Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Pandey ji, Paplu, and Godman


Pandey ji had become old enough to lose sleep over small things as well as very small things. As a younger man he knew how to make his students lose sleep. He was a teacher, a very strict one. Woe to any student who did not submit Pandey ji’s assignments on time. You could manage all other teachers somehow: an apology or a sprinkle of flattery or a “token of affection” – this last was a gift like a pen or something. “Ma’am, when I saw this in the shop I remembered you.” And ma’am forgives your lapse with the assignment. But Pandey ji was above all such temptations.

Students trembled at the very sight of Pandey ji. It is said that some students even passed urine in their trousers out of sheer fright if Pandey ji caught them for some error or mischief or negligence. If Pandey ji was the invigilator, no examinee would ever dream of indulging in any malpractice. Pandey ji kept an eagle eye on every student in the room. It was said that he had an X-ray vision that could see into the pockets of the students and detect any bit of wisdom that lay hidden there illegally in order to emerge stealthily with the intention of making its appearance on the answer sheet.

Once Pandey ji’s X-ray vision caught sight of the equations of motion on the thigh of a girl student who lifted the hemline of her skirt a little during the exam. Pandey ji rushed to the girl to catch her red handed, lifted her skirt, and stood stunned for a moment by the marmoreal exquisiteness of the fair and lovely thigh. In that one stunned moment of Pandey ji, the girl rubbed out the equations of motion from her thigh using a moist handkerchief. And then she insisted on filing a complaint against Pandey ji for molesting her.

Principal Sharma ji averted a catastrophe by shifting the blame to the hemline of the girl’s skirt which did not follow the length prescribed clearly in the student’s handbook. It is not that Sharma ji didn’t try a better strategy that would be more academic.

“Tell me the equations of motion,” Sharma ji asked the student.

“v = u + at; s = ut + 1/2 at2; v2 = u2 + 2as.” The girl rattled out effortlessly looking into Sharma ji’s eyes boldly and throwing a mocking glance at Pandey ji in between. Both Sharma ji and Pandey ji understood the situation in its real context.

The catastrophe was not averted altogether, however. The story of Pandey ji lifting the skirt of the most beautiful girl in the school under the pretext of checking an exam malpractice acquired lurid colours and the colours flew like live claws on the campus, claws that dug into Pandey ji’s upright heart. Pandey ji’s whole reputation for moral uprightness and righteousness that he had so carefully built up over three decades fell like a house of cards. Girl students started pulling down their skirts on seeing Pandey ji. Boys started putting their palms over their loins.

Pandey ji’s X-ray vision suffered an instant death. It did not even wait to experience a stroke. Pandey ji was no more a terror to his students. Equations of motion also ceased to be a terror to the students.

Pandey ji became terrified of girls after that. He did not dare to look into the eyes of girls anymore. Gradually he lost interest in morality and righteousness.

That is why Pandey ji did not want to interfere when he saw a Kamasutra dotted condom fall from his son’s pocket as he pulled out his handkerchief on his return from a business trip to Singapore. He merely made sure that his daughter-in-law did not see the condom. Explaining the presence of a condom in one’s trouser packet to a wife early in the morning wouldn’t have been too easy.

The son’s business trips increased eventually and the godman who lived in the nearby ashram became a frequent visitor to the daughter-in-law. The godman seemed to possess a divine vision which told him exactly when the husband would be away from home and for how many days. Nights, rather. The godman visited Shyamala only in the nights. Shymala was Pandey ji’s daughter-in-law who recently started taking a keener interest in beauty parlours.

Sleep was deserting Pandey ji these days. That is, nights. Pandey ji never had the foul habit of sleeping during days. He was too moral and righteous for that. As he lay awake in bed contemplating on the illusory nature of earthly pleasures, the marmoreal thighs of a young and beautiful girl would haunt him like a monstrous nightmare. It was in one of those nights he saw the godman walk out of the backdoor into the darkness of the Peelu trees that stood between the godman’s ashram and Pandey ji’s property.

Tonight is particularly ominous, thinks Pandey ji looking out the window before going to bed. The clouds look vexed. There is occasional lightning too.

The thunder rumbled restlessly as Godman put on his saffron robe. Just as he came out of the side door of the ashram, an intensely lustrous flash of lightning chose to fall on him. He got scared. Bad omen, he decided. He returned to his room and went to bed. Shyamala’s distant sighs lulled him to sleep.

