Of Statues, Sausages and Stardust…

 

What could statues, sausages and stardust have in common?

Stardust is equated with wishful thinking (which is what leads to creation of great artworks) and sausages are being mooted for immortalization with a thirty meter statue in the offing in North of England. I read that in an essay and then from a newspaper report that had prime minister Boris Johnson wearing a garland of sausages and rooting for a huge statue of Heck’s sausages in Northern England! He loves those sausages so much that he thought they were German!

The tallest statue in Germany stands at 53.44 meters and dates back to the late nineteenth century. Some Asian statues beat the German one with their youthful good looks and height! The Lushan buddha in the Henan Province of Buddha stands at 153 meters and was completed in 2008. The Guanyin statue in the middle of the Lake in Hainan province was completed in 2005.

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Yan Di
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Shi Huang Di

The “ Mount Rushmore of China” stands 105m tall in the yellow river scenic area and bears testament to Chinese emperors Shi Huang di ( the First Emperor, the man who took the Terracotta warriors to his grave in Xian) and Yan di ( the flame emperor, who came before Huang di and probably acquired the name from slash and burn tactics to clear farming lands). I have a feeling that the spirit of Yan di likes to descend on Brazil and Sumatra to inspire ‘slash and burn’ for clearing lands! Though Brazil has one too… a tall statue. Standing at a height of 110 meters, along with the monument, the statue of Christ the Redeemer was completed in 1959.

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Leshan Buddha, Chengdu

However, one must add in all fairness, China has some tall ancient statues too … like the statue of Leshan Buddha carved into the Hills that stands at 71 meters made between the 713 and 803 CE. Said to be hewn by a sage to tame the wild waters created at the confluence of the rivers Min and Dadu that flow at its feet, the Buddha makes one feel really Lilliputian as one measures their height against its thumb. Here the statue was made by a monk to help mankind. The hewing evidently calmed the waters enough to give traders and wayfarers a safe crossing at the waterway… used much like the highway where the sausage will grow to bring glory to Mr Johnson.

Myanmar made its mark too when it came to lying and standing Buddhas! The Laykyun Setkyar is the second tallest Buddha statue in the world at 130 meters. At its foot lies the largest reclining Buddha statue in the world. The Laykyun Setkyar was completed in 2008, the reclining Buddha in 1991… of course the Rohingyas, who were denied citizenship in the 1980s continue to await the compassion of the giant Buddhas, or is it that they are denied that as they continue different?

Though prime minister Modi of India is normally quiet on all issues relating to any controversy, he could not let India down in the matter of statues. He decided to create a stir by beating China and the rest of the world if in nothing else in holding the record for the largest statue — that of Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel*. The statue of Vallabh Bhai Patel stands at 181 metres tall as a symbol of unity and harmony— the tallest statue in the current world. Patel’s contribution was great too! He persuaded all the little princedoms that refused to join Nehrudom to become a part of India under Nehru…

Talking of unity, another statue that comes to mind is the Statue of Liberty in New York which had a plaque inviting all immigrants to shelter under the umbrella of America from 1903. The lines now will no longer open up America to all and sundry.

The original lines of the poem (The New Colossus, 1883) by Emma Lazarus are:

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

A BBC report said the lines would be translated to:

“Give me your tired and your poor – who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

The lines are in keeping with the current immigration policy (public charge rule that will take effect on October 15, 2019), said Mr Cuccnelli, the acting head of the American citizenship and immigration services. “No one has a right to become an American who isn’t born here as an American,” he added clarifying the government stand.

All that is fine as every country has a right to create laws, except one wonders, a few centuries before the Europeans started out on their voyages in quest of Gold, Glory and God, who inhabited America?

Long before the Statue of Liberty, in the days before the Europeans set sail to hunt for Americas or the Indies, exquisite sculptures were hewn into a basalt cliff in the ancient temples of Ellora in India. Made between 600 and 1000 CE, the caves house deities from three religions — Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The largest monolith carving of the Kailash temple is a wonder to behold as is the architecture of the Buddhist caves. How these caves were carved in those ancient times remains a mystery and one can only conjecture at the skill level of the workers. There are griffin-like and sphinx-like creatures in one of the panels. One wonders if a worker from Egypt or the middle East had wandered in… because those were long before the days of visas, of real/conjectured walls and all immigration policies which returned immigrants to their home countries.

In conclusion, I would like to add, that the best way to make statues or punish those who  disagree or have a different opinion is to travel back in time to get Medusa Gorgon. She can freeze people or giant sausages with a glance… and if you want a colossus… I am sure scientists will soon be able to stabilize the contraption from the popular Hollywood movie, Honey I Blew Up the Kid, and blow up the normal sized statue made by Medusa!

 

 

*I wonder why Mahatma Gandhi was not chosen for this honour… He fasted against the Partition, was killed by a Hindu fanatic and his sesquicentennial birth anniversary has been commemorated this year!

