Cry, the Beloved Humanity

First published in Click here to read.

Some countries are in shambles.

Some countries are in a wreck — war torn, poverty-ridden, divided deeply from the world where such expressions are only hyperboles and not a reality. The major war in these fortunate parts of the world currently is mainly with the pandemic. These nations still have the bandwidth to explore how to make more money and flourish. When can flying be resumed? Tours? Holidays? Historically as we evolved, humans set limits. We mapped borders that cannot be transcended, having drawn them ourselves – boundaries of ‘isms’ – which disallow us from reaching out a helping hand to our neighbours in distress. As humans, how long will we keep absolving ourselves of responsibility for ignoring the pain faced by members of our own species?

In a humorous film called Baby’s Day Out (1994), a gorilla took charge of a human child and saved him from villainous men. Today, as some countries cry out in pain, we see the suffering of our own species and yet sit quietly waiting for the others to act. One month ago, a young Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist, Danish Siddiqui, died shooting a clash between Pakistan, Afghan security forces and the Taliban.  One month after his death — that seems a lifetime away– we watch the Taliban take over. What did the death do? What could Reuters do? Was Siddiqui a victim of his own choices or of circumstances? He said: “I shoot for the common man…” But do all common men want to know, know of the pain and the suffering? How does it help? What does it do for them? Does it mobilize help for the victims? Does it create an awareness of suffering and make us kinder, more considerate as a species?

Thirty years ago, I left journalism because we were taught “good news is no news”. I have always wondered if this is the favourite dictum of much of the media?…

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The Philosopher’s Stone

First published in The Thumb Print. Click here to read.

“…the destruction of what you people call evil, is less just and desirable than the conversion of this evil into what you call good…”

 — The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

Is it possible to change evil to good? Are we the right people to judge what is evil or good and go on a witch hunt and start a riot that disrupts lives? The words above were mouthed by a humanoid robot at the end of the novel — in a society where differences among humans persist despite technological advances. Human nature then seems similar to what it is now, though in a futuristic setting.

Recently, reading Devaki Jain’s autobiography, The Brass Notebook, made one thing clear. If you really want something, you can get it. But the desire has to be strong enough to override the feeling of having lost out because one often needs to pay a price. The other thing that is noticeable is Jain’s ability to override societal values with their judgemental outlook of good or evil, of what is acceptable and what is not. A South Indian Brahmin, born in 1933, she cast aside the patriarchal norms surrounding her to reinvent her life in the way she wanted. In the process, she was touched by many great lives and she touched many lives with her own work. She was a woman who with her convictions helped many less privileged and went on to prove that economics needed to be redefined beyond the reaches of patriarchal and colonial thought processes. 

Jain was sexually harassed a couple of times — the kind of molestation which could well be fodder for the ‘me too’ movement or for a less vocal woman, the incident could result in a feeling of being abused and losing self-worth. But she treated them as events to be merely brushed aside and moved forward to live the life she wanted — a strong woman and an influencer. The most impressive thing is that she published her autobiography after having crossed her eighties, at a point when most are obsessed with geriatric issues. Would she have been judged evil by the patriarchal society whose norms she upended? Would she be judged good by the people whose lives she changed with her open outlook and daring theories?

A woman similar to her was created by Aruna Chakravarti in her novel Suralakshmi Villa. Suralakshmi found her own groom late in life — a married irresolute man who she dumps when she finds him sexually molesting and trying to rape her ward, a young Muslim girl. She goes on to open a thriving hospital in rural Bengal and helps the less privileged. Suralakshmi would probably be living in a time parallel to Jain. Again, a strong woman not given to regrets and with the ability to brush aside smaller issues. 

One of the features that is truly inspiring about Chakravarti’s women in novels like Suralakshmi Villa and Jorasanko, her story of the Tagore family, is the strength she portrays in her women, who despite being surrounded by patriarchal values are able to stand for themselves and hold on to their sense of self-worth and independence, as seen in the character of Jain in The Brass Notebook. This is a recurring theme in Chakravarti’s short stories too, like Through the Looking Glass, where the protagonist despite being a victim of patriarchal abuse lives a life of struggle but feels like a princess near the conclusion. The “old, ugly, unloved Pomo Dasi had vanished. Rajkumari Promoda Sundari, only daughter of  Sreel Sreejukta Raja Raghobendra Chandra Rai, seventeenth in line from the Chandra Rai dynasty of Garh Bishnupur, was sporting with her companions in the royal gardens.”  

What could be this philosopher’s stone that makes a human regain their self-worth? 

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Potatoes and Chillies in the New Year

First Published in Click here to read

“Oddly enough, it (potato) was introduced to the Himalayas by two Irishmen, captain Young of Dehra and Mussoorie and captain Kennedy of Simla, in the 1820s. The slopes of Young’s house, ‘Mullinger’, were known as his Potato Farm.  Looking up old books, I was surprised to learn that the potato wasn’t known in India before the nineteenth century, and now it’s an essential part of our diet in most parts of the country.”

