Sundeep Bhutoria

Welcome to my blog. Do share your views and thoughts with me. Request visitors to keep their comments brief and to the point. I shall respond to you to the extent possible.
Thank you.
ess bee

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Monday, May 31, 2010

Nimby Syndrome

Most of us are still reeling from the shock of the Mangalore airport and the Gyaneshwari train mishaps and we get the news of the bus that was burnt in Karnataka. These incidents not only make us feel insecure but also allude to the fact that the security scenario in the country is worsening at a worrying rate. Our very life is at stake.
If you travel by flight your plane may crash land. If you feel flights are unsafe and travel by the train you may find it being derailed. Instead, if you choose to travel by bus it may meet with an accident anytime. Finally, if you choose to stay at home, still you may find your house on fire due to a faulty wire. So travel at your own peril and beware of staying at home. Safety and security it seems is biggest casualty and little is being done to rectify the situation.
Our country is densely populated but does that make the value of human life cheap. We all know about the standards of hygiene and the state of infrastructure in most hospitals. Then there is the medical equipment scam, the issue of counterfeit medicines, spurious milk factories etc., that have numbed us into accepting all this aberrations as a part of our daily life without protest.
I wonder if we are waiting for something more drastic to happen before we stand up and react. Or is this the silence of the aam aadmi - the proverbial lull before the storm. The problem stems from the fact that we have by nature become self-centred and indifferent to the plight of others. This is the typical Nimby (Not in my back yard) syndrome. Also, the people seem to gradually accept the ways of the world, including its anomalies, as part of life.
One of my friends has an apartment at Queens in New York. There is a bridge just below his apartment. Few months back there was a car accident in one of the turns on that bridge. The US administration kept a watch on the bridge for months to ascertain what went wrong. And finally decided to reconstruct the bridge and all this action was because of one incident. 
On Saturday evening I went to the Academy of Fine Arts to attend a candle light walk in memory of those who died in the recent train accident (picture). Many like-minded citizens were there. Sunil da, Mrinal Sen, Usha Uthup, Arindam Sil, Agnimitra Paul, Chuni Goswami, Rituparna Sengupta , Sabyasachi Chakraborty and others from all walks of life. I was really sad and just as the walk began to commence there was a heavy downpour for 15 minutes. It seemed that even the skies cried out for the hapless innocent victims who died in the train accident.
Since Friday I haven’t visited any function and neither was I up to it. On Saturday evening the Tolly Club marriage reception of Indronil and Swastika’s sister got cancelled because Indronil’s cousin sister, who was in that ill-fated train, lost her left hand in that accident. When we see the death toll we often forget about those who are handicapped by such accidents. Their life is no less painful than the dead. The fact that they survived offers little consolation.
The whole weekend I did not visit any party and events but did cast my vote on Sunday (picture). I know this would hardly make any difference, but still I thought that voting is essential. If we don’t protest, don’t vote or react then there is no point cursing the way things are shaping around us. We get the society we deserve. Sometimes I even feel there is hardly any point saying or writing all this as we are up against a system where nobody listens.
Tute huye par dekh ke rota hoon
Ujede huay chaman dekh ke ro deta hoon
Rotay huon ki meri aahon ka kuch asar ho
Phir unhi aahon ka asar dekh ke ro deta hoon
ess bee

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Shanghai honours the Bard of Bengal

