Sunday, January 28, 2018

Ravana mode of development – I

Never has the individual been so completely delivered up to a blind collectivity, and never have men been less capable, not only of subordinating their actions to their thoughts, but even of thinking. - Simone Weil

In Asuras, a novel based on the Ramayana from Ravana’s point of view, when Ravana faces defeat at the hands of Rama, he starts wondering how he had failed as a king. How did he, a mighty emperor of a vast empire, fall to an immature prince of a vassal state? He then reflects on his rule: he knew his people and ruled them with an iron fist. He had ensured that he was surrounded only by people he trusted. ‘I thought that my empire was built on a foundation of steel…but I discovered that it had been built on nothing’. He says that he had built great roads, taken fertile lands for grand building projects, damed rivers that irrigated the countryside, diverted water from fields to cities, etc. He reflects:
When I strove for bigger things – for bigger cities, magnificent temples, wider roads, better ports, larger ships, increased trade, improved business, making a name among the nations of the world, making my country the richest in the world - I forgot something simple and basic: I forgot my people. I thought glittering cities marked progress, I forgot about the people who lived in gutters.
He says that he had become ‘intoxicated with praise’ and had thought that ‘the glitter was all that mattered’. And when the crisis came, ‘the foreign-educated, Sanskrit-speaking, betel-chewing wealthy gave me advice from their hiding holes, but nothing else’. It is apparent that Ravana’s Lanka is post-independence India. That last comment reminds me of an article by Ramachandra Guha where he says that the most vitriolic, nationalistic comments he receives for his articles are from Indians who left long ago and are settled in the West. As Ashis Nandy says in Bonfire of Creeds, '...the more doubtful one's roots, the more desperate one's search for security in exclusion and in boundaries.'

In September 1909, The Illustrated London News published a stinging attack on the idea of Indian nationalism written by G. K. Chesterton.  He had been reading a journal called The Indian Sociologist and he found the ideas there just copies of British ideas. He wrote, ‘the principal weakness of Indian Nationalism seems to be that it is not very Indian and not very national’. He found praise of Herbert Spencer among the nationalists and wrote, 'What is the good of the Indian national spirit if it cannot protect its people from Herbert Spencer? I am not fond of the philosophy of Buddhism; but it is not so shallow as Spencer's philosophy; it has real ideas of its own.' He then wrote:
When all is said, there is a national distinction between a people asking for its own ancient life and a people asking for things that have been wholly invented by somebody else. There is a difference between a conquered people demanding its own institutions and the same people demanding the institutions of the conqueror.  
Suppose an Indian said: "I heartily wish India had always been free from white men and all their works. Every system has its sins: and we prefer our own. There would have been dynastic wars; but I prefer dying in battle to dying in hospital. There would have been despotism; but I prefer one king whom I hardly ever see to a hundred kings regulating my diet and my children. There would have been pestilence; but I would sooner die of the plague than die of toil and vexation in order to avoid the plague. There would have been religious differences dangerous to public peace; but I think religion more important than peace. Life is very short; a man must live somehow and die somewhere; the amount of bodily comfort a peasant gets under your best Republic is not so much more than mine. If you do not like our sort of spiritual comfort, we never asked you to. Go, and leave us with it." 
Suppose an Indian said that, I should call him an Indian Nationalist, or, at least, an authentic Indian, and I think it would be very hard to answer him. But the Indian Nationalists whose works I have read simply say with ever-increasing excitability, "Give me a ballot-box. Provide me with a Ministerial dispatch-box. Hand me over the Lord Chancellor's wig. I have a natural right to be Prime Minister. I have a heaven-born claim to introduce a Budget. My soul is starved if I am excluded from the Editorship of the Daily Mail," or words to that effect.
Gandhi  was electrified by the article and decided to be the Indian nationalist that Chesterton was looking for. He then wrote his trenchant critique of modernity, Hind Swaraj (a useful introduction to it can be found in Gandhi Hind Swaraj and Other Writings by Anthony J. Parel) containing thoughts that had been brewing in his head for some time. What appears obscurantism and the typical NRI gloating about the glories of India's ancient past (Gandhi had till then been abroad for most of his adult life) was an attempt to dismantle the ‘white-man’s civilizing role’ self-image of colonialism so that it can be made a byword for racism and exploitation. Gandhi became appreciative of the fact that colonialism was not just a geographical reality but also a colonization of the mind. In Bonfire of Creeds, Ashis Nandy explains the reasoning behind Gandhi's strategy while fighting colonialism:
Gandhi acted as if he knew that non-synergic systems, driven by zero-sum competition and search for power, control and masculinity, forced the victims to internalize the norms of the system, so that when they displaced their exploiters, they built a system which was either an exact replica of the old one or a tragi-comic version of it. Hence, his concept of non-violence and non-cooperation...He thus becomes a non-player for the existing system - one who plays another game, refusing to be either a player or a counter-player.
The difference between Jinnah (and most others on either side in the freedom movement) and Gandhi is that Jinnah struggled for a piece of land but did not ponder over the kind of state that would develop there while Gandhi had started thinking about it even before he had joined the freedom struggle. He did not accept the idea that ends justify the means and thought that there was an inextricable link between the two. He insisted that ends were shaped by the means that lead to them – you cannot directly control the ends; you can only influence them via the means that you adopt to reach that end. Thus, Gandhi tailored his strategies according to the picture of the Indian government that he visualized at the end of his struggles.

