Sunday, March 30, 2014

Global Temple

Fiction

Unexpectedly the clouds burst.  Maybe, it was not so unexpected; I had ignored the gathering clouds.  I have a way of deluding myself that life will treat me well since I am a person with no malice in my heart.  I am kind of a Narcissist, if you like.

The clouds burst anyway.  I had no choice but run into the nearest building which looked dilapidated.  Not in ruins really.  It looked like someone had pulled it down intentionally before its time had run out.  Not a terrorist attack; not so random.  It looked like a planned attack.  Destruction part by part.  Slow ruin.  Painful ruin.

These thoughts were running in my mind when I noticed someone sitting at one of the many doorstops that led to endless emptiness in that ruined building.  He looked like a lunatic.  He had a stubble, unkempt hair which was dripping with rain water, and a burnt-out beedi stub between his fingers.  He sucked at the beedi stub occasionally though it was drenched with water.

He grinned at me when I looked at him.  I felt a little scared because he looked ghostly.  It was a desolate place though not unfamiliar to me.  I used to walk the nearby streets every evening in obedience to my doctor’s orders.  It was after a long time that I had taken this particular street.  There was something in me that prompted me to avoid this street though once in a while I had challenged the prompt.  The building was not in ruins the last time I came by, though it was not occupied either. 

“What are you doing here?”  The beedi man asked me.  His voice sounded eerie.  Like steel grating against steel.  But the grin was still on his lips.

I ignored the question and looked into the rain as if the answer lay somewhere there. 

There was not a soul anywhere near.  Total desolation.  In this remote part of the village no one could be expected and that too in this heavy downpour. 

The beedi man repeated his question. 

“Who are you?” I put another question to him since I didn’t know what else to do.

Ha ha ha!  Steel against steel again. 

“I am the Baba of this temple,” he waved his hands indicating the dilapidated building.  “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.  I create and I destroy.  I will build again from the ruins.  I will build the heavenly kingdom.  The paradise.  A global temple will come up here,” he waved his hands majestically again.

I decided to ignore him thinking him a lunatic.  But there was something in his eyes that drew me to him.  I couldn’t take a step ahead. 

He seemed to have sensed my thoughts.  “Do you know Gandhi?” he asked. 

Which Gandhi?  I wondered.  Right from the Mahatma down to Rahul, we have so many Gandhis, a whole scale of degradation.

“He fought a whole empire with nakedness,” said the beedi Baba.  “When the British stood armoured with their three-piece suit daring the heat of Indian summer, Gandhi stripped himself of all gentleman’s clothes and told them that the truth was very bare.  Gandhi had nothing to hide, you see.  Those who have nothing to hide win in the end.”

“But he was killed,” I blurted out in spite of myself.

“Die, man,” spat out beedi Baba.  “Unless a grain of wheat falls in the soil and dies, it cannot be reborn.”  He sucked at his soggy beedi greedily.

I felt scared that he would get up and start sucking at one of the veins in my body somewhere. 

“A global temple, a global temple,” he muttered to himself shaking his head like a lunatic, looking into the rain as if the rain was going to build his temple.

“Who is the god in your temple?”  I heard myself asking.

He stared at me.  There was fire in the stare. 

“I am the God.  I am Alpha and Omega.  I am the worshippers.  I am a legion.”

The clouds thundered.  A lightning struck and the eastern corner of the building collapsed. 

The lightning entered my heart.  The beedi Baba roared with laughter.

I ran out into the rain.  The rain welcomed me.



PS.  This story is inspired by a telephonic conversation I had with a friend last night.  The dialogue about Gandhi belongs to that friend. 


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Miracles

Sunday Sermon

Miracles, Miracles
That's what life's about
Most of you must agree
If you've thought it out.

Don Williams sang that beautiful song a few decades ago.  Life is a miracle.  The flower that blooms in the morning and fades away with the setting sun is a miracle.  The birds that sing and the fish that swim are miracles.  This gadget on which I type is a miracle.  Even the cable that connects it to the switch and the switch itself along with the electric power that runs through it are all miracles.  If you think it out!

How many of us can create a lap top, let alone a simple switch? 