President Pratibha Patil is in Shanghai where she would be formally unveiling the bust of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. As we celebrate the 150th Birth Anniversary of Gurudev this year, I personally feel that Gurudev has received a lot more respect and reverence in many other parts of the world than in India.
I have visited a number of countries and found that Gurudev’s appeal cuts across geographies and cultures and he is highly revered as a towering intellectual of his times. From Latin America, Europe, Far East and China the respect and honour bestowed upon Tagore is unrivalled and remains largely unknown to many Indians. Take for example Santiago (Chile), the birthplace of Pablo Neruda, has a Park named in honour of Tagore. During my visit to that Park I saw a huge bust of Rabindranath Tagore at the centre of the city along with that of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru (picture).
When Tagore visited Latin America in 1924 he fell ill and was nursed by the famous and beautiful Lady Victoria Ocampo. Lady Ocampo, who was a lynchpin of the intellectual scene of the 1920s and '30s in Argentina, had serious literary interests and had read Andre Gide’s French translation of Gitanjali. She keenly followed Tagore’s works and was the editor of one of the leading literary magazine of Latin America called SUR.
Tagore was also very impressed by Victoria and named her Vijaya and dedicated the poems he wrote in Argentina to her under the titlePurabi. Tagore, who was in Argentina for two-and-half months, also drew some sketches during his stay. The House in which Gurudev stayed is now under UNESCO. With the help of the then Indian Ambassador to Argentina, Mr Nigam, I had visited that House at Illartodo, 1811 Coradaba, which is an hour’s drive from Buenos Aires.
Ms Maria, the personal secretary of Lady Victoria Ocampo, takes care of the Trust that was set up by Victoria for the promotion of literature. During my visit I met Ms Maria and she was the one who gave the permission to visit the House where Tagore had stayed during his illness. In 1970 Indira Gandhi visited the place and placed a stone to mark her visit to the House.
In 2002, when I visited Latin America, I found the same love and reverence for Gurudev in Peru, Brazil, Chile and Venezuela. But I remember my visit to Hungary for a very different and embarrassing reason.
Rabindranath Tagore had visited Hungary in 1926. The Mayor of Budapest had hosted a civic reception in his honour. I have seen the invitation card and the menu of Mayor’s reception framed and kept as a memento at the Ambassador’s room at the Indian Mission in Budapest. Tagore was perhaps the only man from this part of the world to get such a reception. There is a small village 100 kms from Budapest called Balatonfured that has a statue of Gurudev. The village hospital, where the bard was treated, has a suite named Tagore Suite that is reserved for the VIPs. Even today the village celebrates Tagore’s birthday with full of reverence. When I visited the Hospital in Balatonfured, the director of the Hospital, Dr Gabor Veress, asked me about the nearest airport to Santiniketan and the museum where the Nobel Prize was kept. He wanted to visit and see the medal Tagore had won. I was caught off guard. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. What could I tell him – That the Nobel Prize had been stolen?  I had no answer.
My trip to Hungary took place just after the medallion was stolen. I did not have the face to formally invite Dr Veress to Santiniketan. Even now, I still don’t have the moral courage to invite him formally.
I visited Prague, the capital of Czech Republic, in 2004 on the invitation of University of Economics. I visited Thakur Riva - the street named after Gurudev Rabindranath Thakur. I also visited the spot where a bust of the bard is set atop a pillar that marks the starting point of Thakur Riva.
As I read about the Indian President’s current visit to China, I recalled that this is not the first time that China is honouring the Bard of Bengal. Shanghai has immortalised the conversation of Tagore and a Chinese poet over tea in a sculpture currently housed in one of the museums (picture)I recall the days when Smt Pratibha Patil ji was the Governor of Rajasthan she was at my house for dinner (pictures) and I had mentioned to her about the respect accorded to Gurudev Internationally referring to the picture lying on the table. After many years today the President of India, who has a personal interest in literature, is in Shanghai to unveil the statue of Tagore in honour of the Nobel laureate’s journey to the city in 1924.
ess bee

Monday, May 24, 2010

Life sans mobile

After a long overseas trip, the first weekend in Kolkata was a tame affair sleeping off the effects of the jet lag and getting back in the groove but did miss a couple of dinners and events in the process. First there was the dinner with Mulayam Singh Yadav hosted by Kamal Gandhi on Friday. The other was the get together on Saturday to celebrate the 50th theatrical show of Chaturanga and then there was the dinner at The Conclave hosted by MLA Dinesh Bajaj on Sunday in honour of the Rajasthan Assembly speaker. However, I did manage to dine at The Souk in Taj and was really impressed by the new menu that they have only recently introduced.
I saw the movie Kites and felt that it was not cut out for the Indian audiences with all its sub-titles and Spanish. Although the actors have acted well and director Anurag Basu did full justice to the short story, script and the locales. But one thing was evident that in order to cater to the Indian audience’s taste for long movies the director resorted to lengthy chasing sequences especially the car chase scene. We missed Arpita our regular movie partner who is holidaying abroad (file picture). We usually discuss the finer points of every film we see together.
After coming to Kolkata everyone is complaining about my cell phone and asking me how to reach me. I fail to imagine how we managed to live when there were no cell phones around. Although my voice mail and SMS are active, most people find it difficult to communicate with me since most of us seldom ask or keep landline numbers or for that matter use it.
I am convinced that we are living in an era where our own inventions and devices have enslaved us with dependency bordering on the irrational. Cell phones can actually be very irritating at times especially in public places and theatres where people do not comply with requests to switch off their phone. It is sad but true that people obey such requests only when it is legally enforced.
I personally feel very irritated when I hear the ring tones of buzzing cell phones during somebody’s mourning and during baithaks. There was this incident in our extended family when one of our elderly relatives had died and it so happened that one of our relatives was talking on his cell phone while carrying the arthi on his shoulders. On hearing this my aunt, who lives in Canada, has given standing instructions to all of us that during her funeral anyone who cannot stay away from his or her cell phone, or at least turn it in silent mode, should not be allowed.
Honestly, I personally feel that my output has halved since the time I had to keep off the cell phone as advised and prescribed by one of the leading experts on the subject Dr Richard J Pyne. I have promised him that I would heed his advice and stay away from cell phones for 3 months and would use it only in case of emergency.
It is more than two weeks now but I don’t think I have missed something really important for not using the cell phone. Honestly speaking my stress level has decreased and my  concentration has increased. Of course there are so many in our circle who do not respond the unknown numbers so I send them an SMS before calling up from my landline number. Heard that a new device has come in use which is like a landline phone but uses GSM SIM card. Let me see if I could get one.
ess bee

