Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Weight of History

It seems a long time since someone really examined the repercussions of history's great shadow looming over everything we do in this country - both on an upwardly mobile basis that is the individual's prerogative, as well as on the national psyche in these times of striving after modernity - however you would like to define that.

Back in the day, specifically the days when the Indian cricket team took on the Pakistanis in that quintessential theatre of the South Asian migrant experience that used to be the oil-rich Middle East, and even more specifically in the city of Sharjah, it was said that the real test of national loyalty for Indian Muslims was manifest in which team they supported through those emotion-laden series' in the desert kingdom. Both countries then were evenly matched in cricketing ability and in their respective seemingly never-ending chronicles of economic crises back home. That logic never seemed to take, even for someone like me who was entirely divorced from the 'majority' community's sense of triumphalism or even complicit in the 'minority' community's tired saga of never belonging in this land we secularly call 'ours', belonging, as I was, to a comparatively minute minority community. Identity, in this case, was loosely defined as following (and supporting) the fortunes of those sportsmen who looked vaguely like someone I would encounter on the streets I roamed, with familiar first names, as I suspect it did for my erstwhile classmates, Faiz and Nazir.

These days, when I see the strife-torn and existential dilemma that the Republic of Pakistan is embroiled in, I cannot but think - 'There, but for the grace of God, go I' - as I suspect Faiz and Nazir do too, wherever they are in the world today.

Following on from this argument (and taking the metaphor of cricket as a test of nationalistic sentiment further than logic would allow), when watching the Boxing Day test between India and Australia I was amazed to feel a certain amount of resentment watching the faintly brown-faced and turbaned crowds at the MCG waving the Indian flag with gusto during the disappointing 3 and a half days of the match. These people were immigrants, surely. They had the backing of the immigrant narrative - that of having breached natural geographical norms and landed and thrived on the shores of an alien universe (as all of the First World seems to one brought up here). Why then were they so blatant in their support of a team from a country they had despised enough to have left behind forever? (The Indian supporters in the stands were far too large in number to have been holiday-makers). Were they proving to themselves their double standards? Are they so comfortable with those double standards that they would risk showcasing them to the world as a mark of duplicity they wear with pride whenever their identity is called into question?

Moving on from the cricket (sigh!), I constantly encounter the rigid pageantry of the majority and minority community's manifest identity crises in the worlds I move between - as an outsider bound to a religious code from a culture circumscribedly(sic) as far removed from this brown soil as possible, and as an enthusiastic apologizer for everything we lack when we look at the mirror that the west continually throws at us smirkingly. Where then do I stand? Do I respect the sentiments of the throngs embarking upon a pilgrimage up a minor mountain where barely a year ago many supplicants died in an outrageous stampede? Can I carry on proving my secular credentials by defending a dogmatic creed that pits humanity's longing for deliverance against the by-now-overcome fear of the unknown?
And then again, can I really take shelter in the ragged concourse that is 'the-hidden-wisdom-of-the-ancients' and the 'ages-of-the-world' debate?

I cannot, anymore. We have to change now, and the sooner it happens, the better will be the economic and social plight of my brethren in the countryside - of this I am certain. There are no better representatives for what we stand for than ourselves and I will not stand corrected - even if fifty or less people show up at the BKC or at the RamLila Maidan at the fag end of a fascinating year of protest the world over.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Afflicted

What would it mean to me,
should life and love be separated at birth -
A stone, a claw, a clasp of affection? 

Dangerously do I see the leaven shadows 
of a depth undug, 
clinging to the areas lit, 
blindly so,
does the great bird fly. 

Is it a king, a cult, an inexpressive regret?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Forget your 'Q's

Looking up the etymology of, 'gratitude', in the English language, it seems perfunctory to say that its association with thankfulness for help received is the source of all civility in human discourse. Psychologically, the study of gratitude is only now drawing linkages to the perception of indebtedness towards the benefactor(s)  by the recipient party for the largesse so received that led to the feeling(s) of gratitude in the first place. But as all things psychologically disseminated, the study of gratitude seems far too focused on the negative aspects of the base emotion representing the magnanimity implicit in its expression within the human condition, and let us be in no doubt that the popular manifestation of gratitude is solely a human trait and therefore divorced from evolutionary theory and its psychological repercussions.
For the purpose of this post, let us then separate the moral obligation for gratitude from its expectation by the donor party; the religious, ethical and social arguments for the requirement of the existence of the former state being well established and therefore in danger of being regarded parsimonious if employed simply for the sake of copy herein.

