Tuesday, January 23, 2007


The sand is white, dirty white, as far as I can see, where it merges with the clouds in the offing giving the impression that I am walking on a flat world, a world of absolute homogeneity where the dirt dissolves into cleanliness and the vastness of the landscape imposing, while I walk, and walk and keep walking.

-- Originally written of September 21, 2005 for LJ.

Hanumantha Days

My grandfather passed away on the night of the 11th of August. He was survived by two sons, two daughters and eight grandchildren. He was 75.

He was born into a financially healthy, traditional, south Indian, brahmin family in a village near Arani. His childhood was marked by extraordinary insistence on Hindu rituals and shastras that he lacked any understanding of the society and the way it worked. In his teens, when his father left the family for good with a seer, he was abysmal in managing the abundant arable land and scores of cows. In a few years most of his wealth was gone, thanks to the shrewd villagers, and he started wondering what he was destined to do with his life. It is that thought which led him towards astrology, palmistry, numerology, and other occult sciences. Later he strengthened his knowledge on the Vedas, Upanishads and other sacred Hindu texts. He earned his living by actively practicing horoscope analysis and purohitam. True to his name, he was a very active persona - he had visitors even a week before his death and he had commitments for the coming weeks.

He made the whole village his home. When his wife passed away in 1980 and the rest of the family decided to move to Madras for reasons of progress, he insisted on staying in his home (but for the last two years of his life). He led an ascetic life since then, living alone in the village, in his village, where his popularity as an astrologer grew to greater heights that people even from top political circles came to get his opinion. Needless to say, he was the first one to be consulted in any good or bad event in all the surrounding villages. Later he groomed a few purohits and delegated his responsibilities citing his schedule. When we all requested him to come join us in Madras and explained him the amount of money involved, he simply refused to budge. Talking of money, since he grew up in a village and most of his customers are villagers, he never demanded money for his services. He would humbly accept whatever was given to him.

Because of his hard-core values, in his initial days, he didn't allow the cleaning lady into the kitchen or the helpers into the house. But with time, his values eroded/upgraded and the cleaning lady had a free hand when it came to the pooja room and the kitchen, and his helpers sat next to him and ate the food he cooked. When we informed about his death to the village head, the news quickly spread, and about 25 of them took a bus at 1:00 a.m and after a few transits, made it to our home by 5:00 a.m. When his children showed tremendous courage and checked their tears, these people were beyond themselves and did cry hard.

I was his first and favourite grandchild. In the bigger tree of our family, everyone knew that he had a soft corner for me. I've had numerous discussions, dialogues and arguments with him over our rituals, cultural heritage and the advent of modern values and we never came to a conclusion. In the last two years, when we finally managed to pull him out of his home, I simply refrained from opposing his ideas. Whatever he said I'd agree on his face, even if I were dead against the thought. There were times when he would wait for my return to home to accompany him to the local health clinic for regular check-ups, refusing help from other family members.

He was an excellent cook. His rasam is worth a patent. He would simply walk to the backyard, pluck a few leaves and add it to the boiling ingredients and that would give a supreme flavour to his rasam. He was an excellent story-teller too!! He had the knack of elaborating one line jokes into stories with an excellent narrative. (His horoscope interpretation techniques were so thorough that I would sometimes joke that he told a good story to his visitor). He had a marvelous command over Tamil literature. He went to school only for a few years, but he read most of the literature out of interest and whenever someone gave a wrong interpretation for a line in Thiruvasagam or Silappadhigaram on the TV, he'd laugh and tell us the right meaning. But his most striking aspect was his simplicity. Not just his outlook, but his requirements and his home and his ideas and the way he carried himself around. Simplicity has never added so much to one's charisma.

-- Originally written on the 13 August, 2005 for LJ, in memory of my grandfather.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Engleesh Eatouts

Now, this one's embarassing:

The last few years have seen a lot of coffee shops, food chains and speciality restaurants cropping up that cater to the upper-middle class which finds itself with a lot of money than ever before. These places are typical hangouts - well maintained, clean, have some low-volume music in the background, the bearers are courteous, parking hassles are minimal, etc. But more than anything, your privacy is ensured - unlike Saravana Bhavan where somebody can sit next to you or your girl friend, these new eat-outs respect the need for private conversations with our family and friends.

