Friday, August 29, 2014

The Evil That Men Do. (We Indians are like that only.)


True tale. No names.

This story about masculine hegemony is from the seventies. It was told to me a while back by an erstwhile colleague from one of the ad agencies I worked for in those days. He happens to be a friend I am in off-and-on touch with even today. He was one of the two witnesses to the event.

Q: Why am I telling it now?

A: Because I came across it recently.

Q: Who does it concern?

A: One of my late (in every sense of the word) bosses for whom I used to have and still have tremendous respect as an advertising professional. He was highly regarded in the Indian and international Management Studies circles as well, by the way.

Q: Can I vouch for the veracity of the “story”?

A: I can vouch for the credibility of the source. Also, in the light of what I had heard on the workplace grapevine at that time but discarded as idle gossip, probability dons the sinister cloak of possibility. Moreover another friend with whom I have lost touch used to be a frequent head office visitor to the Bombay office around the time the event presumably took place and used to lodge at the boss’s apartment situated in a tony locality of the city. He too had dropped hints in passing about the dysfunctional family life with the head of the family always at loggerheads with his wife but a doting father to his daughter who was schooling at an upper-crust day school.

Q: So what is supposed to have happened, for Pete’s sake?

A:  The boss used to travel a lot on work and also his teaching engagements. One evening, the car picked him up at the airport and on its way back home took the Tulsi Pipe Road (now Senapati Bapat Marg) route. This road runs parallel to the Western Railway tracks. This was much before the three flyovers were built. All along the road were makeshift hutments out of some of which hooch was sold and flesh trade was plied. In other word, it was hardly the road on which to stroll leisurely after sunset. As the Big Man’s car was speeding along the not too brightly lit road, there suddenly flared up an altercation between the boss and the missus who had gone to receive him at the airport. Things took such an ugly turn after a while that the boss asked the chauffeur to stop the car and ordered the missus to step out. She had no alternative but to obey. No sooner had she stepped out of the car than the boss asked the chauffeur to start the car and head home. As to how and when she managed to reach home, my informant had no clue.

Q: So what’s the point of the tattletale-ing excursion?

A: If you’re expecting an outburst dripping with angst about clay-footed idols, perish the thought pronto. The only probable moral of the story to my way of thinking right here and now is expressed eloquently by Shakespeare’s famous words (Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene ii, Line 190):

“O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!
Then I, and you, and all of us fell down…”

Though averse to joining in community breast-beating and dirge-chanting, I shall make an exception in the present case and include myself – purely for old time’s sake − in this group mourning the fall from grace of a well-heeled, highly educated, cultured (or, gentrified?) Indian gentleman holding a top well-paying job in a leading ad agency and residing in one of the poshest pockets of Bombay (now Mumbai) because he behaved exactly like a denizen of the shanties abutting the Tulsi Pipe Road once his male ego and authority were challenged in the presence of witnesses. When the shanty dweller drove his wife out of their hovel, she was still allowed to remain in a familiar neighbourhood and could probably find a temporary refuge with a friendly neighbour until things cooled down. The boss’s missus was abandoned in an unknown, totally alien and most likely dangerous territory to fend for herself – a situation straight out of a Hollywood noir of the early fifties (Barbara Stanwyck and Richard Widmark, remember?). Good grief, Charlie Brown! Can we not tell the Red Baron to fly his Sopwith Camel real low and mow down such scum from the face of the earth?

False middle-class values. Don’t we all cling to them even after half suspecting how very hollow they are just because they seem congruent with the current benchmarks of belief and behaviour? They make us pose like judges even in matters where we have no jurisdiction, so to speak. 

So, ladies and gentlemen, who will step up to fling the first stone?


Friday, August 22, 2014

Mirror, mirror on the wall. Whose statue is due for a fall?


I’m not much of a “let’s have one more statue” guy, no matter whose or how tall. (In my humble opinion, the proper place for statuary and paintings is a museum.) What intrigues me, though, about Dr Kusoom Vadgama’s objection to one more Gandhi statue in London http://bit.ly/1rGUo9P is the reason she uses as a prop: the inscrutable ol’ man’s obsession with sex and, particularly, his making much younger close relatives of the opposite sex the guinea pigs of his experiment with celibacy. (Once again, in my humble opinion, a simple one-too-many-statues objection would suffice.)

The Gandhian credentials of the currently irascible Kenya-born, Illinois-educated, London-based and musically inclined Optometrist and Historian are impeccable. That she has suddenly woken up to Gandhi’s cryptic sexual behaviour and preference for naked female companionship of young relatives is therefore a bit puzzling. The insensitive, self-righteous, eccentric and erratic old man http://bit.ly/XBGSvA had no qualms when logging in reports of his experiments in Harijan.