To be able to stand among the teeming crowd in the underground station of Delhi Metro at Connaught Place and marvel at the miracle of human enterprise is a blessing.  To be able to marvel at the miracle that exists everywhere around us is the best gift that we can possess.  Because the moment we realise the miracle that everything is, that everyone is, we acquire a paradigm shift.  New meanings emerge in life.  New beauty descends through the mists that veil existence.

There will be no destruction once we reach that level of consciousness.  There will be no fanaticism, no terrorism, no sabotage.  No assaults, no bickering, no backbiting.

There will be sharing instead of grabbing.
Peace in place of war.
Love where there is strife.
Joy will abound.


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The last Sunday Sermon: The Body Obsession

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Battle of Varanasi



Varanasi is a saffron city.  The Hindu culture is embedded in the very dust of the city.  It is no wonder that Mr Narendra Modi chose it as his primary battle ground.  The message he is trying to give is that he is the representative of the Hindus, the spokesman for Hindutva if not Hinduism, and also that he is not merely a political leader. 

Shiv Vishwanathan, professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, has written an article titled Why battleground Varanasi is different in today’s Hindu.  The article borders on hagiography showering much accolade on Mr Kejriwal.  In spite of the bias, the article deserves serious pondering.  There are some illuminating ideas.

“Sadly,” says the author, “the chaiwala has now become the agent of corporation.”  This is one of the contradictions that Mr Modi embodies within.  He tries to take pride in his humble origins and use it as a proof of his closeness to the lowly people.  The fact, however, is that he has worked relentlessly for the welfare of the corporate sector.  What the poor have gained, if anything, is the by-product.  How to empower the poor man or the aam aadmi is the question that Kejriwal raises on the other hand, says the article. 

Mr Modi displays the characteristics of an autocrat, of a Fascist leader.  He cannot tolerate dissidence, he does not respect anyone who disagrees with him, and he can use the metaphorical chaiwala’s language (no offence meant to all those chaiwalas who do not ever use the kind of language employed by Mr Modi) to shoot at his opponents.  His jibes using AK 47 are the most recent examples. 

Courtesy The Hindu
Mr Modi is more interested in that kind of discourse.  He likes to mount childish offensiveness against his rivals.  Calling names, bringing in cheap metaphors that may please the man in the chai dukan, and peddling hatred are hardly the traits of a good leader.  As one of the readers writes in today’s Hindu, “What people want to hear from Mr. Modi are his plans to tackle inflation, corruption, instances of farmer suicide, crony capitalism, unemployment, lack of people-oriented growth, and, above all, communalism.”   Mr Kejriwal, on the other hand, speaks about issues that matter.  He refuses to dispense street rhetoric.

Prof Visvanathan thinks that by asking intelligent and relevant questions, “Mr. Kejriwal is inviting India to the new possibilities of democracy.”  That’s important.  A good leader should raise the standard of his people’s thinking instead of playing to the gallery for the sake of applause.

Let me conclude this with a quote from the article.  The view is hagiographical but worth taking a second look at.  “His [Mr Kejriwal’s] message is like a conversation, homely, humble, even deprecating.  Mr. Modi has the personal of a loudspeaker, amplifying his own repetitions.  Mr. Kejriwal has place for the small and marginal, for the gossip of the nukkad.  He is a listener.  Mr. Modi’s personal comes out better as a dictaphone....”

The battle of Varanasi is worth observing.  It is not merely an electoral battle.  It is a battle between the aam aadmi’s aspirations and one man’s personal ambitions.  It is a battle between autocracy and democracy.  Between rhetoric and pragmatism...

PS.  Change.org invited Mr Kejriwal, Mr Rahul Gandhi and Mr Modi to a three-cornered debate.  Mr Kejriwal has accepted the invitation.


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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sinner



Baba was sick of all the crimes that he had perpetrated.  He went to the stone deity in the thick of the night and beat his breast crying, “Oh, goddess, I am a sinner.  I am a sinner.  I have stolen everyone’s wealth to make parking lots for my devotees.  Forgive me.”

Baba’s closest disciple, who was always watching his master so that he could sponge up the lessons directly from personal observations, saw what his master was doing and decided to imitate.

Imitation of successful people is the stepping stone to success, says the book, Seven Secrets of Success.  The disciple had the bad habit of reading, you see.

He, the disciple, went to the stone deity in the broad daylight (so that devotees could see) and beat his breast saying, “Oh, goddess, I am sinner.  I am a sinner.  I have been an accomplice in stealing wealth to make parking lots for my master’s devotees.  Forgive me. Forgive me.”  And he beat his breast many times.