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Indians who aren’t Indians

During my recent visit to Canada I learnt that the original inhabitants or the aboriginal people of North America are described as Indians. Also called natives, they were the first people of with whom the Government of Canada has signed various treaties that retain their uniqueness and allow them to lead their traditional and independent life. The original people live in various defined territories spread across North America where outsiders are not allowed to settle by law.
It has been snowing since morning and I seized the opportunity to visit one of the territories called Kahnawake of the Mohawk community. I visited their parliament which they call Council and met Mr Michael Ahririhon Delisle Jr who is the elected Grand Chief (read President or Prime Minister) of this territory (picture). It was a pleasant meeting with him and few of his senior ministers or Council members. I was surprised to learn about their different facets of life and customs. There are 11 elected members and a Grand Chief who is also elected by a separate process.
The aboriginal people, though most of them can be passed off as Nepalis or Bhutanis, have nothing to do with India or Indians but came to be described as `native Indians’ by the Dutch and Spanish conquerors who reached here first and thought they had discovered India. The Mohawk community do not like the word Indians to describe them nor do they warm up to the idea of being `discovered’ for they feel that they were always there. There are about 620 such communities called Federal Canadian Reserves across Canada that account for 2.5 % of the total population of the country.
It is very difficult to visit these Reserves in the north – a region with snow cover throughout the year. The one I visited is one of the top five developed Reserves excelling in administration and distribution of finance. The Grand Chiefs of all these 620 Reserves meet twice in a year to deliberate and decide on protecting their land and access to clean water.
The total population of the Kahnawake nation of Mohawk community is approximately 8000 and they live in their designated area and are also engaged in protecting their turf. They have their own laws and police force called `peace keepers’. Besides the Council House i.e., Parliament, I have also visited their `peace-keeping station’ and cultural centre.
They are exempted from paying any taxes and get financial support from the Government of Canada. The marriages within their own communities are encouraged and at best only with the members from the other 620 Reserves or original people. It is usual practice for men to go and live in the girl’s community after marriage. Marrying outside the community and Reserves is almost a taboo. If anyone gets married outside the 620 Reserves, he or she ceases to become a member of the community and is socially boycotted.
They worship the Mother Earth and celebrate its different seasons. A lady member of the Council explained to me that they always lived with the support of whatever Mother Earth blessed them with – plants, animals etc. There were no grocery shops and they turned to Mother Earth for fulfilling their needs to survive and sustain. The community prays and invokes the Mother Earth and Nature every season and seek the blessings for surviving the next season, she said.
The old Constitution of the community is called The Great Law and has three words – good mind, power strength and peace. The Council members proudly informed me that the three words liberty, equality and fraternity, which is central to the Constitution of USA and American life, was influenced by their Constitution.
The community have their own local radio station which was of great help to them during 9/11 as there were so many people working in New York from these Reserves. The people of the Reserves are considered to be the best in the world for building huge iron bridges and high rises like the Empire State Building in New York. The community radio played a major role in keeping them informed about their dear ones during the crises. Another interesting fact is that they even have their own passport which is valid for travel in Latin America, Africa and Switzerland and some other countries. They don’t consider themselves to be Canadians and if at all they have to take the Canadian passport they do so by registering their protest in bond paper to drive home their message that they are not Canadian citizens but accept the passport only for a special reason. They also have free movement at the US border.
During my visit to the Mohawk community cultural centre, the person who was showing me around, Mr Tom Deer, told me that he was not a Canadian or American and that he had travelled all over the world on a Visa issued to him in his own passport. He is also one of the members of the Documents Committee for five nations engaged in negotiating with other countries for recognition of their passport. The Council presented me with their Flag, Emblem and a Gift at their Council House or Parliament.
The communities are a very resolute lot. During the last decade, the Canadian government wanted to make a golf course in one of their sister territories and there was a strong protest from the communities decrying outside interference. The Canadian police could not handle the issue and the Canadian Government handed over the matter to the military. The Mohawk community had blocked the main bridge in central Montreal and after a 3-month standoff with the military the Government blinked and called off the golf project.
I had long desired to visit one of the Reserves and my wish came true for which I am grateful to David whose efforts made it possible. The trip to the Reserve was one of my long-awaited life’s great experience.
ess bee

