Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Interview with a Missionary

Dr Jose Maliekal


Dr Jose Maliekal is a Catholic priest who is the Principal of St John’s Regional Seminary, Kondadaba, Andhra Pradesh. He is a profound thinker who perceives the realities around us very keenly and discerningly. I am pleased to bring here this interview with him which was held via email. He speaks frankly about contemporarily relevant topics such as religious conversion, love jihad, fascism in India, and the farmers’ agitation.

 Apart from being a professor of philosophy and a deep thinker, you are also a Christian priest who has worked for decades among the Dalits in Andhra Pradesh. Many of the Dalits have been converted to Christianity. Why do you think they choose Christianity?

The Dalits negotiate religion in the particular context of their political, social and economic marginality and appropriate the various elements of religion to respond to their own needs and to pursue their own dreams. This dynamics challenges the missionaries as well as those who accuse them of converting the poor. Both of them, ironically, have one thing in common, namely the objectification of people. For example, if the subalterns are assumed as mute sheep without mind and freedom of their own, their change of religion is interpreted as forced conversion, by the right-wing forces or they are labelled as “Rice Christians” even by Christians. My experience as a missionary and more particularly, my five-year long research, among the Dalit Madigas of Andhra Pradesh falsify such assumptions and interpretations. We must think of the phenomenon of conversion, in new terms, taking into account of the agency of the people who create their own history, with their own choices and decisions.

 What is your opinion about the anti-conversion laws being enacted in certain states these days?

     Article 25 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all persons of India. The earlier Anti-Conversion Bills by different states and the recent attempts of BJP ruled state governments to bring in ordinances and bills on Love-Jihad, criminalizing conversions for marriage, go against the spirit and letter of the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Indian constitution. Along with these, the recent CAA, which evidently is anti-Minority in intent and communally tilted against the Muslims is yet another example of the Majoritarian Nationalist government’s overreach against the constitutional guarantee of freedom of conscience and religion. They also go against the agency of the Dalits, who opt out of the hierarchical oppression of Hinduism and opt into other religions, which at least promise equality and dignity. The call of the Sangh Parivar for Ghar Wapsi is also along the same vein of suppression of the freedom of religion.

At the release of his book
 In your book Standstill Utopias? you wrote that “The protectionism of the Catholic missionaries, coupled with their imposition of the dominant cultural and religious modes on Madiga life and religiosity have suppressed the potential for the enhancement of identity, leading to a state of truncated autonomy and contradictory consciousness.” It is a very profound observation coming from a Catholic missionary. Do you think the missionary activity among the Dalits in India should be less about religion and more about their personal, social, and cultural growth?

     The title of my work Standstill Utopias?: Dalits Encountering Christianity indicates that any claim that Catholicism responded holistically to the aspirations and dreams of Madigas would fly in the face of actual reality. Here is a case of ambiguity. When the Madigas were marginalized and discriminated against and stripped of their basic human dignity, Catholicism appeared to them as the way out of this appalling situation. But the unfolding of their further history in the fold of Catholicism has left a lot of questions open. In spite of a lot of advancement in their life-conditions, they have been perhaps chasing a chimera, and their utopias have come to a “standstill”. Their political potential, which is very crucial in any struggle for liberation, appears to be stunted. Their story seems to be one of fractured identity and truncated autonomy, to a large extent. My call for a primordial theology or a public theology as an alternative to the function or the play around the Altar-oriented pastoral approach of Christianity precisely addresses the need of religion, oriented to political economy and catering to the socio-political and cultural growth of the people, especially the marginalized. For a Subaltern, “Rice is God” and “Well-being, here below is Salvation.”

Love Jihad is a controversy that has gathered renewed momentum now. What is your view on love jihad and the surrounding controversy?

     Love Jihad is a bogey and a construct of the Sangh Parivar, which has to do with a history of Hindu beleaguerment, building itself on tiresome sexual rhetoric which is commonplace in caste society. The fundamental difference now, though is that such an entreaty comes from a position of brute power.   In a culture that routinely infantilises women or views them as foolish and incapable of rational choice, this is to be expected. If the upper caste women are tutored on how to behave, the ‘lower’ caste women are warned that they step beyond the Lakshmanrekhas ordained for them only at the dire cost of violence, abuse, and life itself. If it is bad enough that caste society is sustained by puerile fears to do with transgressive love, but to have parts of a nation get phobic over women’s alleged lack of emotional judgment and the alleged chicanery of Muslims is worse and civilisationally pathetic. As well-known social critic, V. Geetha observes, “While we stake our rights to lives and loves of our choice, equally, we might want to assert our right to re-imagine this nation, not in terms of faith and caste, but in ways we have learned from anti-caste and feminist traditions — where the nation is essentially an equal, just and fraternal society.” (https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/daring-to-love-beyond-societal-limits/article33172069.ece). What is of greater concern for me even Christians are increasingly falling prey to this well-orchestrated and cultivated Love-Jihad Islamophobic Goebbelsian Post-truth Propaganda.

