Thursday, January 31, 2019

Don Bosco

Don Bosco (16 Aug 1815 - 31 Jan 1888)

In Catholic parlance, which flows through my veins in spite of myself, today is the Feast of Don Bosco. My life was both made and unmade by Don Bosco institutions. Any great person can make or break people because of his followers. Religious institutions are the best examples. I’m presenting below an extract from my forthcoming book titled Autumn Shadows to celebrate the Feast of Don Bosco in my own way which is obviously very different from how it is celebrated in his institutions today. Do I feel nostalgic about the Feast? Not at all. I feel relieved. That’s why this celebration. The extract follows.

Don Bosco, as Saint John Bosco was popularly known, had a remarkably good system for the education of youth.  He called it ‘preventive system’.  The educators should be ever vigilant so that wrong actions are prevented before they can be committed.  Reason, religion and loving kindness are the three pillars of that system.  Though the term ‘preventive’ sounds negative, the system was in fact a highly positive one that sought to provide to the youngsters the conditions suitable for goodness to flourish.  When goodness flourishes, evil is prevented.
Don Bosco envisaged the system not so much for seminarians as for the youth in the lay society.  It is quite easy to practise Don Bosco’s system in seminaries because the seminarians are generally motivated enough to be good.  There were no serious aberrations.  Homosexuality was a problem, but I think it was not very serious either.
Don Bosco would not tolerate any deviation from the strictest practices of chastity.  No seminarian was even allowed to touch another as physical touches contained the danger of sensuous stimulation.  No seminarian was even allowed to have too close a friendship with any other seminarian.  ‘Particular friendship,’ as it was called, was deemed a sin.  One of the major duties of those who looked after the young seminarians was to watch out for the emergence of particular friendships and nip them in the bud.  Once I assigned two boys under my charge to clean up the stage.  They had to work behind the curtain in a dark area.  One of the Fathers saw them there and I was immediately asked to put one more boy there.  “What happened, Father?” I asked.  “How can you put two boys alone in such a place?”  He asked and explained to me that homosexuality could develop in such places.  He told me that homosexuality was more common in the seminary than I was probably aware of.  It was my duty to prevent every possibility of homosexual attachments by not putting two seminarians alone in dark places.
It is true that I too felt drawn to some of the handsome boys occasionally.  But I could never bring myself to any physical intimacy.  The inbuilt sense of guilt was so strong, especially about sex, that even touching a boy with any affection would be a sin to be confessed.  Hindsight today makes me wonder whether I had any affection for anyone at all.  In fact, I hated physical touches; I thought they made me unclean.  I had a perverse sense of cleanliness.
Probably I was asked to do my practical training in an aspirantate precisely because my superiors too wondered whether I was capable of any affection and wanted to find it out by putting me with youngsters.  That is a pure guess on my part.  I do not wish to cast aspersions on the Provincial who was a very kindly person.  I am sure he was doing his best to help me discover myself.  He too wanted to understand me more; that is what I think. 
I think my sexuality was repressed right from my childhood.  I grew up listening to stories about Eve’s betrayal of mankind and the consequent evilness of all women.  Boys and girls in my village would not even dare to look at each other.  Such looks would have been gravely censured not only by the priests and nuns but also by teachers and parents. Moreover, I had somehow imbued the notion that sexuality was the foulest depravity of mankind.  Don Bosco reinforced that idea powerfully when I was told that he would not even look at his own mother in the face.  Women were to be kept far away from the Salesian institutions, according to Don Bosco’s injunctions.  Chastity was one of the greatest virtues for Don Bosco. 
The Virgin Mary occupied a special place in Don Bosco’s spiritual practices, however.  I think Mary was Don Bosco’s way of sublimating sexuality.  Yes, man needs the love of a woman; so you take the love of the Holy Virgin: that seems to be what he had in mind while giving a prominent place to Mary in Salesian worship.  He called Mary “a great support and a powerful weapon against the wiles of the devil” and asserted that it was “impossible to go to Jesus unless we go through Mary.”  The “purity” of the Virgin became the absorbent of all potential impurity of the Salesians.  The Virgin was the best preventive system of Don Bosco.
Hail Marys and the rosary, along with my natural aversion to human touches, helped me preserve my chastity while I guided the young aspirants at Mannuthy.  A more banal truth is that my job kept me fully engaged; so engaged that there was no time for committing sins.  It was one of Don Bosco’s proven strategies to keep people always busy.  He asserted time and again that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop and exhorted his followers to keep themselves busy all the time. 
The hectic schedule of life in the aspirantate kept me away from myself.  I had little time to think of myself.  Though there was a half-hour meditation every morning, I fell asleep frequently because of tiredness.  I lived more like a robot in that one year.  One advantage was that my ego ceased to be a problem.  The disadvantage was that I didn’t discover myself any better.
Robots don’t make relationships.  When the one year of ‘practical training’ came to a close I realised that I was going to leave that ‘House’ (as seminaries are called in the Salesian system) without having anyone to say goodbye to.  I was asked to go to Don Bosco, Vaduthala in order to do my undergraduate studies during the next three years.  I was happy with the new assignment especially because Vaduthala held a unique charm for me.  It was the same House where I began my association with Don Bosco in 1975 and also from where I did my Pre-Degree course from 1976 to 1978.  Moreover, it was going to be a small community of just a few Fathers and Brothers and nobody else.  I hoped I would make better relationships there.  Which was not to be.  My ego would return with a bang.
When I left Don Bosco, Mannuthy nobody came to say goodbye.  Suddenly I realised with a horror that I had meant nothing to the people in that House.  I remembered how the others were seen off by the members of the community.  Everyone was missed by someone.  Everyone had someone at least to show that he was going to be missed.  No one missed me.  I left the House with a pang hitting my heart. A few days before my departure, when the aspirants left the House for their vacation, they too didn’t bother to show any sign of affection for me.  The indifference did hit me like an electric shock. 
Apart from my clothes and personal accessories, the only things I carried with me to the new place were two books: Jonathan Livingstone Seagull and Illusions, both by Richard Bach.  They were my Christmas gifts from the House that I was leaving unceremoniously.  The practice in that House, like in many others, was that every member could choose his Christmas gift within a fixed amount of money.  I asked for the two books which I had already read as a student of philosophy.

