Thursday, October 25, 2012

Religious Pollution


Dussehra was celebrated all over the country yesterday in various ways in tune with regional beliefs.  Today’s [25 Oct] Times of India carries a few interesting headlines in relation to the celebrations.
“Filth, stench mar Durga idol immersion,” says one such headline.  “Puja material adds to Yamuna’s woes,” laments another. The devotees of Durga were not aware of the Delhi government’s order that the idols should be immersed only in certain places allotted specifically for the purpose.  Consequently people disposed of the idols wherever they liked.  Along with the idols was also disposed a lot of waste matter including plastic wrappers of food items and empty mineral water bottles.  The much polluted Yamuna was ill fated to carry more pollution than it could ever digest.
A question that should necessarily arise in our minds is: why can’t we modernize certain rituals that have become out of tune with the time?  Doesn’t religion require modernisation, renewal, or – in technical jargon – aggiornamento?  Are the old rituals relevant today?
We can say with some certainty that the conquest of evil by good, symbolised by Dussehra, is not quite meaningful today.  We live in a world in which the distinction between good and evil is increasingly becoming blurred.
Another headline in the same Times of India reports that some JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi] students were planning to celebrate Mahishasur Day.  Mahishasur is the demon, the evil monster, vanquished by Durga.  But asur is a tribe in Jharkhand, according to these students. 
The question that these students are trying to raise is whether Durga was the real embodiments of goodness and Mahishasur that of evil.  Or, was Durga the embodiment of the power of a certain section of people who wanted to have absolute control over the others who were perceived and projected as evil?  In the recent past we had such philosophers as Foucault who argued that some people could get the others to accept their ideas of who we were.  The process involves some power to create belief.  Is Durga a creation of such a process?  Is Mahishasur a victim of such a process?
Another philosopher of the 20th century, Barrows Dunham, argued that “truth has been suffered to exist in the world just to the extent that it profited the rulers of society.”  According to that theory, evil can be anything that becomes inconvenient for the ruling classes, the powerful classes.
Yet another headline in the very same Times of India says that Ravana is a mahatma for some people like the Valmiki community.  The report also says that Ravana’s wife, Mandodari, was the daughter of the King of Mandawar, today’s Mandor, 11 km from Jaipur in Rajasthan.  Some relatives of Ravana stayed back after his wedding and their descendants still live in the place.  For them too Ravana is a mahatma.  They have even constructed a temple where the entity that is perceived as a monster by many others is worshipped.
Where lies the truth, and where the falsehood?  Where lies goodness, and where the evil?
Can Rama’s indifference to Sita after his murder of Ravana be justified?  Can the fire test meted out to Sita be justified?  Wasn’t it the duty of a leader to raise the consciousness of his followers?  Instead of doing that why did Rama play to the gallery?
Quite many questions can be asked.
A colleague of mine, Mr S K Sharma, tells me about a Hindi play titled Andha Yug [Dark Age] which tells the story of the Mahabharata from a different perspective.  Wasn’t it a sign of the darkness (moral and spiritual blindness) of the time that the wife of a blind man chose to be blind herself instead of being her husband’s light?  Can we really justify the allotment of one woman as the wife of five men?  And then staking her at a bout of gambling?  Is the Mahabharata really about the victory of the good over evil?
Isn’t it time that we redefined our religions and their rituals so that the followers can find them really meaningful in today’s real life situations?  Does ‘good’ belong to the rituals or our hearts?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Moral corruption


