Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Tera Rang Aisa Chadh Gaya, Koi Aur Rang Na Chadh Sakey…


He came, he inspired, and he conquered. This summer Aamir Khan forced India to cancel all Sunday morning appointments. Generations across the country, across the world, sat glued to their television sets or their computers to find out what else is wrong with India.

In 13 episodes, Aamir Khan initiated, established and supported a movement – a movement for change – change that India and Indians had been wanting for years. He appeared on our screens and spoke to us in impeccable Hindi [and several regional languages], bringing a new issue, a new problem and a new solution to us every Sunday.

A flood of sentiments, arguments, opinions, donations, questions, monumental praise and even criticism followed every episode. India was on its feet. Her citizens were thinking, making choices, taking decisions, and waking up. Or were they?

I waited to watch the last episode depicting Satyamev Jayate’s journey so far. I waited till an hour ago. It was telecast on August 15th, 2012 in India – the day I flew out of the country to make my way back to a remote corner of the USA.

I waited because I wanted to get out of the Satyamev Jayate fever that had engulfed people around me and the atmosphere in general. Engulfed is probably too strong a word but suddenly, people were talking about rainwater harvesting, even though my neighbours were pumping water out every morning to wash their collection of cars. I waited so that I could develop a relatively unbiased perspective and because I honestly didn't have the time to watch it while I was trying to pack 46 kg of luggage. 

Meanwhile, TIME magazine featured Khan on their cover with a caption asking readers whether an actor can change a nation.

If TIME magazine had watched even one of the 13 episodes, or looked closely at their own cover photo, they probably could have seen the underlying truth. Aamir Khan is not ‘an actor’. He’s an Indian. An Indian looking to create, build, and leave behind a better India for generations to come. I don’t think anyone is that good an actor. Good enough to pull off something like Satyamev Jayate and actively, personally follow up on every issue to see it to its destination.

His eyes give him away. They are brimming with grit and determination to make things happen, to make the right things happen. His gaze holds your eyes, draws you into the episode with him, makes you weep as he wipes his tears away, and infuriates you as you learn of new atrocities. No actor can do that. Only an Indian who, in every drop of his blood, loves and feels his country can. He can. He did.

So did several before him. Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Lokmanya Tilak, Babasaheb Ambedkar, even Mahatma Gandhi invoked this level of emotion in Indians the world over. So why is he different?

Because he is not advocating radicalism or leaning towards the Left or Right. He’s standing up for reality and advocating humanity, responsibility, and practicality. His ‘fans’ aren’t extremists or non-violence practitioners. His followers are the common people who experience these issues every day and have kept quiet for years thinking no one cared, and that nothing could be done either way. From farmers to entrepreneurs, people relate to him, and feel involved in the process of making their home a better place. 

Question is, why did we need an Aamir Khan to stand up and say he would do this? Why hadn’t we done something about either of these issues ourselves? Or do we always look to Hindi cinema for solutions? We let Shah Rukh Khan teach us romance, and we wait for Aamir to debut on television to mobilize ourselves. Why?

Does it not sting you somewhere deep inside that you’re asking for a Satyamev Jayate Season 2? Is it, on some level, not embarrassing that we’d need a second season?

Is it only Aamir Khan’s moral responsibility to mobilize the country every time it falls asleep or begins to doze off? Why do we always wait till the last minute, wait for a wake-up call? Purely and simply as legal citizens of India, we are required to follow the law. Everyone from our country’s premier, politicians, lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, painters, plumbers, tailors, actors, students, housewives, is required to dutifully and honestly fulfil their individual responsibility as laid out in the Constitution of India.

We lived under foreign rule for centuries. For 65 years, we have had the legal freedom to be responsible for our own country, our own lives. Somewhere down that road, we became complacent, materialistic and insensitive. Six and a half decades down the road, do we still find it impossible to initiate problem-solving techniques ourselves and do we still feel the need for a constant wake-up call or reminder to tell us to do our job better?

I find it hard to be saying and asking all these things because: a) I have no idea if anyone is ever going to read this, b) I’m actually a staunch supporter of the sheer spirit and √©lan with which Aamir Khan went about creating and executing Satyamev Jayate, and c) It’s 1:28am and I haven’t slept in a long, long time so thinking objectively and clearly kind of becomes difficult.

Despite the severe sleep deprivation, I wonder why people of India continue to flood Satyamev Jayate’s pages with requests of a second season. Maybe 12 heart-breaking episodes and windows into reality weren’t enough to rattle them out of their seats and get them moving, for good.

On a very superficial level, it's great that the episodes in themselves and the follow up action got politicians and the concerned authorities moving towards a goal. A goal that should have been reached and passed decades ago. On a deeper level, the fact that in so short a period of time, so many politicians signed documents, passed bills in parliament, altered text books, made arrests, conducted raids etc. - is shameful. If that's all the time it took them to get this far, what on earth were they doing for all these years? 

