Wednesday, October 31, 2018

RSS: A View to the Inside

Book Review

Title: RSS: A View to the Inside
Authors: Walter K. Andersen & Shridhar D. Damle
Publisher: Penguin Random House India, 2018
Pages: 405 [256 without Appendices and Notes]

The authors wrote another book on RSS 30 years ago. This new book takes a look at the organisation as it stands today in a different India which has catapulted it from the grey sidelines to the limelight. The book reads almost like an apology for the RSS.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh emerges in the book as a great organisation with some very noble objectives the primary of which is to “create a cadre of men who would unify a highly pluralistic country, using their own perfected behaviour as a model for other Indians” [xii]. The authors go to the extent of drawing some parallels with the Luther-led reformations that rocked the Roman Catholic Church. Even as Luther’s dramatic actions were rooted in his ‘crisis of identity’, “the RSS and its affiliates have also sought to provide messages that appeal to those searching for a new identity in a new world” [xvi].

Narendra Modi’s rise to power has altered the public image of the RSS so much that the organisation doesn’t hesitate to involve itself in policy matters openly now. Mohan Bhagwat’s 2017 Vijayadashami speech, for example, expresses much dissatisfaction with some of Modi’s policies which have adversely affected the small business owners and small-scale farmers.

Soon after the Gujarat riots in 2002, the number of RSS shakhas witnessed a steep decline from 50,000 to about 40,000. However, when Modi emerged as the unrivalled hero of the BJP in 2014, the RSS shakhas rose to 60,000. Modi knows that the country’s Hindu population is with him by and large and the RSS knows how to reap the benefits of that popularity.

The organisation has about 40 affiliates today like the Bajrang Dal and the Durga Vahini. The Hindu Swayamsevak Sena [HSS] is the foreign counterpart of the RSS and is very active in many countries. There are 172 shakhas of the HSS in America alone and the number is rising steadily. Some of these shakhas are very influential too so much so that even the American textbooks have had to make certain changes in their contents about the Hindus.

The history of India is being rewritten too by the affiliates of the RSS. One of these affiliates, Vidya Bharati, runs about 13,000 schools in the country with 3,200,000 students and 146,000 teachers making it “the largest private school system in India”. Ekal Vidyalayas is another organ of the RSS which runs schools in the remote rural and tribal areas and they have about 1,500,000 students though they are single-teacher schools.

In short, the RSS is a great organisation doing wonderful things in India as well as abroad. The book has entire chapters dedicated to discussing the Muslims in the country, the Kashmir problem, the meaning of Hindutva, the Ghar Wapsi exercises, cow protection and the Ayodhya issue. The RSS is presented in all these chapters as a benign organisation that struggles to uphold the country’s great ancient culture.

Is the organisation so benign after all? What about the mounting crimes perpetrated in the name of cow protection and other things? The authors conveniently ignore the dark side of the RSS and its affiliates. They seem to assume that the crimes are not significant enough to pay any attention to. The RSS has noble objectives and it will ultimately succeed in keeping its “sometimes fractious ‘parivar’ together by working out a consensus on contentious issues and keeping differences within the ‘family’” [256].

One wonders whether all Indians will accept the premise that the objectives of RSS are indeed noble. Why should all Indians accept the culture upheld by the RSS, for instance?  The authors brush aside that question remarking that the contemporary leadership of the RSS has redefined the meaning of Hindu to include Muslims and Christians as well. How many critics of the Sangh Parivar are willing to accept that facile answer? I wonder.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Make your life a fairy tale

A part of my bookshelf

Happiness is as simple and frugal as a glass of wine or a roast chestnut. I learned that from a book which I have read again and again, one of my favourite books. It is Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis.

I was introduced to Kazantzakis in my mid-twenties by a casual acquaintance. “Have you read The Last Temptation of Christ?” I was asked. I had heard about the book but was not aware that it was available at the Ernakulam Public Library whose member I was in those days. I made a beeline to the library as soon as I learnt about its availability. The book engrossed me so much that I sat up a whole night to read the latter half. I was hooked to Kazantzakis. I read all of his books which were available in that library and later at the State Central Library in Shillong. Later when I was teaching in Delhi I got personal copies of both Zorba and The Last Temptation.

I don’t know how many times I have returned to Zorba. I could just open any page randomly and find something inspiring whenever I was down in the dumps. The novel does not have any neat plot. As one of its earliest reviewers famously said, the novel is “plotless but never pointless”. 

