Friday, December 25, 2009

Festivals? They are all business now

The end of anything is supposed to cause gloom. But the end of a year magically produces rejoicing everywhere. Is this because one year’s death is another year’s birth? And because a new year always means new hopes? It’s rather like the sentiment behind the saying, “ The King is dead, long live the King”.

But royal successions have not been commercialised as cynically as our festivals have been. Every celebration today, religious or social, is an occasion for high-pitched marketing frenzy. Look at Diwali, for example. It’s one of our most beautiful festivals whether you see it as a harvest festival or as a religious one signifying Rama’s return to Ayodhya or Lakshmi’s emergence during the churning of the ocean. Today the lovely act of lighting diyas is a minor formality. The big focus is on “Diwali Special Sale” in shops, gifting of expensive dry fruits and sweets hampers, and of course the bursting of fire-crackers, the more deafening the better. Families spending ten lakhs rupees on an hour of fireworks are common.

Christmas also has been hijacked. Jesus Christ was a Palestinian with a Palestinian skin tan and black hair. But devotional photographs make him look like a Scandinavian with blue eyes and blonde hair. Bethlehem where he was born could never have seen snowfalls. Yet Christmas is full of snows and reindeer and stuff. Santa Claus, who is at the centre of it all, is the ultimate affront. He was invented by Coca-Cola to publicise its product. Today he symbolises the profiteering streak of the gift industry. Noticed the avalanche of advertising by cake shops, the red Santa caps on sale at traffic junctions? That’s the low end. The high end is in jewellery shops and watch boutiques.

We have even manufactured some modern-day festivals out of sheer imagination with the prime idea of selling merchandise. Whoever invented Mother’s Day and Father’s Day was a marketing genius. The greeting card business is worth millions of dollars. Half of those millions must be getting splurged on Valentine’s Day alone because that is one manufactured festival that has got a boost from our vigilante moral police. Perhaps the vigilantes are salesmen in disguise deputed by the card manufacturers –like the hooch makers who financed Prohibition Week celebrations in the moral days of Morarji Desai.

Even our media gets the itch when the year comes to a close. Magazines come out with “Special Double Issues”, meaning issues with more jingling advertisements. All of them publish their listings of “Books of the Year” which are usually occasions for literary pundits to give a pat to their pet authors. They also have a perennial routine called Person of the Year. A brave magazine or two might choose an unknown social worker who has dedicated his life to the service of the poor and the sick. But most play a pointless game. Especially our TV channels who imitate one another in picking the likes of Manmohan Singh and A.R. Rehman and Rahul Gandhi as the “Person” or “Indian” or “Businessman” of the year. The foundation in all cases is lucrative sponsorships.

But in an age when commerce rules the world, why complain? Perhaps the only thing we can wish is for a magazine or channel to provide a variation on the hackneyed theme in the spirit of a British Ambassador who broke rank half a century ago. A Washington radio station had telephoned various ambassadors in the US capital asking what they would like in the New Year. The French Ambassador said he wanted “Peace throughout the world”. The Russian Ambassador said: “Liberation for all the peoples enslaved by imperialism”. Then the British Ambassador said: “Very kind of you to ask. I’d quite like a box of chocolates”.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Seas are rising. Is the end nigh?

Never in human history have so many got together for so long to achieve so little on the weather. Everyone in Copenhagen knew that it was all about the earth’s survival, yet no one was willing to take the actions they knew they should. The rich were unwilling to cut down on the luxuries they had got accustomed to while the not-so-rich were unwilling to cut down on their desire for the same luxuries. So rhetoric replaced reality. Result: The danger level is up by another degree.

Weather is a boring subject. But this conference has been of life-and-death importance. The best way to understand it is to look at it from the perspective of history. At the end of the last ice-age (about 9000 to 10,000 years ago) catastrophes wrecked the world. Great icecaps from northern Europe and north America melted down, massive floods swept across the globe, sea levels rose as much as 100 meters devouring 25 million square kilometers of land, which is equal to about seven Indias or three Australias.

