Sunday, May 30, 2010

Paying Property Tax - A Spiritual Exercise

What began as a hike to the hills last Sunday morning with three other Yoga students ended unexpectedly with our sitting next to a rocky Shiva temple listening to an elderly man discourse on politics, life and other things. He presented us with a book about a mystic 185 year old saint who had got the temple built and meditated in that area a few decades ago. By default that book was handed to me as the others were too busy to look at it for the time being. And so I spent most of the week immersed in descriptions of stringent penances, terrifying disturbances in the form of cobras and tigers and a series of mystical experiences that the saint had undergone. I also discovered that the elderly man who we had met had been one of the saint's closest and last disciples; he had renounced the world but was apparently back after a gap, active in politics etc. and I found myself dwelling on the strangeness of this world.

This is just an aside, to describe my state of mind as I headed to pay my property tax a couple of days ago. The government had issued a 5% rebate if taxes were paid promptly that many diligent citizens took advantage of, but I had remained blissfully oblivious all this time. I suppose there were some others like me, hence the last date for the rebate was extended- and I found myself trudging along, unwillingly, on the very last day that the scheme was valid for. Don't get me wrong. I had attempted, unsuccessfully, to use the much proclaimed 'online service' for tax payment, but it didn't work as my records had not been entered online by the department. Not only that, but it was also impossible to get a copy of the tax form online.

Anyway, information (obtained by word of mouth) indicated that the relevant office was in a small lane a few kilometres from our campus (each property area has its own office) and though no address was available, I was assured that if I went in that general direction and asked around, I would be able to find the office. Thus began my mission - and as I weaved my way through tiny streets, leaning out of the window to look for the office and dodging other vehicles that were darting in and out towards me, I resolved to think of this as a small penance. What if there are no cobras and tigers roaming the streets these days? The autorickshaws and motorcycles are more than worthy substitutes. And a truck or BMTC bus screeching down upon you is the modern equivalent (roughly) of a charging elephant. It also helped that the sun was beating down fiercely upon us that day, causing a haze of heat and rivulets of sweat (especially as there seemed to be a general power cut in the area).

Helpful shopkeepers pointed out the office, and I soon found myself in a room with a lady behind a small desk and a man behind a larger desk and a third, still larger desk that was vacant. No one was doing any work, which indicated that I had probably found the right place. I was promptly handed the forms (Rs. 5 each) and as I went through them, I got my first biggish shock. There were pages of Kannada print followed mercifully by an English translation - but all kinds of tricky questions were thrown in. For example- did you pay your taxes last year? If so, what colour form did you fill out (pink, green, blue, white)? I clutched the forms in dismay and sat down at the largest desk, wondering what to do. The lady seemed unable to answer any questions and the man only answered questions asked in triplicate (i.e. for every three times I asked a question, I got a reply, that too fairly cursory and most of the time unhelpful). Eventually, the man waved his hand and advised me to go home and pay the taxes online. I had been thinking along similar lines (i.e. of returning home and getting some help to fill out the forms, but the latter part of his sentence really got to me). I decided that this was a great challenge and I would sit down and try and make some sense of those forms.

I sat down and the man flashed a disbelieving look at me before burying himself in some papers. I took a deep breath and resolved to look upon this place as a temple of spirituality and every being as a beautiful embodiment of the spirit (that my physical form could not recognize)! Then, I curbed my temper, which has a tendency to erupt like a small flash flood and I actually began humming a small tune under my breath, gazing with utmost concentration at the forms and my previous year's receipts. After an hour of this, I found that I was able to answer most of the questions (a little help came my way in the form of a 'supervisor' who demystified a string of numbers connected by hyphens for me). I figured that most people would not be able to recall which colour forms they had filled out over the last two years, so I avoided that and similar questions. The supervisor announced that he was taking the rest of the day off, so I accelerated my speed of filling lest all the junior staff vanish after him. Once this strenuous task was done, I handed in the forms to the two junior staff members who were seated silently, unresponsively, like deities in a temple (where one is never sure that one's prayers have been heard and wonders whether one needs to repeat them in a more compelling way). The supervisor, an angel in human form, came to my aid and told me to go to the last room in the building, to submit the forms.