The expectation of gratitude, therefore, is where the real juice lies, because the weight it lends to myriad social interactions within a multitude of milieus pretty much determines the course of whole lives, without ever drawing attention to itself, and that itself should be reason enough for deep individual reflection.
We start off life constantly being reminded that we should be grateful for being born - grateful to: our parents, current society for providing us the harmonious conditions for existence, and a number of individual and collective benefactors that we wouldn't really want anything to do with once we come of age, but who irrevocably helped us on our way through the birth canal by the grace of the degrees of complicity that bind all of us human beings together, and did so even before the advent of virtual social networking. So where does that leave us? We are bound by the law of Te Deum as soon as we are born and continue to implicitly adhere to its precepts till the day we die without ever having a choice in the matter. The law follows us everywhere through adulthood, even as we are dismissive of its impact in childhood and adolescence; we passed our first competitive examination because of the munificence of our parents, our teachers and the institution that arranged them (the examinations). We managed to achieve gainful employment and economic security because of; the existence of the market-place, our predecessors, and individual and collective consumers of our hard work, most of whom we shall never encounter. Retirement brings with it another set of gracious imperatives; the pension funds controlled by the great and vaguely grey men that you never thought to think of (and thank) who are responsible for the relative ease of  your present rectitude... society at large... the benevolence of one's children etc. etc.

All this gratitude that follows us around our whole lives must exact some sort of toll, no? And in what form can that toll be measured - lily-liveredness (sic), ingratiation, unconscious groveling, an expectation of a similar toll to be exacted on those who are in the same position you once were in?

It is heartening to hear the collective yell of young people everywhere in the world today sounding out, loudly and clearly, that the age of gratitude is past and that we are not bound to the sins of our fathers and are not responsible for the state our world is in today. Let us be done with the political and economic correctness that has led us to this permanent state of uncertainty and pervasive dread of a future that nobody can predict. We really need not be grateful anymore to those who deserve our gratitude less than the scavengers that feed off the carcasses of hidden kills - at least they play their part in cleaning up the environment.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Third-World-conditioned acquiescence

"Do you see it?", he suddenly asked.
"See what?"

"Do you see it now?"
"See what?"

"Do you really not see it?"
"See what?", he was answered.

Untitled (23rd Sept 2000)

The Master woke to the sunlight,
And knew that today...
Today, he must set out.

And at once he sprang up,
And ran out,
And was oblivious to the heat and light,
that swiftly engulfed him from everywhere.

And the Master ran over hill and glade,
Village and town,
City and country.
And the onlooker saw that,
His feet never touched the ground.

And in the sea,
Where the onlooker could not sight land,
Try as he might,
This way and that,
There, the Master met his muse.

His muse, the boatman,
Splendid in solitude,
Saw him coming,
But doubted his vision.
Time had taught him of:
Mirages, human nature and the dangers of hope.

But he could not doubt his senses any longer,
As the Master came before him,
And he realized that,
That he could smell, hear and watch the Master.
And could touch and talk to him,
If he so wished.


The world blurred,
In space and time progressively.

Until nothing was left,
But his hands,
The steering wheel,
And the continuous pressure of his right leg
On the accommodating pedal out of sight.

The road was bathed in light,
But only until its outer limits,
Even the air seemed rarefied,
As if not willing to intrude,
On the complete consummation,
Of  Driver and Machine.

Until nothing was left,
But the pleasure at a memory.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Shakedown

Ever since the mass-capturing of the notoriously fickle attention span of the teeming Indian middle-class by Team Anna began, and through the wide-ranging national repercussions being felt on a day-to-day basis due to the capitulation by the Government of India to what is essentially a challenge to their authority to govern, I have tried to apply for and failed to garner: a Residency Certificate from the concerned government office in my adopted city, a Voter's Identification Card which is the only thing that allows me to fulfill my constitutional duty to vote, and I have nearly failed in my attempt to get my passport (which I have continually possessed and traveled on since I was four years old) renewed, notwithstanding eight trips to the Passport Office over a period of two days.

During these odysseys through the corridors of power (some old and musty, and some new and anaesthetized), I admit I have sometimes felt the urge to shout, 'ANNA HAZARE!' when standing in various queues for the inevitable third or fourth form that required filling out before submitting it at the third or fourth counter wherein the filled-out forms were then to be subjected to scrutiny along with the original certificates they allude to, or the counter-signed affidavit (if necessary) that they were required to be accompanied by... just to see the reaction of all present: officials and fellow-petitioners alike. But, at the last-minute, the urge to find out (as an upstanding member of the Great Indian Middle-Class) exactly what going to a government office as a petitioning citizen entailed, for the very first time in my life, as opposed to the usual; using of influence or expending of a bribe on the concerned person, won out over the other equally adventurous, but more momentary, stupidity.

