Thirukkural’s Kaamathupaal: The Book of Love

July 24, 2018

After another long break, I have resumed Thirukkural translation on my Thirukkural website. The first few chapters of Kaamathupaal are published in the bilingual Tamizhini e-magazine.

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Orwell’s Raffles and Miss Blandish

September 3, 2018

A lot of what this author predicted in his works has happened. This one?

“Cricket is not in reality a very popular game in England — it is nowhere so popular as football, for instance — but it gives expression to a well-marked trait in the English character, the tendency to value ‘form’ or ‘style’ more highly than success. In the eyes of any true cricket-lover it is possible for an innings of ten runs to be ‘better’ (i. e. more elegant) than an innings of a hundred runs: cricket is also one of the very few games in which the amateur can excel the professional. It is a game full of forlorn hopes and sudden dramatic changes of fortune, and its rules are so defined that their interpretation is partly an ethical business. When Larwood, for instance, practised bodyline bowling in Australia he was not actually breaking any rule : he was merely doing something that was ‘not cricket’. Since cricket takes up a lot of time and is rather an expensive game to play, it is predominantly an upper-class game, but for the whole nation it is bound up with such concepts as ‘good form’, ‘playing the game’, etc., and it has declined in popularity just as the tradition of ‘don’t hit a man when he’s down’ has declined. It is not a twentieth-century game, and nearly all modern-minded people dislike it. The Nazis, for instance, were at pains to discourage cricket, which had gained a certain footing in Germany before and after the last war. In making Raffles a cricketer as well as a burglar, Hornung was not merely providing him with a plausible disguise; he was also drawing the sharpest moral contrast that he was able to imagine.”

This is from an essay ‘Raffles and Miss Blandish‘ by George Orwell, where he took up for criticism, a work by James Hadley Chase.

It is interesting to see how a serious writer like Orwell had chosen to engage with a popular commercial work. The result is an intense analysis of the impact of such work on the masses.

I wonder if anyone in India has done such a study based on the impact of a megaserial like Nandini, or Big Boss.

Though, Orwell never gets dismissive about the craft of Chase, he draws a clear distinction between ‘a serious novel’, where ‘no one would think of looking for heroes and villains’, and ‘low-brow fiction’ for the common people. “The common people, on the whole, are still living in the world of absolute good and evil from which the intellectuals have long since escaped.”

He is ruthless in pinpointing the potential dire consequences of the then new trend of hailing the strong, irrespective of the underlying morality. He goes on to explore the ‘interconnexion between sadism, masochism, success-worship, power-worship, nationalism, and totalitarianism.’

He doesn’t spare the hypocrisy of the ‘English intellectuals’ too.

“Fascism is often loosely equated with sadism, but nearly always by people who see nothing wrong in the most slavish worship of Stalin. The truth is, of course, that the countless English intellectuals who kiss the arse of Stalin are not different from the minority who give their allegiance to Hitler or Mussolini, nor from the efficiency experts who preached ‘punch’, ‘drive’, ‘personality’ and ‘learn to be a Tiger man’ in the nineteen-twenties, nor from that older generation of intellectuals, Carlyle, Creasey and the rest of them, who bowed down before German militarism. All of them are worshipping power and successful cruelty.”

———

“Several other points need noticing before one can grasp the full implications of this book. To begin with, its central story bears a very marked resemblance to William Faulkner’s novel, Sanctuary. Secondly, it is not, as one might expect, the product of an illiterate hack, but a brilliant piece of writing, with hardly a wasted word or a jarring note anywhere. Thirdly, the whole book, récit as well as dialogue, is written in the American language; the author, an Englishman who has (I believe) never been in the United States, seems to have made a complete mental transference to the American underworld. Fourthly, the book sold, according to its publishers, no less than half a million copies.”

—-

“Even when physical incidents of this kind are not occurring, the mental atmosphere of these books is always the same. Their whole theme is the struggle for power and the triumph of the strong over the weak. The big gangsters wipe out the little ones as mercilessly as a pike gobbling up the little fish in a pond; the police kill off the criminals as cruelly as the angler kills the pike. If ultimately one sides with the police against the gangsters, it is merely because they are better organized and more powerful, because, in fact, the law is a bigger racket than crime. Might is right: vae victis.”

