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

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Journey through a year of disbelief: From Dadri to Dangal

I believe it all began at 10.30 PM of 28 September 2015, when in Bisara village near Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, a 52-year-old farmer, Mohammed Akhlaq Saifi was murdered, his 22-year-old son Danish nearly killed, and seven others of the family, women and children, were brutally beaten by a Hindu mob for allegedly killing a cow that had never existed.

It happened in a two-storey house where the family had lived for 70 years and four generations. Muslims surrounded by Hindu families, they had lived in perfect harmony until that fateful moment. To their credit, some of their Hindu neighbours tried to save them. But they could not stop the mob incited by people close to the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), the ruling party of India today. Among those arrested and facing trial now is the son of a local BJP leader, Sanjay Rana. But what happened afterwards was even more shameful.

Any civilized society would expect that after such a horrendous organised crime, the government would do everything possible to avoid similar incidents in the future and put down the murderers and with a heavy hand. But no such thing happened. India’s normally garrulous prime minister didn’t utter a word on Dadri. Sundry leaders of the BJP spewed more venom on the family in particular and Muslims in general. The family had to leave Bisara and move to an Indian Air Force zone in Delhi a few days later. A false case was foisted against them, including the dead Akhlaqh, for killing the same imaginary cow.

Dadri was a turning point in recent history not because of the murder of a faceless law-abiding Indian citizen for no fault of his, but because it was followed by a series of terrible events that show a reckless ruling party is determined to turn India into a Hindu Pakistan. In 2016, India has made news in the international media for all the wrong reasons.

A brilliant Dalit research student in Hyderabad University, under the direct control of the federal education minister, committed suicide consequent to patently anti-Dalit discrimination by the university authorities. Another minister, who had no business to meddle in university affairs, had egged on the education minister to be tougher with students. Another Dalit, a student leader of Jawaharlal Nehru University was arrested just for expressing his views against the government and beaten up by pro-BJP goonda-cum-lawyers in front of TV cameras. This was followed by arrest of more JNU students who had expressed views against the government. Another student of JNU, Najeeb Ahmed, has been missing since 15 October 2016 after being attacked by ABVP (the student’s wing of BJP) activists. Strangely, a 25-point bulletin on the case released by the university, which too is under the Ministry of Education, omitted the fact that some ABVP students had attacked him the night before.

In July this year, we were shocked to see four Dalit boys – stripped to their waist – tied to an SUV and being beaten by evidently well-off young men in Gujarat. They took turns to beat their victims, calmly, ruthlessly, and unhurriedly, with the stick being exchanged at intervals. Their crime was that they had done what their ancestors had been doing since the beginning of Hindu history, skinning cows. And their tormentors? Shiv Sena (an ally of the BJP) activists and gau-rakshaks (protectors of holy cows). Over the next few months, cow vigilantes terrorized Muslims and Dalits, killing several innocent traders who sold or bought cows. The government as usual, responded with a stoic silence.

Parallel to this reign of terror against religious/social minorities, another war is being fought in TV studios, newspapers, and on the social media, where the BJP – in a coordinated manner – keep shouting the blithe clichés of their majoritarian ideology incessantly, and badmouth everyone else, from Nobel Laureates to academics to actors, who speak up against them. They are also asked to go to Pakistan. Surely, the Indian democracy is seriously unwell?

It was expected that people would explode against actions that fly in the face of the very idea of a pluralistic India. But the people of India hasn’t whimpered, at least so far.

On the other hand, the space for agitation was usurped by people who are worse than the BJP, a group of Patidars (Patels) from Gujarat and Jats from Haryana, two well-off communities – the first in business and the second in agriculture – backward in terms of education and thereby, largely denied of the benefits of white-collar jobs. Instead of starting a movement to spread education among their communities, thereby leading to long-term benefits, like say, the Kamma farmers of Andhra Pradesh, they have gone for the short cut of getting a share of the job quota pie, which guarantees a few government/quasi-government babu jobs and seats in colleges reserved for the underprivileged.

