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Showing posts from November, 2020

Love Jihad in a Wounded Civilisation

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Image from Republic World Communal hate has been a national pastime in Uttar Pradesh for quite a while. Now they have made it official and legal too with the promulgation of the ordinance against ‘love jihad’. Other BJP-ruled states will soon follow suit. Cows always belong to the herd. There are so many interfaith couples in India just as in any other country today. When Sharmila Tagore married Mansoor Ali Khan, the sky didn’t collapse, the earth didn’t quake. Nothing happened except that they made love like any other couple and begot three very normal children one of whom followed the parents’ example and married from a different faith. There are numerous such couples who live happy lives though their allegiances are to apparently irreconcilable gods. When Kamala Harris became the vice president-elect of the US, India’s right wing celebrated her Indian origins though her father was a Jamaican-American-Christian. This same right wing has no problems about Indian Hindus leaving

The Tyranny of Merit

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  Book Review The Tyranny of Merit Author: Michael J Sandel Merit is not always right. It generates winners and losers and often creates hubris among the winners and resentment among the losers. Moreover, there is something immoral about handing over the world to a group of people who possess certain qualities (merits) just by luck. Michael Sandel is a political philosopher at Harvard University and author of many books. His latest book, The Tyranny of Merit [2020], is an incisive critique of meritocracy. Our world places much premium on merit . Students are admitted to premier institutions on the basis of their merit which is assessed by highly challenging tests. Jobs are allotted also on the basis of merit. Merit is important, no doubt. It ensures efficiency and fairness. Those who are more capable should be given greater responsibilities. It also promotes aspiration and individual freedom (freedom to forge one’s own destiny). It is also morally comforting: we feel that w

The Heart of the Matter

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  If only this goodness could grow with us Yuval Noah Harari’s celebrated book, Sapiens , ends with a pregnant question: “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?” We, human beings, are those dissatisfied and irresponsible gods. We evolved a long way from our ancient simian ancestor. We became gods, so to say. We are able to transmute nature’s creations. Harari gives the example of the giraffe. The long neck of the giraffe was a product of evolution by natural selection. “Nobody, certainly not the giraffes, said, ‘A long neck would enable giraffes to munch leaves off the treetops. Let’s extend it.’” But today a scientist can do such intelligent designing. Twenty years ago, Eduardo Kac created a fluorescent green rabbit in the laboratory with the help of science. A gene from a green fluorescent jellyfish was implanted in an ordinary white rabbit embryo and the outcome was the green fluorescent rabbit which was named A

People’s Lockdown Today

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  A scene from the Jan strike The government kept the country locked down for three-quarters of a year. Now the people have called for a lockdown of their own. Today is a national strike called by all the trade unions together except Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh which is affiliated to RSS. What are the grievances of the people, the working class? First of all, we should remember that this is the second such strike called all over the country. The first was on 8 Jan which saw 30 crore workers joining in. India’s total labour force, including the workers in agriculture, is 56 crore. So the figure of 30 crore is significant. Also remember that the farmers have been agitating in many parts of the country in the last many months, Punjab being the latest example. BJP may keep winning elections (who knows how?) but people aren’t happy with them. That’s quite obvious. Why? Let us look at some of the problems raised by today’s strikers. In the last strike – the January one – the workers want

Expression and Elegance

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  Salman Rushdie’s latest short story, The Old Man in the Piazza , is a moving plea for bringing elegance back to our public discourses. And truth too. It is not the elegance of total assent that is desired. Everyone saying “Yes” to everything all the time is not a utopia. Language sits sulking in a corner of that utopia in Rushdie’s story. She endures the obsequiousness of all the yes-people for five long years and then, unable to bear the vulgarity of such invertebrate bhakti, stands up and lets out “a long, piercing shriek”. Language rebels against the total assent. Assent is not a virtue, except in religion maybe. When the leader says that the moon is made of ancient Hindustani paneer, all the bhakts asserting their assent in unison is not the beauty of human life. Diverse are the beauties of language. Shakespeare and Kalidasa have their own places in her kingdom. [Language is presented as a woman in Rushdie’s story.] Vikram Seth’s inter-religious lovers can have their kiss