Paplu was sure that Godman won’t venture out anymore. Paplu was Godman’s righthand man. His real name was Balgangadhar Deshpandey. Nobody called him that. Even he had forgotten that name. He was the cute Paplu to everyone including Godman. Paplu was good, honest, kind, gentle, and handsome too. He knew how to deal with the devotees. He handled the accounts of the ashram. He ran errands and bigger things for Godman. He knew everyone from the cook in the ashram to the Chief Secretary of the Prime Minister. Yet he was humble. Simple. Polite. Genteel.

Godman lay in his bed imagining Shyamala’s lovesick sighs.

Paplu picked up one of the many saffron robes that belonged to Godman and put it on.

The lightning refused to relent. The thunder rumbled on.

Pandey ji turns in his bed. He is unusually disturbed. There is a different sound from his daughter-in-law’s room today, he thinks. He listens. The spectres of marmoreal thighs metamorphose into sharp claws and threaten to dig into him. He gets up and goes to the window. The backdoor opens. A figure in saffron robe walks out into the backyard leading to the Peelu trees. The figure doesn’t look like Godman’s though it is wearing the saffron robe. Just then a flash of lightning falls with brilliance. Pandey ji may be an old man with wrinkled dugs, but his vision is still clear.

“Paplu, have you too become a godman?” Pandey ji mutters as he returns to bed.

PS. Inspired partly by Malayalam writer Ponkunnam Varkey whose death anniversary falls on 2 July.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Herd Mentality

Slogans can kill. They often do. A simple slogan like Ek dhaka aur do, Jama Masjid tod do killed a few thousand people in addition to demolishing a five-century-old architectural heritage in the year 1992 under the pontificate of luminaries like L K Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi. No less than 150,000 people who called themselves kar sevaks metamorphosed into a cloud of frenzied hornets, mesmerised by a slogan.

A mob has no brain. A mob only has a libido. A mob is an emotional surge, a monstrous unconscious, a mindless leviathan. Any pied piper can get that monster to plunder and flatten, rape and kill. The mob will commit atrocities that the individuals in it will shy away from with visible horror.

Fellow blogger Amit Pattnaik raises a question at a bloggers’ platform: Why is the herd mentality phenomenon so rampant in India? So many just blindly follow what others are doing! Or they mindlessly do what others tell them to, without questioning it. Is it the Bandwagon Effect? Has rationality died?

The herd mentality is rampant among the entire species that calls itself Homo Sapiens, not only in India. What killed millions of Jews in Hitler’s expanding territory was this mentality. Even the most benign Buddha’s followers turned mass killers in Myanmar last year following the universal herd mentality of the species. There are murderous evangelist groups in America that show no signs of intellectual development.

The herd mentality comes primarily from a lack of brains. Watch people who join violent mobs and it won’t take long for you to realise how like wild beasts they are. What kind of a man can enter a total stranger’s house, sledgehammer the men to death, rape the women, slam children against rocks, tear open wombs and snarl at spilled foetuses?

A century back, French polymath Gustave Le Bon said that “by the mere fact that he forms part of an organised group, a man descends several ladders of civilisation. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian – that is, a creature acting by instincts. He possesses the spontaneity, the ferocity and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings.”

Advanced minds stay clear of groups, let alone mobs. Groups are for the less sophisticated ones. Mobs are for the savages. You won’t ever find Einstein and Picasso in mobs. Mobs don’t sway to Beethoven’s symphonies. You will find mobs lapping up hollow political rhetoric. Hideous villains have been exalted as national heroes by vacuous mobs. Flagrant frauds have been worshipped as yogis and gurus by flash mobs.

A mob cannot think. A mob moves like an avalanche set in motion by a force unknown to it. More and more elements join it as it tumbles down and moves on like a hellish juggernaut. Devastation as well as folly has a gravitational pull not unlike that of a black hole.

PS. #HerdMentality Indispire Edition 331

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Does God Exist?

Book Overview

Title: Does God Exist?
Author: Hans Kung
Translated from German by Edward Quinn
Publisher: Collins Fount Paperbacks, 1978
Pages: 839

This is the most scholarly book I have ever read. It was a birthday gift I received in 1986 from a Catholic priest who taught me philosophy for two years. I had abandoned religion as well as God though it might be truer to say that God had given me up. I was a student of religion. I had ample faith in God. I used to pray half a dozen times a day. I wrote love poems to Jesus. “You took the brush and colours danced in my heart.” The ‘you’ in lines that smacked explicitly of romance in my poems was Jesus. I wrote those love poems when I was a student of philosophy. The only teacher to whom I dared to show those poems was the one who gifted me Hans Kung’s magnum opus on my 26th birthday when I had already proclaimed my atheism loudly enough. [The details are in my memoir, Autumn Shadows.]