The novel that I started reading yesterday and keeps my attention riveted is Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt (2012).  Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature two years ago.  The reason why I bought this novel of his is not that, however.  The novel is about Roger Casement, a controversial hero of Irish nationalism.  My reason for buying the novel was not that either. 
I ordered for the book when I read in a review that the novel was about the barbarism perpetrated by the European colonists in the Congo.  Llosa’s protagonist was an Irishman who went to the Congo with the noble desire to “civilize” the people there.  A few pages into the novel, I am quite delighted to come across Joseph Conrad as a character.  Conrad was a sailor and he met Roger in the Congo.  In Llosa’s novel, Conrad tells Roger that the latter “should have appeared as co-author” of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
In Heart of Darkness, a character named Marlow tells the story of Kurtz to the narrator.  Was Marlow in fact Roger Casement?  Llosa’s novel suggests so.  In The Dream of the Celt, Conrad tells Roger that it is “the moral corruption, the corruption of the soul that invades everything in this country (Congo)” that disturbed him deeply.
Roger thinks that moral corruption is the degeneration of the human soul to the extremes of greed, prejudice and cruelty. 
Heart of Darkness implies that if one has a certain degree of solidity in one’s character society need not corrupt one much.  Kurtz lacks that solidity.  The narrator of the novel [Conrad’s famous character, Marlow] describes Kurtz as “hollow at the core” [70].*  Moreover, Kurtz is placed in a peculiar situation: there is a society which consists of the savage natives of the African jungles of the British colonial era.  That society, for a colonialist is as good as solitude.  The colonist/colonialist can only view the natives as the others.  Hence he virtually remains outside the society, superior to the society.  Kurtz controls the natives to such an extent that they are ready to dance to every tune that he plays according to his moods.  Kurtz has no principles except making profits by selling as much ivory as he can.  Ivory is what he is after.  He is an agent for an ivory company.
Kurtz is an excellent agent.  He brings in a lot of the commodity by means fair or foul.  Kurtz is an ideal blueprint for the profit-making local director of a present-day MNC [Multi-National Corporation].   But Conrad is more interested in the character of that director.  Conrad’s narrator says of Kurtz that he “lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him – some small matter which ... could not be found under his magnificent eloquence” [70, emphasis added].
Kurtz comes across to Marlow as an example of cleverness and enterprise, qualities that will be envied by any MBA today.  But as Marlow gets to know Kurtz closer, Kurtz becomes a kind of supernatural monster who has kept all the natives under his control by hook or by crook.  Kurtz, the outsider, controls the habitat that rightfully belongs to those natives. Kurtz exploits the wealth that belongs to those natives.  Kurtz exploits what the natives wouldn’t have exploited.  Kurtz has degenerated the natives with his “magnificent eloquence”.  Kurtz knows how to ‘collect, barter, swindle, or steal more ivory than all other agents together’ [56].  There is that terrifying “deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness” [56]. 
Did the Congo corrupt Kurtz?  Conrad seems to suggest that.  Or were the Europeans the real savages?  This second question is raised by Llosa.  I’m quite excited to continue reading Llosa.  So let me return to the novel.

Note: A part of this post is extracted from a blog I wrote last year, The Ghost of Kurtz.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Why Insure Ourselves?



Insuring ourselves is one of the silliest things we can do in life, I think.  Life insurance means that a certain amount will be paid to my dependents after my death.  Fine, there’s nothing that can give me more happiness (after my death) than seeing my beloved ones(not dependents, but loved ones) living happily after my death.
The latest issue of the Frontline [dated 2 Nov 2012] argues that insurance has been made just another business of the capitalists.  For example, it says that “countries where competition is rife in the insurance industry, such as the U.S. have been characterised by a large number of failures.”  India is opening up itself to that competition. Because Dr Manmohan Singh has to save his image in the Western press. 
Just because the Western press called Dr Singh (our beloved PM) all kinds of names, he chose to give us a lot of FDI, hike in prices of cooking gas and other items precious to most of us (leaving aside the most people who have no access to cooking gas and are also driven out of their simple dwellings)...
Insurance is one another area where we (India) have invited FDI.  A sure way of losing our hard-earned money.  Nobody will get anything much from the business called insurance, neither in this life nor in the life hereafter.  No, I won’t be able to smile, if there’s a life hereafter, seeing my beloved ones living happily with the money they get from my insurance policies. 
My wife and I have insurance policies with LIC, Tata, ICICI and Reliance.  Except LIC (which is a government of India’s poorly managed entity as far as the premium paying labour is concerned), no other company promises anything good.  All our policies, as of now, stand at a loss.  What we will be paid will be less than what we have paid to the companies. 
The Reliance bosses will build good and tall houses for themselves with our money.   Tata will buy the best complex in Connaught Place in Delhi with our money.  Every capitalist will do just that.  They won’t give us anything much in return except promises.
The latest example is when ICICI contacted my wife.  They said her policy was not making much benefit.  My wife handed over the call to me since it was I who started the insurance in her name.  I told them to switch the policy from stock market-based to a government bond-based one.  They sent their agent to our residence for making the switch.  Fine.  That was a good move, I thought.  The agent advised us to start a new policy based on government bonds and to which my wife could transfer her old policy.  But the agent never switched the policy. He just opened a new policy in wife's name. Now, she ended up having two policies in place of one! Weeks later, when I questioned why the switch was not made, I was told that we had not signed the application form meant for that.  I asked the agent why he had not brought the form. He said that his company did not encourage any surrender or switch-over of policies since such acts would engender losses for the company.  He promised to bring the required form.  He never did.  But I won’t leave him.  I won’t leave the corporation called ICICI at least. 