Reading through the numerous essays in the media about the Jan Lokpal saga, and carefully avoiding all the relevant debates on television, I have finally come to this idea: the Jan Lokpal insurgency is not about the attempt at procuring for our generation a fairer world where merit is rewarded and might ignored - It is about what We as a society would like to see ourselves as.
The middle-class morality we are taught at our parents' and grandparents' knees or by heroes in fiction, we find, is suddenly turned on its head when we first enter the sodden adulthood we are ill-prepared for. The means of communication we have these days and the greater measure of financial resources at our disposal have combined to provide us a platform to exhibit our disappointment with the system, in ways that are still inconceivable to the millions of victims that extortionary corruption affects the most in this country. And we are not concerned with terms like left-of-centre or right-of-centre or blackmail or even democracy anymore, having experienced the existential failures of our Republic from dirt-level up more keenly than any intellectual or academic could ever perceive from his/her ivory tower.
This is most certainly not a revolution for authoritarianism as some commentators are insisting it is.
This is a revolt for a new national identity.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Eastern betrayals

Oh Calcutta! Were you but the repudiatory strain of an overactive imagination that reworks history, culture, time and passion in a world greatly removed from your present reality - a reality marked by depravity and defeat, debaucherously married off one to the other by the oppressive monsoon humidity to spawn the wreck that you now appear.
Oh Calcutta! Where I encountered you so shamefully bared to the shrill wolf-whistles of those who would, at any other time in history, ne'er be welcome even in the servants' quarters of your palaces, once erected in honour of the absurd.
Oh Calcutta! Of whom I thought my gateway to the promises of the walled-off delights of the Great East and the Near East and everything harking of the Splendid East... yea, the splendid east.
Oh Calcutta! The city of poets and muses and litterateurs and dervishes - the devilish instinct in a derelict light.
Oh Calcutta! That you are now reduced to slums upon slums... to the desperate poverty of souls and hearts and minds and candour.
Oh Calcutta! The horror! The horror!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Don't leave!

The narrative is ubiquitous - a marriage subject to stress, lying, blackmail, interference from without and sometimes from within... Trust issues, denial issues, uncommon goal issues, but a colourful history, certainly, in the ways the partners came together and the factors that have now led them to staring at the rest of a life apart. Was the reason we met fated? Was the love once really strong and true? Is some semblance of it still there, or are we hallucinating about it still being extant only to cover up our individual failings in a one-sided discussion over degrees of culpability?

The United States of America came into the political, economic and social orbit of almost a hundred million Pakistanis in what was a time of great change for the people of an embryonic nation, and amid clearly drawn arcs of influence across the globe for the two emergent superpowers from the spoils of the last great war. It has continued to be politically, economically and socially invested in the fate of a country that has since been amputated, cynically exploited by its own elites and marked for death by a petty neighbour more than three times its size. Through the very interesting times that they've seen together in over half a century there have been rapid advances in the world in almost every area of human endeavour, but the spoils of technological advancement for the benefit of humankind have not been evenly split. Today, one partner sees access to luxury as the most important goal of its citizens, and the other has barely enough to feed its own. With the threat of divorce now looming over the loss of one of their children, the question about what to do about the other little ones they have spawned now stares them both in the face. Is there a way to ensure their continued survival and viability, they ask each other, heads bowed like monks before the altar of their own paedophiliac victimhood.

And as all these separation discussions take place, their other children run amok in the garden of what was once a lively house, created in homage to their parents' iniquity, with no one to monitor, care for or teach them about how to live in this world where great big things happen to small little people.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Glitches galore

It is always tempting to subscribe to the 'glitch' premise from the movie, 'The Matrix' (1999), that states that: every moment you feel your influence undermined, your moral bearing beaten down, your various philosophies of life shot through, your very being overwhelmed by circumstances beyond your control... blame the machines that control you.

(In the screenwriter's defence, I seem to have comfortably misappropriated a phrase that was originally meant to apply to the experience of 'deja vu', but if you do subscribe to the movie's underlying premise you can see that my poetic license is earned.)