We: Commodities in a market

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Money has become the measure of everything. Your social stature depends on your wealth. Your health depends on it too because our hospitals have become expensive multi-speciality industries. Your children’s education depends on it because what the top schools charge as annual fees is more than what majority of people earn in ten years. Interestingly, even your spiritual salvation depends on how much money you can contribute to the earthly reps of your heavenly gods. Economy became the heart of our socio-political system in the last few decades. We thought economy was the panacea for all our problems. Creation of more and more wealth was the ultimate goal of globalisation. More wealth would mean more happiness. We were told so. When wealth became the ultimate goal of life, everyone obviously chased it heart and soul. That chase became the new pilgrimage. Not only is your worth measured by your wealth but wealth is the very purpose and meaning of your life. The means you resort to

Inchathotti Hanging Bridge

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  I stopped counting the days when the lockdown entered the third month. I started counting the books I would love to read. I read them one by one. One book per week approximately. Books are good friends and entertainers: the best in that category perhaps. But I also love travelling to see places. When the lockdown that put an end to my travels completed eight months, an irresistible itch gripped me. When I suggested Inchathotti, a place 40 km from my home, Maggie didn't resist. She was aware of the restlessness that had gripped me for quite a while now.  Inchathotti is just an ordinary village in Kerala on the shores of the mighty Periyar River. What attracts tourists there is only a suspension bridge, the longest of its kind in Kerala with a length of 181 metres. It was not built for tourists at all. When it was built nobody would have imagined that it would draw tourists one day.  The Hanging Bridge (as it is known) was built for the people of Inchathotti village to cross the ri

Sound and Fury of Life

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  One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez [1967] is an epic that tells the story of six generations. It is a kaleidoscopic novel that blends myth and philosophy, history and magic, humour and grief so seamlessly that it defies classification. Literary critics have given the label of ‘magical realism’ to Marquez’s style. His books lie beyond any facile label, however. It is difficult to interpret Marquez’s novels for the same reason. Layers of meaning emerge as we read them. The more you read, the profounder the meanings appear. Profoundly complex. One Hundred Years of Solitude transcends any simple interpretations. This post looks at just one character: Colonel Aureliano Buendia. The novel begins with him and ends with him, so to say. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” That is the opening sentence of the novel. Towards the end of the novel,

Remedios the Beauty and Innocence

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  Remedios the Beauty is a character in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude . Like most members of her family, she too belongs to solitude. But unlike others, she is very innocent too. Physically she is the most beautiful woman ever seen in Macondo, the place where the story of her family unfolds. Is that beauty a reflection of her innocence? Well, Marquez doesn’t suggest that explicitly. But there is an implication to that effect. Innocence does make people look charming. What else is the charm of children? Remedios’s beauty is dangerous, however. She is warned by her great grandmother, who is losing her eyesight, not to appear before men. The girl’s beauty coupled with her innocence will have disastrous effects on men. But Remedios is unaware of “her irreparable fate as a disturbing woman.” She is too innocent to know such things though she is an adult physically. Every time she appears before outsiders she causes a panic of exasperation. To make mat

Social Media and I

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  We live in spurious times. The realities around us are manufactured by the media, by governments, corporations, religions, and organisations. What is really tragic is that spuriousness is accepted as normal. You keep sending messages knowing that they are spurious. You know it, the receiver of your messages knows it, everyone knows it – that the messages are spurious. Yet the messages keep coming and going. Infinity of them. They have a purpose. Otherwise they wouldn’t survive so long. The method wouldn’t survive, rather: the method of manufacturing realities through fake messages on various media. The process is not confined to social media; you can find it in all the media: the print, the electronic, you name it. Don’t forget that even the road is a part of media. Have you observed the enormous billboards on roadsides? If you have, you will understand how they manufacture realities for you. We can’t live without the media. One way or another we are all parts of it. We receive

Nehru: a meeting of East and West

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  Today is the 131 st birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. A tribute. Nehru studied in England for seven years after which he wrote: “I have become a queer mixture of East and West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere.” His profound philosophical and romantic longings made him out of place in the West while his love of science and technology rendered him out of place in India. The India that Nehru inherited from history’s mishmash was a wretched place. In the words of Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins [ Freedom at Midnight ], India in 1947 was a country that had a leper population the size of Switzerland. There were as many priests in India as there were Belgians in Belgium, enough beggars to populate all of Holland, 11 million holy men, and 20 million aborigines. Some 10 million Indians were essentially nomads, exercising hereditary occupations as snake charmers, fortune tellers, gypsies, jugglers, water diviners, magicians, tight-ro

