Monday, October 26, 2020

The Charm of the Devil - 1



The devil is a far more interesting character than god in the Bible and quite a lot of Christian literature like Paradise Lost. He is authentic. His authenticity makes him rebel against god who is a bombastic and whimsical character. The devil’s problem, however, is not with god’s self-conceit and capriciousness. His problem is why he should endure all that and remain a slave to such an entity. The devil has self-respect and wants to assert his individuality and dignity. Hierarchical systems don’t like people with self-respect and individuality.

Human beings love to create hierarchies. Our gods sit at the top of all our hierarchies and they are as hideous entities as the creators of our hierarchies. Our gods are the supernatural projections of our leaders. In other words, our gods are created in the images of our leaders who create our hierarchies. Our leaders obviously know how to make use of these gods for various purposes: political as well as others. You can bring a billion people to their knees before you if you have the right god(s) with you.

There are always villains, however, who won’t bend their knees so easily. They are a tiny minority and hence not too problematic. If they become problematic, you can always behave like your god and pronounce a new commandment like UAPA or TADA. Even then that self-respecting tiny minority won’t bend their knees, of course. That tiny minority constitute the legion of devils.

Jack London’s character, Wolf Larsen, is one such devil. The novel, The Sea Wolf, is not particularly outstanding as a work of literature. But it has continued to draw the attention of readers for over a century now because of the character of Wolf Larsen.

“You are a man utterly without what the world calls morals?” the narrator, Humphrey Van Weyden, asks Wolf Larsen.

That’s it,” Wolf agrees instantly.

Humphrey goes on to compare him to “a snake, or a tiger, or a shark.”

Now you know me,” responds Wolf.

You are a sort of monster.” Humphrey doesn’t seem to know what Wolf really is. After calling him many names, Humphrey then says that Wolf is “a Caliban who has pondered Setebos and who acts as you act, in idle moments, by whim and fancy.”

There you are. Whim and fancy. That’s the Biblical god, Yahweh. Caliban is a monster from Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, and the reference here is to Robert Browning’s re-creation of Shakespeare’s Caliban. Setebos is Caliban’s god who also acts by whim and fancy. Caliban, like any devotee, can’t be much different from his god. And most gods are bizarre creatures irrespective of their religions.

Wolf Larsen chooses to be his own god. It’s not a choice really. One of the most neglected truths is that we don’t have too many choices. Our character is mostly given to us by the chromosomes that constitute us, the environment in which we grew up, our teachers, well-wishers, priests, and gods. Our choices are limited by our character. Wolf Larsen’s character was no different. Yet he remains fascinating to a lot of readers even today, a century after his death in the novel to which he belonged. Why? Let’s take a break today. The answer to that why is very interesting. As interesting as the devil himself. See you tomorrow with a sequel to this post. Why is the devil more interesting than any gods?


Sunday, October 25, 2020

Let go the past

Living in the past is a psychological disease. Psychology has identified clear signs of the disease. If a person tends to speak about his past too much, about certain people who caused him pain in the past, and compares his present situation with previous ones, you can be pretty sure the guy has serious problems from the past that need be resolved in order for him to live a healthy present life. Such people tend to be attracted to or obsessed with the same type of people that caused them pain in the past. Their disagreements often surround past arguments. They are easily bored or frustrated. They indulge in self-sabotaging behaviour.

After Mr Modi became the Prime Minister, India behaves like the pathological patient described above. We as a nation keep talking about past glories and wounds. Our entire discourses are constructed around past events that should have been buried long ago. We are wreaking vengeance on today’s people for offences committed by their supposed ancestors centuries ago. Worst of all, we are becoming just like those enemies whom we are fighting.

There is no doubt that our past has much role in shaping our present. That happens to every citizen and every nation. So what? Do people and nations go around with cudgels seeking to beat up the ghosts of the past? There are people who were far more badly wounded in the past. The original inhabitants of America and Australia, for instance. They were almost wiped off the face of the earth by the invaders. India is much better off comparatively.

At any rate, invasions and conquests and violence were all integral parts of human existence in the past. Most people committed all those atrocities. Not only nations and historical conquerors, but also tribal warriors and caste leaders and princes of hundred-acre-kingdoms did the same: attack, plunder, and rape. Trying to wreak vengeance on today’s people for all those ancient crimes is as foolish as taking pride in the achievements of our forefathers.

The past is gone. Buried. We are condemned to live in the present. We are condemned to grapple with the problems of the present. We have no real choices otherwise. All that talk about the bygone past is just blah-blah that may sound nice and can rouse the rabble. Nothing good will come of it, however. We will end up sabotaging ourselves in the end if we fix our minds on crap from history. Look at how India is sinking low and lower as years go by in the various rankings like Poverty Index, Corruption Index, Freedom of the Press, and so on.

