Last evening I drove to Heidelberg. I’d spent the morning alone; Wife had moved to Brussels a couple of days ago, and I guess I wasn’t used to the emptiness yet, having spent the last two months together. The sun came out late afternoon, and the drive along B3 took me through empty meadows and clear views of the nearby hills. I parked at P4 and walked to the riverside. As always, the view was beautiful. I took some pictures from the bridge, and then walked along Hauptstrasse, stepping into every bookstore that came my way, to look at the English sections inside. As I walked the length of the street I found myself immersed in the surroundings: snatches of conversations in German, people dressed elegantly in various styles and shapes, bakeries with a warm glow within, trendy hairdressing saloons, expensive watch showrooms, the corner selling vintage signboards, the painter sketching portraits. At the end of it I felt as if I’d always be in love with this place – its gloss would never fade, it would never stop being interesting.

I couldn’t immediately explain why I felt that way. Perhaps it was because the foreignness of this place would always remain, because it was so different from the world I’d grown up in. The dullness that comes with familiarity had not set in, and I wondered if I’d ever feel so familiar with these surroundings as not to notice them.

Why had I not grown familiar with my surroundings? Since six years I’ve walked the same route to office through the cobble-stoned streets and corn fields and yet, last week as I was walking one morning along the same path observing the landscape partly obscured by mist, I felt that this was a view I had not experienced yet – there was a newness to it that I could attribute only to the weather: everything else was the same. The weather here induces dramatic changes in one’s environment – not just the landscape, but the clothes people wear, the cars they drive, the spring in their step and the hope in their voice – and that is one reason why one cannot easily grow too familiar with the surroundings.


Actvity is another reason. It is a culture that encourages – and rewards – doing things, filling up your day with “life-enhancing” activities. A colleague I had lunch with the other day was telling me about his eleven year old daughter who was learning the piano, taking karate lessons, experimenting with drawing and using her spare time to create Power-point presentations. At work things have been mostly dynamic for me, and what little spare time I get quickly fills up with one activity or another. There is no time to feel bored and no cause to blame familiarity; six years have passed by in a flash.

Language perhaps plays a role as well. Although I can understand a fair amount of German, my expertise has not reached a level where I can understand it all and immerse myself fully into the culture. This keeps things unfamiliar, keeps me curious and puzzled.

Then there’s cross-cultural variety. Across the border people speak a tongue I cannot understand and do things that surprise me now and then; the architecture reveals new elements of aesthetics and engineering; the signs on the road take a while to get used to, and the traffic (in)discipline keeps me guessing; getting vegetarian food – asking for it – remains a challenge.


Even if I were to grow familiar with it all one day, Europe will not lose its charm. This strikes me while watching movies that show Europe in the previous decades, like Steven Spielberg’s Munich: the essence of that Europe of the Sixties and Seventies still remains, and will continue. I am unable to define what is behind that charm, what creates it; perhaps I shall take that topic another day.

Images of India – 3: An ethnographer’s dream

There were three rows of tin-roofed shacks, arranged irregularly but spaced apart. Small outlines of men, women and children were moving about. I stood for a while and watched them carry on their lives; it felt like observing a small society placed in a glass cage – an ethnographer’s dream, perhaps.

I was in the balcony of my sister’s apartment on the eighth floor of a high-rise building in Bangalore. In the distance, large campuses of high-tech companies dominated the view along with grey shapes of hollow structures under construction. Closer still, what initially appeared like empty, barren land revealed short columns of concrete sprouting from the ground. The city’s relentless push for growth was plainly visible.

But I was more interested in the patch of land next to the apartment. Here, one part was occupied by the basti – a colony inhabited by people working in the large building construction projects nearby. It had been setup recently – the tin roofs looked new – and was clearly a temporary arrangement: once the projects completed the shacks would be dismantled and moved elsewhere, next to yet another building under construction.

Yet, people down there seemed to have settled in a manner that gave little indication that their stay was provisional. Wires strung on bamboo poles brought electricity to the homes. A water tank had been constructed nearby, and this open tank served as the colony’s water source. Like animals in a jungle gravitating towards a water hole, people of the colony regularly walked the short distance to the tank.


A little away from the tank, a man sat washing his clothes.


The water from this spot flowed and collected in a stagnant pool a little away.


Near one of the shacks, a barber was at work.


In another open patch children were playing with mud. Next to them, a small girl was washing vessels while two others were writing on a slate.


