Monday, 12 March 2018

Remembering 1993 Bombay Serial Blasts

March 12, 1993: It was just another Friday. But as the Churchgate bound local reached the terminus around 6 pm, there were only a handful people on the platform. Normally when a train enters the Churchgate station during evening peak hours the platforms will be packed with people, easily numbering thousands, waiting to pounce on it.

Those inside the incoming train follow an unwritten code of either sitting tight on their seats or huddle on the side of the doors to brace for a stampede from incoming passengers. Even before the train comes to a complete halt the intrepid and nimble footed ones on the platform perform some dare devil jumps on to the train and make a dash for a seat.

Once the train stops there is a flood of commuters darting towards empty seats and comfortable standing positions on the aisle, with some ending up with broken spectacles or bruised knees. After the commotion tapers off, those wanting to alight at Churchgate gradually get up and wade through the crowd towards the door.

However on this day the train passengers were spared of this drill of ducking kamikaze assaults. But as I alighted the train, the eerily empty look of a normally bustling station was not very welcoming. A thought crossed the back of my mind "Has another communal riot started".

The city had already gone through two waves of bloodletting after the three domes of Babri Masjid came down on December 6, 1992. As I reached the exit subway, I asked a cop whether there is any problem in the city, why there are so few people in the station.

He said a bomb has gone off and all offices have closed down. People left for their homes in the afternoon itself. 

I just couldn't get it and began to wonder how could one bomb empty up the whole of city's central business district.

Just then I came across a pavement newspaper seller and bought an eveninger Newsday, which is currently defunct. It was part of the Mid-Day stable, but used to hit the stands only by 5 pm, whereas other tabloids get printed and sold in the afternoon.

For the paper it was perhaps a big day and it had reported the blasts with a banner headline of bombs going off at various parts of the city, something that afternoon papers had missed. It was the biggest ever terror attack prior to 9/11. The 24/7 news channels and their shrill news hour debates, social media were still many years away in India.

As I went to the Air-India building side, where one of the bombs went off, the road was quite literally carpeted with glass pieces, as the glass panes in nearby buildings too had suffered damage. There were patches of blood here and there and the road was cordoned off.

Normally while going to that part of Nariman Point I used to admire and gawk at those high end imported cars and SUVs parked on its premises. Remember those days the good old Ambassador was still ruling Indian roads. All these cars were now reduced to charred remains with their bonnets wide open and hoods blown off. Many of these cars remained there for months before they were cleared off.

Those were pre-cell phone days and telecommunication was a government monopoly. A landline telephone was a prized
possession one acquired after long waits, numerous visits to telecom office and greasing many palms.

Owning an STD booth was considered a major start up venture those days and many amassed a fortune out of it. Each booth used to have long queues, especially after 9 pm when the call charges were the lowest.

However on that particular day by 9 pm the Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited, which caters to Bombay area, (it had not become Mumbai then) crashed unable to bear the load, as everyone was calling their near and dear ones to talk about the catastrophe that had wrecked Bombay. Those days fibre optic cables was something you used to read about only in science journals, while the good old copper wires were the ground reality.

The subsequent investigation revealed that the explosives were shipped in from Pakistan through sea route and docked somewhere in the neighbouring district of Raigarh. Much larger quantities of explosives were stored there than that was used on March 12, as they were planning more such serial blasts.

Nearly 15 years later the same route was used by terrorists to carry out the infamous 26/11 terror attack on prime locations of Mumbai's central business district, thereby pointing to the fact that no lessons were learnt. 

The two waves of communal violence I mentioned earlier brought in communal fissures which later would get solidified and internalised among its people. Prior to that the city had never witnessed any widespread communal riot and probably the closest it came to was in distant Bhiwandi in 1984.

Stickers saying 'garv se kaho hum Hindu hain' (be proud to say we are Hindus) started appearing on the doors of apartments and at shop cash counters. So were red tikkas on many foreheads.

While travelling in trains the bhajan sessions became almost a regular feature, with voices more shrill than pious. Among commuters I would often overhear people derisively use the term 'landya' (for Muslims) and their association with 'do number ka dhanda' (illegal businesses).

All visible symbols and appearances of being an orthodox Muslim, such as fez cap, goatee and other sartorial peculiarities became very scarce in public places. Even Hindus who were sporting beards and French beards felt that a discreet clean shaven look was better part of valour.

