Explore this blog by clicking on the labels listed along the right-hand sidebar. There are lots of interesting stuff which you won't find on the home page
Seriously curious about me? Click on ' What sort of person am I?'

Friday, June 29, 2012

PM for Prez

Do I wish to see Pranab Mukherjee in Rashtrapati Bhavan? Most definitely I do.

First of all, it will be the crowning glory of a long and distinguished career – chequered, yes, but most of it at the very highest echelons of government. He is truly one man who’s been there and done it all. Born in a politically involved but humble family in a remote village in one of the most backward districts of Bengal and beginning his career as a government clerk, he was already being called the second most powerful person in India at the start of the 1980s, before I went to college, when he was Indira Gandhi’s finance minister and winning accolades from all over the world; now I am pushing fifty, and he is still right there (actually was till June 26, 2012), commanding (at least grudging-) respect across the political spectrum as both an astute, suave fixer and a very able strategist cum administrator. As one trained in economics and one who has followed him on TV and the papers without a break for nearly thirty years, I can vouch that his grasp of economic affairs national and global is little short of legendary; the word encyclopedic can be used to describe his tip-of-the-fingers knowledge with total aptness. He has been the UPA government’s man for all seasons for nearly a decade now; there have been few serious problems under the scanner of either the Union Cabinet or the Congress Working Committee which he has not been asked to look into personally when all else had failed. The man’s sheer appetite for work takes my breath away – he travels more in a month, and not for fun, than I have travelled in the last ten years. And while looking after the highest affairs of state 24/7, he still somehow finds time to look after his extended family and its gods, and to read good books (among a thousand feathers in his cap, he is the current President of the Nikkhil Bharat Banga Sahitya Sammelan). And – knowing how much muck one must wade through if one merely becomes the head of a neighbourhood puja committee or party unit in this country – I find it well nigh unbelievable how he has kept his nose more or less clean all through these decades, to the extent that accusations of corruption have never risen beyond rare and stray murmurs, and not one serious case has ever been brought to court against him, leave alone won, though he must have made a thousand enemies among the highest and mightiest in the land and beyond, apart from making millions just plain jealous: any person who wields such enormous power has to. By now we know and he knows that the ultimate prize will forever elude him – the Gandhi family will never let him be prime minister – and he’s getting a bit long in the tooth anyway; 77 is pretty old even for a politician! So why not fade out in a blaze of glory, occupying what is the highest, even if almost purely ornamental office in the land? If you call that being ‘kicked upstairs’, how much sweeter can it get? (charming thought: there was a time when Manmohan Singh, as governor of the Reserve Bank, rose before him and called him ‘Sir’, he being finance minister and close confidant of the PM; it couldn’t have been easy to swallow his pride and tolerate the role reversal with him in the FM’s seat and Singh in the PM’s, and so it would be nice again to have Singh-ji rise for him in the dusk of his career…).

Secondly, if the Prez’s job is all about symbolism and tokenism too, why not a Bengali? We have had Muslim and Sikh and Dalit and woman and men from down south more than once; nothing wrong in saying it’s our turn now. Nothing wrong in claiming something for Bengali pride, is there? We have precious little to crow about anyway. Not since Subhas Bose left the stage have we had a fighting chance of being at the helm of this country; not since Jyoti Basu (and he was a very old man by then) has any Bengali in independent India come close to the hot seat in South Block. So at least let’s settle for the President’s post, for now? And if it’s going to be a Bengali, how many candidates more eligible than Pranab Mukherjee can we think of putting up, all things considered?

Finally, our Constitution, as some people have demonstrated (T.N. Seshan as Chief Election Commissioner, to name just one), has strange things hidden away in its voluminous bulk, obscure laws and bye-laws and grey areas which a wily, determined and vastly experienced man can take advantage of to make a substantial something out of what has hitherto been regarded as a powerless and/or ornamental post. Who better than Mr. Mukherjee to do that with the office of the President, so that the next PM and cabinet may find out, either with alarm or delight, that they have an assertive and activist head of state to reckon with?

