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A delay of more than an hour in our departure to Shillong proved to be a bit costly, at the end of the day. Why, you will learn later…

We had booked a taxi and we were supposed to leave at 9 am. Shillong is around 130 km from where were staying and it takes around 4 hours. But we later came to know that taxis aren’t plying between Guwahati and Shillong.

The strike is in reponse to a call given by the Greater Shillong Tourist Taxi Association in protest against the district administration’s decision to shift the taxi stand from in front of the crowded Police Bazar and allot the place for parking private vehicles.

So yesterday the taxi operator had arranged for a private car to take us. He charged Rs 500 over and above the Rs 1,500 that was agreed upon, with the excuse that strike has made their jobs really difficult. Since we were short of time and thus the option of bus wasn’t viable, we agreed. But as there was some delay in getting the car, we could leave only at 10.25 am.

The weather was mildly warm, the terrain dry and air dusty. The road wasn’t as bad as I had been told. There is plenty of greenery. Could spot plenty of coconut trees. The landscape at some places reminded me of Western Ghats.

I noticed that petrol price per litre was only Rs 38.69 at Dharapur. In Bangalore it’s at least Rs 21 more.

We didn’t get into the Guwahati city, saw a portion of Guwahati University though as we passed in front of it. At Chalukbari junction we took a right turn to Shillong, going straight would have taken us to Guwahati city. From Khanapara, it’s mostly uphill and hair-pin curves to Shillong which is 91 km from there.

As we crossed the bridge over Byurnihat river, we entered Meghalaya. At Nongpoh, we stopped to have coffee at Zen Cafe, which had artistically laid out seats with thatched umbrella shades over them. Small road-side kiosks and even small houses were made of wood.

Barapani Lakeside, a beautiful expanse of water, is a must stopover for all tourists heading to or from Shillong. It’s some 15 km from the capital.

We reached Shillong around 2.30 pm and checked into the White Orchid Guesthouse at Malki Point. Rs 1,600 for a spacious and neat triple occupancy room was very reasonable. After lunch we went straight to Shillong Peak. At 2000 metres, it’s the highest point in Meghalaya, and from the peak one gets a breathtaking view of the city. The spot has some historical religious significance.

Next stop was supposed to be Elephanta Falls. But we had got late. By 4.30 pm it was dusk and by 5.30 pm sun had set and it was darkness all around. The place would have closed by then. This is when we regretted the delay of over one hour. Now we hope to see the place tomorrow.

Putting the rest of the time to some good use, we went to Gloria Plaza and Vishal Market for some shopping.

Shillong is a town with narrow roads in most places and a few congested localities mainly shopping areas. It’s a hilly terrain. There are no glitzy shopping malls or highrise apartment complexes. The hilly terrain doesn’t allow any archetectural exhibitionism.

The city virtually shuts down by 9 pm. In fact, the Chinese restaurant we were in at that hour had downed its shutter at 8.30 pm and we were the only customers there. The food there was very economical for the large quantity they offered.

A full day of sight-seeing tomorrow.

OLD-WORLD CHARM

Kolkata airport may lack the swanky look of Bangalore airport, and the first thoughts of a tourist from India’s tech capital would inevitably be that it could easily do with some image building to get rid of that ‘old’ look.

But step back a bit, and the old-world charm would start sinking in. The plaster of Paris on walls, deep grey cemented floors and steep steps, fans perched on thick pillars — you begin to realise this is Kolkata, a repository of rich heritage. Soon, those sepia images begin flooding the mind, in a flashback as it were.

FLIES, NOTHING UNUSUAL

Had lunch at one Saptagiri restaurant outside airport. Flies were a major put-off. There was this no-fly zone, the air-conditioned enclosure for which there is a 20% extra charge. But surprisingly, there were few takers for it. Almost everyone, including well-dressed staff of well-known airlines found flies just a part of the Kolkata ambience. In fact, in the airport lounge too, there were a few flies marking their presence.

