Friday, May 29, 2015

Dmitry Karamazov and Father Zosima

Almost twenty years ago I attended a week-long retreat at a religious centre in Kerala.  A few circumstances in my life had conspired together to throw my inner life into absolute chaos.  When you are going through a protracted ordeal, you are quite sure to attract a lot of well-wishers.  Though many of these well-wishers are actually people who derive a secret delight by peeping into your agony, a few of them are genuinely interested in putting into practise all their pastoral skills.  A universal verdict was passed by all those who claimed to have diagnosed the condition of my soul: that I should attend a retreat.

A Catholic retreat usually consists of a series of sermons or religious lectures interspersed with prayer services culminating in the purgation of one’s sins through the confession.  Like the drowning man clutching at the floating straw, I embraced the retreat as fanatically as I could.

The preacher, the retreat guru, was informed by some of my well-wishers much before I enlisted about all the cardinal sins that had eaten into my soul like a pernicious cancer.  So I was the particular focus of the preacher’s devout attention throughout the retreat.  When the week was finally over – what a relief it was to be liberated! – I packed my bag and went to bid goodbye to the preacher.  There he was standing just at the gate of the retreat centre looking eager to ensure that I left the place.   As soon as he saw me approaching he joined his palms in a fervent Namaste.  His demeanour reminded me of Father Zosima in Dostoevsky’s Karamazov Brothers.

Dmitri Karamazov is a very troubled soul in the novel.  He is passionate, headstrong and reckless.  He goes to Father Zosima’s monastery to settle his quarrel with his father with the help of the monk.  Far from coming to an amicable resolution of their problem, the father and the son shout at each other in the presence of the monk.  Father Zosima suddenly kneels and bows his head to the ground at Dmitri’s feet. 

Father Zosima later attributed his gesture to his foresight of the great suffering that awaited Dmitri. 

My retreat preacher’s demeanour has remained in my memory like a vignette.  I abandoned religion altogether a little after the retreat.  Religion failed to dispel the darkness that was apparently smothering my soul.  But there was no way of extricating my soul from my religious well-wishers.  Hence I quit my job and left the place once and for all. 

A new place.  A new beginning.  Many years passed in peace since there were no altruistic well-wishers in the new place.  Nevertheless, the vignette continues to remain in my mind with undaunted tenacity.  Looking back at those days, I sometimes miss those well-wishers who gifted me the vignette.

PS. This post was provoked by the latest theme at Indispire: #Missme

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Michael and the Witch

Michael’s nights were haunted by the woods.  The woods were vanishing from real lands.  They were encroached upon by people who knew how to bribe elected leaders.  Thus residential apartments and health resorts replaced the woods.  Godmen and Ammas replaced the tree nymphs and the elves. 

The woods were lovely, dark and deep.  Michael had no promises to keep or miles to go before he could sleep.  In fact, sleep had deserted him.  Nymphs and elves haunted his nocturnal wakefulness.  The woods beckoned him.

Not all the forests were swallowed by human greed.  Michael lived at the edge of the greed.  His village was yet to be sold to builders and developers.  It would be sold soon, however.  An Adventure Park would replace the village. 

Michael drank the last bit of the distilled brew left in the bottle, mounted his cycle and went off whistling all the way to where the builders and bulldozers had not reached yet.  The moon was shining brightly in the midnight sky boosting the brewed intoxication in his veins.

He parked his cycle outside the huge wall of the last reach of development and walked into the woods.  A peacock shrieked a welcome.  You can experience life as a terror or you can experience it as a wonder, said the peacock.  Michael pinched himself. 

“Who are you?” Michael asked looking at the stooping old woman who appeared mysteriously in front of him.

“Viola, the witch,” she said with a grin that had no match with anything that Michael had seen hitherto.

“Why do you witches insist on looking so horrible?” asked Michael.

“If we don’t look horrible will we be witches?  Haven’t your poets and story tellers given us our shapes?”

“Can’t you change them?  I mean the shapes, not the poets and story tellers.”  Michael knew it was easier to convert rocks and monsters than poets and novelists. 

“How will you recognise us if we change shapes?”

“Try and see,” said Michael as if identity had nothing to do with appearances. 

“You are funny,” said the witch.