Hans Kung is one of the most profound theologians of the Catholic Church. The Church was not quite pleased with many of his views and so he was even barred from teaching theology. He has written many books though I have read only two of them, the other being his History of the Catholic Church. This book is so profound that it will engage even a voracious reader for months.

The book looks at God from various angles: philosophy, psychology, mysticism, and religion with a focus on Christianity. Even science and mathematics make their presence felt in many parts of the books. The very opening sentence of the book is: “It is not surprising that mathematicians in particular have always had a special interest in an unconditional, absolute certainty in the realm of life and knowledge.” There is no mathematics without certain absolute truths. Hans Kung begins his exploration of God’s ontology with none other than Rene Descartes, the mathematician who gave us coordinate geometry without which much of classical mathematics would not exist. Descartes was a philosopher too. I think, therefore I exist. That remains his most famous saying. Like all mathematicians Descartes had to establish his philosophical edifice on a self-evident, absolutely true proposition.

Kung begins with a questioning of those absolute propositions of philosophy. “Does not consciousness include in addition to and together with rational thinking also willing and feeling, imagination and temperament, emotions and passions, which just cannot be attributed rationalistically to pure reason, but have their own reality, often opposed to reason?” He asks. Man is not just a cerebral robot. He needs more, much more, than reason to guide him, to give him meaning in life.

The eminent theologian then moves on to a lot of other philosophers like Blaise Pascal, Hegel, Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Nietzsche, Kant, and Wittgenstein and discusses them in great detail. Anyone who is interested in philosophy will find this book thoroughly exhaustive and stunningly thought-provoking. Kung not only summarises the views of these philosophers elegantly but also critiques them subtly and sharply.

He also takes necessary insights from psychology. Adler, Jung and Freud all come under Kung’s piercing scanner. By its very nature, Kung informs us, “psychological interpretation alone cannot penetrate to the absolutely final or first reality.”

God remains beyond the rationality of philosophy and the analytics of psychology. Isn’t God an experience? The last part of Kung’s voluminous book focuses precisely on that question. No one can arrive at God without faith. In fact, no one can make life meaningful without the fundamental trust which enables us to say Yes to reality.
The title page of my copy
Being a Catholic priest, Kung obviously offers us the God of Christianity in detail though he would never suggest that Jesus’ God is the only true God. On the contrary, he states clearly that the Christian experience of God is only one of the many possible experiences. He dismisses any claim to universalism on the part of Christianity as “a sign of provincialism”.

People can and do experience God in their own ways. Kung quotes William James’s definition of religion as “the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” Whatever. Even a wedge of rock that is made to look like a phallus can lead the believer to a divine experience.

For Kung, Jesus is the foundation of his divine experience. The God of Jesus is different from the tyrannical and capricious Yahweh of the Old Testament. Here is a God who loves, who cares, who is compassionate. Jesus is the “embodiment of a new attitude to life,” says Kung, “and a new life-style.” Jesus enables him to accept the evils of life. “I cannot myself attach a meaning to my living and suffering,” Kung says, “but I can accept it in the light of the completed life and suffering of this one man.” The sufferings of Jesus act as the buffer for Kung.

Well, that is where I parted ways with Hans Kung. If Jesus were indeed God, omnipotent and loving as Christianity envisages him, why couldn’t he show us a better way than that of the cross? As I put the mammoth book down some time in 1987 [I think I took about a year to read it], I realised that I had not travelled much farther from the mathematical logic of Descartes. My approach to reality remains intellectual even today in spite of the strong element of romanticism in me. I can stand in awe before a tulip. I can pet a kitten with the tenderness of a new mother. My love can turn passionate where passion is required. But when it comes to grappling with life’s realities, my intellect jumps to the fore.

God is an emotional experience. Even when profoundly religious people like Hans Kung give me intellectual reasons for their faith in God, I know ultimately even for them God is an emotional experience. Otherwise God is nothing. God is the awe that the tulip springs in me. God is the tenderness that the kitten extracts from my heart. God is the passion in my romance.

