Extinction


The long orange strip unfurled from the small roll at the end and then snaked across the entire wall. It changed colour from deep to light orange before morphing into a green strip and finally ending with a tiny four-inch blue coloured block at the end.

I was looking at a timeline representation of the start of life on earth, about three and a half billion years ago, culminating with the appearance of us humans two hundred thousand years back. That blue-coloured block highlighted the minuscule period ( around 0.006% of total )  that we humans have existed on mother earth as compared to all life.

Each loop represents approx. 0.5 billion years; the final 0.5 billion years is expanded to show more detail.

I was at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History on a recent visit to Washington DC. Though the museum carries the same name as the more well-known American Museum of Natural History in New York, I was finding the format and the presentation refreshingly different.

As I looked at the representation, I was intrigued to see the periods of mass extinction that have taken place in the planet’s living history. There seem to have occurred around five major extinction events since earth cradled life. These were when between fifty to ninety-five percent of all living species died out. I got particularly interested in two such events.

The first was the one that led to the demise of the dinosaurs. I sat watching a video of what might have happened sixty-six million years back when the age of the dinosaurs ended. A large meteor comes hurtling from outer space and hits earth in the Mexican coastal region. The impact kills all life on land and sea for thousands of kilometers all around, its explosive power equivalent to billions of atomic bombs going off at the same time. And as if that is not enough, giant tsunamis and billions of tons of vaporized asteroid and terrestrial debris spew up into the atmosphere, envelop the earth and block out sunlight for years. Photosynthesis all over the world gets seriously impeded and the global climate alters leading to large-scale death of flora and subsequently the herbivores and carnivores going up the food chain.

It is estimated that three-quarters of all life on earth perished during what is today known as the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. But the event also led to an interesting development. The age of the mammals commenced. Being smaller in size and with less need for sustenance, the surviving mammals who had existed on the peripheries during the dinosaur age got the planet to themselves and started flourishing. The evolutionary path over several subsequent million years took the necessary steps toward modern humans with the ability to walk on two legs.

Writes Rick Potts, the Director of Smithsonian Institute’s Human Origins Program, “East Africa was a setting in foment—one conducive to migrations across Africa during the period when Homo sapiens arose. It seems to have been an ideal setting for the mixing of genes from migrating populations widely spread across the continent. The implication is that the human genome arose in Africa. Everyone is African, and yet not from any one part of Africa.”

The second extinction event that intrigued me was the one in which the human species more or less vanished around seventy thousand years ago. Estimates range from a few hundred to a thousand humans who remained to fend for themselves in a dangerous world. The event is generally linked to a super volcanic eruption named Toba which went off in Indonesia and spewed a colossal amount of ash, debris and vapour into the atmosphere. The Sun got dimmed for years disrupting seasons, choking rivers and killing all vegetation in large parts of the planet.

Says Science writer Sam Kean, “There’s in fact evidence that the average temperature dropped 20-plus degrees in some spots,” after which the great grassy plains of Africa may have shrunk way back, keeping the small bands of humans small and hungry for hundreds, if not thousands of more years.So we almost vanished.”

As I continued to look at that unfurling orange strip and read about the extinction events, I found it indeed amazing how the present world stands dwarfed by close to eight billion of us humans. Even though our footprint remains that tiny blue coloured four-inch block on the timeline representation of life. The probability numbers about a meteor hitting or a super volcano erupting remain minuscule and clearly in our favour because of our small timeline footprint. But within that insignificant (fleeting?) footprint, we have managed to subjugate every other species, harnessing both flora and fauna to our needs. We have mastered science and technology in wondrous ways, improving our lot in every way conceivable. Be it food, be it energy, be it resources, be it our understanding of the Universe.  

But could it be that we are willy nilly walking on the extinction pathway of our own making? Stemming from our sheer numbers and our continued actions to reorder and realign nature to our own needs. Vulnerability to increased incidences of diseases and viruses. Vulnerability to our own selves as we fight for scarce resources. Vulnerability from the very technology which we believe we have harnessed.