To believe or not to believe…

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John Barrymore as Hamlet (1922)

To be, or not to be, that is the question

— Hamlet, Shakespeare, Act 3, scene 1

 

To believe or not to believe has become the dilemma of the twentieth century intellectual with Stephen Hawking paving the way to disbelief.

As we bow down under the weight of existentialist dilemmas and develop six packs and slim abs, we profess not to believe what we cannot see. Some even trace it to religion being divisive, creating barriers and brainwashing humankind with ritualistic and typified role playing.

The term atheism has its etymological roots deep in 5 th century BCE. However, it came into play only around the French revolution. And then as the disbelievers grew in numbers, people did surveys. According to studies done in the last decade, less than fifteen percent of the world population do not believe.

Looking at the historic evolution of disbelievers, I would say they have been and continue to remain a minority, except perhaps in China where the red revolution wiped away all gods except communism. Even if the current government is restoring holidays during older festivals along with Mao’s birthday and Chinese new year, the wounds that lacerated the theists will take time to heal. After Mao and free thinking took its toll, a survey taken in 2015 stated 61 per cent of the population were atheists!

I feel in most of the non-communist world,  disbelief has remained the privilege of those who have the education and time to debate and question.

However in China, where I spent eight years, my Ayi ( my housekeeper, literal translation aunty) from Xian told me how she remembered the soldiers coming and destroying their family altar and asking them to replace it with Mao’s picture. That must not have been a very easy situation for believers. The post Mao university educated youth in China mostly informed me they were ‘free thinkers’. I really do not understand what that means since all of us are free thinkers. We are all free to think what we like. Though I did notice one thing, the mass sterilization of religious beliefs made people more docile and tolerant; or was it centuries of subservience, first to emperors and then to political ideology( twentieth century guru Harari called communism a ‘religion’), that had made them docile?

I wonder if Mao could have converted all of the population in the area we label India now into becoming disbelievers or free thinkers as in China? Would the people have forgone centuries of belief and spiritual quest to take on the yolk of a new belief system?

The vehemence with which people react to belief and disbelief is in itself astounding. Mobs form, political parties make it their agenda. There have been Klu Klux Klan-like reactions all over the world towards religion or the lack of it. The nineteenth century white supremacist group was not only anti-black but also developed sentiments that were  anti-Catholic and anti-immigration. Though there were laws to subdue the hate group, did these sentiments die out or are they still simmering secretly?

The rise of Modi in India has brought to the fore the large divide between the formerly voiceless non-monied and the monied with loud voices. In The Billionaire Raj (2018), James Crabtree talks of how the non-monied masses reacted to speeches directed against the divide that existed between the unschooled non-affluent masses and the elitist, affluent population, who despite being lesser in number were more vocal. Religion or perhaps, we should say practices and rituals, for the non-monied was a way of life and continued being so; the fanning of differences already having been instilled by the divide and rule used by the the erstwhile British Raj.

Dominique La Pierre and Larry Collins in Freedom at Midnight (1975)  talk of how independence for each Indian meant a different thing. Some rejoiced. And some wept. Eminent lawyer and journalist Khushwant Singh who had lost his home in the other nation recalled:“I had nothing to rejoice about. For me and millions like me (in both India and Pakistan), this Independence Day was a tragedy, They mutilated Punjab, and I had lost everything.” In this case, it was called religious rioting.

Did the difference in beliefs exist all along and, therefore, could be fanned leading to a state of orgiastic frenzy that ultimately led to mass killings? Was it any different from what the Red Army did in China? Historically, is it differences in faith that lead to war or is it a lust for power, land and wealth cloaked behind a system of beliefs?

The thing that frightens me most is the intolerant violence with which people believe or disbelieve — perhaps much in the tradition of big Endians and little Endians (from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels).

In China, the Red Army has been quietened. There are no strong reactions or mobs. These have all been outlawed. People seem happy. Once, in a while, the government subdues protests or anger against some people or situation. But, more or less, all is quiet on the Chinese population front, with due apologies to Erich Maria Remarque. But on the other hand, few young university educated free thinking Chinese friends told me that dilletante activities like writing books had also been purged in China… Intellectuals had been purged…

While my atheist friends continue to disbelieve, I wonder, is it only in God, or in things related to creation myths, to the existence of light and dark, to the existence of anything they cannot see or invent themselves? It is good to question. However, I do not fancy reinventing the wheel or the alphabet. I would much rather use one for travel and the other for writing out my ideas.

Sometimes, I wonder how ideas come into my head? Who creates thoughts? Who or what puts it there? Why is it I have an urge to write and Madonna sings like a lark? What is the phenomenon that created DNA? Who decides how and when life forms are created  to populate earth? Who or what made the Big Bang happen so that we all came into existence? Who or what creates and destroys life? Do we have right to destroy that which we cannot make?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parenting…choices

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Long ago, I dreamt of writing a book about living in China and walking on the Great Wall. And it happened.

