Notes from Sventlana Alexievich

November 29, 2016

Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-hand Time is such a deeply, deeply disturbing book. One of the best works of non-fiction I’ve read. History is allowed to emerge in our minds through multiple voices on the street, kitchens and trains. Will write more about it later. But this passage brought a wry smile on my face (one of our learning centre boys noticed it and asked, ‘what happened’- I wasn’t surprised to see that he could relate to it, with the very little context that I gave, especially after clarifying that there was another Stalin – not the one who filled his pockets during elections) – it summed up most of the feelings expressed about Stalin in the book:

“When I was five…I remember my mother and I were at a bus stop, as I now know, not far from the KGB offices, and I kept whining and crying: ‘Don’t cry,’ my mother implored me. ‘Or else the bad people who took Grandpa and lots of other people away will hear us.’ And she began telling me all about Grandpa. Mama needed someone to talk to…When Stalin died, at our nursery school, they sat us down to cry. I was the only one who didn’t.”

-Second Hand Time, Svetlana Alexievich

[Everybody in Russia seem to be prone to quoting Tolstoy or Solzhenitsyn or Gorky or Gogol. Whether they wanted communism or capitalism, they had wanted books. (Before they probably shifted their allegiance to blue jeans and salami).]

‘In reality, for me, I’m just a twit, freedom of speech would have been enough because, as it soon turned out, at heart, I’m a Soviet girl. Everything Soviet went deeper in us than we had ever imagined. All I really wanted was for them to let me read Dovlatov and Viktor Nekrasov and listen to Galich.’

‘Books…You can wear the same suit for twenty years, two coats are enough to last a lifetime, but you can’t live without Pushkin or the complete works of Gorky.’

‘poems always filled our home, like speech: Mayakovsky, Svetlov…my beloved Semyon Gudzenko’

‘In the tenth grade, I had an affair. he lived in Moscow. I went to see him, we only had three days. In the morning, at the station, we picked up a mimeographed copy of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs, which everyone was reading at that time. We had to return the book the next day at four in the morning. Hand it off to someone on a train passing through town. For twenty-four hours, we read without stopping – we only went out once, to get milk and a loaf of bread. We even forgot to kiss, we handed the pages to one another.’

– Second-hand Time



Reports on Chernobyl in the newspapers are thick with the language of war: ‘nuclear’, ‘explosion’, ‘heroes’. And this makes it harder to appreciate that we now find ourselves on a new page of history. The history of disasters has begun.


Instead of the usual words of comfort, a doctor tells a woman who husband is dying, ‘No going near him! No kissing! No cuddling! This is no longer the man you love, it’s a contaminated object.’ Here, even Shakespeare bows out, even Dante. The question is whether to go near or not. To kiss or not. One of the heroines of my book went near and kissed, and remained by her husband’s side until his death. She paid for it with her health and the life of their baby. But how can you choose between love and death? Between the past and an unfamiliar present? Who could presume to judge the wives and mothers who did not sit with their dying husbands and sons? Next to those radioactive objects.

What lingers most in my memory of Chernobyl is life afterwards: the possessions without owners, the landscapes without people. The roads going nowhere, the cables leading nowhere. You find yourself wondering just what this is: the past or the future.

It sometimes felt to me as if I was recording the future.

– Chernobyl Prayer : A Chronicle of the Future, Svetlana Alexievich




Non-violence was not a mere strategy

November 29, 2016

Shashi Tharoor may be right in debunking the rose tinted view of the Empire, but his understanding of Gandhi and non-violence seems suspect (in the interview in The Hindu, 12-Nov-2016). This view, held by many Congressmen even then, of non-violence as a mere strategy was heavily contested by Gandhi. He said that what happened in India was not real Satyagraha. He didn’t feel or claim success. He didn’t wave or hoist flags. Potential of success was not what determined his method. He employed non-violence in Noakhali and Calcutta and Delhi against angry mobs. He advocated non-violence to Jews. He wrote to Hitler. He was prepared to resist the Japanese aggression with non-violence. There is no reason to believe that he could not have done this against Hitler and Pol Pot. He definitely had as much (or more) of a chance of success as somebody with a gun: but the point is, it did not matter.

