Friday, December 29, 2017

"Newton" Fell on My Head

YESTERDAY NEWTON FELL ON MY HEAD: My Musings on the Film's Ideas Including That of Human Equality

At one point, Loknath ji asks Newton Kumar about the source of his courage. "You must know a politician or some other big shot. Otherwise, how could you take on the police officials?" Of course, the source of courage that Newton Kumar, the presiding officer of a Dandakaranya election booth, had was his sense of duty. He wished to work honestly. He wished to work honestly in an environment that is clogged up with lies, indifference and make-believe.

But that is not all. Our personal sense of right and wrong is not the only thing that determines that we will choose the right thing. We choose the right thing also because we are inspired by some heroes. Who was Newton Kumar's Hero? Newton Kumar, a government officer from Dalit background, we know, is committed to the Indian Constitution, which in popular imagination is the brainchild of Dr B. R. Ambedkar. For a fleeting second, one could see that in Newton's room is hung a portrait of Dr Ambedkar.

But that again was not all.

We are inspired by ideas we believe to be true. Sometimes these philosophic ideas are bigger than heroes. The big idea that gave edge to Newton's resolve to be honest was an insight into the work of Isaac Newton, the apple-wala scientist! Nature is no respecter of people. Natural Laws are the same for all. ("You can throw a business tycoon and a tea seller from a cliff and both will meet the same fate!", says a senior officer) By implication, all are equal. The vote of every single individual is equal. That is why Newton Kumar is ready to put his life on  the line to make every single voter cast his or her vote.

The little problem is that nature does not always teach us equality. Nature, to many people, teaches "survival of the fittest". By the way, our social experience teaches us that it is much easier to throw a tea seller than a tycoon from the top of a cliff!

It may sound strange to most people but Isaac Newton, the scientist, was also a man of religion. He considered God, and not nature, the final arbiter of the question of human equality and dignity.

Human beings have dignity and they deserve to be treated equally because all of them are made in the image of their creator.

Last but not the least, the ability to give oneself a new name and new identity could be very empowering. Nutan is a beautiful name, but in the given context, Newton changed the life of the man. I am also reminded of the call by Professor #KanchaIlaiahShepherd to add English surnames to one's given names.

By the way do watch the film #Newton #NewtontheFilm. #RaghubirYadav as Loknath is masterful. It has moments of genuine comedy and leaves you feeling inspired. Stay back till the closing credits are over and enjoy Raghubir Yadav's song!

(FB Post/6.10.2017)

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Anarkali of London: The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth

When I watched Anarkali of Arrah the other day on TV, my mind immediately went back to a novel about a young servant girl, poor and vulnerable, hounded by her lustful aristocrat master. The novel was written many, many years ago. Two hundred and seventy seven years ago, to be precise; yes, 227 years.  The novel became a literary sensation. Everybody was reading it, its success was unprecedented and astonished the literary circle! The novel was written by an unpretentious printer in London, a Puritan called Samuel Richardson—and the title of the novel was Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740).
I am not sure if the makers of the 2017 film had read the novel; incidentally, the film was based loosely on real-life incidents. In 2011, a folk singer was allegedly molested in public by a vice-chancellor of a university in Gaya in Bihar, and the former decided to take him on. When Richardson wrote his novel, he too fell back on a similar story he had heard about 25 years ago. To be fair, it’s not hard to search for these kind of incidents. Deprivation and depravity spawn hundreds of such stories around us.
But when turned into a book or a film why do they become such a rage. Why did 18th-century Londoners love Pamela? Many opined that its success may be attributed to purely voyeuristic reasons; the reader wants to know, will she surrender or not.  What graphic details could be expected to be there when she does give in? It’s the “vicarious sexual experience” that readers were looking for. However, the scholars agree that such stupendous success could not be ascribed to voyeurism alone. The readers saw that in the novel by not surrendering to the supremacy of her master, that “chit of a girl” had challenged the power relations of her society. More than that it was the triumph of the meek against the mighty that resonated with the public. Walter Allen, a historian of English novel, comments: “Against an almost omnipotent authority Richardson pitted helplessness combined with virtue – and despite all hazards, helplessness combined with virtue triumphed, simply because it was virtue, and what is more, forced authority to accept it on his own terms. It was this that the age applauded: Richardson was the spokesman of justice.”
It wasn’t sex, but justice that people craved for. Modern literature, especially the modern genre, the novel, centred on the lives, struggles and triumphs of people who had been on the margin of society. Their presence and representation in culture was marginal, too. Epics and tragedies, the classical forms of literature, would tell the tales and fortunes of high-born men—kings, warriors, demigods—pitted against the cosmic powers, but no epic could have been written about the inconsequential struggles of a hapless “Pamela”—a woman and social nobody. Why is her virtue so important—after
all, hundreds and thousands of servant girls had been sexually exploited by their masters throughout history. The reason lay in that post Reformation, the moral and intellectual climate of Europe had changed. Individualism and individual dignity, Reformation’s gift to the West, birthed a new intellectual climate in Europe and with it a new literary form, the novel. Incidentally, critics of this new low-brow literature deemed it fit on the ill-educated and women. But as Terry Eagleton tells us, “In the end, the English novel would wreak its vengeance on those who dismissed it as fit only for females by producing some magnificent portrayals of women. It also produced some distinguished female exponents of the craft.” World literature would never be the same. Cinema, the youngest narrative genre, has inherited the same moral framework.
Anarkali of Arrah, reaffirms that our apparently sex-crazy world pines for justice for the weak, justice for “helplessness with virtue”. In the end of the movie, we see the police commissioner getting ready to begin criminal proceeding against the vice-chancellor. The film, however, has a reformatory ending, the lonely VC breaks down, and one hopes these are tears of repentance. Anarkali is free to live her life, her way.

In the novel, Mr B., the prurient master, repents and honourably marries Pamela. Anarkali and Pamela could exchange places because 18th-century London and 21st-century Arrah are under one moral framework that says “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Anita Desai Turns 80 Today

I was lately going over her first novel, Cry, the Peacock (No, it's got nothing to do with procreative prowess of the pheasant's tears). The protagonist longs to go to Darjeeling (No, it's got nothing to do with the Gorkha agitation; she wants to get away from oppressive Delhi summer).
It's a story of woman tormented by dominant philosophies of fate, detachment and male ego.
The novel was published in 1963, sixteen years after India's independence and gives an interesting insight into the psyche of the upper-upper-middle-class society (Delhi and Lucknow are the two key places) in those early years of our "young" nation.
There's a marital mismatch. Husband, a cerebral lawyer, is almost twice the age of his sensual wife. He wants to teach her detachment as found in the Gita; she, who has memorised a fair bit of the Gita herself, finds the doctrine of detachment absurd in the context of married relationship. And, that's the conflict, which has some dire consequences!
Desai has admitted in an interview that her earlier books are "overwritten". The imagery and symbolism in this novel is cloying—there is a glut, in fact. However, in terms of seeking answer to some philosophic questions, it is an honest book.
A few quotes from the book:
"Trains passing in the night, I cannot bear to hear them. They all leave me behind alone."
"It is the evening that break one's heart. At night one only hears the pieces falling."
The one I think was quite clever is this. She has just opened a tap...
"It gurgled in hesitation, then spat, and the water came burbling out, laughing at my surprise."
Happy birthday and God bless, Ms Desai!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Golden Age of Indian Nation Is Yet to Come

In a recent op-ed in a national daily, Dr Rakesh Sinha, a Delhi University professor, sought to clear the mist around the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s idea of cultural nationalism, and rescue it from the attacks of the critics, whom he caricaturises as pseudo-secularists. But in doing so, the writer, first of all, misread what a renowned political scientist has said about modern nations.

