“I’m not sinning. If Burton were doing what I am, it would be
sin.” Joseph Wayne, the protagonist of
John Steinbeck’s novel, To a God Unknown,
utters those words. He is referring to
his act of venerating a particular tree as sacred. He sees the spirit of his dead father in that
tree. His brother, Burton, is a
puritanical Christian for whom even the act of sex is a sin if it is indulged
in except for the purpose of procreation.
Burton thinks that Joseph is committing the serious, pagan sin of worshipping
Joseph tries to explain
away his love for the tree as a mere “game.”
But his wife, Elizabeth, understands that it is much more than a game
for him. However, she won’t condemn him
as a pagan. She knows that her husband
is a rare human being who has some peculiar qualities and proclivities.
Rama, her eldest sister-in-law,
had already told Elizabeth that individuals like Joseph were “born outside
humanity.” Such people are so human as
to make others seem unreal. Joseph is
compared to a godling with “strength beyond vision of shattering, he has the
calm of mountains, and his emotion is as wild as fierce and sharp as the
lightning and just as reasonless as far as I can see or know.... I tell you
this man is not man, unless he is all men....”
Spiritual belief is the fulfilment
of a psychological need. And the need
varies from individual to individual.
People like Burton want it all very formulaic and they follow the
written codes and canons strictly.
People like Joseph cannot find satisfaction except in the truths they
discover for themselves.
Christianity fails to
satisfy Joseph. “To Hell with my soul!”
he shouts at Father Angelo when the latter advises him that the soul should be
his primary concern. Joseph thinks that
the earth and all creatures on it including the trees and plants are his
primary concern. He had approached the
priest with a request to pray for rains.
Father Angelo knows Joseph
well enough to understand that the man is not unlike Jesus in some ways. But Joseph has no message to preach. Nor does he have any desire to be remembered
or to be believed in. “Else there might
be a new Christ here in the West,” says Father Angelo to himself.
Joseph’s view is that each
individual must discover his or her own God.
He encounters an old man on the hill who sacrifices an animal every
evening. He believes that he is
controlling the sunrise and sunset with the help of these sacrifices. But his reason tells him clearly that he
cannot control the sun in any way. Yet
he needs the belief for his own happiness.
Later when Joseph sacrifices a cow in the hope that he could control the
rain, he realises that neither can he control the rain nor can the sacrifice
bring him any happiness. “His (the old
man’s) secret was for him... It won’t work for me,” he concludes.
Burton leaves Joseph
unable to absorb the latter’s pagan ways.
But Burton has girdled Joseph’s sacred tree before he leaves. The tree dies. Joseph’s life becomes sterile. All the more so, because a series of
tragedies strike him. His beloved wife
dies in an accident. The drought kills
animals and plants on the ranch. His
eldest brother, Thomas, leaves the ranch with the remaining cows. Joseph does not listen to his advice to join
him. Joseph thinks he is an integral
part of the earth. Its sorrows are his
own. He perceives mystically that he is
the land and that he is the rain. He
decides to sacrifice himself for the sake of the earth. He cuts his veins on the wrist.
The rainclouds gather in
the sky. “I am the land,” he said, “and
I am the rain. The grass will grow out
of me in a little while.”
The people of the area
dance in the rain. Father Angelo gets
ready with his crucifix to go to the people and prevent their pagan fiesta
during which “They’ll be taking off their clothes... and they’ll roll in the
mud. They’ll be rutting like pigs in the
mud.” Soon he puts away the crucifix reasoning
that he wouldn’t be able to see the people in the dark. “I’ll preach against them on Sunday. I’ll give everybody a little penance,” he
decides. The last sentence in the novel
is given to Father Angelo who says, “That man (Joseph) must be very happy now.”
To a God Unknown is a novel that is largely about religious beliefs. It shows beliefs of various types. It shows that for most people belief is a
mere given thing which means nothing more than a few rituals and prayers. They don’t mind going back to the ancient
rituals when that’s more natural to them.
