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?

Cooking the Goose of the Gender

It is important to make sure that one doesn’t offend people by inadvertently using language that might be considered sexist. In these times of #MeToo, it is even more important to mind one’s P’s and Q’s. For several decades now, many words and well-accepted expressions have come to be seen as discriminatory––discriminatory against women, in particular. It could be because of the nature of job being done mainly by men in the bygone days e.g. businessman, postman and fireman etc. Some other words give a distinctly different identity to women than their male equivalent (e.g. actor/actress; mayor/ mayoress, steward/stewardess, heir/ heiress, hero/ heroine, manager/ manageress). Some of these words, while giving the women a different identity have, over a period of time, come to convey a somewhat different status for them.

Feminists and well-meaning people on either side of the gender divide have been trying hard to remove the bias in the language. So now we have words like chairperson or chair (instead of chairman), head teacher (instead of headmaster/ headmistress). Mrs, for a married woman is passé; Ms is the right form to use. It is also customary now to use a term, which was previously used exclusively for men to refer to both men and women. For example, authoress, poetess and actress, have been replaced by author, poet and actor. The more conscious of the English language users have begun using human race or humankind instead of mankind. And until acceptable words/ terms are coined, words like princess, tigress, lioness, abbess, duchess, usherette, seamstress and seductress etc. will remain in use. One is less likely to take offence.

We do not mind using he/ she, him/ her and his/ her any number of times in our correspondence to remain gender neutral. Here are some examples:

  • He/ She (the candidate) must report at the reception by 10 am.
  • The HR department will inform him/ her about the likely dates.
  • A scholar is expected to submit his/ her report in a month.
  • The student can seek advice from his/ her

While the linguists and the feminists have been striving to achieve gender neutrality, people are exercising their right to cook the goose of the gender. I know of a lady from the Hindi heartland of India who prefers to use the male verbs (in Hindi) for herself e.g. करता हूँ, खाता हूँ, जाता हूँ,… etc.

Mrs Indira Gandhi didn’t like to be called ‘Madam’. Legend has it that once when she was on a state visit to the US, the American President wanted to know (through the then Indian Ambassador, Mr BK Nehru) how to call her, “Madam Prime Minister or Prime Minister?” She said, “Tell the President I don’t care what he calls me; he can call me Mr Prime Minister or just Prime Minister. But tell him also that my colleagues call me Sir.”

TOI Gender IMG_9170
Cooking the Goose of the Gender

Are the editorial staff of the Times of India following in the footsteps of Mrs Gandhi’s colleagues?

 

Aftermath of Lanka Blasts: Of Open Stable Doors and Bolting Steeds

Forty-nine people were confirmed dead and many others injured, in the shootings in two mosques in Christchurch (New Zealand) on March 15, 2019. The shootings were a wake-up call, nay a jolt for people all over the world. In a post titled, “Christchurch Carnage: A Wake-up Call for United Front Against Terrorism” I had talked about the killings and had concluded thus:

“To conclude, what happened in New Zealand will have obvious implications for New Zealand and Australia; the rest of the world will also not remain unaffected. There are two clear options for the world at large: one, to brace for impact without really knowing where and when would the next attack take place. Or two, unite against the perpetrators and wipe out the source. Today is the day, now is the time to get into a huddle, before the Masood Azhars, the Hafiz Saeeds, the Zawahiris, the Baghdadis and the Bin Ladens unleash retaliatory strikes.”

As if that conclusion was lost in thin air.

Less than a month later on April 21, 2019 (Easter Sunday) in Sri Lanka, more than 250 people were killed and hundreds were injured in eight blasts that rocked the island nation. Churches and hotels crowded by Easter revellers were the targets of the suicide bombers. Deaths (read “killings”) continue as the search operations go on. 