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Home sweet home

I am back in Kolkata from an extensive tour of North America. It feels nice to be back home in Kolkata and to the traffic snarls and sultry weather.
At the Frankfurt airport I met Gautam Ghosh (file picture) who was returning via same flight from some meeting in Italy. Had a chat with him about his forthcoming film with Prasenjeet and one of the documentaries directed by him quite some time back that is currently being restored.
Missed Indronil’s court marriage with Swastika’s (file picture) sister and the party that followed at her house on Sunday evening. However, I will attend their wedding reception and other functions next week. 
I have to give two to three full days to clear the work log that has piled up during my absence. I have booked a flight for Thailand for the 21st morning but it seems, given the current volatile situation out there, I have to postpone the visit.
I have had to switch off my cell phone on doctor’s advice due to excessive usage. I await further advice from him while I try to manage. I am convincing myself by recalling the times when there were no mobile phones and life and work went on as usual.
At times the cell phone grates on my nerves and more so especially in a country where most of us need a crash course in phone etiquette. I often feel bad that we don’t do justice to such a useful devise that can easily become an irritant in public life. Now-a-days we don’t even ask for or call on landline phones. My doctor had warned me last year against excessive use of cell phone. This time he has put the warning in black and white and I am all ears.
After all isn’t it true - Jaan hai toh jahan hai.
ess bee

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Nation's loss

At the Frankfurt airport I heard about the sad demise of Bhaironsingh Shekhawat. He was the tallest political figure of Rajasthan. His journey from a constable to the Vice President of India is a true reflection of the spirit of Secular Democratic Republic that India is.
I knew him since the time he was the Chief Minister of Rajasthan (picture). The state and its history will never forget his contribution. Shekhawat ji was born in Sikar district of Rajasthan also known as the Shekhawati region in the tourist maps. I too was born in the adjacent district of Churu in the same region. There goes a saying in Rajasthan that the state has only one Singh and that is Bhaironsingh. Singh in Hindi means lion and it is a very common surname in the Rajput community. Shekhawat ji was at the centre of politics in Rajasthan and Rajasthan was very close to his heart. During his tenure as the Vice President of India in Delhi lots of Rajasthani pictures of historical and tourists’ interest adorned the walls of the house.
When he became the Chief Minister of Rajasthan for the first time he had introduced the famous Antodaya Project under which the five lowest income group families from each village got a loan for financial upliftment. The World Bank President McNamara and Mbandi of Ford Foundation after studying the Project had said that Shekhawat was the second Rockefeller.
He was the one who also introduced the law that if somebody had more than two children, he or she cannot fight panchayat or municipal elections. The Supreme Court had given a green signal to this decision.
He visited my residence in Kolkata as well and as the Vice President he also attended few functions organised by me. One was an award ceremony at the Hotel Taj Bengal where Dr Sarla Birla was honoured with the Pravasi Pratibha Puraskar by the Rajasthan Foundation Kolkata, an autonomous body of the Government of Rajasthan, of which I was then and at present am the current Secretary (picture)
As the Vice President of India whenever he visited Kolkata I used to call on him at the Raj Bhavan and he was always kind enough to give time to the various delegations on my request (picture). I met him last in Jaipur at the Civil Lines House after he retired from the post of Vice President of the Republic of India.
This was the third news of death I got during my overseas visit this time. I heard from Rajasthan that Smt Prabha Rao, Governor of Rajasthan, Shekhawat ji and just before his death Acharya Mahapragya, the religious guru of Jain Terapanthi community to which I born, had passed away. I met him last year in Sujangarh (picture) and discussed about the idea of establishing a Peace University in Jain Vishwa Bharti Ladnu. I felt that the resources and infrastructure of Jain Vishwa Bharti was under utilised and therefore I have come up with the idea that was in harmony with the Jain religion’s concept of Peace. Acharya Mahapragya ji took a keen interest and asked me to send a detailed project report on Peace University, which I did.
When someone of a political stature of Bhaironsingh Shekhawat or spiritual stature of Acharya Mahapragya ji dies it is a loss not just for the family or the community but for the entire society and nation.
ess bee