— Rain in the Mountains (1993), Ruskin Bond

Potatoes thus, unified the gastronomic history of mankind as did the writer Ruskin Bond, who adopted a country that suited him and wrote of the love, kindness and warmth he found in local hearts. Or, perhaps, did the country adopt him? I do not know which would be the right perspective. The basic thing is that even chillies, which make Thai, Indian and Vietnamese cuisines not just delicious, but also add to the zest or spice of these, existed only in Latin America till 1492, when Columbus bit his first chilli! Food has actually connected the whole world together and spices have been added to create a wide array of cuisines that tempt our palates. Now potatoes grow everywhere as do chillies!

Despite the world being united by chillies and potatoes, as this year draws to a close, I am left wondering at the way humankind has got clumped into little boxes because of the mutations of a tiny virus. But if this virus is to survive, it will have to mutate to become endemic, and continue to share the Earth with man, as do other viruses. However, more than the dangers posed by the virus, the thing that really frightens me is the change in global perspectives towards foreigners and the acceptance of leadership that is questionable. The fact that the global community continues mute over the ‘annexation’ or ‘take over’ of countries by those who were considered extremists earlier is alarming. This silence does not do away with the mute suffering of the people in those regimes. I do not know if and when history will smoothen out the rough edges and give an opportunity to these challenged victims to rise up in rebellion against might and intimidation. How much will the people suffer before they speak up and rebel to come to their own? Do they even realize that some of the world, which is better off, views them as sufferers and worse off than those who totter under inequalities while servicing the privileged?

This lack of realization is something that has been written about earlier. Alex Haley’s Roots (1976) puts the muteness and unawareness of those who suffered quietly in perspective through the voice of his ancestor, an African slave called Kunta Kinte —“ It took him (Kinte) a long time, and a great many more parties,  to realise that they (his master or owner and their friends) didn’t live that way, that it was all strangely unreal, a kind of beautiful dream that the White folks were having,  a lie they were telling themselves; that goodness can come from badness, that it’s possible to be civilised with one another without treating as human beings those (slaves) whose blood, sweat and mother’s milk made possible the life of the privilege they led.”

Let me put it in further perspective. That the slave owners were ‘kind’ and ‘good’ to the slaves but would not allow them the freedom to live outside the boxes defined by their own rules which allowed the owners to treat the slaves as their personal property, was something that many of those victimised by slavery did not understand till much later. The concept of xenophobia was widespread as both the Africans and the Americans suffered from major biases rooted in colour and an inability to accept different or foreign ways of life. In Roots, Kinte was from a highly regarded and respected family in his village in Africa. To them the ‘toubab’ or the white man was as much of an alien as the Africans were to the American slave dealers, who stole and sold them as property. Do we have instances of such xenophobia and unacceptance now — long after the outlawing of apartheid and slavery ? How much have things changed in a world unified by potatoes, chillies and spices? An interesting question to ponder.

These days, when democracy takes precedence over all else (even human needs) and huge conglomerates employ many workers, social media is said to be creating an awareness among all people connected by it….

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Why we need a Bunker Roy in Literature?

First published in, December, 2020

With the farmers marching out to demand their rights in India, with more consciousness of the need to close gaps between the privileged and non-privileged worldwide, with climate crisis becoming a major force to redefine our thinking, perhaps the time has come to rethink how literature can be moulded to serve the needs of the masses. That we wake up to the urgency of bridging gaps between different levels of education to create a more evolved world for mankind as a species is fast becoming an unspoken necessity to live with advances that time is unfolding for us. Leaving behind more than one half of the world is not really an alternative. The tiny corona virus has shown us, proven to us, we need to unify as a race.

Recently, I watched a TED talk by a man called Bunker Roy.  He was a squash champion in India for three years, with a privileged education from Doon school (where also had studied the scions of the Indira Gandhi family) and the high-browed St Stephen’s College of Delhi University. He was all set to be a diplomat. Then, he decided to see what a village was like and went to one during the 1965 famine. He came back with all the boxed ideals of a glamorous bureaucratic future replaced by a dream of digging 500 wells. He lived out his dream much to the chagrin of his mother. He started a barefoot college in arid Rajasthan, called Tilonia. This, he claimed in his talk, is the only college in the world where postgraduates and doctorals are not welcome. It has non-collegiates to teach the illiterate. They teach life skills. And now he has a bunch of grandmothers who are laying solar cells and lighting up the world from Afghanistan to India to Africa to Sierra Leone. His work has now spanned 64 countries, beyond all borders. He goes where there is a need to bridge a gap between the ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ worlds.

