Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Down memory lane with Rabi T

Some pictures from the Sanskriti Express exhibition on Rabindranath Tagore:

The 1913 Nobel Prize for literature:

With Helen Keller:

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


The fine balance that Mr. Rohinton Mistry so enigmatically asseverates in his book of the same name, where characters from seemingly incompatible backgrounds somehow meet in the city of Bombay and together vie for a semblance of dignity within their respective visions of the idea of India, is in danger of being permanently upset amidst the din from the latest uproar over another book of his.

Adjustment has always come easily to us Indians; it is patently impossible whilst living in this country to not feel that your neighbor is entitled to a little of what you can rightly claim as yours, simply because he is so obviously worse off than you. By the dint of this reasoning, apparently antithetical: religions, sects, ideas, ideologies and all their strident followers are so easily accommodated within this heterogeneous society - a capacity so universal in India that even the most disaffected visitor can never seem to stop marveling at it. And this culture of compassionate appeasement has also been able, so far, to accommodate the local breed of misanthrope – those unwilling to tolerate the passing beggar, the poor servant, the elderly vagrant or the migrant laborer. And following the course of all right-wing extremist movements, they have tried to stamp out what they do not appreciate around them and while doing so seem almost organically to have built a following from amongst like-minded bigots. ‘It’s all par for the course – if we can give rise to men such as Gandhi, we can also stomach Bal Thackeray’, is what the average Indian thinks. But as all foundations built on the principle of opposing forces, the delicate stasis behind this lateral accommodation of what constitutes an individual’s beliefs and principles and his/her understanding that its diametric opposite can also exist within the same milieu, begins to give out when we start to deny the freedom of expression. It has been threatened before and has occasionally even been temporarily abjured, but it has never been vanquished and the jungle of opinions (the Buddha’s expression) has continued to thrive over millennia and through periods of acute existential crisis in India’s history. In accounting for and tabulating the vast array of conflicting opinion throughout the region’s known and most colorful history, the nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s ‘The Argumentative Indian’ is arguably the most authoritative non-fiction work in recent memory in this regard, and there are many writers today who constantly strive to offer the other side of the Modern India Shining story and draw us portraits of the encumbrances and braces that weigh that seminally corrosive idea of India down, just when we seek to only highlight our consumerist rise in the modern world.

The right that allows a person to say a thing and another to dispute it is so fundamentally ensconced in the Indian tradition that Barack Obama himself, when he comes visiting next month, should take back to the U.S. the lesson that what defines us as Indian is not so much our system of education or our innate discipline as it is our right to dispute what everyone else says even when the tide is so firmly against what we think. Evidence of the futility of our education system is most firmly brought out when one reads with wonderment that the person most responsible for the mess behind the book burning of Mr. Mistry’s ‘Such a Long Journey’ is himself a student of history at one of the country’s oldest educational institutions in a city that was founded by immigrants.

The preponderant importance of the tolerance towards other people’s forms of expression and the mode in which they carry it out cannot be understated in these times of seemingly unending conflict, especially when we see our giant neighbor China, another nation whose modern history is so fractiously ridden by the consumerist story, so obviously wilt when the pressure that a largely inconsequential light shone on an obscure academic is wrought on it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Importance of Being Brazen

Remember that time in your childhood when you were out on a drive with your dad and something happened just when you were distracted by your toy car or a beggar in the side window? The sequence probably went like this: Just when your eye is not on the road, the car heaves suddenly to a halt – your father gets out of the car after warning you to stay inside – he yells at a man cowering in front of the car – he gets back in the car and resumes driving without saying a word to you and stays silent for the rest of the ride.

