Monday, June 30, 2014

Action, Reaction & Secularism

A K Antony
Mr A K Antony’s recent remark that the appeasement of minority communities by the Congress party has led to its disgraceful defeat in the last general elections may generate some debate in the country.  However, it is not only the Congress but also many other political parties in the country that should take an introspective look at themselves vis-√†-vis their attitude towards religions.  

One of the greatest tragedies in independent India has been the misuse of religion by its politicians.  The catastrophic misuse started even before Independence and the British imperial government’s divide-and-rule policy added the necessary fuel to the fire. 

The vision embodied in the Constitution of India with respect to religion is very noble indeed.  It respects every religion and allows the citizens to follow the religion of their choice or not follow any.  What happened from the time of Indira Gandhi onward has been disastrous for the country, however.  After her rout ensuing the Emergency, Ms Gandhi viciously made use of religion in order to come back to power.  She made “detours to visit numerous places of worship, call on saints of all denominations,” as reported by Ramesh Chandran (Illustrated Weekly of India, 5 Nov 1978).  And was she successful!

Indira Gandhi had started communalising Indian politics in the early 1970s.  In 1969, the Congress had split and in order to gather the support base for her faction [Congress (I)] Ms Gandhi started appealing to the lower castes.  Garibi Hatao became the party’s election motto in 1971.  The election manifesto of the party promised much to the lower castes including the formation of a Backward Class Commission.

Eventually the backward classes and certain minority religious communities became the vote banks of the Congress party.  Many other parties learnt the lesson and started appeasing different religious groups and castes in their own ways.  Many of the contemporary leaders in different states achieved success by playing the same tricks that Ms Gandhi made use of in her own way. 

The sad truth, however, is that not many of the people of India gained anything by all the reservation policies, Backward Commissions, and other such political gimmicks.  The poor in India continued (and still continue) to be poor – with some exceptions, of course.  It is only the politicians who really benefited from all the communalisation of Indian politics.

The BJP’s demands for Ayodhya Temple, its anger against the reservation policies and other forms of minority appeasement, and other demands such as for Uniform Civil Code were all reactions to what the Congress and other political parties were doing.  The majority obviously felt left out because of the political games played in the name of minorities and backward castes.  So the majority had to play their own games.  Rath yatras and riots became part of those games.  Gujarat 2002 is still fresh in our collective memory. 

Memory mixed with desire can stir dull roots with new life, as T S Eliot wrote in his poem, The Waste Land.  Memories and desires worked together in the 2014 general elections.  Every action in human affairs has a reaction, not merely equal but more emphatic.   

Mr A K Antony has been honest enough to acknowledge this history of actions and reactions in Indian politics of the last half a century.  It is not only the Congress that should sit down for some serious introspection.  Almost every political party in the country is guilty of the same crime: communalisation of politics.  Perhaps, Antony’s confession can lead to some cleansing in the Augean stables of Indian politics.  And liberate secularism from the clutches of vested interests of all kinds.

Saturday, June 28, 2014


When my problems bogged me down, I approached Guru.

“No one, not even God, can solve your problems unless you want to solve them yourself,” said Guru.

“But…” I was shocked.  I went to him for help because I wanted to solve my problems, didn’t I?  Why is he speaking as if I didn’t want to solve my problems?

Most people are in love with their problems,” Guru said as if he had read my mind.  “The drug addict, for example, loves drugs and don’t want to leave them though he may say he wants to kick the habit.  What withholds him from kicking the addiction is precisely what led him to the addiction.”

“A sense of emptiness?”  I asked because I had faced that sense time and again. 

“Is there anything better than emptiness in life?” asked Guru.  “Weren’t all the Mahatmas searching for emptiness?”

“People can’t bear emptiness,” I blurted out.

“Precisely.  That’s why they fill their life with things.  And when things fail to satisfy the real inner need, they look for alternatives like drugs.  And drugs perplex your neurons.  Upset your consciousness.  You find yourself in somebody else’s shoes.  You enjoy that.  You enjoy walking in somebody else’s shoes without any obligations.”

Being in somebody else’s shoes without any obligations is a wonderful idea, I thought.  It’s a kind of transmigration of the soul. 

“Escapism,” said Guru.  “People want to escape.  Though there really is nothing to escape from.  Ultimately we have to fall back to the same reality which is nothing but the world before you and its demands.”

“Which is very mundane,” I thought aloud.

“The world is mundane.  What else do you expect?  Haven’t you learnt history?  Have you seen paradises or utopias opening up anywhere though your leaders may have promised them in their election manifestoes time and again?  2014 CE is no different from 2014 BCE.  Except for the attachments like electricity and gadgets supported by it.  But the social structure was the same now and 4028 years ago.”