The cook had seen both of these.  He was moved indeed.  He too fell prostrate before the deity  saying, “Oh, goddess, I am a sinner.  I have stolen some food for my starving children.  I am a sinner.  Forgive me.  Forgive me.”  He wept.  He wept.

Baba happened to come around when the cook was crying inconsolably.  Purely by chance he came.  Or by the destiny chartered by the stars.  He said, “This is the sin of pride.  See how he is displaying his sin!”



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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Science and nonsense


Dr K Radhakrisnan
Photo courtesy the Frontline
Man cannot live by reason alone, if I may paraphrase Jesus so.  Jesus said, “Man does not live by bread alone.”  A friend of mine added humorously, “Man needs butter too.”  Jesus is believed to have meant that people need spiritual food in addition to material bread.  The chief of Indian Space Research Organisation [ISRO], K. Radhakrishnan, paid obeisance to the deity in the Venkateswara temple in Tirupati before the launch of the Mars Orbiter Mission last November.  The Frontline has published a brilliant article about the issue.

Can a scientist of Radhakrishnan’s stature afford to be as superstitious as to go with a miniature model of his rocket to a mute statue and seek its blessings?  Isn’t it his duty to transcend the need for the “psychological boost” provided by such an infantile exercise?

Or is Radharkrishnan giving us a convincing proof that man cannot live by reason alone? 

Man is not as much a rational being as Aristotle would have us believe.  There is a beast within every human being, man or woman, a beast driven by passions.  The rational faculty enables us to keep that emotional beast under control.  But reason is a very dry thing; there’s no fun in it, as Oscar Wilde would say.  What’s interesting about a mathematical equation or a scientific theory?  If any of the numbers or letters in the equation or the theory could lose their temper once and start fighting, or fall in love with each other… if they show some emotion, they would be interesting. 

Religion offers that sort of ‘entertainment’ in the times of conflicts or riots.  Some of our political leaders offer us that sort of entertainment in addition to their usual gimmickry in their respective motleys.  But the kind of religion that Radhakrishnan sought for was different.  “Psychological boost,” he called it. 

Karl Marx defined religion as the opium of the masses.  The pie in the sky promised by almost all religions is the panacea for all the ills on the earth.  Bear with the all the evils here, and you will get paradise there: that’ the promise.  Religion is a good palliative, an effective drug.

Should scientists take recourse to such a drug?  Shouldn’t they be guided by reason alone?  Well, scientists are human beings too, you see.  They too need, occasionally at least, the illusory consolations that the gods can provide. 

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals.”  Orated Shakespeare’s Hamlet who must have been familiar with the philosophical notion about the great chain of being, according to which God reigned supreme at the top of the hierarchy among beings, angels and spirits occupying the lower rung, human beings in the middle, with animals followed by inanimate objects creeping in the lowest realms. 

Man is the paragon of animals.  He is between the spirits and the animals, sharing the qualities of both: the light of reason as well as the darkness of instincts.  Man is the best animal, in other words.  Animal, and hence no escape from the instincts and passions, for him.  That’s why he is driven, occasionally albeit, with his miniature scientific models to gigantic though mute idols.    

After reading the Frontline article (cited above), I was left wondering whether gods and angels might be beings of pure reason without any passions or emotions.  No, it can’t be, I think.  Without passions like love and beauty, and emotions like compassion, how can any being be perfect?  A being with purely rational perfection would be an abstraction.  A mere thought?  A mere dream?


So I conclude that passions and emotions are necessary for real beings.  But should these passions and emotions drive one to superstitious practices?  Doesn’t such quest for a “psychological boost” reveal a lack of confidence in one’s faculty which created the technology?  I would have found it acceptable if the scientist had given a different excuse (or reason, if you prefer).  If the scientist had said that his religious ritual was a symbol of his surrender to the ultimate mystery that lies beyond his reason, a sign of his humble admission of the limitations of his faculty, I would have accepted it happily.  Humility is a virtue.  Nonsense is not compatible with science. 