But life really isn't that easy, is it? There are the choices we make, the logical conclusions of which are painfully revealed in the future, that we can't really blame anyone else for. But then again there is 'happenstance', attempts at explanation for which whole religions have been spawned by particularly intelligent theorizers. And in the search for answers to this wretched reality of 'happenstance', dedicated meditation on the 'Middle Path' and/or the 'Book of Job' does not really cut it, especially when the pain of the wound is particularly raw commensurate to the intensity of the impact of the episode of happenstance in question. And then again, all this misery is sometimes turned on its head. Years of study do bring us a modicum of comfort and the promise of a better future. And a careless hand that suddenly brushes up against a side sometimes really does alter life for the better (to inappropriately paraphrase something from Graham Greene's 'The Third Man').

The incredible year we've been having thus far has brought the cynics amongst us out of the WCs, the cranks out of the adult video stores, the simple out of their bunk beds and the cruel out of their palaces of indulgence.
So much suffering visited on a people who have decidedly already paid reparation sixty years ago for the many sins their forefathers may have visited on others... The meek acquiescence of a people over those same sixty years metamorphosing, in a few weeks, into unrestrained rage and marked impatience to gain the supposedly alien air of freedom... And the image of a short slight man from western India's hinterlands leading a grand march on the nation's capital in the pursuit of what is a fundamental right guaranteed to every citizen of what seems more and more like a sixty-year old fledgling nation.

And the cynics have fought the good fight over each and every one of these glitches:
"The Japs? Don't worry about them - they're a disciplined race. See, they aren't even looting the stores."
"The Arabs? What? That's not the way to pronounce them?"
'Hazare? Are you mad? This is an orchestrated middle-class masturbatory spectacle that is totally undemocratic and being given credence to by those damn T.V channels trying desperately to find something to put on the news..."
The cranks, the simple and the cruel have been more unrestrained, surely...

But the way the year 2011 has played out so far sure does make you wish upon a star, doesn't it?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The domestic writer, the samosa and IWD 2011

Today is the 9th of March, 2011 and 'right now' is that special time in the afternoon when I have won a temporary reprieve from taking care of the baby, after accomplishing the myriad household chores that do not abide by the strict pay-by-the-hour timings of our domestic help, and have successfully tired out my better half by relentlessly pursuing a half-hearted simulacrum founded on a self-imposed image of affected diffidence accompanied by shrill continuous verbiage centred on the likely future behaviour of my parents-in-law. 
I have now three other things to accomplish... or at least two-and-a-half. (1) I have to try to get back Rs. 7100/- from the best-known travel agency in India for services not rendered and perceived insults administered to self. (2) I need to remind two different call centres that they are indeed responsible for passing on service requests already made for superficial repairs to our washing machine and DVD player. (3) I need to re-imagine myself as a 21st century radical, living in the world but not of it, taking outrageous existential risks while believing whole-heartedly that I will be around for another fifty years, remembering roads not taken and treks in wild virgin country not made.

A 'samosa', Wikipedia says, is a a stuffed pastry popular across Asia and Africa that generally consists of a fried or baked triangular, semi-lunar or tetrahedral pastry shell with a savory filling, which may include spiced potatoesonionspeas,coriander, and lentils, or ground beef or chicken and is often served with chutney.

And yesterday was International Women's Day.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Smell it yet?

It seems as if the stream of major events in the Arab world over the past month has brought what we call the passage of time right round full circle and smacked us right in the face. Those of us from the middle-class in this country are a little more intellectually privileged than, I suppose, most other nationalities in that we are taught a largely impartial narrative of history in school that puts the Arab people in political, social and cultural context with our own history. Many of the pre-Islamic Arab kingdoms around the Gulf region indeed owed their longevity to the use of trade routes with India that were established much earlier in time and whose roots are now lost to antiquity. And after the establishment of Islam as the pre-eminent Arab religion, there is a long line of myth, legend and fantasy that puts Haroon al-Rashid in golden Baghdad as much in historical relevance in the Indian psyche as Saddam Hussein and the Indian exodus from Kuwait during the first Gulf War.

If anything, we in the subcontinent (and I do mean the region including Pakistan) should have been expecting the tumult that started in Tunisia and that has now led to the ouster of two seemingly intransigent dictatorships, with many more revolts emerging day-by-day around the Arab world. And I am quite frankly a little sick of the paternalistic reportage in the western media especially surrounding the Egyptian Tahrir Square saga. That the Egyptian people were helped immeasurably by these reports I have no doubt, but the heady, breathless and awestruck tone of the reports by one celebrity reporter after another has left a bad taste in the mouth.