For a very few individuals
like Joseph, belief is beyond institutionalised religions and their
canons. They have their own personal
understanding of reality. Such
understanding transcends the notions of the good and the bad. It is non-judgmental. It is more Christ-like than the Christ of
Christianity, more god-like than the gods of most religions.
The only time I listened
to Tarun Tejpal speaking in public was when he was the chief guest on the
occasion of the Annual Day in my school five or six years ago. I loved his speech. He spoke on the importance of courage,
courage to question what’s wrong. It
was an inspiring speech, a really motivating one. It came from genuine convictions.
Tejpal’s magazine, Tehelka, has always reflected that
courage. The magazine has been
questioning a lot of wrong things in Indian politics. Tejpal had the courage to attack formidable
leaders like Narendra Modi. He brought
convincing arguments and evidences against people like Modi. I have a fair share of admiration for this
person called Tarun Tejpal.
The scandal that has
erupted is being blown out of proportion, I think. The media loves to report about the sexual fallibility
of people who have some reputation. It’s
true that Tejpal slipped; he did make a mistake. He admits it.
See his letter to the woman concerned:
I think the letter reveals
Tejpal’s characteristic courage. He acknowledges
his error and asks for forgiveness. I
don’t know if what Tejpal has said in his letter is the entire truth regarding
the matter. If it is, I would like to
see a happy ending to this affair. Sex
scandals are really boring affairs, all the more so when they are magnified.
laureate Toni Morrison’s first novel, The
Bluest Eye, is a challenging work.
It is a complex novel with multiple themes each of which is interwoven
with all others creating an intricate texture.
title reveals the dominant theme: dissatisfaction with one’s self and longing
for something that can make the self appear better. Pecola longs for the bluest eyes. She is a Black girl in America. It is not only the complexion of her skin
that bothers her but also the ugliness of her appearance. It is a perceived ugliness, to some
extent. Everybody in her family thinks
that he or she is ugly. Every one of
them “wore their ugliness, put it on, so to speak, although it did not belong
to them,” says the narrator.
environment – social, cultural and also the family – shapes one’s character as
well as perceptions to a great extent.
Living with a man like Mr Cholly Breedlove, Pecola’s father, the family
cannot but see themselves as ugly.
People like Mr Breedlove perverts everything that they touch.
novel is also the story of many other Blacks in America who have been perverted
by the racist society to some extent or the other. Geraldine’s and Mrs Breedlove’s obsession
with cleanliness is an example of such perversion. This obsession is a mere mask for their
dislike of their own people and their ways of being.
Micah Whitcomb, aka Soaphead Church, is one of the most perverted characters
though he is not an African American. He
is a West Indian. He has converted
religion into a convenient business. Using
that new religion of his, he claims to help people “Overcome Spells, Bad Luck,
and Evil Influences,” though he is a “misanthrope.” He helps Pecola materialise her longing for “the
bluest eyes.” What he does is the climax
of all the perversions in the novel. [Ironically,
in the novel, the more religious a person, the less loving he/she is.]
the perversions we see in the novel are products of an oppressive society. For the coloured people, survival in the
White Man’s world is a tremendous challenge.
Some like Pecola are broken by the oppressiveness. Perversions help others to go on. A few like the narrator and her sister make
it – by learning to be themselves and to love...
this novel is a difficult experience because of its narrative style and
structure. The experience can be a
rewarding one provided one has the patience and will power to plough through.
PS. I wouldn’t have read this novel
had it not for been a student who thrust his personal copy into my hand with
the request: “Please read it and tell me what it’s about; I can’t make head or
tail of it.”
The 6 year-old Jack and 4
year-old Jill had a small, little fight.
Jack felt guilty. “I’m sorry,” he
said hugging his sister very affectionately.
During the unexpected hug
Jill’s hand touched Jack’s little penis.
