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

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Koodali Tazhathu Veedu

During our recent visit to Kerala, my friend, his wife and his mother (seen, rather, not seen in this picture) took us to their ancestral house, Koodali Tazhathu Veedu. The village near Kannur in North Kerala goes by the name Koodali and tazhathu veedu means a house – a veedu – that was below. Once upon a time, the family lived on the foothills, and hence the name. Incidentally, K and T are the initials used by all the descendents whose mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers etc. once lived in this house. The people who use these initials today are in thousands.

Why mamas and grandmas, and not papas and grandpas? Well, the Nairs (or Nāyars) of Kerala were a matrilineal people. I have written about them in my short story The Materfamilias, but a brief repetition here might be in order.

Originally, the Nairs were a matrilineal community. A Nair family owned property jointly and included brothers and sisters, the sisters’ children, and their daughter’s children. As property passed by inheritance to the female offspring, Nair women had an important position in the family. But the legal head of the family was the oldest man, known as the Karnavar. Interestingly, neither the Karnavar nor the senior-most woman wielded absolute power. Rather, they were two fulcrums in the family power structure. This system has been abandoned over time and Nairs have switched over to the patriarchal structure of kinship and inheritance.

These pictures offer a glimpse into a slice of history. They were taken on a sunny morning of May in 2009, 23rd to be precise, as Thompson and Thomson would have said.

No one lives in this house anymore. It is used only for reunions and occasions like Theyam, when the entire family gathers at this place. The huge landed property belonging to the family was partitioned after the Land Reform Act was implemented in Kerala in the 1970s, but the ancestral house was not divided. It remains in the name of the Karnavar and cannot be sold or partitioned. There is also a plot of agricultural land earmarked for maintenance and upkeep of the property. Income from this land is used for this purpose alone.

A very practical arrangement, isn’t it? I am sure that many families in North India that lost everything over land disputes should have met the Nairs of Kerala.

The diamond shaped and banister like motifs are distinctly un-Indian. They show Dutch influence on Kerala architecture. -->

The following picture shows a cottage that was used to entertain the British residents who ruled Malabar. They had to be wined and dined, but the sanctity of the house had to be defended. Hence another cottage, right next to the main entrance.

A gabled window on the cottage meant for entertaining the sahibs

The family temple with my friend's mother in front

The turret on the temple  
The common dining room: note the system for rainwater harvesting

Some of the utensils used in the kitchen

This family tree is almost four hundred years old

The old faithful. Doesn't his body language tell you that he is the "puratan bhritya" of the family?

The Karnavar's parlour overlooks the entire property

Looking back: In the Karnavar's bedroom

This lamp glows 24x365. May it glow for centuries! And may the KTs all over the world prosper and be in peace.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Welcoming chaos

"As a general rule, democracies don't work well if voters do not hold political parties accountable for failure." Francis Fukuyama

The article posted on my blog on 3 May, "... voting for West Bengal" was published by the Statesman on 8 May. So far, 24 friends / acquaintances have rung up or sent mails to say they have read the article. Of them, 20 have broadly concurred with my views. An elderly gentleman even said, 'I was confused about what to do. Your article has helped me make up my mind.' Three close friends strongly disagree with me and say everyone ought to vote for the Left. A friend, Uma Sankar has a different take. He says:

Though I agree with what all you said about the elections and the parties, your voting for the Trinamul somehow creates a very repulsive feeling in my stomach. You probably have no third choice as we have in AP.

Lok Satta, a new party led by one Jayaprakash Narayan, offers us an alternative to traditional politics; his is the only sane voice in the insane political scene of our state. He may not win many seats but he did make his presence felt and he kindled a ray of hope in us that politics could be different, decent and honest - and one doesn't have to have tons of money or muscle power or loud/vulgar throat to enter the political scene. In WB, you don't have such choice.

Yes indeed, we don't have a choice!

This sample survey of 24 readers, if one may call it so, is grossly inaccurate. I am sure there is a much higher percentage of people who, like Uma Sankar, think that West Bengal needs a change, but the alternative is unacceptable. (Earlier, Tanmoy and Anirban expressed the same opinion.) They cannot root for either team in this morbid game.

This article is an attempt to address their concerns. Given below are the perceived problems about the alternative in italics, followed by my comments.

