Wednesday, 25 December 2013

National Railway Museum

The railways were first introduced in the Indian subcontinent from Bombay to Thane, a modest 34 km journey. In 1951, the railway system was nationalised as one unit, known today as the Indian Railways, becoming one of the world's largest networks. Today, Indian Railways is the world's ninth largest commercial or utility employers, by number of employees. Hence, it would not be wrong to say that India has had a rich railway heritage. 

The static exhibition of railway relics began in the late nineteenth century when items from the early days of the railways were put aside, rather than being discarded or sold as scrap. To such men goes the credit for the preservation of early railway history. The first museum devoted purely to the railways is said to be that of Hamar, in Norway as it was set up in 1896. John Westwood in his book Railway Preservation writes, "One of the world's most beautifully situated museums. Its collections include documents, pictures, track and signals, passenger cars and locomotives. Especially, the locomotives, like many similar museum, include early British models, demonstrating the leading role in Britain in early railway technology."

India's first transport museum, the National Railway Museum in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi is home to some of India's finest and rarest locomotives. Situated behind the embassy of Bhutan in New Delhi, the museum is spread over 11 acres of land. The idea of the railway museum in India was initially conceived in 1962 though the idea was accepted only in 1970 and was formally inaugurated in 1977. The museum, being the first of its kind in India, is located both indoors and outdoors. The administrative wings and other departments are located in an elegantly designed octagonal building. 

Early rakes of the Neral-Matheran Railway
WDM-2: The first diesel engine of ALCO
The outdoor exhibits are true crowd-pullers and has plenty of open space. The open spaces display various real-life exhibits with lines of different gauges and specimens of railway engines such as WDM-2 18040, the first diesel engine built byAmerican Locomotive Company (ALCo) and the earliest rakes of the Neral--Matheran Light Railway. 

The Fairy Queen: The oldest surviving steam engine
The yard houses several vintage locomotives, carriages, complete royal armoured trains and various other exhibits, the most notable being The Fairy Queen. The Fairy Queen is the world's oldest surviving steam engine which was originally purchased by the East India Railways (EIR) in 1855.  In one corner, stands the rake of the Palace on Wheels, India's first premier luxury train. 

Each locomotive is kept in a good condition, having been restored and maintained on a regular basis. The locomotives have dedicated plaques which give tourists a brief synopsis about the history of each engine and the respective carriages. While some engines are placed in sheds, most are in the open. A prominent feature of the railway museum is the turntable. A turntable is used primarily to change the direction of the train and switch it to a different track, which in this case, happens to be part of the museum's mini railway network.

The indoor sections of the museum has some magnificent live exhibits also including a museum section which houses models of railway engines and coaches. It also has write-ups which chart the evolution of India's railway network. There are working as well as still scale models of various railway engines and coaches that have been used by the Indian Railways over the years. Also on display are a number of historic photographs, documents and coats-of-arms. One can also find a number of antique furniture pieces on display along with various instruments that have been used by the Indian Railways in the past in addition to mannequins. 

The Pamban Bridge in Rameswaram
There is the working model of the famous Pamban Bridge near Rameswaram built by the Southern Railway in 1911-1913 to shorten the journey from Tuticorin to Colombo by roughly 12 hours. The bridge has 145 deck type spans of 40 feet girders and two leaf "Scherzer" rolling life bridge. The length of the viaduct in total is 2.15 km. When the "Scherzer" span is lifted, it permits ships to pass. A cyclone in December 1964 resulted in washing off nearly 124 spans of this viaduct. The girders were salvaged from the sea and the bridge was restored to traffic in a record time of two months. 

WDM4: India's first Electro Motive Diesel locomotive
Apart from models, the museum also has a mini toy train network that goes around the museum in a circular format mainly designed to attract kids. It also has some interesting exhibits such as a collection of builder plates of companies that have constructed some of the locomotives which are on display such as the WDM-4 locomotive, India's first EMD locomotive. 

Early rakes of Mumbai Local Trains

Lifeline Express: India's first hospital-on-wheels train

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

ON AIR: The HAL Museum

As India emerges as one of the fastest growing aviation sectors worldwide, the absence of dedicated aviation museums in India are a huge disappointment. India's aviation history goes back to 1932 when J.R.D. Tata, flew an airplane from Karachi to Bombay. Hence, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited's Heritage Centre and Aerospace Museum in Bangalore is a pleasant surprise for an aviation enthusiast. The HAL Heritage Centre and Aerospace Museum is open for the general public and also permits photography at very minimal costs.

The unique museum was formulated by Dr. Krishnadas Nair, the then chairperson of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, one of Asia's largest aerospace companies. It was formally inaugurated on August 30, 2001. Through meticulous descriptions and carefully illustrated exhibits, the museum narrates the tale of India's aviation progress and in particular, maps the growth and progress of HAL. The museum, with its extensive collection of aircrafts and two mock-ups, is one of the largest public aviation museums in India.

Devon Aircraft 
Hansa designed by NAL
The museum's biggest attraction is its aircraft collection which is exhibited outdoors. Aircraft designed, developed and built by HAL as well as those produced under a licensing pattern for the Indian Air Force are on display. Each aircraft has its own a display zone which is cordoned off by chains with a plaque giving details of the aircraft. A few prominent planes displayed here are the transport plane Devon, the small plane Hansa developed by the National Aerospace Laboratories, a mock-up of the Light Combat Aircraft and HAL's trainer aircraft Pushpak and Kiran, both of which are still used by amateur flying clubs and the Indian Air Force. 

A scaled down model of a PSLV
A scaled down model of a GSLV
There are also some exhibits on the Indian aerospace industry, among them being scaled down models of polar satellite launch vehicles (PSLV) and geosynchronous satellite launch vehicles (GSLV). The most interesting space-related exhibit has to be the full-sized model of the nose-cone of the PSLV, the heat shield used to house the satellite and protect it on its journey through the Earth's atmosphere. 

HAL factory site: January 1940
Lord Mountbatten visiting HAL
The museum also chronicles some interesting HAL history. Hall 1 is housed in a circular building which has several rooms and each room depicts milestones in the HAL story over the last 65 years. Other photos include those on the production line of some of HAL's planes and some others of famous visitors to HAL, including Lord Mountbatten, India's last viceroy.