There is a burgeoning religious consciousness in India under the leadership of Mr Narendra Modi. On the other hand, the Prime Minister is very tech-savvy too. Do you think there is a contradiction in this: embracing religion fanatically while promoting technology aggressively?

    A few years back, the gift shop of The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum used to sell a poster with 14 early signs of Fascism listed on it. Mahua Moitra, TMC M.P. from Bengal, in her maiden speech in the parliament, brought into relief, seven of them, to describe the murky political situation of the country, bordering on Fascism. The coalescing nexus of corporate sector and the entwined forces of government and religion are signs of Fascism. And India, with the rise of Right-wing Majoritarian religio-cultural nationalism is witnessing just that. The burgeoning religious consciousness finding expression in religious revivalism, unleashing the forces of communalism can perfectly co-exist with the technocratic paradigm of development, in favour of the corporate oligarchy, and the politicians, their stooges, perfecting the art of doublespeak, thriving on the culture of the post-truth. Modi is a perfect mascot and catalyst of this toxic alchemy of people-negating science and monolithic monster of religious fundamentalism.

What is your opinion about the farmers’ bills which have attracted unprecedented protests from a sizeable section of farmers?

    The three farm bills, passed in unholy haste in the parliament and which have come under heavy and widespread criticism, in the perception of the large sections of the farmers, are draconian and throwing them into the jaws of corporate sharks. Their repeal is called for because they negatively affect not only the framers, but also the citizens of India, in general, as they would have to be standing with begging bowls, subject to corporate whims, for their daily food, if these laws were implemented. As P. Sainath, the renowned journalist remarked during a recent interview, they are undemocratic and anti-people in nature, foreclosing the possibility of judicial appeal by the farmers, subjecting them to the mercy of the executive, which would play the role of judiciary. While the issues highlighted by the farmers’ protests are not entirely new, the current convergence of authoritarianism and corporate capital brings this existential crisis for rural agricultural producers, even more sharply in focus. The problem of low incomes in India’s agriculture sector is a complex systems problem, needing multi-disciplinary approach, towards systemic solutions, which must take into confidence, also the intended beneficiaries of the new policies.

 Finally, what do you think is the direction that India should take for improving its declining status in many indices like Hunger Index and Corruption Index?  

 As stated by Arun Maira, is his recent Lead Article in the Hindu (https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/in-agri-reforms-go-back-to-the-drawing-board/article33358238.ece), “India’s policymakers must improve their expertise in solving complex, multidisciplinary problems. They must apply the discipline of systems thinking, and not rely on siloed domain experts. Moreover, citizens around the country must be listened to at the very beginning, and throughout the evolution of policies; not communicated to at the end by experts who then complain that citizens are being misled by political forces.” This implies a democratic and bottom-up approach to problems, like migration, labour hunger and corruption. As Amartya Sen observed, development is freedom and in a well-functioning democracy, there cannot be famine. This is quite different from the policy approach of the Niti Aayog CEO, Amitabh Kant, who stated that there is too much democracy in India, which stand against tough reforms (https://www.siasat.com/too-much-democracy-niti-aayog-ceo-amitabh-kants-comment-receives-flak-on-social-media-2041658/). 

 I have not laid out the nitty-gritty of putting India a notch up above Bangladesh and Bhutan in the Hunger, Corruption and Happiness Indices, but what I have stated surely goes into the systemic approach towards that. The downward slide of Indian Economy and other indices, during the Modi Regime, starting with his “Ache Din Aa Rahi Hai” in 2014 to 2019 and beyond, can be rooted to the trust-deficit between the people and the government and “We know it all” attitude of the BJP governments and the RSS ideologues. The chasm between the Balconied India and the Dark Underbelly of Bharat has to be bridged. The Bharat, which COVID-19 Lockdowns threw up for the world, as the unshod migrant-workers, the shadow citizens, in their millions, walked back to their hamlets for the security of their families and a decent burial, in the eventuality of death, gripped by Corona.

 

PS. All the coloured highlights have been added by the interviewer.

 My review of Dr Maliekal’s book, Standstill Utopias?, can be read here: Dalits and Religion

Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Embers of 2020

 The year 2020 is dying having delivered little of value. A pandemic that held three-quarters of the year hostage is threatening to mutate into a deadlier version of itself having already claimed 1.8 million lives. Will it lead the world to the final whimper that T.S. Eliot prophesied a century back? The whimper of hollow people, stuffed people, who made too much noise for too long?

As a teacher I made quite a lot of noise for three-and-a-half decades. As a blogger too I made pretty much noise. 2020 put an end to the first noise. Classes went online and smartphones replaced students. Phones without automatic response mechanisms. So my questions in the classes went unanswered. I realised I was talking to no one. My dried voice, as Eliot would put it, died into meaningless whispers like wind in dry grass or rats’ feet over broken glass.

