Monday, January 24, 2011

Symbols For Eternity

 After months of falling prey to a dissuading mind, and succumbing to an innate aversion for a daunting task, I knew that there was no escape from the inevitable; I had to clean out the garage someday, and sooner was the job done, the better. So, suitably attired for the occasion in a coverall and a hood, and armed with a broom, I set about my task with as much earnestness as I could garner. As I gingerly cleared out packages, bundles, bottles, wires and other motley oddments from the racks and shelves and got about dusting and cleaning the cobwebs off the same, I chanced upon a dusty but neatly wrapped bundle of books. On opening the wrapping off the weighty pack to check the contents, what I should find but a stack of comics, long forgotten in the mazy confines of the garage. In the bundle was an assortment of books that formed the very lifeblood of my childhood days, a precious collection of the greatest stories that my puerile fancies were built upon - tales of heroism and strength - the charms of which are not too jaded in my mind even as I find myself well past the threshold of adulthood. I flipped open one of the books, with the intent of having a cursory look at some of the pages which held so much fascination and excitement for me in what seems so far back in time now, but it is more to the number of events and changes that life has wrought in me rather than to the actual number of years that have elapsed, that I would ascribe that feeling. Now I enter the world that I held so dear once again, and I see the familiar figures again – too familiar, almost a part of me for so many years – the strong, lithe body covered tightly in that enviable suit; the shiny, square pistols at his waist which I so dreamed of owning, the super-fast draw, the mark of goodness, the mark of the Skull; the Skull Cave, the entrance through the waterfalls, the pigmies, Diana, Guran, Rex, Old Man Mozz, the famous treasure rooms, The Secret Vault, The Keela Wee Beach, The Jade Hut: the wondrous world of The Phantom - The Ghost Who Walks, The Man Who Cannot Die. Instantly, my mind hurtled back to those heady days of the past, and the images came in a flood, as in a reverie – of the way I waited in fervent excitement for the next Phantom comic to be at the stalls, the rush home with the precious item cuddled under my arm, and the fights with my brother over the right to read the comic first; the rush for the morning newspaper, just to read that small strip of a Phantom tale, ever continuing, yet never ceasing to fascinate and intrigue; of the beliefs that the Phantom could never die, and that bullets could not pierce his suit, beliefs that would not be dispelled by any arguments to the contrary. I felt some of that excitement of old stirring up in the recesses of my heart again, as if woken up from a deep slumber, as I passed on from one comic book to the other with furtive eagerness. Unknown to me, I was already squatting on the garage floor, as my mind floated deeper into the world I loved to wander in so much, as if I were on a low cloud, looking upon an aspect in which swarmed the heroes of my past, coming in a flood to greet me like playfellows once estranged in the labyrinth of life. Here is Mandrake The Magician, with his shiny blue hat, conducting another of his mystic magic shows, creating the most incredible images for his audience through his powers of “mass hypnosis”. Here he is again, being confronted by a thug with pistol in hand, and making my mind leap again when I see him turning the gun into a snake, which the thug throws away in fear!! My mind dwells for a few moments on the many exploits of Mandrake with his amiable yet incredibly strong friend, Lothar; and on Hojo, the cook, who is actually the secret chief of Xanadu, and also a tenth degree black belt in Judo.

Now I look at the cover of an old “Tarzan” comic, another of my unforgettable heroes, and my reminiscence is filled with the image of the adorable figure of the African forests; the familiar loincloth and those rippling muscles; the vivid image of Tarzan crying out “Tarzan Bundolo” over the body of a vanquished rogue gorilla, with the thick, dark forest in the background. Tarzan’s fight against the enemies of the jungle, his love for the jungle and its inhabitants, and his cry of victory, to this day, gives me goose pimples. I remember being overcome with dejection when I once read a story in which Tarzan was being strongly influenced by his fiancĂ©, Jane’s parents to quit the jungle and come to live in the city. Now I see Korak, the son of Tarzan, who was equal to his father in protecting the jungle. Korak reminded me of my school days, when Korak comics were a rage, and the way I secretly smuggled some into the classroom, to make surreptitious barters for more such comics with my fellow mates right in the middle of a class session. Our teachers themselves were addicted to comics in a no lesser way, and we had to be extra careful in making our precious exchanges without being noticed. In spite of the many precautions, however, a teacher did catch us once in a while, and when he or she did, the comics were duly confiscated, and those coveted gems were deemed to have been lost forever. The pages continued to flip on, and now Superman comes flying in at “super-speed” to greet me, with a tale that demanded the deployment of many of the extraordinary powers at his disposal: those of Super-Speed, X-ray Vision, Super-Breath, and of course, Super Strength. Even as a boy, I was conscious of the fact that Superman was always confronted with foes of almost equal power, and was often made to stretch his powers to the limits to emerge the ultimate victor, in course of which he was even driven tantalizingly to the brink of death when struck with the only weapon that Superman feared, the deadly Kryptonite rock.