Both these agitations led to massive vandalism and loss of public and private property, Jats being more destructive. And on the sad night of 22/23 February on the Delhi-Ambala Highway in the Sonipat District, Jat agitators stopped cars, dragged women out and gang-raped them in the wheat fields of Haryana. Women’s underclothing was recovered from these fields later, but no victim complained. That shows how much women trust your government, Mr Prime Minister, and the Haryana government run by your underlings. After much prodding by the media, a few women did register complaints but their story ended in police files to gather dust for eternity.

The Jat agitators’ contempt for women is perhaps a reflection of the general atmosphere of disdain towards women there, including the notorious Khap Panchayats (kangaroo courts), the so-called “honour killings”, female foeticide, and the worst gender ratio in the country.

It therefore has a touch of irony that in the last week of a dismal year, a ray of hope, a story of courage that reestablishes our faith in humanity, emerges from the same state of Haryana.

Dangal is a film based on the true story of two sisters and their intrepid father, a former amateur wrestler, Mahabir Singh Phogat, who says the film is 98% facts. His daughters, Geeta Rani and Babita Phogat have won 14 medals in international wrestling competitions including seven golds. Sakshi Malik, the first Indian woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal, has been carrying the tradition forward.

For people like me who haven’t lived in the claustrophobic world of women in Haryana it would perhaps be impossible to imagine the extent of social obstacles overcome by the sisters on their path to glory. And we can only bow to Mahabir Singh for his vision and courage to stand up against social norms. Such people don’t just make their offspring champions.

They change the world.

And let me bow to Aamir Khan, a wonderful actor and human being, who too – incidentally – has been asked to go to Pakistan. Aamir has played the role of Mahabir Singh in the movie to perfection. And to prepare himself for the role, he put on 25 Kilograms of fat on his muscular frame in just six months. In the film, you just don’t see the superstar, you just see an ordinary Indian chasing his dreams in the face of impossible odds.

Mohammed Akhlaq is dead, but there are Indians like Mahabir Singh Phogat, his daughters, and Aamir Khan. No, we cannot afford the luxury of losing hope.

[In the pictures, you see the Phogats on screen and in real life.
Pictures Courtesy The Business Line and Hindustan Times]

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Keep well, Corruption, and please don't worry

Mr Rahul Gandhi, the owner of the political party under whose watch the biggest scams happened during the UPA 2 government (2009-14) is desperate to expose the corruption of the PM, Mr. Narendra Modi. 

A dozen or so of the West Bengal CM Mamta Banerjee's closest stooges were seen on screen taking wads of currency notes as bribe from a journalist pretending to be a businessman. Every one of them has been given important position in her party or government. And Banerjee's police, who are more loyal than the best of one-master dogs, are trying hard to get the journalist, most probably to give him the third degree! The poor man is still in one piece thanks to Calcutta High Court. 

Mr Arvind Kejriwal, who became a local satrap in India exploiting Indians' intense anger against corruption, a man who reportedly cannot sleep because of corruption in public life, is the biggest fan of Mamta Didi now. He is still a crusader against corruption, but now a little selectively against his political opponents alone, that's all. 

If Ms Banerjee, who is always an angry woman, is angrier today, her ire can be understood; a large part of the thousands of crores her henchmen collected over the last six years would have become dud by now. And naturally, she has been demanding a roll-back of demonetisation. She is also desperate to "unite" a ragtag opposition, almost every one of which is seeped in some sleaze or other, against demonetisation and the prime minister. 

And what about the prime minister himself? 

Let me give you just one example that is in the public domain. The VYAPAM scam in BJP-ruled MP was exposed shortly after he rose to his throne in 2014. It has possibly been the most well-organised and widest racket in HISTORY, involving thousands of politicians, bureaucrats, policemen, touts, and self-seeking ordinary men and women. The extent of the scam can be understood if we recall that MORE THAN 40 people, who could have exposed the scam in some way or the other, died "under mysterious circumstances" and not ONE of these mysterious deaths has been solved. But our garrulous prime minister, the biggest crusader against kale dhan or ill-gotten money ever, whose heart bleeds for the poor, hasn't uttered one word about this particular instance of corruption. 

With such a bunch of enemies ranged against it, Corruption in India doesn't need a friend. And I feel sorry for my honest, well-meaning friends who are still admirers of Mr Narendra Damodardas Modi. Their idol is fake, every cell in his body is different from theirs.


