Champagne and China

Champagne!

Champagne in his Good Days
Champagne, in good days

Do not be misled; I am not talking about the sparkling white wine, which comes from a region of that name in France. I am talking of the stray dog, also of the same given name, Champagne who shares the space with a score and more of potted plants placed at the entrance of my house. He quietly occupied that spot more than half a dozen years ago, and before we could realise, started staking a claim on it as ‘HIS DOMAIN’. We didn’t mind his presence there because he barked at every moving thing that crossed our entrance, giving us a vague sense of security. Soon doles of leftover food became a routine and Champagne started demanding them as his right. Passers by started treating him with the regard due to someone’s pet; unknowingly, other dogs started paying obeisance. Our occasional unintentional good treatment and cosseting led to further closeness with the cur. Our affinity notwithstanding, Champagne has bitten nearly a dozen unsuspecting humans including my dear wife and yours truly.

In the last few days––since the lockdown due to Covid-19 pandemic came into effect, to be precise, there has been practically no human footfall in the Amity University campus where we live; stray dogs and birds have been ruling the roost, almost. While strictly observing social distancing norms I have been taking occasional walks. A few days ago, Champagne started accompanying me on these walks.

Champagne expanding territory…

The other day I found something strange in Champagne’s behaviour––he was stopping every now and then, smelling something and peeing on objects. It wasn’t once or twice––he did it more than ten times in the span of an hour. I thought it was unusual. I wondered and pitied, “Was he suffering from some ailment of the urinary system? Do dogs suffer from prostate?” Concern for the poor dog led me to Google the issue and also consult my ‘genuine’ canine lover friends. I discovered that the act of peeing was a dog’s way of marking its territory. Over a few days in the past, he had been trying to expand his geographical area of influence.

You got it right. It’s time China appeared in this discourse…

Champagne was behaving exactly like China––flexing muscles and grabbing territory altering geography. It’ll be easy to recall China messing affairs in Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Japan, the sea to its south (some people inaccurately call that region, South China Sea), Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Nepal, Doklam and Ladakh––the list is very long. Not to talk of the US, whole of Europe and many other countries all over the world whose economies have been dealt a near death blow by Covid-19 pandemic––allegedly triggered by China.

And by doing so, Champagne, like China, was getting on the wrong side of many who were affected by his belligerence.

Then…

Then, yesterday something happened which made me wonder about China’s immediate future.

Champagne Cornered
Champagne cornered, pays for belligerence…

All the dogs of the area––the strong and docile dogs who had been sitting quiet all the while; the weak dogs who were whimpering but had felt helpless; the couldn’t-care-less dogs; the happy-go-lucky dogs… all the dogs, all the dogs without exception––got together and attacked Champagne. In their offensive action they were fierce like wolves; even the weak and meek ones. They barked in chorus and vied for their turns to bite Champagne. Some, who could, went for his jugular; they wanted to shred him to pieces, smithereens. My effort to save him from the wrath of the angry pack was just about sufficient to save his life.

Champagn'e Jugular
Jugular… almost gone!

Now…

Champagne is licking his wounds (except the ones around his jugular). His body language suggests that he is ruminating, “What went wrong?”

Everything about the recent happenings suggests that China’s Champagne Moment is near, very near.

Will a crystal gazer bury the doubts about ‘when’!?

World Leadership Beyond Covid-19

The 9/11 terror attacks led to killing of over 3000 Americans in New York. The US reacted; formed a coalition and vowed to avenge the strikes. In a response that was largely punitive for the mastermind and the abettors, who were still invisible, Uncle Sam went pounding and pulverising Afghanistan. As if that were not exemplary enough for the rest of the world, an enraged George W Bush went about setting his own standards for the world’s behaviour. He threatened the comity of nations: “Either you are with us or against us.”

Arrogance!

The outcome was much expected: In a moment of America’s extreme sorrow, the world responded with sympathy on the face and a subdued indifference in the heart. The feigned feelings made little difference to the US.

The US was the (mind the strikethrough) a Super Power then. The world looked at that country with awe, and respect, born of fear of its military and economic might rather than reverence for a true leader.   

