Thursday, November 28, 2019

Grow beyond religion

One of the many posters that appeared in my village asking people to support the Church Act


In spite of its recent capitulation to the venal central government, the Supreme Court of India has upheld women’s right to enter places of worship like Sabarimala. But certain religious fundamentalists in Kerala are determined not to let women anywhere near the presiding deity on that hilltop. Ayyappan, the deity, is a bachelor whose chastity is so fragile that it will be shattered by the mere presence of worshipping women, according to these fundamentalists.  
Umpteen questions can be raised against this and other infantile views of religious fundamentalists. None of the fundamentalist views stands to reason. Yet these views get popular support. One obvious reason is that most believers, not merely the fundamentalists, feel insecure about changing age-old beliefs and customs, however absurd and puerile they may be.
It was quite heartening to see the Christians of the state of Kerala coming out in tens of thousands yesterday [27 Nov 2019] to demand implementation of the Church Act that would put some reins on the omnipotent powers of priests. The priests of the various churches in Kerala have proved themselves to be above the law in extremely criminal ways in the last many decades. They not only misuse the wealth of the churches but also indulge in criminal activities like raping children, nuns and housewives.
The questioning of the temporal powers of the churches by the laity may have nothing to do with religious faith and its concomitant blindness. Yet the protest is a healthy sign insofar as it can lead to the beginning of the end of the savage powers exercised by the priests.
People need to liberate themselves from the savage powers of the gods, in fact. I look forward to that day when man (as well as woman, of course) won’t need the crutches of gods.




Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Nationalist Parrot



The parrot had lived in a cage for a very, very long time. Finally, one day, the master decided to set it free.
“Go. The sky is your limit,” said the master as he opened the cage.
The parrot was baffled. It didn’t know what to do.
The master took the parrot out and liberated it into the air. The parrot flapped its wings and realised it could fly. It flew away.
The parrot returned in a while to the cage.
“This cage is my country,” it said. “I love my country. My country is the greatest, the best. My county’s culture is very, very ancient. All sciences and arts have their roots in my country.”
The master who was a Harvard Business School graduate was happy. He knew how to convert any situation into a new business opportunity. Soon all parrots in the neighbourhood became nationalists that repeated the same slogans.



Friday, November 22, 2019

Interpretations matter



In Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classical book, The Little Prince, a fox shares a secret with the eponymous prince in return for a favour from the prince. “And now here is my secret,” says the fox, “a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
The favour that the fox wanted from the prince was to be tamed. “Tame me,” the fox requested. The prince didn’t know what taming was. Taming means “to establish ties,” explains the fox. It is relationships that make any entity unique. There are flowers and flowers, for example. But all those flowers mean nothing to you unless you establish a “tie” with one or more of them. “It is the time you wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important,” the fox counsels.
The fox doesn’t like the system he has to follow. He has to hunt chickens of human beings, and human beings hunt him. That is the fact. He would like to reinterpret that fact. He would like to create a new reality, one that is based on relationships, one in which creatures will see with their hearts.
When I suggested philosopher Nietzsche’s quote, “There are no facts, only interpretations,” for Indispire Edition 300, I had this fox in mind. Of course, the quote is not to be taken literally. It requires interpretation. There are facts and facts. And we can’t live without them. But what matters more is how you interpret those facts. At least quite many of them.
For example, until recently Mahatma Gandhi was the father of the nation and Nathuram Godse was his killer. Such ‘facts’ are being reinterpreted these days. Gandhi is being evicted from the venerable position and his killer is being deified. Odisha government recently distributed a booklet in the state’s schools during the 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma. The booklet claimed that “Gandhiji died … because of an accidental sequence of events.” That is going far beyond interpretation of a fact: it is a grotesque distortion of the fact, something which the present ruling party in India is specialising on.
Misinterpretations and distortions of facts abound in India now. It happens because too many Indians now fail to see with their hearts. Eminent institutions of the country including the judiciary are afflicted by this malady of not being able to exercise the heart.
India is fast becoming a dark subcontinent because of that malady. It is imperative now to reverse its gravitation towards dark deeps. One way of doing that is to follow the above fox’s counsel.

