There is No Fate But What We Make: December 2005

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Why does the wind blow?

"You are going to be parents," said the doctor to the blushing couple.

Both Indra and Indrani were ecstatic. The royal couple of heaven had been hoping to have an heir for the kingdom. As the news spread all over heaven, all gods embraced each other in jubiliation. They distributed sweets to each other. The first couple of heaven had never been so happy.

But as weeks passed by, Indrani realized that while she has to suffer from the disfigurement of her body, mood swings and the desire to eat gluttonously, Indra gets to share none of this. "Why is to so unfair?" Angry with Brahma for creating such an unfair world, she decided to perform hard penance to persuade Brahma to change the rules.

"Ah women! This must be one of those mood swings. It too will pass," Narad assured Brahma.
But Indrani, who had a bit of a feminist streak in her, was determined. "I am fighting for all the women of all the worlds," declared Indrani.

The gods of heaven waited with baited breath for the outcome of this duel. Will Indrani give up this penance for the sake of general welfare? Or will Brahma give in?

Weeks passed. Indrani wouldn’t eat anything. "This puts the unborn child at risk", petitioned the gods to Brahma, "please go and talk to her." After a lot of deliberation, Brahma gave in.

"I am pleased with your devotion," Brahma appeared and said to Indrani, "what is it that you seek? I shall grant your wish."
Indrani opened her eyes and asked, "why have you made this world so unfair? Why is that we women have to undergo all the pain ? Can’t men share some part of it?"
"What do you have in mind, my child?" asked Brahma.
"The women carry the child for nine months. Go through all the disfigurement, pain and the mood swings," said Indrani. "But let the father go through the labour pain".
Alarmed at the preposterous idea Brahma tried to persuade Indrani for a different wish. But Indrani insisted. Having already granted a wish, he couldn’t go back on his words. All he could say is "granted!"

Indra was scared at the prospect of being the first man to undergo labour pain. But he loved Indrani so much that he accepted the challenge. "Women have gone through this for millennia. Why can’t men, for a change?" he confided to his council.

Months went by. The D-day arrived. The best doctors and medical attendants of heaven came to handle the event. Indra lied on a large bed expecting labour pain to start any moment. The royal obstetrician advised him about the breathing techniques.
All the other gods and goddesses gathered in a neighbouring hall to participate in this momentous event.

The expected time came and Indrani delivered a healthy baby. She was anxious to find out how Indra handled the pain. She got up and went to Indra’s bed, only to find him still perfectly all right. There was no sign of pain! They looked at each other surprised. As they came out to greet other gods outside, they saw that all the gods were standing around someone making a circle. Curious to find out who he was, they walked towards the centre and found Pawan writhing in pain!

As the realization dawned on Indra, he picked up his weapon and ran towards Pawan. Indrani immediately ran to Brahma get the new scheme of labour pain reversed! Pawan somehow managed to get up and run for his life.

Since then Pawan has been running and running around all the three worlds with Indra chasing him.

That my friends, is the reason why wind blows….

Friday, December 16, 2005

Ode to the one who fell aside

"mera naam chin chin choo…"

While this song is well recognized, the singer isn’t that well known today. In her heyday, Geeta Dutt (nee, Geeta Roy) was a member of the most exalted group of female singers that Indian cinema has produced. This star-studded group enthralled a generation of music lovers, covering a span, starting from the pre-partition days to the 70s. Included in this group are stalwarts like Shamshad Begum, Noor-Jahan, Arti Mukhopadhyay, Runa Laila, Geeta Dutt and Lata Mangeshkar. Geeta’s relationship with Lata was controversial. More on that, later.

Geeta was born in 1930 in Faridpur district in what was then East Bengal. She moved to Bombay as a pre-teen girl and lived with her parents in a modest flat. Once she was noticed by a director, there was no looking back for her. She went from strength to strength producing one hit after another. Take a look at some of her famous numbers:
Tadbeer se Bigdi hui Taqdeer - Baazi (1951)
Aa Jaan-e-wafaa - Anarkali (1953)
Babuji Dheere Chalna - Aar Paar (1954)
Yeh Lo Main Haari Piya - Aar Paar (1954)
Thandi Hawa Kaali Ghata - Mr. and Mrs. 55 (1955)
Jaane Kya Tune Kahi - Pyaasa (1957)
Waqt ne Kiya Kya Haseen Situm - Kaagaz ke Phool (1959)
Na Jao Saiyaan - Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962)

She had a style which some say originated in her earlier practice of Bengali kirtan. S D Burman effectively used her kirtan style in film songs and produced some really memorable songs.