Here comes Batman with his luxuriant cape, and his youthful and dynamic partner, Robin. They zoom off on their Batmobile, caper acrobatically in the jungle of skyscrapers of Gotham city, and pursue their immortal foe, The Joker. The Joker has joined hands with The Riddler and The Penguin, making Batman’s job of protecting Gotham city that much tougher. Adding to his difficulty is the necessity to switch identities constantly, from being the brawny and brainy crusader of the dark night, to donning the sleek garb of a corporate honcho in the day; as also in maintaining the secrecy of his identity from the world

More heroes, and more heroism, as I move on to revisit a tale of the gallant Bahadur, forever waging a lone war against the barbaric plunderers of the Chambal Valley; and Flash Gordon, in his fantastic space adventures, including his battles against his perennial nemesis in space – Ming The Merciless. It doesn’t seem too long ago that these heroes were the center of my life and any suggestion of them being unreal met with indignant opposition from my end. Every book that I opened, and every page that I flipped, seemed to reconcile me with a long lost friend, a revered idol from my past, with such constancy that I felt like what Alice must have felt, lost in the pleasures of Wonderland, and would not have realized that time was indeed flying by me, and the garage was still in a mess, when I was jolted back to reality by my brother calling out to me at the peak of his voice. I reluctantly let go of the precious bundle for the moment, in compulsive preference to more pressing matters at hand, and shut out the cascade of characters that would have continued for hours more, in the shape of the Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Spiderman, the Cowboy superheroes – Wild Bill Hickock, Jesse James, Roy Rogers; the mythological superstars of Amar Chitra Katha; The Adventures of Tintin; the list is virtually endless, and my thirst unquenched.

I felt the hardness of the ground I was sitting upon, and it felt harder for the realization that The Phantom, Mandrake, Tarzan, Korak, Superman, Batman and all the other comic book heroes have been weaned away from my life due to the demands of life and its circumstances, which dictate the survival of our species. Today, I realize more than ever, the value of Goodness, Honesty, Kindness, Affection, Bravery and all the great virtues that these heroes stand for, and I have been that much the richer for their company. Today, in a world where role models are so hard to find, and whatever and whoever we aspire to has so often disappointed, and so often been found to be flawed, I am eternally grateful to providence for bringing me (and undoubtedly millions more like me) under the influence of such enduring characters, whose tales of heroism and virtue have contributed immensely in shaping impressionable minds with the qualities of kindness, compassion, honesty, modesty, and above all, have helped strengthen our faith in all things good; characters who will forever remain the symbols of everything that is positive, and who are immune to all the fallibilities that plague our fragile real-life heroes of today. None of these heroes can ever die, as long as the world believes in virtue, and as long as virtue resides in us. Now I know why The Phantom is called the “Man Who Cannot Die”.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Whither Indian Civilization?

I wandered upon the edge of the sidewalk searching for a spot to step on to the street. The roadside was littered with all kinds of scrap – waste paper, wrappers, cigarette butts, loose earth, plastic bottles and bags, empty tobacco sachets etc – to such a degree as to make it difficult for any person to alight from the sidewalk without landing on some kind of junk. I did manage to cross that barrier somehow, and hurried to cross the street on seeing the pedestrian light turn green. However, green does not always mean “go” which discovered to my chagrin as a motorcycle whizzed past me at breakneck speed in spite of all the red lights. I got to the other end of the street unscathed, thanks to providence, and decided to do a bit of shopping. There were makeshift shops by the dozen on the pavement itself, selling everything that any regular shop would sell, and with everything spread out on the pavement, blocking off half the width of the pavement in the process. Anyway, I threaded myself through all such obstacles and emerged out of a proper shop with a few necessities in hand when I came upon a “Pani Puri” vendor who had set up his stall right upon the street. A crowd of customers, who were heartily munching away at the snack, surrounded the stall. The remnants of the profitable trade, in the form of scraps of paper, half-eaten snacks, paper cups et al were being thrown about on the street, already strewn with more of the same stuff, with gay abandon, contributing in good measure to the overall appearance of the surroundings. I made my way towards a throng of people waiting for the city bus, passing on the way, a shaded section of the pavement where a man stood facing away from the street, urinating on the wall. I hurried along, holding my breath to keep away the stench. I hopped onto the waiting city bus, wherein I was lucky enough to find a seat by the window. The bus weaved painfully through the crowded street with its intractable traffic, of cycles, rickshaws, scooters and cars vying for ascendancy over each other in that small space already constricted by the presence of rows of vehicles parked on either side of it in a disorderly fashion. I had to endure the snaking ride through the din and chaos until I alighted at my destination, whereupon I quickly turned into the relatively tranquil lane that led to my home, and found myself letting out a sigh of relief.

