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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Exploring Kolkata, Part 1: Moving through the city of joy

In my opinion, Kolkata is one of the 5 most interesting cities in India. The fact that it is the only city in the country to have a tram network would alone put it on my map of Cities I Love. What's not to love in something that marries the joy of exploring a city with the joy of riding a train?! And I will tell you a secret - this is the only tram in the world that will stop wherever you want, whenever you want. Say your tram is turning the lush corner of the 'maidan', and you see an interesting football match that you'd like to participate in, or it is crawling through the impossible traffic on the M.G Road, and you spy rainbow colored bangles that you absolutely have to try (yes, the tram moves slowly enough for you to be able to admire bangles in stores). All you need to do is smile and nod at the tram conductor, who is busy in a heated political discussion with a passenger, ring the tiny bell next to the door, and the tram will stop. No one will be annoyed, or ask you why - it is perfectly acceptable to get off the tram and go where your fancy takes you. And the opposite holds true as well: if your feet are sore, and you find yourself near tram tracks, just hang around. If they see you waiting, they'll be happy to stop. This adorable randomness would explain why the Calcutta Tramways Company (CTC) has made the tram schedules so hard to find. You can find them here, and plan your trip with the assumption that trams start about 15 minutes before or after they're meant to. I wouldn't rely on them for getting anywhere on time, but for a tourist who has leisure, they're a god-send. My advise would be choose any starting point from the schedule, and to walk/take a cab there.

If you don't like the idea of aimless wandering through the city, hopping on and off trams, there are other interesting modes of transport, each one unique to the city. First, the yellow taxis. Most people agree that Kolkata would not be Kolkata without the yellow cabs. Nearly all the taxis are falling apart at the seams, and the cabbies can be very crusty if you rub them the wrong way (one memorable conversation went like this - Me: Will you go to Hindustan Park? He: No. Me, bewildered and upset because he was the 4th guy to turn me down: Why are you parked here then? He, smirking in a way only the Kolkata cabbie can: Because I like watching the traffic). But if you're very polite, and if they're in the mood, they'll go everywhere, and tell very interesting stories on the way.
Public Transport in Kolkata (Source: IRCTC)

Second, the Kolkata Metro. The metro line is a fairly fast mode of travel, and is very easy to understand, being a single line. So a train is either going toward the airport (the Dum Dum), or going towards the south of the city, to the Kavi Subhash station. There are 21 stations on the way, and the frescoes on each station wall are unique works of art. I especially like the murals in the Esplanade station. So if you like efficient sight-seeing, and if you're short on time, it would be a good idea to make a list of the places you want to see and eat/drink at, and then use the metro wherever it fits into the itinerary (it's the first metro in the country, and should definitely make it to every Kolkata itinerary) and cabs everywhere else.

And finally, the circular rail. This one is mainly for train enthusiasts like me, but has two added advantages - proximity to some of the must-see places in Kolkata, and fantastic views of the Hooghly river for a large part of the route. A schedule of the circular rail can be seen here, but this again, is a picturesque but less reliable way of moving through the city. My own affair with the circular rail did not begin well. I saw the map and decided to board the circular rail at the romantic sounding "Majerhat" because it looked like it would be close to the river. But when I reached the station, I learned that the monsoons had changed some schedules, and a train was likely to arrive from the station at 3 PM (it was 1 PM then). I'm sorry to have to say that the station was extremely dirty, muddy and depressing. Not relishing the prospect of waiting there for 2 hours for a train that might not arrive, I decided to take a cab to the next station. Things got steadily worse because the road in front of the station was a mud track, did not have any cabs at a 10-minute walk in either direction, and was completely untraceable on my phone maps. After half an hour of walking through ankle deep mud, I reached a road and got into the first cab I saw, and when the cabbie turned around in surprise, (you're supposed to ask - "XYZ place chaloge?", and get into the cab only when they say yes), I'm ashamed that I squeaked - "Just get me out of here!". But I soon found that the maps were working again, and asked him to take me to what is almost my favourite road in Kolkata - the Sarat Bose Road. After fortifying myself with two fantastic cups of tea at a delightful cafe called The Tea Trove, I decided to tackle the circular rail again. This time, I headed towards the Prinsep Ghat and struck gold. This ghat, very close to the Fort William, should definitely be on your Kolkata itinerary; it has a porch (built in the year 1843, dedicated to one James Prinsep, who is known for deciphering a lot of historical inscriptions on coins and rock/metal edicts, including the Ashoka inscriptions), set in a beautiful garden from which you can some great views of the Hooghly and the Howrah. Princep Ghat to Babughat is a lovely 2 km walk next to the river, and has some interesting historic relics including the Man O War jetty, and a 40-year old ice-cream shop which the locals seem to love. The train station in one corner of the park perfectly rounds up the storybook feel of this place. So I would think of the circular rail as a thing to see and experience rather than a mode of transport. I would recommend taking cab to the Prinsep Ghat (or the tram that goes around Fort William), and walk around the park until you hear the train coming. Then board the train, ride it up and down till the Bada Bazaar station - this should take about an hour. The views from the train will be worth the trouble. 