What strikes me the most about her is that she doesn’t "perform" so much. Her voice is so smooth that she seems to sing effortlessly. "mera naam chin chin choo… wah waah" ! Doesn’t her voice seem to just glide through? Compared to that, I find Lata’s voice, though extremely melodious, quite studied and exerted. Comparison and competition with Lata was inevitable since at Geeta’s peak, Lata was still not the unchallengeable queen of melody that she became later. Though eventually relegated to the second spot, Geeta managed to hold her own against Lata for more than a decade and she and Lata were the premier two female playback singers of the 1950s. Many people have accused Lata of manipulating directors into giving her plum songs and mechanizing the eventual destruction of Geeta’s career. Such accusations gained strength since these were corroborated by similar accusations from Runa Laila, Arti etc. It’s difficult to confirm the veracity of these accusations. May be Lata would have triumphed either way. However, if I have to pick one over another, I would pick Geeta.

Geeta’s tragic personal life took toll on not only her career but on her life too. After a brief romance with Guru Dutt, who was then an upcoming director, she got married to him in 1953. Geeta sang some of her best songs in Guru Dutt’s films.

By 1957, her marriage was in trouble, largely due to Guru Dutt’s philandering ways. He had got involved with Waheeda Rahman. The marital breakdown affected her career. Guru Dutt’s restrictions on Geeta prevented her from utilizing the opportunities that came up in S D Burman and O P Nayaar films. Though both of them wanted Geeta to sing in their films but gave up on her and started nurturing Asha Bhosle. Asha eventually took her place and went past her. By then, Geeta had taken to alcohol. Then in 1964, Guru Dutt passed away. Like typical Indian women, her attachment was still so strong that she suffered a nervous breakdown. On top of this, she found herself in a financial mess. Her feeble attempts of a comeback went largely unrewarded and she continued her drinking ways. Finally, her body gave away and she died of liver damage in 1972.

I wonder what more classics we would have been blessed with, if only she had not died at 42. The world missed out on more from a genius.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Ringa Ringa......

Ringa Ringa Roses
Pocket full of Poses
Husha Busha!
We all fall down!

As a parent, I get the immense pleasure of watching my child play with the other children of my apartment complex. I particularly like the "Ringa Ringa" games children play - where they go round and round singing this poem and at the end they all, sort of, fall down on the ground together. Having grown up in mofussil towns, I had never done this as a child. So, it was fascinating when I watched this for the first time. Turns out that this simple poem has a poignant history.

This rhyme has its origins in the time of the great plague attack in Europe in the 17th century. Symptoms of this plague included a ring shaped rosy red rash ("Ringa Ringa Roses"). Sweet smelling poises (placebos, really) were put in pockets ("Pocket full of Poses") to prevent the spread of the disease, since it was believed that the disease was spread through bad smell. The other symptom was constant sneezing ("Husha Busha!"). Since medicines weren't effective against the plague, almost no one survived this disease ("We all fall down!").
Made me sad! Could never enjoy this game after that.

But it's very interesting to read about the origins of nursery rhymes. The "Yankee Doodle went to town" rhyme is very interesting too. It goes like this...

Yankee Doodle went to town
Riding on a pony
He stuck a feather in his hat
And called it macaroni.

Yankee Doodle keep it up
Yankee Doodle dandy
Mind the music and the step
And with the girls be handy.

Father and I went down to camp
Along with Captain Gooding
And there we saw the men and boys
As thick as hasty pudding.

Yankee Doodle keep it up
Yankee Doodle dandy
Mind the music and the step
And with the girls be handy

There was Captain Washington
Upon a slapping stallion
Giving orders to his men
I guess there was a million.

Yankee Doodle, keep it up
Yankee Doodle dandy
Mind the music and the step
And with the girls be handy.

Usually, children learn to sing the first two stanzas only. I could never have guessed that this poem has such an interesting story behind it. It deals with the American war of independence from Britain. The rich and the powerful English were mostly settled around the New England area. They looked down upon the country folks. "Yankee" itself was a derogatory term, which evolved from the Dutch version of "John", implying a simpleton. This wasn't the America of today. The class hierarchy was fierce those days.
The cultured, rich and powerful English aristocracy slapped “Yankee doodle” appellation on the country folks. During the independence war, the Americans turned this insult on its head by making it their war song - something they sang to cheer themselves. By using the British coined term ("Yankee Doodle"), to refer to themselves, the Americans were signaling that they no longer were affected by such insults. In fact, Americans completely mocked the aristocrats for their snootiness by making fun of their high airs. "went to town" indicates becoming urbane. However, Americans didn't care about the snobbishness of Horse carts. They went to town "riding on a pony". "Macaroni" was a headgear worn by the aristocrats. This hat which had lots of bird feathers on it, originated in Italy and was lapped up by all rich Europeans. In this song the Americans mock them by saying the simpleton just "stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni". In other words, Americans are saying that they are breaking all rules of what's considered acceptable by the English.