Hans Kung may find it difficult to experience that awe, tenderness and passion without the person of a God to uphold them. He concludes his book thus: “Does God exist? Despite all upheavals and doubts, even for man today, the only appropriate answer must be that with which believers of all generations from ancient times have again and again professed their faith.” What is it? It begins with faith and ends in trust, Kung answers in the last lines of the book. It is the instinctual faith of the infant in its mother; it is the conscious trust of the adult in the love that lies beyond.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Everyone, not just the few

How India treated its migrant labourers: humiliation on top of hunger
Image from National Herald

The problem with the human world is not lack of resources but the wickedness that is intrinsic to the human soul. In 1943 when Hitler’s racial pride was eliminating millions of people from the face of the earth for their ‘crime’ of belonging to a particular religion, 3 million people died in India’s Calcutta due to starvation. In one instance pride killed millions and in the other greed did.

In his essay Poverty and Famines, Amartya Sen calls the Bengal Famine “boom famine”. There was sufficient rice to feed all those people who died of starvation. In 1943 Bengal had the largest rice crop in recent history, says Sen. The powerful and the rich together amassed all that rice out of sheer greed. Even the government looted the people, says Sen. The rich and powerful landlords too looted the poor. These landlords condescended to give rice to the poor but in return for their lands or whatever little belongings of value they had. Those who had nothing to offer – and there were thousands and thousands of them – vanished without a trace. When some people had more than what they could eat, many died of starvation. Joseph Conrad could have written another Heart of Darkness set in Calcutta.

Kerala is a state whose people depend on rice for their food. While Bengal produced most of the rice they required, Kerala had to import half of the rice they needed. Prior to the Bengal Famine, Kerala’s rice came from Burma. But Burma was taken over by Japan in March 1942 and the supply of rice to Kerala was cut off.

There was no famine in Kerala, however. Why? The political systems in the region [there was no state called Kerala then] ensured that the available food was distributed properly among the people. The princely kingdoms of Cochin and Travancore as well as the British province of Malabar carried out the commendable job of making available food reach the people.

The political system makes the difference ultimately. The leader does matter a lot more than what we usually imagine. If a sizable population of a country remains poor while a small fraction keeps rising higher in the Forbes list of the affluent, the system is wrong and the leader cannot wash his hands off by transferring the filth on his hands to history. Nehru cannot return from his grave to set things right now even if he committed some blunders then.

India keeps paying higher prices for fuel every day. Rising fuel prices shoot the prices of other things up too. In the midst of a pandemic, if a government can think of nothing but suck out whatever little is left with its citizens, there is something seriously wrong somewhere. Especially when we don’t even know where all that money is going.

We have a government at the Centre now that has been there for more than six years. We have seen how the government spends thousands of crores on futile publicity, absurd statues, temples to false pride, and a lot of causes that have little to do with the vikas it has promised for over six years. [Just imagine the audacity of a government that put aside a few thousand crores of rupees for a temple when hundreds of thousands of migrants were walking hundreds or thousands of kilometres to reach home in the wake of a pandemic-caused lockdown!] Six years is a long time for any government to prove its efficiency. Too long, in fact. History has not forgiven such Himalayan blunders and it won’t in the future too. The silence on the mountain is not always a sign of serenity. The avalanche is gathering. It will roll down in due time. As Solzhenitsyn said, a cry in the wilderness is enough to set it in motion, a gargantuan motion.

The May 2020 issue of The Caravan magazine featured the Bengal Famine on its cover. Contrasting what Bengal and Kerala did at that time, the writer Kushanava Choudhury says, “Even today, with each new disaster, whether it is a flood or a pandemic, in Kerala one sees a different pattern from the rest of India for how a society deal with crises. It starts with the principle that you treat all people as part of the same society, in every village, in every town, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Malayalis, migrants, rich and poor, and use the power of the state to protect everyone, not just the few.”

There lies the essential difference: everyone, not just the few.

I have been living in Kerala for five years now. I am a first-hand witness of what is happening here. I have seen how the government dealt with the floods in the last two years – even when the Central government dithered on support because of silly political differences. I am seeing how the state government is dealing with the present pandemic. The government of Kerala has given me reasons to be optimistic about politics.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Emotional Education

Book Review

Title: The School of Life
Author: Alain de Botton and 18 others
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 310
Price in India: Rs 699

Human evolution has been one-sided. The brain continues to evolve while the heart remains savage. While we are able to construct skyscrapers and flyovers, explore stars that lie zillions of kilometres away, and work with the minutest subatomic particles, the ancient savage feelings of hatred and vindictiveness, envy and greed, egotism and lust, refuse to leave our hearts. The heart stands in need of effective education. Here is a book that attempts to provide that education.

