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Incredible India: A Canadian’s experience in India

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By Tom Peters

“India is not, as people keep calling it, an underdeveloped country, but rather, in the context of its history and cultural heritage, a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay.” So wrote Indian politician and author, Shashi Tharoor.

I had to see for myself: underdeveloped or in a state of decay.

What I found, from my experience, was a bit of both and a lot more.

India was a bucket list trip for me. All the stories I had heard of heat, poverty and a lot of bad smells didn’t deter me. If anything, it all added to the lore.

It was also another place I wanted to play golf. So with clubs in tow and an open mind, I set out on a busman’s holiday. I was ready to accept whatever I encountered. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala authored, Out of India, a collection of short stories on what it is like to be a foreigner in that country. I wondered that when I returned home would I write my own collection of stories under the same premise.

Guwahati, the capital of the State of Assam in northeast India, was my first stop. First impressions are indelibly stamped in your brain. The massive traffic confusion and congestion in the streets in that city of over two million people, hit me like a ton of proverbial bricks. Weeks later I could still feel my palms sweating, my fingers clinging tightly to the car seat and in my mind’s eye, still see the hundreds of close calls.

I wouldn’t have traded it for the world!

Guwahati was interesting to say the least. With its daily, open air fish auction, Hindu temples and Rongali Bihu festival with all its colours, traditions, music and spicy food, it was a great kick start to my adventure.

In Shillong, toward the eastern side of the country, I had scheduled my first round of golf. But on the way I traded a car seat for a seat on the back of an elephant at the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary in the Marigaon District of Assam.

The sanctuary is home to the endangered one-horned Indian rhinoceros and it wasn’t long before we spotted several grazing on the open plain.

I realized before I left home that getting a tee time in India required more than going to the pro shop and finding an open spot. There was a lot of advanced booking to be done but I did get times at the Shillong Golf Club; the Bombay Presidency Club in Mumbai; a visit, but not a game, at a very busy Delhi Golf Club; and a game in Chandigarh.

The Shillong course was closed on the Monday I arrived, but being a gracious host, the club manager allowed me to play. A young Indian lad offered to caddy for me and for the princely sum of 300 rupees (about $6 CAD) it was a bargain.

While there were no golfers because of the course being closed, I could hardly say I had the place to myself. The course was open to the public who randomly wandered the fairways and staged the occasional picnic. A distraction but not a problem.

If you go to India for some personal spiritual uplifting, it’s a country that addresses many religious beliefs and practices. Religion is very diversified — Hinduism, Buddism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam and Christianity — are among that diversity.

Hinduism has the largest following and you can easily become absorbed in the many Hindu temples throughout the country. You may also stumble across a sacred cow sunning herself in the middle of the road or Hindu rituals being performed, as I did. I happened upon a Hindu cremation, where the body is cremated on a large open fire. Definitely an experience for my own book of short stories.

In Mumbai, a city of 22 million, I was in awe of everything around me in the sprawling, noisy metropolis that still bore a lot of past British influence. Many buildings displayed Victorian architecture and the Gateway to India on the waterfront, a massive arch completed 1924 to commemorate the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary, was a reminder of pre-independence years.

Not far away from the arch, 5,000 people worked in the world’s largest open laundry, the men washing bedding, towels, etc. from hotels, hospitals and the like, in large concrete tubs while the women ironed out the wrinkles. Underdevelopment accented here!

On the sidewalks, outside of the walls of Bombay’s Presidency Golf Club, a parkland style course established in 1927, street people slept in the shade of overhanging trees. On a street corner, a small, frail woman, with a large blue cotton bag over her shoulder, rummaged through a garbage pile weeding out pieces of plastic and cardboard to be sold for a few rupees to a recycler. The daily hustle and bustle of the city fell into the shadow of tall concrete buildings, blackened over time by weather and smog. Reflections on author Tharoor’s comments of a decaying country, I wondered.

Inside the Presidency Club, as I walked the first few fairways of the manicured layout, lined with mature trees and flower beds and dotted with occasional ponds, I felt an enclosed tranquility surrounded by an outside world of desperation.

While my visit to the Delhi Golf Club did not afford me the chance to play because it was very busy (5,000 members), it did give me an opportunity to learn a bit about golf here and India’s desire to become an international golf destination.

Rajan Sehgal, President of the India Golf Tourism Association, told me his association was working with India’s government to promote India’s golf product and golf tourism around the world. Of the approximate 220 courses in the country, approximately 45 are of international calibre and there are several more courses either planned or under construction.