Next Post: Places to see and eat/drink at in Kolkata....



Saturday, June 28, 2014

Thoughts of a brand new Vipassana Meditator

Or, a Review of the 10-day Vipassana Course

16 June 2014
In a train somewhere in the middle of Madhya Pradesh
I had the good fortune to spend the last ten days at a Vipassana meditation center this month, and I’d like to put my thoughts down for friends and family who have been asking about the experience. But let me first clarify my position on this subject. Although I've long been curious about meditation and have been drawn to courses that teach you how it’s done, there are two reasons why it isn't an active part of my life yet. The first is the stereotypes that exist around meditation and spiritualism. A lot of us say that we'd "like to be more spiritual", but at the same time, meditation is viewed with mild discomfort, perhaps even contempt. It is associated with people who are looking for attention or publicity, hippies, people who are lost, depressed, or sick, or generally people who just have a lot of time on their hands. I know such perceptions exist because I have held them myself. 

The second barrier has been the sheer hard work and commitment it needs. Mr. S.N. Goenka describes people like me with this interesting metaphor: Say you want a reliable source of water and start digging a well. Having dug a 5-foot hole in the ground, you get tired and bored and hear about a place where you can find fresher and sweeter water – so you go there and start digging. And get tired and bored after digging 5-feet. And so on until you have a dozen pits, any of which would yield water if you dig for just a little while longer. The key would be to choose one, and just keep at it. Easier said than done, of course.

The Vipassana Center in Borivali, Bombay

And now to my review of the course: 

I call it a review, not to be presumptuous or irreverent, but for lack of a better word for a description that I hope will get people interested. The course is conducted over ten days, which has been found to be the minimum amount of time needed to teach the basics of the meditation technique. For this entire 10-day period, you are required to live in one of the 150 or so Vipassana centers across the world, with no contact with the outside world. You give up all electronic devices, reading and writing material. And as a further device to still the mind, you take a vow of ‘noble silence’ for 9 of these 10 days. What this means is that you do not communicate with anyone, by word or gesture, unless it is with your teacher or the management and only about issues that make your meditation comfortable. You find yourself unable to take your mind off your painful knee? Ask the teacher. You forgot to carry soap, or want to drink only bottled water? Speak to the management. The living quarters are clean and comfortable (the place where I did my course, the Vipassana Center in Borivali, Bombay, is almost luxurious, with air conditioning, and laundry services. My old timer friends turn their noses up at these comforts and say that centers based in wildernesses – like Igatpuri and Jaipur – are more basic, but  many times more beautiful). You are served food 3 times a day – delicious, vegetarian food, in spicy and non-spicy variants. You do not get any food after 5.30 PM (they say an empty stomach is very conducive to effective meditation), but they’re happy to make an exception for you should your medical condition require it. And all this at no expense. The centers are run on voluntary donations given by students and patrons across the globe.

The management consists of volunteers who are all “old students” – which is what they call people who have completed at least one 10-day course. This group of people is entitled to participate in short courses (from 1-2-days) and long courses (up to 60 days) held across the globe. Nearly half the students in my class were old students, which I thought was strange until I learned that all practising Vipassana meditators are required to take the 10-day course annually, to ensure a comfortable journey on the path of meditation.

What does one do all day?

You learn to meditate under clear, step-by-step instructions. You’re taught to still your mind, to sharpen it, and to train to it to observe your body, with a goal to achieve increased mind-body awareness. And why must one strive to achieve increased mind-body awareness? This is an exciting area of thought, and every one understands this their own way. I'm reading Dr. Paul R. Fleischman’s book The Ancient Path these days and really liking it. This american psychiatrist is a brilliant writer - insightful and witty.Very simply put, the junction of mind and body is where our deepest truths are stored, truths that consist of unpleasant memories, motivations that drive us, everything. Modern psychiatry no longer finds this far-fetched, having dealt with victims of physical injury who carry ‘phantom pains’ in non-existent limbs. And meditating on your body begins to puts one in touch with the source of some revolutionary truths about oneself. While these principles are hard to understand (and accept) for a beginner, it is not essential that one understands the mechanics of meditation for it to work - just like you don’t need to know what paracetamol does to the COX family of enzymes in your body for it to stop the fever. 

As a more concrete example, on day 1, they teach you to still your mind and observe your breath. While this sounds simple enough, I agree with Dr. Fleischman when he says that it like to trying to stand on a beach ball. Just when you think you've got the hang of it, you fall. You get up, try again and fall again. But over time, under specific, patient instructions from your teacher, at end of a day or two of trying, you learn to do it. The instructions get steadily more complex over the 10 days, and you find yourself progressively understanding how the sensations on your body are inexorably linked with your thoughts and motivations. It’s an absolutely amazing realization, but it comes and goes. And to continue with the concrete stuff, my two biggest worries before the course – that it will be boring and physically painful – were both unfounded. It is a very interesting process, both at an intellectual and an experiential level, and I was bored only during the 90 minute breaks in the afternoon that you’re given for sleeping, washing your clothes, etc. And conquering the pain was one huge adventure. They also have backrests and chairs for people who might need them.

