Sunday, 13 December 2015

Satire: The story of a superstar, vagabonds and a ghost

This is a true story of a superstar and a few measly vagabonds.

Once upon a time, there was a superstar.  In fact he still is, and will continue to be with us.

One night, the superstar was at a party.  He partied, he drove, he crushed a few vagabonds, and he got away. 

Some people raised an objection to this.  'He should be brought to justice', they said.

But they did not know that only the hero is allowed to do as he pleases.  He can take down anything and anybody in his way.  It does not matter if they were only sleeping.  He can still mow them down.

Because you nitwits, he is the hero.  The larger than life character, for whom nothing is impossible.

And don't you know that his fans love him?  They want to see him shoot down some more endangered species.  He can do nothing wrong for them. 

Fortunately, the honourable court also thought the same.  So they let him go scot free, for he is the hero, remember?  Just a few lowlife pavement dwellers were killed, that's all.  Their life is cheap anyway.  They were already homeless.  What does it matter if they are now lifeless?

It is our superstar that matters.  He has to be let free to do his thing.  

Besides, who said he was drunk, driving, or drunk-driving on that night?  He only drank Thums Up at the party, poor fella!

Indeed, there was no evidence that he was driving at all.  No, not even the ex-policeman's testimony was believable.  Why did he have to put his own life at risk to give evidence against the superstar?

He died of TB that guy.  Well deserved!  How dare he raise his voice against our hero!

Wait a minute, said some.  If the superstar was not driving the car, who was?  The honourable court thought about this for a long time - thirteen years to be precise.  Ghost, it concluded.

'Ghost?!' exclaimed some, incredulously.

But the court came up with irrefutable reasoning.  'If a ghost can make a car veer sharply and plunge into the sea in Talaash, why can't it drive the car and crush those people?'  Logical, no?

And of course, try as you might, you cannot punish a ghost.

It is not as though our hero did not have his own unimpeachable evidence to back him up.  He had his own singer friend in the car that night.  He could have easily vouched for his divinity.  

'No, that is not necessary', said the court.  'We are letting you off anyway'.

'Now go and cancel that petition in the higher court that you made to allow your friend's testimony.  Let him be safely ensconced in the UK.  Why bring him all the way here just to prove your innocence?'

'You are the hero.  You don't need anybody to vouch for your integrity'.

So the judge said, 'Off you go son.  Go do your songs and dances and fights.  Go, your fans are waiting for you.  They cannot live without you.  And don't you worry, if anybody else comes up with evidence against you, I will crush them myself!'

Then the superstar emerged.  Millions were waiting with bated breath.  There was a spontaneous eruption of joy all around.  He was taken home in a procession.  Their hero, their god had returned unscathed and untainted.

Meanwhile, the ghost took out the car for a spin again.  Along the way it crushed Justice to death...

Oh well...

And they all crushed happily ever after!

Image source:

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Why I love Bharatvarsh

Over the course of its earthly peregrinations from a unified state as Pangaea, to Jambudvipa, to its present state with its own identity, our Bharatvarsh has made many glorious contributions to humanity.  

The invention of zero, for example.  Also Sushruta’s pioneering efforts in surgery, Aryabhata’s contribution to early maths and astronomy, or Baudhayana’s discovery of the theorem, which came to be known as Pythagoras’ theorem later.

Or how about J C Bose’s discovery of life in plants, Raman’s experiment on light scattering, which is called Raman Effect, Sarabhai’s space project which ultimately led to the present day Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan, or Kalam’s work on developing the ballistic missile?

In the field of arts and literature too, there have been innumerable luminaries who have enriched our culture with their contributions.  Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam and Meghdoot, Chanakya’s Arthashastra, Bharata Muni’s treatise on dance, Natya Shastra that led to the dance form, Bharatanatyam, and Tagore’s Gitanjali and Rabindra Sangeet, to name a few.

Yes, we are filled with pride when we listen to the heroic tales of Shivaji, Rana Pratap and Bhagat Singh.  We are immediately satiated when we listen to a Lata-Rafi duet, A R Rahman’s music, or Amitabh Bachchan’s filmi dialogues in his rich baritone.  We cannot contain our joy when we witness a Sachin Tendulkar century, or for that matter, when Sania Mirza wins yet another world title.  We jump with joy when Sushmita Sen wins the Miss Universe, and Aishwarya Rai the Miss World title.

India today is home to one of the largest community of intellectuals; doctors, engineers, economists and scientists.  After years of subjugation, we are witnessing the growth of economy, and our clout among the nations of the world is growing by the day. 

All that is fine.  I am filled with happiness to note all these achievements. 

But for me, quite apart from any of these, there is another reason why I love this land. 

Its spiritual history. 

There simply cannot be another place on this planet or any other for that matter, where so many spiritually advanced adepts, yogis, sadhus, saints, seers, gurus took birth, breathed, lived, meditated, attained moksha, and showed others the light. 

I don’t think I can take all the names of the saints of our land; there isn’t enough time or space for that.  I can only quote a few shining examples that I have had the good fortune of reading about. 

In the south of Bharatvarsh, Adi Sankara took birth in Kalady, a quiet little town on the banks of the Poorna River.  He traversed the length and breadth of the land, took disciples, debated with scholars on philosophical systems, consecrated four mathas in four corners of India, and finally ascended the Throne of Omniscience in Kashmir.  By the time he had achieved all this – 32 years of age – he had firmly established the advaita school of thought, which clearly elucidates the oneness of the atma and the paramatma.