No, Mr. Mukherjee is not even a distant relative, I have never met him personally, and I didn’t take part in the yagna they arranged in his native village to facilitate his accession. But I shall be glad to see him raising the flag next Republic Day. India could do worse.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Casual musing...

Some stray thoughts again for this weekend:

The monsoon has arrived in full force, and I am rejoicing, to the accompaniment of swaying greenery all around me and Tagore’s incomparable music.

I am both surprised and hurt that not one reader sent in a comment on my last post. I know all about what sort of society I live in, but sometimes I still cannot help feeling utterly sick…

I have been researching the ongoing global economic crisis – focusing on the US and the ‘Eurozone’. Apropos of that, did you know that everywhere, but in the US most of all, the rich pay much less in taxes than the middle class? Warren Buffett and a few lesser tycoons have gone on record saying they can not only afford to pay more, but that in their opinion the world economy actually needs that they pay more.

I was also musing that over a period of more than thirty years of teaching, I have dealt with hundreds of pupils who were very good at math, but hardly ten who could write a tolerable story, and not one who could write a real poem (following all the rules of prosody, that is to say). So which is really the rarer and therefore the more valuable skill, assuming that you are not one of those idiots who think that the ‘market’ is the best and last arbiter of all values?

I have been watching the old Byomkesh and Miss Marple movies lately and in tandem. It’s really good, unadulterated fun.

I also heard Satyajit Ray speaking in the background of his documentary on Tagore. Why haven’t I met ten Bengalis in all my life who could speak in English like that, and also not ten Bengalis who could speak fluent, chaste Bangla?

Next year my daughter is going to finish secondary school and I am going to complete half a century on this earth. That also calls for some reflection, I think.

And finally – for now – I wish my readers would visit the blogs I read (listed on my blogroll) and bring some of those issues up for discussion a little more often.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A nice book to read

My literary minded old boy Aakash had not been very pleased with the blogpost I had written on the Shiva trilogy, and had promised to send me a book in broadly the same genre that would provide much better reading. So now I have just finished reading Madhulika Liddle’s debut crime novel titled The Englishman’s Cameo, and yes, Aakash has kept his promise.

It is a murder mystery with a difference – for it is set against the backdrop of Delhi at the time of the emperor Shah Jehan in his last days on the throne, 1656 to be precise. Naturally one expects careful period detailing, and Ms. Liddle has done it very well indeed, ably helped by her sister Swapna, a historian who has specialized on late medieval India. The English is just appropriate, fluent and idiomatic at the same time, marred with neither irritating pedantry nor the colloquial pidgin that so many Indlish educated contemporary Indians find oh-so-cool. The plot centres around a fictional character, a young minor aristocrat ‘with friends in low places’ called Mujaffar Jang, who acts out of noblesse oblige to get a friend out of trouble, and in the process gets entangled in deep intrigue. One meets all kinds of interesting characters, beautiful courtesans and pot-bellied banias, supercilious omrahs and dedicated bureaucrats, ardent  lover, English fortune hunter, lusty but good natured boatman, spies and mercenaries and all in a pretty heady brew. The plot is not earth-shaking, but plausible enough, and the chief merit of the book, I found, is its readability: it definitely is a page-turner in the best tradition, and not too many writers can claim as much in contemporary India (it goes without saying that I do not consider readability a minus point, because where books are concerned I am anything but a snob; besides, writing racy but persuasive fiction is far harder an art than most people suppose). And – I say this as a compliment, not patronizingly – Ms. Liddle has accomplished the rare feat of not letting the reader guess that the writer is a woman if he has not noticed the name, just as you wouldn’t with J.K. Rowling or Agatha Christie or Ashapurna Devi for that matter. The book is refreshingly free of  à la mode feminist touches.

