Thursday, May 30, 2019

Hardbound and Paperbacks



The last two books I ordered came as hardbound editions with prices slashed to half. I usually wait patiently for the economic paperback editions when books are published since I can’t afford to pay the hefty prices of hardbound editions. However, nowadays I keep getting hardbound editions at amazingly low prices. That’s fine. But the problem is that the hardbound books occupy too much space on the shelf and I’ll soon run out of that space.

We live in a world of ebooks. I chose to publish my latest book as an ebook with no print version for many reasons, the first being a fear that it wouldn’t sell much in the print version. However, all the reviews I’ve got so far whether in public spaces or private have been very positive. Yet I don’t intend to bring out a print version.

There are very few serious readers today. Mine is a serious book and a personal narrative too. If well-known writers can’t manage to sell their hardbound editions, what should I expect of my book? That’s the other reason why I don’t intend to bring out a print edition.

Now, my real question is why publishers still insist on bringing out hardbound editions at all when they know that they will have to sell it at highly slashed prices? Any answers?


Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Post-truth India

From The Economist


‘Post-truth’ is a relatively new phrase which means “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. About three years ago, The Economist published an article which defined post-truth politics as the “art of the lie”.

India has internalised the art of the lie. The country’s Prime Minister himself peddles lies and half-truths as it suits him. Yesterday he spoke very emotionally to a teeming crowd that Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura are killing BJP workers. There are clashes between politicians belonging to different parties in these states as in any other, no doubt. But the BJP workers are not particularly at risk of being attacked more than any other party men.  The PM knows how to foist half-truths and full lies on a nation that has become uncharacteristically credulous these days.

The truth is that people belonging to minority communities are being attacked all over the country since Modi was returned to power with a bigger mandate.  Within three days of the announcement of the election results, at least five incidents of attack on Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims were reported from different places and all these attacks were made by BJP men or their affiliates. The irony is that when the PM was asking his new MPs to work towards winning over the confidence of the minority communities, his party workers and associates were busy attacking members of minority communities in various places. Mr Modi pretends not to see. And he chooses to peddle half truths about his own men being attacked.
 
A man being attacked for allegedly carrying beef
“When politics is like pro-wrestling, society pays the cost,” warns The Economist article mentioned above. India is paying a heavy cost for the post-truth bamboozle engaged in by none less than the PM himself. How to counter this? The Economist says that “mainstream politicians need to find a language of rebuttal” [pro-truth]. But is that possible in India where majority of the politicians are more post-truth than the PM?


My new book, Autumn Shadows, is available free of charge for just one day, today [28 May]. Please download your copy from the link given below:

https://www.amazon.in/Autumn-Shadows-Memoir-Tomichan-Matheikal-ebook/dp/B07RJGR2X6/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2I7ZDTGHOMXWC


Sunday, May 26, 2019

Not my kind of book



335 pages and over three weeks is quite uncharacteristic of me. It means the book didn’t appeal to me. Yet it’s a good novel, my heart tells me again and again. So I picked it up once more for a second reading before writing this post which is not really a review. How can you review a book unless it made you feel something in your heart?

My attempt to give it a second reading floundered to a rather abrupt end when the book made me feel sleepy every time I picked it up. Yet I can guarantee that the book is good. A sexagenarian looks back at his life with much wistfulness and resignation. The loss of his mother when he was only nine years old redefined his life altogether. Later the father too abandoned him for a while.

The mother ran away with a German when she realised that there was little in common between her and her husband. There was no connection between the mother and the son except some letters she wrote him initially. The mother vanishes from the boy’s consciousness eventually but not from his subconscious mind.  

Anuradha Roy narrates the story well in an aesthetically subdued manner. The narrative moves on like a gentle river meandering along its convoluted course. The characters are complex enough to sustain our interest. There is a young wife who abandons her family in order to discover her freedom. There is her son who grows up to wonder why his mother abandoned him. The narrator’s father and grandfather are fascinating characters too.

The narrative style is superb too. There is elegance, there is subtlety, there is a fairly interesting blend of history and fiction.

Yet why didn’t I enjoy reading it? I don’t know. Maybe, the narrative is a little too clever for me. A plot that is contrived to capture the reader’s attention? Maybe, I can’t say. One question that left me baffled is why a real person from history, Walter Spies, was used as a main character, the one with whom a purely fictitious character, the narrator’s mother, elopes.