Image courtsey:
Late Benedict Anderson, a Cornell University professor had stated in his 1983 book that modern nations are best understood as imagined communities (also the title of the book) because, to quote him, “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” Dr Sinha asserts that the RSS’ idea of Hindu rashtra “disqualifies Benedict Anderson’s concept of nation as an ‘imagined community’”. It is difficult to understand why it should be. The probable explanation is that an imagined community seeks participation from its citizens in creating a common culture, while the state in the Hindu rashtra is busy ensuring that Muslims, Christians or communists as well as the Dalits and adivasis are falling in line with the Hindutva ideal of cultural “unity”. Dr Sinha is well within his rights to bring forth the magnanimity of Sri Golwalkar with regard to cow protection and Muslim baiting but hero worship must not blind him to what the second sarsanghchalak had said in his Bunch of Thoughts. Similarly, even though Anderson is no apologist for nation or nationalism, for the sake of intellectual honesty, a gross misreading of him must be avoided.

By “imagined” Anderson does not mean “unreal”, “false” or “artificial”, it merely notices that in modern times people all over the world have creatively visualized and shaped, i.e., imagine, their collective and distinct existence as a nation. He says, “Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.” In India, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, animists, atheists all must come together to imagine how we would like to live. However, Dr Sinha would like us to believe that the final word about Indian nationalism had been spoken; we only now have to impose it without any further attempt at dialogue.

Ernest Renan, the nineteenth-century scholar in whom RSS ideologues might discover a kindred spirit, made a valid point when he said there are two things that constitute the nation: “One is in the past, the other in the present. One is the common possession of a rich heritage of memories; the other is the actual consent, the desire to live together, the will to preserve worthily the undivided inheritance which has been handed down.” While Hindutva organizations and ideologues go hammer and tongs about the former, they exhibit a glorious disregard of the need to engage with others in a dialogue to collectively shape a common future.

And the above are not the only failures of the Hindutva movement.

The insistence on the so-called “cultural nationalism” and the talk of “civilizational trajectories” proffer an extremely narrow view of Indian history. Scholars call it an essentialist view; we might even refer to it as the fossilized image of India’s past. Modern India has moved far ahead from the “golden period” first popularised by the European Indologists of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The upper-caste Hindu intellectuals took advantage of the scholarly discoveries of the Indologists and fashioned the language of modern Indian nationalism. This new language was in essence patently brahmanical—eulogizing, at different times and in different regions, cow, Ganesha, Krishna, Gita, mother goddess, temple, so on and so forth. But it excluded the contrapuntal contribution of many other Indians who at that moment were just beginning their exciting journey in articulating their points of view. Universal education, political mobilization, participation of women, has now made it possible for a truly representative majority of Indians to engage in a fruitful conversation about the meaning and essence of Indian nationalism. If ever there was “golden period” in Indian history, it is now; but, by harping on Hindu Rashtra, Dr Sinha—and the movement he represents—is missing a golden opportunity to create a genuine Indian nationalism and a genuine Indian nation.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Disillusioned Bhaktas: Barbaric Times, Not Good Days, Ahead

Tavleen Singh (Image: Indian Express)
Senior journalist Ms Tavleen Singh was, and is, seeking Hindu renaissance but so far all she's got is gau rakshaks (cow vigilantes) on a terror spree—harassing, beating, killing Indian citizens in the name of protecting cows, considered holy by Hindus.

In her latest Indian Express column (“Is This Hindutva?”, 9 April 2017), Ms Singh has lamented that India no longer seems to have “Rule of Law”. Exasperated over the recent lynching of a Muslim dairy farmer from Haryana, she writes:
"A man was beaten to death in a manner that reminded everyone of earlier barbaric times when there was no rule of law."
And again:
"This is not about cows and cow slaughter. It is not even about Hindus and Muslims even if the killers were Hindu and the victims Muslim. This is about whether India is a country in which there is the rule of law or not."
For a long time, week after week, Ms Singh used her mightier-than-sword pen to advance the saffron juggernaut. Every Sunday, she tried to convince her readers that the rise of the home-grown fascists is good for the country. What made her, a foremost English-language journalist, a non-card-carrying member of the Hindutva brigade? To understand that we must pay attention to her peculiar intellectual journey.