In its effect, the Covid-19 pandemic has been more devastating than the 9/11 attacks––the death toll in the US has exceeded 10,300. It is more than three times the lives lost in 9/11 and the figure continues to rise harrowingly. The catastrophic effect on the economy will be more evident as time passes. In denial, President Trump first called the pandemic a hoax and, in a matter of days changed tack to declare that it was horrific.

With a difference though, this pandemic is indeed America’s 9/11 (Version 2.0).

In 2001, without a second thought, the US began bombing the perpetrators of 9/11 allegedly hiding in Afghanistan. In this instance, although President Trump has blamed China for the spread of the pandemic, and has gone on to call Covid-19 as the Chinese Virus, he has displayed no desire or keenness to punish that country. As it appears, the US contemplates enough before punishing and chastising countries for errant behaviour. China is certainly not Vietnam, Korea, Panama, Guatemala or even Iraq.

There are stark reasons for this reluctance. The years gone by have exposed the rot setting in and have proved the powerlessness of the most powerful nation on the earth. Whether it is Paris Summit on Climate Change, or it is the Nuclear Deal with Iran, or it is trade war with China, or it is the affairs of the NATO, or it is China’s expansionist actions in the Sea in the South of China or it is intervention in a war-torn Syria, the US has gradually relinquished its leadership role. There are allegations that in the last few days, American firms have got a few consignments of medical equipment, meant for Europe, diverted to the US (of course, unscrupulously). Needless to say, these are acts unbecoming of a world leader. In hindsight, Hollywood’s projection of Uncle Sam as the saviour of the world looks comical.

In the same context, the high death toll in Europe (in Italy, Spain, France and the UK in particular) has laid bare the hollowness of the superiority of the West over the rest of the world. Last month, the Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte was heard saying, “If Europe does not rise to this unprecedented challenge, the whole European structure loses its raison d’être for the people.” The Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic was scathing: “European solidarity does not exist… that was a fairy tale. The only country that can help us in this hard situation is the People’s Republic of China. To the rest of them, thanks for nothing.”

The Covid-19 pandemic curve for China is flattening. Beijing has already begun extending medical support to countries all over the world. Its economy will soon get off the ventilator and show signs of improvement. But, if the news of dissent brewing in the Chinese population is to be believed, the peacefulness of further rise of the People’s Republic of China would be in doubt.

The leadership in India took timely and daring steps to fight the pandemic. Until now Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken the population of 1.3 billion along by exploiting the ancient art of ‘saam, daam, dand, bhed’ (साम, दाम, दंड, भेद) literally meaning: “by hook or crook, or any rule in the book.” His leadership will be put to an even greater test when the storm has gone past and it is time to pick pieces and revive the economy.

It will be a while before conditions start improving in the US and other parts of the world. As it appears, Post Covid-19, US will not be automatically restored to its Super

IMG_3980
Leadership in the Post Covid-19 World

Power position. Perhaps the world will look for a replacement for its desiccated and introverted leadership. Also, in a world that clamours for human rights and democracy, Russia and China will have to work overtime to prove their credentials to be accepted as the Number One. Perhaps it would be a leaderless world until a truly deserving country occupies that first-among-equals status. Perhaps the pace of life will slow down. Perhaps people will be more inclined to family values and spirituality….   

Did someone say (…more loudly, this time), “It will be an Asian Century?”

All said (and hinted), it would be naïve to assume that the leadership of the post Covid-19 world would be up for grabs. It’ll have to be truly earned.

Reason Why Prime Minister Modi’s Initiative Deserves Whole-Hearted & Unconditional Support by Every Indian

Kudos to the person who has made this presentation (I wish I can find him and thank him for his effort) to explain the complex issue of the Corona pandemic. It is very simple, even President Trump––who, at present seems to be more interested in the health of the US economy rather than the health of the american people––should be able to make sense of it.

Lockdown explained for dummies

Smothering a Smouldering India

“The hottest corners in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”

~Dante Alighieri

To be able to have an opinion in times of crises, one must be in the know of things. How does one become well informed when one is not sure of the veracity of what one hears? How does one believe what one sees when there is doubt about the genuineness of the source? The faith in the media (social media, included) has eroded considerably. There’s a limit to the size of a pinch of salt with which one can accept a bit of information these days. That limit is breached so often. Truth is a casualty of our times and circumstances.