“In America, both in life and fiction, the tendency to tolerate crime, even to admire the criminal so long as he is success, is very much more marked. It is, indeed, ultimately this attitude that has made it possible for crime to flourish upon so huge a scale. Books have been written about Al Capone that are hardly different in tone from the books written about Henry Ford, Stalin, Lord Northcliffe and all the rest of the ‘log cabin to White House’ brigade. And switching back eighty years, one finds Mark Twain adopting much the same attitude towards the disgusting bandit Slade, hero of twenty-eight murders, and towards the Western desperadoes generally. They were successful, they ‘made good’, therefore he admired them.”

“Several people, after reading No Orchids, have remarked to me, ‘It’s pure Fascism’. This is a correct description, although the book has not the smallest connexion with politics and very little with social or economic problems. It has merely the same relation to Fascism as, say Trollope’s novels have to nineteenth-century capitalism. It is a daydream appropriate to a totalitarian age. In his imagined world of gangsters Chase is presenting, as it were, a distilled version of the modern political scene, in which such things as mass bombing of civilians, the use of hostages, torture to obtain confessions, secret prisons, execution without trial, floggings with rubber truncheons, drownings in cesspools, systematic falsification of records and statistics, treachery, bribery, and quislingism are normal and morally neutral, even admirable when they are done in a large and bold way. The average man is not directly interested in politics, and when he reads, he wants the current struggles of the world to be translated into a simple story about individuals. He can take an interest in Slim and Fenner as he could not in the G.P.U. and the Gestapo. People worship power in the form in which they are able to understand it. A twelve-year-old boy worships Jack Dempsey. An adolescent in a Glasgow slum worships Al Capone. An aspiring pupil at a business college worships Lord Nuffield. A New Statesman reader worships Stalin. There is a difference in intellectual maturity, but none in moral outlook.”


Gandhi and Chesterton

September 3, 2018

The influence of Thoreau, Ruskin and Tolstoy on Gandhi is well documented. G.K.Chesterton’s is probably not as well known. Though, his influence was perhaps not as much or as lasting, it seems to have come at a timely juncture – just before Gandhi wrote Hind Swaraj…around the same time, he came across Tolstoy’s A letter to a Hindoo. Gandhi had translated and published in Indian Opinion, a column by Chesterton, which he had read during his London visit in 1909. While Hind Swaraj can be seen as a direct outcome of Gandhi’s conversations with his close friend Pranjivan Mehta, and his meeting with the young Indian radicals like Savarkar and VVS Aiyer at India House in London, one can also see echoes of Chesterton’s column in Hind Swaraj.

He wrote as a short introduction to Chesterton’s essay, “Mr. G. K. Chesterton is one of the great writers here. He is an Englishman of a liberal temper. Such is the perfection of his style that his writings are read by millions with great avidity. To The Illustrated London News of September 18 he has contributed an article on Indian awakening, which is worth studying. I too believe that what he has said is reasonable. I give below the substance of that part of it which is of special interest”

And he ended it with the observation:
“Indians must reflect over these views of Mr. Chesterton and consider what they should rightly demand. What is the way to make the Indian people happy? May it not be that we seek to advance our own interests in the name of the Indian people? Or, that we have been endeavouring to destroy what the Indian people have carefully nurtured through thousands of years? I, for one, was led by Mr. Chesterton’s article to all these reflections and I place them before readers of Indian Opinion.”

From Chesterton’s article:

/
It is this lack of atmosphere that always embarrasses me when my friends come and tell me about the movement of Indian Nationalism. I do not doubt for a moment that the young idealists who ask for Indian independence are very fine fellows; most young idealists are fine fellows. I do not doubt for an instant that many of our Imperial officials are stupid and oppressive; most Imperial officials are stupid and oppressive. But when I am confronted with the actual papers and statements of the Indian Nationalists I feel much more dubious, and, to tell the truth, a little bored. The principal weakness of Indian Nationalism seems to be that it is not very Indian and not very national. It is all about Herbert Spencer and Heaven knows what. What is the good of the Indian national spirit if it cannot protect its people from Herbert Spencer? I am not fond of the philosophy of Buddhism; but it is not so shallow as Spencer’s philosophy; it has real ideas of its own. One of the papers, I understand, is called the Indian Sociologist. What are the young men of India doing that they allow such an animal as a sociologist to pollute their ancient villages and poison their kindly homes?

