between Dumrud and Paer villages as it was not safe otherwise, while another one rubbed it in that it would get dark long before we reached our destination. By 4:30 p.m. with our shadows now stretching ahead to infinity, we continued our perambulation, but fortunately under the guidance of a helpful kisan, who recommended a more direct route by-passing Dumrud and Paer. After a mile, he left us, and we came to a roofless school building right plump at a cross road. Some villagers from adjoining Nohona came out to have a look at the strangers and one named Chand was good enough to put us on the right track. Another one cordially invited us to take shelter in the school house for the night, offering to take good care of us till the morning. The offer was no doubt tempting as the sun had just set.
We walked along past Kanur and approached Bharatpur. Hunger pangs were now telling, and the chill of the winter dusk was biting; so we sat down by a paddy field and ate cold meat parathas which tasted delicious. One Sri Bagdi tarried to have a chat with us and though hungry, shared our parathas only after ascertaining that we were of a caste acceptable to him! He pleased my wife by stating that the parathas were tasty, and offered to accompany us to the next village, Gangapur. Pulling on extra pullovers, we now picked our way in the dark with the help of a flashlight. We parted from Bagdi in Gangapur and walked half a mile to a cross road, where we got confused in the dark and lost our way. Seeing a light in the near distance we made for it and came to a cluster of huts where we asked for direction. In the lantern light our packs and my wife’s staff must have looked forbidding, and the worthy sons of the soil, mistaking us for Martians, were reluctant to leave their thresholds; the irony of it was that we should have been the frightened ones! After much cajoling a couple of fellows followed us at a safe distance to put us on our track again. And at last, we arrived at the outskirts of Ilambazar at 6:45 p.m. having lumbered in the dark for over an hour. We made for the post office where the post master, a kindly person, received us cordially at 7 p.m. and handed over our reservation slips for the inspection bungalow. Soaking our aching feet in scalding hot salt water, we ate more parathas for dinner and chatted over the highlights of the long days’ tramp late into the night till sweet slumber took over.
The second day’s journey started at about 10:15 a.m. after a heavy breakfast. We followed the motor road from Ilambazar to Santiniketan via Surul and Sreeniketan, a distance just over 19.3 kms. Though footsore, the going was at a steady pace and we covered the 5.6 kms. Stretch through Sal forest beyond Ilambazar in about 2 hours with a half hour’s rest. The loads on our backs had been reduced by taking out the blankets and wrapping these around abdomens or shoulders to cushion the strain of the rucksack straps, a brainwave of Debashis, the youngest in our group, but the one most concerned about the general welfare of all. Outside the forest at Ramnagar, during a 40 minute tea halt, we had a friendly argument with a couple of cowherds, who insisted they could walk 72.4 kms in a day, herding cattle too. About 4 kms out of Sreeniketan we dumped our sacks on an empty bullock cart to refrain from the temptation of dumping ourselves instead. We arrived at Surul at 2:45 p.m. and were overtaken on the way by friends driving up from Calcutta, who waved but glanced back in amazement, as they sped away. Our arrival at Surul was marred by a little accident; an urban youth rode his bicycle at speed into our group as we were lifting our sacks back from the cart, hurting my wife in her shin. After rendering first aid to her and another tea break we left for the last lap of the hike, and at 3:47 p.m. plodded past the last milestone arriving at our destination at about 4:30 p.m. An elderly gentleman, out for his constitutional stroll, walked a while with us enquiring about our purpose, and wished he was younger.
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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Three is not a crowd