I chose not to chase my dream instead I spent majority of my time chasing my sons.

My children came to me in my thirties. By then, they were more than welcome. My longing to be a mother overrode my other dreams. I reveled in my sons and brought them up to what I considered the best of my ability. I read Dr Spock when they were babies and talked to my friends about their babies’ developmental processes. I remember, I was worried about my son’s teething. Our friends’ daughter had many teeth by the time she was one and she loved eating watermelons. My son had few teeth and objected to fruit. He only drank mamma’s milk and half boiled eggs! He hated orange juice and clenched his gums/ few teeth when we tried to feed him solid food. He even spat out the food we tricked him into ‘eating’. My friend argued that all humans had teeth. Hence, so would my son, even if the process happened a little later. And she was right! Every child is unique and develops at an individual pace.

As parents, we can only watch, wait and pray. We do our best but the ultimate call is made by the child and the force that drives all life. As a parent, I discovered that I really enjoyed my children’s childhood and I miss it now that they have become older and have learnt to fend for themselves largely.

The funny thing that happened to me as a parent was that I forgot that I had my own dreams and goals from long before… from my teens and earlier. Perhaps, my dreams underwent a change. The feeling I am left with is these years of my life have been well spent. What could be more important than helping mold the future of mankind? Children are our future and to prioritise them over and above our own needs seemed the most natural thing to do.

I always remember the lines by William Wordsworth about the rainbow, poetic wonder and the child…

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

The Child is father of the Man;

And I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety.

The wonder that a child feels in discovering not just rainbows but even his father’s oversized shirt or shoes often becomes a source of infinite delight and wonder to the parent too because as an adult we get in touch again with the novelty of things when we watch our child fascinated with what we had started to consider mundane. That is a joy that keeps every parent young at heart. And, thus the child forever continues the ‘ father’ of man. And perhaps that is what happened to me. I lost myself in the wonder of rediscovering life with my children. And on a daily basis, I want to thank God for giving me these bundles of joy and my husband for letting me revel in their childhood, while he slogged to bring home the bacon and help realize our dreams.

Encouraging children to have dreams, goals and ideals from a young age goes a long way. No age is too early and no dream too small or big! It can be a dream of being a princess, dressing up, flying to outer space in a rocket, driving a lorry or a dustbin dump truck, inventing something new, cooking a dream dish, writing a book or drawing a picture.

I know of a mother who helped materialize her son’s dreams by helping him publish a book in elementary school. The child at the age of three told her that he wanted to write a book and have it on a bookshelf in a bookshop. By the time he was eight he had the book. It started with doodles and ended with stories. His mother helped him materialize his dream of being an author. And she used his dreams to help him learn to read, write and develop a love for books!

For my children, the dreams were different but no less important. My elder son was so fascinated by trucks that his first poem in his kindergarten was a list of names of these juggernauts. That gave way to dreams of making robots. I was happy to hear out his dream because he said it was better to have robots clean high rise windows rather than humans as people could fall and get hurt. From then on, his journey started in the quest of making robots to lighten mankind’s burdens and it continues more than a decade and a half down the line. My younger son dreams of animations with music, math and science… I wait eagerly to see how it will concretize to make a rainbow.

Sometimes, we need to work to make our children’s dreams come true. For example, when my younger son wanted a sunshine cake for his fifth birthday, I made it! And the biggest reward I had was when my little one when he said, “Mamma that is exactly what I imagined!”

Children need to sense that dreams can come true without compromises. Let them fly… and you can fly with them. They can help you fly and materialize your own dreams while you watch them grow and soar.

Actually, that is how my book happened too. One day my younger son came back from his school in China and said, “Mamma, you have never been to university.” I contradicted him and said that I had been to two. And then he said, “But my Chinese teacher said that mammas who stayed at home had not been to university!”

I was alarmed. I spoke to the school, which was a well-known international one. Many of the expat wives in China had chosen to be full time mothers, which is something that the world did not comprehend. I had chosen to be a full time mother even when my elder son was in my womb because the doctor had recommended bed rest and I stayed home from then on.

I thought calmly, did it really matter to me? It was not my job to educate a confused ‘educator’ who looked down on child rearing as the task of an uneducated person but it was my need to be respected and seen as a role model by my son. I wanted to show my child that one can dream big and materialize them under any circumstances, even while indulging in the most daunting and time consuming adventure of bringing up children. So, I wrote a book, one and a half books actually within a couple of years. The half was a compilation of recipes from thirty countries by well-respected professionals, including chefs, writers, school teachers, principals done in collaboration with a German friend, who is an engineer and dreamt of writing a cookbook while in China as a homemaker; and the other, was my own book, a humorous retelling of living, travelling and bringing up non-Chinese children in China in a society where borders no longer were a truth. That was my individual solution.