2020 rendered my job absurd. I spoke and deathly emptiness echoed my voice back to me. My New Year resolution is to give up teaching unless the job goes back to real classrooms. Anyway, I have reached the age when governments want us to quit. This is one of those rare occasions when rules become expediently useful.

I shall continue to make noise as a blogger though quite a few readers too abandoned me because my noise did not match theirs. When they raised saffron voices that caressed broken stones of mythical times, my voice was seeking to hitchhike on a crisp breeze that wafted from an eternal but ever-new ocean. Breezes are antinational these days, however.

Even the terror of a ghastly pandemic failed to teach the most essential lessons to many of my fellow countrymen. And I lost readers. Never mind. Another New Year resolution of mine is to carry on riding the breezes. You need to die only once. Live until then on your own terms. Not on the broken stones of buried pasts.

2020 gave me and Maggie a gift. It happened on the black Saturday of the country’s 74th Independence Day. Prime Minister Modi had delivered his characteristically bombastic speech about the country’s achievements against the pandemic – how it unified the country! – about the chest-thumping clash with China, about Atmanirbharta and other fantasies. Intermittent rains kept us cool in Kerala. The air was moist and the earth was damp. Shrill cries of a kitten came from the gloomy dampness penetrating the Prime Minister’s shrieks on the TV. I ignored the cries until Maggie pushed me out into the drizzle. I had heard the cries earlier too. They were coming for quite some time – hours, in fact. Pushed out by Maggie from home, I followed the sound of the kitten and reached the side of the public road where, under a discarded plastic roof sheet, lay not one but two little kittens crying in horror as much as with hunger and helplessness. I picked them up and carried them home. Two little skeletons. They were not more than a week old. Abandoned by someone who was rendered helpless by the pandemic, perhaps. When you can’t afford food for your family, two little kittens can be a burden.

Those little creatures became Maggie’s and my beloved Antony and Cleopatra. Now they’re about 5 months old and enjoying life to the hilt being pampered by two silly creatures of the human species who don’t speak about Atmanirbhar Bharat or national pride.

Antony & Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra made 2020 worthwhile for Maggie and me. Even as I’m typing out this on my laptop Cleopatra is in my lap trying to draw my attention by rubbing her forehead against my belly. Cleopatra and I have our own ways of discovering atmanirbharta. That’s probably the only good thing that 2020 has offered.

Maggie and I decided to end this horrible year on a beach. So we drove to the nearest convenient beach – Cherai, 70 km from our home – yesterday and let me end this post with a snap from there.


I hope 2021 will be better. At least less voices caressing broken stones and more real atmanirbharta. Wish you a Really Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Crime and Punishment

 

The murderous priest and the nun with the victim in the foreground
Image from LiveLaw

Dostoevsky’s unforgettable character Raskolnikov commits a murder to prove to himself that he is above the common man’s morality. He kills a despicable woman who is a ruthless usurer and hence won’t be missed by anyone. In the process, however, he is forced to kill that woman’s sister too, who is a good person, in order to get rid of the inconvenient witness. The crime doesn’t prove what Raskolnikov wanted it to. Instead of proving his superiority to average human beings, the murders leave him with a restless conscience. Eventually he has to confess. There is no other way.

The person who convinces Raskolnikov that he had indeed committed a crime against no less than the humanity itself is a prostitute. Sonia had chosen prostitution as a profession out of sheer helplessness. She is a saintly person at heart.

A self-righteous murderer and a saintly prostitute: one of the many contrasting pairs that Dostoevsky created. The murderer learns with the help of the prostitute that his crime is not only the murders he committed but also the hubris of placing himself above his fellow beings. If Sonia commits sins (of prostitution) it is for the sake of an entire family that depends on her for survival. While she has placed herself at the service of her helpless sister and her children, Raskolnikov places himself conceitedly above the others. Sonia tells him to kiss the earth and confess his sins to the entire humanity. His crime is against humanity. Hubris is also part of that crime. Raskolnikov learns morality from a prostitute.

Raskolnikov and Sonia were the first characters to rush to my mind as I read about the verdict passed on a Catholic priest and nun yesterday in Kerala in 28-year-old case. The priest and the nun are murderers. They murdered an innocent young nun who happened to witness their illicit physical relationship. The murder was committed with a small axe. Incidentally, Raskolnikov too had used an axe for his crime.

Unlike Raskolnikov, the priest and the nun continued to live normal lives for nearly three decades. In spite of massive protests and media coverage in Kerala for a long period, the priest and the nun continued to live as if nothing had happened. Even the most villainous characters of Dostoevsky would put their heads down in shame seeing how the priest and the nun could deceive their own consciences so smoothly. The nun had even gone to the extent of getting hymenoplasty done to mislead the court. [That’s nothing, of course, compared to what all the Church did to save the priest-nun couple from justice.]