“OK, be my guest.  Smile a bit.”

The witch decided to cooperate.  But her smile was terribly warped.

Michael felt pity for her.  “You need my help, I think.”  He held her close to him and planted a very affectionate kiss on her lips.

“Hey!  What are you doing?  We are not characters in some fairy tale.  Do you think you’re some princely knight turning an ugly witch into a princess charming with a magical kiss?”

“You’re already looking better, you know!” exclaimed Michael. 

“True, I’m feeling better,” said the witch.

“So I’m your princely knight!”

“But I’m no princess charming.”  She shammed coyness.

“You’re still pretending, that’s why.”

“It takes time to change really.”

“Who’s asking you to change?”


“I only told you to feel better.”

“Will you come tomorrow too?”

“If it will help you feel better, I will.  But eventually you won’t need me.  Why don’t you walk with me to the edge of the forest?  I have to go home now.”

And they walked.  Whistling mirthfully.  Talking like old friends who had met after a long time. 

“You know what?” said Viola when they reached the edge of the forest.  “I feel like leaving the forest and coming to live in the city.”

“Oh, no!”  Michael didn’t know what to say.  After the initial hesitation born of shock, he said, “When I entered this forest the peacock told me something.”

Viola waited to hear it.

“You can experience life as a terror or you can experience life as a wonder.”

Viola liked that.

“Good night.  Sweet dreams,” he planted another gentle kiss on her lips.

Violas was still wondering which to choose: terror or wonder.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Undo Button

If there were an undo button in life, what would I undo?  This is the question raised by Anjana at Indiblogger this week.

Wishing to undo something is a sign of regret.  There are many things in my life that I have reasons to regret. But I choose not to regret.  I go with Don Juan, the “Man of Knowledge” in Carlos Castaneda’s many inspiring books, who advised us not to regret but make decisions.  Regrets don’t achieve anything.  To err is human.  To forgive or not to forgive is also human.  Forgetting certain errors makes life easier.  Learning from certain errors makes us wiser.  Undoing errors is only wishful thinking.  There is no undo button in life.

Could I undo my birth?  The ultimate absurdity of human endeavours would have made me wish that.  But I don’t want to be a Hamlet oscillating between a harsh reality and an undesirable alternative.  Nor am I pining for the Buddhist nirvana since nirvana is the inevitable end of every human being as far as I understand human life.  I am caught in the cycles of desire and delusion like all normal human beings.  I know that I have to move from one desire to the next, from one delusion to the next, until nirvana will descend on me one day as naturally as the leaf falls from the tree.  I hope the fall will be elegant. Graceful. 

In the meanwhile the leaf has to face the winds that blow and the showers that refresh.  The seasons cannot be undone.  The planets have to follow Newton’s laws of gravity.  Newton cannot be undone.  The stars will continue to shine until they burn out.  Gravitational collapses cannot be undone.  Black holes swallow their own light. 

We live in a black hole.  The event horizon surrounds us.  It warps light rays.  There is no undo button.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Hammer of God

The Hammer of God is a short story by G. K. Chesterton about two brothers, Wilfred and Norman.  While Wilfred is an exceptionally devout priest, Norman is a retired colonel who finds his delight in wine and women.  Wilfred’s attempts to inject some fear of God or the divine morality into his brother’s soul are only met with ridicule from the latter.  Finally the priest kills his brother.  Worse, he tries to put the guilt on Joe, the village idiot.

The theme of Chesterton’s story is the potential devilishness of self-righteous morality.   The self-righteously religious people see themselves as superior to the normal people who have certain weaknesses like lust and gluttony.  The self-righteous people prefer to pray alone in some corner or niche of the church or the Satsang, away from the sinners.  They may even ascend some mountain in search of their superior aloofness.  Standing at a height, actual or metaphorical, they begin to see the normal people as too small.  One can only see “small things from the peak” when one looks down.  Standing on the top of the mountain, if he were to look up he would have seen infinity stretching far beyond him.  The ordinary sinners in the valley look up and see things big. The self-righteous person looks down and sees everything small.  Revulsion enters his devout soul.  The revulsion wants to destroy evil which is its perceived cause.

