Archive for 2011

Symbol Of A Citizens' Movement: Need For Some Introspection

An estimated 60% of  9.8 million Jews in Europe perished in the Holocaust. The greatest losses were seen in:


Germany, in the eye of the storm, saw close to 141,500 Jewish deaths. More than one million Jewish children were killed in the Holocaust, as were approximately two million Jewish women and three million Jewish men

The Holocaust, was the genocide of approximately six million European Jews and millions of others during World War II, a programme of systematic state-sponsored murder by Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, throughout Nazi-occupied territory. 

So why am I writing about the Holocaust today? 

I was a member of  the 'India Against Corruption' page on Facebook. I supported the cause for which the movement stands, although I did not necessarily support or approve of their methods or actions in recent times. I was present at Jantar Mantar in April 2011, when Anna Hazare went on his first fast unto death. I was moved and energised by the outpouring of public support which I witnessed. I even blogged about it here.  I admired their  social media strategy. I had never seen anything like this in my decade's worth of experience in the Indian social sector. I felt a sense of  hope. 

However, over the past few months, my interest in the movement and Team Anna waned - in no small measure due to their shenanigans and faux pas in the media. A feeling of disillusionment set in which finally turned to anger and disgust last week. 

India Against Corruption has posted a video, a parody showing Adolf Hitler as a supporter of the anti corruption movement in India. The English sub titles depict how Hitler is determined to support 'that Gandhian Anna' and how he would leave no stone unturned to ensure that the Jan Lokpal Bill is passed by the Indian Parliament. There are of course the usual digs about Sonia Gandhi and others. And finally some lip service to 'non violent methods' (although Anna Hazare's comment following the Sharad Pawar slapping episode  may lay that claim to rest). 

Are the IAC people out of their minds to put up Hitler - the man at the helm of one of the worst genocides known in history - as a poster boy for a citizens movement? How dare they attempt to sully the spirit of Indian  democracy (dysfunctional as it is) with references to that mass murdering lunatic?! 

What was more frightening was that some 20 people had 'liked' the video and said 'its a wonderful parody'. Did they not see how totally inappropriate the video was? But then again, considering that Hitler's popularity is being  revived in our country thanks to devious propaganda by some right wing parties, I guess I should not have been so surprised. People are actually saying that Hitler was a 'good leader' and India needs a dictator. I  guess it is easy to say that when you are wrapped in a cocoon of infallibility. 

Sorry! I think I'll pass. 
Apart from me, only two others objected to the use of Hitler as a spokesperson, however in jest, in a democratic movement. I was so incensed that I put in a scathing comment. Despite the objections, the offensive video was reposted the following day by IAC!! 

The whole funda behind endorsements is that your brand value impacts the product you're trying to sell. And so it is with social causes. The person/s and symbols used to promote a cause will impact public perception and the effect you're trying to create. Using Hitler to promote the cause of anti corruption is like using apples to sell oranges. More than that, it actually demeans your cause and insults the memory of millions of people who lost their lives at the hands of a madman. 

Today is Human Rights day. A day when we remember with solemnity those who had injustice done to them and those who fight to uphold what is just and right. I thought it is appropriate to blog about it today. Fighting to weed out corruption from your country is right. But if IAC continues in this self destructive path, it won't be long before it loses the goodwill and support it enjoys from the public. It has certainly lost mine. 

PS: I could have posted that video. But I really do not want to increase hits to that site. 

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Old Wine Really Fine?

House arrest on account of heavy rains has kept me indoors this weekend. To prevent cabin fever from taking over, I've been listening to Hindi film songs. When I played 'Jiya Jale Jaan Jale' from the 1998 film Dil Se, the husband remarked 'vandutaaya paati' (here comes the grandmother) referring to Lata Mangeshkar's aging voice in the song.

My husband and I do not like the same type of music. But on this count, I must say that I agree with him. With due respect to Rahman and Lata Mangeshkar, I feel she was not the right choice for this song.

The song is about a young, innocent bride looking forward to her wedding night. Gulzar's sensuous and smouldering lyrics sends shivers down your spine. Tells you so much without actually saying it. The picturisation was just right. A young fresh faced Preity Zinta, a bare bodied SRK, the lush greenery and the flowing water. The whole effect primordial and stripped down to the bare basics - Superb! And then that granny voice....Just listen to it:


Its not that I do not like Lata Mangeshkar's singing.Far from it. I think she has a golden voice and has given us some really memorable music. Take the song 'Jaise Radha Ne Maala Japi' from the film Tere Mere Sapne. Also about a young bride - although I guess its more about the glow from the wedding night! The tenderness and love that you get from this song is simply not there in Jiya Jale. And its not that the music is inferior. Music is top class in both songs.


Now here is a song from the music director everyone loves to hate - Anu Malik. Its from the film Asoka (you didn't know he was the music director for this film now did you?!).



The song 'Raat Ka Nasha Abhi' is laced with sensuality. (yes! Anu Malik does make good music once in a while) Also makes euphemistic references to sex. Again lyrics are by the inimitable Gulzar. The choice of singer, Chitra, in my opinion, lifts the song to another level. Call me a heretic, but for a song about love making, a 40 something singer is a better choice than a (then) 70 year old legend. The 'inspired' Anu Malik seems to know that. How come Rahman didn't?

And yet Jiya Jale was a super hit song - as it deserves to be. I just have the sense that, if say, Shreya Ghoshal had sung it, it might have moved from being a beautiful song to a mind blowing one.

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Micky Mouse In My House

Over the Diwali break, I watched the film 'Stuart Little' on telly. A cute movie about a mouse who is adopted by a human family with a message that love transcends all - especially species! I however did not appreciate the film or its message. Reason? Just a week before Diwali, I chanced upon a similar rodent in the service area of my home. And let me tell you, these mice are far from being the friendly, eager-to-please critters that Stuart is.


Naturally I lost all sleep after I saw the mouse run and take cover behind my washing machine. All windows in the house were immediately shut. All the rooms were blockaded and the service area contained. Or so we thought. The next morning my husband woke me up with - 'Its there. Behind the microwave'.

'Oh no! What shall we do?!'. It was as if we were being held at gun point by robbers.

