Friday, December 7, 2012


A policeman dies protecting his daughter. In broad day light. A gruesome murder. Whose? And who died? The policeman who failed to protect his own daughter or his family, who will now die a slow death each day, thinking why they sent their son, husband, father into Punjab police, if he was only to die protecting his own daughter? 

I hear, the other policeman, who had failed to act on the complaint of the murdered policeman's daughter in the first place, has been dismissed from service.

If the murdered father didn't have a choice, did the other policeman have a choice? I wonder...If you don't listen to your political bosses, you lose your life, and if you do, you lose your job. Don't our policemen in Punjab find themselves in much the same situation in which the common man was, say, during the days of militancy.

To be killed in the cross-fire was his fate then...and to be killed in the cross-fire is his fate now. Because, we live in a country where law is not what it is or should be, as it derives it ultimate authority, not from our constitution, but from the whims and fancies of our 'degenerate politicians.' And the rules that apply to you and me don't apply to them. It is simple. After all, they are the rulers. No?

Those who rule and govern are obviously above law, or else how is it possible for them to govern? My dear countrymen, you'll be happy to know that those who govern us only think of us when the elections are round the corner. And yet we don't wake up.

Even during the elections, we don't become human for them; we only exist as vote-banks. Well, that's the only time our existence counts. Otherwise, it counts as the head count alone, of how many killed or how many murdered? Yes, if we aren't there to shed blood at their behest, where would 'they' go to dip their 'stolid, shameless, sticky fingers in?

Friends, it's not the murder of a policeman/father, but the murder of human freedom and human dignity. It's the murder of whatever is left of our democracy. No, there is no democracy in our country. We only have 'demons crazy' after power. Is that what you call democracy? Certainly, not my idea!

Does common man have any chance in this country? O the rulers, for God's sake, don't shut all the doors on us. For then, we may have to pull down the walls. Much before the people of this country decide to do that, our politicians would do well to take it as a wake- up call and resolve to clean up their dirty, stinking stables. For the stink and stench that you are spreading at our door shall one day, come back to haunt your nostrils.

If this one incident can stir the 'dead conscience' of our politicians and start the process of de-criminalization of Indian politics, I'd say, the policeman's murder is the beginning of a revolution. Otherwise, we go back to our lives, as live them as shamelessly as they always force us to do.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Why am I so apologetic about being a Hindu?

By Rana Nayar

I do not know whether I’m an insider or an outsider in India. Much will depend on what historians may have to say about my origins or my beginnings, which in any case, shall remain shrouded in endlessly inconclusive controversies. Some people will insist on treating me as a descendant of the Hindus, tracing my links with Indus Valley Civilization (emphasizing the homology between ‘Indus’ and ‘Hindus’), while others may look upon me as a leftover of the Aryan race that came from the West and overran the Nagas and/or Dravidians (read the original inhabitants of this land), seeking to establish my hegemony over this land, its peoples, its languages and its native cultures, too. I do not know whether I’m a naturalized citizen of this land or an aggressor, an invader and/or a colonizer. Historians would probably never let me have the satisfaction of knowing this, one way or the other. What I do know is that I have lived on this land for close to three, four thousand years; that I’m among one of its oldest, if not the oldest, inhabitants; and that I have participated in its social, political, religious and cultural life for as long as I can remember.

Of course, I know that despite having lived in this land for close to four thousand years, and despite having made all the contribution towards shaping, and not controlling, its cultural forces; and despite all my protestations about being truly, genuinely non-violent, secular and democratic in my convictions, today, I’m extremely apologetic about being a Hindu or made to feel so. Do I have a right to ask, why, for God’s sake, am I being pushed into such defensive postures, today? You perhaps don’t know that I was very much part of the crowd of non-decrepit soldiers who were led into the First War of Independence by Mangal Pandey, and the moment I witnessed the birth of the Congress Party out of the womb of history, I had simply stood by and cheered loudly. I was there when the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre happened, or when the non-cooperation movement was started by Gandhi. I was there when Lala Lajpat Rai was mercilessly beaten to death or Bhagat Singh was hanged with his companions following a farcical trial. I was among the crowds in 1942 when they booed and jeered at Englishmen, saying, “Quit India”, before plunging headlong into the unprecedented communal conflagration of 1947. Yes, I was killed among those who died during the Partition and was born, yet again, with the birth of a new nation.      