But, it made me think… why would a mother with university degrees not want to bring up her child? Is bringing up children really a job to be relegated to a substitute with values and education at variance with your own? Do you want your child to feel closest to you or to the person who has substituted for you as a full time caregiver?

These are choices you need to make when you think of child rearing. You have to decide who to prioritise, yourself or your child?

 

 

Book of the Week

 

 

Title: Peony

Author: Pearl S. Buck

Published: 1948

 

Peony is a novel set in Kaifeng, China, in the 1850s. It is my favorite among Pearl S Buck novels because it propounds tolerance and looks beyond the borders of religion, culture and nationality. It gives a clear portrayal of how creating walls in the name of culture and communities can only bring them tumbling down.

The other thing that I liked was how Peony, the protagonist, develops into a wise and respected woman, an advisor to her former employers, revered by the people who she served as a child.

Peony, named after a flower that has mythological significance in both Greek and Chinese lore, starts her life at eight years of age as a bond maid in a rich foreigner’s family that had emigrated from Palestine a few generations earlier to avoid harassment. She was bought as a companion to the only son of the house. She learnt writing and reading while her young master studied. Peony, as expected, fell in love with her young master, David. However, knowing that she would never be accepted as a daughter-in-law by the family, she overcame her desires and helped her young master marry a bride who would bring him happiness in the long run.

Her mistress, an upholder of the Judaism in China, was keen that her son marries a Rabbi’s daughter. Both the Jewish women (David’s mother and future fiancée) loved what they believed to be Judaism as it was interpreted by their Rabbi. They believed that they were the chosen ones and superior to the ‘ heathens‘. Their religion drew borders and created only rifts with the local population. In the middle of the book, there is an interesting dialogue between the Rabbi and a liberal Chinese trader, Kung Chen.

“There is only one true God, and Jehovah is His name,” the Rabbi declared, trembling all over as he spoke.

“So the followers of Mohammed in our city declare,” Kung Chen said gravely, “but they call his name as Allah. Is he the same as your Jehovah?”

“There is no god beside our God,” the Rabbi said in a loud high voice. “He is the One True God!”

Kung Chen, a buddhist and an open thinker, is appalled by the Rabbi’s intolerance and tells David, Peony’s young master, “None can love those who declare that they alone are the sons of God.”

Perhaps, with this one statement Pearl S Buck has summed up the issue faced by many in the current day world, intolerance towards others’ beliefs.

I have not looked into the authenticity of the historical fact or the religious belief of those times. But what struck me was that this is an age-old truth. Intolerance only breeds hatred and violence, as it does in the book.

Earlier the Jews who came for refuge to Kaifeng were not intolerant. Over a period of time, the group grew smaller and became more rigid.

In the past, a liberal minded follower of the same Judaism had engraved on a plaque in the same temple where the Rabbi propounded his intolerance: “Worship is to honor Heaven, and righteousness is to follow the ancestors. But the human mind has always existed before worship and righteousness.”

It is the human mind, which helps us make choices. When we stop thinking, we lose touch with reality and become fanciful, as had the Rabbi and his daughter. After all, the human mind has been made by God who, probably, wanted us to think and take responsibility for our thoughts and action.

Peony by her actions generates the positive feelings of calmness, peace, harmony and tolerance whereas the Rabbi’s daughter generates passion, violence, intolerance and fear. She is so passionate and intolerant in her outlook that she comes to a sad end.

Peony, on the other hand, gains in social and spiritual stature.

I also love what the book does with Peony, a woman who might have become a concubine in the royal court of China. She defines her own position by her selflessness and opts for a more meaningful existence. She rejects power and glory for love and kindness, values that would make for a happier world.

Her role in the latter part of the book reminds me of a few lines that are often quoted and were written by Julia Abigail Fletcher Carney in Illinois around the same period as when this story was set…

 

Little deeds of kindness,

Little words of love,

Help to make earth happy

Like the Heaven above.

On the Fatness of Being

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Over the years, I have collected a wealth of wisdom, which has translated itself into layers of adipose that rest on my formerly frail frame, gently insulating me from low temperatures and hard surfaces. People envy me my layers of adipose for whenever I walk into shops, salesgirls come forward with slimming teas and creams. I find their behaviour a trifle peculiar as they try to persuade me to get rid of the layers of carefully nurtured wisdom. It is the same wisdom you can see in the laughing Buddha, the symbol of happiness and contentment.

One of the things that most people nowadays find difficult to comprehend is that necessarily a well-proportioned individual may not be a sick individual. They take it for granted that everyone needs to be of a certain weight-height ratio…something they call the Body Mass Index. This is all a matter of statistics. I used to fall sick every month when I had a slim and svelte figure…twenty years and two kids down the lane, my weight has almost doubled but I rarely fall sick. Earlier, doctors called me underweight. Now, they call me overweight. Will they ever be satisfied?

