Friday, November 07, 2008

The Omni-present Lal Dabba

Dabba - the Marathi word for a box. Colloquially though it is considered synonymous with Lunch box. The moment some one with some knowledge of Mumbai, hears or reads the term Dabba, the famous 6 sigma Dabbewale spring to mind. Their efficiency is of course a research topic, but this post is about a different Dabba - the Lal Dabba (or Red Box).

So what's the lal dabba - a colloquial term for the cheapest State Transport buses. These are literally red boxes. A look at these buses and one would feel that all the manufacturers do is pick a large tin box, cut windows into it, put it on wheels, attached the engine and steering system, nail a few seats onto it and then paint it red. The interiors are filthy and stinky as there does not seem to be any cleaning or maintenance done on those since construction. The suspension of the bus seems to be non existent and you have to have strong spine to venture on a long journey in one of these (especially given the terrain where these buses ply). The bus rattles so much during journey that one starts to wonder how it manages to remain one piece. In essence the fact that these buses are still running itself is a wonder. Not to mention that for an urbane creature like me, the first experience of this buses is quite likely to be horrible and most of the people I know would love to avoid travelling in one of these buses.

With all the negatives well etched in my mind I usually avoided travelling in the Lal Dabba. As destiny would have it, I took up engineering in a college which was in Navi Mumbai and the urban transportation from Mumbai or Thane to that place was not very well developed. The train route was circuitous and city bus transport was infrequent and crowded at best. I did start off by taking the city bus transport but soon realised that the lal dabbas also plied on the same route and they were less crowded. Reluctantly I started travelling by lal dabbas.

Joy of the Lal Dabba
Within the next year or so I discovered the joy of the Lal Dabba. Mostly I travelled in those times of the day when the Sunlight would pierce right through the windows. The metal body of the lal dabba of course would have been heated up well by then and the air (this usually happened in late afternoon) would also be warm. All this gave the feel of the oven. Gradually one starts to feel drowsy. Add to that the rattling bus (like the rocking of a cradle) gives you a perfect place to doze off to sleep. What this meant is I usually managed to get about 1 to 1.5 hours of my daily sleep quota in the lal dabba. Now I am amazed how I did that but I think there were no better alternatives and it was a little difficult getting used to it. However once I mastered the art of sleeping in the bus, it was quite relaxing and sometimes even energizing. Of course my clothes would stink with sweat (from travelling in the sun baked oven), but what the hell, what's the washing machine meant for .

A tryst with Destiny (Lal Dabba)
After college with urban work life in Software I thought I would not have to travel in the lal dabba again. Wherever I travelled there were usually more comfortable means of transport. I was so very wrong.My own new found hobby of trekking made sure that my tryst with Lal Dabba was far from over. Most of base villages for trekking spots were quite remote. The only public transportation that went there were the Lal Dabbas. Usually the terrain was such that only possible other vehicles that you could take there were the off road vehicles (like SUVs) but they come out to be expensive. So soon enough I was hooked on to the Lal Dabbas again although only on those weekends when I went out for treks.

The omni-present Lal Dabba
Over the several years of I thought the significance of the Lal Dabba was that they were the cheapest public road tranport. I always blamed the negatives and the fact that their punctuality is undependable. For most part wherever I went, there was usually no fixed time for the service. People would always give me a range of timings for the the arrival of a single bus. However couple of instances changed my opinion about the STs completely.
Once I had gone out to trek to fort called Sudhagad. The base village was a remote tribal village. To get there from Mumbai we took 3 different modes of transport (train, bus, rickshaw). The last part of the ride was so bad that we were wondering how the rickshaw even managed to go through that terrain. The village was a tribal village which looked as if it hadn't changed much since independence of India. We were wondering how the village was connected to the rest of the world (after all the rickshaw we took to the place didn't agree willingly and we had to pay the driver a premium to take us there). On inquiries we found that there was a Lal Dabba that came to the place 3 times a day. I still didn't believe how the bus could get there regularly without having a flat tyre. That was till our return from the trek, when we found ourselves hurrying so that we get to the village back in time to catch the Lal Dabba. Sure enough there was a Lal Dabba and the conductor graciously agreed to wait a few extra minutes for the slow pokes in my group to get to the village. After that we all slept like babies thanking heavens for the Lal Dabba.

