Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tales of Soot and Silences at Carlton Towers

Carlton Towers, Bangalore. Day 4. Investigation was still on, though police was letting in people.
Appeared in Times of India issue dated Feb 27, 2010.

A cacophony of silences of different kinds. That is the face Carlton Towers puts up now to the tragedy tourists who inevitably pass by slower, heads turned up, tch-tching at the broken window panes, at the scenes of people jumping down to their deaths replaying once more in their minds.

On Friday, the police finally began to let in employees to retrieve their documents and computers. There was a steady line along the entrance all day long where police officers were letting in people after registering their names. Harrowed groups of employees walk up the narrow flights of stairs, stepping gingerly across the odd slipper and a shoe that is still strewn around. There is a policeman at every office, making a list of every item that the employees are taking. In pockets of the long and now almost pitch dark corridor, stray conversation seeps in, people discussing what to take with them, what to leave behind. Conversations which break the noise of the other silences.

M Manjunath, sub-inspector, now with the Mahadevapura police station, shows around every floor. There are still boot marks where the police first broke in, on doors of emergency exits that were locked. What is tragic is that from some offices, the stairs were just about an exact four steps away.

Each of the seven floors is almost in sepia now, abandoned, destroyed, a far cry from the sophistication that plywood and glass had bestowed on the spaces till just a few days ago.

Power is off the entire building and employees have to navigate their way around with the light from mobile phones and the flashes of press cameras. Some offices are completely destroyed, some not at all. Some are being cleared out, some are locked, some are still open and no one is in yet to claim the files, the papers and account books. Several laptops are still switched on, a green light blinking without respite under the black soot that covers everything. Several UPS machines, annoyingly, beep loudly. In the interludes of these, there is the cacophony of silence.

The Chespeake company on the 7th floor is the worst affected. This was where some of the victims that the accident claimed for itself worked. Chairs are strewn around and there is a deep sheet of soot. Even the name plate of the office is under a sheet of black. It is the accident's Midas touch, everything you see, all that you touch is soot, on the walls, on the floor, on the machines, on the bags and the papers.

From another office space, Manjunath points to a window from where a woman was just about to jump when he barged in and stopped her. Her plain blue saree that she had tied as a feeble escape means lies six floors below. Single slippers, shoes, socks lay around, a bottle of water here, papers, all those bits of normalcy, abandoned at when the unthinkable happened.

The floors of Carlton Towers have many unclaimed wallets still lying about. Predictably, none of them have any money left in them, not even loose change. Some lunch bags are still open, one has a packed bag of puffed rice, maybe meant for home, maybe for an evening snack.
Employees file down the stairs continuously with their belongings. They will continue to do so for the next two days. From Monday the building is expected to open again. But offices are already making plans to lock up and leave.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Spinning the Cotton Candy

A title that my friend Gul, I know, will happily take credit for. She says I am good at it, spinning nice long tales. I thought that was what writers were supposed to do! ;-)
I have a lot on my mind today, a lot that I am in the mood to write about, a long time after. What started this was a tragedy, predictably, you would say, if you knew me well enough.

The past few days have been rather interesting, for several reasons. I was at Carlton Towers this morning, the one that caught fire and led to the death of nine people, some who jumped to their deaths in Bangalore's busy Old Airport Road. I had mercifully escaped going there when it happened earlier this week and in the days after it. Tragedy on an empty stomach doesn't sit too well for me. But you know what, tragedy makes for great copy.

I hate that thing about journalism, that the most sorry stories give you the best scope to write well. I remember once when we went behind a soldier's mortal remains when it was flown in from the north to his village on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border. It was already past ten in the night when we ended up going behind the van that was carrying his remains. The piercing wails still ring in my ears. But cooped up in a car with the laptop battery running out and shooting off the story just before midnight was a voyeuristic rush. It remains one of my best stories.

Today at Carlton, I was going up the stairs, jumping past strewn shoes and slippers. The smell of soot and smoke was still rather over powering and I don't think I would have stayed on much longer. But just when I was ready to gag at the depressing sight, I met this sub-inspector who was part of the investigation. He assumed the role of showing me around. We ended up going to each and every office on each of the seven floors even as he kept telling me more about the incident; turned out M Manjunath was one of the first to get inside the building. Anyway, at the end of a two-hour long survey of the area, through soot ridden corridors and tragedy at every corner, I was exhausted.

After much procrastinating, the mood copy that came about was super, and I am sorry I say this with full immodesty. You can read it in this space a little later in the day, I don't want to put it up here before the newspaper reaches you :-) After a long long time, it felt good again to be a journalist, to be writing with that passion again.