HAL ATC Tower and Tarmac: April 1957
Hall 2 gives visitors an idea about the various technologies involved in aircraft manufacturing and the changes that have taken place over the years. The upper levels of the hall house two rudimentary flight simulators and the popular Air Traffic Control Room. Although there is also some dummy ATC equipment, the real attraction here is the clear view that the ATC has of Bangalore's old airport runway. 

In a country where preservation of aviation history is not on the priority list, this modest attempt by HAL to educate common visitors is commendable. The setting up of the HAL Heritage Centre and Aerospace Museum is a giant step forward in preserving India's aviation history and heritage. This is largely a tribute to the hardworking scientists and machines that have propelled India's rise into the global aviation field making it a force to reckon with. 

P.S.: There is a nominal entry fee of Rs. 20/- for every visitor plus Rs. 25 to be charged for a camera for still photography. A video camera attracts Rs. 45 as the fees. There is a staff of ten to look after the Museum's operations, including a security detail to keep visitors off from touching the exhibits. The Museum houses a small souvenir shop that sells mementos, postcards and posters for reasonable rates.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Book Review: Randamoozham

Book: Randamoozham

Author: M.T. Vasudevan Nair

ISBN: 9788122608311

Pages: 300

The Mahabharata defines the Indian literary sphere. As an introductory statement in the original Sanskrit version states: "The tree of the Bharata (Mahabharata) inexhaustible to mankind as the clouds, shall be a source of livelihood to all distinguished poets." In hindsight, one realises the truth in such a prophetic statement made by Vyasa. While the Mahabharata has had multiple retellings and interpretations in Indian languages, in Malayalam, the Mahabharata finds a perspective in Bhima, the mightiest of the Pandavas. 

Randamoozham begins from the point where Krishna is not such a revered figure but a local king who failed to take revenge on Jarasandha and instead uses Bhima to seek revenge. We have known him as the second Pandava, the mightiest of the five, unequaled in wielding the mace, a fine general in war, a ruthless adversary, a fierce warrior who made every one afraid by his very presence. Here we see Bheema as he is originally-straightforward, slow to comprehend, but brutal in expression of feelings, practical to the core, one who did not have any separate interests or desires, who played the second fiddle to Yudhisthira and Arjuna from the start to the finish, who is unique in his own way.

It takes a reader right from the time of Kunti and the entry of the Pandavas into Hastinapura following King Pandu's death. It breezes through all the major incidents stated in Mahabharata culminating in a stunning climax. The book beautifully captures the pain and tribulations of Bhima and shows Kunti,Draupadi, Drona, Yudhisthira, Krishna, Arjuna, Karna, Duryodhana and all the other major players of this story as mere humans of flesh and blood. 

Every incident stated in Mahabharata as a divine intervention is shown in a new light to the readers. The master wordsmith also describes how the bards make it a point to blow an incident out of proportion. The way in which political and mind games of Mahabharata are played out giving equal importance to all the characters is well worth a mention, as is the way in which he describes the times, architecture and lifestyle of that era.  

Revisionism is not a popular style when it comes to Indian Literature. There have never been many champions who thought ‘what if a certain story of old was not how it actually happened?' and tried to look at the same story from a different perspective. Randamoozham or The Second Turn, therefore, penned by Jnanpith award winner M.T.Vasudevan Nair, one of the living legends of Malayalam literature, has to be held in high esteem. 

This book, which was first published in 1984, won the Vayalar award for the best literary work in Malayalam of the year. Randamoozham stands apart in the way the author has steered away from the mythological setting, and in the masterstroke of casting the characters as mere mortals, a stark contrast from the divine and godly setting portrayed in the epic. The way in which political and mind games of Mahabharata are played out giving equal importance to all the characters is well worth a mention, as is the way in which he describes the times, architecture and lifestyle of that era. The work was hugely successful and well received by the reader despite the controversial and divisive tone of the subject.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Book Review: The Pregnant King

Book: The Pregnant King

Author: Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik

Publisher: Penguin

ISBN: 9780143063476

Pages: 360

Hindu mythology holds many important events and stories which have often been handed down generation after generation as part of society's ways and norms. The story of King Yuvanashva and his unique story is validated in the Harivamsa and some of the Puranas. However, the Vishnu Purana and Bhagavata Purana tell his extraordinary story about him.

The popular and just ruler of Vallabhi, King Yuvanashva, is an obedient son and an equally devoted husband to his wives. However, even the happiest of homes have secret tragedies hidden in their midst. Yuvanashva, a King who is denied his right to sitting on the throne by his own mother because he fails to produce an heir to the throne, even after having three wives. As a result, Shilavati, the king’s mother, refuses to give him permission to join the famous battle of Kurukshetra as the king is unable to sire a worthy heir for his throne despite years of devotion and rituals. 

After years of trying naturally, in sheer desperation, he turns to Yaja and Upajaya, two powerful sages, who create a magical potion that when taken by his queens will impregnate them. This backfires when he accidentally drinks the potion that was meant for his wives and hence, the strange title of the story. Here arises a series of complications; a pregnant king? The whole book then follows Yuvanashva and him fighting his maternal instincts. One of his first dilemmas being what should his son call him, mother or father? Perhaps, the greatest irony of the tale is that the virile King faces his life’s greatest dilemma, when the great upholder of dharma and the epitome of manhood longs to hear his son call him ‘Mother’ just once, before he breathes his last. 

Through the book, we are introduced to Shilavati, who cannot rule as a king because she is a woman, Pruthalashva, who must sire a child because he is a man, a Yaksha named Sthunakarna, who surrenders his manhood so that Shikhandi (a woman) can become a man and a husband, and later reclaims it, and of the great warrior Arjuna with his many wives, who is forced to disguise himself as a woman when a nymph castrates him. And in this journey, we witness King Yuvanashva’s struggle to be just to all, his conflict with himself, and his duty to bring about Dharma in his kingdom.

Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik plays around with the timeline in this book. At 360 pages, it is a rich and complex weaving of tales intersecting both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and its characters. The Pregnant King takes its readers through a journey of realism and contemporary ideologies that seem to haunt mankind not just today, but also in a world built around 2000 years ago. The book very aptly points out how thin a line there is between the male and the female powers. The issue of sexuality and gender occupies a large part of our discourse in this day and age when people tend to forget that we ourselves have mythologies and hence come from a culture that was tolerant, but yet very private. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Book Review: Mahabharata

Publisher: Penguin

Author: R.K. Narayan

Pages: 208

ISBN: 9780141185002 

The Mahabharata is some 3500 years old and is the longest epic poem in existence. As one of the founding epics of Indian culture, it is also a highly dramatic and enthralling story. Growing from an oral tradition of ballads based on historic events in India, the Mahabharata was passed down and extended through the centuries, thus becoming the longest poem ever written. One of the many narratives about the Mahabharata is by R.K. Narayan. His version provides a superb rendition in an abbreviated and elegant retelling of the greatest epic. 

The Mahabharata is Hinduism's great epic story. It may be the oldest written story in the world, and certainly the longest. It tells the tale of kings and queens, gods and demons. It goes off on tangents lasting hundreds of pages, yet always comes back to the one main story, the story of the Kauravas and the Pandavas, the two great warrior clans, and the men and women whose lives are entangled in the fight between good and evil.  

Contemporary readers have a much more accessible entry point to the fascinating world of the epic through R.K. Narayan's masterful translation in English from the original in Sanskrit and abridgment of the poem. This version has a concise character and place guide and a family tree that illustrates that this version is predominantly meant for a new generation of readers. As American Indologist Wendy Doniger in her foreword for the book explains, "Narayan makes this treasury of Indian folklore and mythology readily accessible to the general reader. He tells the stories so well because they're all his stories." Thus, it gives a feeling that R.K. Narayan, like any other child in India, grew up hearing stories from the Mahabharata, internalising their mythology which gives him an innate ability to choose the right passages and place their best as translations. 

In this elegant translation, R.K. Narayan ably distills a tale that is both traditional and constantly changing. He draws from both scholarly analysis and creative interpretation by vividly blending the spiritual and secular. The often violent narrative of the Mahabharata also encompasses philosophy, history and cosmology and also contains The Bhagavad Gita, the masterly spiritual discussion between Krishna and the Pandava prince Arjuna, which forms the cornerstone of Hinduism.

While this version completely skips The Bhagavad Gita, R.K. Narayan's Mahabharata is an easy and pleasant introduction to an immensely diverse and complicated work. The language of his translation is clear and direct and he manages to capture the spirit of the narrative. His brilliant shortened prose interpretation of the monumental, cosmic drama that the Mahabharata is known for, happens to be one of R.K. Narayan's finest achievements in a manner that brings all the excitement and depth of this great Indian epic called the Mahabharata to life. 

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Book Review: Vishnu Sahasranamam

Publisher: Central Chinmaya Mission Trust

Author: Swami Chinmayananda 

Pages: 266

ISBN: 9788175972452 

Every human being has some inner conception of God, which is formed or fuelled by selective interpretations depending on the environment, experiences and temperament an individual is associated with. The Vishnu Sahasranamam, is a stotra containing the 1000 names of Lord Vishnu. During the interaction between Yudhisthira and Bheeshma after the Mahabharata war, the Vishnu Sahasranamam was revealed by Bheeshma Pitamaha in the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata as he awaits his death on the bed of arrows. 

The Vishnu Sahasranamam summarises in 1000 names all the attributes and deduced facts about God. Students and scholars of Indian philosophy often start with the Vishnu Sahasranamam along with an incisive commentary of Adi Sankaracharya which enables a person to understand the concept of God in Hinduism in one go.

Broadly speaking, the Upanishads form the core principles of Vedanta, a branch of Indian philosophy that explains the Vedas. The Bhagavad Gita summarises the teachings of various Upanishads while the Vishnu Sahasranamam summarises what The Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads and Puranas and other ancient texts say about God. In other words, the Vishnu Sahasranamam acts as a shortcut to illumination. 

There is a deep connection between the name and the named. The 1000 names of Lord Vishnu invoke a deep sense of bonding with the Lord. The commentary with word meanings point out the essence and the goal. Swami Chinmayananda's version of the Vishnu Sahasranamam, draws from Adi Sankaracharya's commentary. The commentary gives us a reference behind each name that can be found in all the other sacred texts. It is together a gripping work with each explanation shining like a 1000 watt torch in a deep dark cave. In other words, it is like a mini-treatise on Advaita philosophy. 

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Book Review: The Bhagavad Gita

The Holy Geeta
Publisher: Central Chinmaya Mission Trust

ISBN: 9788175970748

Author: Swami Chinmayananda

Pages: 1273

The Bhagavad Gita is the core text of Hinduism. In its entire flow, the Bhagavad Gita is fairly simple and straightforward. It opens with the Pandava prince Arjuna preparing to lead his troops into battle and develops cold feet upon seeing mnay of his family members in the opposition ranks. He feels it is a sin to kill so many great men such as his teacher, his grandfather who are part of the opposition. 

Despite Arjuna preparing for the war, haunted by the guilt of killing his relatives, he drops his bow and succumbs to the situation by proposing escapist tendencies. Krishna, the charioteer of the Pandava prince understands his plight and for motivating him, begins the long discourse called "The Bhagavad Gita" and tells him about the reality of Yoga, soul, meditation, life, death and reincarnation. While we would be tempted to perceive the narrator of the Gita as the blue-eyed boy from Vrindavan, it is important and advised that we try to look beyond the physical form of Krishna. 

The book is divided into 18 chapters in 700 shlokas Each teaching touches upon a topic designed to facilitate understanding. Krishna is presented as a patient and well-meaning teacher, who lists the advantages and disadvantages of following his counsel. The poetic narrative is sometimes very cryptic; a familiarity with sacred aspects of Hinduism clarifies some concepts. The book is a concoction of mythology and sagacity; and the reader is well served by a reflective reading pace. Many of the proverbial verses are as challenging as riddles. 

The narrative proposes the means by which perfect peace can be attained; and throughout the book, there are guidelines intended to initiate the process of equanimity. There is a meditative aura about The Bhagavad-Gita. The steps required to reach inner bliss are sometimes vague, and sometimes quite obvious. I liken the book to a well from which one can heave buckets of wisdom. However, the bygone centuries have not tainted the book's messages. The text invites a reader to reassess his or her concept of self. The impulse to understand, self, others, and the world in which we life, is readily encouraged. Also, throughout the book, knowledge is a key to comprehending the essence of being.

