Angkor wat

Angkor wat

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Two cultures

The Background

Years ago, C.P.Snow delivered a lecture (later a book) called 'The Two Cultures'. He was speaking of the Sciences and the Humanities, and how separate academic members of these two units are, or insist on being. It struck me that in a social context too, there are two contexts one can speak of, the orthodox or traditional and the modern or liberal. As long as they lead their separate lives, of course, there is no clash or need for compromise, they re happy to live in mutual lack of comprehension and maybe even mistrust. After all, like with the scientist versus history professor, they occupy different niches. Happily, the modern world with its similar education for all and travel made easy and whatnot has led to a good deal of mingling, and so here is an attempt at a story using two different social cultures :)

The Story

Abhay leaned over the edge and then slowly rocked back to see the reflection shimmer in and out. The Ganga was at its best in the evening, and the winter solstice sunset among the best. You could wish for anything on that one day (the longest night and shortest day)and all the saints who d ever done penance on these banks would conspire to make it come true. Or so he was told. Right then, however, he was just soaking in the unusual peace on its banks afforded by the big puja being on the other side. The boat-cum-ship was tethered, and its railings were an ideal place to look at the water from. Basking in the twilight, a rare feeling of complete peace enveloped him and he shut his eyes.

In two seconds, a muffled 'damn!' rang out. Abhay turned around, peevish at this intrusion. Had to be one of the eternal tourists impossible to avoid in Varanasi.

A girl stood up and dusted herself. 'Sorry' she said in a low voice, 'Go on staring, I just dropped my earring'.

Ok, not a western tourist, but might as well be from her appearance,thought Abhay, a tad jaundiced still from the breaking of his moment. The jeans and kurti clad girl certainly didnt look a localite, though she could easily be at the BHU. And what a weird way to talk to a stranger! 'go on staring'? well he wasnt going to be put down by a big city type either.

'I was just looking at the was very peaceful' he added pointedly. 'theres nobody else here' he added. why else would she be on a boat in the near-dark? in any case Abhay had rather fixed views about the 'fashionable type' of girl and thought of 'them' as permanently between boyfriends and so likely to be in shady places for one reason only.

'I wasnt looking for anyone' said the girl, 'I came to look at the sunset too'.

'oh' said Abhay, taken aback. Then, realising it would be rude to turn away, 'Did you find the earring'?

'Yes thanks' smiled the girl. 'I'm Naina, by the way. I ve been here a week and am leaving tomorrow, and its the first day this place has been so peaceful so I wandered in'.

Abhay explained about the puja and introduced himself.

'Yes I heard', said the girl. 'Does everyone participate'?

That was what Abhay put down mentally as a 'typical foreigner question'. 'No, its conducted by the main temple priests', he said..'but of course anyone can watch, if thats what you mean'.

The girl nodded, and was silent for a bit. 'Its a beautiful river isnt it'? she asked after a while. 'I couldnt bear to look in the light, but now I can see how it must have been'.

Abhay agreed, thawing a bit. 'It is very dirty of course' he admitted, something he wouldnt normally have said to an out of sympathy outsider. 'but it has a feel and should see it further down'

'Do you live here?' asked Naina.

'Yes', said Abhay, and suspecting a touch of big cityness, said 'Its very nice, a lot nicer in many ways than Delhi, where I study'

Naina sensed the defensiveness and said quickly that she was sure it must be.

Lulled, Abhay added in a burst of confidentiality, 'I dont usually tell people that it is dirty, I love this place'

Naina was surprised. 'Do you have to tell? Its quite, well, obvious!'

'Yes', said Abhay, 'but it usually sounds very superior and I'm forced to contradict it and I dont like lying'!

'oh like Yudhishthira or someone' said Naina lightly, smiling.

Abhay frowned.


'I dont think its amusing to speak like that of gods ..'

'Yudhishthira isnt a god!'

..'Gods and holy texts and people in didnt let me finish'.

Naina was up in arms now. 'oh really? well,
a) The Mahabharatha isnt a holy text..not counting Krishna, and he was openly manipulative and proud of it,
and b)I bet I know more characters out of the Mahabharatha than you do!'