The sense that something was drastically ‘amiss’ (I do not consider myself knowledgeable and qualified to use the word, ‘wrong’) dawned on me last week when I spent nearly four torturous hours in traffic travelling from the IGI Airport to my residence in NOIDA. Google was in a state of confusion too, as I guess, three categories of people had stifled the NCR––those, who were against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), those in support of it, and the police force trying to contain the mob’s fury and to maintain law and order.

There were riots in several parts of the country; some people died, many were injured. There were conflicting claims of police brutality and counter claims of policemen being hounded and beaten. There were visuals (some ‘doctored’) to support those claims. It was time to get off the fence, out of the comfort zone, and to have an opinion.

How?

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

The speeches and the debates on television were high on decibel, low on content. The speakers did not sound convincing in absolute terms. Quite a few of the speeches reminded me of my visit, a few years ago, to a world heritage site in Canada: “Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.” It is a cliff where the first nation (the native) people guised in the skin of the wild buffaloes used to mingle with the herds, cause panic and make the unsuspecting animals run through channels guiding them to their death by falling from the cliff.

Are opinion-makers guised as well-wishers driving a naïve population down different cliffs to mass deaths? Time alone will show. For now, there’s a dire need to defer the urge to follow the Pied Pipers wearing cloaks of any colour.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

But how long can one be a sorry spectator and be insensitive to what is going on? A serving general officer of the Indian Army opened his mouth to air some thoughts on the issue. His own breed of men who had donned the military uniform at some point in time in the past, pounced on him, tried to shred him. I shuddered looking at his plight because I had donned military uniform for 35 years before re-attiring. Should I, or I should not, have an opinion, which in any case would instantly regard me as politically inclined (either side)?

I wouldn’t have been so indecisive even in a warlike situation; the dilemma was damning.

A Roman mosaic depicting Medusa, National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Then I saw this activist. Her countenance reminded me of Medusa, the mythical being with snakes in place of hair––one who could turn things to ashes by just staring at them. She was spewing venom; advising the youth to give incorrect information when the officials visited them to collect data. “Give your names as Ranga-Billa…,” she said something to that effect. She must have been joking, I thought, because she was smiling as she said what she said. I am sure, as a responsible citizen, she wouldn’t want the youth to epitomise criminals like Ranga and Billa. Also, if people gave incorrect information, one would be groping for reliable data in the future, to write a treatise on the “Algebra of Infinite (in-)Justice (in India).”

To, or not to, give information sought by the government is one thing; to give incorrect information, is quite the other. The latter, would be a grave mistake––could at best be avoided. On demand, we give (with proof) whatever information a foreign government seeks from us when we apply for a visa. We let open our world to Google, WhatsApp and Facebook. Some of these agencies have been found to be misusing the information.  What then, is the harm in sharing the same with our own government?

Some are wary, and are nudging others to be fearful of the intentions of the government.

We are a vibrant democracy. We have proved it repeatedly. If there is a trust deficit, when time comes, people at the helm can be voted out of power as easily as they were voted in; and others, with ‘better’ credentials can be made to replace them. If something has been done unconstitutionally, it can likewise be undone.

The constitution itself is but a document compiled by humans; there are ways to rephrase it, amend it to meet the demands of the changing times.

That said. I am still confused and undecided on the issues causing so much consternation. Until, I form an opinion, I have decided to continue to be neutral. For, in this bitter winter the hottest corners of hell (reserved for neutral people) might still provide some comfort.

I pray to God to grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. In my own small way, I have taken it upon myself to urge people––regardless of their stand on the issue––to refrain from burning buses, pelting stones and causing disruptions. I firmly believe that any increase in my ilk is sure to help smother a smouldering India. In the final analysis, whichever side prevails, we all will have to pay for the senseless losses the country is incurring today.

Stumbling on a Purpose at 60

Like any other day, I woke up early and got down to my routine; brushed, and made myself a cup of tea. I felt a pleasant nip in the air when I opened the door to fetch the newspaper. Soon it’d be winter. There was no breeze; a thick layer of dust had settled on the leaves. People like robots had started walking the street in front of our house––the safaiwallahs, the housekeeping staff and the sleepy guards trudging or riding rickety bicycles enthusiastically to handover charge and go home. A dog yawned, another peed on the revered Tulsi plant from which, thanks to Baba Ramdev, passers-by have been plucking leaves to ward off many known and unknown diseases; some others barked, exercising their lungs. A bird chased by a dog, chirped and hopped from a branch to another as it mocked its canine adversary.

