Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Dr Ambedkar

Dr Ambedkar and Untouchability: Analysing and Fighting Caste
Author: Christophe Jaffrelot
Publisher: Permanent Black, Delhi, (2005)
Pages: 205
Price: Rs250 [2009 edition]

There’s an idiom in Malayalam which may be translated as: Unable to swallow because it’s bitter and unable to spit out because it’s sweet.  Dr B R Ambedkar was one such man in Indian history.  Right from Gandhi through Nehru, Rajendra Prasad and Madan Mohan Malaviya down to Arun Shourie, quite many people had serious problems with Ambedkar.  Shourie even went to the extent of writing a book, Worshipping False Gods: Ambedkar and the Facts which have been Erased (1997). 

On the other hand, even right wing organizations and political parties such as RSS and BJP have tried to co-opt Ambedkar into the Hindu pantheon of great leaders. As Christophe Jaffrelot says in his book under review, “On the one hand it [BJP] praises Ambedkar, the symbol of the Dalit movement because it cannot alienate the lower castes... On the other hand, it tries hard, as exemplified by Arun Shourie’s writings, to tarnish Ambedkar’s reputation.”

Jaffrelot’s book is a well-researched and fairly objective study of Ambedkar’s contribution to the emancipation of the Untouchables in India. 

Did Ambedkar really achieve anything significant for the Dalits?  He never found “a clear-cut and definitive answer” to the question whether the Untouchables are ‘separate’ from the rest, or whether they can be integrated into Hindu society through alliances with other, higher, castes.  He seriously considered the options of converting along with the Dalits to Christianity, Islam or Sikhism, before choosing Buddhism. 

In his 1936 speech in Bombay, Ambedkar said that his aim was freedom for the Untouchables and not reformation of Hinduism.  “If we can gain freedom by conversion, why should we shoulder the responsibility of the reform of Hindu religion?  And why should we waste our energy, time, labour and money on that?”
From the book - click to view large
Yet both before and after the delivery of that speech, Ambedkar tried to eradicate the caste system from Hinduism.  He did not get the required support, however.  Even Gandhi was opposed to Ambedkar’s views on caste system.  The Mahatma even went on a fast when Ambedkar insisted on separate electorates for the Untouchables.  Gandhi did not wish to upset the caste system merely because doing so would “create division among Hindus so much that it will lead to bloodshed.”  [Ambedkar was the only Indian politician whom Gandhi contested by resorting to a fast, Jaffrelot reminds us.]

Ambedkar relented not because of Gandhi’s fast but because M C Rajah, another leader of the Untouchables, told him that Gandhi’s death would turn the whole “Hindu community and the whole civilised community” against the Untouchables who would then be kicked “downstairs further still.”

Later, while drafting the Constitution, Ambedkar tried to bring a Uniform Civil Code in the country instead of many religion-based systems.  When some Muslim leaders expressed concerns about the fate of Sharia, Ambedkar asked “why religion should be given this vast, expansive jurisdiction, so as to cover the whole of life.”  He asserted the Indians’ liberty “to reform our (religion-based) social system, which is so full of inequities, discriminations and other things, which conflict with our fundamental rights.”

When Ambedkar tried to reform the Hindu laws, he faced stiff opposition from Rajendra Prasad, Patel, Congress President Pattabhi Sitaramayya and other eminent Congressmen.  Only Nehru supported him.  But when the Hindu Code Bill was finally presented on Sep 25, 1951, it was buried “without Nehru uttering a word of protest.”  Ambedkar resigned from Nehru’s government two days after that.

Jaffrelot’s book is a very illuminating study of Ambedkar’s earnest attempts to emancipate the Untouchables.  In the first chapter of the book the author gives us Ambedkar’s biography in brief but with a lot of insights into the background (historical, family as well as caste) that made Ambedkar what he was.  Towards the end of the book there is also a brief critique of Shourie’s opinions.

The book is a scholarly work which is eminently readable and very enlightening. 