Farah Khan has had triplets. My mother wants to get in touch with her to congratulate her on her babies. And that's not really because she's a fan of Bollywood style dancing or because she turned all nostalgic with OSO. The reason is because mom is one of triplets - and coincidentally my grandmom's combo - two girls and a boy - more than six decades ago, was the same as Farah's. When I told my mother - the big news of the day last week - that Ms Khan had triplets, she immediately wanted her email address or some contact detail to send best wishes.
And was Farah shocked or just surprised, my mother then wanted to know. Nothing of that sort, I said, because she already knew that she was expecting triplets...just a bit disappointed since she had hoped for two boys and a girl. That put mom in a very reflective mood. "When my mother delivered us, there was no way to find out that there were triplets on the way. In fact, when her two doctors, a well-known gynaecologist couple in Kolkata in those days - realised that there was more than one baby on the way - they joked among themselves and said the more the merrier," said mom. Of course, we'd heard that one before - it was part of the family-lore surrounding the triplets - my mom, mashimoni and choto mama.
In fact, there are many more anecdotes surrounding the birth of triplets in the family. My grandmother - didimum - apparently almost passed out when she realised that she had given birth to three babies instead of one - she already had two sons before that - mejo mama & boro mama. In those days, children were born at home and didimum's delivery was at her parents house in Kolkata's Palm Place. Just across the road was the residence of her sister who was married into the Chattopadhyay family. My mejo mama - a five year old at that time - was given the task of running across from his grandparents' house to his aunt's to let her know that his new brother or sister had arrived. So the first time he went and said, "I have a sister, but another one is on the way." But next time when the doctors told him to run across with the news that he'd had another sister but yet another was on the way, he refused to budge. "I'll wait till they all arrive," he said!
Then there was the problem of telling one baby girl from another since they looked like peas in a pod. The doctors wanted to tie a thread round my mother's wrist when they realised that she had a birthmark right there that would help in identification. Of course, my mother and mashi resemble each other so much that even today, people tend to mistake them for each other. Often mom meets people in a bus or at the market, who start talking to her like they've known her for a long time. And when they realise that she can't figure out who they are, they're almost dumbfounded. On such occasions, she comes back home and calls up my mashi to tell her "you've lost a good friend, who'll never talk to you again". Likewise, mashi too, has similar experiences, with mom's friends.
Sometimes I've wondered whether having a twin or triplets causes any loss of identity or not. But when I think of the kind of support that Ma's triplets have given her and continue to give her, the feeling is always of three being better than one. The three of them try to spend their birthday together whenever possible. And sometimes just the three of them have done something together on that special day. After my grandparents had gotten over their initial shock of having been blessed with triplets, they had made the most of bringing up the three together in the best possible way. The bonus was having two elder siblings - that made their childhood even more fun. My mother and hers sister participated in all the rough and tough activities that are usually associated with young boys. Their brothers ensured that they didn't ever turn sissy. From climbing trees to flying kites and even making their own fire-crackers to burst at Diwali - the triplets did it all. And obviously, they were all in it together. Of course, choto mama refused to wear a shirt with flowers printed on it that matched the dresses that his sisters wore. But they usually had common friends - many of whom are in touch even today. Talking about friends, my friends from school days - Rinku, Tinku and Minku - are triplets too. They're all girls but Rinku is very different from the others. So while, Tinku and Minku look alike - like mom & mashi - Rinku looks completely different. And often I've heard my mom praising their mom for her courage and patience!
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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Try Hyderabad, when it gets too cold in Delhi

It's pretty cold across India and that seems to be one of the main topics of conversation when talking to friends and relatives in various cities across the country. And Delhi is rather cold too with wind-chill, low temperatures, fog and rain. So a trip last weekend to Hyderabad turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Not only was it not cold - it wasn't uncomfortably warm either. In fact, there was a pleasant breeze all-day on the first day and the second day was cloudy bright. Evenings were a bit chilly - but very comfortable by Delhi standards.
But besides the weather, the trip had other highlights too. I was at Indian School of Business (ISB) - which has recently become India's first B-school which has got a global ranking. The Financial Times ranked ISB at 20th on a global scale. The seminar was on Asian business families and had very high profile speakers. From members of top Indian business families, to Kellogg professor John Ward, the seminar was very high on top content. The ISB campus is as good as many of the top B-school campus around the world.
Hyderabad had earned the title of Cyberabad under the former chief minister Chadrababu Naidu. It has, in fact, given competition to India's Silicon Valley - Bangalore in many ways. Hyderabad is also an educational hub and provides skilled human resources for the IT and IT-enabled services industry. With a large number of its residents going overseas, Hyderabad attracts a large part of the foreign remittances from NRIs and it is one of the Indian cities with high spending power among its consumers. A reason perhaps for the growing number of malls around town.
But there for no time to go mall hopping for me. However, I did go to Golconda Fort in the evening for a SOund & Light show. WIth Amitabh Bachchan as the 'voice', the show turned out to be awesome. The history of Golconda has tragic undertones and the sprawling fort is largely in ruins today. But the sound and light show amidst the darkness all around, brings it alive to the audience. And then there's the enjoyble experience of shopping for pearls. The beautiful strings of pearls - in colours ranging from grey to purple, pink and of course pearly white - are available in shops around the Charminar or at the more upmarket Punjagutta Road. There are big names such as Mangatrai Jewellers and Mamanram Srikishan. Besides pearsl, coral jewellery too is a specialty of Hyderabad. And finally, what's Hyderabad without its Biryani or the paans?
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Friday, January 18, 2008

India's big woman investor? Or just big hype!