The city of Chandigarh, about a five-hour drive north of Delhi, certainly doesn’t speak to Tharoor’s underdeveloped theme. Also known as The City Beautiful, Chandigarh was India’s first planned city following independence in 1947. It is filled with clean, tree-lined streets, parks and modern architecture. Its master plan was prepared by the famous Swiss-French architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier. The city of just over one million people, has a high quality of life and is considered the face of modern India.

The Chandigarh Golf Club and course fit nicely into the local, green surroundings. The tight fairways were lined with mango, eucalyptus and many other tree varieties. The greenery and attention to detail were exceptional. The club’s welcome was warm and genuine. The course, opened in 1962, is more than 7,000 yards from the tips and also has nine holes and a driving range lit for night golf.

I had come to India with no pre-conceived ideas and no great expectations. There are real life issues and habits that could be disturbing to some people. It’s not for everyone. But what I learned was that there is so much more of India I want to see.

In the novel, A Passage to India by E.M. Foster, and within the context of the story, the question was asked: Can an Indian be friends with the English?

I’m not sure how the question was answered in the book but based on my experience, an Indian can certainly be friends with a Canadian. I learned that firsthand.

The story was originally published in The Chronicle Herald

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Veerappan: India’s most wanted

Veerappan was hunted by the police for over four decades, making it the longest man-hunt in India

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Veerappan was a smuggler, poacher, murderer and extortionist who was killed in Operation Cocoon
Veerappan in his heyday, He was killed via Operation Cocoon
  • Veerappan was a smuggler of ivory and sandalwood in the southern states of India.
  • He killed government officials and civilians alike when they tried to stop his illegal activities.
  • He died in October 2004 during ‘Operation Cocoon’, which was carried out by a Special Task Force.

Poaching, smuggling, extortion, smuggling, brigandry, murder — these are some of the few charges against Koose Munisamy Veerappan Gounder, popularly known as Veerappan, for whom was constituted India’s largest manhunt, on which the government spent around 1.5 million Rupees. From his childhood, narratives about the elusive dacoit were laced with fiction, as he became an object of myth when he was only ten years old, and had infamously shot his first tusker elephant for ivory. His notoriety became a national concern when the government banned ivory trade in India, and he began felling trees for precious sandalwood, thus beginning a period marred by Veerappan killing government officials and locals alike when they became an obstacle.

Veerappan unleashed a reign of terror on the southern states of India from the early 1980s till his death in 2004; during which Veerappan killing police officers and civilians alike caused a nationwide uproar. In 1990, the notorious smuggler had beheaded a forest officer K. Srinivas, which wasn’t recovered until three years later. In 2000, he had kidnapped the Kannada actor K. Rajkumar, whose release was negotiated through Nakkeeran editor Gopal, to whom the infamous poacher admitted to murdering as many as 120 people. Matters came to a head when   abducted the former Karnataka minister H. Nagappa in 2002, and killed him when his demands were not met.

Operation Cocoon:

Veerappan leading his gang in moily forest,
Veerappan leading his gang in Moily forest. Wikimedia

A Special Task Force or STF was constituted for the capture of Veerappan in 1991, which, headed by K. Vijay Kumar, launched Operation Cocoon in 2004, which finally resulted in Veerappan’s death. Kumar, aided by his previous experience with Veerappan, based Operation Cocoon on human intelligence and interaction, during which multiple STF personnel blended in with the locals in areas frequented by Veerappan. The initial stages of Operation Cocoon consisted of gaining the trust of Veerappan’s associates, till they started divulging details about his failing health. In the years before his death, the elusive outlaw seemed to have lost much of his vigour and vitality, as he suffered from diabetes, and a cataract had almost blinded him in one eye.
On 18th October, 2004, the police lured Veerappan out of familiar terrains in an ambulance, and apprehended him at a roadblock, where he was killed in the crossfire between his team and the STF, via three bullets. The photographs after Veerappan’s demise show him in a pathetic light, bereft of his signature handlebar moustache, and the agility which had facilitated his escape for over four decades.

There have been a lot of controversies regarding his death, as many media houses and activists have claimed that Operation Cocoon has derived Veerappan of a fair trial by law. Some have even claimed that he was tortured to death in police custody. The facts regarding the elusive sandalwood smuggler remain inconclusive even after a decade of his death, due to the lack of concrete evidence.