The other thing that intrigues me about the good Doctor is that, in spite of her historian’s insight into the worldwide feminist movement, she merely mentions Gandhi’s use of young women who were close relations as “guinea pigs” in his maha yagna (his fanciful nomenclature for "brahmacharya"/celibacy experiments). Dr Sushila Nayyar, his physician, personal masseur and off-and-on bed sharer, once told Ved Mehta that "brahmacharya" was a latter-day invention of Gandhi to ward off criticism of his interaction with his female intimates. Earlier, before Nayyar in her late teens went to medical school, she used to be his bed mate for reasons of nature cure. http://bit.ly/LWXS2N

One reason for Gandhi making Manu and Abha his bed mates could be easy accessibility as also their willingness to serve him no matter what. The other, most likely, was the power he knew he had over them as the patriarch of the family. Patriarchy and masculine hegemony, as is well-accepted by now, are the main culprits responsible for the continuing subjugation of women in India. Incest − and paedophilia − are the pathological (deviant) offshoots of patriarchy. Normal men tend to be protectors while deviant men, predators. Sometimes, a patriarch may inadvertently cross the line between the two roles back and forth harbouring ambivalent feelings towards women.

Do read Girja Kumar's BRAHMACHARYA Gandhi & His Women Associates. In this book based mostly on Gandhi’s writings. “… the so-called Mahatma comes out as manipulative, pathologically obsessive about sex and sin as well as power-crazed. His logic sounds circuitous, serpentine and often self-contradictory and specious, at times even inane. He apparently played God with the lives of those close to him. He was too intrusive and interfering.” http://bit.ly/LWXS2N

I have noticed that when it comes to writing or talking about the Father of the Nation, even normally sane and balanced people lose their nerve. They start to tread overcautiously as it they were walking on eggshells. Finally the ex-Gandhian good Doctor has spoken the so far unspoken. That’s a good beginning, methinks.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

In search of lost time: Remembrance of Govindas past.


I am talking here of the late forties to the early sixties, mind you. Life lived at and observed from the third-floor terrace flat at 233 Khetwadi Main Road. http://bit.ly/1fcggIG Govindas in those days were straggly, motley cavalcades of (mostly) domestic servants (“rama gadis”) working in South Bombay and a sprinkling of textile mill workers all of them belonging to friend circles (“mitra mandals”) of migrants from the Kokan region. They lived in low-rent tenements (“chawls”) in South and Central Bombay, for instance, in Girgaum (Thakurdwar, Mughbhat), Tardeo, Worli, Byculla, Parel and Lalbaug (what was collectively called Girangaon or Mill Town) using a single room as an all-bachelor, all-expenses-shared chummery sort of communal living space. Some of them worked in shifts in the mills; in their absence those not working at that time used the room to rest. For recreation, these groups sang in bhajan mandals, danced in groups and even rehearsed for plays. Out of these extracurricular pastimes arose the Govinda troupes, the Gauri-Ganapati dance groups and amateur play-staging groups. These migrant workers also went to the local gyms (“akhadas”) and played group sports like kabaddi and kho-kho. I remember watching a group rama gadis clad in colourful waists and shorts waving red handkerchiefs and dancing in honour of Goddess Gauri on the spacious terrace of 233 Khetwadi Main Road in (most probably) 1949 and 1950. The Mankars then used to host a three-day Gauri sojourn http://bit.ly/1vfvEIh at that address, you see.

Gokulashtami, the day the Govinda groups went around breaking dahi handis all over town, was a day no domestic servant or mill worker went to work. A typical Govinda troupe used to have twenty to thirty members who danced, pranced and swayed to the music played by a sanai player and a tasha beater all the way to the handi they had been invited to break. The signature tune was “Govinda alaa rey alla”, a kind of a playful warning about the Govinda approaching to plunder the handi. The handis, hung at a reasonable height, were “sponsored” by the residents of various localities, building or housing society – not by politicians or the local mafiasos. Naturally, the prize money did not run into lakhs or thousands. The top figures were at the most in hundreds. For the troupes, it was a labour of love.

A major attraction for the spectators crowding the balconies and terraces to watch the show was the opportunity to drench the Govinda pyramid with buckets of water once the handi was broken. Water wasn’t scarce in Bombay of yore. In anticipation of the Govindas, a few extra buckets would be dutifully stored on the morning of Gokulashtami. My guess is that the drenching custom must have been an offshoot of the story about the Gopis (dairy maids) of Gokul who loved Krishna, the divine toddler, with their heart and soul devising various playful and harmless ways to stop him from stealing the butter stored in the handi in the kitchen. The dancing group ritual resembles the warkari cavalcade of devotees merrily singing the praises of Vithoba and dancing with glee all the way to Pandharpur before the advent of the ekasashi (the eleventh day of the full moon cycle) in the months of Ashadh and Kartik. All this is a part of the vaishnav bhakti tradition as far as I can tell.

