Monday, October 31, 2016

When violence, hatred and conflicts surround us, quotable quotes give us comfort and hope

These are troubled times. Conflicts beset our lives and everyone is at war with everyone. One way -- perhaps the only way -- to snatch a modicum of sanity amid the malevolence is to seek out the soothing words of the wise who went before us, the
great men who made our lives sublime/and left footprints on the sands of time.

The need to do so is increasing by the day. Wherever we turn, we see people hating people, violence derailing life, religion fighting religion. An hour with the newspapers in the morning leaves us depressed. A half-hour with the news channels in the evening leaves us distressed; can "debates" among seemingly educated citizens be so disruptive, anchoring so maniacal? If we turn to the internet for relief, we see a scary world of unsupervised abuse from free-floating antibodies. Where has the world of decencies gone?

The words of wisdom passed on by past generations do not always cheer us up. Some merely help us cope by explaining the mess we are in. Thus the texts on Kaliyuga tell us that we are living in times when "barbarians will rise as kings, humans with animal nature will multiply, Brahmins will sell the vedas, sages will become traders and rains will not come in season." What a perfect description of our lives?

The need for words of comfort explains the popularity of A.P.J.Abdul Kalam's books and the perennial appeal of the Tamil classic Thirukkural with its moral aphorisms: "The compassionate who care for other lives do not fear for their own lives".

Collections of quotations remain evergreen because of their wit and wisdom.Winston Churchill, himself a master of quotable quotes ("Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few", or, "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put") did not hesitate to recommend the reading of quotations. When engraved upon the memory, he said, "they give you good thoughts".

Dictionaries of quotations are a staple of the English language. But they are Western in their orientation. Thus the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has 38 pages of quotations from the Bible and not even a stray one from the Gita or the Upanishads. To the dictionary reader, therefore, the unrivalled gems of the Bhagwat Gita are unavailable. And only Upanishad scholars will come upon beautiful thoughts such as, "This earth is the honey of all beings, and all beings are the honey of this earth" (Brihadaranyaka).

Thankfully, those seeking refuge from surrounding hostilities have enough in the English world to comfort them. Dostoyevsky does it with lofty insights: "Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others". Charles Dickens delights us with his rustic wisdom: "Never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time". Or, "we forge the chains we wear in life".

Sheer nastiness can also give pleasure by being bright with wit. See what Cyril Connolly said of George Orwell: "He cannot blow his nose without moralising on conditions in the handkerchief industry". Orwell himself said: "The worst advertisement for the Christian religion is its adherents". H.L.Mencken was a master of this art. "Love", he said, "is the delusion that one woman differs from another". Among his endless wisecracks was: "A good politician is as unthinkable as an honest burglar".

One of the most popular quotation providers was Oscar Wilde. Poet, playwright, novelist and bohemian, his imagination was unrivalled when it came to expressing outrageous ideas in enchanting phrases. "Work is the curse of the drinking classes", he said. And, "It is better to be beautiful than to be good. But it is better to be good than to be ugly". He cautioned us: "A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies". And also: "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That is his". He defined a cynic as "A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing". And he reminded us: "There is no sin except stupidity". And that "The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it".

In the end, it is the noble-minded who win the day. In these troubled times, the simple words with which a simple man outlined a simple philosophy come through as the best quote. Said tennis star Roger Federer's father Robert: "Cry when you win, cry when you lose -- that's sport. Just don't cheat".

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Congress, bent on suicide, lost Kerala first. Now it's losing Karnataka for a flyover

The relentless build-up of the Congress party's death wish is an astonishing phenomenon to watch. There isn't the slightest sign of recognising the cancer that is destroying it from within -- absolute control by a dynastic family that no longer commands respect, not even from large chunks of Congressmen. The party that could once get a lamp post elected on its ticket has power today in just eight states, seven of them too minor to count on the national stage. Karnataka is the only major state the Congress controls -- and Congress leaders in the state are doing everything possible to ensure defeat in the next election.

The so-called High Command has lost its omnipotence as Kerala's last chief minister, Oommen Chandy, proved by defying it. With several of his ministers neck-deep in corruption, he rejected the High Command's suggestions aimed at saving the situation. Pressed to drop at least one minister, Chandy threatened to boycott the election whereupon the High Command humbly retreated. In the event, Chandy led the Congress to its most humiliating defeat in history. Unless he and his generation retire and a line of young leaders take over, the Congress will lose again in Kerala -- provided of course that the present Communist-led alliance does not help the Congress by committing serious blunders.

