Let us go there, you and I, hoping chocolates fall from the sky. Let us go into a hilly terrain, where flows the ancient Amu Darya, where Marco Polo watched sheep graze on the grass of Pamirs. Do they still browse or is it tamam shud with a rat-a-tat-tat? Has the river turned red? Incarnadined, gaze ghosts (Click here to read the full poem)
“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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Left and Right. The witch finder’s army hunts each night. In stealth, the army seeps prowls, creeps under floorboards. The army, hooded and masked, takes tiny ants to task when they bite. Each bite costs the ant its Life. The witch finder’s army parades, drills... (Click here to read the whole poem)
The tree, shimmering in a puddle, ripples as a bird pauses for a drink. The sun peeps from behind the grey lined with silver. The river mirrors the sky replete with clouds and sunshine. Water drifts over a lifetime spanning your story and mine — narratives of our Times, of an eon that sweeps the Earth, mankind’s own hearth. Long ago, dinosaurs died. Now, in this new age of greats, fires burn kangaroo meat. Flames that devour forests are put to rest by ice that freezes blood and bones. Breath chills to lifelessness in a refrigerator... (Click here to read the rest)
Freedom — All the while, they talk of freedom. What has freedom rendered them? Has it given them the ability to soar? To fly? Has it given voice to their inner souls? Has it helped them rise? Has it got rid of diseases? Has it got rid of prisons that bar the mind — of human constructs that hold them back?.... (Complete reading at Countercurrents by clicking here)
( Published in Countercurrents.org on 29th March, 2021)
“…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
We play with the colours of dawn, spraying the world with spring, with happiness, with birds that are willing to sing. Liturgies lace our lives with absolutes. For some, we kill. Holika died. Has evil ever been annihilated by the external searing of holy flames? Fodder to appease fiery Agni’s unceasing appetite, is destruction the sole solution? Or can absolution be sought in the conversion to good? In quest
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First published in Countercurrents.org, 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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First published in Countercurrents.org, 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 Jr, Nelson 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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First published in Countercurrents, October 2020
The mass migrants to Mars stood poised to take their first step. The Red Planet crimsoned further by the blood of scientists who realised the vision of a musky monied man odoured with fame, made into godhead. Out of deep freeze, led by the god who saved them, stood more monied men. They had left a planet in turmoil. A methane-filled viral sun burnt with heat. I cannot breathe. I cannot breathe — became the norm. The cry of those condemned to die in the coils of poisoned air or floods that ate the land. No place left to stand. Reddened by sunsets on rising seas, humans treaded water till deadened — leadened by weight they sunk into an Ophelia like stupor, the kiss of death. Lands that glowed with heat turned aflame...
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