Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The US Elections - Mallus Respond from Kerala

I have this terrible habit of listening to conversations conducted loudly in public places. Of late an issue which figures prominently in such conversations is the US elections. Everybody seems to be talking of Obama and Palin and Mc Cain these days – and all the time. I think after Kerala’s newly discovered terror links, this is the most talked about issue.

Biden rarely appears in these dialogues of the all knowing Malayalee. The few times I‘ve heard his name mentioned are when similarity is pointed out between the orthographic form and sound of Obama-Biden and Osama Bin- Laden. A meaningless similarity, I know, but a strange one. Some people go off tangent, and launch into a laboured explanation of that strange but true similarity, even suggesting that Obama deliberately chose Biden for his name, for evoking that association through the sound! That’s the clever and complex thinking process of the mallus for you!

Guess we mallus down here have only a very very superficial understanding of the campaign issues. And it is shaped by what the media chooses to feed us with. Here are some excerpts from the commonly heard remarks on the US elections:

Overheard in the train – a heterogeneous group:
“Obama win? No chance? Once these yanks get into the polling booths, who knows where they’ll put the INTO(x) mark?”(Agathu kayriyaal pinney, aarudey pallakkitaanu kuthunnadhennu aaru ariyunnu?). He spoke in that typical unrefined tone, bringing down his clenched fist emphatically on his open palm, mimicking the act of actually casting the vote.
”Yes. Yes. You are right. The Bradley effect”. A little embarrassed by the belligerent language and body language of his travel companion, this person was trying to redeem his dignity with his high sounding words and a somber demeanor.

Another group’s discussion. They are youngsters – not the IT types, but the conventional addicts of Malayala Manorama and Week and Outlook and Vanitha and Deshabimani and Mathrubumi weekly and and - - “Wish Obama would win. Then I’d call America a true melting pot culture”. That was a young girl among them, on the way to the office.
“It’s like Mayawathi becoming the Prime Minister” Her male friend and colleague, I think. He was a youngman with a buji bag. And then the conversation got diverted to Mayawathy’s prime ministerial aspirations, and the issue was discussed with considerable heat, with the focus on the impossibility of her dreams coming true in India with its caste equations.

“McCain stood a good chance – till he chose that political novice as his running mate. He was trying to win the women’s vote. Velukkaan thechathu paandaayi, poor chap”.
“So what? If Lalu’s wife Rabri Devi, who knew nothing other than how to make chappathis, can rule Bihar, why not Palin? She’s the governor of a State, at least”.
“Ugh! Of Alaska! What sort of governance is needed in that deep freezer? It’s like being the governor of a refrigerator. If Rabri was the queen of the kitchen, Saramma is the queen of the refrigerator. That’s all the difference. Ha!”

WE happened to sit near a bunch of IT youngsters in a restaurant and overheard this: “If Obama wins, we’ll be hit. He’s going to stop outsourcing”.
“Oh, Bullshit. He can’t. American Corporates will have to shut down if he does that. He says such things to get white votes. Nobody really believes him.”
“Hope you are right”
“Of course I am right”. And he plunges into a harangue on the world being a global village and the interdependency of the economies, and how the Asian youth make the world go round, while all his companions listened to him in all earnestness.

Then, in the lobby of a hospital, I overheard this conversation among an academic looking group. They spoke as though they had spent all their lives researching on the Obama-McCain tussle, and each of them spoke with finality, but in well modulated tone. “Obama’s lineage –parambaryam- is suspect. Don’t think he is the right person for the most powerful seat in the world”.
“Oh. I don’t think that matters. After all he is a product of the Ivy League”.
“Athilonnum Kaaryamilla (That’s nothing)”. and then that awful adage”Attayey pidichu methayil kidathiyaal kidakkumo?” (An untranslatable idiom but goes something like this. If you put a leech on the mattress, will it adjust to its soft comfort?)
But the person who had the last say was an aloofish looking person with a long thin face. “Obama or McCain”, he said with supreme contempt. “It makes no difference. That country is run by certain lobbies and institutions. If either of them goes against their interests, they’ll b knocked off”.

A gloomy silence fell and I was called into the doctor’s room before it was broken.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

To Whom Did the Dung Belong?

Vijayamma dropped her broom and came up to me and said that she didn’t feel well. I noticed that she was talking through her teeth and immediately recognized the classic symptom - locked jaw. The girl had tetanus.

I panicked. I was all alone in the house with this young girl who helped out with the domestic chores, and I was not keeping too well myself. Fortunately, she lived in the colony adjacent to our compound and I asked her to go home immediately and ask her aunt (the girl was an orphan) or some relative to accompany her to the hospital. To make sure her people got the message, I called out to her aunt over the wall and asked her to take Viyajamma to the hospital as she had contracted a dangerous, life threatening disease.

