Friday, September 28, 2007

Siachen, Mumbai and the country in between

Recently, I took a trip to Leh in Ladakh. It wasn’t a trek or a vacation, but, in fact, a course in mountain medicine. Ladakh is beautiful. Not the blooming, rosy, fresh, young beauty one finds in the garden-strewn Srinagar. Not the flashy, breathless, twinkling gaiety of Mumbai’s nightlife, or the too-perfect, postcard quality prettiness of Manali. Not the lush and craggy imperfection of a Sahyadri hill. Leh is beautiful in a stark, lonely, wistful sort of way. It is a beauty that tempts you to discover the solemn secrets of a time past, which it holds close to its bosom… a beauty that haunts you. It is the beauty which one associates with graceful aging, with scars - with dust and history.

Well, the whole trip was a wonderful experience from start to end. Since we were attending the course conducted by the Indian army, we were living in the army transit camp at Leh. With me in the course were seven more civilians and sixteen participants from the armed and para-military forces. There was just one other Bombayite. These people with us had all seen a lot more of the world than me… many had taken part in expeditions, most had defended the country's borders at some point of time, some had dealt with Bangladeshi militants, some had done time on Siachen and one had even eaten leeches in early morning patrols in Sikkim! But most of these very interesting people had a little awe for the two Bombay kids. ‘Awe’ sounds very pompous and I know that we don’t deserve it. Just because Mumbai happens to have the film industry, a plethora of nightclubs, the famed nightlife and busy trains and a pulsating never-asleep work culture, I think there is a feeling that Mumbaiites must be confident, bold and fun. I’m sure nobody consciously thinks this of us. It is an assumption that we must be slightly street-smart, confident, and brazen and bindaas. Well, this generalization is (like most) largely incorrect.

I’m not a very patriotic person. I don’t think that drunken renditions of the national anthem when we win the cricket world-cup or watching the tax-free “Chak De” and suddenly developing a love for the national sport are signs of patriotism. The concept of both watan and war are alien to me. In fact, the very usage of the word watan irritates the Tamilian in me… it is as though the North is the sole representative of India, and let’s just use the Bangalore example when it’s convenient to say that we are “world-leaders” in software technology. I also have little patience with North-Indians who lump everyone South of the Vindhiyas as “Madrasis”. (Notice the irony in that previous statement.) In fact, the entire “North-East Indian Idol” fiasco is a scary reminder of widespread ignorance, double-standards and inability to see the country as one. It is amusing how newspapers suddenly report the inability of politicians in the North-Eastern parts of the country to provide the basic civic amenities. All of a sudden, they focus interest on how politicians are using a singing contest to resurrect pride in the more neglected regions of the nation. Somehow, the timing of such reports itself adds to the irony.

At most times, I really cannot grasp the concept of “nation”. But, in Leh, we went to have a look at the “Hall of Fame” museum. The museum has, among its many informative displays related to all the wars of independent India, a little wall dedicated to Siachen. It tells us why we need to keep fighting off an enemy army in the bitterly cold, inhuman terrain. They are after our land, nibbling into it; piece by tiny piece. It is then, that it strikes one that the distance between Siachen and Mumbai isn’t that far after all. The freedom that we don’t even realize we have, that we take so much for granted is definitely bought at a price. And suddenly I feel selfish and scared. Selfish because I, who cannot understand what the word “nation” really means, desperately want to belong to a country that gives me my freedom. Scared, because, I suddenly realize how much I have and how much I might lose. Out of this fear and self-interest is born the notion of “freedom and nation”. It is pathetic. I think we should all be made to serve in the army for a while so that it gets through to our thick heads what it means to be the member of a free nation and how grateful we ought to feel. And I wonder what the soldier standing at his post in Siachen, reading his copy of yesterday’s newspaper today (it’s the earliest that the paper will reach there) thought about the boys in blue who received the “hero’s welcome” for winning the Cricket War.


Akshay G N I said...

Very well written.
I agree with you whole heartedly that we should follow the footsteps of Singapore and France where every one is expected to serve 2 years in the army.
I couldnt understand the 'North-east Indian Idol fiasco' that you have mentioned. Was it a fiasco that an Indian from the North East was the idol? If anything, that an Indian from the remote, oft neglected corner of India has been embraced as an 'Indian' idol, is a heart warming fact and it shows that the alienation that the North East people faced is fading and they are no longer being viewed as 'un-Indian'.
But I would probably be picking on the sole blemish (in my opinion) in this well written piece if I dwell any longer on my thought that you could have done away with that Indian Idol sentence in this blog.
Thought provoking blog.
Loved the description of the barren beauty of Ladakh which 'the only other Bombayite' (ahem!) on the trip has captured so well on camera.
Keep writing.
PS : Dont you hate it when these critiquing comments are longer than the blog itself? :p

Sumedh said...