Good. So far. In an effort to make the educated, ready-to-spend circle respected and feel welcome, they speak English. I guess they assume that it would be an insult to converse in Tamil (or the regional language) with the clientele. Bad. Their English is not only 'not good' but very artificial. It's okay if they speak English to a customer who is not familiar with Tamil, but when I respond to a couple of questions in Tamil and when they insist on carrying on in English, that leaves a bad taste - an artifical flavour of the language that does a bad imitation of American accent. Instead of 'would you like' we get ' you wanna'. Utter 'cool' which sounds totally uncool. Explain a dish/drink in rapid strides that demands you to ask for a slower, clearer explanation.

It's very clear that these people are trying to create a conducive atmosphere for couples on a date or replicate a scene that is seen in English movies. These acquired mannerisms are what they are - 'acquired'. Sometimes I feel that I don't belong there. I feel welcome where the hotel management does what naturally comes to them. Waiters using vernacular with a smile on their face speaking understandable words is million-fold better than 'youwannamochaoralatte'.

-- Originally posted on CP on 20th September, 2006.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Salman & Samarra

The recent bombing of a thousand year old Shia mosque in Samarra, Iraq brought the country to the brink of a civil war. More than hundred Sunni's were killed and the so-called round table talk between leaders of the sects were stalled, with each sect demanding apology from the other. As a result, hundreds of Sunni mosques were damaged. To put a temporary full stop to the crisis, leaders of Shia and Sunni non-moderate organizations have called for peaceful dialogues and have come up with new slogans against George Bush.

The recent cartoon crisis generated a tsunami of a reaction from the Islamic world and has already distanced itself from the common public in the Western world who agree that the cartoons were blasphemous and also strongly condemned the extremist reaction from the Muslims. The Scandinavian belt has remained together during the cartoon crisis inspite of their nationals and products disregarded vehemently in many Islamic countries.

That brings Salman Rushdie into the picture. Rushdie is a radical muslim, but not in the sense of the word that is commonly implied. His 'Satanic Verses' earned him a fatwa (death sentence) and international fame. The Nobel prize winners are very much decided by the Scandinavian scholars but heavily influenced by the Westerners. When I zoom out and look at the proceedings, I think Rushdie stands a very good chance of getting his prize in the next three years. But there will be controversies surrounding the choice because of his anti-Islam thoughts and people will forget that he's a genuine writer who desereved the prize. Remember, you heard it here first.

-- Originally written on 28th February, 2006 for CP.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Cartoons, Secularism & Islamophobia

Now, this is something I'm proud of. Written less than a year ago, this post holds on:

In September of 2005, the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons making fun of Prophet Mohammed and Islam in general. They are available here. I find it hard to dismiss the publication of these cartoons as freedom of expression and I think the editors knew that the cartoons are very well capable of offending the sensibilities of Muslims. Later, when Muslim organizations in Denmark demanded an apology from the Ministry of Culture, their request was turned down. Danish Imams took the task of spreading the word across the globe and the cartoon row is now a high-decibel news item.

I personally feel that the cartoons are blasphemous and provocative. I have regards for Islam and thier culture. My dad has served in Iraq and he has told me numerous stories of their top class hospitality. When I was a student in the US a few years back, I had a friend from Pakistan who was as cordial as anybody can be. I have spoken to US soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan who have good words about the tradition and values in an Islamic world.

I will quote three prominent personalities in the wake of the cartoon issue:

a) Mahmoud Zahar, Leader, Hamas: "We should have killed all those who offend the Prophet, and here we are demonstrating peaceably."
Other than the Danish flag being burnt along with the American and Israeli flags, numerous churches in many Islamic nations were burnt down. Christians have become target in Nigeria, Indonesia and a few other countries. Anything belonging to the western world is an object to be torched down in NW Pakistan, Syria and Lebanon. At least 30 people have died so far in relation with the cartoon crisis. If this is what Zahar addresses as 'peaceably', I don't know what he would mean by violence.

b) Yaqoob Qureishi, Welfare Minister, UP: "Rs 51-crore reward for Danish cartoonist’s head."
It is one thing for radical fundamentalists calling for the beheading of an anti-Islam in a country like, say Afghanistan or Iran. But, in a pluralistic society like India, a minister elected through democratic means putting a price tag on a cartoonist's head is an unequivocal incitement to murder. And there have been no stern warnings from either the state's chief minister or from anyone in the centre.

c) Farid Mortazavi, Editor of an Iranian newspaper: "The Western papers printed these sacrilegious cartoons on the pretext of freedom of expression, so let's see if they mean what they say and also print these Holocaust cartoons."
Some of the Egyptian and Gulf newspapers have this hobby: satirize holocaust, christianity and western civilization. This happens regularly and nobody raises a finger about it. (There was a cartoon which showed Hitler in bed with Anne Frank in retaliation). Mortazavi calling for a dozen cartoons making fun of the holocaust is a tit-for-tat act, to say the least and it is exhibits the shameless immaturity of an editor who is responsible for educating his country's citizens through information.