This is a man who broke out of boxed thinking, reached out to people and made changes in the lives of people. I would love to write of what made him choose as he did, what made him opt to leave a life of glamour and ease and work for developing a village. He did not see if they were bhakts or liberals, Republicans or Democrats or educated or non-educated entities. He just saw them as fellow humans and he touched their lives and work with his unboxed choices.

The reason I write of him is because I would want to use somebody like him as a role model for writing. But he does not write. He works with his hands. How could he be a role model? To me, he is a role model because he could break out from boxed thinking and create a new concept in learning and reach out beyond borders drawn artificially by mankind. Is that not what all great literature should be doing? Breaking out of boxed thinking to create new inroads into human thought, to discover new paradigms for the souls that thirst for succour in these trying times. He lived out Gandhi’s dream as I read it in the Mahatma’s autobiography — My Experiments with Truth. Gandhi was another man who thought beyond his times. He was talking of developing villages the way Roy has done, long before Roy decided to dig wells. And yet his books were not prescribed for any literature classes three decades ago, in my university days in India. We did read translations of Plato and Homer — but not anything that would bring us closer to the people of our own country, to their needs. If Plato can be seen as a part of English literature, then why not Gandhi?

Recently, I read a book called Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, which has been prescribed as compulsory reading for my son’s international Baccalaureate English Literature course. I was happy to see this bridge. For, I would call it a bridge. The book is in the form of black and white cartoons with writing, which has effectively conveyed the plight of Iranians crushed between the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini regimes. With a few bold strokes, it expressed so much. Though comments behind the book are many, some convey my own sentiments. This, written by Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street, I felt was the most apt to describe my experience: “Part history book, art Scheherzade, astonishing as only true stories can be, Persepolis gave me hope for humanity in these unkind times.” Another by journalist Gloria Steinem, said: “You have never seen anything like Persepolis — Marjane Satrapi may have given us a new genre.”

Value based writing like that of Satrapi is important in educating and bridging gaps between those who have time to indulge in literary cogitations and those who grow food or build roads for us, both of these being the necessary function to survive in this world. Of course, the farmers and road makers may not be able to read in English but that is where translators can help. And if they cannot read in any language at all, literacy and making books about things that concern them so that they can be weaned into reading…

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Make Mankind Great Again

First published in, October 2020

“It has often been said that the only thing that could unite mankind was a threat from space.”

I read this in Arthur C Clarke’s novel, 2061, Odyssey Three. The threat in Clarke’s science fiction was a second star — which mankind renamed Lucifer but was actually Jupiter set ablaze by superior space engineering by an intelligent species far more evolved than Homo Sapiens. The interesting thing here was the statement he made that “mankind could unite”. Arthur C Clarke wrote this novel in 1987 with perhaps a positive hope for the future of our race. At that point, global warming and climate change were not as big a threat as they are today and COVID-19 had not infringed to decimate the human race. I do not know if these issues can be regarded as a threat from space, Nature, Universe or man’s own unwitting movement towards the destruction of his species and his home planet.  I have read that the absorption of solar radiation increases as the white ice sheets thaw to give way to dark waters that trap solar heat and hasten the pace of cyclic melting and global warming.

While climate change and the corona virus have failed to unify us till now, voices are being raised about economic downturns and stock markets. Weapon trade and skirmishes over borders have not halted. Economic activity is said to have been slowed down by lockdowns, an attempt to combat the spread of the virus. I wonder if the world of finance can exist without man. Who created these concepts of economy and money? Can they exist without man?

These questions haunt me, especially, every time I hear people give voice to their yearnings to go back to the life they had before the advent of the pandemic. I cannot say I do not miss my old life. I do. The freedom to move around, the freedom to talk to anyone and most of all the freedom to travel to any place in the world if one has the financial means — are things I miss very much. Sometimes I wonder, is the pandemic a warning for us to mend our ways, a warning from a superior intelligence or maybe just Nature and Earth?  An airplane guzzles lot of fuel —  petroleum (kerosene) based — to ferry us around. Is it all right to spend this much fossil fuel on a regular basis to hop around the world? I do not know. But it does make me question myself. Is it all right to fly off for a holiday at the drop of a hat? I live in a little island. Right now, that seems to be the only sane place to be in the world to me. We have had only 28 COVID deaths here in Singapore though the total number of cases near 60,000. The government is building dykes to prevent losing our homes to rising water levels as a result of climate change. Things seem to work. I feel fortunate to be here during this crisis.

