The Summer of 2014
Phew! It’s been a hot summer in more ways than one. Besides slurping mangoes and sweating buckets, we Indians actually came out in droves and voted.
We often feel that we are a divided country. We’re just too big, too populated, and too diverse to actually feel like one nation. But this time there was something common amongst all Indians, across the length and breadth of the land. We were all totally fed up with our last Government. Everyone unanimously felt that enough is enough. Now why we were so fed up is another story altogether (more than a story actually, it can form a series of books). But it was a new experience to see everyone throw their vote behind one man. Congress made desperate last-minute barbs by calling him ‘chaiwalla’, and referring to a 56 inch chest, but in the end they had to put their tail between their legs and run for cover, because the people of India gave them a good, solid, well-deserved kick. It feels great that they’ve been squashed (for the present at least), like that lazy, disgusting cockroach that lurks in the corner of your kitchen.
Because of all this polly-tickle tamasha, one watches a lot of news these days. You can’t see a minute of news without hearing the name ‘Modi’. It’s the most used word after the phrase ‘India needs an answer’. If someone actually did a statistical tally, the word ‘modi’ would be occurring at the frequency of one per minute at a bare minimum, and even going up to twenty-seven per minute on a good day. Because even when people are not talking about Modi, they are talking about Modi. You can’t discuss anything without his name popping up. Government, corruption, dhoklas, Gujarat, Hindus, Muslims, kurtas, puppies, and everything connects to Modi somehow. You’ve got to hand it to the guy for become Brand No. 1. During the last six months or so, family/friends get-togethers could not proceed as normal. The room would be firmly divided into pro-Modi and anti-Modi factions. Everyone would be shouting their opinion without hearing anothers’. Each camp is firmly entrenched in its belief, and it’s impossible to budge them either way. There are spouses, siblings, parents and kids who don’t see eye-to-eye on this.
But we forget an important thing. We have to thank the Congress party. Why? If they hadn’t put up a goofy like RaGa, who knows, they might have got a bigger majority, and would not be shaking in their shoes today. Imagine if they had a smart, shrewd, capable leader. It would be terrible, because they might continue in power for the next sixty years, reducing India to pulp. Their miserable governance actually united this country, which otherwise can’t agree on which MDH masala is best.
Marie Antoinette famously told her subjects, "If you can't buy bread eat cake." Little did she know of three fabulous bakeries, whose bread and cake are so good, they are truly interchangeable. No, this isn't any fancy Parisian patisserie, or over-priced 5-star hotel. These are 3 humble, Irani-owned bakeries in Pune, India. They are the stuff of legend. People come from far and wide to sample their fare, and often pack suitcases full of the stuff to take back home, where relatives, cousins and friends devour it.
The three bakeries are within walking distance from one another. On East Street is Kayani Bakery. The Kayanian dynasty was one of the most powerful royal ruling families of Iran in ancient times, and these guys, true to their name are still churning out stuff fit for kings. Their chocolate icing cake is famous. Its large, circular, and coated with the hardest, brownest layer of sugary chocolate, with white zig-zag lines and two pink roses with fluorescent green creamy leaves. Inside it is the soft sponge again, but with a generous sprinkling of red and green sweet little squishy things we like to call tutty-fruities. My family had nicknamed it 'Goo-cake', and it provided the ultimate sugar rush.
But the king and queen of Kayani Bakery are the Ginger and Shewsburry biscuits. The former is a brown round cookie, with a delicious gingery spiciness, which no one can replicate. The queen of Kayani, the Shewsburry, is the fairer cousin of the ginger. Off-white and just packed with oodles of butter, it melts in your mouth, as your heart also melts with pure love and goodness. A few find the butteriness too much, and prefer the kidney shaped hazelnut biscuit. This is probably one of the few times you can taste real hazelnuts. There are also the round coconut biscuits, with frilly edges. For those with a preference for salty goods, there are cheese biscuits, soup sticks, and other such delicacies. Most of the biscuits are made in the same moulds and have an imprint of a smiling baker with 'Kayani Bakery' written around his head like a halo.
And truly, their bakers are a gift from higher powers. Not at all angelic in appearance, some are big and burly, with arms like young tree trunks, perfect for rolling and punching the dough. Others are sullen, but their magic and angelicness is apparent in the kitchen. The bakery only cooks on wooden ovens, and despite some environmental concerns, once you taste any of their products, you are a slave to them, and ready to sacrifice any number of trees for their noble cause.
