A 3800 years old history and no takers!

This piece was first published in Hindustan Times.

It’s been more than two years of my stay in Ludhiana and there is a certain route I traverse almost daily. Lined up on the kilometre-long stretch are beauty salons, department stores, a single-screen theatre, gurdwaras, a gym and various small eateries dishing out pizzas, ice creams and momos.

Recently, I chanced upon a newspaper story on the internet and discovered that a huge fenced ground at a turn on that route – that barely catches the attention and looks like a piece of commercial real-estate property waiting for construction – has underneath it the remnants of a civilisation that existed 3,800 years ago!

The story said that during excavations at Ludhiana’s Sunet village, carried out by the Punjab archaeology department in 1984, thousands of coins and seals from the times of ancient kings such as Hermaeus, Gondophernes, Chandragupta and Samudragupta were found. The land was subsequently declared protected by the Archaeological Survey of India, the instruction announced by a small rust-eaten board in a corner.

This was incredulous to me. I wondered how a site of such massive historical importance could lie in total disregard. No friend who accompanied me to that area for evening strolls had mentioned it. To my shock, it emerged that they had no clue and, in fact, didn’t show much interest either. Those few who did know had only a vague idea about the excavations and rubbished my curiosity with, “Yeah, there was some talk of rare coins back then”

In this city of flashy cars, deep pockets, colossal houses and a long roster of successful homegrown industries, history is neither preserved nor bothered about.

A woman showing her finds; the picture is taken from a newspaper

A woman showing her finds; the picture is taken from a newspaper

Curious to dig more, I met a family   with the help of a local resident   which has been inhabiting the area for more than 60 years. The eldest member, a smiling Sikh, though hard of hearing, chatted with me happily and offered me eye-popping glimpses into the land’s recent history. It was 1965 and the family began construction of a new pucca house in the area, moving from a rundown tenement nearby. As the masons dug the earth, the family discovered at a depth of 7 ft a pot (matka) buried underneath. As the digging continued, they found 11 similar pots hidden underneath in a row!

What did they do with the pots? “One or two were cracked, so we broke them down. The ones that were in good shape, we used them to store grains. But they burst. Until a year ago, I had one of those pots,” he said with childlike excitement. While I sat stunned, regretting it all, he saw my disappointment. “Nobody like you ever came to me asking anything about those things. My children and grandchildren never valued them and eventually I, too, began to think little of them.

Anyway, he showed me three coins he had saved over the years. Interestingly, people from faraway places in the country used to visit the village, asking residents about the rare coins and artefacts. The innocent villagers would barter the rare possessions for what they thought was a princely sum. There are quite a few elderly people in the village who have safeguarded these artefacts in cupboards, he said, but with little hope that their children will take care of their prized possessions. Not that they understand their real value either.

Sadly, owing to uninhibited commercial activity in the village, the historical site has been reduced to the fenced ground spread over 10-12 acres. Further excavation work on the site has not commenced since 1984, with the archaeological department blaming the inactivity on the lack of requisite technology.

This village has the potential of being declared a tourism site. If only the city wakes up to its roots.

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Seen a pet bat?

Have you seen something like this before? I never had.

I met this bird lover in my city today who has, of all beings, rescued a baby bat. He has been taking care of it for the past 20 days.

Vipan 1

Now, a bat is certainly not the first thing that comes to mind when talking of pets. In fact, a lot of people are averse to this most prolific mammal on the planet.

Vipan Bhatia, the rescuer, says he found the baby bat lying snugly in his son’s trousers’ pocket one morning. “I have no prior experience of bats but decided that I could not let it die,” he told me. Just for added information, Vipan has rescued over 3000 birds so far. Pigeons, parrots, sparrows, kites and eagles, but never a bat.

With borrowed knowledge from friends and Discovery Channel, Bhatia has been taking care of the bat in his own way. Four times a day, the baby bat is fed a mixture of milk and water with a dropper and is kept in a spacious box, wrapped with a black cloth.

“I just know that it needs a dark environment, hence the arrangement,” he said, while showing me the baby bat placed on his finger.

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The bird lover finds the baby bat “cute” and adds he doesn’t care about popular beliefs that petting a bat may be inauspicious. However, Vipan is sensitive to several health advisories for keeping a bat.

