Sunday, November 29, 2020

Love Jihad in a Wounded Civilisation

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 their sacred motherland to live in countries where beef is staple diet. This same right wing is okay with Hindus marrying Christians or Muslims or Jews in other countries. What then is their problem with Hindus marrying persons of their choice in India?

Is it sheer hypocrisy? The kind of nationalism that is in vogue today in the country is highly hypocritical. It can build a temple for Donald Trump and worship him as an idol but it can’t accept its own citizens who worship Trump’s God. It can accept dollops of American and other dollars for itself but will block all funds coming for the poor through charitable organisations. It will accept all the western science and technology and will justify it saying that it was all originally Indian – and quote a couple of abstruse Sanskrit shlokas to prove the point.

But this war against love may not be only hypocritical. It is more political and as much psychological too.

Politically, it is easy to use religion as a tool for winning votes and at the same time marginalising certain groups or communities. People like Modi, Shah, and Yogi have been practising this kind of politics ever since they took charge of affairs. It is the lowest or cheapest or the most facile kind of politics one can practise. The war against the so-called love jihad belongs to that low, cheap, facile gimmickry that passes for politics today.

But it’s not just that either. There’s some psychology too involved. The kind of nationalism brought into play by the present heroes of India belongs to what V S Naipaul referred to as “a wounded civilisation”. The feeling that India was subjugated humiliatingly by the Muslim invaders first and the Christian British later has created an indelible scar, one that refuses to be healed, in the collective psyche of the Hindus. The pain is all the more acute because underlying it is a stabbing consciousness that Hinduism was the eternal ideal (Sanatana Dharma) that was brutally jolted by alien forces. In a way, it was a failure of Hinduism itself, a failure arising from its sacred supremacy and superiority. In simple words, the surrender of Hinduism to Muslim and Christian invaders was like the mightiest god being brought to his knees by some mleccha elements. That is worse than a defeat. It is a shame. The scar of that shame still seethes in the flank of Indian nationalism raising ample hysteria.

Image from Indian Express

The cry against love jihad is part of that hysteria.

When hysteria is at play, there can be no rational or sane remedies. Actually the government has no business to be a marriage broker with a patronising morality. The citizens should be free to love people of their choice. Love is not what foments troubles. It is hate that should be kept under the leash of the law. The BJP governments in India are doing just the opposite: oppose love and promote hate. Every wounded psyche walking around with a seething stigma between its ribs has first to heal itself. Otherwise the stench and germs from the stigma will pollute the surroundings. Aren’t we living in one such colossal pollution?

Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Tyranny of Merit


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 we get what we deserve. Fine enough. But meritocracy has its dark side too.

Sandel argues that meritocracy is not a remedy for inequality but a justification for inequality. It is not much different from aristocracy which justified and sustained inequality on the basis of birth. You are born into a particular family without your choice or knowledge and that accident determines your fate: that is aristocracy. If you are born rich, you are a winner in that system. Otherwise you are a goner. You have no choice.

Meritocracy gives us the illusion of choice. If you work hard, you can make it: meritocracy exhorts. Really? Sandel doesn’t agree. He thinks that the role of effort is inflated in meritocracy. Your talents matter more, much more. And your talents are not your choice. Your talents are your luck. Letting luck determine one’s destiny is no better than letting the accident of birth do it.

Sandel gives detailed statistical and other researched data to show how meritocracy has led to credentialism. Credentialism is belief or reliance on academic or other formal qualifications as the best measure of a person’s intelligence or ability to do a particular job. Many American Presidents like Clinton and Obama emphasised on the importance of education in forging one’s destiny. Sandel argues that this focus on education is not fair. It shifts the blame saying: “Inequality is not a failure of the system; it is a failure of you.”

This blame-shifting engenders many severe problems the foremost of which is self-hatred or loss of self-esteem. It is the resentment of such people who felt left out because of insufficient educational qualifications that led to the victory of Donald Trump as President and to Brexit, argues Sandel. He has the statistics too to prove his point.