I was quite the antithesis of Zorba in all those days. I could never imagine myself to be as gaily liberated as that cheeky yet profound old man. I was more like the young narrator of the novel who is seeking to gain wisdom from books. “You understand, and that’s why you’ll never have any peace,” Zorba shouts at the narrator angrily. “If you didn’t understand, you’d be happy.”

Life is not so much to be understood as to be experienced. There is an eternal rhythm in nature. The real sin is to violate that rhythm. When you tune yourself to that rhythm, you experience the Sacred Awe. The highest point one can attain is not knowledge, virtue or goodness – but the Sacred Awe. Life becomes a miracle once you reach that point. Life is a fairy tale.

As I’m approaching Zorba’s age, I have become a little like him. A little. A fraction of his wisdom has seeped into my soul. And my life is quite like a fairy tale. I know what it is to have no ambition and yet work like a horse as if I had every ambition.  I have learnt to live far from men, without needing them, and yet to love them. I have learnt to listen to the music of the oceans and the mountains.

PS. Written for Indispire Edition 245: #BestFriendBook

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Sunday, October 28, 2018

Mullaperiyar Dam and the Threat

Russell Joy speaking at the seminar at Vazhakulam

I spent the weekend evening listening to a lecture on the threat posed to the state of Kerala by the Mullaperiyar dam. The speaker was Advocate Russell Joy, one who has been crusading for quite a while for the decommissioning of the dam. Recently he got a court order to maintain the water level in the dam at 139 feet instead of 142 as stubbornly demanded by Tamil Nadu.

What precisely are the problems caused by the dam? How did these problems arise? I was curious to know and was happy to listen to Advocate Joy who has become quite an authority on the subject because of the relentless research he has done.

First of all, the dam’s lifespan was 50 years, says the advocate. The engineer who designed it had declared that. The dam was repaired by Tamil Nadu and some support structures were added. Such a support is no guarantee whatever. The dam may give way at any time.

During the recent deluge that engulfed Kerala, Tamil Nadu disregarded the court injunction about the water level and allowed the water in the dam to rise to 145 feet. It was done just to “prove” to Kerala as well as others that the dam was strong enough to hold the water. Joy says that Tamil Nadu was terribly insensitive and callous to do that, however. In fact, the letter written by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister in response to his Kerala counterpart’s request to lower the water level was a mockery of a people who were grappling with a catastrophe.

Secondly, the contract which awards the Mullaperiyar waters to Tamil Nadu is not legally tenable. It was a contract signed between the King of Travancore and the British government in the 19th century. Advocate Joy managed to get a copy of that contract with much difficulty and more luck. The contract was yet another instance of the typical British skulduggery. The Travancore King was dragooned into signing it. The real motive was not supplying water to areas of Tamil Nadu but plunder the wealth in the verdant forests of the area.

The day India became independent the Travancore King declared the contract invalid. All contracts signed between Indian kings and the British became automatically invalid when India became independent. Yet this one contract, the Mullaperiyar one, continued to be in force!

What is really incredible is that this contract was signed for 999 years while all other such contracts between the British and the Indian kings were signed for 99 years. In 1970 the Kerala government with uncommon magnanimity renewed that contract. Advocate Joy asserts bluntly that a few politicians of Kerala sold the people of their own state for personal aggrandisement. Many of these politicians received due benefits from the Tamil Nadu government in the form of land or resorts or money in exchange for the renewal of the Mullaperiyar contract. J Jayalalithaa herself had hinted about this once, he says.

Joy is fighting a case in the court all on his own. He wants an expert international team [international, because there are no such experts in India] to examine the safety of the dam. “This is a matter that involves the lives of millions of people,” he says. The flippancy with which both Kerala and Tamil Nadu governments have dealt with it so far is unpardonable. Joy is certain that an expert team will recommend nothing less than the decommissioning of the dam.

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Thursday, October 25, 2018

Lie in the Heart

Lying to yourself is one of the most self-destructive things, said one of Dostoevsky’s characters. “The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him or around him and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”

Have we as a nation arrived at the zenith of falsehood and the consequent impotence to love?

The latest incident that makes me raise this question is the removal of the CBI chief Alok Verma and his entire team. The Prime Minister misused his powers to take this illegal and unconstitutional action. As the Opposition has pointed out, “The only plausible explanation for this desperate and hasty move is an attempt to scuttle the ongoing investigations into the Special Director’s [Rakesh Asthana who is Modi’s mole] cases that might cause significant embarrassment to [the] Government.”

Too many individuals who became a threat to the Prime Minister’s dictatorial and depraved ways have been victimised in different ways. Hundreds of genuine NGOs were put to sleep merely to pave way for Modi’s free march on the royal road to despotism. Almost all institutions of any significant influence have been populated with right wing adherents. The country’s history is being rewritten. Textbooks are tampered with. Young minds have been perverted.