When all is said, there is a rational distinction between a people asking for its own ancient life and a people asking for things that have been wholly invented by somebody else. There is a difference between a conquered people demanding its own institutions and the same people demanding the institutions of the conqueror. Suppose an Indian said: “I heartily wish India had always been free from white men and all their works. Every system has its sins: and we prefer our own. There would have been dynastic wars; but I prefer dying in battle to dying in hospital. There would have been despotism; but I prefer one king whom I hardly ever see to a hundred kings regulating my diet and my children. There would have been pestilence; but I would sooner die of the plague than die of toil and vexation in order to avoid the plague. There would have been religious differences dangerous to public peace; but I think religion more important than peace. Life is very short; a man must live somehow and die somewhere; the amount of bodily comfort a peasant gets under your best Republic is not so much more than mine. If you do not like our sort of spiritual comfort, we never asked you to. Go, and leave us with it.” Suppose an Indian said that, I should call him an Indian Nationalist, or, at least, an authentic Indian, and I think it would be very hard to answer him. But the Indian Nationalists whose works I have read simply say with ever-increasing excitability, “Give me a ballot-box. Provide me with a Ministerial dispatch-box. Hand me over the Lord Chancellor’s wig. I have a natural right to be Prime Minister. I have a heaven-born claim to introduce a Budget. My soul is starved if I am excluded from the Editorship of the Daily Mail,” or words to that effect.

Now this, I think, is not so difficult to answer. The most sympathetic person is tempted to cry plaintively, “But, hang it all, my excellent Oriental (may your shadow never grow less), we invented all these things. If they are so very good as you make out, you owe it to us that you have ever heard of them. If they are indeed natural rights, you would never even have thought of your natural rights but for us. If voting is so very absolute and divine (which I am inclined rather to doubt myself), then certainly we have some of the authority that belongs to the founders of a true religion, the bringers of salvation.” When the Hindu takes this very haughty tone and demands a vote on the spot as a sacred necessity of man, I can only express my feelings by supposing the situation reversed. It seems to me very much as if I were to go into Tibet and find the Grand Lama or some great spiritual authority, and were to demand to be treated as a Mahatma or something of that kind. The Grand Lama would very reasonably reply: “Our religion is either true or false; it is either worth having or not worth having. If you know better than we do, you do not want our religion. But if you do want our religion, please remember that it is our religion; we discovered it, we studied it, and we know whether a man is a Mahatma or not. If you want one of our peculiar privileges, you must accept our peculiar discipline and pass our peculiar standards, to get it.”

Perhaps you think I am opposing Indian Nationalism. That is just where you make a mistake; I am letting my mind play round the subject. This is especially desirable when we are dealing with the deep conflict between two complete civilisations. Nor do I deny the existence of natural rights. The right of a people to express itself, to be itself in arts and action, seems to me a genuine right. If there is such a thing as India, it has a right to be Indian. But Herbert Spencer is not Indian; “Sociology” is not Indian; all this pedantic clatter about culture and science is not Indian. I often wish it were not English either. But this is our first abstract difficulty, that we cannot feel certain that the Indian Nationalist is national.


Gandhi, Hitler and Churchill

September 3, 2018

Regarding views of Orwell and others on Gandhi, British and Hitler: Hitler himself did say something on the lines of knocking off Gandhi with a single bullet. We can only speculate on whether he would have done that, or whether Gandhi could have come up with a higher moral weapon to counter him. But we give far too much credit to the British and too little to Gandhi on Satyagraha. The assumption is that British were chivalrous gentlemen and non-violence can only succeed against a merciful government.

