A haircut to remember

Ratan Sehgal

The other day, my granddaughter, asked with amusement, ‘Dadu, how come you have suddenly got so much hair on your head?’ I ran my fingers through my hair, saying, ‘Excuse me, but I have always had plenty of hair, and it is all natural!’ Thanks to the coronavirus, my hair has grown long and unmanageable and I am now in urgent need of a haircut.

One day, when I felt particularly uncomfortable, I asked the cook to give me a trim. But since he is more adept at wielding a kitchen knife than scissors, he did not do much of a job. For the first time, I feel envious of friends who are a little thin on top, including the one who frequently pulls out a small comb from his back pocket and runs it through his limited hair. At first, I wondered what on earth was he doing. Then it hit me that he was actually rearranging the few strands he has to cover the bald patches.

I suddenly remembered a long forgotten incident when I had to have a haircut in peculiar circumstances. I had been travelling continuously for several weeks and my hair had become long and unruly. Immediately on returning home, and even before I could even think of a haircut, I was asked to accompany the PM the next day to New York. The next morning, I arrived at the airport with my hair all slicked, but with the wind gusting, my hair began to fly in all directions. Just then, the PM arrived and graciously greeted all VIPs who had lined up to wish her bon voyage. I was standing on the side waiting for her to board. Suddenly, she stopped in front of me and said in a stern voice, ‘You need a haircut.’ I was stunned.

In New York, I consulted the Consul General about the possibility of a haircut that evening itself. He sent me in his car to what he claimed was a posh hairdresser. Once seated, the barber, or should I call him hairdresser, asked me what sort of haircut I wanted. I would have liked to say a mohawk, but instead said cut it short on the sides and the back. Thanks to the jet lag, I dozed off while he clipped away. When he had finished, I looked at myself in horror. I could not recognise myself! He had shaved the sides and back and I had a springy kind of mop on top that made me look like a hedgehog.

The next day, I was summoned to see the PM in connection with a change in programme. When I entered her suite, she looked at me and said, ‘What on earth have you done to your hair?’ Mustering all dignity at my command, I said, ‘Madam, I had a haircut.’ She gave me a bemused look and said, ‘You could have gone to a barber and not cut it yourself.’

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The heyday of govt schools

Sher Singh Sangwan

Presently, half of the total students study in government and aided schools compared to almost cent per cent during the 1960s. After passing class VIII in 1964 from the middle school at Kakroli Sardara village in Mahendragarh district, I joined Government High School, Dalawas, at a distance of 6 km. The school was in the fields. Water for drinking was drawn manually from a 90-ft-deep well with a rope and bucket. There was a small hostel in the school, for about 30 distant village students and teachers. Despite the location, the school was a reputed one. The credit was attributed to its good teachers, headmaster Bhola Ram Sharma, and founder Nanak Chand. Besides teaching, they cared for plantation, discipline and maintenance of building, despite being from outside the area.

Classes were held regularly and punishment was drawing water for irrigating plants on the campus. The punishment was to be carried out during recess or after-class hours. We used to eat lunch under the shadow of school trees. Lunch used to be two-three rotis wrapped in a cloth, with red chili chutney. I used to walk down 6 km, one way. It was a daily exercise! Drinking water on the way was available only at one place. Sometimes, we used to quench our thirst by drinking the milk of stray goats. Despite the distance, I received an award for the most regular student. The school used to give hundreds of rewards — from its meagre funds — to encourage students in academics, sports and miscellaneous activities.

Once, the headmaster called me to Bhiwani to purchase textbooks free of cost. I and my two friends started at 4 am and walked a distance of 30 km, in eight hours, which seems unbelievable now. He used to call a quarterly meeting of parents and teachers, which was rare at that time. That may be the reason that students from this school were on the merit list during 1963-66. I passed matriculation in 1966, winning a scholarship, despite the fact that a science teacher was not available and a plus-two-pass science student was brought by our shastri from Uttar Pradesh. He taught well, but left the school before the science practicals, which were held at Charkhi Dadri. A Sikh teacher was the examiner, and I dared to approach him for giving me good marks, as I hoped to get a scholarship. He was astonished and remarked, ‘Apni sifarish khud karte ho!’ Confident, I told him that he could give me any practical and I would prove myself. I satisfied him and was awarded 29 marks out of 30.