Interestingly, it is a book written by a group of writers numbering to 19 in all counting the one who wrote the introduction. These writers are philosophers and psychologists who call themselves The School of Life which is also the title of this book. The objective of this organisation of writers is to promote emotional education and global well-being.

If you have already read a dozen or so motivational books of a good standard, you may find much repetition here. But that is not a drawback. There is hardly anything new to teach about life. From the Gautama Buddha to George Santayana, we have had infinite teachers and thinkers who told us more or less the same things in different words. If our hearts have remained as primitive as the first of the homo sapiens, the repetition of lessons for the heart is unavoidable.

We don’t want to learn these essential lessons. The introduction to this book says that “we have ingrained tendencies to shut our ears to all the major truths about our deeper selves.” There are certain lessons which are vital but we don’t want to learn them. This book reminds us of those lessons yet again.

The book is divided into 5 parts: Self, Others, Relationships, Work, and Culture. How to improve our life with respect to each of these is what the book speaks about. The book is written in a simple language that anyone can understand. There is no jargon from philosophy or psychology though the writers belong to those fields. Since it is written by diverse writers, the style changes occasionally and some parts are not as gripping as others. On the whole, it is very inspiring.

“What separates the sane insane from the simply insane is the honest, personable and accurate grasp they have on what is not entirely right with them,” the introduction says. [emphasis added] We are all insane to some degree. It is perhaps impossible to be absolutely sane. What we can do is to understand our insanity and come to terms with the fears, doubts, longings, desires and habits that drive our insanity. The book helps us to do that.

Even if you have read many motivational or self-help books, this one is still recommended if only to remind ourselves of certain basic truths about human life. The added advantage is that this book tells it in a little different way. Let me conclude with a quote from the book as an example of what it offers and how:

“The wise don’t envy idly, realizing that there are some good reasons why they don’t have many of the things they really want. They look at the tycoon or the star and have a decent grasp of why they weren’t able to succeed at this level. I seems like just an accident, an unfair one, but there were in fact some logical reasons.
   At the same time, the wise see that some destinies are truly shaped by nothing more than accident. Some people are promoted randomly. Companies that aren’t especially deserving can suddenly make it big. Some people have the right parents. The winners aren’t all noble and good. The wise appreciate the role of luck and don’t curse themselves overly at those junctures where they have evidently not had as much of it as they would have liked.”

PS. My motivational e-book Coping with Suffering is available here.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

The Sublime Answer to Suffering

The following is an extract from Chapter 10 of my e-book: Coping with Suffering

Suffering will not vanish. We will learn how to cope with it better.
The sublime opens our eyes and hearts. In plain words, it makes us understand the reality better and deal with it lovingly. This understanding and love are the ultimate remedies for unavoidable suffering.
This relationship with the sublime is a spiritual condition. You need not be religious for experiencing it. Atheists experience it in their own diverse ways. Artists experience it through their arts. When Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious; it is the source of all true art and science,” he was referring to the experience of the sublime. When Mozart said that love – and not intelligence or imagination – is the real soul of genius, he meant nothing else.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince put it most elegantly: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
The brain does help us to understand the reality. As Hinduism teaches, intellectual pursuit or jnana yoga can offer us enlightenment.
But when it comes to grappling with the riddles of life, the heart shows the way. Blake saw a world in a grain of sand with his heart, not his eyes. Mirabai, great devotee of Lord Krishna, could unfurl herself across the universe by stretching her heart, not her intellect. It is your heart that will give you the wings to fly.
Will suffering vanish when you learn to see a world in a grain of sand or to fly in the heavens on wings of the heart?
No. Suffering can never vanish from our life. We learn to cope with it. We learn to see it from a different perspective.
It is the perspective of the heart. It is with the heart we see certain essential truths clearly.
When the homo sapiens evolved from their simian ancestors, the brain continued to evolve while the heart retained its loyalty to the beast. Our species went on to conquer the whole world with the help of our evolved brains. We subjugated everything on earth mercilessly to our tools and technology. We established our mastery over everything on the planet as well as beyond it in the eternal spaces. We moved light years in a few hundred calendar years. Great intellectual achievement.
But our hearts remained simian. Very primitive. Except in the cases of those few enlightened ones, those who chose to touch eternity in a moment.
Our religions, our arts and our philosophical teachers all sought to train our hearts. But we chose to convert these entities into competitive architecture or showbiz or propaganda. They did not touch our hearts.
They were like the roses in our gardens tended by hired labourers. Passers-by admired them. But they did not touch our hearts. Because it is only when you waste time with your roses do they touch your hearts.
The answers to quite a lot of our problems lie in our own hearts. And we keep seeking them in a lot of other places.
We have wings to fly with, but we choose to walk.
If only you start flying. Once you have conquered certain heights, you won’t come down, as Richard Bach says in one of his books. You will spread your wings and fly. You hover over the suffering that belongs to the earth.