The irony is that the devout religious person commits much bigger crimes than the ordinary sinners whom he judges as immoral.  Terrorists and other religious extremists are motivated by this revulsion.  Women wearing the dress of their choice are thus seen as greater sinners than their murderers who commit their hideous crimes in the name of divine morality.  A young man kissing his beloved while enjoying a romantic evening in a park is a bigger criminal for the religious person who is the lovers’ potential murderer. 

This kind of divine morality will set limits to other people’s liberties.  The Wilfreds among us will decide what we can eat and drink, how we should dress, which books we may read, and so on. 

Father Brown is a priest who doubles as an amateur detective in Chesterton’s stories.  “I am a man,” says Father Brown in the story cited above,  “and therefore have all the devils in my heart.”  Father Brown is not self-righteous.  He does not see himself as separate from the normal men on the earth.  He is aware of his weaknesses, the weaknesses that haunt every human being including himself.  Just because one becomes a priest or a guru, godman, Satsangi or whatever, one does not become entitled to sit in judgment over his fellow human beings.  Religion without compassion for fellow human beings is terrorism, though of varying degrees.  Religion without compassion and understanding of fellow human beings soon ends as a hammer of god.  Wilfred had killed his brother with a hammer.  

At the end of the story, Father Brown tells Wilfred, “You tried to fix it (the murder) on the imbecile (Joe, the idiot) because you knew he could not suffer.  That was one of the gleams that it is my business to find in assassins.  And now come down into the village, and go your own way as free as the wind; for I have said my last word.”

Father Brown does not judge.  He does not condemn the sinner.  He understands.  He understands that a man who cannot accept suffering himself but can pass it on to an innocent person who won’t ever understand it can’t be redeemed.  Redemption does not lie in any religious ritual, not in prayers however devoutly they may be recited from whichever altitude, not in setting up oneself above others.  Redemption lies in the ability to feel the pain of one’s fellow beings. 

Though Father Brown refuses to reveal the truth to the police, Wilfred goes to the inspector and says, “I wish to give myself up; I have killed my brother.”

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Point, Counterpoint

Today’s Hindu newspaper carries a number of articles on the one year of Mr Modi as Prime Minister. Except the one BJP supporter, none of the other writers has anything good to say about the year that India passed through.  I found it an interesting exercise to take the major arguments of the BJP spokesman, Ravi Shankar Prasad, and rebut them with the arguments given by the other writers.  Here’s a discussion I fabricated out of the views expressed by the four writers.
Ravi Shankar Prasad
R S Prasad: In just a span of 12 months, the NDA government has succeeded in restoring India’s image as a fast-growing economy.

Sitaram Yechuri: The statistical base year for national income accounts has been changed in order to project the GDP growth rate in better light.  Despite this, it is clear that the manufacturing and industrial growth are just not taking off.

Prasad: The government’s priority is the poor and the marginalised.
Sitaram Yechuri

Yechuri: The share of wages as a proportion of GDP now stands a little over 10 percent compared to over 25 percent in 1990-91.... The rich have become richer.  As per the Forbes list 2014, the 100 richest people in India are all U.S.$billionaires, i.e., 45 more than the figure of 55 in 2011.  The combined worth of these 100 billionaires comes to $346 billion. 

Prasad: The NDA government has restored governance and transparency in decision-making.

Pankaj Mishra
Pankaj Mishra: I think one has to think of Mr Modi along with Suharto, Lee Kwan Yew, and the CCP provincial bosses... These are all control freaks supported by the corporate and technocratic classes who prefer top-down solutions and rapid decision-making, and have contempt for anything that doesn’t directly advance their interests.  So the rise of the middle class in Asia has assisted the growth of authoritarian populism rather than democracy.

Prasad: Under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi, India has become a country of hope.  There is no gloom and despair, no apprehension...

Kapil Sibal
Kapil Sibal: Agriculture is in distress.  The growth rate in agriculture has come down to 1.1 percent from 3.7 percent in 2014.  More farmers are committing suicide than ever before. The average debt of 52 percent of all agricultural households is Rs 47,000 of which 26 percent is owed to private moneylenders – the root cause of farmer suicides.... The average price of select items consumed daily by people is higher than today than a year ago.... The promise to put Rs15 lakh in every citizen’s bank account from the recovered black money was an unethical and dishonest attempt to garner votes.... The Prime Minister appears to have forgotten about the issue of corruption and the Lokpal...