It may be the quality of teachers and dedication that made government schools what they were back then. Both of these have been eroded, especially after the 1980s, when the recruitment of teachers became recommendation-oriented. Cited as a ladder of equality, education has been broken down by the dominance of private schools with a high fee structure.

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Corona a blip on the big journey

Col NK Verma (Retd)

Sixty-five is a good time to pause and reflect. The grey, with its touch of dignity, the wrinkles, furrows, smile lines, all act as a chronicle of one’s lifestyle, personality and attitude. The filter of time sieves the redundant and the unsavoury, retaining just the moments that bring inner joy to the heart and a smile to the face.

As I sit in my balcony, overlooking a mango orchard, with the distant Shivaliks on the horizon creating a perfect blending between the abstract and the absolute, 65 does look to be a good number to take stock and reflect on the time travel that we all go through, between cradle and the final curtain, and introspect on the higher purpose of one’s existence, and how close one came to achieving it.

It is a cloudy day in the making — perhaps the pre-monsoon or the western disturbance. The air of silent serenity, punctuated occasionally by the shrill call of a peacock from atop a mango tree yonder. A call never so noticeable before the corona lockdowns began. Worldly clutter had blocked out all music so abundantly available in nature, it seems.

For a reality check, I raise my cup of tea and browse over the news headlines, largely restricted to corona coverage. How many more lives got reduced overnight to mere statistics? How many more children of a lesser God prematurely gave up on hope, and life, due to sheer frustration over some or the other issue: a loss of job, a setback in business, or simply an opportunity no longer there? A deep sense of anguish overwhelms me, at the depleting reserves of coping skills in humankind, at the ‘distancing’ gradually becoming the order of the day. Corona brought in the need for social (spatial) distancing now, but haven’t we already been engineering an age of socio-emotional distancing, through increasing obsession with the materialistic and the digital world? My thoughts begin to wander. Is social distancing or ‘masks’ mere prophylactics, or some sort of a divine sign, too?

I look down from my balcony. The usual chatter of life is conspicuous by its absence. Not many are strolling in the park, no school buses around with their beeping and blaring. Office-goers, commuters, cabs, all seem to belong to a distant past. How long before life limps back to normal, or the new normal that everyone talks about? Is it ever going to be the same, or are the marks of suffering too strongly being etched on the human psyche, to be forgotten easily?

My train of thoughts with the underlying despondency was interrupted by an incoming video call. At the other end was my granddaughter, barely three. ‘Hi Daadu, good morning… sitting in the balcony? Come, join me in my yoga class, see how well I’ve learnt padmasana.’ The world of network-centric digital experiences is becoming an integral part of the Gen Alpha, the next rung of the evolutionary ladder. The triumphant journey of the evolution of homo sapiens continues… corona is just a passing phase.

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The twilight zone of reason

Satya Mohanty

We, Indians, are most likely to live in the twilight zone of superstition and science, mostly in the same order. When Mahmud of Ghazni attacked the Somnath Temple, the priests, instead of seeking help from the nearby rulers, decided to use powerful mantras to stop his advance. Inevitably, it did not happen. Then, following their plan B, the priests decided to get inside Garbhagriha, close the door with sarpaphasa and chant mantras to impede the invader from entering the sanctum sanctorum. But the invaders finally broke in, and beheaded all the priests.

The recent solar eclipse was the moment for me to realise this life in the twilight. I got a message from a well-wisher, advising the chanting of Suryagayatri mantra for health, wealth and prosperity for one year. Why one year? Why not longer? Answers to these questions were not available on hand. It got me thinking whether there was any proof, or is it handed down as distilled wisdom because the generation earlier believed in it. It was an untested statement.

