Reality and delusions

December 11, 2016

I went for a haircut today, ignoring my father’s warning that it would be crowded on a Sunday.

The barber wasn’t around when I went in. Two customers were waiting. One of them said that he had gone home and would be back soon. ‘Muthu’ was on TV. The flashback was starting. By the time (father) Rajinikanth was cheated out of his property and pauperised, the barber was back.

After I was done with my haircut, he asked for Rs.80.
“Has the rate gone up?” I asked.
“Only by 10 rupees,” he replied apologetically.
“How is your business doing?”
“You can see how bad things are – Sundays never used to be so sparsely crowded. Earlier, I couldn’t have gone home for lunch at 1pm. Nobody has money. People were giving me old 500 rupee notes. What would I do with that? I gave a free haircut to some of my customers. So few people come in now. “

I wasn’t enterprising enough to educate him about PayTM or a swiping machine.

“The person who was there when you came in – he is having a haircut after 3 months.” (Yeah, I know, it has been only one month since Nov 8 – but the math will work out if, like me, he cuts his hair once in 2 months.)

The cynical-me quipped, “By the time this is over, looks like we’ll have a lot of rishis with matted hair.”

“After 50 days, people may not be alive,” he was more cynical than me. “The big guys are able to get 100 crores and more. Only we struggle. At Annur, last week, somebody spread a rumour that Modi is going to credit 1 lakh into all our accounts. Many people waited outside the bank for a long time before being turned away. How can Modi give 1 lakh to all of us?”

It may seem as if I am beating a dead snake. But the snake is alive and hissing. (Figuratively speaking. I don’t recommend beating a real snake.)

The whole of last week, when I had to commute from Coimbatore, I saw long crowds at ATMs (especially government banks), or closed ATMs, early in the morning and late at night, all the way from Coimbatore to our village.

Our daughter’s music teacher was worried as her husband, who used to work as a goldsmith, is out of job. Her eyes lighted up, when my wife gave her the fees (in 100 rupee notes) for last month, though she had not held any classes then. Usually she would have refused but accepted this time without a protest.

Our neighbouring farmer has not received any money from the milkman this month. The milkman has not been paid by his cooperative. The farmer has no money for buying cattle feed. With no monsoons, his current crop will be a total failure, and the cows are his only hope till the next rains. He asked hesitantly if I’d allow him to graze the cattle on a fallow patch on our land, where there is any hardly greenery.

But a large landowner was able to hold a function at his newly constructed home, inviting 5 or 6 villages, and serving food for two days.

What we see needs to be recorded, in the hope that our delusions will be dispelled some day.


On standing in queues (or) How people die in queues

December 4, 2016

Indeed, queues are not new to Indians, especially the poor. It is only now, many of us who can talk about standing in queues are standing in queues, and therefore, we get to see and hear the plight of those standing in queues. Standing in the queue is an educative experience, in itself (for us, the so-called educated). The objective is irrelevant. Moreover, in today’s India, the more the time you spend on the queue, the more the points you garner for patriotism. I lose a lot of points writing such long, sob stories and shouldn’t miss a chance to gain some.

When I was on my third mission to get Aadhaar card, last Monday, there was again a long queue. After waiting for over an hour, they issued only 60 tokens at 10am. I was 70th on the queue.

There were a number of old people, who had come for the second, third, fourth times. Many of them had returned, even after registration, as their fingerprints had not been captured properly, and their cards were declined. One helpful staff member said that a new machine was expected to arrive in the next couple of weeks and that may be able to record their fingerprints. But most of the elderly decided to wait.

One old, illiterate woman, complained to the staff member that the people at the ration shop were insisting on her Aadhaar card. She showed him the acknowledgement for Aadhaar that she had received earlier. Her card may have been declined due to no fingerprints. He asked her to show that slip at the ration shop. She had done that already, and yet, they had refused to issue her the ration items. He, then, advised her to go to the Tahsildar, get his signature on the slip, and take it to the ration shop. The flabbergasted lady trudged away.

I keep asking my mother, who had been pressurizing us to get that Aadhaar, to tell the ration folks that there is a Supreme Court order against insisting on Aadhaar card. But she says all arguments are in vain. All that the staff at the ration shops know are verbal orders from above. And I am not sure, if this is a fight I wan’t to pick up seriously at this point. (Anyway, my objections to Aadhaar are not just about queues but I’ll keep them away from this post.)

Our next quest for Aadhaar was on Friday. My wife decided not to leave anything to chance and went to join the queue by 6.30 on a cold morning, chilled by the previous night’s rains. Surprisingly she was only the second person. I relieved her at 8.30. After a week of heavy rush, or due to the rains, the crowd was relatively lean that day. I kept hearing stories from those on the queue about their previous experiences. An old lady who was number 3 on the queue had gone for breakfast at some eatery nearby and was not back for over an hour. My wife had been worrying if she had fallen down somewhere. Another lady said the old woman came yesterday, couldn’t get a token and was in tears. She was coming from Periyanaicken Palayam, around 20 kms from that office. Everyone sighed with relief when she did rejoin the queue.

“I have had fractures on my leg, after a fall. My hip is broken. I had to go up and down to 4 offices, just to find out that I have to come to this office. Our ration has been stopped this month,” she told me later.

Person no.5 on the queue was an eighty-two year old man. His 6 sons and 1 daughter and their families had already taken their cards. At that time, he didn’t deem it necessary at his age. But now, some pension of Rs.1000 that he was getting from the government has been stopped, due to Aadhaar.

We kept hearing many more sob stories. Another old man was complaining that getting the right information was the most difficult task. If he sought some clarification on the documentation and such, he would be asked to refer to a poster with that information. He can’t read.
“Are they telling that the uneducated cannot live in this country anymore?”

There were also touts who had offered to take some of them to a private operator, nearby, for a cost of Rs.250-300. Without middlemen, I already had an appointment with the same private operator for the next week (but our conscience had pricked holes on our privilege and we decided not to go there). The cost quoted to us was Rs.150 per person. Even that was seen as unaffordable (or non-essential) by most of them.

After a combined wait of about 4 hours, we got the tokens. Some people from earlier queues, who, for some reason or other, were turned back after waiting a whole day despite having tokens, were given priority ahead of us. The operator and the machine struggled a bit to capture our young daughter’s fingerprints. Otherwise, our registration went off without much fuss. When we finished, I could see that the old lady (No.3) and the old man (No.5) were still standing, while the others were being attended to. I intervened, and heard the same story again, “Their fingerprints won’t get recorded easily. We will be making 60 others wait if we attend to them now.”

“I am eighty-two years old. I have been waiting since 6am and am starving to death. Should I collapse and die to get this Aadhaar? What is the need for a government that tortures its elders like this?”

“Why don’t you go, eat and come?” my wife asked.
“Will I not go, if I have money?”

We compelled him to come with us and bought him some bun, biscuits and tea. It must have been around noon. He refused the offer to eat lunch at a nearby mess, “At this age, if I eat food cooked badly outside, I’ll have diarrhoea for 3 days. I’ve learnt this after so many such experiences.”

So, yes, people dying in queues could have died anywhere. But why should they be forced to be on this queue at this point of time is a question that cannot be evaded.


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.