PS. Written for Indispire Edition 300: #NoFacts

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

King of slogans



Fiction

The unrivalled Prime Minister metamorphosed into a king over the years in a kind of Darwinian mutation. Many years ago, when he became the Prime Minister, the citizens of his country were interested in such democratic processes as elections. Those were days of bewitching slogans. Sabka saath sabka vikas. Swachh Bharat. Make in India. The slogans were as endless as they were enchanting.
The Prime Minister was a wizard of slogans. Abracadabra, he would say on something like Mann ki Baath, and miracles would materialise from nowhere like Ambanis or Adanis. The mutton in a Khan’s refrigerator would change miraculously into beef after the said Khan was lynched in public by a mob that called themselves gau-rakshaks.
Lynching became the national entertainment. Kaun banega crorepati and Bigg Boss lost their TRP rating to wayside lynching. Khan banega shikar became a new nationalist slogan. Khans thought it was their kismet. At least until, inshallah, some bloody bin-Laden or al-Baghdadi came to challenge kismet with a deadly kiss. Bomb kiss. Religious kiss.
In the meanwhile, lynching marched on with the fetid fervour of perverted crusaders. They did not believe in karma, the indigenous version of kismet. Supernatural concepts such as kismet and karma are for the weak and the oppressed. When you have the power, the hegemony as academicians call it, you need vengeance.
Vengeance is the dharma of the ideal kingdom. According to that modern Ram Raj dharma, an honest police officer is consigned to the prison so that rapists, murderers and extortionists can rule the provinces assigned to them by the king. Gau rakhsha.
Even justice is vengeance in that new dharma. There is no evidence that any temple was demolished in order to construct a mosque. We know that the idols were sneaked into the masjid in 1947. Nevertheless, the majority of the citizens believe that the place where the masjid stood is the birthplace of their god. Therefore, a temple shall be constructed now where the masjid stood.
Vengeance for history’s sake.
Vengeance for ego’s sake.
Vengeance for the king’s sake.
The king is dead, long live the king.
The citizens are delighted. The majority, that is.
Vengeance gratifies the majority soul.
Vengeance is the latest slogan.
#TruthStrangerThanFiction

Monday, November 18, 2019

Beauty is Truth



“I’m losing interest in writing,” I told Kittu. Kittu is my cat. He loves to sit in my lap when I relax on a chair on the veranda in the evenings.
“There’s no rule or order that you should write, is there?” Kittu asked.
“Writing is my way of adding meaning to life.”
Kittu snickered. “I’m contemplating the meaning of my lying in your lap.”
“Your lying in my lap makes my life beautiful,” I said.
“Beautiful,” Kittu seemed to ponder that word. “Not meaningful?” He asked.
“I’m not Keats,” I said.
“What did Keats do?”
Beauty is truth, truth beauty, he said.”
“Was he a poet?”
“Of course. You know what he said after that?”
Kittu purred.
That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. That’s what he said.”
“He’s right, I think,” Kittu said after a brief silence.
“Really?”
“My lying in your lap is beautiful, you said. Doesn’t that beauty add some meaning to your life?”
“Modesty is not your virtue, eh?”
“As humble as you please, not modest. Modesty is for those who don’t want to think for themselves.”
I ignored the digression and pondered the bond between beauty and meaning.
“You write in order to add meaning to life,” Kittu said. It sounded more like a question.
“Yeah,” I agreed.
“Aren’t you trying to create beauty with your writing? Or at least, mitigate the ugliness of evil?”
Indeed, I thought. You’re beautiful, Kittu. My discovery of your beauty is the essence of our relationship. I wish I could discover the beauty of life similarly. But I’m creating that beauty with words, you’re right. Keats is right.