The British had as much blood on their hands as anybody else. Their internal democracy, strong strand of liberal thinking, gentlemanly manners and chivalrous facade made them seem more sophisticated against the crude cruelty of Hitler. If one has to choose between Hitler and the British, the choice has to be Britain. That, however, doesn’t make the British paragons of mercy.

Gandhi fought a lonely battle in South Africa against both the British and the Boers. Smuts was a Boer and not a Brit. He had an internal strife there with the Pathans too. Even in India, he took his time to build a base before he plunged into a direct confrontation with the British. He made errors, corrected and kept trying different means. He employed satyagraha against the mobs in Rajkot, Kolkatta and Noakhali. He did survive for quite long. He could have been eliminated earlier too but that would still not have made his methods any less relevant. There is no reason to believe why someone like Gandhi from the German/Jewish society could not have found a non-violent way to fight Hitler. Hitler also needed the backing of his people. Gandhi’s methods were not about banking on the mercy of the oppressor but in awakening the conscience of the people. He repeatedly insisted that non-violence is not the weapon of the weak. Like every other method, there would be success and failure. The results would, in any case, not have been worse than what the largely passive submission of the Jews to the Nazi terror, and then a brutal world war accomplished. And what if Hitler had not provoked other countries, or what if Hitler’s target were Africans or Arabs and not Jews…? A world war has not erupted over every genocide. While external pressure helps, only a method of struggle that is strong internally is replicable and has more probability of success, whether it is against Churchill or Hitler.

—–

I had started off this short note two days ago, and as usual, was brooding over it before posting it. Then I saw two blog posts of Jeyamohan ( 1, 2) on this topic. I am mostly in agreement with him on this.

While on it, I’m reminded of these lines from GB Shaw’s The Man of Destiny (as spoken by Napoleon in the play)…a favorite quote during my school days.

“No Englishman is too low to have scruples: no Englishman is high enough to be free from their tyranny. But every Englishman is born with a certain miraculous power that makes him master of the world. When he wants a thing, he never tells himself that he wants it. He waits patiently until there comes into his mind, no one knows how, a burning conviction that it is his moral and religious duty to conquer those who have got the thing he wants. Then he becomes irresistible. Like the aristocrat, he does what pleases him and grabs what he wants: like the shopkeeper, he pursues his purpose with the industry and steadfastness that come from strong religious conviction and deep sense of moral responsibility. He is never at a loss for an effective moral attitude. As the great champion of freedom and national independence, he conquers and annexes half the world, and calls it Colonization. When he wants a new market for his adulterated Manchester goods, he sends a missionary to teach the natives the gospel of peace. The natives kill the missionary: he flies to arms in defence of Christianity; fights for it; conquers for it; and takes the market as a reward from heaven. In defence of his island shores, he puts a chaplain on board his ship; nails a flag with a cross on it to his top-gallant mast; and sails to the ends of the earth, sinking, burning and destroying all who dispute the empire of the seas with him. He boasts that a slave is free the moment his foot touches British soil; and he sells the children of his poor at six years of age to work under the lash in his factories for sixteen hours a day. He makes two revolutions, and then declares war on our one in the name of law and order. There is nothing so bad or so good that you will not find Englishmen doing it; but you will never find an Englishman in the wrong. He does everything on principle. He fights you on patriotic principles; he robs you on business principles; he enslaves you on imperial principles; he bullies you on manly principles; he supports his king on loyal principles, and cuts off his king’s head on republican principles. His watchword is always duty; and he never forgets that the nation which lets its duty get on the opposite side to its interest is lost”


The Thorny Fence

August 26, 2018

(This essay first appeared in Tamizhini e-magazine)

I

Thoothukudi. A polluting factory. Years of sporadic protest, culminating in a sustained 100-day mass protest, leading up to police firing on the last day. 15 people reported dead. Probably more. With the factory closed, for now, and with all the dead cremated and long gone, we may forget who the protestors were; forget whether they were social or anti-social, national or anti-national; forget what the protests were about; forget the right and wrong of it.  But I cannot yet forget the visuals capturing the sharpshooters in action on a van top. I wonder, did their minds waver? Did their nerves twitch? Did their hearts palpitate? Did their fingers tremble? Did a single thought cross their minds that their targets were people, full of life, not even foes they’ve been trained to hate, but their own people, fathers, mothers and daughters? Did any of them question the order to shoot?