'Dont worry' soothed my husband. 'When the maid comes, I will ask her to drive it away'.

So much for my knight in shining armour I thought wryly.

Later that day, my husband called me at work and announced triumphantly on the phone 'The house is mouse free'

'Yay! How did you manage to do that?'

'Well, I asked the maid to move the crockery shelf. And he just leaped out from behind it and started running....'

'Did you kill it?!'

'No! He was too fast' (A likely story. My husband couldn't hurt a fly. Even if the fly was hurting him)

The long and short of it was that the rodent was driven out of the house with a stick and jhadoo. My husband breathed a sigh of relief and left on tour.

The next morning, I knew the mouse was back. There were droppings on the floor, it had knocked over a little cup in which I keep pins and rubber bands. Damn!

Another night went by with me barricaded inside my bedroom. But I had forgotten to shut the dining room window which was where the mouse had escaped from. And now seemed to be using it for entering the house. This time it even bit my kitchen mat to tatters. Enough was enough.

I called my husband and said 'Do something or I'm out of here! And dont tell me to set traps or use rat poison. I don't even want to see that ugly, dirty thing'

'Ok! Cool it. I will contact the pest control guy'.

So that evening the pest control guy, Sathya, arrived. He inspected the rooms and pointed out to me which ones the mouse had been in. Luckily it was only roaming around the dining room near the microwave. It had first gained entry by nibbling through the netlon we have put in the service area. And after it made its escape from the extermination drive initiated by husband dear, it found a new way in.

Sathya showed me a black line on the wall, right above the floor. 'That line shows the movements of the mouse. Since it is dirty, it leaves dirt marks and thats how we can find it' he said.

Really?! I soaked up all this information.How was he going to catch it? A trap? Poison (shudder! I cannot dispose mouse carcasses)

'No madam. Now a days there are new things called 'gum traps'. It is safer than regular traps which can injure the rat and spill its blood and make the area unsanitary. Poison could cause it to die and rot and leave a bad smell. Again there is risk of infection. The gum traps are the safest way to catch them'

The exact same gum trap we used
So what is a gum trap. It is essentially a note book (mean the paper note book not the computer) shaped article. When you open it (like a notebook), it reveals strong gum inside. It is placed at places frequented by the rat. When the rat moves over it, it gets stuck and remains stuck till you come find it. No blood and no rotting.You just fold the mouse in the trap and dispose it.Genius!

The traps were placed and I was advised to leave the window open.

Come morning, there was no sign of the intruder. Drat! Still, it was early days yet. Sathya said the traps could be placed and they were good for at least a year.

Luckily I did not have to wait a year. When I got home from work that evening, there it was! All stuck on the gum trap, just like Sathya had promised. How to dispose it? I was going nowhere near it. The apartment security guard obliged and my home was soon REALLY mouse free.

My joy knew no bounds. I had hated living all boxed up with windows and doors closed all the time. I called just about everybody I knew with the glad tidings.

All's well that end's well I thought. I became a staunch supporter of the gum trap. To me it was the next best thing after penicillin had been discovered.

Until last week. I opened the service area door and a black shadow darted past. 'EEEEEEkkkk' I screamed.

'What happend?' shouted my husband from the other room, ' Lizard?' (Yeah. I'm petrified of lizards. But after this mouse business, I think I'm learning to like the reptiles. They eat cockroaches and do not make a nuisance)

'Guess who is back?!'

'WHAT?!' asked my husband rushing to the service area. But the mouse was gone.

We've blocked the opening in the bitten netlon and put another gum trap in place. Doors and windows are closed in the evening. The guy has not re-appeared since that one time. But everytime I hear some sound, I start, thinking its the mouse who's back. Brings to mind that song 'Zara si aahat hoti hai, tho dil sochta hai. Kahin yeh WOH tho nahi!!'


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No! Men Will NOT Be Men.

I'm back to my favourite rant on gender stereotyping in the media. The Seagram ads are the latest on my hit list. Take a look at this one:


Seriously! A husband cannot remember his wife's name? And that can be excused as 'Men will be Men?"!! Even our male centric mythological texts did not let off Dushyant so lightly when he forgot his wife Shakuntala.

Here's another:



Man forgets his wedding anniversary and decides to buy a diamond ring as a peace offering. Bigger the offense, larger the size of the diamond.  After all, who needs to remember trivial stuff in life like a wife and marriage! Grrrrr. And when they do, they fall back on the old stereotype of diamonds being a girl's best friend. Shut the woman up with a shiny rock.

And yet another:



Man looking devastated. Leads you to wonder if someone has died. But no! Its worse. His wife's trip out of town has been cancelled! Men will be men!

Apart from portraying woman as:
1. Not worthy of being remembered 
2. Greedy and hankering after jewellery
3. So unbearable that husbands eagerly await their departure from the home - I think these commercials also portray men in poor light. As people who do not care for their wives enough to remember their names. As people who would bribe their way into their wives' good graces rather than be contrite and admit to making a mistake and as people who seem to find their wives' presence insufferable. At least the men in my life do not live up to THIS stereotype. 

My father is a wonderful man and a devoted husband. Going against the tradition of celebrating 'shashtiyaptapurti', he preferred to celebrate his golden jubilee wedding anniversary instead. Read more about it here: Celebrating Milestones

Like my father, my husband is also a caring human being. And what I love most about him is the amount of attention he gives me! He has his faults of course. But I have never wanted for attention from him. He misses me when I'm away and certainly knows how to make anniversaries special :) 

The reactions to these commercials have generally been good with people liking the humour, the acting and the music. One reaction says that since advertising for alcohol and tobacco are banned, the companies have to turn to these kind of 'humourous' methods. But why does 'humour' always make women the butt of the joke and present them in unfavourable light? 

No doubt, the commercials are entertaining and the actors very talented. Overall stylishly created commercials by Ogilvy. But I think they've gone over the top with the stereotyping. I know this refrain is so oft repeated that it is passe - but I think it bears repeating. Media needs to be more responsible in the way it portrays gender relations. And, we, as a society, need to be more alert to the sub text in these seemingly 'well crafted' and 'entertaining' commercials. 

