Sunday, December 22, 2019

A Wounded Civilization

“India will go on...” That was what R.K. Narayan told V.S. Naipaul about the future of India. Soon after sitting among the ruins of the Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar, Naipaul found it impossible to associate the past grandeur with the present squalor he saw in Hospet, a town not far from the ruins. He called it an unending nullity of the peasant-serf countryside. It was as if nothing had existed that spoke directly to the fabulous history and he wondered about the intellectual depletion that must have come to India with invasions and conquests of the last thousand years. What happened in Vijayanagar has happened in other parts of the country in varying degrees.
In the north ruin lay on ruin; Moslem ruin on Hindu ruin, Moslem on Moslem. In history books, in the accounts of wars and conquests and plunder, the intellectual depletion passes unnoticed. India absorbs and outlasts its conquerors, Indians say. But at Vijayanagar, one wondered whether intellectually for a thousand years India hadn’t always retreated before its conquerors and whether, in its periods of apparent revival, India hadn’t been making itself archaic again, intellectually smaller, always vulnerable.
The bitter subjection of India by the British led to the rekindling of intellectual recruitment when Indian nationalism proclaimed the Indian past; religion was inextricably mixed with political awakening. But there was always a contradiction between the archaism of national pride and the promise of the new. The contradiction has at last cracked the civilization open.
The turbulence in India hasn’t come from foreign invasion or conquest; it has been generated from within. India cannot respond in her old way, by a further retreat into archaism. Her borrowed institutions worked like borrowed institutions, but archaic India can provide no substitutions for the press, parliament, and courts. The crisis of India is not only political or economic. The larger crisis is of a wounded old civilization that has, at last, become aware of its inadequacies and is without the intellectual means to move ahead.
Naipaul wouldn’t be off the mark if he were to repeat his opinion on the political turbulence that is rocking India now. After seventy years of democracy, India is still in the throes of civilizational strife where Hindus and Moslems are pitted against each other.
National pride and the ideology of religion cannot but take the place of democratic institutions and processes. Taking on big-ticket entry into democracy demands intellectual discourse and the ability to find common grounds even when you have absolute power. Progressive political parties having lost arguments of their own ideology two decades ago have co-opted political Islam to stay afloat and claw back into power. However, the disproportionate power they wield in media and academia has come to bear as a corrosive agent preventing honest intellectual inquiry.

* A wounded civilization - V.S. Naipaul

Saturday, August 17, 2019

On Carlson's hoax

"Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."

(W.B. Yeats)

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Saving the World!

It came about in this way.

During the children's revolt of the sixties and the seventies, I was just old enough to understand what these kids had in mind--they meant to turn the world upside down -- just young enough to believe that they might actually succeed. It's true. Every morning when I opened my eyes, I expected to see that the new era had begun, that the sky was a brighter blue and the grass a brighter green. I expected to hear laughter in the air to see people dancing in the street, not just kids -- everyone! I won't apologize for my naivete; you only have to listen to the songs that I wasn't alone.
Then one day when I was in the mid teens I woke up and realized that the new era was never going to begin. The revolt hadn't been put down, it had just dwindled away into a fashion statement. Can I have been the only person in the world who was disillusioned by this? Bewildered by this? It seemed so. Everyone else seemed to be able to pass it off with a cynical grin that said, "Well, what did you really expect? There's never been any more than this and never will be anymore than this. Nobody's out to save the world, because nobody gives a damn about the world, that was just a bunch of goofy kids talking. Get a job, make some money, work till you're sixty, then move to Florida and die"

- Daniel Quinn (Ishmael) 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Gospel of fear

School Bully for President

When people are tired of condescending nuances and onslaught of cliches, they become cynical, dismissive and give the pulpit to the bully. The bully returns the favor as he bares their visceral fear and goes about dumbing down the dialog. All that remains is to decide how to lynch the victim.

"We are all Muslims"

Now it was clearer: the civilised world— where laughter or leisure was not a crime against divinity—was getting cosier, and thereby more vulnerable, in its selective, politically convenient appraisal of Islamism. The political class could not discard platitudes in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Whenever a politician, invariably the leader of a victim state, said ‘Terror has no religion’ or ‘Don’t vilify Muslims’, it was a disingenuous assumption, and a convenient distraction. No faith divided or terrorized or subjugated people as Islam did in the world after the Cold War. A meaningful conversation on it was impossible because condescending liberals and meek politicians assumed that talking about Islam was denigrating Islam. This cop-out—and the accompanying face-off between ‘Islamophobia’ (a stigma attached to anyone who dared to break the consensus) and ‘Islamofascism’ (a visible version of domination and dehumanization)—made the sanguineous God freer, and the domain of fear wider. 

