Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Civic Sense : Of Budding Brahma Kamals and Blooming Idiots

That we Indians lack civic sense is an old rant. The fact that we are more than aware of this failing is also old discovery. Google 'Civic Sense' and you will see the first page results are all either from Indians or for Indians or about Indians.

Yahoo Answers, the wondrous site that answers all questions from "Who decided that north was up and south was down in the universe?" to "Do you hide your most controversial opinions behind vague and allusive statements?" Gives us an insightful thread of Civic Sense.

[Extracted from Yahoo Answers]

Question(From Ayushi, note an Indian) : What is civic sense?

Answer1 : Knowing better than to buy one. Stay away form Hondas.

Answer 2: (From Sameer, again an Indian) :

civic sense means social ethics.the positive perception, understanding, attitudes, towards society or community. the behaviour between persons and group, civility. principle of society
as the oath said of scout
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight

Answer 3: Its not in reference to a car.. it refers to govt and society

So, notwithstanding, the 'keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight', the great Yahoo Answers more than amply helps demonstrate that we Indians have Civic Sense strong on our radar. (What this does not demonstrate, is besides the point for now - that we Indians have a great 'Civic' sense in matters that are automobile as well!)

The coinage and prevalence of this term is not new. I have distinct memories of mom pulling my ears for dropping a banana peel on the road with 'You should have some civic sense'. My definition of civic sense (based on the various things my mother pulled my ears for) is as follows

1. Do not litter your surroundings
2. Do not pluck flowers in a garden/park
3. Do not leave graffiti on the wall
4. Do not play music loud at night
5. Do not talk on the phone for hours (Ok, that not got much to do with civic sense, but my mom always pulled my ears for that)

Growing up in Delhi, I could add a few more points

6. Do not unburden yourself in public
7. Do not spit in corners. OK spit if you have to but DOT NOT make noises while bringing up the good stuff

We will leave other issues like playing Hawa mein udta jaaye, mera hanuman bajrang bali, jaio ho and other soulful bhajans on loud speakers all night for another day, another rant.

While many mothers must have pulled the ears of their progeny, not everybody is as good a learner as I am (or maybe not all mothers knew how to twist so that it really hurts). Attitudes still prevail and flourish. We are constantly educated about it, yet we take the easy and convenient way out.

How many times have I been the butt of a joke of an entire trekking group, because I insist we do not leave empty water bottles in the wild. A typical conversation follows:

Person X :(in some remote corner of the Himalayas): Isn't this place beautiful. It is like heaven on earth. I wish I could live here forever.
Me: Yeah.....It is out of the world
[Person X chucks empty water bottle on the grass]
Me: Why are you defiling this heaven with this trash?
Person X: Oh come on, don't be such a stiff neck. I cannot carry it with me for the next 5 hours. Everyone does it.
Me: So, that means you should do it too?
Person X: Why be such a tight-ass about it? Even if I don't throw it, someone else will.
Me: Imagine, you will come here 10 years later and everyone thought like you. Instead of the **pristine** valley you shall see a **plastic** valley like you do in Shimla (Mussorie, Joshimath, Nainital... or whichever hill station was our starting point)
Person X: Whatever! (still not picking up the bottle... sometimes a Person Y will pick it up)
Me: Whatever! (picking up the bottle)

In this context, I recall a recent trip to the Valley of Flowers, a remote valley near Badrinath in the Garhwal Himalayas. On the same route lies Hemkund Sahib, a Sikh shrine that attracts a large number of pilgrims. The fact most pilgrimage places are dirty is no news. A devout Hindu takes it for granted that the route to God shall be littered with his own bodily discharges.

Frank Smith, the mountaineer who discovered the Valley of Flowers describes the pilgrimages of the 1920s and 30s in his book. More than 50% people would not complete their yatra because they would contract Cholera from all excreta lying all along the route. Is this a part of the penance of a yatra? I wonder.

Coming back to the present, the surprise is that the Nanda Devi National Park Conservation Committee has taken some steps, employed local hands and the path up to Hemkund Sahib is far more pleasant than Frank Smith's descriptions. All through you see signs 'Yeh Devpath hai, Ise Swachch rakhen' [This is a route to God, please keep it clean]. The happiness and hope one experiences after seeing this success is immediately offset by the sight of an excreta of a different kind.