Friday, May 14, 2010

Kolkata beckons

Its pouring since morning and the temperature is soaring by the day. Today is the 14th and weathermen say the mercury will touch 18 to 23 degrees by next week. People can feel the summer is already in and have begun putting flowers in front of their houses and started cleaning up the swimming pools. The shops have also started to display fresh spring and summer wares.
For me it is time to return to Kolkata. Did a bit of catching up on the Kolkata front by calling up some of my friends. Sunil da was about to leave for Italy, Swastika is preparing for her sister’s marriage which I promised to attend long back. Her sister is getting married to one of my journalist friend Indronil. Rituparna is as usual shuttling between Kolkata and Mumbai. Heard that Manoj is in Dubai.
I got a nice text from Rupa Ganguly requesting me to bring some mountains of ice from Alaska and water from the Niagara Falls. Arindam and Agni are taking care of the Pronam Project in spite of their busy professional life. Dona is performing in China and Kolkata is in the spirit of municipal elections and Tagore’s 150th Anniversary celebrations.
Everyone in Kolkata is talking about the heat and punishing weather with power outages adding to the discomfort. Got an SMS from Amit Chowdhury. I will miss his performance on Sunday evening at the Someplace Else at The Park Hotel
Amit (picture) is a talented and versatile performer and I had last attended his performance at the Raj Bhavan Kolkata hosted by the then Governor Sri Gopal Krishna Gandhi.
For the past five weeks I had a feel of the life in North America especially the Quebec region of Canada. The life is so very different and some what difficult due to the extreme weather conditions. I often felt if only India too had the kind of facilities and infrastructure that some of the other countries have.
A week before my departure from Kolkata, Dolly di (picture) was discussing with me to start a campaign to provide facilities to the handicapped persons. Canada is one of the best countries in the world for such persons and the Canadian government’s efforts towards extending wide-ranging facilities and support mechanism to the disabled is indeed very laudable.
Let me share an observation before I forget. Yesterday I saw a $5000 parrot at an animal shop. The parrot, true to its reputation, repeated whatever one said in front of him. Then I saw an advertisement for a missing cat carrying a reward in many places (picture). I knew about the love for cats in France and to some extent in Austria. I am also aware that some of the insurance companies in the world provide cover for cats and dogs. But I have never ever seen a missing ad campaign for a cat on such a big scale promising a reward for the correct information.
Anyway, in India we always live and brag about the notion that India or the Indian civilisation was once a beacon of learning and taught the world many things. I don’t know what was or will be but as of today I know for sure that we Indians have to learn a lot from other nations.
ess bee

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Whiff of India in UK

Great Britain, it seems, is taking a leaf or two from India. First a long strike at the British Airways and now a `Coalition government’. The Parliament House in London and the British Parliamentary system is a role model for many countries especially the Commonwealth states.
I have visited the British Parliament a number of times to meet many members of Parliament (MPs) at the famous tea lounge and sat through many interesting debates and question & answer sessions.
Sir Churchill, who was at the centre of many memorable debates and arguments in the House, had once alluded to Lady Nancy Astor by defining `Astorite’ as an appeaser “…who feeds the crocodile hoping that it will eat him last.” Lady Astor was Britain’s first woman member of the House of Commons who headed a clique that found something to admire in Hitler’s Germany. Shortly, thereafter, the rub off had lead to one of the famous incidents at the Astor Mansion in Cliveden when the acid-tongued Lady, while pouring coffee, had said, “Winston, if I were your wife, I’d put poison in your coffee.” “Nancy,” Churchill had replied, “If I were your husband, I’d drink it.”
In 1966 a massive fire at the Parliament shook London. The conflagration had started from a bakery shop near London Bridge. At present, at a distance of 222 ft from the ill-fated bakery there stands a 222-ft high monument erected in the memory of the people who died in that fire. The Parliament was rebuild and different nations had sent different things for the purpose. One of the huge gates was sent from India. 
I visited the British Parliament a couple of times last year when I was in London. Once to have tea with Lord Swaraj Paul at the tea lounge and once for a luncheon meet with Baroness Verma in one of the dining rooms near the House of Lords (file pictures).
Our own Parliament in Delhi, our constitution, administrative structure and style of functioning mirrors that of Great Britain. The Aryans were the first to rule India and the Britishers being the last have left its imprint.
I personally know many British Parliamentarians and have had many opportunities over the past 7 years to host hi-teas, dinners and get-togethers on many occasions in Kolkata. Most of MPs from UK have attended individually or as part of a delegation. 
A few years back I had hosted a dinner at the ITC Sonar Bangla in Kolkata in honour of a British parliamentary delegation led by Lord Swaraj Paul. Over dinner, I had learnt first hand from many of the MPs about the British Parliamentary system and its ways (picture - Left to right: West Bengal Speaker H A Halim, Harsh Neotia, Mrs Swaraj Paul, Usha Utthup, Lord Swaraj Paul, Dr Prabha Khaitan and H M Bangur at ITC Sonar Bangla dinner function.)