Acknowledgement: Thanks to one of my students who brought the book from his home after the summer vacation thinking that I would enjoy reading it.  I did enjoy reading it.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Farewell to a Friend

This is a season of farewells for me.  I have lost count of the persons who have already left or are being hauled up before the firing line by the Orwellian Big Brother in the last quarter of the year.  The person, to whom we bid farewell today, however, had chosen to leave on his own.  He is going as the Principal of R K International School, Sarkaghat, Himachal Pradesh.

Mr S K Sharma was a colleague and friend.  He belongs to the species of human beings whose company enriches you and whose departure creates a vacuum, notwithstanding the fact that Nature which abhors vacuum will fill it in its own unique ways. 

Administration is an art for Mr Sharma, though he calls it a skill.  Management lessons, strategies and heuristics are only guidelines.  No one can manage people merely with the help of these guidelines.  People are not machines which can be controlled mechanically.  Machines work according to rules.  People do not do so usually. 

“... intelligent, alert people rarely carry out instructions exactly to the letter.  They always modify and interpret them...,” says Fritjof Capra in his book, The Hidden Connections [2003].  He goes on to say that “Strict compliance can only be achieved at the expense of robbing people of their vitality and turning them into listless, disaffected robots.” 

I don’t know whether Mr Sharma was aware of cognitive science from which Capra drew his conclusions.  But I know that Mr Sharma put these ideas to good use in managing the hostel under his charge.  I was also part of the same hostel as teacher-counsellor.  I don’t remember Mr Sharma ever telling me what to do and what not to do as part of my duties.  He let me decide those things and carry out my job in my own way.  If there was any specific work to be done by me, he would put the matter before me in such a way that it would appear that he was doing me a favour.  That was a unique skill he possessed.  A lot of work can be extracted from people very easily this way rather than by issuing orders and diktats. 

He did something quite similar with the students under his charge too.  Democracy ran mellifluously in his veins.  He knew how to get the students to do what he wanted them to do by involving them in the decision-making process.  Since the students were of the senior classes they were mature enough to understand and play by the unwritten rules that the very personality of Mr Sharma scripted.

“Never create a problem where there is none by imposing ourselves on the students,” Mr Sharma used to say again and again.  Getting things done without those impositions was his style of managing people.  Its secret lay in understanding each person, whether it be a colleague or a student, his/her potential as well as limitations, likes as well as dislikes. 

It does not mean, however, that Mr Sharma was lenient.  Far from it, he was very rigid when it came to matters of his convictions and principles.  He wouldn’t budge an inch on them.  Many of his students will remember the taste of his palm on their cheeks or backs.  Physical punishment was not entirely out of his syllabus although it was illegal.  But no student ever complained about those punishments.  When a student gets a punishment that is well deserved, there are no complaints.

Mr Sharma was a lover of adventure.  I climbed the 10,000-feet high Hemkhund with him (along with a group of students) in 2004.  Last year when he asked me to join his Gaumukh trek (13,000 feet, an 18-km trek from Gangotri) I hesitated.  I doubted whether my flesh was strong enough though my spirit was willing.  Mr Sharma had his own way of getting me in the group.  He knows how to get what he wants.  When I completed the trek, I was glad that he got me in the group though it was quite against my own wish.

We reached the base camp at Bhojbasa in late afternoon after the daylong arduous trekking.  Freezing winds howled in the air and penetrated through our jackets into the marrow of our bones.  I was shivering.  There were no buildings to take shelter.  Our guides, along with the students, were setting up the makeshift tents in which we would spend our night. 

“Shall we go for a walk?” asked Mr Sharma looking at my sullen face.  I was really furious with him for bringing me to such a place.  “Yeah,” I said.  “A walk my keep me alive; I’m freezing to death,” I said.  And our walk took us almost near the place where we were to climb the next morning along with our students.  Thus Mr Sharma and I created a record of sorts climbing the final 4 km of Gaumukh twice during the same trek. What’s more, I learnt that my flesh was not as weak as I had imagined.