Probably sensing this deep communal schism, a Parsi tea stall owner at railway station (I think it was Dadar) had put up a board, 'Yeh ek Parsi bava ki dukaan hai, Jai Maharashtra' (This shop is owned by a Parsi). During the riots there were cases of Parsis being mistaken for Muslims and getting targeted by Shiv Sena storm troopers and this Parsi gentleman wanted to avoid that fate.

While the embers of the communal violence and blasts died down, the process of ghettoisation got under way. Muslims who were feeling insecure in Hindu majority areas began to move out and vice versa. Mumbra a marshy land close to Thane creek became the new refuge of riot affected Muslims and the area mushroomed into a concrete jungle with little regard to planning and amenities.

Many housing societies started embracing vegetarians only credo and it became more prevalent in upscale areas such as Napean Sea Road, inhabited by diamond traders of Gujarati-Jain origins and Marwari businessmen.

After they tasted success in turning their respective housing societies into veg only enclaves, it only whetted their zeal for food fascism. Thanks to the financial clout they enjoyed and the hold they had in the corridors of power they succeeded in shuttering non-vegetarian restaurants and meat shops in the entire neighbourhood.

The other day I heard a writer observe that Chowpatty beach is probably the only coastline in the world where you won't be able to savour fish-related dishes. It could well be a badge of honour for these food fascists.

Monday, 22 January 2018

A Note From Planet of The Apes

To my fellow apes,

Just got to know that some guy in India said Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution of man was “scientifically wrong” because nobody has seen an “ape turning into a man". This has led to lots of amusement among the humans of India, many are grinning like hyenas.

But for apes like us it offers a glimmer of hope. Finally we can get rid of these centuries old chains of so called association with humans. 

Ever since that long bearded bloke Darwin came to the scene we apes have been linked to hideous humans, the pompous termites working overtime to destroy the environment and hasten doomsday. They are never in harmony with nature. Never seen such confused and fun averse creatures!

His book ‘The Descent of Man’, published in 1871, claims that we and the humans have common ancestors. It is considered path breaking by the humans, but it actually led to our free fall. Ever since we have been smarting under the stigma of being associated with these wretched and born greedy creatures.

Initially there was opposition to the book and it enjoyed little credence among humans, thanks to the stranglehold of human centric obsession - religion. Then gradually all that outrage died out and the book almost became sacrosanct.

Every year these humans have been nibbling away the forest and disembowelling our mother earth to satiate their greed and the whole of animal and plant kingdom have been suffering.

These merciless marauders have taken away most of our habitats and we have been literally cornered and forced to make do with our shrunken habitats. Like ocean waves there seems to be no end to their greed and the threat posed by these malicious marauders keeps getting renewed from time to time.

Hence any claim disassociating us from these despicably evil two-legged monsters is welcome.

Also Read: Bangalore Beat

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

'Your call is important to us ...'

'Your call is important to us, please stay on the line. All our operators are busy.' This cold impersonal voice at the other end of the phone is followed by instrumental music or announcement of discount offers.

Mind you this is what we get after undergoing a long drawn rigmarole of 'press 1 for this ... press 0 for that'.

By the time one of the 'busy' operators comes on line and says 'good morning my name is so-in-so and how can I help you' your systolic blood pressure may have travelled a great distance in the wrong direction.

Hence when they ask some questions like model of the gadget, its serial number or exact date of purchase - all essential from the manufacturer's or a service provider's point of view, but to the customer it acts like yet another turn of the screw and things reach snapping point.

One has to rummage through old bills, bend down or even go underneath the gadget to get the required numbers. After mentioning the number comes the assurance, "Thank you, your complaint number is so-in-so and our technician will rectify it within 24 hours," followed by a text message.

For some lucky ones their deliverance happens at this point, while for many others it is back to the Sisyphean grind with follow up calls.

Welcome to the world of answering machines, a contraption ushered in by the telecom revolution. It was seen as a as a posh device intended to ease customers' pain, but its too has its own penchant of being Kafkaesque and open to manipulation by human operators.

While bureaucracy of yesteryears took a toll on your legs with sundry babus making you run round in circles, the modern day answering machines does the same on your nerves by making you sit as your mental poise and phone balance take a hit.