The Life line called Lal Dabba
At another time in a different situation we had a huge group of 35 trekkers who had gone out for a trek to another remote destination called Harishchandragad. This place is so remote that nearest village connected by road (called pachnai) is about 2 - 2.5 hours of walk from the Fort. There is no electricity atop the fort and even the mobile signal is available only at specific spots on the top. We happened to be there in rainy season. On our way back we got down to the village in fairly quick time. As soon as we got there we figured that due to rains and consequent land slides, the road was unsafe and buses were only plying till the next village which was another 10 kms away. Reluctantly we dragged our tired legs to the next village, just in time to catch the 3 :00 pm bus to the nearest Town (or so we thought). The bus did not arrive for another hour. Some one said that the bus does not ply on Sundays. We were starting to get desperate. After all taking 35 ppl back to Mumbai from that remote village did require big vehicle and bullock carts won't do. Among the ideas floated around were walking to the closest highway (about 20 kms) or getting one tractor / bike owning villagers to give one of us a ride to the nearest town so we could rent some jeeps to haul the whole group or even staying in the village overnight so as to catch the next morning bus (the only hitch in this option was we did not have enough food nor did the village have enough shelter for 35 extra people other than the verandah of the village school) . After a lot of searching one of the guys did get a ride from the villager and was on his way to the town. The rest of us were listening carefully to any noise of a motored vehicle in hope that the Lal Dabba was still on its way. Sure enough in the next few minutes (I think around 4.30 pm) the lal Dabba made its way. The ST bus was greeted by a huge shout from all 35 people as if we had just won a battle (after all we now knew that we were making it home the same day).
Hats off to the Lal Dabbas and their drivers and conductors .. for plying buses on routes where no one else ventures. These routes may not even be economically viable. But the important thing is that these buses serve as life lines providing the remote and isolated villages connectivity with rest of the world. We say that the world is available at the touch of a button thanks to internet. However before internet there is electricity and where there is no electricity .... the Lal Dabba is still there.

* This is a post from my other blog.
The original post may be found here

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Rang De Basanti ?

I happened to watch Rang de basanti today. Just happened to relate the movie with current political scenario. Raj Thackrey's comments have definitely aroused a lot of sleeping souls. It has managed to create a lot of commotion.

What has followed i.e. Riots, arson, communal hatred is shocking. We as Indians have always been a diverse group. Our high school social science took pride in preaching the concept of "Unity in Diversity". Yet whenever elections are around the corner, some politicians successfully utilise the british legacy of "Divide and Conquer".

I grew up in Mumbai with kids who were multi-lingual and each of us had a different mother tongue. But the language we spoke was only nothing more than a barrier to communication. Ironically we had the British legacy English as the common language (apart from hindi) to break the barrier.In essence Mumbai has been the melting pot of India. I am sure every person who has spent some time in Mumbai has expeienced this melting pot at some time or other.

Despite this how do politicians manage to divide us? Consider the latest issue of jobs. We all know that there are always more unemployed people than the jobs on offer. In a situtation who is snatching the jobs ? Isn't it the case where every jobless individual is competiting against every other job less person? Isn't healthy competition important to progress ? Is regional reservation in jobs really the answer to provide a fair ground for every one ? Has 60 years of reservation in education changed anything ?

These are just some questions that spring to my mind as I reflect upon the news around me.Thoughts welcome.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Chat Client

I have written about my laziness and also about my room-mates most whom shared that trait of laziness. Usually I was lazier than my room mates and I used to pass on my laziness to them. However I guess every one eventually meets a match and so I met mine. So when I met the subject of this post, I figured he was not just a match but a clear winner when it came to laziness.

I had known this person a bit, before we became room mates, as somebody who loved trekking and had a good physique (which I assumed was a result of work out). Naturally I assumed that he should be an active person. However within a week of living with him, I realised that he was quite opposite of what he seemed to be at the first go.