TAXI MUDDLE

The 6-hour transit halt at Kolkata did tempt me to step out of airport premises to get a feel of this world-renowned metro. Did briefly contemplate rushing to Dakshineshwar temple, on the suggestion of a friend. But quickly abandoned the plan as taxi fares being demanded were as much puzzling as exorbitant.

The first cabbie spoke of Rs 500. Then, a person sitting at a desk under a tree, who we were told is a ‘pre-paid counter’ said the trip would cost us Rs 700. Then, a few cab drivers followed us, with each of them slashing the others’ fare by Rs 100! The whole thing sounded quite funny and scary in equal measure.

To be fair, there is indeed an authorised, well-designated pre-paid taxi counter, where I am sure we would have been offered a reasonable and straightforward deal. But, Kolkata wasn’t a part of my tour itinerary at all, and there was no plan to see any place. Also, there was this highly inhibiting thought about massive traffic jams. Many of my friends discouraged me from going out to the city.

THE BIG SURPRISE

In a way, it was good I stayed put in the airport, for it enabled serendipity to play out in a glorious fashion. After lunch, at the lounge I was killing time with the mobile. And momentarily I looked up and around. I noticed a very familiar face, and I couldn’t believe myself when I realised it was the very same person I’d have missed on my trip to Shillong.

We were travelling in opposite directions, and Kolkata was the transit halt for both of us; and never did we realise that we would run into each other in this crowded airport.

‘DIFFERENT’ GUWAHATI

Touched down at Guwahati airport at 7 pm. What a contrast in comparison to Kolkata. Much smaller and virtually deserted. I was quite impressed by the sensor-operated taps in the washroom; Kolkata had the very ancient variety.

Tomorrow we travel to Shillong. There’s a lot to look forward to, I am told.

Sir Mark Tully, who worked as the correspondent for the BBC from 1965 to 1994, was in Bangalore on October 7 to deliver the 9th Dr Stanley Samartha Memorial lecture on religious tolerance, organised by the Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue, at the Rotary House of Friendship, Lavelle Road.

Sir Mark is a celebrity in India. He is sometimes described as more Indian than Indians. Not without reasons. Unlike many other foreign journalists, he contextualized and interpreted better the socio-political and economic events he covered. His reports resonated with deep understanding of the country, and he played a huge role in demystifying India to the world. And he become  easily one of the most acclaimed correspondents, not just in Delhi but in the BBC itself. He has written a number of books, and still does programmes for the BBC. He resides in Delhi.

 

Sir Mark Tully at the Rotary House of Friendship, Lavelle Road, Bangalore.

 

He was gracious to grant me an interview the next day, at the Bangalore Club where stayed overnight. He is a very down-to-earth person, totally bereft of any vanity.

The following is the full text of the interview, an abridged version of which appeared in The Times of India, Bangalore, on October 9.

Sir Mak, you came back to India to start your career in 1964. You have seen at close quarters Indian democracy evolve. How do you compare Indira’s India with Sonia’s India?

Indira’s India was tightly controlled in many ways particularly economically. Indira herself exercised tight control over politics and country. Today there’s much more freedom, particularly economically. That’s one reason the country is flourishing. And politically, Congress party is not as powerful as before. And certainly, Manmohan Singh and Sonia together are not as powerful as Indira was.

The middle class has changed, has become more westernized. More people now have cars and are more mobile than before. Poor people also have changed. They are now more willing to claim their rights. There’s more migration to cities. There was a recent survey that showed that Dalits are not prepared to accept traditions even in rural areas that keep them in subjugation and humiliation.

 

Sir Mark Tully delivers the 9th Dr Stanley Samartha Memorial lecture on religious tolerance, organised by the Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue, at the Rotary House of Friendship, Lavelle Road, on Oct 7.

 

 

You spoke about how India has been developing, especially getting westernized. There are people who think this is not the right way forward, and at least some of them think the current Maoist troubles are a result of rampant western commercialization of Indian society…

One of the biggest problems of India is the government’s inability to deliver. India was recently described by an American academic as a “flailing state”. What he meant was that you have many bright people in the IAS, but the machinery for them to implement what they want to is simply not there. So, there are two factors in the tribal areas: One, neglect and inefficiency. Then there is the problem of land acquisition: it becomes an easy issue for the Naxalites.