Read the rest of this entry »


Water wars of Arizona: The New York Times

July 24, 2018

#ImportantLongRead

This IS one of the most pressing issues facing us. While we keep watching and measuring what comes from above our heads, we care so little about what happens beneath our feet.

I recently saw a table that gave the proportion of various sources of freshwater. Hardly 0.4% of our freshwater is available in rivers, lakes and such. About 69.6% of freshwater is locked in polar glaciers and mountain peaks. 30% is available as groundwater. Much of this is non-renewable. (This essay somewhat confirms these figures.) And yet, we neither have self-restraint nor regulations when it comes to using groundwater.

It is not easy to transport water. But food can be transported across continents. And food is water.

If this is the case in US, it is scarier in India, where drilling beyond 1000 feet is common practice now. Would we realise before it is too late that groundwater is not private property, that not all groundwater is renewable and that accessible groundwater is not inexhaustible?

But yeah, these doomsday-mongers be damned. Monsoon is pouring this year. Our children will desalinate. Seed clouds. Turn the planet inside out. Find another planet. Or whatever.


Excerpts from the essay on The New York Times:

/These enormous corporations were descending on the valley for the same reason homesteaders had a century ago: the year-round growing season and the lax regulation. Compared with those for rivers and lakes, few laws govern the extraction of groundwater today. Aquifers across the globe are beginning to quietly dry up under the compounded strain of increased food production and a two-decade stretch that now includes the 10 warmest years in recorded history, sending farmers plumbing deeper for deposits of water./

/Aquifers are unimaginably complex and incredibly fragile; once tapped, they can take more than 6,000 years to replenish./

/Once, it had been possible for ranchers to develop natural springs into watering holes using only a shovel. Now, after watching water levels drop 100 to 300 feet in 35 years, some farmers wondered how long they could go on./

/The mission’s primary purpose was to look at ice-sheet depletion, but over the next several years Dr. Jay Famiglietti, the senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and his team noticed that many of the most significant sites of water loss were actually below ground. Of the planet’s 37 major aquifer systems, they discovered, 21 were on the verge of collapse. In the Great Plains, farmers had exhausted a third of Ogallala’s potable water in just 30 years. In California, the Central Valley aquifer was showing signs that it could drop beyond human reach by the middle of this century. But the worst declines were in Asia and the Middle East, where some of the planet’s oldest aquifers were already running out of water. “While we are so busy worrying about the water that we can see,” Famiglietti told me, “the water that we can’t see, the groundwater, is quietly disappearing.”/

/Squeezed by drought and tightening regulations, large farms started to seek out lesser-known pockets of cheap water. In rural Arizona, where there are essentially no groundwater regulations governing irrigation, they found an ideal destination. “What the smart money is doing is looking around and saying, ‘Where else can we go where there is no regulation?’ ” Robert Glennon, a professor of water law and policy at the University of Arizona and the author of “Water Follies,” told NPR in an interview. “And that is Arizona.”/

/Arizona was particularly attractive to Middle Eastern farmers. A policy of unregulated pumping on the Arabian Peninsula had, in 40 years, drained aquifers that had taken 20,000 years to form, leaving thousands of acres fallow and forcing Saudi Arabia and others to outsource much of their agricultural production. In 2014, a Saudi Arabian-owned company, the Almarai Corporation, bought 10,000 acres in the town of Vicksburg, northwest of Sulphur Springs Valley, planting alfalfa to ship halfway around the world to feed Saudi cattle. Then, a United Arab Emirates farming corporation, Al Dahra, bought several thousand-acre farms along both sides of the Arizona-California border. These purchases were perfectly legal, but many residents felt these newcomers were essentially “exporting water.” At least once, the Sheriff’s Department in Vicksburg deployed five deputies to stand guard at a town-hall meeting./

/Hydrogeologists use the phrase “groundwater mining” to describe situations in which the rate of water withdrawal exceeds the rate of replenishment. For some, the metaphor offers a stark lesson. “If we know we’re mining the water, let’s just say it,” said Richard Searle/

/Local farmers were never required to put meters on their wells, he pointed out, which meant that nobody knew exactly how much water was being pumped, much less how much was left. “Long term, people say we should search for a solution,” he said, “but they don’t want to be the ones to suffer.”/


Yuva Purashkar Award for Dr.Suneel Krishnan

July 23, 2018

(From the Sarvodaya Talisman, July-August 2018 issue.)