Bengaluru / 16 Dec 2016

Saturday, 10 December 2016

A Bong in Malluland

Long before Facebook and cell phones, in a distant past smudged in the mist of memories, a young Bong found himself a job in the capital of Malluland, which was then known as Trivandrum. And he happened to be from the capital city of the western half of Bongland.

When the appointment letter reached him from the unexpected corner, he took out a map of India and a compass. Putting one prong of the compass on the dot called Calcutta and the other on Trivandrum, he turned the compass around. To his utter surprise, he discovered that Trivandrum was farther-off from his hometown than any other place in India. Only Gilgeet in Pak Occupied Kashmir came somewhat closer. Yes, if you draw a circle with Kolkata at the centre and Thiruvananthapuram on the periphery, no Indian city will be outside. Singapore, Bangkok, and even Vientiane are closer. So the young Bong under reference, that is, yours truly, was awestruck by the distance he would have to travel to earn his maacher jhol and bhat.

The sense of surprise remained with me as I stepped out of my hotel on the first day of my new job in a suit still smelling of Lindsay Street. How stupid of me! I had reckoned that my low-profile-reasonably-high-pay job demanded that I turn myself out nattily. But I was alone in Western attire in a sea of white shirts, dhotis, and saris, sticking out like a cactus in a bed of jasmines. Stray dogs watched me with deep suspicion. When they did nothing more damaging, the first thing I thought was: “Hair oil must be cheap here!”

Every man and woman had soaked their head generously and had a shock of shiny black hair. At the East Fort Bus Stand, I noticed something else: everyone carried an umbrella, although it was December, and for some deep reason, they were holding them upside down, with the handles dangling near their feet. Well – I thought – handles should have something to do with hands, shouldn’t they?

On my first day in office, I was amazed by the fact that almost every colleague I got to know asked me what caste I belonged to. It was 18 years after the first elected communist government in history came to power in Kerala, which was incidentally led by an upper-crust Brahmin, Elamkulam Manakkal Sankaran Namboodiripad. I couldn’t help feeling that communism hadn’t even scratched the social fabric of Kerala. It couldn’t repeat the successful social engineering that had happened in Bengal under the leadership of Rammohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Swami Vivekananda, and others in the nineteenth century.

But first impressions are often misleading. There is much to learn from Kerala and one important aspect we learned soon after we set up our home is the respect that middleclass educated Malayalees give to manual workers. In Bengal it was common then to have separate cups and plates for domestic helps. With a deep sense of shame, I admit that my family was no exception. So when my wife offered our first domestic help tea in a separate glass, she protested: “Why do you have a separate glass for me?” And as we spent one of the finest slices of our life in Kerala, we kept learning.

I always try to help anyone who asks for help if s/he is not a child and doesn’t look healthy enough to work, particularly those who are elderly and frail. I do this not because I am generous – no one has accused me of such a foolish trait – but because once I read a line written by Sunil Ganguli that has got etched in my mind permanently: “I don’t disrespect beggars because I am yet to come across anyone who hasn’t ever begged in their life.”

Much later, one evening in a small town in Central Travancore, possibly Adoor, an elderly woman in an almost tattered sari stopped me as I was entering a restaurant for my supper. I gave her a rupee or two and climbed down a flight of stairs to reach the restaurant which was on the basement. It was full and I took the only table that was unoccupied. Minutes later, the elderly woman who I had given money came in and sat down on a chair opposite me. As we had our meals, we exchanged pleasantries and I tried to build a conversation with my pidgin Malayalam.

… And I secretly bowed to Kerala. This wouldn’t have happened anywhere in India in 1995 – not even in the land of Vidayasagar and Vivekananda.

I am afraid that my brother Samir, the President of TBA who has asked me to write an article for their Durga Puja magazine, is regretting his decision by now, unless he has already deleted the file from his computer. I am sorry to go on and on, and that too around a weighty topic like social engineering. So I will bring this to an end shortly, after discussing another lovely trait of Mallus.