Scientists and environmentalists are raising the alarm that we may be already at the extinction tipping point arising from global warming and climate change. A tipping point that might lead to the mass extinction of more than half of humanity with the collapse of social, political and economic structures. Once the tipping point is breached, the world could witness accelerating global warming and climate change with no way to control. Simulation studies point to an overall ecological disaster and collapse leading to the mass extinction of a large number of flora and fauna species; more than a million species are on track to go extinct in the coming decades. Would this be Judgment Day for Humanity and its cradle planet?

It seems to me that we have been plain lucky. There really is no certainty of our continuing the domination of the world beyond the so very tiny and fleeting ‘blue block four-inch’ period that we have done so. If our luck was to change, we might just have an epitaph written about us by someone in the distant future. Like the way we have written one about the dinosaurs.

Standing there I was left wondering whether we are creating the right luck for us.

Man who gave you life, man who gave you home
Man who gave you all you desire?
All you do is blight, all you do is waste
Don’t you see the ash of your fire?
Our mother’s crying, our mother’s dying
Our mother’s cancer is true
Mother we belied, mother we defiled
May your human child’s end be good for you

  by Oversense

In Musing………….                   Shakti Ghosal

My flight over Greenland


In mythology, Niflheim was a land of primordial ice and cold, with  Élivágar and Hvergelmir, the frozen rivers from which arose all other rivers of the world.

According to legends, Niflheim was the primordial region that was born out of two realms. The Ginnungagap, the home of ice and the Muspelheim, the home of fire. Between these two realms of cold and heat, the world got created as ice mixed with fire. Niflheim became the abode of Hel, the goddess daughter of Loki (remember the estranged brother of Thor from the Avengers!), and her subjects.

As my flight cruised over Greenland, I watched the morning rays streaming, glistening and bouncing off the frozen land. A quote of  Albert Schweitzer came to mind.

 “As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.”

But is the melting ice really improving understanding and trust in the world I mused.

From my aircraft window, I could spot the rivers formed by the melting Greenland Ice Sheet.  

Greenland’s glaciers, in existence for millions of years, have now suddenly begun to rapidly retreat and thin. Scientists have concluded that the Greenland ice sheet is in the throes of irreversible ice loss. Paleoclimatic evidence indicates that even a mere 2 °C of global warming could endanger the Greenland glaciers leading to a sea-level rise of six meters. Large swathes of inhabited coasts and islands in the United States, Europe as well as densely populated regions of Bangla Desh and India would go underwater.

My thoughts about Greenland, its melting glaciers and the impact on Humanity were interrupted by the flight steward politely asking me about my choice of breakfast. Looking up at him and then around me, I seemed to be in a cocoon far removed from the impact of global warming playing out below. But were I and my co travellers really in a cocoon or were we shutting our minds to the inevitable? I was left wondering.

In musing……..                                   

Shakti Ghosal

The story of the Blue and Red Pill


The Pandemic has been with us now for more than one and a half years. A virulent new strain, the Delta variant, is the new weapon unleashed by the wily COVID 19 virus to negate all that the vaccines have been doing. Conspiracy theories abound. We look on helplessly through a tunnel with no apparent light visible at the other end yet.

The West and its much vaunted ideal of human freedom is on the backfoot. As US retreats, Afghanistan has once again proved to be the graveyard of Empires- earlier the British, then the USSR and now Pax Americana. The swiftness of the Taliban takeover has been shocking as they begin the task of taking the country back into the medieval ages.

More than 600 people inside a C 17 aircraft fleeing Kabul on the Indian Independence Day 15th Aug. 2021

Almost two decades back, US President Bush had declared, “Engendering democracy across the Middle East ‘must be a focus of American policy’ for decades to come”. Today democracy is sputtering like a flame about to go out, with the failure of the much-vaunted Arab Spring and the Middle East in a far worse situation than previously.