PS. What I never could imagine at that time was that I also carried another baggage which was thrust upon me by the preventive system of Don Bosco. The panopticon that is a synonym of the preventive system. Some Don Bosco people created that panopticon in my life observing whatever I said and did. They knew how to use me against me. That’s religion. Using people against themselves. I laugh at myself today for having been a member of the Don Bosco system for so many years. What a fool I was! But Don Bosco never meant his preventive system to be a panopticon. His followers made it one. That’s just how religion works. Look at how Narendra Modi uses Hinduism today, for example.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Mahatma and some savages

Image courtesy Scroll

Any act of violence is a form of savagery; only the degree varies. The Hindu Mahasabha leader’s act of shooting at an effigy of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, is as much savagery as was Nathuram Godse’s attack on the real Gandhi. The woman did not stop at shooting Gandhi but went on to garland Godse, make a ritualistic offering to the killer and also distribute sweets to the onlookers. The organisers of the event also ensured that the effigy of Gandhi shed a blood-like liquid upon the shooting which added a high degree of perversion to the depraved episode. 

What Godse did was to encounter one of the most peaceful ideologies (Gandhi’s version of non-violence) with the most violent response (murder). As mankind evolved we learnt to shun violence and have recourse to the legal system for resolving conflicts. Violence continued to be wielded by some people: criminals. Crime is a form of savagery, a negation of civilisation.

Animals have fangs and claws because they are incapable of civilisation and hence need the means of self-defence. Man is born without such built-in defence mechanisms. His weapon is the mind. He is supposed to think and act. He is supposed to be guided by his reason and other faculties that distinguish him from beasts.

Godse chose to be a beast. Who else but a beast would attack an advocate of peace who was also a saintly figure? The descendants of Godse have inherited his bestiality; the evidences have been all too visible in the last five years. What the national secretary of the Hindu Mahasabha did today was both bestial and perverse.

Why India has to vote out the present regime at the centre is primarily for this reason: to redeem the country from bestiality and perversions.

Watch the video of the perverted bestiality here.

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Monday, January 28, 2019

Bumper Lottery


“Did you check your bumper result?” Anna asked as she dropped the chopped onion into the sizzling oil.