During Covid management, a senior state functionary was emphatic that ayurvedic medicine offered to some people was showing good results. She was silent whether a simple randomised control trial was carried out. Predictably, the story fell flat, despite extravagant claims. In a scientific problem, soothsaying was being used and great disservice to ayurveda was done. Practitioners of ayurveda have come out with their own concoctions, priced high, and many are marketing it as a cure for Covid. Arguably, good herbal medicines for increasing immunity are being peddled. Preying on corona scare, marketing of repurposed drugs for immunity looks like the sale of ‘snake oil’ for a bomb. No test, no clinical trials and no scientific findings were put out. Many may ask what is there to be proved, as our ancestors had said so. But our ancestors never faced this virus. Charlatans are out with their hocus-pocus and they are being edified for this.

So was the claim on International Yoga Day that pranayam can cure Covid-19. Where is the proof or positive evidence? Pranayam does improve breathing, but is not necessarily a talisman against a new virus. An exaggerated claim cannot ensure that the rubber meets the road. Finally, it would be a disservice. On television, there was a debate between three astrologers and a doctor. Usual suggestions were to wear some stone or to conduct puja. The doctor point-blank asked where was the evidence! For a natural phenomenon, how can the antidote be in a stone?

Al-Biruni, the 10th-century Iranian polymath, has recorded that his invitation to wise people in India for discussion met with indifference. They were not interested in learning or sharing knowledge or in the verification or validation of the methods by which science grows. If you live in the twilight zone, semi-darkness is inevitable, as is pushing science away from life.

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Jazzing it up in corona times

Raaja Bhasin

Yes, this is yet another corona story. Only it plans to be a post-corona story. This is of a world when the sun shines gently through a smartphone screen and it is safe to drink virtual water from virtual taps. A time when true love can be found by gazing into limpid eyes through a ‘smart’ screen.

As we have learnt in the past few months, fashion now consists of the pyjama, track top, ragged tee-shirt and the unshaven countenance. Most women open their wardrobes just to remind themselves of what they once wore. To test that the skill has not been lost, they may wrap up a sari or two, and re-iron the party-wali salwar-kameez.

With just about everything dependent on a screen, smart or otherwise, there is a fortune to be made in virtual perfumes and colognes. You won’t even have to buy them. A label will appear on the screen, one click and the world will know whether it is Dior or Drakkar that you have on. The same will go for jewellery — after all, if you have to drip diamonds for the virtual world, all it needs is a cut and paste between the Kohinoor and the Culinan.

But the true fashion accessory of the future is the mask. Before all this happened, we wore masks of another sort. We masked our feelings and we masked the truth. Artistes wore kathakali masks to help enhance a facial nuance. All that shall be a thing of the past. Those masks have been burnt, buried and the appropriate rituals performed. Models that sashayed in fine fabric, will now don the mask and this is what shall make or break a career in haute couture. The ramp, the catwalk, shall henceforth be known as the ‘mask-walk’. Students shall be admitted into the mask-crawl, and those that excel shall move on to the mask-sprint.

Let’s take a look at some possibilities of various kinds of masks:

Mask that matches: Ideally, this shall match the dress of the woman. For gentlemen, again ideally, this shall match the tie, the pocket square or socks. In reality, this shall match the track pants, the shorts and the flip-flops.

Loaf of masks: Available from wholesalers, this shall be like a stack and sold the way a box of handkerchief is.

Mask that is unimaginative: This is what is dangling from every other shop front these days — as this is the only item of sale for many. It mostly comes in baby-blue. The one named the ‘N95’, so far, is the hero of masks.

Mask that unmasks: This is the hurriedly remembered ‘oh, I must have a covering mask’. The dupatta, the pulled-up shirt collar and the hanky have been known to be used.

Magic mask: This is invisible, like the emperor’s new clothes. You supposedly wear it, but actually, you don’t. And, before you can wave a wand and cry ‘gilly-gilly’, the wearer disappears.

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What would life be without art?

Ritu Kamra Kumar

Often, social consciousness defines the very credo of an artist’s practice, because artists, their work and aesthetics are shaped by the times they live in and the reality that surrounds them. An artist, whether behind an easel or writing on a laptop or playing the piano — brings out a multitude of socio-political or cultural facets across generations and genres. Their objective is to bring out experiences of a lifetime before the world.