There has been a cottage industry (pdf) over the years pointing out the objectionable things that Gandhi wrote or said while ignoring other things in his oeuvre. (About 90% of the reactions when people are told that I am reading about Gandhi these days suggest that they are thinking, ‘This guy has finally gone nuts!’) Newton spent the major portion of his life on alchemy and trying to interpret some Bible codes but that doesn’t mean that his science should be ignored. Indeed Neil de Grass Tyson says that he was the smartest person who ever lived.  It just shows that contradictory things can co-exist comfortably in the same mind. In the enthusiasm to point out Gandhi's faults and mis-steps, what is often missed is that he was astonishingly prescient on many issues that others weren’t even thinking about, seduced as they were by the glitter of modernity.

Is Gandhi relevant today? The question is asked with unfailing regularity as his birthday approaches each year on October 2. I think he is more relevant now than he was at the time of Independence. In Bapu Kuti, Rajini Bakshi makes a distinction between the historical Gandhi and the civilizational Gandhi. The historical Gandhi may be criticized and condemned as an ordinary figure. But the civilizational Gandhi, the Gandhi of the  ideas and concepts and uncomfortable questions scattered throughout his works about what a good society should be like, is a far more imposing and enduring figure. Getting lost in extreme statements distracts from the substance of Gandhi’s critique of modernity. Gandhi was great because he had faults like anybody else but had the guts to put them in the public domain, examine them and correct them. By tying to pull him down we diminish ourselves.  As an Urdu verse says, 'nai duniya ke hañgamoñ meñ 'nasir'/dabi jaati haiñ avazeñ purani' (In the tumult of the modern world, old voices get suppressed.)

PS: I got that Urdu verse from, a site devoted to Urdu poetry. Someone said that Hindi and Urdu are a great language separated by a script and a lot of politics. Javed Akhtar once said that when Hindi speakers understand something, they say it is Hindi and when they don't understand something, they say it is Urdu. The great thing about this site is that when you click on any word in a verse, a window opens up telling you its meaning.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Reunion again

In late December last year, I attended the 25th year reunion of my IIMA batch at Ahmedabad. Jimmy Connors once said, 'The trouble with experience is that by the time you have it you are too old to take advantage of it.' This is not always true. Since I had been to Ahmedabad 4 years earlier, we were familiar with what the journey entailed so the soul-searching, preparations and tensions of last time were not present this time. (I remember another quote about the lateness of learning from experience - 'By the time you realize that your father was right, you will have a son who thinks that you are wrong.'.)

All the batch mates from my dorm (D2) attended the reunion. During our campus days, we had styled ourselves 'Enlightened Rogues'. This was a term that I had completely forgotten till I read it  in a Whatsapp message. This was the first time since our campus days that all of us rogues (enlightened ones, don't forget) were together. (A friend from D1 - which was a girls' dorm - did not fail to remind me that the enlightening was because our dorm was located next to theirs!)

With 'Enlightened Rogues' (From left): Sidey, Sardar, Chandu and Pondy
Anitha, the wife of one of my dorm-mates (Sidey) has been my unofficial medical advisor for about 15 years now but we had never actually met in person. All our interactions had been through Whatsapp and email. She is from Chennai and practises in New York. Sidey is from Mumbai and works in New York. I am from Palakkad and settled in Coimbatore. Jaya is also from Palakkad and settled in Coimbatore. It must be obvious to you now that we had to travel to Ahmedabad to meet for the first time.
With (from left) : Sidey, Jaya, Anitha, Sujit, Pondy and Chandu
This being the 25th year reunion, there were many more batch mates attending than was the case last time. So I met a lot more friends who I had thought I would never meet again. As it has happened at all reunions, I was astonished at how much people could remember about various incidents that had happened in our campus days. In the Yearbook that we were given, I couldn't remember many incidents that my batch mates had described. While going around the campus, my recollection of some regular haunts was quite hazy. It was another reminder of how my life before my stroke is becoming more like a hazy dream. 

I was having more trouble remembering incidents and places rather than people which is a blessing. 'My path, thank God, took me to Oxford but my path, thank God, took me away from it', said Santayana. I can make a similar remark about my areas of study in college - 'My path, thank God, led me towards Engineering and MBA, but my path, thank God, led me away from them.' But I cannot make a similar remark about the friends I made there. In their case, I would say - ''My path, thank God, led me to them and my path, thank God, kept me with them.

Apparently, Confucius said that if a person is searching for happiness, it is essential for him to find the right chair to sit. This worthy problem has been addressed satisfactorily for a while in my case so I have to consider what else Confucius said. Unfortunately, I don’t have a clue. I am sure that meeting friends made long ago and exchanging gossip with them would have figured very high in his list.