Come 1963 and one of my fellow residents in the Khetwadi neighbourhood http://bit.ly/1AwRSs1 forever changed this erstwhile subaltern celebration of the Krishna legend into a boisterous garish commercially-fuelled parody of its earlier avatar having completely stripped it of its original innocence. That was the year when Manmohan Desai’s Bluff Master featuring the Govinda signature tune suitably distorted to fit the mould of crass Hindi film lyrics was released. So bent was Desai on fully exploiting (what he probably shrewdly sensed to be) the commercial potential of the song that he hired Shammi Kapoor, the quintessential pucca Punjabi munda, to star in the movie and inject crude Punjabi machismo in what was earlier sung as an innocent and playful ditty celebrating Krishna’s childhood pranks.

The release of Bluff Master had caught the tide of fortune at the floods. Soon, everyone and his uncle (politicos and mafiasos included) wanted to ride the Govinda Alaa  bandwagon to stay in the public gaze. The same logic swelled the sponsorship coffers for the Sarvajanik Ganesh Utsavs (community celebration of the Ganesh festival). The latter got a further fillip when Hum Se Badhkar Kaun hit the cinema halls in 1981 featuring the hit song “Deva Ho Deva”. In fact, such was the popularity of this song, that its inclusion became de rigueur in the Ganesh festival and immersion musical repertoire. Now handis were hung at daunting and competitive heights as the prize amounts continued to balloon. Also, the practice of Bollywood celebrities visiting various Ganesh pandals became a part of the routine with media groups footing the bill and making full use of the photo opportunities.

The next decade saw the advent of motorized Govindas (no more dancing cavalcades, thank you!).They operated like hard-core hit squads swiftly moving from one target handi to the next in order to maximize the day’s “take” with the prize money offered by some handi sponsors already hovering around a lakh of rupees or more. The hit squads had their own portable music systems playing Bollywood hits at ear-splitting volume. In the clamour and glitz and glamour, who would recall the Govindas of the past? And, by then, who cared in any case?


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Is the original Idea of India dead once and for all?


The other day, when I was thinking of this whole rigmarole called the Idea of India, one question that had never occurred to me in the past suddenly bobbed up its inquisitive head in my mind.

Who invented the Idea of India as a Democratic Republic in the first place?
Taking a long backward look, the answer became obvious. It was a coterie of eminent Indians that included Harrow-educated Jawaharlal Nehru and Dt BR Ambedkar, a Columbia alumnus. It was this league of extraordinary gentlemen who chiseled and buffed the somewhat alien idea  conscientiously much before it became a reality on 15 
August 1947 and 26 January 1950.

Yes. The leaders of the Indian independence movement were mostly from the Western-educated middle class. They had been weaned, so to speak, on Socrates and Plato, Marx and Engels, Gibbon, Darwin, and Spencer, Smith and Keynes, Ruskin and Thoreau and Shaw among others. Many of these thinkers and writers hailed from Great Britain of which at the time India was a colony. Imbibing their thoughts, beliefs and opinions was ironically like being “colonial mimics” http://bit.ly/16Yhi4U of sorts. 

But surely it is obvious that there are as many Ideas of India as there are special interest groups and sub-groups, e.g., big business, labour, Dalits, OBCs, tribals and so forth. Each group’s Idea of India is needless to say calibrated to align with its special concerns.

Big business, for instance, would want maximum ROI, least interference from the government, unlimited access to natural resources and so forth. Ergo, the big business’s Idea of India would be a country with a politico-economic system – whether democratic or not − that treats business, particularly big business, with kid gloves and so forth.

It’s time we backtracked a bit, though. The founding fathers’ Idea of India was conceived against the backdrop of Nehru’s Discovery of India, the seminal ideological text on which the Nehruvian template of a liberal, secular, egalitarian democracy with a “composite” and inclusive culture and a socialistic economy was based. Nehru envisioned an Indian nation with the state entrusted with the task of ensuring that no single special interest group, e.g., the Hindu majority or big business, enjoyed significant privileges to the detriment of others. One of the corollaries of this vision was the Indian state taking over the lead role in the economic sphere.

Unfortunately, this meant the perpetuation of the Ma Baap Sarkar metaphor in the minds of the illiterate majority − enhanced further by the continuance of feudalistic behaviour of the bureaucracy, a legacy of the British Raj in any case. Furthermore, the adoption of another legacy of the British Raj – both Discovery of India and Constitution of India were written in English and the business of the Indian state continues to be transacted in English − and the accidental privilege thereby conferred on the miniscule English-speaking minority of the Indian population who ran the emerging state enterprises merely confounded the already somewhat cloudy scenario.

The Idea of India saga seems to have modeled itself on Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. The first major crack in the Nehruvian template came with his daughter’s successive triumphs (Bangladesh, i.e., the splintering of Pakistan,  bank nationalization, abolition of privy purses, stoppage of food imports, a 20-year friendship pact with the USSR) culminating in the 1974 Pokharan nuclear blast that caught the world’s attention. All this prompted DK Barooah’s sycophantic “Indira is India, India is Indira” call. JP Narayan’s challenge to Indira Gandhi’s autocratic rule triggered off the June 1975 declaration of emergency.     