We are into an irreversible global warming era, possibly the most serious climate crisis faced by Mankind. July 2021 was the hottest month ever recorded on the planet. An extreme heat wave in Canada at a searing high of 49.6 deg. C. was a one-thousand-year weather event. Floods ripped through geographically distant countries like Germany and China. Drought stalked others. It is now being widely claimed in scientific circles that the Arctic would soon be devoid of ice with the resultant rise of sea water levels and low-lying areas going under.

The above are glimpses of a frightening and dystopian future we are headed into.

Now here is the other story.

In the last month alone, one billion people have been vaccinated against COVID 19. By the end of this year more than half the people on the planet would have received the vaccine. Truly a stupendous achievement in terms of swiftness of response and effectiveness.

The COVID-19 crisis has led to a veritable explosion of scientific progress in the tinkering of genetic information flow and the formulation of proteins, the ultimate nano machines. Trials are currently being done for protein-based vaccines for diseases ranging from Cancer to HIV.

As we speak, electricity generation from the clean sources of solar, wind, hydro and nuclear has outstripped that from ‘dirty’ coal.  Closer home in India, the wind and solar generating capacity has exceeded the milestone of 100GW output. In more and more countries, low carbon economy valuations are rising rapidly. The reason is economic. The average cost of power generation from clean sources is now half that from fossil fuels.

As investors spot a rising opportunity, more money is getting committed to climate investment funds in a day than used to be raised in years a short time back. Three weeks ago, two global asset managers, TPG and Brookfield, closed a combined $12.4 billion in climate investment funds.

Reforestation and conservation funding is taking place in countries as disparate as Indonesia and Bolivia who are supporting equatorial rain forests to United states and Canada who are focusing on wetlands, grasslands and coastal areas and the regeneration of flora and fauna therein.

These are but a few stories of a Utopian future we seem to be headed into.

So which future, whether the Dystopian or the Utopian, would come true?

As Morpheus says to Neo in the Matrix:

 “……This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you…. believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill……. and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more….”

Is our future really like the story of the blue and red pills and the need for us to make a choice of the path?

Or could it be that there is no choice after all? The two futures, dystopian and utopian, would always exist together, like the two sides of a coin. It would all come down to our world view and the context lens we choose to use. If our context was one of dystopia, we would see signals of collapse in every situation we look at. Similarly, if we were to deploy our utopian context, we would notice the signals of renewal and hope all around.

Our story, the shared and evolving narrative that it is, would always contain both dystopia and utopia, both collapse and renewal. It would depend on us which context lens we choose to deploy, which future we would wish to live into.

“What we do makes a difference, and we have to decide what kind of a difference we want to make.” Jane Goodall, English Primatologist & Anthropologist

Acknowledgement: The above piece is inspired by ‘Collapse, Renewal and Rope of History’ written by Angus Hervey, Future Crunch Journal, Aug. 24th 2021

In Learning

Shakti Ghosal

A River that separates two nations


Ichamati River, a distributary of the mighty Padma flows quietly, separating as it does the land masses of India and Bangladesh at places.

The town of Taki is one such place.

 I sat looking at the serenity of the Ichamati waters from my hotel room in Sonar Bangla.  As the tide ebbed, the river bed peeped above the water. As if separating the water itself between the banks of the two countries. The sad  impact of the river bed silting is so visible. Decades of uncontrolled construction, encroachment and forcible occupation of the land have contributed to this.

But Icchamati continues to mesmerize the visitor.

I am told the Durga Pujo immersion ceremony on the Ichamati is a unique spectacle with boats full of folks of both the countries immersing their respective Durga Protimas.

In the words of the famous Bengali writer Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay

‘The ashes of so many burnt bodies have been carried by the river to the blue ocean over millennia. The man who expected so much return from his plantain trees on the southern side of that green, and at the bend of the river put bamboo traps to catch fish, is lying today on the bank of the Ichamati – only his white bones remain, bleached by sunrays.