“I know it can infect people with rabies. But I have no time to search on the Internet for further information nor have I been able to find an expert who could guide me how to keep this,” he told me, adding that he is also waiting for information about the bat’s growth in the coming days.

So I am just going to browse a bit on the Internet for him and provide him the information he needs. 🙂

A Fountain of Joy

This piece was first published in Hindustan Times.

It was through a fountain pen that I recently discovered my moment of peace. The long, sinuous lines it created on paper were pure bliss, carrying none of the boorishness of the ball pen or the detachment of the keyboard. They seemed patient and honest, and utterly, utterly personal.Image

For most friends of my generation, fountain pens incite long-lost memories of school days with inky fingers, smudged notebooks and ruined shirt pockets. But they are also the stuff of good luck at examinations, graduation gifts and among the first signs of turning adults.

Why, my first memory of joining the honorary list of grown-ups at school is directly linked to a fountain pen. “No more pencils, the teacher says we are big enough to use the pen now,” I had announced at home with great pride as I fussed over entering the sixth grade.

Out my father emerged from his room carrying an elegant silver box, and opened it to reveal a sparkling silver-and-black fountain pen. To me, the delicately engraved marvel placed over a lustrous black fabric seemed a piece of art, displayed like jewellery in an adorned case. It was a treasured item, a wedding gift from a dear uncle. My father seemed both proud and apprehensive when handing over the responsibility to me. He would inquire about the pen’s well being several times in the coming months.

Those were the days when a talent to write beautifully attracted admirers. And I was often in demand when a need to elegantly write on cards or invitations arose. Writing with the pen brought me artistic fulfillment and kept a check on my rhythm and consistency. The ritual involved in filling the pens with ink tamed me; it even transported me to a momentary Zen-like state.

Then came a remorseless rival in the form of ballpoint pen that, despite its annoying habit to leave pasty blobs of ink here and there in the text, won hands down for its sheer pace and productivity. For the price at which they came, losing ’em wasn’t a big deal. One couldn’t part with a pricey fountain pen that easily; one had to be careful and responsible.

Just as the fountain pens began to prepare for the technological graveyard, the advent of email and other electronic messaging types ruthlessly shook the very existence of manual writing. Today, doing the little writing on paper forms in government offices gives us a shiver.

But while one may expect that email and the ballpoint pen have killed the fountain pen, they have survived. Transformed from an archaic working to an accessory, a bulky Montblanc or a shining Parker is a treasured item for many.

So, after nearby a decade, as I scribbled away with such as a borrowed treasure, the experience left me nostalgic and calm.

This week has been hectic and, to beat stress, I plan to gift myself a fountain pen.

Why I Do Not Like Asaram

I never liked Asaram (Bapu). Why I would care to like or dislike him, you might wonder. But when nine out of ten families in my colony worshipped him like he was Lord Vishnu’s avatar in Kalyug, I could not ignore him.

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I remember the ladies’ weekly get-togethers to pay tribute to the “great” soul, singing kirtans and chanting “Asaram Chalisa”. To the uninitiated, this Chalisa sings of the Godman’s journey from birth to, well, attaining enlightenment (whatever that means). It recounts miraculous incidents from his life such as how the boy showed early signs of being a divine incarnation because a stranger emerged out of nowhere upon Asaram’s birth and gifted the family a baby palna carved in pure gold. In the great soul’s own words, any wish would come true if a disciple read the Chalisa 108 times.

I have no issues with Godmen/women in general. But with this man, I had differences in particular. The opinion built as I happened to attend a public discourse by him organized in the city. A mini-bus was arranged to ferry scores of men and women from our colony and around to the venue and back.

I was almost forced into listening to him but I never mind experiences. The lecture, in fact, opened me to the knowledge that since crores of men/women were grasping his words as the Gospel truth, the change in Indian mindset wasn’t happening anytime soon. Why, not less than several lakhs were packed in that ground.

He began with extolling all the sacrificial women of our ancient history for purely being sacrificial. Enumerating exemplary faithfulness/chastity/modesty of ancient Hindu females, Asaram emphasized on his point by adding that this was despite the men paying little attention to the marriages as they were busy changing the world.