Recently, a friend who is slim and was an exercise freak had a major bypass. She had shooting chest pains. And, now, she is not allowed to exercise or travel or eat as she likes despite her lack of adipose. Whereas I am allowed to exercise (or not exercise as a matter of choice), travel and eat what I like despite my layers of wisdom. Doctors keep nagging but it is their nature to nag, exercise and diet. I have heard of a few cases where people died while exercising and some even developed anorexia nervosa while dieting.

I do not want to take risks and feel happy the way I am. I want a long life to enjoy the wonders of the universe. I want to read all the fascinating books I find around me. I want to travel to different places…Egypt…on camel back to the pyramids; Easter Island…to stand in the middle of the circle of rocks like an ancient druid and feel the rays of the rising sun bathe my portly being; the golden fort of Jaisalmer …on camel back again wearing a ghagra like a Rajasthani princess. Here, I must pause to let people know that riding on a camel back is not a hobby as you might think. Camel rides are bumpy and, as I learnt from my experiences in China and India, these creatures can make you feel your innards are all dislocated when they start to jog or run. Never underestimate a camel!

The reason I want to be on a camel is to savour the flavour of the locale.

One of the major advantages of accepting my ample proportions and not fearing life-threatening illnesses is that I can enjoy the world around me. If I go for a walk, it is to enjoy the good weather or the scenery around me. If I see a butterfly or an exquisite sunrise, I feel relaxed. When I hear waves lapping or the breeze whispering through trees, it is like soothing music to my ears. The span of a human life is less than a dot in the lifespan of the universe. Is it worthwhile to spend ones life worrying over our BMI or fearing illnesses?

I wonder if Shakespeare, Tagore or Khayyam ever jogged for fitness or worried about their BMI index. Yet they have left behind a heritage of writing which trancends their lives and times. They have eternalised their existence in the history of mankind.  Shakespeare lived a little over half a century. The other two were octogenarians. Reading their works makes me happy and content.

Finding happiness to me has become synonymous with enjoying the wonders of the universe, including my family and children and mankind’s fantastic existence. I want to live life to the full. Perhaps this quatrain of Khayyam’s best sums up my stance towards the fatness of being…

 

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring,

The Winter Garment of Repentance fling

The Bird of Time has but a little way 

To fly — and Lo! the Bird is on it’s Wing.

 

 

 

 

 

Book of the Week

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Title: The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan

Author: John Man

Published in 2009, The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan, combines history and leadership theory. I truly enjoy all of John Man’s books. He writes on history with a passion and makes it come to life for me.

I found this book very easy to read and could fully visualise the young Genghis Khan creating history riding through the grasslands of Mongolia to Bulgaria and Korea. Genghis Khan by Man’s description was not only a man of integrity but also charismatic. He is a leader with a vision and a mission, the vision being to have Mongols rule the world and his mission was to attain it at all costs. Man does point out that though his vision was a little  insane , we have to understand that in his times, there were no cartographers and Genghis Khan had no idea how big the world was. Given that context, he went as far as he could go.

Man has used translations of what has been passed down of Genghis Khan’s words to bring out what a great leader Genghis Khan was. This is what the grand Khan wrote with the wealth of China at his feet in a letter to inviting his Daoist spiritual guide to his court.

Heaven has abandoned China owing to its haughtiness and extravagant luxury. But I, living in the northern wilderness, have not inordinate passions. I hate luxury and exercise moderation. I have only one coat and one food. I eat the same food and am dressed in the same tatters as my humble herdsmen. I consider people my children, and take an interest in talented men as if they were my brothers…

Man shows us how Genghis Khan actually bears out the truth of what he expressed in this letter. A sable coat was gifted to his mother by his in-laws when he married at sixteen. He or his mother never wore it. Instead, he used it as an asset to negotiate with another tribal leader. He lived frugally in tents with his herdsmen and raged through the grasslands to create an empire which lasted for almost a century as opposed to the legendary Qin Shi Huang Di whose dynasty lasted only from 221 to 206 BC and who bequeathed the world a grand mausoleum for himself in the guise of Terracotta warriors.

Genghis Khan wanted to be buried in secret for the sake of his dreams. He was in the process of subjugating the Tanguts. His team moved on to build on his vision and create the Yuan Dynasty, which lasted from 1234 AD to 1368 AD. Genghis himself died in 1227AD. His vision was fulfilled by others in his clan who regarded him as someone who had divine rights to unite them and lead them. He was an influential leader who cared for his people and unified those under him.  Man sums it up by writing Genghis Khan had

Humility and tolerance together: two surprising traits in a world conquerer notorious for his power and brutality. 

Genghis was brutal, Man explains, not because he found pleasure in senseless violence but to create an empire. The Tangut culture,among others, and its script were wiped out only because they stood in the way of his dream of unified world empire under the Mongols. His vision was more important to him than lives of evanescent humankind.