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Monday, March 24, 2014

The Omega Scroll


The Omega Scroll
Author: Adrian d’Hage
Pubisher: Penguin, 2006

Background information

In 1947, some ancient scrolls were discovered in the Qumran caves near the Dead Sea.  They are believed to have been written by a Jewish monastic sect called the Essenes.  According to Pliny (23-79 CE), the Essenes were a celibate Jewish sect of hermits who lived in an area that might be understood as the Qumran caves.  Josephus, Romano-Jewish scholar of the first century (37-100 CE), described the Essenes as a monastic group or a mystery order that despised pleasure and wealth.  Josephus described the Essenes as a community which did not allow any private property.  He says that the sect had a 3-year probation period after which one might be accepted as full-fledged member who would have to rise before dawn, work for 5 hours, take a ritual bath after the work and then have a communal meal.  According to Josephus, the members had some divination and healing powers.  The Essenes were scholars in many ways.  When the scrolls were discovered some 2000 years after they were written, the Catholic Church went out of its way to conceal them.  Why?  Did the scrolls contain some information about Jesus which the Church did not want the people to know?

On 28 Sep 1978, Pope John Paul I died 33 days after his election as the Pope though he was in good health.  David A Yallop wrote a book, In God’s Name, giving ample evidence that the Pope was killed by the cardinals in the Vatican because he intended to modernise the Catholic Church. 


The Novel

Adrian d’Hage makes full use of both of the above details in his thriller novel, The Omega Scroll.  A Catholic priest named Giovanni Donelli and a Catholic nun named Allegra Bassetti are selected for higher studies in a secular university in accordance with the desires of John Paul I.  The Pope dies soon under mysterious circumstances.  Donelli is aware of the villainous politics that is played out in the Vatican by Cardinal Petroni who has shady relationships with the Italian Mafia.  Petroni is also misusing the funds of the Vatican Bank.  John Paul I orders an enquiry into these shady affairs of the Church.  He also wishes to legalise contraception.  The Pope is a man of integrity who wishes to bring Jesus back to the Church. 

The emergence of the Dead Sea Scrolls will soon change the destinies of both Donelli and Allegra.  The novel tells the story of the priest and the nun.  But it is more about the corruption that has corroded into the Catholic Church’s holy of holies, the Vatican.  Cardinal Petroni is the villain who has no knowledge of love.  “Those who are incapable of love often substitute it with a desperate pursuit of power,” says one of the characters in the novel (page 458).  Cardinal Petroni is the typical power-seeker who will indulge in any kind of manipulation in order to become the next Pope.  The Dead Sea scrolls will be bought up by him for enormous amounts of money and the Vatican Bank’s accounts will be manipulated for that.  Petroni has no qualms about killing anyone who stands in his way to power. 

The novel is a thriller.  But it is worth reading.  It presents well researched material in the form of popular fiction.  The best things is that the author has a noble vision to offer.  Unfortunately, Petronis rule the world.  Tragically, Petronis rule religions.  We, the ordinary mortals, can console ourselves with the dream world suggested by Adrian d’Hage at the end of his novel. 


I enjoyed the novel for what it is: good suspense, good plot, and great narration. 


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Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Body Obsession

Sunday Sermon

According to a report in today’s Hindu, youngsters in Delhi “spend the most on improving themselves physically.”  Skin complexion, hair style and dress: these seem to matter more these days. Not only in Delhi, however.

There is no harm in looking good physically.  It is even desirable.  But the problem lies in assuming that only the body matters.  What about the mind?  The ignorance of today’s youth about great thinkers and serious writers is an indication of a malady: the obsession with the body to the detriment of the mind.

The capitalist system which has taken over the entire world has what Dr Fitjof Capra calls an “object-centred consciousness” (The Hidden Connections).  Competition, expansion and accumulation are its hallmarks.  It is never satisfied however much it may accumulate.  One may have accumulated enough wealth for five generations and yet one remains discontented.  This discontent is one of the nemeses of the capitalist system. 

Possessions don’t make anyone really happy.  There is the familiar story of the woman who was searching for her lost earring in the front yard.  A woman next door, seeing the lady in frantic search for something, offered her assistance.  Both of them searched for quite a while but couldn’t retrieve the ring.  “Are you sure,” asked the neighbour, “that you lost your ring here in the yard?” 

“No,” said the woman, “I lost it inside the house.”

“Why are you searching here then?” asked the neighbour stupefied.

“There’s no light inside the house.”