Monday, November 11, 2019

Lethargy



I am educated enough to talk myself out of any work. Why write when there are more writers today than readers? I ask myself when I feel lethargic to write. Or I’ll invent other excuses. Like: you’ve grown old, man, you’re out of touch with new trends. Sometimes I feel like Santiago of The Old Man and the Sea: “Bed is my friend. Just bed…. Bed will be a great thing.”
One of the movie maestros of Kerala, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, complained the other day that the digital camera has made almost everyone a movie director. He lamented the death of movie as an art. Sometimes I feel like Adoor and lament the death of standard in blogging.
Have we created an art out of mediocrity? I think we have. Look at the best sellers today.
But that’s no excuse for avoiding your duty. You have to do your job whatever the outcome. Didn’t Krishna say something like that to Arjuna? According to the religion I inherited at birth, lethargy is one of the seven deadly sins. Diligence is prescribed as its antidote.
Right now I’m in no mood for diligence. Let me relax now just for the heck of it. I’m tired too. I don’t need other excuses now. This weariness today is not lethargy. It’s just weariness which needs a good sleep. I shall wake up early as usual tomorrow. “Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?” Well, tomorrow I shall follow the example of Santiago and push my boat out into the ocean with renewed vigour.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Gratitude

Kunju, the new addition to my family, is a great teacher too


I didn’t want to be born. By the time I grew up old enough to accept the terrifying and inevitable absurdity of life, I had longed for death too many times. Now I’m old enough to know that gratitude is a great virtue. Where do I begin?
There’s one person who has endured my insanity without complaint. My wife. She loved me and continues to love me in spite of myself. In spite of the maxima and minima of my unpredictable mood swings. She taught me that I was not entirely abominable. Rather she taught me that I was lovable. She mellowed my intrinsic ruthlessness. The process took time. Years. Years of endurance with me. Forbearance, perhaps.
Then there’s a whole society called Shillong that taught me the greatest lesson of my life. St Edmund’s college, its principal, my colleagues there and one student named Nicholas all deserve infinite gratitude from me. They went out of their way to teach me that I was not as great as I thought. They taught me the profound lessons of humility and modesty. And a lot more. They taught me more than I could actually absorb then and hence I fled the place in frustration. Looking back, I know they deserve heartfelt gratitude from me as much for driving me away from Shillong (which eventually took me to the best phase of my life) as for the essential lessons of life they taught me.
Sawan Public School in Delhi was that place, the best phase of my life. Sawan was my paradise on earth. ‘Paradise in Delhi’ is the title of a chapter in my memoir, Autumn Shadows and it refers to Sawan. Sawan was the antithesis of St Edmund’s. If Edmund’s went out of its way to transmute me into a creature of their choices, Sawan went out of its way to accept me as I was, with all my eccentricities and outlandishness. Sawan let people be. I found roots in Sawan campus. It’s quite a different matter that another religious group like the Edmund’s people invaded Sawan too – soon after Mr Modi became the supreme pontiff of the nation – and pulled out the roots of the very school mercilessly. Religion is a monstrous bulldozer that creeps into everywhere.
I shall not digress, however. This is for the latest Indispire invitation: “It’s the month of gratitude. Share three things you are grateful for. #gratitudemonth