In much more recent times, another southern luminary, the Saint of Arunachala, Ramana Maharshi quietly went about practising and preaching his method of self-enquiry, and miraculously healing those who approached him of such conditions as tetanus, leprosy, terminal cancer, and in one instance, even death.  However, when he was afflicted with sarcoma towards the end of his earthly tenure, he refused to heal himself as his physical condition was a result of taking on his devotees’ karma. 

In the west of the country, around the 13th Century, scores of saints took birth in the holy land of Maharashtra.  Pandharpur became the epicentre of the bhakti movement started by these illustrious sons and daughters of the soil, many of whom were ordinary peasants.  The child-saint of Alandi, Jnaneshwar and his siblings were orphans and outcastes, but their life was full of miraculous achievements, and culminated in Jnaneshwari – the gift of Gita written in the colloquial language for the benefit of the masses. 

Namadeva, the son of a tailor made the Lord drink milk from his hands even when he was a little boy, while Gora Kumbhar, the potter, so lost himself in divine ecstasy that he once trampled his own child in a mound of clay (the child was eventually restored to him by the Lord Himself).  Sawata Mali sang his abhangs while tending his garden, and Chokhamela who was an untouchable was so close to the Lord that when a priest slapped him for transgressing a social norm, he was aghast to find that the Lord’s cheek was swollen.  It is said of Tukaram that he went away to Vaikuntha in a vimana of the Lord. 

Likewise, Eknath, Bhanudas, Kanhopatra, Santaji Pawar, Raka Kumbhar, Narhari Sonar, Janabai, and many, many more have sanctified our land with their holy presence.  Indeed, this is probably the real reason for epithet, ‘maha’ in Maharashtra. 

In the northern part of Bharatvarsh, Tulsidas retold the timeless story of Ram and Sita in his Ramcharitmanas, whereas Surdas preferred to become blind again after he beheld the vision of his ishtadevta, Lord Krishna just once.  Another great devotee of Krishna, Meera gave us many bhajans that are soaked with devotional fervour and longing for union with her Lord. 

Many more adepts and yogis of the north have made the places of pilgrimage touched by the Ganga and the mystical loftiness of the Himalayas their home, and have inspired others through their tapas and sadhana.  Even today, the ageless Guru Babaji is said to be present in the Himalayas, showering his grace on those worthy of it. 

As Diana L. Eck has said about the tirthasthals of Bharatvarsh,

…what is clear from the study of Hindu India is that its geographical features – its rivers, mountains, hills, and coastlands – no matter how precisely rendered, mapped, or measured, are also charged with stories of gods and heroes.  It is a resonant, sacred geography.    
Moving to the eastern part of this sacred geography, one is touched by the story of the Saint of Dakshineshwar, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, who answered his would-be student, Naren’s query about whether he has seen God, with ‘Yes, I have seen God.  I see Him as I see you here, only more clearly..!’  

In the same sacred geography, about a hundred years before the time of the Paramahansa, Baba Lokenath Brahmachari attained such a level of oneness with the universal spirit, that he chastised an untamed lion for wandering into his ashram’s premises, patted it affectionately, and sent it along its way back into the forest! 

It is not just the seers of one faith that lit up the path of their followers in Bharatvarsh.  Guru Nanak spoke against blind beliefs and superstitions, while Kabir, Sai Baba of Shirdi and Shishunala Sharif, unified people of all castes and religions.  Buddha advised followers to find their own way in attaining liberation from pain and suffering, while Mahavira gave the five ethical principles for his followers to achieve emancipation.  Dargahs of Sufi peers dot the landscape, and Velankanni in the south is a blessed place of pilgrimage for many.

Madhvacharya (who propounded dvaita), Ramanujacharya (vishishtadvaita), Guru Raghavendra, Nammalvar, Kanakadasa, Purandaradasa, Basaveshwara, Akkamahadevi, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Akkalkot Maharaj, Sri Lahiri Mahasaya, Sri Yukteswar Giri, Paramahansa Yogananda, Maheshwarnath Babaji, Bengali Baba, Swami Rama, Mahayogi Gambhirnath, Swami Sivananda Saraswati, Anandamayi Ma, Paramahansa Ram Mangal Das…  One could go on and on; the list is endless.

This phenomenon is not confined to the glorious past of Bharatvarsh.  Even today, genuine saints are quietly carrying on with their sadhana, unseen, unheard, and away from the bustle of daily life.    
Truly we are blessed to have been born on this holy land.  For me, these stories provide the real meaning to that song by Iqbal, Saare jahan se achcha…

Unfortunately, the current educational system of Bharatvarsh is western in its outlook, and worldly and phenomenal in what it imparts, leaving our children vulnerable to deculturation and narrow minded religious influences.  I feel that we would be failing in our duty if we do not inculcate a sense of respect and a spirit of inquiry towards our spiritual heritage in our children, by teaching them life lessons from the experiences of the spiritual masters.  

Many works have been consulted in writing this panegyric on the spiritual preeminence of Bharatvarsh.  Indeed, these can be recommended – from an inexhaustive list of resources – for further reading if one is interested in learning from the lives of these saints and about spirituality in Bharatvarsh:
  • Sankara Digvijaya: Madhav Vidyaranya
  • Saints of Maharashtra: Savitribai Khanolkar
  • Autobiography of a Yogi: Paramahansa Yogananda
  • Yogis of India: Sivarupa
  • Vivekananda A Biography: Swami Nikhilananda
  • Bhakti Schools of Vedanta: Swami Tapasyananda
  • India A Sacred Geography: Diana L. Eck
  • Apprenticed to a HimalayanMaster: Sri M
  • Living with the Himalayan Masters: Swami Rama

Image sources:

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Film review: Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (*no spoilers*)

There are a couple of things to bear in mind when you go to watch a Sooraj Barjatya film.