I loved that part of having access to things you wouldn't normally have, I loved again the meeting new people part. Meeting this SI was nice too, I have never before spoken to anyone in the police force for any great length of time. It was interesting to exchange stories and that little part of our day with each other, one of those short little steps in time that you perhaps will never look back on, but that which leaves a little after taste in memory. For no apparent reason, I also thought of the Tamil movie Kaaka-Kaaka starring the yummy Surya. No, this person was nowhere close to Surya, by the way!

And then I thought and re-thought about going to a film screening that I had heard about from this very interesting person I met recently, named Anand Varadaraj. The mere thought of going back to those film studies days was what I consoled myself with though in the end. That reminds me, he has this company called Palador ( with some great movie offers and screenings throughout the year. Check it out.

The place where I met him was also another interesting experience, the Fireflies Festival of Sacred Music, organised some 30 kms from the city. It is an all-night affair with artists performing in the outdoors below a huge banyan tree, beside a lake. There are all kinds of music all night long and the audience sits around the tree in an amphitheatre kind of way. The festival was in its fifth year this time, a thoroughly enjoyable thing.

Imagine Sufi and Qawalli at 4 in the morning, Lounge Piranha and Vayali folk and a whole host of music. We stayed there till around 6 am. Interesting people, interesting times....Go next year.

And then later today I spoke to my friend Chetan, the actor. It has a nice ring to it, saying my friend Chetan, the actor. Again, I had met him on work a long time ago and contrary to my general view of those in the entertainment industry, he was one of the most intelligent people I have ever met, a Fulbright scholar, Yale-educated and everything. We had an interesting conversation again, about non-formal education (why didn't my parents send me to one of those I wonder!) and learning from nature and tribals and Fukuoka.

That apart, on my mind is Rumi, the 11th century Afghan poet who makes me want to cry. Read him.

3 Idiots, the movie was good. And no, I didn't find much semblance to Five Point Someone.

Tomorrow, I go travelling down to the coast to moderate a panel discussion on terrorism! In Kannada! The things I get talked into!! Wish me luck in making a fool of myself there!

One long post indeed. But like I said, these have been very interesting times.

And now that I have spun enough, the pretty pink cotton candy (though I hate pink) is done for now. There is still much sugar left, for later.

Monday, February 15, 2010

(The Horror of Not Being Able to Think of a Title)

Long ago, I was told that once you learn a language, you don’t quite forget it, it is there somewhere in the back of your brain, hidden in one of those millions of creases of memory, just waiting to be relearnt. I don’t quite know how true that is, I guess it must be. The languages that I have learnt aren’t quite forgotten.

Similarly, I wonder if writing can be lost. I of course speak for myself. I sometimes wonder what would happen if one day I woke up and realized that the words would not tumble out the moment I sat before a book or a laptop. It’s a scary thought.

On Sunday, (Yeah, Valentine’s Day and all that, I know. I don’t believe in it, though I am all for those who want to celebrate it. As for me, I balked at the overdose of red and pink everywhere and stayed happily indoors. Now that it is out of the way, back to what I was saying….) I wanted to write something. I had to, in fact, needed that rush of knowing that I could still put my fingers on the keyboard and that they could take a life of their own, that they could still etch out the thoughts that I never knew I was thinking. But to my horrors I kept opening file after file, naming them all sorts of things and failing to write a cohesive paragraph!

Imagine my horror! I mean, I simply wouldn’t know what to do with life if I couldn’t write! Not just a professional hazard, mind you. I wouldn’t have the outlet that I so crave for when I want to be where people cannot follow me.

I dare not call myself an artist of words, writer is a heavy tag too, though I honestly wouldn’t mind the least carrying about that cross on me. But what if that thing in me which makes me write disappeared one day? It happened once with poetry, for about five years, I didn’t write a single poem until one evening when I was supposed to be studying, it all came back. Would I find it again? What would I do with myself in the intervening period? Would I miss it or simply find other things to? I hope I never find the answers.

Does this happen to other people who create? To painters and musicians and artists of all kinds? Wonder what they do…I remember one of those singers--was it Beyonce Knowles?---who recently said she was taking a break from the studios for six months to live life and get inspired again to make her music. I liked that, I really did. I like the idea of seeing what the rest of the world is like and getting inspired again.

On another note though, I admire those who create constantly. I wonder where they get their inspirations from…would it be from trying the new? From seeing the strange? Doing the unusual? Taking the plunge? By being free?

Ah…what do you know! I did manage to write this! Looks like I don’t have to search a lot, that thing I seek hasn’t left yet. At least not yet!

Rilke one more time: If you think you can live without writing, do not write.


