Saturday, September 29, 2012

Gomukh and all

When I took up my present job in Delhi at the age of 41, leaving my previous job in a romantic place like Shillong, what I really wanted was a nice place to live and enough money too.  It didn’t take me much time to find the present place and job which fulfilled both conditions.  An excellent campus (a school) with more greenery than most schools in Delhi can afford. 
What Providence (I am an agnostic, please) gave me was better than what I had expected.  A green campus, enough place to move around even in the kitchen of the accommodation that was provided, and – best of all – a cool environment all along the scooter ride from where the city ends (Chattarpur).  I used to love those scooter rides.  Even my wife did!
That was 11 years ago.  Today, I wouldn’t like to go out of the campus.  The moment I step out it’s the devil of a dust that greets me anywhere.  Gone are the days of a nice environment.  The environment has been killed.  The marble industry took over the road from Chattarpur to Fatehpur Beri.  Industrialists of other hues too grew in stature – by-products.  Too many cars ply on the road now.  For the sake of those cars the roads are constantly under repair.  Dust is a by-product and it does not affect those who sit in air-conditioned cars.
The area is becoming DEVELOPED. That’s important.  Development is important.  Otherwise the government will fall.
Where do I go from development?
I am going to the Himalayas.  No, I’m not going to ascend Mount Everest at this age.  Nor am I going to become some Nirmal Swami. 
I am going to Gomukh (13,200 ft).  For a trek with a few of my students.  Granted by my school.  As a gift for my services.
The next blog will be after I return (rejuvenated) from Gomukh.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Reliance-kind of theft

The wicked grow like the palm tree.  Grow taller and higher and mightier.  The Bible says that, though not in the same words. 
Reliance Communications has been awarded the ‘Best Quality of Service Award’ for the 2nd consecutive year at ET Telecom Awards 2012.  Thank you.
The above message landed in the Inbox of my Reliance mobile phone which connection I’ve been sticking to out of necessity for eleven years. 
I added a line to that message and sent it as many friends as possible.  The line I added is: Not much money was reqd to buy d award!
Reliance must have bought the award.  Capitalism is about buying and selling, and not quality of service or professional ethics, let alone moral values.
While I cannot complain about the services of Reliance mobile phone, I have a whole lot of complaints about the company’s internet services.  I wrote earlier too about it.  For example, Corporate Greed – Reliance Style. 
I have a Reliance 3G net connection.  This connection has to have two accounts: (1) a core account, and (2) your data usage account.  There has to be a small amount (even Re 1) in your core account.  Since I can’t afford to go the city for recharging every time with small amounts like Rs10 (which is the amount advised by a Reliance officer), I decided to recharge it with Rs50.  From that time my troubles began.  I recharged the account with Rs50 on 21 Aug 2012, and within a few days I received a message that my core account was minimal and I had to recharge it again.  Like a fool that I am when it comes to Reliance-kind of affairs, I recharged the account with Rs100 (on 5 Sept) and in three days’ time the amount disappeared from my account.  I complained and complained.  Nobody from Reliance could give me an answer.  Neither by phone nor by email.  When I asked whether I could meet any Reliance officer personally, I was told that it would not be possible but I could speak by phone to the next higher officer.  I had already spoken to many ‘high’ officers in the meanwhile. 
This higher officer was the epitome of courtesy.  He spoke to me as sweetly as the Ganga flowed a millennium ago.  He said he understood my problem.  He said he couldn’t understand why the deductions from my account were taking place. 
The problem with the Corporate Greed is that they don’t understand anything except amassing wealth.  If they can steal Rs100 from each client a month, with that money alone eventually they can build a palm-tree like palace (growing tall and high and strong) in the most luxurious area of Mumbai!  And I’m quite sure they’re stealing much more than Rs100 from each client.
I told the higher officer of Reliance that it was not a matter of Rs50 or Rs100.  It is a matter of trust between a firm and a client.  Most probably, the higher officer suppressed a chuckle.  Who cares about trust in the corporate world?
And this company Reliance Communications is awarded now for the second consecutive year for the best quality of service!  Is it my turn to suppress a chuckle?  Or can I complain?  Can I demand quality of service?