Well, maybe, someday I’ll return to this novel yet again and try to rediscover its critically acclaimed beauty.


Saturday, May 25, 2019

Gandhi in Ayodhya



It is sheer coincidence that three Muslims are being beaten up at Seoni in Madhya Pradesh when I run into Gandhi on the bank of the Sarayu at no other place than Ayodhya, the birthplace of Gandhi’s beloved deity. I thrust my phone into my pocket and stare at Bapu. He smiles at me. The smile is warped as if it is prised out forcefully from a heart that actually wants to weep.

“The Sarayu is a river of sorrows,” he says as he gestures to me to sit down beside him on a step of the ghat. The river reeks of filth more than sorrow. But I decide to say nothing. I wish to listen to the Mahatma. Or just sit beside him feeling his silence within my being.

“Hey, Ram!” He says softly with a sigh.

I wish to ask him if Ram is there in the same place as Bapu, wherever that is. Do they meet and talk? What about others like Krishna and Jesus and Muhammad? Do they all live in the same place or have they divided that place on religious lines? I can’t bring myself to ask anything of the sort. I look at the profile view of the Mahatma as he sits staring at the vacuum where once stood a Masjid. A Mandir will soon rise in the vacuum in yet another instance of history trying to avenge a past mistake. Or an alleged mistake.

“I wish I had Nehru’s sense of humour,” Bapu says still looking at the Sarayu, at something that was floating in the putrid water, something that looked like a corpse. “‘Bapu ji,’ Nehru told me the other day, ‘they killed you only once. I’m being killed again and again on a daily basis now. Killing me again and again has become the national pastime in that country.’ And Nehru laughed and turned to Jinnah saying, ‘They don’t hate you as much, lucky chap.’ Jinnah took a gulp of his favourite Jannat whisky and said, ‘You deserve it, man. Both of you were naive to imagine a single sickular nation of diverse religions and cultures and languages and what not.’ He said sickular, you know?” Bapu looks at me and I just nod gently not knowing what to say or do. I can’t bring myself to smile though I find Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s poaching on the Hindutva lexicon-turf quite funny.

“Was I wrong to advocate a unified nation of diverse beliefs and cultures?” Bapu asks looking at the floating corpse-like object in the Sarayu.

“Divisiveness is useful to create power blocs,” I venture trying to sound intelligent.

“Jinnah will share his Jannat with you if he hears that,” Bapu says. “He usually doesn’t share it with anyone except Jesus.”

“Jesus!” I gasp. “You mean you’re all together there in that place?”

Bapu turns to me and laughs lightly. “Do you think there is religion in heaven?” His smile appears naughty.

I imagine Hitler and Elie Wiesel raising a toast to each other at a dining table. My phone rang just then. The call is shelved to the top corner of the phone by the Internet screen which I had not closed when I ran into the Mahatma at the ghat. The image of the three young men at Seoni being lashed by the guardians of the trending nationalist morality begins to loom large between the wine cups of Hitler and Elie Wiesel. I answer the call ignoring Hitler, Wiesel and their cheers. When the call is over, I look at where Bapu had been sitting. In his place now sits the corpse that was floating in the Sarayu. The corpse gives me a faceless grin. The grin has a religion, I sense.

PS. Written for In[di]spire Edition 275: #GandhiReturns

Friday, May 24, 2019

Why BJP needs enemies



“People use politics not just to advance their interests but also to define their identity,” said Samuel P. Huntington whose book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order drew worldwide attention at the turn of the millennium. Identity is a major issue which the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] has played with producing remarkable effects at the hustings during the last five years.  

The identity bequeathed to India by Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi when the country liberated itself from the British was essentially a Western product founded on secularism and liberalism. The quintessential Indian outlook was – and still is, to a large extent – antithetical to secularism and liberalism. India’s countless gods and the rigidly hierarchical caste system were incompatible with Nehru’s rational agnosticism and Gandhi’s mystical inclusiveness.


The later leaders who led the Congress Party lacked the profundity of both Nehru and Gandhi. Most of them succumbed to the temptations to use religious communities as vote banks precisely because they didn’t know what else to do with the baffling cultural diversity in the country. This vote bank politics instigated the majority community which naturally perceived it as appeasement of the minority communities.

Narendra Modi knew how to convert the discontent among the Hindus – particularly the upper classes who saw themselves as victims of the appeasement politics – into an identity quest. Consequently Hindutva became the new religion and identity as well as the political goal for the majority community. Secularism and liberalism became anathema. Nehru and Gandhi became enemies of the new nationalism.