I. The charges against Mamata Banerjee and her team

1. Either she doesn't have a cogent set of policies or she deliberately acts for political expediency without any scruples. For example, she competes with the Left in cheap populism, be it pandering to the "Muslim vote bank", or the unbridled menace of auto-rickshaws, or hawkers taking over the footpaths of Kolkata. "To this day, we have not heard one intelligent word from her on how she would want the country, leave alone West Bengal, run" - Ravindra Kumar in the Statesman, 10 May 2009.

2. She is a megalomaniac; her politics pivots around herself. That is perhaps the reason why no senior leader has ever stuck with her. She hasn't been able to build a party. Her choice of candidates (and cronies) has mostly been terrible.

3. TMC is a political outfit of undisciplined individuals. Their leaders themselves - and not their followers - broke furniture in West Bengal Assembley.

4. As an MP or central minister, her record is poor.

5. She is opportunistic; has switched between NDA and UPA for short-term gains. She might do so again and bring the BJP into West Bengal.

I agree. The charges stick. There is not a murmur of doubt about it.

However, I would like to ask ourselves, that is, the Net-savvy, English speaking people, is our opposition only because of her political shortcomings? Would we damn her so emphatically if she were "from a higher social station", studied at Miranda House or JNU, and spoke impeccable English like Mr. Prakash Karat? Isn't our opposition to Mamata similar to the English language press's damnation of Mayavati? (The last point has been argued beautifully by Mr. Suvro Chatterjee on his blog.)

If high-class, "cultured" leaders like Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and Jyoti Basu have brought us to this pass, no one has any right to sneer at Mamata or Mayavati. On the contrary, in a way, we should hail their ascent as a triumph of our democracy.

As regards bringing the BJP into West Bengal, in a liberal democracy, everyone has a right to propagate their ideology. If an ideology is accepted by the masses, one can only fight against it politically. (I personally think the BJP is unlikely to succeed in WB, but that is a different matter.)

II. The alternative is unacceptable

The Left has harmed us immensely. But the concern is who we are going to hand over the reign. Are they suited for the job? Is this the alternative we are all looking for? We need change, but the alternative is unacceptable.

In an article in the Ananda Bazar Patrika on 5 May 2009, Kalyan Sanyal says:

"In the Lok Sabha election of 1977, the common people of India voted silently to overturn the all-powerful emergency-raj. That day, all over the world, people who believed in democracy saluted them. What were the issues in that election? Were they economics or foreign policy? No, the people voted against the suffocating two-and-a-half year regime of terror and humiliation. They brought to power Jansangh and the Syndicate Congress masquerading as the Janata Party. At times, history comes to a crossroad where the question of how acceptable the alternative is becomes irrelevant. The ambivalence "we don't want the ruling party, but the alternative is unacceptable" has kept this aggressive, hegemonic ruling party in power for 30 years." (Translation mine.)

If we continue to live in that ambivalent state, they will remain in power for another 30 years. Can you imagine what will happen if this metastasis continues for another 30 years?

III. A weak party and its incompetent leaders

If a party is not strong, how can we hope they would work for our benefit? Isn't that the reason we don't vote for independent candidates? If the undisciplined and incompetent opposition is voted in, we will have jumped from frying pan to fire.

I think there is a big fallacy in this argument.

If the CPI M has ruined West Bengal so successfully, it is precisely because of their strong organization. This party depends on its huge army of workers and supporters to win elections. In turn, they have to be kept happy, wined and dined. Therefore, party members and their friends get precedence over others for jobs and anything that generates income: from cold stores to ration shops to supplying mid-day meals to school children. They also control the organizations of lawyers, doctors, teachers, and policemen.

This pernicious infiltration into all the organs of the state has had three effects: (a) A vast majority of the people are excluded, (b) mediocre people call the shots and competent individuals migrate outside the state to earn a living, and (c) "the party" becomes a parallel power structure that systematically undermines the state.

Besides, the Left has made our people lazy, arrogant and foul-mouthed. At every turn, we come across people who are rude and unnecessarily aggressive. It was bound to happen under leaders whose motto is: "Ladai, ladai, ladai chai, ladai kore banchte chai." (We want to go on fighting; we want to live by fighting.) It might take more than a generation to restore decency in our everyday transactions.