Although it was not déjà vu or a case of “I-told-you-so,” many people were not so surprised by what happened in Sri Lanka. Imminence of retaliation to the Christchurch killings was a forgone conclusion. A bit surprising was the location of the strike. That the terrorists did not strike in New Zealand or Australia but chose Sri Lanka, might suggest that this wasn’t a case of retaliation. But that matters little, because those involved in terror attacks (Christchurch or Sri Lanka or elsewhere in the world) perhaps believe in numbers––“Numbers killed on one side offset the numbers killed on the other side.”

The numbers do not offset; they add (Image: Reuters)

That is far from the truth. The fact is: numbers add up. Another counter that picks up speed after every attack is the one that counts the number of neutral people jumping off the fence to join a side in the war against the other. They are the ones who can be easily poisoned and indoctrinated; and among them are the potential suicide bombers. Their number keeps swelling after each gory incident.   

One wonders if it is turning out to be a case of jihad in Sri Lanka in reply to the crusade in New Zealand. While there are no straight answers to that question, more people all over the world are now bound to live in the shadow of fear. The many raids in Sri Lanka; banning of organisations and banning of burqua are some of the indicators of the paranoia that has set in. Similar actions with regards to ‘tightening of security’ have come into effect in other parts of the world.

Now about containing the menace: is it a case of the proverbial stable door being locked after the horse has bolted? Or, it is a case of the stable not having a door at all? Who’ll strike and what will be the next target: a mosque, a church, a synagogue, a temple or a crowded mall, a beach or a theatre/ movie hall? The question lingers menacingly as life tends to trudge back to some semblance of normalcy.     

Much has been said about the failure of the Sri Lankan authorities to act on the intelligence inputs provided by Indian agencies. Accusations are being hurled; the leadership, at different levels in Sri Lanka has acknowledged the lapse and some heads have rolled. But think of it, these were the same Indian agencies that could not see through the planning of the Pulwama Terror Strike. For that reason, the Sri Lankan security set up cannot be blamed entirely for the lapse. Intelligence reports need to be evaluated before concrete action can be taken. Many a warning in the past has turned out to be a hoax. During the Gerald Ford Presidency in the US, there was a suggestion to vacate an entire city due to the threat of detonation of a nuclear device, which turned out to be a hoax.

Dealing with intelligence reports is a rather difficult and complex issue.

In a few days the stats and the chronology of the Sri Lanka blasts will get added to the existing figures. To the rest of world they will start mattering less.

When 9/11 took place, and the whole world was sympathising with the grieving Americans, there, in some small quarters was an apparent brutal indifference manifested by lack of surprise––“What goes around comes around.” Sri Lankan blasts have proved the fallacy of that line of thought. A more appropriate way of understanding the present state of affairs would be to consider such attacks as some sort of a Butterfly Effect––An event (although not small and insignificant) in one part of the world (New Zealand) triggering repercussions in another (Sri Lanka). It matters little where an ocean gets muddied first; when the water gets contaminated the effect reaches far off shores. It is only a matter of time.

Therein lies the importance of the need of a united approach to dealing with the menace of terrorism. It is never too late to get going. The UNSC has included Masood Azhar in the list of global terrorists. One hopes that countries will continue to see eye to eye and take coordinated action to rid the world of terror groups and terrorists.

Little Kanti’s Lemon Enterprise

His grandpa called him Kanti (so will I)––Kanti, meaning ‘glow’ in Hindi. And true to his name, he had a perpetual glow in his eyes, a glow borne of his love for knowledge. That was just one of his traits. Measuring barely three feet above the ground, he was a bundle of energy raring to be unleashed. But what is of even greater consequence than all this, is the fact that the last few months of his less than four years of existence on mother earth had been really tumultuous, and that is the subject matter of this post. And it is as true as true can be, for I have known Kanti well enough to pen this story.