…….… one listens to the music of eternity when one spots the old flowers or smells the pungent fragrance of herbal plants in Autumn. Some can visualise and dream the unlimitable unknown eternity in the image of the Ichamati river during the turbulent rainy season.’

http://www.shaktighosal.com

A Virtual Convocation @ IIM Udaipur


As a visiting Professor, I was invited to the Ninth Convocation ceremony of IIM Udaipur yesterday.

While I have attended convocations earlier, this was the first time I was attending one on a virtual platform.

I was pleasantly surprised by how well and seamlessly the ceremony took place with more than 250 participants.

Mrs. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Chairman & Managing Director of Biocon Ltd, as the chief guest, delivered an excellent convocation address on the huge business and start-up opportunities that the current pandemic continues to throw up.

The event reminded be of those immortal lines penned and sung by Bob Dylan, so many years back!

The Times They Are A Changing

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
And you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

In Learning…….

Shakti Ghosal

The Three Horizons- How to pattern the future


The Three Horizon methodology was developed by Bill Sharpe to provide a simple framework to envision the future and how to engage in constructive conversations about how to achieve that future, This becomes all the more critical in an environment which is uncertain and complex.

The three Horizons framework, to me, is a powerful reboot tool which we need to keep in our toolbox for an environment that we are currently into.. It allows us to coordinate disruptive innovations and create transformative change which has the best chance to succeed.

As per the methodology, envisioning the future always needs to deal with three horizons at play, which are always there, with the capacity to impact the future.

Y Axis is the dominant thinking or WorldView.

The first horizon ‘H1’ is all about how business is done at present, but there is something in it which is not fit for the future. It thus contains the seed of its own demise over a period of time.

The third horizon ‘H3’ is the future we desire and there do exist green shoots of that today. We would like them to grow and become the predominant way of doing business in future, replacing and improving upon H1.

The second horizon ‘H2’ is the most interesting space as this is where disruptive innovation takes place. Disruption can take many forms. It could be technology fueled like the Electric car, it could be event fueled like the current COVID19 pandemic or it could socially fueled like Occupy. Disruptions usually lead to innovations, new ways of Doing or Being. The opportunity of change actually exists in the space between the crests of H1 and H3.

The key question would be, “How would the disruptive innovation effect the transformation between H1 and H3?” To answer this, we will take the example of the current predominant transportation technology using the  Internal Combustion engine. This is a H1 model which has survived over a century with its negative impact of Carbon footprint and Climate Change.

Now let us look at the disruptive innovation of Hybrid Technology. This technology actually is the creation of the old world H1 horizon. The problems of H1 are somewhat reduced in this innovation but remain; they in fact get accentuated by addition of another layer of technology on top of the existing one with suboptimal utilisation of either of them. This is called the “H2-” innovation as it is captured by old dominant structures to extend the life of H1 horizon. Why we are using the word ‘capture’ here is because its innovative energy is not being used to help the H3 horizon to emerge.

In contrast now let us consider the same disruptive innovation technology but now paired with the H3 horizon, to support the emerging future to emerge and help to hasten the decline of H1. It would be the pure Electric car technology of Tesla, which essentially is a transformative exercise of building some kind of a computer on wheels; it is envisaging the future ground up. This is called “H2+”.

For the 3 Horizons Reboot tool to be effective, we need to do an enquiry based on three questions:

  1. What is being born and how could we support it emerge and succeed?
  2. What is dying and how can we help it to let go?
  3. What is being disrupted and how can we harness it as in H2+, not be captured as in H2- ?

Enquiry questions for conversation about how to achieve the future:

H1 Horizon :

What is business as usual, the key characteristics of the prevailing system?

How did we get here, what values, cultures, regulations, events led to this?

Why do we believe it is failing its purpose and no longer a good fit? How fast do we want to see its decline?

