Monday, May 11, 2020

R. Ramachandran

R. Ramachandran (1923 - 2005) lived the life of a poet though he wrote rarely. If you'd asked him about his reasons to write, he would've shrugged it off wondering why he wrote them in the first place! The writer vexed with existential questions of life's absurdity and randomness, creative art as its byproduct was equally absurd and meaningless.
He had lived his youth in the pristine splendor of pre-modern India and in the slow pace of village and small town habitats. Yet he felt the disquiet beneath the surface whenever a gentle draft helps a dead leaf tumble down to certain death or when faint sunshine spreads across green valleys under the gloom of rain-laden clouds. He considered himself merely a conduit to record the angst hard enough to lose oneself in pursuit of the glory of awards or membership in literary cabals!
an enchantment that bloomed like the sky
flitting about and evanescent -
a yearning that swelled like sunshine
a sorrow that grew like shadows
a silence that condensed like the night.
who will ask for who and about what?
In the night
my heart played a symphony
I composed yoking
the Earth's eloquent
wide pastures' green,
and the Sky's boundless
silent deep blue.
Presto, I heard the clamor
of Time's roaring laughter
as it hurtled away
hauling death on its back.

note: Free translation of two poems from Malayalam by yours truly.


I saw Irfan for the first time on television in the eighties. It was a different world with the good old Doordarshan as the only channel for visual media artists who themselves were barely emerging out of the long shadows of theater and literature. Primetime serials carried ambitious projects upon the shoulders of the middle of the road heavyweights like Nasrudheen Shah, Om Puri, Shyam Benegal, etc.
There was Kathasagar (1986), a haphazard collection of episodes loosely based on short stories from world literature. One of them was Chekhov's Ward No. 6 in which Irfan played the role of a doctor opposite Pankaj Berry, the hard-headed inmate in the mental asylum. Irfan presented the turmoil boiling over in the doctor's mind as the doctor's empathy for the patient evolves when he begins to question the sanity of the world around him. By the end of that twenty-odd minutes, one could see that we just watched something special. Even a casual viewer would make an instant connection with the character, his world and see what Irfan wanted you to see and feel. There was no hint of make-belief or artist pulling his rank. He appeared and behaved like an outsider having a look into the world of television.
Irfan did have more than a look into the hallowed halls of not just Indian cinema, international cinema too. He proved to the world that he had so much more to offer than the stereotypes of Slumdog millionaire. However, what was strikingly remarkable about him was that he kept his endearing persona exactly the same even after more than 30 years of an acting career that scaled incredible heights. Pick any movie, you will know what went through the minds of each of Irfan's characters. Their joys and struggles would appear so real, more so in an Indian setting. Incidentally, the majority of his movies had journeys as a theme, in which Irfaan reveled while unwinding the inner transformation of his own and others' around him. He cherished the quintessential Indian and it was easy for anyone to spot. Irfan has been having a look into them from outside.
In Paan Singh Tomar (2012), there was a scene when Irfan's character has had his chance to avenge the adversary who'd forced him off the edge of endurance and made him lose everything he earned from a lifetime of steeplechases against all odds. He wanted now time to stop and plead his case to his nemesis and ruminate over what could have been; how a callous society failed a soldier and a champion athlete. You'd feel the same anguish you had watching the doctor lose the game of wits with the world in Ward No. 6. Irfan brings you closer to the character and his world again
You wouldn't see Irfan make gratuitous statements for political masters or find him hang out among elites stoking religious divisions. He was still an outsider having a look into the world to redeem it for all of us. He will be missed. RIP.


A virus latched on to the human microbiome and turned this world upside down. It traveled across nations and continents without a passport but used all that humans had achieved over a million years to move from Main street to Mars. Even in the age of travel bans for whimsical reasons, the sudden surge in the spread and the mortality rates have spooked governments and people alike. The systems we have built to shield and preserve ourselves are teetering at the edge of collapse. It is staggering to think that if the Virus was a bit more lethal than it already is, civilization, as we know, could have been facing its worst existential threat. I hope the price to conquer this unseen enemy will not be too high by the time when it will be over.
In the meantime, it is important to keep the senses normal as much as possible when everything normal as we know - daily rides to school, work, grocery stores, weekend visits to family, and friends have been halted. We are quarantining ourselves at home, county, states, and countries to wait out the pandemic and survive. The long line of migrant workers in Delhi walking the longest distance home, doctors, and nurses appealing for supplies and medical equipment from the corners of New Orleans and New Jersey are stark reminders that the system is under heavy stress.
Jose Saramago's dystopian novel Blindness is a chilling inquiry into what makes us human in the face of an epidemic of "white blindness". The eerie sense of panic we feel now is the backdrop of Saramago's story in which the fabric of society is torn apart when the government attempting to contain the contagion with increasingly inept and repressive measures, while overcrowded asylums degrade living conditions surrounded by military. The internees battle each other and burn down the asylum only to find that the army has abandoned the asylum, who afterwards join the throngs of wandering blind people in a devastated city to fight and survive. The story ends with the ailment vanishing as suddenly and inexplicably as it had begun, but not before putting human capacity to cope with its ultimate test.
For our own sake, let's keep everyone's health and wellbeing in our prayers and hope for a flattened curve and cure soon.

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.

R. Ramachandran

R. Ramachandran (1923 - 2005) lived the life of a poet though he wrote rarely. If you'd asked him about his reasons to write, he would...