Reliance did the same to me earlier.  They sold me another policy using another fraudulent method.  I have never managed to learn the devious ways of the corporate sector.
How many people bother to follow up their policies this way?   As long as we don’t follow up every minute detail, the private sector will keep cheating us.  The government sector took some bribes and did the job of giving whatever little they promised – just as the banks would do.  The private sector is swallowing us up alive.
Capitalism has failed in America and other countries.  Capitalism is all about profit and nothing else.  It can give us the latest technology which will, of course, keep changing so that we will keep buying and paying....Pay them!  That’s all what capitalism is about.
The latest one act play I wrote for my students is: Parivartan in the Palace.  One of the characters, a minister in the Palace, tells the King:
It’s because of the system, Your Excellency.  Change the system.  What do we know about the people?  We live in air-conditioned palaces.  We travel in air-conditioned vehicles.  Have you ever seen a poor man like this [points at Beggar], your Excellency?  Have you felt the pulse of his veins?  Have you experienced the love that flows in his blood?  Have you ever stopped to touch a person with love?  Even to smile at a person with concern?  What did we do?  We made economy the basis of everything.  Money, money, money.  What about relationships?  This is the parivartan that is needed, Your Excellency.  Build a system founded on relationships.”
Insurance is business.  It’s not about relationships. 
Every insurance policy of mine and my wife’s (excluding the LIC ones which didn’t promise any pie in the sky) is running at a loss as far as the clients are concerned.  That’s simple fact.  The tragedy is that they won’t ever give anything to the next generation except the lesson that you can cheat (your clients) and win (in business).
My view is that we should say good bye to the private insurance industry which simply steals our money... hoping like ourselves that we will stay alive long enough to pay them the premiums so that they will flourish.  And they will flourish on our money!


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Fullness of Life


One of the many paradoxes of human life is that many people who are overtly religious may have the vilest evils lurking beneath their overt behaviour. Such evils may never become manifest in external behaviour since they remain successfully suppressed by the religiosity of the person.  The same is true of morality.  Conversely, many people who are not overtly religious or moralistic may be much better at heart than those who display virtues in their external behaviour.
Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House, depicts this paradox. Ibsen died in 1906.  The play was originally published in 1879.  It is classical enough to grip our imagination and exercise our minds even today.
Helmer, the protagonist, is a morally upright person, a man of honour.  No one will accuse him of any fault.  Yet when his wife, Nora, leaves him in the end returning the wedding ring, he sinks into the chair crying “Empty!.”  It is his inner emptiness that he has to confront now, the exemplariness of his external behaviour notwithstanding.    
Nora’s mistake
Nora had borrowed a large sum of money from a moneylender in order to take her husband to Italy in accordance with his doctor’s advice.  Since Helmer would not agree to taking the loan, especially because he was not aware of the seriousness of his physical condition, Nora told him a lie that the money came from her father.  Moreover, she had forged her father’s signature as the surety on the bond.  She did it because her father was on the deathbed and could not sign himself.  She had no intention of cheating anyone, anyway.  She has been paying back the loan with whatever money she could save on dress and other items as well as doing some extra bits of work.  But the forgery comes back to sting her in the form of a blackmail when she refuses to do the favour of recommending the moneylender to her husband for a job.  She does her best to recommend him, but Helmer is too “honourable” a man to retain a “dishonourable” man in his bank.  In fact, the moneylender’s error had been committed long ago and could have been ignored since he had lived an “honourable” enough life afterward.  But Helmer had certain personal grouses too against the man.  Nora’s “dishonourable” act of forgery is now revealed. 
At this juncture, however, something good happens in the life of the moneylender.  His former love, who is now a lonely widow, returns to him in search of his and his motherless children’s love.  The moneylender decides to forego his vengeance on Nora. 
Helmer who was initially furious about Nora’s “dishonourable” deed is now ready to forgive her since the matter would not become public knowledge.  But Nora has to now live under his tutelage, learning lessons in “honourable” behaviour.  She chooses to walk out of his life altogether.  She had been living like a doll so far; first her father’s doll, and then her husband’s doll.  She had never taken life seriously, either.  Her oft-repeated utterance was: “It’s a wonderful thing to be alive and happy.”  And happiness, to her, meant wealth. A life with “heaps and heaps of money” and no anxiety was happy life, according to her.  She was happy with the attention paid to her by her husband and the sweet names he called her.  She was happy with whatever religion that the priests had taught her as a child.  And she had never realised that the law was not concerned about one’s intentions and motives. 
Now she realises that what she had done was legally wrong though she thinks of such law as “foolish.”  And she wants to understand whether the religion taught to her by the priests is indeed true for her.  She is on a personal quest for meaning in life at the end of the play.
Nora’s superiority
Nora will grapple with her unique self and its emotions.  She has confronted her inner emptiness and is ready to deal with it, unlike Helmer who still thinks of himself as “honourable.” 
Helmer and thousands (if not millions) of others like him remain spiritually empty because of the honourableness they have learnt to display in their external behaviour.  Such honourableness is only about appearances.  Even the moneylender turns out to be a much better human being who understands the value of love and relationships above “honourableness.” 
Nora will now ask herself: “Who am I?”  She has realised that she is not meant to be “a doll” and that life is not all about “heaps of money.”  The fullness of life comes from discovering or forging a harmony between one’s inner, deep psychological forces (emotions, urges, attitudes, etc) and the demands of the external life (family, society, and the very cosmos).  Such harmony is what makes one a superior individual. 
No wonder, G B Shaw became an admirer of Ibsen.  Shaw pursued this theme of superiority and created his superman later.  But Ibsen’s own countrymen had considered him immoral and mad!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Compromise. Pretend… and Succeed?