/You say that Mahatma Gandhi’s advocacy of non-violence would not have been possible under another colonial power.

Gandhiji was able to shame the British because they were claiming that they were a democracy and, at least for themselves, had a free press. Gandhiji used their own instruments against them; he could have possibly done this against the French, may be not against the British before 1857, but he couldn’t have done it against Hitler or Pol Pot. There was a significant amount of hypocrisy by the British in their advocacy of democratic values, and Gandhiji called them out on it. /

Notes from Dostoevsky

November 29, 2016

[I first started reading Notes from Underground, soon after quitting my corporate career almost 5 years ago. I felt too disturbed by the cruel probing into the depths of the heart, and put it down. I read it again now and thoroughly enjoyed it.]


‘I repeat, I repeat with emphasis: all ‘direct’ persons and men of action are active just because they are stupid and limited. How explain that? I will tell you: in consequence of their limitation they take immediate and secondary causes for primary ones, and in that way persuade themselves more quickly and easily than other people do that they have found an infallible foundation for their activity, and their minds are at ease and you know that is the chief thing. To begin to act, you know, you must first have your mind completely at ease and no trace of doubt left in it. Why, how am I, for example, to set my mind at rest? Where are the primary causes on which I am to build? Where are my foundations? Where am I to get them from? I exercise myself in reflection, and consequently with me every primary cause at once draws after itself another still more primary, and so on to infinity. That is just the essence of every sort of consciousness and reflection. It must be a case of the laws of nature again.’
– Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky

‘I, for instance, would not be in the least surprised if all of a sudden, A PROPOS of nothing, in the midst of general prosperity a gentleman with an ignoble, or rather with a reactionary and ironical, countenance were to arise and, putting his arms akimbo, say to us all: ‘I say, gentleman, hadn’t we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!’ That again would not matter, but what is annoying is that he would be sure to find followers—such is the nature of man. And all that for the most foolish reason, which, one would think, was hardly worth mentioning: that is, that man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated. And one may choose what is contrary to one’s own interests, and sometimes one POSITIVELY OUGHT (that is my idea). One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be, one’s own fancy worked up at times to frenzy—is that very ‘most advantageous advantage’ which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms. And how do these wiseacres know that man wants a normal, a virtuous choice? What has made them conceive that man must want a rationally advantageous choice?
What man wants is simply INDEPENDENT choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. And choice, of course, the devil only knows what choice.’
-Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky

Tolstoy and Tagore on nationalism

November 29, 2016

‘I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means – except by getting off his back.’
– Tolstoy

‘I have already several times expressed the thought that in our day the feeling of patriotism is an unnatural, irrational, and harmful feeling, and a cause of a great part of the ills from which mankind is suffering, and that, consequently, this feeling–should not be cultivated, as is now being done, but should, on the contrary, be suppressed and eradicated by all means available to rational men. Yet, strange to say–though it is undeniable that the universal armaments and destructive wars which are ruining the peoples result from that one feeling–all my arguments showing the backwardness, anachronism, and harmfulness of patriotism have been met, and are still met, either by silence, by intentional misinterpretation, or by a strange unvarying reply to the effect that only bad patriotism (Jingoism or Chauvinism) is evil, but that real good patriotism is a very elevated moral feeling, to condemn which is not only irrational but wicked.

What this real, good patriotism consists in, we are never told; or,if anything is said about it, instead of explanation we get declamatory, inflated phrases, or, finally, some other conception is substituted for patriotism– something which has nothing in common with the patriotism we all know, and from the results of which we all suffer so severely.’
– Tolstoy

‘I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations. What is the Nation?

It is the aspect of a whole people as an organized power. This organization incessantly keeps up the insistence of the population on becoming strong and efficient. But this strenuous effort after strength and efficiency drains man’s energy from his higher nature where he is self-sacrificing and creative.