“Not yet, not yet,” Chacko answered with visible impatience. “Where do I get time for anything once I put my hand to this?” He was kneading the dough for the parathas which the clients of the restaurant relished throughout the day.

Chacko and Anna were the popular pair at the restaurant in the small town on the bank of the Periyar River. Chacko made the delicious parathas while Anna cooked the Kerala delicacies that accompanied the parathas.

Both Chacko and Anna belonged to the social class that could never dream of any annual income which the government recently fixed as the limit for job quotas for the economically backward classes. The classes in the country and their various quotas never made any sense to Chacko and Anna except that they knew they never belonged to any of these privileged classes whichever party came to power. “Ten per cent jobs reserved for those with annual incomes less than Rs 8 lakhs,” the TV news had said.

“Aye, Anna, did you hear that?” Chacko drew her attention to the TV as he ran the rolling pin over a ball of kneaded dough.

“What’s the use?” Anna asked as she checked the taste of the Chicken 65 she had just finished cooking. “You and I never studied enough to qualify for any quota.”

“Ah, that’s true,” sighed Chacko. “At any rate, if those earn eight lakh rupees per year belong to economically backward classes where do we belong?”

It’s then the lottery agent walked into the restaurant for his usual paratha-meal that doubled as his breakfast and lunch.

“Shall I try my luck with the bumper?” Chacko asked Anna.

“The ticket costs Rs 200,” Anna cautioned him.

“Yeah. But the prize is Rs 6 crore,” It was the Kerala government’s Christmas ‘bumper’ lottery. Chacko pulled out Rs 200 from the pocket of his shirt that was hanging on a hook in a corner of the kitchen.

That was the turning point in Chacko’s life. From the very next morning, Chacko arrived at the restaurant half an hour later than usual.

“I go to St Antony’s church to pray,” he explained to Raghavan Nair, the owner of the restaurant.

Raghavan Nair decided to let it go because to question anyone’s religious practice was to step on to a slippery slope given the country’s current scenario. You never know when and how people’s religious sentiments get hurt.

“I’m offering the novena to St Antony,” Chacko told Anna. “He’s a powerful saint, that one; he’ll give me the Rs 6 crore.”

“Is St Antony more powerful than Jesus?” Anna asked.

“Of course!” Chacko was surprised that the silly woman didn’t know even that.  “Have you ever heard of any miracle worked by Jesus? Antony is the miracle man.”

Anna did not look very convinced.

“You’ll see when the result comes, the bumper result.”

“What will you do with 6 crore rupees?”

“Don’t you know that the government will take back about half of that in the form of various taxes?”

“Ok, still, 3 crore is a pretty huge amount!”

“Oh, there’s so much to do. Build a big house, buy a big car, marry a beautiful girl, travel all over the world with her…”

“Marry a beautiful girl!” Anna looked coquettish as she repeated that. But she was already married. Her husband was a truck driver who came home only once a week or even less. Chacko had occasionally given her a hint or two by touching her ample buttocks while passing by her pretending that the touches were by sheer accident. She too pretended so.

“Umm,” Chacko winked at her and she blushed. She’s quite pretty, Chacko told himself and wondered why he had never noticed that so far.

“Let me get the newspaper,” she said as their schedule had become rather relaxed. "We can check the result.”

She managed to get a newspaper from the restaurant.  She read out the winning number and Chacko tallied it with his lottery ticket. His head revolved crazily. He checked again. He had won it. He won the bumper prize of six crore rupees. The giddiness became a pain in his chest. He put his palm to his chest. His eyes bulged. And he collapsed.

Anna was confounded for a moment. But only for a moment. She put her two fingers to his nostrils to make sure. There was no breath. She was certain.

He had a weak heart indeed, she muttered to herself as she picked the lottery ticket from his hand. Jesus is a greater miracle worker, she realised as she put the ticket into the secret place where she used to keep money sometimes, close to her heart, her strong heart.

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Sunday, January 27, 2019

Listening is not reading

A part of my little library

There was a time when I used to listen to the speeches of Osho Rajneesh on my cassette player. Osho spoke on and on while I cooked my meals in the tiny kitchen of my rented little house in Shillong. It was a pleasure listening to the old man. He could speak about almost anything under the sun and even beyond the sun. He had an exquisite sense of humour too. His speeches were interspersed with witty anecdotes or parables. I still remember some of those stories.