Man also highlights how Genghis Khan always valued talent beyond race. He was a multi national in his outlook as was his grandson Kublai, in whose reign Marco Polo thrived. Many talented foreigners did join the Mongols as they slashed through the steppes, unstoppable, unbeatable. He tried to integrate the nomadic tribes around the Mongols and to create a unified script by borrowing from the Uighurs. Genghis Khan lent an ear not only to good advise from his companions but also from the women of his family, mother and wives. He is said to be a visionary leader who towers above his times, an extraordinary leader. But is he a good one?

Is a good leader allowed to kill to attain his vision? Then we would have to justify Mustafa Mond (Brave New World) and Big Brother( 1984).

Where does the quest for power lead us? Does the end ever justify the means? Isn’t how you do the thing more important than the end in itself? Should good leadership not have to do with that?

Book of the week

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Title: The Good Earth
Author: Pearl S Buck

The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck, first published in 1931, was on the best seller list for two years and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. It was regarded as a novel that created a bridge between China and the rest of the world.

Set in the early twentieth century, in an age of political unrest, we travel with the protagonist, Wang Lung, and his wife, O-Lan, through times of prosperity, famine and turmoil. Eventually, they become wealthy landlords themselves. Wang Lung even acquires a concubine. We see how despite remaining untouched by the political movements intellectually, the couple does profit from it. Wang Lung grows prosperous by robbing a rich man off his wealth. The rich man empties his pockets to the peasant in exchange of his life. Wang Lung and O-lan enter the home with the peasant hordes attacking the the rich man, instigated by followers of communists. O-Lan makes off with the jewels. The irony of the situation is that they do not know why they are robbing the man and they use the stolen wealth to recreate the lifestyle of the rich man themselves, back in their own home in the north.

Wang Lung, who started as a poor farmer with good values, is driven by poverty to pocket another man’s wealth for his own. In his world, people are revered for wealth and not for the process of acquisition. When Wang Lung’s son steals meat from a butcher, his mother cooks it. Wang Lung’s protests are feeble and ineffective for at the end he himself steals from a rich man to become wealthy. A rich man is seen as akin to God, untouchable and supreme.

It is a very life-like depiction of China, where even now, the common people are cut off from politics and events happening around the world. They only have access to what the Chineses media projects. The Chinese media continues to be the positive voice of the government. Even now, as through history,  people revere wealth and beauty to a very large extent. In Xian, you have the fabulous Huaqing Palace which was created by the Tang Emperor Xuanzong for his beloved Yang Guifei, initially his daughter-in-law and then his favourite concubine and consort. Not only did he marry his son’s wife but they had an excellent life together as he would write verses for her and she would dance to them, according  to tourist guides who love to relate this story to visitors like us.

Pearl S Buck grew up in China amidst these values and depicted them to the rest of the world with consummate skill. The story of Wang Lung and his wife are no less realistic than the other stories she has written.

There are things that are in common with Wang Lung and his dad and Scarlett O’Hara and her dad (Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell) …the love of their land, the strength, determination and courage to succeed and make it in this world… All four of them have these values. Both Scarlett and Wang Lung compromise the values they grew up with to fulfil their dreams and ambitions.

Pearl S Buck is not just a lucid writer but she delves into the psyche of the characters she creates. She  brings out the drama of the situations really well. I would put The Good Earth as a must read.

Book of the Week

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Title: Ping-Pong Diplomacy
Author: Nicholas Griffin

Ping-Pong Diplomacy is an eye-opener. The action of the book is like a thriller. The narrative highlights the feeling of terror generated in the course of history. That a sport could be used to bring a country to the fore and to manipulate a whole generation of people is amazing. That a number of countries and politicians, like Nixon and Kissinger, were party  to helping a communist China reintegrate and move forward in history is absolutely astounding. In the author’s own words:

“The real history of table tennis is a bizarre tale of espionage, aggravation, and reconciliation, of murder, of revenge, and exquisite diplomacy.”

The story starts in England with Ivor Montagu, an aristocrat with communist leanings. Griffins writes:

“This is the story of how Ivor Montagu molded the game, and how the Chinese came to embrace it and then shaped it into a subtle instrument of foreign policy. Chairman Mao was fond of quoting ‘Let foreign things serve China.’ Little has served China as effectively as Montagu’s very British game of table tennis.”

Most of the book is located in Mao’s China. One gets a close-up glimpse of what the regime did for the population and the country. Now, after fifty years, the only traces one gets to see of the regime in China are the ‘restored’ monuments and artefacts that had been destroyed by the Red Army. Also, there is an interesting museum in Shanghai that has Red Army books, artefacts and posters.

Table tennis was a part of the ‘cultural history’ of Mao’s China. That sports, like culture, are treated with extreme importance by the country is very well projected in the book. Griffin brings out that winning for the country and not for personal glory is important.