More and more people are learning to lie to their own hearts. Their survival depends on mastering that craft. Or they have been brainwashed without their own knowledge. The distinction between truth and falsehood has vanished. Rather, truth has vanished. Has become irrelevant, unsustainable.

There are 36 official and scores more unofficial organisations working in the country at present with a single-minded dedication towards a goal that does not seem to be quite noble if we consider the means employed. One can only hope that the elections coming next year will make a meaningful difference to the nation.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Satanic Saints

Let idealism live as long as it can!

A group of my students visited an industry today as part of their curricular activity. They returned looking very ebullient because the industrial complex looked perfect to them: immaculately clean, professionally managed, subsidised food in the canteen, a managing director who is not only highly religious but also an excellent motivational speaker, and so on. They were also given a gift hamper each which contained the religious publications of the organisation that runs the industry. One of the students thrust into my hand a book written by the owner of the industry and said, “Sir, please read this.” I turned a few pages. I am a rapid reader. Within seconds I understood that the book was of no use to me. I returned it to the student saying, “I don’t think this will serve any purpose for me.” The student refused to take it back. She said, “Read it, Sir, for my sake.” I accepted it. I read most of it in a few minutes during my free period which followed. It was entirely based on the Bible and the discourses were peppered with anecdotes about people who were converted to better spiritual and more fulfilling life by the writer through his religious preaching sessions.

After the school was over I mentioned to a colleague the book and the way I was forced to read it.

“Do you know anything about that man?” My colleague asked me.

“I have seen his photo on certain posters in my village. I know that he is a religious preacher and the posters advertised his religious sessions.”

“Yes,” my colleague said, “he is a preacher who earns in millions.”

“Religion is a good business nowadays,” I said indifferently.

“That’s fine. But do you know what he does with his employees in that industry which our students visited?”

I said the students were all electrified by the ideal conditions that prevailed there.

“The staff are paid a pittance there,” my colleague said. “Most of them work there because they have no better alternatives. They are treated like cattle. If they are late by a minute to report for their duty, they are penalised. They are exploited inhumanly.”

That shook me. “But the man is a religious preacher who apparently performs miracles!” I was aghast.

“His religion is a facade.”

I know, like my colleague, that we cannot tell that to our students. Let their exhilaration remain as long as it can. Let idealism live as long as it can in young minds. But I continue to be stunned, in spite of my awareness of all sorts of fraudulence practised by all sorts of religious people, by the disparity between what I had just read in that inspiring book and the reality behind it.

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Monday, October 22, 2018

Devil’s Advocate

Book Review

The subtitle of Karan Thapar’s memoirs is The Untold Story. The tantalising nature of that notwithstanding, there is little that is particularly new in the book except certain personal details about the author in the first few chapters. The first 6 chapters are about the author’s childhood, youth and education. The remaining 11 are about the politicians he encountered along the way as a journalist and particularly about the interviews he had with them.

The book was not meant to be a serious work, Thapar acknowledges in the Epilogue. He had time on his hands and a book of this kind felt “like an easy, even interesting, way of occupying” himself. Readability was his key concern, he says. And the book is eminently readable. It reads like a personal conversation that the author has with the reader.

Thapar comes across as a thorough professional as an interviewer who is at the same time a friendly person provided one knows how to draw the line between professionalism and friendship. We come across in these pages certain personal aspects about the various personalities whom he interviewed. The personalities range from Benazir Bhutto who was Thapar’s friend during his student days in England to Narendra Modi who remains a threat to the author because of his petty-minded vindictiveness.

The book brings us face to face with quite a few eminent politicians, mostly Indians. More than any “untold story”, what really makes the book interesting is the personal, casual way Thapar narrates his stories. 

Thapar tells us that it is quite impossible “for an independent journalist to fit into the government system without damaging his or her integrity and credibility.” So he didn’t last long with Doordarshan which he joined with the blessings of Rajiv Gandhi. He had taken a break from his journalistic career in England to give it a try in India. He succeeded in India but not with Doordarshan.

The book throws glimpses into the characters of the politicians whom Thapar interviewed as part of his job. There is really not much that is new to readers who know these politicians. Yet the book is an interesting read because of its conversational and amiable style. Here’s an example of that style:

I’ve always believed that he’s [L K Advani] a liberal and secular man who uses religion for political or strategic purposes. Ironically, Jinnah was similar. Neither man was prejudiced against people of other faiths. Indeed, Jinnah wasn’t particularly religious and I’m not sure if Advani is either. No doubt he’s a believer, but the rituals and practices of Hinduism play little part in his behaviour and outlook. [p.125]

The only chapter which demanded particular attention to details, according to Thapar himself, is the last one which is about Narendra Modi. The outcome is easily visible too. The character of Narendra Modi becomes more and more vivid as the chapter progresses unlike in the other cases which offer us superficial glimpses only.