Eventually I lost interest in Osho. Maybe I outgrew my protracted adolescent appetite for outlandish wisdom. The cassette player emanated songs instead of speeches.  For wisdom, I relied on books. Nothing can take the place of books when it comes to intellectual stimulation.

What about audio books? This is the question raised at In[di]spire this week. I never listened to an audio book until I came across this topic. How can I write about it unless I listened to one? So I went to LibriVox which is one of the many sites that provide free audio books. I downloaded one of Mahatma Gandhi’s books and started listening to it. I didn’t go very far with that, however.

Reading is not listening, I realised. I can listen to speeches provided they are entertaining. Speeches are entirely different from books. Public speaking is a different art altogether and I like to listen to good speakers. Listening to someone reading from a book is quite a tedious job, however. When it comes to books, I prefer to do the reading myself. At my own pace. Feeling the very touch of the pages. I don’t even like reading from an electronic device except short pieces.

A book is a living thing which grows on you as you read it. Mark Twain thought that the ingredients of an ideal life are good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience. I prefer my books to be more concrete than the other two.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019


The umbrella is your inevitable appendix if you live in Kerala. It used to hang on my shoulder as I trekked to school in my childhood. There were no folding umbrellas or pocket umbrellas in those days. My umbrella like most people’s was a half-metre long canopy with a ferrule that jutted out so that you could use the whole thing as a walking stick when it did not rain. The men’s umbrella had a curved handle which enabled you to suspend it on your shoulder if you didn’t want the walking stick. The rains lashed Kerala for nearly half the year in those days and hence the umbrella was a loyal friend and as cumbersome too.

The fidelity of the umbrella continued when I left the state to take up my first job in Shillong as a teacher. Shillong too had quite a lot of rains in those days with its proximity to Cherrapunji. Eventually, however, the rains in Shillong became as flighty and coquettish as the place itself and Cherrapunji lost its designation as the place of heaviest rainfall to Mawsynram.

Shillong gave me the Umbrella Man who became a perennial presence in my life there.

I read the short story, ‘Umbrella Man,’ in one of the lessons of the creative writing course of IGNOU. The protagonist of that story is hit by an umbrella on the back of his head as he sits in a bus. He thinks it happened by mistake. But the hit is repeated. He warns the fellow on the back seat, who is the Umbrella Man, not to do that but to no avail. Finally he gets up and gives a punch on the Umbrella Man’s nose which starts bleeding. But the knocks continue at regular intervals. Finally the protagonist alights near the police station in order to file a complaint. The Umbrella Man walks close behind him awarding the knocks on his head religiously. When they are about to enter the police station, the protagonist thinks that he might become the culprit since it is the other fellow’s nose that is bleeding. Hence he chooses to be worldly wise and retraces his steps. The Umbrella Man follows him home and enters inside even before the door could be shut. The knocks on the head continue wherever the protagonist goes, whatever he may be doing. Days give way to weeks and months. Eventually the protagonist gets used to the Umbrella Man’s knocks. He falls in love with them. He cannot now live without them.

A few years after I read that story, I got an Umbrella Man in Shillong. A Catholic priest incarnated as the Umbrella Man in my life though he was as invisible as his God and as irascible too. The frequency and intensity of his knocks depended on how he judged my actions. The Christian God is a terrible jurist, if you know Him, and I must confess that I gave Him ample occasions to wield his canonical umbrella on my sinful head.

Unlike the protagonist in the story, I got tired of the knocks after a few years. That’s when I quit and landed in Delhi where umbrellas had little role. Delhi is a desert as far as the scientific measures of rainfall are concerned. However, I did buy an umbrella. Nostalgia is as soothing as the scratch you give to the healing wound.

The umbrella I bought years ago from Delhi continues to be my companion even now when I’m in Kerala once again completing the circle of my travels and travails. The umbrella lies in the little box near the gear shaft in my car ready for any eventuality during a journey. Though it is seldom used, its very sight fills me with a gratification that Freud would associate with my dark unconscious demons.

The umbrella makes me happy. Strangely.

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Monday, January 21, 2019


One of the hundreds of pics I clicked at Sawan School, Delhi. There are 2 parrots on that tree. The tree and the parrots are memories that linger funnily with pain. [pic from 2014]

Gabriel Garcia Marquez suggests in Love in the Time of Cholera that we manage to endure the burden of the past because the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good. Maybe, nothing substantially good ever happened to me because my endeavours to magnify happy memories fall by the wayside refusing to go far enough. It’s not that I don’t want happy memories.  Who doesn’t?