Self-deception of the type indulged in by this priest and the nun requires extraordinary thickness of skin. Thickness of conscience, that is. They were people of god. Representatives of Jesus on earth. Pity Jesus! How many crucifixions he has endured because of his representatives in the church founded in his name!

The nun is reported to have broken down when the verdict was read out. It couldn’t have been tears of remorse, of course. She might have thought about the wretchedness that awaited her in a prison cell in contrast to the regal life that her convent afforded her. The priest was seen telling the media people just after the verdict that he was innocent and he would be judged fairly in “God’s court”. He looked vilely nonchalant. Siberia reformed Raskolnikov, but the priest didn’t show any indication of following in the footsteps of Dostoevsky’s protagonist.

On the contrary, he is likely to be projected as a martyr by the Catholic
Church when the appropriate time comes. The Church has perpetrated worse atrocities with its criminal priests. One Benedict, a priest who had an adulterous relationship with a woman whom he killed eventually, is now being projected as a saintly figure who suffered gratuitously in the jail for a crime committed supposedly by somebody else. Nuns are not so lucky, however. This nun may end up in absolute oblivion sooner than later. She may even redeem herself by confessing the truth even as Raskolnikov did.

Tailpiece: Now if Franco Mulakkal is also arrested, they can together establish a diocese in the jail, says one of my friends.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Modi and the Farmers

 

Image from Scroll

There are millions of Indians who are fanatic supporters of Narendra Modi who is seen as a macho PM and saviour of Hindu religion. These people are Modi’s real strength. He gets away with a lot of balderdash as well as maliciousness because of the mass support he enjoys. He has paid scant attention to the ongoing farmers’ stir as if farmers are below his dignity to meet and discuss with.

Modi regards himself as the greatest person on the earth if not in the entire cosmos. He has brought down to dust every democratic institution in the country so that his authority will remain beyond questioning. His strategy is to subtly alter the way the institutions function so that they are slowly and steadily crippled and eventually rendered effete.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has been converted into a “caged parrot” by Modi. Prior to the Modi era, the CBI was “the gold standard of Indian crime-fighting” (Shashi Tharoor’s description). It has now become Modi’s puppet.

The same fate has befallen every institution of some national value. The Supreme Court and the Reserve Bank of India are just two glaring examples. An efficient governor like Raghuram Rajan was not allowed to continue his remarkable services at the RBI. Urjit Patel who succeeded him ended up as the Governor of the bank with the shortest tenure though he had been “the government’s blue-eyed boy” (Tharoor’s phrase again). The Deputy Governor Viral Acharya too stepped down seeing the government’s politicisation of the Governor’s appointment.

It is too early to forget the drama played out by the Supreme Court judges and the Chief Justice himself. Dipak Misra and Ranjan Gogoi were no more than Modi’s puppets. Gogoi declared himself innocent when a sexual harassment charge was brought up against him even as Adityanath of UP wrote off all criminal cases against himself when he became the Chief Minister. Modi and his beloved people are like gods – above all laws.

The Election Commission has also been rendered a highly attenuated version of what it was under eminent people like T N Seshan and J M Lyngdoh. Today the Commission is merely a handmaid of Modi and his party.

All these institutions have been debilitated precisely to enhance the power of one man called Narendra Modi. That man who regards himself as some kind of a divine incarnation hasn’t done much good for the country’s ordinary people. The affluent have benefited much under him. The poor have suffered untold agonies and ignominies. The agitating farmers are just the latest victims.

A protest of similar nature arose in Delhi when the Citizenship bills were passed. But a pandemic erupted and rescued Modi. It is possible that Modi will use some devious method to suppress the farmers’ agitation. Efforts have already been made to bring schisms among the farmers. The usual rhetoric was also employed time and again by the eloquent Prime Minister. What next? Wait and watch. Our PM is good at both entertaining and strategizing.

A lot of people in the country are unhappy. Those affected by the Citizenship Acts. Adivasis and Dalits. Now farmers. How long can a leader ignore the problems of such large numbers of citizens? Don’t forget that a cry in the wilderness can set an avalanche in motion.

PS. Prompted by Indispire Edition 356: The farmers' agitation is going on for long. Do you think the government is failing to address the grievances of the farmers and is being autocratic? Or is the government as magnanimous as the Prime Minister claims? #FarmersAgitation

 

 

Monday, December 21, 2020

Scrooge’s Christmas

 

Ebenezer Scrooge [Phot by Loren Javier]

Ebenezer Scrooge is the protagonist of Charles Dickens’s novella, A Christmas Carol. A bitter childhood has turned Scrooge into a mean and selfish person. He is quite like some of our corporate bigwigs whose greed is as endless as selfishness is insensitive. He is a corporate honcho of the time, in fact. His concern is only profit. Profit before everything else. People don’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether his staff are starving as long as his business rakes in profits for himself.