I would like to give the final words to:

Pankaj Mishra: Modi should learn from the Chinese their deliberate rejection of self-promotion. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Lessons in Secularism for India

Lesson No. 1

Firoze Mohomed Shakir (left)
Firoze Mohomed Shakir lives in Mumbai.  I have been haunting him like a ghost in some vague quest for quite a time in the virtual places I was permitted access.  His photographs, for example.  What drew me to him initially was his poetry which I used to read via  The poems were entirely different from the ones I had ever come across.  They looked initially like prose broken into arbitrary lines.  As I focused more I realized that secularism has as much hope in India as Sufism. Below is his latest poem that I have copy-pasted from his status update in Facebook.  The postscript also belongs to him.

[Dear Firoze, I hope you don’t mind my using you as a lesson. Personally, I’d rather be a Hindu (to use your words) than be religious!]

I Would Rather Be a Hindu Than Be a Wahhabi
i would rather be called a kafir 
than be a wahabbi 
i would rather be a hindu 
than be a wahhabi 
both options 
close to humanity 
one with 
my cultural inheritance 
of peace and brotherhood 
mutual tolerance sanity 
no i distance myself 
from your hate filled 
a shia pandit 
i am 
is enough for me 
these are my thoughts 
you dont have to agree 
at least here in india 
my lord is not 
held in captivity

I say this with pride I am a good Muslim simply because my parentage , my country my friends made me so.. I distance myself from those adherents that allow one Muslim to kill another Muslim.. yes I am a Hindu Shia.. A kafir and proud of what I am.....

Friday, May 22, 2015


Historically the Enlightenment refers to a paradigm shift that took place in the 17th and 18th centuries.  It was also called the Age of Reason because it emphasised the power of the human mind to liberate the individual and improve society.  It argued that knowledge can be derived only from experience, experiment and observation.  It encouraged people to use their own critical reasoning to free their minds from prejudice, unexamined authority, and oppression by their religion or the state.

The world made tremendous progress in science and technology because of the Enlightenment ideas.  Consequently human life was revolutionised.  Religion and the superstitions it generated took a backseat.  Priests lost most of their political clout.  Secular values spread considerably across the globe.  Science and technology gave us more leisure and luxury than we deserved.  More gadgets than we could handle with responsibility.  More individual liberty.  More selfishness too.

The Enlightenment is not merely a set of ideas, however.  It is a process.  Like all processes it has its dynamics.  Of late, we see that many values of Enlightenment are diluted by significant populations.  China, for example, is a country which embraced the scientific part of Enlightenment but rejected the individual rights.  There are far too many Islamic organisations which seldom accepted any value of the Enlightenment.  In the USA today, it would be impossible for any political party to come to power if it goes against the organised Christian religions there. 

In spite of all the corruption that had slowly eaten into the polity, India had remained loyal to the Enlightenment values from the time of its independence.  However, that’s changing too.  Right wing organisations are gaining strength weakening the secular fabric of the nation.  Minority rights are being suppressed in ways that are not always very subtle.  The history of the country is being rewritten with a view to lend a particular religious shade to the nation’s very foundations. 

The paradox is that while the Enlightenment secularism is trampled underfoot, the values related to science and technology are embraced with greater vigour.  This is a serious threat.  Science without scientific temper will produce technology that can be disastrous to the human race.  We are already witnessing the terrifying misuses of technology by people who never cared to understand science and the rational faculty that sustains it. 

In a recent book titled The Enlightenment: History of an Idea, author Vincenzo Ferrone argues that Enlightenment must be defended today as a tradition of critical thought rather than as a secular, political idea. Unless we learn once again to use our rational faculty, we are sure to land in a situation far worse than the human history ever witnessed.  Because we will have science as a weapon rather than as a way of understanding and enhancing life.  Weapons in the hands of people who don’t understand are the real threat we are faced with today.  One clear antidote is critical thinking.  Learning to question.  To question even the most persuasive speakers, the apparently charming ideologies, and even the sanctity portrayed on walls digital or concrete.