I got stuck with that number 4028.  But I realised soon that if I added 2014 CE and 2014 BCE I would get 4028 as long as I didn’t think like a mathematician for whom pluses and minuses neutralise one another.  I also realised that the Egyptian pyramids were constructed more than 4028 years ago.  The Indus Valley Civilisation originated more than 4028 years ago.  The Greek civilisation can take us far beyond 4028 years.  Civilisations.  Were those people any worse than us?  They too worshipped some gods, drank wine, built monuments or whatever they thought were great, some enslaved some others ...

How are we different from them?  Except that we built better gadgets?  As time goes forward we will build still better gadgets.  Will the world be any better?

“Will man be any better?  That should be the question.”  Guru has a way of interrupting my thoughts.

“Know you are a master, and you are one,” continued Guru.  “Know you know the answers to your problems, and you get the answers.”

Otherwise you search for answers in granite gods or preaching Babas or tranquilising drugs, I thought.

“No one can solve problems of someone who looks for solutions outside,” said Guru. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Conservatism and Modernity

Tradition without intelligence is not worth, said T S Eliot.  The word tradition brings to my mind the celebrated movie The Fiddler on the Roof.  Tevye, the protagonist, tried his best to stick to his religious traditions, but the reality overtook him at every step.  Finally, having given away each of his three daughters in marriages that went against his "tradition", he has to leave his home too because of the persecutions against the people of his religion (Judaism).  The fiddler on the roof, the recurrent motif in the movie, accompanies the Jews in exodus playing on his fiddle the theme of tradition.

Tradition sent the Jews into exile all through their history.  Finally when they got their Promised Land of Israel, they became encroachers who have had to fight a protracted battle.  Why does tradition engender so many battles - at home, in society and in the country?  In spite of such battles and other forms of enslavement, why do people stick to traditions?

Tradition tends to be unintelligent.  It looks backward all the time.  It wants to "conserve" the past when the whole world is racing at the speed of light into the future. 

Does it mean that the future is intelligent?  Not at all.  In fact, neither the past nor the future is any more intelligent than the village idiot next door or the Einstein in the school assured of admission to IIT.  Both are natural parts of human reality.  In simple words, there are intelligent and not-so-intelligent people.  There are people with different levels of understanding.  In every age.  At any given time.  Past or present.

The past was no less intelligent than the future to come. The earth moves but moves round and round on the same axis.  In the same orbit.  Circular movements.  Just like civilisations.  Just like conservatism and modernity.  There are people even in today’s America (the Superpower) who argue that Darwin’s theory of evolution should be abolished from academics because it is against the Bible!  Conservatism at its best!

Those who swear by traditions have been the worst fascists and reactionaries.  Hitler was a conservative.  So was Mussolini.  So is, I think, our present Prime Minister. And all of them, HitlerMussoliniModi, promised better future for their people.  So they were not so conservative, after all: they were ready to accept changes for the sake of a better future for their people.

I think the question should not be about tradition and modernity.  It should be about cunning versus wisdom.  Wisdom is all that matters, be you modern or conservative. 

Wisdom is knowing what really matters and what is merely ephemeral. 

Even if you don’t acquire any wisdom you will survive.  In fact, you may flourish if you don’t acquire wisdom.  You need cunningness.  Is cunningness modernity? 
Wisdom was not the prerogative of people of the past.  Nor was foolishness.  There were people of both category in the past too.  There will be people of both category in the future too.  But wisdom takes time to be understood.  In the meanwhile, cunningness will rule the roost.  And the human world has always belonged to the meanwhile.

The question that is raised by the latest Indiblogger debate is why tradition and culture are labelled conservatism while modernity turns out to be mere fads like dressing style.  Well, Gaurab who suggested the topic has labelled it under prejudice.  I think both the terms conservatism and modernity carry a lot of prejudice.  They mean differently to each person. Even Gaurab displays some prejudice in equating modernity with “clothes rather than thoughts.”

Conservatism and modernity mean differently because each one of us is a Tevye, the protagonist of the movie I mentioned above.  Each one of us is trying to cling on to some traditions given by our culture, religion, etc so that we remain rooted somewhere.  We need roots, each one of us.  The wires that connect our mobile phone or any other gadget to our ears cannot act as roots for long. 

Tevye found his roots in his religion.  He was a simple person who did not possess the brains or the means to question his religion and its 'absolute' truths.  Yet he overcame the bewitching magnetism of that tradition when he looked into the eyes of his daughter and saw love in them.  Tevye knew the meaning of love.  He knew that love meant more than traditions, more than religious truths. 

My answer to this debate started by Gaurab who seems to be on a genuine quest is this: neither conservatism nor modernity is an absolute.  Nothing in human life is an absolute.  If I can look into the eyes of my daughter and see love there which defies my tradition, I will defy the tradition for the sake of the love.  

But if I find only lust (modernity?)  in the eyes of my daughter...

Tradition will be useless.  I will have to enlighten my daughter.  Or I will be the fiddler on the roof: in a precarious position.