Order your copy of Coping with Suffering HERE

Friday, June 19, 2020

Pineapple’s Divinity

From an earlier Pineapple Fest - Image from Outlook

I live in Pineapple City. It is a small town which officially is a village. The tang of ripe pineapple suffuses the very air of the town whose real name is Vazhakulam. Trucks filled with pineapples leave Vazhakulam market every day to different parts of India. The annual Pineapple Fest, which used to be a grand affair, was thwarted by Covid this summer. But pineapples have remained ubiquitously visible in Vazhakulam like in the past many decades. You can see hundreds of acres of land cultivated with pineapple if you travel in the neighbourhood of this place. The local people will tell you proudly that the particular variety of pineapple which grows here has a unique succulence.

The boast is not an empty one, I think. I am not a connoisseur of any food though I can distinguish good taste from the bad like normal people. I think the Vazhakulam pineapples do have a difference. No wonder they have been given a Geographical Indication Number too, No. 130.
Part of Pineapple Market, Vazhakulam - Image from Malayala Manorama
The pineapple never fascinated me particularly whether of Vazhakulam or any place. Mangoes have remained my favourite fruit for long, followed by the humble oranges. But when I read in a book yesterday that the pineapple was a rare royal fruit in the old days and that a single fruit of that species was sold in the 17th century for today’s equivalent of 5000 pounds [INR 475,000], the pineapple – my next-door fruit – rose in eminence in the list of my desirable fruits.

The pineapple belonged originally to South America, this book informs me. It had reached the Caribbean by the time Christopher Columbus landed there. Soon the fruit migrated to Europe following the example of all other good things from many other parts of the world. But transporting pineapples was not quite easy in those days. Cultivating it was even tougher a job. So it remained very expensive.

Russia’s Catherine the Great and England’s Charles II were huge fans of the pineapple. The fruit became such a status symbol that people displayed it instead of eating it when they got hold of one. Poems were composed in honour of the pineapple. The guests of aristocratic evenings boasted about the taste of the tiny slice they managed to get with some difficulty.
Dunmore Pineapple - Image from National Trust for Scotland
The 4th Earl of Dunmore built a temple on his Scottish estate in honour of the pineapple in 1761. Christopher Wren, acclaimed architect among other things, crowned the south tower of St Paul’s Cathedral in London with this divine fruit.
St Paul's Cathedral, South Tower
The close of 19th century altered the fortune of the pineapple, however. Hawaii mass-produced the fruit and steamships carried them everywhere. The fruit became ubiquitous. What is common can no more be royal. Thus the pineapple became a humble, ordinary person’s fruit. It doesn’t occupy any significant place in elite evening parties. Nor will any architect think of giving the dome of his classical construction the shape of the pineapple.

The book in which I read these things – The School of Life written by a group of some 20 writers – says that “The pineapple itself has not changed; it is our attitude to it that has.” We considered the pineapple as the queen of fruits when it remained beyond the reach of the ordinary people. Economics has the dirty habit of controlling our loves!
Pineapples on sale at a shop in Vazhakulam
Industrialisation, say the authors, was supposed to give us good quality products at cheaper prices. Everybody would be able to afford quality now. But in the process a tragedy happened too: industrialisation has robbed “certain experiences of their loveliness, interest and worth”.

This has added to the superficiality of our attitudes and loves. We take things for granted now because they are relatively cheap. That attitude passes into our dealings with people too. Alas, into our dealings with our gods too. Into anything and everything.

As a result, sanctity has all but vanished from our world. Is there anything sacred anymore? That is the ultimate question raised by the pineapple. [Metaphorically, of course.]