The suicidal streak in the Karnataka Congress is just as strong. The latest subterfuge that has alienated the Government from the people involves plans for a steel flyover in a city that has been turned into a traffic nightmare by a succession of greedy politician planners. The initial plans saw the flyover ending at the Hebbal intersection, a notorious mess. When it was pointed out that the bigger bottleneck was just after the Hebbal junction, the flyover blueprint was hastily extended to include that hell-spot as well. A classic case of ad-hocism and non-application of mind.

The steel flyover idea has triggered widespread public opposition because of its obvious unsoundness. A central segment of Bangalore, the Chalukya Circle, will be reduced to a mess of underpasses and crisscrossing steel overbridges. Several hundred trees will be cut while the Golf Club and heritage structures will be broken up. On top of it all, the Government has been secretive about the details. No cost breakdown is provided, information under RTI is denied. There will be a toll gate, making Bangalore the only city where a resident will have to pay two tolls to reach the airport. The whole scheme is bad economically, bad politically, bad aesthetically and bad ethically. The only sensible thing that can be done with it is to scrap it altogether.

Bangaloreans saw this and turned out in their thousands to form a human chain of protest one Sunday. Any Government claiming to represent the people would at least have shown a semblance of courtesy before public opinion so dramatically expressed. But Chief Minister Siddaramaiah reflected Congress haughtiness when he told the protesting public, the very next day, that the steel flyover plan would proceed as planned.

Why such open adamance? Two explanations gained currency. First, that Karnataka's Congressmen do not expect to be elected next time around and are therefore in a hurry to make hay while the sun shines. Secondly, for the Congress and the High Command, Karnataka is the one and only ATM available and elections are imminent in UP and Punjab.

The political class being what it is, both explanations are convincing. Besides, the High Command cannot afford to be all that high these days. The dynastic hold is proving counter-productive at every turn. In UP, where it had no chance anyway, it has received a body blow with the defection of Rita Bahuguna, considered close to Sonia Gandhi and her son.

The only state where the future holds some sort of hope for the party is Rajasthan. If the High Command tries to find out why, it will see that the leadership of the party in the state has gone to Sachin Pilot, a younger leader who has vision and competence. The elders are sulking. C.P.Joshi, reputed to be a confidant of Rahul Gandhi, skipped a dinner organised by ex-Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot. The two together skipped Rahul's rally in Delhi on Oct 6.

If all the elders go into a similar sullen withdrawal in all other states too and the young and the able take over the party's reins, the Congress may see another sunrise. But that won't happen. Why? Ask the unseeing, immovable, infallible Family.

Monday, October 17, 2016

PM said no chest-thumping, but election planners ignore that sound advice. It's not a good omen

In just a couple of weeks, "surgical strike" has become a magical phrase in India. It radiates with patriotism and national pride so much so that Hindi media uses it untranslated. The phrase of course has nothing to do with surgery or hospitals or doctors; surgeons don't "strike" at patients. The way things are going, probably it has nothing to do with generals and jawans either. It has become so politicised that it now denotes political action politically conceived for political exploitation.

Prime Minister Modi was the first leader to recognise the negative nature of the politics that developed around India's military operation against Pakistani terrorist bases on September 28. As a propaganda war raged over the operation, the atmosphere was vitiated by allegations and counter-allegations unbecoming of a mature nation. What's more, it detracted from the valour of the armed forces. Recognising the unhealthy nature of this pow-wow, Narendra Modi told his people to avoid "chest-thumping" over the military strike. That was sound advice.

Strategically and diplomatically, too, it was wise not to go boasting. Having gained the immediate objectives of the strike, public bragging can achieve nothing militarily while it can generate vengefulness in the enemy. A humiliated enemy will focus on retaliatory action, especially when it has the advantage of non-state actors at its beck and call.

Modi was careful enough to follow his own advice during his much-awaited speech at the Dussehra function in Lucknow. He said Ravana was "the first terrorist" of the world, but did not go beyond that. He did not dwell much on the strike against Pakistan and, more significantly, did not accuse previous governments of not carrying out operations of a similar nature against targets in Pakistan.

But once again the more enthusiastic BJP ideologues have chosen to ignore Modi's advice. (On an earlier occasion, when he had condemned cow vigilantes as anti-social, the vigilantes had the gumption to turn around and condemn him. On Dussehra day, RSS chief Bhagwat chose in effect to chastise Modi by saying that cow protectors should not be mistaken for vigilantes). This time the momentum of politics, accelerated by the approaching elections in Uttar Pradesh, seems to have propelled ideologues towards rejecting the prime ministerial guideline.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh himself looked like he was carried away by the enthusiasm of the Ramleela crowd at Lucknow. In an obvious reference to the "surgical strike", he said the "Prime Minister has proved to the world that India is not weak". Defence Minister Parrikar went completely political. Earlier strikes during the UPA regime, he said, were border skirmishes carried out by local teams; only the latest action merited to be called surgical strike. He said the big credit for the decision went to the Prime Minister.