But I have imagined happy memories. I’m more like Sara Teasdale. Stephen kissed her in the spring and Robin in the fall. Stephen’s kiss was lost in jest and Robin’s in play. But Colin’s eyes haunted her night and day though Colin only looked at her and never kissed at all.

Unheard melodies are sweeter, I can hear Keats moaning. In the dust-ridden lanes of the past, I look for the unheard melodies, I feel the sensuousness of the kiss that never planted itself on my lips, my heart palpitates for the love that was never expressed.

Memories are funny. Painful too oftentimes. The pain is funny too, isn’t it, when you experience it once again as it rises like a hungry ghost that cannot eat or drink?  How much tears should be shed before the episode transmutes into funny pain? Not your tears, I mean; the other person’s.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The other side of The Browning Version

A page from the play

The Browning Version is a brilliant one act play by Terence Rattigan. A brief extract from it is incorporated in CBSE’s grade eleven English, though I have never understood why. The extract presents an interaction between a sly student Taplow and a young teacher Frank. Apart from some little games that people play in day-to-day life, the extract conveys nothing about the complex intricacies of human relationships which is what Rattigan’s play is about.

The play is primarily about the incompatible relationship between Andrew Crocker-Harris and his wife Millie. Andrew is aware of his wife’s infidelity. Millie has her flings with other men, Frank being one of them. Frank is not aware of her other flings, however. Rather he assumes she is in genuine love with him.

The play brilliantly portrays the complexities of human motives and behaviour. Andrew is a rigidly strict teacher who knows that he is not liked by his students who are in the 15-16 age group. It is difficult for a strict teacher to be popular with students and without some degree of popularity it is difficulty to be a successful teacher. So Andrew discovered “an easy substitute for popularity”. He acquired some mannerisms and “tricks of speech” which made him amusing to students. At the very beginning of the play we find Taplow imitating his speech and mannerisms to Frank. “They didn’t like me as a man,” Andrew tells Frank later, “but they found me funny as a character, and you can teach more things by laughter than by earnestness.”

Andrew is painfully aware of his own limitations. But to his consolation comes Taplow with a farewell gift on the last day of school. Andrew is leaving school due to ill health. But his strictness has necessitated a little punishment even on the last day for Taplow who missed a class earlier. Circumstances bring about a mitigation to the punishment and Taplow gratefully (?) presents a second-hand copy (which is all that he could get apparently) of The Browning Version of Agamemnon, the Greek classic on which he was given extra work. He has quoted a line from the play on the first page as a mark of his love for his teacher: “God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master.”

Millie laughs at that gift and even more at Taplow’s inscription. She tells her husband that Taplow was mocking him to Frank as she walked in. She had seen how Taplow imitated her husband’s speech and mannerism. In short, she now tells her husband that Taplow has made a fool of him by giving that gift.

Andrew’s heart aches at that realisation and he needs an extra dose of his drug to soothe his heart. Frank gets an epiphanous peep into Millie’s intrinsic cruelty. He decides to break off totally with her. The disillusionment cures Andrew of some of his timidity and martyr-complex. The play ends with him asserting himself as he never did earlier.

The play has a few other minor characters too all of whom have their share of inner darkness that borders on maliciousness. Human nature is essentially vile, Rattigan seems to suggest. Each one of us discovers our ways of concealing or suppressing our malice. Yet it comes to light under certain circumstances like when our need to project a better image of ourselves overwhelms us. We have to accept that people are vile and learn the ways of dealing with that vileness.

Andrew has learnt that lesson towards the end of the play when he says, “I may have been … a brilliant classical scholar, but I was woefully ignorant of the facts of life. I know better now, of course.”

I started this post with a reference to CBSE. Let me end it with a suggestion: it’s time to change the English textbooks. Just as the extract from this play reveals nothing about the play itself and hence serves no significant purpose, there are many lessons that are quite irrelevant today or are plainly unsuitable for the grade.