In between the rows of shacks there was periodic activity. A man squatting on the ground was holding a plate and eating his morning meal, while a woman – probably his wife – sat nearby, tying her hair.


Behind, in another row, a man was hanging clothes on a line spanning the two rows.


Nearby, a lady poured water into an aluminum vessel.


Far away from the colony, at the edge of the empty plot, I saw a man squatting. There was a small pot of water next to him.

I stood there entranced, watching and photographing the people below. The view made me wonder if anyone had studied a small, closely-knit group of people from such a height. An ethnographer usually spends time living in the society she wishes to study, which enables her, through close observation of people and their interactions, to construct a detailed picture of how that society functions. From this height the intention would be different: she could, by looking at the “big picture” and capturing patterns or clusters of behavior, gather aspects that would not be immediately visible from within. For instance, the dynamics around the water tank seemed an interesting candidate for observation: who from which household came to collect water? How often, and at what times? What was the water used for? What would happen if the water supply was drastically reduced – how would the collection and usage behavior change?

If there were meaningful patterns here, they would lead to questions that could be answered by going into the colony and living there – so such observation from a height could serve as a precursor of a detailed study from within.

I had only a day in Bangalore, which left me less than half an hour to observe this microcosm after I discovered it in the morning. My sister couldn’t see the point in my excitement – she was tired of the construction happening all around and wished it would soon end. Perhaps, I thought, someone else in the apartment block had seen the basti and gotten excited enough to jot down the happenings down there. Someone who would discover early enough that she had a passion for anthropology, and would dedicate her first book to “the colony-dwellers who inspired me into the field of study of human cultures.”

Reality in movies: Manufactured or Captured?

Yesterday at the library I found, among the stack of New DVDs, the “Apu Trilogy” collection from Satyajit Ray. I picked up the first one – Pather Panchali – and watched it later in the afternoon. It left a deep impression, and my mind kept going back to the scenes in that courtyard with Durga and Apu, their mother, father, the old lady, the kittens, the dog. It was as if Ray had opened a window into life in that family, for us to see, understand and empathize. Realism on the screen couldn’t be more real. And more poetic.

There is one aspect about movies portraying realism that has intrigued me for a while now: the impact of the movie seems to depend on whether the reality depicted on screen is manufactured – or seems manufactured – or simply captured. Watching Pather Panchali, I rarely got the feeling that people were acting: events unfolded at a natural pace, nothing seemed forced or exaggerated, and the characters – especially the children – seemed like those you encounter in street: ordinary and commonplace (and yet, through the magic of Satyajit Ray, very endearing).

I’ve felt similarly with Abbas Kiarostami‘s movies. Watching Ten, I could not for the life of me imagine that the child in that car complaining and fighting with his mother was acting. The feeling was stronger in A taste of cherry: if you’ve seen it, you would’ve probably asked yourselves if the director shot the whole movie ad hoc, with the driver picking up strangers on the road and filming their interaction through a hidden camera.

The power of such depictions of “captured reality” is immense; it disturbs you, and leaves you with a lasting impression. Which is very different from the impact of a “well-made” movie with healthy doses of “manufactured reality”. One may like such a well-made movie (an example that comes to mind is a movie I watched a couple of weeks back: Sophia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, which dazzled me, in a way), but in the end somewhere deep down you cannot let go of the feeling that all this is made up – manufactured for the benefit of your viewing pleasure. To me, this prevents a good movie from being great.

Kurosawa is another example. The villagers in Seven Samurai appear like real villagers, and their pathos seems real, not manufactured. One cannot say the same about the villagers in Lagaan. Again, the difference between good and great.

I watched Deepa Mehta’s Water some weeks previously. Thinking back, the parallels to Pather Panchali are noticeable, and so are the differences. The relationship between the little girl Chuhiya and the old woman who craves for sweets isn’t dissimilar to the one between Durga and her grand aunt; both movies revolve around a courtyard: one within a house and the other within an ashram. But Water, although delicate and moving, seemed manufactured in places, and the casting of Lisa Ray as a widow was inappropriate (Nandita Das would have fit better into the doleful atmosphere of the widow’s ashram).

How does it work ? What techniques do you apply to make a scene not seem manufactured ? When is it okay for a scene to appear manufactured ?

I need to learn to watch movies better.

The Kingdom of Nek Chand


On Saturday I visited an art exhibition titled Le Royaume de Nek Chand – The Kingdom of Nek Chand.