(A) Suspend disbelief, and (B) Never go by critics' reviews.

'A' because a few liberties are always taken in his films, especially when it comes to the medical field.  You just have to accept what's being presented, let go, and enjoy!  That's the best way to watch his films.

'B' because the last time the critics panned his film, it went on to become Indian cinema's biggest ever hit: Hum Aapke Hain Kaun..!  

So what's Prem Ratan Dhan Payo all about?  

I won't give away the story, but you may get a general idea about what it might be about. 

So here goes.

Remember Chitchor?  That simple yet touching film made by the same Rajshri Productions, with unforgettable songs by Ravindra Jain and Yesudas?

Take that.

Also, while you are at it, grab Paheli (incidentally Amol Palekar acted in Chitchor, whereas he directed Paheli).

Also add a dash of Mark Twain's Prince and the Pauper.  

And don't forget to sprinkle a bit of Ram aur Shyam, Seeta aur Geeta, Chaalbaaz and Kishen Kanhaiya.  

Oh, and for the title, replace Ram with Prem in Meera Bai's bhajan, Ram Ratan Dhan Payo.  

And there you have it.  Prem Ratan Dhan Payo.

Okay, I am being a tad unfair.  Yes, PRDP reminds one of all the films mentioned above, yet it is different.  

For starters, is made on a much larger, grandiose scale.  There are subplots woven into the story.  Barjatya has made all efforts to present the story in a novel, light hearted manner.    And it works.

So what's the same?

As with any Barjatya film, PRDP, at its core, is about love.  It displays Indian tradition and draws its emotional appeal heavily from family values and relationships within the family.  It is opulent.  The sets are lavishly mounted, and it is a visual treat.  

And what's different?

First of all, PRDP does not have a massive starcast, as in HAHK.  There's only Anupam Kher.  Reema Lagoo and Alok Nath are conspicuously absent!  

There are less songs than a typical Barjatya film.  

And - get this - there is action!  There is a stunningly crafted horse-coach scene in the beginning, sword fight in the middle, and dishum-dishum at the end.  Too much action for a Barjatya film!  

A few grouses

The background music was a bit too loud, making it difficult to follow the dialogues.  Some songs have been cut to trim down the overall length of the film (it is now 174 minutes long).  

Does it recreate the magic of HAHK?  No.  But then, I don't think any film can.   

What works?

Barjatya has got starpower with him, as usual.  That alone will ensure the opening.  Prem has become a saleable commodity, which will draw in Salman Khan fans by the lakhs.  

The music, songs and choreography are first rate, and it seems that Himesh Reshammiya has a hit on his hands. 

Overall, terrific Diwali entertainment.  Enjoy it!

Image source:

Saturday, 7 November 2015

How about banning some non-Diwali pollutants?

It’s that time of the year again.  Diwali is round the corner!

It is time for lamps, sweets, new clothes and fireworks.  

Did I say fireworks? 

It seems that many people want to take the fun out of the festival this time round.  The amount of paranoia and sudden discovery of environment-consciousness beggars belief.

The Chief Minister has also thrown his hat into the ring.  I received a recorded call on the mobile in which he has appealed against the bursting of crackers during this Diwali.

In other parts of the country, parents of toddlers have registered a case in the court against the bursting of crackers, school children are taking out processions with placards reading, 'Let's celebrate pollution free Diwali', celebrities are tweeting about going noiseless this Diwali, and just about anybody who is somebody is expressing his or her anguish at the immense suffering caused by the bursting of crackers during the festival.

How noble!  

This got me thinking.  Why target only Diwali?  Since we are so good at banning everything, why not look at a few other irritants that can also be banned?  

Here are some suggestions.

Diwali lasts for 3 days in a year.  The rest of the 362 days of the year, and even during those 3 days, there are millions of vehicles on the road emanating noxious fumes.  Several studies have shown that if you are a city dweller, your lungs turn black due to the exposure to vehicular emissions, and are prone to asthma and bronchitis.  Why not BAN VEHICLES?

Apparently India has signed on to the global anti-smoking drive.  But just walk around any street, and you will find men, and yes, women too, smoking like chimneys.  Second hand smoke has been proved to be as dangerous as actively smoking beedis or cigarettes.  Perhaps the parents of those toddlers can go to each one of the culprits and pluck that stick out of their mouths!  After that, they can - literally - kick their butts.  

Sources of noise:  Ah yes, those green-twine bombs make a lot of noise.

The Government says that a cracker should not emit more than 90 dB at a distance of 5 metres.  Then how about the HOOOOOOOOOOOOONK!!!! that cars and bikes emit?  Forget busy intersections, even the so-called silent zones - schools and hospitals - are not spared from the earsplitting cacophonous horn.  And not to forget that annoying reverse-parking alarm.  Can you SILENCE THEM? 

Also, don't these cracker-phobics find the religious 'call for prayer' at 5 in the morning disturbing?  Or how about late night clubs that keep the party going on well past the prescribed closing time?  What about celebrities' or ministers' events that can go on for hours and cause traffic jams?  Or the missionaries' stage shows wherein loud proclamations of miracle healing are made, followed by exhortations to change over to the true path.  Why don't you BAN ALL OF THEM?  