A few quotes in this regard:
“The forces of a capitalist society, if left unchecked, tend to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.” [Jawaharlal Nehru]
“Capitalism did not arise because capitalists stole the land… but because it was more efficient than feudalism.  It will perish because it is not merely less efficient than socialism, but actually self-destructive.” [J B S Haldane]

Saturday, September 22, 2012

From a Teacher's Diary

I am a teacher in an exclusively residential boy’s public school in Delhi.  The parents of each of my students pay an annual fee of about Rs 200,000.  That’s nothing much compared to the fees charged by international schools in Delhi. Yet that’s quite a lot compared to the annual per capita income of an Indian.  So I, as a teacher in such a school, would expect certain standard of behaviour from my students.  For example, I would expect that the students want value for the money that their parents are paying (paisa wasool, is that the right phrase?)  I would expect my students to gain as much as they can from the classes, from the sprawling playgrounds (which most Delhi schools cannot afford), and from the very routine of a residential school.
What do I, as a teacher, actually see?  I see my students trying to bunk off from classes.  Ok, you can blame the teacher for not trying to make the classes as interesting as Kapil Sibal’s CCE envisages them to be.  I see my students running away from games!  I see them running away from co-curricular and extra-curricular activities which are actually supposed to be fun. I see them running away from everything that’s presented as their duty, but which are actually quite fun.
CBSE [Central Board of Secondary Education] introduced certain changes this year in the class XI English.  One such change was meant to inculcate a taste for reading among students.  I assigned the task to my students.  I liberalised (since liberalisation is the accepted policy these days) the task further to make it easier and more interesting for my students.  Finally I called them one by one for the viva voce examination which carries 10 marks.
The examination proved that most of the students had not bothered to read the book on which they had to do the project.  Even my liberalisation policy which suggested that they could read any book of their choice did not work!  Forget the classics suggested by CBSE.  My students chose to copy the summary of some book from the internet.  Some chose to write about the fairy tale they had studied in class IV or V. 
When I persisted with my intention to make them read something, a few of them condescended to say, “Ok, sir, I’ll read a book for the next project.”  At least a few were polite enough to make it appear not condescending, thank my stars.  And most were honest enough to admit that they had not done what they were supposed to do.
I appreciated their honesty.  And I gave them grades generously.  Because the viva voce exam was meant to check their spoken English, not their moral values or psychological merits. 
The English teachers can produce students who can speak English fluently.  The subject teachers can make students pass the entrance exams of IITs or such prestigious institutions.  But who will produce values in them?  Qualities?  And how?
CBSE is introducing questions in every subject to test the moral values of students!  I’m not joking.  There will be a question in every subject from now on to check the moral values of students. 
I’d like to laugh. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Religion is here to stay