This Indian, whom I had never heard of until I came upon the museum’s website, has been called the world’s greatest living artist. Intrigued, I began to read the history behind the man and his work.


Nek Chand came to Chandigarh in the nineteen fiftees, around the time Le Corbusier was architecting his initial plans for the city. After his work during the day as a Road Inspector, Nek Chand would ride on his bicycle each evening to a nearby forest area he had cleared, where he would work on building life-size sculptures using stones and refuse material collected from the city: broken crockery, rusty coins, used bottle caps, broken electrical plugs, bangles, bicycle parts and other material the city had discarded was put to use by Nek Chand through construction techniques he had learned while building roads. Thus, working in secrecy in a hidden patch of jungle measuring 2500 square metres, he slowly created what he later called “The Kingdom of Gods and Goddesses” – a garden of his imagination, filled with sculpted figures of men, women, birds and animals blending in harmony with surrounding nature.

Raw_visionNek Chand’s well-hidden secret came out in 1975, when authorities planning to extend the city’s boundaries stumbled upon this treasure in the jungle. The sensational news of the discovery spread quickly through the city. Although built illegally, the government took the stance of nationalizing the area – called “Rock Garden” thenceforth – and appointed Nek Chand its “Creator-Director”. He was allotted some staff to maintain and continue development of the garden, a task Nek Chand could finally devote his full time to. In 1984, the President of India awarded him the Padma Shri for his contribution to art.

Today the Rock Garden attracts around 3000 visitors each day. It is the second most visited site in India next only to the Taj Mahal.

As I read the summary in the exhibition’s press-release, I was amazed and elated. Here was a man who worked on his passion in near isolation for over fifteen years, without a thought on getting his work understood or recognized. And the exhibition of his collection was presently in Lausanne, overlapping with my short trip! I took out my map of Lausanne and located the gallery hosting the exhibition.


Collection de l’Art Brut, the museum for “Art Brut” – Outsider Art – is a large sloped roof cottage that stands in contrast to the straight-lined commercial buildings that surround it.Through the translucent window at the entrance, there emerged outlines of a man in between a pair of ducks – obviously from the Rock Garden. I stepped inside and found myself in a short, wide room with stacks of books on one side and small post-cards on the other. Opposite the bookshelf was the reception desk, where a young, bearded man welcomed visitors with a smile. Is there a guided tour? I enquired. No, he replied, there is no guided tour; you need to find your own inspiration. I smiled at the manner he put it; I had done my homework, and had found sufficient inspiration already.

The size of the collection was a disappointment – there were only a few dozen assorted sculptures arranged in a hall – but it gave a first-hand impression of what I had read earlier. Two aspects struck instantly: the simplicity behind each creation, and the strange effect of symmetry conveyed by the array of similar figures placed in juxtaposition. If a small sample could have this effect, how would the real environment be?

A large screen in a corner was showing a documentary on Nek Chand and his garden. A simple-looking old man directed some workers as they bent some rods into the shape of a head and arms. A group of girls asked him about the inspiration behind his creation. Tourists wandered around, chatting merrily. As I watched these images, there grew a longing to visit India.

Artistic Purpose

Back home, I browsed through the book I purchased before leaving: Nek Chand’s Outsider Art, co-authored by Lucienne Peiry and Philippe Lespinasse. In the first half of the book Lucienne, the director of Collection de l’Art Brut, sketches a biography of Nek Chand, and later delves into the work and its significance. She also compares and contrasts Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh – built on the principle of orthogonality – and Nek Chand’s Rock Garden – espousing the curvilinear. But when she explores the reasons behind Nek Chand’s pursuit, she disappoints.

Early in the book, a quote from Nek Chand explains his view on his artwork:

“I regarded myself neither as an artist nor as a craftsman. I myself was completely insignificant. I had no idea about anything, except for the fact that I was devoting my time to a task I was passionate about. I worked to the limits of my strength. […] It all came from my heart and my imagination. My intention was to build a kingdom for gods and goddesses. It is a gift from God. [This garden] is more than an offering to God.”

Religious inspiration in art is not an Eastern concept, but the nature of the artist to consider oneself insignificant in the larger scheme of things is more common in the East. So it is easy to understand and accept Nek Chand’s ideal of insignificance and his dedication towards God. The religious motive explains, sufficiently, all what the artist set out to create.