It was a typical jaunt in a typical Indian city, one that has become a routine for every citizen of the country, and has been accepted as a way of life. I am no stranger to the abysmal depths that sensibilities and values of Indian society have degenerated to, and would have thought nothing of it on any other day. However, today, I was woken up to realization by chance, and wished I had not been, at the end of it. As I reposed on the sofa in my living room at the end of the grueling outdoor stint, for what I felt were a few well-earned moments of recreation and relaxation, I chanced upon a TV program on the history of Indian Civilization. The program was a creative representation of Indian society of ancient times, based on the archaeological evidence of the many historical remains of India’s rich heritage. It portrayed the heights that Indian society and culture had attained during the great days of the Indus Valley Civilization, the Mauryan Age, The Gupta Age, The Kushana Age etc. I sat engrossed in front of the television for an hour as the program progressed, revealing the zenith of glory that ancient Indian society had achieved during those golden ages in respect of standards of daily life, setting benchmarks of cleanliness, discipline and urban planning for the world to emulate. The writings of Huen Tsang and Fahien narrate the epitome of prosperity and meticulousness that society was during the reign of Harsha Vardhana and the Golden age of the Gupta Dynasty. The India of those times, as so beautifully portrayed in the program, looked a starkly disparate world from what we see around us today. In fact, there is not a trace of that supremacy of culture and attitude visible in modern Indian society. Today, we are accustomed to looking westward for ideas and systems to improve our standards of living, whereas, in the golden ages of the past, the rest of the world was in awe of our innovation and advancement. India was ever at the forefront of World civilization, and had been the leading light of human progression. Unfortunately today, the values of planning, order, discipline and method that were the cornerstones of ancient Indian society seems to have all but collapsed, and none but our own countrymen have brought about their ruination.

What, then, is the cause for the distressful state of affairs of Indian society today? Are we the descendants of a different breed of Indians; different from our ancestors, who had wrought such a path of gold on the same turf? Are we a blighted race so mentally disfigured by centuries of foreign rule that the consciousness of our glorious past and a redoubtable heritage has long been transformed into an acceptance of a continual state of regression and degeneration? Are we not accountable to our great ancestors for the state that our society is in today; or is our sense of pride and honor too numbed to even contemplate a revival of our glorious past? Some questions have no answers, and there is certainly none in sight of these. Alas, the efforts of great emperors such as Vikramaditya, Harsha, Ashoka, Chandragupta Maurya, Krishna Deva Raya and many others seem to have come to nought. My heart ached in sadness at the realization, and I fervently hope many more feel the same way as I do.

Friday, January 7, 2011

A Wall Too High

Another year has come upon this world, and into everyone’s life, with promises of new beginnings, truthfulness, faithfulness, sincerity, diligence, and many such resolutions that the arrival of a new year inspires in every heart. Yet, although it is a satisfying feeling to make a firm resolve, it takes more than enthusiasm to actually implement a resolution in one’s life so as to make the difference that one expects. It is in the course of this journey to scale greater heights of improvement that one realizes how the simplest things can actually be the hardest to achieve.