These are just three isolated incidents in the sea of outrageusly exagerrated reactions by Muslim extremists all over the world. Does anybody remember M.F.Hussain's nude portrait of the Hindu godess Saraswati? How many were killed in response to that painting? Zero. Remember Piss Christ, Serrano's crucifix immersed in urine? How violently did the devout Christians react? It probably didn't make it to the Indian media, huh.

I don't mean to say that religious fanatics are the sole property of Islam. There are the RSS and Bajrang Dal for Hinduism. Probably there are low profile agitation groups operating clandestinely for protecting the sanctity of Zionism and Christiantiy. But they are such a minority that they don't dictate terms to the government. But in an Islamic world, it's different: the iron-hand police force of Syria was not able to stop the burning of it's Danish embassy. The hardened military man Musharraf of Pakistan cannot control his country's college students who literally brought all foreign (read Western) businesses to standstill. The Indonesian president is walking a tightrope.

In a manner of speaking, these protesters have justified the cartoons which portrayed prophet Mohamed as a bomb about to go off. The best response would have been a peaceful, non-violent march. If that ever happened anywhere, it's all lost in the extensive fodder thrown to the media by the frenzied mob. If at all they perceive the cartoons as an offense to Islam, I think the sectaraian violence between Sunnis and Shias is a great insult to their Prophet. Why aren't there any demonstrations in Indonesia when Sunnis bomb Shias or viceversa in Iraq or Pakistan?

A peaceful protest is the best means of registering their anger and telling the world that you're willing for a meaningful dialogue for an amicable resolution of the problem. This sort of reaction exhibited so far is a clear signal that they're not ready to take offense and imply that Islam is not a tolerant religion. I believe that only around 10% of the Islamic population are on the streets causing mayhem listening to their senseless radical/extremist leaders like Zahar. And by getting on the streets and burning a McDonald's they're not only alienating themselves from the Western civilization, but more importantly they denigrate the remaining 90% of moderate Muslims who would have magnanimously forgiven the cartoonists and conveyed that the whole episode was in bad taste.

Doyle wrote: "Religion is a vital living thing, still growing and working, capable of endless extension and development, like all other fields of thought." Religion is not a prescription for the mankind through the Gita or the Koran or the Bible. Religion is an ever-evolving guideline for a peaceful life in our short stay. To constrain that guideline to a text written centuries before and insisting on mindlessly obeying it verbatim is not common sense in my opinion. As times change, the universal truths presented in those timeless scriptures take a modified interpretation. And I know very well that a modified interpretation of a scripture in Koran says "treat people belonging to other religions as your brothers and sisters."

-- Originally written on February 21, 2006 for CP.

Cartoon Crap

Hugh's gapingvoid, was, until a few days back a fun site with good marketing/blogging ideas sprinkled with some wonderful dry satire cartoons. Recently, he's been on a cartoon spree, and most of them are dry without his trademark satire, don't have that roughness or rudeness or arrogance or irreverence that he's known for. The spate of cartoons are tamed versions of inane ideas. I don't know what struck him or who he's dating...

--Originally written on March 01, 2006 on CP. Hugh posted the message in his site here. I followed it up with this comment:

What struck me was that so many people sympathizing with Hugh and asking him to not take my comments personally. My understanding of the man is that he was born with a thick skin. It's one thing to be infatuated with his cartoons, but I don't understand these people who can appreciate his 'throw that stupid out of the world' cartoon and at the same time sympathize for him when I haven't even said anything offensive.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Do You Listen?

I believe that when somebody speaks to us, 95% of the time we don't listen. Listening is a supreme art. We usually have a stack of images in our brains. An image about our society, American society, an image about our wives, our husbands, kids, friends, gods, nature. When somebody speaks to us, the image corresponding to the speaker pops in front of us. That image is nothing but the result of a collection of our experiences with that person with our unique characteristic features in receiving/accepting/rejecting/adapting to those experiences. Our mind processes the words of the speaker through that filter of image and we actually listen to an interpreted version of the spoken words.

I believe, that in rare circumstances, say, when we are in a meditative state (when you're 100% devoted to your task, that is meditation!!) or in a trance (I forget myself when I am seeing a very good movie, listening to very good music) or at absolute peace with ourselves, all those images are numbed and we can listen without any hindrance to what is being said. I believe we all rarely listen. But I can't prove it.

--Originally posted on CP on 10th April, 2006