‘Should Wizard Hit Mommy?’ is a short story by John Updike.  It’s prescribed by CBSE as a lesson for class 12 students.  CBSE’s interpretation of the lesson is as silly as any interpretation can get to. 
The story is about a family.  Jack the father, Clare the mother, and Jo the daughter. Jo is just 4 years old.  Jack tells her the bedtime stories.  He also tells her stories on Saturday afternoons for her nap.
One Saturday afternoon he tells her the story of Roger Skunk whose problem is his stench which keeps other animals away.  He is not able to make friends because of his stench. The wizard solves the problem by transforming the smell into the fragrance of roses.
Jo is happy with the story and would have gone to sleep had it not been for Jack who was unhappy with the resolution of Roger Skunk’s problem.  How can a skunk smell like roses?  He won’t be a skunk.  His identity will be lost.
So Jack continued the story.  Roger Skunk’s mother took her boy back to the wizard, hit the wizard on his head with her umbrella, and demanded the smell to be changed back to a skunk’s.  The old wizard complied.  Jo protested.  Jack explained to her that a skunk had to smell like a skunk and the other animals would eventually understand it and accept him.  The world accepts us as we are.  [Not as what we pretend to be.  Not with all the compromises that we seem too eager to make.] (What’s given in the brackets is my addition and not part of the story.)
No, Jo persisted in her protest. She is too young to understand identity crisis, pretention and compromises. She wants her father to change the ending of the story.  The wizard should hit Mommy on her head and simply refuse to change the smell of roses.  Children love simple solutions, happy endings, easy happiness.
Jack is too weary to explain.  His wife is working hard downstairs.  He tells his daughter he would think of it and goes downstairs to see his wife, six months pregnant with their third child, working hard painting the furniture.  She is annoyed that he took such a long time telling a story to the child instead of coming down earlier to help her with the painting job. 
Jack stands immobilised, caught in “an ugly middle position.”  He does not want to speak to his wife, touch her...
That’s the end of the story.
CBSE’s interpretation as reflected in the “value points” given to examiners: it’s a story about generation gap.  The adult’s thinking is conservative in contrast with the child’s thinking.
My interpretation: it’s a story about pretention and compromises.  There are many places in the story where the author speaks about pretention.  For example, Clare pretending to be happy at cocktail parties.  Jo pretending to be happy with the resolution to Roger Skunk’s problem.  Later Jo again pretends when Roger Skunk does not have enough money to pay to the wizard. 
Pretention is the most common vice among the middle class.  Updike belonged to that class in America.  His character, Roger Skunk, is a representative of that class – indirectly through Jo.  The middle class always pretends.  They always pretend to be something other than what they really are.  They want to be fair, if they are not.  They want to have black hair, even if they have one foot in the grave.  They want to have blue lips, if green lipsticks are in fashion.  They are never happy.  Put them in Paradise, they will go looking for forbidden apples. And they will steal them.  Then they will blame the serpent for the stealing.  And then they will make a religion blaming the serpent.  They will create rituals for appeasing the terrible serpent.  God and serpent will make compromises.  Middle class compromises. 