Agreeably, I trundled off and came to a much more crowded and sweaty area, filled with staff who were gossiping and sipping tea. By this time my throat felt terribly parched, but I reminded myself that this was part of the modern-day penance. An officer looked at me in amazement as I stood with the forms in hand, and asked if I had actually filled them out! As I spoke confidently (in my recently learnt Kannada), another lady looked at the forms briefly and pointed out that I hadn't filled in the receipts. Obviously I hadn't, as that was what the government was supposed to do. Anyway, I balanced the papers on my knee in a tiny space, using my Yogic postures to full advantage, and filled out all the receipts. Finally, the forms and cheques were accepted and I returned clutching the receipts (in my familiar handwriting) tightly.

Back in the car, I broke my fast with a few sips of warm water and thus ended my penance with a darshan (holy viewing) of my receipts. I think I was one of the last few to avail of the generous 5% tax rebate for this year. The matter, I thought, ended there.

Just today I read in the newspaper that in certain offices, all the computer records of registered properties (which were saved on a CD) have been corrupted and cannot be accessed. No back ups were made and no hard copies retained by the gracious Government. Therefore, there is no way to check any property records for these areas. I glanced nervously at the list, before realizing that my records never were available on the computer. Thank heavens for small mercies!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The North-South Divide

Language is a big barrier in a country like India, where almost each state has its own language and many languages have multiple dialects. Funny things happen while communicating in different regions; grammar goes for a toss and the meanings of things sometimes change drastically. For instance we were told in our Kannada class that the word for 'coconut' commonly used in Bangalore meant 'itch' in certain northern parts of the state.

Changes are also incorporated while writing local words into English as the English script is not phonetic. In general, an extra 'h' is often added to hard consonants in the south and 'a' s are sometimes deleted from the less Sanskritized versions of the north. So, my first name in the south is always 'Sujatha' and my last name in the north is generally 'Vardarajan' or even 'Vardrajan'.

So what happens when a south Indian journalist tries his hand at Punjabi-English? Today's newspaper showed one such hilarious outcome. The writer was reporting a Bhangra (Punjabi folk dance) bash at Barack Obama's residence. The article began apparently innocuously with-

'There is a deep bond between United States President Barack Obama and India's own Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and it has nothing to do with civilian nuclear cooperation. It can be summed up in two words - bhalle, bhalle!'

and it ended with the optimistic hope that -

'The next step for Mr. Obama, if Michelle approves, may be Makhi ki roti and Sarson ka saag.'

I suppose the reporter meant to say that Barack Obama shares a love of Punjabi folk music with our Punjabi prime minister (Balle Balle is a common refrain in Bhangra songs) and perhaps Obama will move on to tasting some Punjabi food as well if the domestic situation permits (Makki ki roti is a flat corn bread, sarson ka saag is mustard greens- a popular Punjabi winter dish). However, because of the additional 'h' s in the Punjabi words, the article read-

'There is a deep bond between United States President Barack Obama and India's own Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and it has nothing to do with civilian nuclear cooperation. It can be summed up in two words - dumplings! dumplings!...
...The next step for Mr. Obama, if Michelle approves, may be housefly-bread and mustard greens.'

So much for national (and international) cooperation!

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Unbearable Loudness of Being (Punjabi)

I recently read two books on second generation Indians growing up in England - Anita and Me (Meera Syal) and Bend it like Beckham (screenplay by Gurinder Chadha et al, book by Narinder Dham- written after the film was made). These two very different books are about growing up and finding oneself. I guess everyone can relate to them at some level, but what I was struck by was how similar the Punjabi community is in India and abroad. This is of course a great generalization and there are many differences based on the specific environment that people live in. But it got me thinking a little about each community having its own intangible yet distinct spirit or perhaps just a code of conduct. In Punjabis, this is expressed with great loudness and fervour and, if uncontrolled, sometimes has a hint of aggression or excessive vitality. But it also carries a spontaneity and passion - all things especially pain and joy are expressed with unabashed intensity.