The violence and horror of mob violence is highlighted in the actions of the Red Army. It is truly frightening. The bleakness and violence reminded me of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. The suffering of the people for propagating an ideology and an ‘image’ is portrayed in amazing details. It is like a surreal depiction of what goes into making an ideological nation materialise. One also gets to see how China became a major player in world politics over a period of time, how communism and capitalism combined to the benefit of the power brokers of the world and to push nationalism to the fore.

What does come across to me after reading the book is that the politicians worldwide craved for power for the ‘benefit’ of their respective countries. You have China, USA , UK, Pakistan and USSR involved in the politics that pushed world economics and politics into it’s current state. The book is a behind the scenes glimpse into China’s meteoric rise in today’s world.

I love the concluding sentences of the Epilogue.

“Other sports have evolved in China over the decades. A richer country has a boundless horizon to explore, but table tennis remains the nation’s one perfect specimen.”

It seems to sum up the spirit of the whole book. That sports is used for reasons other than fun, sportsmanship and character building is clearly spelt out by Griffin.

At the end of the book, I am left wondering what is more important, a human being or patriotism?

Book of the week

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Title: The Travels of Marco Polo
Author: Rusticello da Pisa

The Travels of Marco Polo always cheers me up!

Marco Polo related his experiences between 1276 and 1290 to his prison buddy, Rusticello da Pisa. The prisoners of war collaborated and came up with this fantastic book. It was written in langues d’oil, a language that is no longer in use. My edition is a reprint of the translation by William Marsden in the eighteenth century.

In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo’s father, Niccolo, and uncle, Maffeo, successful traders, were invited by an envoy of the Mongols and made a trip to the East to meet the Grand Khan. They returned to Venice after seventeen years of adventuring to pick up some holy oil and give the Pope a letter from the Grand Khan. The Grand Khan, being Kublai Khan, desired to introduce Christianity into China. The Khan wanted the Pope to send a hundred representatives to support the spread of Christianity.

The two brothers had to wait a long time as the Pope had died and it took time for the new Pope to come to power. That was when they met Marco Polo the first time for Niccolo had left behind a pregnant wife who gave birth and died in the interim.Marco had been brought up by his uncle to be a trader. Niccolo and Maffeo took Marco with them for the next set of adventures and it is from Marco’s recall that this book was created. He wrote this book most likely for the trading community. However, what has come down to us in the translation is a very poetic and interesting account of the East. The description of Shandu in this book inspired Coleridge to write Kubla Khan, one of the most enchanting poems I have ever read. Perhaps, he read the same translation as I did, the one by William Marsden.

Most of the world regard Genghis and Kublai Khan as the worst kind of tyrannic rulers. However, in Marco Polo’s narration, the Grand Khan comes across as a competent ruler who provided security to his subjects. Trade prospered. It was Kublai Khan who popularised paper currency in China. Marco mentions it in his book.

Marco worked for the Grand Khan as an envoy for a number of years. The book is about his travel to and from China to the surrounding provinces and then his return to Europe. It took the party three years to reach China with the holy oil and gifts. The new pope had sent two representatives instead of one hundred. The two monks had absconded during the journey. The Grand Khan did not penalise them for not getting the hundred men but expressed happiness on seeing his old friends and Marco.

The thing that I really like is the open mindset of Marco Polo. He has no preconceived notions and takes people as they come. His father, uncle and he were multi-lingual. They could pick up languages easily. They all picked up tartaric, the language spoken by Kublai Khan, even before they met him. The Polos truly embodied the spirit of a one world society. They could take the best from every culture and survive under all circumstances. They knew no borders where trade was concerned.

The authenticity of Marco’s rendition has often been questioned by erudite scholars. Marco has been represented as a charlatan who made up a tall tale. However, what I do see in the story is an open-minded, large-hearted adventurer who did not acknowledge pre-conceived biases of the medieval world, rose above all pettinesses and recorded a fantastic travelogue with the collaboration of a friend. The retelling is of his own personalised experiences.

That the book has survived seven centuries of intellectuals and is still regarded as worthy of debate makes it an eternal classic in my perspective. Marco Polo’s travelogue has an infectious spirit of optimism and a one world outlook beyond borders.

The travels of Marco Polo helps me dream, imagine and create a fantastic world of my own…

Leaving China

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Chapter 10

My utopia is a world where Khayyam and Tagore would walk together, crossing the barriers of time, space and age…

It would be an island in the bright blue ocean with lush green vegetation where birds and plants would proliferate. Arthur C Clarke and Asimov would be discussing the future of mankind with Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Perhaps, someday Marco Polo would dock on it in a ship with Kublai’s crew… And I would sit there with my I pad and invisibly watch and record all the action! It would be a bit like Asimov’s Gaia, except the collective mind would draw borders at telepathic communication. The weather would be eternal spring and it would be sunshine forever. We would all be in touch with the most positive in our mindset.