“What’s this thing you’ve got here?”
she asked groping Jack’s groin.
“That’s the pipe for
carrying urine,” said Jack.
“But I don’t have such a
pipe,” protested Jill.
“You’re a girly, silly.”
“Stop being stupid.”
Jill went to the kitchen
where mum was cooking dinner. “Why don’t
I have a pipe for carrying urine?” she asked.
“You’re not a boy,” said
“So what?” asked Jill.
“Only boys have the
“Why should boys have all
the fun?” asked Jill.
Mum looked into the living room. Pop was sitting there, his legs stretched out
on the tea poi and reading Vikram Seth’s Two
Lives. Mum and Pop, both, worked in offices. Both had to get up early in the morning. Both had to work their asses out in their
respective offices. But pop had the
free time to read novels. Mum was
supposed to continue her work in the kitchen. Mum had to get up a little earlier...
The urine pipe does make a
lot of difference, thought Mum. And boys
have a lot of fun with it. Girls should
Mum kissed Jill and said, “You’ll
understand it in time, darling.”
Later in the night Mum
asked Pop, “You don’t love me?”
“I’m tired, darling.” Pop turned the other way. Mum pulled the blanket from Pop’s side so
that she could at least have a good night’s sleep.
“Civilization is skin-thin: scratch it and savagery bleeds
out.” [Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Civilizations]
Nobel laureate William
Golding’s first novel, Lord of the Flies
(1954), tells the story of a group of school boys plane-wrecked on an
uninhabited island. The leadership of
the democratic and sensitive Ralph is soon usurped by the savage Jack, and
childhood innocence soon gives way to uncanny cruelty on the island. The novel is the story of evil in the human
being and his society.
Seeing that there are no
adults to restrain them, the children are initially excited. But Ralph emerges as a leader reminding them
of their responsibility to find ways of
returning home. Ralph is a moral character in the novel. His is a cultivated morality, the product of
human civilisation. Jack, on the other
hand, is the uncultivated savage. He
soon wrenches the leadership from Ralph and becomes a dictator who imposes both
his will and his savagery on the group.
Most of the children abandon Ralph’s benign leadership and become the
followers of the bullying Jack. Jack provides them “fun and games” like
hunting and mimicking hunting with one of the younger boys playing the role of
Simon is one of the few
boys who do not follow Jack. He is a saint of sorts to whom goodness
comes naturally. People like Simon do
good and only good not because of any external moral obligations but merely
because goodness comes to them naturally from within. Such people may not last in the world of normal
human beings. Simon is killed eventually
mistaken for the mysterious beast that was dreaded by most of the boys though
none had really seen it.
There really was no
mysterious beast on the island. But Jack
finds the myth of the beast useful for
establishing his reign on the island. He
becomes the saviour of the boys from the mythical beast. He sets up the head of a wild boar that they
had hunted on a stump as a ritualistic symbol for propitiating the mythical
beast. A cult
is born on the island. Thus Jack is now
not only a political ruler but also a religious leader. He is a tyrant, in fact.
In a world where the beast
is perceived as real, where fear is a dominating emotion, rules and morals are
ineffectual and they may even totally vanish.
Rules and morals work when there is a feeling of security. Where survival itself is in danger, power becomes the significant virtue. Jack provides the security of that
power. He assures the boys that he will
save them from the mysterious beast. He
constructs a religious cult with its own weird rituals.
Ralph and Piggy refuse to
join Jack and his gang. Piggy is soon
killed though it was Ralph who was the real target. Ralph flees in order to save himself.
Piggy is the intellectual, scientific thinker in the
group. The intellectual has no place
where myths and cults reign supreme, having created an environment of smouldering
fear. Jack’s boys steal Piggy’s
spectacles whose lenses were the only means for making fire on the island. Science is stolen from the scientist and is
misused by antisocial elements.