Traditions are mere guidelines.  Wisdom is what matters.  And wisdom is nobody's monopoly: neither of the conservative nor of the modern.  Who is modern anyway?  

Thursday, June 26, 2014


When you learn what this world is,
how it works,
you automatically start
getting miracles...
what others will call miracles.  [Richard Bach, Messiah’s Handbook]

Miracles are not supernatural phenomena.  We bring them about.  Through proper understanding.  Of ourselves, others and the reality around us.

There’s a story by Susan Hill in which a boy named Derry has an ugly scar on his face.  One side of his face was burnt by acid.  The boy thinks no one, not even his mother, can love him because of that scar.  He hides himself from people.  One day he comes across an old man named Lamb who tells him that miracles are possible.

“Miracles belong to fairy tales,” says Derry.  Some fairy comes along and kisses the ugly monster who then miraculously turns into a handsome prince.

No, says Mr Lamb, miracles don’t work that way.  You are the fairy who will have to give the miraculous kiss to yourself.  Mr Lamb explains to Derry that it is his attitudes towards his scar that prevent the miracle from happening.  Accept the scar as part of your face.  Accept the fact that some people may be repulsed by it.  Accept that most people will get used to it by and by.  What matters to people is not your scar but what you are.  People will see you beyond the scar.  They will love you if you make yourself lovable.  They will discover the beauty within you if you let them see the beauty.  See, says Mr Lamb, it all depends on you, not others.  You are your own miracle-worker.  You are your own fairy.  Give the kiss to yourself.

“People are disturbed not by events,” said the Greek philosopher Epictetus about 2000 years ago, “but by the views which they take of them.”  It is not the scar on the face that alienates Derry but his views about the scar.  There is an extensive branch of psychology, Cognitive Psychology, whose basic hypothesis is that our emotions stem mainly from our beliefs, evaluations, interpretations and reactions to life situations.  So, if we want to acquire healthy emotions we have to understand our beliefs, evaluations, interpretations and reactions. 

That understanding is the real miracle worker.  Anyone can work that miracle.  Anyone can be a divine being. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


A scene from the movie
In the 1980s movie, The Gods must be crazy, a Coke bottle dropped by the careless pilot of a helicopter upsets the lifestyle of a community of people in the Kalahari desert.  Xi, a bushman, finds the bottle falling from the sky and he takes it home.  For him as for all his people, the bottle is a miracle dropped from the heavens.  They begin to use the bottle for various purposes like grinding food, producing music, and creating artistic patterns.  Suddenly everyone wants the bottle for one purpose or another.  

The bushmen had hitherto lived a very contented and happy life with the little they had.  They used to think they were blessed by the gods with whatever food and water they could get in the desert. They thought they had everything they needed.  But the bottle, descended miraculously from the heavens, becomes a bone of contention.  Everybody wants to possess it.  Jealousy and rivalry enter the community.  Discontent mounts.  Xi thinks that the gods were crazy to give them such a thing which was destroying the harmony that existed among them.  He decides to get rid of the bottle and goes in search of “the end of the earth.”  His journey will take him to lands where the “civilized” people fight with one another for all kinds of reasons.  Xi initially assumes that these men are gods and tries to hand over the bottle to them.  Since they do not accept it, he will continue his journey to the end of the earth, but not without contributing his valuable service in the fight between the good and the evil in the civilized world.  He is given some money for his services.  Xi cannot understand the meaning of money.  Moreover, one gift from the gods has already wreaked much havoc in his little world.  He throws the money to the winds as he walks toward a cliff which is the end of the world for him.  Having thrown the heaven’s gift into the clouds that floated beyond the cliff, Xi returns home to be welcomed back by his happy people.

The movie is a hilarious comedy at one level, but a profound philosophical thesis at another.  The savage bushmen are far superior to the civilized people.  The bushmen have few needs and are happy with whatever they have.  Anything extra may bring discord and has to be thrown back to where it belonged.  The ‘civilized’ people have more than what they need.  But they are not happy, never contented.  Their desires have no limits.  They must be crazy indeed.

This craziness led to a lot of violence.  There has never been any time in the history of human civilisation when there was no war at all.  Some civilised human beings always tried to grab something from some other civilised human beings.  The more civilised we became, the more violent we became. 