Arundhati Roy banned by ABVP

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  Arundhati Roy with Maoists - from Outlook A university in Tamil Nadu has withdrawn Arundhati Roy’s book, Walking with the Comrades , from its postgraduate English syllabus because the student’s wing [ABVP] of BJP wanted the ban. BJP and its allies pretend to be as bold as Chhatrapati Shivaji or Ma Durga, but when it comes to actual encounters they are as timid as the dogs outside their territories. The way they demand bans on books, arrests of writers and activists, and censorship of the media points to a sort of deep cowardice. Let us confine this discussion to Ms Roy and her concerned book. It was actually an essay published in the Outlook in March 2010 after the author’s visit to the Maoists in the Dandakaranya forests. The Congress was the ruling party in Delhi at that time and so the criticism of the government should hit the Congress rather than the BJP and its allies. What irks the ABVP then? Well, there’s as much difference between the Congress and the BJP as between

Being a Pensioner

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My pension is a princely sum of Rs 1812. Having completed 35 years of teaching, I retire with that monthly pension. Someone had warned me not to count on the pension at all as the amount won’t be enough even to meet one’s most basic requirements. But I had not imagined the amount to be as beggarly as what landed in my bank account on the first working day of this month. My first impulse was to laugh as I stared at the phone message: “Your A/C [number] has credit for BY SALARY of Rs 1812…” [sic]. I thought it was some mistake. When I found out that it was the monthly pension granted to me by my magnanimous government which is Sabka Saath for Sabka Vikas, my laughter became boisterous enough to draw Maggie’s attention. “What’s the joke?” She asked. She was not quite chuffed with our government’s largesse. “Be a true patriot and chant three cheers for our Minimum Government, Maximum Governance,” I advised her. “We are children of lesser gods,” I philosophised with a grin that woul

Yogi’s UP is not my kinda place

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  Read the report from DNA A gang in Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh has put out a rate chart. Just 5000 rupees for thrashing your rival and a mere 55,000 for killing him. Dirt cheap, I should say. I certainly wouldn’t like to be killed for such a low sum. Even dogs are priced higher in other places. However, we don’t need be surprised. In Yogi’s UP anything is possible. It is the crime centre of the human world. In 2019, UP accounted for nearly 15% of all registered crimes against women in India. That percentage may not give you a clear idea. Look at the actual figure: 59853 registered crimes against women. That is an astounding figure of 164 per day. Every ten minutes a woman is attacked in that state. That is by the records. Unofficially the number is much higher. Not even half the cases are registered in that state where the police are greater criminals than the goons who sell their services rather too cheap. If a woman goes to complain, she will end up being gangraped in the p

The Unwomanly Face of War

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  Book Review Title: The Unwomanly Face of War Author: Svetlana Alexievich Published originally in Russian: 1985 Published in English: Penguin, 2017 Translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky War is a subhuman enterprise. It makes brutes of men. What about women? How does war affect women-soldiers? Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s book answers that question eloquently. About a million Russian women fought in the World War II and the author of this book met a few hundred of those women in person. This book is narrated by them, in fact. Many of the women who speak though this book were just teenage girls when they joined the forces enthusiastically. “We were a cheerful cargo,” says one who was a sniper. She is speaking about her first journey along with other girls to join the forces. “Cocky. Full of jokes. I remember laughing a lot.” She and her friends were happy to fight for their nation. They wanted to be at the front. “Everybody was fighting,” she sa

For a better world

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  You can kill a mad dog, but you shouldn’t kill an innocent songbird. Morality isn’t a set of absolute do’s and don’ts. Genuine morality is the goodness of your heart. That goodness is more often than not a product of right upbringing. Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s celebrated novel, To Kill a Mockingbird , is an ideal father who brings up his two children teaching them the most essential lessons of human life. Scout and Jem are innocent at the beginning of the story. They will, and have to, lose their innocence as the plot develops. Yet they will retain their human goodness because their father has given them the right education. Most human beings carry in their hearts a lot of prejudice and ignorance, hate and hypocrisy. That’s why the world is such a foul place where innocent songbirds get killed for no reason and mad dogs rule the roost. You can and should keep your conscience clean if you want to add to the little goodness that remains in humankind. “The one thing that doesn