There really is no safe
place on the island where Ralph can take shelter from Jack’s gang. He is fortunate that a soldier, having seen the fire
set ablaze with the intention of killing him, lands on the island with his
parachute. The boys are saved.
Golding believed that evil was an integral part of human beings. Civilisation helps to keep it under
control. Morality, ethics and the
various rules and regulations keep the wild beast in man under chains and
whips. The beast resides within every
individual – with some exceptions like Simon who may not last long. Left totally free, the child too will reveal
fangs and claws. There is really nothing
like childhood innocence. Such innocence
is a transient dream. The reality within
the human being is a protean beast which can become various myths and assume
(1343-1400) said repeatedly in his widely studied Canterbury Tales, “Love of money is the
root of all evil.” How much can
we alter that statement today, six centuries later?
When Christopher Marlowe
(1564-93) made his unforgettable Doctor Faustus utter the following lines:
Had I as many souls as there be stars,
I’d give them all for Mephistophilis,
he created a character who
would be perfectly at home in our own time with all its plethora of sensual delights. Now, how evil are sensual
is foul, and foul is fair,” said Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) witches in Macbeth.
They were expressing something much more than an epigram on
hypocrisy or political chicanery. If we want, we can even apply
the epigram to many of the contemporary sensual delights.
We can apply that witchy
epigram, moreover, to a lot of things today.
The law today, for
example, protects the foul. Even in the
days of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), the law wasn’t any better. He said, “Laws are
like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break
Can you guess
who wrote the following lines?
“The different forms of government make laws, democratic,
aristocratic, or autocratic, with a view to their respective interests; and
these laws, so made by them to serve their interests, they deliver to their
subjects as ‘justice’ and punish as ‘unjust’ anyone who transgresses them…”
it about 2400 years ago in The Republic.
been no escape from evil for mankind. So
what’s to be done? Should Greek
philosopher, Epictetus (55-135 CE), be my inspiration?
was a slave, his master used to treat him with consistent cruelty. One day the master chose to entertain himself
by twisting Epictetus’ leg. “If you go
on,” said Epictetus calmly, “you will break my leg.” The master went on, and the leg was
broken. “Did I not tell you,” Epictetus
observed matter-of-factly, “that you would break my leg?”
The above is a real picture of the condition of school education in India. A front page report in the Delhi edition of The Hindu (13 Nov 2013) carries the photo from a teacher training institute in Dharwad. The institute (DIET) which trains primary school teachers has only one student, and 6 teachers. The previous batch had just two students.
The Times of India carries another report on the same day: 'Need Parenting Help? Call a Coach.' More and more parents are turning to experts for advice on how to deal with their children!
Why have children become such a problem that parents need expert advice
and teachers seem to be terrified of them - so terrified that teacher training institutes are running the danger of shutting down?
Nangeli was beautiful
beyond comparison. She flowed in the
veins of lustful men’s dreams like an intoxication. Even her marriage to Kandappan did not diminish
the number of her admirers.
“You are the pride of the
Ezhavas,” Kandappan murmured in Nangeli’s ears as he lay fondling the shapely
curves of her youthful body.
Kandappan and Nangeli
belonged to low caste of Ezhavas. They
were untouchables. But even the most
aristocratic Namboothiri longed to fondle Nangeli’s teasing breasts. The people of Nangeli’s caste were supposed to
stand at a distance of 36 paces from the higher caste people. But even
the men of His Majesty Sri Moolam Thirunal, King of Travancore, slept with Nangeli
in the darkness of their dreams.
When Nangeli walked, the
wild roses on the wayside blossomed and emitted the fragrance of musk.
called Neelan through his gasps.
Kandappan stopped ploughing the field and asked Neelan what the matter
“Nangeli! What happened to my Nangeli?” Kandappan abandoned the plough and bullocks
and rushed to Neelan.
“Nangeli is dead,” cried
Neelan was one of the
neighbours who had watched His Majesty Sri Moolam Thirunal’s Pravarthiar, village
officer, speaking to Nangeli outside her hut.