The bakery itself is large, but the front counter is always as crowded as a railway station. A series of challenges stands between you and your cakes. You have to first wrestle to get to the counter top, which is very high, and then peer over it. You then have to get the attention of one of the staff, no easy task, as each one would be already occupied with some other customer. And the staff is in no rush. By this time you better have two lists in mind, one of your first preference of items, and a second list of back-ups. Often items of your choice are over, or they are only baked in the morning or evening. The place is simple, and the only forms of interior decoration are a large picture of the Prophet Zoraster, and a large, plain calendar with red and blue digits.
The other bakery is Royal Bakery. Contrary to its name, it is a small, rustic joint, with pista green shutters. While Kayani Bakery has more expertise in biscuits, Royal Bakery is best in breads. These bakers look like they have just landed from the steppes of Iran. They have lined and weathered faces, with the mysterious light-eyed look of the Middle-Eastern nomad. It is impossible to guess their ages, but their grey hair is testimony to all their hard work, and do they work hard! One can see straight past the counter, just a few feet away, into the dark depths of their kitchen. There is a long table, and on either side are more weathered men wearing dirty vests, sweating, as they wrestle and cuddle huge masses of dough. One of Royal Bakeries legacies is the gutli pao. This is a large round bread, with an outer crust that is brown, thick and hard. Inside, it is soft, white, snowy bread, with a spongy, airy texture, that is like nothing on earth. It can be had with anything, dal, curry, jam, but it tastes best with lumps of hard butter. The bread symbolically resembles its creators, formidable to behold, but concealing pure goodness within.
Another legendary creation of Royal Bakery is their milk bread. Here they are one up on Kayani Bakery. If Marie Antoinette had tasted this bread, she would have said,"Dam the cake, just eat bread." And her subjects wouldn't have objected in the least. This bread comes wrapped in a smooth, creamy paper. On it is printed in red a smiling baker, and the very apt sentence "The bread that stays for a 100 days and keeps you fit for a 100 years."
A gorgeous creation from Royal is their batasa. These are little round crunchy biscuits, with a faint flavour of jeera. To truly appreciate their beauty, they need to be dunked in a cup of hot tea. The outer layers become soft, and melt in the mouth, while the centre stays crispy and crunchy.
Almost opposite Royal Bakery is the last, but not the least, City Bakery. All the bakeries have their share of crazy staff. One could never tell if they are joking or serious, and sometimes they are downright rude, but no one really cared. The Iranis are famous for their 'crazy streak' and City Bakery really takes the cake, or shall we say, the bread. This baker refers to everything in his shop in dollars. How much was the bread? Twenty dollars. The chocolate biscuits? Forty dollars. The total? Sixty dollars. He persists in this behavior with a perfectly straight face. A customer once complimented him on the quality of his stuff, saying such delicacies would not be available even in the best bakeries of Paris. He replied, "Madam, you obviously don't appear to have visited Paris." Of course, this just left the lady cackling with laughter as she carried off her bag of goodies. Their crowning glory is the Fan biscuit. Probably mastered from some Danish baker, this is a glorious creation, shaped like an elongated heart, delicately layered, and coated with crunchy sugar. It could melt the hardest heart.
These shops are as simple and unadorned as their owners. If there is a Nobel Prize in food, they have excellent chances of winning it. They belong to the rare species who bakes with pure love, and it is apparent in every bite. Their service to humanity is beyond measure. As you take a bite of any bread, biscuit or cake, its goodness and richness slowly spreads on your tongue, filling you with warm delight, and you finally know what it is to eat like a king.
The terrible disaster in Japan this month has left the world shocked (how could it be so brutal!), scared (what if it happens to us?) and confused (how dangerous is nuclear power?). The media is a fickle mistress, and the news is now dominated by Libya, Wikileaks and so on. But the scale of the earthquake, and the force of the tsunami after that has left everyone gasping for breath. The world won't forget Japan that easily.
More astounding, to a lot of us, is the good behaviour of the Japanese, even in the face of total destruction. They still stand in orderly lines for food. There has been no looting, plundering and rioting, as often breaks out in other parts of the world (sometimes even in normal circumstances). This is also because the Japanese are trained from childhood to always value the group above the individual. The good of the group comes before I, myself and me. That is why few people are hoarding, because they know that hoarding implies they are depriving their neighbour of essential supplies. In previous earthquakes, people rushed out into the street, but almost at once they quietly queued up to pay their shop or restaurant bill. Such is their love for doing the right thing. So even in the worst of situations, they still remain human.
In contrast, our culture values the individual above the group, in most situations. The individual is greater than the area, the organisation, the city, state or country. Hence, a lot of people feel they are above the law. Multiply this across a lot of levels of society, and you get a happy state of anarchy (masquerading as democracy). In a functioning democracy, you can exercise your rights because you fulfill your duty. In a democrazy people can freely break the signal, or throw garbage on the street, or bribe, because a) they don't care b) they don't feel the street is their country and c) they usually don't feel Indian. The identity of Indianness is usually overshadowed by the identity of the community. It is always 'I am Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, (fill in any state)' before it is 'I am Indian'. We were a bunch of kingdoms earlier, and we still are a bunch of kingdoms, strongly based on linguistic lines. For the North Indians, everyone south of Mumbai is a 'Madrasi'. For the South Indians, everyone north of Mumbai is a Northie. For the Mumbaikars, Mumbai is its own country.
