Friday, 26 February 2010

A trip to remember

I was thrilled to criss-cross the lanes of Haridwar once again 21 years after I first visited the holy town. Some clear and faint memories flashed across my mind. One of them being at the Ganga Ghat, Har ki Pairi, along with my mother and cousins. I remember taking a quick dip in the water and then a few vague memories of going up to the Mansa Devi temple.

Rejoicing those memories, I was looking forward to have a yet another similar experience, more exhilarating one.

I boarded Delhi-to-Rishikesh bus on Thursday morning from ISBT. Sitting next to me was a Gujju lady, Anna, and soon we started chatting and found we were heading to the same destination--Haridwar.

After reaching Haridwar, we found a nice lodge by the riverside, dumped our bags and straight away headed to the ghat to live the post evening aarti moments. We were late by almost and hour to attend the aarti of the river Ganga.

Nevertheless, its impact was still there. People were floating baskets of leaves and flowers with lamps lighting on them. The ghat was filled with people, some devotees, some tourists but wasn't as chock a block as it usually gets and as we had imagined it to be.

There was plenty of room to walk freely, sit and enjoy the surroundings. So, Anna and I chose to sit by the steps leading into the river and quietly admire the floating diyas on strong water currents.

The overwhelming experience made Anna call her son in Nairobi and share her sublime experience and what he was missing by not being there.

It was followed by our rounds of walks on the ghat and through the bridges which have been recently built to connect to another new ghat which was built to create more room for devotees to bathe.

We took a quick dinner break to return to this beautiful setting of temples bathing in electric lights against the dark sky, bhajans playing on speakers without conflicting with peace, people sitting by the river or some daring ones taking a dip in it.

There is so much of positive energy and feel-good-factor in the atmosphere which one just wants to soak in.

The magnetic atmosphere of the ghat pulls people to it-- to experience a life away from city noise and to reflect on the meaning of life. Or perhaps being here allows your mind not to think at all as if you don't exist. Just look at the flowing water or close your eyes and be in a state of calm, even though for a few moments.

Finally when we did decide to call it a day, we were glad to come on this trip.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Drivers' image makeover

Come October, state bus transport service in Delhi would have undergone a sea change. Smartly dressed up bus drivers would be sitting behind the wheel in neat and crisp uniform, polished shoes with seat belts buckled up.

And don’t be surprised if you hear them saying “ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard…” while traveling by DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) bus in Delhi.

Well, from now on this is how drivers/conductors will greet their passengers or with Namaste/ hello/ good morning. And also thank them for choosing DTC bus service for travelling.

Thanks to the upcoming Commonwealth Games, Delhi drivers/conductors are going through an image makeover, especially to welcome foreign players and tourists.

Their curt, sometimes rude behaviour, and shrill dialect are being swapped with sophisticated and suave mannerisms with the icing of English language skills. ‘Please’, ‘thank you’, ‘May I help you’ are expected to get in their daily conversational habits.

About 2,500 bus drivers/conductors are set to be trained in the Queen’s language by September end. The first two batches of 88 and 80 drivers have already completed their three-day training on February 17 and 20 respectively at Haryana Institute of Public Administration (HIPA) in Gurgaon, a satellite town of Delhi.

Is the three-day workshop benefiting them in any way? “Yes, of course” says Dharam Singh, a bus conductor. “This is the first time I’m attending such a crash course. It’s helping us to brush up what we already know and build on it by learning new words and how to pronounce them,” adds he.

As part of the course, the drivers are also being trained in good customer service.
The course, designed by HIPA, is interactive and involves trainees in role playing games.
For instance, the trainees are asked to enact poised or short-tempered conductors dealing with passengers and then decide for themselves the best behavioural practices. They are also asked to assess and award themselves marks on various points such as whether they are punctual, polite, if they are able to keep their passengers happy and have adequate information about routes, bus numbers and their office bearers.