13 weeks of Aamir Khan's tear-jerking telecasts drove them to the edge and transformed people into aware and patriotic citizens of India. So maybe Gandhi, Nehru, Tilak, Ambedkar etc. should have launched television shows for the impact they desired. Because we sure as hell aren't where we should, or could, have been at this point. 

It makes patriotism look like a battery-powered emotion that runs out when you overuse it in a short period of time. Then it needs to be recharged or needs a ‘second season’ of batteries to get going again. Is this why we became independent?

It took us 65 years to discuss female foeticide, child sexual abuse, domestic violence etc. on a national, public platform. Do we want to wait another 65 to discuss the next dozen issues?

If India wants to change, and I believe in my heart that it does, then why can’t we change without requesting a nudge at regular intervals? Are we not all Aamir Khans? Aren’t we all the trustees and beneficiaries of our own country? 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

My dream. My India.

"Why would you still want to go back to India? Wahaan rakha hi kya hai," I am asked. Several times over. Till I finally start to feel violent.

Kyun na jaun vapas? Mera ghar nahi hai kya? Mera desh nahi hai kya? Yahaan baithke kya bas dekhti rahun ki kuch log kya haal kar rahe hain mere ghar ka? Chup chaap bahar-walon ki tarah dekh kar muh pher lu? 

Is that really that surprising or outrageous that a 23-year-old Indian girl who is finishing her Master's in the USA still wants to go back to India after accomplishing the academic goals she's aiming for?

Is it that ridiculous for me to want to go ... home?

Do people not feel ashamed to actually tell me that there's no scope for me and "people like me" in India and that I should stay put, earn a fortune and live happily ever after? I'm sorry but my mind and life are not that shallow. I function on certain principles.

Should I sit here, quietly building up a handsome bank balance while watching my country fall apart because of arrogant, corrupt politicians and senseless discrimination? Should I wait for someone else to step in and 'clean up'? Why? Is it not your home?

Koi aur aake kyun tumhari gandagi saaf karey? Khud utro usmein. Karo apni mitti ko saaf. Ghar pe bade sher bante phirte ho toh bahar jao, jagao un logon ko jo aankhein band karke jeete hain, uthao unhein, kaam par lagao. Khud kaam karo. Par nahi. Tumhein toh yahaan aake pardesi logon ke liye kaam karna zyada pasand hai. Wohi toh tumhara sapna hai. Ki kab main degree le lu aur kat lu yahaan se.

And then you'll magically transform into one of those 'NRIs' who visit India once in a few years and cover their noses with kerchiefs and wrinkle them underneath. You'll buy mineral water, complain about how many potholes there are in the roads, and how backward 'this' country is.

Yahi sab kehne ke liye vapas aana hai toh ek kaam karo bhai - mat aao vapas. Humein zaroorat hi nahi hai tumhari. Ek din tumhein zaroorat mehsoos hogi. Apne logon ki. APNE desh ki. Tab ban jaoge tum.. pakke NRI.

Don't come back if you can't use any of your acclaimed IVY league education and your fancy bank balances for the betterment of the land where you were made. Where the largest democratic, secular population on earth lives - happily.

Yes, we have problems. But there are still people who believe in solving problems, not getting used to them. If you have so much influence, so much attitude and power, bring it all with you. Bring it back and invest it - in YOUR country. Your home.

That feeling you get when you watch an episode of Satyamev Jayate on your big, giant flat-screen LCD television in your posh living room - capture it, retain it and transplant it - to reality.

Get up and do something about it instead of remaining a drawing room hero.

This is not some Tata Tea 'Jaago Re' campaign. It's not a 'Support Anna Hazare' campaign either. It simply says, if your dream took you somewhere else, I respect that.

My dream was and is, to fight back. To go home to my people, my land, my dharti and apply everything I've learned to a genuine effort in keeping my homeland beautiful.

Tumhara sapna tumhein mubarak ho. Par pankh ugakar yeh mat sochke baitho ki bass, ab hum mahaan ho gaye hain. 

Aur agar dil mein itni si bhi ichha ho, ki yaar mujhe apne ghar jana hai, toh ruko mat. Laut jao. Shauk se. Dil se. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Not Nearly a Tribute

The world of conservation, in all its essence, is defined by the choices people make- whether those people are the citizens who vote, or policy makers, workers, biologists, journalists, lawyers, or the forest department staff. Fortunately for conservation, it has seen some great thinkers, dedicated workers, and remarkably talented people with a distinct charm about them and their ways.

Among the several such people I have been lucky enough to meet and share some time with, is Fateh Singh Rathore.

This is not a library collection on him and who he was with all the technical bits of information about his work for tigers and Ranthambhore, and his constant, cheerful encouragement of youngsters to contribute to the field.