The other four significant events in post-Independence India that progressively sapped  the Nehruvian Idea of India of its relevance were the chronological order of occurrence the following:

[1] The anti-Sikh violence (1984)

[2] The Shah Bano case (1985)

[3] The Babri Masjid demolition (1992) and its aftermath (1992-93)

[4] The burning of a train at Godhra and the Gujarat riots (2002).

Apart from these, there is the on-going virtual occupation of Jammu and Kashmir and the North East by the Indian Army under the pretence of keeping peace – a policy without an iota of success in stemming the insurgency and the defiance of the Indian State. Equally worrying is the seemingly unstoppable resurgence of the Naxals in the so-called red corridor comprising those parts of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgrah, Jharkand, Madhya Prasesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal inhabited mainly by the marginalized Adivasi tribals trying to eke a living out of forest produce and primitive farming under constant threat from forestry officials and the mining mafia. 

Now that NaMo has all but demolished the flag bearers of the Nehruvian Idea of India, history has finally been consigned to the dustbin, maybe even to oblivion, where according to the “neo middle class” (a NaMo hypothesis according to Sunil Khilnani http://bit.ly/1gejUlY) it rightfully belongs.


Will it remain dead and buried for all times to come? Your guess is as good as mine.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Why NaMo is top-of-the-pops.


Our Founding Fathers made two monumental mistakes when power was transferred from the British Emperor to the Indian Government of India in August 1947.

Monumental mistake #1: They opted for universal franchise without universal literacy.

Monumental mistake #2: they did not dismantle the then prevailing framework and mindset of Feudalism before ushering in Democracy. Equally important, they did not bother to upgrade the bureaucracy set up by the British to serve the aims of the Imperialistic reign of subjugating and controlling the citizenry, of “keeping them in their proper place” at any cost as well as of extracting an annual tribute (“drain”) of £30 million (roughly Rs.450 million in contemporary exchange terms) in the reckoning of Dadabhai Naoroji (1825 -1917). http://bit.ly/1jgDmya (By the by, in Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith dubbed the British Rulers “plunderers of India”. http://bit.ly/1jCDpns)

In 1952, around 85% of the eligible voters in India’s first General Election – most  of whom still lived in abysmal poverty in the countryside − were angutha chchaap: they could neither read nor write. Ma-baap Sarkar, a legacy from the British Rulers, was the only political metaphor they understood and could relate to. The Indian National Congress won hands down. The 15% literate middle class had almost no say in the matter.

How different is the scenario at the time of the 2014 General Elections to constitute the 16th Lok Sabha?

Increasing urbanization particularly after globalization has swelled the ranks of the urban middle class. They want better living conditions, more jobs, better governance, less − if not zilch − corruption, decisive leadership, less inequality. The omnipresence of television, the Internet http://bit.ly/1ssnDhP and mobile phones has further fuelled these burgeoning aspirations. The BJP seems to be the party of choice of Middle India.

Like it or not, admit it or not, NaMo = BJP as of this moment. The personality cult for which it is fashionable to criticize the Congress is very much alive and kicking away merrily in the BJP. NaMo demolished every likely rival within the Party using tactics almost identical to the Indira Gandhi gambit against The Syndicate in the winter of 1969.  http://bit.ly/Rmeydm Employing IT imaginatively and extensively, he has been successful in reaching to, and enrolling for his cause, the urban (mostly middle class) youth.

The World Bank defines poverty as survival on less than $1.25 per day (2005 purchasing power parity) and says that, between 1981 and 2005, poverty in India dipped from 60% of the population to 42%. The number in 2010 was 33% (about 400 million people). http://bit.ly/1s2synE There is much dispute about the veracity of the Government of India and World Bank statistics. After making allowance for population growth in the interim, there appears to have been very little progress on the poverty alleviation front since 1947 – certainly nothing to boast about with claims like “India Shining”. The UPA-II efforts to alleviate poverty (Public Distribution System, Integrated Rural Development Program, Jawahar Rozgar Yojana and Training Rural Youth for Self Employment) have met with very limited success.

As for literacy, UNICEF tells us that between 2008 and 2012, 62.8% of Indians aged 15 years and over were able to read and write. The literacy rates in the age group 15 – 24 years for the same time span were 88.4% (male) and 74.4% (female).  The net primary school enrolment rate for 2008 – 2011 was 98.6%. It looks like the 2014 General Elections have a literate electorate. Does it mean that it will be a conscientious electorate?

Ironically though, if Middle India’s aspirations are contemporary, many from their ranks still respond to Feudalistic overtures: religion, caste, social status, respect for authority and the pecking order among others. NaMo seems to have understood this characteristic of the electorate well. To assure them that he means business, he talks down to them like a decisive leader. Every election speech is a diatribe, a raging tirade. 