Also Read: Bangalore Beat

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

No Country For Old Men

While Indian employers are gleefully adopting the hire and fire credo by copy-pasting the American template, the HR recruiters, on the other hand, are pursuing ageism with a missionary zeal. With the country flush with young people (thanks to our rabbit-like breeding tendencies) fresh graduates are dime a dozen. Hence, our HR managers never had it so good.

In private and corporate sector no job at any level can be considered immune to pink slips. Nor do higher ups get any stray thoughts (bordering on altruism) "Oh, if I fire such a senior person he may find it very difficult to get a job. He has a family to run and EMIs to pay." In fact they are often the first to be sent off.

If the layoff axe falls and you happen to be on the wrong side of 30, your chances of re-employment are slim as the long shadow of experience makes your journey towards the coveted offer letter a gruelling marathon. And if you are above 40 then you are the proverbial camel trying to get through the eye of a needle.

They eagerly hire fresh graduates keeping in mind low wage bills and short shelf life. As these recruits hardly stay beyond a couple of years, they need not bother about doling out gratuity and other retirement benefits. Hence they do not want to suffer the toil of even considering a ‘costly resource’ with years of experience.

If at all a senior guy makes it to the personal interview stage, he or she will have to contend with patronizing interviewers and dynamite through an iron curtain of skepticism. Sample questions: How comfortable are you while working with young people? (ideal answer could be "As comfortable as former US president Bill Clinton with his interns") or “We have a very young team, are you sure you will be able to fit in?” (As if you came out of the womb as a 40-year-old, then lived rest of your life in an old age home!)

Unless you happen to be a ‘referral’ candidate or part for some crony entourage that follows a CEO when he moves from one company to other, then be assured you have been called due to extraneous factors like filling up a quorum of candidates (higher ups in HR department often ask 'kitne aadmi the') and not because they have any intention to hire you.

While many companies may wear their 'equal opportunity' employers tag on their sleeves and some may even carry out 'trophy hires' from sexual minorities and other disadvantaged groups, 'ageism' is not even considered a form of discrimination. In fact it is an essential requirement to retain 'competitive edge' and be 'nimble footed'.

Also Read: Bangalore Beat

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Blurred Vision, Myopic Planning

It looked like the clip from a dystopian movie series Mad Max. A surreal looking video of an 18-vehicle crash near Delhi brought to the fore the chilling devastation caused by smog. Visibility on Noida-Agra Yamuna Expressway was so low that incoming cars at breakneck speed kept on banging into the vehicle pile up with drivers utterly clueless.

The winter season in north India, which used to come as welcome relief from energy sapping heat waves, is now turning into a smog season and the erstwhile gentle fog which used to blanket the region from time immemorial has now acquired a toxic dimension.

A doctor in Delhi told a British newspaper that half of his lung cancer patients are non-smokers. The air has heavy metals and other carcinogens at levels more than 30 times World Health Organization limits, conditions likened by medics to smoking at least 50 cigarettes in a day, the newspaper added.

The usual suspects used to be the rising number of vehicles and their emissions. But of late the paddy stumps burnt on the fields of Punjab and Haryana are also being pointed out as partners in crime. Esoteric terms like PM 10 and PM 2.5 have entered into common lexicon of the populace.

Air knows no boundaries and even neighbouring Pakistan is affected. But if you watch our TV channels you would be forgiven for believing that only Delhi is affected by smog. An India Gate blanketed with toxic air may be a good TV footage, but the problem is actually more acute and much more unpalatable in some of the smaller towns.

For instance, the air quality index in Moradabad is worse than Delhi, but this town and the lives of its inhabitants is of little interest to our TV anchors and talking heads.

Setting aside the Delhi-centric view of our news anchors, it must be said the prevailing smog over most parts of north India is a also a pointer towards the government's and society's failure on two fronts.

Firstly none of our towns, big or small have a viable public transport system. This has only led to proliferation of private vehicles. It began with Hamara Bajaj in the 1970s to Mera Sapna Meri Maruti in 90s and now to much more high-end offerings. In every city the number of vehicles are way beyond the carrying capacity of their roads and traffic jams are ubiquitous in almost all cities no matter the size.

Secondly our agricultural scientists and governments have done little to provide the farmers with a economically viable alternative to burning stumps. They still continue to do so as the farmers in Punjab and Haryana are short of time and have to sow wheat within a fortnight after the paddy harvest.