So what can Vipassana do for you? (Or, why I’m hoping to convince some loved ones do participate in a course soon)....

It's a great way to start the process of training your mind: People have described the process as tuning your radio to catch the positive and harmonious waves in the universe, to become calmer and more effective participants in life. For meditation to have any long term transformative effect, it needs to become a daily part of your life. But even the 10 day course can change the way you look, feel and act, albeit temporarily. Nearly everyone reports feeling more alive, more aware of the self and the world. 
It's a connection with an amazing community: Without going into details, let me just say that my ideas of what kind of people meditate have undergone a complete shift. On the last day, when you're permitted to speak, you learn that the unassuming people that you have been living with consist of some very impressive professionals and academics. And they all want to help you on your journey - they have centers in many cities where you can just go and spend a day of silence and reflection, any time you want. 

It is also worthwhile to understand what it cannot do.

What Vipassana is not:

It is not a religious sect. Almost my favorite thing about the course was its non-religious nature. Even though the meditation technique being taught here is firmly rooted in the principles that Gautama Buddha taught nearly 3000 years ago, it is important to understand that this is not Buddhism. Buddhism as a religion did not start until nearly 5 centuries after Buddha’s death. Even Buddha was not a Buddhist! They do not talk about God and souls and all those things, which, for me, was a huge relief.
It is not a therapeutic technique. I loved the sugar factory metaphor - If you set up a factory to make sugar, know that you're doing it for the sugar; you will get the molasses, sure, but do not set up the factory to get the molasses, they're not that important! What this means is that meditation is a way to transform your life, it is not something you're doing just to get rid of aches and pains and illnesses. 
It is not a way of life where you do not care about things. I know some people who worry about the whole concept of detachment - will I stop caring about things? Am I learning to let go of ambition, and of love and relationships? The answer is no. You're being taught to let go - not of love and ambition - but of the discomfort that accompanies these. Minus the discomfort, one can be that much more impactful.
It is not a place to have “experiences". Sorry to disillusion, but there will be no visions, no sensations of ecstasy, no sudden insights into the past and future. But there will be an amazing sense of joy for having started the process of learning something truly worthwhile. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

On Tolerating Intolerance

I find myself getting into a lot of arguments these days. It has to do with the charged political situation, of course, but also with my increasing dissatisfaction. A very valued friend said to me a few days ago - "What happened in Gujarat in 2002 was an act of discipline; think of it as a school where the teacher has to punish a few students to teach everyone a lesson. See how peaceful things have been in that state since then?" This was at the end of 20 minutes of back and forth on 'Economic Progress' vs the uphill task of ensuring everyone in this country lives with equal safety and dignity. It's a continuing argument, and I try and stay calm as I defend the latter, even as I'm mentally rolling my eyes at the Economic Progress modelers. When I find myself about to get upset, I request that we change the subject...So what did you do over the weekend?

But that day, when this friend suddenly threw the teacher-student-punishment metaphor at me, my rage exploded in a way that surprised everyone, including myself (I don't even agree with punishing students in school, but never mind that for now). I said I can no longer be friends with someone who can explain away a pogrom, and walked away, shivering in anger. The intensity of this anger was new - heart drumming, ears burning, I wanted to hit someone! 

We made up, of course, a few hours later. Apologies on both sides, and the promise not to discuss politics, etc. But I'm very worried, for two reasons. One, because the demons have come closer home. The people who say things like certain communities needs to be 'disciplined' are no longer nameless faceless people running amok in UP and Gujarat. They're my friends, they say this very subtly, and they say this as part of a detailed explanation on how 'difficult' things need to be done to make us a rich and prosperous nation. So first, we'll become rich, and then we will give everyone equal rights, okay? It cannot be the other way round, Mojo - it would've worked by now if it did. 

The second reason why this is worrying is because it is pushing the limits of what I can take in my stride. A friend and I often daydream about this new religion that will come into being one of these days. Its sole tenet would be - Everything You Do Is Okay As Long As You Do Not Hurt The Planet And The Beings In It. Think about it. Everyone would be safe.You would still find some people stupid because they came from a different country, worshipped a different book/stone/building, or because they got turned on by men/women/shoes and you didn't or because they loved a different football team, but you wouldn't kill them for it. No one would convince you that killing them was important for your economic growth or salvation or honour. Since I already believe in this religion, and tolerance is the one value that I prize above all others, the rage I feel against intolerance worries me. If Everything You Do Is Okay, then your belief that a certain community is inferior should be okay with me too.  And yet, it isn't. 


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