However, when I look out through the window of my television and internet, I find a world torn in despair. A second wave of COVID, world leadership that is unable to manage the situation and some of it, unable to fathom both the seriousness of the pandemic and climate change. They are still finding reasons to draw borders and talk of economy as it was, instead of thinking of alternative lifestyles that will be in harmony with Nature and yet suit mankind. Twenty first century guru, Yuval Noah Harari, has rightly pointed out in a recent interview with British actor, comedian and activist, Russell Brand, that global leadership is not envisioning a future that factors in climate change and COVID but wallowing in the past. Though Arthur C Clarke does not factor in climate change or the pandemic, he does project a future. A future where a united world had colonies in space stations. Clarke writes: “The dismantling of the vast and wholly parasitic armaments industry had given an unprecedented — sometimes, indeed, unhealthy — boost to the world economy. No longer were vital raw materials and brilliant engineering talents swallowed up in a virtual black hole — or, even worse, turned to destruction. Instead, they could be used to repair the ravages and neglect of centuries, by rebuilding the world.”

In his projection, the arms race has halted. And China, USA and USSR are working in harmony. There is some amount of global governance. The world seems to be a more upbeat place. In the prequel to this book, 2010, OdysseyTwo (1982), where the countries have lessons in rising above politics and learning to survive together, you have a fleeting mention of ‘ahimsa’ — the Gandhian concept. An Indian robotics specialist practices it on an autonomous robot which turned rogue and killed its human counterparts in the earliest and most popular, 2001 Space Odyssey (1968), made into a film by Stanley Kubrik, a movie that projected a human colony on moon. When ‘ahimsa’, or non-violence, is practised (by honestly explaining the crisis to the machine) as opposed to violence (pulling the plug out on the robot and technically killing it), the robot complies and the expedition returns safely, in a way reviving Gandhian lore and Gandhi’s philosophy coming to the rescue of science. The humanitarian is woven into the scientific lore.

In Gandhi’s own country, they recently celebrated his one hundred and fifty-first birth anniversary. One would hope, it would serve as a reminder of his values and his principles. Here was a man who believed that developing each sector of a region mattered. He has clearly said in his autobiography (published as a serial in a magazine, 1925-29), Experiments with Truth: “As I gained more experience of Bihar, I became convinced that work of a permanent nature was impossible without proper village education.” That was his solution to growing as a nation — not just freedom from colonialism. He actually lived among the people he served and tried to be a part of the community through his actions, while enforcing his own standards of hygiene and cleanliness on his surroundings.

Though India gained freedom from colonials officially, did it actually grow out of colonial administration? When the British Civil Services were copied, maybe the administrators should have given it a Gandhian touch — even the colonial rulers listened to Bapu. Along with horse riding, the Indian Administrative Services officers should have been trained to open schools; to organise potable water, electricity, roads, food; to teach cleanliness, toilet and kitchen both; to build bathrooms and educate about their maintenance and usage; to get rid of blind beliefs and treat the residents like their own and not as their subjects. And perhaps, they should have been quartered among the people in villages and small tehsils, not in colonial mansions made for the British ruling class. That is pretty much what Gandhi might have done had he continued to live for longer.

To be given the self-respect to work for a living, earn one’s bread, is more important than giving out doles of social security. One has to strike the right balance and generate more jobs, as did Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah in Lucknow when he built the Bada Imambara with its labyrinth of tunnels called Bhool Bhulaiya. The elites in 1784 were commissioned by the Nawab to break the walls built by the workers so that he could continue generating income for all through work, and not charity, through a terrible famine. This went on for eleven years — for as long as the famine lasted. That was long before Gandhi. But, Bapu also said it in black and white in his autobiography: “The grinding poverty and starvation with which our country is afflicted is such that it drives more and more men every year into the ranks of beggars, whose desperate struggle for bread renders them insensible to all feelings of decency and self-respect. And our philanthropist, instead of providing work for them and insisting on their working for bread, give them alms.”

Though Gandhi has been a favourite with many and influenced greats like Martin Luther King JrNelson Mandela and more, is his own country impacted by his teachings beyond the currency notes which bear his imprint and the naming of many roads and parks after him?…

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Durga Puja: Past and present

First published in Different Truths, October 2020

যে দিকে তাকাই সোনার আলোয়

দেখি যে ছুটির ছবি,

পূজার ফুলের বনে ওঠে ওই

পূজার দিনের রবি।

Whichever way I gaze, a golden haze

Mesmerises with dreams of holidays.

The festive floral forest invokes

A glorious gala sunrise.

That is an attempt at translating Tagore’s poem describing the puja season, which is perhaps the biggest festival for Hindu Bengalis all over the world. For us, during our childhood, it heralded a time of celebrations. There would be a cold nip in the air and whiffs of jasmine and madhabilata(Rangoon creeper), and a haze of festivities.

Durga Puja, was quintessentially a time when families got together and celebrated an annual community event, met with friends and relatives and had a whopping good time, which included new clothes for those who could afford. Food, festivities and fun punctuated with fasting before the offering of flowers or pushpanjali every morning. Multiple Durga puja pandals were set up all over town. We patronised one but went pandal hopping to see all the pujas.