And let me assure you, since 1947 I have never participated in any of those loony linguistic movements that you witnessed in the late 1950s for the reorganization of Indian states on the basis of language or regional aspirations. To be honest, I wasn’t the one who raised the bogey of ‘official language,’ or the one who shed the blood of those who didn’t want ‘Hindi’ to be installed as an the sovereign, national, and/or official language. Now as I look back, I feel, it’d have been much better had Tamil been made the official language, as it‘d have probably brought the never ending colonial march of English to a sudden, necessary halt. It worries me to think now that we have missed out on a real opportunity to decolonize ourselves by making one of our own languages as the national/official language. Do you really think that I was the one who torched the government buildings or damaged the public property when the communal fires engulfed our sanity? Certainly not! Why to hide from you, friends, at that point of time, I was only too busy managing the petty affairs of my inconsequential life, running from pillar to post, clutching on to a bottle of milk or a can of kerosene, or waiting endlessly in the long queues either outside an employment bureau, a post-office, a bank, or a polling booth or just about too busy keeping the wolves at bay.

Believe me, when I say that I never participated even once in all those crazy, misdirected Rath Yatras (on Toyota convertibles) that some power hungry, political opportunists organized from time to time in the name of Hindutva. Do you know that I was not at all opposed to the political churning or mobilization that Mandalization caused in this country, nor did I ever support those who pulled down the Babri Masjid or engineered the Godhra Riots or burnt the train carrying Muslims across to Pakistan? Instead, I have been a strong votary of the affirmative action, as I sincerely believe that weak must always be protected by the strong, whatever the cost; and also whatever is pushed down by history must ultimately come up the hard way, and that it is not at all possible without social engineering of some kind. You do not know me enough to know that when this bandwagon of Hindutva was rolling out in the Indian streets, I was among those who were silently crying over the death of a shared dream, and grieving over the possibility of communalization of Indian politics. Much before that, I had already shed enough tears, or even spent many sleepless nights worrying over the criminalization of politics in our country, when it hit in the late 1970s.

Each time, a Kashmiri Muslim is killed either by the militants or the State, each time an innocent Sikh is burnt alive in a politically sponsored carnage, each time a Christian missionary is slain by some lunatic Hindu, and each time a Parsi is forced to migrate owing to the bullying tactics of Shiv Sainiks, I go through, no, not just the spasms, but genuine convulsions of conscience, and agonize endlessly over how the dream of secularism is fast turning into a nightmare, how the specter of communalism is forever hanging over our heads, threatening to unleash forces we can’t contain; how the ever growing decline of governance and moral imperatives of our politicians is pushing us deeper into a chaos and anarchy from which we may never be able to recover. And yet, you continue to doubt my secular credentials, suspect my political convictions or affiliations, interrogate my religious beliefs, and much before I realize what you are doing, you quietly dump all this guilt and pain of those whom I do not even know or recognize at my rickety door, leaving me with no choice but to cower in shame or run for a cover. And yet, you condemn me each time a fringe group of lunatics, who know no religion except the religion of violence or hatred and who know no language except the language of terror and crime, inflict all kinds of horrible wounds on your skin. You perhaps do not even know how the wounds in your skin have cut permanent holes in my body, and how your pain keeps searing my conscience, even my soul, in the silent hours of night.

When I’m alone with myself, I often wonder when did I ever give legitimacy to Manuvaad or the abominable caste-system. Did I ever want its continuation or perpetuation in our society? Did I ever want to live down the guilt of asking some people to serve me or my class interest perpetually? Did I ever want that Manu should codify Hindu laws in a certain way? Wasn’t Manu, after all, doing this codification for a society that was essentially moving from the tribal to the feudal, agrarian stage? And pray, when did Manu ever claim that his codification was sacrosanct and should not ever be subjected to a process of re-examination or revisionism? If some of my ancestors just didn’t get into the exercise of revisionism and Manuvaad or Brahmanism colluded to create conditions for the continuation of caste-system, why must I be made to bear the cross, especially, when I’m genuinely modern, moderately secular and materially egalitarian, and also when I celebrate the cultural synthesis of Bhakti movement? Am I supposed to feel guilty if a certain class of people (read Brahmins) chose to hegemonize others, as all classes, often driven by the egregious self-interest, almost always tend to do, in the best or the worst of times?