Bursting crackers is very risky they say.  They can explode, they are flammable and can cause burn injuries.  Driving is highly risky, yet we do it every day, don’t we?  Have you seen how we drive on our roads?  Can there be anything riskier than travelling on our roads?  Death is a constant co-passenger on our roads where the only rule is that there is no rule.  Why not BAN DRIVING?  

I could go on, but you get the idea...

In the UK, Guy Fawkes day is celebrated every year round about the time of Diwali.  There are massive fireworks displays to commemorate the foiling of the plot to blow up the Parliament House by Guy Fawkes and his colleagues in 1605.  

If western people celebrate an event that happened about 400 years ago, it is fine.  But somehow a tradition that goes back thousands of years has now suddenly become passe for these western educated and culturally shortsighted elite.     

I still remember that as children, we used to plan for the bursting of crackers several days ahead of Diwali.  Buying the crackers and dividing them into three portions to be lit on each of the three days of the festival gave us immense joy.  Then on the first day of the festival, we would compete with each other to be the first to go out and burst the cracker.  By evening, the entire street would be lined with lamps and families would come out to light flowerpots, bhoomi chakras, vishnu chakras, sparklers, rockets, pencils and wires.  Sometimes we would gift these crackers to the less privileged children, which invariably brought about a huge smile on their faces.

Are you saying that the very same toddlers, whose parents have filed the litigation would not enjoy fireworks?  As usual, it is not the children, but the adults that are the problem.

Would you give up on your time honoured tradition, just because there is a risk involved in following the practice?  There is an element of risk in everything that we do.  It is not banning, but managing the event responsibly that is the key here.  So what can we do to have a safe Diwali this year?

The first and foremost is awareness and safety consciousness.  There may well be government legislations and safety norms that cracker manufacturers have to adhere to, but without our own mindfulness and efforts, these can never make a difference. 

By all means, go for noiseless crackers.  Spend less on crackers, but do not totally ban them from your children's lives.  Distribute the crackers that you among with the less privileged.  Why not identify a communal area in your locality where families can get together to burst crackers.  That way, smoke and noise can be reduced in the residential areas.  This would also help those with respiratory and cardiac problems, and animals that are sensitive to noise from crackers.  Do not burst crackers during the official night time (10 p.m. to 6 a.m.).  

Diwali is a wonderful festival that signifies the victory of good over evil.  If we follow some basic precautions, it is possible to safely celebrate this victory with lights from lamps, serial sets and firecrackers.  

The take home message is celebrate, but be responsible.

Here’s wishing a happy and safe Diwali to all!

And yes, I will be bursting crackers this year too!  

Image sources:

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Golf course or animal conservation? You choose.

Nimesh Ved writes in an article in Deccan Herald dated 20 October 2015, that a golf course is scheduled to come up in the Kaziranga National Park area.  

Seriously, a golf course?  Of all the things, a golf course?  Why?  Who sanctioned this ignominy?  Or perhaps we should be asking, how much did they get to sanction it?

Golf is a western concept wherein people who have nothing better to do go to these parks to while away time.  

Don't people realise that in a developing country such as ours, time is of the essence?  Land space is depleting at an alarming rate due to the never ending rise in population.  Lakes are being encroached upon, children's play areas are being occupied, and animals are being poached or confined to zoos.

And all they could think of is a blooming GOLF COURSE?????!!!!!

Of all the recreational activities that pass as sports, the poorest examples are probably boxing and golf.

As Ved himself lists in his article, golf courses are like blood sucking vermins that drain resources and manpower: an 18 hole course requires an annual water supply that can fill about 130 swimming pools, high concentration pesticides are used in maintaining them, large number of trees have to be cut down to create a golf course, they offer no source of income to the local population, and animals are totally fenced off.

Ved also quotes G K Chesterton, who said that golf is 'an expensive way of playing marbles'.  I couldn't agree more.

Infact, let's go further and say that golf is not a sport at all.  What kind of physical exertion is involved in playing it?  The players have servants to carry their sticks for them.  And when they hit the ball, they travel to the next hole in a vehicle! 

It is a ridiculous game that the elitist, classist nouveau riche who have time to kill and money to burn indulge in.  

At least in our country, instead of pandering to the whims of these rotten rich, can't the same land be utilised to protect endangered animals, to build children's playground, or to erect hospitals for the poor?

The golfers can have a virtual simulation of their precious game, and they can while away their time on it as much as they want.  

Or else, they can quite literally, stick it!  

Image source:  

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Is this the India we want?

I am writing this on the morning of 2nd October.  Gandhiji’s favourite hymns and bhajans are playing in the background.  Later in the day, the film Gandhi will be shown on television, just as it is shown every year this day. 

The day’s newspaper carries the screaming headline: the family of the man who was lynched for eating beef demands CBI probe, and eight families flee the village where he was living.  The irony is inescapable.

Is this the India Gandhiji would have wanted to see?  Is this the India you and I want? 

Over the last few months, there have been several instances of intolerance and superstitious practices that have made headline news.  No doubt, there are regional issues at play in the occurrence of each of these incidents, but taken collectively, they are indicative of the hypocrisy and misplaced sense of importance ascribed to certain matters that we hold dear.

Yes, go-raksha is important, but don’t we also come across several abandoned cows roaming our streets, blocking traffic, sitting in filth, and eating garbage?  If we were genuinely concerned about the animal’s well-being, there would not be a single stray cow in our urban areas. 

Why should the culinary habits of certain communities affect our sentiments so much anyway?  How different is the imposition of beef ban from ‘non-believers’ being forced to refrain from eating in public during the fasting month in middle-eastern countries? 