We need to reboot. Reset. Bury the past. Deal with the present.

PS. Written for Indispire Edition 348: Clinging to history and its supposed greatness is as foolish as maintaining that your bum has calluses because your great grandfather rode on an elephant. Real greatness lies in dealing successfully with the present. India should let the past go. #GrappleWithPresent

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Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Other Side of Compassion


One of the mysteries that has baffled me again and again, like a cancerous pain, is the cosy coexistence of religions and cruelty. All kinds of cruelties were imposed on fellow human beings in the name of gods ever since religions were born. We did it in ancient India. They did it in all ancient civilisations.

Compassion is the very root of Christianity’s theology. Yet no religion was as ruthlessly cruel as that for centuries in the medieval period. Islam has continued that ruthlessness, which Christianity gave up a few centuries ago, up to this day. Hinduism, under Mr Modi’s charismatic leadership, seems to be all set to take up the same tradition now – with a slight difference: Mr Modi’s acolytes have changing tastes. Young girls seem to be the favoured targets these days. Lynching in the name of cows was in vogue till the other day. Perhaps, the fad may change again soon since fads don’t have much longevity even with divine sanctions.

Why are our gods such dismal failures? There are numerous possible answers. I would like to focus on one, however. Our religions have got certain fundamental aspects wrong. Compassion for fellow creatures is one such aspect.

Religions teach compassion for all possibly wrong reasons. They teach us things like all creatures are divine sparks and hence the other is no less divine as I am. I am taught to respect the divinity in the other person. Just imagine the nine-year-old girl being asked to see the spark of divinity in her eleven rapists! Imagine a Karel Hasler or Otto Wallburg being told to appreciate the divine spark in Hitler. I wonder how many victims of the Gujarat riots of 2002 would be able to stand in reverence before the Modi idol in that Rajkot temple dedicated to him.

Nah, it is rather cruel if not pernicious to teach that sort of compassion to people just because we live in a world where the wicked flourish and the innocent perish. Gods are good moral tales but bad life skills. That’s why they fail inevitably. Show me one god who has succeeded in making the human affairs an iota better.

Religions should change their teachings. Instead of teaching divine sparks and all that stuff, teach rational compassion. Teach people why compassion is a better choice than anything else. Teach people to choose goodness because that is the only reasonable choice they really have. Everything else creates hells and hells aren’t quite comfortable places to live in. We deserve better. We can get a better world. That better world is our choice, our creation, our own heaven.

Our dream, rather.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Fragmented People

 Book Review

Title: A Horse Walks into a Bar

Author: David Grossman

Translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

Publisher: Penguin, 2016

Award: Man Booker International, 2017


Too many people have been burdened with the authorship of the sentence, “Life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel.” David Grossman, Israeli writer, presents the tragicomedy of Dovaleh Greenstein in this dangerously gripping novel.

Dovaleh G is what our hero calls himself. “Dovaleh, long for Dov, which is just like ‘dove’ except less peaceful, and G, like the spot, the apple of my dick.” That’s the protagonist’s self-introduction to his audience in a club in Netanya, a small town in Israel. He is both a thinker and a feeler. So his life has been both tragic and comic. But who sees the tragedy? He has been a stand-up comedian and laughter is what people associate him with. But a painfully fragmented heart is what he has been carrying around ever since his childhood.

His father, a barber, was far from being affectionate towards him. Families are not the best places to learn love from. “One minute they hug you, the next they beat the crap out of you with a belt, and it’s all from love,” Dov says recalling his father’s belt. “Believe me, Dovchu, sometimes a slap is worth a thousand words” is one of Dov’s father’s “jokes”.

Dov was not spared by his companions at school. ‘Hit the Dovaleh’ was one of their favourite games. “Nothing serious, here a slap, there a kick, a little punch in the stomach, the way you stamp a timecard. Have you hit your Dovaleh yet today?

In order to escape all that torture Dov learnt to walk on his hands. He walked on his hands from school to home. You can’t hit a boy who walks on his hands because you don’t know where to hit or kick, you can’t make out where his face or stomach or any organ is.

But Dov never looked unhappy. On the contrary, he looked happier than the others, says the narrator who was his boyhood friend for a while. Avishai Lazar, the narrator, is a retired judge and has been invited specially by Dov to the present stand-up show. Why? To tell what he sees. Lazar is not interested but is compelled by Dov to attend the show. He wants to walk out of the show many times but is held back by a mysterious power. The same mysterious power holds us back too as we read this novel.  The audience in that club is like a bunch of hostages held by Dov whose show is far from being comic. He is narrating his own story. He stands in need of a catharsis which he is going to get by telling some people how “Man plans (and) God fucks him”.