 - Prasanna Rajan, Open Magazine

Religion of War 

Devout Mohammedans assemble in four different ways.
1) They assemble several times daily for prayer, summoned by a voice from on high. The small rhythmic groups formed on these occasions may be called prayer packs. Each movement is exactly prescribed and orientated in one direction - towards Mecca. Once a week, at the Friday prayer, these packs grow to crowds.2) They assemble for the Holy War against unbelievers.3) They assemble in Mecca, during the great pilgrimage.4) They assemble at the Last judgement.
As in all religions, invisible crowds are of great importance., but in Islam, more strongly than the other world religions, these are invisible double crowds, standing in opposition to each other.
The bi-partition of the crowd in Islam is unconditional. The faithful and the unbelieving are fated to be separate for ever and to fight each other. The War of Religion is a sacred duty and thus, though in a less comprehensive form, the double crowd of the Last Judgement is prefigured in every earthly battle.
When the days of peace are over, the Holy War comes into its own again. "Mohammed" says one of the greatest experts on Islam, "is the prophet of fighting and of war... What he first achieved in his Arabian sphere he leaves as a testament for the future of his community: the fight against the infidels, the expansion, not so much of the faith as of its sphere of power, which is the sphere of power of Allah. What matters to the fighters for Islam is not so much the conversion as the subjection of infidels." The Koran, the book of the prophet inspired by God, leaves no doubt of this.
"When the sacred months are over, slay the idolaters wherever you find them.Arrest them, besiege them and lie in ambush for them."

Crowds and Power - Elias Canetti, 1962

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Judas Gospel

“The Emergency” in India refers to a 21 month period in 1975-77 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi unilaterally had a state of emergency declared across the country. Most of Gandhi’s political opponents were imprisoned and the press was censored. Several atrocities using the police force were reported from the time. The Emergency was one of the most controversial periods of independent India’s history. 

K.R. Meera's Judas’ Gospel (Malayalam: Yudasinte Suvisesham) is a fiction exploring the period‘s aftermath through the eyes of victims and perpetrators of state brutality unleashed on rebels who were inspired by idealism and the romance of resistance.

The shock and awe of the violence have faded from public space and the memory of it evokes nothing more than jejune indifference. The novel describes with a lot of heart how those bright and sensitive idealists were crushed under the boots of state machinery wherein the hunter, prey, the writer and the reader hurtle toward a shared experience when we read Gospel of Judas. It unravels the heart breaking cries and nightmares of a generation.

The novel follows P.U. Das aka ‘Croc’ Yudas and Prema. Das is a former Naxalite/Rebel and Prema is the daughter of a cop notorious for his proclivity for torture. When at the end of torture Das’ ribcage is broken, he gives up names of his fellow comrades which included his lover and a dear friend. Having survived the ordeal but distraught at the loss of his pride as a revolutionary, Das rechristens himself to be ‘Crocodile Yudas’. He spends the rest of his life in ignominy and shame for being a traitor to his cause and friends. He becomes an expert at recovering corpses from deep waters.

Prema was a five year old during the Emergency. Her relationship to the torture camp and revolution were established by her binge drinking father’s proud description of his colleagues’ brutalities at the camp and the he way submits own family to domestic terror. Prema recognized that Das whose overgrown beard and hair resembled Jesus Christ, carried the sin of the world for its redemption and she follows him. Das would leave her at each juncture. Every journey that she undertook revealed more details and insights about the uncertain and dangerous time.

Prema meets the head of the Camp, ‘Beast’ Parameswaran who became all alone in old age having witnessed the dissolution of his own family when in the end he saw himself as mere conduit of time’s justice. In the middle of meeting, the beast cries out when Prema has a little cut from the chipped coffee cup. He considers himself as nothing more than an insignificant cog in the wheel of power or a tool in time’s box. If he were to join the force again, he might do the same. In his late sagacity, he recognizes and accepts his destiny. Das later talks empathetically about his tormentors who took great care while hammering steel pins under his fingernails. The hunter and the hunted look back at their shared history circumspect over their roles and destinies.