Searching for happiness in objects (including the body) is no different from the above woman’s search for her lost earring.  Happiness is a state of mind.  Certain material things may help enhance the mental state, but they are not the real sources of happiness.  Unless we learn to discover happiness within our consciousness, we are destined to remain discontented.

The real tragedy today seems to be not the discontent, but the lack of awareness about one’s own discontent.  We are like those barnacles which remain stuck to the bottom of boats and imagine themselves as going places, when in fact they are just stuck to the same reality.  If only we could give up this clinging, if we only we could raise ourselves to the higher realms of reality by liberating our consciousness from its clinging, we would see a totally different world, a far superior world, unfolding. 


A new heaven and new earth are always there before us.  But we have to choose them consciously.  Consciousness, not the body, is the seat of happiness.


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Friday, March 21, 2014

Superstition



If you stop a moment to observe, you get characters for stories.   Every moment is a story.  Every person is a story.  Life is a story.

I was in a shop in Delhi.  A buyer’s bill came to Rs 115.  He gave a five-hundred rupee note.  No change, says the shopkeeper.  So the client fished out a hundred-rupee note and a ten-rupee coin and a five-rupee coin.  Both the coins were golden.  A moment passed.  I was busy (in my own clumsy, lazily observing way) picking my items.  That man came back.  “Where’s the coconut I bought?” he asked.

“Sorry,” said the shopkeeper who picked out the coconut from under his outdated weighing balance.  “But I have not charged for this…”

“I know,” said the client.  “How much?”

“Rs 25.”

The client gave a Rs50 note.  The shopkeeper gave back Rs25 which included the same golden coins that he had given earlier.

“A lucky sign,” said the client. 

“You believe in luck?” said the shopkeeper pretending to be nonchalant.

“Not at all.  I’m not bloody superstitious.   What do you think I am.  It’s just that the Shastri said yesterday that my Shukradasha (auspicious 12 years) is beginning.”


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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Goodbye, Khushwant Singh


To be able to live a whole century and relish that life to the fullest is a rare blessing.  Khushwant Singh (2 Feb 1915 – 20 March 2014) is one of those blessed souls.  It would be preposterous to wish his soul eternal rest since he had no such beliefs.  Agnostic Khushwant: There is no God! is the title of one of his many books.

He was a prolific writer.  A popular writer, I should say.  I don’t consider him a great writer although he could have been one, as evidenced by his novel, A Train to Pakistan. He was also a very knowledgeable person as revealed by some of his books on Sikhism particularly.  But he chose to write for the masses.  Probably, his acute awareness of the absurdity of human existence prompted him to do that.

What appeals to me about Khushwant Singh is his sheer forthrightness.  With malice towards one and all, as the title of one of his newspaper columns proclaimed tongue-in-cheek.  It was not malice at all, however; it was plain honesty, utter lack of hypocrisy.  He had no pretensions.  He spoke out what he believed was the truth.  He refused to put on masks. 

In some ways he was like the gargoyles erected on old, grand buildings.  The gargoyles saved the building from the ravaging effects of rainwater.  Khushwant Singh grinned or even snarled at us like the gargoyles.  But we knew there was the typically humorous, fun-loving Sardarji smiling away behind those grins and snarls.  We also knew that the Sardarji had much more to offer than his quirky grins and risqué jokes.


“Not forever does the bulbul sing
In balmy shades of bowers,
Not forever lasts the spring
Nor ever blossom the flowers.
Not forever reigneth joy,
Sets the sun on days of bliss,
Friendships not forever last,
They know not life, who know not this.”  [A Train to Pakistan]

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Meditation


Page 87 of The Prayer of the Frog - Volume I
by Anthony de Mello
Published by Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1988

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Grammar no matter



Who made the grammar?  Was it the Pundit who had a vested interest in the days of the caste system?  Wasn’t it the aristocrat who ensured that there must be a way of controlling the people?

Who made the grammar of behaviour?  Was it the Vedas, the Bible, the Quran? 

Or was it the 5 star hotel, when you made enough money to visit that?

Who made the grammar of economics?  Was it the zamindari system?  The caste system?  The Western way of invasions?  Or more recently the Ambanis with their own ways of invading and the Modis with their politics?

Who taught you to speak your language?  Did any grammar do it?

Did you learn to speak your mother tongue by leaning any grammar?