Many from the audience walk out eventually. But most stay back because we all love to see God fucking other people. The temptation “to look into another man’s hell” is irresistible.  Grossman indicts us as much as Dov does his audience, however obliquely. We all love to hit the Dovaleh. We do hit. Come and see how. That’s what Dov tells Lazar and that’s what the novel tells us, the readers.

This novel grips us like an octopus with all its tentacles. Perhaps, this book cannot even be called a novel. It is something else. We may need a new genre to classify it. It has no plot. No character development. Not even dialogues in the traditional sense. And certainly no denouement. The fragments remain so at the end too – a little more broken perhaps. We are the fragments. “To be whole, it is enough to exist,” the narrator is reminded by his beloved writer. Is it?


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Monday, October 19, 2020

Crafts for Kids

 Book Review

A to Z Crafts for Kidz

By Kinshoo Agrawal

Children are creative by nature. The school smothers that creativity slowly with all the mugging up and other unimaginative acts of omission and commission that constitute the academic systems in our country. Of course, there are a few boards and schools that nurture each child’s creativity using ingenious methods. But not all can afford those schools. Here is a book that can easily solve the problem.

Kinshoo Agrawal’s e-book is a rich source of ideas for engaging your child creatively using simple things that are available at home or quite easily from the neighbourhood stationer. As the author mentions in the beginning of the book, “Crafts and creative activities are proven to be helpful in early learning and early childhood development.” She goes on to elaborate the merits and benefits of crafts for kids and also gives some very vital guidelines to parents and other adults who are dealing with these kids.

The book provides a wide variety of crafts such as ‘Create with Clay Dough/Play Dough’, ‘Diwali Crafts and Acrtivities’, and an assortment of greeting cards. Each section has an introduction that tells you about the materials required and the learning outcomes. A couple of pages is given below as an example.

This book is an excellent support material for any parent who wishes to nurture the creativity of a child. Nurturing children’s creativity is important because without that nurturing children grow up into the kind of robots we see around us these days, creatures who act mechanically, puppets driven by string-pulling. Nurturing creativity helps children to grow up into fully alive adults driven by inquisitiveness and trust in themselves. Eventually it leads to the creation of a better world. Kinshoo Agarwal’s contribution towards the creation of a better world deserves appreciation. 

The book is available here.

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Saturday, October 17, 2020

Saint Devasahayam Pillai


Devasahayam Pillai's statue in one church in Kerala

Book Review

Title: യേശുമുത്ത് [Jesus Pearl]

Author: Gopikrishnan Kottoor

Publisher: Authors Press, New Delhi, 2020

Pages: 330

Spirituality is one of the ways to the discovery of the meaning of life. Evil and death are the most potent factors that render life meaningless. A lot of people have grappled with the problem of evil in diverse ways. The answers given by religions seem to satisfy ordinary people. But there are some who seek deeper answers. Saints belong to that category as also many philosophers, writers, and artists. Saintliness has its roots in insanity as philosopher William James argued very convincingly in his book, Varieties of Religious Experience. Jesus and the Buddha were not normal men in the traditional sense. Most people who were canonised as saints by the Catholic Church and a lot of the ascetics who found bliss in the solitude of the Himalayas are not normal people.

Gopikrishnan Kottoor’s historical drama in Malayalam, Jesus Pearl, tells the story of Neelampulla [Neelakanta Pillai] who converted to Christianity and took the name of Devasahayam Pillai and was eventually martyred. Neelampulla was a prominent figure in the court of Marthanda Varma, an acclaimed king of Travancore [1729-1758]. A skilful warrior, Neelampulla helped Marthanda Varma win the Battle of Colachel and take prisoner the Dutch naval commander, Captain Eustachius De Lannoy.

Marthanda Varma decided to make use of De Lannoy’s soldierly skills instead of putting him to death. De Lannoy did serve the king with loyalty and dedication. Neelampulla came under his religious influence and embraced Christianity to the king’s chagrin.

The low caste people were allowed to change their religion. But conversion of upper caste people was seen as treason. Since the King was fond of Neelampulla, who was a man of many fine virtues, he gave the “traitor” many chances to repent and return to his original gods. When all the efforts failed, the King had no option but order death.

This book dramatizes the story of Neelampulla turned Devasahayam Pillai. The author does a remarkable job with making the drama cinematographic. The scenes change quickly like in a movie and the entire sequence grips the reader even as an exciting movie does.