In 1978, the Catholic theologian Hans Kung raised a few pertinent questions in his book, Does God Exist?  “Has religion any future?  Can we not have morality even without religion?  Is not science sufficient?  Has not religion developed out of magic?  Will it not perish in the process of evolution?  Is not God from the outset a projection of man (Feuerbach), opium of the people (Marx), resentment of those who have fallen short (Nietzsche), illusion of those who have remained infantile (Freud)? …”
The decades that followed proved that the theologian’s anxieties were ill-founded.  Religious fundamentalism of all sorts flourished in the 1990s all over the world.  The communist USSR collapsed politically as well as ideologically, and people began to flock toward religions perhaps in order to fill the vacuum left by the Marxist ideology that had vanished. 
Samuel P Huntington says in his book The Clash of Civilizations and the remaking of world order, “In 1994, 30 percent of Russians below the age of twenty-five said they had switched from atheism to a belief in God.  The number of active churches in the Moscow area grew from 50 in 1988 to 250 in 1993.”
Huntington goes on, “Simultaneously with the revival of Orthodoxy in the Slavic republics, an Islamic revival swept through Central Asia.  In 1989, 160 functioning mosques and one medressah (Islamic seminary) existed in Central Asia; by early 1993 there about 10,000 mosques and ten medressahs. 
Fundamentalist versions of Christianity mushroomed in the United States of America.  Televangelists became common sights on the country’s TV channels.  Religious organizations joined hands with the political New Right.  They made such demands as the abolition of legal abortion.  They campaigned for a hard line on moral and social decency.  Evangelists such as Maurice Cerullo interpreted the Bible literally and believed that miracles were an essential hallmark of true faith.
In the United Kingdom too such fundamentalism as ushered in by Colin Urquhart found ample followers.  For Urquhart every non-Christian is an enemy of God.  He even asserted that all oriental religions were inspired by the devil.
Muslim fundamentalism went on a rampage during the period.  The picture of the WTC melting down won’t fade from our collective memory for years to come.  The terrorist attacks go on endlessly.
Jewish fundamentalists have their own agenda, both political and religious, in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  They believe they can pave a way for the advent of the Messiah only by driving out the Arabs from their land.
There was a resurgence of Hindu fundamentalism in India during the last two decades.  The various exploits of the Sangh Parivar are still fresh in the memory of Indians.
Hans Kung’s fears were indeed ill-founded.  Religion has proved itself to be very much alive and even more kicking!
Why does religion wield such an influence on people?
Huntington (in the book mentioned above) argues that religion fulfils certain basic needs of people.  For example, it fills a vacuum – e.g. the way it took over when the fleeing Marxist ideology left a vacuum in the people’s psyche.  Religion also serves as a source of identity.  Increasing urbanization and globalisation force people to “become separated from their roots.... They interact with large numbers of strangers and are exposed to new sets of relationships.  They need new sources of identity, new forms of stable community, and new sets of moral precepts to provide them with a sense of meaning and purpose.  Religion, both mainstream and fundamentalist, meets these needs,” says Huntington.
Reason and science are incapable of fulfilling certain psychological needs.  “People do not live by reason alone,” in the words of Huntington. 
Religion, like art, is a means of transcending the self.  Most people experience the need for transcendence, to go beyond themselves.  Artists achieve that with the help of their art.  For many ordinary people, religion comes to their rescue in the process of self-transcendence.
That’s why religion is coeval with the human race.  “Men and women started to worship gods as soon as they became recognizably human,” says Karen Armstrong [A History of God], “they created religions at the same time as they created works of art.  This was not simply because they wanted to propitiate powerful forces; these early faiths expressed the wonder and mystery that seem always to have been an essential component of the human experience of this beautiful yet terrifying world.”
Genuine religious experiences can help people to transcend themselves meaningfully, irrespective of whether the god(s) are any more real than the meaning conveyed by a work of art.  The meaning is subjective, more often than not.  At any rate, religion has a therapeutic value for the believer, even as art has for the artist. 
But such religion is not fundamentalist.  Such religion is a personal experience, an experience that transforms the believer at some psychological – or spiritual, if you prefer – level.  Such religion reorganises the believer’s life experiences meaningfully. 
Psychologists like Viktor Frankl, I D Yalom and van Deurzen have shown that there is something essentially paradoxical about man’s search for meaning.  The more rationally we seek it, the more likely we are to miss it, they say.  Like pleasure, meaning has to be pursued obliquely.  Finding meaning in life is a by-product of engagement, which is a commitment to creating, loving, working, and building one’s life constantly.  Religion has the potential to help in that process. 
The irony today is probably that people have converted religion into a quick-heal capsule.  People seem to think that religion can solve their problems merely by the performance of certain rituals.  I have been observing how the number of students who pay their obeisance before the shrine of goddess Saraswati on my school campus is increasing rapidly year after year.  Apart from the general increase in the number, I have also noticed that the number shoots up meteorically at the time of exams.  The irony is that the interest in studying has deteriorated in an inverse proportion.  I have not made a detailed study on the correlation between the two variables.  I can, however, say this much with certainty: the students are looking for an easy way out when they choose to approach the goddess.
That’s not religion.  Not any more than fundamentalism is religion. 
Perhaps, the vast majority of people are failing to understand what religion is.  That’s the tragedy of religions today.  And the worse tragedy is that today’s religious believers keep tormenting others with their demented beliefs and practices.