Who made the grammar of love?  Kamasutra?  Dotted condoms?  Or revolutions in universities like JNU?

Who made the grammar of education?  CCE?  IIT?  Entrance tests?  Or the coaching centres in Kota?

I’m looking for answers.

I consider myself fortunate that I can still afford to look for answers.  The fact is that I don’t set store by grammar.  Though I am a language teacher.


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Monday, March 17, 2014

The Artist



Paul Cezanne
“How do I judge art?”  Paul asked the man who had introduced himself as Ambroise Vollard.  “When I complete a painting, I take it and place it near a God-made thing, a tree or a flower; if it clashes, it’s not art.”

Paul Cezanne had failed every time he submitted his works to the Paris Salon for exhibition.  The true artist cannot change his art in order to please the gallery.  Art is not a commercial product.  You paint according to your artistic taste and sensibility.  If people can appreciate them, it’s good.  Otherwise, it is still good.  Follow your soul’s diktats. 

Paul did just that.  From 1864, when he was 25 years old, he submitted his paintings to the Salon for nearly two decades.  Rejections did not cloud his soul.  After all, his father, Louis-Auguste Cézanne was a successful banker and had left him enough money to live on.  “I was lucky,” Paul explained to Vallard, “selling my paintings was not important to me.  But the irony is that the Salon accepted one and only one painting of mine, in 1882, and that was a portrait of my father.”  Paul smiled gently. 

It had taken another 13 years for Ambroise Vollard, Parisian art dealer, to discover the genius of Paul Cezanne.  “A revolution will start the day people begin to see a carrot in a fresh way,” Paul used to say.

Freshness of perception was Cezanne’s genius.  “I’m going to organise a solo exhibition of your paintings,” said Vollard. 

When Paul entered the gallery filled with his own paintings, he was surprised.  “Look,” he said to his son, “they have framed them!”


“They deserve the frames, father,” said the son who knew that his father was not aware of his own greatness. 

Post-Script:  The exhibition catapulted Cezanne into fame.  Today his paintings are exhibited in the best art galleries of the world.  The Card Players, an iconic work by Cezanne, is currently the most expensive work of art ever sold. It was sold for more than $250 million in 2011. 

'The Card Players' by Cezanne

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Lowland


Book Review

The Lowland

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Publisher: Random House India, 2013
Pages: 340       Price: Rs499 [Hardbound]

There are two brothers.  They differ in age by just over a year and resemble each other physically.  But psychologically they are poles apart.  One becomes a Naxalite and the other goes to the USA where he completes his higher studies and settles down.  The Naxalite is eventually killed and his brother marries the widowed young wife who is pregnant.  She gives birth to a daughter in America and soon deserts the family.  She goes to a faraway place and works as a professor of philosophy and writes books, cutting herself off totally from her second husband as well as her daughter.  The daughter grows up and inherits some of her biological father’s revolutionary spirit.  She gives birth to a fatherless child and lives with her adoptive father doing odd jobs related to conservation of the environment.  The adoptive father decides to marry a friend when he is 70 years old.

That is the plot of a novel that was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013 – Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland.  The plot is as immaterial as the treatment of the themes and as shallow as the characters.  After reading the novel one will be left wondering what the author was trying to convey.  Is it that relationships are immaterial or untenable in today’s world?  Is it that the Naxalite movement of the 1960s was a brutal folly?  Is it that your past will haunt you like a vindictive ghost, as the blurb says: “A fiercely brilliant woman haunted by her past”?

The major drawback of the novel is that the author fails to convince us of anything worthwhile.  For example, it is not very clear why Gaauri, the wife of the Naxalite, chooses to leave the man who saved her from a miserable existence as a young widow, more so why she abandons her own daughter.  Is the Naxalite a hero or a villain?  Was the movement justified or was the suicide of Kanu Sanyal, one of the founders, an indictment of the movement?  Why do some characters just pop in and out of the plot according to the whims of the author?  Holly is a woman separated from her husband and she has an affair with Subhash, the brother in America.  Later she rejoins her husband and moves out of the plot, only to make a brief return some years later.  Richard is a close friend of Subbash’s who disappears from the plot once their studies are over, but returns years later only to die soon. 

Jhumpa Lahiri
Gauri is a professor of philosophy and so we hear names like Hegel and Horkheimer.  But nothing more.  At least some philosophy would have saved the novel.