In India, the political system is an alert scavenger. Any issue is enough to "use" to their advantage. The chameleon will be ashamed that it is so comprehensively outdone by our political cadre.

It was so representative of the situation when Dhoni handed over the T20 Cup to the portly Pawar. The Ram Setu row could have so easily been solved on the ecological or heritage standpoint, but it was only the religious angle that every party exploited.

The caste system is the choice weapon in so many parts of India and the Thackeray family out to forge, instead of ford, communal divides!

Amidst all these divisive forces, the few Indians who wish to be called Indians, above all other identities, have commendable optimism and belief! While they are way above the average, I don't think it's too out of place for someone to feel the sense of alienation from the concept of "watan" as you have expressed. Though it takes a great deal of introspection and honesty for that to come out, which makes it equally commendable.

I was watching 'Lage Raho Munnabhai' last night and one line was very relevant to this article... "Bapu agar abhi hota to bolta ki desh to apna ho gaya, lekin log paraye ho gaye hain!"

anita said...

hi there.
m sure u werent expecting this.
but after reading ur blog i couldnt hold myself from writing this.
i guess u have rightly pointed out how the north eastern states feel alienated n end up resorting to frivolous music shows to strenthen their foothold.
sumedh has used his space so effectively.he has secondd ur thghts n at same time peened down some of his so passionately.
kudos to him
well one thing i fail to understand is why do we have to go soul searching or put in particular situation to understand vital aspects of life.
why isnt the ablility to value n appreciate as innate as expecting one.
u have always come across as a wise person n ur blog is no exception to that

Rahul said...

more confusing than confused;veena you miss the basic point;either one has a national consciousness or one doesn't,either one has a matter of belonging or one doesn't;either one identifies with a double BPL Gond in Bastar and a Maoist in Jharkhand and a Sena thug in Antop Hill because in the end we are of the same flock or one doesn't.
it comes from an inclusiveness of spirit,which says we may call the nation watan , or desh or nadu and preferably all three.
national consciousness is not manufactured by soldiers dying in peacetime on hostile borders, because you visit, come , talk about , write;no further because when you think about it no sane government should send its youth to Siachen;there are safer monitoring mechanisms.
is the consciousness worthwhile?
can't say;it is a burden and an involvement.
and lets be thankful this sansanikhej steroid slurping media at times by fraud sets its sight on Assam(my god what alliteration)
all in good spirit...

Harshit Gupta: My big big world said...

actually I m not getting exactly what to say.. but I know there's something.. cause I'm not getting ur problem with watan.
But actually there's someone who is responsible for ur misconception (I think its a misconception only) of North Indians being counted as the flag-bearers of patriotism, and that person is Yash Chopra.
No jokes here. Yash Chopra is the person who is half the film Industry if not more. It's him who decides the trends of the future to a large extent. And most of our dose of patriotism comes from the same film Industry, rather bollywood.
And actually, being closer to threats (read Pakistan), North does understand it more. When I was in Delhi, I remember when the tension in 2002 (as far as I remember it was that year only) erupted and people were saying there could be a nuclear war, and I was discussing with my uncle how much were the chances of our home being saved in case Pakistan attacks with a nuclear bomb.
Though it wasn't a very serious thing then, yet I know for the past years I feel more safe as I know nobody can bomb out vellore.
And that's why I can think more about business and world and such issues compared to those times when I used to think more about how the nuclear tests were correct and all.

Shrijit said...

Nothing focuses the mind so perfectly as the possibility of imminent death. Similarly, there's nothing that can concentrate patriotism but the spectre of a common enemy, for the notion of a nation-state is rooted in an exclusivist identity. Hence you see patriotism welling up when you see this identity under threat -real or otherwise. Ergo the patriotism when India trounced the Aussies, and indeed, when you actually saw India's defended border.

Thanks for the comment on my blog, it's been ages since I checked for comments. Do I know you ?

Shrijit said...

PS: yes, it was meant to be in the meter of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Arayan said...

stumbled upon ur blog by accident...
will do all but regret it.
just leaving a footprint - currently have nothing to contribute to the exchanges ongoing in your comments section.

['e&a' might ring a bell]

Nani said...

Mixed up all but still kept ur point.
However I still feel that India is more presented on a single platform culture.. As if india is so uniform.
I hate the advertisements of the ourist dept as well as the governments..
They Show a camel a rajastani in his turban, a farmer from the sindh region (punjab) and an elephant from Kerala.. and a girl in traditional dress from Assam... is the who India means ????/
I feel this mis-representation of INDIA to the world is taking huge on few other cultures...
However well said in few lines ..will be waiting 4 urs next one

captainjohann said...

One visit to Leh and you feel patriotic. It is this which is ironic that after 26/11, suddenly Mumbaikers feel patriotic!