Educational qualification needn’t matter so much, however. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee was an Oxford graduate. But his foreign secretary Ernest Bevin had left school at the age of 11. The leader of the House of Commons at that time, Herbert Morrison, did not have education beyond the age of 14. Aneurin Bevan, health minister, left school at 13 and worked as a miner.

This is not to discredit education, of course. Education is important. But there are other equally important matters too. The world should belong to everyone, even the less gifted. And the handicapped. And the disabled. And… That’s important too.

Sandel shows us that even academic scores have a correlation with wealth. “The higher your family income, the higher your SAT score,” he puts it as bluntly as that. There are people who pay as much as $1000 per hour for one-to-one tutoring for SAT. Academics is a billion-dollar industry. Therefore, education is not all about the intellect.

Meritocracy is not as much about merit as we pretend. Many other factors are at play. Your success in a meritocratic system is not as much a result of your own effort as you imagine. There are many more talented people out there who don’t get the opportunities you got.

If the successful people internalise that fact – that they are not all self-made winners – half the problem may be solved. After all, changes begin from attitudes. If I know that I am here as a winner because of sheer good fortune, I will be more concerned about my fellow human beings. That concern can make a lot of difference to the world.

This is an excellent book that deserves to be read by all the winners and policy makers. Almost all the examples and research data come from America.  But the vision is universal.


PS. Thanks to Jose Maliekal, professor of philosophy, author of Standstill Utopias and a good friend for sending me a free digital copy of this book.

Friday, November 27, 2020

The Heart of the Matter


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 Alba.

Harari calls man “the animal that became god”. A dangerous god nonetheless.

Decades ago Arthur Koestler pointed out the terrible anomaly about human evolution. When our simian ancestor descended from the tree and started walking on two legs, a revolution began in evolution. It was the birth of a creature that would evolve into the most deadly and pernicious animal on earth: man.

What went wrong in that evolution?

The brain evolved but the heart did not. That is Koestler’s conclusion. Our brain evolved and continues to evolve. So we are able to create better and better technology. We can explore the stars lying billions of kilometres away in the space. We know all about the little world lying within a microscopic atom. We can even create new species of animals. We are gods of sorts.

Yet our hearts remain as primitive as our savage ancestor. Our hearts haven’t evolved. They still carry the lust and greed and jealousy and aggression of that savage.

Many people succeed in keeping the inner savage under control with the help of religion, literature, art, music, etc. A lot more refinement is required, however. A lot, lot more.

Our hearts need to evolve. But nobody out there is going to say, “Some refinement of the heart will make the human beings much better creatures. So let’s do that.” No, there’s no one anywhere there in the infinite spaces going to work any such miracle. We have to do it ourselves.

Science is capable of doing such things. But there are obvious risks. We are reminded of all the Frankensteins of science fiction. We can create a green fluorescent rabbit for the fun of it. But tampering with the human heart is a different matter.

But we can choose to work on our own hearts. We can mellow the bitterness, the despair, and all ill feelings. We can work on our own hearts. That is totally up to us. Therein lies our salvation too.


PS. Written for Indispire Edition 353: "The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility." Vaclav Havel said. Your reflection? #BetterLife

Thursday, November 26, 2020

People’s Lockdown Today


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 wanted better remunerations. Rs 21000 per month is the minimum salary they are demanding. Quite fair when we compare that sum with those taken home by our government executives, politicians, endless staff of the politicians, and other government staff. I’m purposely leaving out the private sector which is not doing quite well these days in spite of the sops given them generously every now and then.

Though the private sector isn’t doing well at all, the government is keen to privatise almost everything in the country – from railways and airports and harbours to forests and banks and rivers. The country is being sold piece by piece. This was the second grievance of the strikers in Jan. Stop selling the country.

The first strike’s impact was stolen by the pandemic that succeeded it immediately. Everyone experienced helplessness to some degree or the other. The government declared three packages to help out. None of these packages helped the labourers. They helped the corporate sector. Obviously, the labourers felt betrayed by the government. [They voted for the same government in the recent elections, however. One of the infinite mysteries that plague Indian politics!]