Pravarthiar had come to
demand the breast tax from Nangeli.
His Majesty the King, in
connivance with the Namboothiri priests, had imposed a tax on the low caste
women who refused to expose their breasts.
If the women wanted to cover their breasts they had to pay the breast
tax. The gods had decreed it, uttered
the Namboothiri priests solemnly. The
King could not overrule the gods.
Nangeli had refused to
expose her breasts to the ogling men.
She also refused to pay the tax.
“How can the King and the
Namboothiris decide which part of my body they want to see?” asked Nangeli when
Pravarthiar demanded the tax.
“The King rules over the
earth and the Namboothiris control the gods who rule over the heavens,” said
Pravarthiar as if that was an axiomatic truth.
“It is the King and the
Namboothiris who should pay me a lust tax,” declared Nangeli vehemently. “They make rules for their own pleasure and
convenience. Today it is breast
tax. Who knows whether they won’t impose
taxes on other parts of my body tomorrow?”
“You dare to challenge the
King and the Namboothiris!” Pravarthiar
was scandalised. “They are the gods on
the earth, your visible gods, you blasphemous wench.”
He threatened her with
capital punishment. But he was ready to
forgive her provided she offered him a vision of the pigeons that fluttered beneath
her breast cloth.
“Wait,” said Nangeli as
she walked into her hut. Soon she came
out with her sharp sickle and pulled off her breast cloth. Before Pravarthiar realised what was
happening, Nangeli’s breasts lay at his feet in a puddle of blood.
“Take them,” spat out
Nangeli. “And pay the tax yourself.”
When Neelan managed to
narrate what had happened, Kandappan sank to the ground with a sob that
reverberated in the heavens.
When Kandappan stood up
again, his cheeks were firm. He walked home
with steady steps.
With equally steady steps
Kandappan walked into the flames that engulfed Nangeli’s corpse. The fire spread to the heavens and burnt a
file in His Majesty Sri Moolam Thirunal’s palace.
Post Script: The place where
Nangeli lived came to be known as Mulachiparambu, literally ‘The Field of the
Breast-Woman’. The very next day of
Nangeli’s self-sacrifice, Sri Moolam Thirunal, the Maharaja of Travancore
(1885-1924), issued an order withdrawing the breast tax.
Sister Angela decided to
leave her religious calling and life in the convent.
“What makes you feel that
you have no vocation?” asked her Mother Superior for the umpteenth time. ‘Vocation’ in the Catholic parlance meant
‘God’s call to be a nun or a priest.’
Angela understood that she
would not be granted dispensation from her religious vows unless she gave her
reason for stepping out of the religious habit.
She wanted love, she said candidly.
Not the kind of abstract, spiritual love that Jesus and Mary and the
hundreds of saints offered her copiously.
She wanted real, human love.
Mother Superior was
shocked. How could a woman who had been
donning the religious habit for about a decade desire such a demeaning thing as
human love with all its vulgar passions and filthy acts and filthier body
It was now Angela’s turn
to be shocked. She had not meant sex
when she said love. Why did the Mother’s
thoughts go in that direction? Angela
Whenever she thought of
love, it was the face of Johnny that rose in her heart. Jesus had been superseded by Johnny.
“Johnny who?” asked Mother
Superior contemptuously. “You don’t mean
that silly young man teaching in our school?”
Angela merely looked at
Mother, helplessly and not without feelings of guilt. She felt as if she had committed a series of
fornications with Johnny. Hadn’t Jesus
said that whoever looked at a woman with lust in his heart had already
committed adultery with her? Didn’t this
apply to women as well?
No, no. I committed no such grave sin, she said to
herself. It’s his smile that I
want. Childlike smile. It’s his company and the conversations he
leads me into. Conversations about
writers and their books, ideas and questions.