But Lucienne is not satisfied with this answer; she needs to place Nek Chand within the framework of Western theory of art. To this end, she invokes Claude Levi-Strauss’s concept of bricolage in his study of pensee sauvage – the Savage Mind.

[Levi Strauss] rejected the idea that bricolage is nothing but instinctual, uncontrolled creativity and regarded it as an artistic method in its own right, as one of the many expressions of the intellect. Nek Chand corresponds closely to the figure of the bricoleur in the sense Levi-Strauss gives the term.

It is Levi-Strauss’s contention that the fundamental characteristic of mythic thought, and likewise of bricolage, is that “it builds up structured sets […] by using remains and debris of events: in French des bribes et des morceaux, in English ‘odds and ends,’ fossilled evidence of the history of an individual or society.

The shards and bottle caps, the fragments of crockery, and the old bicycle handlebars – which Nek Chand uses like “heterogeneous objects of which [a] treasure is composed” – correspond precisely to the “remains of events” to which the anthropologist refers.


Sifting through the garbage dumps and building sites of Chandigarh, Nek Chand recuperated waste products and built rejects as a reaction against the blandishments of consumption, the ownership of goods, and overproduction, in protest (though perhaps without fully being aware of what he was doing) against the onset of consumerism.

Nek Chand was militating against the dominance of the economy, of technocrats, of the profit motive.

Placed next to the image of Nek Chand and his simple intentions, this theory that he was “militating against the dominance of the economy, of technocrats, of the profit motive” seems difficult to digest. The author, unfortunately, does not probe Nek Chand on his reaction to such theories.

This desire to attribute some reason behind every human enterprise brings to mind the scenes from Forrest Gump where Forrest one day breaks out into a run for “no particular reason”:

“That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run. So I ran to the end of the road. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d just run across Greenbow County. And I figured, since I run this far, maybe I’d just run across the great state of Alabama. And that’s what I did. I ran clear across Alabama. For no particular reason I just kept on going. I ran clear to the ocean. And when I got there, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going. When I got to another ocean, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well just turn back, keep right on going.”

On his fourth run across the U.S, a group of reporters surround Forrest with questions about his motive:

“Sir, why are you running? Are you doing this for world peace? Are you doing this for women’s right? Or for the environment? Or for animals? Or for nuclear arms?”

Forrest doesn’t understand it.

“They just couldn’t believe that somebody would do all that running for no particular reason.”

Is it simplicity of mind that makes one do things for no particular reason (or for a simple enough reason like devotion to God)? Must our responses to today’s complex world be necessarily complex, or have complex underpinnings? Why can’t we accept that pure art is possible, that art for art’s sake is not always a reactive stance or a declaration of artistic independence, but can arise out of the simple desire to create?

Critics need a theory; creators don’t. More books will be written on Nek Chand and his art, but what remains in mind is not the analysis but that simple image of a man sitting by his hut in a forest clearing, mixing cement, mortar and odds-and-ends discarded by civilization, creating one after another, year after year, hundreds of figures of men, women, monkeys, ducks, horses, soldiers – giving shape to elements of his imagination like no one else had done before.


Life has changed a lot in the last six weeks since I moved into a new role at work. To be precise, life at work has changed, but work dominates most of life these days, leaving room for little else. Given this, perhaps it isn’t inappropriate to make an exception and write about work.

Organizations are fascinating entities. Most of the time we are too busy, consumed by daily activities, to sit back and think about patterns at work, but if we do so we would find much to think about and wonder at. This change in role has placed me in a context very different from the one I’ve worked in since I started work around seven years ago. In my short stint so far in this new context, some patterns that highlight the contrast between my old and new worlds have emerged.

1) The importance and respect you receive has a lot to do with the perceived value/importance of the group you work in. (If you think it has solely to do with how good you are, think again).

2) Fierce cats at one level, are humble mice at another.

3) The less you know, the more you talk. The more you talk, the more you revolve in the realm of generalities. Apart from being counter-productive, speaking in generalities is plain boring to those listening.

4) The higher you are in the corporate ladder, the more meetings you have. The more meetings you have, the less productive you are (If you think otherwise, you are blessed with colleagues who talk to the point and keep meetings short. Most of us aren’t so lucky). So the ones at the bottom do most of the real work, and get paid the least.

