Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sashti-poorthi of the Republic

Our Republic turned 60 today, and like every 60 year old has had more than its share of crests and troughs.

For many of us Republic Day was just another holiday, with flag-hoisting ceremonies in school and in our apartment complexes. Some of us preferred to bunk school, as 'anyway there was no teacher taking attendance', and stay at home. For others, it was exciting to watch each state try to outdo the other with colorful floats which made their way down Rajpath. But what really touched a chord was the co-ordinated marchpast of the various services, along with the children who won Bravery Awards astride their elephants.

A variety of civilian and military awards have been announced. Controversies aside, it was but expected that heroes from 26/11 got their share of recognition. The fact that Tukaram Ombale will be honored with a posthumous Ashoka Chakra is rather refreshing. His tale of bravery is something which must not be forgotten, in a nation which forgets its true heroes easily. It takes a lion's heart to unflinchingly (and not to forget unarmed) take on a terrorist armed with an AK-47 rifle.

And so today, while we salute those who have won awards for bravery, we also pay tribute to those who have laid down their lives and go un-named in battliefieds ranging from the snows of Siachen to the dusty deserts of Northern Africa. There is a poem we learnt in school called "Pushp ki Abhilasha" by Makhanlal Chaturvedi, which rings so true every day, especially today:

पुष्प की अभिलाषा
- माखनलाल चतुर्वेदी (Makhanlal Chaturvedi)

चाह नहीं मैं सुरबाला के
गहनों में गूँथा जाऊँ

चाह नहीं, प्रेमी-माला में
बिंध प्यारी को ललचाऊँ

चाह नहीं, सम्राटों के शव
पर हे हरि, डाला जाऊँ

चाह नहीं, देवों के सिर पर
चढ़ूँ भाग्य पर इठलाऊँ

मुझे तोड़ लेना वनमाली
उस पथ पर देना तुम फेंक

मातृभूमि पर शीश चढ़ाने
जिस पर जावें वीर अनेक ।।

Translation by Prashant (Courtesy of Arch at Rang)

I don't want to be a part of the necklace of the beautiful girl,
I don't want to woo the lady love,
I don't want to be spread over dead bodies,
I don't want to act snob, after someone offers me to the Gods

Just pluck me Gardner and throw me on the road,
which is taken by the brave soldiers to give away their lives for the Motherland !

Profound words, indeed!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Waiting for the Mahatma

While I read RK Narayan's "Waiting for the Mahatma", for a lot of folks, their wait for their "Mahatma" finally came to an end at the stroke of noon. History was made, as Barack Hussein Obama was finally sworn in as President. The expectations are high, a sense of hope pervades the current economic nadir, and Obama has been clear that he is going to take on whatever comes his way head-on. Hindsight (which is always 20:20) twenty years down the line will tell us if the euphoria was really worth it!

There's something about Obama (with due apologies to Mary). It takes a lot to get ordinary people (who have absolutely no say in the American political process) excited over your speeches, hopes and plans. The way the man has energized people here can only evoke comparisons with the Mahatma himself. People might object to my putting Obama ahead of the Rev. Martin Luther King, but one has to remember that MLK's reach was limited. But that aside, today, a little more than forty years after his (senseless) death his torch has been carried into the White House by Obama. The Reverend and the Mahatma must be smiling, wherever they are.

Gandhiji focused a floundering freedom effort and finally freed us from British shackles. He did it 'his way' (the non-violent one), and it ultimately paid dividends. As we all know, we are a passive society, and it was but natural that the non-violent struggle of Gandhi and his followers trumped the violent one espoused by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and his INA. At the same time, I wonder what might have happened had the majority of Indians followed Netaji and taken to the INA. All said and done, he was much more charismatic than the 'half naked Indian fakir' (as Churchill once referred to the Mahatma).

And so today, 60 odd years after Independence, the legacy of Gandhi is sealed and celebrated. He is uniformly hailed as one of the greatest to have walked the face of this earth. But at the same time, the legacy of India as a nation remains blurry. Although Nehru did a lot for the development of a fledgling nation, his greed and arrogance are probably to blame for most of India's ills. Coveting the PM's post was debatably the primary folly (I am not sure what life might have been like had we had Mr. Jinnah as our first PM), and secondary one was his over-indulgence of Krishna Menon's shenanigans which ultimately led to our defeat in the '62 war with China and left Nehru a broken man (so wrote Dr. Ramachandra Guha in his masterpiece on Independent India). In our usual passivity (and the warmth of the whole Hindi-Chini-Bhai-Bhai glow propagated by Nehru) we let the Chinese army overrun our territories. We still remain a passive nation, rarely taking decisive action - the chalta hai attitude pervades.

But still, Chacha-ji is celebrated as a great orator and a fine gentleman, occupying his deserved place in the pantheon of Indian greats. So all said and done, even if Obama is counted as a 'failure' four/eight years down the line, he would unarguably have been one of the greatest orators to have walked this earth. The legacy of his predecessor might look grey right now, but only time will tell!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

It was nice to see "Slumdog Millionaire" garner the main prize at the Golden Globes over the weekend. But the brickbats which came its way the next day from the Big B was say the least - I dare say it sounded like a case of sour grapes.

Although I have not seen the movie yet (and I look forward to the weekend to tick that off on my to-do list) or read the book (which will arrive soon, I hope), some folks did warn me about the picture it painted of India, and its darker side. I think the average Indian (not very different from me) is caught between two critical issues; the primary feel-good factor of an India-centric movie earning plaudits at a major awards show, while on the other hand (s)he wonders if the gora director is actually taking a condescending dig at India and its poverty. At the same time, if Danny Boyle had shifted locales and the hero actually came from some impoverished corner of England/USA, I doubt anyone would have turned a hair. The fact remains that the film is based on an Indian book, written by an Indian author, so it was but natural for the director to choose an Indian background.

At the same time, the Big B's views got me thinking about our 'colonial hangover'. The venerable Dr. Ramachandra Guha had just written about what he called our 'craving for Western approval' the other day in the Sunday Magazine of the Hindu. The telling line in there is the killer-punch in which he muses on a theory he has "long held about our self-proclaimed patriots — that the more Indian and the more Hindu they claim to be, the more they seek and need certificates from White men."

I cannot really think of a bright, vibrant movie made by a Westerner, using an Indian locale (note: I am not counting Mire Nair's "Monsoon Wedding"). Two 'mainstream' movies which come to mind immediately are "Heat and Dust" and David Lean's masterpiece "A Passage to India".
All said and done, the latter plays on a lot of standard Indian stereotypes portrayed in the Western media (and believe it or not, Wikipedia actually has a whole section devoted to these stereotypes!). And the movie had its share of Oscar nominations, in addition to winning the Golden Globe back then for "Best Foreign Film"! I eagerly await the Oscar nominations and the final ceremony (more out of wishing to see if Heath Ledger is nominated and wins for his master-role as the Joker - every time I watch the movie, I appreciate his work even more).

On a slightly tangential note, I happened to watch Santosh Sivan's "Before The Rains" over the weekend on DVD. The camera-work was phenomenal (or were the locales just mind-blowing, I wonder?), the plot rather gripping and the acting was top-notch. I have to admit that Rahul Bose and Nandita Das have horrible accents, both in their Malayalam enunciation as well as their contrived effort to sound earthy and shed their convent-educated accents. But at the same time, I am not sure if a Mohanlal/Mammooty (or any mainstream Malayali actor) would have done justice to Rahul Bose's role - the vulnerability of the man just shines through in his eyes.