 ess bee

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Moscow State University

On Saturday evening met few people over dinner. Mr Arvind Joshi, who is CEO and Director General of St Mary’s Hospital Centre affiliated to McGill University, his wife and Mr Alan V Pavilanis and his wife Rasa and others. While chatting with Rasa and Alan about the different Universities, the name of Moscow State University for International Affairs came up. It was full of surprises last year when I arrived in Moscow for a seminar at the University.
The first surprise was at the airport while I was picking up my baggage from the belt and my cell phone rang. The voice on the other end said, “Sriman namaskar mera nam Anton hai aur main hawai adde ke bahar apka vahan lekar intazar kar raha hun.”  I am sure most Indians, like myself, would be surprised to hear a Russian speaking fluent Hindi. Frankly I do not recollect using words like vahan instead of car and hawai adda instead of airport.
I could not hold back my curiosity and when the voice on the phone asked me Apka Safar kaise raha I just asked him how he came to speak Hindi so well. He said he was a 3rd year student of Hindi at the Moscow State University of International Affairs and that many of his college mates converse in Hindi.
After completing three days of my 7-day visit to Moscow, I realised that this University, one of the most prestigious in the field of diplomatic studies, teaches about 85 languages. The students who take up foreign language are also taught the history, culture, literature, geography and even films of the respective country and region.
I was again very surprised to meet a group of students who were learning Bengali (picture). Not just confined to Tagore, they were very much at ease with Feluda as well. They see Bengali movies, study Bengali literature and even talk in Bengali with each other to perfect their knowledge and accent of the language.
While talking with the officials of the University, who were my hosts, I learnt from them that the University was actually creating future diplomats and the subjects taken up or given to the students weren’t their personal choice and was decided by the management after considering the geographical distribution and various other factors. Their sheer planning amazed me. I think these students would be posted in the countries where their languages skills would carry them at ease. One can imagine the strong wicket the Russian diplomacy would be on.
I was staying at the Professors’ hostel at the University and during my talks with Anton and his class friends at the canteen in the University campus I was impressed by their range of knowledge from Rahul Gandhi to Karunanidhi to samosas and idlis.
There were two students Yulia and Padon to assist me during my stay in Moscow.
Yulia has given me a poem she wrote in Hindi and Padon accompanied me to the markets and the sight seeing places (picture). All the students I met, whether they were learning Bengali or Tamil, had a dream of visiting India and have a personal feel of the region where the languages they are learning are used.
These students felt a little left out since the others who were learning Chinese, Spanish or French had enough opportunity to visit those countries. I felt ashamed on learning that the students learning Indian languages could not visit India as their letters of request for student exchange program to the Indian Institutes and HRD ministry had, let alone a reply, never even been acknowledged. Whenever I am faced with such a situation during my overseas travels, I wonder whether we will ever come out of the Shekchilli dream of Indian becoming a super power one day and actually do some real work on the ground level.
ess bee

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Missing Kolkata

It is Sunday afternoon here and the weather is playing roller coaster. A day before it was a sunny 18-20 degrees but today it is snowing since morning with the mercury plunging to minus 2 degrees. It has now been about four weeks since I left Kolkata and I have started missing the events, receptions, programs, events, film premiers etc., which is a part of my daily routine there. Irrespective of what people say, Kolkata after all is Kolkata.
Today, in Kolkata, there is a reception hosted by the Consul General of Russian Federation Mr Vladimir V Lazarev and his wife Liudmila for the 65th Anniversary of the great victory in the great patriotic war at The Park Hotel.
Mr Lazarev and his wife are my friends and every year I do attend this celebration. Two years back, at one of the receptions hosted by Iazarev at The Park Hotel, Lazarev, I and Biman Bose chatted a lot about Russia (picture: From left to right - Mr Lazarev  and Mr Biman Bose).
Russia was the first country I landed in from India. In fact my trip was from Kolkata to UK and I was flying Aeroflot and needed to spend 8 hours in transit at the Moscow Airport en route to the UK. The year was 1994 And Russia was not in very good shape. The Moscow airport was in a mess with no cafes or water in toilets. From the Airport lounge I could see hundreds of Aeroflot aircrafts parked. Later, in UK when I asked someone about this I learnt that after the collapse of USSR the Aeroflot, which was the biggest airliners in the world, was left with Russia and they were trying to figure out on how to utilise these crafts.
I was at St Petersburg and Moscow in November 1994. Although it was a booming time for Indian trade, especially tea, but it was a scary scenario for foreign travellers with a soaring crime graph. I was advised not to venture out walking and to always use a rented car, avoid radio taxis and keep a $50 note in my top pocket which I did during my stay there.
There was a silent code among the robbers that if they get you on the street at gun point they would fish out the $50 bill from the top pocket and go. If they did not get the dollar then they would take whatever they wanted from your other pockets including your watch and passport that was a must-carry for all travellers visiting Russia.
I remember that how I longed to visit the Indian restaurant New Delhi to have some dal and roti, but could not as the robbers and muggers used to follow Indian tourists from there. Yes, that was the Russia then.
Last year when I visited Moscow to attend the seminar at Moscow State University for International Affairs (picture) it was a different world. There was a sea change in Russia with free tourist movements, fashionable students, expensive hotel tariffs and other trappings of a western world. I could venture out and see the new Russia.
I also got an opportunity to meet the Russian Communist Party Leader Mr Jynov (picture).
ess bee

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Canadian Mayor and Tagore books