“These courses have been designed after doing a TNA (Trainee Needs Analysis). We developed the module after identifying the needs of the drivers,” said Dr Manveen Kaur who supervises and coordinates the course at HIPA under the guidance of its Director Rajni Shekhri Sibbal.

Apart from this, the drivers are being given personality development lessons that include yoga and stress management with emphasis on personal appearance.

“Physical appearance is very important. This is the basic requirement when you are talking of service quality. Appearance is very tangible. And good appearance gives confidence,” says Madhu Sharma, a personality development trainer.

Sharma tries to drill the importance of personal hygiene in drivers to look neat and clean by “trimming beard and mustache, shaving, clipping nails etc.” She suggests them to “pop in a clove or cardamom, if not chewing gum, after eating food loaded with onion and garlic.”

This generates laughter but the message seems to sink in. “I agree that clean looks and prim manners make one look attractive and professional,” says Naresh Kumar, a driver, with a smile.

Joining DTC drivers are cabbies and auto-rickshaw drivers. Their course is for four days with additional emphasis on how to manage their personal finances, health insurances and children’s education.

“So far more than 1,500 out of 3,500 cabbies and 1,000 out of 8,000 auto drivers have been trained,” informs Manveen Kaur.

“It is good we are learning English speaking, yoga and how to talk to customers. It will definitely help us to understand and serve our customers better,” says Rajesh Kumar, a taxi driver at the Indira Gandhi international Airport.

Vinod Kumar, another driver, says, “It’s great that we are getting a chance to learn all this for free and on top of it we are getting stipend to attend the course.”

The taxi and auto drivers have been nominated by the Ministry of Tourism and Indian Tourist and Tour Association. HIPA is running the training course for them in collaboration with other associates.

By the end of the course the drivers are expected to learn health and safety rules, basic etiquettes, gender sensitivity, how to talk to ladies and dealing with people with special needs.

Whether the commuters will get a taste of drivers’ courteous sensibilities is yet to be seen. However, Delhi is trying its best to be a perfect host to about 100,000 tourists who will make their way to the capital city for the 2010 Games.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Legal V-Day

It’s no more hush hush... Homosexuals in India are readying to celebrate their first official Valentines’ Day with a bang since Delhi High Court decriminalised same-sex relations between consenting adults on July 2.

The celebration of 2010 Valentine’s Day is significant for the LGBT (lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders) community as for the first time they are out and open about it without having the fear of getting harassed by cops or people.

The V-day symbolises their freedom to assert their sexuality without being tagged as “criminals”.

Businessman Manish Sharma, 32, is excited about this weekend. He’s bought a special card for his boyfriend who he has been dating for the past six months.

“It’s our first Valentine’s Day since we started going around. This is also the first Valentine’s after same-sex relationship was made legitimate by the Delhi High Court. It’s special and we can now celebrate it without any fear,” says Sharma with a confident smile.

Sharma runs a guest house in Old Delhi and organises events like Gays Nights every Saturday at Polka restaurant-bar in Kailash colony.

Polka is jam-packed with over 200 gays every Saturday. But this weekend Sharma is expecting a much bigger crowd as it’s the V-Day eve.

“I’m expecting lot many people to turn up tonight. We will have cocktails and a video jockey who will display gay pride parades from all over the world. It’s a proper celebration. We will play House and Bollywood music,” said an upbeat Sharma.

Gay activist Mohnish Kabir Malhotra is still single but he has arranged a special party for the day. “I don’t have any partner but I’m hosting a theme party for my friends and everyone has to dress up in red and blue,” says Malhotra.

Historian and author Salim Kidwai, 58, doesn’t have any special V-day plans. “For me it’s just any other day. But it’s definitely important for those who believe in the Valentine’s Day. The court judgment has reinforced the confidence among the community members. Things are looking better. The fact homosexuals are not criminal anymore will improve their visibility,” said Kidwai.

The High Court verdict is still being challenged and the true sense of relief would come once it’s validated by the Supreme Court of India, adds he.