I am a lazy cook but when forced to cook, I know some survival tips (Read more here). However I was not expecting those to be put to test the way this guy did. First I learnt that he was a worse cook than me. Then I figured he knew all about surviving without cooking (Read more here). I hadn't written the survival guide then, but I guess most lazy people are smart enough to figure it out soon. Soon I had to divide work so as to get him to do some cooking as well. However I think my stay with this guy managed to teach me enough to write the survival guide "Cook Like a Bachelor"

If the laziness about cooking was not enough, I soon learnt that he was also as unhygienic as me. So like many lazy bachelors he too had a lot of energy saving traits
- avoiding bath on weekends
- Reusing his socks until they smelt foul enough to have no choice but to wash them
- creating a mess of paper, clothes etc around his room
the list of goes on
I share a lot of these traits too, but this guy almost managed to make me feel ashamed of these traits by outdoing me in those.

However given the common traits and love of laziness, we managed to get along well, be good friends and there were almost no arguments as our views matched a lot about how things at home should be. Thanks to laziness for that.

What ever has been said so far should probably be good enough to earn him the adjective of "Sloth", however there was one thing that took away that honour from him. He was almost obsessed with chatting on the internet.

The chatting obsession was so much that one could almost view him as if some object dedicated to chatting. Hence the name chat client - after the genre of softwares like yahoo messenger - something he used a lot. Thus I could see him chat in the morning till the point we started off for work. I could see him glued to his PC when I came back from work. Even when we were cooking food, there he was placing his laptop on the kitchen platform, right beside the cutting board. Even when he was cooking all by himself , I could see him multitasking.

He was a little more sensitive than most guys I have known, which I think allowed him to be some one who could talk a lot with females and listen with empathy. Naturally he had a lot of female friends. So even though we were in US, he still managed to stay in touch with some of those friends back home in India. The time difference between the two countries meant that he had to stay up late nights to be able to chat with his female friends (or should I say girl friends). Thus I would sometimes wake up in the middle of night only to see a faint glow from the laptop screen. Guess what .... there he was chatting away with some one or other.

His chatting habits were so extreme that they were almost good enough to term him as eccentric. The peak of his eccentricity was when he presented to me a whole new way of multitasking while spending time on the "great seat of thought" (also referred by some people as Potty). It say happened that one fine day I woke up to note that my room mate was missing and so was his laptop. After looking around the flat I figured that he must be in the toilet/bathroom. After half an hour he emerged from the place much refreshed and with the laptop in his hand. And no he was not refreshed from a bath. On questioning him he said that thanks to the availability of wireless internet, he had just discovered that he could stay online and chat even when on the potty. Soon enough it became a habit for him. This habit so contagious too. Thus even I ended up carrying the laptop with me to the potty a few times. I have to agree it is indeed a useful diversion when on the seat of thought.

After I moved to India I have not been in close contact with him. We do meet up sometimes when he in town, but I guess he has now given up his chatting habits. I rarely see him online now. Also came to know recently that he got married. Naturally I think there are more avenues for him to spend his time than chatting with girl friends (or should I say ex-girl friends). However the one thing I'll continue to remember about him is his eccentric chatting habits.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Are Indians secular or racist ?

Racism - a term which commonly denotes race-based prejudice, violence, discrimination or oppression. Its a term that brings to mind the images of Nelson Mandela fighting apartheid in South Africa or pages describing Martin Luther King Jr's struggle in the 1960s in the USA. If we turn the clock a few more decades behind then it brings out our very own Mahatma's non violent movement in South Africa and then in India which of course eventually led to a free India we know today.

The constitution of India went on to use adjectives such as "Secular" for the Republic of India. I grew up reading that definition of the Indian Republic in our text books. However as I grew up and understood the society around me a little better and beyond the text books, I started wondering whether we really are secular people.