There’s a policy vacuum, particularly with regard to acquisition of land of poor people in rural areas. And why does it take so long to start thinking of the possibility of people — whose land has been taken away — having some form of share holding in the new projects? Why is it taking so long?

The other problem of land acquisition is the antiquated and inefficient court system. Land disputes are getting stuck in courts for ages. Just as the government machinery is in urgent need of reforms, the courts are also in urgent need of reforms.

Talking of courts… we recently had the Ayodhya verdict. What has not gone unnoticed is the remarkable equanimity with which the people of India accepted the verdict. There was not even the slightest spark of unrest, leave alone major violence, anywhere in the country. Do you think this is symptomatic of the dawn of a New India, an India that is fed up with violence, an India that is eager to move on…?

I am very wary of expressions like ‘dawn of a new India’ etc. India has been changing gradually. I just want to take you back to the days of the telecast of Ramayan on Doordarshan. There was this huge outcry over how it’s a breach of secularism and all. And when I argued that it’d be a great pity if India couldn’t broadcast one of its great epics, I was accused of being pro-Hindu etc., and now you look at the television and you have a whole lot of channels devoted to people preaching Hinduism. This is one of the changes that came about; and now there’s a mature attitude towards religion in India.

And we should also realize that the whole Ayodhya thing was whipped up for political reasons. There was more of politics than religion, actually. If we are not whipping it up this time, it shows that BJP also realizes that the form of extreme Hindu politics does not pay.

Coming back to the verdict, as you’d recall, the judges relied on faith to decide an aspect of the case. All three judges in concurring judgment said the disputed site was the birth place of Lord Ram. Now this was seen by many as a dangerous precedent, wherein the judiciary instead of going by incontrovertible evidence invoked the article of faith to decide a contentious issue. And, it’s also feared that this could be a dangerous precedent for deciding some other similar cases pending in courts… What’s your take on this?

My own position is that the judiciary should have restricted itself to who owns the land legally, and left to the government the decision on whether or not a temple or mosque could be constructed. To bring in the matter of faith, raises a lot of questions. And I am sure the Supreme Court will look into the question.

 

Sir Mark Tully talking to yours truly at the Bangalore Club on October 8.

 

 

The religion of Islam has been going through a troubled phase. Though it’s said that terrorism doesn’t have a religion; it’s a fact that perpetrators of violence have been using the word Islam and Muslim, for reasons they think are legitimate. How do you see this linkage between violence and religion?

What’s important is for religious leaders to stand together and tell very clearly that terrorists are defaming the religion. So it should be possible for Islamic leaders and the local clergy as well to make this clear to everyone.

9/11 brought in a new dimension to Kashmir problem. Some commentators have seen it as a widening of the conflict zone. They feel the insurgency there is now a part of what is called the “wider terror network”….

I think irrespective of 9/11 and related issues, Kashmir is purely an India-Pakistan issue. India has genuine concerns of the message that will go out if the state with the largest Muslim population is cast away. On the Pakistan side, its army is very powerful. It needs the Kashmir issue to justify its existence. If there’s no Kashmir issue, if there’s no enmity with India, what do you need the army for? Now, of course, there’s another need, in the northwest of that country.

It needs two hands to clap, and during Musharraf’s time, it looked as though the two hands were willing to clap. Both India and Pakistan should be willing to make concessions if this problem has to be solved.

Just to take you back to the time you had to leave the BBC… What exactly was then Director-General John Birt trying to and why was it disagreeable to you, forcing you to leave the organization?

He was trying to create a revolution in BBC, whereas I believe in evolution. He denigrated the BBC, he poured scorn on all work the BBC had done previously. The denigration was unjustified and also very damaging. He bureaucratized the organization. He changed it entirely from a position where the responsibility was held at producer/editor levels to where it went to the hands of managers.

Are you aware of the Facebook page in your name, which has over 1,000 fans? How do you see the emergence of online journalism?