So the general 'Me before all else' attitude has made our country very fertile for corruption. It is rampant at all levels, in all places, barring a few. 2010 may have been the Year of the Tiger in the Chinese calendar, but in the Indian calendar it was the Year of the Scammers. There was 2G, Commonwealth Games, Adarsh Society, Satyam, Ramalinga Raju, Raja and his Batcha, Swiss Bank, and the evergreen politicians being bought with wads of notes that were the size of bricks. And these are just a few of those that made the headlines. One can't imagine the amount of money changing hands under the table across all levels. No system is the system, with money as the new God. Scams are the new democracy, as everyone can freely indulge in them. It's scamming by the people, for the people and of the people.
And we are all part of the system. I plead guilty. In 2006, some friends and I bribed a peon at a prominent art college in South Mumbai to get our certificates. The certificates were rightfully ours by the way, and we didn't have to do it, but the peon openly and shamelessly asked three of us students for a bribe. Except that he called it a 'gift'. Filled with disgust, and in shock, we didn't want to give in. We didn't belong to that college, and we also didn't want to make numerous trips there to get it out of him. He would definitely trouble us if we didn't pay him. Our lame excuse is we had no choice. The real reason is that we were cowards who wanted the easy way out. There is no real excuse for bending the rules to suit your own convenience. We put 'me' before the greater good. So the price for 3 pieces of paper (also known as certificates) was Rs 100/- total.
Japan is grappling with radiation, but India has to grapple with something more dangerous in the long-term. The debates over nuclear power, safety, environmental destruction and disaster management will rage and die out as issues bulldoze one another. But good sensible behaviour, basic ethics, and the decision to do right, even when nobody is watching, is, well, the strength of the Japanese alone.
What's the biggest difference between working by hand (illustration for instance), and working on the computer? It is the absence (or presence) of Ctrl Z. When you draw by hand, you can't undo things easily. The thing drawn remains drawn (dammit!).
The Ctrl Z (or undo option) has changed the way we work and the way we think. Since everything can be undone, sometimes nothing is done very seriously. On the other hand it emboldens us to try new things, however stupid they may seem. Ctrl Z is forgiving. It tells you, you are human, you can do it again, don't sweat it. When you work by hand, you are slower and surer, because you have to be. It is old-school. Working by hand takes the examination first and gives you the education later. If you fail, you start all over. Ctrl Z has taken the edge of drawing. It has given us a plan B. Ctrl Z (Command Z) is a state of mind, which becomes a whole way of working. You can take three leaps forward, because you know that you can always reverse in minutes. Ctrl Z has created a culture of impatience, but also a culture of limitless experimentation.
The digital camera has been the Ctrl Z culture of photography. Previously, people used film. It had to be loaded, used, wound, spooled, developed, fixed, and finally printed into a contact sheet. The long process ensured that we carefully composed our shots, and only took a shot if we were pretty sure that was what we wanted. You ended up with photos that were fewer in number, but better in quality. With the digital camera you may shoot hundreds, and still may not turn out with a great one. That's because we shoot without thinking.
Ctrl Z has made us (among other things):
Since humankind is at that incredibly exciting stage of leaping from the Gutenberg era to the iPad era, both eras stand to gain the best from each other. And in the process both are evolving almost faster than we are.
Truth is daring
The Wikileaks logo is a world melting/leaking into another world. It is also an hourglass. Great symbolism on both fronts, as the world is changing fast, melting into something else, and Wikileaks might hopefully be part of that change. The tables have been turned. Since it is a veritable time bomb too, the hourglass. Strange thing is neither of the two globes show the Americas (for a change). Usually it's our part of the world that is chosen to face away from the viewer.
We don't know how long it will be before the thing explodes, something happens (God forbid) to Julian Assange, or governments get control of it (God and the Devil forbid that!). As of now it survives, or maybe even thrives. It's almost the biggest thing since Gutenberg or the Internet. There is nothing as exciting, enabling and empowering than 'secret' information suddenly being available. Are we a voyeuristic species? Probably yes, looking at the amount of 'forbidden' matter floating around the Internet, from porn to state secrets to conspiracy theories. But if Governments claim to be 'for the people', then what do they have to hide? Secrecy is the mother of suspicion.
George Orwell said, "During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act."
The New Yorker