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Saturday, January 19, 2019

Power versus Culture

Vikram Seth tells a moving story about power versus culture in his poem ‘The Frog and the Nightingale’. The nightingale has the innate culture and the art of music. The frog has arrogated to himself the power over the area. The denizens hate the frog and love the nightingale. However, the nightingale is decimated soon by the contriving frog. The frog is not without culture, however. He is a self-proclaimed critic of music and a writer too. He knows how to project himself as a great personality. He knows how to rewrite history. He is the master of chicanery.

Does that mean that power and culture are antithetical to each other as Arvind Passey seems to suggest at In[di]spire? “Power and culture are in perennial conflict with each other,” his opening line says. No, I don’t agree. There were kings in the olden days and statesmen in the modern world who were great artists or promoters of art.

But we have travelled a long distance from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi, from the Pundit to the delinquent. How do we survive in a world run by a mafia don without losing our inner refinement which sustains culture? It is difficult to find culture where power reigns ruthlessly. Culture thrives when the reigning power possesses the sensitivity and sensibility contributed and required by it.

Yes, culture is all about sensitivity and sensibility. Craze for power is usually ruthless. The last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar, wrote shortly after his imprisonment:

            Delhi was once a paradise,
            Where Love held sway and reigned;
            But its charm lies ravished now
            And only ruins remain.

That enfeebled emperor was a great promoter of art. One of the greatest lyric poets of India, Ghalib, was his poet laureate. Political power sustained that poet. Political power in India today kills poetry and arts. Where does the problem lie? I leave the answer for you to discover.


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Thank you, Reader

Tomorrow my blog will clock half a million views. For me, it’s a significant achievement. It would not have been possible to make that achievement without you, dear reader. A big thank you from the depths of my heart.
The Readership
Franz Kafka was a rare genius who did not wish his writings to be read by anyone. He let his friend Max Brod read them, though. Towards the end of his brief life (he died at the age of 40), he ordered Brod to destroy his works. Brod chose to disobey the last wish of his friend and so we have some of the finest novels like The Trial and The Castle. I have read both of them two times and may read them again.

Kafka was a genius. I am a mediocre individual by any standards. Unlike Kafka, I love to be read. There was a time when appreciation meant almost everything to me. Now I have transcended that phase and it doesn’t matter even if no one appreciates me. Yet I would be sad if no one cared to read what I write. That’s why the numbers matter.

I made a lot of friends and a few enemies through my blog. I met many like-minded people through blogging. I met people who questioned my views in very civil and even friendly ways unlike the commentators I come across on Facebook. There were also people who told me not to write certain things. My last employers in Delhi – Radha Soami Stasang Beas – told me explicitly that some of my blog posts were too critical of them. When I told them that I never wrote about them, they laughed. I still remember that laughter of the two ladies, one a wizened old lady with silver hair on her head and a plastic smile on her dead thin lips and the other her symmetrical antithesis. “Readers know what your stories mean,” the old lady told me. I said stories could be interpreted in various ways. Those were days when I transmuted my frustration into fiction. Those familiar with the school where I worked would understand what the stories meant precisely. But the stories had universal appeal too. Otherwise I wouldn’t have so many readers from America, England, France and Germany. The ladies accepted my explanation. I think they were only testing me and were not really serious about their demand. I continued to write stories about what happened in the school and they never interfered.
Where do readers come from?
Eventually the school was shut down by them and in the meanwhile Modi had ensconced himself on the Indraprastha throne. Modi became a favourite topic of my blog posts because he is the most fascinating character living in today’s India. I made a lot of enemies because of my political writing. I had to unfriend quite many people from Facebook and many unfriended me. Some concerned friends even called me up and counselled me to avoid political posts. They thought I was putting my life in danger. But I told them that I now lived in Kerala where the BJP had no roots.

The BJP has succeeded in raising its Medusa head in Kerala now and the state is slowly becoming like Adityanath’s UP. The transformation of my home state stunned me so much that I could not write about it. So my writing shifted from politics though not completely.

I have had over 200 readers every day irrespective of the themes I choose. They sustain me. This is to say ‘Thank You’ to each one of them, to you, dear reader. I love your presence here, in this virtual space, with a safe distance between us.