While Modi appears to be a great leader, there is another Modi who “is narrow-minded, sectarian, mean-spirited and a prisoner of his limitations,” says Thapar candidly. This mean character is vindictive too. He walked out of the only interview he granted to Thapar after just three minutes and eventually forbade the entire BJP from appearing in any Thapar show. Eventually Thapar learnt that Modi had vowed revenge against him. We know how vindictive Modi is from what has happened to the many persons who dared to challenge him in various capacities such as writer, blogger or police officer.

I wish Thapar had paid similar attention to details in the other chapters too so that all those leaders discussed in them also would have made more vivid encounters with the reader. Nevertheless, the book makes a unique appeal to the reader because of the unassuming way the narratives are presented.  

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Educating the soul

“School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is,” said Ivan Illich in his book, Deschooling Society. He went on to accuse the teaching-learning system of confusing “process and substance”. “Once these [process and substance] become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results… The pupil is thereby ‘schooled’ to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is ‘schooled’ to accept service in place of value.”

Half a century after Illich wrote those words, the academic situation has only worsened. It is producing robots with specialised expertise but without certain desirable values. This has happened largely because we live in a global system that has given undue importance to wealth and wealth creation. Wealth is the ultimate determiner of success in the globalised world. Wealth is the final goal of life.

There is nothing wrong with creating wealth. On the contrary, wealth is good and let there be more of it. But the services offered by the expert should have other objectives than mere creation of wealth for himself. The medical expert should place the wholesome health of the patient above all other considerations. The engineer should seek perfection in his work, and so on.

We have coaching institutes that fill the brains of our students with more and more knowledge or information that will help them pass the entrance exams which are becoming increasingly tougher. Those who can’t pass those gruesome tests may buy admissions to the institutions of higher learning by bribing. Either way, the admission is quite ‘costly’ and once the learning is over the person is naturally driven to making up for the costs.

Perhaps, the solution lies in altering the global system itself. Instead of wealth, certain basic human values should become the focus of the entire system itself. Even our religions have degenerated into money-minting institutions.

The latest In[di]spire theme #EducationSystem prompted me to write this. Blogger Vartika Goyal suggested the theme wondering whether the present system is encouraging only bookish learning to the detriment of practical skills. At school level, perhaps, the concern is valid because little stress is laid on practical skills at school. However, the higher education levels produce excellent doctors, engineers and other professionals. What it fails to create are good human beings.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Sabarimala and Women

Kerala coast: A photo from the year 1900

A century and a quarter ago, Swami Vivekananda called Kerala “a lunatic asylum.”  The prevalent caste system demeaned all but the Brahmins and their associates. The Namboothiri men could have sex with the Nair women of their choice by an arrangement called Sambandam [morganatic marriage]. The upper caste men brazenly exploited the women of the lower castes. Women of the lower castes were forbidden from covering their breasts. Women were treated on the whole as nothing better than goods and chattels.

According to a legend, Kerala was created by Parasuram, an incarnation of God Vishnu. This divine avatar did not hesitate to kill his own mother and brothers just to please the ego of his father. The father’s ego was hurt merely because his wife admired a prince who was bathing in the river along with his women. Marital fidelity is an Indian wife’s bounden duty. No other man should enter even her thoughts though the man could enter any woman’s petticoat.

In most parts of India women were nothing more than possessions of men. Kerala had its own unique ways of commodifying the women.

The Sabarimala Temple forbids the entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50. The presiding deity of the temple, Ayappan, is a perpetual celibate who does not wish to be tempted by women. Did the god make the rule, however?

Who made all the rules for women? For example, who made the rule of Sati? Of purdah? Of restrictions placed on widows? Of temple entry or non-entry?

The world has gone far ahead of regressive regulations and traditions. Why does India bury itself deeper and deeper into obscurantist thinking and practices? Genuine spirituality should liberate people from the darkness of all evils. The current wave of spirituality that is sweeping the country is doing just the opposite: it is enslaving people.

The country stands in great need of another Vivekananda.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Kayamkulam Kochunni

Kayamkulam Kochunni is Kerala’s own Robin Hood. He is believed to have lived in the 19th century and his tomb is still preserved in good condition at the Pettah Juma Masjid in Thiruvananthapuram. There is a shrine dedicated to him in Kozhencherry, Kerala. A new Malayalam movie was released last week based on his legends and whatever history is available.