The tragic truth is that the Modi government took the pandemic as an opportunity for implementing their hidden agendas. For example, the 29 labour laws were transmuted into 4 codes which regulate wages, industrial relations, social security, and occupational security. In the process job security just disappeared. You can be fired at any time from your job. one of Modi sarkar’s many gifts to you.

The public sector in India is crumbling because of the government’s eagerness to sell the country to Ambanis and Adanis. The package declared for BSNL was actually for asking the workers there to take voluntary retirement and go home. BSNL is merging into Ambani’s infinite private property. Much of India is Ambani’s private property already.

The sheer insensitivity of the government towards the working class may be illustrated by the fact that while the minimum wage in the country is a paltry Rs202, the management is given the power to cut eight days’ wages if a worker strikes work one day. That is how the government cares for the labourer!

Today’s strike is a fight for survival. It is a reminder to the government that its callousness revealed during the lockdown exodus won’t be acceptable anymore. Ensure the welfare of the struggling poor by giving unemployment allowances and food articles. Repeal anti-labourer laws. Support labourers. Make them pensionable too.

The demands are justified. A country shouldn’t belong to the minority of the rich and the privileged.



Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Expression and Elegance


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 in the temple of language without being shrieked out by the toxin of bigotry.

Dalliance is not what the lady language longs for either. Rushdie’s story shows young and handsome “Byronic creatures” paying shallow homage to language reminding us of the “bestselling” writers of our times. Language allows them “to ravish her in private”. Language has her own promiscuity. Her morals are loose.

Rushdie’s old man is watching all these. He is judging too. The eerie shriek of language works some miracle. The people open up debates. There is dissent now. Freedom of expression is rediscovered. The old man in the piazza becomes an official judge between arguing people. He decides that the earth is not flat and that there is God, and Heaven and Hell, and so on.

Slowly the old man’s judgments move from rightness to rectitude. “No longer willing simply to answer yes-or-no questions, he seeks to establish which of the disputing parties is the more virtuous.” He sometimes passes the verdict in favour of a plaintiff who is undeniably in the wrong but is a lesser evil than the rival.

Language sits brooding. This is not what she had expected from freedom of expression. Expression can have beauty in spite of infinite dissent. It should have. Language longs to be liberated, to unfold her endless beauty, to dance like a peacock…

Beauty is not loud. Not moral. Not religious. Beauty is subtle, gentle, mellow. Why has our language lost all that?


PS. Thanks to Manu S for drawing my attention to Rushdie’s story.

Monday, November 23, 2020

We: Commodities in a market

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 for making wealth do not matter anymore. You may swindle banks out of billions and leave your country. You may run a spiritual industry like an ashram or ayurvedic centre. Even the government has funds that are above auditing. A time may soon come when your government just declares certain bank deposits of yours to be the government’s hereafter. Certain institutions and organisations may be banned and their assets taken over.

The last of the above things are possible not because the end justifies the means but because the single-minded focus on wealth has engendered a system which justifies many evils in the names of putatively noble ideas or ideals such as nationalism.

Human life is not an economy. In other words, people do not exist in an economy. People need a lot more than wealth to add meaning to their existence. Religions, morality, art, literature, and so on serve the function of adding meaning to life. Today these things have been subsumed under the chase for wealth. Consequently there is a feeling of inner emptiness. In India today, nationalism seeks to fill that emptiness. No wonder, it is a highly vengeful nationalism. It is founded on certain hollow notions like ghettoising certain communities of people so that their properties, wealth, jobs, and whatever else possible can be taken over.

It is not the majority who benefit from this, however. It’s just a tiny minority whose wealth increases year after year. The others keep becoming poorer. But they are fed with vindictive feelings against certain others who are projected as the cause of all the misery in the country. What a nice system for enriching a few at the cost of all the others!

We inhabit a marketplace. You and I are just commodities there. We are being sold day after day. Again and again. Think about that.



Sunday, November 22, 2020

Inchathotti Hanging Bridge

 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 river. Schools, hospitals and other necessary services were not available this side of the river. Hence the bridge was a lifeline for the people who inhabited an area between the Periyar River and a reserved forest. 