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Monday, January 14, 2019

The Accidental Prime Minister

Book Review
Quite a contrast!
Let me start with a disclaimer. This is a book review and has nothing to do with the movie of the same name. I read a few reviews of the movie and each one trashes the movie as cheap propaganda for the right wing. The movie seems to be an attempt to denigrate Dr Manmohan Singh as well as the Congress Party, according to the reviews I read. The book, on the other hand, is a genuine attempt to understand Dr Singh as a person.

The author, Sanjaya Baru, was Dr Singh’s media adviser during UPA-1. He had very close associations with the Prime Minister if the book is to be believed. When the book was published in 2014, the Congress Party was displeased with it for obvious reasons. Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are shown to be manipulators who did not let Dr Singh wield any real power during his second reign as PM.  The Prime Minister’s Office released a press release then labelling the book as mere fiction.

Baru carries conviction, however. There may be some exaggerations here and there. But the book comes across to the reader with a high degree of credibility. Baru admires Dr Singh’s “intellect, his humane persona, his gentle and civil conduct, his political instinct and his deep patriotism.” The book reveals these aspects of Dr Singh’s personality.

Baru shows us how Dr Singh managed to keep the power with him during UPA-1 but lost that power when he assumed the office for the second term. The focus of the book is on the first term, however. Baru was not the media adviser during the second term; he had left the job for “personal reasons”.  

“The world is not a morality play,” the book quotes Dr Singh. “The world’s political and economic system is a power play and those who have greater power use it to their advantage.” Dr Singh’s failure was he did not know how to use his power to his and the nation’s advantage. He let others pull the strings. His second term as Prime Minister reeked of scams and scandals because he did not wield his power properly. Personally he remained clean; no one could raise a finger against his personal integrity. The book shows how personal integrity is not enough in politics.

The book throws ample light on the personality of Dr Singh. He is an admirable person. Noble souls need not be successful politicians. Thus Dr Singh ends up as a tragic character fit for a Shakespearean history play. Baru’s book is able to fathom the depths of that great character and to that extent it is a great book. We also get some brilliant peeps into the dark corridors of power at the Centre.

I don’t like the cover of the book, however. Why on earth did Penguin have to put Anupam Kher on the cover of a book about Dr Manmohan Singh? That picture is totally out of place there. Kher and Dr Singh have nothing in common except that the former caricatured the latter in a substandard movie.

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PS.  My review of Tharoor's book:

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Writer and his society

All genuine writing is rooted in at least 3 things:
1.     the complex social reality which the writer is trying to understand and interpret;
2.     the literary tradition in the Eliotean sense; and
3.     the writer’s heart.

The writer has to be constantly in touch with the world around him. Unless he understands that world, unless he is in constant touch with it, how can he write about it meaningfully? Good writers are sensitive people whose hearts are moved by what is happening around them.

William Faulkner advised writers to “read, read, read”.  He asked them to “read everything: trash, classics, good and bad.” Absorb what you’re reading, then write. Without such moorings in the literary tradition, no one can be a good writer.

The interpretation of the reality around comes from the writer’s heart, from his entire personality. Writing is the bleeding of the heart, as Hemingway suggested. Whatever has not been processed in the writer’s heart fails to carry conviction.

So, can a writer afford to distance himself from the society?

The process of writing is different from writing per se. More often than not, the process requires solitude. Most great writers have/had their own private, solitary places for the process of writing. While the reality around is necessary for providing the raw material for writing, the process of writing is a very personal affair. The writer has to detach himself from the world. Of course, you can be in the middle of a crowd and yet be detached.

Now to answer the question raised at In[di]spire, if you are going to write a book you might do well by shutting off yourself from the distractions of social media and even the society as much as you can. Good writers have their own disciplined schedule like setting aside a particular period of time every day to the process of writing without being distracted by anything. Such commitment is essential if you wish to be a good writer.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

What’s wrong with religions today?

Joan of Arc

The lead article in the op-ed page of today’s Deepika (a Malayalam newspaper which is the mouthpiece of the Catholic Church in Kerala) is a slap in the face of a Catholic nun who dared to question the Church particularly on the Bishop Mulakkal case. The writer questions the nun’s virtues instead of looking at the evils she questioned. Many of the allegations made by the writer against the nun may be true. She might have broken her religious vows of poverty and obedience. But are her sins even comparable to what the Bishop did and what many priests of the Church have been doing for years and years?