Next came a list of do’s and don’ts for women. But what got my goat was his casual dismissal of the profession of a telecaller in a call centre.

Sample what he preached:

“My heart pains to see what our bahu-betiyan have to face in these filthy places. They are molested and even raped. I appeal to those women to come to me for help; I’ll suggest better ways of employment,” he said, while I shuddered at the thought that a majority of those keen listeners would reject a call centre job for their daughters/daughters-in-law the first thing they return home.

Now, I am no fan of this profession. But I personally know at least two girls who could bring their life back on the tracks thanks to the quick money these jobs provided even with average academic credentials (definitely without facing what Asaram spoke of). One of them had been forced to substitute her English-medium school education for a Hindi-medium Government-aided one due to the untimely demise of her father. The girl made more than Rs 20000 a month, enough to rent a small flat in Noida and continue her education through distance learning from a management institute. Today, she is the centre manager at a similar call centre.

Listening to this highly damaging sermon, I seethed even as the crowd nodded vigorously, some, I suspected, with tears of guilt for granting too much liberty to their women than they deserve.

‘Bus roko, bus roko…’ I screamed.

While I constantly hear of rapes all around the country, two recent cases  shook me to the core. One was the Delhi rape incident, for the honest reason that I have traversed that route a number of times and done similar late night movie adventures. Second was the recent case of a photojournalist in Mumbai, because I belong to the same profession.

I am not being selfish, only candid. My heart goes out to all the women who have had to deal with a brutality as this, but when misfortune falls on my ilk, I shudder all the more.

My mind wandered to the past, recalling several situations I found myself in during college and job that could well force on me the same fate. But thank God!

Here is one.

I had joined Delhi University’s Miranda House College after school. To ease commuting from my home in Ghaziabad to the college, my father had fixed a car pool arrangement. It was safe, economical and time-saving.

One day, however, the taxi did not come and I had to depend on public transport to reach college and back. I had Physics practical classes that day, which meant I would be in college until 6 pm.

I had tied up with a fellow commuter so we could return home together. She ditched me at the last minute, shamelessly telling me how she was staying over in Delhi with a friend. I did not know the road map to Ghaziabad, but knew that I was supposed to catch a particular bus from a nearby stand that would drop me to the Ghaziabad-Delhi border, also called Seemapuri border, from where I could take a shared auto till home.

The bus arrived not before 7 pm. I was already nervous, as I had not stayed so late in Delhi before. An infamous blue line bus, it was loaded with passengers. Trying to ignore and fight off the lewd glances that men threw, I finally got a seat at Kashmiri Gate stand. Slowly, I observed that more people were leaving the bus than stepping in. I had told the conductor to drop me at the border, but I hardly knew all the landmarks that led to the destination. I blamed myself for not being too attentive in the last few weeks since I had joined college.

By Seelampur, the bus was almost empty, sans the driver and conductor and it was close to 8 pm. I wondered if I should leave the bus too. But auto seemed more dangerous an option and it was beginning to get dark. I did not ask the driver how far is the border, fearing it would give him ideas. But I casually said that the bus has taken more time than usual. “We are almost there. Be patient,” the conductor replied, fixing his gaze at me and checking me out from head to toe.

To my horror, the conductor suddenly stopped talking to the driver and came and seated beside me.

I was trapped. I was numb. My heart was beating so loud I knew the conductor could hear it. I gathered courage and asked him to sit somewhere else. He did.

I got up and went near the door and ordered the driver to stop. He didn’t. “I can’t on the middle of the road. Be patient. We’ll be there in a minute,” he barked. Suddenly, going off the busy road, he took a sharp left turn and into an isolated lane. I must have turned white. I came down to the lowest step, and screamed a faint scream “Bus roko, bus roko…”. He did.

I jumped out, sprained my ankle but ran towards the main road. Thankfully, it was not far but I was very exhausted and panting heavily.

Straight, I went to a petrol pump I saw and asked for directions. I was convinced I was quite far from the border. “Madam, you are standing right there. Cross the road and you can see the many autos lined up towards Ghaziabad.”

I know my poor attention to roads and directions were to blame. But, a small-towner, I had the first taste of the dirty Dilli on that day.

A moving Experience

One of the best gifts of journalism is the experiences it offers that leave one inspired and moved.