PS: I have not read Ferrone’s book.  Happened to read about it here.  The illustration is also adapted from the same site.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Gulliver in Dilliput

When Gulliver chose Dilliput from the list tourist destinations offered by the online operator, he was prompted by fervent Lilliputian nostalgia.  He could never forget those miniature creatures with so much national pride and cultural fervour.  He had read that Dilliput is inhabited by people with similar pride and fervour though they are far from being diminutive like the Lilliputians.

The King of Dilliput was on yet another foreign voyage when Gulliver visited.  But the Prime Minister was happy to receive Gulliver.  He explained to Gulliver the achievements of the King within a year of his coronation.  He boasted about the tremendous achievements of the King in turning around the plummeting economy of the country, Make in Dilliput programme which has given employment to millions of citizens, land acquisitions to take development to the villages, creating bank accounts for every Dilliputian with subsidised insurance against accidents as well as death, cleanliness drives, academic reforms, improving relations with neighbouring countries, rediscovering Dilliput’s past history and its glorious culture, and so on.

Gulliver walked through the streets of Dilliput in search of proofs for what was claimed by the Prime Minister.  He saw poverty and misery on the faces of people who begged or performed antics or sold knick-knacks at traffic signals, people sleeping on pavements or under flyovers, garbage spilling out of dumping places bearing slogans about Swatchchta, policemen closing one eye and shutting the other at the sight of crimes, women crying out for help from fleeing vehicles, children slogging in sweatshops, ragpickers, overcrowded hospitals... 

But what the Prime Minister said was also true.  There were signs of luxury and opulence in spite of all that murkiness.  The Big-Endians and Small-Endians coexist in Dilliput.  That’s Dilliput’s real greatness, thought Gulliver.

Unlike Lilliput, Dilliput does give a lot of freedom to walk, realised Gulliver.  He remembered the Lilliputian controversy about which end of the egg should be broken for cooking it when he heard about the restrictions on certain food items in Dilliput.  There were six rebellions in Lilliput on account of that one law which stipulated that all Lilliputians should break the small end of the egg since the Emperor’s finger was cut while breaking an egg at its big end.  Many books were written by erudite pundits of Lilliput about the new law.  But the books written by the Big-Endians were banned in Lilliput.  11,000 thousand people became martyrs for the cause of the liberty to break the egg at the end of their choice.  The neighbouring country of Blefuscu aided and abetted the revolutionaries.

Walking through the wide roads and narrow lanes of Dilliput, Gulliver became increasingly and acutely conscious of his own smallness though physically he stood a few inches taller than most Dilliputians.  Even the little children made Gulliver feel strangely diminutive. There’s an aura of mystery about this country, he decided.  Maybe the King himself will be able to dispel the mystery.  The King was the greatest orator of the country, he was told.

But the King was too busy visiting the world.  He had already visited 18 countries within a year of his coronation breaking the records of the best travellers in human history.  Telling the world that people of Dilliput felt proud to be called Dilliputians after he became the King whereas before his coronation people wondered what sins they had committed in their previous birth to be punished with a life in a country called Dilliput.  

“I’ll return,” decided Gulliver.  “When the King has finished convincing the whole world about the newfound greatness of Dilliput under his regime.”

Inspired by Amit Shah’s interview to the Times of India

Monday, May 18, 2015

Aruna: Paradoxes of Life

Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug passed away this morning.  She lived 42 years in a bed of King Edward Memorial Hospital, Mumbai.  A brutal rape had rendered her comatose.  The rapist spent seven years in the prison and became a free man.  His victim lived in a vegetative state as a question mark on many things.

The most controversial question her life raised was about the limits and possibilities of euthanasia when Pinki Virani, writer and human rights activist, moved the Supreme Court seeking euthanasia for Aruna in 2011.  Can anyone choose another person’s death however absurd that person’s life may be?  This was the question that the apex court was faced with.  Obviously, the court decided against Virani’s choice.  Yet can we blame Virani for what she did?  She was being compassionate to Aruna.  Compassion and justice need not always be on the same side of morality.  That was one of the paradoxes raised by Aruna’s life.