One Christmas transforms Scrooge, however. He is blessed with a vision into his own heart and into the heart of the reality around him. The vision teaches him that there are many other things that should come before profits. Mankind is your real business, as one of the characters tells him. Compassion, forbearance, and benevolence are your real business.

A miracle follows the vision. Scrooge is transformed. He decides to help the deserving people. He sheds his selfishness and callousness. A handicapped boy, the son of one of his staff, becomes his adopted son. Scrooge learns love. And that brings him a happiness that he had never known earlier, that he would have never known at all.

Christmas is about a deep happiness, Dickens would say. It’s not about self-denial; it’s rather about self-love which leads to love for others. Christmas is about a celebration of life. Life is to be celebrated and not denied religiously.

One of the biggest blunders of Christianity is to identify Jesus with his cross. The cross has become the ubiquitous symbol of Christianity. This is gross injustice to Jesus and the spirit of his teachings. Jesus’ whole attempt was to teach the essential spirit of life to his followers. “I came to give life, life in its fullness,” he said. But the religions founded in his name ended up denying life by equating it with evil. Life is sin, according to most Christian religions. The cross is redemption. Abnegation is what is required.

Celebrate life, Scrooge learns from that particular Christmas. He celebrates life by sharing his wealth with the needy. He celebrates life by sharing himself with others. He ceases to be a mean corporate honcho and becomes a humane person who is an integral part of the human community.

This is the essential message of Jesus: we are not entirely separate individuals, we are integral parts of a community. Once we internalise this, life becomes a joyful celebration, a divine rhapsody.

Unfortunately our churches insist on crucifying Jesus again and again. Scrooge can teach us better.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Minority Rights Day

 Today, 18 Dec, is Minority Rights Day. India should celebrate this day heart and soul for various reasons.

First of all, as Shashi Tharoor claims in his new book The Battle for Belonging, everyone in India is in the minority one way or another. Take this example from Tharoor himself:

A typical Indian stepping off a train, say, a Hindi-speaking Hindu male from Uttar Pradesh might cherish the illusion that he represents the ‘majority community’. He’s wrong, of course. As a Hindu he belongs to the faith adhered to by some 80% of the population, but his language, his caste, his state and its culture – none of these belongs to the majority. If he is visiting a state in the Northeast, he will be astounded by the realization of how much of a minority he really is. He will be quite an alien among the Garos of Meghalaya and the Kukis of Nagaland. The diversity of tiny Arunachal Pradesh alone will be enough to strip him of any hubris about a singular national culture. Why, in his own religion he will be a minority. If he is a Brahmin, 90% of his fellow Indians are not. If he is a Yadav, 85% of Indians are not, and so on.

Defenders of Majority

“We are all minorities in India,” concludes Dr Tharoor. Castes, creeds, colours, cultures, cuisines, convictions, consonants, costumes, and customs… So many Cs that are held together by another C: Consensus. Consensus is the soul of democracy. It teaches us that we don’t need to agree all the time except on the ground rules of how we will disagree.

But, unfortunately, we now have a regime that labours under too many delusions. It assumes that there is a majority here to whom the country rightfully belongs. Only to them. The others have no rights. So there are blatant assaults on people belonging to certain communities. The government itself has made the assaults not only legal but also a moral obligation of every patriot.

Look at it from another angle. Take the example of the present farmers’ agitation. The farmers constitute about 65% of the country’s population. So they are a majority, so to say. The government and the private sector together employ a tiny minority of the country’s population. Yet this minority bosses over everybody else. Who decides the policies for the country, for instance?

When thousands of Adivasis are displaced from their forests in the name of development, are they consulted? No. The ‘majority’ [here, Adivasis] who are affected are never asked any questions or given any options. A small minority formulate the policies. A small minority decide to whom the forests should belong hereafter.

A small minority decide to whom the water bodies and water resources should belong hereafter. Thousands of fisherfolk suddenly find themselves displaced from their homes and jobs for the sake of Special Economic Zones or Special Ports or whatever.

Majority?
Who decided the policies for the farmers of India? The farmers say they don’t want what the government is claiming to be benefits for the farmers. The government has to impose benefits on citizens! You know that something is seriously wrong if a large community has to endure a bitter winter in the polluted open spaces of Delhi in order to say No to ‘benefits’ given to them magnanimously by a leader whose speech can sway the mountains and oceans.

What is wrong basically? A minority sits somewhere in an ivory tower and makes up policies. That’s what’s wrong. This minority has its own vested interests. That’s what’s wrong. This minority is pretending to be working for the majority. That’s an absolute lie.