Singing this, and other such songs, American troops stormed city after city and forced the mother nation to grant freedom to America!

I wonder if today's world is creating songs that will be sung by children centuries later.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

On spies

"My name is Bond, James Bond !"
Lines immortalized by the Hollywood Icon. Yet, the reality is that a spy as flamboyant as Bond will not survive in real life. Real life spies are the exact opposite of what Bond is in the movies.
My father worked as a "spy" during the early 70s in East Pakistan (what became Bangladesh after the 1971 war). The word "spy" conjures up an image of a dashing guy who is brave, intelligent, takes extreme risks and gets very valuable information for his side. All of this is false. Exactly the opposite is true.
Real life spies are trained to lie low, not to attract any attention by doing anything spectacular and not show any heroics. They gather very routine and mundane information.
Military works with the assumption that any spy caught will spill the beans. Movies and novels create an image of heroes who will endure any amount of torture and pain but not reveal the secrets, but in real life, people are human beings and beyond a point, all human endurance breaches. That's why the spy system works under the maxim "Don't get caught". Any capture of spies is taken as equivalent to compromise of secrets. The whole system is geared around two guidelines:
(a) Don't let spies get caught
(b) Don't let spies know more than they need to know

James Bond would fail the test on both these counts.

Here's how real life spy system works. Send people who can easily blend in. People who show no tendency to be flamboyant. People who can lie low. These traits are determined by psychological profiling. Probably my father's most suitable trait was that he could speak Bengali with the eastern accent (since our ancestors were migrants from East Bengal). To be able to speak with the local accent, the style of smoking the bidi, the style of sitting on a cot and, of course, eating habits, it is based on such mundane matters that a spy is selected.

Contrary to popular misconception, the job of a typical spy is not to get war plans or military intelligence. These are way too well guarded. It is likely that the enemy side will leak out things to create confusion. And it is possible that the spy himself may be compromised and may be sending deliberately misleading information. No country takes a bet on these. The job of a typical spy is to send very routine information, like
- what's the morale of local population
- how many soldiers are patrolling
- what's the frequency
- what vehicle is used for patrolling
- ethnicity of the soldiers
None of this information is ultra secret. Any civilian who is present in the towns and villages can gather this information. No heroics required. It is in the military headquarters of the army who sends the spies, that real intelligence resides. All the information sent by field spies are collated and studied together. Patterns are established. Data Mining may be a recent computer technology. But military intelligence personnel were aware of techniques to extract valuable information from a mass of mundane information. Just to give an example, based on the number of soldiers sent for patrolling, you could infer whether the garrison is a brigade or a division. An attack on a brigade is a different ball game as compared to taking on a whole division. The fact that the exclusively Punjabi soldiers were being sent for patrolling, Indian army could infer that the Bengali soldiers of the Pakistani army were no longer trusted. This would make it easier to march in to those areas where Bengali troops were deployed. Areas inundated with water were also easier targets as the local Mukti Bahini boys would find much easier to navigate through the water logged fields as compared to much bigger built Punjabi soldiers of the Pakistani army. This tactical information that Punjabi soldiers were rendered immobile in waterlogged areas was also a result of mundane spying that studied the rate of movement of soldiers - something that could be inferred from a series of simple data points being sent from a large number of spies.

The intelligence derived from the exoteric facts sent by the large number of spies distributed over all the areas of East Pakistan, was a crucial determinant of the final outcome of the war. But individually, the spies achieved little and did nothing spectacular. Not the kind of stuff that would make a movie, anyway.

I am starting to see a pattern here - mainstream media highlights what is actually unimportant and is silent on what is really effective - perhaps because they don't sell as much. But this would be grossly unfair to those who actually bring in the results. Consider these:
1) There is so much hype around MBAs. Specially, those who get dollar salaries abroad. But the reality is that bigger impact is made by "regular" MBAs and those who don't even have an MBA! (Bill Gates, Walmart, Ambani etc)
2) There is so much hype around each gyrations of the SENSEX. But real wealth is made by owning the right assets in the right proportion over the long term.
3) There is hype around sophisticated Weaponry. The reality is that the most lives in a war are lost due to not keeping the head down!
4) There is so much hype about sophisticated medicines and gene research. Most number of people can avoid diseases and death by the simple of act of washing hands before eating and boiling water before drinking. Water borne diseases is the No. 1 killer of the world.

As in the case of spies, what the media portrays is far away from reality. This is one reason why I have stopped watching TV long back. Next in line, is the newspaper perhaps.