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This Used To Be My Playground (with apologies to Madonna)

I'm spending Diwali in the city that symbolises 'home' to me - Hyderabad. I had my schooling here and the beginning years of my professional life. In my experience, its a great place to be. The city is bursting at its seams now, has perennial water shortage and terrible, terrible traffic. And yet, the madness seems to reach out to embrace me, making me feel more included and wanted than the place which I have made my home these days.

Sarojini Devi Road, (known as 'Oxford Street' in British Times) in Secunderabad has always been busy. Even way back in 1985, when my family first moved here, it was busy little road. On one end of this road was Sangeet, one of the few movie theatres that screened English movies and at the other end was the famed Paradise restaurant, arguably the best biryani place in the 'twin cities'.

Twenty six years down the road (pardon the pun!), so much has changed while some things have remained just the same.

Sangeet before demolition. Source: The Hindu
Sangeet theatre is a thing of the past. Demolished to make way for a multiplex I'm told. It was a sad day when I heard the news. So many wonderful movies and memories are associated with Sangeet. Watching 'Rear Window', 'Vertigo', 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' with my dad, a devoted fan of Hitchcock. Being taken from school - located just a stone's throw away - to see 'Ten Commandments'. The timings at Sangeet were unique. Three main shows at 4pm, 6pm and 9pm. And two other shows - a morning show at 9.45 am and a matinee at 1.45pm. Balcony tickets were Rs. 6 and stall tickets were Rs. 5. And I remember how we mourned when the fare was raised by 50p.

Old photo of my school. Source: The Hindu
The next wonderful building on that road is of course my alma mater, St. Ann's. I have spent some of the best years of my life here. Technically, the school spans the space between Sarojini Devi Road and Sardar Patel Road. And I would prefer to take Sardar Patel Road as it was less crowded. I walked to school for the most part and later in high school, I cycled over. The school has also not been spared in the passage of time. In my day, one had a clear view of the two main school blocks from the road itself. During sports day, we used to have passers by and fellas climb and perch on the compound wall to witness the events. Now a new building has come up inside, presumably to accommodate more students, which totally blocks the view.

Ajanta theatre has been demolished. I remember a rumour that a fan fell on the head of some hapless viewer in Ajanta. And I used to tell the ticket seller not to give me seats directly under the fan! Some of the biggest hits of my time played at Ajanta. Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahi.... Now it is just an empty spot overgrown with weeds, awaiting a new lease of life.

The red brick Methodist church at the turning near St. Patrick's School, originally built in 1882, has been demolished. A large modern building built in its place invites the devout for worship these days and goes by the name of New Millenium Methodist Church. Possibly the new building came up in the year 2001. I've looked for a picture of the old church on the net but regretfully could not find it. Whatever reason the church authorities had for demolishing the red brick church, I miss it and the new glass, steel and concrete structure that has taken its place just does not evoke the same sense of history.

Amidst all these changes, few things remain re-assuringly unchanged. Like the fruit stall opposite St. Mary's Church, where the vendor always greets you with a warm 'salaamalaikum'. Or S. Mohammad Ali and Sons who rents out tents, utensils and furniture. The board proclaiming their name, notes the date of establishment as 1899. During my time, the owner's daughter studied in my school. So we got props for our drama competitions free!

Basera Hotel
Basera Hotel is still going strong. It has a fancy new restaurant called 'Pickles'. Back then, it had two restaurants called 'Daawat' and 'Mehfil'. One was more 'junta' and the other more sophisticated. Apparently, Talat Aziz used to sing at Mehfil. I still remember one hilarious incident when my family and I had gone for lunch to Basera. My poor dad, unable to decipher the androgynous figure drawn outside the toilet door, walked into the ladies toilet, even as waiters rushed to stop him. During our next visit, we saw that the androgynous figure sported a necklace and teased dad that they had done it because of him.

A view of Oxford Street (S.D.Road) in 1890
Source: Hyderabad Once Upon A Time 
In August this year, as part of Madras Week, there was a heritage walk on Mount Road titled 'The Mount Road Magnates'. Sarojini Devi Road in Secunderabad is as rich in history and buildings like those I've described above.  Others like the Deccan Chronicle Office, St. Mary's Church, are all historical buildings in their own right. I wonder if there is any group in the twin cities that looks at preserving and promoting its  culture and history?

These are just some wandering thoughts that came to mind as I walked down Sarojini Devi Road today and revisited my childhood. A sense of gratitude to have wonderful memories to share and a sense of loss at how my green valley has changed. 

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What's In A Name?

While on the subject of animals, ever paid attention to the sort of names we give our pets? My friend once told me that naming must be done very carefully since the namee takes on the qualities of the name. Of course, she was speaking about humans. But I suppose the logic can apply to pets also. Looking around my immediate circle, I came across some very interesting names. I'll start with my own pet.

We had a dog. Or rather, he had us. Arrived one day as a pup from the litter of the colony mongrel and decided to stay. He was very cute - copper colour with intelligent eyes. We didn't want any 'phoren' name and nixed suggestions of Jimmy and Tommy. After trying on some names for size, like Mr. India, we settled on Sher Khan. But our fellow did not really live up to such a grand name. He was content to forage in the neighbourhood dumpster and ignore strangers when they walked into our home uninvited. In course of time, the name got shortened to Sheru.He was much more a Sheru than a Sher Khan. For eg. a Sher Khan would have simply roared at his owners and made them open the gate. Sheru on the other hand, would dig furiously in the garden, perhaps attempting to tunnel his way under the compound wall to freedom.

My husband is an animal lover and had a dog and a cat. He also had some visiting friends in the form of a garden lizard and a cow.

The dog, Scamp, was a cross between a Labrador and a Daschund (how on earth did tha happen?!) He was named in honour of the Disney character Scamp, the scion of a pedigreed mother and a mongrel father. I have never met Scamp coz he scampered off to the happy hunting grounds before I entered R's life. But seems he was not such a good tempered fellow. Barked a lot and bestowed his good graces only on my father-in-law. Did the name Scamp have anything to do with this?

The cat was named Mahabali. A unique cat name, made even more unique by the fact that Mahabali was a girl. My niece giggles when she hears this name. "how can you call a cat that? Cats are not known for Strength!'. A good point. But perhaps cats have more than physical strength. And don't forget their nine lives. That would make their cumulative strength impressive.