In Canada, I am staying in a small town called Dollard-des-Ormeaux, often referred to as D.D.O or Dollard, on the Island of Montreal in southwest Quebec. The town, named after French martyr Adam Dollard des Ormeaux (1635-1660), is a 45-minute drive from Montreal - one of the famous and big cities of Canada. This small town was incorporated as a city bearing the name of the famous French soldier Dollard who was killed in May 1660 at the Battle of Long Sault while staving off an Iroquois raid on the French colony of Ville-Marie which is now known as Montreal.
In 1960 there was a population of few hundred and had increased on 18,000 by 1975. Currently there are approximately 50,000 residents in Dollard. This small town, however, prides itself as one of the most multi-cultural and multi-religious towns of Canada with English, French, Arabic, Italian, Greek, Indians, Chinese, Lebanese, Africans, Jewish, Spanish, Filipinos, Thais and other communities who have settled there. I am quite amazed by the facilities available to the people of this town given the population.
The town is very proud of its Centennial Park which is a nature park with natural oasis, a lake, forests and mounds spread over 35-acres of rich and varied bio-diversity of plant and animal life. The lake is teeming with yellow perch, pan fish, catfish, carp, goldfish, turtles, muskrats, great blue herons, kingfishers, cormorants, hen fish and mallards while the forest is the home to grey and red squirrels, raccoons, woodchucks, hares, skunks, mice, red fox, doves, frogs, salamanders and garter snakes. It also has a variety of trees like maple elm, red ash, beech and butternut along with several varieties and species of shrubs and herbaceous plants.
A three to four minutes walk from my place and I find myself in the mesmerizing precincts of the Park where I lost sense of time and spend hours in the arms of mother nature.
Close to the Centennial Park is the Council Office from where the Mayor runs the local administration. I met the Mayor of Dollard yesterday Mr Ed Janiszewski (picture) who briefed me at length about the Park. The Civic Centre can be seen from the Mayor’s office whose facilities include a library, cultural centre, two pools, centre for arts etc which are used by the locals. Mr Janiszewski, who has held the post for the past 25 years, is one of the oldest serving Mayors in North America. Originally from Poland, his father had come to Canada but the Mayor and his six brothers and sisters were born and brought up in Canada. Ed is a hockey player and is fully committed to developing the town to the best of his abilities. He proudly says that Dollard is a multi-cultural melting pot with churches and gurdwaras.
My mother used to visit this city twice every year and she had penned many of the chapters of her books and articles from here. The atmosphere is so soothing and can stimulate anyone to pick up the pen and write.
The purpose of my visit to the Mayor was to contribute something to this town in memory of my mother who was so attached to this town and had spent very many qualitiy days of her life out here. The Mayor agreed to open a small Indian section in the library 
which will have books of Tagore and other Indian authors for which I will send him the books on behalf of PRABHA KHAITAN FOUNDATION once I return to India. The Mayor has very kindly suggested that a tree may be planted in her memory in the town. The The 50th Anniversary celebrations are currently on in Dollard and I am lucky to be here around this time of the year. It would be really good that on the occasion of the 150th Anniversary of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore the residents of this town would have access to a collection of Gurudev's books during their Golden Jubilee celebrations.
ess bee

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Immigrants and `little India’ in Canada

Sunday afternoon I met a girl from Vietnam in one of the shops at the local mall. She works only on Saturdays and Sundays. The other five days of the week she has her school. Daughter of a first generation immigrant she has three brothers in her family. While talking to her I was struck by her views on the gender issue when she said that had she been an European she would have been treated like a princess being the only girl in the house but since she is from an Asian family, her status is like that of a maid servant. Her brothers make her do all the household chores all the while making excuses that they are preparing her for marriage. In today’s world whatever we talk and wherever we live somehow we have not mentally prepared to extend equal rights to women.
Canada abounds in immigrants from all corners of the world braving extremely difficult weather conditions. Today evening I visited the residence of a couple who had come from Germany and Finland. I saw an interesting photo on the wall depicting the historic rally of 1995 Quebec referendum - the second referendum to ask voters whether Quebec should secede from Canada and become an independent state. Party Quebecois wanted to secede, but the people from the other provinces of Canada reached Montreal and at a historic rally on October 27, 1995 to vote against the referendum. The result was that 50.58 % votes were cast against separation of Quebec. The referendum was defeated by a slender margin.
While having coffee with the couple I was wondering if Indians would have also landed up at a rally like this whenever there’s a demand of Khalistan to divide the country or even dividing the states like Gorkhaland or Maithili Pradesh. Imagine having a rally in Jammu and Kashmir for the unity of India to be attended by people from other states quite on the line of Unity for Canada Walk (file picture). Though we Kolkatans have a penchant for rallies but if we did that in Darjeeling then, may be, we would not have faced the turmoil we now face. The fact is we just talk about issues and skip rallies and even warn others from attending it. Although it was a big win for the immigrants at that time but it resulted in shifting of the head offices of many multinationals from Montreal to Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver. Numerous head offices of banks, insurance companies and other businesses left Montreal which the local people still regret. If one walks or drives across the city of Montreal one sees countless signboards of `A Louer’ i.e., `Available for Rent’. The rally of 1995 really put the city out of the commercial map of Canada.
Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants are little different from their European, South African and Austrian counterparts. They are more conservative and hardly inter mingle with other communities. They are also very much traditional in matters of faith and social activities. The Sikh community in particular has made a mark in Canada. In the British Columbia Province the second official language is Punjabi. All signboards in the Sikh dominated areas are in Punjabi or Gurmukhi script and the province even had a Punjabi chief minister. At present, there are about a dozen MPs of Indian origin at the Canadian Parliament. Even more, Toronto has local markets named Karol Bagh and Chandni Chowk.
In Kolkata it seems that the heat is on for the forthcoming corporation elections. I will be meeting the local Mayor on Friday.
This time I missed the annaprasan ceremony of Partho and Kaushiki Desiken’s baby (file picture). Both are my personal friends and I wanted to be there as well. Well if wishes were…….
ess bee