For thereby man’s power of sacrifice is diverted from his ultimate object, which is moral, to the maintenance of this organization, which is mechanical. Yet in this he feels all the satisfaction of moral exaltation and therefore becomes supremely dangerous to humanity. He feels relieved of the urging of his conscience when he can transfer his responsibility to this machine which is the creation of his intellect and not of his complete moral personality. By this device the people which loves freedom perpetuates slavery in a large portion of the world with the comfortable feeling of pride of having done its duty; men who are naturally just can be cruelly unjust both in their act and their thought, accompanied by a feeling that they are helping the world in receiving its deserts; men who are honest can blindly go on robbing others of their human rights for self-aggrandizement, all the while abusing the deprived for not deserving better treatment. We have seen in our everyday life even small organizations of business and profession produce callousness of feeling in men who are not naturally bad, and we can well imagine what a moral havoc it is causing in a world where whole peoples are furiously organizing themselves for gaining wealth and power.

Nationalism is a great menace. It is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India’s troubles. And inasmuch as we have been ruled and dominated by a nation that is strictly political in its attitude, we have tried to develop within ourselves, despite our inheritance from the past, a belief in our eventual political destiny.’

– Tagore

All that’s bitter is not a cure

November 29, 2016

On why all that’s bitter is not a cure…

“Almost immediately after the Ahmedabad meeting I went to Nadiad. It was here that I first used the expression ‘Himalayan miscalculation’ which obtained such a wide currency afterwards. Even at Ahmedabad I had begun to have a dim perception of my mistake. But when I reached Nadiad and saw the actual state of things there and heard reports about a large number of people from Kheda district having been arrested, it suddenly dawned upon me that I had committed a grave error in calling upon the people in the Kheda district and elsewhere to launch upon civil disobedience prematurely, as it now seemed to me. I was addressing a public meeting. My confession brought down upon me no small amount of ridicule. But I have never regretted having made that confession. For I have always held that it is only when one sees one’s own mistakes with a convex lens, and does just the reverse in the case of others, that one is able to arrive at a just relative estimate of the two. I further believe that a scrupulous and conscientious observance of this rule is necessary for one who wants to be a Satyagrahi.

Let us now see what the Himalayan miscalculation was. Before one can be fit for the practice of civil disobedience one must have rendered a willing and respectful obedience to the state laws. For the most part we obey such laws out of fear of the penalty for their breach, and this holds good particularly in respect of such laws as do not involve a moral principal. For instance, an honest, respectable man will not suddenly take to stealing, whether there is a law against stealing or not, but this very man will not feel any remorse for failure to observe the rule about carrying head-lights on bicycles after dark. Indeed it is doubtful whether he would even accept advice kindly about being more careful in this respect. But he would observe any obligatory rule of this kind, if only to escape the inconvenience of facing a prosecution for a breach of the rule. Such compliance is not, however, the willing and spontaneous obedience that is required of a Satyagrahi. A Satyagrahi obeys the laws of society intelligently and of his own free will, because he considers it to be his sacred duty to do so. It is only when a person has thus obeyed the laws of society scrupulously that he is in a position to judge as to which particular rules are good and just and which are unjust and iniquitous. Only then does the right accrue to him of the civil disobedience of certain laws in well-defined circumstances. My error lay in my failure to observe this necessary limitation. I had called on the people to launch upon civil disobedience before they had thus qualified themselves for it, and this mistake seemed to me Himalayan magnitude.”
– Gandhi, 1919.

Two Ministers

November 28, 2016

There were two news items that gripped my attention in the last couple of days.

One was on Smriti Irani at Coimbatore. She had stopped at a cobbler’s shop and had trouble getting change for Rs.100. While posing with the poor, with the press in attendance, is a common enough gimmick, there was something pleasing about this act that pierced my usual cynicism. In the use-and-throw world of today, a minister wanting to mend her old chappals, instead of grabbing a new pair, sends across a powerful symbolic message. And well, there is nothing much for her to gain electorally here.

The other was on a speech by Manohar Parrikar. He had waxed horribly about gouging out the enemy’s eyes and boasted about giving them four slaps across their cheeks. So much for passing out of the hallowed portals of IIT.

I was never a fan of Smriti Irani as HRD Minister.
But I’d say, Damn Education, Damn Pedigree. Compassion is all we need in these times.