Now imagine that a political party which has never been in power in a certain state is finally granted, by popular mandate, the opportunity to govern it for a period of five years in what is a very interesting time in the state’s history. It is in the process of trying to capitalize on the decades-old goodwill it has earned by virtue of its reputation as a technological hub with a beautiful capital city and valuable human and natural resources. Infrastructural development is much needed in the state and so are jobs, housing, education and power. The chief minister relies on his inner coterie to bring about the institutional change the state so desperately needs and hosts lavish industrial conclaves with captains of industry where land and a conducive investment climate are promised to private sector players in the hope that the state’s resources are utilized to the maximum extent possible. Certain members of the chief minister’s party, though, are not counted among his inner coterie but are hugely invested in the government’s stability on account of them being, by far, the richest men who comprise it – they are given largely symbolic posts within the cabinet in an effort to appease them, and the chief minister believes that he can now fulfill his self-proclaimed dharma i.e. the ushering in of peace and prosperity for all. 
The stars (and the CM is a great believer in astrology), however, are not in his favour – the aforementioned non-inner coterie members suspect that the CM is plotting to attack them where it hurts the most; investigate the source of their wealth and render them impotent when their carefully nurtured empires are exposed as blatantly illegal mining syndicates for the ore that China is willing to pay an arm and a leg for these days. They require that members of their own inner coteries be given important portfolios in the government so that any threat emanating from the CM’s suspected sympathies is neutralized even before it emerges. There is now a crisis. The CM does not want to let down his ardent supporters. The Honourable Miner-Members  of the Legislative Assembly are equally adamant, refusing to let their private fiefdoms be compromised by an untrustworthy cabinet. The CM backs down with a sigh and inducts the miner-faithful members into his cabinet – he needs to stay in power, after all, to be able to fulfill his dharma, no?
A time of uneasy peace follows, but all too soon it is smashed when various members of his cabinet, those within his inner coterie as also those without, are implicated in all sorts of scams ranging from the sale of much-desired government medical college seats to the highest bidders… to the de-notification of prime land in the state capital for personal profit. The CM faces his trial-by-fire (his words) again. He is forced to undertake a cabinet reshuffle once more and this time, brooking no nonsense, fills up the most important portfolios in the new ministerial cabinet with his most faithful followers. At exactly this point in time, another scam is unearthed; the beleaguered CM himself, it is reported, has de-notified prime land within the capital city which has been quickly and quietly bought up by his own son (another inner-coterie member of his cabinet, by the way) at a cost that is outrageously lower than prevalent market prices. Other members of his party (those not part of the ministerial cabinet so far and those recently reshuffled out of it) are now up in arms – “If you guys can make money while in power, we guys also want to be in power to make money”, they all but say. The Opposition parties take note of all this, meanwhile, and rub their hands in anticipation. But it’s a no-go from the CM. His inference is unmistakable – ‘Fuck off’, he all but says, ‘… and go sulk some place else. You’re scaring away the private sector institutional investors’.
But they do not fuck off. They persuade (with all the implications that term provides for) certain non-inner coterie members of the CM’s cabinet as well as certain independent members of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly to stand by them when they demand a no-confidence motion in the present government on the floor of the Assembly. The CM now does not have the numbers to survive the motion. His government is about to fall. He is now desperate. He demands that the Speaker of the Assembly (another inner-coterie member, of course) dismiss the dissident MLAs on the grounds that they have violated a law that allows for ministers of the Legislative Assembly to be dismissed when they defect to an opposition party while or after they have been part of the political party in power (the law was formulated precisely to dissuade bribery-based horse-trading) and the Honourable Speaker complies. The dissident MLAs are dismissed while being held back at the doors to the Floor of the Assembly by a sympathetic police force. Their votes cannot now be counted and the total strength of the Assembly is therefore reduced, which means that the party in power can stay in power. The Governor of the state weighs in, ‘... the last vote for the confidence motion was a farce’, he actually says, ‘Do it over on Thursday’. The dismissed MLAs meanwhile take their case to the High Court of the State, challenging their dismissals…. & so it goes on and on and on.

For all of you who are wondering what in God’s name all this has to do with what happened when you were a child in your Daddy’s car... here it is - The current Members of the Legislative Assembly of Karnataka were also in their respective daddies’ cars when they were children, just like you… but the difference is: they weren’t distracted when their fathers suddenly pulled over in the middle of the road, and saw and heard exactly what happened next… and kept quiet about it all these years.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Trees and the man

From ancient history down to these modern times of ubiquitous exculpation, the beautiful, abundant, floral benefactors of relief and life in this tropical land have had a great rep. The banyan, with its great gnarled mass of branches and roots spread out over large distances and known to support vast ecosystems all on its own… the majestic and mythical Ashoka, with its erect bearing and bushy foliage, held sacred in three indigenous Indian religions… the great givers – mango, apple, jackfruit, coconut, amla, neem… the ayurvedic – khair, bael, kokam, soapnut… and the strong – mahogany, sandalwood and teak… All these are Indian born and bred through ages of light and darkness, storm and famine, despair and triumph… and have provided countless children natural props for play and rest, and great spiritual leaders ready-made platforms from which to espouse their philosophies of salvation to millions of desperate seekers after truth. The sight of these great big wonders spread over towns and cities, villages and fields, forests and jungles is so ingrained in the Indian psyche that the mere fact of their presence is taken for granted and dismissed perfunctorily as fundamental, with that unalloyed sense of universal timelessness that seems to come spontaneously to those of us born in the subcontinent.