“He is just a philanderer,
Angela,” said Mother Superior. “People
like him cannot love anybody except themselves.
If he engages you in conversations, it is because you flatter him by
being his ardent listener. Childlike
smile, you said. Yes, he is a child at
heart. Immature and silly. Childish, not childlike...”
Angela knew that the
Mother was not entirely wrong in her judgment.
Even she had felt time and again that Johnny had no feelings of love
Mother Superior spent a
few hours trying to make Angela understand the folly of her decision. But Angela was adamant; she wanted love,
Finally Mother Superior
understood that Angela’s decision was irrevocable. “Remember one thing, however,” said the
Mother in conclusion, “human love is far more complex and demanding than divine
Then came a very practical
suggestion from the Mother. “Why don’t
you invite Johnny here tomorrow? Say
that you have something important to tell him.”
The Mother advised her to
appear before Johnny just after taking a bath.
Wear a skirt and blouse. Let him
see a part of your lovely body. Stir the
man in him. Tell him with all your feminine
charm that you are leaving religious life in quest of human love. And see how he responds.
Angela thought it good
advice. She did just what the Mother
Johnny listened to her
with his usual childlike smile. “I wish
you all the best. I’m sure you will find
genuine human love...”
Human love is indeed very
complex, reflected Angela as she watched Johnny walk away having said his good
are the strategies employed by people who reach their level of incompetence,”
said Shyamsunder to his son, Manvender.
did people explode bombs near where Modi was speaking?” The 14 year-old
Manvender had asked.
and incompetence is reciprocal,” Shyamsunder went on. “Modi had exploded some bombs about a decade
ago. They are now coming back to him.”
was running a coaching institute for IIT aspirants (“and also for ordinary
students,” he would add with a sly smile) in Patna. He had a been a computer programmer for a
while in a private firm in Delhi. He had
to leave when the director of the firm, Mr Ram Kumar, had risen to his level of
to the Peter Principle, the corporate sector gives promotions to the staff
until they reach a position whose demands turn out to be beyond their
competence. Incompetence gives birth to
is not possible without some manipulation,” Mr Ram Kumar used to say when he
was the senior manager – before he was elevated to position of the director. He turned manipulation into a gospel. Soon sycophants attached themselves to
him. Sycophants are people who have
reached their levels of incompetence in their present area of work but believe
they can be superstars given a chance in another area. For catapulting themselves to that area of
perceived merit, they need support. Ram
Kumars and sycophants walk hand in hand, with a bomb in the other hand. They will let go the joined hand and trigger
the bomb in the other when the occasion is apt.
believed that he had been thus bombed by Ram Kumar. When Ram Kumar had been just one rung below
his level of incompetence, Shyamsunder was one of his protégés. Ram Kumar made use of Shyamsunder’s characteristic inclination
to talk through his hat. He pretended to
be letting out certain precious secrets and Syamsunder shared those secrets
with his colleagues in his own unique way imagining that he was winning friends
and supporters by doing it. But Ram
Kumar was actually using Shyamsunder to spread whatever rumours would help him
ascend the ladder of success to his level of incompetence.
tried my best to save you,” said Ram Kumar handing Shyamsunder his termination letter
a week after he had reached his level of incompetence. “The management thinks you are a serious
liability to the firm.”
Kumar explained that the management had decided to follow Professor Robert I.
Sutton’s ‘The No Asshole Rule’,
according to which all toxic staff had to be expelled for the wellbeing of the firm.
stood up with the termination letter quivering in his hand and said, “Mr Ram
Kumar, I want to tell you two things: one, you are ruining a person’s life
including that of his family; and two, pip pip.”
don’t forget to buy bombs for Diwali.”
Shyamsunder woke up from his reverie.
the evening when he joined his family to burst Diwali crackers, he put aside
the loudest crackers for the end. “Ram
Kumar bombs – for the climax,” he said to himself with a grin that neither his wife nor his children noticed.