Hindutva came to be projected as the new custodian of the ancient Hindu civilisation. It readily caught the fancy of the majority community in the country. Their religion suddenly emerged as superior to the alien religions with their monotheism and essentially Western worldviews. They longed to assert that superiority, their new identity. Modi gave them the means and tools. Hatred: the easiest tool, the most expedient tool for identity questers.


“For people seeking identity and reinventing ethnicity, enemies are essential,” said Huntington. If there are no enemies, it is necessary to create them. Luckily for the BJP, it had a lot of readymade enemies: the large population of non-Hindus in the country as well as in the neighbourhood.

It is very easy to define an identity by asserting what we are not rather than what we are. We are not what Nehru and Gandhi tried to make us. “We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against.” That’s Huntington again. We are not the beef-eating Muslims, Christians and Dalits. We are not the followers of Western ideals and alien gods. We are not practitioners of customs like triple talaq or Valentine’s Day. And so on.

Modi succeeded easily in telling India what it is not. He possessed all the eloquence required for that. He had the natural talent for rhetoric. He emerged at the right time: when India was discontented and frustrated. He converted all that discontent and frustration into the potent passion of hatred. Hatred is far easier to foment than love and cooperation. In fact, love and cooperation don’t need any particular ideology. And they are almost impossible to work with/on for political purposes.

Hatred is the strongest passion among mankind. The BJP, under Modi’s leadership, sowed hatred and reaped more hatred. Suddenly a whole lot of Indians became the country’s enemies. And these enemies sustain the BJP. Without these enemies the BJP will crumble like an edifice of cards. People like Sakshi Maharaj and Pragya Thakur win elections with thumping majority because they spew hatred effectively and efficiently. The BJP is sustained by such leaders. And such followers too.


Monday, May 20, 2019

Games Sawanites Played - Extract


An extract from my latest book, Autumn Shadows: Memoir

Sawan had a lot of Sharmas among the staff in various positions. In my first year at the school, I took a team of debaters to Punjab Public School at Nabha in Punjab whose principal made a flippant remark about my school being also known as Sharma Public School. Though I thought the humour was a little out of place, it drew my attention to the many Sharmas in Sawan whom I had not even come to know until I returned from Punjab Public School.

The Sharmas played a major role in Sawan. They had a peculiar penchant for tugging history to themselves. They shaped the history and the destiny of Sawan to a great extent. I should have considered myself fortunate to be invited into their company. But unfortunately my personal proclivity was to keep a safe distance from people if not run away from them altogether. Thus my probable opportunity to be a more significant part of Sawan’s history and destiny was lost though my palate learned the delights of tandoori chicken. Losing possible conquests to flimsy delights was my substantial destiny.

The Sharmas knew what they wanted and how to get it. I knew neither. It is more correct to say that I didn’t want anything more than a job that paid me sufficiently well, a secure accommodation with good water supply, and enough leisure for reading the books of my choice. Sawan gave me all of these. Unlike the Sharmas, I had no big ambitions.

It is not their ambitions that set the Sharmas apart, however. Most people are not much unlike Salvador Dali who at the age of six wanted to be a cook, at seven wanted to be Napoleon, and ever since the ambition grew steadily. Ambition is a good thing too as long as you know how far beyond Napoleon you are capable of growing. Had they been in Europe, the Sharmas of Sawan would have pre-empted the Battle of Waterloo by not letting Napoleon grow beyond the territories they granted him. When Dr S. C. Biala succeeded Mr D. P. Sharma as principal, that is exactly what happened. We will return to that in a little while.

What really set the Sharmas apart is not their capacity for Machiavellian schemes either.

It is their ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’ life position (to borrow a terminology from Thomas A. Harris, psychiatrist and author) that made them a different breed. They possessed an exemplarily positive attitude to life and the whole cosmos. They embraced life cheerfully as it unfolded itself to them each morning and grappled with its ruggedness and torridness which they reshaped to fit into their paradigms. What could not be reshaped was accepted heroically.

I’m OK, You’re OK. If you’re not OK, we’ll make you OK. If you don’t let us make you OK, we’ll make you pay for it. That was the basic Sharma paradigm. I admired that paradigm and the strategies they employed to enforce the paradigm on the community. My admiration did not become emulation because of my personal drawbacks. I was happy, however, to be left alone by them most of the time. I think I fit into their paradigm like the familiar mad man on a village street: often innocuous, funny at times and nuisance once in a while. They let me be though I was not really OK.