Walk a couple of steps, and look up. You are sure to spot an outcrop with some graffiti like 'Lucky Singh, Jullandhar', 'Happy was here', 'Hello, How are you', 'Manjit loves Manjit'(Singh and Kaur ofcourse) An example of these droppings in the photograph below (no the creature in the photo did not create the graffiti, he's just posing)

What is this obsession for 'Apni kahani chhod jaa, kuch to nishani chhod jaa'? The constant need for leaving behind something for posterity? Someone please enlighten me.

The base for both the Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib is Ghangharia, a small and neat hamlet at the bifurcation of the path. It is from here that people make day trips to the two destinations. Hemkund Sahib nestles high up next to an alpine lake, over 16000 feet in elevation. At these lofty heights, blooms the wondrous Brahma Kamal, the national flower of Uttarakhand. A rare flower that blooms only in certain regions, the Brahma Kamal needs protection. There is a strong ban on plucking these flowers on the entire route to Hemkund (these flowers actually are only spotted when very close to the shrine). Despite a thick fog and incessant drizzle, on our trek up to the shrine we saw these signs clearly all the way up and into the shrine as well. It is truly a beautiful flower [See Picture Below]

While trekking in the Valley of Flowers our group met up and chatted with many other groups. This is a tale I heard from them.

"We are a big group from Delhi. We are here to visit all the pilgrimages in this area. Hemkund was beautiful yesterday. We had clear skies and could see for miles. Have you heard of the Brahma Kamals? They bloom only in this region. We saw them yesterday. They are beautiful. But you cannot pluck them. You know, it is the month of saawan (monsoons) and one gentleman of our group, poor fellow did not know, so he plucked six (yes six!) of them and offered them at the shrine since it is custom to offers flowers in saawan. Once the prayer ceremony got over, the priests announced on the public address system that a serious offence has been committed. The fine for each flower is 500 Rs. I don't know how they managed to trace the culprit and demanded we pay 3000 Rs. It took us a lot of pacifying to get out of that situation. So be careful don't offer Brahma Kamals at the shrine. They create too many problems otherwise"

My thoughts after hearing the tale were like this

- **They** create problems??

- Good for the priests(and Nanda Devi conservation committee). I am glad they made an issue out of it.

- Bad for the priests (and Nanda Devi conservation committee). Why did they let him go?.

My friend's take on this was - If the fine for plucking one flower is 500 Rs then 6 flowers should amount to 50,000 Rs. The fine should not grow as a linear equation.

My suggestion. Too less. We need to make examples of cases like these. Twist his ears as hard mom twisted yours. Just don't let him go back. Have him stay back in Hemkund sahib plant six Brahma Kamal bulbs on those rocky cliffs. Let him leave only after he has managed to produce six healthy budding Brahma Kamals to show as his exit pass........blooming idiot!


  1. Ritu,

    At 3 when u were so sure of the difference between pink and mauve one thouight that u were merely aware of shades of colours but little did we realise that you had such a peceptive eye and just an insight into things we take for granted. Nature bears the brunt of our thoughtless and careless attitude.

    Believe me I often wonder about the world that Ria will grow up into! Thanks to people like you it may be livable.

    Great Going! it is a delight to get to know the kind of multifaceted person you are evolving into. Makes me feel so proud and good above all!

    Moona bhabhi

  2. India - A beautiful country inhabited by dirty people. I can teach my stupid dog French, Italian and (even) Sanskrit, but can never teach Indians how to keep their surroundings clean.

  3. Hi Ritu,

    The snapshot of the Himalayas surely looks like heaven on earth :-) People who even think of littering that place should be stoned in public !

    Though I have never had the privilege or interest in visiting pilgrimage sites, I have seen quite a few on tv. The sight of filthy people (naked sadhus et al) does nothing to evoke my interest. Whenever I feel like my proximity to God is dwindling, I remember what they taught us at school (decades ago), “God resides in each one of us”. So I just look at myself in the mirror and feel blessed ;-)

  4. Chai, actually the most spectacular places in the Himalayas are pilgrimage places. The Amarnath caves, Gangotri, Tapovan, Kailash Mansarover.

    They are slightly different from a pilgrimage to the plains like Sangam etc. which has all the things you talk about. The mountains on the other hand are as you described it' Heaven on Earth'.

    There is another article 'The God of Small Things' where I had brought out that contrast. They are two completely different experiences.

  5. @ Atul:

    I agree. Though an interesting thing is that Indians have a tremendous sense of personal hygiene. They keep themselves clean and their environment dirty.

  6. Ritu, Thanks for recommending those places. I think I'll visit them some time in the distant future.

    I've written a new piece called "Dreading Ugliness". You can check it out. I've switched from nature's beauty to human beauty and dropped the humor :-)

    Cheers !