This is not a review of the movie though I watched it yesterday with much interest. The cinematography is excellent and the landscapes refuse to leave your memory long after the movie is over. What fascinated me really is the theme of exploitation of the poor by the rich, the powerless by the powerful.

“Who makes the rules?” Kochunni asks at one part of the movie. He gives the answer too: “The Brahmins make the rules for their own benefits. Why should we obey them?”

Kochunni becomes a brigand. The social system makes him one, rather. Certain higher caste people made use of him for their personal aggrandizement and then they conspired to eliminate him. His fiancée is made an outcast as she belongs to a low caste and hence was forbidden to marry a man from a different religion. Kochunni was a Muslim.

Kochunni dedicates his life to the service of the marginalised people. He plunders from the rich and gives to the poor. He rewrites the rules written by the rich in order to exploit the poor. “You do the cultivation and the harvesting, yet you starve and they enjoy the fruits of your labour,” he tells the poor people. However, none of them has the power to change the system. The system always belongs to the rich and the powerful. Hence Kochunni becomes an outlaw.

We now live in a democratic system in which the power belongs to the citizens. Does it really? No, not at all. The citizen’s power stops at voting a candidate. After that the leaders make the policies. If the leader has his own personal agenda, as we now have in India, many sections of citizens become victims. Just like in Kochunni’s time.

The movie left me wishing for a better leader in the country. Is there anyone emerging from the darkness that has enveloped the country?

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Yes to the World

My first trekking in the Garhwal Himalayas was a decade and a half back. Along with a few colleagues, I was asked to take a group of students to Hemkund whose altitude is about 15,000 feet. On the first day we trekked from Govindghat to Ghangaria. It took us almost the whole day to reach our destination because it was raining in the entire afternoon and we were not prepared for it. Drenched to the marrow of our bones, we continued to climb up and up ignoring the weariness that knocked inexorably against our knees. We reached our destination by sunset.

An icy cold bath in the morning filled me with the vigour required for the next lap of the trek, the steep ascent from Ghangaria to Hemkund. That first date of mine with the mountains urged me to undertake many more treks to equally challenging peaks in the Garhwal Himalayas in the next many years. I cannot claim that I learnt to trust the mountains blindly, but I realised that the mountains have a unique charm and that they offer a romantic challenge.

That is why I find my soul longing to walk into Bhutan and trek to the Tiger’s Nest without a crowd for company. My wife and I along with a guide who is non-intrusive and self-effacing. The trek won’t terminate at that monastery, however. I would like to walk on, walk across national borders, walk into the mysteries of the Eastern rugged terrains, into forbidden cities, walk with the liberty of the birds, walk on without passport and visas, and make an endless date with the world.

That would be my ultimate Yes to reality. Reality is an infinite spectrum from the microcosmic pebble at your feet to the stars and the black holes in the endless cosmos out there. Somewhere along my trek, will I grow the wings required to fly into that infinite space and its mysteries? I wish I would.

I say yes to the little pebble and the giant star, and everything that comes my way; yes to the freezing wind in the mountains and the scorching heat of the deserts; yes to the humming bees and the stinging fleas; yes to the amazing grace of the rivers and the forbidding façade of the cliffs. What else is a meaningful life but an affirmation of what lies ahead of us at each step?

Will I meet Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince somewhere along the way? I wish I would. And listen to him say, “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

My Yes will resound in the infinite spaces. Let it be a Yes that comes from the perceptive heart.

PS. This has been inspired by Lufthansa’s exciting new campaign: #SayYesToTheWorld and #TheBlindList.
My Blind List is highlighted in the text.

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Sunday, October 14, 2018

When foul is fair

The Way longs to be born

The tragedy of the contemporary world is not so much that there is a dearth of human values as that hardly anyone seems to be interested in values at all. People have not only accepted that corruption is an integral part of politics, religion and any system but have also started justifying it. It is quite scary when prominent BJP leaders like Nitin Gatkari and Amit Shah tell us frankly that their party’s electoral promises were not made seriously. While the former said that the promises were made because they had never imagined the party to win the elections, the latter bluntly called the promises “chunavi jumla” [electoral gimmick].

What is bizarre is that people accept such explanations as morally right. People like Gatkari and Shah have gifted the country a new ethical code by which anything and everything is alright as long as you are a winner. Their supreme pontiff, Narendra Modi, marched to glorious heights by doing things that would make the foulest devil in hell blush. It is only natural that the citizens will jettison all moral codes gaily when they have such rulers and leaders.