Is there anything about the old system that we would wish to retain rather than lose?

H3 Horizon:

What is the future that we would like to bring about, its key characteristics, how it looks like, feels like to be there?

What are the green shoots of that future visible in the present?

Whose ideas and work are the present possibilities built on? What history, values, culture are they embedded upon?

How can the possibilities be scaled and spread?

What are the competing visions of the future being pursued by others? Can we collaborate with them or are these essentially competing visions? If the latter, how do we prevent their vision from derailing ours?

H2 Horizon:

What is being disruptive in terms of technology, social, economic, ecological and cultural aspects? What are the roots of those disruptions? For each of those identified, what would it look like if captured as in H1-? Or harnessed as in H2+? What could be strategically done to ensure it is harnessed?

If you are a disruptive actor viz, Tech. Innovator, social movement etc. what kind of guidance can you set for yourself to ensure that your disruption is harnessed under H3 ( H2+) rather than captured under H1 )H1-)? What allies will you seek, what actions will you take, how will you assess potential offers of collaboration or finance?

In Learning…..

Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgements :

  1. Three Horizons : A Pathways practice for Transformation by Bill Sharpe, Anthony Hodgeson et al , Ecology and Society, June 2016. https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol21/iss2/art47/
  2. Three Horizons : Partnering of Hope by Bill Sharpe, Sept.2013

How do we develop a COVID19 warrior leadership mindset ?

How could we use the current pandemic experience to develop a COVID 19 Warrior Leadership mindset?

A Do-It-Yourself program.


We are currently witnessing a level of Uncertainty from the COVID19 situation that none of us have faced in our lifetime. There is no past experience relating to such a pandemic or for that matter anything else to guide us. So how do we negotiate the right pathway? How do we exercise leadership that is effective?

We, due to our innate survival instinct, follow a herd mindset. A mindset formed by what we read, what others are saying, the ubiquitous social media of today.

Our COVID19 pandemic mindset is thus wholly focussed on the containment strategies of the spreading viral infection, how to flatten the medical curve so to say and gain more time before we as a species could fight back using some vaccine under development. And nothing wrong with that.

Now let us talk of Leadership and effectiveness. What makes leaders effective is that they see, comprehend and thus engage with the same situation differently. As if they see and come to live in a different world!

The COVID19 warrior leadership would review the ensuing economic recession curves arising out of the containment strategy based infection curve and determine an optimal balance.

Let us now explore the effect of the COVID19 lockdown on the business and economic cycles. As we can see several links in the cycle would get disrupted and are shown by crosses in RED. The general mindset arising out of this would be to hoard, avoid spending and investments. All this would further exacerbate the situation!

A COVID19 warrior leadership in contrast would be visualizing new and innovative policies and funding methods to remove the prevailing blocks.

So what could you do to develop yourself so that you gain the ability to exercise a COVID19 warrior leadership effectively in an increasingly Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world?

I give here some pointers. Should we mull over them to try and determine your thoughts and answers, you would be well on your way to becoming a COVID19 warrior leader.

Clarity about a future that others cannot yet see.How could you communicate this future simply without being simplistic?

Dilemma flipping: How could you turn dilemmas into opportunities?

Immersive Learning: Do you have the ability to learn in a first person way viz. ‘on the Court’ rather than ‘from the stands’ ?

Bio- Empathy: Could we inculcate the ability to see things from Nature’s patterns and use that wisdom?

Smart mob organizing: Do we have the ability to engage and nurture social change networks through intelligent use of electronic and other media?

In learning……..

Shakti Ghosal

Environment, disruption and you….

How to be an effective leader during accelerating change and disruption


Change is the only Constant. Or is it?

In my previous post, ‘Heralding the Twenties’ I had spoken of the Change Trap. To cope with an ever accelerating pace of change, we need to become someone or something we were never before. Which in turn leads to a negative impact on our creativity, performance and engagement. I had outlined a practice to avoid this negative impact.