I waited anxiously for some news. After more than an hour, I heard the gate open and ran out to see Vijayamma staggering in all by herself. Apparently, she had gone to the General hospital alone. I helped her on to the sit-out where she collapsed. I noticed that her fist was closed tightly over a piece of paper. Pricing open her fingers, I pulled out the chit given by the hospital. It said that she was administered a TT injection but she needed to be taken to the Medical College Hospital without any delay.

I ran to the wall and called out to her aunt, and told her that Vijayamma had collapsed and should be hospitalized immediately. I guess the panic must have made me shout, for in a minute, my compound was full of people, the residents of the colony who were in some way or other related to Vijayamma.

I gave Vijayamma’s uncle money for a cab and immediate expenses. The minute he got the money, he called out to for help to carry her.

“Where are you taking her?” I asked. “Leave her here till the taxi comes”.

“No sir, we’ll take her home now and take her to MCH when I am free”.

I was furious and scared. Guess it showed in my voice when I barked at him to run for a cab, which he did immediately.

Soon Vijayamma was on her way to the Medical College Hospital accompanied by her uncle and aunt with whom she lived.

But the people in my compound did not leave. I noticed that they were engaged in an animated discussion. Some of them looked belligerent. Then a couple of men walked up to me and said:

“This looks like villu vaadam (arrow disease, as tetanus was referred to in Malayalam, as the patient, during the seizures, raises their torso in the shape of an arrow).

“Yes. It is tetanus”

“Isn’t it true that it could have come from her stepping on dung? She has cracks on her heels? “

“Quite possible”. I replied.

And then, with a hardened expression on his face, one of them asked me

“Which dung did she step on? The dung in your cowshed or on the streets?”!!!!

It took all the discipline I was taught to put a lid on my inner fury. I almost blurted out that it was my grandfather’s dung, but then my breeding came to my rescue. Instead, in a controlled voice which did not conceal my anger, I asked him where all this concern was when she went to him and all the people standing there, asking them to take her to the hospital. Then, I quietly asked them to clear out which they did.

Yes. That’s the typical Kerala attitude. When it comes to duties, we are real shirkers. But when it comes to claiming our rights, we’d go as far as checking the DNA of dung to extract from the employer!

By the way, Vijayamma survived.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Out of the Mouth of Babes - -

My little niece Amala was a super entertainer. As a child, she always ran. I think she didn’t know how to walk. And she ran like a big bouncing ball – never straight. And the little girl had a tongue right round her neck. She used to come up with such startlers that every time she opened her mouth in the presence of strangers, we used to get nervous. Like that day, when she stood leaning against her mother, looking with deadly calm at an elderly aunt whose one eye was permanently closed. Little Amala’s silence was like the calm before the storm, and I began to get nervous. And then, she raised her right arm slowly and deliberately, in a Heil Hitler fashion, folded her fingers except the index finger which she pointed in the aunt's direction, - and dropped the bombshell. “Looks like our chicken’s eye,”, she announced loud and clear. (One of our hens had died the previous day of some disease. It had gone around with one eye closed for a couple of days before it died). “What did she say”, asked my aunt, whose ears not quite tuned to the American twang. I don’t remember how my sister got out of the situation.

She was a little older when the family, sitting around the dining table, were discussing Morarji Desai’s urine drinking habit. Suddenly, I noticed that deadly calm settle on Amala’s face, and waited. No tension this time ‘cos only the family was there.

And then it came. “Ichayan”, said Amala, addressing my father in that typical musical tone reserved for him. “I have a doubt”. There was that full stop in her tone and expression at that juncture. She looked very serious. “ How did he drink his urine? Directly or indirectly?”

My father nearly choked over his food laughing.

Friday, October 17, 2008

What are you doing, my son?

‘What are you doing, my son?’
‘Counting crowns.’
‘Crowns? What crowns?’
‘King’s crowns.’
‘Where are the crowns?’
‘Can’t you see?
The rain is making them’.
She looked where he pointed
At the water rising where each drop fell
And saw the crowns
King’s crowns
Thousands of them

I wrote this piece to be published anonymously in the college magazine, in a page dedicated to versification on rain. Most of my students guessed it was my piece ‘cos I used to relate this little episode where my 4 year old son opened my eyes to the crowns that rain drops made - to prove the point that all of us are born poets but our creativity falls by the way side in our struggle with this business called life.

I wonder if my son still sees the crowns

Thursday, October 16, 2008

All About A Dog

I hate dogs but I loved Lincoln – maybe ‘cos he was around in my childhood. He was a dachshund plus something else, jet black and smooth and silky.