He blunders on declaring that the elections are for  the 14th Lok Sabha in a rally in Gumla (Jharkhand); linking Chandragupta Maurya with the Gupta dynasty, giving Biharis credit for halting the victorious onslaught of Alexander and relocating Taxila in Bihar – all these in a Patna rally; bumping off Shyama Prasad Mookherji, Jan Sangh’s founder, in 1930 in London in a Kheda (Gujarat) meeting (in fact, he died in a Jammu & Kashmir prison in 1953); and changing Gandhi’s first name to “Mohanlal” in a Punjab rally.

The NaMo juggernaut thunders on regardless. His fans don’t seem to care about his historical inaccuracies. They have been brought up listening to lies and false promises mouthed by politicians. They want to believe in someone. That someone happens to be NaMo. His Gujarat governance record is not bad. His role in the 2002 riots seems to have been forgiven. His style of dealing with problems seems decisive. The saviour has been found at last. NaMo is the one.

All hail NaMo. Bow to NaMo. Kowtow to NaMo. There is no alternative left. 

Monday, May 05, 2014

Why Teddy Bears get my goat.


Ironical though it may sound, post-colonial urban Indians are prone to closet colonial mimicry, whether they know and/or admit it or not. In their best colonial mimicry mode, many Indian script writers foist from time to time Teddy Bears on to their characters as a symbol of childhood innocence and on to their storylines as a pointer to the impending arrival of a baby in the family, an adoption and so forth. Often, they unwittingly insert Teddy into imagined homes least likely to be aware of its iconic role in English-speaking Western cultures as a “warm, friendly, tolerant, accepting and compassionate” friend. http://bit.ly/1kNwPuf

Mind you, I have nothing against poor cuddly Teddies per se − in their proper place and in the right context. I must confess, though, that I as a child never had one. We Mankars, colonial mimics of the second – if not the first – water, residing at 233 Khetwadi Main Road http://bit.ly/1fcggIG seasonally consumed rum’n’raisin Christmas cakes from the original Monginis at Flora Fountain and plum pudding from Kayani’s; bought faux Christmas stockings from the toy shops at Crawford Market; shopped occasionally − and that too, very, very sparingly − at Whiteaway Laidlaw and Evan Fraser on Hornby Road and Army & Navy on Esplanade Road http://bit.ly/R9RuxY in Fort; read Dickens, Richmal Crompton and the Grimm Brothers; devoutly chanted Mother Goose nursery rhymes; listened from time to time to Doing the Lambeth Walk on our wind-up turntable; and stood up in the cinema hall every time they played God Save the King. In short, we did without fail all the things all self-respecting pre-1947 colonial mimics were expected to do.

The epiphany that dropped in for a visit after I googled “Teddy Bear” concerned the place of its nativity. The awesome cuddly did not – alas! – hail from the homeland of our erstwhile Imperial masters. Instead, it was a native of the old country from across the Big Pond of their erstwhile colonial cousins. Apocrypha has it that its moniker mimicked the sporting US Prez “Teddy” Roosevelt’s “handle” to honour his refusal to shoot a live bear tied to a willow tree during a 1902 hunting trip arranged by the Mississippi governor. http://bbc.in/1kxDlmW

Teddy’s birth is equally noteworthy. Like the recent idiot-box fad of simulcast, It was simul-birthed. Morris Michtom, a Russian immigrant selling candy in his Brooklyn store, is one of the two credited with making the first Teddy. The other joint holder of the Teddy Maker title was Richard Steiff who exhibited his version of the stuffed marvel at the Leipzig Toy Fair in 1903.

Enough already. By now, you can probably make a shrewd guess why I prefer Linus van Pelt’s security blanket insouciantly flung over his left shoulder to Nancy’s and Garfield’s Teddies. Has this something to do with the fact that Linus’s constant companion is multi-functional? http://bit.ly/1kMXKGk Maybe. Richard H Passman, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee psychologist, found that “the blanket promoted play, exploration and non-distress in their mothers' absence”. The security blanket acts as a “pretend” playmate-comforter, in other words.

Far be it for me to sell Teddy short, though, just because I do not personally gel with it. In English-speaking Western cultures, psychologists see it variously as “a normal part of a child’s development”, a “transitional experience between the infant’s ability to distinguish the inner subjective world from outside reality”, a substitute for the absent mother (temp surrogate mom?) – in short, a normal, desirable and beneficial component of growing up. Teddy has also done yeoman service in class rooms by intrinsically motivating children to learn (i.e., by creating an ambience – mood, feel or atmosphere – where the pleasure of learning is its own reward). Teddy has done himself proud by being the perfect helpmate to cops, firemen and paramedics for reaching out to scared, lost and traumatized children in rescue scenarios as well.  In a Boston Children’s Museum project, kids were encouraged to take their Teddy Bears for a free medical check-up by real doctors with a view to lessen their fear of medical practitioners and hospitals.