As a changing environment and disruption touches us, we need to have a flexible surface to engage. Which essentially means the need to jettison our past derived rigidity and mindset. With accelerating change, our surface is always in a state of flux. For many if not most of us, this surface flux permeates inwards and starts effecting our core consisting of our values, our passions and relationships. This is when we fall into the Change trap.

Effective leadership in the midst of accelerating change and disruption starts with that changeless core containing your values, passions and relationships. You hold an enhanced awareness of these aspects. You then use these as guiding posts in your language and relationships. This becomes the basis for your effective tango with change and disruption.

An un-fixed and possibility-based mindset allows you to use future-based (rather than past-based) language with others.

If you already know based on your past experience, there is no place to change.

Be willing to reach out to others even if they are not seeking you.

Be willing to speak about the uncomfortable elephant in the room even if it disturbs a cosy status quo.

I invite you to think of and answer these questions in your dealings within your organisation and with team members.

  • What gets in your way of helping others who have taken on new and unknown challenges?
  • What language might you use with others which would ignite transformation?
  • What did you do that encouraged others to perform?

…… and more importantly,

  • What did you do that drained the energy of others?

Care to discuss on the above aspects further?

In learning………

Shakti Ghosal

http://www.empathinko.in

Does Leadership theory help Sales?


Leadership and Sales

Yesterday I got a call from the Training Manager of a leading pharmaceutical company. She wanted to know how a Leadership program could support the sales personnel to perform better.

“I do understand the importance of Leadership in rewriting the future of an organisation”, she said to me. “But to a sales guy all this seems airy fairy stuff with no value.  What he needs are tools and techniques which would allow him to effectively close some prospects and achieve his target.”

“So would that imply that the Sales personnel, in-spite of their selling experience and closeness to customers, are falling short of organisational expectations?”  I asked.

“Well that is what the corporate guys in Head Office seem to think”, the training manager confided.

I did not have the heart to tell her that the solution lay not in new tools and techniques but a shift in how and what shows up when confronted with a business challenge. And that in essence is what leadership is all about.

For a start, we need to un-hinge our self from a “fixated to the past” mindset.  To do that we need to first understand what this “fixated in the past” mindset is all about.

Our brains are hardwired to view an emerging situation through the lens of our past experiences.  What is merely needed is copy paste what worked in the past to find a solution in the future. We are thus conditioned to believe that a person with a ten year sales experience would perform better than someone with lesser experience.

But what the above mindset assumes is some kind of continuity of the environment and all that it represents.  The competition and its response. The buyer and his decision making behaviour. The technology and product gaps.  And so on.

The third millennium however is all about discontinuity, disruption and accelerating change. In every which way one could think of. Be it competition and emerging strategies, buyer psyche, technology and products. The beacons of our past experience are no longer effective to handle this.

So we come back to the aspects of Leadership that could support performance in this era of discontinuity, disruption and accelerating change. Be it in Sales or some other business domain.

  • The awareness that you do not know.  You cannot upgrade your performance if you already know all there is to know.
  • Say YES to being pushed away from the beaten track and into the discomfort of the unknown. It is such discomforts that unhinge you from fixated beliefs and mindsets.
  • Avoid assessments during a situation. This leads to hasty reactions based on the ‘what worked in the past’ mindset.   Effective reflection and assessment can only happen after a situation has occurred. And this is when the space for new learning opens up.

 

In Learning

Shakti Ghosal

 

The Chronicler of Hoogly


We booked the sunset cruise on the Hoogly recently. With winter on its way, the sun was setting early leaving behind a long balmy evening. Good time to observe the river and the city as it transitioned from day into the night.

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Boarding the boat from the Millennium Park jetty, we soon chugged out in the company of other sight-seekers like us. The itinerary was to cruise up the Hoogly to Belur Math, the much revered global headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission founded by Swami Vivekananda. We were scheduled to reach in time for the evening Aarati before we returned. Travelling with us was a Study tour group from Germany.