Too many things are wrong about the present governance in India. People have been fooled by one man’s rhetoric and a collective delusion of national grandeur. You think you belong to the majority. Really? Think deeper; rub off the patina from your brain and think.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Thief

Fiction

Sivaraman was the last person whom I would expect to catch in a dim corner of a bar sitting before a glass of whisky and contemplating the sun waiting for the earth to reappear after a mythical deluge that had drowned the earth for some forty days.

‘The sun is an eternal lover,’ he told me as I sat down opposite him. ‘The earth is the beloved. Unfaithful beloved.’ He sighed like a Shakespearean furnace. ‘But the infidelity is due to helplessness. The flood is beyond the earth’s control.’

Sivaraman had met his old girlfriend that afternoon. She was the unfaithful earth that had emerged after the deluge.

Megha was her name. She was the daughter of Bhargavan who was the caretaker of the Gopika estate where Sivaraman had joined relatively recently as the accountant. Gopika’s owner, Somasundaram, worked in Dubai though he was an ardent Indian nationalist who hated Muslims with all his heart. Gopika stretched across acres and acres of orchards and vegetable farms. Bhargavan was her caretaker for many years. His salary was a rather meagre sum. But he lived quite a king-size life. Soon after joining Gopika as accountant, Sivaraman discovered the source of Bhargavan’s mysterious affluence. Bhargavan was stealing Gopika’s wealth by underreporting her produces. For example, when Bhargavan sold 100 kg of vegetables the records showed 80 kg.

By the time Sivaraman solved the mystery of Bhargavan’s affluence, he had fallen head over heels for Megha. Since love is blind, Sivaraman did not see the dishonesty of his would-be father-in-law. Megha was happy with her would-be husband’s partial blindness. Everyone was happy, in short. But universal happiness is a myth and it does not belong in the world of real men and women.

Sivaraman’s father was diagnosed with some ailment that required a surgery. The young accountant did whatever he could to arrange the money required for the surgery. He sold his mother’s gold bangle and borrowed from all his friends who were not many. He was short of a few thousand rupees. He requested his would-be father-in-law to lend him the required amount.

‘Why do you need my help?’ Bhargavan asked. ‘You’re the accountant. A small manipulation in the accounts is all that you need.’

Sivaraman was not happy with that innovative idea though it came from none other than his would-be father-in-law. But he had little choice. The surgery could not be delayed. So the account was fudged. The Indian nationalist amassing Muslim Dirhams in Dubai wouldn’t ever feel, let alone know, the loss of a few thousand rupees. Moreover, what Sivaraman did was nothing in comparison with what his would-be father-in-law was doing again and again. Morality is comparative, Sivaraman had learnt from his political leaders who always justified their beastly deeds by comparing them with what someone else did in the past. Babur did this and Nehru did that and so on. Present politics became right or wrong in comparison with what Babur and Nehru did.

What Sivaraman did not know, however, was that there are some universal principles that you can’t ignore except at your own peril. If Satyameva Jayate still remains the national motto in spite of 73 years of relentless and escalating assaults on it by the country’s patrons, there must be something universal about it. Maybe, where your father’s surgery is involved your would-be father-in-law’s example eclipses universal principles.

The surgery was a grand success. After all it was performed by the best surgeons in the most advertised multi-speciality hospital in the city. These surgeons don’t make blunders and then justify them by comparing them with what Akbar or Aurangzeb did.

Life returned to normal once again. Sivaraman’s father was back home making a rapid recovery. Bhargavan continued to underreport Gopika’s produces. Sivaraman maintained Gopika’s accounts without fudging them. Megha flirted with Sivaraman on WhatsApp.

Then one day Sivaraman asked Bhargavan for his daughter’s hand.

‘How dare you!’ Bhargavan thundered. ‘I won’t give my daughter to a thief.’

Sivaraman was stunned. He explained that he was no thief, that he had fudged the account just once and that too for his father’s sake, that he ardently believed in the universal principle of Satyameva Jayate. Bhargavan would not listen to any of that.

A few days later Megha’s WhatsApp chat came. ‘Forgt me. Fathr hs arrangd my marage with smbdy workin in Dubai.’

A silence as ominous as the one that descends in a court just prior to the pronouncement of the verdict descended between Sivaraman and me. Even the whisky in our glasses looked despondent and anxious at once.


Frustrated love is the cause of many a good man’s doom. I thought of Majnu and Devdas and was about to think of Romeo when Sivaraman said, ‘I had almost forgotten her until I met her this afternoon.’ After a moment he added like an afterthought, ‘You can never forget your first love. That love is the primordial affinity between the sun and the earth.’Megha had returned from Dubai with her husband on a holiday. Sivaraman saw them during the wedding reception of a common friend. Megha’s husband was totally drunk. He couldn’t even stand on his own feet. Megha stood beside him holding him tightly close to her to prevent him from falling down.


Sivaraman soon found out that the man was a wretched alcoholic. ‘But his business is doing well in Dubai,’ the informer said. ‘He has many wives too there. Lucky guy.’