Aruna’s relatives in her home state of Karnataka had abandoned her a few years after the tragedy befell her.  They were helpless.  Her sister, the only relative who lived in Mumbai, died two years ago.  The doctors and nurses of King Edward Memorial Hospital became Aruna’s guardians, caretakers, people who fought against Virani’s compassion.  Was it love versus compassion?  I guess we cannot dismiss the hospital staff’s attachment to Aruna as mere sympathy.  If we call it love, the next paradox raised by Aruna is: can love and compassion be on opposite sides of human emotions?

What would Aruna say if she had the power to choose her destiny?  Would she choose Virani or the hospital staff?  Whatever her choice, it would have revealed yet another paradox of human nature.  

I salute all of the people concerned here.  Virani for raising the question about the possibilities of discovering the compassionate aspect of euthanasia.  The hospital staff for their tenacious tenderness.  And Aruna herself for her endurance, however passive, however conscious or unconscious it was, for being a profound question mark on many aspects of human life.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

No More Exams, O Boy!

CBSE has decided to do away with Board exams in class 10.  This is what the latest decision is:

I Scheme 1– there shall be no Board Examination at Secondary (Class X) level for students studying in the schools affiliated to the Board who do not wish to move out of the CBSE system after Class X.
Every School, Sahodaya Cluster or City may design its own date sheet for classes IX and X School Based Examination accordingly.

II Scheme 2 – is applicable to those students from affiliated schools who wish to move out of the CBSE system after Class X (Pre-University, Vocational course, Change of Board etc). Such students are required to take the Board’s External Examination at Secondary (Class X) level.
Question papers and Marking Scheme will be prepared by the CBSE and evaluation will be carried out by the Board through External Examiners.

Wow!  Don’t have to study anymore.

I have been teaching in a CBSE school for the last 14 years.  I have watched the change in the attitudes of students from the time CBSE made it easier for the students with decisions like making the Board exams optional in class 10 and introducing silly policies like CCE which were meant to make every student pass irrespective of his/her merit.  The students took everything lightly.  Only a few students wanted to learn anything seriously.  Those who were interested only in getting on with life somehow (which means passing to the next class, for a student) became a headache for the teachers.  And the teachers’ headache was aggravated by the management which chose to put all the blame for everything on the teachers.  The parents also loved to pass the buck to the teachers.  The judiciary banged its gavel on the heads of the teachers again and again with perverted pleasure by passing certain laws which effectually made the teachers the servants of the students. 

CBSE has done too much damage to the profession of teaching.  The profession has been converted into a kind of prostitution.  Consequently respectable people choose to stay away from the profession.  Helplessness is what prompts anyone to take to teaching now.

What can be done?

1.     Teaching is an art and it requires people who have the art in their veins.  Encourage them by all means.
2.     Do away with the present qualifying degrees and diplomas and tests (from the old B.Ed. to the latest CTET) and conduct a one-year course for aspiring teachers which will assess the aptitudes of the aspirants and then go on to work on those aptitudes after requesting the others to look for other jobs that suit them.
3.     Ensure that schools have proper administrative staff.  Presently those who fail in teaching profession seem to become administrators.
4.     Ban industrialists from establishing schools unless they are subjected to severe psychometric tests and found insane.   [Insane, I repeat.]
5.     Keep politicians as far away from schools as possible.  [Even if they are proved to be insane.]
6.     Keep religion out of the school. [Religion is too sane to involve itself with education.]

Exams won't be required if these suggestions are implemented.  

Am I serious?  I am.  I have qualified the psychometric test for insanity.

Saturday, May 16, 2015


I go to Moopan just as other people go to temple or church.  Moopan is my inspiration, my spiritual succour.

“Why don’t you let go, man?”  He asked when I mentioned my problem to him.  I had come to a situation in which I had to make a choice: whether to continue my job or turn to something else that my heart urges me to do.  “All through life people live like shopkeepers,” Moopan continued.  “How much profit did I make today?  Which items are the most popular?  What new item can I sell tomorrow?  Is this life?”

He paused and stared at me a while.  “Did you ever live your life?”  I could feel his gaze penetrating through my heart into something that I may call soul.  “All through life people tie themselves with a chain to something: wealth, generally.  You have your monthly salary.  Each day you calculate how much you can spend on what, how much you should save, how to evade the tax – not that those who handle the tax are any less bastards than you....”