I am assailed by a plethora of such thoughts, as being a teacher of English literature, I encounter a question from students what would life be without Shakespeare or Picasso! What role do these works of art play in human life? The thought of a banal existence, deprived of art, makes me shudder. Reading Shakespeare, I believe, is like the first step to discovering a treasure trove of varied emotions you never knew you had. As I discuss the relevance of art, books, movies, paintings and music with my students, I make them realise that art is a constant reminder of historical times. I often think that history is perhaps the best recorded fiction, because it is ‘his-story’.

Every artist dips his brush in his own soul and paints his own nature, which is but the mirror of his times, into his books, pictures and songs. Sometimes, caught between poetry and prose, painting and music, he builds a world of his times with his own words. Life would be prosaic without creativity of intellectual minds. Many a time, literature comes to my rescue when I am faced with a dilemma of ‘to be or not to be’. Poems and stories, read as a youngster, guide my wandering ship of mind and prevent it from getting lost in the whirlpool of life. With no Shakespeare or Wordsworth, not only literature would have been left poorer, but also our own lives much less explained or understood. Picasso said aptly all art ‘washes the dust of daily life off our souls’.

Reading a book, I often move in a timeless zone and get purged of my emotional baggage, and when I find the same book being read by a stranger at an airport, I feel the book is recommending me to converse with that reader. Such is the power of art that it brings together people of diverse backgrounds and culture. As I explain this to students, suddenly many of them start relating how they too have experienced moments when art and life converge. How their mothers too become interested in a particular novel and read it passionately relating to it with their own lives. All art is an artistic rendition of emotional lows and highs that help us understand our obscure lives. True are the words of Tolstoy, ‘The activity of art is based on the fact that a man receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it.’

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Raise a toast to a cup of tea

Vishavjeet Chaudhary

As actor Virginia Wood once remarked, this story is one of empires and espionage, smuggling and addiction, rampage and passion. The protagonist of this remarkable tryst with history is none other than the humble leaf of tea. Shrouded in mystery and intrigue, the origins are not fully deciphered. Some believe it was by sheer accident that the leaf made its way into boiling water — and then, into civilisations. Its export from the extensive plantations in India was a huge boon to the Raj. Today, India continues to supply the finest teas around the world, so much so that tea is believed to be the most consumed beverage across the globe.

Among the most famous are the robust ‘Assam’, the sprightly ‘Darjeeling’ and the invigorating ‘Earl Grey’. The Indian masala chai is famed for its awakening aroma and distinct sweetness. In fact, tea is seen as the perfect companion to most occasions. Winter invites a hot cup of tea; monsoon calls for a celebratory cup; in summer, it cools you down; and in autumn, it provides for quiet pensiveness.

The depiction of tea is varied — from the famed parties in Alice in Wonderland to the scenes of tea drinking in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. CS Lewis said, ‘You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough for me!’ The ceremonies accompanying a cup of tea are just as elaborate. The Japanese, for instance, have a technique and art to pour each cup. The English tea parties are famed for their invitation lists and continue to be a hallmark of the monarchy.

India, too, has a special relationship with tea. As an empire, our history will be incomplete without tea. The US (known more for its love of coffee than tea) has an equally close connection to tea — the Boston Tea Party, which was anything but that!

George Orwell, known for his dystopian writing, scripted a short piece, unusually happy, on the right way to drink tea. He suggested that first of all, the tea leaf should not be Chinese; Indian or Ceylonese tea is far better. Milk should be added after the brew has matured, and sugar must be avoided. Orwell himself encapsulated all cultures — being of English descent, born in Bihar and having served in Burma. His fascination for tea perhaps truly reflects this shared cultural heritage.

A cup of tea holds a million possibilities. It can calm, it can invigorate. One of the most reassuring sounds is that of the kettle coming to a boil, and hot water being poured onto tea. The aroma is one that arouses distinctive nostalgia. Next time, while you sip your favourite brew, think of all that has gone into that one cup — centuries of history, hours of work, countless tea tastings, meticulous blending. How it is made is a whole different story that each household holds unique. It certainly is a storm in a teacup!

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