Coming from a privileged background, Ms Singh received best of education in some of the elite educational institutions. But modern, Western education had an alienating effect on her. She opens the preface of her 2012 book Durbar with this sentence: “When I was sixteen years old I first became aware of being a foreigner in my own country.” She goes on to explain that the elite classes who eventually ruled India since Independence have been too Westernised and did not have any deep understanding or appreciation of  their own country. She says further in that Author’s Note: “I would go so far as to say that my generation of Indians was possibly more colonized than those who lived in colonial times and out tragedy was that most of us lived out our lives without ever finding out.”

Ms Tavleen Singh is, thus, on a mission—the mission to decolonize India’s ruling elite. Sadly, she saw the ruling elite only in the Westernised upper class and not in the brahminic revivalists. To defeat the former she put her trust in the latter. To help vanquish the dynastic disease in Indian politics, she put her trust in the communal poison—only that the cure proved to be worse than the disease. Hence, Ms Singh who rightly abhorred the rule of dynasty, now rues the demolition of the rule of law.

By the end of that preface, Ms Singh is pining for an “Indian renaissance”, which in today’s column she calls “Hindu renaissance”, and which she assumes has been held captive by the Westernised ruling classes. Five years later Ms Singh, in disillusionment, writes: “No renaissance can ever come from this [horrible violence in the name of the cow].”

This perhaps is the fate of all our modern-educated, elite supporters of the brazenly Hindu nationalist party.

Arun Shourie (Image: Indian Express)
Nearly a quarter of a century ago, another top journalist of India, Mr Arun Shourie attempted decolonization of the Indian mind by an unfair attack on the missionary movement of the nineteenth and twentieth century in India. In his 1994 book, Missionaries in India: Continuities, Changes, Dilemmas, Mr Shourie had rehashed the popular myth that missionary movement was the handmaiden of British imperialism.

Vishal Mangalwadi, an Indian Christian writer and activist, began to write letters to Shourie responding to many of his allegations. However, as Mangalwadi points out the real problem with Shourie’s book wasn’t the calumny or attack or bitterness, but a certain way of presenting history.

Mangalwadi rightly points out that in the true postmodern (pre-modern brahmanic) fashion, Shourie had already made up his mind as to what he wanted to say and then used the evidence in a selective way to prove his prejudice. While closing his last letter, Mangalwadi had an important observation to make. He wrote:
"Let me conclude: it does not disturb me greatly if you write untruth concerning missions and the missionary motive. The bigger problem is that you are promoting a relativism which assumes that nothing really true can be known; this means (whether you acknowledge it or not) that everything is relatively false. In this setting, truth is whatever suits me at this moment. … I understand, Mr. Shourie, your intellectual compulsions behind accepting a worldview of half-lies. But I am sad that you do not seem to have thought through the long term implication of this position. To begin with, your commitment to relative falsehood will undermine your credibility as a writer. You will, no doubt, still be useful to one or other interest group … however, the community as a whole can be blessed only by rigorous commitment to Truth."
By promoting half-truths and utter lies, Mr Shourie, has helped create an atmosphere in India where today people, especially on social media, are not interested in honest, truthful debate but getting their point—or prejudice—proved. If they don’t have facts to back themselves, they resort to shouting, abusing and threats of physical violence. Mr Shourie himself has been a victim of the viciousness of Internet trolls. And, why only Internet trolls, election campaigns are run on lies in this post-truth era.

When the elite of any culture is driven not by truth but by a misplaced sense of prestige and pride, it does irreparable harm to the society. It strengthens the forces that eventually shatter their own cherished dreams.

What both Singh and Shourie's experience tells us is that their reading of their own history is erroneous and their solutions to India’s problems will be nothing but catastrophic.

Monday, January 30, 2017

A Call for Good Samaritans!

Ministers of all faiths, tomorrow you should get in your pulpit with the Christian Bible and preach on Luke 10:25-37”.