Other than appreciating the ornate statues of the Goddess with her family in each pandal, we bought and savoured seasonal delicacies in the temporary stalls that cropped up around the community celebrations.  These celebrations were open to all and sundry without any charges and I have never been able to adjust to the fact that often overseas celebrations outside of India restrict visitors by imposing monetary charges. These overseas festivities to me never quite capture what I found in my childhood. They create only a shadow, but it is never the real thing, I feel.

The reality of those days still stays seeped in my bones and spirit. Every evening, there were drummers who played this huge drum, called dhak, amidst the incense and crowds. In the evenings, people danced to dhak, in front of the goddess with incense, dhoonochi nritya. Then there were entertainment shows in the pandal. Most had fun watching the evening and the late-night programmes that were to an extent performed by amateurs, our friends and neighbours. Some of the performances would be by artistes invited all the way from Bengal.

The other event that happens parallel to the puja is Dussehera. Dussehera is a north Indian celebration of Rama’s killing the evil king Ravana, who with his ten heads ruled the island of Lanka (Sri Lanka). Interestingly Rama also prayed to the Goddess Durga to help him defeat Ravana. Ram Lila, a performance of the story of Rama’s life, were performed all over town adding to the chaos of festivities. Sometimes, followers of Rama would drop in to watch our festivities and occasionally, we would trickle over to watch the fun of amateur Ram Lila productions. These performances of the life of Rama ranged from the elaborate and exclusive hosted by exclusive dance troupes, often based on Indian classical forms, to those performed by amateurs. The puja programmes, I remember were often interrupted in Delhi with loud music from amateur Ram Lila performances within the same park. The Durga puja we attended was held in a huge community park. The two blaring microphones of Ram Lila and Durga Puja coexisted without major outbreaks of intolerance exhibited by any of the parties. When, I think of it, I wonder is it still the same? I have not been to such celebrations for almost the last three decades because we moved out of India.

Durga Puja is an old — very old — tradition. No one is quite clear about the origins of the festivities other than that it started in West Bengal. Some myths link it to Rama’s invocation around this time and to the legend of Mahisasur. It probably started somewhere around the late 1500s.

For us, the advent of the season was heralded a few weeks before the real five-day-long event, on the day of Mahalaya, when we appeased our forefathers with offerings and prayers, much like other cultures do on days like All Souls Day or the Qingming festival. Mahalaya trumpets the start of the Puja season. We children were told Durga started her descent to Earth with her family on this day. This event, in those days, meant listening to the famous rendition of Mahisasur Mardini by Birendra Krishna Bhadra, a legend unto himself. We would wake up at 4 am and sit glued to the radio — I must say I did try to get my forty winks in too but never quite managed. The music was powerful.  The lyrics and the rendition still bring tears to my eyes with its majesty. It strengthens. It heals. It emboldens. To me, Durga was the all-powerful, the ultimate female force. She was given weapons by each God and Goddess, to destroy the demon Mahisasur.

Birendra Bhadra’s rendition ingrained her immensity into our systems. The festivities, which lasted five days for us, gave me an assurance that women were powerful enough to battle all evils and win without losing their femininity. For, the statue that was made was of a ten handed Goddess who not only rode a lion to destroy Mahisasur but also nurtured her children and lived in harmony. For me, this myth was so powerful and impactful that I could not then and still cannot comprehend how women see themselves as helpless. That is more after more than half a century of my Earthly existence. For almost thirty years, I have not heard Birendra Bhadra’s rendition as we live in time zones different from his home. I hear snatches of it in the daytime or evening but never in the way I listened to it as a child.

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First published in, August 2020

Did the caveman laugh?

Did he have a toothache?

The cheering thing for him would have been, he would not have to visit a dentist. Or, is that a cheering thought for me? And he would continue in pain while his tooth rotted and fell! And mine gets pulled out or repaired by a dentist peering into my numb anaesthetised mouth! Which is a better option?

My sons would tell me — the dentist.

I — I am not so sure being at the receiving end of intense dental care!

I remember watching a Bill Nye show on cavemen’s diet, which is what many believe can heal obesity, but do I want to be healed off my layers of adipose built over time with the gentle nurture of gastronomical adventures and delights — all memories of happiness and indulgences beyond the wildest imaginings of many? For those who do want to be scrawny, Bill Nye showed why a caveman diet would not work.

Currently, humanity reels from a feeling of sadness brought by the relentlessness of the tiny virus that evolved mysteriously. It has changed our lives. Why is it we can’t accept that? Just as going back to a cave diet or a world devoid of dentists is a no-go, going back to pre- corona could again be fodder for humour in yet a newly constructed Bill Nye show in a future where the virus would be seen as a turning point in mankind’s history.