Later Mr Sharma told me, “There, in Gaumukh, I saw a different face of yours which I had never seen earlier and had not even imagined.”  I remembered how I had uttered a thoroughly negative remark in front of a few students about the freezing weather.  Mr Sharma was referring to that.  I had already realised my mistake and was feeling remorse about it.  I shouldn’t have made such a remark before the students.  But the way Mr Sharma called my attention to the error touched me.

Mr Sharma and I belong to the opposite poles when it comes to the two jobs: teaching and administration.  I love teaching and hate administration.  Mr Sharma loves administration and is not particularly fond of teaching though he was both a teacher and a House Master.  Now he is going to be a fulltime administrator.  I know that he will be an excellent administrator. Because he is one of the few administrators in my life who did not see me as a pain in the posterior. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Pappu Grows Wiser

Suddenly Pappu remembered.  His English teacher had given him a project.  He had to write 5 sentences about his grandfather or grandmother, about their likes and dislikes.  So Pappu ran into grandpa's room.

Grandpa was dyeing his hair.  Why should a 65 year-old man dye his hair?  Pappu was a precocious child.  Though he was studying in class 5 some of the questions that rose in his mind belonged to class 10.

"Grey hairs are a sign of maturity and wisdom," explained Grandpa with a mischievous grin.  "I possess neither of them.  That's why I'm dyeing my hair."

The next morning, as soon as the school bus dropped him on the campus, Pappu ran to Matheikal Sir, one of the teachers in the school, and asked, "Sir, why don't you dye your hair?"

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Why do good to others?

“Most people would rather die than think and most people do,” said Bertrand Russell in his characteristic witty way.  Professor of Philosophy and author of many books, A C Grayling, is of the opinion that religion has continued to survive even in today’s scientific world because people don’t want to think.  They would rather accept readymade answers given by religion.  God is the ultimate readymade answer for a whole lot of problems.  And a very easy answer too.

If we really think and evolve our own moral systems instead of borrowing them from religion, we will be far better human beings, says Grayling in his latest book, The God Argument.  If we think sensibly (common sense would do if we cared to use that faculty), we will realise that we all have a duty to contribute to the welfare of the entire human species.  The simple logic is that when the species is “flourishing” (Grayling’s word) we too flourish. 

When we ignore the welfare of the other members of the species, we indirectly inviting problems for ourselves.  For example, when we allow others to be victims of injustice or other such maladies of any social system (though not created by us), the victims of such a malady may eventually become a problem for us too – “in the way of crime, revolution, conflict or breakdown of the social order.”  Maoism in India, for instance, is largely a product of an unjust socio-economic system.

If every one of us thinks with what Albert Camus (philosopher and Nobel laureate novelist) called “intellectual honesty”, religion will be redundant and there will be much, much less evil in the world.  But I’m left wondering which is at a greater premium: intellect or honesty?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Saga of Warrior