No I am not aware of that… Well, there are going to be changes. But I don’t think any media will die. When TV came everyone said that the radio will die. But that hasn’t happened. I don’t think newspapers will die.

(Crossposted from Kaleidoscope)

December 6, 1992 will never be forgotten, for all the wrong reasons.

September 30, 2010, will never be forgotten for all the right reasons.

Yesterday’s verdict of the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad high court on the Ayodhya land title suits will be remembered for many reasons; and one of them is that it was not an escapist verdict, an easy-way-out-of-a-difficult-situation verdict.

The court addressed controversial issues head-on. One of them was that of faith. All these years, Hindu-leaning parties and organisations have been saying that “matters of faith can never be decided by a court of law”. It was a dangerous proclamation. But luckily all their leaders, most prominently, L K Advani and Narendra Modi, said as loudly as they could, that they would accept the court verdict.

A matter of faith was indeed decided by the court. And now, post-verdict, some commentators — most ironically those not sympathetic to the Hindu viewpoint — are saying that the court shouldn’t have decided on a matter of faith.

It was incidental that in question here was the faith of one community. It could have been the faith of any community.

We all believe in something,
may be something rational,
may be something irrational,
but we all believe in something.
And it’s here that faith comes in.

For a moment, let’s forget the temple and the mosque. Take something very ordinary.

Would we have travelled in a train if we didn’t have faith in the train driver? No, we wouldn’t have. We buy a car because we have faith in the car manufacturer. We go to a doctor because we have faith in his ability to cure us. We approach a teacher because we have faith in her. We live because we have faith in everything that the future holds. Faith is all over the place. Faith does play a big role in our everyday life.

Imagine for a moment if the court had ordered: “Let there be no temple, no mosque; forget 2.77 acre or whatever, get all the land people are fighting over; and let there be a childrens’ playground or a library or an educational complex on it.” That would have looked such an artificial compromise. We need courts to settle disputes; not to cover them up.

It’s a matter of great pride for India’s judiciary that despite all fears being raked up, the issue was addressed, settled and a solution offered. It’s for litigants to agree or disagree. There’s a higher court of appeal. And, it’s such a music to the ears to hear that aggrieved litigants will treat the matter closed once the Supreme Court pronounces the final verdict.

It’s a matter of great pride for Indians that we all exhibited remarkable amount of patience and understanding post-verdict. This was unprecedented. There were no loud, animated, partisan, emotional, discussions and arguments, or fraying of tempers.

September 30, 2010, would also hopefully be remembered as the day India came out of its adolescent years. The day India quietly but powerfully broke off the beaten, dirty path, cut a new lane, on to a new, brighter tomorrow.

Finally, one request to Sonia, Advani, Lalu, Paswan and every other politician on whom the success of our democracy rests: Hope you all politicians saw the way we people reacted. We expect the same maturity from you. Please don’t play politics with this high court verdict. Let’s look ahead and move on. We have had enough of the past.

India has woken up to a new world on the first of October. Tomorrow is Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary. For once, he would have had a reason to smile.

(This has been crossposted from Kaleidoscope)

All this brouhaha about Commonwealth Games makes no sense. It only betrays our lack of understanding about our own country. CWG preparations have been going on exactly the way any other event is organised. The collective astonishment and shock across the country is amazing, to say the least. O! those pictures of filth in the Commonwealth village? But isn’t that how an under-construction building anywhere else in our country looks? Don’t we all know about that ”final acid wash” which magically brings glitter to the floor tiles and smiles on everyone’s faces?

Since when are we so blind not to see garbage on roadsides and street corners? Litter-free streets of foreign cities always leave us baffled. We wonder as to whether people actually live in those cities. Even when terrorists found that garbage heaps are the easiest, the best and the most unsuspecting of places to keep an explosive, we still are comfortable with rotting, smelly piles of filth on roadsides. The comfort levels of Indians are indeed different from those in the rest of the world. Let us accept that.

We all believe that ceaseless honking is what makes vehicles move on our busy roads. We have an abiding faith in the power of the horn, especially when the traffic light is red. We are so proactive and enterprising with our vehicles, especially at junctions, that patience is an anathema. Even with so much chaos and noise on roads, even with so much litter, even without power and water, our tourism industry is booming. Foreigners keep coming back year after year. India Incredible!