First, the End of the Story

Kanti’s Lemon Enterprise

The sapling that Kanti had nurtured with so much care was now a full-grown lemon tree. It bore fruit in abundance exactly as per Kanti’s expectations. But there were many attendant problems. Balancing it on his head, as he walked around, was becoming rather difficult. Yes, you got it right! The tree was growing on his head. Entering and leaving the house with the tree on his head was a pain; he had to duck low to prevent the branches getting stuck in the doors. For some time now, Kanti had wanted his father to get the doors enlarged to enable his easy passage into and out of the house. He wanted even the window of his bedroom to be removed and the gaping hole in its place to be enlarged so that he could lie easily in the bed with the trunk of the tree jutting out of the house. Very soon the lemon tree on Kanti’s head became a source of untold agony for him. He regretted people throwing stones at him to get the fruit. It became especially unbearable when even his best friends started indulging in the obnoxious act. Kanti’s dream of generating revenue and becoming an entrepreneur by selling lemons was cracking (or had it already shattered?). The lemon tree had become a perpetual source of grief for him and his family. To, or not to, get it sawed off was the big question troubling Kanti­­. The dilemma was damning.

Now, all that was Kanti’s i-m-a-g-i-n-a-t-i-o-n. 

The Beginning of the Story and the Reality

One of the primary sources of all the world’s knowledge for Kanti was Veena, his cousin, a few months older than him. Because of the emphasis with which she always spoke, she wielded authority and her word was taken as gospel by all the children in the locality. 

One day she came out with a nugget of profound knowledge and a corollary to it. Her coterie of little friends was oblivious of both. She shared the wisdom: “When tiny seeds of plants are sown in the soil, and watered regularly, they grow into big trees.” The corollary was her derivation unbeknown even to the stream of science people call, “Biology.” It ran thus: “A plant would grow on one’s head if one swallowed a seed and drank a lot of water.” That marked the beginning of Kanti’s travails.

Armed with that knowledge, Kanti popped a lemon seed in his mouth and dabbled with the idea of growing a lemon tree on his head. He had barely considered all the consequences of implementing the plan when he accidentally swallowed the little thing. Kanti’s life changed with the crossing of the Rubicon.

Kanti drank excess water and even thought of consuming a pesticide for the health of the would-be lemon tree. That he didn’t consume any was the consequence of him not finding one. He devoted long hours i-m-a-g-i-n-i-n-g what life would be with a lemon tree growing on his head. A time came when all his thoughts and most of his actions through the day were devoted to his beloved project. The Lemon Tree Enterprise became a mania with Kanti.

Then, one day at the dinner table…

Kanti bowled over his father, Anil with a question. “Dad, does one really have to study so hard to do well as one grows up. Isn’t it fine if one starts a business early in life?”

“What do you mean? What business are you talking of?” The concerned father almost choked with the half-chewed morsel landing in his throat.

“It is like this, Dad. I want to get into the business of growing lemons and making large profits by selling them.”

Half amused, half amazed, the parents, Anil and Maya looked quizzically at Kanti who continued nonchalantly, “I have eaten a lemon seed and I am drinking sufficient water. Soon a tree will grow on my head. I expect to reap several good harvests every year which we can sell to make a lot of money.” The parents were spellbound as the little one continued, “Dad, you’ll have to get the doors and the walls modified for me to enter the house with the tree on my head. Also, you’ll have to employ a guard to prevent people throwing stones at me and taking away the lemons. If we manage it well, we’ll be rich.” With great enthusiasm Kanti talked about how he had stumbled on the great idea.

With enormous difficulty, Anil and Maya postponed their laughter to a later time when Kanti would be away at school next morning. The conscientious parents did not want to shatter their little one’s dream. It was indeed a delicate situation.

A Postscript of Sorts

It would have been unfair on the part of the parents to destroy the persona of their child’s icon––Veena. Anil found a simpler way out of the situation. After a few days of encouragement to Kanti’s Lemon Enterprise, he convinced the little entrepreneur that his body had perhaps rejected the lemon seed. “Human body does reject things it doesn’t like,” he said. “It might have been flushed down the lavatory long ago.”

Then he educated him on the necessity of soil and other environmental factors for plants to grow.

More importantly, the young parents made a deliberate effort to occasionally elicit the knowledge their little one amassed from his peers, and tweaked it when they felt the necessity.

There are the Kantis; and there are the Veenas and there is the parental art of dealing with the two.