It was when Dr Biala took over after Mr D. P. Sharma’s retirement that I got such a clear glimpse into the Sharma psyche. Dr Biala was an imposing personality with a slim and vey erect physique. He was a mountaineer as well as a poet. He was a good administrator who could easily identify the strengths and weaknesses of the given system. On top of all that, he carried the Doon school tag; he was a teacher of that Eton of North India.

Like any new comer to a seat of eminence, Dr Biala tried to assert himself by appearing to be a strict disciplinarian. He soon made his mark among the students. But when it came to the staff, the Sharmas stamped their mark on him sooner than one would have expected.

You can order your copy of the book at Amazon.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Love Song of the Prime Sevak



Let us go then, you and I,
When the country is gasping for breath
Like a patient who has been given the extreme unction;
Let us go, to Kedarnath and Badrinath,
The muttering retreats
Of restless souls who have reached their wit’s end
And comic costumes guarded by a royal retinue:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of my sincerest intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the yards Pappus come and go
Talking of Sickularism.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the Mandikini,
The saffron that shrouds me as I withdraw to the cave,
Camera flashes lick up images for Twitter and Facebook,
And all other media that stand in drains.

Wait, wait, there will be time
For the yellow fog and saffron shroud to envelop you,
Rubbing their backs upon your pygmy chests;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that I choose to don;
There will be time to assault and lynch,
And time for the works of rashtra-building,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the next surgical strike.

No! I am not Prince Dynast, nor was meant to be;
Am your Prime Sevak, one that will do
To swell a rally, start a scene or two,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous –
And ready to wear the motley, at times.

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the saffron closer to my 56 inch breast.

I have set yogis and sadhvis riding to thrones
I have put strategists in places that matter
We have lingered in the chambers of history too long
Now march we shall, march to the glory of our ancient civilisation
Till all human voices die on our way, and they sink.

PS. With due apology to T. S. Eliot for spoofing his Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock


Friday, May 17, 2019

Beyond the Psyche

Image from gettyimages.in


“Do you think inspirational books are really useful?” Varkita Goyal, blogger, asks at a blogger community. The first inspirational book I read was How to Win Friends and Influence People by the godfather of inspirational books, Dale Carnegie. I read it as a school boy. I found the book in my father’s library and was drawn by the very title. I wanted to win friends and influence people. The book had all the tricks and techniques, if I remember correctly. But I never won any friend, nor do I think I went on to influence anyone.

As I look back I know that the problem was not with Carnegie or his strategies. The problem was with me. What I needed were not tricks and strategies but a lot of polishing. I had too many rough edges and I lacked the self-knowledge required to deal with them. Unless you possess a certain fundamental self-knowledge, inspirational books won’t do any miracle for you.

Eventually I read a lot of inspirational books. All sorts of them, from simple practical psychology to spirituality-based books. They helped at times, but not as much as serious works of literature did. The best among the inspirational ones were the works of John Powell, if I remember correctly. I read Powell in my early twenties. The very title of his books will tell you that they were more spiritual in nature than psychological: Why am I Afraid to Love?, Why am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?, and so on.

A few quotes from Powell will give you an idea of what he was trying to achieve through his books:

“It is an absolute human certainty that no one can know his own beauty or perceive a sense of his own worth until it has been reflected back to him in the mirror of another loving, caring human being.”

“Why am I afraid to tell you who I am? I am afraid to tell you who I am, because, If I tell you who I am, you may not like who I am, and it’s all that I have.”

Powell obviously goes beyond the psyche into your deepest core. He unveils you, helps you to accept that reality which you probably hate, helps you to love that reality of yourself without which there’s no authentic way ahead in life.

I think writers like Powell achieve much more than the usual run of psychological writers.

But now, as a man in the autumn of his life, I don’t read inspirational books. I read biographies and novels, history and books on current affairs. These books inspire me now. I guess I have grown up. I hope I have.

PS. Written for In[di]spire Edition 274: #Inspirationalbooks


Welcome to my latest book: click here for your copy


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Some Geniuses in Sports and Games


Book Review

Sitharaam Jayakumar’s third book is titled A to Z of Men and Women who Excelled in Sports. The 26 biographies were written for an A to Z challenge for bloggers organised by a blogger community. Jayakumar has compiled them into an elegant e-book.