Devdas rose from the marrow of Sivaraman’s bones. After all he lived in a country where history repeatedly rose from its grave with bloodlust like a restless vampire.

‘I’d have been such a loving husband,’ Sivaraman confronted Bhargavan straightaway. Bhargavan was also attending the wedding reception.

Bhargavan looked at him with unconcealed scorn. ‘He may be a drunkard but not a thief,’ he said and walked away solemnly.

‘And I came here,’ Sivaraman said to me. ‘A drunkard but not a thief.’

 

 

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Destiny’s Gift

 


In one of his novels, O V Vijayan illustrates destiny with the story of a bullock. The bullock was one of the two used to draw a cart. This bullock was always tied on the right side of the cart and hence got most of the whiplashes the driver being right-handed. The bullock was not happy with his destiny and envied his counterpart on the left side.

I added a twist to Vijayan’s story while discussing destiny once. The bullock prayed for a change; it wished to be on the left side of the cart. God answered the prayer. The bullock cart was sold and the new owner tied our bovine hero on the left side of the cart. But his destiny didn’t alter. The new driver was left-handed.

You can’t escape the whip if it is in your destiny. Some whips are indeed ineluctable parts of your destiny. Your genes, for example. There are catastrophes that strike you with divine vengeance. Even your government can be your destiny with its policies that may hamstring you.

As a young man, I poohpoohed the notion of destiny. When one of my English professors interpreted Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge in fatalist terms, I protested saying that Michael Henchard (the protagonist) had brought about his damnation himself through his actions and fate had little to do with it.

Life taught me otherwise eventually. The hubris of my youth received blow after blow and the very foundations of my aplomb crumbled. My self-assurance never returned. Not to this day. My hand trembled every time I had to put my signature anywhere. I didn’t trust even my signature for about two decades.

Life does that to a lot of people. Today I live a secluded life in a village avoiding meeting people as far as possible. This solitude is destiny’s gift to me.

But I know deep within that much of that destiny was my own making. My hubris was mine, wasn’t it? My attitudes were mine, weren’t they? The problem is how much of all that is within your control. How much is contributed by forces beyond your control? The chromosomes that conspired to make you were not your choice. The people who appointed themselves as your guardian angels were not the best of your circumstances. Still much could have been different if I had different outlooks.

Our attitudes forge our mental landscape to a great extent. Not everything is destined. A lot depends on what you do with the people and events that happen to you without your choice. As some great guy said, the cards you are dealt are your destiny. But you have the freedom to play the game in your own way.

I learnt that a bit late. But I thought I should tell this so that those who still have the time to play better games may benefit. This opportunity to tell – yeah, that is destiny’s gift for me.

 

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Nationalism's Hunger

The Great Wall of Ahmedabad: symbol of Modi's poverty policy
Image from The Hindu

The ‘Hunger Watch’ survey conducted in Gujarat by Anna Suraksha Adhikar Abhiyan [ASAA] reveals that one out of every 5 persons in the marginalised communities of the state go hungry in these pandemic times. Some of them do not have even a single meal on certain days. This is happening in a state that has been projected as a model for development over decades.

With a tragic irony, we should note that the same person who brought about that pathetic condition in Gujarat is ruling the country today. He has met every opposition to his imperial rule, every demand for justice and human rights, with an iron fist. He suppressed the protests against Citizenship Bill and Act. He spent a huge sum of money to erect a wall meant to hide a slum from visiting Donald Trump. The money spent on the wall would have been enough to rehabilitate the slum dwellers, to give them a life of dignity. But Modi chose to hide the community behind a wall because it is a community that he hates.

The farmers agitating now for weeks are not Modi’s pet enemies. Yet their struggle is being suppressed with all brutality and cunning that Modi has displayed throughout his political career. He had no qualms about digging trenches on highways in order to impede the movement of the farmers, let alone the water cannons in the winter freeze.

What kind of a ruler is it who hates so many of his people?

A nationalist. That’s the obvious answer. Since he is doing all these in the name of sacred nationalism, he gets the support of the majority community in the country.

Nationalism and religion are alike, said sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer. Religion and nationalism both provide an overreaching framework of moral order which is perceived by followers as sacred and inviolable. Modi’s success lies precisely in his shrewd skill to project himself as a great nationalist – a messianic figure, in effect.

Religion blinds the devotees. We have seen the most brutal acts of cruelty being justified in the name of religion. The same thing is happening in Modi’s India. We can spend Rs 20,000 on beautifying the capital city when millions of citizens are teetering on the edge of starvation and death. A temple is more important than the people’s welfare. A wall that conceals a slum is the ideal symbol of the ruling dispensation today. But bhakti has a different view. Bhakti is driven by a strange hunger. That hunger sustains Modi and his supporters.