On that note, I am finally able to relate to a Kural that I always found out of place – how can someone adopt such an angry tone when talking about compassion?

An eye that is not abound with compassion,
what purpose is it serving on the face, feigning existence?
உளபோல் முகத்தெவன் செய்யும் அளவினால்
கண்ணோட்ட மில்லாத கண். (574)



Bourgeois of the world, unite!

November 28, 2016

I cannot believe now, that 12 years ago, I was a centre manager for credit card sales – for Coimbatore and Cochin. But to my credit, I didn’t last in that role for more than a year and moved to a different position at Mumbai (I’m not sure if I can claim blame for the fact that credit card sales was wound up in many smaller cities, including those two, soon after). I realise that I missed an opportunity to see it as a service to the nation (and pocket heftier bonuses). How silly of me, to have tried to induce low-paid sales officers to work for salaries and incentives and prizes. If I were to do that role now…

I’d tell my boys, “If soldiers can stand on the border for days, can you not stand outside the ATM for a day and canvass those on the queue? Record Mann ki baat and play it to your prospects. Prove to them it is anti-national if they don’t go cashless. Every card that you sell is a slap on the Pakistanis and a checkmate on terror funding.” I’ll end my pep-talk with some fiery lines from Bharathi, and disperse after Jai Hind.

I’d approach my collections manager and convince him to recommend opening up of the blacklisted territories. “Kottaimedu, Ukkadam and Karumbu Kadai are the last frontiers in our war against cash. If we convert them all to credit cards, there would be no bomb blasts in Coimbatore. It is your patriotic duty to recommend to the anti-national credit team at Bangalore to open up these areas.”

I’d write to the credit team at Bangalore (forgot the exact name of the team – our hearts would bleed to see them declining 50-60% of the hard-earned applications), “Stop declining cards to agents and real estate brokers. How can you be swayed by trivial aspects, such as credit scores, default rates and profitability, when in the long run, your approval of cards for them will sound the death knell for black money?”

What a historic opportunity has been presented to the banks, the Visas and Mastercards, the AirTels and Reliances, and the PayTMs! They have the most iconic brand ambassador in the country speaking on their behalf. Only once before in the history of India, did a business entity get such a glorious chance, and what a peerless precedent they’ve set: East India Company created a giant of a nation out of warring tribes and petty states; they ushered in modernity and technology; they bestowed on us, railways and post offices, mills and banks.

Oh, bourgeois of the world, unite, and build a cashless nation!

Conversations in the time of cashlessness

November 28, 2016

(From my Facebook post, dated 15-Nov-2016)

Yesterday, as I was headed to our village near Pollachi, I could see that all the banks on the bus route from Coimbatore were crowded. At the SBI branch at SIDCO, they had put up a shelter. At the Vadikipalayam branch, 7-8 kms from our village (with buses every half an hour), there were two long, separate queues for men and women.

All along the way, the word ‘money’ had filled the air and kept slamming my ears. Whoever I met, spoke more about money than the failing rains. Not everything that they said was true – but they said what they believed to be true. I am translating and putting down the conversations that stayed with me.

A youngster on the bus:
Everybody is paying wages through the old notes. I have decided not to accept them and haven’t gone for any work today. They do exchange at the bank but one has to stand in the queue.

An old man working at a farm on the way:
It has been 23 days since it rained. So, she (his wife) has also not been able to go for any work.
What money do I have that needs to be exchanged? They (their employer, an IT professional in Japan) usually send money from Japan to another person. That person comes and pays us our salary. I am not sure which notes we will get this month.

Another middle-aged man who joined us:
Who goes to the bank? I get my salary only our owner comes (a doctor from Cochin) here. It has been two months since their last visit. We usually manage with our son’s income. Savings – what savings? Not a single paisa stays. Some expense or other is always there. Last month my mother-in-law died. In our community, we have to spend lavishly for everything.

Modi has announced just like that and left. Everyone here is suffering in the queues. If we go to buy anything at the shops, they first ask us to show our money, and only then turns to take the goods. Everyone is getting their daily wages in old currency. If they visit the bank to exchange, they lose a day’s wage.