In a few sentences in his Mumbai speech, he turned the Prime Minister's advice on its head, gave the armed forces a minor role and sharpened the enemy's enmity to a point that cannot do us any good. He did a double chest-thumping -- how his government took action previous governments did not, and how the latest action has damaged the enemy's psyche. His words bristled with bravado: "Pakistan was given opportunities to build relations. But the response was not forthcoming. It turned into a predictable pattern which has been broken by the surgical strikes".

We can imagine how these words would be seen in Pakistan. There will now be no scope for talks of any kind unless the Prime Minister goes out of his way to undo the damage. Sections of the electorate in India will of course feel an adoloscent thrill. BJP leaders have announced that the surgical strike and the uniform civil code will be the main weapons in the UP election campaign. Is that what it all boils down to? Our jawans risk their lives fighting terrorists only to help a political party win a few votes? Can short-term political calculations override long-term national interests?

Modi's position against propagandising the strike against terrorists in Pakistan must have been a carefully considered one. He must have realised that war with Pakistan was not an option. Only negotiations against a background of international collaboration of a meaningful nature -- on economic and trade programmes for example -- can show a way forward. This becomes all the more obvious with the increasing involvement of Iran, Russia and China as well as the US in the area. If domestic politics determines external relations, India will lose more than it gains.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Artists do not die because the world needs art; Arakkal gave us pleasure by painting pain

It is not for nothing that every Rajnikant movie is released with uproarious publicity brouhaha, from milk abhishekam of oversize portraits to trailers exploding with the hero's superman feats. Marketing is everything. For film folk, it is the magic line between life and death. But the principle behind it applies to writers, artists and musicians as well.

M.F.Husain became India's most famous artist by being in the news always. He was of course one of our best. But so was Souza, so was Tyeb Mehta, so were Hebbar and Ara and Manjit Bawa. But none of them plunged headlong into controversy as Husain did with, for example, his portrait of Indira Gandhi, during the Emergency days, as a tiger-riding Durga. Then the Hindutva brigade did him a favour by vandalising some of his works and forcing him into exile, thereby making him even more celebrated.

Yusuf Arakkal was of the opposite kind -- quiet, gentle and undemanding despite holding strong views. He was aware of the importance of pushing your way forward. His preferred term was performer. Like Picasso, he said, artists have to be performers. He wasn't one because it was not in him. Belonging to what may be called the post-Husain generation (or, should it be the post-Bombay Group phenomenon?), Arakkal ploughed his own furrow. He produced no genre of his own. His work focussed on the evocative faces of ordinary people, on themes such as loneliness and gloom. He was unabashed in his admiration for his heroes -- the masters of European art ("the greats," as he called them) and the genius novelist of his native Kerala, Vaikam Muhammed Bashir; a typical Arakkal series is devoted to Bashir characters.

The dramatic mass of Tyeb Mehta's colourations, the majestic contrasts of Husain's blacks and whites, the violent liveliness of Souza's distortions, even the elegiac eloquence of Amrita Shergill -- no, Yusuf Arakkal would have none of these. He would choose colours and contours that brought out the desolation of city life, the darkness of marginality, the anguish of human struggles. Arakkal had experienced poverty and loneliness and dejection when he roamed the streets of Bangalore looking for a living. Only after he got a welding job in HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd) could he think of doing an art course in the Chitrakala Parishad and gaining experience as a print-maker in a Delhi studio.

Arakkal's choice of Bangalore must have been by happenstance. It was a pensioners' paradise, while the artists' paradise was Bombay. Transformation began in 1970 when Gurudas Shenoy took the initiative in organising "Karnataka Painters". Arakkal was in the original team along with S.G.Vasudev, Balan Nambiar, Milind Naik and others. K.K.Hebbar as chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi gave a boost to their efforts. Today Bangalore is a thriving centre of modern art, so thriving that galleries have come up in impressive numbers, obviously making good profit out of art shows, art sales and related art business.

Although one of the pioneers of the art movement in Bangalore and always in the front row, Arakkal seldom played the activist's role. Vasudev, for example, floated Artpark, a voluntary movement that enabled interested people to collect in a public park one Sunday a month and exchange ideas with established masters. He also started Ananya Drishya to expose school children to art. Balan Nambiar ran an informal art school in his flat for years, giving children tuition in drawing and colour mixing.