But there were some ‘less civilised’ people who denounced this acquisitive spirit of human civilisation.  In the words of Yann Kerninon, “The entire artistic, political and philosophical history of the 19th and 20th centuries is essentially that of the struggle against the bourgeois spirit.  Nietzsche, Artaud, Baudelaire, Marx, Heidegger, Freud, Rimbaud, Dada, surrealism, situationism, punk – all said or screamed the same thing: we had to crush the bourgeois spirit!  The entire artistic, political and philosophical history of the 19th and 20th centuries is also the history of their failure...” [An Attempt to assassinate my inner bourgeois, New Delhi: Full Circle, 2011, page 39-40]

Our own 21st century has only aggravated the situation.  We have reduced the entire value system into two values: wealth and utilitarianism.  ‘Create wealth and more wealth’ is the professed motto of Globalisation.  Wealth at any cost.  Profit before people.  Development.  Progress.  For what?  To buy more apartments and villas, better mobile phones and cars, more grandeur.  We razed down mountains and raised up valleys in order to construct cities.  Mountains of plastic and electronic waste grew large and larger like the monstrous phantoms in Hollywood science fiction movies. 

Worst of all, we have forgotten that we are human beings.  We have forgotten to smile though we learnt to laugh louder.  We sold our songs and our love to reality shows.  We stifled the child within us and put on different masks to conceal the grotesqueness of the successful pragmatic adult.  Tree plantation ceremonies and animal protection societies became rituals that testified to our love for the planet and its other creatures.  We clipped the wings of our imagination with these and other contemporary rituals.

No, we can’t return to the innocence of Xi and his bushmen.  But we can liberate our imagination, our dreams.  When our dreams learn to fly, our mountains will generate new flowers, our rivers will sparkle with new life, and our valleys will throb with vitality. 

We can live our life at the level we choose.  But the choice has to be of the majority.  Universal enough lest it be crushed by the might of those who cannot dream.

[Happened to watch the movie, The gods must be crazy, yesterday.  This is the result.]

Monday, June 23, 2014

What’s in a dog’s name?

Bruno poses for me
Bruno is the name of the only favourite dog on my school’s campus.  He has been on the campus for more years than I can trace my memory back to.  Recently he posed for two snaps for me.  He was so meek and obedient when I approached with my mobile phone’s camera, when the sun had already set far below the horizon, that I began to wonder who gave him the name of Bruno.

The Western Christians gave the name Bruno to dogs in the olden days in order to disparage the great philosopher, mathematician, astrologer and poet of the same name who was burnt to death as a heretic by the Catholic church in the year 1600.  Bruno, according to the Catholic church, was teaching things that went against the teachings of the Bible.  It was Bruno who taught Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) to recant his science for the sake of religion so that he could say, “Religion teaches how to go to heaven, science teaches how the heavens go.” [I have taken a little liberty with what he actually said: replace the word religion with ‘the Bible’ and you’ll get what Galileo actually said.]

He loved the attention.
Who on my campus could have thought of Bruno as a name for such a meek dog when the real Bruno was a rebel who died for the truth?

Some questions have no answers. 

Do dogs’ names actually mean anything?  As Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?”  Especially a dog’s?

In my childhood I knew quite a few dogs in my village which were named Kaiser.  In fact, the owners of those dogs could have known nothing about Kaiser being the German emperor in the olden days.  Probably, the British in India had named some of their dogs Kaiser just as some other people of the West named their dogs Bruno.  And the people of my village might have plagiarised the name with the naivet√© that usually and magnanimously accompanies snobs and dumb wits. 

I’m not a lover of animals at all except from a considerable distance.  I like to watch them from far.  Especially if they are in the cage in some zoo.  Safe distance is what I desire when it comes to animals.  [Even people J ] The only time that an animal’s death elicited some feelings from my recalcitrant heart was when I was about seven or eight years old.  My father had ordered our domestic assistant to kill our family dog named Jimmy.  I pleaded with the young man not to kill the dog.  I had grown up feeding it and playing with it as much as the ferocious creature allowed me to.  My tears did not last longer than the dog’s burial in the evening.  But I have wondered time and again why my father had named the dog Jimmy.  Jimmy Carter became the President of America quite a few years after the dog’s assassination.

A few years ago, when I visited my village my brother’s children were fondling a puppy.  I asked them what name they had given to the puppy.  Nothing, they said.  I suggested the name Larry spontaneously.  “What a stupid name!” my nephew and niece said simultaneously.  They continued to call the puppy ‘Putti’ which is the simplest Malayalam equivalent of the Hindi ‘Kuta’.  And, understandably, Putti was not there when I visited the village the next time.  There were three other dogs (two of which were German shepherds) each of which had an exotic name.  Nothing can last without a name.  I wondered more than once why I had suggested that name for the putti.  It took me a while to remember that Larry was the name of the person to whom I had dedicated a book of mine.  The book contained short stories I had written while I was going through the toughest time of my life.

So, what’s in a name?  Especially a dog’s? 

I dedicate this post to Bruno who is a hero on the campus. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Development Myth

When India gained independence from the colonial rulers one of the cardinal challenges before the nascent nation was poverty.  The rampant poverty persuaded Nehru to opt for a welfare economy based much on the principles of socialism, though America had already begun to ride the exhilarating waves of capitalism.  At the same time, in 1947, an American professor of philosophy wrote the following lines:

The tremendous concentration of wealth at one end of the social scale is matched (perhaps overmatched) by a concentration of poverty at the other end.  A dazzling prosperity in the urban rich hardly conceals the infamous and degrading lot imposed upon ... social victims.  No one can look upon this scene with clear eyes and then suppose that justice is being done.”