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Late Smt Prabha Rao

Heard about the sad demise of Prabha Rao, the Honourable Governor of Rajasthan. It was hard for me to come to terms with the loss. I hadn’t met her since she took office as the Governor or Rajasthan. I was supposed to meet her two days prior to my departure from Kolkata. As I was to travel abroad, I had requested Raj Bhavan Jaipur that I would call on her on my return on May 20, 2010.
I had, in fact, received a late night received a call from Lokesh ji, one of the members of the Raj Bhavan Secretariat, that it would be better if I could come and meet her as the Governor had already reconfirmed our meeting immediately after returning from Maharashtra. The first appointment that I sought did not materialise as the Governor was travelling that week. I excused my self and wrote a letter to Smt Rao in which I said that I would seek a reappointment once I come back to India from my overseas trip. I have very cordial relations with Rajasthan Raj Bhavan past Governors, officials and staff.
Smt Rao was the only Governor of Rajasthan in the past 15  years whom I had not met. Whether it is Anshuman Singh, Nirmal Chand Jain,  Pratibha Patil, Madanlal Khurana or S K Singh, I have had various meetings with all of them (pictures). The Governors in Rajasthan have been very kind in attending various functions organised / supported by me. Also, they have graced so many other functions across Rajasthan and in Kolkata from time to time, on my request.
Most religions in the world believe that our destiny is written and what has to happen will happen. I can now only regret my decision of not meeting her at the first instance when an appointment was fixed. Then, I had felt that a Rajasthan detour would be very strenuous on my part on the eve of my departure to the American continent.
ess bee

Saturday, May 1, 2010

From Cornwall, Ontario

Today is first of May observed as May Day in many parts of the world. I went to a small town Alexandria located in the Canadian province of Ontario near Cornwall. Ontario is probably the biggest and wealthiest province of Canada. Though Ontario shares a border with Quebec but French isn’t compulsory here. In Quebec, any product information or directions in signboards etc in the markets or roads have to be either in French or in both French and English. The same holds good for all commercial advertisements as ordained by the local laws in Quebec.
Even if you are a first generation immigrant, your children have to go to the French schools and not English schools. But if you are second or third generation or older immigrants then your children may go to the English schools. It seems regionalism based on language is evident all over the world. However, in Ontario, English is the main language and French is not compulsory.
I visited a small town Alexandria and went on tour some small villages – Lancaster, Summertown, Glenwater and others - all picture postcard towns and villages with captivating scenic beauty. All the houses either have a riverfront or have their backyard to the river. The spic and span villages have large farms and untouched by the international tourists, have managed to retain the pristine natural beauty that surrounds it. The place makes you feel one with the world. I also noticed that just like cars, every house has a boat parked on the front.
I spent the whole day in the province of Ontario and had lunch at a private golf course Cromwall Golf & Country Club (picture) which was again a beautiful amalgam of riverfront and greens. The golf course remains closed during winters for about four months when frozen ice claims the whole area. Water in the whole region is frozen during the winter. Last winter, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself driving full speed over frozen ice across an area where I was boating three summers earlier. The whole of Canada abounds in water mostly in the form of rivers and lakes, often frozen.
Today morning I heard on radio the Canadian Government’s advisory to its citizens against travelling to India, especially New Delhi, due to a terrorist threat. I also got information from India that there was a red alert in Kolkata. The parcels from Kolkata, which got stranded at the airports due to the Iceland volcano, finally arrived today.
There was a book distribution function of Prabha Khaitan Foundation with Bharat Relief Society in Kolkata. I always attend this function which is held in the third week of June each year. This year, due to the students’ request that June is too late for schools, the function was pre-poned and held today. Each year many celebrities from different walks of life come to distribute books to the needy students (file pictures) Dona Ganguly, Biman Bose and  Shatabdi Roy.
ess bee