It was interesting to note how passionately all the "fairness" creams market themselves on television. Some even talk about reducing 'Melanin' from the skin. My high school science text book talked about the same pigment as an essential ingredient in protecting the human skin against harm from Sun. This means that people living in Tropics naturally ought to have more of it. Yet the overwhelming number of products that claim to reduce the effects of this pigment is surprising. But there should obviously be a good reason why it is so?
The reason, i guess, is our fascination with fair skin. I am not very sure what the roots of this fascination are. It may be due to our colonial past where the English whites were the masters or it may be even the current economic dominance of the Americas and Europe - again areas with largely fairer population. The discrimination based on fair skin is of course not very explicit or rampant as in the past but nevertheless it is present in its own subtle ways.

If the dictionary definition of racism may be extended then, the diversity in India brings in a few more flavours of the same. The English dictionary of course has separate names for these flavours such as casteism, communalism, regionalism. For me though these are simply different flavours of everything wrong that racism stands for.

At the most granular level is Casteism. This is one form of discrimination which is the most Legal everywhere. Indian has several different castes and a history of several centuries of discrimination based on castes. Given this history it is one form of discrimination which should perhaps be banned and it is. However the very constitution which defines India as secular, leaves wide and deliberate gaps to allow discrimination based on caste. This gap is called "Reservation". Reservation for the backward castes in education and jobs. A welcome move 60 years ago when India got its independence and this discrimination was rampant. It was hailed as one move that will present opportunity to the "backward" classes of the society move ahead be seen as equal with rest of India.
60 years is a long period. Most of the first few babies born in independent India have now retired from their jobs. Some have become grand parents. Two generations have come into being since. One would have expected that the equality of castes would now be well established. Yet it remains a problem ingrained in our society. In some parts of India like the remote villages of the underdeveloped states, I would view the lack of political will that manages to divide the society based on this "caste" mentality. On the other hand in metropolitan cities like Mumbai, its the legal "Reservation" that promotes this divide.

For 15 years of my childhood I viewed my classmates as friends and fellow students. We all respected each other for our abilities and strengths and helped each other overcome weaknesses. But when it was time to secure admission to the best education institutes after school - I came face to face with "reservation". Separate admission list for the "Reserved" and "General" category. I was left wondering - we all grew up in similar neighbourhoods, we all went to similar schools, we all gave the same exam, and we all worked hard to get our grades,then why these separate lists? That question of course has several debates and answers in favour and against. For me though this question marked the introduction to casteism and the feeling of being discriminated against - even when I myself never discriminated against anyone. The biggest disappointment was, not that there was discrimination, but the fact that it was all legal. The children of the poor and underprivileged have to struggle hard to get educated. This struggle is theirs to face, and it is so, irrespective of the caste they belong to. Yet the outdated basis of "reservation" continues to be. It begs the question,"Is caste discrimination Legal in India ?" I think this question will continue to have an ambiguous answer for some time to come.

If casteism was not enough to divide the society, then there is another form of discrimination which comes to haunt us. Perhaps in a worst way then it should. That is communalism - specifically based on religion. While I take pride to say that India is home to followers of most religions available in the world, its sad that this difference is sometimes the cause of unnecessary turmoil. This word reminds me of the times when I walked on streets under fear of rioting mobs. This situation has been perhaps best brought out in Mani ratnam's movie Bombay. India has had to witness several riots over the years, for various reasons. The two big ones (1984 and 1992-93) that I witnessed were communal in nature. It is suffice to say that when this communalism raises its ugly head, the melting pot and economic capital of the country, definitely burns....

Then of course is regionalism, a form of discrimination which is not as obvious as the previous two. Even though there is nothing preventing a citizen of India to travel, work or reside in any part of the country, this form of discrimination threatens that very freedom from time to time. I think it is the separation of states based on linguistic majority, that allows for politics that promote this regionalism. The best example of such politics of course is the recent news about comments from politician Raj Thackeray which enraged a lot of North Indians. Yet again it managed to divide a united city of Mumbai.

Today, as a citizen of free India, when I think of the above words I start to think "Are we Indians secular or racist ?". I think its one choice that each of us has to make consciously. I choose to be secular and hope that it is so for the rest of my countrymen.