I shall bite into the next slice of my pineapple with the renewed wonder of a little child and savour its divinity anew.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Animals and I

Kunju's longing was mine too

I had an attitude of profound indifference to animals. I neither loved them nor hated them. I wouldn’t pet them, nor would I hate them. They didn’t ever draw my attention enough to extract from me even the esoteric attitude of Fritz Perls: “I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.”

That was until a cat, which I named Kittu eventually, came along. Kittu was an abandoned cat. Abandoning cats is quite common in the village where I live. When people cannot afford to look after all the kittens that are born to their cats, they abandon the kittens on roadsides. I espied Kittu in the backyard one morning and ignored it assuming that it would go away by evening. When I returned from school in the evening, the cat was still there in the backyard lying under a tree and trying to assess me with a stealthy look that only cats and women can give.

“Come,” I said. I felt pity, nothing more. The cat accepted my invitation instantly. It ravenously ate the food Maggie gave. It never left us after that. Initially I wouldn’t let him cross the door of the house. “Outside is your place,” I told him every time he tried to enter. He was given enough food to eat and there was ample place outside for a cat to sleep. It was only when Maggie insisted that I conferred a name upon him.

“He’s not well,” I told Maggie one day. “Let him sleep inside tonight.” Somebody from the neighbourhood had poisoned Kittu. He must have entered their kitchen more than once during our daytime absence from home caused by our job. His nausea, helplessness and visible agony caught my attention. For the first time in my life, perhaps, I realised what compassion really meant. Kittu’s agony became mine. I consulted a cousin who is a vet and got Kittu the antidote he needed badly. He recovered. He became my first beloved pet.

A year later another tiny kitten walked into our life. It was not even old enough to be weaned from its mother. I hesitated to take him in. But he walked in from the roadside where he was abandoned in the twilight. He refused to leave me wherever I went. I called him Kunju [Little One] instinctively and gave him all the attention he required. And he required quite much of it because he was so little, so helpless, so innocent.

The two cats together altered my attitude to animals altogether. My indifference metamorphosed into love. I pampered them and Maggie accused me of spoiling them when they began to show disinclination towards vegetarian foods. I bought fish just for them. They were not particularly fond of the cat feed I got from the nearby supermarket. Fish was abundant in the village and my cats had their fill every day.

Cats don’t love you unconditionally. Only dogs can do that, I learnt eventually watching my brother’s dogs. Not even human beings and their capricious gods can love like the dogs.

Kittu became jealous of Kunju. The jealousy in his eyes was visible and palpable. I took Kittu in my lap – which he loved and accepted with a unique purr – and told him, “You are my first love. But Kunju is too small to be left to himself. You shouldn’t be jealous of the attention I give him.”

Kittu didn’t understand that. He stayed away from home for long periods. He stopped coming home in the evenings for days continuously. One day he disappeared altogether. The villagers told me that he was spotted a kilometre away one day. I couldn’t find him but. I miss him even today, months after his disappearance.

Kunju had a more tragic end of which I wrote earlier in this post: A Requiem for my cat.
Affection has no borders
These two cats together had made me a better human being as no other human or god ever could. They extracted tenderness from my heart.

They taught me how infinitely better animals are than human beings. They revealed to me the profundity of Walt Whitman’s poem Song of Myself, 32: “I think I could turn and live with animals…”

Today the Indo-China border reminds me yet again of the infinite superiority of animals to human beings.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Death of a star

Sushant Singh Rajput apparently had everything: wealth, fame, talents, intellect, and a noble heart. The ingredients for a happy and contented life were complete. What went wrong then?

We don’t know yet. Like a lot of other people, I’m left wondering why a man of Rajput’s stature should have put a wretched end to his life? He was doing well not only for himself but also for the world and there was so much more that he could contribute.

He was generous to a fault. He contributed generously when disasters struck. He helped Kerala with a contribution of no less than one crore rupees during the 2018 floods. In the same year, he donated Rs 1.25 crore to the Nagaland Chief Minister’s Relief Fund, again to help flood victims there. He went out of his way to help women-led start-ups and children’s education. In short, he wanted to create a better world. He had great dreams.

What a noble soul!

Did that nobility kill him? This is my conjecture. I don’t know why he chose to end his life this way.

Was he too good for this world? This is a question that refuses to leave me.