However, there has been a change in the outlook towards homosexuality in the past seven months since the high court decriminalised consensual same-sex acts.

“You can see the change in the manner that special cards for homosexuals are available at Archies. Hotels are allowing them to come in for New Year’s party. Moreover a lot of events and parties are being organised for the community,” says Malhotra.

Since the judgment there has been a growing sense of tolerance towards same sex lovers, if not acceptance, feels Malhotra.

“Certainly stares have gone down. Now, no one can harm gays. As long as you don’t harm, it’s ok even if you hate them,” says he.
The judgment was a big victory for the gay rights activists who had been lobbying and fighting for it for years.

It said criminalising homosexual acts was a ‘violation of fundamental rights’.
The verdict has given courage and legal protection to the LGBT community members to express their sexual orientations, which otherwise was difficult in a conservative society.

It was tremendous social pressure that led Sharma and her partner to split a few years ago.

“I was going steady with my boyfriend for 11 months. We wanted to be together. I wanted him to tell his family about our relationship. Once he got caught with one of my text messages. His family threatened to kill me. He was locked up, given bogus treatment and medicines in the hope of changing him into a straight man. He broke off with me. I was shattered. I was confused and there was no one to talk about it, no support from anywhere and no law to protect us if we went public,” recalls Sharma.

Gay rights activists and media have created awareness. Now younger generation is more aware about their sexual preferences, which was not a case earlier, says Kidwai.

“When I was in my 20s I didn’t know the word ‘homosexual’ or ‘gay’. There were no role models, no help, no one to talk to,” recalls Kidwai.
The best thing that has happened now that people are talking about it, families are becoming aware of it. They don’t think it is a disease anymore says Sharma.

“I know a married man who was sexually active with other men. He opened up only when it was decriminalised. But in the mean time he ruined the life of his wife whom he married owing to family pressure,” says he.

But still it’s only a small per cent of the community which is coming out and talking. A large section of the community is still secretive about their sexuality.

“We still need to go a long way. The community has been living in hiding that distorts perspective about them and their own self esteem and undoing it and rebuilding their confidence and psyche will take a long time,” asserts Kidwai.

It would need a law to protect the rights of the LGBT community, feels Kidwai. “Just the decriminalistaion would not be enough. It will need the validation of the Supreme Court,” says Kidwai.

The community members say legalisation of homosexuality will give them security and entitle them with house and property rights.

“Everyone in the LGBT community is insecure. I still expect the government to come up with a law to approve marriages. It would give them a sense of security. A person would think many times before breaking up. And hopefully, a gay couple would be able to adopt a child,” hopes Sharma.

But for the time being all they want is to paint the town in red and celebrate their first ‘Legal Valentine’s Day’.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

2010 misses Kila Raipur Rural Sports Festival

It’s a shame really that India’s famous and biggest rural Olympics will not be held this year.

I’m so disheartened to learn this. For months, I was looking forward to going to Kila Raipur Rural Sports Festival and just when I thought I would be able to make it I came to know this.

Many rural games enthusiasts, who have been gearing up for this international festival, will also be very disappointed to hear this.

The Grewal Sports Association, which organises the event, has cancelled the spectacular festival this year as it is facing severe lack of funds.

The festival is generally held in mid February. This is the best time to be in northern rural India where fields are lush with standing crop of wheat and mustard, trees are blooming, flowers are bursting with colours and the weather is at its pleasant best. Basically, it’s time to experience Nature springing back to life after cold wintry months.

I had been dreaming to be in Kila Raipur near Ludhiana in Punjab to refresh my memory of traditional sports, to see cattle kicking off the dust on the tracks and to soak in the rustic experience along with hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts who come here to witness the one-of-its kind sports festival.

Sport enthusiasts come here from across India and abroad, particularly America, Canada and the European countries.

I had heard so much about it where over 4,000 villagers and farmers come to test their endurance in horse riding, bullock carts race, camel race, tent pegging, tug of war, ‘kabbadi’, cycling and other traditional sports.