Champagne in his elements

It was like any other day.

Then came Champagne, running. He licked my hand as I bent down to pick up the newspaper. He was all over me, wagging his tail. He calmed down and sat by my side only when I gave him a caress that he considers his birth right. Champagne is an affectionate stray who stakes claim (with authority) on the membership of our family.

Chhaya, all smiles, walked in as I settled down to read the newspaper. “Good morning dear,” she said as she gave me a warmer-than-usual hug. “Happy birthday! Many happy returns of the day….” She was lavish with her wishes. “So, now you are a senior citizen…. Unh!” She added with a meaningful, yet guileless smile. With that, not only did she make my day but also triggered a chain of serious thoughts.

Now, I was 60. I had heard a lot about the woes of the elderly. Most of them related to issues concerning health and relationships. A major concern was finding a suitable job to remain ‘occupied’.

I realised, I had been happy blogging, reading, writing odd articles, and editing books. A lecture here, a seminar there, or a talk to students/ young officers once in a while had been keeping me occupied. Since it is fashionable to be working after retirement, I have broken my vow (of not picking up a nine-to-five job) and have consented to being an adjunct faculty in a College––to share my life’s experiences with students, twice (emphasis added on ‘twice’) a week. Period.

Inspired by my late nonagenarian father’s zeal to learn, and motivated by my niece Swati, I am also planning to enrol into a ceramic art class. I wonder if I’ll be left with time to do more things concurrently.

Sharpening the brain?

Everything looks yellow to a jaundiced eye.

As if the thought of being a Senior Citizen came to me to stay, and nag––a news item in The Times of India that day read: “For sharp memory in old age play a lot of board games.” “Why board games?” I question that finding as I do so many others. I vie with Chhaya to grab the newspaper and solve Sudoku, Kakuro, Hitori, Spellathon and Jumble. We solve them not because researchers say solving puzzles sharpens the brain, but because we enjoy both––haggling for the newspaper supplement, and then solving the puzzles. Besides, for several years now, Lumosity, a set of online brain games has been keeping our grey matter in good condition. Another habit––playing rummy and a few other card games before hitting the sack, keeps our minds active.

A set of stretching exercises, as I listen to the BBC News podcast, is the next ritual of the morning. Incidentally, a news item on my birthday had to do with the life and woe of a senior citizen. A burglar who had made a forced entry into an 82-year lone woman’s house was thrashed and clobbered by the lady after she blinded him with hand wash until the cops arrived. Bravo! I am inspired!

Family and extended family apart, friends don’t look for reasons to get together––we meet fairly regularly. An occasional cup of thoughtfully brewed green tea with my NDA coursemate, JK Kaushik in the afternoons is another ritual I look forward to. Arun and Prashant both of whom I had met during a train journey (1993) are best of friends, a phone call away. Akhilesh Mishra, whom I met at the reception of CLOVE Dental Centre, is another friend I just added to my list.

Blissful on railway platform

In the last few days, I have come across children who have nudged me to think. Last month I saw two children (about six years of age) lying on a sheet on a platform of Nizamuddin Station, glued to the screen of a mobile phone. Their mother was breast-feeding a third one. I pitied them. Then, more recently, at the Wedding Asia Exhibition, I came across children playing video games on mobile phones; their ‘educated’ parents were engrossed in appreciating flashy haute couture presented by reputed designers. At least one of those children wore glasses with thick cylindrical lenses. Need I elaborate?

Engrossed

In another instance, in different circumstances, a wretched boy, barely ten, nose running, sitting in a roadside puncture repair shop where I was getting a flat tyre repaired, drew my attention. Vidhyanshu’s school had been closed due to heavy air pollution in the area. I felt sad for him. I certainly did not expect him to think about making up the loss of studies sitting at home or in that shop. I got into a conversation with him and, while at it, I made a paper ‘bird’ (origami) that could flap its wings. I do it quite often. Happiness was writ large on his face when I gave him the bird for keeps. Then I gave him a pen to write his name on a piece of paper, which he did fairly legibly. I was trying to relive one of my childhood memories when I appreciated his handwriting, and told him to keep the pen. I could read on his cheerful face, he was thinking of more possibilities with paper (origami). He displayed a great sense of pride in getting a pen as a reward for writing his name legibly. Nose still running, his unadulterated smile was a big reward for me. The incident gave me a purpose in life––60th birthday was but a catalyst that helped me crystallise my thoughts.