Besides, why confine your daya to the cow only?  Doesn’t Sanatana Dharma consider every living being to be an aspect of the divine?  Therefore, shouldn’t we be saving all animals; dogs, cows, donkeys, buffaloes, and birds in cages from a life of bondage and abuse?

A prominent weekly magazine recently reported that in a southern state – where animal sacrifice during religious festivals is rampant – there has been a spate of human sacrifices.  At least two individuals – a man and a child – were found murdered with their throats slit, and the paraphernalia of ritual worship were lying all around them. 

In another harrowing incident, this time in another southern state, a mother who went looking for her missing son, was shocked to find his body parts in her neighbour’s house.  The man had enticed the child into entering his house and carried out the deed.  Vigilantes later caught hold of the man and attempted to burn him. 

I can almost visualize the missionary exhorting his gullible audience: “Is this the kind of religion that you want to belong to?  Give up your barbaric faith, you heathen, and repent while you can!  Join the only true path and save your souls!!”

Hold on Mr Missionary.  Let’s look at what your brethren from a northeastern state have been up to.  Members of a certain NGO have apparently taken it upon themselves to “cleanse the society of homosexuals”.  As part of the anti-LGBT drive, volunteers have pledged to go door-to-door to “bring them back” to “proper culture”.  Further, they said, “we believe in God; as per our teachings, homosexuality is a wrongful deed, we want males to be like males and females to be like females.”

Over the last few months, as many as three rationalists have been shot dead, allegedly for publicly airing their opinions.  The fact that dissent and debate have been time-honoured components of free speech in India doesn’t seem to matter anymore.  Or perhaps, this must be a sign of emasculation; if you are unable to counter the rationalist’s view with a sane counter-argument, get rid of the source of the problem itself. 

Why does somebody else’s culture, dietary habits, sexuality and opinions rankle us so much?  Are we so insecure that differences such as these should erode our sense of acceptance, tolerance and peaceful coexistence? 

If our culture, religion and society do not evolve, and instead rigidly hold on to pietistic and deadwood practices, we would be in serious danger of turning into Taliban-land.  Or an ISIS-controlled state.  And that is the last thing we would ever want.  Before it is too late, we need to shun the narrowness, the hypocrisy, the superstition, and the intolerance.

Speaking of hypocrisy, the media should also accord equal importance to misdemeanours committed by adherents of all faiths.  Focusing entirely on the antics of a few fringe elements of the majority religion takes the attention away from the fruitful work that the present government is carrying out, which is so much better than that of the previous ridiculous government.  And the same request goes out to the 'civil' society of India, authors included.

So, to answer the question, this is not the India I want.  I want my religion and country to be free in every sense of the word.  How about you?   

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Friday, 2 October 2015

Book review: Classic Khushwant Singh

Classic Khushwant Singh
(Collection of 4 novels: Train to Pakistan, I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale, Delhi & Burial at Sea)
Penguin 2010

When it is a Khushwant Singh book, I just read.  Not because of the gossipy nature of the grand old man's writing, but because he is the grand old man of Indian literature.  Now of course, he is the late grand old man, which only adds to be appeal.

This compendium of four of Singh's best stories was initially put together 1996.  This edition is big - at 851 pages - and, like the man himself towards his end days, appears delicate and old.  Some of the thinly cut pages are coming undone, especially towards the latter half of the book.

Nevertheless, it is the content that we are more interested in.  If there is one theme that unites all these disparate stories, it is the British Raj.  And Partition.  Did I mention sex?  Yes, that too.  In fact, oodles of it!  As Singh himself says in his introduction to Delhi, the story is 'injected [with] a lot of seminal fluid'.  It appears that the grand old man could not help reverting to his favourite preoccupation, .  No wonder he turned out to be the grand old man, because sex (in addition to Scotch) seems to have increased his longevity significantly.  

Train to Pakistan is based right in the middle of Partition, and talks about the gradual deterioration of relations between neighbours of the same village, those belonging to different communities; Sikh and Muslim.  I Shall... tells the story of a Sikh family during the British Raj, in which the father is loyal to the British, and the son is a bit of a revolutionary seeking freedom from oppression.  Here, it is the character of the mother that is interesting to me, because it is reminiscent of Singh's own grandmother, who was known to be a pious lady with a lot of spiritual experiences.  

Delhi on the other hand is about his favourite city and its bloody history.  Singh apparently worked on Delhi for nearly 20 years, and has put together the accounts of the poet, Mir Taqi Meer, Timur, Nadir Shah, Aurangzeb, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the 1857 uprising (both of which remind one of William Dalrymple's searing account of The Last Mughal), construction of Lutyens' Delhi, Indira Gandhi's assassination and the subsequent massacre of Sikhs in Delhi.

However it is his interspersing of his affair with an eunuch, Bhagmati with the history of Delhi that brings his irreverence to the fore, and perhaps serves as an allegorical reference to Delhi's emasculation at the hands of various invaders and tyrants over the years.   

In the last story, Burial..., Singh appears to have based his characters loosely on the 'first' family of Indian politics; especially Nehru & Indira.  Singh's irreverence and atheistic tendencies - even though he kept the external appearance of a Sikh throughout his life - is evident here.  Hence, we have a tantric sadhvi who bathes naked in the river with her pet tiger and has a sexually charged affair with a rich industrialist, and a yoga teacher who is seduced by his student, the daughter of the industrialist.

As always, through all these stories, Singh's preoccupation with four issues is apparent: sex in its various inglorious manifestations, death and the rituals that follow thereafter, religious irreverence, and a scatological obsession with the workings of the bowels and their products.