Short Story
When they killed my husband, it was the spirit of undaunted daring and unfailing love that was murdered.
You romanticise the love that Shahjahan bore for Mumtaz because he erected that mausoleum called Taj Mahal in memory of his supposedly unfailing love for Mumtaz.  But Mumtaz was just one among the many wives and concubines on whose bosoms Shah Jahan expended his lust night after night.  Your historians will romanticise the heroism of many a ruler just because they went far and wide marauding and massacring.
My husband may find no place in such histories.  But he was a genuine hero and romantic lover, a rare combination.  He fought the battles of life more bravely than any conqueror.  He loved me passionately, more than any Mughal emperor loved any of his women.
Yet the universe conspired against him just as mediocrity conspires against the genius.  He was subjected to so many deaths.  Deaths in life. 
Khusru, my beloved, was also the beloved of the greatest Mughal emperor, Akbar.  The strong love the strong.  The genius loves geniuses.  Akbar loved his grandson, Khusru, more than he could ever love his own son, Salim.  But Salim succeeded his father to the throne through a heinous conspiracy against my husband. That was the first assassination of my husband by the universe.
Murad and Daniyal, Akbar’s younger sons, had killed themselves at tender ages with their addiction to opium.  Salim too was an addict and remained one till the end of his wretched life.  But the opium did not kill him.  You could see death in his eyes.  There was weakness in his eyes.  And the weak are cruel.  Salim was cruel beyond imagination.  The weak are manipulative too.  Cunningly manipulative. 
Salim’s weakness craved for power.  The weak love political power.  He led many a revolt against his own father, only to realise bitterly that he was no match for the great Akbar.  His mother, Man Bai, a shrewd woman who wanted to rule the empire through her only surviving son, killed herself when the court had become a snake pit of conspiracies.  She chose her younger sons’ way to death: opium.  She had learnt the bitter truth that her elder son was no better than the younger ones.
But she was wrong.  Salim did become the emperor.  Ironies accompany the royal life just like the plague accompanies filth.
It was not Salim who manipulated the events at the time of Akbar’s death, however.  After Man Bai’s death, Akbar’s senior wives wriggled in the pit like snakes in the mating season.
They mated with the ministers and commanders.  Intrigues flourished in their wombs. 
Akbar was in his death bed like a new born infant.  Where did his glory go?  Where did the power vanish?  Oh, Akbar the Great, where did your greatness disappear?
The women came impregnated with schemes to Akbar’s death chamber.  They whispered in his ears.  Their words were poison.  The poison transformed Salim into Jahangir. 
One of the first things that Salim did after becoming Jahangir was to order the imprisonment of Khusru.
Salim imprisoned his own blood.  Opium flowed in his veins.  Khusru was confined to a gloomy chamber in the palace, with me as his only companion.  The weak and cruel Salim ruled the country, while the real hero walked restlessly in a little chamber with only his wife to utter words of consolation.
And then began the next assassination of Khusru. Jahangir’s sycophants started rewriting history.  They wrote the most vile things about Khusru.  Khusru became a characterless man in their chronicles.  They wrote that Khusru had inherited the deficiency from his mother.  Hadn’t she committed suicide?  Hadn’t his two brothers killed themselves with opium?  
History is replete with blunders written by sycophants.
Khusru stopped calling Jahangir ‘father’ and started addressing him as ‘bhai’, brother. 
One day Khusru requested Jahangir bhai to let him visit his grandfather’s tomb in Sikander near Delhi.  Jahangir was never intelligent enough to understand Khusru and so the permission was granted.  Soon Khusru reached Lahore along with his supporters.  Many leaders of the Chugati and Rajput clans extended their support to Khusru.  They knew that Khusru was worth a thousand Jahangirs. 
But Jahangir acted with a swiftness that could not have been expected of an opium addict.  Dilawar Khan was sent to Lahore to deal with Khusru.  Dilawar reached Lahore from Agra in just eleven days; no mean feat, it should be said.  A 50,000-strong army was deployed in Agra to encounter Khusru and his supporters.