The Bhagavad Gita is a revered Hindu scripture that forms a part of the Indian epic of The Mahabharata. It presents a dialogue between the Pandava prince Arjuna and his charioteer and guide, Lord Krishna. The duo’s conversation on a variety of philosophical topics has long been considered to be a lifestyle guide, according to the principles of Vedanta. However, with the passage of time and changing moral values, the essence of the Gita has been diluted, misinterpreted, and often lost in a sea of confusion.

Through this book, Swami Chinmayananda seeks to reacquaint the readers with this invaluable guide for living. He presents the glory of the universe and its vision of an omniscient, omnipotent God. He explores numerous concepts such as the beauty of the spirit, the science of spiritual growth, disillusionment, and moral and spiritual decay.

The book discusses how the delusion and dominance of the ego clouds the true self, giving rise to mental confusion and a distinct lack of inner peace. It shows how the readers can apply the principles of the Gita to their daily lives and enrich them with love, laughter, spiritual beauty, and a closeness to the divine.

Originally published in 1976 by Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, the book has undergone various reprints. Through The Holy Geeta, Swami Chinmayananda seeks to reintroduce readers to the essence of the Bhagavad Gita, helping them integrate its valuable lessons into their ultra-modern lives.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Book Review: Mrityunjaya

Book: Mrityunjaya

Author: Shivaji Sawant

Pages: 628

ISBN: 7421-0105

It is often said that the books of our childhood offer a vivid door to our own pasts, and not necessarily for the stories we read there, but for the memories of where we were and who we were when we were reading them; to remember a book is to remember the child who read that book. The timelessness of the epic is witnessed as we continue to name our children after various characters in the Mahabharata. The brave feats of the epic’s warriors still continue to shape our dreams and inspire our films.

The Marathi novel "Mrityunjaya" is a classic novel written by Shivaji Sawant on the life of Karna, the greatest tragic hero in Indian history. Despite being dedicated to the life and times of the benign hero, it highlights significant characters from the Mahabharata and also a socio-political frame of the time. To begin with, Karna is the eldest son of the Pandava queen Kunti and Surya, the sun God. Due to Kunti's fear of being scorned, she abandoned him in a box. He was found and brought up by Adhiratha, a coachman from Hastinapura and his wife Radha. 

Mrityunjaya was written as a semi-autobiographical take on Karna’s life. The book is written from the point of view of six characters: Karna opens and takes us closer to the end of his story, interspersed with chapters by Kunti (his mother), Duryodhana (his best friend), Vrishali (his wife), Shon (his younger foster brother) and a grand ending by the Lord, Krishna. Apart from indulging the semi-autobiography of a fictional figure, the writer Shivaji Sawant touches on one of the biggest realities of human society, one that has not changed since time immemorial. He reminds us of how we, as a society, place an abnormal amount of emphasis on someone's background to form an opinion of them, irrespective of their actual behaviour or worth. 

The search for meaning of being is a man's eternal quest and that entirely forms the basis of Mrityunjaya. The book is an outstanding instance of a literary masterpiece in which Shivaji Sawant explores the meaning of life through the persona of the prince from the Mahabharata. It is a remarkable exploration of the human psyche. In Mrityunjaya, Karna is given a three-dimensional personality, something which the original Mahabharata does not provide. The writer also takes a few liberties with the original, but the changes he makes are only to make the story more realistic. The characters of Vrishali and Shon for example, are given such appropriate voices, that you are left wondering whether Sawant had the fortune of stumbling upon some long lost letters written by them.

My only complaints with this book were a few intermittent yet inexplicable errors, such as the turning of the Kuru dynasty into a solar one, which I presume is to reinforce Karna's fascination with the throne of the Hastinapura and also partly because as the son of the Sun when the Mahabharata describes the Kuru dynasty as a lunar dynasty. He has also referred to Krishna constantly as the king though this is not how it is narrated in the Itihasa-purana tradition. If you are into mythology, Mrityunjaya will certainly interest you. As a psychological insight into Karna's life, the metaphors in the book are very apt and the conversations between different characters are thought-provoking. Even if your introduction to Karna is through the Mahabharata alone, you cannot help but feel empathy for the eldest son of Kunti. In fact, Mrityunjaya only deepens it. 

Summing up, Mrityunjaya is one of the most eloquently narrated books and is most certainly a book worth adding to one's reading collection. 

Monday, 21 October 2013

Book Review: Mahabharata

Publisher: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan

Author: Kamala Subramaniam

Pages: 870

ISBN: 9788172764050 

The story of the Mahabharata is an invaluable legacy for both the old and young. Keeping in mind the same, the version by Kamala Subramaniam that begins with the meeting of Ganga and Shantanu. The book moves ahead as it describes their marriage and Ganga drowning seven children until Shantanu asks her the reason for doing so. From there, the story progresses through the lives of Satyavati, Dhritarashtra, Pandu and the Pandava and Kaurava princes. It eventually concludes with the entry of the Pandavas into heaven. 

This version by Kamala Subramaniam published by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan does a marvellous job of translating and abridging the Mahabharata. At 870 pages, the book is an excellent page-turner despite its numerous stories going on tangents. As a writer, she tends to write in short, jerky sentences, using adjectives and adverbs in abundance. She spills the melodrama left, right and centre and is not afraid to overdo it in the emotional sector especially in the character graphs of Satyaki, Bhima and Radheya. Her narrative of the post-war section takes up less than 70 pages. 

Kamala Subramaniam’s Mahabharata 16th Edition was originally published in 1965 and since then it has been reprinted fourteen times because of its popularity. Besides being one of the finest epics, it is a romantic tale consisting of heroic people and some divine characters. It is a complete literature in itself and provides readers with a social philosophy, code of life, speculative perspective on human issues, and philosophy on ethical relations. And most importantly, at the heart of the epic is the Bhagavad Gita. 

The story of the Mahabharata is an invaluable legacy for both old and young. And keeping in mind the same, Kamala Subramaniam provides a vivid narrative in this book and retells the famous story of the Pandavas and Kauravas in a convincing manner. Though it is an abridged version of the epic, the author has ensured to cover all the important events of the story in this book.