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Writer Suneel Krishnan has been awarded the Yuva Purashkar Award (for Tamil) by Sahitya Academy, for his collection of short stories, Ambu Padukai (Bed of Arrows). Suneel is the founder of the ‘Gandhi Today’ website. There, he has compiled a large corpus of translated works of Gandhi in Tamil, various essays about Gandhi and the Gandhian leaders. He is an Ayurvedic Doctor from Karaikudi.

Suneel Krishnan has carved out two distinct identities for himself as a creative writer and a Gandhian. He looks at himself more as a Gandhian enthusiast than a Gandhian. Yet, many of his stories are inspired by his Gandhian concerns and conflicts. In two of his earliest stories, ‘Gandhi and I’ (Gandhiyum Naanum) and ‘Ascension’ (Arohanam), Gandhi appears as a character. In Ascension, Gandhi rejects an eternally happy heaven and chooses hell, where he could serve those were suffering. This evokes memories of a Gandhi who did not cease for a moment to savour the joy of independence, and was travelling across the riot-torn areas of Naokhali, Calcutta, Bihar and Delhi (and was planning to visit West Pakistan) striving bring peace.

Pesum Poonai (Talking Cat) and Ambu Padukai (Bed of Arrows) are his other prominent short stories. In these stories also, we could sense his Gandhian sensibilities. I see ‘Talking Cat’ as his take on the hold exerted on our everyday lives by modern science and economic changes. The story narrates using techniques of magic-realism, how consumerism and surveillance by Government and private companies pervade our lives, without our knowledge. These are concerns inherited by the Gandhian way of thinking. In ‘Bed of Arrows’, Suneel brings out the friction between native knowledge systems and modern scientific approaches. More than the criticism hurled by the society at the practitioners of traditional systems, it is an exploration of the self-doubts and convictions of the practitioners themselves. The protagonist’s love for humanity and compassion trump his urge to establish his medical credentials. Another short story, Nakra Rethas (Crocodile Semen), also takes as its theme, the clash between medical ethics and personal values.

Suneel Krishnan has been inspired and mentored by the Tamil writer, Jeyamohan. Suneel considers Asokamitran and Yuvan Chandrasekhar to be other major influences on his writing.

Literature is never a zero-sum game. However, awards push us to play that game. There could be more young writers who are as capable as or even better than Suneel. But Suneel’s contribution is on a much larger canvas than mere fiction. It cannot be ignored by anyone. Though, this award may have been given for a specific book, Suneel is one of the rare youngsters whose lifetime contribution cannot be ignored. The young Gandhian enthusiasts like Suneel Krishnan and Rattai Ragunathan, have revived the interest in Gandhi among a new generation of Tamil youth, who read a lot in Tamil, especially online. Suneel has contributed greatly to bringing about a reassessment of Gandhi, Gandhian thoughts, alternative thinking in economics, education and other fields. Leaping beyond the small confines of the world of serious literature, this is a significant contribution to the larger world of Tamil writing and Tamil intelligentsia.

He is now compiling and editing the major writings about Gandhi in Tamil literature.

Suneel’s essays on Ayurveda also call for a deeper and wider reading. He has been contributing significantly to online literary magazines like Padakai.

Many before Suneel have received Yuva Purashkar and Sahitya Academy Awards. Many of them have not continued to write with the same vigour. But Suneel has the potential and zeal to continue to contribute constructively for many years to come. This award assumes significance since it can help bring more attention to his work and writings on Gandhi. My best wishes to Suneel.