If there's anything that's bigger in India than the cricket Twenty-Twenty win or SRK starrer Chak De! it's probably the Reliance Power initial public offering that closes today. As I write this, the issue is around 50 times oversubscribed and the feeling that one gets is that riding the sensex boom every single Indian has become a savvy investor on the stockmarket. However, this belief for me now seems to be a hype, after the harassment that my mother suffered in trying to apply for a very few shares in this GREAT Reliance IPO. She's a retired school teacher who lives alone in Kolkata - the first hassle for her was trying to open a demat account. Apparently the Reliance IPO has caused a huge demand for opening the demat accounts and banks are working overtime to meet the rush.
In my mother's case, an agent from a prominent private bank who she had contacted came to her home and made her fill up the requisite form. Only when my mom went to the stockbroker's office to submit the application for the issue, she discovered he had opened a savings bank account for her and given her its number! Needless to say that she had no need for a svaings account.
Meanwhile, it was too late to apply for the IPO of the decade - no guarantee that she would have been allotted any shares even if her application went through. Further, mom who could have become a first time investor on the stockmarket failed to get the services of any stockbroker at her home. Surely, such services are available for people who are 65 and above. Well as far as India's great stockmarket boom is concerned - I think it's only for the net savvy, young people who open a demat account and start trading online. As for senior citizens, even if they are well educated and not computer illiterate, they remain at the mercy of idiots and unscrupulous agents. My mother has reiterated her faith in small postal savings - she walks down to the post office every month and chats up other retirees who are waiting in the queue. Even if the wait is long, no one's taking her for a ride after all.
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Monday, January 14, 2008

Here to Eternity

Here's an article that I wrote in The Economic Times on Sunday

In a fitting tribute to Hillary, Sherpas are praying for his reincarnation. Along with Norgay, he will probably live on forever to inspire the spirit of adventure

THE SUMMER of 1987. For me, it was the most extreme training that I have ever taken in my life, at Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling. Looking back there are intense images of trekking up to Tiger Hill with a fully loaded rucksack - starting at midnight and getting there in time for the sunrise, only to be greeted by a thick blanket of clouds and a drizzle. And there were the PT sessions even before the crack of dawn and the jog down to the Mall from Jawahar Parbat where HMI is perched. A week on, we trekked up through lush green valleys and rhododendron forests to the glacier - Rathong - surrounded by 6500 m + peaks of Frey’s, Kabru Dome, Sinolchu and many others. High altitude acclimatisation, training on snow and ice, trekking with snowboots and crampons and above all coping with the subzero temperatures - those were a couple of weeks that I will never forget.

It was also just an year after the legendary Tenzing Norgay had passed away - but his inspiration and spirit lived on at HMI. Norgay was the first director of field training when HMI was set up in 1954 and had been associated with the institute all his life. Many of our trainers were sherpas who knew him very well and had been mentored by him. So when we climbed down to the institute after training sessions, past Norgay’s home in the late afternoons - many of us trainees stopped for a while and looked up at the prayer flags fluttering in the lawns with awe and respect. It was just an year since he had passed away and almost everyone remembered him and spoke about his achievements. We were told how every year he graced the graduation ceremony as chief guest - and our graduation from HMI was a very low key affair as a mark of respect for the man who had conquered the world’s tallest peak with Edmund Hillary in 1953. So when I read that the Sherpas in Nepal and Darjeeling had prayed for the reincarnation of Hillary, who died on Thursday at 88, it seemed to me a very fitting tribute.
Sir Hillary - after all - was not just a skilled mountaineer who pushed the envelop of physical and mental endurance to climb Mt Everest. He has climbed ten more tough peaks in the Himalayas between 1956 and 1965. He has also gone to the South Pole with a Trans-Antarctic Expedition and led a jetboat expedition - Ocean to Sky - from the mouth of the Ganges River to its source. In 1985, he accompanied Neil Armstrong in a small twin-engined ski plane over the Arctic Ocean and landed at the North Pole. It was not just his intense spirit of adventure - the New Zealander has left his footprint in Nepal through his philanthropic activities. He founded the Himalayan trust through which schools and hospitals have been built in remote villages in the mountains.
Mt Everest to most skilled mountaineers today is not really the most difficult climb and the alpine style expedition in 1953 - through the South Col - was not the toughest route either. However, there’s no way that anyone can play down the sheer achievement of the two men who were the first ever to set foot on the summit of Everest at 8848 metres. They had forged a route through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall. The last bit of that historic expedition was the ascent of a 40-feet sheer rock face which Hillary found a way up through a crack in the face, between the rock wall and ice. This has since been called the “Hillary Step”. Obviously their pioneering spirit will live on and continue to inspire mountaineers and sportspeople down the ages. As it did their sons, Peter Hillary and Jamling Tenzing Norgay, who are both well-known mountaineers and together climbed Everest in 2003 as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the first conquest by their fathers.
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