At the very best, this book is a good starting point for adults who are reading the Mahabharata for the first time but a word of caution that ignores the various sub-plots and overlooks many of the supporting characters. However, in lucid English and despite spelling errors, her version gives a very compelling rendition especially in the war sequences. While I felt that most parts of the book were well-covered, there is an unusual sense of sympathy for Radheya especially during the war sequences which I felt takes away the "objective" tone of writing.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Their Words, Our Minds

In media studies, Paul Lazarsfeld gives us the concept of ‘two-step flow theory’ in which he believes: “in a society there co-exist two types of people: opinion leaders and opinion followers.” He explains that to convince the masses, one must convince the leaders. If one compares Lazarsfeld’s theory to columnists and their followers, we see that columnists act as opinion leaders who have the power to shape public opinion through their words. The aspect and dimensions that a columnist persuades his or her readers to see determine which way popular opinion moves. They can reinforce or re-form popular attitudes.
Modern psychology states that the human mind responds positively to stimuli that are favourable to him/her and the adverse is usually ignored or rejected. The smart and powerful know this pattern of behaviour of society too well and use mass communication to serve themselves or their causes. Typically, most people consume information that reinforces their viewpoints. It is less frequent and more difficult for writers and columnists to transform or completely alter this tendency. This can be borne out by the kind of praise or abuse heaped on an article that commits itself to a particular point of view.  The more extreme a point of view the more extreme the feedback. Often comments and feedback criticize a piece for it’s “bias” or lack of objectivity. But is that at all a fair expectation?
“In my view, editors who say they are neutral and objective start from a position of bias. Columnists are expected to take a position and argue their case with robust knowledge and that the evidence can be independently verified. It is the job of columnists to influence public opinion through their arguments. It is for the masses to decide whether or not a case is well made. This explains why some columns are eagerly awaited while some are ignored. To cite an example, The Economist comes to mind. I do not agree with a lot of what they say, but I read the magazine for the way they state their opinion and make a case for it,” says journalist Chitra Subramaniam Duella.
The difference between persuasion and manipulation is thin and it is a topic that can polarise readers. “Why would someone write if not to let people know what s/he thinks? Why would you want people to know what you think as a writer if you do not want them to think and persuade them into thinking like you? If that is manipulation, sure it is. There is no line between persuasion and manipulation. I don’t wish to persuade anyone. I wish to manipulate them. I want a monocultural world wherein everyone thinks like me. Fortunately, for me, as much for anyone else, this is impossible because you can only manipulate someone who wants to be manipulated. Else, you can try to persuade them. So, the line isn’t in the head of the writer but in the head of the reader,” says journalist and author Jerry Pinto.
Individuals in any society make up their own minds on issues but are influenced by those who society itself elevates to opinion leaders, if not through columns in print, as permanent panelists on TV. However the latter are often created by geography or proximity to journalists and anchors.
“A columnist is not someone who conveys news.  S/he has views, though I accept that sometimes, the difference between news and views can get blurred.  No one is truly objective.  Even if a person claims to be objective, he/she has subjective biases and those creep in.  Let’s not pretend there are no biases.  Columnists take themselves too seriously and exaggerate their own importance.  But yes, columnists can influence public opinion.  I am not sure how to respond to “persuaders” versus “manipulators”.  Every columnist is attempting to “persuade” readers.  That’s the reason for writing columns.  I guess “manipulator” means when there is more to it than that, when that persuasion is driven by some ulterior motive, even pecuniary.  Most columnists I know wouldn’t do that.  But I am sure it happens,” says economist and writer Bibek Debroy.
“I think influencing tends to happen on a subconscious level. A columnist’s facts are assumed to be vast and their research is regarded highly by their reader base. At the end of the day, they are as human as we are and have their own biases. A responsible columnist would indicate his opinion and refrain from using judgmental words. The columnists I follow closely are Bibek Debroy and Arun Shourie who take a lot of care in separating fact from assumption in their opinions. In such cases, readers are enabled with more data to form their judgments. However, there are also columnists who start with controversial titles and knowingly or unknowingly blur the difference between facts and biases by forcing their opinions on the subconscious mind of the reader,” says business analyst Saiswaroopa Iyer.
“Columnists are entitled to their opinions as individuals. I’d call certain columnists as manipulators for the utter disdain with which they report on certain personalities. At the same time, a column must be realistic. Hence, I like reading “Loose Canon” by Manas Chakravarty (in Hindustan Times) which uses humour to comment about happenings of the society. Yes, I do agree that columns do tend to influence our opinion in a way that objectivity takes a backseat but at the end of the day, it is the style of writing and the name of a columnist that matters,” feels journalism student and reader Sharada Kishore.
“The most effective columnists do influence public opinion. Manipulation as a word has negative connotations. But if one wants to use the word ‘manipulation’, stripped of any value judgment, it’s exactly what columnists do. As they should. That is what news reports very often do as well. There is no such thing as perfect objectivity. The moment you pick one story to report and not the other, objectivity has ended. The attempt can be and should be to fairness, that in the story picked, all viewpoints are presented fairly. But that does not mean there is no bias.
There are two basic differences in a news report and a column. One is the obvious nature of content. A report is a first hand account by a reporter presenting facts as he or she finds them while columns mostly are opinions on an issue presented by the writer having drawn conclusions based on reports (by others) and/or personal experiences.  The second is in terms of “bias”. In a column the bias most often is overt and stated (implicit or explicit) and in a news report it is not. That’s not to say all bias is motivated from some personal benefit or corrupt practice. A bias can be an internalised prejudice on account of class, religion, caste, personal experience, family, friends’ circle exposure, etc. In presenting such a piece of writing, the columnist is trying to convince a reader to look at the issue from his or her point of view. So yes, it is manipulation. Although since any information we consume alters how we look at things everything is manipulation in the bigger picture. Some is more fair and fact based than others. That’s the only difference,” says Managing Editor of Newslaundry, Abhinandan Sekhri.
Everyone has the power to manipulate or influence, if words, speech or images have that power. Those with a larger space in media have more of it. While reading a column if one can compensate for its leanings and biases and still find value in what is expressed, the exercise is more complete.