The author of these lines was victimised much for his radical views.  He was Barrows Dunham and his controversial book was Man Against Myth.  In the introduction to the book, Dunham wrote that “truth has been suffered to exist in the world just to the extent that it profited the rulers of society.”  Each of the eleven chapters of the book deals with one myth each that the rulers of society have imposed as truths on hapless people.

India now has a new government at the centre.  It is a government that came to power promising the citizens “good days”.  Soon after assuming office, the Prime Minister started speaking about the necessity of “bitter medicines” for the country’s ailing economy.  The steep hike in train fares is only the beginning of Mr Modi’s medical prescriptions for the country.  We can expect many, many more such remedial measures.  For example, the Reliance Industries will be allowed to double the price of the fuel from their Krishna-Godavari fields. 

The stock market hit new record heights when Mr Modi’s government took charge.  Because Mr Modi is a well known supporter of the market and its doyens.  When he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he took on “large volumes of debt to finance measures that reward select capitalists with tax concessions, cheap credit and substantial infrastructural support.”  [Ref: ‘Euphoria and hard reality’ by C P Chandrasekhar, Frontline, June 13, 2014]

Courtesy: here
The wealth of a handful of Indians quadrupled in the last decade.  Quite many of the middle class reaped dividends in the process.  Those who grew rich by picking up sufficient crumbs dropped from the elite dining tables sang alleluias for the new economic system.  Those who lost their means of livelihood took to crimes, or became Maoists, or found odd jobs that prevented them from dying of starvation. 

Fabulous wealth on one side and starving millions on the other.  Those who fabricate social myths, to use Professor Dunham’s idiom,  earn the profits.  The corporate moguls and the political netas sit together in plush chambers re-enacting the final scene in Orwell’s Animal Farm.

The question is whose “development” is the Modi government promoting.  The question is whether we can create a nation with general prosperity rather than selective prosperity.  The question is whether our new government is creating another Orwellian Animal Farm where “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal.”

[National Book Trust, India brought out a new edition of Barrows Dunham's book in 2007.]

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Genuine Atheist

Ludwig Feuerbach was a 19th century philosopher who started as a theologian and soon became an atheist.  He was of the opinion that religion and God diminished the greatness of man.  Religion and God alienate man and impoverish him by transferring to them the qualities that man should possess.  Love, truth, justice, and other such qualities are transferred by man to God.  God is love, God is truth, etc are statements we hear frequently.  But it should be the other way around, says Feuerbach.  Love is a human virtue.  So is truth.  So are compassion and other virtues we transfer to our gods. 

If we bring these qualities back from gods and religions to human beings, we will have a better world.  Haven’t we been, throughout history, adjusting our gods to our own needs, longings and purposes? Asks Feuerbach.  Haven’t we been reducing our gods to the demands of our banal everyday reality?  Haven’t we fought enough battles and wars in the name of our gods – gods who are supposed to be love and truth and compassion and what not?

Have we not talked about God and meant by this our own interests?  Haven’t we been seeking our own wishes in the name of divine purposes?

God is merely a projection of our personal wishes and selfish interests.  He is the sum total of the qualities we should possess but actually care not to cultivate. 

Feuerbach gave up God and religion in his honest pursuit of meaning in life.  He could not relegate the responsibility for his actions to any other being.  He even gave up his job as a professor and lived a simple and highly disciplined life.  He was such an exemplary human being that a Catholic priest, Ildephonsus Muller, praised him as a “man of character who is in the habit of expressing his personal conviction freely and frankly.”  The priest wished, “Being what you are, if only you were one of us.”  The priest knew that the atheist Feuerbach was more ‘religious’ than most religious people!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Goldfinch

Book Review

“I’ve done some things I shouldn’t have, I want to put them right....”
“Hard to put things right.  You don’t often get that chance.  Sometimes all you can do is not get caught.” [Page 550, The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt, London: Little, Brown, 2013]

Dona Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch, is a tour de force that explores the theme of growing up in a world which is an inextricable mix of good and evil, beauty and filth.  Theo Decker, the protagonist and first person narrator of the novel, is thirteen years old when he loses his mother to a bomb explosion in the Metropolitan museum in New York.  Their father, an alcoholic gambler, had already abandoned them.  Theo’s world turns upside down after his mother’s death.  All the love and security he needed as a young adolescent is stolen by the tragedy.  He is taken care of by the Barbours until his father comes to claim him learning that much money had been put aside by Mrs Decker for Theo’s education.  Larry Decker is now living with Xandra, another shady character.  Theo had taken Carel Fabritius’s classical painting of the goldfinch from the museum as he ran out in terror and confusion when the bomb exploded.  He now carries that painting with him to Las Vegas, where he will encounter a whole lot of evil and wickedness.