Let us dream of this New World and let Abhijit Banerjee and Yuval Noah Harari suggest how to make it a reality — let us put forth our vision. Here I can only dream of mine. But I urge you to dream of your utopia too. Meanwhile, let us have some fun with mine!

I read a verse in which a young writer imagined a world devoid of ugly vegetables. He dreamt of getting our fibres from candyfloss — my dream too! Rainbows and fairies from children’s writings bring a smile to our lips. But like them, imagine… And now, imagine a world devoid of poverty, hunger and of mankind living for each other — beyond artificial boundaries. Some have so much in the current order of things that they develop layers of adipose like me and some have so less that they cannot get enough food to continue living! I ask you to imagine — imagine a world free of Facebook feeds of starving children, no more Syrian refugee kids asking for medicines to kill hunger, no more migrant labourers living in drainpipes, no more deaths due to starvation reports! What could we do to make that a reality? How can we solve poverty and hunger? Banerjee has already shown us how to an extent.

Then there is the thing of travel. I am an intrepid globe trotter and one of the things that depresses me as we drive down the highway in Singapore are the planes waiting — waiting to start operation, to take off. So, I imagine again an empty airport with all the flights in the sky and one aeroplane taxiing on the runway that crosses above the highway to the airport. Can that happen again? Slowly, perhaps if the world unites and develops an open approach to fighting COVID and developing medicines and vaccines. There was a time when there were no medicines for tuberculosis, plague and cholera — all infectious diseases. Perhaps, if instead of looking for conspiracy theories and ways of isolating information, we all worked together, it could happen. So spake the great guru Harari.

Travel brings to mind a major concern of mine when I travel — sanitation and toilets. The New World would have an India where sanitation and toilets would be a norm. Then traveling within the country would be so much easier. I still have recall of toilets or the lack of them in my adventures in India — starting from my experiences in the open fields of Punjab where three decades ago as a young journalist trainee, I spent time in the open fields with village women at 4 am in vain to the water free toilets of Lucknow residency two years ago , Kolkata Botanical garden three years ago, Delhi Children’s Park near India gate more than a decade ago during our holidays in India as a family. There was no water to flush the earlier waste in any of these places and the flies buzzed over heaps — a horror that anyone would want to forget.  Thankfully, the first two were viewed not by me but by others of my family. First-hand other than the Children’s Park, I discovered even the airport at Lucknow did not at that point have proper toileting facilities. There was so much water on the floor in the airport but none in the tap or the flush!

Trains are a no go for me in India because not only are the common toilets antiquated, smelly and stained but also the stewards use a grey dishrag tucked into their pockets to wipe cutlery and utensils — the dishrag every time seems to suffer from the lack of water and soap. With the onset of corona, people will hopefully have to start believing or be educated into belief in soap and water. Even Trump understood the importance when he asked people to consume soap water or inject cleaning fluids into the lungs! So, can people dream of starting to vote for nation builders who along with electricity, roads will think of having sanitation, potable water, toilets in every home and education to villagers on why using toilets are a better option than the open field? Can we educate people on cleaning toilets and clean toilets?

Singapore actually had a clean the toilet campaign starting 1983 — and it made a difference. I dream the same for the country in which I was born. I ask you is it wrong?

I lived in China for eight years, the toilets there improved from 2006 to 2014! The changes were quite remarkable. From doorless toilets in smaller malls in Shanghai, the toilets all developed doors. Most places developed toilets we could use when we travelled towards the end of our stay. Despite its political games, China succeeded in conquering their technology and toilet issues by and large.

Once, I had a housekeeper from Sri Lanka in Singapore, who had faced terror attacks. She had left her country to earn enough to build a toilet in her home. The day she had enough, she wanted to return home to her country! True. So, why can every villager in India too not dream of having a toilet along with a dish antenna the way a billionaire dreams of gold seated toilets and Ferraris? Can we dream of this education? Though I believe some are already working towards realising this, the task is humongous and should be addressed by people as well as the government, who could explain in their agenda how they can connect places with good roadways, waterways and transport, lay pipes for potable water and electricity wires all over the country.

I realise, I spent a huge part on toilets, but that is of essence for a healthier world, just like fruits and vegetables over candy and cakes! There are things many of us do not like, like celery, but we need to take it and tolerate the unsavoury to have a trouble-free existence just as we can make a happier world by accepting all the colours provided by varied languages and cultures.

Language, faith, religion, nations — all these concepts that make for a more divisive world if we become intolerant — could evolve as binding factors to create a borderless and happier Earth if we are tolerant and humane towards our neighbours. Nations can be like economic zones and open to helping each other instead of competing to be the best. Can we make that happen? Build tolerance, humane outlook and patience into our academic curriculum over emphasising the mad race of rats that will be drowned in an ocean of greed, consumerism and hate! Teach our young skill sets that will teach them love, tolerance, kindness and they will be encouraged to develop an ability to laugh at themselves!