One wonders why Gauri is so excited about a middle aged man’s gaze, so excited that his sight accelerates her heart, makes her limbs taut and produces “a damp release between her legs.”  She follows him one day and sees him kissing a woman.  Then she walked into a women’s room, “and she could not help herself, she pushed her hand up her shirt, to her breast, caressing it, another hand unzipping her jeans, hooking her fingers over the ridge of bone, her forehead against the cold metal of the door.  It took only a moment to calm herself, to put an end to it.”  She avoided the man altogether after that.

All the major characters in the novel seem to live that kind of a life of masturbation: finding some kind of delight, however transient, in one’s own personal occupations or ideologies or concerns.  Neither they nor the readers are blessed with any sense of fulfilment.

I went through the novel again, rapidly though, after finishing the first reading in order to find out whether I had missed out something significant.  No, I couldn’t really find anything.  I was disappointed.  This is not what I had expected from the author of the brilliant stories in Interpreter of Maladies


Acknowledgement: Thanks to a student of mine who lent me his personal copy of the novel. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Teacher


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Vasavadatta lay dying.  Upagupta came to teach her the lesson she had never learnt in her life.

Vasavadatta was beautiful.  She had admirers.  The admirers came with gifts and laurels.  She realised too late that men were making use of her.  Making use.  Making her a commodity.  Making her body a commodity.  They admired her lips.  They admired her breasts.  They admired her thighs. 

They fucked her.  In short.

They showered gifts upon her.  She became rich.  She became a capitalist.  There was also the religion to support her.  God was behind her.  She thought that God was with her.

It was by pure chance that Vasavadatta met Upagupta, a Buddhist monk.  Tall and lanky, seeing but not leering, looking and also seeing, Upagupta was different from all the men that Vasavadatta had seen so far.  So different from all the men who had seen only her body.

Upagupta did not fuck her.  But Vasavadatta wanted to be fucked.  For the first time in her life Vasavadatta desired to be fucked. 

“Fuck me,” she pleaded.

“A time will come,” said Upagupta. 

Vasavadatta waited.  Waited for months.  Waited for years.  For the promised time.

And Vasavadatta fell ill.  With too much fucking around. 

Nobody wanted her anymore.  She became filth.  Filth thrown around by men who ruled the world.  By the same men who had showered upon her all the wealth that was now spent for medicines that flourishing quacks and decadent babas.  Frauds had always something to sell.  Even if you lay dying.

Then came Upagupta.  “Sister,” said Upagupta.

"Won't you fuck me?" asked Vasavadatta when worms crawled all over her body. 

Upagupta became the teacher of Vasavadatta in the times of CCE (Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation, in CBSE curriculum).


Note: A diary entry written after attending an exam duty today in a CBSE school in Delhi. Inspired by the legendary story that must be familiar to all readers. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Destiny


One of O V Vijayan’s characters narrates a parable to show how we may not be able to alter our destiny, not much at least.

A bullock, one of a pair used for drawing a cart, prayed, “Oh God, why did you give me this destiny?  You have not only made me a cart-bullock but also fixed my place on the right side of the cart.  The driver uses his whip relentlessly and it is on my back it falls all the time.  If you can’t alter my destiny of being a cart-bullock, at least change my place from the right to the left side.”

God decided to grant the wish.  The bullocks and the cart were sold on the same day.  The new owner placed the bullock on the left side.  And the new driver was left-handed.

Well, I really don’t think that our destiny is entirely out of our control.  Some things are beyond our control, but some are certainly within control.  For example, Mark Antony’s meeting with Cleopatra might have been beyond his control, but choosing to let Rome melt in the Tiber of his lust was his choice.  Or should we say that the lust was in his genes and the genes were not his choice?  Such a line of argument will lead us to absolute determinism, and then we will be nothing more than puppets in the hands of destiny.

Sisyphus
I accept the view of the Existentialists that we mould our destiny to a large extent by the choices we make. 

Sometimes we may feel like Vijayan’s bullock, unable to make any meaningful choice.  We can, then, alter our attitude to the given destiny.  Like Sisyphus*, we can take the boulder as a challenge, or we can even fall in love with the boulder. Even Sisyphus is not without choices, you see.