He dedicates an entire chapter to the last issue in Delhi.  Going back to the first issue, it seems that Singh liked his women with ample tops and voluminous posteriors.  And believe me, the description of both the issues is a lot more colourful in Singh's writing!

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Saturday, 26 September 2015

This and that: religion

  • As many as three rationalists; Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Phansare and M M Kalburgi, have been shot dead by alleged right-wing activists in the previous few months.  This is a disturbing trend, and does not augur well for the secular status of India, or indeed, for the egalitarian outlook of Hinduism.  As Amartya Sen states in his The Argumentative Indian, there has always been a place for dissent and debate in Hindu dharma and in the larger context of an inclusive society.  Whatever the motivations behind these acts, Sanatana Dharma does not sanction killing to silence dissent, and thus deny the victim the chance to work out his or her karma in his or her lifetime.  Therefore these killings have to be denounced by all.  The perpetrators should realize that wantonly silencing anybody who speaks against their thoughts and actions is a surefire sign of emasculation.  'If you are unable to come up with a suitable riposte, get rid of the source of the problem itself', is one of the symptoms of this condition.  Instead, why not try your hand at coming up with your own counter-opinion, or engaging in an open debate with the opinionist?  Do not malign the sanctity of Sanatana Dharma, and relegate it to a fundamentalist minimalist status.    
  • Our heart goes out to the victims of the stampede at the Hajj pilgrimage.  To see the lifeless bodies of hundreds of pilgrims dressed in white, and heaped upon each other, fills one with a sense of foreboding.  Apparently this has happened several times in the past, and a few days before the stampede, a crane crashed in to the sanctum killing several people.  While our condolences should go out to the families of the victims, one also has to wonder as to why such a thing has to happen at all.  This is exactly the kind of thing that rationalists would spring upon; why did the followers of a religion that steadfastly holds that it is the only true path, die such an ignominious death; and that at the holiest of its sanctums?  These sort of incidents also occur at mass gatherings of followers of other faiths as well.  Therefore it can be assumed with some conviction that there is no such thing as a perfect religion, which provides immunity to its adherents against such untimely disasters.  Therefore, one can also conclude, that conversion from one religion to another is a redundant exercise.  
  • The Pope is visiting the US.  Yesterday, it was heartening to see a multi-faith prayer meet at the site of the 9/11 attacks.  The priests of Islam, Jewism, Sikhism, and Hinduism, were all seen together with the head of the Roman Catholic Church on the same stage.  There must be some hope for humanity after all.  It seems that this Pope has brought about a different approach to his role, and is not averse to speaking the truth.  Certainly, praying with the followers of other faiths, some that are often considered to be heretical by evangelists, is a step in the right direction.  Now, if we can somehow get him to acknowledge that proselytization and conversion do not belong in today's world...I'll dream on.  

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Book review: ISIS The State of Terror

ISIS: The State of Terror
Jessica Stern & J M Berger
Ecco 2015

You might have encountered the harrowing images on any of the social media sites.  If you are brave enough, you may even have watched the videos of multiple beheadings that the ISIS has unleashed on an unsuspecting world.  Stern and Berger, terrorism experts from USA, have not only seen these videos, but have also extensively studied the actions and machinations of terrorists across the world.  Therefore this book carries a great deal importance as it talks about one of the most dreaded contemporary terrorist organisation from a scholarly point of view.  

If you ever wondered, like I did, why professionals such as doctors, engineers and teachers would be interested in travelling to the region occupied by ISIS, then this book provides the answers.  They are not going to fight, as I naively assumed; on the other hand, they are going there to populate and help run the Islamic State that ISIS claims it has already set up.  Not only that, its leader, al Baghdadi has also declared himself the Caliph, and has issued a clarion call to all other terrorist organizations and lay people living in other countries to submit to his authority.  

How did the ISIS take birth, evolve, and assume the status that it has today?  Why did the al Qaeda leadership admonish ISIS, and ask it to tone down its shocking tactics?  How did it come to own a vast area of land across three countries; apparently larger than the area covered by the UK?  Why does it revel in displaying its grisly murders in the form of beheadings?  How has it made use of technology and social media to spread its message and news?  How has it managed to build up a 'fan base' across the world?  How do we go about bringing ISIS to task, and reducing its influence on people across the world?  You will find the answers to all these questions in this book.

There is also a short but very informative account of Islam in general, and Salafism in particular - its origins and development, and its role in ISIS' plans - that is included as an appendix at the end of the book.  While the appendix has been admirably put together by the main authors' doctoral student, Megan McBride, it was somewhat surprising to note that Reza Aslan's engaging account of Islam, No god but God is not listed among the references (it is listed in an earlier chapter by the main authors).  Nevertheless, one would have liked to see this revelatory information about Salafism at the beginning of the book, to help understand the historical-political-religious context to ISIS' philosophy and actions.  

Finally, Stern and Berger quote King Abdullah of Jordan about the problem that ISIS poses: "This is a Muslim problem.  We need to take ownership of this.  We need to stand up and say what is right and what is wrong."  Never were truer words spoken.  Now it is up to the entire Muslim community to disown, discourage, discredit and disband ISIS so that the world could be a safer place again.  

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Sunday, 20 September 2015

Daylight robbery at multiplexes and restaurants

A few days ago, we go to watch a film at a local multiplex - one of the big name multi-city franchisees - and after buying the tickets, make our way to the snacks section.  We order the usual stuff; popcorn and cola.  When the till keeper announces the charge, we are shell shocked to discover that the grub costs much more than the price of the tickets.  And what are we getting for the exorbitant charge?  Measly popcorn and highly diluted cola.  