The author draws a nuanced picture of state oppression and the actors – victims and assailants lurking in the aisles filled with bloodshed and scream. The field of blood (Aceldama) is drenched not by the traitor Judas’ blood, but the tears of empathy for fellow beings who go on living unaffected by the injustice and atrocities as long as they are not subjected to it. Gospel of Judas is relentlessly focused on the theme and the experience leaves the reader with a heavy heart.

Similar stories are reenacted somewhere in the world every day – not only in Africa, Latin America, China and other Asian countries ruled by military, even in nations advertised as the best examples of developed democracies. You can find a Kakkayam camp in Guantanamo or or similar camps in client countries. In the novel Prema reflects on Madam Roland’s famous quote – Oh! Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name.

Gospel of Judas is a very important and relevant novel in our times. To quote from the book “It is import to raise questions – more than winning or losing a fight. The idealists fought a losing battle. We were na├»ve and inexperienced. We took arms, hoping to liberate the world overnight. Sometime in future we will open the eyes of people. But as Prema says it is more important to be alive”.

Yudasinte Suvisesham - Malayalam short Fiction by K.R. Meera

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Imperial mission of civilizing India

Preet Bharara’s rather curious and contentious riposte on the media reports of his actions against the Indian diplomat facilitated by the state department brought back the arguments on asymmetric international relationships and memories of archaic colonial notions of imperialists’ burden of enforcing the rule of law.  The institutions of the Justice and State departments were hardly equipped with tools to learn and negotiate civilizational clashes as evident from their collective shock and dismay at the unexpected fury and payback from India cutting across political, social and regional divides. After all weren't they making a firm stand for a just cause for a hapless member of the underclass from these very population? Wasn't the alleged perpetrator a symbol of everything that is wrong with the country she represents?

Legitimizing Colonialism

There is nothing wrong with the questions if the context weren't complex involving independent countries, international and domestic laws, cultural differences and dissimilar government structures with the kind of history and standing in the world. The discourse on the legal premise and actions where predicated on the legitimacy of (local) rule of law and tacit suggestions of a savage nation with corrupt and vindictive society that needs to be saved from itself. That the legitimization of legal overreach and subsequent actions were instigated and cheered on by liberal intelligentsia is no accident. Relationships with India historically veered towards chaos every time Democrats wielded power. Pages of New York Times and Washington Post are replete with aspersions on stereotypes of caste ridden India which has its origins in the imperial British constructs to define social structures to support maintain its colonial rule after their theories of inferior race had failed. Democrats in the U.S resemble the Labour party of England in displaying a latent imperial attitude while vowing on higher ideals. In the post-colonial era, it’s the liberal political force that is driving the civilizing mission than the conservatives.

Here is Lord Curzon the Governor General and Viceroy of India giving a simple definition of the civilizing mission’s aim. The purpose that sustained the empire was:

…to fight for the right, to abhor the imperfect, the unjust or the mean, to swerve neither to the right hand nor to the left, to care nothing for flattery or applause or odium or abuse, but to remember that the Almighty has placed your hand on the greatest of his ploughs, to drive the blade a little forward in y our time, and to free somewhere among these millions you have left a little justice or happiness or prosperity, a sense of manliness or moral dignity, a spring of patriotism, a dawn of intellectual enlightenment, or a stirring of duty, where it did not before exist. That is enough, that is the Englishman’s justification in India.”

Internalizing the mission of civilizing

As for Preet Bharara, who was at the receiving end of many Indians’ ire and ridicule, was also lauded as the paragon of the West’s rule of law. There was a misplaced expectation from him being Indian origin. Assimilation and internalization of the Western civilization are not based on the race or culture. 

*There is a passage from George Orwell’s Burmese Days when the protagonist Mr. Flory, a British Merchant who came to Burma to exploit her timber resources, is irritated by the imperial racism of his countrymen who rudely discuss the admittance of the only Indian doctor in town, Dr. Veraswami, to the sacrosanct ‘club’.  Turning away in disgust, Flory visits his friend in the verandah and begins conversation with him. He realizes that Veraswami was well versed with English drinking habits. Flory begins to berate the British for their racist attitude, criticizes the moral pretensions masking their exploitative enterprises in India and the hypocritical talk about white man’s burden. Veraswami, who has apparently internalized the attitudes and aims of the British civilizing mission, is appalled by Flory’s defeatist utterances:

But truly, truly, Mr. Flory, you must not speak so! Why iss it that always you are abusing the pukka sahibs, as you call them? They are the salt of the earth. Consider the great things they have done - consider the great administrators who have made British India what it iss. Consider Clive, Warren Hastings, Dalhousie, and Curzon… And consider how noble a type iss the English gentleman! Their glorious loyalty to one another! Even those of them, whose manner iss unfortunate – some Englishmen are arrogant, I concede – have the great, sterling qualities that we Orientals lack.