Finally the battle took place on the bank of Ravi.  It was raining cats and dogs and the soldiers fought in a soup of mud. 
Khusru was defeated. His soldiers and commanders were impaled alive on stakes erected on either side of the streets.  Hundreds of brave men writhed in agony on the stakes.  Their blood made a pool in the streets.  Khusru was led along that pool of blood, forced to see his men dying in worm-like wriggles.  Even the Sikh Guru, Arjan Dev, was executed just because he had blessed Khusru while he was on his way to Lahore.  Poor Arjan Dev, he was just fulfilling a courtesy. 
Your cruelty is directly proportional to the weakness of your character.
Jahangir was not satiated with all that cruelty.  He asked a soldier to pierce Khusru’s eyes with a metal wire. 
Khusru did not utter a sound as the metal wire nicked his vision like an ant eating into a piece of cake.  Bit by bit.  Slowly. 
Khusru was then thrown into a dungeon.  With me as his only companion.
Jahangir soon felt remorse.  Or was he trying to gain some popularity among the people?  He knew how much the people admired and loved Khusru.  He asked the royal physician to restore Khusru’s vision.  The physician tried his best.  Khusru did not regain his vision, but he could just see shadows.  I was his abiding shadow.  The other shadows that came and went could not be trusted.
Khurram was one such shadow.  He was Jahangir’s son too.  Unlike his father, Khurram was brilliant as a general of the army and very ambitious.  When Jahangir asked the royal physician to restore Khusru’s vision, Khurram knew that the old man’s heart was too weak for an emperor.  What if he handed down the empire to Khusru? 
The empress Nur-Jahan was another shadow in Khusru’s derelict world. There was no love lost between her and Khurram.  She was both suspicious and afraid of him. In order to keep Khurram far from the throne, Nur-Jahan hatched a plan.
“Marry my daughter from my first marriage,” she told Khusru.  “She is still beautiful like the melons in our garden.  She sparkles like the waters of the Yamuna.  In return for this marriage, I’ll give you freedom.  Nay, I’ll give you power.  Yes, you will succeed to the throne after His Majesty’s reign comes to an end.  Who can offer you a better deal than this?”
Khusru knew that the promises were not hollow.  Nur-Jahan had the sagacity to carry out the necessary manipulations in the court.
“Why don’t you speak?” asked Nur-Jahan.  “Say something.”
“You may leave us,” was Khusru’s answer.
“I want an answer immediately,” said Nur-Jahan imperiously.
“I refuse to have any woman other than this in my life,” said Khusru hugging me close to him. 
“Is that your final decision?” asked Nur-Jahan rising imperiously.
“Final and irrevocable,” said Khusru imperially. 
Nur-Jahan did not waste time.  She plotted and manipulated.  She conjured and contrived.  Finally Khusru was handed over to Khurram. 
Khurram became Shahjahan.
Shahjahan ordered Khusru to be transferred to Burhanpur in the Deccan.  And there, far away from the people who adored Khusru as a hero, they killed him.  They attacked him in the middle of the night.  Khusru drew his sword and fought like a warrior unto the last.
My warrior is dead.  My hero is dead.  Let Shahjahan live and rule to his heart’s content.
And erect mausoleums to perpetuate the memories of his banality.
Now I am an old woman.  Every wrinkle in my skin carries the memory of Khusru, still afresh. 
History in brief:
1600 – 1605    : Salim (Jahangir) led many revolts against Akbar
May 1605        : Man Bai commits suicide
28 Aug 1605   : Akbar dies – Khusru is 18 years old
2 Nov 1605     : Salim anointed emperor, assumes the name Jahangir
15 Apr 1606    : Khusru escapes to Lahore
27 Apr 1606    : Battle between Khusru and Jahangir
1616                : Nur-Jahan’s conspiracies and Khurram’s ascent
Jan 1622          : Khusru is killed
The citizens were appalled to hear about Khusru’s murder and there were loud cries for vengeance.  Jahangir was more angry with Khurram for concealing the murder from him than for the murder itself.  In order to placate the people, Jahangir ordered Khusru’s body to be exhumed and brought to Allahabad where a magnificent mausoleum was erected next to his mother’s.  The place has since come to be called Khusraubagh.  In the story, I have telescoped the time between Khurram’s struggle for power and his becoming the emperor Shahjahan.