One of the best things about Jayakumar’s writing is its eminent readability. To be able to write without placing obstacles between the writer’s notions and the reader’s mind is a precious gift and Jayakumar possesses it. Most of the biographies in this book read like fascinating tales that keep you glued. Even those who are not interested in sportspersons – people like me, for instance – will be hooked to this book precisely because of the way the author presents the lives.

During my childhood I was an admirer of Bobby Fischer because I learnt the subtleties of chess from a book written by him. I found the book in my father’s collection and spent quite much of my annual vacation on some of the challenging positions the book threw at the reader. The first part of the book also had some valuable instructions for the aspiring chess champions. I did not become a chess player of any repute. I did not even win any competition. (I never participated in any, so there was no question of losing either.) But I played chess with my siblings occasionally and later on with a few friends. Now when I read about Fischer’s life presented by Jayakumar I was quite stunned. Bobby Fischer acquired quite a different image in my imagination. “The twisted genius of chess” is what Jayakumar calls him and the biography illustrates the reason.

Jayakumar has chosen equally interesting figures for all the 26 chapters in the book. They belong to various sports and games. They belong to different generations. Most important of all, they all have some qualities or attributes that attract the attention of a reader who may not be particularly interested in sports and games. This is because Jayakumar knows how to tell stories. His first two books were novellas. I reviewed them both and mentioned in both my reviews that the author is “a good story teller”. That wonderful skill makes this book fascinating to read.

The book presents the complex dimensions of the characters it deals with. Look at this paragraph, for example: 

‘Not one to fear the white establishment, (Muhammed) Ali also said, “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”’

And here’s another example:

Sachin (Tendulkar) is sometimes irritated by the fact that he cannot walk freely on the streets of Mumbai, which is the price he has had to pay for the name and fame he has earned. He is known to sometimes take a drive around Mumbai late in the night after most of the city has gone to sleep.

Biographies of achievers always inspire us one way or another. Some biographies make us wonder about the complexity of human natures. Jayakumar has succeeded in capturing those complexities and that makes his book outstanding.

The book can be downloaded here.


Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Lucky Cat

Image courtesy wonderslist.com


Fiction

Little Raju was sad, very sad. Tiny drops of iridescent tears clung to his plump, little cheeks like pearly dewdrops on a shimmering leaf edge yet to be kissed by the rising sun. His cute little cat, prettier than Teddy Bear and naughtier than Jerry’s Tom was killed by a speeding car. Raju had named him Tom. Raju was Tom’s Jerry. No, Tom was Raju’s Jerry, clever and cunning and always on the run.

Until a speeding car ran over him.

“Tom’s a lucky cat,” grandma said wiping away the pearly drops from Raju’s cheeks.

Grandma always said that. Raju believed her too. Until now. Now that Tom is dead, grandma is wrong. Still she said, “Tom’s a lucky cat.”

“Tom’s a dead cat,” Raju protested.

“He died young,” grandma said, “only lucky cats die young.”

Tom was a little kitten that was roaming outside the gate when Raju returned home from school one afternoon.  Little kitten. Cute little kitten with golden brown patches on his snow white body. With a golden brown tail that stood high like a mast. Raju picked him up and walked home.

“Where did you get that creature?” Mama hollered as soon as she saw the kitten.

“Lucky cat,” grandma said.

Grandma convinced Mama to let Raju keep the pet. “Children grow up like normal people better with animals.”

Papa smiled when he heard that.

Papa and Raju competed with each other to feed Tom milk and fish. “Lucky cat,” grandma said.

“Not every cat gets so much fish and milk,” she said one day when Raju asked her why she always said “Lucky cat”. And so much petting and pampering.

In his previous birth Tom must have been a good person, grandma said one day. Good persons die and go to heaven. They are not reborn. But this Tom of yours must have had a tragic flaw.

“What is tra…, trash…, flow?” Raju asked.

“Like the little worm inside a fruit,” grandma said. Something lying deep within. Not seen from outside. Not part of the fruit, yet corroding the fruit slowly. Something that is not you and yet is inside you inescapably. It makes the mightiest person fall like a weakling. And when a mighty man falls, even if the fall is not much of a fall, the fall becomes the man. That’s the tragedy of great persons. They can’t afford to fall. Even a small fall takes heaven away from them. And so the person has to be reborn, maybe as a cat like Tom, petted and pampered until his real destiny takes away everything, everything including the pampering here and the fall of the previous birth.