In one of his incomparable works (I don't remember which one),  one of the timeless Wodehousian characters (I seem to have forgotten who it was), said, “One of the poets, whose name I cannot recall, has a passage, which I am unable at the moment to remember, in one of his works, which for the time being has slipped my mind, which hits off admirably this age-old situation.” I find myself in the shoes of that Wodehousian character - I am sure there was a poem which described beautifully the pleasure of meeting old friends after a long time but I am not able to recall which one it was.

I once heard Jorge Luis Borges say, 'You can read what you want but you can't write what you want; you can write only what you are able to.' It is generally agreed that I can't write a decent poem to save my life. That being the case, I will spare you the torture of reading my pathetic attempt to mimic that great poem. (It really was great, take my word for it.)

With all my batch mates
One of de riguers of any reunion is a DJ night and we had two of them. It is a time when middle-aged folks try to emulate youngsters while their amused children look on. A friend was telling us about the lunch menu at her office meetings. I forget the sequence of items but  the final course would always be thairu shaadam (curd rice). For many Tamilians, a meal is never complete without some thairu shaadam. A DJ night is the thairu shaadam equivalent of reunions.

PS: In the two years that I was in Ahmedabad, I had never thought of going to Sabarmati Ashram. Over the past year, I had been reading about Gandhi and have become a big admirer so I decided to go there on this trip.
With my brother-in-law at Sabarmati Ashram

Monday, January 8, 2018

Another curious nurse - II

The nurse seemed to have a persecution complex and seemed to feel that everybody was always talking about her. For example, she will sometimes clean the tracheostomy tube in the morning thinking that Jaya is not at home.  Jaya will come to my room after some time maybe to tell me about a guest who would be coming home later that day. About an hour or two later, the nurse will suddenly ask me why Jaya was displeased about her cleaning the tracheostomy. I will be surprised since the topic had never come up.

She will crib to me about such matters when Jaya is not around so I will not be able to clear the air. But I think even if somebody was around to clarify matters, she would not have been convinced since she was always right. She seemed to have an inferiority complex in front of Jaya which she countered by adopting a superiority complex. Like Neetu Singh, she used to keep saying,  ‘I know everything!’

Once Jaya had some health issues and the doctor told her to lose some weight. Accordingly she joined a gym which increased the nurse's ill-feeling towards her. The reason was that she used to see Jaya going alone to the gym and wondered why she was not taking me also along with her. She was convinced that if I did the exercises in the gym regularly, I would become alright! She would mention her idea to the physiotherapist who would just smile. She concluded that the physiotherapists were useless - she was giving them such great suggestions which were not being taken seriously!

She was fond of buying lottery tickets and would look religiously in the newspaper to check if she had won. (One of her favorite movie scenes was regarding a Malayalam comedy actor being fooled about a lottery ticket.) She is the only person I have met who had won a lottery. She used to win small amounts like Rs. 500 or Rs. 100 quite often. She would tell me that when she wins a large amount, she will buy me a wheelchair! She was convinced that nobody bothered about me. Although I don't know why she decided on a wheelchair because I never heard her criticizing the one I have.

She would imply that my feeding had not been proper and now that it was 'proper' after she came, I didn't have any excuse for simply lying on the bed without speech. She would say, 'If you don't speak, how will the nurses who come after me be able to understand you?' It didn't seem to occur to her at all that she had been here for only a year while my stroke had happened over 18 years ago.

A reason why the nurse thought that nobody was bothered about me was that Jaya often avoided coming to my room when she was present so that arguments are avoided. Jaya tells me that whenever she comes to my room, her eyes will immediately fall on the one thing that was not ok! It may be the feeding vessel that had not been washed properly, a bit of the medicine still sticking to the porcelain bowl in which the tablets are crushed, etc. The nurse will never agree that she is responsible for these things so when she is not around, Jaya will set these things right.

It is said that on Krishna's hint, Bhima tore Jarasanda's body into two halves and threw them in opposite directions. Listening to the nurse's comments, I would be similarly torn between the opposing emotions of wanting to keep my cool and wanting to 'snap' at her in irritation. In Very Good, Jeeves, when Bertie Wooster realises that Jeeves was actually steering him away from a soup when he had thought that he was being led into it, he says:
It was like those stories one used to read as a kid about the traveller going along on a dark night and his dog grabs him by the leg of his trousers and he says, 'Down, sir! What are you doing, Rover?'and the dog hangs on and he gets rather hot under the collar and curses a bit but the dog won't let him go and then suddenly the moon shines through the clouds and he finds he's been standing on the edge of a precipice and one more step would have - well anyway, you get the idea...
As so often in the past, my equivalent of that faithful dog was my lack of speech. I would try my best to be like a well-bred statue and would just try to contort my facial muscles into what  I would hope approximated a smile. I would not always succeed and I would sometimes go over the edge of the precipice much to my regret later because I must admit that she ultimately did stick on for one and a half years which was a lot more than what many other nurses managed. Also she was the only nurse in the last 4 years or so who got up at night when I wanted to pass urine.