The garden lizard was called 'Sori' (meaning Itch in Tamil) so called on account of its scales. Not very clear to me, but R says when you have some skin problem, you get itchy and the skin flakes off. Sori would come very day to a specific spot on the wall to sun itself. A creature of habit this one.

And of course, Daisy The Cow. A comely bovine that would amble over everyday for a snack. I howled with laughter when I heard the name. Imagine a cow named Daisy in Mylapore, the Brahminical stronghold of Chennai city?!! Rather ironical. In days of yore, people 'lost caste' if they went overseas and had to be purified by drinking (or was it bathing in) 'go moothra' or cow urine. The same purifying cow now bears an English name!! Not to forget that the same Mylapore Brahmins mostly straddle two worlds these days - one leg planted firmly on the hallowed grounds of Mylapore/Mandavali and the other arching over to Silicon Valley. All the 'go moothras' of Chennai cannot purify them now!!

So what's the story behind the name your pet carries?

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Born Again

Being a Hindu, I'm programmed to believe in the concept of rebirth. Apart from that, it gives me solace to think that if things did not work out for me in this life, they will in another. I'm a staunch believer in second chances - even (or is it especially) when they transcend lives.

So if I was to be reborn, what would I want to be born as? Not that these choices are in our hands really. But I like to think about it - especially when I'm dead beat or flying around getting work done and trying to race against time.

If I had a chance at rebirth, I think I'd like to be born as a water buffalo.You think thats funny? The two others that I mentioned it to this last week also thought it was hilarious.

But if you think about it carefully, its really a very good choice for a harried, always-on-my-feet, woman-of-the-21st-century, slave to time like me.

The Bubalus bubalis is a noble creature. In my opinion, it is the epitome of relaxation and thoughtfulness, bordering Nirvana. Just picture it, sitting in muddy water, black hide glistening in the sun, swishing flies with its tail, chewing the cud and contemplating, with half open eyes, the world as it whizzes past. Now contrast this picture with the daily routine of any working woman. Wake up to the sound of an alarm, rush about preparing breakfast, lunch, braving traffic and getting to work on time in a photo finish. Then there is the roller coaster ride of dealing with work issues for at least 8 hours. And if you're a mom, then you can multiply this entire effort by two.

Don't you feel jealous? Wouldn't you want to be this animal? What does the world expect from a buffalo really? Practically nothing. Ok, maybe a couple of litres of rich milk a day. Permit a human to tug at your privates a couple of times a day. Ok, maybe thats a tad undignified. Let the passing bird sit on your broad back and pick worms off your skin. Thats as symbiotic a relationship as any! Oh and ignore the many insults and curses that use you as a reference point - In Hindi: Kala akshar bhains barabar (to indicate ignorance) or bhains ke aagey been bajana (to indicate that you have no appreciation of finer things). In Tamil: 'Yerumamaadu!' - a curse to indicate girth and immovability, usually uttered in jam packed buses and trains.

That apart, there's really nothing to complain about now is there? Its a life of self actualisation.

www.cartoonstock.com
Yes, I'd like to be reborn as a water buffalo. With curly horns - as opposed to the long straight ones. A bit of vanity maybe, but I think the curly ones look cuter!

So tell me, if you had the chance to be reborn, what would you want to be born as? Leave your thoughts in the comment box. And feel free to tag others on this topic if you like. Do let me know if you do, so I could also read it.

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Age No Bar

Hi all! Yes, Yes, I've beem MIA for a few weeks. Usual story - busy....er...actually no. Just could not find the motivation to write. :((

Soulmates?
Discovered a channel called 'Love CBS' on my Reliance Big TV connection and came upon an interesting tidbit of information on a show called 'The Insider'. Basically it gives the low down and dirt on the lives of Hollywood celebs. 'Timepass' as my friends would say. Now I came across this bit of news which made me sit up and take notice.

An actor by the name of Doug Hutchison - aged 51 - recently tied the knot with a girl named Courtney Stodden - aged.....hold your breath...16!!! Child marriage is alive and well people! And seems to be vacationing in America by the looks of this piece of info.

So who are these people? What is their claim to fame?

Dough Hutchison is a character actor seen in movies like The Green Mile and television shows like Lost and The X Files. I seem to recollect seeing him in this last one. I was a big fan of the X Files. Do any of you remember the episode about a guy who ate human livers? If you do, you know who this guy is.

The sweet sixteen lady, Courtney claims to be a 'country' singer and was an erstwhile Miss Teen USA contestant. Now if you ask me, the girl does not look 16. She looks at least 25. And a typical bleached blonde with a great bod (and probably an empty head). I do not like saying uncharitable things about my sex, but I'm going to go out on a limb here. She looks like a sluttified version of Paris Hilton - who in my not-so-important-opinion is already scraping rock  bottom.

So how did they meet? At some theatre workshop organised by Hutchison and thats when love bloomed. The man apparently called up the girl's mother to ask permission to court / date / see her underage daughter. So it would appear that this whole thing happened with the blessing of the mother. In fact, news reports say that the marriage took place with 'parental consent'.

Jokes apart, the news made me feel rather nauseated. I know its a cliche - but the guy is old enough to be her father! And in some cultures, her grandfather!!! One wonders naturally, what brought them together? Lets try a few theories on for size:

1. They love each other (Yawn!): Well if you watch their TV interviews, they keep nuzzling each other, holding hands and saying things like 'She was a virgin. I only wish I was also a virgin'.

2. Its about sex and machismo (Now you're talking!): He's 51. Probably viagra dependent. She's young and nubile and er...a virgin. In some cultures, it is believed that sex with a virgin can cure all manner of sexual disorders.Then there's pedophilia of course.

2.1 Take your supposed star crossed lovers story to the media, get people (and bored bloggers like me) to sit up and take notice. Next thing you know, you got a reality show with top ratings (who doesn't like a bit of voyeurism) and rake in the moolah!

My money's on Theory no. 2.1 people.