A personal note
I don’t believe in religion or god(s).  Yesterday during a phone conversation with a friend I was told that a common friend of ours recently described me in their conversation as an atheist whose atheism is very Catholic.  I laughed heartily at the description.  I admire the sagacity behind the remark.  If I’m given a choice between a book of science and one of religion while being dumped on an uninhabited island for a bearable period of solitude, I’d choose the religious book.  Science doesn’t appeal to me; its truths are finite.  There’s no mystery in it, no magic.  I love mystery, I love magic.  That’s why religion never ceases to fascinate me.  But, unfortunately, my approach to religion is too rational to absorb its mystery and magic!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Women and Religion

The team that was supposed to make an inventory of the treasures stored in one of the cellars of the Sri Padmanabha Swami Temple in Thiruvananthapuram was prevented today (20 Sep) from executing its job simply because there were women in it.  When some members of the team pointed out that the earlier inventory was also done by a team consisting of women, they were told curtly that it was a serious mistake and the purification rituals would be carried out soon.
Why are women impure?  Most religions have considered women as the source of much evil.  The very beginning of the Bible shows Eve as the cause of man’s Fall.  Neither Judaism which gave birth to the Old Testament nor Christianity which adopted the Old Testament as part of its sacred scriptures has ever given women equality with men.  For example, there are no women priests in both religions. 
The most telling verdict on women was passed by one of the Catholic theologians, Tertullian (160-220).  He said, “Do you (woman) not know that you are each an Eve?  The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too.  You are the devil’s gateway; you are the unsealer of that forbidden tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law; you she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack.  You so carelessly destroyed man, God’s image.  On account of your desert, even the Son of God had to die.” [emphases as in the original quoted by Karen Armstrong in A History of God]
Islam which accepted much of the Old Testament in its holy book, the Quran, treats women as much inferior to men.  The Taliban in Afghanistan goes to the extreme of making women cover themselves totally from head to toe, stripping them of their very identities. 
Hinduism was not generous to women, either, though the situation has improved much.  We may recall such inhuman practices as the sati and the ill-treatment meted out to widows.
Many of the evils bred by religions can be reduced if women are given equality with men.  Women may bring more compassion into religions.  This is my assumption.  Why not try it out anyway?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


A busy shopping complex.  Everyone is busy.  Everyone is in a hurry.
Everyone is shopping.  Everyone is shopping with credit cards and debit cards.
An old woman was in the queue at the delivery counter.  She had the debit card given by the FDI outlet.
“Your identification number, madam,” said the counter-boy.
“But… Ramu, I’m your mother!” said the woman.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Sanctity and Cartoons