*Note: Sisyphus is the Greek mythological hero who was punished by gods to roll a boulder to the zenith of a hill.  But just before he touched the zenith, the gods would push the boulder down.  French philosopher and novelist, Albert Camus, wrote a brilliant essay titled ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ in which Camus argued that our life was not much different from what Sisyphus was condemned to do.  But how we carry out the task of living is our choice.  

Monday, March 10, 2014

Prose, Poetry and Life



“You live in a dream world – a haze of poetry and fuzzy ideas about revolution.  To build something is not the same thing as dreaming of it: building is always a matter of well-chosen compromises.”  (214)

One of the themes of Amitav Ghosh’s novel, The Hungry Tide, is the futility of effete idealism and the inevitable need for compromises.   Nirmal Bose is the effete idealist to whom his wife, Nilima, speaks the above words.   A brief detention by the police for participating in the 1948 conference of Socialist International unsettled Nirmal so much that he could not continue his job as English lecturer in a Calcutta college anymore.  His physical condition deteriorated so much that his doctors advised a life outside the city.  The couple chose Sunderbans where Nirmal took up job as the headmaster of a school in Lusibari, one of the islands.  Nilima founded a Trust which built up a hospital for the people of the islands. 

Romantic dreamers like Nirmal will never be happy in life unless they see in reality the utopia of their dreams.  They fail to realise that utopia is an impossible ideal, that there is no reality on the earth which is not a mixture of good and evil.  The fate of such people is to cling to their illusion and die in despair.

Nilima is diametrically opposed to Nirmal, though she had fallen in love with him because of his revolutionary ideas.  She soon understands the futility of utopian ideologies.  Hers is a simple vision: do something that is real and useful to the people around.  There is no need of any ideology for that.  Simple humanity is enough.  Compromises are also inevitable, she knows.  “... you have no idea,” she admonishes her husband, “how hard we’ve had to work to stay on the right side of the government.  If the politicians turn against us, we’re finished.  I can’t take that chance.”  (214)
 
Amitav Ghosh
Nirmal, an ardent fan of Rilke’s poetry, thinks that people like Nilima live a prose-life, while he lives poetry.  Poetry is about dreams.  Revolution is the materialisation of a dream.   

In 1979, a chance for a revolution turns up again when one of the islands is taken over by refugees and the government wants to evacuate them since the island is a reserved forest.  Kusum, one of the leaders of the movement, becomes Nirmal’s new “muse”, much as he is attached to his wife.  “I felt myself torn between my wife and the woman who had become the muse I’d never had;” says Nirmal, “between the quiet persistence of everyday change and the heady excitement of revolution – between prose and poetry.” (216)

This new revolution costs Nirmal his life.  He dies for a cause that he perceived as noble.  Nilima lives on for a cause which she perceives as practical and more useful.

Piyali Roy, a young research scholar doing a survey of the dolphins in the waters of Sunderbans, is the protagonist of the novel.  She successfully combines prose and poetry in her vision of life.  She works in such a way that the wildlife is preserved and the ecology is well taken care of, but without compromising the welfare of the people living in the place. 

Fokir, the other chief character, lives the poetry of mythology.  If he had more gyan (knowledge) than gaan (singing) he would have been successful in life, according to Moyna, his wife.  But Fokir is happy with his songs about the mythical Bon Bibi (the deity of the islands).  In the dolphins he sees the messengers of Bon Bibi.  He is sure that the deity will protect him from all harms.  But his faith does not save him when the area is struck by a cyclone.  His death, however, saves Piyali’s life.  Fokir, the metaphorical poet, also dies for a noble cause.

Kanai and Horen, the other major characters, know how to “get on” in life.  They are practical in their own ways.  They live a purely prose-life.

Which way of living is right?  Prose or poetry or a combination of both? 

It’s not about right and wrong, the novel suggests.  It’s about what makes each one of us happy about our existence.  It’s about what adds meaning to our existence.  When Piyali says that for her home is where the dolphins are, Nilima says, “That’s the difference between us.  For me home is wherever I can brew a pot of good tea.”

A cup of good tea can make one’s life as happy as the passion for dolphins makes another.   What a utopian dream does to one may be done to another by the poetry of myths.  It’s better to let people find their own joys, their own meanings in life.


Note: All page numbers in brackets refer to the HarperCollins 2005 paperback edition of the novel.



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