This article was originally written and published on the media-watch website Newslaundry. If you wish to add the article in its original avatar, you can read it here

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The 9:14 Local

June 26, 2010. I was resuming work after a year. I had not noticed her on the first day, nor on the second, or the third and for quite some time in the 9:14 Vashi local to Mumbai CST. I noticed her a week later. She sat opposite me by the window and snoozed while keeping her copy of Midnight's Children on her lap. The journey to Mumbai CST is nearly 35 minutes long and it always feels nice when a familiar face travels along. 

The First Class compartment was jam-packed and I had not landed a seat as usual. I stood sandwiched between a man and a young girl. Travelling since 1999 had made me a veteran and a self-proclaimed expert in commuting. I was quite used to being crushed by other passengers, just as every Mumbaikar who has ever travelled by a local train is. The train now halted at Tilaknagar where three ladies and a young boy in tattered clothes got in. The boy had a lot of confidence despite most of the commuters passing cringed looks. He moved around the compartment from one person to another with a begging bowl with flair. On humanitarian grounds, I handed him a Rs. 5 coin and then ignored him. He accepted it and walked ahead.

A loud cry from a woman standing near the door shattered the silence in the compartment. "Oh My God, my bracelet! Where has it gone?" She came across as a rich lady who was more of a trophy wife to her husband. After recovering from the initial shock, most of the commuters fanned out in helping her look for it. She continued wailing and moaning that humanity and good faith do not exist anymore. She cursed her fate and the world for her loss. Just then, her eyes fell on the beggar kid. Looking at him piercingly, she walked towards him and accused him of stealing her bracelet.

"You must have stolen it while begging with your filthy hands! I have been travelling for the past 15 years, so don't think I wouldn't know your tricks," said the lady. Catching him by his collar, "Did you not? Oh, don't give me that innocent expression on your face.. I know your kinds! Come on, give it back to me," yelled the lady. The kid by now had started crying and tried mumbling at the same time, "No madam, I did not.. I was only begging."

Unmoved, she continued shouting at him and tried garnering support from other commuters. A few ladies in the compartment joined her in the exercise of coercing him to blurt out the truth. Some pretended to look for the bracelet. The train halted at the next station and he somehow managed to wriggle himself out of the lady's tight grip. She was dumbfounded. However, the choicest of colourful words followed soon, audible, even above the announcements repeatedly played on the station platform. Her co-passengers busied themselves in consoling her and persuading her to lodge a complaint with the police. "Yes, where will he run away? I am going to lodge a complaint. They'll catch him and get my gold bracelet back to me," she resolved.

My station Wadala had arrived. It was time for me to get off. After having crossed the foot over bridge to board an Andheri bound train, I opened my fist to stare down at the newly polished and shiny gold bracelet. "This should help me fetch the remaining amount needed for my mother's operation," I thought to myself. 

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Cochin Harbour Terminus

The Line Stops Here: Cochin Harbour Terminus
A chilling silence welcomes you as one negotiates through a deserted parking lot. Stepping in to an old structure such as the Cochin Harbour Terminus conjures up visions of a bygone era when the world had a greater sense of gratitude for time and place. The only sound one gets to hear most often in this building are the echoes of one's footsteps. Memories of another day, when this structure once represented the lifeline and spirit of Cochin flood one's mind. True, structurally the Cochin Harbour Terminus is not an architectural wonder but one cannot help notice the sense of loss, remorse and guilt that engulfs someone each time one passes by this dilapidated building, which today is just a shadow of its former glory.
The facade and entrance of Cochin Harbour Terminus 

The exact date about the inception of the station is not known due to non-availability of records. However, memories estimate it to be around 1940s when the Cochin Harbour Terminus was a station under the Olavakode (present day Palakkad division) of the erstwhile Southern India Railways (present day Southern Railways). Yet in more ways than one, the terminus narrates the tale of a time when railway stations were perceived as ideal spots to begin and come home to, after long journeys, travels, jaunts and expeditions.

Since inception, this railway station flourished rapidly thus becoming the nucleus of Cochin despite being on a man-made Wellington Island, a few kilometres away from the main city of Ernakulam. Its strategic location of being placed next to a harbour and the erstwhile Cochin airport (present day Indian Airforce base) made it a strong revenue-pulling base with tea, coffee, coir, cotton and other export consignments to be despatched to distant locations came by in wagons attached to trains that terminated at the station. 

In its days, Cochin had a unique distinction of being the only place in India that had a harbour, railway station and an airport within walking distance located in a one kilometre radius. The popularity of this station was so high that a separate coal berth had to be built next to the wharf to cater to the constant demand of the terminus for fuel. This coal berth has now been divided though the line is still used to carry diesel oil for ships. The booming of ships, the puffing of steam engines and the drone of the flights blended perfectly to make Wellington Island a nerve centre in the truest sense with pulsating activity. The presence of the harbour, the airport, the naval base enhanced its status.

The present condition of Cochin Harbour Terminus
Though neat and well-swept, the station today wears a deserted look with lack of commuters and a British clock that no longer displaying the time. The railway lines, trip sheds and coach repair sheds have fallen prey to overgrown weeds due to want of traffic. Local residents and commuters voice a collective fear that the station is consumed with poisonous snakes, scorpions lurk in the bushes. Despite this, in more ways than one, the old world charm of Cochin Harbour Terminus remains an integral part of Wellington Island as it continues to paint a picture of a not-so-distant past. 

The world has seen many strange and unexpected happenings in the past in the name of economic growth. However, the four letter word "hope" is around which the world lives and hope lies eternal in the human heart. Here is hoping that the original glory of the Cochin Harbour Terminus is restored and we may see a resurgence of passenger traffic with a train chugging out of the station and see a rise in container traffic. Till then, one can only imagine the sight of having a train, flight and ship running together at the same time. 
Honey, I blew up the tracks!

The last train that made it to the station in 2004

Abandoned signalling systems at the Cochin Harbour Terminus 

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

St. Andrews Church

Walk and you shall find,

Listen and you shall now..

Armed with these two commandments for successful travel, I went out to Bandra seeking to explore more about the St. Andrew's Church. The walk in itself was pretty much a success (or so I would like to believe) considering it left me with rich legends, anecdotes and visual memories of the Bandra that venture beyond history books. Bandra is a fine place to explore that opens up wonderful opportunities to discerning eyes and keen ears. 