Amid all this shortcomings the desperate people have stopped expecting anything from the political and bureaucratic class. Many from middle and upper classes are trying to find individual solution such as air-purifiers, pollution masks to keep toxins at bay.

But they are at best desperate measures with limited effectiveness. Air does not care about social strata either!

Also Read: Bangalore Beat

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Demonetisation: When Rumours Gained Wide Currency

It is often described as India’s 9/11 (our date writing convention is different from Americans). On November 8, 2016 night the Indian public was subjected to the now momentous ‘Mere Pyare Deshvasiyon …’ speech. Unfortunately I was deprived the privilege of hearing that historic address as I had just stepped out of my office hall to attend a phone call. During my telephonic conversation I could overhear loud shrieks from the hall.

After I returned I came to know about the momentous decision by the Union government to make high value currency notes of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 denominations illegal tender from the following day.

The next day during my morning errands I came across queues in front of all banks with the public sector ones being thronged by much larger number of people. So when I decided to deposit the illegal tender under my possession, I chose to deposit in my Yes Bank account, as it was a low key bank, when compared with public sector banks and its more popular private sector peers such as HDFC or ICICI banks.

However, even there I was greeted by an unprecedented crowd, though not as intimidating as in other banks. Fortunately Yes Bank had provided separate queues for deposits (for account holders) and exchange (open to general public), a luxury not offered by many banks.

Hence the lives of account holders were made less miserable as they could opt for the less torturous deposit queue. But each transaction was taking longer time. And I got stuck behind one fat cat couple.

They had come with a backpack full of demonetized currency notes. It still beats me under what provision they were able to deposit that much amount, easily running to around Rs 15 lakh, without inviting scrutiny of taxmen.

While the cashier was busy putting bundle after bundle into the currency counting machine, the couple got into a small talk with the relationship manager, a twenty-something woman and probably a freshly minted MBA, who was standing nearby.

The couple started off by asking her how she and the staff were coping with the work overload. The woman readily conceded about the work load and then prattled on to a morality trip, betraying her upper class entitlement and admiration for demonetisation.

She sounded very gung-ho. “It is very good for the country,” and then marveled at how the prime minister was able to keep everything under wraps and took all ‘dishonest’ people by surprise. Those with unaccounted wealth would have no option but to destroy them, she asserted.

With a patronizing giggle she continued, “Oh god, what all tactics people are using to turn their black money to white.” Some are depositing money in their second wife’s name. Some of ‘these people’ (no points for guessing which community) have so many wives, she guffawed and the couple too giggled in agreement.

Then she trained her guns on the opposition. She accused them of ‘playing politics’ and how they were putting so much ‘pressure’ on the prime minister who was trying to ‘do something’ for the county. That was a day after he made his lachrymose ‘Meri jaan khatre mein hai’ speech, which would make yesteryear tragedy queen Meena Kumari proud.

Thankfully by that time the bundles got counted and my turn came. The relationship manager retreated to her cubicle.


Those were the early days of demonetisation and even hardened pessimists thought all this chaos due to cash shortage would subside within a week. Almost everyone had underestimated the government's lack of homework to carry out the exercise, especially with regard to arranging for new currency notes and re-calibrating ATMs to accommodate the new notes, as they had a different dimension.

It was also an open season for myths and bluster with wide circulation of 'forwarded as received' messages in the social media, especially WhatsApp. The government's much vaunted premise of panic stricken black money hoarders flowing their unaccounted stash in the Ganges or setting them on fire enjoyed wide currency. A few who decided to stick their necks out were trolled into silence.

While standing in serpentine queues in front of banks and ATMs (which became a national duty) many self-righteously speculated about how much of the Rs 16 lakh crore demonetized currency will not return. And a widely held guesstimate was that between Rs 3-4 lakh crore would stay away from banks. Even sceptics thought close to Rs 1 lakh crore may not come back to the banks.

Another popular myth that died an early death was that of nano-GPS chips embedded in the new Rs 2,000 notes. Some TV channel anchors waxed eloquent about its magical powers claiming that they can provide precise location of the currency and every note can be tracked. 

They bragged that the chips are so powerful that even if they are buried 120 metres below the ground they can send signals to satellites! Once those pink Rs 2,000 notes arrived, the myth was given a quiet burial.  