When The Satanic Verses went about kicking up more dust and storm than a (commercial) publication could afford to, Salman Rushdie, the author, wrote many an article about freedom of expression.    In one such article he argued that the freedom of expression necessarily implies the freedom to hurt feelings.  Otherwise it wouldn’t be freedom.  And he’s right.  More or less at the same time he wrote another article titled “Is nothing sacred?”  For him, said the article, only bread and books are sacred: food for the body as well as the mind.
Sanctity is almost always an attribute; it is attributed by us human beings to certain entities.  There are 330 million gods in India.  Apart from them we have rivers, mountains, caves, trees, and umpteen other things which are supposed to be sacred. 
Is India sacred?  If it is, which India is it?  Is it the India represented by the Parliament (the elected leaders)?  Is it the Constitution of the country?  Is it the national symbols?  Or is it the people of India that should be considered sacred first and foremost?
When our leaders and their parties indulge in corrupt practices endlessly, why doesn’t our sense of sanctity revolt?  Why does that sacred sense get agitated when a cartoonist portrays that corruption?  Does his use of the national symbols for the purpose of caricaturing the corrupt leaders of the country insult the symbols?  Or do they insult the leaders?
It is not because gods are insulted that people like Salman Rushdie and M F Husain had to go into hiding.  It is the believers of the gods who feel insulted and that’s why artists have to flee.  Gods won’t hound artists.
The arrest of Aseem Trivedi is also motivated by the insult that stung the breasts of certain political leaders.  And the charge of sedition imposed on the cartoonist is like trying to kill a wasp with a nuclear bomb. 
We live in a funny country.  In this country, our leaders can steal lakhs or crores of rupees from the public exchequer; but a cartoonist cannot make use of a national symbol to portray that corruption!
Yes, the national symbols are sacred.  But using them in a work of art does not desecrate them.  It is the wicked politicians who desecrate those symbols by using them for mean political purposes.
Interestingly, Mr Trivedi himself is being converted into a totem by certain political parties!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

My Romanticism

I’m quite convinced that I am a Romantic.  The last of the Romantic poets (William Wordsworth) died in 1850.  He was the first of them, in fact.  Yet I call him the last simply because he lived longer than the others.
Most of the Romantic poets died young.  P B Shelley lived 30 years.  John Keats died at the age of 26.  Byron managed to make it to 36. 
I often wondered why they died so young.  One of the books of Will Durant told me a few years ago that the Romantics died young because they dreamed too big. Durant was not a literary critic.  Literary critics are not supposed to look at the biographies of writers; they are only supposed to analyse the written discourses.  Durant was a philosopher and so he was free to look at the biography (just as he would have been free to look at anything else).  He thought that the Romantics died young because the world they dreamt of could never be materialised.
The Romantics tried to run away from the society, from the city, from science and technology, from reality itself.  They wished to withdraw to the shelter of the inner experience, of imagination, and of nature.  They kept fighting the reality to the desperation of death!
Given an option other than death, I too would opt for that sort of withdrawal.  I know it’s an escapist act.  What’s wrong in escaping hells, if you can? 
I escaped one such hell when I ran away from Shillong more than a decade ago.  I landed up in Delhi.  My Romanticism of Shelley’s kind (Shelley wrote the famous line: “Hell is a city much like London”) was already on the deathbed when I bid farewell to the (Romantic?) hill station of Shillong.   Shillong had become un-Romantic for me because any place will be un-Romantic for a Romantic in the end!  Romanticism is essentially escapist.  Wordsworth lived long because he understood the lethal nature of Romanticism and gave it up to some kind of acceptance of reality, albeit with scorn.  “I could have laughed myself to scorn...” he wrote [Resolution and Independence].
Scorn is a good tool for the Romantics.
Nature is a better tool if it is still available to them.
It is still available to me.
I went on a brief ride today to discover the Romantic side of Delhi, because the city was becoming a Shelleyean hell for me for some funny reasons.  When the reasons are funny, you can escape easily.  And you can live long if you learn to find it all silly.
Here are some photographs from the Romantic side of Delhi, from the place where I live.  The place is called Bhatti.  It’s on the outskirts of Delhi, bordering Haryana.  Just about 10 km from the Qutub Minar.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