Excerpts from the book - Colonialism As Civilizing Mission - Cultural Ideology in British India.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Aam Admi Party: We The People

“I ain’t never gonna be scared no more. I was, though. For a while it looked as though we was beat. Good and beat. Looked like we didn’t have nobody in the whole wide world but enemies. Like nobody was friendly no more. Made me feel kinda bad and scared too, like we was lost and nobody cared…. Rich fellas come up and they die, and their kids ain’t no good and they die out, but we keep on coming. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out, they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, cause we’re the people.”
Ma Joad (John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath)

In an interview given hours before announcing his candidacy against Sheila Dixit in Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal had given a glimpse of his belief system. He spoke about how it has evolved from a child’s religious leanings into an agnostic life of a youth in the IIT and now exploring a new found faith – where destiny and circumstances lend space and time for a cause much bigger and complex than what mere mortals could conjure up. How else could Arvind explain the phenomenon of harnessing the yearning of a billion nobodies of a nation who have been oppressed and enslaved for centuries to a force that is poised to change the political destiny of India? It’s not any ideology imported from the west, but a tacit acknowledgement of a consciousness he has seen awakened in the battered and the harassed.

Shock and Awe

One could see Arvind engage anyone with a question with absolute clarity of thought and earnestness to share what he thought to a degree of exhaustion. On the other hand you could see the politicians and their proxies squirm uncomfortably at his questions. He hurt their egos like nobody else did. Their sense of self-righteousness and entitlement has been badly damaged when Arvind’s words went straight to the millions of people who were in a quest to articulate their disgust and a way out of the labyrinthine rut of political edifice.

The political class regardless of their size and affiliation are now in shock and their confusion is palpable. Suddenly they are not special anymore. They undergo spasms of self-doubt. Their fear of discomforting possibility of the loss of mystique that separated them from whom they’ve ruled appears real now. Their understanding of the world order is crumbling. For the first time, the ruling class cutting across all brands is scared ever since their original colonial masters, the British imperialists helped establish their brown supremacy to exploit their own countrymen in the garb of governance. The awakening of consciousness in common man is the ultimate threat to the political elite and the sons and daughters of their class like the Rajes, the Scinidias and the Gandhis. The people can now easily see how small these selfish hoarders are and know that they will be brushed aside soon to make way for the future.

The Awakening vs. An apolitical pipedream?

The fiercest critics of AAP, especially left leaning intellectuals harp on the term apolitical to define the movement – meaning the party is a ramshackle expression of faux outrage, cult following devoid of any serious foundation of sound ideology. They dismissed the movement predicting an imminent demise. But the stunning debut in Delhi shook the pundits of traditional politics to the core. They are at a loss to explain the phenomenon.

What ideology better than Swaraj as envisioned by Mahatma Gandhi would suit Indian ethos and model for an equitable and inclusive growth? Arvind himself has written a book titled Swaraj. The common folks in Delhi however have figured it out already. They understand that the democracy in India has a structural problem as highlighted when each case of corruption has been fizzled out at the altar of democratic institutions. They realize that the Constitution of India gives the framework for good governance. They know that there are several solutions to one problem and they have a say in choosing what is right for the common good. They debunked the myth of expensive elections by financing the process themselves. They after all voted in Delhi for a good candidate irrespective of his or her identities such as religion, economic and political stature and caste. Traditional politics with its caste, cash, top down high command calculations and irrelevant ideology have been put on notice.

Politics in India is not a cynical exercise of right wing strategists or leisurely activity for liberal intellectuals anymore. It takes place in the middle of throbbing crowds in markets, places of worship and entertainment in each cranny of the country. They always longed to take back their long lost rights to a just and dignified everyday life from the corrupt and regressive political class. The difference now is they know how!

 Men who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby their fruits may be eaten. And the failure hangs over the State like a great sorrow. ...and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

- Grapes of Wrath

A Wounded Civilization

“India will go on...” That was what R.K. Narayan told V.S. Naipaul about the future of India. Soon after sitting among the ruins of the ...