Pic taken at Kochi Fort, August 2009

The sea when I sail out is blue, a pale turquoise, if you please. A single ray of the late afternoon sun catches a wave that is about to ebb and there is a burst of light that in an instant spills to the next wave and the next. There is then a whole sheet of light around me. There is a boat, two fishermen in it. But they move away from the jetty I am in, pushed away gently by the waves of the bigger sailor.

I wish it was all quiet then. But as always, I forget that silence has a sound too. Specks of green weed float by. A few fishermen, not too bothered to look up at invaders of their livelihood. The jetty slows down, then picks up, turns away a bit. In the distance, darkness approaches. Thick, ugly, a spoil-sport. The setting sun reluctantly goes behind the opaque curtain.

Pale blue now turns darker. It is yet a dull black now. But I know her nuances, she is not menacing.

Almost playful, she throws up the jetty a bit, rocking and lulling out the gentleness. The deepening anticipation breaks only slowly. A trickle begins at a distance. By the time it approaches the jetty, it is heavier, the rain drops large and not too cold.

She seems a little agitated now, dark, with shades of an unsettling grey. Rocking about those who dare disturb her rhythm, testing endurance, testing their stand. But she is not in a vengeful mood today, all she wills to give, in a glimpse from behind the veil, is what she might do in anger.

The sea is in a benevolent mood though. The dark ceiling parts a while and the sun, with his last of fiery rays for the day, breaths out. The light is welcome, the rays though are not strong enough to bring forth sheets of gleaming light that bounce off the water again.

As if to making up for keeping the sunset out, there is a burst of aftermath colour and within seconds, the waves embrace the colours too. Reds and pale pinks, a burst of violet. Garnished with a faint salty breeze. The birth of colours, their lifetime of a dozen minutes splashed in the elements.

A fishing boat drifts by in the distance. Perfection.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

To Appa

Appa and I share a strange relationship, perhaps because we are too alike. Both of us had vicious tempers, well, what am I saying, we still do and there were years when we would hardly talk to each other. Ma always had to intervene to stop our fights. We still fight, but there is a lazy quality to it these days, almost an indulgence in arguing.

Appa and I talk a lot these days. I'm so glad. Over the years, he never ceases to surprise the hell out of me when I least expect it.

During graduation, when I knew I wanted to be a journalist, it took him a while to accept that, both my parents did. The first almost-shock was when I moved to big bad Bangalore and there arose a situation where I was to live alone. Almost four years ago, I remember I had found this lovely little house and just got to know that I wouldn’t be getting a room mate after all. Crazy that I am usually, even I was apprehensive about living there. It was Appa who categorically said that I would live alone. I think both ma and I were too surprised to react.

I remember him convincing ma that living by myself would make me independent and responsible and that I had to learn what it was like “out there”. Those initial days of being so 'out there' are amongst the best days of my life.

Over the years, in the tumultuous twists of life, he has continued to amaze me with his support, even for some of my impulsive, mad projects. His support is absolute, no questions asked, if that is what I thought, it was what I would do. The underlying brief though has always been that I would have to be responsible for all that I do.

Today, I stand at another very important stage in life. There are many changes, many things, ideas and projects. Like always, I am nervous and a tad apprehensive. But I was talking to Appa the other day and discussing these things with him and all he told me was to go ahead, even when it sounds illogical and quite impractical at the moment. “Go and see what’s out there. You must do it. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. But either ways you will learn life. Go out there,” were his almost exact words. And yet again, he had taken the wind out of my apprehension. J

I call ma one of my best friends, one of the few who will understand why I do the things I do. I hadn’t quite realized that Appa was even more of a support.

This was something I had acknowledged in my dissertation back at university. To Ma, for being there for fights and hour long talks, recipes, travels, stories, fights and laughter. To Appa, for always making sure I learn my lessons and make my mistakes, my way.

To my parents, for loving me enough to let me go. Love you.

No to Brinjal

I don't eat brinjal, that is the one vegetable I don't eat at all. Long ago, my doctor had told me I need to eat it to get my strength or something back and I had balked. I love the colour of the brinjal, a bright purple.

But whatever, Jairam Ramesh finally had the sense to say no to Bt Brinjal, at least for the moment. We fear that when the hue and cry about GM foods has died down a bit, the government will quietly introduce it. I hope I am wrong though.

People I overheard in the newsroom did question the intelligence of "illiterate farmers," and demanded that the scientists thrust the technology down their throats, "who cares about farmers, how else can we improve productivity?"... J and I were speechless, I mean, it is kind of hard to argue with people who are vigorously insist on being dumb, dumb, dumb.

As for us, the moment the decision was out, we made plans to party!

Say NO to everything GM! Thank you very much!