The regimes that these ordinary people were standing up against bravely were propped up over decades by governments that projected themselves as custodians of liberty while using every measure possible to ensure that the Arab people were subjugated against their will. It is also common knowledge that the reason that Egyptians rose up against their dictator and refused to accept anything less than his immediate resignation had less to do with Facebook and Twitter and more to do with their demanding of freedom at any cost. I am also sick of this contemporary media narrative that has so far given rise to the myth that the dreams and hopes of the peoples who make up the Islamic world are somehow less valid and aspirational than those that make up the Western world and those of emerging economies.

Who gave whom the right to decide what people want and when they want it? The Arab people have shown the world that might is right only if you allow it to be so.

Viva la Revolución!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

My baby is born

What does one begin to think about when a newborn infant stares him/her in the face?
The rapidly immersive  drama of the moment when one cannot fathom to what, or indeed if to anything at all, the infant is responding in its immediate surrounding environment is cause for a temporary purge of reason, surely. The urge to kiss, snuggle or generally just indulge in meaningless infantile banter with this helpless, endearing creature that has appeared as if by alchemy, is overpowering... And simultaneously, the great battle with the urge to give thanks to a disbelieved-in omniscient presence for the miracle that is the lovingly wrapped bundle that you are holding in your arms... all antitheses to what was once a simpler life.

The experience of birth certainly has no equal for this unwitting beneficiary of the largesse of the human mammalian reproductive process - and those of us conditioned by society to be inherently guarded and mistrustful of all the lauded mystique behind this most treasured occasion of the various possibilities of experience in the human condition, suddenly find the carefully constructed edifices to rationale, logic and religious scepticism demolished in that brief instant when a halting pair of eyes open on your own to reveal the whole awe-inspiring spectacle of the marvel of existence.

A shout of joy erupts... a fever of hope descends... to find oneself completely enveloped in the warm, entangled embrace of unconditional love from a being so completely beholden to it...

There is more to life, I have now discovered, than my own.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Nationality and its consequences

So how does a selfless, committed, revered doctor and prominent health-care advocate arrive at a sedition charge onerously cast on him by a state in which he has worked tirelessly for most of his career among the poorest of the poor? Perhaps by the same extended logic that a Danish legislator uses when he audibly reflects on the efficacy of using nude portraits of women to dissuade the more religiously fundamentalist of possible visitors from choosing his country to escape the horrors of their so far dissipated existence in a third-world horror show. And the logic might extend even to those as yet unborn, in a passionately staged debate in the 'country of the free' related to the future children of immigrants from regions vaguely southerly.
Nationalism (and it is inevitably the stinking sum of its fetid parts) never seems to go away, with every occasional pan-global fraternal endeavour suddenly being replaced by a closing of ranks behind what is deemed 'local' and then, the tendentious peering out with suspicious eyes at those who are now not.
The breakout of a screaming desperate push-back of the privilege bestowed on a lucky few (to utilize the opportunity to choose to live and work in certain parts of the world) seems to be a peripatetic lust dictated to and overseen by events most obvious around every one of us on a day-to-day basis.
The Maoist problem getting too big - scapegoat someone, anyone, and hopefully there will be a debate that will lead to solutions to the problem. And what is the actual problem? The Maoist. And who is Maoist? Indian, but not quite... and dangerous.
In Denmark, and other parts around Europe, I imagine the debate framed on similar lines. Crime, loss of culture and even incontinence among the elderly - all related surely to those brown/black/yellow/other-white-skinned thugs from parts abroad. What is the problem? They are let in. And why is it a problem? Because they are brown/black/yellow/other-white-skinned thugs from parts abroad.
And in America... The spectre of looming financial ruin, the unemployment rates that will just not come down, the sight of shop signs and menu cards writ large in an alien language... Who is to blame? Those people. Which people? The ones who arrive illegally in the country only to have babies which will ensure that they get to stick around permanently.
What is nationality, after all? My frame of reference is confused, naturally. I am Indian, but from the south...  where we are different to those from the north. How, exactly? Because of my language, my visage, my moral values, my soul, my dreams, my yearnings, my culture. But my ethnicity is not being questioned here, only my nationality. But that is the same as saying my nationality relates only to my citizenship. But I cannot choose my nationality, now can I? Certainly, not any more than I can choose my ethnicity. But what I can do is choose my citizenship.
A perfect argument for modern-day institutional absurdity, in practice.