Maggie and I drove through the forest in order to reach the bridge. That is the shortest route for us though that is not the official route to the place. There is a narrow road through the forest. 

Here are some pics from our travel. 

The Periyar: view from the bridge whose one cable is visible on left

A click from below the bridge

And one from above

Through the forest
In spite of the pandemic and its potential threat, there were many tourists at the spot. People are sick of staying home locked down. Boredom can and does kill a lot of people. Daring a pandemic is better than choosing death from boredom, I guess. 

Inchathotti is not recommended to tourists from far. There is nothing beyond this bridge to see unless you wish to see a sylvan village in Kerala. Kayaking has been stopped due to the pandemic. Even the boat rides in the Periyar are halted. 

Once we are back to normal and if you are interested in visiting this place, you can reach it easily by a hired vehicle from various cities/towns like Kochi, Munnar, Kothamangalam, Bhoothathankettu Dam, etc. 

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Sound and Fury of Life


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, the parish priest of Macondo – the place discovered and developed by the Buendias – says that “there used to be a street here with that name (Colonel Aureliano Buendia) and in those days people had the custom of naming their children after streets.”

Colonel Aureliano is one of the protagonists of this epic. Yet he ends up without even a public remembrance. He is not even a memory, let alone part of history.

What is human life but a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury but signifying nothing? Marquez reminds us of that Shakespearean wisdom again and again. Colonel Aureliano is the best example for that, perhaps.

The Colonel was a Liberal rebel who led no less than 32 armed uprisings against the Conservative government and lost each one of them. He was such a national hero that women came to have sex with him in order to bear his son. Thus he begot 18 sons all of whom were named Aureliano in his honour. Yet this man would die alone without offspring of his own. Without even being remembered by anyone. A sad, mad end leaning against the same chestnut tree to which his insane father was tied in the last many years of his life. This man who survived 14 attempts on his life by rivals, 73 ambushes, and a firing-squad, dies an ignoble death. He was already forgotten by the people even before his death. No wonder, his every existence is in doubt a few decades later. “There used to be a street here by that name…”!

That is what human life is. A walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. Sound and fury that lead to nothing in the end. Lead to degeneration, in fact.

“The world must be all fucked up,” says one of the minor characters of the novel, towards the end, “when men travel first class and literature goes as freight.” Macondo’s history of one hundred years shows that evil is an integral part of human life. Macondo is paradisaical when it is founded by Jose Arcadio Buendia, Colonel Aureliano’s father. Like every paradise, Macondo is destined to lose its pristine innocence sooner than later.

Politics enters Macondo from outside like a plague. Plague too enters from outside, in fact. Religion too. Politics destroys the pristineness of the place altogether. Religion is no less degenerative. Look at what Father Petronio does to Jose Arcadio Segundo, Colonel Aureliano’s brother’s grandson. As a boy he goes to a priest for his first confession and the priest questions him whether he has committed any sexual act with any animal. “There are some corrupt Christians who do their business with female donkeys,” says Father Petronio whom the boy approaches for more information. The boy becomes more curious and the old, sickly priest is finally forced to say, “I go Tuesday nights. If you promise not to tell anyone I’ll take you next Tuesday.” Thus the boy is initiated to sex with a donkey by none less than a priest of the Church and the boy soon becomes addicted to it.

It is indeed a fucked-up world. The Conservative government proves to be a bunch of hypocrites who preach one thing and do the opposite. They can take away your kitchen tools and then arrest you for keeping deadly weapons to fight in the civil war against the government.

But a rebellion doesn’t solve anything. The world is doomed to be evil. There’s no escape. No redemption. History is not progressive. It is cyclical. It is a vicious cycle. The sound and fury are real. They are the only reality perhaps.


Related Post: Remedios the Beauty and Innocence




Thursday, November 19, 2020

Remedios the Beauty and Innocence


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 matters worse, Remedios detested clothes. In the words of the narrator, “It was all too evident that she was completely naked underneath her crude nightshirt.”

Her grandmother’s fears turn groundless eventually because any man who dares to come too close to Remedios ends up losing his life. A hilarious example is that of a man who climbs up the roof and removes a tile of the bathroom as Remedios is taking bath without the trace of a thread on her body.  