Let us remember that all Commonwealth countries haven’t protested the way all Indians have. Every culture is unique. There’s nothing wrong with the way we do things; what’s wrong is the way others see it. Didn’t John Kenneth Galbraith, former US ambassador to India, once describe our nation as a “functioning anarchy”? So, it’s all about perception. People say we should learn lessons from the CWG fiasco. But when its few critics are now its most vocal admirers, and when CWG is all set to be a huge success, where are the lessons to be learnt!

The hustle and bustle, the clutter and chaos: that’s our USP, that’s the India the world is talking about. Our greatness is: we still deliver success, like pulling the proverbial rabbit out of the hat. Let’s not bow to criticism and change our ways. Then we will cease to be Indians.

(Crossposted from Kaleidoscope)

They may not be forever emailing, facebooking or tweeting; but they are grateful to the internet. A whole generation that grew up on radio is rediscovering their lost pastime, of listening to faraway radio stations. Thanks to live online streaming, shortwave radio freaks are smiling again. They are bookmarking stations on web browsers and listening in while working on their laptops.

The hobby is called DXing: D for distance and X for the distant radio station. The fun was in tuning into foreign stations, like Radio Cylone, Radio Netherlands, Voice of America, Radio Mosow, apart from of course, the BBC. There was a craze to collect QSL cards. (QSL is an abbreviation for reception reports in radio-telecommunication.)

After listening to a programme, shortwave enthusiasts wrote to the radio station about the programmes mentioning the frequency and quality of reception. As a token of appreciation, the station sent listeners a QSL card. There was competition among listeners for the number and variety of cards they collected. QSL cards are now vanishing. For example, BBC World Service does not send QSL cards. The emails about programmes and reception quality are passed on to the engineers, says the BBC.

The last two decades had put the radio on the death bed. Electromagnetic waves from the overhead mesh of TV cables and the neighbourhood mobile phone towers drowned out shortwave radio signals, and many radio station cut down on their shortwave transmissions. It was depressing, when nothing could be heard on the radio. With internet boom, many radio stations went online, bringing the unmistakably pleasant feeling of deja vu for radio buffs.

LIVE STREAMING

BBC has one of the richest collections of online audio-broadcasts; live streaming of Radio 1 began in 1996. In 2007, BBC iPlayer an online service for listening to previously aired shows was launched. Today, there are as many as 17 BBC stations online — Radio 1, 1extra, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5 live sports extra, 6, 7, Asian Network, World Service, and six regional radio stations like Radio Wales and Radio Ulster. And each of these has a wide variety of programmes. Besides, podcasts, BBC has a rich archive of news reports of landmark events and recordings of famous speeches.

Closer home, there are many Indian radio stations online. All India Radio’s News on Air provides its English, Hindi and regional language news bulletins in an mp3 format for listening in any time. VoiceVibes provides live streaming of VividhBharati programmes. Besides, it provides Hyderabad-based stations like Aakashavani Telugu, AIR Urdu, RadioCity, Red FM, RadioMirchi and Rainbow.

Raj, who administers the site says, “Radio on VoiceVibes is for those who are missing Hyderabad like me. Enjoy and feel at home.” By providing FM stations online, VoiceVibes has broken a technical geographical limitation: being a terrestrial transmission, FM stations can’t usually be accessed on a radio beyond around 50 km from where the station is located. With no such problems, online streaming is a boon for people away from home.

Space For Radio is another unique online venture. With a host of RJs, it provides a variety of Malayalam programmes 24×7: devotional songs, old and new film songs, celebrity interviews etc. Unlike other online radio station, the moment you open the Space For Radio site, streaming starts, there’s no need to click on any link or button, making it convenient for the listener. “This is the first online radio in the world run by women crew; and we have more than 5 lakh listeners all over the world, within one year,” says its administrator. Recently, they enabled access to the online station on mobiles.