Friday, December 11, 2020

The sublime answer to suffering

  


Suffering is the university of egocentrism. Milan Kundera, Czech writer [1929-]

Suffering is inevitable. That is a fundamental lesson of life. Religions teach us that, philosophy does, and literature shows the same too. While dealing with the inevitable though unwanted, our options are quite limited. We should change what can be changed and accept what cannot be changed. We may need to adapt ourselves in the face of what we cannot change.

Religion, philosophy, the arts, and a lot of things can help us to make life easier in the face of suffering. Aren’t these things primarily meant for that: to help us make life bearable and as pleasant as possible?

Why haven’t they been able to achieve their purposes? Obviously, they have not been used rightly. On the other hand, they have been misused by certain people. Religion joined hands with politics and became a tool in the hands of bigots or the power-hungry. Philosophy is dead for all practical purposes, killed by our pursuit of the superficial and by the prevalence of the farcical. The arts have been too commercialised to be effective agents of personal or social transformation.

The solution obviously lies in bringing authenticity and a certain degree of profundity back to these things: religion, thinking and the arts. The solution lies in our choosing to make these things effective in enabling us to touch the sublime.

Poet William Blake sang about the human capacity to “see a world in a grain of sand / And a heaven in a wild flower / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand / And eternity in an hour”. This ability is a kind of innocence that makes us stand in awe before the beauty of a flower, the mystery of a pebble, and the splendour of the universe. It is the ability to go beyond ourselves and touch the infinity lying out there, the infinity of which we are all parts.

We have largely lost the ability to stand in awe before the wonders of the world because we have lost the awareness of ourselves as parts of some bigger whole. Religions take the bigger whole to be God. Philosophy conceives it as some transcendent reality beyond the grasp of our rational faculties. Literature and other arts touch it in moments of inspiration.

We need to touch it ourselves. We may use religion, contemplation, the arts or whatever we choose in order to carry us beyond our selves to the reality, the mystery, the magic lying out there somewhere. This is one of the best ways to deal with suffering.

How to do that?

We need to understand first of all that we are all autonomous individuals and organic parts of a larger entity at the same time. We are always performing a tightrope walk between our autonomy and our integration: asserting our unique individuality while being an integral part of a society and also of a macroscopic cosmos.

It is a tightrope walk because many of our individual desires, motives, ideals and beliefs may be in conflict with those of the community to which we belong. We are obliged to cultivate and express our urges and ideals without disrupting the harmony that seeks to pervade the community as well as the cosmos. We should grow into the fullness of our individual selves while being in harmony with our community and the larger cosmic system. That is the ideal. But the ideal is seldom achieved. That is one of the chief reasons of the mounting suffering in our world.

We live in a world that is becoming increasingly competitive and hence even more increasingly self-centred. Competition is always about the victory of some individuals over other individuals or groups of even systems. In a capitalist system everyone is everyone else’s potential rival one way or another. This rivalry soon extends to the groups or communities to which the individuals belong. Whole systems like democracy or ideals like secularism can come crumbling down in such a world. Worse, such demolitions may even be seen as virtuous victories of the good over evil.

Such battles are rampant in our world today. Some people emerge as glorious victors while some others end up as pathetic losers.

These battles need to end. The ideal way is to open our eyes and see the most fundamental reality about ourselves: that we are not only unique and separate individuals but also integral parts of a larger whole. Call the larger whole God if you choose. Call it truth or the sublime or whatever. If we learn to touch that sublime, if we open our ears to the mellow music of that sublime, our suffering is going to take a different turn.

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.

 

***PS. This is the last chapter of my e-book, Coping with Suffering. The book is available exclusively at Amazon.in 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Dogs are created to obey

 








When human beings discovered laws

They knew they had struck a gold mine

And more, much more.

It was easy now to subjugate people.

Tell them what to eat, what to wear, what to speak,

In the name of the most divine gods sitting up in the mighty heavens

From whose feet were you born while we emerged from the head.

Wearing sacred threads on our breasts

We tore off the clothes that covered the breasts of your young women

And dropped our divine seeds into their vaginas

So that your race would improve; our generosity, our compassion,

By the mercy of the rules and rubrics sanctioned by gods.

 

Divine laws dispossessed you of your lands,

Call it Article 370 or whatever.

Divine laws made your women ours

Just for a few minutes, that’s enough.

Divine laws brought fire and fury

Upon you through us, we decide your fate.

Didn’t our ancestors decide the fate of widows

Who burnt on the funeral pyres of their husbands?

We know what’s good for you.

Our gods tell us what’s good for you.

Burn we will where we choose with divine guidance.

 

We know which gods are good for you.

We know which words are good for you.

We know what you should cultivate on your farms,

Who should buy the produce from you,

What prices you deserve…

 

We are the masters

Dogs are created from gods’ feet

To wag tails, not tongues.

 

PS. Today is HUMAN RIGHTS DAY