St. Andrews Church in Bandra
There is a solemn beauty in the silence of death and St. Andrew's Church in Bandra reveals this. St. Andrew's Church is one of the oldest surviving churches in the suburb built in 1575 by Jesuit priests and remained the only church in Bandra till 1620. Structurally, the altar of the church extends almost to the roof which carries statues of Sacred Heart, Our Lady and St. Andrew. In addition, there are smaller statues of St. John the Baptist, St. Sebastian. 

The cross with 39 emblems of The Passion of Christ
There are rows of tombstones that have been tiled to the ground from corner to corner. The gravestones point out to the names engraved on them which are suggestive of the pervasive practice of intermarriage between the local Kolis and the Portuguese settlers. While I was extra careful not to step on the graves, a short walk led me to a 17 feet cross that was brought here from the St. Anne seminary (where the present day Bandra bus depot now stands) before it was blown up by the English to prevent it from falling in the hands of the Marathas.  The 17th century cross is one of the oldest and largest stone crosses in Mumbai and has been carved from a single stone. The cross has 39 emblems of The Passion of Christ. 

The statue of St. Andrews at the Church entrance
There is also a small round aperture in the centre of the front facade of the Church just above the statue of St. Andrews, which allows the rising sun to shine into the church. As per local records, the St. Andrew's Church withstood a terrible cyclone in 1618 and survived the Maratha invasion of 1739.  

St. Andrew's Church has been featured in The climax of Baaton Baaton Mein was shot here. As the inexorable cycle of life and death continues to play itself out within the church compound, we get back to our daily lives with a renewed commitment to narrate stories of urban legends. 

Saturday, 6 July 2013

A Walk in Bandra

Bandra remains one of the lesser explored but more interesting parts of Mumbai, tempting its visitors with a unique mix of history, architecture, traditional "gaothans", the glitz of the Hindi film industry and also boasting some of the best shopping spots in the city. 

The suburb of Bandra is a fine village comprising around 20 hamlets that were originally known in Marathi as "pakhadis". Bandra consisted of Sherly, Malla, Rajan, Kantwady, Waroda, Ranwar, Boran, Pali and Chuium. The earliest records of Bandra are from the mid 1500's, when the Portuguese gave the Jesuit priests the islands of Bandra, Sion, Wadala and Parel. 

The Portuguese built several churches in Bandra, many of which are still in use today. Bandra remained a village with plantations of rice and vegetables, until it was connected to Mahim by a causeway in 1845. Many bungalows were built here between the years of 1860s and 1870s.  

A traditional house in Ranwar
Today, we explore Ranwar, a century old East Indian village right in the middle of Bandra. Ranwar is one of the original 24 pakhadis (hamlets) that made up Bandra since the earliest documented history in the early 1700s. Surprisingly, Ranwar has managed to retain much of its village character even as the present day "development" has hemmed it on all sides. As journalist and urban planner Jane Jacobs says in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: "Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them" and "new ideas must use old buildings".

Ranwar is a listed heritage precinct that comes under the Bandra Village and is protected under the Heritage regulations of Mumbai. The typical character of the houses in Ranwar display strong a Portuguese influence with architectural elements such as porches, tiled pitched roofs and ornamentation such as balustrades, wooden fretwork panels etc. Among other things, Ranwar also has a tennis court and the Ranwar club is known for its Christmas and New Year Eve dances. 

A house near Veronica Street
A walk in Ranwar led me to Veronica Street. According to Christianity, Veronica was moved with pity when she saw Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha and gave him her veil that he might wipe his forehead. Jesus accepted the offering, held it to his face, and then handed it back to her which later came to be known as the Veil of Veronica. Apparently, when the play about the Passion of Christ was enacted in Ranwar, the lady who happened to play Veronica always hailed from the street hence the road was also named as Veronica Street.  

The next time you are in Bandra, save some time from your busy shopping spree and visit Ranwar, a century old East Indian village in the middle of Bandra. Take a left from Tata Agyari or the next left from Hindu hotel on Hill Road, you reach Waroda Road. If you continue walking, getting a sense of the beautiful Mangalorean tiled houses, you will reach the backyard of Mount Mary's church. A walking tour will leave you amazed to see this side of Bandra that is beyond pubs, coffee shops, parties or even shopping.  

Triple Optics: "There must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street" 

Saturday, 8 June 2013


It was nearing 16:40 pm and the sun's rays were shifting towards the west. I was on platform nine staring at people running to catch the much-desired window seats of the Thane slow and the Asangaon Fast. My attention was diverted due to blaring horns of a diesel engine that was shunting in the rakes of the Mumbai--Pune Deccan Queen Express from the yard. Regular commuters, travelling back to Pune, were waiting below the indicators marking the coaches. 

My ticket read: "Coach D3, Seat: 99" and I occupied my seat. The clamour for seats in this train was always high. Thankfully, I had occupied my seat well in time. In an attempt to drown out the noise, I pretended to sleep which was often rendered futile due to the noise. Announcements were made about the train being ready to depart from platform number nine of Mumbai CST and I noticed the time on my watch 17:10 p.m. sharp. 

As the train slowed down at Thane, I decided to take a short walk in the compartment. Surprisingly, the train today was sparsely with just a few people in every compartment which was unusual considering that the Deccan Queen was the most popular train between Mumbai and Pune. A lady from the same compartment dressed in a red saree had come over to my seat. "Excuse me, if you do not mind, can you please help me with my luggage? I intend to put them on the overhead racks." Smilingly, I replied, "sure" with a happy to help face. "I am travelling alone. My name is Diana and my husband should be waiting for me at Pune station, if you don't mind, you could sit here and chat. It would help me kill my boredom as well." I was hesitant but I didn't mind and sat there. 

Soon, we were talking about films, books, TV serials and psychology. It was getting dark and I had forgotten that the train was sparsely populated. By my estimates, the train was nearing Karjat and I was sweating profusely. "Is everything alright?" She smiled and asked. "Yes, nothing serious," I replied. "I am a huge fan of paranormal activities and horror stories," she said. I smiled weakly and said, "yes, I am also a fan of horror stories." My answer led her to smile wickedly. In a rhythmic voice she asked, "what about ghosts and ghouls?" "Yes, I do believe in them." She laughed wickedly and diverted my attention to the man sitting opposite us and pointing at him, she said, "Him". I looked at him and was stunned.