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As I sat on the deck, I was engulfed by a kaleidoscope of sights………….

 Of the looming floating bridge of Howrah, still considered a cantilever feat of engineering seventy-five years after it was built. Of decrepit ghats and jetties. Of derelict and abandoned warehouses, shanties and slums. Of colonial architectures separated by grimy and slushy by lanes. Of how Man’s creativity and resolve has sunk under the grime of his daily struggle and existence………….

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Of temples and riverside religious rituals coexisting with stinking garbage and defecation grounds. Of the riverside walled up   along long stretches as if to hide its shame from the very people who have sullied it thus. Of how Spirituality jostles with poverty…….

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My thoughts and emotions get stopped by a flurry of activity on the deck. Probably sensing the approaching sunset, the service staff had got busy offering beverages and ‘muri and aloor chop’ snacks while the German tourists were busy with their telephoto lenses and cameras. I look at the setting sun, the morphing shades of the flowing waters and could not but marvel at how nature yet manages to shine its beauty on an environment gone increasingly awry…………

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With the falling dusk, I notice a lone figure sitting at the rear side of the deck. Somewhat taken aback for not having noticed this person earlier, I walk across and introduce myself. “You may call me the Chronicler”, he tells me. Intrigued I plonk into a deck chair beside him. “Would you like to hear a tale about all that we are witness to today?”, comes the soft voice. Even before I can respond, the voice continues.

“Great metropolises, they say, grow out of a river. London…. Paris….. Rome…… Moscow…….. Cairo….. Istanbul. In each of these cases, the mighty rivers that flowed, the Thames, the Siene, the Tiber, the Moskva, the Nile and the Bosphorus, provided sustenance and remain the heart and soul of the cities….”

“And so was the symbiotic relationship between Hoogly and what we know as Kolkata. While today we are wont to see the river as some kind of an appendage to the city, what if I told you that it is really the other way around? That Kolkata is really an offshoot of all that the Hoogly has been witness to over the centuries.”

“When we started our cruise, we saw Fairlie Place and its jetty to the right with the Strand running beside it. So what would you say are its important landmarks?”, the Chronicler asks.

“Well I suppose it is the Customs House and the Eastern Railway headquarters. Apart from a few more important office blocks”, I respond.

“But what if I told you that about three hundred years back most of that place including what we know as Dalhousie Square was a large water body called Lal Dighi ? This was the time when the British East India Company was busy consolidating its position and Fort William stood on the banks of Hoogly. That is when the attack happened”

“Attack!”, I exclaim, “By whom and why?”

“The then Nawab of Bengal Siraj-Ud-Daulah attacked, captured Fort William and incarcerated British prisoners in a dungeon which came to be known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. An incident which directly led to the battle of Plassey and the subsequent two hundred years British Rule of the subcontinent.”

“Hang on!”, I interject. “Is not Fort William more in the hinterland, near the Maidan?”

“Indeed”, the Chronicler continues, “but what is less known is that there were two Fort Williams. The present one near Maidan was built by Robert Clive after the attack on the first one.”

“The battle of Plassey, which was to change the history and the shape of things to come for ever for the subcontinent, was also fought on the banks of Hoogly but to the north of where we are. But that is another story.”

“The Fairlie Ghat holds another interesting tale”, the Chronicler continues.” In the mid nineteenth century, Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, while travelling on a train in England, got the brain wave of setting up a rail link to carry coal from his Raniganj colliery to the Calcutta port at Fairlie. On return he invested into setting up the ‘The Great Western Bengal Railway Company’. Unfortunately, his proposal got turned down by the British East India Company bosses on the grounds that ‘it would not be possible to allow a company using such strategic technology under native management….’ His efforts and thoughts however did push the British to set up rail services though the East India Railway Company with its Headquarters at Fairlie Place.”