Life is essentially a tragedy though we make it look like comedy. Comedification is our success. We cope with the ineluctable miseries of life by pretending that they are comic. Jealousy and greed, sheer insensitivity, piggybacking on others’ successes, poaching on the one-cent land of the other when you have a thousand acres already… Add to all that the insanities perpetrated in the name of patriotism, gods, culture, and what not.

Is it comedy or tragedy?

I don’t know whether Rajput was caught between the horns of that dilemma. There are times when death lured me because I was caught in that ugly middle position. But I survived each time because I accepted the essential insanity of human existence. I accepted my own insanity too.

I didn’t pretend that life was a hilarious comedy. I wept in the darkness of my solitude when I couldn’t bear the pain of life anymore. I didn’t go out of my way to hide what I get up to in the middle of the night, in my anxious moments, when perplexity hit me hard in the solar plexus.

I wish life were kinder to Rajput. And a lot of others. It is good to see stars shining rather than blinking out prematurely.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Salam Alaykum

The following is an extract from my new e-book Coping with Suffering.

Sabr is an Arabic word that means ‘perseverance’ and ‘persistence’. The believer should exercise sabr in order to remain spiritually steadfast and to keep doing good actions in the personal as well as social domains. Sabr is all the more significant while dealing with problems and setbacks. Sabr is essential for the alleviation of suffering.
The Quran promises a double reward to those who practise sabr in the face of difficulties and challenges. Nothing happens without Allah’s knowledge. If you are going through a phase of suffering Allah knows that and He has willed it thus. You should not question His will. Everything that is happening is part of His divine plan. You may not understand it.
Even the prophets did not have it easy. They endured trials and tribulations. Prophet Yusuf (biblical Joseph) was thrown into a well as a boy by his brothers. Prophet Yunus (biblical Jonah) had to live in the belly of a whale for three days. If the prophets of Allah were thus tested, what about the ordinary mortals?
We are weak creatures who easily fall prey to temptations. Therefore we need to fight a constant war, jihad, against the temptations. That is how we sustain a world of peace and goodness where suffering will not have a place. Jihad is of three different types:
·         A believer’s internal struggle to live out the Muslim faith as best as possible
·         The struggle to build a good Muslim society
·         Holy war: the struggle to defend Islam, with force if necessary
The struggle to make oneself and the community living in harmony with the divine order would create a kind of paradise on earth. It is the duty of every Muslim to create a just and equitable society where the poor and the vulnerable are taken care of. Prophet Mohammad had a socialist vision. The believers were encouraged to share their wealth for the welfare of the whole community. Contributing to the society [zakat] accompanied by prayer [salat] represent two of the five essential ‘pillars’ or practices of Islam.
The Quran and the Muslim traditions offer explicitly clear guidelines for the believers to form an ideal society. Duties to parents, neighbours, relatives, sick people, the old, and minorities are all well-defined. It is a religious obligation to respect and obey your parents and take care of them, especially in their old age. Even duties towards other relatives, neighbours and orphan children are specified.
A utopian society where suffering would be minimal was what the Prophet envisaged. There was equality of the sexes too in it. Islam is often seen today as a misogynistic religion. The perception is not without reasons either. Islam has undergone many undesirable changes. A religion which sought to create a paradise on earth has ended up creating hells almost all over the world. A religion of peace has become a religion of terrorism. A religion of joy has become a religion of suffering.
Far from being a misogynist, Prophet Mohammad advocated women’s rights. The Quran strictly forbade the killing of female children and rebuked the Arabs for their dismay when a girl was born. It also gave women legal rights of inheritance and divorce. In that regard, Islam was ahead of most other religions. Mohammad encouraged women to play an active role in the affairs of the community. They were free to speak out their opinions and were listened to respectfully. Even the hijab is a later addition.
In short, Islam was a progressive religion in its early days. It had a great vision. Its greeting, ‘Salam alaykum’ [Peace be with you] was an invitation to universal fraternity. It was an invitation to a possibility of a better world, a joyful world, that would eventually lead us all to a more joyful heaven.
It is a tragic pity that this great vision of a joyful existence has been reduced to its exact opposite today. It is a historic irony that a religion which was to be an oasis of peace and joy in a desert of strife and tears has become a major source of suffering in the world.

For your copy of the book, click here


Pessimism of the gods

There is a romantic at sleep in my heart who likes to believe that people were better in the good old days. The people I saw as a child we...