Tuesday, November 5, 2019

When lightning struck

A popular goddess in India


Fire chose to dance in my front yard on Sunday. The sky grew ominously dark in the late afternoon making it look like night. Then came a thundershower. The heavens rumbled furiously. The lightning turned into a dance of fires and the accompanying thunder deafened our ears. Maggie and I were watching it from inside our house. When the orgy of the heavens relented, I stepped out to take stock of the damage. A few of the tiles outside the house lay shattered to smithereens. The fury of the lightning had dug two deep holes in the wall. A flowerpot lay broken and the schefflera in it was thrown aside. Soon I would discover that the damage was much more than all that. Quite a few of my electric appliances were damaged irreparably.
I took leave from school on Monday in order to bring a semblance of normalcy to my home. I learnt that a few houses of my neighbourhood were similarly affected by the disaster.
Then came people’s reactions and comments. Most people were concerned. Some were plainly curious. A few were indifferent. One here and another there  spoke about god’s vengeance. This last group fascinated me the most.
God is unhappy with me and hence I was punished. This is their verdict in short. What a pathetic god that is! I mused aloud to Maggie. Maggie needed a bit of counselling because she seemed inclined to agree with this inane view of silly people.
“People’s opinions on God’s attitudes closely mirror their own beliefs,” I explained. I have done a post-graduate course in psychology and hence can bring in significant information from psychology. Maggie knows that. She listened.
When people say that god wants this or that, what they actually mean is they want this or that. Psychology has proved that with whatever evidence it is capable of. Nicholas Epley from the University of Chicago concluded bluntly enough after his research on this topic that for many religious people the question “What would god do?” is essentially the same as “What would I do?” Through a combination of surveys, psychological manipulation and brain-scanning, Epley found that when religious people try to infer the will of God, they mainly draw on their own personal beliefs.
People create God in their own image. The prophet Hosea saw God as a jilted lover because he was a jilted lover himself. All the biblical prophets re-created Yahweh in their own images. It’s not only the prophets who do that, however. Most religious people, most people who believe in god do that. For the envious believer, god is a jealous entity. For the short-tempered person, God is short-tempered.
People use God to justify their own attitudes and actions. When people interpret the disaster in my life as God’s punishment for my irreligion, they only mean that they are angry with me for being different from them.
Epley surveyed commuters at a Boston train station. He studied the attitudes and beliefs of university undergraduates and 1000 adults from a nationally representative database. In every case, he found that people’s own attitudes and beliefs matched those they suggested for God more precisely than those they suggested for their fellow human beings. If you are interested to know more about Epley’s studies, here is an article from the National Geographic: ‘Creating God in one’s own image’.
Next time when anyone tells you about god’s choices, remember that they are the speaker’s own choices.


Sunday, November 3, 2019

Festivals and I

Diwali in 2008 at the staff quarters of Sawan Public School, Delhi


I don’t celebrate festivals now. I never celebrated them after I lost my childhood. Onam and Christmas were my favourite childhood festivals. Both were colourful and joyful. Onam called my attention to the variety of flora available in my village. Children used to come to pluck flowers from our land in order to make the floral carpet for Maveli. It is then I became aware of the very existence of some of those flowers.
The cutest attraction of Christmas was the crib we made at home. Father led the exercise. The children’s duty was to collect the raw materials from the farm. We collected palm leaves and a particular variety of grass that grew abundantly in December. This grass was called Infant Jesus grass (ഉണ്ണീശോ പുല്ല്). Then there were the stars and illumination.
Today both Onam and Christmas have lost their innocence. Flowers are bought from the market. Cribs are readymade.

When I lived in Delhi (until a few years ago), Holi and Diwali were the biggest festivals. I hid myself in my room on both occasions as my lungs were (and still are) highly sensitive to dust and smoke. Moreover, I could never understand the fun in throwing dirt on others and polluting the air with the noise and smoke of fireworks.
I now live in a village in Kerala where Holi and Diwali are not even mentioned, forget the coloured dusts and noisy crackers. In the towns nearby, students celebrate Holi just to throw dirt on one another. I understand that these youngsters are just using Holi as an excuse for drawing people’s attention to themselves. 

Festivals should bring people together in a spirit of camaraderie. What is happening nowadays is just the opposite. Festivals have become factional. People use festivals today to show off the power and glory of their community. There is something infantile about today’s celebrations, as infantile as the youngsters’ celebration of Holi in the towns near my home in Kerala.
 
A Diwali light at Sawan
PS. Written for Indispire Edition 297: “How have festival celebrations changed for you over the years?” #Change