A strong sense of Schadenfreude pervaded through all sections of the society. The poor who were the worst hit took cold comfort from the fact that their 'maaliks' too were struggling. They were amused to see them spend sleepless nights over getting their cash stash in old currency exchanged and even approaching them to deposit in banks for a commission. 

The TDS weary salaried class was happy that businessmen, whom they perceived as congenital tax evaders, were being made to come clean on taxes and wet dreamed of lower income-tax in the next Union Budget. Some fake news sites also floated the yarn that income-tax may be even abolished, which further warmed the cockles of their hearts.

For the rich it was a feeling of relief as they did not have to stand in queues. No famous personality was ever seen standing in queues, but all obviously got their money exchanged - courtesy jugaad.

Those with money parked in tax havens abroad were patting themselves on their backs for their foresight and tweeting in favour of demonetisation with missionary zeal.

For a long time Reserve Bank of India played coy saying it is not yet done with counting the amount of banned currency notes deposited in banks. When it became very jarring like a battered kettle tied to a dog's tail (my apology to W.B. Yeats) they came out with the 'projected' numbers which was nearly 99% of the demonetized currency, not considering the banned currency lying in Nepal and Bhutan vaults, which is yet to come. 

No wonder they were so secretive. Nobody got browbeaten enough to torch their currency stash, and thankfully the already polluted Ganges was spared of further influx of toxins in the form of printers ink!

Also Read: Bangalore Beat

Monday, 2 October 2017

Elphinstone Road: An Inevitable Tragedy

They are often touted as Mumbai's lifeline, as these suburban trains bring millions of commuters from suburbs as far as 60-70 kilometres to their offices and businesses located in the central business district. But it has also been a reason for grief to many as death and injury lurks at every step while these trains go about their humongous and unwieldy daily grind of gorging and disgorging thousands of passengers at various stations.

Nearly 8-10 commuters die on a daily basis while boarding or alighting the coaches, which are crammed four times their capacity, or while crossing the tracks. But these deaths rarely rise above being a mere statistic. And we all shrug it off saying life is cheap! The only time the death in trains become 'breaking news' is when there is a bomb blast or if a certain gentleman from across the border decides to do some target practice at one of these stations.

However on Friday the city and the country were jolted out of its festive Ayudha Pooja stupor by a stampede in Elphinstone Road station, a low profile mill district which of late has metamorphosed into a corporate hub.

For those not familiar with Mumbai suburban rail network, the city has three rail lines - Western, Central and Harbour. Western and Central lines intersect at two points and Elphinstone Road on the Western line is one of the options for commuters to change to Central line, as it is linked to nearby Parel station on the Central line by a foot overbridge.

The other option is Dadar station which has platforms catering to both the railway lines. However, the volume of crowd at Dadar is far too intimidating and it calls for the strength, aggressiveness and endurance of a rugby player to board and alight trains.

Its too early to find the actual reason for this calamity and newspapers are still flush with 'eyewitness' accounts and political slanging matches played, often on social media with hashtag jousts.

From the newspaper accounts it appears that Elphinstone Road and Parel stations continue to be interconnected with a lone overbridge that is barely eight feet wide and was built decades ago when these two stations were catering to a fraction of the commuters they handle now.

This is despite the fact that the transformation of Elphinstone Road and Lower Parel as an extended central business district has been a work in progress since mid 1990s. Those were the early days of gentrification of mill districts and I remember when a well known advertising agency shifted its office from upscale Nariman Point to Lower Parel, it was acutely coy about the down market location of its new premises and mentioned it as 'Worli East' in its invitation.

However, the Railways remained oblivious to large scale shifting of corpoate offices to these areas, most of them in order to cut costs, or the burgeoning number of skyscrapers being built to accommodate them. The rising number of office goers and the resulting congestion in these stations no way stirred them from their Rip Van Winkle slumber.

As the overbridge was woefully inadequate, many started taking a chance of crossing the tracks, thereby risk getting run over by trains.

But the railways chose the easy way out to treat the symptoms and not the disease. It fenced off the tracks to prevent trespassing, but did nothing to ease the passengers' difficulty in moving from one station to another. It was like putting a patient in quarantine, but providing him no treatment whatsoever and leaving him to the mercy of fate.

Hence even a mundane task of commuting to and from offices located near these stations has become a high-risk, life threatening affair.

Also Read: Bangalore Beat