I also wonder why most of the people who condemn me for being a Hindu often forget that if the ancient Hinduism legitimized Manuvaad, it also gave Ved Vyas and Valmiki, both outcastes (one, the son of a fisherwoman, and the other, a reformed dacoit), the responsibility of disseminating two of their most significant narrative texts among its adherents. Why do they forget that the principle behind the caste-system was one of mutual interdependence of different sections (read castes) of society and of their integration and oneness at socio-religious level? And further, if the priestly class of Brahmins had not turned self-serving (as all ruling classes invariably do), probably caste-system would not have become an unchanging, ossified fact of Indian social and religious life? If I’m to be held accountable for crimes the priestly class committed through history, then I should also be held accountable for all the acts of omission and commission the ruling class of today is committing with much the same impunity. Don’t you think so? After all, logic is the same, isn’t it? So how many of us are actually prepared to bear the burden of other’s sins, pray? How many of us would want to do penance on behalf A. Rajas or Kalmadis of our times? Please don’t tell me now that my logic is fallacious, or my argument, untenable or specious.

Now whether or not I was a natural inhabitant of this land, I did make this land my home and you certainly can’t grudge me that or, will you? And then I slowly began to give birth to an entire civilization, mythological, Indus and then Vedic. Do you think it was a mean achievement on my part to seek to build secure edifices of civilization at a time when the rest of the world was still steeped in the dark ages, and was struggling hopelessly to preserve the Mayan or Mesopotamian civilizations, Abyssinian or Egyptian civilizations? Do I need to say that all those civilizations have quietly slipped into oblivion and disappeared into the haze of time, but my ancient wisdom, like the ageless Ganges, continues to flow, not merely through the veins of my own children, but those of rest of the humanity, too? Over the centuries, I did create a diverse wealth of art, literature, philosophy and/or culture, whose worth and estimation is today easily recognized, the world over. I may have believed in the fatalism of the Karmic theory, but I also gave the spirited message of activism through the philosophy of Karma Yoga in Sri Bhagwatgita. If I talked of the three stages in the life of a householder, to be achieved by following the three-fold path of arth, kama and moksha, I also gave the over-enveloping concept of dharma as an enabling principle. If I taught you the difference between the Purusha and Prakrati and the process of their interanimation, I also helped you understand that there is nothing outside the Braham, the eternal, transcendental, and perhaps the only all-subsuming reality. Perhaps, that’s why, I could throw the doors of my house open to people who came to visit this land first, and then decided to make it their own.

Do you think, if I hadn’t the catholicity of spirit that my religion (read Hinduism, not Hindutva) ingrained in me, right from the very beginning, I’d have been able to accommodate all the Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and Muslims, who came calling? You know pretty well how some of them came looking for refuge, and others, simply with a specific aim of reducing me into a refugee in my own land. But I made no discrimination; as I not only threw open my doors to one and all, but also allowed each one of them the freedom to pitch their own tents, of whatever size and wherever they wished, simply following the dictum that this universe constitutes a single brotherhood. Do you think, it would have happened so easily, if I, too, had followed the policy of discrimination on the basis of caste, colour, creed, race or religion? I know, what you are thinking of, now. You’re possibly thinking that I was too weak religiously and too easily divided and fragmented politically to have taken care of my social/cultural space or what I sometimes call my home, if not my territory. Just remember, only the Muslims forced their way into my home (and yet I embraced their thought and philosophy of Sufism, even Islam) with open arms; others came as peacefully as they could, and apparently there was no question of my raising objections either to their presence here or their desire to make this land their home. Even when I didn’t possess the political sagacity of Ashoka or Akbar, the openness of my heart and the generosity of my spirit were never found wanting.

The only difference between you and me is that I’m looking at the vast panorama of history spread over four thousand years or more, and you have your eyes focused exclusively on the contemporary reality. In the recent times, you have found one too many reasons to put me on the dock; starting with, of course, the emergence of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and Hindu Mahasabha in the early 1930s and its dubious role in the freedom struggle, to the assassination of the Mahatma in which again, you claim, RSS had some shady role to play; from the machinations of Vajpayee and Advani in the 1980s, who created an entirely new political outfit called the Bharatiya Janata Party out of its erstwhile avatar Jan Sangh, to the militantly aggressive postures of rabid Ashok Singhal and Vinay Katyar of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, you have found enough reasons to pick holes in my defenses, and now you constantly keep nagging me about my Hindutva affiliations. If you were to stop at this, I wouldn’t really mind, but you don’t, and actually go much further than that. You accuse me of being anti-Muslim, and of harbouring hatred against all Muslims, sometimes going so far as to claim that I’d like to see all the Muslims transported to their sacred land of Pakistan. I don’t deny that it troubles me when Pakistan refuses to respect our territorial integrity and strikes aggressive postures, or surreptitiously pushes ISI-trained terrorists or militants into our soil for senseless murder and mayhem. It troubles me when the centuries-old communal ties snap all of a sudden, and communal hatred begins to stalk the land. In my moments of moral weakness, sometimes, I do begin to doubt the nationalist spirit of my Muslim neighbours or start blaming them for their extra-territorial loyalties, but even in my weakest moments, not even once do I wish them away.