This last was childish, she knew, but she was mad enough not to care. and upset. If every innocent statement was going to be objected to, how on earth was one to talk?! and much he knew about giving living people respect at this rate, let alone mythological ones.

It was advantage Abhay clearly though, and he smiled. 'Thats not the point. You may well know more names, its nothing to do with how you feel about it'.

Naina was calmer now. 'I find it one of the most fascinating texts ever written', she said. 'Its deep, beautiful and probably of far more practical value through all the cause and effect relationships it shows up, than many a management text..I have the deepest respect for all the people who must ve helped add to it, but if you re asking me to view either that or anything else as unquestionable or the absolute truth and not to be criticized, then that doesnt make sense to me. It seems like stifling all inquisitiveness and even for that matter creativity. Do you tell children to not ask questions??' she was getting worked up again.

Abhay reflected a bit..'Maybe i over reacted. i agree, nobody should be barred from asking questions, its just that random flippancy annoys me'

'Random flippancy can be both amusing and intelligent' said Naina a tad defiantly. ' and cruel, ok true..'

'why cruel'? asked Abhay, curious at this change of heart

'Well..its cruel to destroy belief isnt it? and i guess the deeper the belief the more cruel the forced awakening'

'Exactly'! Abhay was triumphant

'Yes, but i wasn't talking to an ardent Yudhishthira believer' said Naina smiling. 'atleast not that i knew of. and its very constraining to not be able to make the parallels you want..we learn from comparisons dont you think? after all somewhere someone before you must have had similar experiences..most often' .

Abhay nodded.'So long as you dont bother others'

'Yes but how far do you think that out?? People are bothered by the most trivial things! Ultimately you have to be able to call your soul your own and be guided by what you think is right!' Naina was passionate about it.

'Sounds like Voltaire' said Abhay

'Oh you like his things'? Naina was clearly surprised. Equally clearly she'd substituted 'like' for something else, likely 'know', last minute.

'We are taught English even here' said Abhay drily. 'And I study literature'

'I m sorry' smiled Naina penitently, then frankly, 'It didnt seem like someone so protective of holiness would mix with Voltaire, if you know what I mean'.

'You ve led a protected life' announced Abhay who knew just what she meant but wasnt going to admit it..and being more comfortable now, was able to say 'with a lot of comfort and convenience and probably not enough hardship'

Naina reflected..'Comfort and convenience definitely..but i'd think that applies to anyone of us well off in this country today..why, what have you suffered?' her lopsided grin popped out.

'Nothing major..' he admitted, and was forced to smile.

'Can you cook?' asked Naina abruptly

'Huh?..umm..not you'? It was clear the idea seemed laughable to him.

'Of course. I m just back from cooking for myself for two years'.

'Were you abroad'?? Abhay was beginning to wonder whether to attribute his companion's general behaviour to 'foreign influence'. It would be a happy solution, he was beginning to quite like her otherwise. Nothing like the West to be cast in the villain's role.

'I was in Dehradun for two years, i just got my masters in history..of course we had a mess.But you know how you yearn for different food..'she added confidentially

'Oh' said Abhay, who would have eaten puris and alu ki subzi without comment thrice a day.He was slightly abashed though.Clearly the generalization was at fault, she could do some things. Fair minded by nature, he was about to make up by asking what she could cook, when she got in first.

'Whats your favourite dish'?

Abhay, not having spent thousands of words already in talking of it to various people, had to pause for thought.'Probably dum aloo'

'With makki ki roti or alu paratha'?

This needed further thought. 'Makki ki roti' he said finally.

'Good' declared Naina, apparently satisfied.'alu paratha with alu would have been too obvious'.

Abhay was about to challenge this by saying there was nothing wrong with being obvious when it struck him that courtesy demanded the return question. And one never knew with girls, she probably wanted that discussed in the first place.

'Whats yours?'

'Between bhindi bhaji and fish curry'. The slight distaste emanating from Abhay was obvious. 'You must be very vegetarian' added Naina instantly.

'Yes', said Abhay, and forestalling the next remark, 'and i dont think i m missing anything'

Naina was surprised, 'I dont think so either!' and added, 'You know you should be a little less suspicious. i dont know who has, but everyone doesn't want to jump down your throat. Food is probably the last thing I 'd argue about..' here Abhay had his doubts, he d already argued more than he had in the last six months in one hour flat.