While these two wax eloquent on various channels about how their media appearances can be "a forum to hopefully help people change their perspective and expand their minds about love", I can't help thinking about my own country. Marriage at 16 is not something that is unusual here, particularly in states like Rajasthan and Bihar. In fact, girls get married younger than that. It is universally recognised to be one of the stumbling blocks in women's development and emancipation. But then again, India has a long way to go before we can be really a 'developed society'.

But how does one explain the same thing happening in western - and supposedly more 'developed' societies? Are 16 year olds really that different? Are they not the same hormone affected teens, searching for their identities and sense of self within their respective cultural contexts? Is 16 really a permissable age of marriage?


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Epilogue: Notes From Agra


After the tour of the Agra Fort, we opted for an early lunch. By 1pm we were done and not sure what to do next. The Taj Mahal was our final destination before we headed back to the railway station to board our return train at 6.30pm. Even if we pored over every nook and cranny at the Taj, we were sure it would not take 5 hours. How to kill time?

Enter Babloo, our taxi driver.

'Would you like to see the Mini Taj?' he asked us.

That piqued our interest. First Baby Taj, now Mini Taj? How many Tajs were there?

'Well actually madam, the real Taj is open only from 6am to 6pm. The Mini Taj can be viewed at anytime. Especially at night, during rainy season etc'. Made sense. Where was this midget doppelganger?

'Over at the Meena Bazar' said Babloo. That sounded very romantic. I immediately had visions of quaint shops and cobbled streets selling lovely trinkets....all the Mughal stereotypes I had seen in Bollywood films rushed into my mind.

'Ok. Lets go'

A while later, Babloo brought the taxi to a halt in a small, dirty quadrangle with dotted with small shops and spare parts of vehicles strewn about.

'What are we doing here?' we asked.

'Madam, this is Meena Bazar. You go there, you can see the Mini Taj. I don't take any commission or anything. If you like anything, you can also buy it.' The sign above the shop over yonder read 'Gangotri: U.P.Handloom'. A gentleman emerged and beckoned us in.

With the dawning realisation that we stood at the precipice of a con job, we moved cautiously towards the shop. There was really very little else we could do. The gentleman beamed at us and ushered us in.

'We came to see the Mini Taj' we said feeling more idiotic by the minute. Nodding, the man proceeded to shut the shop door. He pointed at the glass cupboard that stood behind us. As we turned, he turned off all the lights and then turned on the cupboard lights.

As we stood transfixed, red, blue, green lights started dancing from inside the belly of a four feet high white marble replica of the Taj Mahal.

'People from all over the world come to see the Taj Mahal. This Taj Mahal is made of 10kgs of marble (I don't remember. It could have been more), was made by 20 sculptors (again, I could be wrong), took 7 months to make and costs 6 lakhs. It is made of pure white marble. See the light coming from inside? Fake white marble is opaque. Real white marble is translucent and glows when light from inside. This is the Mini Taj'.

As the shop lights came back on, we picked our jaws off the floor and looked apprehensively at the shop guy. What next?

'Please come over here sister' he said, leading us to the merchandise displayed at the opposite side. 'What would you like to see? Saris? Bedsheets, footwear? We have saris made of jute, banana fibre and crush proof silk'

As if under a spell, we moved towards to the other side where the man proceeded to show us sari after sari despite our entreaties that we were not interested in seeing or buying anything. But he was determined. 'How about seeing some bedsheets then? We have some very good ones. We have a unique product which is made right here in Agra by the inmates of the Agra Jail -the 'Mosquito Repellent Bedsheets'.

Here is where we made a grave error. S, whose home had a mosquito problem, showed a faint interest. Determined salesman that he was, the shop guy latched on to this smidgen of interest. Out came the sheets in bright yellow and red/brown floral patterns. And I don't know how it came about, but S ended up purchasing two bedsheets.

I wandered away from that counter towards the footwear section. Having witnessed the sale of the bedsheets, the salesman here pounced on me hoping to sell me footwear. He showed me some chappals and said that the leather was so good that it repelled insects, bugs and lizards. I suppose he thought that if mosquitoes worked on one sucker, insects and bugs might work on another. But he went too far with the lizards. Even I didn't buy that.

S had buyer's regret written all over her as we stepped out of the shop. 'I don't like these sheets! They're so loud and ugly!'. I simply collapsed in shrieks of laughter. Were there ever two bigger idiots than us this side of the Vindhyas?(considering we lived on one side and were visiting the other, I think we had the subcontinent pretty much covered)

I have since recounted this episode to several people. It gets funnier with each telling. Its been three months since our trip. Time enough to test the world famous, cost effective and eco friendly mosquito repelling sheets. S says that they work. But then she would wouldn't she?!

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A Picture's Worth: Answers And A Little More

Thanks to those six people who took the trouble of taking the quiz :) Here I was thinking I would be flooded with answers. That'll teach me! So here are the answers:

Misha
Most of you guessed this correctly. It is indeed Misha or Mishka or The Olympic Mishka. The Russian Bear that was the mascot of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games. If you look carefully, the Olympic rings are seen on his belt.

My research on the net reveals some interesting tidbits of information about this cute fella.

The name Misha is the diminutive for the Russian name Mikhail. Apparently most bears in Russian fairy tales have this name because of its similarity to the Russian word for bear - Miedvied (beats me how this sounds like Mikhail. But thats what Wikipedia says!) - and the diminutive form for this word is Mishka. Ergo, Misha.
A competition for drawing the bear was held in 1977 by the organising committee. Victor Chizhikov, a children's books illustrator's entry was chosen winner and the rest, as they say, is history.

Misha was the first mascot to achieve commercial success in terms of merchandising. Loved by children, many of us tried to draw him with varying degrees of sucess. When you see him you automatically say 'awww! cho-chweet!! Did you know, in the closing ceremony of the Games, he even shed a tear?

Appu

In 1982, the 9th Asian Games were held in Delhi. The mascot was Appu, a baby elephant, known in real life as Kuttinarayanan. At the age of 3, Appu was gifted by a devotee to the temple at Guruvayur. At the age of 5, he was chosen to lead a team of 35 elephants to the Asian Games at Delhi. This playful elephant gathered a lot of attention at the Games, including that of the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.

