Saturday, October 30, 2010

Eastward Ho

The ruins of Roman and Greek civilizations draw hoards of tourists to Europe, and quite understandably too. Seeing ancient history, which we read in high school textbooks, right in front of our eyes is fascinating. However, we often tend to overlook momentous events in recent past, mostly because it is hard to grasp the significance of them when we are not directly affected by it. Living in Dresden, and traveling through Eastern Europe, I came face to face with this "modern history", and it is no less fascinating than those majestic ruins.

Growing up in the 80's, even in faraway India, we saw grainy images broadcast by the state-run TV channel. Nicolae Ceauşescu being overthrown in Buchares. Tanks on the streets of Moscow. Tearing down of the wall in Berlin. Apart from providing overtly-generalized coffee-table discussion on why communism is a failure (and also teaching me the word "coup d'état"), I dont think we gave them the due importance. The whole communist block crumbled down, ethnic conflicts ensued, resulting in formation of new independent countries. These were not merely geographical or political realignments, as I have been repeatedly realizing. In my recent travel to Budapest, it appeared that the most commonly used word together with "communism" was "terror". They upooted all the communist leader's statues from the city, and dumped them in the misleadingly named memento park A friend has experienced how in a German train, harmless looking Russian ladies were almost interrogated during a routine ID check. In a Czech shop, the salesman was horrified to learn that certain parts of India are still ruled by so-called communists.

Life in communist era was bad for sure. Food was hard to come by, luxuries were rare except for the top party functionaries, and everyone lived in an environment of constant fear and suspicion. Telling anything against the party lead to unpleasant consequences. But also, everybody had work and a place to live. Should not that count for something? Asking my friends here who formerly belonged to the east, I got mixed responses. Unification was not all good, someone's parents lost their low skill jobs, and they had a hard time integrating with the more competitive westerners. The quality of life eventually got better, but may have also created a problem of identity for the older generation. World can rarely be painted with one color.

Budapest was pretty, Bratislava was nice too. The charming old town architecture sits uneasily with modern glass-facade buildings and McDonalds. One of the attractions in Budapest was the underground labyrinth, decorated with faux-history artifacts and replica paintings. The most prominent feature in Bratislava skyline is the ugly UFO-like bridge, standing just across the medieval castle. You can use Euros in Slovakia, but you have to carry wads of local currency in adjoining Czech republic and Hungary.

In some years, before they all look and feel the same, a visit to these places is as interesting a historical tour as any other.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Why this means nothing to me!

I am tired of this. Year after year, it is the same story, since I have moved away from Kolkata.
This time of the year, wherever you see a few Bengalis discussing something, it must be about the pujo. You cant escape it offline. You cant escape it when talking to a friend.
You cant even escape it on social networking sites. I am getting sick of this.

And before I appear as another suddenly-homesick Bengali, that is hardly the case. I can perfectly understand why people there will be excited about the biggest festival of the year. You must be excited when you are forced to make multiple forced voluntary donations, have to fight with millions of people to reach anywhere or enter a restaurant, and have the unenviable pleasure of listening to non-stop free music loud and clear from the adjoining pujo pandal.

However I see no reason why I would be excited. Or anyone living in any part of the world, where pujo means nothing. And no, I do not count the social get-togethers organized in these parts. The whole point of a festival is the ambiance, the surrounding. Seeing everyone around you having fun. In spite of all the inconveniences, that is why we want to go back to Kolkata this time of the year, although whether we will be able to survive the crowd is an open question. But I digress.

I am an atheist, so the religious part of it does not mean anything to me anyways. I suspect that is true for a lot of people, pujo is a social occasion, not an overtly religious one, no matter what the name suggests. The social aspect is completely missing here - no matter how hard you try to recreate the environment here. It is either you meeting up with all your friends, which you do once in a while anyways, or worse, an awkward gathering of complete strangers. A festival can not happen in isolation, and more importantly, it cannot happen without a buildup. You cant getup one fine morning, see your scheduler, get dressed, and go to a pujo. Even football games in Florida had more buildup, more expectations.

All festivals are critical functions of the surroundings. That is why pujo means nothing to me sitting here. Now, please stop asking me how I am spending my pujo. And, no I am not interested in listening to how was yours, or hear dhak on youtube. I see everyone working around me.