That is why I always loved Wodehouse …

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One Hundred Years Ago

First Published in

Where were we one hundred years ago?

Mankind was out of caves long ago and Asia was learning lessons from colonials about drawing boundaries. Colonialism was still an accepted way of life — it was twenty-five years before a nuclear bomb condemned fascist aspirations in history.

Historically, India was in the middle of the Non-cooperation and Khilafat movements. USA was under Woodrow Wilson and Sun Yat Sen was managing a conflict- ridden China. Singapore and parts of Malaysia were part of the Straits Settlement under the British Raj. The Europeans and Americans were just stumbling out of  Spanish flu which had started in April 1918. It affected 500 million of the world population and the total deaths came to estimates of 50 million or more. The world population was then less than two billion.

The League of Nations which lasted till the start of the next world war was founded in January 1920 with active participation from the thirty first American President Wilson, who was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1919. The First World War had ended in 1918. Indian soldiers manned the British army and the police force and shot their own countrymen and others too to defend colonial borders, though Gandhi ( who returned in 1914-15 from  South Africa, where he stayed  for more than two decades ) and many others that now lie on the other side of divides, pushed for independence. Borders were mobile even during colonial rule because the boundaries were reshaped by the imperialists needs, especially when they handed over part of their dominions to others from Europe  — all those who found it convenient to trade and rule in Africa or Asia for the market, raw materials and to ‘ civilise’ people to the victor’s way of life. The political map of the world looked different then.

Majority of women were not working, and the suffragette movement was just finding its footing in USA with enfranchisement of women, thanks again to President Wilson….

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Where the World has not been Broken…

Published in, May 4th, 2020


To dream of uniting mankind, pieced and classified into multiple nations, religions, sects and sub sects is a mammoth, impractical and ideologically impossible task — but this time a little virus has taken it on and united us with its virulence.

It was interesting to come across an imagined interview with the virus, in which the interviewer questioned the virus about the diversity of the human race which to us seems an unbridgeable barrier. The interviewer goes by the acronym of ARA.

“ARA: You may perhaps agree that there is a natural diversity among people on the ground of race, geography, religion, history and the like.

“Covid-19: In my view, they all are differently-one. A tree is a one unit though its roots, trunk, leaves, flowers and fruits appear differently. There is no doubt that mankind is one race with 99.9% common DNA. National boundaries are fictitious. All religions claim their origin from one supreme being. History is just a story book of the past. If they cannot be sure of a few months-long history of my origin, then how can they passionately believe in their distant past, including prehistory. Alas! Man lives in his self-made illusion. I am forcing him to come out of this illusion.”

And while we like the Big Endians and the Little Endians in Gulliver’s travel (1726), ponder on the right way to crack eggs and create different classifications and sects of thought, at least three books that have been published within India from November 2019 to March 2020 that have focused on the commonalities of culture between two groups who think they stand massively divided — the Hindus and Muslims. The three books are Avik Chanda’s Dara Shukoh, the Man Who Would Be King; Aruna Chakravarti’s Suralakshmi Villa and Sameer Arshad Khatlani’s The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan.

Chanda has shown his perceived truth through the history of the Indian sub- continent in his book on Dara Shukoh published in November 2019. He wrote this book because he felt it was a need of the times. In an interview he says, “The biggest relevance of Dara Shukoh is that of his ethos. Call it by what name you will – Ganga-Jamuna Tahzeeb, syncretism or modern secularism – the fact remains that a holistic, inclusive approach works best when governing a highly complex, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic nation such as India.”

The next book, a novel by Sahitya Akademi winning author, Chakravarti, focuses on a similar syncretic issue and was launched during the communal Delhi riots of February 2020 in the same city, just preceding COVID. While the novel takes us on a syncretic journey which emphasizes that violence and hatred does not see cast, community or religion, it has a feminist streak too that has been explained by the author in an interview: “Like all my other novels Suralakshmi Villa focuses on the lives of women. It is about two sets of sisters. The first belongs to a wealthy, modern, enlightened, household of Delhi. The other, a goatherd’s daughters living in a slum in Malda, comes from the dregs of society.  But close inspection reveals that there is not much difference in their lives and fates. There is emotional violence in one world…both physical and emotional violence in the other.” The goatherd’s daughter is from a Muslim background and the modern Suralakshmi after who the book is named, is a Hindu. The novel clearly shows that family violence and bad attitude existed everywhere, irrespective of religion or caste, and it is an individual trait to react with courage and positivity or to accept it meekly. Both kinds of women have been drawn to contrast in the novel. Taking it a little further, one would observe that while we pipe about family violence heightening during COVID lockdown, it has existed all along — it is for humans to choose tolerance or intolerance — irrespective of the situation. Do we blame the world wide lockdowns for it or the social systems that preach hatred, intolerance, inaction and acceptance of evils as the norm?