Arakkal did give time and attention to young aspirants. But he was happiest when he could bury himself in painting portraits, in depicting scenes that expressed his inner conflicts, his hopes, his pain; the artist succeeds when his pain translates into the cognoscenti's pleasure. Like Balan Nambiar, he ventured into media other than paint, stainless steel for example; his early days as a mechanic in HAL must have come in handy. But he did not diversify as Vasudev did with art direction in movies at one end and tapestry art at another.

In the end, though, he surprised everyone by jumping the queue of life and departing ahead of his colleagues when he had just crossed the 70th marker. But this is one case where Death will not win. Yusuf Arakkal will mock it from galleries across the country and beyond. And he will be there to greet every arriving passenger at Bangalore International Airport with his mural, The Flight, a masterpiece in glittering steel, shaped and angled to take off any moment. Death, where's they sting?

Monday, October 3, 2016

A new America faces a new cultural revolution; Trump reflects world's shift to intolerance

Frankly speaking, the choice before American voters in this presidential election is depressing to say the least. Neither candidate has the ennobling, inspirational dimension that made Barack Obama's entry splendorous, and John Kennedy's before him. The Clinton name is, to put it mildly, controversial; if Bill earned the nickname "Slick Willie," the commonly used adjectives for Hillary are "mean" and "phony" and "programmed". Donald Trump of course is the complete outsider trying to become the insider. His crude style is matched only by his reputation for real estate business tricks and his white-racist image. That this is all that the United States has on offer is an indication perhaps that the American Century is finally reaching its sunset stage.

It would be a mistake, though, to miss the historical importance of Trump's emergence as a political phenomenon. The world was astonished that a property tycoon with zero political experience could become the Republican Party's presidential candidate. Republicans themselves were astonished -- and many of them ashamed. The establishment wing of the party tried to stop Trump. They finally reconciled themselves to his candidacy when the threat of dire consequences to their opposition combined with the surprising groundswell in favour of Trump.

That groundswell has been attributed to various factors, ranging from the rise of a new middleclass in America with new grievances/aspirations, to a worldwide shift towards rightwing dogmatism and attendant intolerance. Before these new developments the system was "orderly". Both conservatives such as Ronald Reagan and liberals such as John Kennedy could count upon a citizenry that was generally satisfied with their lives. The middleclass outnumbered the upper and lower classes combined and the economy was healthy enough to ensure a reasonable level of prosperity. America's status as a world power and a refuge of the oppressed came as a bonus.

Perceptions are different now. A Pew research study (December 2015) showed that the middleclass was no longer the majority in America. Its share in income had also gone down steadily during the past four-plus years. Simultaneously, no doubt urged by loss of jobs and the general fall in economic standards, the middleclass also started losing faith in the entrenched political system manned by scheming politicians, lobbyists, financiers and big-business cartels.

The moment was right for the middleclass to reject popular shibboleths about America's role in the world and start asking about America's responsibility to Americans. Trump was made for such a moment. The issues he raised resonated with growing numbers of disgruntled Americans. Why spend Americans' money on foreign aid? Why allow outsiders come and take jobs away from Americans? Why spend so heavily on military operations abroad when the result is ISIS?

When Trump raised such questions with his trademark flamboyance and loudness, the multitudes gravitated to him. His war cry, "Make America Great Again", was just what they wanted to hear. When he attacked Hispanics, Blacks, and alien entities like "the Chinese", white Americans were thrilled. His comments on immigrants and minorities and women were ultraconservative, retrograde and belligerent, but they were music to the ears of an enlarged audience of Americans disgusted with the conditions imposed on them by the politicians-business establishment. Trump saw his popularity rising.

But many Americans also found him vulgar, foul and opposed to the standards of decency they considered not only important but also American. The New York Times and the Washington Post led the powerful media segment that "endorsed" Hillary Clinton and published strongly-worded denunciations of the values Trump propagated. What has emerged is a divided America -- divided, not between liberals and conservatives as has been the case till now, but between liberals and nationalists of the dogmatic kind.

America may simply be reflecting a trend that has been evolving around the world. Sluggish economy and the convulsions created by the refugee influx from war-torn Syria have seen ultra-right parties gaining ground across Europe. The anti-immigrant, anti-European Union, protectionist National Front in France, the far-right Alternative for Germany party, the anti-immigrant Freedom Party in Austria, Hungarian, Polish rightwingers are all beneficiaries of the world's swing to illiberal doctrines.

That is why the Hillary-Trump fight will be a historically significant event and its eventual consequences unpredictable. The first TV debate between them saw Hillary winning comfortably. But it will be foolish to ignore the fact that Trump has risen this high despite being a "tax-evader" as Hillary charged, and despite calling women "slogs" and "dogs" and "pigs". America faces a cultural revolution and a political convulsion at once.