You have no choice; you have to go for it.  Because they confiscate all the food items that you have in your bag at the entrance.  The security personnel tell you that you can always collect the food items that they have retained after watching the film.  But then how many remember to go back to collect them?  Also, at the end of the movie, you are let out of a different door than the one you entered the hall - usually a floor below the multiplex.  You would have to climb all the way up again to the main entrance of the multiplex to ask for your stuff.

Besides, during the weekends, the usual ticket prices are jacked up to twice or even more than thrice the amount.  If this is not daylight robbery, what is?

The blood suckers are at it in the restaurants and hotels too.  Just scrutinize the bill that you get at the end of your meal.  You are likely to find an assortment of extra charges in the name of 'hotel policy'.  First of all, they quote ridiculously expensive rates for the dishes listed in the menu; then they add 'service tax' to the final bill; and also VAT and/or luxury tax.  There is also an tacit expectation that you would tip the waiters after shelling out the bill amount.  Some suggest that according to etiquette - whatever that is - as much as 10% of bill amount is supposed to be given as a tip.  So, if the bill amount - after all the extra 'garnish' that is added to it - happens to be Rs 1000, are we expected to cough up Rs 100 as a tip?  If service tax is already included in the bill, why the hell should we pay anything more?

Who regulates these establishments?  It is particularly disappointing to note that in December 2014, a prominent minister in the Karnataka government said that multiplexes cannot be regulated!  He suggested that since they provide high quality conditions for customers, they should be allowed to charge as much as it tickles their fancy.  

It is high time that these pirates of the entertainment and hospitality industries are taken to task.  Boycott their services if you can.  If you are using their services and feel that they are over-charging, please make it a point to leave your feedback.  Say that they are over-charging, and that you are unlikely to come back.  Also say that you will be discouraging others from visiting these establishments; spread the message. 

If possible, write to the local minister or the consumer affairs department about this issue.

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Sunday, 13 September 2015

Film review: Phantom

His previous film made millions, but this one will clearly not.  Director Kabir Khan's film on 26/11 will get nowhere near the collections of his previous 'feelgood' film.  Because they don't like it you see.  By they I mean not just our friendly neighbours, but also their expatriates who live in other countries, and their co-brothers.  These days you need to entice them with friendly themes to ensure that you have a hit on your hands; as most Hindi film makers seem to be doing recently.  

It would be tough to entice them into watching this one.  Because you see, it tells the truth.  And truth, has always been a bitter pill to swallow for our neighbours.  Their basic policy with regards to 26/11, and all the hundreds of other attacks launched against our land from their soil can be summarized in just two words: deny and defend.  

Deny they had any hand in whatever happened, and deny that the terrorists were their own kith and kin.  If confronted with the truth, defend yourself to the core; never give an inch; because attack is the best form of defence.  

And this does not just pertain to the government officials or spy agencies; it applies to almost all citizens of that country.  Which is why a ban on the film was readily accepted by all concerned.  

Some Indian, who dares to enter their soil to kill their own men!  How can this be allowed?  Only America is allowed to do that.

Now about the film.  It is well made throughout.  Even though there is a disclaimer at the beginning of the film to state that the story is not based on any actual character, it is obvious from the amazing likeness of the actors to the real life culprits, as to who this is based on.  Especially the actor playing David Headley; the resemblance is uncanny.  Besides, what are we scared of?  It is based on 26/11, and the terrorists who plotted the attack, period.   

Acting by all is good, but Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub steals the show from right under the noses of Saif Ali Khan and Katrina Kaif.  He is just sensational in a small but significant role.  One can see his stock rising in the days to come, and he richly deserves it.  

If anything, the film is probably a bit too slick, and I wonder if a more measured approach would have worked better.  Especially the manner in which Daniyal (Khan's character) is cajoled into taking up the assignment is a bit too abrupt.  Also - I know others might disagree - but nobody on our side should have died in the end.  It should have been a clean, clinical mission that achieves its goal of eliminating the terrorists behind 26/11, without any loss on our side.  Haven't we lost enough already?

I am not going to give away anymore of the plot-line.  Like Baby, we want people to watch this film and find out for themselves what could be achieved with a little bit of derring-do.  

Yes, it is a story we wish were true.  And director Kabir Khan and the others behind the film deserve rich accolades for telling it.

It is still possible to put this idea into action.  We do have the personnel who are capable of undertaking such a mission.  But, is the government listening?

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Saturday, 5 September 2015

Article on magnanimity in religion - debut on Sanskriti

Refugee crisis

No, I am not going to insert the image.  

It is too painful to even look at: a little boy, lying face down on a beach.  As though he has turned his back on this cruel world, which abandoned when he was most vulnerable. 

 How can one even begin to comprehend the pain that the parents of the child had to endure?  It is indescribable.  

And before we get on with our mundane lives, hoping that somebody else will take care of the humanitarian crisis, let us remind ourselves that we are all in it together.  

It is human beings who are suffering in the Syrian refugee crisis.  And we are all living on the same planet.  If we don't come to the aid of each other, who else will?  Aliens?  

Therefore I suggest that we have all lost a child.  His parents' pain is our pain.  We are all in crisis.  

We are all equally culpable.  We all share an equal responsibility to help them and the other refugees.  
I just appealed to the leaders of our country to help out:

Wherever you are, you can do the same.  Help out in whichever way you can.  Perhaps this might suggest some ways:

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Book review: The God of Small Things

The God of Small Things
Arundhati Roy
Penguin 2002 (first published 1997)

When a work happens to be a Man Booker Prize winner for a debutant author; when it is praised to the skies by every reviewer, one is intrigued to discover for oneself what all the hoopla is about.