They are now disappearing. I can see them going one after another after another – when the monsoons come and their dried up roots suffocated in the concrete of a zillion high and low-rise foundations bring them crashing down, when roads are extended and new ones built, when mass transit systems appear over whole pliable and fertile tracts that custodians of ‘development’ arbitrarily appropriate, over regions of the country no one ever heard of until the announcement of a Special Economic Zone or a new airport or a ‘Medical City’ or a mine. Forest cover in India is now estimated to occupy less than 22% of the total land mass in this country and that includes medium density forests, open forests and scrub lands – all terms, as opposed to 'Very Dense', that bring on that sinking feeling.

There is some time yet for the swan song to be sung to our natural national heritage, but in a country of 1.2 billion people and in an age when the wild tiger population is down to 1,400 and great battles are being fought every day over compensation for the take-over of land belonging to individuals for multi-national mining and other acts of (that haunting term again) ‘development’, I pray that I do not hear the first bars of that mournful tune in my lifetime.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Run, Bharat, Run

The Delhi Commonwealth Games 2010 are off to a great start - the Indian contingent won their first gold medals yesterday, on only the 2nd day of the games, and the country's Great Emerging Economy pride was palpable through the exploits of those bright young luminaries: Abhinav Bindra and Sushil Kumar... Towards late evening, though, the focus shifted back to the Indian cricket team, pulling another one out of the hat, so to speak, with yet another great national debt accrued to the evergreen VVS Laxman who snatched victory from within the mandibular molars of defeat against those damned Aussies. Poetic justice, even... some might say - "Didn't those damn Aussies diss us the most with those humiliating exposés [sic] of seemingly lax security and hugely exaggerated infra-fuck-ups in the build up to the Games?", they say.

All this, while... 
"Budihalli village of Chitradurga district is a live example of caste discrimination and bondage. Here, landlords hold sway. They allegedly rape and torture women of lower castes, while men work as bonded labourers, paying off debts accumulated over generations." 
Full story: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata-/Chitradurga-villagers-flee-rape-bondage/articleshow/6436517.cms

"A mongrel dog brought up in an upper caste home in Morena was kicked out after the Rajput family members discovered that their Sheru had eaten a roti from a dalit woman and was now an "untouchable". Next, Sheru was tied to a pole in the village's dalit locality.
Full story: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Dog-caste-away-after-dalit-touch/articleshow/6617039.cms

& from that crazy woman...
"It was early spring, the sun was sharp, but still civilized. This is a terrible thing to have to say, but it’s true—you could smell the protest from a fair distance: It was the accumulated odor of a thousand human bodies that had been dehumanized, denied the basic necessities for human (or even animal) health and hygiene for years, if not a whole lifetime. Bodies that had been marinated in the refuse of our big cities, bodies that had no shelter from the harsh weather, no access to clean water, clean air, sanitation or medical care. No part of this great country, none of the supposedly progressive schemes, no single urban institution has been designed to accommodate them. Not the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, not any other slum development, employment guarantee or welfare scheme. Not even the sewage system—they shit on top of it. They are shadow people, who live in the cracks that run between schemes and institutions. They sleep on the streets, eat on the streets, make love on the streets, give birth on the streets, are raped on the streets, cut their vegetables, wash their clothes, raise their children, live and die on the streets."
Full article: http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/world/03-the-trickledown-revolution-ss-05

& what is done unto those who dare to do otherwise ... 
"Besides his caste, what makes Mr. Gaikwad vulnerable is his activism. Over several years, he has staged andolans, led morchas, busted rackets and courted arrest. He demanded a CBI inquiry into the Nanded blast of 2006, which upset the right-wingers in his locality. Incidentally, the house of one of the blast accused is close to Mr. Gaikwad's."
Full storyhttp://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article791132.ece

Just a cold-shower-type reminder, people, about how far things have to go before they ever get better around these 'ere parts.