Who gives change for 2000 rupees. Today, the one who has a 100 rupee note in his pocket is richer than the one with Rs.2000.

At the petrol bunk, they take the 500 rupee note only if we fill for 500 rupees.

I heard that bundles of 500 and 1000 rupee notes came floating on the Ambarampalayam river. Some of our boys went to see it. Big shots are there at Ambarampalayam and Vettaikaranpudur. Though there is no tax for agricultural income, if they show so many crores, will there not be questions on how so much could be earned through farming? They are all into various businesses.

Someone said that an Omni van stopped at a dustbin near Eachanari. They unloaded a few boxes and burnt them. All of it was cash. Nobody knows who they were.

What worries do the black money hoarders have? They’ll wait till next month. Whatever they are not able to convert (into white), they would just throw away and walk off. They would make up for it in the next month. (Black money is a flow and not a stock. – Prabhat Patnaik)

Yesterday, they drilled a bore well at Chettiar farm. Even after 1000 feet they got no water. Last year too, they had dug 5 bore wells and got nothing.

On your electricity line, the three phase current has not been available for the last 3 days. At your neighbouring farm, they said they hardly had enough water for the cattle. Work will get done only if the lineman is paid.

Our neighbouring farmer:
I had opened a bank account for the gas connection. But I haven’t put any money in it so far.

The milkman has already told us that he would pay us only in the old currency. He pays us every fortnight. His company has told him that they would pay him only in old notes. Such a big firm – why can’t they pay in new currency?

My brother’s son is travelling. He called me to tell that the salt price to going to shoot up to Rs.300 per kg. He asked me to stock up a sack of salt. I ignored it – what is the big deal if there is no salt?

The woman who grazes her cattle on our farm:
My brothers have borrowed all the money from me. They’ll return when I need it. What indulgence do I have have?

Yesterday, the VAO’s assistant called me and gave the Deepavali saree. Usually it is given before Deepavali. But this year it has come only now.

I don’t know whether I’ve a bank account. The newspaper boy took Aadhar card and photo. He withdraws money every month and gives it to me. He takes 50 rupees. He does this for all of us. Earlier the postman used to do it. This boy is also some government employee. (She has been abandoned by her husband, and gets a pension of Rs.1000 through a Government scheme).

As you warned, the tomato prices are very low. At Giri annan’s farm, they have left the tomatoes unplucked.

An old couple, who own a 10-acre farm:
There has been no rain. If this situation persists, we are going to struggle even for drinking water.

It is alright – Modi has started off a good task. Are these people not flush with black money? Let it all come out.

There was no money floating on Ambarampalayam river…we were there yesterday. Just some cloth bags. People are also spreading rumours that someone burned bundles of cash near Kurichi pond.

There was a long queue at Vadakkipalayam. So I went to the Pollachi Indian Bank and deposited Rs.7000. I’ve 7 accounts. I went with the idea of visiting the branch that was least crowded.

For how much did you purchase tomatoes at Coimbatore (Rs.8 per kg). Yesterday we sent 14 boxes (15 kg per box). After the vehicle rent, toll at check post, commission etc, we got Rs.120. We didn’t even get the plucking wages. I am plucking them myself…paying wages for this doesn’t make sense.

This new 2000 rupee note is like this thin saree. It will tear as easily. Yesterday, at the TASMAC shot, somebody gave a fake 2000 rupee note and had two quarters.

The rich have no worries. The poor also somehow manage. The middle class seems to be stuck and suffer.

(My Facebook post dated 13-Nov-2016)

Last night, as we travelled from Tiruvannamalai to Coimbatore via Salem, the usually crowded buses on that route had many vacant seats. Demonetization seemed to have led to decongestion on long distance buses, at least for that day. My Home-Finance Minister had the premonition to ensure that she was carrying a few 100 rupee notes. A group of pilgrims from Pollachi, who were on their way back from Tirupati via Tiruvannamalai, somehow scrambled to pool together all their 100 rupee and 10 rupee notes to buy their tickets. When the bus stopped at a roadside restaurant for dinner, they did some inquiries and decided that fasting won’t do them much harm. Two black money hoarders who were carrying a couple of 500 rupee notes insisted that their money be accepted by the conductor, and refused to get down in the middle of nowhere at night. The conductor took the bus to the police station. The police promptly got them alighted.

