If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Crime and tolerance

অন্যায় যে সহে,
তব ঘৃণা যেন তারে তৃণসম দহে।

Those who are morally wrong,
And those who don't stand up against moral wrongs,
Let your hatred burn them to cinders.

So said the poet who gave an almost new language to the Bengali speech community. But Rabindranath Tagore could not use strong words in personal life. Even if he was upset with someone, even when he was seething in anger within, he couldn’t shout. Let alone burning anyone to cinders, he would not even look directly at the person who had upset him, say something quickly and indifferently, and be done with it.

But clearly, his standards of moral positioning were different when it came to social injustice. Time and again in his life he would leave the comforts of his writing desk and plunge himself in mass movements against atrocities committed by the colonialists. Seventy-six years after his death, and 69 years after the little man who united India first time in history was shot dead, how do we, the people of India, deal with instances of moral crimes in these turbulent times?

The question came to my mind when I read about someone burning alive a poor, defenceless man in Rajasthan, and the aggressor’s nephew filming the gory incident for the benefit of countrimen who couldn’t witness it in real time.

Clearly, four kinds of people have seen the video or read the news report. The first, people who are similarly placed like the victim, that is, Muslims (and Dalits) in India today, who have been physically attacked repeatedly, on some false pretext or other, since Mohammed Akhlaq was lynched in his home in Uttar Pradesh on 28 September, 2015. A number of them have been violently killed or physically harmed. But that is a relatively minor statistic, what should disturb us more is the countless Muslims who are freely insulted and abused in a so-called free society, but whose travails are not headline-worthy. What should really disturb us is the silent terror in which 17 crore Muslims live in India today.

In the second group are the ordinary Hindus who accept the BJP-RSS ideology. They almost never protest against murders and mayhem, and I wonder why. There certainly are millions of honest and morally upright people among them. I do not know they aren’t upset by organised cowardly violence against the weak. Do they condone it because they believe all this is going to lead us to a more desirable society? Or do they condone it because they feel it is fine if the BJP goons are paying it back to Muslims for the atrocities committed against Hindus in medieval India, or against Hindus in Bangladesh?  I might add here that while the historical evidence about the extent of persecution of Hindus under medieval Muslim rulers is fuzzy, the basic premises could well be correct. On the other hand, the ethnic cleansing that has happened in Bangladesh is an incontrovertible – if largely ignored – fact. However, can any civilized human believe in the doctrine of an-eye-for-an-eye?

Continuing with this group of people, a cold terror runs through my spine when I think that many of the SS men who routinely murdered and tortured Jews, who threw children in fire pits in the death camps of Germany in the 1930s were “normal human beings” and happy family men, who would tuck their children in bed at night, and kiss their wife goodnight. Are we, by any chance, breeding such a group of cold-blooded killers in India today?

In the third group are the political masters, the BJP-RSS combo. They seem to me the most internally consistent characters in this sad drama. They were the people in colonial India who rejected our pluralistic history, and – like their ideological cousins on the other side, the Muslim League – accepted the colonial doctrine that had begun in 1818 with John Stuart Mill, a doctrine that viewed India as a Hindu-Muslim binary and rejected the inclusive approach to nationalism. After many decades of being in the fringe, and tireless efforts to create a political base by doing social work (this the RSS have been doing, consistently), they are in power today. (I would exclude Mr Atal Behari Bajpai’s 13 days and five years of rule for this analysis. I believe he did not represent the political force that Narendra Modi represents.)

That the BJP-RSS combine would now try to push their advantage should surprise no one. What is new to their approach is the replacement of their urban small-trader constituency by big capital. The slogan Make in India stands for BJP’s focus on industrialists, which should in turn help the aspirational urban middleclass, another section that supports them in a big way. No problem there, per se. But sadly, the party seems unconcerned about the poor and the less privileged in general, including the trader community. This is seen by demonetisation, a highly complex Internet-dependent GST, and forcing cashless transactions that is likely to marginalise the unorganised sector even more, and the kid-glove treatment given to the big business who owe thousands of crores to public sector banks. This is also seen in the attempt to introduce the bullet train while continuing to neglect the railway system for the masses, which offers terrible facilities at subsidised rates, and where a derailment every week seems to have become the norm. At a lower extreme of the spectrum, the main lifeline offered to the poor by the previous government, the MGNREGA has been diluted and AADHAR is sought to be made mandatory for everything from birth to ration card to subsidy to death, with little concern for people on the fringe, who find it extremely difficult to comply.

And most importantly, the pro-big-capital tilt on the economic front has been going on parallel to nurturing BJP’s core political constituency based on Hidutwa. This was seen, for example, when a rabidly anti-Muslim Hindu priest was made the chief minister of the largest state in India.

The BJP fought and won the general elections of 2014 on the basis of the so-called success of the “Gujarat Model”, or the economic growth in Gujarat during Narendra Modi’s 14 years as chief minister. Christophe Jaffrelot shows[1]:

“While [Narendra Modi’s] government achieved a remarkable growth rate, his public policies as well as his politics have been on par with growing inequalities. The collaboration between the state and the corporate sector—an old tradition in Gujarat—gained momentum under Modi, businessmen benefitting from low wages, acquiring land more quickly and at a better price, and obtaining more tax breaks, etc. Simultaneously, Gujarat spent less than most of the other states of India on education and health.”