The author succeeds in giving us deep insights into the character of Devasahayam Pillai who, incidentally, is likely to be canonised as a saint by the Catholic Church in the near future. Pillai was pained by the injustices committed in the name of the caste system. He could not accept the enslavement and maltreatment of the low caste people. The drama shows how the low caste people did not have any rights at all. They did not even have the worth of animals such as cows. Their children were just snatched away for human sacrifices to please the gods of the upper caste people.

In one scene, Ramayan the Prime Minister tells Neelampulla: “Children! Aren’t they just little devils born into the low race? They are children only in appearance. Wretched incarnations, that’s what they are. Filthy creatures. What use are they even if they continue to live?”

While the Brahmins receive free food and a lot of occasional gifts from the palace and elsewhere, the poor low caste people are taxed for everything. The irony is that the Brahmins did no job at all except recite some shlokas. The poor people did all the work and paid all the taxes. The women of these poor people had to bare their breasts for the ogling pleasure of the Brahmins. Such were the rules. Kottoor shoots a few arrows that pierce the very foundation of the Hindu caste system as it was practised in Kerala until the beginning of the 20th century.

Devasahayam Pillai is unable to bear those injustices and the concomitant cruelty and is driven by an insane longing for a different order of reality. The religion of love that Jesus taught naturally appeals to him. His heart goes out to meet the poor and the oppressed. He embraces the children of the downtrodden. He wants to bring the kingdom of God to them. They are not devil’s offspring as the Prime Minister claimed.

There is no wonder that Devasahayam Pillai is waiting to be canonised by the Catholic Church because he epitomises saintliness as visualised by the Church: suffering for and with Jesus. Pillai sees himself as a co-sufferer of Jesus in the drama. He is partaking in the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus through his suffering. The last part of the novel, nearly 100 pages, is a gruesome spectacle of the agony endured by Pillai who was chained and dragged from place to place and subjected to different kinds of torture.

The book hurls many questions at the reader. What is religion? Is it just a set of rules and rubrics that gives unlimited power to a small group of people who exploit the vast majority in ingenious ways? Or is it something that should touch your heart and move you to compassion for fellow beings? How valid are some of the rules and rituals of our religions?

“Our hearts are restless until they rest in you (God),” said one of the saints of the Catholic Church, Augustine of Hippo. Devasahayam Pillai emerges as one of those seekers whose heart could not have found rest anywhere else.

The book is particularly relevant in today’s India which is grappling with a renewed religious zeal. One limitation is that it is available only in Malayalam.

The author has done much research before writing this book. That has helped him to bring alive the history of the period and the place. But one drawback is that the book feels like a hagiography in some places. Also the sentimentalism that suffuses the last 100-odd pages detracts from the aesthetic merit of a book which is otherwise a superb work.


PS. I started writing this review in Malayalam but soon realised that it would take me an entire day to complete that. I hope this review reaches a lot of potential readers.

Friday, October 16, 2020

My own hero?


Every adolescent sees himself as the centre of the universe. He is a superstar unto himself. He looks into the mirror for long periods many times a day and ensures that he looks like prince charming. The hairstyle is perfect (though it may look bizarre to the adults). The skin complexion is fair and lovely. There are no dark shades below the eyes. No pimples on the cheeks. He thinks that the whole world is watching him all the time, in admiration. Every adolescent is a narcissist of sorts though the degrees will vary from individual to individual.

People normally grow out of this narcissism as they grow up into the realities of adulthood. Some people remain adolescents at heart for various reasons. Their own feelings of insecurity or inadequacy may be the cause. May be an inflated sense of self-worth. Parents might have contributed it through excessive attention and admiration. Or excessive criticism and demands. At the bottom of it all, probably, lies only one factor: a fragile self-esteem.

I struggled with the narcissism of my own protracted adolescence for quite a while. Looking back I know how much of a laughingstock I was in those days by pretending to be far greater than I ever was and could be. I was my own hero without realising that I was nothing more than a clown in motley for other people who took a lot of interest in me just for the fun of it. [In case you’re interested in all that stuff, welcome to my memoir: Autumn Shadows. For the print version, click here.]

Eventually the truth hits you in the face. [There are exceptions, of course, who never learn the vital truths. Such people reach eminent positions climbing on the rungs of their narcissistic self-confidence and wreak havoc on others.] When it did, I hit the other extreme. I withdrew from the world altogether into my own carapace which shielded my fragile self. To this day I haven’t dared to step out of that carapace and I don’t think I ever will. I don’t feel the need to be in touch with the world anymore.

Am I still my own hero? That’s the question raised by the latest theme of Indispire: Do you consider yourself to be the heroine or hero of your life's story and try to script a superhit? #HeroineHero No is the definite answer. On the contrary, I am acutely aware of the irresistible clown within me. The redeeming factor is that I have learnt to love that clown. My memoir is the story of that clown.