They are wonderfully lethargic, argumentative, and unenterprising as long as they are in Kerala. They most favourite word for a shopkeeper then was “Illé”. He would say this and quickly go back to more important things like reading Matrubhumi. I had a similar experience in Thrissur early this year; so maybe, things haven’t changed much. But the moment they cross Kasargod or Palakkad, a magical transformation happens in Mallus. They become the most hard-working and enterprising workers, sought after by employers all over the world, be they nurses, carpenters, or corporate honchos.
Thanks largely to them, controlled population, and the frugal habits of its people, Kerala is one of the wealthiest states in India. Most Mallus are well-off and a significant number of them are rich. But in my 10 years in Kerala, I didn’t come across one Malayalee who flaunted his/her wealth (except at weddings, where women wear gold waist bands heavier than a bank vault). Barring exceptions, people in Kerala live simply and never show off.

In Trivandrum, we had a neighbour once whose father-in-law used to visit them often. The elderly gentleman was always in an ordinary mundé and an even more ordinary shirt, if at all he had one. He spoke authentic English and sat on the veranda of his home every morning and read two newspapers. A shortish man, he looked most ordinary, you would pass him on the road without noticing him at all. He also had a slight speech impairment and we could follow him with some difficulty. On Sunday mornings, I often joined him for a chat and had an excellent cup of coffee with him.

One day, I asked him, ‘Uncle, what did you do before retirement?’

‘I never retired, I never had a job in my life.’ Answering my raised eyebrows, he added, ‘I have a little plantation.’

‘What plantation?’

‘Coffee, and pepper and cardamom too.’

At this point, if I hadn’t asked him how much land he owned, it would have been a breach of protocol. People routinely asked me how much my salary was. And a few even inquired if I had any income under the table. So I asked, ‘How many acres?’

‘Sixty-seven’, he said slowly.

And I nearly fell off my chair. In those days, if you had four acres of rubber plantation, you could live in a bungalow with a large garden, drive a car, and send your children to boarding schools. And cardamom and coffee are costlier, aren’t they?

And uncle was not alone in wearing his wealth with humility. Later, when I bought a rickety second-hand Fiat, we sometimes called in a middle-aged driver called Unnikrishnan, who was an exceedingly polite man. He would talk in such a small voice that we had difficulty in catching him. Unni, always wearing a freshly pressed white dhoti and shirt and a deferential smile, would accept duty at any time even early in the morning, although he lived quite far away. I thought he needed the money badly and I secretly wondered if I could help him in any way. One day I asked him, ‘You said you don’t get driving duties often. How do you manage?’

‘I have some coconut trees sir’, said he.

‘How many?’

Unni folded himself in like the leaves of a touched touch-me-not plant and said in an even smaller voice, as if admitting a serious guilt, ‘I haven’t counted sir, but it’s nineteen acres, sir’.

I decided that the next time I needed money, I would touch Unni for a loan.

Bengaluru / Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Yesterday, today, and …

Yesterday was cloudy and windy. Except for brief moments of life-giving light, the sun was hidden behind the grey smog that covers Bengaluru often. It was gloomy almost through the entire day.

Yesterday was not just another day.  

It had begun brightly. There was a lovely message from a splendid young woman, someone who is like a daughter to me. I was touched.

But then came bad news from two quarters. Two other people who too are close to my heart are going through terrible times. For no fault of theirs, I believe. I believe because I know one of them for twenty years and the other for even longer. They are both wonderful souls and the kind of allegations that have been leveled against them … I would have perhaps believed had they been leveled against me … but not them. Never, not in a million years. They just cannot be true. Period.

And the icing on the bitter cake was a strange, completely unexpected response from a friend. One of our major failings is that we presume we know our friends, and accept them for what they are – good and bad. But every human being is like an ocean, it’s presumptuous to believe you know someone. And the worst part is that if you are hurt by a friend, it’s like a self-goal. There is no consolation.

The treble whammy nearly knocked me off. Gone was my to-do list. I couldn’t even sleep. So at around 11 in the night I went out and walked as briskly as my legs would take me … until I was physically exhausted.


When I got up today, there was clear sunshine. As I looked out, a huge cirrus cloud smiled broadly from the firmament. The blue sky that stretched to infinity. The universe smiled at me … the universe compared to what I, with my happiness and sorrow, fulfilments and failures, friends and strangers, am as insignificant as an isolated sub-atomic particle from my body would be to me.

At the end of the day it doesn’t matter. Nothing does.

Bengaluru / 1 December 2016