Both men and women take part in different age groups. Apart from games, the festival showcases vibrant Punjabi folk dances, music and a riot of colours.

2010 will miss all this.

The association has been successfully running the event festival for the past 74 years. This is the first time in its history when it has broken away from its tradition due to the lack of funds.

Paramjit Singh Grewal, Secretary of the Grewal Sports Association, told me that they are sad for not being able to hold the annual festival.

“We are short of significant funds which we need to organise the festival; put up tents for sportsmen; and make necessary arrangements for the entire event,” said Grewal.

The association has not recovered from last year’s losses. Many sponsors who promised it money backed out due to recession. And this year not many corporate houses have shown much interest to make the three-day festival possible.

“We are still short of about RS 7-1000000 (about 14-22,000 USD). Until we are able to arrange that kind of money we can’t hold it this year,” rued Grewal.

However, he is sure of holding the event next year. And, I wish many sponsors come forward to make this spectacular event possible.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

A bus ride

It was perhaps Arvinder Singh Lovely’s first--the first ride on a DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) bus ever since he became transport minister of Delhi.

It was worth becoming news for TV channels because in India politicians never hop on a bus for their daily commuting, leaving the comfort of their light-flashing vehicles.

So when Lovely did hop on a bus for few minutes, cameramen were there to film the occasion. Lovely was seen talking to a few passengers on an almost empty bus and asking the driver to start off. He got off after traveling a small distance where his vehicle was waiting to take him to office.

The aim perhaps was to experience a ride on latest low-floored buses and review their functioning ahead of the Commonwealth Games scheduled to be held in October this year.

I wish Lovely just didn’t take a token ride and actually boarded a bus to reach his office to be able to empathise with the Delhiites’ daily commuting woes.

His PR exercise is in sharp contrast with what Delhiwala goes through every morning and evening while rushing to work and coming home in overcrowded buses.

In peak hours, there is hardly any room left on buses for anyone to stand comfortably, bodies brush past other bodies, some apologies while getting past each other while others don’t bother as it’s a daily routine and some take advantage of the situation by deliberately sticking to others and blaming it on the overcrowded buses.
And imagine if the driver applies the brakes. All the passengers toppled by the jolt start spewing verbal venom against the man behind the wheel.

Travelling by DTC buses is still better compared to Blue line buses known as killer buses because of the number of people these reckless over-speeding buses crush on Delhi roads every year.

While the state-run DTC bus drivers run almost on time without waiting long at each bus stop after picking up passengers, Blue line bus drivers never abide by the time schedule. Much to the annoyance of passengers, they wait endlessly at a bus stop until they get enough people. This is not all. They would start speeding all of a sudden at a mindless pace if another Blue line bus is seen on the same route. They would try to get past it to catch the next bunch of passengers at the following stop.

The maddening driving of Blue line drivers is coupled with the frenzy of conductors. They resort to spitting, swearing and start beating the bus with hands to create the tempo to overtake another bus.

And if anyone objects to this irrational driving either s/he would be ignored or asked to get off the bus.

This is just a slice of bus traveling in Delhi. Though ever since the metro train has been introduced in the city it has reduced the burden of buses and has added a sort of sophistication in the way Delhiites commute.

But still the places where the metro doesn’t run through, buses are the only way to commute. These buses will also be used during the Commonwealth Games. Blue line buses are scheduled to be phased out from the Delhi roads by then, but travelling experience by buses is not likely to change until there are adequate buses to cater to a huge commuting population.

Nine months are left for the games. The Delhi government hopes that by then they would have a world-class fleet with courteous drivers and conductors simialr to that one experiences in the developed world.

For this, thousands of drivers are being trained in etiquettes, in toning down the shrill of their dialects and in English language as they will have to cater to foreign players.