Appu's story however ends sadly. At the age of 7, he stepped on a septic tank and fractured his leg. A wound from which he never recovered. Appu breathed his last on 14th May, 2005. RIP Appu.

India's first amusement park, Appu Ghar was named after this guy. Unfortunately, even this has not survived. The land came under dispute and the park was finally closed in February 2008.

Veera
Veera, is an Ongole bull and the official mascot of the 32nd National Games held in Hyderabad in 2002. Veera is supposed to signify the spirit of sports with his intelligence, strength, passion, confidence and endurance. The choice of an Ongole bull as mascot of the games was strategic. Ongole is a town in Andhra Pradesh and famous for its breed of bulls that have been exported to other countries. For eg. the Brahmana Bull in America is supposed to be an off shoot of the Ongole bull. The Ongole bull is seen in sculptures of Nandi in Shiva temples. Ongole bulls are prized, among other reasons, for their resistance to mad cow disease. In recent times there have been scandals of biopiracy and illegal acquisition of genetic material to breed these bulls. Read more about it at A Load of Bull



Bholu
In 2002, Indian Railways celebrated its 150th year. And Bholu the Guard was its official mascot. Elephants are big and reliable, carrying huge weights and are also friendly. Indian Railways wanted to project this image for itself. Hence we have Bholu.

I remember there was a HUGE blimp of Bholu tied down in front of Rail Nilayam, the headquarters of South Central Railways in Hyderabad. My dad and I used to go past it for walks along with my (then) four year old niece. Every time she saw Bholu, her face would light up and smiling she would cry out 'Bolu!' - pronouncing it the Tamil way. And my dad, railwayman first, last and always, would fairly swell with pride at that!!


Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan
Ah! Now you remember! You must have seen it painted on umpteen government school buildings. This is the logo of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). I just love how it has been conceived. One speaks of how children, especially those that go to govt. schools, hate studying and how it is such a drag. I feel this logo tries to dispel that and show how school can be FUN. The girl sitting at the front of the pencil is an indication of how girls' education is still lagging behind. Putting her at the front sends a strong message of the need to put girls in the front. The boy and girl sitting on a pencil, to my mind, speaks of how education can be a driver for equality, for change.

While on the subject, have you seen this lovely video about the SSA by Kanika and Bharatbala? 



And the winner is......Sudeshna! You got all the answers right. Something special coming up when I see you next. And for the rest of you, this......

THANKS FOR TRYING!!!

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A Picture's Worth

Today, as I was browing through some random sites, I chanced upon the logo of the International Year of Forests 2011. Set me thinking about the various logos and mascots I've seen over the years. Logos and mascots convey so much - they identify a cause, a brand, an event - with just a few strokes of the pen. And their appeal is universal.

So here's what I'm gonna do. I'll post images of some famous logos and mascots ,and you identify it. If possible, tell me what it is associated with. These may seem like no brainers to many - particularly those of the bearded variety that are quiz mad (you know who you are!). This is just a cub attempt and a gateway to thoughts and personal experiences that these logos and mascots represent for me.

For people of my generation, who grew up in the 80s and 90s, the following pictures and their associations should not be that difficult to guess. So here goes....


Who's this cute  bear? What is his name?
There is a clue in the  picture.
 This guy is of desi origin. A well loved mascot from the 80s. India's first amusement park is named after him. Who's he?


 This is Veera - his name is on his vest. Who is he and what is his claim to fame? 

These elephant mascots just get cuter and cuter. Who's this chap? 

A very common logo for a lofty cause. Can you guess which one?
Leave your guess in the comment box. Those who guess correctly, will get something special!

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Part III: A Teardrop On The Cheek Of Time: Taj Mahal

It took nearly 22 years to build the Taj Mahal. I thought it would take me almost as long before I got around to finishing my Agra trilogy!There is so much that can be written about this monument that has come to symbolise India, that I hardly know where to begin.


The first time I saw the Taj, I must have been around five or six years old. After a day spent going around in a horse drawn 'tanga' we finally saw it in twilight. I seem to recall seeing it bathed in moonlight. Maybe my memory has faded and imagination has taken its place - people ought to see Taj Mahal in moonlight. But the image in my mind is beautiful.

We entered the Taj complex at 3pm. Not the best time to see it - April and that too a Sunday. Take my advice people, if you plan to go here, then early mornings are the best time. The complex opens at 6am. Without the multitudes thronging the grounds, you will have a peaceful visit and actually be able to appreciate the splendour of this grand monument. Do not get taken in by the guides / touts who say that the line is very long and they will get your ticket for an extra payment. The line is long no doubt, but it moves fast.

Armed with our tickets, we moved towards the enormous gateway leading to the Taj. This itself is a lovely structure in warm red sandstone with marble inlay work. I was apprehensive - what if my imagination was all wrong and all that people say about this wonder of the world is hype? What if I was underwhelmed and felt let down? I need not have worried.

Through the gateway, the Taj appeared as an enormous white monument - almost like looking at a giant beast through the keyhole. The visual impact is powerful.

As I emerged out of the gateway, the entire Taj complex lay  sprawled before me. The white marble edifice, the green gardens and the thronging tourists. The sheer beauty and elegance of the monument diffused through my mind. I was reminded of the poem 'Tiger' by William Blake which celebrates the beauty of that powerful beast. Yet, some lines could be applied to the Taj as well: "What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"

As we walked towards the mausoleum, it seemed to grow in size and was towering over us. I recalled an alternate theory surrounding the history of the Taj.  


Shahjahan is described by historians as arrogant and vain. He was the emperor of the largest empire of his time and lord of immense wealth. Many of the most beautiful monuments of the Mughal era were commissioned at his command. He gave himself titles like "Lord of the Age", "Shadow of God", "August Representative of God on Earth". Modern researchers consider these important indicators in analysing his motives for the construction of the Taj Mahal. That he seemed to think he was God's representative on earth.

With this as the backdrop, the design of the actual Taj Mahal site and the inscriptions which adorn its structures take on a different significance. An Islamic academic treatise which existed at that time laid out the  plan of Paradise on The Day of Judgement. Comparison of this plan with the layout of the Taj Mahal gardens shows remarkable similarities like: four rivers, a tank of abundance and the Throne of God in very similar layouts. Unlike most Mughal mausoleums which are placed at the center of their sites, the Taj is placed at its far end. Put these indicators together and they seem to suggest that Shahjahan was creating at least a replica of heaven. 