A dash of Nikolai Tessla playing with his lightening rods and Shakespeare directing his plays in a natural theatrette, made with a circular chain of low lying hills…the sky would be bright blue with white clouds…and maybe, sometimes, Mozart and Beethoven would create music by the seaside with instruments that never got wet or spoilt. Indian maestros like Mallikarjun Mansur would match the sound of the waves in open air concerts and Bhimsen Joshi would sing Meghmallar to bring on a sprinkle of rain. Occasionally, the Beatles would go crazy with their guitaring. And Jean Pierre Rampal would create and play a Jazz piece called Utopia!

I know it all sounds insane but I had the opportunity in China to get more in touch with all these things. What was fantastic was I had friends who could relate to these things and not get peeved by talk of my Utopia. I was amazed that people did not find my ideas or tastes boring and traditional. Some of my expat friends spoke of greats from their culture and I learnt more. There was a feeling of give and take. Local Chinese appreciated the fact that I wrote. A local friend told me that it was good I wrote my book on China. They wanted to translate it. But, I had a flight to catch…back to Singapore.

We had a two week wait in a hotel before we boarded our flight out of China. The new ruling had it that we needed to be within the country when they checked on the things we were taking back home with us. The rulings in China can change anytime and you need to comply to them and move on. My utopian ideal was one thing but it was really tough living out of suitcases for two weeks, even though it was in a five star hotel. But, there were people who seemed to like it. One day we met an American who lived in the hotel permanently. He and his visiting teenage son were returning to their room when he paused to remark on Surya’s antics as my younger son was singing something crazy and doing weird walks along the corridor in a bid to dispense his extra energy. It was hazy outside and we could not do our usual walk for the high PSI levels.

At home, Surya would have read, played a game or watched a movie. In the hotel, Aditya had a different room. We didnot allow the kids to rent movies. And he had to create his own entertainment. So, he did…except we had an amused audience of the American and his son… To me it was really strange that a person, even if he were living alone, would choose to stay in a hotel on a daily basis. It would be so restrictive. You could never cook yourself a gastronomic delight from your heart! You could never do up your room with your choice of colours and paintings. You could never argue in loud voices with your family. You could never invite your friends over for a meal cooked by you. You could never try out a new musical instrument in the later hours of the evening. But your laundry would be done without an effort and you would never need to shop for groceries!

Trying out a musical instrument in an apartment is difficult too…coming to think of it. I remember, in China, a friend’s husband practiced his guitaring in their pent house apartment every night. The neighbours downstairs found it unacceptable and complained regularly. We were luckier in China. When Aditya practiced his french horn, our Finnish neighbour upstairs was really delighted. He wanted to know if Aditya could play the Finnish National Anthem on the french horn. We have never had issues with boys practising the piano, guitar, recorder or clarinet at home but we had issues with Surya jumping in his bedroom at 10 pm in Singapore to get the pool water out of his ear. I had an irritated teenage neighbour who lived downstairs standing outside my door and shouting. I had to call in the security to calm her and her parents and escort them downstairs. Quite an experience for us!

In China, locals could inconvenience us by abstaining from presenting themselves in time or completing the assigned work in time but we had always found them very courteous in their behaviour towards foreigners. So, the shouting really came as a shock to us in Singapore. The feeling I get here often is that people are disatisfied and unhappy. In China, the feeling was of an upsurge of happiness and hope which is why it was easier for me to visualise my utopia while I was there.

While we waited at the hotel to leave China, we caught up on some more sightseeing within Suzhou. There was this ancient temple called Ling Yan temple in the water town of Mudu. I and my sons had been to it once during a summer we spent in Suzhou in 2009, I think. My husband was working. The view from the hilltop was fantastic. I still remember a monk who helped us find our way to the temple on top of a steep hill and disappeared mysteriously. He was very excited when he saw us and insisted on calling us mother and the little buddha from India. I do not know which one of my sons he was alluding to but I am guessing, it was Surya as he was obviously the little one!

imageWhen we went back the second time with my husband, we discovered the temple had a lovely garden at the foothill with peacocks strutting, and occassionally dancing, around. There were  some ancient Indian artefacts too in the temple. It was evidently founded by an abbot called ‘the light of India’. We were not clear about the Indian connection but there was something there. After savouring the views and exploring the temple as we walked back to the car, we came across various vendors, including a palmist, who insisted on telling my future. He wanted his palm crossed by a red note…100 rmb… We were forced to give in. A crowd collected as he foretold a glorious future for me. He said I would be very happy when I turn sixty! Now, at the threshold of fifty, I am desperately waiting to reach sixty so that I can see what are the fantastic things life holds out for me…will I become a princess with silver blonde locks, will I become a popular author, will my husband and I win a lottery and go on a world tour or, most excitingly, will I become a grandmother and have the opportunity at last of spoiling babies rotten…

With such happy thoughts, I bid adieu to China. As the flight took off from Shanghai, I had my last glimpse of the city of fabulous night lights and futuristic buildings and looked forward to a new adventure in Singapore, the city of the Merlion.