A quick search through Wikipedia tells me that Madhulika Liddle has come out with another collection of Mujaffar Jang stories (she apparently regards short stories to be her forte). I shall look forward to reading it, and I wish the writer very good luck with her writing. I should also be glad if a) she places her forthcoming books in other historical eras, equally painstakingly reconstructed, and b) other writers are inspired to do the same, because it is a very interesting genre, and also because very few good books of this sort have been written in recent times in India, whether in English or the vernaculars, so far as I know.

[The Englishman’s Cameo, by Madhulika Liddle, Hachette India 2009, pp. 281, Rs. 295, ISBN 978-81-906173-3-8. Available via flipkart.com]

Friday, June 08, 2012

Make up your own mind!

I have believed since I was very young that the most important sign of maturity is both wanting to and being able to make up one’s own mind on more or less everything under the sun that concerns one’s own life. As an elderly friend I respect said, ‘I will not of course always make wise decisions, but the point is I will make them myself and then enjoy or suffer the consequences; what else marks me out as a man rather than just another member of a faceless herd?’ Yet all my life I have watched people either completely unable to make up their own minds, or terrified to. So they go around consulting all and sundry, usually working upon the premise that if most people I know agree upon a certain course of action it must be the right (or at least safe) thing to do. Here is a random sample of questions people of all ages agonize over, though the ‘importance’or urgency of the questions varies with age:

Should I/my son study science or arts or commerce? Should I attend this or that coaching class? Should I bother much about examination scores? Should I go to this or that party? Should I keep long hair/wear short skirts? Should I have a girl friend/boyfriend? Should I tell my parents about it? Should I have an extra-marital affair? Should I tell my wife/husband about it? Should I shop at this or that mall/become a member of this or that club? Should I gossip with my friends about the latest scandal I heard? Should I watch an ‘adult’ movie? Should I take up this or that job? Should I smoke or drink, and should it be done on the sly? Should I tell my doctor about my problem?… I could stretch that list ad infinitum.

Both youngsters and adults come to me for advice, as they have been doing since I was myself very young. There are a few things I have noticed about almost all of them: either they merely want me to confirm them in their prejudices (‘See, Sir also says you must go for engineering/not have an affair at this age, just as I told you!’) or they are terribly guilty or afraid to take a decision which they feel inwardly compelled to, and are only seeking some sort of solace or reassurance from me that nothing awful is going to happen if they go ahead with what they want to do (they sometimes want to do quite pedestrian things, like kissing a girl/boy, and sometimes utterly weird ones, like ‘I’m studying physics and want to switch afterwards to an MBA to have a safe career, but basically I want to make a name as a writer, is that okay?’). For long I have enjoyed helping them, but these days, after handling too much of the same thing over and over again (and seeing confused teenagers grow into confused adults despite everything I said and did for them), I get very tired sometimes. It is neither possible nor pleasant to keep telling people they are doing all right even when I know they are being common at best and foolish at worst; it is also wearying to have to tell craven people that sooner or later they must make up their minds and choose between options because they can’t have everything unless they want to regret missed opportunities all their lives, and if they can’t do that no outsider can do it for them anyway, so what the heck? – I actually say this aloud very often, and then they go away not only confused and hesitant as before, but resentful of me that I did not resolve their dilemma with a painless wave of some magic wand. How childish most people are all their lives! All that swells with age, it seems to me, is the paunch and the ego.