“Hmm! That name Dwarkanath Tagore sounds familiar. Was he in some way related to Rabindranath Tagore?” I muse.

“Indeed he was!”, the Chronicler quips back, “He was in fact the grandfather of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, that venerable Bard of Bengal and the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature more than a century back”.

“The Hoogly ghats then were a far cry from the crumbling cesspools that we are seeing today. With magnificent facades and European classical architectures, the ghats were witness to impressive steam ships and tall masted  boats sailing out to faraway places in England, Australia and New Zealand as also upstream to ports on the Ganga.”, the Chronicler continues.

“Did you know that there were thriving French, Dutch and Armenian settlements on the Hoogly in the early years of colonisation?” I am asked.

Well I had read about the French settlement and I say so.

“Fascinating is it not that events and rivalries five thousand miles away in Europe would show up in the waxing and waning of the Hoogly ghats! And so it was that as the British colonialism went into ascendancy after winning the Napoleonic Wars in early nineteenth century, the settlements of other nationalities on the Hoogly faded into oblivion.”

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“Which brings us to the Shova bazaar Ghat and its fascinating history. The Ghat and the Shova Bazaar Rajbari ( Palace), was built with great pomp and grandeur by Raja ( King) Nabakrishna Deb.The latter famed for organizing the Shovabazaar Rajbari Durga Pujo about two hundred and  fifty years ago ( which continues till today!). What is seldom spoken of is that all of the Raja’s wealth came from the huge bribe money of Rupees eighty million paid to him, Mir Jaffar and a couple of others by the British administration for betraying Nawab Siraj–ud-Daulah on the battlefield of Plassey. A betrayal which led to a small British force of 3000 soldiers winning a decisive victory over a twenty times larger opponent. A betrayal which led to the British becoming the dominant colonial power in the subcontinent for over two centuries. Is it not ironic that one of the greatest betrayals in Indian history is so inexorably linked to one of the biggest religious festivals in the country?”

So engrossed had I become in listening to the Chronicler’s tales that I had scarcely noticed the darkness enveloping the Hoogly and the boat engine slowing down.

My companion on the deck points to a brightly lit temple and ghat complex to the right. “That is the Dhakshineswar Kali temple built in the mid nineteenth century by Rani (Queen) Rashmoni based on a dream in which Goddess Kali exhorted her, ‘There is no need to go to Banaras. Install my statue in a beautiful temple on the banks of the Ganges river and arrange for my worship there. Then I shall manifest myself in the image and accept worship at that place.’ The temple attained fame because of Ramakrishna Paramhansa, the famous mystic and the spiritual guru of Swami Vivekanand.”

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The boat docks on the Belur Math Ghat. I notice the Chronicler making no attempt to get up even as other guests disembark and start walking up the Ghat steps. The tour supervisor advises us on the way to reach the temple premises for the evening Aarati. As we hurry, some of the German tourists stop to look at souvenirs in the roadside shops.The Belur Math design incorporates the different Medieval, Gothic, Renaissance as well as Hindu and Islamic styles that Swami Vivekanand had observed during his travels in India and abroad.

I return back to our moored boat with the intoxicating chants of the Aarati still resonating in my ears. As the boat starts on its return journey downstream, I look around for the Chronicler but he is nowhere to be seen. Dinner is announced and we go down to the dining room in the lower deck. The fascinating vision of the Hoogly  created by the Chronicler’s tales in sharp contrast to the hugely run-down and depressing sights I had been witness to, continues to wrestle in my mind.

What is it that has made the Hoogly hold onto its rusting warehouses, its hideous shanties and walls which no longer serve any purpose? What is it that has made Kolkata turn its back on the river that brought it into existence? What is that which leads us to abuse and neglect that very water that we consider holy and religious? What is that in our societal psyche that fuels such dichotomy?

As we reach back and walk off our cruise, these questions continue to haunt…..

 

……… In Learning.

Shakti Ghosal

 

 

 

 

 

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