The third book, published in March 2020 just around the onset of COVID, spoke of syncretism and tried to create a bridge of humanitarian tolerance against the much-critiqued nation that was torn by the Radcliffe line, The Other Side of the Divide. Senior journalist Khatlani discloses in an interview, “Based on my interactions over the years with those Pakistanis who call themselves liberals, I can say they have been among India’s strongest supporters. They always tended to be hostile to the Kashmir cause and allergic to any sense of ‘Muslimness’. The turn of events in India has left them embarrassed. They really do not seem to know how to react.”

The attempt to create a bridge between these differences drawn out by rituals of religion and nationality continue. Why? And why have three writers, who are unconnected and writing in different genres, addressed the same issue? Have these issues become so big that they loom over all our existence in the battle between groups divided by different ideologies and rituals?

United we stand and divided we fall — an old adage that comes to one’s mind as we try to struggle our way out of a pandemic that had been mentioned as a likely threat by Bill Gates five years ago and we chose to ignore his wise warning. Do we want to be distracted by these issues, these fissures in our society, again in the face of surviving as a race in our biological battle against the virus whose origins to date remain uncertain?

In the humorous interview I mentioned earlier the Virus tells ARA. “Some say I was created by Zionists to reduce the world population. There is also an opinion that CIA has launched me to destroy Chinese economy, whereas USA blames that a Chinese lab has fathered me as a biological weapon. Muslims believe that Allah has created me to punish their enemies. Some vegans are of the view that I am an incarnation of God assigned to eradicate omnivores… Really, not sure who I am…”

The important question here is not how the virus originated but how do we survive its onslaught. To the corona virus, we are all the same. It crosses barriers and borders to level out mankind. In this battle, one has to rise above divides and unite as Yuval Noah Harari says: “Humanity needs to make a choice. Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity? If we choose disunity, this will not only prolong the crisis, but will probably result in even worse catastrophes in the future. If we choose global solidarity, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all future epidemics and crises that might assail humankind in the 21st century.”

COVID has also brought into focus other battles mankind will have to unite to win if we are to survive as a race and emerge as a humane planet— Gobal Hunger, Homelessness, Poverty and Climate Change. We will have to stop thinking of marginalisation and divides and unite to see ourselves as one.

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Katsaridaphobia & COVID 19

I have to admit I suffer from acute katsaridaphobia —

My Kastaridaphobia is stronger than my fear of COVID19 or cows.

While COVID is being kept at bay with isolation, masks, lockdowns and quarantines and cows can be kept at bay by gates in India and can only be seen in restricted areas in Singapore, creatures that cause Katsaridaphobia cannot be kept at bay anywhere in the world. They have been around for 320 million years — much, much longer than our species — and are known to spread diseases like cholera, typhoid, asthma, polio, leprosy and plague.

A poet friend eulogised the panic caused in the hearts of people by these creatures, the culprits who cause kastaridaphobia. In fact, I learnt this intimidating word from him! While the verses were evocative, they sent empathetic shivers down my spine by their very description.

Have you as yet guessed what these creatures are? They swarm drains, eat faeces and carry filth — and yet we have learnt to live with them for the whole span of our species existence. These creatures are our creepy, crawly cockroaches!

I am more terrified of cockroaches than anything in the world, closely followed by cows and now, it’s corona virus. So, the three Cs that frighten me most would be — Cockroaches, Cows and Covid-19 — and I hope for a time when I will be able to laugh my fears off the face of this Earth!

You can of course call it wishful thinking!

Apposed to these are the three Cs that capitalism had ingrained into us as the life dream of all humans — credit card-condo-car — the very things that big C threatens with its fiery radial. While, we have learnt to deal with cockroaches and all the terrible diseases it can bring into our lives, while we managed to tame cows and keep them in pens, COVID still roams wild and free. The most hit are of course those who belong to the lowest income stratas. A Times report showed how in New York the poorest make up the largest percentage of COVID patients, eventhough they are not all tested because the tests are expensive. In India, one does not dare think how many deprived will be affected. The homeless migrant labour have been much in news in India and heart-breaking stories have found their way to the media. One of the reports I saw on this issue with some statistics was in Straits Times of Singapore. The report said: “The International Labor Organization warned last week that about 400 million workers engaged by the informal economy, which accounts for a staggering 90 per cent of the country’s (India’s) total workforce, risk falling deeper into poverty during the crisis. A report released by the World Bank on Sunday stated that the pandemic will reinforce inequality in South Asia, urging governments to ramp up action to protect their people, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, including through temporary work programs.”

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