This, is an account of my memories of him. My memories of "Fuddgy", of the man who had a charisma like no other, the man who was, is and for me - will always be - the real 'Tiger Man of India'.

Fat[e]hji would wake up earlier than most animals in Ranthambhore do. He would go for a walk in the morning, and on returning, would drink this ridiculous beetroot-carrot-and something else juice and I have still not figured out HOW he drank it everyday. Maybe his taste buds were still asleep then. One morning he decided to come shake our tent vigorously to scare the crap out of us. Problem was - the other two people with me in that tent would sleep through a protest rally if it passed an inch from them. I however, was up in a second. Not because I'm a light sleeper, but because when I'm in a tent/on field, I tend to be a very light sleeper because I expect every noise to come from a majestic animal that might be close by.

I poked my head of the tent and there he was- all dressed for his walk. I mumbled a "good morning" and, with his trademark style, said - "jao tayyar hokar aao. main 5min. rukunga. walk pe jana hai." [Translated, that means- "go get ready and hurry back. I will wait 5min. for you to show up. We're going for a walk."] I stared at him and was convinced he was kidding. But his next words were "4min." and I hopped out the tent, ran up, straightened myself out and marched back down, shoes and everything set to go. He liked giving me a hard time and I always played along because he was so cute. So he grilled the life out of me during that walk and when we were back at the front door, he said, without turning to look at me,"finish your college and come work here. you're no good in the city." I'm smiling even as I type this because it brings that moment back to life for me and I even remember the tone.

Story' goes on. I was on my way back to the tent when he told me to come in. I did. Maybe I shouldn't have. He made me drink that horrible vegetable juice thing and I swear to God, I have tasted pharmaceuticals that have tasted better. I shot him a look and he laughed. "It's good for you. Stop complaining. I have to drink the thing by myself everyday. Tricked you into it, didn't I?" he said, with his child-like mischievous grin. The man's energy was literally contagious.

Then one day, he returned in his Toyota Qualis looking all upset and annoyed. I was walking to the office and he spotted me just at the right time. "AJ- kya kar rahi hai? kahan bhatak rahi hai dhoop mein?" ["AJ- what are you doing? where are you wandering off to in this heat?"] I said I was headed down to the office and then I asked - "Kya hua? Ro kyun rahe ho?" ["What happened? Why are you all sad/crying?"] He pointed to the car and said the stereo stopped working.

I laughed out so loud, I think a Peacock fell out of a tree somewhere around us [by the way, we've all actually seen Peacocks literally fall out of trees while they're asleep. It is incredibly hillarious]. Anyway, he stared at me till I stopped laughing and then said, go fix the stereo! I don't know why, but I did. And it worked. And from then on, I was "radio-wali" [until he forgot about the new name and went back to calling me AJ again].


On one of my other visits, I took a crate full of 'Jamun' fruits for him. I found him sitting on his terrace and crept up behind him and placed the box next to him. Too late. He had seen me. So instead of him jumping,  he shouted out "AJ aayi!!!" while I tried to softly place the box down - and I jumped. His excitement and enthusiasm make it seem like he's no older than a 6 year old child. He opened the box, saw what was inside, turned back to look at me and said - What is this? I though you would bring me Mangoes!" I smiled at him and calmly said, "they're in the kitchen. but you cannot eat more than 1 every 2 days."
"Why?" he asked, feigning disbelief. "Because you've probably forgotten it but you're diabetic. No sweets." He put his hand to his head and went, "Oh god... She's back," he said and rolled his eyes.
Tiger Watch's Conservation Leadership Course- first batch of participants with volunteers and Fateh ji
"Yes, I am. And I will be watching how fast those Mangoes are disappearing. So don't think you can talk your way out of this one."

We have called each other so many things over those years, I've lost track. But at one point we were both trying to see who gets impatient first. He would call me 'dadi ji' and I would call him 'dada ji' and sure enough, 4 days into it and I had had enough. He, however, was cool as a cucumber - which is something considering Ranthambhore recorded a sweltering 46°C that summer.

Every time someone mentions his name, or I read it somewhere, I can only see that big broad smile on his face and those sparkling eyes. And it is only fitting that a man of so much dedication, intelligence, and charm, be remembered with fondness in our hearts and a "big, broad smile" on our faces. :)

It's still hard to believe that today is a year since he passed away but I think he always intended to hand around till all the causes he stood for were fought for in the right spirit so even though he's invisible, I believe he's still very much around. Ranthambhore's tigers have an uncanny connection with him. Even today. And I think, forever more. No one can explain this connection they share. Some things are best left unsaid, and unexplained. That's their beauty.

So here's to 'Fuddgy' - the man who put Ranthambhore on the map. The man who meant SO many different things to an array of people from all over the world, and from all age-groups. With good reason.

Cheers Fuddgy.