'one man's food another's poison i wouldnt dream of eating cabbage. its the one vegetable i cant stand' she announced.

'Atleast cabbages dont bleed' said Abhay caustically.

Naina looked repulsed. 'Thats gross! Nobody eats bleeding things, please!!'

'Are you under the impression that you eat meat without shedding blood? all you mean is you dont want to see it but you want the advantage of the end product' said Abhay dismissively.

'Now you re being nasty' said Naina clearly bothered by the declaration.

Abhay knew it but was too firm on his stand to be kinder.

There was a pause. 'Would you rather let tigers starve than let deer be killed'?

'No' agreed Abhay, 'but I dont think tigers have an option do they? And humans arent part of the natural balance'.

That was something Naina could jump on. 'They are', she said triumphantly..'but I know what you mean, its true we handle animals horribly..i guess when human rights are decided by money, you cant expect Animals to get a look in..'

Abhay said nothing.

'You know, in labs', continued Naina, 'even for experimental animals that are routinely 'sacrificed' to make antibodies for you and me ultimately, they have very strict handling protocols. You have to break the animal's neck cleanly in one stroke. Any playing around or longer times for it and you ll be in deep trouble..the point is that nobody has the right to inflict suffering'

'Well atleast thats good' said Abhay, in truce.

There was a pause.

'Would you know if there are any not too expensive Benarasi saree shops near here'? asked Naina, changing the topic. 'I want to get one for my mother'.

Abhay looked doubtful. 'I dont think cheap and Benarasi silk go together' he said.' The small lanes are your best bet, they have looms at home, so its genuine also'

Naina nodded.

'If you walk right down and turn left there is a big place you can get clothes from', he was being helpful

'Like what'?

'Oh, scarves and things like that', said Abhay vaguely.'Its next to a ladies cycle showroom'

'Oh can you rent?' this seemd an unexpected plus

'You can' said Abhay pointedly.

'You mean you havent tried?' cried Naina. These little lanes look lovely for cycing.

'Like I said, they only have girls cycles' repeated Abhay.

They stared at each other from a much farther distance. 'Are you telling me, that you haven't tried cycling here simply because you find it below your dignity to use a girls cycle' demanded Naina.

'Not below my dignity' protested Abhay. 'but yes, I wouldnt want to'.

Naina didnt know what to say. 'My brother uses mine all the time' she said finally.

'Thats different' said Abhay

'Ok, upto you of course' said Naina finally, searching for a non violent remark.' You know, you re nice, but you re very self..contained' she continued..'or maybe you just dont talk enough to girls'

Abhay didnt think so, but he kept peace with a 'maybe'.

'It sounds like you make your own rules and they cant be moved around'.

Abhay was stung at this..'Not at all, I m willing to be convinced otherwise'

'Yes, but only where it doesnt matter much anyway' said Naina with some penetration.

'Thats true for everyone' said Abhay

'Anyway i ve learnt quite a few things' she smiled. Then, clearing her throat, 'I think I should be leaving, its quite dark'. 'Nice meeting you' she added formally. It sounded forced to both of them and both laughed, spontaneously, breaking the strain.

Abhay looked around,'Who are you going with'?

Naina was surprised. 'I'm walking back, its hardly a couple of kilometres! Why, are there too many dogs?'

Abhay was speechless at this obviously innocent remark. Nobody, he was about to say, who has stayed in this city a week, could ask that question. In the first place, women didnt wander alone. And they most certainly weren't dressed in jeans. Not to mention that a sort of inbreeding had rendered this area particularly cut off from progress elsewhere. While this had its pluses, it certainly limited its view of the average confident city working woman.

'Not dogs, its not safe' he said.

'Why'? asked Naina, curious in turn. 'Oh you mean there are weird people'?

'Yes', said Abhay happy to put it that way. 'They dont expect nice people to be around alone at this time..'

'You mean nice girls' said Naina shrewdly, and then caught sight of a set of people on the bank and waved.

'Well thats ok, i ve found people'

'Do you have an email address'? asked Abhay. It turned out both did.

Ten minutes later, Abhay was still leaning on the rails. He had the curious breathless sensation of having lived at a hectic pace. Not an unpleasant sensation, though his preferred pace of life was rather calmer. He wondered if they d meet again.