5) Groups within organizations behave a lot like independent entities, trying to further their own interests and to keep themselves strategically positioned. The challenge is to make groups think more often about the organization as a whole than about themselves. (This may seem obvious, but is forgotten – intentionally or otherwise – most of the time).

6) The perceived value of a product among non-users is more important than its actual value seen by the users. The actual value may improve over time (over multiple releases of the product) and be recognized by the users, but the perceived value does not change (for the non-users) unless there is a conscious effort made to change it. And since most decision makers are non-users, this effort is well worth taking.

7) Microsoft PowerPoint is a powerful tool.

8) The ability to articulate your thoughts and convince people is probably the most important skill one needs in an organization that relies on collaborative efforts. My university never taught me this.

9) Work-Life balance is a myth.

As I read through these points again, it appears that they are a reflection of my present state of mind than anything else. And like a reflection you see in water, they are neither right nor wrong – they just are.


We watched Parineeta early in September. The best thing I can say about the movie is that it contains some memorable moments, and delightful songs. Put together, these moments fail to convey the right effect. The problem with its narrative structure becomes clear at the end when we get to know that Girish is married not to Lolita but her sister. We are as surprised as Shekar is shocked – that is the intended effect – and it leaves us feeling a bit cheated, because unlike Shekar we have been following the movements of Girish and Lolita. Hiding from us that piece of information appears like a manipulative trick intended to surprise us at the end. Imagine the power of this revelation at the end had the whole narrative been based from Shekar’s viewpoint. I wonder how the book is structured.

This aspect reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. In it, we are revealed something important the protagonist does not yet know. Why, you wonder. This matter, a subject of many discussions, was briefly mentioned in a recent article by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker: he noted that Hitchcock is a master of suspense, not surprise. The difference is vital, and it seems not to have been grasped by lesser filmmakers.

The lack of narrative unity in Parineeta surfaces at other places too. The camera has no business following the rest of the gang to “Moulin Rouge” while both Shekar and Lolita lie at home. Even if it did, that interlude should have been interspersed with moments capturing Shekar’s anger and Lolita’s frustation – it is their story, isn’t it?

The movie did have a good result, though. It made me dig out my mouth organ (from the bottom of my bed-side drawer) and try out the “Piyu Bole” song, whose tune turned out ideal for the instrument and invited a comment from Wife that I did better than Shekar’s friend in the movie. Much relief.

But what I’ll remember long after I’ve forgotten its failings and misplaced its tunes is the one scene where Lolita becomes Parineeta: the camera, beginning at a low angle below the table – a voyeur’s delight – slowly glides up and settles down next to the two lovers softly caressing each other. With chants of Sanskrit shloka’s in the background lending a touch of divinty, I find myself sinking – as Shekar slides down Lolita’s blouse to reveal her lovely bare shoulders – into an enchanting trance suffused with melody when Wife turns to me and asks: “Her arms – they’re fatter than mine, aren’t they?”

Entering diary mode

A few definitions from Dictionary.com:


  1. A daily record, especially a personal record of events, experiences, and observations; a journal.
  2. A book for use in keeping a personal record, as of experiences.


  1. An account of the personal experiences of an author.
  2. An autobiography. Often used in the plural.


  1. To author an online diary or chronology of thoughts.
  2. An online diary; a personal chronological log of thoughts published on a Web page; also called Weblog,
    Web log
  3. A personal Web site that provides updated headlines and news articles of other sites that are of interest to
    the user, also may include journal entries, commentaries and recommendations compiled by the user; also written web log, Weblog; also called blog.

How appropriate are these definitions, and what have I been writing here?

* * * * *

L has some interesting views on blogs. “We now have more writers than readers”, he said, during a conversation some weeks back. “And most of them do not know how to write.”

This offhand remark made me think again about the nature of blogging.

It is true that there are now many more people who jot down their thoughts, but can we classify most of what we see in blogs as “writing”? To me, most blogs seem like asynchronous conversations, where people write of things they would normally talk about at a social gathering. When you meet someone, you narrate a funny incident, discuss local or world news, show a recent photo you’ve taken, or talk about that trip you recently made – these conversations are now also taking place through blogs, with people writing about their experiences, sharing photos, linking to interesting stuff they’ve found, and so on. To say that there are now more writers than readers is like saying there are more people who speak than listen. Speaking and listening are elements so common to social interaction that few think in terms of people who “know how to speak”; similarly, it is pointless to say that most bloggers do not know how to write, because a lot of them are not “writing” in the literary sense of the word – they are merely sharing their thoughts as they would do when they converse with others. Their imperfections are more visible in this medium because the conversation is all there for you to see and dissect.