By tweeting thus, American author Stephen King has made a seemingly astounding claim. He has clearly said that the parable of the Good Samaritan must be restated and reaffirmed as the foundational moral framework for our current world civilization, which is beset by intolerance, insanity and a marvelous lack of concern for the suffering.

This parable, originally told by Jesus to his interlocutors nearly two thousand years ago, has gone on to have a definitive impact on the social ethics of a multicultural, multiracial world.  

In the parable, Jesus was addressing the question: “Who is my neighbour?” The learned fellow Jews wanted clarity on what Jesus had just said: “Love your neighbour.” What followed is too well known to need repetition. But in this post-truth world, one must restate the obvious.

Jesus told his interlocutors about a man who was robbed on a highway and was left wounded and naked, waiting for a slow death in the wilderness. A couple of priests, one after the other, happened to go past their countryman. They chose to ignore him. It was a man from the neighbouring Samaria, apparently a trader, who had compassion on the wounded Jew, gave him first aid, got him into a room in an inn, paid for it, and promised to check on him on his way back.

The now bashful interlocutors had no option but to concede that the true neighbourly love was
expressed not by the pious and proud fellow countrymen but by a despised foreigner.

The impact of this parable must have been astounding. Jews and Samaritans were nationally and racially opposed to each other. The territorial and religious boundaries were always a source of controversy and conflict. Jesus with this simple parable, dealt a death blow to the notions of national and racial superiority. It struck at the very heart of ethnocentricism of Jesus’s audience.

Compassion for the foreigner, for the stranger, was inoculated into the DNA of our civilizational existence on that day. The parable told in an insignificant Middle-Eastern city colonised by the imperial Rome, went on to established its reign in the hearts and minds of men and women in the West and also in the East.

From proto-fiction to world literature

 The Good Samaritan by W. Hogarth, Fielding's friend
For hundreds of years this parable, the morally binding tale of compassion as duty, was repeated from the pulpits every other weekend. Rural folk got drunk on it. Kings and rulers were challenged by it. Through this fictional but plausible account, generations were initiated into the barbarity and beauty they would encounter in the world. The narrative potential of this proto-humanist fiction was immense. Novelists used it to critique hypocrisy of their societies. Henry Fielding, the pioneering English novelist of the eighteenth century, for example, deploys it in his novel Joseph Andrews (1742) to just that effect. The poor protagonist is wounded by robbers and is left to die on the road side. Respectable people initially refuse helping him. The poor postilion shares his coat with him. Class, charity, law, fear, compassion, all elements of great fiction are embodied in this incident.

And, it has to be more than a coincidence that this trope occurs in other literatures of the world.

In the first Tamil novel, written by Samuel Vedanayagam Pillai, Prathapa Mudaliar Charithram (1879), the protagonist’s grandfather, a Hindu, helps an injured Muslim “fakir”. While the others from his village avoid touching him for fear of ostracism, Prathapa’s grandfather “felt that it was his duty to help anyone in danger”.  

In the first Punjabi novel, Sundari (1897) by Bhai Vir Singh, the eponymous Sikh protagonist, helps, not once but twice, injured and abandoned Muslims—albeit with tragic consequences.

In Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora (1910), Hindu parents of Gora too render help to a dying Irish soldier.

Pakistan’s Urdu writer Abdullah Hussain includes such incidence, which has considerable bearing on the plot, in his most important novel The Weary Generations (1999; Udas Naslain, 1963). 

Better-read people could add to this list. The underlying idea is that helping the helpless could alter our histories and the moral direction of our society. This story must be told and retold in as many forms as possible. It fascinated our novelists and writers through the years. It fascinates anyone who wishes to make sense of our world, who wants to find answer to the question: How should we live in a world bereft of compassion and civility?

Stephen King, the novelist, knows that there is no other place where he could find answer to this question except in Luke 10:25–37. 

This was the question that Jesus’s audience wanted to find an answer to. They asked what the greatest commandment was. Jesus’s answer was twofold: Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself.

This is the question, incidentally, we Indians are seeking an answer to, especially since the "Nirbhaya" incident of December 2012. And, perhaps even before that, since 1971, since 1947!