To moot the case in point, I can cite no better example than mine in striving for better things in 2010; a sequel to a resolution that I had taken at the start of that year. I had been persuaded that being good is good for me, and doing oneself good is the hardest thing in the world. It was a challenge I accepted with disdain, and in one heady moment of determination and gusto I resolved that I was going to be a Good Man in 2010. Not that I considered myself “bad”, or did anybody else for that matter; rather, I was already the “good man” to the common perception. I was kind to people, generous by nature, very polite to strangers and guests, conscientiously dutiful towards family, friends, society and country, a lover of animals, a non-smoker, a vegetarian, a staunch believer in hygiene and cleanliness, honest to the core, and even God-fearing. One would think that the gap between being a Good Man and the man that I was at the end of 2009 should not have been too difficult to traverse. Yet, at the end of 2010, after constant introspection and a concerted effort to achieve that elusive state that is goodness, which demands of me to shed certain flaws in my character which seem to be so deeply embedded in my mental constitution, I am starting to believe that my resolution will have to be carried forward through many more new years before I see any semblance of success. The task of shedding certain qualities and acquiring others, which seemed so simple at first, is proving to be insurmountable at present. Some of the prominent crags in the mountain of my difficulties are as follows:

Anger: How can I control my anger when somebody shouts at me, insults me or disregards me? Why the irritation when somebody breaks a queue or a car doesn’t give way?
Jealousy: The very Devil. I am still searching for ways to feel good when someone gets something that I think is “rightfully” mine, or when somebody praises my friend for something which I have done
Temptation: Is it possible to be free of desire? I do not think this birth will see me achieve that
Selfishness: I can speak volumes about charity and chivarlry, but is it all right to excuse myself from a charity event because I have “important” things to attend to? Sounds good, doesn’t it, but it is not; and there is nothing I have been able do about it so far
Ego: Why is it that I feel good and exalted when everybody concurs with my view, and dejected when somebody ignores me? Why am I modest when somebody praises me, but defensive when another is critical of me? Why do I try to hide my mistakes, and highlight my achievements, however unobtrusive or tacit may the manner be of doing so? I have made very little headway on this front
Gossiping: Why does it give me pleasure in acting the Supreme Judge, the moral policeman, when talking about others. Joining in the general fun of being disparaging to another seems normal to me. Why does it feel like I am having a good time when somebody has fallen on bad times? I hope to conquer this evil trait of mine this year
Moral corruption: Why do I justify a small bribe to appease the other guy and make life easy for me? Is it okay for me to throw a chocolate wrapper on the street because the place is already full of litter? Should I jump the red signal just because I cannot stand the car behind me honking like mad? Sounds like poor little me against a big, bad world. I will fight, yet.

All resolutions feel better in the saying than in the doing, and bear no fruit in the absence of determination and hard work, which has been a lesson I have learnt, in my pursuit of goodness. I have never quailed in the face of a challenge, and this I treat as no other. I hope to end 2011 with more trash out of the bin than I have been able to discard in the past year. It will take a bit of doing, no doubt.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

I am.....

Treading untiringly upon the endless street,

Neither at a gallop; nor on leaden feet,

Bereft of form, devoid of shape; stranger to birth, unknown to death,

I have waited for none; yet waited on with bated breath,

And visions of joy, fear, ecstasy and sorrow in the tidings I might bring,

As summer turns into autumn, and winter into spring

I am ever the inert passerby, always on the go,

Yet, the patience of some I try; yet others want me to be slow,

Some curse my arrival, and wish I never did show,

Some thank my presence, and wish I never would go

Some dread my growth to see, some try to outgrow me,

While some fall behind, and just let me be.

I am hailed by Man to be the healer supreme,

The panacea for all wounds, however extreme.

Behind me I leave a trail of gold,

That anoints every bygone in its mold,

To reflect and cherish and yearn to return,

And to retrace its every step, be it one of acceptance or of spurn

I see the Universe go round, and the Earth change its hues,

I have seen the rise of Man, and also seen him lose,

His haven to the demons of his own creation,

And bear the brunt of Nature’s fierce imprecation,

But still persist in his journey of folly,

Unmindful of Mother’s agony at his flagrant devilry

I have seen the dark winds blow, trees turn into wood, air to smoke

I have seen the water turn black, and the birds and fishes choke

Nothing could I do as Man used his artifice to make the Beast his prey;

When Nature’s vengeance I saw, and the Planet had its say

As lands plunged into the water, and mountains spit fire

Unleashing on Man all of Earth’s pent-up ire

Treading untiringly upon the endless street,

Neither at a gallop; nor on leaden feet,

I have no friend, no foe; I am but made to flow,

I have seen all, and will ever more, as I grow,

Until the universe exists, and clocks continue to chime.

I had no beginning, have yet seen no end. My name is Time.

Trapped in The Web

With the turn of the century, I graduated from inland letter cards to email; from landlines to mobiles; and from social visits to socia...