Well, I really don’t go this far in my classes.  J
But I have seen the middle class thinking succeed with pretentions and compromises.  Always.  In my work arena.  In the “ugly middle position.”
Updike’s story has a title with a question mark.  ‘Should the Wizard Hit Mommy?’ 
Should he?
Who decides?
That’s literature.  It does not give the answer.  It raises the question(s).  It’s only we who can answer.  We, the readers.  Do we want to pretend?  Do we want to make compromises?  Does our success depend on those pretentions and compromises?  ...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Teaching – a cheap profession?


Teaching extends far beyond the classroom
A few of my students on the bank of the Ganga

The above ad appeared in today’s [10 Sep] Times of India (Ascent, the job vacancies supplement).  The school wants both teachers and “coaching experts.”  While the teachers will be paid a salary of Rs 22,000 per month, the coaching experts will be paid from “Rs 9 Lac to 12 Lac” annually.  Moreover, “Higher start can be considered for highly deserving candidates” in the case of coaching experts – but apparently not in the case of teachers. 
As a teacher I was amused by the discrepancy between the remunerations of a tutor and a teacher.  The job of the tutor (or coaching expert, as the ad calls him/her) is to prepare “students competing for Board Exams & for IIT, AIEEE, PMT, NDA etc.”
Why is there so much discrepancy between the remunerations, I wondered naturally.  Is it tougher to prepare students for competitive exams than teach them the subject, instil values in them and mould their personality, the latter of which is a teacher’s job?  In a residential school like mine, the teacher’s job is even more onerous; s/he has to provide counselling and guidance, spend time even in the night helping students with their studies as well as other activities (co-curricular and extra-curricular) and also help them solve their emotional and behavioural problems.  In addition, the teacher is to keep records of these activities as well as submit occasional reports on them to the Principal.  The teacher in a residential school like mine gets no extra benefit for providing the extra services!
Contrast this with the job of a tutor.  S/he has to teach the subject with the explicit goal of getting the students clear the competitive exam and nothing more.  But the tutor (expert?) is paid 4 times or more than a teacher.  Why?  This ‘why’ is what amuses me.
Is it because of the general perception that teaching is not a skilled profession?
George Bernard Shaw said in his characteristically scathing way, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”   The implication of Shaw’s statement is that teaching is a profession of the impotent.
In the beginning of my teaching career I agreed with Shaw.  I joined the profession when I failed to get any other job.  Having failed in many an interview, I came to the logical conclusion that I belonged to the group that Shaw labelled as “those who can’t.”  Eventually, however, I began to enjoy my job.  Later, when I got an opportunity to change the profession for a much more lucrative one (money-wise), I opted to stay put in my original profession.  Now, when people ask me why I don’t try to become a Principal or at least a Vice Principal, I say that I’m not interested in administrative jobs.  Teaching is my job.  Is it because I’m incapable of being an administrator?  Could be, I don’t deny that.  I don’t think I’ll ever learn the kind of manipulative strategies employed by administrators that I’ve been familiar with from the time I started working. 
But, I’d like to look at the situation in another way.  I enjoy the job of teaching.  I’m fairly passionate about it.  No other profession arouses such passion in me.  I also feel that I’m doing the job (of teaching) fairly well.  In other words, it’s not necessary that I am a teacher because I am not good for anything else, but because I am good for this particular job.
Isn’t teaching a skill just like, say, writing, engineering, acting, etc?  Teaching is, after all, not merely imparting knowledge.  It’s more about dealing with young individuals.  The patience it demands is not minuscule. 
Yet why does the profession remain so discredited?  Even teachers don’t seem to like the profession themselves.  Most teachers I know are happy to be promoted as administrators (coordinator, vice principal or principal).  Does that mean that these people became teachers because they couldn’t get any other job?  Is Shaw vindicated?
On the other hand, could it be that the meagre income derived from the profession makes it unappealing?  I’m inclined to think this is the real reason why teaching remains the last choice in the career preferences. 
Going one step further, I’d say that if the remuneration of teachers is enhanced better people (those who love the job) will enter the profession.  After all, the “noble task of nation-building” need not be a cheap endeavour.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