Still reading the novel
Remedios tells him with the innocence of a child, “Be careful. You’ll fall.”

“I just wanted to see you,” the man says.

“Oh, all right,” she answers. “But be careful, those tiles are rotten.”

The man offers to soap her. She thinks her two hands are enough for that job. Then he offers to marry her. Her response is that she will never marry a man who is so simple that he has wasted almost an hour and even went without lunch just to see a woman taking bath.

The man’s excitement soon brings him down from the roof killing him on the spot.

He was not the first man to lose life on account of Remedios the Beauty.

Innocence is ignorance, rather than absence, of evil. Remedios is blissfully ignorant of the vile passions of human beings. She doesn’t even know shame. She’s like a child that detests clothes. She is a child at heart. She even carries a mysterious and exotic fragrance on her body which gives her a divine aura. Does she belong to the divine milieu?

Well, innocence does not belong to the human world anyway. It should belong in the garden of Eden where Adam and Eve went around naked until they ate the fruit of knowledge. Knowledge! Knowledge of evil strips you of your innocence. Every child grows up and learns evil. Thus innocence is lost. Has to be lost. Otherwise you will not survive in the human world.

Remedios does not survive either. She is taken up to the skies mysteriously. One day Remedios appears pale. Then she begins to rise in the air. She passes through the air and is “lost forever in the upper atmosphere where not even the highest-flying birds of memory could reach her.”

Remedios is a symbol of the inevitable human tragedy. You can’t be human and innocent at the same time.


Sunday, November 15, 2020

Social Media and I


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 messages from there, we forward those messages, we are both the prey and the predator. “We become what we behold,” as Marshal McLuhan, philosopher of the media, said. “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

Our governments know that and they spend huge portions of their revenues on propaganda, on manufacture of realities. There are paid advertisements on the various media and then there is the paid news. There are ingenious other methods too. Even a Statue of Unity is a propaganda measure.

We can’t ignore the media anymore. Even the social media with all its inanities and puerilities deserves our engagement.

I make use of the social media for various purposes though I confine myself mostly to Facebook and marginally to Twitter. WhatsApp is used nowadays in professional occupation more than for anything else. My primary purpose of joining Facebook and Twitter was to publicise my blog posts and a significant number of my readers do come from these two media, according to my Blogger dashboard. But it amuses me no end that hardly anyone has promoted my posts on these media. There’s hardly even a like. So I am forced to conclude that the readers who come from these media are not necessarily people who like my writing; they are probably provoked negatively by my writing. They are people who would love to drive in a knife between my ribs if they could. I have often wondered why I fail so miserably as a writer: why I don’t inspire more than provoke. I guess I can’t help my own perversions.

The subject of this post is more social media and less I. So let me return to it.

From promoting my blog, I moved on swiftly to learning a lot from the social media. I began to take note of certain pages on Facebook like Beef Janata Party and Unofficial Dr Arnab Goswami which enlightened me in their own unique ways. I began to read quality stuff brought by online portals like The Wire and The Quint. I found these portals bringing more and better information than my morning’s print newspapers.

I find the social media useful and productive. I use them effectively, rather. I guess it is up to us to choose how we use the media. Occasionally I put up pictures on Facebook and they get a lot of likes. But my writing seldom does. I would have preferred the other way around. I wish my writing drew more positive attention. But a fish can’t choose its kind of water.

What bugs me the most these days is erstwhile friends telling me when they call (which is rare, mercifully) that they don’t read my blogs anymore but it so happened that they read this particular one… Well, I know they are reading. I know they don’t like it. I know they are also manufacturing realities in their own ways. I wish we all didn’t have to manufacture so many illusions.

PS. This was provoked by Indispire Edition 351: How are you managing Social Media? Are you up-to-date in sharing images, posts, comments, replies etc.? Any SM management tips? #SocialMediaTips


Saturday, November 14, 2020

Nehru: a meeting of East and West


Today is the 131st 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-rope walkers, and herb vendors. About 38,000 Indians were born every day, a quarter of them to die before the age of 5. Ten million other Indians died each year from malnutrition, undernourishment, and diseases like smallpox.