More and more women are coming forward with narratives about the harassments they had to face from people who were heroes for many of us. M J Akbar is someone whom I held in high regard until the new narratives hit the media like blizzards. His resignation is not going to make any difference to the contempt I feel for him now. He can redeem his lost honour only by acknowledging his guilt openly and making whatever atonement he can. He owes it to himself and the people for whom he meant much.

The same holds good for others too. People like Narendra Modi and Amit Shah too should set an example for the nation by mending their ways. Accepting one’s errors is the first step towards making a new beginning. And the nation deserves a new beginning.

The nation deserves a new beginning merely because we are standing at the nadir of the moral continuum. When the people know that their leaders are morally depraved persons and that these persons are becoming more and more powerful and successful, it is only natural that the people question the validity of their own personal morality. If the foul is fair, why should one be fair? How can one be fair?

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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Being Enlightened

Devil’s Advocate is Karan Thapar’s memoirs which I’m currently reading. One of the first chapters is dedicated to his wife Nisha who was a Goan Catholic whom he met in London and fell in love with. He agreed to marry her in the church and the priest who blessed their wedding was Father Terry Gilfedder who was an enlightened priest, according to Thapar.

“He was the first Catholic priest I got to know,” says Thapar about Father Terry. “And he’s the only genuine man of God I have ever met. So when I encounter others of the cloth, I judge them by his standards. They always fall short.”

Giving due respect to Thapar’s faith, Father Terry asked him to choose a passage from the Bhagavad Gita instead of the biblical passage usually read during the wedding mass. But Thapar was not familiar with the Gita. Hence the priest chose a passage from Kahlil Gibran instead. Thapar questioned the priest whether such “cross-cultural ecumenism” was permitted by the church. Father Terry’s answer was, “It’s not where it comes from that matters. It’s what it says that counts.”

Only an enlightened person can hold such a view. One of the primary criteria of enlightenment is openness to reality and the multi-facetedness of its truths.  No enlightened person will dare to measure truths with the tiny spoons of one’s own religious faith and its scriptures.

Profound truths of life are not confined to any particular religion or particular scriptures. Any good work of literature can teach us those truths. Why only literature, even a work of art, a piece of music, a river, almost anything can be source of spiritual enlightenment. What matters ultimately is not the source but the effect. Enlightenment is the desired outcome.

One of the basic tests of enlightenment is compassion. The enlightened person is a deeply compassionate creature. He feels empathy for his fellow creatures. Hatred and other negative emotions have no place in his heart. The enlightened person brings light where there is darkness, joy where there is sorrow, hope where there is despair…

We live in a time when there is too much religiousness and little spiritual enlightenment. Too much passion and too little compassion. No, what we have are not genuine religions but just sentiments without any soul.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Errors and Lessons

I have on occasion described my life as a series of blunders. The mistakes taught me the inevitable lessons too. Perhaps, what makes life really meaningful, if not particularly charming, are the lessons we learn from our own mistakes. The errors and the subsequent learnings indicate that we have been on a quest of our own instead of blindly embracing given truths.

“The biggest mistake of my life was joining St Edmund’s as a lecturer,” as I write in my forthcoming memoirs, Autumn Shadows. “Shame was the ultimate gift I received from St Edmund’s, the ultimate recompense of the narcissist.” Narcissism is a grave sin unless you know how to piggyback on it to conquer peaks of success. I was a born loser for whom success was a tantalising mirage. The Principal, staff and students of Edmund’s caught hold of the shame of the loser in me, shook it out and held it up for the whole world to see. Then I became less than the shame.

The world will love narcissists provided they know how to be winners. Otherwise they are doomed. In one of the poems I wrote in those days, I described myself as a clown on the trapeze. The first half of the poem went thus:

Each faltering step, each fall of mine,
Makes you burst out into laughter:
Because I am the clown in the pack
Because the motley is my birthmark.

Each swing of leotards on trapezes
Sighs in comic relief in the tail of my coat:
Because the show must go on
Because the Master is watching it.

The Master remained beyond my visibility like the Orwellian Big Brother or the authority in Kafka’s worlds. The Big Brother finally succeeded in decimating my narcissistic ego, and me too in the process. I left the place in shame. I have never been able to cleanse myself of that inheritance from St Edmund’s College, Shillong.

The lessons I learnt from that shame have served me well in later life, however. It taught me modesty and reticence [except in writing]. It taught me the importance of silence in many places. I learnt to efface my soul so much so that the comic relief is my abiding consolation now. That comic relief is one of the greatest lessons I learnt, the best gift of my Edmundian blunder.