In the Land of Gods – 2

From NIM, Uttarkashi
“I’M IN MY PRIME, THERE’S NO GOAL TOO FAR / NO MOUNTAIN TOO HIGH,” says a quote from Wilma Rudolf, displayed on the campus of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) at Uttarkashi in the Uttarakhand state of India.    
Uttarkashi was the base camp of our Himalayan trekking simply because our tour manager has a resort in that place.  The resort consists of permanent tents which look like temporary ones.  The look is important.  We live in a world that gives much importance to looks.  The hospitality, however, was of 5-star standard.  The resort can indeed boast of a high standard.  My students were happy with the facilities provided there.  They love appearances.  Illusions are real at the age of 16 or 17.
Our bus backtracked from here
What I wanted, however, was the rough trekking and the challenge it would provide to my aging body.  We started our journey from the star-class resort in Uttarkashi toward Gangotri by the two buses that we had hired from Delhi.  One of the buses could not cross the narrow, rugged road in the mountains.  Our tour manager ordered for three Tata Sumos in its place and we continued the journey, and reached Gangotri by early evening. 
The trekking began on Wednesday morning after breakfast.  Our journey from Delhi had started on Sunday at 10.30 pm.  We had already travelled 500 km by bus– from our school to Gangotri. 
We were given packed lunch.  There was a roll of toilet tissue delivered along with the lunch packet.  “You’ll need this at Bhojbasa, our halt tonight,” said the tour manager as his men distributed the tissue rolls.  I had not imagined how much it would come in handy when I thrust the roll into my rucksack.
Bhojbasa is 18 km from Gangotri, at a height of about 12,000 feet from MSL.  We started ascending the trail after breakfast.  It was not a difficult walk, in fact.  If you walk at a steady pace, trekking of this sort is not very arduous.  You should have a mind that thinks that you are still in your prime even if you are not.  The mind works miracles.  The body is an illusion.
I found the trek interesting.  In fact, I could have reached Bhojbasa in about 3 hours.  But I took about 5 hours because I was bringing up the rear.  I reached along with the last group of students.  But I wanted to prove to myself something.  So I continued to climb after leaving all the students safely in the temporary tents set up by our tour manager and his assistants.  I was glad to get the company of an equally spirited colleague, Mr S K Sharma.  We walked together toward Gomukh.  Gomukh is just 4 km from Bhojbasa.  We walked and talked – both casually.  And we covered 3 km easily.  We would have reached Gomukh easily had it not been for the darkness that was setting in. 
The next morning we took our students to Gomukh.  In spite of the assurance given by two teachers who had crossed 50 years in age and had climbed three-quarters of the distance the previous evening, most students refused to climb any further than Bhojbasa.  One-third of the students chose to make the ascent. 
Real climbing has no short cuts.  But how many people actually want to climb REALLY?  We live in a world of short cuts.
Bhojbasa might have dispirited the students to some extent, especially since they have been used to extremely easy life since their birth.  Bhojbasa greeted us with freezing winds.  It was with much difficulty that we managed to put up the tents fighting against the wind and the frozen fingers.  A few students started vomiting due to the unfamiliar atmosphere.  Quite many had headache.  I too had a headache.  The revolt in my stomach was quite palpable too.  There were no toilets in Bhojbasa.  “The whole area is open to you,” said one of the waiters in the sick-looking “tourist home.”  The roll of toilet tissue gasped for breath in my rucksack.  I chose to ascend the mountain further rather than pull out the tissue roll.
A policeman came after Mr Sharma and me.  He had to make sure that we were not terrorists going at the odd hour toward Gomukh! 
Perhaps, what Gomukh needs is not a police force, but a set of toilets so that trekkers and pilgrims won’t desecrate the holy place in the morning.  I would suggest that the Uttarakhand government should construct some kind of accommodation in Bhojbasa and also restrict the number of trekkers and pilgrims.  The Himalayas deserve that at the least.