Roy does not disappoint.  Deviating from the conventional norms of writing, Roy takes a non-linear and sensory approach to telling a multifaceted story.  

A seemingly innocuous plot of a childhood prank gone wrong, holds in its core an epic tale of tragedy.  Roy packs in a lot: communism, untouchability, class wars, illicit love, child sexual abuse, police corruption and villainous machinations that the largely Syrian Christian characters of this story set in rural Kerala are prone to.  (Incidentally, these issues provide a prelude to the nature of Roy's real-life activism that she adopted later).   

Except perhaps Velutha - the titular 'god' who sacrifices himself in the end -  there is not one entirely likeable character in the book; all others, including the children, are various shades of gray.  But the darkest hue of gray is probably Baby Kochamma who cleverly manipulates the proceedings and the people around her to suit her own designs, and to move the story towards its gory, tragic end.

If you are able to let yourself adrift, and allow the story to carry you in its stream - like the river which plays a central role in the proceedings - then you are bound to admire the narrative, and wax eloquent in the end about the dazzlingly innovative way of storytelling.

The fact that Roy beat one Australian and four British nominees to win the 1997 Booker fills one with pride that such a work as this should have emerged from the pen of an Indian author.

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Sunday, 2 August 2015

Article on stress

How to beat stress?

August 2, 2015
Best Ways to Beat Stress
How to beat stress?
Ask anybody what is bothering her or him.  Chances are that the word ‘stress’ is likely to figure in the top three causes of their affliction.  The word is used to describe a variety of conditions and when one is unable to put a finger on what it is that is ailing her or him, one is likely to ascribe it to stress.  In today’s world where people compete for every available resource, put in long hours at work to make ends meet and engage in fleeting, intense and shallow relationships, it is little wonder that many of them are likely to feel ‘stressed out’.
So what is stress? 
Stress is a catch-all term that describes a gamut of sensations and emotional changes.  When one is faced with an adverse situation, the response to the situation varies according to the person’s temperament and capacity to handle pressure.  Not everybody has the same level of endurance under duress; hence the stressful response varies from person to person.  Faced with a calamity, the body responds by resorting to the ‘fight-fright-flight’ mechanism.  Initially, you may be inclined to put up a fight, but the situation may scare you so much that abandoning the fight and walking away may be more appealing.
When this response, which usually applies to an immediate adverse situation, is prolonged either quantitatively or worsens qualitatively, stress is the likely result.  That is to say, if the response is prolonged over several days to weeks to even years, stress becomes chronic.  Also, if the response to any situation is overwhelming and the quality of life is affected as a result, stress ends up taking a severe toll on the mind and body.
Any situation such as being struck in traffic, being taken to task by the boss, arguments with the spouse, the upcoming interview or exam, trying to meet a deadline, working extra shifts or an increasing financial burden can cause stress.
How does it manifest itself? 
Stress being a multifarious condition, can present with a variety of symptoms and signs.  It affects both bodily functions and mental faculties.  In the body, it could cause palpitations, shortness of breath, unexplained aches and pains, headaches, change in bowel habits, disturbance in sleep, weight loss or gain, and changes in libido or menstrual cycle.  Psychologically, it could present as anxiety, low mood, irritability, low tolerance of frustration, anger and violent outbursts.
While in the acute stress response, it is adrenaline and nor-adrenaline that are mainly released by the body to prepare itself for an appropriate action; in chronic stress, it is cortisol – a type of steroidal hormone – that is found in high levels in the body.  It is said to be responsible for lowering the immunity levels, and increasing blood pressure and sugar levels, thus increasing the likelihood of having a heart attack.  Stress is also likely to worsen pre-existing conditions of both body and mind, such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, anxiety, depression, insomnia and drug and alcohol dependence.
What can one do to reduce stress?
The key word here is ‘reduce’ because it is impractical to expect stress to totally disappear.  In fact, a little bit of stress is necessary, so that the ‘fight-fright-flight’ response is suitably activated and one is aroused and alert enough to deal with the situation appropriately.  However, if the duration of stress is more or the severity of stress is too much to bear, then help would be necessary to reduce stress.
If you recognise any of the ailments that are listed above in yourself, then steps could be taken to reduce and control stress at the earliest stage.  It may be as simple as a change in the lifestyle.  Give up smoking or excessive drinking, for starters.  Look closely at your life and identify the triggers for stress and what you can do to get rid of those triggers.  If you are working too hard, perhaps it is time to schedule a break for yourself.  If relationship issues are bothering you, communicating openly about them may help.
Exercise helps immensely.  All forms of physical activity are known to raise the levels of endorphins – naturally-occurring ‘feel good’ chemicals in the body.  Certain foodstuffs such as chocolates and peppers and other activities such as body massage are also known to increase endorphin levels in the body.  Yoga and tai chi are very useful in keeping the body fit and mind calm.  Controlled body postures, slow and relaxed movements and mindful breathing techniques that are part of yoga can be very effective in keeping stress under control.
A positive attitude that incorporates selflessness, happiness and love; accepting situations and people for what they are, instead of trying to control everything and everybody; and spiritual practices such as meditation or simply being aware of both positive and negative emotional changes are all said to relieve stress.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ model for dealing with stress.  One has to choose the right technique for stress reduction based on how she or he responds to the technique.  If stress still continues to be a problem, one should never hesitate to approach a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist for professional help.

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