A personal note:  I wrote this story 3 years ago when I read an article in The Hindu Sunday Supplement.  I'm posting it again because I feel this story has become more relevant in my personal life.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The King orders his tomb

Short Story
The King was acutely aware of the smallness of his stature.  In fact he was the smallest man among all his adult citizens.  Even the queen stood half a foot taller.  He sought to solve the problem by making his crown as tall as possible so that the crest of the golden crown would stand above the heads of his citizens if at all he would ever come into contact with them.   
A king cannot live without ever coming into some contact with some people.  Every such contact made the King feel small.  He tried to masquerade the smallness with self-flattery.  “I am very popular among the citizens, aren’t I?” he would ask his ministers.  Or, “How was the cultural show I arranged last evening?”  “Isn’t my new robe designed by Christian Lacroix a marvel?”  Ministers are people who have mastered the art of diplomacy and self-flattery invariably loves to call a spade a clade.  Nevertheless there is an awareness that lies deep beneath the surfaces of flattery and diplomacy which wiggles and wriggles occasionally and even painfully.
Prompted by some such squiggly wiggle King decided to change his Prime Minister.  He would only have a man shorter than him in height as the PM.  The King’s wish is an order.  The courtiers soon found out a man shorter than the King.  He was a dwarf.
Standing beside the dwarf the King felt himself very tall.  The feeling of tallness became excitement when the King realised that his new PM was more intelligent than the one who was superannuated prematurely. 
“Who built the Taj Mahal?” asked the new PM.
“Shah Jahan, of course,” answered the King condescendingly.
“Wrong, Your Majesty.  20,000 labourers, many brought in from Iran and Central Asia built the monument.  Shah Jahan merely sat with one wife or the other and drank vintage wine and ate Mugalai chicken.”  Dwarf laughed merrily.  “That is the art of management, Your Majesty.  You sit down and relish the riches lavished on you by the Almighty and make others work.”
The King looked down with stupefaction at the man who was half a metre in height.  Is intelligence quotient inversely proportional to physical height, he wondered.
“I want to keep the mouths of all intellectuals and critics shut for ever,” said the King as if he was suddenly inspired.  “Give me an idea that works.”
“Make them the 20,000 labourers who will build a monument for you, Your Majesty.  They will have no time for talking and you will earn the fame of their work.  History belongs to those who enslave others.”
Thus the King ordered his own tomb.

Note: The story was partly inspired by Robert Browning’s poem The Bishop Orders His Tomb.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Bagpipe Music of a Scarecrow

It’s no go the Yogi-Man, it’s no go Blavatsky,1
All I want is a pack of cigars, and a pint of whiskey
When the evening is spread out against the sky2
Like a penitent bereft of his heavenly pie.

Sorry, Descartes, I think, but I do not exist;
Sorry, Bergson, I exist, but I do not change.
Standing at the crossroads of life’s mid-way
I look like a scarecrow scared of crows,
Baffled by the tumbling turns of the tide,
The flaming sword of Eden’s cherub onward
To the battles and wars men fought with men:
His own God’s own men, in the widening gyre.3

It’s no go the bodhisattva, it’s no go the Mahatma,
All they want is a bank balance, and a bit of sadhana
On weekends to appease the thirst of the spirit
That’s superannuated on a computer’s digit.

Do not go gentle into that good night, my son,4
Coat your lollipop with iron and your heart with chocolate,
Fold your arms to the white of the priest’s habit,
Shake your hand with the blah-blah of your nation,
Do your job and hang your hat on a bomb,
And wait in patience for the extreme unction.
The hourglass distils sand dunes in a desert
And waits for an avalanche to descend the mount.

It’s no go Lord Jesus, it’s no go the Prophets,
All we’ll do is to nail you on our profits
And fall on our knees, content and worshipful,
And await our heaven and the fattened bull.

1.      Louis MacNeice,  The Bagpipe Music
2.      T.S.Eliot, ‘The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock
3.      William Butler Yeats, ‘The SecondComing
4.      Dylan Thomas, ‘Do Not Go Gentle IntoThat Good Night

Further Notes
The above is an expurgated version of a poem I wrote about 20 years ago.  A brief conversation that took place today among four persons including me reminded me of this poem.  I had expressed my view that most religious people use religion as a mask for concealing their misdeeds if not crimes.  People who do not believe in God and know why they don't are usually honest in their thoughts and deeds.  It is because they are honest that they find it difficult to believe in God.  Such people tend to do good to others while the religious people tend to exploit others.  More interestingly, such religious people focus on the beauty of the pronunciation in recitation of prayers more than the spirit of the prayer!

If I were to write this poem today it wouldn't be the same, the expurgation notwithstanding.  Twenty years cannot pass without altering one's attitudes in many ways.  But I wished to revisit this poem because the conditions which forged it are very similar to those that I'm experiencing now.  

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...