But India was very religious. It was the motherland of a historical religion (which ironically is still searching for its roots and striving to get a facelift). It was the birthplace of Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism: all pre-eminent religions that put a premium on humaneness. It was also a country of a sizeable population of Muslims who chose to stay back in spite of the agonising Partition. Over 3 million deities watched over this new country.

Nehru was an agnostic, however. The plethora of gods horrified him. He knew they would serve no practical purpose in redeeming a country steeped in poverty, diseases, ignorance, and superstitions. The very word ‘religion’ horrified him. He despised the priests, sadhus, chanting monks, and fervent sheikhs. The gods and their men together impeded the country’s progress, Nehru was convinced.

Nehru sought to replace these serious impediments with his own version of secularism. Secularism was more of a Western concept than Indian. But Nehru Indianized it by being philosophically tolerant of religions instead of excluding them altogether. Nehru’s secularism is one of his most profound contributions to the country. Unfortunately that hybridisation of the West and the East was never rightly understood or implemented in the country. Even the Congress successors of Nehru failed in this regard. Instead of keeping religions confined to temples and the personal dark alleys and byways where they belong, the Congress used them as vote banks and corrupted the entire polity of the nation. It is this corruption, more than anything else, that cost the Congress heavily, so heavily that the party is on the verge of extinction today. Worse, the very thing that Nehru tried to put on the sidelines has emerged as the strongest force in the country, threatening to swallow the whole nation.

The greatest irony, however, is that today’s leaders who have replaced Nehru in the heart of Delhi lack any profundity or vision. Their religion is just a political tool and little more. Their vision is stuck on some gargoyles of an unduly glorified past. They splash in the bilge waters of history and imagine that they are grappling with the tides of future destiny.

Like all humans, Nehru too had his flaws and limitations. But those flaws and limitations were just little stains on a fabric that shone brilliantly otherwise. If he did not fit in well anywhere, it was because people were incapable of seeing beyond those small stains. Nehru belonged to the cosmos. That is why the east and the west met in him harmoniously.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Arundhati Roy banned by ABVP


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 Tweedledum and Tweedledee when it comes to exploitation of the tribal people and propitiation of the corporate sector. Roy’s essay exposes the government’s complicity in the transmutation of simple tribal people into deadly Maoist warriors. If the Congress led such a government at the time when the essay was written, the BJP does the same thing now.

[Let me digress for a moment and say this: It’s no wonder that the Congress is all set to vanish from India’s public sphere. The BJP is the natural successor of the Congress. A replica. One of them is simply redundant.]

Roy’s story that has incurred the ire of ABVP ten years after its publication begins in Dantewata which is an “upside down, inside out town”. The jail superintendent is in the jail and the prisoners are out at large. [Remember the 300 prisoners who escaped in 2008?] Women who were raped in police custody are in the jails while the rapists give religious lessons in the bazaar. The villages are empty while the forests are full of people. Upside down!

The State is the custodian of the forests and hence of the tribal homelands. The State has always striven to take over the tribal homelands and give them to the mighty corporate kings for the sake of big dams, irrigation projects, and mines. Development is the sweet name given to this process of expropriation of the tribal people. Ms Roy articulates the absurdity of this sort of development. It is not the country that gains by the process. It is just a handful of corporate bigwigs who gain. Roy cites an example from Karnataka. “For every ton of iron ore mined by a private company, the government gets a royalty of Rs 27 and the mining company makes Rs 5,000. In the bauxite and aluminium sector, the figures are even worse. We’re talking about daylight robbery to the tunes of billions of dollars. Enough to buy elections, governments, judges, newspapers, TV channels, NGOs, and aid agencies.”

Please read that quote again. Ms Roy wrote it in 2010 when the Congress was ruling India. Don’t you think the words are far more relevant today in 2020 when the BJP is ruling? Tweedledum and Tweedledee!

Now you begin to understand why the ABVP is intent on getting rid of Arundhati Roy from campuses. [And you also understand why the Congress is on the way to extinction.]