For this reason alone, cadre-based parties like the CPI M and the BJP are a threat to our democracy. A friend of mine, Samiran Mazumdar sums it up beautifully: Incompetent rule is much better than organized misrule.

As regards the frying pan to fire transition, peace and prosperity don't follow automatically when an oppressive ruler is shown the door. The French Revolution triggered much bloodshed, chaos, and a series of European wars. Despite all that, 1789 was a giant step for civilization along a confusing and uneven road called progress.

Closer home, after the communist rule ended in East Europe, much of the population was pauperized. There was tremendous hardship and lawlessness particularly in Russia. One of the largest exports from East Europe to the rest of the continent was prostitutes. The six former Yugoslav republics fought several bloody wars between 1991 and 2001. But in less than two decades, East Europe has reclaimed much of its lost ground.

Let us throw out the Left and welcome chaos for some time. Let us have faith in ourselves. The land of Ram Mohan Roy, Bankim Chandra, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Rabindranath Tagore and Swami Vivekananda cannot have become so barren that we will not find a way to reclaim our rightful place on the map.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Voting for West Bengal

For about 45 minutes yesterday, I heard Ms. Mamata Banerjee deliver an election speech. I had no choice. The meeting was held at less than 100 metres from my flat and amplifiers were blaring out her speech.

Although she was here for the Lok Sabha elections, Ms. Banerjee began by recalling what the previous municipal corporation headed by her party had done to beautify the park and lake in our area. I thought, like any consummate speaker, she was building a rapport with her audience, and would soon tackle issues weightier than beautification of a park. But I was mistaken. She didn’t even mention the global economic crisis and its impact upon us, nor the threat of terrorism, nor the runaway increase in prices of essential things. She offered no glimpse into her plans for the coming Lok Sabha (if there be any), or why her alliance, the UPA, is the best candidate to form the next government. She took potshots at the left in West Bengal for their failures and fascist tendencies, but didn’t offer a cogent criticism. Throughout her speech, she raised and lowered her volume and pitch like a third-rate actor, cracked cheap jokes and recited cheaper doggerels. Except for her seemingly genuine empathy for the victims of the left misrule, there was nothing worth noting in her speech. Another positive about the evening was that Ms. Banerjee was speaking from her heart. Even the worst speech writer would not be able to write such an inane speech.

Yet, on the 13th of March 2009, I am going to vote for her party. Not only that, I am voluntarily telling everyone that would care to listen, why they should vote out the left. I am doing such a thing for the first time in my ordinary, run-of-the-mill life. Why?

The charges against the LF government are many and well documented. Let me mention a few. Since making significant contribution by way of land reform and panchayet raj system in their early days, the LF has done nothing for West Bengal. The state ranks first in seasonal starvation and trafficking of women. It is third from the top in the school drop-out rate (80% compared to the national average of 52%, as reported by the government in parliament in 2006). The overall situation is pathetic, to put it mildly.

In state run universities, everyone, from the vice chancellor to the sweeper, is appointed on the recommendation of the ruling party. Naturally, merit has become a casualty. There is hardly any name from West Bengal on the list of successful IAS / IPS candidates. Little teaching takes place in government and government aided schools and colleges. According to a survey done by the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata in 2006, in a particular year, 86% of the students taking the Secondary exam in West Bengal depended on private tutors.

The public health system is a shame. None, other than the absolute destitute, go to a government hospital. There, they often have to pay touts to get the privilege of being treated shabbily as in-patients. The majority, including many poor people, are forced to pay astronomical sums to buy healthcare from the pitiless and ever-hungry
mercenaries who run private hospitals. The more enterprising go to CMC Vellore and other hospitals in South India. The Coromandal Express from Kolkata to Chennai is called the “Hospital Express”.

The National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) Act passed in September 2005 is a watershed because it gives our rural people the legal right to employment. Although the right is partial, it is a beginning nonetheless. Under the NREG Programme, every able-bodied person in our villages can demand manual labour for 100 days every year. The local authorities have to provide such work within 15 days at a wage fixed by the respective states. If they can’t, they have to pay an unemployment allowance. Ninety percent of the expenses under the scheme is borne by the Central Government and a mere 10 percent by the states.