There are ominous signs that similar things may be happening again because of rising temperatures. The past ten years have been the warmest in recorded history. Unprecedented droughts and floods caused tens of thousands of deaths even in Europe and the US. Antarctica has been losing at least five billion tons of ice every year since 2006. U S vice-president turned environmentalist Al Gore’s estimate of a 20-foot rise in sea levels “in the near future” may sound alarmist. But even sober predictions put the rise at 18 to 59 centimeters by the end of the 21st Century. If the Antarctic glacial melting is also factored in, the rise could be four to six metres. Alarming enough.

Now we can appreciate the desperation that drove the Maldivian Cabinet to hold a meeting at the bottom of the sea and the Nepalese Cabinet to meet on the peaks of the Himalayas. Maldives will be one of the first nations to disappear if the seas rise a wee bit. As for the Himalayas, a Hollywood movie last year showed a gigantic monster of a tsunami sweeping over its peaks.

That may be a filmic exaggeration, but the title of that picture, “2012”, was not chosen on a whim. Some cultures hold 2012 as the year in which the world as we know it will come to an end. This “superstition” started because the Long Count Calendar of the Mayan civilisation ended with that year. Modern-day media have taken up the cry. History Channel’s “2012: End of Days” and Discovery Channel’s “2012: Apocalypse” were popular television hits.

Even those who reject doomsday beliefs should have no difficulty accepting that many ancient human settlements are today under water. Ruins of a well-developed township about a mile from the Mahabalipuram shoreline were discovered last year by a joint Indo-British team. A city five miles long and two miles wide lies 120 feet under water in the Gulf of Cambay. Similar submerged settlements exist off Egypt, Greece, Cuba, Japan.

Against the backdrop of this long history of the ocean gobbling up coastal areas, we can see the sense in the proposal made by oceanographic specialists in India that human dwellings should be at least half to one kilometer away from the shoreline. But our land developers and real estate lobbies proudly defy such counsel. Our hungry politicians and hungrier bureaucrats support them. We let hazardous wastes to be dumped irresponsibly, our rivers to be systematically killed by sand mafias. In Copenhagen the world’s worst polluters fought for their right to pollute. Perhaps we deserve what the Bhagavatam has predicted for us: Lord Kalki will kill by the millions those thieves who have dared to dress as Kings.

Friday, December 11, 2009

From patriotism to parochialism

There is something disruptive about the idea of linguistic states. But the idea received sanctity from the earliest days of the independence movement. The Congress was organised along the lines of linguistic pradeshes. In that sense Potti Sriramulu had the backing of nationalist fashion when he fasted to death in 1952 for a Telugu state. All of India was then reconfigured along linguistic lines.

The basic argument always was that linguistic structuring will facilitate development of both the language and the state. A half century later we can see the hollowness of this argument. Development of language has boiled down to the meaningless campaign for “classical status” for one’s language. What on earth does this status signify? Is Raj Thackeray’s violent chauvinism helping Marathi develop? As for development of the state, there is not a single case so far of linguistic identity having helped a state progress. On the contrary, it has produced undisguised enmities among states. Just look at the war-like posturings of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra over water sharing. The next stage will be when one-dimensional leaders like Mulayam Singh and M.K. Azhagiri become the rulers of the land – unable to talk to one another or understand one another. It will be not unity in diversity, but disunity in distrust.

And now even language as a symbol of patriotism has become passé. The success of Chandrasekhara Rao’s death-fast threat for Telangana takes the game to parochialism of a negative kind. His objective is personal gain. He had lost his political base, lost his party allies and lost even the recent elections in the state. Now, in one fell sweep, he has assured himself the chief ministership of Telangana State if and when it materialises. A classic case of zero to hero.

This is good for Chandrasekahara Rao and bad for Telengana and very bad for India. It is bad for Telangana because Chandrasekhara Rao is just a run-of-the-mill politician. Any government he heads will be one more exercise in the usual sharing of spoils. The beneficiaries will be opportunists like Deputy Superintendent of Police Nalini who resigned at the nick of time, made the right noises about Telangana being oppressed and went straight to visit the ailing Chandrasekhara Rao. Resignations and rioting have taken place against dividing the state, showing that a new Telangana state will be sailing in stormy seas. Hyderabad’s pre-eminence as a supra-Telangana megalopolis will add to the tensions. A likely attempt by Chandrasekhara Rao to anoint his son Rama Rao as heir apparent will create a precarious situation akin to Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s son Jagan is currently facing.