“Let go the chain and see what happens,” he continued having poured himself another drink.  “Calculate a little less.  Think a little less.  Don’t try to understand everything.  Stand in some uncertainties.  Feel the wind around you.  Savour the flavour in the air.  Be.  Just be.”

I understood whatever he was saying.

“Yes, that’s precisely your problem,” he said though I hadn’t said anything.  “You understand everything.  Understanding is the problem.”  He turned away from me as he said the last words.  I knew it was time for me to leave him.

PS. My earlier Moopan episode: Ghar Vapsi
Moopan is as real a character as the ghost in A Ghost and a Secret

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Participial Phrase

“What is a participial phrase?” asked a teacher who was preparing for an interview because her school was being shut down by vested interests.

“No clue,” I said.  “Never heard of such a thing.”

She wondered how I had mastered the art of lying so quickly.  She refused to believe that I had not heard of such a thing as participial phrase.  She opened the grammar book she had brought (a fraction of which is here in the picture) and showed me the phrase. 

It was a grammar textbook for grade 8.  I flipped through the pages and realised how ineffective English language teaching is in our country.  My memory went back to my childhood when they taught me things like Vocative Case and other Cases all of which disappeared without a trace from English grammar eventually.

“See, dear,” I told the teacher, “I didn’t learn English by learning the grammar.  Did you learn your mother tongue by learning its grammar?”

She pondered a while and said, “No.”

“If I ask you about things like sandhi and samasam will it make much sense to you?”

“What are those?”

“Yup.  I think they are rules about how you join letters or words together to make sentences.”

“Aren’t I making sentences in my language without knowing these rules?”

“Of course, you are.  More significantly, you are speaking your language fluently and efficiently without knowing most of the rules that grammarians have made for it.”

She paused again.  Good student, I thought.  She must be a good teacher.  Only good students can be good teachers.

“Which came first then?  The language or its grammar?”  She asked.

“Isn’t the answer obvious?”

“Are you saying that grammar is immaterial?”

“Not really.”  I cited the example of an architect in my village in Kerala who has constructed umpteen houses.  He is illiterate.  He started working as a bricklayer and eventually became the master architect.  The buildings he makes may last longer than those which are made by architects trained professionally in some reputed universities.  You know, the Taj Mahal was not built by any university-trained architect.  Yet the builders knew the grammar of construction.  Without that knowledge they could not have built anything.  They leant the rules naturally.  The rules were in their blood in fact.  Of course, a teacher can be of much help.  To help them discover the rules which are already in their blood... Language is no different from architecture or any other art and craft.  It is much more natural, in fact.  Natural in the sense it comes to you automatically whereas architecture can come naturally only to those who have it in their blood.  Language is in everybody’s blood.  The child will speak even if you tell it to shut up.  The child speaks primarily for three reasons: (1) to express a need; (2) to draw attention to itself; and (3) to draw attention to something else.  These are all basic human needs.  Language is the primary tool for these.  It doesn’t need a teacher really.  It needs the environment.  Just like the architect in my village got the right environment for materialising what was already in his blood.  You know, language flows into the veins of the child along with the mother’s milk.  That’s why it’s called mother tongue.  And for learning another language, you have to become a child again.  Sucking it into your veins.

“How do I tell these things in the interview?” asked the teacher.

“Tell them that if they want their students to master a language they should create an environment that is bathed in the language.”

She was convinced.  But she thought I was crazy.  When she left I googled for participial phrase.  There it was staring at me like some missionary who was determined to baptise me with yet another unholy water.  

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Goat Days

The original Malayalam version of the novel, Goat Days, is celebrating its hundredth reprint.  The novel tells the story of a young man named Najeeb who goes to the Gulf from Kerala in the 1990s in pursuit of his dreams for a better life: a decent home, a TV with a VCP, some gold ornaments for the family... What he gets, however, is a solitary life with a herd of goats somewhere in the Arabian deserts.  He is trapped inescapably between the burning desert sands and the freezing lonely nights.  Every attempt of his to explore beyond the enclosure assigned to him is met with inhuman punishments.  The goats eventually become his friends, the only friends, so much so that he consummates the bond by mating with a she-goat one night.  His dreams do not die, however.  He is innocent enough to dream endlessly.  His innocence and the dreams born of that innocence help him to escape finally.