Properly implemented, this scheme should go a long way in reducing seasonal starvation and migration. But until February 2007, on an average, only 37.50 man-days of work was created under the scheme per person all over the country, as against a target of 100 days per year. Rajasthan (72.68 days), MP (61.61 days) and Chattisgarh (44.71 days) performed relatively better. Jharkhand (36.41) and Bihar (33.51) were among the laggards.

One would expect that the self-appointed messiahs of the poor, the left, would grab such a scheme with both hands. But the number of work-days created in West Bengal in 2007-08 was, hold your breath, 18 days.

The reason is not far to seek, the landed gentry of West Bengal, who traditionally supported the Congress earlier, has switched almost entirely to the left. In fact they are the left in our countryside and control most of the panchayets. If land-less labourers get the taste of a daily wage of 80 rupees under the NREGP, these land owners wouldn’t find firm hands at the much lower rates they pay now.

But statistics can never tell you what has been happening in West Bengal. To explain the situation, let me recall Shyam Benegal’s first film, Ankur. It begins with a shot where two rowdies come on a motorbike and pick up some vegetables from the village market without bothering to pay. They, brothers of the local landlord, are not challenged. After some days, one of them takes a fancy in a school teacher’s wife, picks her up and keeps her as a sex-slave in his house.

There is no attempt to hide the fact.

The message is clear. In a feudal society, the king has the first charge over everything, be it vegetables or women. Whatever the royal family doesn’t need is there for the rest of the people.

West Bengal today, in that restricted sense, is a feudal society. But the king is not one person here: he is a collection of 2.5 to 3 lakh members of the CPI M and their cronies. The total number might be around 15 lakh or thereabout, no one knows for sure. You can get a job if none of them need that particular job (which is unlikely), you can build your house if you buy building materials from one of them at exorbitant prices, you’ll find a hospital bed if you know one of them.

These 15 lakh who rule us cannot do so unless the rest of the 8 crore are terrified of them. So terror is an essential tool in their hands. For a starter, they had to make the police subservient to the party. They have done so with total success. Cases against their comrades seldom come to conclusion. Whether it is burning to death 17 Ananda Margis on the streets of Kolkata, or the brutal killing of 11 farmers in Suchpur, Nanur in Birbhum, no one has been convicted so far, although everyone knows the killers and their names are openly mentioned in newspapers. In the second case, the OC of the Nanur police station, Mr. Sufal Ray Ghatwal, who was close to filing the charge-sheet, was transferred out. He was mysteriously murdered some time later. On the other hand, police routinely put political opponents behind bars by filing false cases.

The CPI M has been using rape and murder in Nandigram systematically to intimidate the local people into submission. Some of the goons were caught by the CBI with irrefutable evidence, but were let off by the state police. Even as I type this, today’s lead headline in the Statesman says: Trinamul leader killed, mother gangraped in Khejuri.

This wholesale abrogation of the rule of law churns one’s stomach. But the terrorisation doesn’t stop there. The party interferes in family disputes too. Village councils try and punish inconvenient people in total disregard of the judicial process. West Bengal today is in George Orwell’s 1984. The big brother is watching.

The people of West Bengal must get out of this stifling situation. It doesn’t matter whether our next government will be more efficient or less. Even if a change of government leads to some instability and disorder, so be it. As Rolland said, “If the order is unjust, disorder is the beginning of justice.” No fascist has ever changed his ways. No fascist has ever walked out of office and taken a train to his retirement. He has to be thrown out.

Fortunately, democracy offers us a non-violent tool to get rid of the red fascists. If they have only a handful of MPs in the Lok Sabha, they will not be able to blackmail the next central government. In that case there is chance of emancipation for West Bengal in 2011. Our problems will not be solved by mere change of government. But as one of my friends put it, we need a change that is changeable!

And there is no reason to believe that a really good leadership will never emerge here. If Bihar can have a tryst with Mr. Nitish Kumar, another visionary will surely emerge in West Bengal.

But if we can’t get out of the present rut, we don’t stand a chance. We will continue to live in this cesspool of mediocrity and totalitarian rule. We must give ourselves a chance!

Have I justified my decision to vote for Ms. Mamata Banerjee? If you think I haven’t, please read these lines written by an infinitely wiser man:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the
dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.