The Congress signed hundreds of MoUs against the interests of the tribal and other poor people. The BJP does the same thing.

Ms Roy also mentions in the same essay how the Ramakrishna Mission and other right-wing agencies tried to Hinduise the tribal people of Bastar. They introduced the caste system among the tribal people. They proclaimed the first converts – the village chiefs and landlords – Brahmins. Ms Roy poohpoohs the whole exercise. If people could be made Brahmins as easily as this, the whole of India should have been Brahmins now, she says. Well, the ABVP will feel a certain pain in the wrong orifices of their organisational setup.

Ms Roy is banned today somewhere. 80-year-old Varavara Rao is behind the bars for questioning the right-wing policies of the government. Another octogenarian who is also a medical patient, Stan Swamy, is in jail on fabricated charges. Vernon Gonsalves is yet another example. And there are scores more some of whom just vanished from the country.

Now Mr Modi’s government is putting restrictions on the media and OTT platforms. Be careful of what you write even on Facebook and Twitter. You may find yourself in prison at any time for a crime that you had never thought of. This is India now. A sad country that has been taken backward by centuries to the days of savages like Manu who pretended to be saints.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Being a Pensioner

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 would erase any touch of sentiment. Anyway, sentiments have been hijacked lock, stock, and barrel by the nationalists nowadays and there’s not much of that stuff left for the sickluars and libtards like me. Ours are the jokes like the ‘pension-salary’.

Government employees are the children of the greater gods. They work less, get paid the highest, earn in addition through bribes, bonuses, and allowances, and then retire with huge pensions. “Even our future Constitution, Manusmriti, advocates such divine inequalities,” I concluded.

The phone rings interrupting my theological defence of the divine inferiority of the private sector employees. The call is from the pension office. “You have to submit your Jeevan Pramaan in order to continue receiving your monthly pension…”

It’s then I realised that retiring from job puts on you the comic onus of proving to your government at regular intervals that you are still alive by producing a certificate called Jeevan Pramaan! Being a pensioner is quite a tough job, even if your pension is peanuts.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Yogi’s UP is not my kinda place


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 police station!

We shouldn’t blame the UP Police unjustly, however. They will arrest you if you say anything against their leader, the yogi. Quite many journalists are languishing in UP prisons for speaking out truths that are unpalatable to the yogi. The police are so loyal to their state, so nationalistic in fact, that even journalists on their way to a crime scene may be arrested. One of my compatriots, Siddique Kappen from the Malayalam periodical Azhimukham, was arrested from Mathura while he was on his way to report the Hathras rape case. No one knows what his crime was. But in UP you don’t ask such questions.

The yogi decides your destiny there. He is a criminal himself. But when he became the chief minister he wrote off all those cases. As simple as that. He just put his own signature to an order he promulgated himself. And voila! He became a saint. You see how simple things are in Yogi’s UP.

Yogi doesn’t think much of women. He is a yogi, after all, and not a bhogi like most of us ordinary mortals. He declared once that women are like energy and if they are not controlled they can be destructive and worthless, and may even be rakshasas (demons).

Watch the video

It is not women alone that the yogi hates. He hates almost everybody. Perhaps that hate is what his religion means. It’s probably the ascetic detachment that yogis are supposed to practise. He hates the non-Hindus. He hated even Mother Teresa whom he accused of converting his Hindus into Christians. You may wonder where all those Christians converted by Mother Teresa are. But then in yogi’s UP you don’t ask questions. Remember your worth is just 55,000 Indian bucks. A semi-literate politician in UP will get a better sum as monthly pension after holding office for a few months.

Yogi’s hatred of Muslims is too well-known for any mention here. Who can forget the incendiary speech he gave in Gorakhpur where a fight took place between Hindus and Muslims during a Muharram procession. Yogi gave that speech violating the curfew. Such bravery can only come from extraordinary asceticism.

In 2011, yogi asked Hindu men to “dig up the graves of Muslim women and rape the corpses.” Such acts will require more than any ordinary degrees of asceticism. In 2015, yogi declared that “if they (the Muslims) kill one Hindu, we will kill 100 of them.”