Unlike real-world conversations, the conversations over blogs are asynchronous – you post a message and only later someone comments or writes about it. This element of extended time (to write, and to respond) gives such conversations a depth that is usually lacking in real-world conversations. It slows things down and makes people think, and that is what I like about this medium.

* * * *

Conversations are fine, but I want to get into a diary writing mode.

Most blogs I’ve encountered are not diaries. Every now and then a diary-like entry turns up, but they are predominantly conversations: short articles, episodes or news items linking elsewhere.

When I think of a diarist, I think of Inkspill. I think of entries such as this, this and this.

I want to try and write more dairy-like entries. One characteristic of a diary (which differentiates it from other forms of personal accounts) is that it is written without a specific audience in mind. To retain this trait in a blog is difficult due to the constant awareness (brought about mainly by comments) of people reading what you have written. I want to try and keep away from this awareness, so I’m going to turn off comments for a while.

Although a diary is written without an audience in mind, it does not mean it should be unreadable, or be left unread. To keep a diary interesting (while sticking to its private themes) is a challenge worth taking up.


Then and now

In the April edition of the National Geographic magazine, I read a story on the ‘boat graves’ of Aha, an Egyptian ruler of the 1st dynasty.

“Arranged like a fleet moored at a wharf, mud-brick graves hold 5,000-year-old planked boats – the oldest ever found. Awaiting royal command, the vessels were likely meant to transport supplies to the next world and to enable the king to tour his realm in death as he had in life.”

The article explained that these fully functional boats had been used to “travel up and down the Nile in a powerful display of wealth and military might”, and after the ruler’s death they had been brought into the desert, which made “quite a statement of royal power and prestige.”

As I read the article, I was filled with wonder thinking of the length those Egyptians went to bid farewell to their dead Kings. A few hours later I switched on the TV and saw images from the elaborate funeral of the Pope, a funeral reported as “one of the biggest in history”.

How little Man has changed in 5000 years.

Responding to poverty

The morning after I land in Bangalore, I go for a walk in my neighbourhood. My parents live in a residential area in the old part of town, and their apartment faces a small but busy road. Next to the apartment complex is a general-store, and a colourful STD-ISD booth stands out in one corner. Outside the store a man is sitting on a stool with his sewing machine, adding a few stitches to what looks like a salwar while two young girls stand next to him, waiting. When he finishes, one of them gives him a five-rupee note and collects the dress. The tailor pockets the note, shifts his position a little, and looks around to see if the next customer is approaching.

The smallness of that transaction – five rupees – makes me wonder how many such clients he gets each day. Five, on a good day? And how much would he earn each day, on the average? Surely not more than thirty rupees. That makes it around nine hundred a month, if he worked every day. How many mouths did he have to feed? And what if he had a loan on the sewing machine?

I walk further, crossing people on their way to work early morning. Most are from the lower middle-class – the kind who commute using local buses, work in small offices or shops and earn not more than a few thousand rupees a month. The vehicles on the road are mostly bicycles, two-wheelers and auto rickshaws; occasionally, an old Maruti 800 or an Ambassador passes by. There is the sabji-wallah with his assortment of vegetables clinging precariously to baskets tied all around his bicycle; there is the paper-wallah, also on the bicycle with his load of newspapers, who stops at every gate and throws the morning edition over it; there is the doodh-wallah, returning after his morning round of milk-delivery, with large, empty aluminium cans that make a klang each time his bicycle goes over a bump or into a pothole.

The scene brings me back to reality. The image of Bangalore I have been carrying is restricted to IT parks swarming with software engineers who drive in their newly acquired Ford or Honda and who visit, after work or on weekends, the shopping districts and spend their wealth on designer labels and international brands and, through their spending, create the consumer society that generates more wealth for people in different layers of the economic continuum that spans an urban population. This image, as I see it now, is a very limited one. It is not that I expected most of the city to be transformed; a better explanation is that my focus on a small section of the upper middle-class made me forget the others who occupy most of the city. And what I now see in this scene also indicates that change in India is slow, which, among other reasons, is due to the large number of people involved.