The novel is based on the experiences of a real person who is still living in Kerala, having returned home after his escape from his “goat days”.  The man still retains his innocence, says the author in the epilogue to the Malayalam version I read three years ago.  Penguin published the English translation three years ago, but I preferred to read the original Malayalam version and a friend in Kochi was generous enough to send me a copy.

Courtesy The Hindu
Certain judicial verdicts made in the present India reminded me strangely of Najeeb and his innocence.  People with political power, financial clout or some such influence can escape punishment in India, it seems, whatever their offence.  Evidences disappear miraculously for such people.  Or scapegoats carry their sins and go to prison.  Or their crime is trivialised to such an extent that they become the victims ostensibly more pathetic than the real victims.

The balance is highly tilted.  Social Darwinism has not only become the norm but also gained respectability.  Those who have clout of any sort can do anything at all and get away with it, however inhuman the deed.

Religious leaders can encroach upon reserved forests with the full support of the government and the judiciary.  Land mafia groups can subvert every law regarding acquisition of agricultural or other lands.  Educational institutions can disappear overnight to pave the way for shopping malls or tourist resorts.  Venal goons masquerade as moral guardians of the society.  Gods are peddled on the streets like cheap toys.  

Yet I dream.  Maybe, I’m a bit like Najeeb of Goat Days.  Maybe, I’m a fool.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Faith and Doubt

Book Review

One of the characters in Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, The Satanic Verses, argues that doubt rather than disbelief is the opposite of faith because disbelief is as certain as faith.  Doubt is uncertainty, a refusal to take sides.  Doubt is the ultimate openness towards phenomena.  Doubt can question both, faith as well as disbelief. 

Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book, Doubt: a History, is a masterpiece that presents to the reader all the great doubters from the ancient Indian Carvakas and the Greek Xenophanes to our own Salman Rushdie and Natalie Angier.  The best feature of the book is its readability in spite of the highly philosophical themes it deals with.  The next best is that it does not confine itself to philosophers, rather it discusses novelists, scientists, historians and others of some significance who have contributed to the history of doubt.

Thousands of people have been killed merely because they questioned certain religions.  In the heyday of Christianity and its colonial empires, doubters were killed mercilessly in the name of heresy and witchcraft.  Today Islam is doing the same thing in a different way.  Narendra Modi’s India has a unique way of bringing all Indians back to their original ghar.  

Doubt has driven the world forward, towards light and enlightenment, while religions have sought to keep it in certain degrees of darkness, the degree being determined expediently by the priest and the politician.  That’s why the French writer Denis Diderot (1713-1784) averred that “humanity would not be free until the last king is strangled in the entrails of the last priest.” [Quoted by Hecht, p. 347]

Hecht’s sympathies are with the doubters though she does not share my abhorrence of the religious people.  She knows that “great doubters are often more invested in religious questions than is the average believer.” [p. 364]  But her approach to the subject is very balanced and objective.  She quotes the Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), “Reader! To whatever visible church, synagogue, or mosque you may belong!  See if you do not find more true religion among the host of the excommunicated than among the far greater host of those who excommunicated them.” [p. 364]

Jennifer Michael Hecht
Jesus was a great doubter.  In fact, he questioned most of the beliefs and rituals of his religion, Judaism.  The more he doubted, however, the more he insisted on the importance of faith.  Faith was the ultimate means of redemption for him.  Yet his last words on the cross were, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”  Hecht says that these words could have been put into Jesus’ mouth by later editors of the Bible who wanted to make certain links between the New Testament and the Old Testament.  Jesus’ lament actually belongs to the Psalmist [Psalm 22].  Jesus, however, turned his religion upside down.  He brought faith and love in the place of the Jewish commandments and rituals.

I discussed the example of Jesus in slight detail to show that Hecht’s history of doubt is also a history of religions.  Anyone who is interested in understanding religions and/or religious doubt will find Hecht’s book a treasure.  It is written in the most lucid style possible.  It is even subtly witty at times.  It is indeed a masterpiece.

PS. Below are a few blog posts of mine inspired by this book: 
·         Galileo’s Truth
·         Marcus Aurelius Dies
·         God is within us

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...