 

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Bhai Boolchand-the Indian who launched trade with Ghana

The first Indian to arrive in the Gold Coast (Ghana's colonial name) in 1890 , Bhai Boolchand launched trade in India with Ghana

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Ghanian flag, Bhai Boolchand launched trade in India with Ghana.
Ghanian flag, Bhai Boolchand launched trade in India with Ghana. pixelbay
  • Bhai Boolchand, the anonymous Indian, is credited with starting trade between Ghana and India
  • The year was 1890.

Not much is known about him, but it has now emerged that trade relations between Ghana and Indiawere started by Bhai Boolchand, the first Indian to arrive in the Gold Coast — Ghana’s colonial name — in 1890. That’s some 67 years before the British colonial government granted the country independence, research by the Indian Association of Ghana has found.

“As far as our records show, Bhai Boolchand (of the Bhaiband Sindhworki trading community), landed on the shores of the Gold Coast in western Africa in 1890. Nearly twenty years later, in 1919, the first Sindhi company was established by two brothers — Tarachand Jasoomal Daswani and Metharam Jasoomal Daswani,” the Indian Association said.

The duo opened a store — Metharam Jassomal Brothers — in the then capital city of Cape Coast in 1919.

“Their business flourished and branches were opened in Accra and Kumasi. A few years later, the two brothers separated and whilst Bhai Metharam Jasoomal continued the business as Metharam Brothers, Tarachand Jasoomal operated his business as Bombay Bazaar. These were the first two Indian companies that were established in the Gold Coast,” the Association said.

Boolchand’s arrival, therefore, pre-dates the historical links between the two countries that were always thought to have started between Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkruman, and India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Boolchand can thus be described as the one who paved the way for the arrival of other members of the Sindhi community, initially as traders and shopkeepers.

The Indian Association said more of this group arrived in the 1950s and 1960s, with a few venturing into manufacturing industries such as garments, plastics, textiles, insecticides, electronics, pharmaceuticals and optical goods.

The Association said two more Indian firms were established under the names of Lilaram Thanwardas and Mahtani Brothers in the 1920s. This trend continued in the 1930s and 1940s with the creation of several more Indian companies like T. Chandirams, Punjabi Brothers, Wassiamal Brothers, Hariram Brothers, K. Chellaram & Sons, G. Motiram, D.P. Motwani, G. Dayaram, V. Lokumal, and Glamour Stores.

Glamour Stores, which was stared by Ramchand Khubchandani who arrived in Ghana in 1929, has grown — after changing its name to Melcom Group — to become the largest retailing business in the country. The Melcom Group, headed by Ramchand’s son Bhagwan Khubchandani, is now in its 60th year and about 40 stores all over the country.

Ramchand and his brother later went into garment manufacturing in 1955 and once employed over 1,200 Ghanaians. They later opened the first Indian restaurant, Maharaja, in Ghana. Bhagwan followed in his father’s footsteps and in 1989 established the Melcom Group with his sons-in-law, Mahesh Melwani and Ramesh Sadhwani.

Another Indian-owned company that has survived through the years is the Mohanani Group, which is currently in its 51st year. At the first-ever Ghana Expatriate Business Awards, the Ministry of Trade and Industries recognised the work of one of the thriving Indian-owned B5 Plus Steel Company and awarded it the Best Expatriate Company in the metal and steel category.

As these companies brought in new expatriate staff, some left their employers to venture out on their own — resulting in more companies opening up.

“After 1947, the Gold Coast attracted the attention of some Indian multinational companies, and big names like Chanrai, Bhojsons, K.A.J. Chotirmal, Dalamals and A.D. Gulab opened branches in Ghana,” the Association said.

“The employment of Ghanaians by these founding companies also helped to lessen the burden of unemployment in the country. This amply demonstrates the level of commitment India has in the developmental agenda of Ghana,” it said.

Indians are not only investing in the manufacturing and commercial sectors of the country; they are also investing in the financial sector. Bank of Baroda, one of India’s biggest and most reputable banks, recently established a branch in Ghana and hopefully it will expand its operations in other parts of the country very soon. (IANS)

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Beatles, Apple, Facebook knew India more than Indians

Famous non-Indian celebrities know more about India and its past

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The Beatles once visited India to know more bout its past and culture.
The Beatles once visited India to know more bout its past and culture. Wikipedia

-By Salil Gewali

Facebook’s Chairman Mark Zuckerberg had dropped a bombshell on the “secularists” in India during PM Modi’s visit to his campus in California. It’s all about the Facebook connection with India. Initially, it was never a bed of roses for what is now a household name “FACEBOOK” across the world. This world-famous ‘social networking service company’ had its own share of bad times. Revealing for the first time in the meeting at the Facebook office upbeat Zuckerberg told PM Narendra Modi that Steve Jobs, the founder Chairman of Apple, had advised him to visit a certain temple in India for blessings. The revelation may have caused heartburn to many. More so in India where so-called secular and snooty folks have long acquired a proclivity to look down upon their own culture, religion, and values while being appreciative of any bizarre customs and styles of the West. Yes, heeding the advice of his mentor Steve Jobs the depressed Mark had visited the temple and toured around India for nearly a month.