The nun can be questioned for her transgressions. My personal view is that she has no right to stay on in her religious congregation since she seems to have lost faith in its ways. She should quit her religious vocation and raise her finger against the Church, particularly because she seems to be going against the rules and regulations of that profession. That does not, however, justify the Deepika writer’s views at all.

The writer is doing a terrible disservice to the Church by making the nun look like a medieval witch. The Catholic Church burnt about 40,000 women labelling them witches during the medieval period. The Church’s history reeks of blood and fire for most part of it. Too many people were burnt alive. Too many were incarcerated. Too many were shamed. All for the honour of the Church. Tragically, in most cases the victims were right! Even the Church had to admit that eventually. Saint Joan of Arc, for example.

The Church never allows serious dissent. It expects blind faith and blind obedience from the faithful. Anyone who dares to question is exposing him-/herself to grievous dangers. The Church can be worse than the deadliest mafia when it comes to dealing with dissenters. It may not take action directly and openly. It has its own clandestine ways of eliminating perceived enemies.

The Church is not about spirituality, in short; it is about asserting itself, its power, among the believers. This is a cancer that has gripped most dominant religions today. There is little, if any, spirituality about them. Each one of them is waging a war, however clandestine some of the wars may be, to extend its authority over more people, to conquer more lands and souls for its God.

The world goes on accumulating evil upon evil in spite of the rising number of religions and religious sects. That is because none of these religions or sects is about spirituality. They are all about power, power in its various manifestations. Unless religions become genuinely spiritual, which is quite unlikely given the history of religions hitherto, they are not going to make the world any better a place. In fact, they will make it worse and worse. Writers like the Deepika one will continue to be the stooges of such religions.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Cat in my arms

I came across the following page from Hugh Prather’s Notes to Myself on a blogger friend’s Facebook wall.

I had not heard of Hugh Prather until now. I liked the wisdom exuded by the page, however. I wondered whether I have reached that stage of holding my cat in my arms so it can sleep. My cat does love to sleep in my arms. I can also enjoy just lying on the rug picking up lint balls. I do it sometimes, in fact: just lie there, if not pick up lint balls since there are no lint balls to pick.
Comfortable with each other
Is it just lethargy? I used to wonder. The wondering metamorphosed into self-probing and eventually I realised that I could just sit watching the colours of a croton feeling absolutely relaxed.
A croton in my little garden
You reach a stage in life when nothing matters more than the peace you enjoy with yourself. There are no demands for anything. You are happy with whatever is. Things do go wrong at times but you know how to absorb that. And you know how to take your cat in your arms and let it sleep there with a purr of contentment.

On the rug

Monday, January 7, 2019

Live life fully

In one of his poems, Pablo Neruda suggests that if we were not “so single-minded / about keeping our lives moving” we would be a happier lot. We take life too seriously. Take a specimen from our species. Let’s call him Raj. Raj is a ‘focused’ student. He studies all the time. In addition to his school studies is the entrance coaching. Finally he gets admission to one of the best institutions of higher learning. He becomes a professional success eventually. Now he is single-minded about constructing a good house. Then marriage, children and their quality education, promotion in the job, and so on. Raj is a great ‘success’. Is he?

Does Raj ever live his life? He exists. He succeeds by the standards of plebeian perceptions. He may appear to be happy too. He has his occasional holidays with his family, hasn’t he? He goes abroad to enjoy them. He has everything he wants, apparently.

The reality is Raj may not be happy at all. Worse, he may not even be aware of that deep inner discontent. He has no time for such awareness. He is single-minded about keeping his life successful.

As Kazantzakis’s Zorba said, happiness is as simple and frugal as a glass of wine, a roast chestnut and the sound of the sea. Unless we learn to stand in awe before a pansy on the wayside, unless we are able to listen to the music of the wafting breeze, unless we can smile genuinely at the little child on the way, we may be taking life too seriously. And hence we may not be fully human and fully alive.

Zorba is a happy man. His philosophy is: “to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition. To live far from men, not to need them and yet to love them. To have the stars above, the land to your left and the sea to your right and to realise of a sudden that in your heart, life has accomplished its final miracle: it has become a fairy tale.”

Life is simple. We make it complex and complicated. When we realise the simplicity, we also realise that happiness is all around us all the time available as freely and as naturally as the air we breathe.

PS. Written for In[di]spire Edition 255: #FullyHumanFullyAlive

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