So were the accounts of Shahjahan's undying love for Mumtaz Mahal just highly exaggerated accounts of his courtiers and chroniclers? Francois Bernier, a French traveler has written that he remained 'constant' to his dead wife till his own death. Now consider this in light of his sojourn in the Mussamman Burj.
 
The Mussamman Burj are the royal chambers in Agra Fort, to which Shahjahan was confined by Aurangazeb. As you know, there was a battle for succession amongst Shahjahan's four sons in which Aurangazeb triumphed. He imprisoned his father at the Mussamman Burj for eight years. Built of white marble with rich inlay work, the chambers hardly look like a prison. Legend has it, that the aging monarch lay here, gazing at the Taj, on the other side of the Yamuna. The picture of romance and heart break. But, cynic that I am, the picture doesn't quite ring true. Here's why.

The story that Shahjahan remained sexually faithful to Mumtaz is pure humbug if you ask  me. He was known to be a man with a huge sexual appetite. In fact, it is rumoured that he had an incestuous relationship with his daughter Jahanara on grounds that it would be "unjust to deny the king the privilege of gathering fruit from the tree he himself had planted." Mumtaz Mahal died at the age of around 39 (in child birth while bearing him his 14th child) and Shahjahan at 74 (overdosing on aphrodisiacs according to some accounts). That would mean close to 35 years of celibacy for an Emperor who considered himself King of the World!!

I see that I've wandered far away from the monument into speculation of the lives that are linked with its history. But in my opinion, that is what makes the Taj Mahal fascinating. The stories behind its splendour and magnificence. The stories that lie in the shadow of its shining white marble-War, blood, betrayal, fratricide, incest.

Before I close, I want to share one more thing. A few years ago, I attended a conference on public health. An IAS officer was slotted to speak on government schemes on maternal health. I will never forget his opening slide. It was a picture of the Taj Mahal - that wonder of the world, the pride of India. But also, a monument of grief, symbolising the death of a woman - who was married at fifteen, endured fourteen pregnancies and died in child birth. And that my friends, is the teardrop on the cheek of time.




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Part II: Time And Timelessness - Agra Fort

Apologies everybody. I've been very tardy about updating my blog. The past few weeks have been so busy - work, home, work, home - that all I could do at the end of each day was fall exhausted into bed and sleep like the dead. Well here I am, on a lazy Sunday (oh! Its been so long since I had one), nothing much to do except update my blog.
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Our next stop was at the Agra Fort. Built of the red sandstone so typical of  the Mughals ,this timeless piece of architecture truly deserves its status as a World Heritage Monument. It has been home to the greatest Mughul emperors at some point or other. Babur lived here for a while after defeating Ibrahim Lodi. Humayun was crowned here. Akbar rebuilt the fort and declared Agra his capital. The fort as we know it today was built by Shahjahan.

Amar Singh Gate
We entered the fort via the Amar Singh Gate and engaged a guide. A word of advice to those who are not so aware about the Fort's history. It is a good idea to engage a guide. They charge about Rs. 400 for a full guided tour. Bear in mind however, that their accounts may not be historically accurate. So, if you're serious about learning the Fort's history, do some reading before or after your visit. If you're interested only in soaking up the history and ambiance of the place, then the guide's account would be more than enough. Peppered as it is with folk lore and legend, it makes for a romantic hearing.

As we entered the fort area, we crossed a deep moat. The guide informed us that during the reign of the Mughals, there was a 'double moat'. One filled with water and crocodiles and another that was forested and had wild animals to provide a double safety cordon. I have heard about the water moat of course. Most forts have it. But it was the first time I heard about the wild animals moat. And I think it is what historians would call 'an interpolation' although it sounded very grand!

Jahangiri Mahal
The Jahangiri Mahal inside the fort, is a beautiful palace made of red sandstone and used to be the main residence of Akbar's  Rajput wives. Architecturally speaking, the palace incorporates Central Asian design features with Rajasthani styles. The guide however, spiced it up with a story of how Akbar, being of a secular bent of mind, used Hindu, Muslim and Christian features in the construction of this palace. He added that Akbar had a Hindu, Muslim and Christian wife and probably wanted to please all three of them. He demonstrated it by showing us the Chatris sitting atop slender, elegant columns, symbolising Rajput / Hindu influence. Then he showed us the arches typical of Islamic construction and finally, a Magen David inlaid in white marble on the elaborate red sandstone gateway into the palace. He did not realise that the Magen David is a  Jewish symbol.

See the 3 Magen-like stars at the top?
While I knew all about Akbar's interest in world religions and the Din-i-Ilahi and also about his Hindu wives, this was the first time I was hearing about a Christian wife. Perhaps there was some Portuguese connection here? After all they had started arriving in India around this time. The guide told us that the Christian wife's name was Mariam. When I looked it up, it said that Akbar married a Rajput princess called Harka Bai who became Mariam-uz-Zamani. She was the mother of Jahangir and was also known as Jodha Bai. So it appears that Akbar did not have a Christian wife after all.

What about the Magen David then? Not much information online. Except a blog reference that said it is not a star of David, but a Hindu symbol. The circle in the middle of the star is an important distinguishing feature. I really must check out these facts with my history prof.

Jahangir's Hauz
Pic courtesy: Flickr
Right outside the Jahangiri Mahal is a very interesting thing - Jahangir's bath tub or Hauz. I kid you not! Take a look at the picture. It looks like a large cup without a saucer! It was made in 1611 and is hewed out of a single piece of stone. It is 5 feet high and 8 feet in diameter at the rim and has Persian inscriptions on its outer rim. There are even small steps leading up into the bath tub. Only a few of the steps survive today. The guide, adding his bit of garnish, said that it was covered in gold foil during its hey day. These royals sure had life easy. I wish I had a bath tub like this! Although perhaps it may not be entirely practical. I have an 8' X 5' bathroom and water is rationed. And given that I have a 'balti bath' daily and which I like very much, I may perhaps drown in such a large tub!