Boris, son of a Russian emigrant who is no better than Larry Decker, becomes Theo’s bosom friend in the new place.  The two boys with absentee parents travel many dark alleys and labyrinths of life until Larry Decker’s real intention (appropriating the money that Theo’s mother has kept for him) becomes clear to Theo.  Soon the subhuman creature perishes in an accident and Theo does not want to be sent to a care home.  He returns to New York but is shunned by Mr Barbour.  Hence he takes up residence with Hobie, an antiques dealer. 

The Titular Painting
Theo grows up into a young man of 23.  He is almost a drug addict, no better than his father in many ways.  He also cheats many people by selling them fake antiques.  A sense of despair mounts in him looking at his “dirtied-up life”.  Soon he learns that the goldfinch painting he had taken from the museum was no longer with him.  The pillow case in which he had preserved it had actually contained a false replacement, thanks to an act of deception by his own bosom friend Boris.  But Boris had not intended to deceive Theo.  A quirk of circumstances or destiny brought all this about.

Now, years later, Theo wants to set things right.  Boris is ready to help him though Boris knows that it’s sometimes “hard to put things right.”  The last part of the novel is about how the two do their best to put things right.

The novel reflects the contemporary American life with all its goodness and wickedness, and ample shades of grey.  Theo confronts with horror the “multiple ironies” of “the layered and uncanny” life that unfolds before him.  “The world is much stranger than we know or can say,” he learns from Boris.  Can we boil anything down to pure ‘good’ or pure ‘bad’?  Is the innocence of Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin desirable?  What did Myshkin’s angelic goodness bring about but murder and disaster?  “Why be good?”  Isn’t that the dark message of Dostoevsky’s novel? 

Time teaches Theo some inevitable lessons.  “How funny time is.  How many tricks and surprises,” as Hobie reflects philosophically.  Some things happen sometime in your life cracking your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, the images, their meanings, life’s meaning...

Donna Tartt
And meaning is not something you arrive at through your reason.  “There’s no ‘rational grounds’ for anything I care about,” Theo learns.  Your dream, as well as your truth, is beyond reason.  There’s a lot of evil around.  But ‘good’ can come around sometimes through some strange back doors.  And we can choose to be among those who have learnt to retain love in their hearts, beauty in their souls... and add our own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire... and gave them to the next generation, and the next.

The Goldfinch is an enormous novel with 771 pages.  It can get a little tedious in places.  On the whole, however, it enchants.  There is something Dickensian about it.  Theo may remind you of Pip of Great Expectations.  But Dona Tartt may not possess the Dickensian skill of sustaining the suspense in every page. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Power of the Spirit


When Ram Kumar hurried through breakfast and got ready to go out on Sunday, Mandira knew where he would be going.   Nevertheless she asked, “Shivam and Shivangi have a lot of homework.  Projects and FA assignments.  They need help.”

“You help them; I have duty at Bhagwan’s gate.”

Bhagwan was a godman who gave darsan every weekend to devotees.  Thousands of devotees would come seeking the godman’s blessings.  They would squat on the ground in an enormous hall and listen to Bhagwan’s speech.  And then they would render some voluntary service like cleaning up, cooking or serving the meals to the devotees or doing the dishes.  Ram Kumar always opted to render his services at the gate.  Frisking the devotees to make sure that they were not carrying any mobile phones or cameras or intoxicants.  The job gave him a strange sense of power.  “Jai Bhagwan!” he returned the greeting of each devotee with due solemnity.

I have so much work to do, mumbled Mandira to herself.  Cooking, washing the clothes, cleaning the house… and then help children with their endless projects and assignments.   Why does he think that voluntary service at Bhagwan’s ashram is holier than service to one’s wife and children?

“Prajapati had three kinds of children,” Bhagwan began his sermon.  “Gods, men and demons.  They all lived with their father Prajapati as students of sacred knowledge.  Having completed their studies, they asked for the final message.  And Prajapati said, ‘Da’.” Da was Prajapati’s answer to all the three, gods, men and demons.  And what did they understand?”

After a dramatic pause, Bhagwan continued.  “Da meant damyata to the gods.  Self-control is what the gods learnt.  Datta, generosity, is what the men understood.  And the demons took Da to mean dayadhvam, compassion.  The gods and the demons are all within ourselves.”  Bhagwan went on teach the importance of self-control, generosity and compassion in the life of every devotee. 

“Why the hell do teachers give so much work to children?” fulminated Mandira when Shivam and Shivangi pestered her with questions like why there more white elephants in Thailand than in India or whether Australia would appear in the East or West to a person standing on the moon and looking at the earth.