Facebook's CEO tells about India.
Facebook’s CEO tells about India. wikipedia

Well, the American techno-wizard Steve Jobs had himself spent over six months in India in 1974. He was here in quest of the higher meaning of life and spiritual solace. As understood, from early age Steve was quite haunted by a good deal of unanswered questions. Of course, his encounter with a book “Be Here Now” by Richard Alpert, a Harvard Professor, had opened up a gateway to the spiritualism of the East. This book had also introduced him to a mystic Yogi ‘Neem Karoli Baba’. That later inspired Steve to set out the journey for the East. As soon as Steve and his friend Daniel Kottke arrived India they directly went to meet the Guru in Kainchi Dham Ashram in Nainital. But to their disappointment, they found the Baba had already passed away some months earlier. Nevertheless, the urge to dive deeper into the spiritualism did not die away. They shaved their heads and put on Indian clothes and undertook an extensive meditation and yogic practices.

The most significant impact that had made upon Steve’s life was a book “Autobiography of a Yogi”by Paramhansa Yogananda. It is on record that he would read this book too frequently, at least once every year until his death, 2011. This book had given him the practical insight into what exactly this world is about and how a layman can prepare himself to realize the Supreme knowledge. The first-hand account of a Yogi with empirical approaches to know oneself this book by Yogananda is a smash hit manual now among the seekers of the Eastern spiritualism.

Yes, by dint of hard work, intuition and innovation Steve stood out as one of the most successful techno-tycoons of the modern times. As much known, Jobs was hardly possessed by the luxury of riches and materialistic vanity. He just regarded his entrepreneurship as a tool to awaken his dormant potentialities. The chairman of Salesforce.com and famous philanthropist Marc Benioff says with conviction — “If you want to understand Steve, it’s a good idea to dig into ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’.” It is this book which Steve’s family had given to all the guests as a last gift at his memorial service.

Here we can’t afford to ignore the Beatle’s fascination for INDIA as well. The band members that were basking in the opulence of materialistic riches and glory visited India (Rishikesh) in search of inner peace. They met with Sri Maharshi Mahesh Yogi and learnt from him Transcendental meditation (TM) who laid bare methods to feel true bliss within. Sri Maharshi is a big name in the West having a huge following that includes celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, David Lynch, Russell Brand, Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Aniston, Modern physicist Dr. John Hagelin, to name a few. The Beatle’s Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr often assist a Hollywood Director/actor David Lynch to organize the Transcendental meditation under ‘David Lynch Foundation’ across USA and the European countries. George Harrison later took refuge in Bhakti Yoga. The founder of ISKCON Srila Prabhupada showed him the pathway to the Supreme Consciousness.

What basically pulls the rational westerners to India is less known to Indians themselves. It’s shamefully paradoxical. From early 19th Century, the philosophical literary treasure troves and Yoga of India found more admirers in the foreign lands than at home. Indeed, the philosophy of the “laws of karma” and the presence of all-power-divinity within every being and everywhere — which any human being can realize irrespective of one’s caste, creed, nationality, and color, has intensely stirred the greatest of the great minds of the West. The ancient texts hold out a whole bunch of keys to unlock oneself and know his/her relationship with the Supreme Being which in fact seems very reasonable to the West. Further, the complex studies of world-view by Modern scientists are gradually arriving at the same conclusion what the ancient sages of India expounded over five thousands year back that ‘creation and creator are ONE’. Interconnection, inter-relation and interdependence among every individual particle/object, living or non-living, in the infinite universe — which is the fundamental tenets of the Eastern philosophy, provided a new light of wisdom to the the modern physicists like Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Julius Oppenheimer, Brain David Josephson, David Bohm, John Stewart Bell et al.

Well, Indian’s contribution to the western academia is immeasurable — though deliberately undermined or less discussed in India itself. It’s very worthwhile to recall a famous proclamation by our western master whom we hold in the highest esteem. TS Eliot, one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century, asserts: “Indian philosophers’ subtleties make most of the great European philosophers look like schoolboys”.

Salil Gewali is a well-known writer and author of ‘Great minds on India’. Twitter @SGewali.