Well, when you have that sort of a man ruling a state, you know that even 55,000 can be too big a price for a human being.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

The Unwomanly Face of War


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 says, “and we would be, too.” She concludes her memory on a totally different note, however. The war taught her some hard lessons. “[War] is not a woman’s task – to hate and to kill. Not for us… We had to persuade ourselves. To talk ourselves into it.” [Emphasis added]

War is about hating and killing. It’s not a woman’s task. One ceases to be a woman when one starts fighting in the war. Many of these women-soldiers we meet in the book say that they just stopped menstruating. They lost their femaleness. They were no more women, not supposed to be. “I need soldiers, not ladies. Ladies don’t survive in war,” they were told explicitly by a commander who was not at all pleased to know that his women-soldiers had visited a hairdresser and got their eyebrows dyed.

You are a soldier, not a woman. Your commander may not even notice that you are a woman. One of the commanders didn’t know that he was giving orders to a troop of women-soldiers. “Level your chests,” he ordered. And then asked, “What are you carrying in your shirt pockets?” Some of the women struggled to suppress their giggles.

If you are caught by the enemy, you are not only a soldier but also a woman. “They beat me,” says one about such an experience, “they hung me up. Always completely undressed. They photographed me. I could only cover my breasts with my hands… I saw people go mad.”

Victory – the word sounds beautiful, exhilarating, especially if you are a warrior. But you’d rather love and kiss. You are a woman, after all. “I dreamed of kissing,” says one of those women in war. “I wanted terribly to kiss… I also wanted to sing. To sing!”

Shouldn’t life be about those things actually? About love, kisses, songs? Who wants war? People incapable of love? Incapable of human refinement? Incapable of being feminine?

Alexievich has given us a unique book. It is a series of narratives spoken by women-soldiers. Recorded conversations in broken lines. Conversations that carry a lot of emotions, a lot of sadness, pain, terror. The book makes us wonder again and again whether we are as noble a species as we claim to be.


Friday, November 6, 2020

For a better world


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’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience,” says Atticus.

We are told again and again, until our ears are deafened by the sheer vulgarity of it, that the majority decide the shape of the nation. Who are the majority, however? A Himalayan mass of ignorance and hypocrisy, prejudice and hate. Tom Robinson is accused of raping a white woman merely because he is black and the majority are white. His innocence is more than obvious and yet he is convicted. We may be reminded of a Pehlu Khan or a Mohammed Akhlaq. The morality of the majority is not quite right very often.

Atticus teaches his children the great human values of courage and kindness, tolerance and cool reason. Scout and Jem will grow up into wisdom by undergoing the painful but inevitable experience of losing their innocence. Tom the Negro is destroyed despite his innocence raising a serious question about the validity of the majoritarian morality. Boo Radley is a white man who is innocent and so doesn’t know how to get on in the world. Boo hides himself from the world. When he does come out of the hiding, it is to save the innocent children. He commits a crime for the sake of saving innocence. He kills a man. But the evidence is manipulated in order to save Boo. “Well, [telling the truth would] be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” Atticus asks.

Tom was a mockingbird, innocent. He was killed. He shouldn’t have been. But the majority’s morality is quite different, we know. Atticus accepts the manipulation of the evidence for the sake of saving Boo. The person whom he killed was as good as a mad dog. In the beginning of the novel, Atticus does kill a mad dog. Sometimes violence is inevitable, especially when you’re dealing with trash.

“As you grow older,” Atticus teaches his little children, “you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it… Whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.” Let your conscience decide how to deal with trash, not your religion, not the majority, not marketplace platitudes.

Shaping the right conscience is the duty of every good human being. Your conscience should be clear. Only then can you teach your children to keep their consciences clear too. There can never be a good society without such clear consciences. Bombastic rhetoric spoken with histrionics may move nationalist spirits but won’t create an iota of goodness in hearts. Goodness doesn’t need much decibel; it needs a soft breeze that touches hearts.

PS. Written for Indispire Edition 350: You are asked to suggest a book that everyone must read. Which book would you suggest? Why? #MustReadBook


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...