Since all the devotees were already seated, Ram Kumar sat down with the other volunteers at the gate and discussed why Mr Narendra Modi chose to visit Bhutan first.  The discussion slipped to the need to remove all the Congress-appointed governors from the various states.  Since their knowledge of the issues could not outlast Bhagwan’s speech on the education of Prajapati’s offspring, the discussion came home and revolved on the latest acquisitions by their neighbours in the respective colonies or colleagues in the respective workplaces. 

It was then that Ram Kumar’s eyes wandered into the enormous hall where the devotees sat listening to the merits of self-control, generosity and compassion.  One boy was trying to capture the picture of Bhagwan on his mobile phone.  How did the boy enter the gate with a mobile phone in the first place, wondered Ram Kumar.  Serious lapse of security.  He rushed and brought the boy red handed to the gate.

They showered a volley of questions on the boy while Bhagwan continued his holy sermon blissfully.  They threatened to beat the hell out of him if he didn’t speak the truth.  They thought of calling the police and gave up since that would draw unnecessary attention of the media. 

“My mother wanted to see Bhagwan,” the boy had explained.  She could never attend the sermons since she was always busy at home. 

“How can anyone receive Bhagwan’s darsan on a stupid phone?”  The devout gate keepers were scandalised.  The matter was too theological to be solved at their level.  They decided to take it to the Core Committee in the evening. 

As the boy stood like a condemned criminal, Ram Kumar felt a surge of power rising in his soul.  

Sunday, June 15, 2014



Her face made my heart skip a beat.  Was it really her?  I had not met Maya for over thirty years.  But the perfect symmetry of her thin but mysteriously seductive lips could not have escaped me.  I was walking up towards the Hanuman Temple on the Jakhoo Hill in Shimla when the perfect symmetry on a wrinkled face beneath a silver shock of fluttering hair hit my heart like a perverse Kamadeva’s arrow.   She was wearing a saffron robe.  A rosary of fairly huge rudraksh beads lay on her breast.  The fire in her eyes had not burned out yet though melancholy was threatening to overpower it.  She had entered a narrow trail from the main road. 

“Maya,” I called.

She halted but did not turn back.  I called the name again.  This time she did turn back to look at the person who had uttered a sound that she did not apparently want to hear.  I walked closer to her.  She stared at me.  I smiled. 

“Sam!” She said concealing her surprise with practised expertise.  “Why are you here?”

“As a tourist,” I said matter-of-factly.  “But I seem to have struck a goldmine, I ran into you.”

I assured her that I was not searching for her at all.  Our encounter was a pure coincidence.  But a lucky one, I added.

I followed her to the hut where she said she lived all alone all these years.

Maya was my classmate in college during our undergraduate years.  Indira Gandhi had declared Emergency in the country.  Maya opposed the Emergency with all the spirit of a true Marxist.  Well wishers warned her to be cautious.  Many people who had questioned the Emergency had already disappeared under the sycophantic reign of K Karunakaran.  Nobody knew what happened to the arrested.  “It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees,” Maya dismissed the friendly warnings.  I was always struck by the way her beautiful lips moved when she spoke passionately.  Whenever she spoke I would occupy the front row, not to listen to her but to watch her vivacious lips whose movements rivalled the gracefulness of a Bharatanatyam dance. 

“I wish I could hang on to your lips more than metaphorically,” I once told her half in jest.

“What do you mean?”  Her eyes burnt into mine. 

“Just a kiss, nothing more,” I was not intimidated.

She caught my head in both her hands and planted her lips on mine.  More than a flirt but less than a commitment, the kiss was the first and the last physical contact we ever had and its sweet shock remained in my veins like a restless neuron for many years.   

“My marriage is as fixed as my destiny,” she told me immediately after the kiss so that I wouldn’t nurture any illusion.  “A family commitment.”

As soon as she graduated she married Rajan Namboothiri, an eccentric scientist at ISRO, Trivandrum.  A few years after the marriage, Dr Namboothiri gave up his job and became a pujari at the local temple.  He spent all his time reciting the Vedas and the Upanishads and teaching the meanings of the shlokas to whoever cared to listen.   His family members blamed Maya for the situation though nobody knew how she was responsible for any of it.  Eventually Maya vanished.

“Varanasi, Haridwar, Badrinath...,” Maya spoke in a voice that was uncharacteristically subdued.  “I searched for meanings.  Or joy.  I don’t know what.  Finally I reached here.  Away from crowds and the noise of spirituality.”

“Rajan Namboothiri passed away last year,” I said.  She looked at me but without any particular emotion.  His life was consumed by the scriptures. 

“I left him because I could not accept what he was doing,” she spoke after a long silence.  “I accused him of escapism.  Finally I became just what he had become.”

“Do we become what we hate?” I asked without realising what I was doing.

“Love and hate, virtue and sin, revolution and counter-revolution, all poles vanish when you arrive at the truth of Param Brahma.” 