PS. Written for Indispire Edition 242:

Saturday, October 6, 2018

How to keep pets and cleanliness

My Dictator

French writer Anatole France was of the opinion that “Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” I would have laughed at him until a few months back.

Animals were a strict no for me until a kitten walked into my life quite unexpectedly. I used to associate animals with filth and I was fastidious about cleanliness inside and around my home. Maggie was even more fastidious than me. So when Kittu came along we naturally kept him outside the house. We fed him regularly but he meant nothing more to us than an animal that had to be kept off our personal limits.

Eventually, however, we started buying the food which he liked keeping aside our own tastes. It was then that Maggie and I started realising that Kittu had become an integral part of our meagre family. He soon found his place inside the house. Within no time he became the master of the house. Both Maggie and I wondered how we learnt to tolerate his omnipresent dictatorship.

We could never drive him out simply because he had stolen our hearts. Instead of driving him out, I searched for ways of keeping the house clean while having a cat as a pet. I learnt to clean my sofas and chairs by sprinkling baking soda liberally on them and vacuum cleaning the furniture thoroughly after half an hour. I learnt to observe Kittu’s eating habits and to buy the food he loves. I visited the supermarket just for his sake. My friend in the village considers me mad. He doesn’t understand what the cat means to me.

The cat has taught me the meaning of love. My friend loves dogs because dogs are faithful. Dogs will die for you. Kittu enjoys all the attention I lavish on him and then he vanishes entirely for hours to return only when he needs me again for his food. Unlike a dog, he is not at all obedient. He doesn’t even let me clean him when he returns home. He has his own cleaning mechanism which he doesn’t like to be meddled with. He is a little dictator.

He is my alter ego, Maggie says. That’s quite true too. But that’s not why I love him. I love him because he has stirred certain depths of my soul. He has taught me the nuances of love. He has taught me to love him in spite of what he is. He may love me in return or he may not: that’s entirely his choice, I have no say in that whatever. And I love giving that liberty to him.

I learn to love by giving that liberty to the other person to be him-/herself. Love makes no demands. No conditions. Love gives. That’s all. Love endures the rest.

Is it possible to do the same with human beings? It is easy to deal with pets provided you are willing to spare enough time to clean up the mess they make occasionally. What about human beings?  Honestly, I have done the same with my students and got fantastic rewards. Human beings love you much more than cats and dogs when you let them be themselves. Help them be themselves. That is love: letting the other be, be him-/herself. Love is the process of awakening the soul: your own and the loved one’s.

PS. Written in response to a comment to my last post: Love

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Thursday, October 4, 2018


I never loved anyone until I married at the age of 35. Maggie taught me love with her agonised endurance of my narcissistic whims and fancies. I was not aware of her agonies until the bubble of my ego burst under certain pressures imposed on it brutally by a few self-appointed benefactors. While I’m grateful to the benefactors for their ruthless devotion to their task, I could never forget the fact that they overdid it with more zeal than the medieval crusaders. Some scars left by crusaders remain with you until your end.

The lessons are obvious enough, however. One, love endures, agonises and transforms. As one of the first Christian missionaries, Saint Paul, said, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” [1 Corinthians 13:7] Saint Paul was an ardent crusader too. But he knew that “Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” He did not say that love transforms. But it does. Maggie transformed me. Years later, today, my love has transformative effects on some of my students, as they have told me.   

Lesson two is that narcissists don’t love others. They love only themselves. Perhaps that is not love at all. It is a less loathsome camouflage for self-hatred. The narcissist is like the man on top of a cliff: everybody below looks small to him and he looks small to everybody else. While listening to Prime Minister Modi, I have often wondered whether he isn’t that man on top of a lonely cliff. But it is his narcissism that drove him there; he elbowed out everyone on the way to reach there – everyone including his wife. I have also wondered what would have happened if he had started loving people somewhere on the way. India’s history would have been significantly different. Only hate-mongers can idolise narcissists and their tribe is increasing in contemporary India.

A corollary I learnt in the process of learning to love was that most benefactors including missionaries are not motivated by love. They have many other motives some of which are not at all any nobler than the narcissist’s motives for his actions.  That is why missionaries have not been able to transform the world. They may speak in the language of angels, as Paul said, but the world will continue to remain the same, if not become worse, because they have no love in their hearts. They love their god[s] more than their fellow creatures. They love their churches/temples/mosques and their holy cows. They will kill for the sake of these perceived holy things. And killing can never come from love. Never.