Raju peered into grandma’s distant eyes. She was not looking at him now as she spoke all those words. It was as if she was not here with him, she was there somewhere, far away, among the invisible stars beyond the blue sky. It was as if she longed to be there, far away, with the invisible stars beyond the blue sky.   


For copies click here


Monday, May 13, 2019

Shahi Paneer and some memories


Maggie took all the trouble to cook Shahi Paneer because I mentioned some time ago that I missed the dish which used to be a weekly delicacy at the school where we taught in Delhi. Since it was a residential school, the teachers also had their meals with the students. More than 400 people would be seated in the cavernous dining hall, called Mess, and served by waiters attired in clean white livery. The food was delicious most of the time and Shahi Paneer was arguably the queen on the menu.

As I relished chapattis with Shahi Paneer yesterday after a gap of a few years, I realised that it was not the culinary delicacy that I really missed but certain memories which they evoked. Sawan Pubic School in Delhi was the first place where I tasted Shahi Paneer and the dish would always remind me of that school, the institution where I enjoyed working more than anywhere else. The school was killed by a religious cult and the details are given in my latest book, Autumn Shadows.  

Certain memories refuse to die. I mentioned my book above because it carries quite many memories even from my nondescript adolescence.  There is more than one place in the book where certain movie songs appear like phantoms from a buried past. Let me quote one passage: “Whenever I heard this song again, rarely though it was, I have paused to listen.  Recently I downloaded it for listening to while driving.  It has merged into a few other love songs which I have gathered in a single folder.  I am trying to mellow the pain of that lost love by merging it with other loves or love songs.  But I have not understood why songs about lost loves bewitch me insanely.  I never loved a woman until I married at the age of 35, twenty years after the death of Vayalar Ramavarma.”

As Haruki Murakami said, “Memories warm you up from inside. But they also tear you apart.” I like the warmth part of memories. You can’t get the warmth alone, however; the tearing up is a necessary accompaniment. Time makes you immune to the pains of the tearing up, however.   


Friday, May 10, 2019

More writers than readers?



I met Ruskin Bond about two decades ago in a luxury hotel of ITC in Mumbai. He was the chief guest of a prize distribution function organised by ITC and one of my students was a winner whom I accompanied from school. The young students lost interest in the great writer as soon as they got the autographs. Eventually Mr Bond stood all alone in a corner of the dining hall where dinner was being arranged. Even the organisers were not in sight. I smiled at him and he reciprocated. I hesitated to start a conversation with him just because I had not read anything much of what he had written except a few articles in some newspapers. Anyway, Mr Bond didn’t have to stand there alone for long. The organisers arrived and took him to a prominent place in the hall which he deserved.

Those students who received prizes from him that day were all winners of a national level short story competition conducted by ITC which had just launched a new brand called Classmates for students’ stationery. I don’t know if any of them went on to become a writer of any significance. My own student is a dentist today and as far as I know he doesn’t write anything worthwhile except medical prescriptions. However, as a student, he used to take a lot of interest in reading. He was familiar with some of Bond’s popular characters too.

Towards the end of my teaching career in Delhi I noticed that students had lost interest in reading altogether. Very few of them borrowed books from the school’s library which had a good and regularly updated collection. The small ones used to read comics and other such books, but the senior students focused on their coaching classes.

As a teacher in Kerala today, I notice that hardly any student is interested in reading anything except silly messages forwarded for the umpteenth time on some social media.

There are writers galore, however. Not in schools. In schools you don’t even get enough articles to fill at least a few pages of the annual magazine. But you find writers and writers in the Blogosphere and the E-book publication sites.

Ruskin Bond mentioned it recently at a function which he graced as chief guest. “With so many people writing now, there is a danger of having more writers than readers,” he is reported to have said.

Danger is the word he used. Is writing dangerous? I always ask my students to write something every day so that their writing skills as well as thinking will develop. But I always add that without reading they won’t get new ideas, better ideas, wider perspectives. This is the danger that Bond speaks about. Writing without reading tends to produce trash and trivia.

In one of his essays, Jonathan Swift compared modern writers (of his time: 1667-1745) to spiders which wove menacing webs out of the substance that their own bodies produced while classical writers were compared to honey bees which collected the raw material from the external world. The bees transformed that raw material into sweet honey. This is what a good writer is supposed to do: gather ideas from the external world and produce new ideas. Unless one reads, that is quite impossible.