At Salem, I suggested to the Pollachi pilgrims to take a train. Worried about how to reach the railway station, they tried their luck with an apple-vendor. For buying a few apples, the vendor accepted their 1000 rupee note and gave them change. That should have helped them reach Pollachi.

What we talk about when we talk about inconvenience (for the landless and the landed poor):

November 28, 2016

It is not merely about standing in the queues. Like many of our well-meaning friends have mentioned, they are used to standing in queues. (But unlike what the memes say, not to get the latest iphone.)

It is about forgoing their daily wages. In contrast with the good people in the organized sector, there is no concept of paid leave for them. You earn only when you work. Many daily wage earners work at different places on different days. Going to the bank means waiting for a not-so-frequent bus to go to the bank and waiting again to return.

It is about receiving their daily wages in old currency and having to go to the bank again to exchange the currency. You know, they don’t have luxury of using plastic money or stocked up vegetables in the fridge and provisions in the shelves.

Going to the bank again, means foregoing their daily wage again.

More than anything, one of the main reasons they have resisted for so long, and still resist going to banks, and such places, is because, going there makes them feel worthless, and dependent on the mercy of others. All their skills mean nothing. All their ability to lead a completely self-dependent life on the land comes to nought. To add more insult, their worthlessness will now be branded with indelible ink on their working-class fingers.

Shoot the idea

November 28, 2016

‘The idea is good but the implementation is bad,’ is the common refrain that we hear from the 7% (as per reliable surveys, which I won’t question) who criticize demonetization. I belong to an even more minuscule minority. I believe, the idea is bad, and therefore, the implementation is shoddy. Or rather, the idea is bad, even if the implementation had been exemplary.

I have no doubt that almost all of us have been complicit, in varying degrees, in the generation of the so-called black money. But in a country with one of the highest inequality rates [Top 1% own 58.4% of the wealth in India, and top 10% own 80.7% of the wealth; as per other reliable studies], it defies logic to go after 100% of the people, when the same or better results could have been achieved by targeting the top 10%. Even if the major black money hoarders lie outside the official top 10%, it would have been surely possible to identity the major sources of black money generation and go after them. That would have been much more optimal use of available resources and bandwidth than this mammoth wild goose chase.

Two other aspects irk me more.
One is the now stated objective of a cashless (read, digital) economy. In the short run, it shows complete disregard for the current demography of the country. In the long run (though all of us will be dead), it betrays an utter lack of concern for privacy and freedom. It is scary to think of so much data in one place. It’ll lead to more centralisation. It does seem inevitable now. But there is still that minuscule minority that dreams of a decentralised society, where other non-digital modes of truly cashless living shall emerge.

Secondly, the assertions about the moral basis for the idea. The moral high ground that is being claimed for this move is something that my mind refuses to concede. No moral act needs such secrecy and deception.

Some of the kurals that I’ve been using when I discuss Aram with school children, have been continuously ringing inside my ears during the last couple of weeks:
இன்னா எனத்தான் உணர்ந்தவை துன்னாமை
வேண்டும் பிறன்கண் செயல். (316)
Shy away from doing to others
what you perceive would have harmed you.

நன்றே தரினும் நடுவிகந்தாம் ஆக்கத்தை
அன்றே யொழிய விடல். (113)
Even if some good comes out of the gains generated by
being unfair, desist from making that gain.

வேலொடு நின்றா னிடுவென் றதுபோலும்
கோலோடு நின்றா னிரவு. (552)
The extortion and graft done wielding the sceptre
is no different from robbery done pointing a spear.

உள்ளத்தாற் பொய்யா தொழுகின் உலகத்தார்
உள்ளத்து ளெல்லாம் உளன். (294)
One who, true to his heart, lives without lies,
will forever live in the hearts of all.

மனத்துக்கண் மாசிலன் ஆதல் அனைத்து அறன்
ஆகுல நீர பிற. (34)
True moral integrity lies in being spotless in your thoughts;
everything else is loud and blatant posturing.