India, poor India, will not split apart as Yugoslavia did after Tito, but its sense of unity will be severely tested. After all, we are facing a situation where even people who speak the same language are unable to stay together. Then what about the ten other demands for new states? The Gorkhaland campaign has already been revived with plans for multiple fasts unto death, a dig that makes Chandrasekhara Rao look rather foolish. Justifications abound for new Saurashtra, Bhojpur, Mithilanchal, Vidarbha states. Very strong indeed is the case for Kodagu. With a history, culture, lifestyle and socio-economic background that set it apart from surrounding regions, Kodagu’s distinctiveness is more manifest than Pondicherry’s.

Such valid cases for statehood should be winnable through democracy’s fair means. Each time Mahatma Gandhi went on a fast, it was invariably an example of complete selflessness. He was like Bharata who started a hunger strike when Rama refused to end his exile as Bharata had pleaded. Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, we have turned fasts unto death into a blackmailing tactic. Every time the tactic wins, the forces of good lose.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A rare case of wit and wisdom

Among the Prime Ministers of India, who was the most intellectually proficient? The temptation is to point to Jawaharlal Nehru, the Cantabrigian who conversed with Bernard Shaw and Albert Einstein, who wrote classical books and masterpieces of English prose like the Tryst-with-destiny speech and the description of the Ganga in his last will and testament.

But, as in all human affairs, don’t glamour and charisma give an edge to Nehru’s appeal? By the same token, doesn’t the complete absence of glamour and charisma in P.V.Narasimha Rao tend to hide his intrinsic worth? As Prime Minister PVN made himself notorious as the Mouna Muni, saying not a word when scandals rocked him and the country. His pouting lips were notorious too, but at least cartoonists loved them. For all that, wasn’t he the finest intellectual who sat in the Prime Minister’s chair?

This is an inopportune time to bring up the subject of Narasimha Rao. For one thing, the Gandhi dynasty’s penchant to bury non-dynasty leaders as immaterial has kept PVN in the forgotten category. Remember how his body was refused entry into the AICC headquarters, and how they turned down the family’s request for a site to bury him in the capital. For another, Liberhan’s report on Babri Masjid demolition has revived memories of PVN’s inexcusable inaction when organised fanatics pulled down the mosque and unleashed a tidal wave of religious violence across the country.

But, inopportune or not, it has to be recognised that PVN remains in a class of his own as a thinker, writer and scholar. His sense of humour was of the kind that only people of refined taste and erudition could have. A sample of this disarming attribute has just come to light through Mainstream weekly. In November 2003 he was to release a book on India-Pakistan by the late Nikhil Chakravartty, the most consequential editor of his generation. He was unable to do so and wrote the following explanation to Mainstream’s current editor and Nikhil’s son Sumit:

“I am extremely sorry I cannot join you at your function on the 3rd. Because of excruciating back pain I have had to be admitted to the hospital just now. The treatment is simple: Lie on a flat bed, no one knows how long. There is no way I can move, except my moving along with my flat bed to the venue of the meeting. We are told that Lord Vishnu used to move along with his snake-bed, but I thought I would spare myself the responsibility of Godhood after what all I have already gone through as a human”.

Wit and wisdom came naturally to PVN, a master of thirteen languages who could read Greek, Latin and Sanskrit classics, impress Fidel Castro with his Spanish, speak Urdu stylishly, translate novels from Marathi to Telugu, from Telugu to Hindi, and give guest lectures in German and American universities. He as an expert on classical military doctrines and a well-honed aficionado of music, cinema and theatre. He was the closest India got to Plato’s philosopher-king.

Look at the contrast. Singularly unblessed men like Charan Singh and Deve Gowda have also sat in the prime ministerial chair. Ashok Gehlot’s Congress Government in Rajasthan today has a minister, Golma Devi, who could barely read her oath card and took three days to learn how to sign her appointment letter. And she is minister of state for nothing less than Home, Civil Defence and Rural Industries. In Karnataka a wanton family that plunders the earth controls the Government. Unworthy men and women abound in Parliament. These are the realities that should make us grateful that a man like P.V.Narasimha Rao, warts and all, lived in our midst once upon a time.