PS. Written for In[di]spire Edition 273:

PPS: My latest book, Autumn Shadows, which is ample proof of how much I have read, is available at Amazon.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Dying without a thought



One of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century, Bertrand Russell, said, “Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.” A lion’s share of the evils in the human world could be pre-empted if people started making use of their thinking faculty.

When I returned home an hour ago after dropping Maggie at her workplace, Kittu, my cat, accompanied me from the car porch as he usually does and entered the house even before I did. He has inculcated a sense of entitlement, thanks to my pampering as Maggie alleges. He did something odd today. Instead of going to one of his usual places to sleep, he climbed on to the chair which I normally use for working with my laptop. He went to sleep within seconds. He usurped my place without a second thought.
 
Kittu: Self-contentment
Well, there’s no first thought either for him. Like Walt Whitman, I always end up envying his thoughtless self-contentment. Whitman wished to be like the animals. “They are so placid,” he said. “They do not sweat and whine about their condition … Not one kneels to another,” not even to any god.

But we human beings can’t do that, of course.  We have a more complex mind. So we sit and calculate the gains and losses of our loves. We calculate our neighbours’ gains and losses even more meticulously. We are so much concerned about their gods and totems, their ups and downs, their lifestyle or lack of style. And then we mess up our lives and theirs too. We give sweet names to all that mess: like patriotism, nationalism, gau raksha, and so on.

And these patriots and nationalists are always absolutely certain of themselves while wise people are full of doubts and hesitations. Of course, there’s always been a particular breed of people who rush in where angels fear to tread.  I wish those people would start exercising their thinking faculty. Just a wish; nothing in wrong in wishing, right?




Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Akshaya Tritiya



Monica, a distant acquaintance of mine, was waiting for a bus at the junction as I happened to drive by. I stopped the car and she accepted the lift.

“Today is Akshaya Tritiya,” she said when I asked her something to start a conversation.  She was going to buy a little gold, “just a few grams”, to ensure prosperity for her family at least for the coming year.

“This is like Modi ji making the quadratic equation or the Fermi problem the main theme of his election campaign,” I said.

“What’s the connection?” She wondered aloud. “I know that you are an inveterate Modi-baiter. But what’s the connection with Akshaya Tritiya?”

“What’s the connection between Akshaya Tritiya and your family’s prosperity?” I threw a counter-question.

“Don’t tell me you don’t watch the TV,” she said. “Haven’t you seen at least some of those ads about Akshaya Tritiya?”

Just then a huge billboard appeared round the corner.


“This prosperity is like the fifteen lakhs promised by Modi ji five years ago,” I smiled.

“You are an atheist, that’s the problem. You don’t believe and you don’t respect other people’s beliefs,” she was visibly annoyed.

“I try my best to respect people’s beliefs, Monica ji,” I said. “But even beliefs need to have some basis, you know.”

“What’s wrong with people believing that prosperity will come to them?”

“When they buy gold on a particular day?”

“Why not?”

“Because it won’t come.”

“So sure?”

“Absolutely,” I paused. “Prosperity will come if you work for it. Of course, there’s nothing wrong in buying gold and keeping it for your future use. Gold is an investment. You can invest in gold on any day; the best day would be when its price comes down rather than on a day like this when the price is pushed up by the traders who have put up all those advertisements all over.”

“But there’s a religious belief about this day which you are not willing to respect.”

“Should I respect ignorance, Monica ji? The simple truth is that there’s no such connection between Akshaya Tritiya and prosperity. Akshaya Tritiya is the annual spring festival of the Jains and Hindus, particularly in North India and Nepal. For the Jains, who observe it more religiously than anyone else, it is a day of austerity. They observe fasting and focus on charity. The day is also considered auspicious and hence certain investments are made too. The wily businesspeople chose to focus on that theme of auspiciousness in order to hoodwink gullible people, Monica ji.” I was tempted to add “like you” but resisted.

“Please drop me there,” Monica said pointing at a three-storey jewellery in the town.

“All the best,” I said as I slowed the car. “May you have a lot of prosperity in your days to come.”

I raised the volume of the FM radio in the car. “How can the Congress be forgiven for insulting the Hindus in front of the world?” Modi ji’s voice boomed. He was speaking at a rally in Wardha, according to the newsreader. “Weren’t you hurt when you heard the word ‘Hindu terror’?”

“Ah, Modi ji,” I muttered to myself, “you should have been in the advertising business.”