I encountered one such incident recently while covering the results of Punjab State Education Board 2013 for class tenth. The assignment took me to a village Dhandari Kalan, some 10 kilometers away from the main city of Ludhiana, to meet Deepak Kumar, who had stood third in the state with 96 percent.

I went to his school SGD Grammar Senior Secondary School, standing amid a bustling market. With summer vacations on, the school bore a deserted look, even as a gangly, shy and very disciplined-looking boy dressed in school uniform strolled around the entrance. As I found out soon from the school principal, he was Deepak.

“We called him to congratulate him, even though the celebrations are really a quiet affair given the vacations,” the principal told me. She added that Deepak has been a brilliant and very disciplined student always and with potential to reach great heights.

I thought a photo with Deepak’s family huddled around him would be great, and so I requested him to guide me to his home. He felt reluctant and, when I reached his house, I sensed why.

The humble house laid bare the family’s financial condition, making it as embarrassing for me as for him. A chair was hurriedly arranged for me to sit, his mother began to conceal with a cloth things strewn on the bed, and somebody began to wave a handfan for me. I politely asked her not to as I was very comfortable. To ease the situation, I smiled and began to ask the parents how they felt about their son’s achievement. The father trembled as he answered me and, as I learnt in a few minutes, he was a migrant from Bihar who had shifted to Ludhiana to work as a labourer a decade ago. Now, he ran a small grocery store from the two-room house.

I asked Deepak what he wanted to pursue his career in, and he told me it was his dream to become a Maths lecturer. This was why he had opted for non-medical stream in class eleventh. As I learnt, it was less out of choice and more out of a lack of knowledge for further options; a Maths lecturer was the most accomplished person in the village so far.

From the house, I came to know, Deepak walked to the school daily, negotiating broken paths on the way. Asked about his window to the world of opportunities, Deepak said he watched Discovery channel regularly and had Internet on his cellphone.

When Power Cuts were welcomed

This piece was first published in Hindustan Times.

Not so long ago, life was simpler. Power cuts raise a sweat today but back then as children we would desperately look forward to the late evening routine in summer. Incredulous as it may sound to some today, but yes we really did. This was years before a run through the friends’ Facebook profiles replaced post-dinner walks in the street outside.

Power cuts were erratic and occurred without notice. Frankly, this only increased their worth in our eyes. We would be eating, and all of a sudden, darkness would engulf us. There would be a rush for candles, matchboxes and even lanterns. At the risk of sounding dated, I admit this would happen even in my twenties. It was before inverters ceased to be a luxury.

We would rush with the remaining food and leap out of the house into the street, leaving it for mother to struggle with the leftovers and dishes in the candle light.

Power Cut

A late evening power cut did for us what a mobile messenger does for kids today – send an instant mass message. As if on cue, an entire gang of children would gather at a point in the neighbourhood, jubilant, ecstatic, and impatient for the fun to begin.

In the dim light of the moon and stars, we would play hide-n-seek, chor-police, pakdam-pakdai, statue, hopscotch and many more of such indigenous and dying outdoor fun games that urgently need documentation. If it was too dark, antakshari was the best bet.

Sometimes, we would huddle around grandmother, a star storyteller in her own right. Looking back, I guess she must have also yearned for power cuts. When the UPS beeped to death and the television was reduced to a mere box, she felt more at home. Her world would come alive.

We would play as long as the cut went on, no questions asked. With no tab on the deadline, we would lose ourselves in grandma’s fables, leaving it for the power department to decide when the fun would end. The moment the power supply returned, a loud cheer would go up. “Aa gayiiii!” we would shout as the houses lit up, all at once. The games, at whichever stage, would stop and we would scurry back home.

“A cut tomorrow evening too,” was our goodnight wish and the power department never failed us, particularly in the peak of summer.

Come to think of it, the power cuts brought us closer as a family, as neighbours and as a community. They forced us to drop the material for a while and handle stillness. They made our thoughts wander and let our imagination fly.

But wait. Am I going too far? Probably not. In the virtual world today, desperate questions on ‘how to survive a power cut’ are all over with saintly suggestions to netizens, including one asking them to “look inwards for happiness”.

As for me, I am the master of the game.