Okay, Teddy. It’s time I gave up. You’re no bugbear. On the contrary, you may be quite the opposite. I owe you an apology.    

Friday, April 25, 2014

An Honest-to-goodness Tale from the Loco Shed. No kidding’!


Once again, thanks to a fortunate stroke of serendipity, I have chanced upon a children’s story I wrote in 1974 and abandoned to its fate. Pop Goes the Slop is already home to a distant cousin of the latest find. http://bit.ly/1m7bEWO  So without further ado, here comes the story of Chintamani and his loco friends spruced up and updated for 2014.

Chintu comes up with a loco idea.

“Tweet you tomorrow,” whistled Speedy Sparky as he whizzed past the loco shed.

“Whoosh,” sighed Huff’n’Puff wistfully. “Just look at him go!”

“Awwww! Speedy’s just a big show-off, he is,” consoled Chintu promptly. He did not like to see his old friend sad and fretful.

“Spare us the rubbish, young Chints. Show-off? Hah! Speedily can easily touch 120 without huffin’ an’ puffin’. That’s at least ten times faster than your slowpoke shunt-artist friends.”

This cruel barb came from Danny Diesel who had just entered the loco shed for his last-minute check-up. Danny knew very well that this kind of talk hurt the old timers and their loyal friend Chintu. But he hardly ever let that stop him.

“Keep quiet, Danny” was Chintu’s angry retort.

Before he could continue, Cheerful Chuggy gave a warning toot.

“Cool it, Chintoo. Danny is – toot! – right,” he said a trifle mournfully. “It’s Danny and Speedy and – toot! – youngsters like them who do all the real – toot! – fast work in the shunting yard these days.”

Chintu wanted to point out that, all said and done, Danny guzzled diesel oil and Speedy thrived on electricity while his pals worked strictly on their own steam. But he knew it wouldn’t do any good to dispel the dark and gloomy mood Huffy was in right now.

“Times have sure changed, haven’t they?” sputtered Huffy despondently. “Why I still remember the days…”

“Can it, Gramps,” cut in Danny with a sneer. “Spare us another one of your – yawwwn! – rambling loco tales.”

Chintu sat quietly until Danny left the loco shed.

“Don’t mind him, Huffy,” he said once he was sure Danny was out of earshot. “He just likes to tease, you know.”

That didn’t lift Huffy’s dark mood. But Cheerful Chuggy was as usual true to his name.    

“Quit being so huffy, Huffy dear,” he appealed to his friend playfully. “Do tell young – toot! – Chintoo how you saved your – toot! – train when the rains had – toot! toot! – washed away the bridge near – toot! – Hoshiarpur, wasn’t it?”

Chuggy knew that would do the trick. It did. Like always.

An hour later, after listening to Huffy’s tale (he had heard it at least a dozen times before), Chintu left the loco shed in deep thought.

His mind was made up. He had to get Huffy and Chuggy out of the loco shed and the shunt yard pretty fast. The change would do them a world of good. Also, it would teach Speedy and Danny a long overdue lesson.

There was an even more pressing reason for haste.

Chintu’s dad was the superintendent of the shunt year where Huffy and Chuggy worked. He knew all that was going on in the yard and the loco shed. Lately, there had been a lot of loose talk about retiring the old timers to the junk heap. The sooner, the better was the verdict of the Speedy and Danny gang. All that was now needed, it seemed, was the arrival of the mini diesel-powered shunt locomotives (the requisition had already been issued for them, said his dad) along with the final clearance from the Indian Railways headquarters.

So, it was only a matter of time, maybe a few weeks and no more.

Chintu shook his head resolutely to chase away the wicked thought. He couldn’t bring himself to imagine the yard and the shed without Huffy and Chuggy. He must save them.

But how?

“Chintoooo!”

It sounded like a musical horn out of tune. Only one person besides Chuggy called him Chintoo instead of Chintu. And, before he could run out of harm’s way, the “musical horn” had firmly taken hold of his sleeve.

Pesky Meena, his next-door neighbor, was a very determined ten-year old who simply refused to be discouraged by Chintu’s most off-putting dodges.

Sometimes, with luck on his side, he could pretend not to notice her and duck out of her way just in time.

Certainly not today, though. 

”Chintoooo bhaiya,” Meena squealed as was her wont. “Guess where we are going?”

Chintu knew he wasn’t expected to answer. All she wanted was compliance. She had already started dragging him to wherever she had decided they were going.

Meena took Chintu’s silence for consent and skipped along the road merrily chattering nineteen to the dozen about the treasure house of delights she was taking him to. She didn’t say a word about where it was, though.

It took them a good part of a quarter hour to get there. It turned out to be the squat grey bungalow, just beyond the railway staff quarters. It was now housing the local Railway Museum.  

“You know, Chintoooo bhaiya, they have on a special show of old railroad pictures. Old locos and trains and stuff. Maybe we will get to see Huffy and Chuggy’s grandpas,” Meena said sneaking a sly glance at Chintu’s face. She knew how fond Chintoo was of the old timers.