A precious smile

Post that incident, Chhaya and I decided to skip my birthday bash; and share some time cheering the underprivileged students of a school run by an NGO. Some origami, an odd magic trick, some eatables and a hamper of items of stationery, is what we have in mind.

That much on ‘stumbling upon a purpose on my 60th birthday’.

An epilogue of sorts…

A reward

We had a quiet dinner on my birthday––just the two of us. Chhaya presented me with an automatic car. “I hope now you’ll have no excuse to skip a game of golf due to your joint pain?” She had said slyly eluding to the excuses I make to skip golf. She believes that driving an automatic will help relieve my joint pain.

What more do I need at 60?

Trump-Darroch Spat & Admiral Awati

National Defence Academy, Khadakwasla (1977).

Rear Admiral MP Avati (later, Vice Admiral), the Commandant, wasn’t amused when cadets mocked him on the stage. It was an Inter Battalion Dramatics Competition and cadets acting as roadside magicians (madaris) had gone overboard with their act. With the wave of a wand one had turned an on-stage Admiral Awati into a goat; and the goat went bleating until the play lasted. The antics of the cadets were in bad taste.

Few appreciated that stage performance. Yet, to everyone’s surprise, the Admiral walked up to the stage after the play and started bleating somewhat like the cadets had done a while ago. He waited for the officers and the families to vacate the auditorium and when only the cadets were left behind in that closed space, he made another small speech, the sum and substance of which was: “Future officers of the Indian armed forces do not behave like this. I don’t approve of this sense of humour.”

Vice Admiral MP Awati PVSM VrC (graphic courtesy Latestlaws.com)

In the following days, did some heads roll? Were the producer, director and actors of the skit taken to task? Might have been; might not. Most of us never came to know. In fact, nearly half a century later, all that is of no relevance. What is really relevant is the message that went down to a thousand five hundred future officers, and through them, to thousands more. And the message was not about ‘mocking/ not mocking superiors’, but a more serious one––it was about the art of speaking one’s mind and leaving a lasting impression.

Fast-forward forty years; a different geographical location; different characters but quite a similar situation in some ways. When Ambassador Sir Kim Darroch wrote a memo to his government expressing his ‘free and frank’ opinion about President Trump and his Administration, he was performing his solemn duty as UK’s representative in the US. It is just that the confidential communication got leaked and embarrassed the governments and a whole lot of individuals on either side of the Atlantic.

The spat that followed is unprecedented. President Trump stopped short of declaring Ambassador Darroch persona non grata. Saying, “We will no longer deal with the ambassador,” and calling Sir Darroch, “Whacky,” was no less damaging. It would perhaps have been a different spectacle, had President Trump dealt with the situation in a more amicable way––like Admiral Awati––behind closed doors.

All-weather Friends?

Needless to say, at this moment the US-UK relations are at their lowest ebb since the Boston Tea Party. Yet, Ambassador Darroch’s resignation is not likely to be the proverbial last nail in the coffin of their partnership––they cannot afford to let it be. Even in times of extreme crisis these two all-weather friends have lived with certain amount of lack of trust. At the peak of World War II (1944), the Americans had put the pilots of the RAF in a (friendly) lock up in Purulia to maintain the secrecy of their B-29 Super Fortress bomber operations against the Japanese.

Country’s interest comes first!

Today, both UK and US are facing the worst crisis since World War II. The US is grappling with Iran, China, Syria, North Korea and Mexico (not to talk of the irritant that has cropped up because of President Trump’s recent racist tweets against congresswomen). The UK, on the other hand, has its hands full with Brexit and the urgency to form a new and stable government. The sacrifice of a diplomat on the altar of their mutual relations would be put on the back-burner for the time being; to be put under the carpet later.

At this juncture, any further dip in relations will be a monumental mutual loss. In a zero-sum game, who’ll gain from their strain? A third party?