At NIM, Uttarkashi

Sunday, October 7, 2012

In the Land of Gods – 1

“Welcome to the Land of Gods” is a signboard that will greet you the moment you reach the Garhwal Himalayas.  What Arun Kolatkar wrote about Jejuri is quite true about the Garhwal Himalayas too: “what is god / and what is stone / the dividing line / if it exists / is very thin / at jejuri / and every other stone / is god or his cousin” (in the poem, A Scratch).
On my way to Gomukh from Gangotri
My recent trekking to Gomukh with a group of 35 students taught me quite many a lesson about gods of all hues including wealth.
We started our trekking from Gangotri soon after breakfast.  Gangotri, as the name implies, is (supposed to be) the origin of the holy river Ganga.  We had reached Gangotri a day before our trekking with enough time left for a wandering in the holy mount.  One of the places that caught our fancy during our wandering was the wooden cabin of a Baba (sage) who lives very close to the place where the Ganga spouted forth lustily through the gap between two rocks into what is now known as Suryakund, the erstwhile origin of the river.  The Baba calls himself Gangaputra (son of the Ganga).  He has a collection of “eight quintals” of photographs related to the Ganga.  He is constructing a museum near his cabin in order to display those photos. 
He admonished the students with me when they said they were on the way to attend the arati at the Gangotri Temple.  “Which goddess are you going to worship?” he asked.  “It’s a broken idol there that they are worshipping.”  The priests and others have converted the religion into a business, he explained.  He accused the students of being part of the whole commercial process sustained by the enterprise called trekking which pollutes the Ganga at its present source, Gomukh. 
The real origin of the Ganga was Gangotri, explained the Baba, showing pictures of the place before the glaciers started receding.  Now, you can trek up to Gomukh.  The Uttarakhand government  has even opened the trekking further where the glaciers still exist toward Tapovan and Nandanvan.  But the glaciers have vanished entirely up to Gomukh.  
Where will you get the holy water of the Ganga?  At Gomukh?
The Baba’s question stayed in my mind as I climbed the rugged and often dangerously narrow trail toward Gomukh the next day with a rucksack on my back.  I had imagined that the Baba was exaggerating when he spoke about the presence of human excreta in the Ganga right from Gomukh.  It is only when I reached Gomukh that I apprehended the veracity of his grievance.  The Baba’s remark was imprinted so strongly in my mind that I could not bring myself to jump into the Ganga from our raft in spite of the repeated solicitation from both the guide and my students while rafting in the river later at Rishikesh.  I was not afraid of the river.  I could have tolerated the blackness of the waters.  But the stench of human excreta wafted into my nostrils from Gomukh while I sat in the raft at Rishikesh (a distance of about 300 km between the two places), my chest smothered by the stinking life jacket and my brain throbbing beneath the plastic helmet.
While the arati was going on at the Gangotri temple, I watched my students talking to who knows whom on their mobile phones.  They had questioned me much on the way from the Baba’s cabin to the temple about the relevance of gods and religions.  They tended to joke rather than discuss.  The Baba had initiated no more spirituality in their minds than scatological scents in mine. 
The arati at the temple was a dramatic ritual for me. I liked it.  Religion should be dramatic.  It should have the potential to evoke what Aristotle called catharsis (purgation of emotions).  What I noticed at Gangotri was, however, mere spectacle (another Aristotelian term that means ‘show’ or the optical part of the ritual).  The Baba was right, I thought.  It was a broken idol that was being worshipped by people who were expending their excess wealth in sterile spiritual practices.
The Baba had cut down a whole range of trees in the mountain side in order to construct his museum.  “I’ve planted five trees for one that I’ve cut,” he said to us justifying his deed.  Where did he plant them, I wondered.  The whole range of the mountains that we trekked from Gomukh looked denuded.  Of course, they were the mountains that had been covered by snow once upon a time and cannot sprout life due to the rocky surface.  Now the snow has receded.  Human waste of all kinds including plastic has taken its place.  Will the Baba’s museum bring back the snow?  Will it at least reduce the waste ejected by human beings?  Will it take away the odour of human excreta from my nostrils? The mounts of excreta which I saw at Bhojbasa (the base camp for Gomukh trek), a place that has not even a single toilet though scores of trekkers gather every day there.

[This is the first part of my reflection on my trek to Gomuk. The entire journey from Delhi and back lasted a week, 30 Sep-7 Oct.]

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