My heart almost stopped beating. It was a man who was bleeding and had a gun shot on his forehead. "She killed me". I was stunned and terror held me with a vice-like grip even as I was wild with fear. Those death-like eyes, devoid of all emotions stared back at me as I was strickened into silence. His face was frozen in a glassy state of horror. Fresh blood was oozing out from his forehead. I looked for the lady in the red saree who was gone. Spotting her at the door, I patted her gently and she turned back. A ghastly whiteness spread over her face as she just stood there still as a statue, like a monument frozen for eternity. The fear I experienced threatened to assume an identity of its own because it wasn't just in her, it was all around her.

I ran to the neighbouring compartment to ask whether if passengers had heard a gun shot. Some passengers ignored me while some took pity on me and thought I was mad and some knew the story and were sitting nonchalantly. I was screaming in a shrill voice that tore through the noise produced by the train to the point where it began, the sound was filled with terror and fear towards the woman wearing the red saree. It was high and loud sending every experience of the chat with her through my head. Saddened at not being able to get help, I returned back to my seat. My eyes went up to the seat number and I realized it was no longer 99 but 66. There was no dead body of a man and there was no woman... no blood, no knife and no visible signs of a gunshot. Only my bags and my camera and a book. The guard had come over to the inspect the coach.

The guard looked at me and I looked back at him. "I just saw them here! I saw the young woman wearing a red saree..." Breathing heavily, I explained, "She shot a man with a gun... he told me that she killed him." The guard asked, "Gun shot, is it?" "Yes," I replied quickly. "Ah! Gunshot!" The guard heaved a sigh of relief. 

"Was her name Diana?" he asked.

"Yes, it was!" I replied back. "How do you know that? Do you... do you know her?" The guard said slowly, "no". He paused for a minute to regain his composure and then looked at me and said, "Diana Shekhar," he said, "She had dark eyes. She was from Dibrugarh and lived in Solapur. The man whom she shot was her husband. He had committed incest, I think." Stunned, "Was? Had?" I stared back at the guard. "But she... Diana.. She's alive! I just saw her here in D3."

"Oh no," said the guard. "Diana died about thirty years back on a full moon night. After she killed her husband with the gun, she jumped off the train into the river, and died instantly. It was the river outside Pune station, I think." I looked out of the window, into the night. 

My face was white again. "Thirty years ago?" I whispered in shock. "Were she and her husband.. I just saw them!" "Yes, that's right," the guard remarked. "You saw them, but they are not alive. They're ghosts. They often travel in the Deccan Queen on full moon nights in September. I know a commuter who saw them last year. I can't stop them from boarding the train." 

The train came to a halt at Pune station. "Diana's story is a famous one. She had inherited a tea garden estate in Assam. She lived in the Defence Colony in Pune. Her husband was an alcoholic and a womanizer. He gambled away to glory and killed his wife. She could not bear the thought and she was extremely angry. She stopped giving him money, and after that... well, you know the story now." "Yes," I said. "Sad, unhappy Diana."

I stayed in Pune for an entire week and it was a quiet week. I took the bus to Mumbai from Swargate. The bus was slow and there was a lot of chaos in the bus, but I was happy. I didn't want to be run over the Deccan Queen Express across to Pune again.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Lady Frere's Shrine

It is often said that the modernization of Bombay began under the regime of Sir Bartle Frere, who as the Governor of Bombay transformed the island city with a natural harbour inhabited by merchants into a splendid and populous city. It is often said that this period of Bartle Frere was the most important period for the modernization of the city. One of the few good things that the British did for the city was construct these beautiful public edifices and structures that rendered the city of Mumbai in natural beauty. These buildings which would later contribute to the permanent convenience and a shade of legacy that would encourage tourism in the long run. 

The general architecture in Bombay had been seen as a standing reproach. The beauties and noticeable features were due to the "bounty of nature" and people had hardly done anything to enhance its beauty by constructing stately buildings or erecting statues. While insisting upon the necessity of sculpture Bartle Frere said that sculpture and architecture were inseparably connected and that any large number of buildings of any architectural pretensions, without a great amount of sculptue was a simple impossibility.

Situated within the premises of the Jijamata Udyan in Byculla, the shrine of Lady Frere was erected as a subscription to commemorate the opening of the Victoria Gardens on November 19, 1862. It is a canopy that is indeed for the bust of Lady Frere, by Noble that takes a general form of the circular Greek temples. It is 35 feet in height and has been constructed out of Porebunder stone with six columns which are Corinthian in nature and unruffled. The construction of the shrine commenced under Mr. W. Tracey and was completed under Messrs. Scott and McClelland to whom all the buildings in the Victoria Gardens were entrusted upon the death of the former gentleman. 

The difficulties in attending to the construction of this shrine outnumbered the positive side and the description of this shrine was far greater than it was supposed to be. Therefore, considerable credit has been given to a certain a Mr. Campbell who ensured that this shrine was brought to a successful completion. 

Saturday, 25 May 2013

100 Years of Wisdom

This year 2013 marks the 100 years of Indian cinema. Movies empower audiences with the ability to visualize new scenarios and even new places. Together, we recognize that movies have been an integral part of the social milieu of Indian society. The past 100 years have had its fair share of learning that anyone could take home after watching a movie. As we celebrate 100 years, it would only be fair to say that they have certainly left an indelible mark on the history of celluloid. Here are the some top lessons that Hindi cinema has taught us over the past century:

* Indian airport security is sensitive to the demands of young boys and girls who wish to propose to the girl of their choice at the boarding gate. 

* Guns do not kill people. They just make them drunk, groggy and angrier.

* Reincarnations are essentially clones of the same person born even after their "death" .

* All the thoughts of a person's mind are narrated loudly by an invisible celestial fairy

* Hot girls give their phone numbers and address them to random guys

* Dodging bullets is easier when driving

* 1 billion Indians, yet separated at birth during the Kumbh Mela have a 100% chance of meeting later in life with the basis of a single song that the parents might have taught them in childhood.

* If you are chasing villains in a high speed car chase, the Police will sportingly not intervene or challan you for speeding.