The road slopes down a little, and soon I am at an intersection where a few autos stand in line. Across the road, in a small vacant plot of land, there is a tent with a tarpaulin exterior. A little away from the tent I see a woman squatting on the ground stirring a pot balanced on a few thin logs of wood. A trail of smoke lifts from the fire beneath the pot into the woman’s face, and she uses the end of her saree to wipe away her smoke-induced tears while continuing to stir the pot with her other hand. At a corner of the plot, next to a gutter that runs along the road, two small boys in their underwear are cleaning their teeth with fingers. They take turns to spit into the gutter and to rinse their mouth using the glass of water they are sharing. There is no sign of the father; he is either asleep inside the tent, or is away looking for a suitable spot to answer nature’s call.

I stand there for a while looking at this family preparing for yet another day; slowly my thoughts turn philosophical (as they usually do when I’m confronted with images of stark poverty). It seems plainly unfair that someone like me has a life of luxury while others like them receive such a raw deal. I turn this thought over a few times, and finding no immediate resolution, I continue walking.

* * *

Some weeks later I watch Swades. In the movie, a Non-Resident Indian (NRI) visiting India has a similar experience when he encounters the depth of poverty in rural India. He then goes on to empower a village with power-generating capability through a scheme that harnesses electricity from a tiny waterfall. At the end of the movie he is back in India for good, with the intention of helping the poor.

I know I cannot follow the NRI’s footsteps; I console myself that such responses are limited to the celluloid. But my own responses have been unsteady and inconsistent. I remember the night in college many years ago when I read about the reaction of a nineteenth-century tribal who comes to a city and is shocked by the disparity between rich and the poor, between those who move about in elegant horse-driven carriages and those who sit begging. He asks his friend – a city dweller – how people in the city could live like this, without caring for “one of their own kind”. For the tribal his tribe is his family, and he cannot imagine not taking care of one of them. In the city each one is a stranger, isolated from the rest.

I remember that that innocent remark by the tribal had kept me awake for half the night, a night when I repeatedly asked myself how we had let humanity reach a state of such callousness. Something must be done about it, I told myself that night. And then, as life in college wore on, the message of this episode slowly faded into obscurity.

* * *

On one of my last days at Bangalore, I am reminded of a conversation I had with a German colleague some years ago. After looking at some impressive pictures of our Bangalore office, and he asked me how we felt when we went out from such a plush workplace into a city that had so many poor people on the road. I thought for a while and replied that I had never looked at things that way, and perhaps living in such surroundings over a long period had numbed my senses to an extent I no longer noticed them. The surrounding poverty was part of our landscape, integral to it and one that gave it an identity. It needed a foreigner’s eye to notice the contrast, and it was they who pondered over this duality that was common in cities of developing nations.

I am walking in my neighbourhood as I think about this conversation. It is four weeks since I arrived in Bangalore, and when I look around people in the street appear normal: they do not stand out in my line of vision. I have crossed a while ago the intersection where that tent stood, and I do not remember giving it a glance or sparing a few thoughts. It is now yet another memory, like the tribal I had read about long ago.

Alternate Realities

I am thinking of the different worlds we inhabit.

Some weeks ago, when I was ill and spent most of the day in bed reading a book, my world was carved by the writer whose book I dissolved into, and it needed a physical act like having lunch or going out to the balcony to bring me back in touch with the real world.

Then, as I got better and spent more time in front of the computer at home, reading other bloggers and thinking about what they’d written and also writing a bit myself, the attachment to this medium – with all those real people at the other end communicating through their journals – was intense enough to make me believe that I could live comfortably in a closed room with only a computer for companionship.

Last week – a busy one where each day I woke up, went to work, came back late and went straight to bed – I seemed to occupy a different dimension: one with rows of parked cars, long corridors, small rooms and serious faces.

I am thinking of these alternate worlds as I walk through the busy Hauptstrasse in Heidelberg this foggy Saturday morning. It is my first visit to this place after my return from India, and this street – with its glossy shop windows, its old buildings radiating the typical European charm, and the stream of white faces flowing all around – is such a strong contrast to the image of the typical Bangalore street I still have in mind that I feel like a fish that has been picked from the sea and placed into an aquarium.


You enter some worlds fully aware you are doing so; others develop unnoticed, surround you, and leave you breathless when you take notice.

You enter some worlds to escape; others offer no way out – all roads lead back to them, eventually.

You cling to some worlds, never wanting to leave; others cling to you, don’t leave you alone.

You sometimes create a world; others enter it; some others destroy it.

I am thinking of the different worlds we inhabit.