I remember the sleepless nights I spent thinking of his predicament after his death for, one day, I was told in the catechism class, that animals have no souls and so, they will not attain eternal salvation. I felt very depressed the whole day. At night, I couldn’t sleep! I kept seeing my siblings and parents and I having a splendid time up there in some place in the skies while Lincoln---sigh! Where would he be? “He will be over once he dies. You see, he has no soul. That’s what distinguishes man from animals”, the catechism teacher told me the next day. I was crestfallen. I wished God had given dogs souls.

There were days when I found it hard to believe that Lincoln had no soul. He followed us around wherever we went. He looked up at us listening when we spoke to him and seemed to understand whatever we told him. How can he not have a soul, I wondered. Guess I was too young to understand that intelligence was not soul.

Like the cliché goes, he was the very epitome of loyalty. My brother and I were, once, silent audience at a grown up conversation which began with the ingratitude of man and ended up with numerous anecdotes on the gratitude of man’s best friend – Dog. During the course of the conversation, someone remarked that the only thing that’ll make a dog bite his master is disturbing the animal when it is eating. My brother and I looked meaningfully at each other. Both of us had made up our minds to test the veracity of that statement.

Thus it was that the next noon, the two of us sat near Lincoln while he was eating yellow rice with plenty of meat stuff in it. Both of us had short sticks in our hands and we started jabbing him from both sides. Grrrrr--- he went, but continued eating. Our jabs must have got painful for he started looking at us and barking shortly. We would move back when he did that and then again close in on him when he went back to his food. This went on for sometime. Then I put the stick into his plate and started pulling it away. The poor dog looked up at me angrily, baring all his teeth and grrrrrrrrrrimg away to glory. I was thrilled. It’s working, I thought.

Just then, Vasu, the odd job man, passed by, not very close to us, carrying water to the estate bungalow. He had two big square tins filled with water in his hands, which he held by the cross bar fixed across it, and one tin balanced on his head. I did not notice him ‘cos I was busy trying to pull Lincoln’s plate away from him, and had almost succeeded it doing this despite the fact that he was trying to hold it back with his front foot. Just then, Lincoln looked up at me angrily, leapt forward and made mince meat of Vasu’s calf.

All hell broke loose. People arrived from all over with sticks, air guns, lassoes to deal with the rabid dog. Somebody expertly threw the lasso round his neck and tied him tightly to a pole, without allowing any rope length to enable him to dodge the thrashing. And then the blows started.

I screamed then. So did my brother. Together we jumped between the dog and the angry men and scared women. Our confession tumbled out. People dropped their sticks and walked away, throwing disgusted glances at us.

Poor Lincoln was released. He quietly went back to his food and finished it, while the two of us stood there looking at him guiltily.

Soon summons from amma came from the bungalow. We were made to watch the first aid being given to Vasu who was to be taken to the hospital which was some distance away. And then the two of us were made to sit in two deep chairs while all the elders of the family, towering intimidatingly over us, took turns to give us angry lectures.

For days, the picture of Lincoln trussed up and beaten haunted me. But the poor chap held no grudge. He continued to follow us around like before.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Religion - Not a Site for Violence

(This is a revised form of my response to a blog. Nothing original is these random reflections, but I still choose to post them, braving charges of mouthing platitudes and tinkering around with truisms. I do this ’cos we live in times when clichés need to be stated, defamiliarised. Familiarity breeds contempt, and when great truths are contemptuously dismissed as clichés, they need to be reinstated. Truth never becomes irrelevant simply because they are hackneyed. So here I go - - )

All religions are expressions of man’s search for the infinite. This search in not done in an ethereal vacuum - but down here, on the earth, on the ground, on the soil of our day to day life.

The first step towards the realization of the infinite is purging the mind of negative emotions and filling it with love - love of mankind.

If we negotiate our way through the peripherals of religions, we will arrive at the great truth that the core values of all religions are the same. There is no space in this core for violence and inequity. They are gross elements that adulterate the magnificent endeavour of mortals to reach out towards eternity. They can never be part of any religion, part of this search for the infinite. The presence of these elements with the label of religion attached to them can be ascribed to flawed interpretation and practice of religion.

A violent Christian should relinquish the label ‘Christian’. So should believers of other religions. The greatest disservice to religious teachers/teachings is to inflict injury on fellow human beings in the name of religion. Christians did it for a long period of time. The leaders have apologized several times for the crimes against humanity in the name of religion.

Indians too proselytized. Buddhism spread in the eastern part of Asia through the agency of Buddhist monks who took upon themselves the task of spreading the great man’s teachings. But how peacefully this religion was disseminated! Not a drop of blood was shed in the process. Buddha’s insistence on ahimsa was adhered to with great passion by his messengers.

Hinduism did not have a history of violence in the name of religion. Our ancestors were the ideal practitioners of religion. Religion was practiced as it truly should be – as a way of life. Hinduism was a way of life.