Mind you, just because I advocate independent decision making, I am neither an anarchist nor a blind rebel without a cause: indeed, I fear the one and despise the other. As my readers will know, I set great store by order and discipline and old-fashioned good manners in social life, regretting much that is wrong in this country solely because our rulers (including heads of families) do not sufficiently appreciate their value to civilized living, nor have the courage of conviction to impose them without fear or favour. In personal life and habit, as those who know me closely will vouch, I live in a very staid and conservative style: I dress simply, paying no attention to fashion fads, I cut my hair short, I do not use trendy abuse in my speech, I do not zoom around on a macho bike, I do not stay out late, I am content to be much closer to  a stick-in-the-mud family man than a wild bohemian, I happily put up with my wife’s occasional puja at home provided it is not too long, loud or expensive, and I neither walk in noisy political processions nor subscribe to the idea that throwing a few bombs can solve any problem. And yet, ever since I was a teenager, I have insisted on taking my own decisions – seeking the advice of only those I personally respected (not necessarily parents), and never considering myself bound to follow anything that conflicted with my own reason, conscience or gut feeling. That has applied to things major and minor alike: nobody ever told me to smoke a cigarette or forced me to go to a movie, I dropped engineering and medicine because I wasn’t interested, I had affairs when I chose, got married when I wanted to, quit jobs that I didn’t like, read books because I wished to read them, went travelling when and where I desired, avoided partying like the plague, and reared a child the way I thought best. And look, at this age I have very few things to regret having done!

So why on earth do people bother much more about physics and chemistry and marks and looks and pay and what mummy and daddy will say and what their wives will do and what latest gizmos are on sale instead of this most important of all questions: ‘When will I learn to make up my mind?’ Give me an IIT topper who has never had an original thought and an 18-year old who knows his own mind, and I know which one I won’t waste a second giving attention to.

The paradox is that the more the ad men extol and celebrate ‘freedom’, the more restrictive our real lives seem to become, the less independent our minds (and we seem to be growing so used to it that most of us cannot even see that anything is amiss!) ‘Children’ of 18-20 still have all sorts of decisions taken for them by parents, including when, where and with whom they should go out or chat on the Net; older people do unquestioningly what the boss/TV/wife tell them to do, modern ‘adults’ go chhee-chhee over things that would have been par for the course several generations ago: Romeo would have been arrested for pedophilia today, Shakespeare hauled up before the Race Relations Board for writing something as ‘prejudiced’ as The Merchant of Venice, and the Wright brothers punished instead of merely ridiculed by their father for ‘wasting their time’ trying to build a flying machine. Most people cannot imagine that they need not watch cricket when everybody else is doing it, or go pandal-hopping at puja time if they live in Bengal.There are millions who work in offices where they are constantly monitored by CCTV cameras in the name of security, the way only prisoners used to be not so long ago, something that Charlie Chaplin mocked so tellingly in Modern Times. And most don’t even seem to mind: rather, they are probably happy that the burden of taking decisions and being their own men has been lifted from their shoulders for ever, lifelong. But it makes me feel as though I am living in a cage, gilded though it might be, and the walls are closing in…which reader dares to tell me, after reading this post closely, that s/he still believes that the world is ‘progressing’?

Sunday, June 03, 2012

One human heart

I should like the more serious-minded among my readers to go slowly and carefully through this essay. It would help them understand more clearly an important part (though, admittedly, only a part-) of the goals, ideals and principles I have tried to live by ever since I started to think (and that was a long time ago!)

No one has the full truth, of course, least of all professional philosophers. The contrary position, generally called utilitarianism, has led to much good in this world – from the abolition of slavery and legally sanctioned torture to the spread of democracy and literacy to all the wonders of technology harnessed to capitalism. I am no Luddite; I should be loth to subscribe to a naïve ‘revolutionary’ (actually very ancient-) back to Nature/ back to basics zeitgeist. As I often remind people, think of having your teeth pulled out without anesthesia whenever you are feeling too romantic, too peeved with the contemporary world and its ways. And yet, as the poet says, ‘God fulfills Himself in many ways/lest one good custom should corrupt the world’. Much that is wrong or bad about the world today might have been the consequence of utilitarianism pushed to absurd excess in every sphere of life. One begins to suspect as much when one finds that thinkers as disparate as Aristotle and Karl Marx and a Pope have had deep misgivings on the subject.

It all boils down to the question of ‘What is Man?’ or ‘What do we mean by human worth?’ Do read the essay, and get back to me. This is a question on which I should love to hear comments from young and old, male and female, highly educated and barely literate alike.