They spent the next hour wandering around the main hall and the back rooms. Any other day, Chintu would have devoted many more merry hours in this treasure trove studying every detail of each locomotive and passenger coaches and freight cars in the photographs. Today, preoccupied as he was with the fate of his loco friends, his attention was at best perfunctory. Every glance at the old locomotives in the pictures was a reminder that he may lose Huffy and Chuggy’s company soon.

What made it even worse was that neither Huffy nor Chuggy had a clue about what was in store for them. If only he could think of a way out in time…

It happened when he was least expecting it. Just when they were about to step out of the Museum, a handwritten notice taped to the door caught his eye. 

NOTICE

VISITORS MAY PLACE THEIR
SUGGESTIONS ABOUT THIS SHOW
IN THE BOX BELOW.
OUTSTANDING IDEAS MAY
WIN A PRIZE.
                  
−→ BY ORDER OF THE CURATOR

“Eureka!” exclaimed Chintu who had just read the story of Archimedes. The “loco” idea that had just popped in his head might be just the thing to save his loco pals.

In the twinkling of an eye, he was on his way. Even Meena’s high-pitched “Chintoooo!” did not make him break his stride.

He did not even pause to pet Moti who wagged his tail furiously, jumped and raised a cacophony of woofs and yelps at his master’s stormy arrival. He just couldn’t wait to put down his loco idea on paper and into the suggestion box.

An hour later, a thoroughly confused and utterly dumbfounded Moti once again watched his usually well-mannered master dash away on an errand with nary a civil pat.

The next week passed uneventfully and without a single word from Meena who seemed to have finally taken his unmannerly behaviour at the Museum gate to heart and gave him a wide berth. Even Moti was subdued. And so were Huffy and Chuggy.

It was only on Friday afternoon, after school, that Chintu ran smack into the whirlpool of excitement that had gripped the loco shed and the shunt yard.

As he entered the shed, Danny who had been talking to Speedy excitedly called out to him.

“So, young Chints, at last they’ve had some sense knocked into their fat heads,” he cried venomously. “They’ll soon be banishing your dear old loco buddies to the junk heap where they belong. The crummy bunch of losers that they are! My cousins, real fast mini diesel dudes both, will be taking over the shunting chores. You’ll soon witness some fast and furious action around this place, boy!”

His sneer was as palpable as a razor-sharp exclamation mark. It hurt.

Chintu couldn’t believe his ears. So, finally, it had come to this, eh? All his careful planning and desperate hoping had come to naught. Poor dear Huffy and Chuggy! What was going to become of them? 

Without uttering a word, he turned on his heels and ran as fast as he could out of the shed.

Much, much later, a little after the sun had gone home after a hard day’s work of lighting up the world, Chintu found himself walking home with a heavy heart and a step to match.

“Where have you been all afternoon, Chintu beta?”

Those were his dad’s first words that greeted him as he entered the sitting room in a daze.

His mom who was talking to a stranger sitting across her and sipping a cup of coffee turned to him and said: “Look who’s waiting for you since five o’clock.”

The tall, somewhat lanky stranger got up from his chair and came forward to shake Chintu’s hand. Nobody had ever done that to him so far: treated him as a grown-up, that is to say. He felt a bit awkward, not knowing how to react.

“Well, well, well. So this is Chintamani, the bright ideas guy,” beamed the stranger, his kindly eyes peering at Chintu over the top of a pair of half moon glasses perched precariously on the bridge of his nose.

Chintu was at a loss for words. What bright idea? Which guy? Chintu’s bewilderment must have shown on his face because his father who was watching him intently said by way of explanation: “Didn’t you give a suggestion at the Museum the other day about how to put to better use the old denizens of our loco shed?” 

At long last, a light bulb lit up in Chintu’s dazed minds.

“You mean they liked my idea of a Museum Train going round the country, lugged by Huffs and Chuggs? You mean they won’t be sent to the junk yard?”

“Yes to both your questions,” said the stranger who now had his arm draped over Chintu’s shoulder. “Let me introduce myself, Chintamani. I am the Chief Curator of the Indian Railways Museum here on a very pleasant and personal mission. I had to meet the guy who thought of sending the Railway Museum to the travellers in the remotest part of our country of vast distances rather than waiting for them to visit New Delhi or Mysore or what have you to learn about its century and a half long history. I was especially taken up by your brainwave of hauling Indian Railways’ history around India by a couple of old timers in the loco shed.”

“He means Huffy and Chuggy, beta,” added Chintu’s mom prompted perhaps by his as yet bewildered expression.

“It was evident to me,” continued the Curator, “that only a true loco buddy could have dreamed up this loco scheme. I had to come to shake his hand.”

“And you know the best part, Chintu?” asked his dad in a tone of suppressed excitement.

“No, please,” interrupted the Curator hastily. “Let me have the pleasure of telling him. By the way, did you know that Chintamani means a magical precious stone that can fulfill wishes?”