Alas! Those were glorious days. Hindus achieved long time back what followers of other religions are still striving to achieve. But, sadly, instead of perpetuating the great tradition of being model practitioners of religion, Hindus are now making the mistakes committed by the followers of other religions, mistakes which the rational and enlightened among the other religions are trying to rectify. What an irony!

And what a great disservice to Hinduism and to our proud, glorious tradition.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The New Indian Express for a Theocratic India?

The New Indian Express adopts a very clever strategy - its editorials go that extra mile to project a secular image of itself. At the same time, it gives huge and prominent spaces to anti-minority intellectuals like Gurumurthy and Francois Gautier to propagate the communal agenda and divide the people. What is the purpose of this doublespeak?

God knows what fancy rate the paper gives a cantankerous journalist like Gautier. This Frenchman’s simplistic and shallow readings of Christianity and Hinduism, and his seeming sympathy with the ill treated majority is reminiscent of the age old dirty game played by the imperialists to divide and rule. What surprises me is the way the New Indian Express is playing into the hands of this incurable imperialist. Or is it t hat the paper is using Gautier for a straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth type of an impact to secure its communal agenda? His recent article has let loose a lot of hate responses, both in the daily and on the net.

Wonder what this paper is up to. Why is it indulging in these nefarious divisive games? Is The New Indian Express laying the foundation for a theocratic dispensation for India?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Salaam Bombay. And Kerala? Sorry. No Salaam

I was in Mumbai in the 1st week of this month. I was astounded at the success achieved by the city in upgrading the infrastructure to cope with the huge population.
It’s quite possible that my stay in Kerala for a year and a half could be the reason that Mumbai fascinated me like never before. After all things shine by contrast.
And what a contrast it is! Mumbai and any city in Kerala.

Is it fair to talk of the two in the same breath? Can the gigantic financial capital of India be put on the same scale as the cities in the tiny state of Kerala?
Well, why not? After all, Kerala is supposed to be the first and best state on many counts, and is placed on par with the developed countries as per all sorts of national and international surveys?

What impressed me about Mumbai was the way the city has been cleaned up. From 1999 when I left Mumbai after my first stint there, Mumbai had changed visibly in 2004 when I returned for my next spell there. Flyovers had come all over the city, easing the traffic. The pollution level had come down drastically with taxis replacing diesel with LPG.

Now, the point I am trying to make is – Is it possible to bring about a change of this nature in Kerala, the most enlightened state in the country?

A highway planned by the previous government was sabotaged by the opposition for political reasons.
An overbridge in Kochi remains incomplete for God knows how long.
Flyovers in Trivandrum too stand like withered stumps of discarded development projects. And one of them is tainted with the blood of a Japanese contractor who made the mistake of not doing his homework on Kerala before he signed the contract with the Kerala Government. Wonder why no one told him that Kerala is a place where nothing happens, nothing can ever happen.

This last week’s visit to Mumbai filled me with a tremendous admiration and respect for the Mumbaikers. The waste of this huge city with its astronomical population is managed magnificently. Mumbai, which supports a population almost half the size of population of the whole of Kerala, has found a way to clean up the city and mange its waste. All those vegetable refuse that used to pile up along the roads near Dadar and other main markets, the plastic waste and rubbish heaps were conspicuous by their absence. It would do well for Kerala to send a team to Mumbai and study how this mammoth task is being achieved. The clean streets from Colaba to Andheri brought to mind the miserable rubbish heaps on the streets of Kochi. On my own, I made random inquiries of how this is managed in Mumbai. It seems, in addition to corporation workers, the tasks of waste disposal and cleaning the streets are given to private operators.

Can u imagine the mayhem that would be let loose if the private player is permitted to pick up a broom to sweep the streets in Kerala? Our service sectors with their dog in the manger policy spell the doom of the state.

Yet another issue I’d like to touch upon with some hesitation (hesitation ‘cos it amounts to admission that I used the public rest room in Mumbai) is the condition of the rest rooms in Mumbai. I was pleasantly surprised to find them clean, convenient and not stinking in the malls. But you could have knocked me down with a feather when I discovered that a public toilet (which I was forced to take on account of being caught in a traffic jam) near a busy station on the western line was in a usable condition!!! Considering the volume and the type of the consumers – migrant population who live in shanties, workers, and travelers- these restrooms were clean! In the sense, it was not in a condition that’d make one feel the need to jump into a tub of boiling detol water as soon as one reached home. My experience in the rest rooms of hotels and even resorts, were often unpleasant in Kerala. And the public toilets in Kerala? I’d rather die a thousand deaths than get into any one of them.

Again, the question arises as to how the mighty Mumbai city with its massive heterogeneous population managed to convey a sense of civic responsibility to its denizens. How come this cannot be achieved in the highly literate Kerala with its people who are eternally sniggering at the people from other states for their lack of hygiene- both personal and public?

Kerala is truly a queer and bizarre place. One cannot find any logical explanation for what it is.