Moving ahead, we visited the Mussamman Burj where Shahjahan was imprisoned. But I will include that in my next post. From this we headed for the Diwan-i-khas or Hall of Private Audience. This had a splendid view of the Yamuna. From a black granite bench on the edge of the terrace, the Taj was visible in the hazy heat of the day. Drawing our attention towards it, the guide asked us to describe how it looked. It was a small, blurry speck in the distance. 'Hold that thought' he said. 

Angoori Bagh
From here we looked over to the enclosed quadrangle of the 'Angoori Bagh'. As the name suggests, it was a vine yard and soil had been brought in specially from Kashmir to grown the grapes. Skirting this, we moved over to the side directly opposite the Diwan-i-khas, passing the Sheesh Mahal where the public were not allowed, and the Ladies Bazaar to the administrative block. From here, the guide asked us if the Taj was still visible and how did it look. Indeed it was still visible and lo! it looked bigger in size than when viewed from the terrace near the Diwan-i-khas. This was an optical illusion he explained. When the Taj is viewed from the balcony of Diwan-i-khas, the river Yamuna is seen winding its way around it. This creates some sort of perspective effect that causes the Taj to look smaller than it actually is. When viewed from farther away, with the Yamuna out of sight, the perspective effect is negated, and the Taj is seen in its actual size. This piece of information did check out when I looked it up. 

Where the Peacock Throne was once housed

Diwan-i-Aam
Nearing the end of our tour, we approached the Diwan-i-Am or Hall of Public Audience where the Peacock Throne was once housed. It is a large hall with colonnades of arches. The throne room is located a few feet above ground and according to our guide, from here, each of the arched pillars is visible individually. The throne room is connected to the royal chambers and from here the royal ladies could witness the proceedings of the court. The courtyard outside the Diwan-i-Aam has the grave of an Englishman named John Mildenhall, apparently the oldest known European grave in Northern India.

This completed our tour of the fort complex. I emerged feeling all soaked up in  history and legend. If the walls, columns and latticed windows of this fort palace could speak, what would they have said I wonder? Would they have spoken of glory and power? Or the tears, sweat and blood that went into it? Do we know everything there is to know or have we only scratched the surface? I guess we can never be sure. 

PS: All photographs in this post are my own except the one of Jahangir's Hauz.

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Part I : Baby Taj

When Babloo, our taxi driver informed us that our first stop would be the 'Baby Taj', my friend and I were flummoxed. I am a student of history and I have never heard of anything called 'Baby Taj'.

The tomb of Itimad-ud-Daula, situated on the left bank of the Yamuna is locally known as 'Baby Taj' and considered the draft on which the Taj Mahal was designed. The tomb was built between 1622 and 1628, by Queen Nurjahan for her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg, who held the title 'Itimad-ud-Daula' or Pillar of the State. According to Wikipedia, and in fact, the plaque at the site, the masoluem marks a transition between two phases of Mughal architecture. The first which was dominated by the use of red sandstone and the second in which white marble figured prominently. 

Entrance to Baby Taj

The tomb is situated, like other Mughal buildings, at the center of a large quadrangle with four large gateways along its perimeter. The masauleum housing the cenotaphs are located at the center of a beautiful garden that is watered by shallow waterways fed by the river.
Frontal view of the tomb

Built on a raised plinth, the tomb is a graceful structure in white marble with elegant inlay work and latticed windows. In this tomb are also interred Nurjahan's mother and other relatives. Nurjahan herself is buried in Lahore. 
Cenotaphs of Nurjahan's parents
View of gateway from inside the tomb

It was just about 9 am when we visited the Baby Taj. The day was cloudy with a light breeze making the setting very romantic. The Baby Taj is not as frequented by tourists as the Taj. Without the crowds that throng the Taj, this masoleum offers a quiet and tranquil refuge to the dreamy tourist who wants to linger and savour the history of the place.
A latticed window



Standing at the gateway on the banks of the Yamuna and gazing at the city on the right bank, it is almost as if the river is the line that divides two universes. One covered in a cloak of history and another covered in the dirt and grime that signifies the march of civilization.
Two worlds

Entry fees for Indian nationals is a mere Rs. 10/-. There is also a pay and use toilet that is REALLY CLEAN! You may think I'm crazy to write about toilets after waxing eloquent on the architechural beauty of the tomb. Try taking the 6.15AM Shatabdi out of Delhi to Agra after a heavy dinner the night before and you develop a whole new appreciation for clean pay-and-use facilities!!

Update: 

Before I move onto writing about the Agra Fort, I must tell you about this book I am reading. Its called 'The Shadow Princess' by Indu Sundaresan, part of her Taj Trilogy. The book traces the life of Princess Jahanara, from the time of her mother, Mumtaz Mahal's death, through the power struggle among her brothers, till Aurangazeb becomes the Emperor.

The book is dotted with descriptions of all the lovely places I saw during my visit to Agra. It gives a detailed descriptions of the Baby Taj and how Nurjahan was closely involved in its design and construction. Unfortunately, according to the book, she did not stick around to see it to completion. After Jahangir's death, she became persona non grata with the new Emperor (not that there was any special love between them before that!) and was sent away to spend her remaining days in Lahore. But Shahjahan did acknowledge her genius in designing the Itimad-ud-Daula's tomb and borrowed ideas while designing and executing his ode to love, the Taj Mahal.

Do read the book if you are into historical literature. 

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India's City of Love - Agra

If Kolkata is the City of Joy, then perhaps Agra is India's City of Love. Situated at a distance of 200km from Delhi, Agra served as the capital of the great Mughal Empire during the peak of its power. Today, Agra is best known as the home of the world's greatest monument for love - The Taj Mahal.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit Agra and soak in its history. Over the course of a day, I visited three monuments: The tomb of Itimad-ud-daula, the Agra Fort and of course, the celebrated Taj.

I plan to write about my Agra visit in a three part post - each post dedicated to one of the three monuments mentioned above. I know that reams and reams have been written about these already. But I hope that my take will be unique enough to make it an interesting read.

All photographs featured in the posts are taken from my camera - except perhaps for a few at the Taj. The camera battery had dwindled by then. I may have to borrow pictures from the net.

Hope you will like these posts....

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