Life has changed dramatically for the present generations - partition (division of Punjab at its very heart - Lahore to create Pakistan and Punjab) brought many challenges which several Punjabis faced with fortitude and the typical 'never say die' attitude- one can see tremendous strength written into the faces of the older generation. (This is a very different attitude from the sentiments expressed in Bengal after it was divided into west Bengal and Bangladesh, where, I think, people expressed much of their anguish using art, philosophy and words.) This older generation struggled to provide for the younger people things they themselves did not have access to - including freedom. But freedom means different things to different individuals- perhaps this is where all the struggles for finding one's identity begin.

I suppose these Punjabi struggles were similar in nature, whether they took place in different parts of India or in other countries, hence one finds it surprisingly easy to relate to the issues irrespective of where they arise. For instance, it is as irritating to have to stop your work in India and learn how to make a perfect chapati as it is in England. And it is as common to see your mother working away to make the fish n' chips you read about in India as in England, rather than allow you to go outside and eat that unhealthy stuff. This then is what Punjabi families are all about - opinions being thrown about (backed by solid, sometimes unrelenting action) - voices of your family, your distant relatives, family friends - and in between all these is your voice, perhaps not heard very often but when things are really important, it is heard and in the midst of all those hands pushing, pulling in different directions, you find that if you stand firm and move steadily, the hands are often held out to help in unexpected ways.

This then is the Punjabi spirit that I am familiar with- one depicted quite well in the recent Hindi film 'Chak de India' (about women's hockey in India). I am familiar with Punjabi, so I never realised till many weeks after it became a 'super-hit' that most Indians did not understand the (Punjabi) title. Chak de means 'lift it up'- and that is a common refrain in Punjabi households - lift your spirits, don't droop, do something and so on. It's exhausting and infuriating at times, but is also heartwarming - in a loud, cheery sort of way.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Dhakai sarees

Today a saree seller from Bangladesh came by to show us his collection. Dhaka is very famous for fine cotton (and some silk), beautifully handwoven - some sarees fine enough to go through a small ring. These days, business is hard and these people travel to India, visiting different cities, connecting with people by word of mouth and going from house to house to sell their hand woven creations. The sarees were indeed beautiful; everyone who came home to see them was enchanted and several of us bought more than one.

Blues, pinks, blacks, greens and the traditional yellows, oranges, off whites, reds. Sarees with different shades of the same colour, sarees with little coloured motifs on pale backgrounds, sarees with gold or silver threadwork, sarees with subtle and bold contrasts. And the motifs and weaves- each with its own name; the traditional ones based on scenes of everyday life- temple recreations, fish, birds, flowers, leaves, ripples of water glinting in the sun - all these and more as seen through the weavers' eyes translated into patterns on the finest, softest cotton and silk- it was a real treat!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Don't be in haste, to dump nuclear waste

Recently there's been a spate
Of unearthing radioactive waste
In the most unlikely space
People are in a stew.

Everyone's doling out advice
Some of it not very nice
I guess we have to pay the price
So let me add mine too-

Never sell cobalt as scrap
You may have to take the rap
If it turns up, after a gap
(It's really worse than flu).

Don't mix D2O in the pool
Though it makes the water cool
That sturdy swimmer is no fool
And he'll come after you.

Don't drop arsenic in the well
The water won't be all that swell
Besides, there is the lingering smell
Of bodies turning to goo.

A word on uranium-233
It's place is really not the sea
And fish, if asked, would rather be
In water not black, but blue.

And listen, do you have a plan
For that ol' restive thorium can?
Big Brother'll soon impose a ban
Unless he gets some too.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Sights of Summer

Summer in Bangalore is very different from most other parts of the country. After an early hot spell, the rains begin- every few days at first and then every day by the end of May. As I write, the gulmohars are in full bloom, tamarind pods weigh down the branches of the (tamarind) trees, mangoes and jackfruit are making their presence felt (smelt would be more apt). Hmmmm- not just to people, for the monkeys are everywhere - and all kinds of insects as well. Flying ants after the rains with the inevitable hopeful-looking toads in tow. Snails, the occasional millipede and innumerable dragonflies, bees and wasps. Tiny, nectar-sucking birds hover over trees in the early morning, kites emerge later to fly through cloudy skies. And then the rain comes, washing it all down for the next day.
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