She paused and then said, “Please do not visit me again.  Please do not tell anyone about me.  I want to be alone.”

I knew I had to keep the promise.  Maya had planted a renewed neuron in my veins and it would continue to be restless for many years. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Virginity is not in the hymen

The subtitle of Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles is A Pure Woman though Tess had lost her virginity before her marriage and later she commits a murder too. 

Tess is seduced by Alec and gives birth to a child which dies.  Later, while working as a dairymaid she falls in love with Angel Clare, a clergyman’s son.  On their wedding night she confesses to him the seduction by Alec, and Angel hypocritically abandons her.  Angel is no virgin himself; he has had an affair with an older woman in London.  Moreover, Tess had no intention of deceiving him.  In fact, she had written a letter to him explaining her condition.  The letter was, however, lying hidden beneath the carpet in Angel’s room.  Later Alec manages to seduce Tess once again persuading her to think that Angel would never accept her.  Angel, however, returns repenting of his harshness.  Tess is maddened by Alec’s second betrayal of her and she kills him.  The Law hangs Tess to death.

Hardy, the novelist, calls Tess “a pure woman” in the subtitle of the novel because purity is a matter of one’s intentions and attitudes.  Tess possesses a deep moral sensitivity though she has an equally deep passionate intensity.  Tess possesses both the weakness and the strength of the human species: the weakness that makes her succumb to her passions and the strength to know her moral responsibilities. 

The novel was published in 1891 when virginity was a prized (t)issue.  Today, the question seems to be whether virginity is desirable at all!  We have come quite a way from Hardy and his Tess.

“Virginity does not lie in the hymen but in the brain, it’s an attitude, a commitment,”  I wrote in a comment to one of the blogs I read recently on the topic.  It is since virginity is not a matter of a biological membrane that Tess remained “a pure woman” in Hardy’s mind.  Tess was not playing with her body, in other words.  For her, sex was not merely a means of physical pleasure much as she was driven by passion too.  For her, sex was the culmination of an intimate relationship.  Relationship matters.  Intimacy is important when two individuals decide to share their bodies.  Otherwise, it is not love but lust.  Now, the question will be: is lust wrong?  Well, we live in a world in which greed has become a virtue.  In that world, lust may have become a virtue too. 

Psychology  identifies various types of love as shown in the diagram below (taken from Social Psychology by Robert A Baron, et al.)

Click to enlarge

‘Consummate love’ is what should ideally exist between a couple.  If that ideal is difficult to achieve, one can try to reach near it through ‘companionate love’ or at least ‘romantic love.’ 

Of course, it is the individual’s right to choose what kind of love what he/she wants.  The choice, however, determines the height/depth of one’s existence.  The world today, with its use-and-throw culture, encourages shallow existence.  Much of the debate one finds on virginity today implies shallow attitudes towards existence.  One night stands have not yet created any individual who has achieved any sense of fulfilment in life.

Inspired by a debate going on at, particularly by the following:

Friday, June 13, 2014

Chandigarh's Museums

Chandigarh has a series of museums all adjacent to one another. They are an excellent place to spend a day especially if you are in Chandigarh during summer.  You can engage yourself learning much about history, music, art, architecture, and so on.  

The Goddess welcomes you to the Museum

The Buddha - 2nd century AD sculpture


Maitreya, according to Buddhist literature, is the future Buddha. He will come when people will have forgotten dharma and will be living in sheer evil. Similar beliefs are found in many religions. Didn't Lord Krishna promise Arjuna, "... Sambhavami yuge yuge"? The Bible promises a Second Coming of Jesus.  People were always aware of their own innate wickedness.  But instead of working on it in order to alleviate it if not eradicate, people chose to believe in some deity who would come and eradicate it.  Just one of the many futile absurdities of human existence!

Gods are the most potent tools for man's escapist games.  There will never be a human world without gods.  Man will invent new gods if you take away his present gods from him.  The Buddha was aware of the absurdity and futility of gods.  He never spoke of gods.  He focused on life on the earth and how to live it profoundly.  He knew gods would render it superficial.  Gods would make man relinquish responsibility.  Gods can be scapegoats that carry man's wickedness so that man can carry on being wicked.  Gods can be ruthless bloodsuckers so that man can go on killing his brothers and sisters. Gods have no shape and character except what man gives them according to the needs of the time.  

Chandigarh museum has a fabulous collection of historical relics related to religion, culture, governments, and so on.  

I came to know that musical ragas have been personified in paintings.  Here are two examples. 

Bhairavi raga

Kalyana raga

When man moves from religion to the arts, the level of consciousness rises, I think.  There is no relegation of responsibility in the arts.  There is only delight, even sensuous delight, in life.  The arts don't kill others.

From the History Museum

Did Evolution only change the physical shape and structure?

Note: This is the last post in the series based on my recent ventures.

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...