Whether the Delhi government will be able to achieve this image-makeover is yet to be seen. But for the time being DTC officials, who have been ordered by Lovely to travel on buses every second Monday of the month, can give the minister a rather honest picture of what commuting is like for the common people in Delhi.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Rustic at its best

Spring is yet to arrive, but winter already seems far behind. The mellow glowing sun feels balmy. The sunshine has already tamed the chill in the air, at least during the day.
This is perhaps the best time to be in Indian capital Delhi, which will soon be scorching in temperature soaring up to 45 degrees Celsius or even more.

To make the most of it, I set out on a pleasant breezy Tuesday afternoon to visit an ongoing textile and handicraft festival at Surajkund in Faridabad, a satellite town of Delhi.
The annual festival, which began on February 1, is one of the biggest events in India to celebrate rural craftsmanship. Hundreds of artisans from the length and breadth of the country come to showcase their finest products—handloom textile, dress material, pottery, paintings, leather goods, stone and wooden sculptures, jewlleries, you name it.
Each line of products is ethnic and rural in characteristic. It’s a hallmark of the place it belongs to and it’s unique of the artisan who produces it.
Welcome to the 24th Surajkund Crafts Mela (fair) that will run till February 15.
The setting is rustic, dotted with mud-huts and punctuated by trees at the rocky Aravali foothills. Colourful festoons fluttering in the breeze are fanned by swaying wild and eucalyptus trees. As you walk down to see various stalls displaying the best of items, vibrant folk music and a heavy aroma of cuisines set the mood—the feeling of being in countryside away from maddening mechanical urban life.
Over 400 Indian artisans, including many award winners, from 23 states have brought their finest silk and cotton handloom textile and handicrafts to this internationally acclaimed festival.
It’s simply bewildering to see so many varieties of art and craft together at one place. One day is just not enough to get the feel of all the display items.
From Sambalpur cotton handloom saris of Orissa, silk handloom saris and dress material of Karnataka, kantha saris of West Bengal, goat leather lampshades, wall hangings and stone and wooden sculptures of Andhra Pradesh and bamboo items of north-eastern states to silken carpets of Kashmir, all is available here under one roof.
But the central theme this year is Rajasthan state. So expect to get a magical glimpse of the desert state best known for its lively culture. As you enter the Rajasthan enclosure, the air resonates with popular Rajasthani folk songs accompanied by fast drum beats.
While here, you may find yourself swaying and tapping your feet along with folk artistes performing dance or singing songs.

You will see folk artistes doing kalbelia dance and at some distance puppeteers putting up shows and at the far end of the enclosure acrobats performing some dare-devil acts or doing balancing acts on a rope.
All the performances attract enthusiastic crowds.
If you want to shop, you can lay your hands on famous blue pottery of Jaipur; ‘lakh’ and pearl jewlleries, which is something unique to the state; puppets; ‘bandhej’ (tie and dye) fabric; rugs; Rajasthani quilts and bed covers or traditional leather Mojri juttis (shoes).
Award winning Nazeer Muhammed Usman ji at the ‘Bandhej’ stall is coming here after a decade. He is happy with his decision to participate in the fair.
“We are getting a good response. Today is just the second day of the fair and we hope the sale will pick up in the coming days,” said Usman ji who has all the way from Jodhpur.
A giant shoe at the 'mojri jutti' stall is another attraction. “It took us six months to make this shoe. We have all handmade leather shoes for ladies. All of them are made by a group of five workers in Jodhpur,” says Pukhraj at the stall, adding that it usually takes a day to make a pair of shoes.”
If you have had enough of entertainment and shopping then trying out Rajasthani cuisine would perhaps complete the round of getting a full taste of the state.
The fair not only encourages craftsmen and gives them a chance to sell their products but also promotes tourism. Last year, about 700,000 people walked through the gates and this year the number is expected to go higher as the festival has got a global tinge.
Countries like Egypt, Thailand, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Bhutan and Nepal have put up their stalls and showcasing the best of their art, craft and heritage. A Sri Lankan team is especially here to learn how to organise such a fair of this level to promote artisans and their craft back home.
As the days progress, more and more people will get to see the incredible rural India at its best.