Therefore, we should not be surprised that India today is suffering the worst of both worlds, the ruthlessness of capitalism and the ignorance of theocracy reeking of the Middle Ages. But let me repeat, we cannot blame the party in power today. They hadn’t denounced their political ideology to come to power, they had only hidden it just a little.


And that brings us, rather belatedly, the fourth piece in this jigsaw puzzle. We, the ordinary well-heeled Hindus of India. There can be a little doubt that we are a vast majority. If we stand up as a body and protest, the people that are trying to take us to a medieval kingdom controlled by corrupt capitalists can certainly be defeated.

But first, we must agree that they need   be defeated.

Bangalore / Monday, 11 December 2017

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Meghnadbadh Kabya: A super rendition

Meghnadbadh Kabya (Slaying of Meghnad) was the most significant literary work by the greatest flawed genius of Bangla literature, Michael Madhusudan Dutta (1824–1873). It was published in 1861, the year Rabindranath Tagore was born.

To briefly explain the qualifier “flawed genius”, right since his days in Hindu College (Presidency College later), there was plenty of evidence of Madhusudan’s literary talent. But he was also snooty, quite shamelessly opportunistic (he converted to Christianity not out of faith, but to cadge a ticket to England from the colonial masters), and famously undisciplined. Thanks to his luxurious lifestyle and lack of self-restraint, Madhusudan went through long spells of penury and ultimately, drank himself to death. Had it not been for the consistent financial and moral support from Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar – who I believe was among the three greatest Bengalis in modern history – Michael possibly would have died much earlier, and Bangla literature would have been poorer.

Meghnadbadh Kabya, a tragic long verse in nine cantos, is exceptionally brilliant both in terms of its content and literary style.

In this poem, Michael looks at an episode from the Ramayana from a contrarian perspective. Indrajit, also known as Meghnad, was Ravana’s son and a great warrior. He had almost killed Rama and Lakshmana twice.

But in the morning just before he was to join the battle, while he was worshiping Shiva in the royal temple of Lanka, Laxman entered the palace “like a thief” with the help Bivisana, one of Ravana’s brothers. Meghnad welcomed Laxman as a guest, but rebuked him for being such a coward and asked him not to fight an unarmed man. But Lakshman killed his defenceless enemy anyway, making a mockery of the so-called “kshatriya dharma”.

A proof of literary genius is that catch phrases used by great writers become idioms in their language. Meghnadbadh Kabya in particular and Madhusudan’s poetry in general abounds with such gems. Here’s one that my mother often quoted when she had to refer to a troublesome adversary:

Raban swoshur momo, Meghnad swami, amiki dorai sakhi bhikari Raghabe?

Ravana is my father-in-law, Meghnad my husband, could I be scared of that beggar Raghava?

Michael once wrote:

Kato je aishwarya tabo e bhabo mandole
Sei jane, banee pado dhare je mastake

What treasures abound
In your boundless universe,
Know only those,
Who’ve embraced the feet
Of the Goddess of Letters.

Watching fine plays (and films) too is embracing the feet of the Goddess of Learning. And last night, I discovered a new treasure trove: The theatre group Naye Natua and Gautam Halder’s rendition of Madhusudan’s epic verse at the Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata.

It was two hours and twenty minutes of solo-acting by Gautam, supported by two drummers and four other musicians, every one of them joining in chorus too. Gautam recited and sang, acted and danced while effortlessly transiting from one character to another, playing every character of the story including both the combatants Meghnad and Laxman, with effortless ease but with tremendous passion and physical exertion.

If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have known that such performance was humanly possible on stage. And the beauty of the performance was that he hadn’t left out even one word of the original. Michael Madhusudan’s language contains lots of Sanskrit words and even educated Bengalis may not follow it entirely. But despite that, Gautam and his team kept the audience spell-bound, no one – well almost no one – moved or checked their stupid cell phones during the performance.

It was a captivating show, and almost flawless. After many years I was watching a play at the Academy of Fine Arts with every seat occupied. For average performances, there are 20 to 200 viewers and it was indeed heart-warming to notice that fine performance is still appreciated in a city where ignorance is bliss officially, filthy language is heard everywhere, and uncouth behaviour is considered normal.

I’ve been watching plays since when titans like Sambhu Mitra, Ajitesh Bandyopadhyaya, and Utpal Dutta straddled the theatre stages in Bengal. After their departure, there was an inevitable period of lull, and personally, I lost touch with the Bangla theatre as I moved away.

Yesterday, I realised that the tradition of Bangla theatre is very much alive. The flame burns with equal brightness and the pursuit of the pinnacle of excellence continues unabated.

19 November 2017

Photo of Michael Madhusudan Dutta courtesy: Wikipedia: By Unknown - Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51736483

Picture of the stage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PwBWXwJgUns

Friday, 17 November 2017

When I don't know ...

Monday, 13 November 2017

Note to My Students # 17

The best way to learn English (or any other second language) is to fall in love with her/him (depending on your gender and orientation!).

I fell in love with her long before my wife (confusion intended). And this is an affair where one doesn't feel jealous about competition. 

What about you?

13 Nov 2017