“It’s also one of Lord Ganesha’s many names,” contributed Chintu’s mom.

“Quite so,” agreed the Curator. “Coming back to the good news, the Indian Railways Museum has decided to roll out at the earliest opportunity the Museum-on-Rails right away. Coming to even better news, everyone linked to the decision-making process has unanimously decided to reward the author of the scheme in a way that will recognize his love for all things connected with the railways, locos not excluded. So as soon as the summer holidays start – in fact, on the evening of the last day of school − the Museum-on-Rails will chug out of the shunting yard on its way to its first stop. And, guess who will be the passengers in the specially attached coach?”

Chintu scratched his head and then shook it.

“Give up already? Never mind. I’ll tell you.”

“As you know, Chintamani, your dad is the superintendent of the shunting yard and, of course, the loco shed. He is one of the best in the business. What he doesn’t know about keeping the hard-working locos – including and especially the old timers − in shape is not worth knowing. He has to cope with unreliable supplies of spares and make do with recycled stuff. We think we cannot find a better guarantor of the rail-worthiness of the Museum-on-Rail than him. So, he will be in charge of the show. Your mom and you will keep him company. But, hey! I have earmarked the two of you for special duties throughout the journey. The two of you will be the official chroniclers for Museum-on-Rails. You will write a blog every day, go on Twitter to mark every notable event, post to Facebook and Pinterest, report to me every day on email. By the way, this is not an honorary assignment. That is what I was telling your mom when you came in.”

Chintu was busy preparing for his annual examination while Huffy and Chuggy were being overhauled and groomed for the real long haul to come – in a securely cordoned-off corner of the loco shed. The driver’s cabins got new upholstery. Their bodies were buffed to a sparkle. Every afternoon, Chintu and his mom visited them when nobody was around, made notes about the progress and took pictures to post on the blog, Facebook and Pinterest. Work also went on apace inside the coaches to arrange the pictorial depiction of historical landmarks – the exhibits, in other words.

Come D (for departure) Day, the Museum-on-Rails was flagged off by the Curator with Huffy proudly puffing away in the lead and Chuggy happily bringing up the rear with an occasional Toot! Or, maybe two, at times. Chintu rode with his mom and dad and Moti in the last bogie, the one to which Chuggy was hitched.

And when he saw Danny and Speedy enviously watching the Museum-on-Rail chugging out of the shunt yard, he had to make a special effort to stop himself from sticking out his tongue.

That, boys and girls, was quite an effort.

His consolation was Moti woofing away to glory at the envious pair. For once, his usually well-behaved master didn’t tell Moti to mind his manners.

And that, boys and girls, did not take much of an effort.

© Deepak Mankar 1974, 2014.

Afterthoughts.

The story you just read is obviously not for The Cloud and the Kite readers’ age group but for the pre- and early-teen crowd.

The latter half of The Cloud and the Kite is based loosely somewhat along the lines of the simple-minded logic of the following nursery rhyme:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

(The earlier part works on the equally simple-minded logic of “if not this then that”.)

The story of Chintu comes up with a loco idea has a logic all its own. When I wrote it, I eschewed what I think of as the classic Reader’s Digest approach to writing: pre-digested and condensed, no “big” words (“plain, common, short words” of “Anglo-Saxon origin” with greater emotional punch), minimum use of adjectives and adverbs, short sentences, enhanced readability, treatment of a subject in outline (no details please, we’re pressed for time, remember?). I’m referring to Reader’s Digest of the DeWitt and Lila Wallace (1889 - 1981) vintage, of course, when every article reportedly got 20 to 30 hours of editorial attention. http://bit.ly/1tBjDND The present-day incarnation of Reader’s Digest is a very pale shadow of its erstwhile self.

I have a running debate with Ujwal about emulating the writing style of Reader’s Digest of the DeWitt Wallace era when I am writing fiction. My understanding is the Reader’s Digest style is okay for Reader’s Digest. They want to make reading effortless and painless. It is also okay for writing print ads and direct mail. But, mind you, it is one-way writing: Reader’s Digest −→ reader. The onus of reaching the reader is always on Reader’s Digest. There is nothing left for the reader to do.

I want my reader to be someone who will make an effort to read what I write. He must enjoy reading and want to graduate to even better class of books. Every time he reaches for what I have written (other than advertising, of course), there must be a tacit understanding between us that the onus is shared between me and him. If he doesn’t know a word or two that happens to be in the text, I want him to look it up. In short, what I am looking for is an alert, interactive reader who reads on his own steam rather than likes to be spoon-fed Reader’s Digest style. Readers from the pre- and early-teen crowd are probably the ideal target for what I have in mind, I guess.

And, much as I admire Groucho Marx, I cannot emulate his example in this particular case, shrug my shoulders and walk away after declaiming:


“Those are my principles, and if you don't like them

... well, I have others.”