Naina was rather quieter than usual on the walk back. She d had a very pleasant time and was wondering the same thing.

The moon had come up bright enough to light the road till its curving end. The boat with Abhay on it made a nice silhouette. Naina couldn't hide a self smile, thinking this was the time for the background music to begin. They walked on.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

GenZ to GenA

'Its a wrap' said Shalini, twisting the cloth expertly in the light.

'How is it different from a stole'?? I asked a tad sulkily, having already been informed condescendingly by the shop girl that I didnt know what I was buying.

'A stole is..its hard to explain, its just different from a wrap..slimmer'.

'You dont know either'! I was triumphant.

'Of course I do..these are wraps and these two are stoles', she pointed.
As this was exactly what the shopgirl had said I had to admit there was something to this wrap instinct.

'Anyway, I like the colour and I'm buying it' I said with finality.

'Yes its neat' agreed the expert.

I bought it,but with a vague feeling of injustice at heart. I could call it whatever I liked couldn't I?? I was determined to regain my self respect. As i walked homewards later, I thought I'd drop by at a neighbour's house and meet my 10 year old friend and her sister. She loved red, to the point that nobody with half an eye could miss her a kilometre off. I pressed the bell in special code short and two was opened carefully. 'Wow didi you got a red wrap'!! I was stunned. 'Its a stole!' I muttered, but my spirit was broken by now. The wrap cum stole was being examined with much care. Thinking I might atleast show off there, I asked where Swati, the three year old, was. 'Oh she s talking on skype' said the girl carelessly, still caught up with the red whatever. Once recovered, I had better sense than to ask if she was typing words or talking..besides I was scared the answer would give me an inferiority complex for life..

I walked toward home idly looking at the stalls. 'GenX says we love scubadiving' screamed a headline at the magazine stall. How many people go scubadiving?? Or maybe they did..I had a sudden vision of hundreds of people all scubadiving in waterproof wraps while skype-chatting.I wondered about the choice of alphabet, GenX and GenY..I could only hope they'd rush by the GenZ and get back to GenA super quick so I could start feeling superior, for a change ('oh, you dont know how a cassette player works? let ME teach you..)

I was home by now and still wearing the red thing. My visiting granduncle looked up, 'Arre nice dupatta, where you got?' I beamed. 'Its not a dupatta', I explained kindly, 'Its a wrap'.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

staying 'connected'!

'whr r u' beeped on my lab neighbour Smita's screen. She stopped mid conversation, expertly typed out 'hvng cfee bk in 5' and continued talking smoothly, as if there was no interruption. Nor did her friend find it strange, she d have done the same, infact had, three times already in 10 minutes. Its so much a byproduct of our fast paced mobile-internet age that nobody finds it strange that you keep track of people minute to minute, irrespective of whether you re arranging a meeting or no (most of the time no, its 'timepass' :). But does this mean that we have closer, more genuine friendships and relationships than before? I doubt it.

I remember hearing of a distant aunt who was known for her great calm and general imperturbableness(to coin a word:). She stayed with her husband, and after he died, by herself, in a huge house. Both sons were away working in different cities. Her brother was a family friend independently, but lived in Delhi. Once my grandmother asked her when he d be visiting Bangalore. The aunt tilted her head and thought calmly..'I havent seen him the last two years, so this year he should be coming..' Such was life!! The way you guessed when you might see your near and dear ones was by judging how long they d not come!of course, this was said with no complaint or unrest, it was a simple statement of fact. I had asked naively if they d fought with each other. This provoked much hilarity. Apparently both were of such equable temperament that if anything people around would tear their hair out, a fight between them would have needed something ultra special..maybe hiding the chutney-pudi the brother was addicted to would do it..Besides which, i thought to myself, you cant fight if you meet once in three years..

But I thought there was something both old worldly and charming in this attitude, and something worth sharing. And after all not to say they weren't attached or was just out of the question to travel that far routinely, and no news was considered good news! Quite a refreshing change from the sort of pace at which we operate today..

I tried imagining myself reporting an experiment- 'Sir it hasn't worked for one year, so it should by next April..'. Must try sometime..preferably with visa in hand :)