From Sivakasi disaster to Celebration of life

The recent disaster in Sivakasi is not an exception.  Not a single year passes without similar disasters in the cracker-village called Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu.  Right now there are about 3000 living martyrs in and around Sivakasi who inherited burn injuries from the disasters and were rendered impotent for living normal life.  The hundreds who sacrificed their lives to the industry and the delight it gives to Diwali-celebrating Indians as well as the profit-reaping industrialists are always forgotten history.
The crackers industry makes an annual turnover of about Rs800-1000 crore.  But the worker in the industry gets a daily wage of Rs100 to Rs200.  The industry employs about 40,000 workers directly and 100,000 indirectly (ancillary jobs that cater to the needs of the labourers).   
Two questions arise.
1.      Is the industry required at all?
2.      How to find alternative employment for the workers who depend on the industry?
The second question is not likely to be of any interest to most people.  Why should we care?
The first question matters.  Should we be denied of our pleasures of fireworks?
I think we should be.  We should learn to raise the level of our pleasures to much greater heights, heights beyond firework-rockets.
Or to the deeps within our souls that religion is supposed to touch.
Why should our religion be about burning up the lives of other people?  Why should it be about burning up the skies and the environment?
I would like to quote a few lines from an article written by Prof Badri Raina in today’s Hindu newspaper on a slightly different matter (ranging from Maya Kodnani to Narendra Modi).  “Religion is an insult to humanity,” says the quote whose source is mentioned as “somebody” but is actually Steven Weinberg (Nobel laureate in physics).  “With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things.  But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”  [I’d request readers to log on to the article and read the comments too.]
Why not make religion enhance the human dignity rather than insult it?  Why can’t religion celebrate the human life rather than mutilate or kill it mercilessly? 
Peter Beyer who studied rigorously the role of religions in our world wrote a book titled Religion and Globalization (published in India by Sage Publications).  Beyer argues that religion is made more conservative by those want to reap political benefits from it.  Not only the Islamic terrorists bear out Beyer’s argument but also people like Narendra Modi and events like the demolition of the Babri masjid in India as well as the rise of Christian fundamentalism in America. 
We need to make religion a social affair, an affair that uplifts the society, everyone in the society.  Unless religion looks after the welfare of each individual in the society, it will remain without soul.  Soulless religions can find joy in burning up rockets in the sky when hunger burns bellies on the earth.
We can change the situation.  We can decide to celebrate life. 
The choice is always ours.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Perils of expertise

Isaac Asimov was a celebrated science fiction writer.  His IQ was 160, according to a test whose average score is 100.  Once a mechanic demonstrated to Asimov how a dumb person would ask for nails from a hardware shop.  Then the mechanic asked Asimov to demonstrate how a blind person would ask for a pair of scissors.  Asimov made the gestures of cutting with a pair of scissors.  The mechanic laughed and said, “The blind man would ask for it; who told you he’s dumb?”  [Courtesy: B S Warrier’s note in today’s Malayala Manorama]
It seems that the mechanic went on to tell Asimov that he was sure that the latter would fail in this test.  “Why?” asked Asimov surprised.  “You are too learned,” said the mechanic, “so you aren’t likely to be smart.”
The trouble with the learned people is that their knowledge tends to act like the horse’s blinkers: they tend to think in a particular pattern.  The parable above may not be the best example for that.  This parable shows how our thinking is influenced by what precedes immediately.  However, the knowledge we have accumulated in the past does influence our thinking very much.  The problem with experts in particular fields is that their expertise may act as a straitjacket that narrows their thinking considerably.
One of the many delightful parables of Anthony de Mello tells the story of a man who bought a new hunting dog.  He took the dog out on a trial hunt.  He shot a bird which fell into a lake.  The dog walked over the water, picked the bird up and brought it to the master.
Flabbergasted, the man shot another bird.  Once again, while he rubbed his eyes in disbelief, the dog walked over the water and retrieved the bird. 
He brought his neighbour (a scholar?) and demonstrated the feat that his dog was performing.  The neighbour was not surprised.  “Did you notice anything strange about that dog?” asked the man.
The neighbour rubbed his chin pensively.  “Yes,” he said, “I did notice it.  The son of a gun can’t swim!”

Pessimism of the gods

There is a romantic at sleep in my heart who likes to believe that people were better in the good old days. The people I saw as a child we...