Another lesson I learnt over time is that when you learn to love, most evils such as greed and jealousy make an exit from your system slowly. Love makes you compassionate. It makes you more understanding. You begin to see why others behave as they do. And you begin to feel compassion for them. Not hatred. Not jealousy. Not the desire to defeat them.

Love is a symphony. Quite many instruments play in harmony. Love is the harmony.

PS. Inspired by Indispire Edition 241:

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

You too, Barber!


I had just finished reading Ponkunnam Varkey’s short story about a priest, his sexton and their sex lives when the TV news registered the address of Bishop Franco for sexual offences against a nun. The bishop was in news for quite some time and so his arrest did not come as a tremor to me though later I learnt that it was incredible to many Catholics in Kerala.

“What is incredible?” My friend Tom asked me. He is a blogger with quite some conceit. His conceit had attracted the attention of the Catholic clergy time and again in the past though of late they seemed to have given him up probably as a hopeless case. I don’t like his conceit either. But I tolerate it because I’m more conceited than him according to my wife. Long before the arrest of the bishop, Tom had written a blog about him titled Why Franco Mulakkal should be a saint. When I questioned his prejudiced condemnation of the bishop as well as the Church, he suggested Ponkunnam Varkey’s story to me.

There is this parish priest as the protagonist of the story. As soon as the morning mass is over – which he said without any interest – he asks Anthony, his sexton, “What happened to Annamma today? She’s not present for the mass.”

“I too wondered about it,” answered Anthony with a feeling that was apparently a mixture of wistfulness and scorn.

That night the priest prayed and prayed before going to bed. But he could not sleep. He got up, picked up his torch and came out of the presbytery. It was past midnight. Annamma would be sleeping with her long, thick, black hair spread out on the pillow and her parabolic bosom heaving rhythmically to her sweet breath.

As soon as the priest came out and shut the door from outside, a lightning splashed the burdened sky. An ominous thunder followed. The priest thought that he saw the face of Jesus somewhere in the sky.

“I’m sorry, Lord,” he muttered before turning back to open the door and return to his bed.

The thunder had woken up Chacko, Annamma’s father-in-law. He thought he heard someone open the door of the house. The children were fast asleep. And Annamma’s husband was far away in Dubai minting money from sand grains. Who could it be at the door?

Chacko peeped out through the window and saw a figure walk out of the house wearing a Catholic priest’s soutane. But it was not the parish priest, Chacko was certain. He was very familiar with the priest’s physical features and the gait. Another lightning revealed the man’s identity. “Have you too become a priest, Anthony?” Chacko asked. Anthony did not hear it. Or he pretended that he did not.

The story reminded me of a retreat that I had attended recently in which the preacher preached eloquently about the cardinal sin called lust and carnal desires. “Lust was the sin of Eve and Adam,” he said. Whenever they spoke about that first sin – the original sin, as it is called – they mentioned Eve first because she is the wretched origin of all human sinfulness.

“The Semitic religions are bastions of men,” Tom told me once. “There’s no hope for women in it.” On another occasion he quoted Saint Augustine: “Women should not be enlightened or educated in any way. They should, in fact, be segregated as they are the cause of hideous and involuntary erections in holy men.” Then he added cynically that Augustine had his unfair share of women before he understood the might of the Church’s priestly celibacy.

Tom’s conceit and irreverence had as much method to it as Hamlet’s madness had. But it became clear to me only when I visited my barber yesterday.

The barber used to complain to me every time I sat on his chair with the air-conditioner purring clemently somewhere behind it. “You see, chetta, these new gen children, how vulgar they want their hair to be cut!”

“Can’t you advise them to look dignified instead of keeping their hairs erect all the time?” I asked.

“Do you think I don’t do it? I always tell them that beauty lies in conformity.” Then he went on to give me a lecture that lasted till the end of my haircut about the aesthetics of conformity. “Even a girl looks most beautiful when she wears the traditional attires,” he concluded.

Having put aside Ponkunnam Varkey, I decided to relax in the barber’s air-conditioned salon and listen to his preaching while I got a haircut. I was not fond of thick, long hairs like Annamma’s.

My jaws dropped when I saw the barber, however. He had got, what he called later, a facelift. His hairs stood erect like a porcupine’s quills and the sides were closely cropped. He looked just like those young boys whom he had been trying to educate in the aesthetics of conformity. He went on to preach to me about the changing standards of conformity.

Note: Ponkunnam Varkey was a maverick Malayalam writer who died in 2004. He did write a short story similar to the one referred to in this story. But the details may be different since my memory is not entirely reliable nowadays.

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