How comparable is online radio with its good-old offline version? The quality is infinitely better. But Googling a radio station and clicking on a few links is no fun compared to sitting up late in the evening, turning the radio nob, finding a foreign station and even slanting the radio a bit for better reception! Of course, shortwave radio freaks are glad they are able to listen to some of their favourite programmes and their presenters.

LInks:

Foreign radio stations:
BBC – http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/
Voice of America – http://www.voanews.com/
Fox Radio News – http://radio.foxnews.com/
National Public Radio – http://www.npr.org/
Radio Netherlands – http://www.rnw.nl/english
Radio Australia – http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/
Radio Canada International – http://www.rcinet.ca/
Deutsche Welle (Radio Germany) – http://www.dw-world.de/
Radio France International – English – http://www.english.rfi.fr/

Indian radio stations

All India Radio News – http://newsonair.com/
Vivdh Bharati – http://www.voicevibes.net/
Malayalam – http://spaceforradio.com/

Online radio directories

http://radiotime.com/
http://www.live365.com
http://www.onlinefmradio.in/

Hope tomorrow will be a peaceful day, when people will spend their time — if not in calm spiritual reflection at least — in the comforts of their home or where ever, watching movies, having good food, or in some sort of harmless fun.

Hope no one will try to mess up other people’s lives and also make this world uninhabitable, more than what it already is.

On one side it’s the anniversary of 9/11. And to make matters worse, as if it already is not, some one is planning to publicly insult people’s personal beliefs and faith, in a manner that makes me shudder, thinking of the consequences. How one person can actually mess things up so badly is shocking.

In India, coincidentally, Muslims and Hindus will have their religious festivals of Eid and Ganesh Chaturthi on the same day, tomorrow. Not in the recent past such a thing has happened.

It will be an opportunity to show the world that in India different faiths can live peacefully and in harmony. I hope people keep their religious faiths to themselves, to their private space; and there’s no undue public flaunting of individuals’ personal beliefs and faiths.

Hopefully tomorrow there’s no attempt by anyone to test other people’s tolerance levels. Hope the festive season heralds peace, happiness and prosperity.

The US may be leading in the use of mobile phones. But it is second only to South Africa when it comes to the number of women using the mobile to access internet. South Africa leads the world in the category with 43.4%. It is followed by the US with 35.6%, Russia with 32.4% and the UK with 31.5%.

The number of women world over using mobile web has gone up steeply — a whopping 575% in two years, says the latest Opera’s State of the Mobile Web Report released this week.

India has the least number of women mobile web users, 4%, behind Nigeria (5.4%), China (11.6%) and Vietnam (17.9%). Ukraine and Vietnam have the most users under 18 (34.8% and 23.7%, respectively), while the US and and the UK have a lot of users who are 38 and older (26% and 21%, respectively).

To the question, "Do you have online friends you’ve never met in real life?", the most number of "yes" came from Nigeria (87.3%), Indonesia (83.7%), and Ukraine (83.1%). And the least number of "yes" came from United Kingdom (64.6%), United States (65.6%).
Google and Facebook compete for the top spot in several Southeast Asian countries. Opera Mini users in Southeast Asia tend to prefer Nokia handsets, while the Apple iPhone is the most popular handset used by Opera Mini users in both Singapore and Myanmar.

Commenting on the survey, co-founder, Opera Software, Jon von Tetzchner, said, "Mobile web is all about breaking down barriers to access. Seeing more women on the mobile web is important to ensuring the mobile web remains the rich tapestry of ideas it is. Further diversity can only improve things for everyone."

Bangalore-based former students of Sainik School, Kazhakootam, Kerala, will have a get-together at the Officers’ Mess of 147 AD Regiment (Jet Busters) located near Ayyappa Temple, Banaswadi, Bangalore, from 11 am tomorrow, that is Sunday, July 11. Contact Babu C K on 9342816828.

I am at a speciality hospital in Bangalore. It’s around 11.30 am. A man in late 50s is being wheeled in on a chair. Two women accompanying him are worried and talk alternatively on the mobile and to hospital staff. A couple of relatives or friends too have joined them.

Read the full story here.