My occasional sense of insecurity or moral lapse is only a passing fancy; certainly not the defining moment of our centuries-old mutual co-existence, in which we continue to share our myths and fables, our folklores and festivals, our languages and cultures, all differences notwithstanding. Besides, who told you that I’m a die-hard Hindutva fan, just because I happen to be a Hindu? My sense of politics, if seen historically, has been extremely weak. Had it not been so, I would not have been pushed around so much by the invaders or the aggressors. It’s because of my poor sense of political judgment that I sometimes ended up colluding with my own enemies, thus working against my own best political interests. Whatever my failures or lapses, the fact is that I have paid much too heavy a price for it, as well. Having said so, let me go on to explain the basic differences between Hindutva and Hinduism, as you often use them interchangeably, thus not only confusing the issues, but also damning me for no fault of mine. Hinduism teaches me openness of heart and magnanimity of spirit, which also goes hand in hand with my total or partial lack of political wisdom. My problem is that I’m too easily swayed by the political slogans and quickly succumb to the hate-mongering of our special breed of fire-spewing politicians. Hindutva, with which I have never had any affiliation, and which I have always suspected as much as you have, if not more, is only a subversive way of twisting, distorting and manipulating the actual teachings of Hinduism for political ends. In other words, Hinduism is a way of life that teaches catholicity, whereas Hindutva is a way of controlling or manipulating Hindu votes, by whipping up narrow, parochial jingoism or fanaticism among them.

You would perhaps complain that in such moments of existential crisis, why don’t I invoke the teachings of Patanjali, who had once warned me against losing my viveka ever, and always keeping my body, mind and soul together? My problem is that in this long march over so many centuries, I have moved so far away from his teachings and many more things besides, that I don’t hear Patanjali’s words any longer. Though I have heard Krishna tell me repeatedly that I must do all I can to become a sthithapragyana, I’m too much into the world to achieve that and continue to wallow in the dance of the three gunas -- sattva, rajas and tamas -- thus nullifying all possibility of attaining inner poise and equilibrium. But that only makes me human, doesn’t it?

Do you think, it is right on your part to make me feel less about myself, just because I’m only too human, like you and everyone else? Don’t forget that I always showed immense tolerance for the difference, great patience for dissent and always supreme respect for an alternative viewpoint. Had it not been so, do you think, Buddhism, Jainism or Sikhism could have possibly emerged out of our soil? Each time, as a Hindu, I saw the prospect of my own decadence and decay; I re-incarnated myself as a Buddha, a Mahavira or a Guru Nanak. I never had any problems with re-inventing myself, or any issues with initiating a dialogue with myself or my neighbours. I never tried to create monoliths out of my beliefs, as I always gave myself, even others, the freedom to follow any one of the “thirty three crore Gods” I had created for possibly as many followers.

I always had immense faith in the philosophy of cultural pluralism, never deviated from it and shall perhaps never do. And yet, you call me a staunch Hindu, a violent oppressor or aggressor, a power-hungry Hegemon, perpetually trying to swallow the minorities, their right to life and survival, a perpetual threat to their social and cultural space. For God’s sake, don’t extend the logic of US imperialism to understand my position (in their case, the Big Brother is not only watching but also breathing down everyone’s neck all the time, and in our case, he’s happily living with the younger ones), or judge me in the light of the theories you may have borrowed from the West, or impose them on me, unthinkingly.

Please don’t treat me as a colonizer, just because the British told you that I was one. And finally, don’t let them divide us now that we think we are free, for we have, are and will continue to live with each other, peacefully, joyously and harmoniously. And the next time, you are tempted to blame me just because I’m a Hindu, or catch me by the collars because I let you share my home, do think again!

I only hope, you do or else, I’ll continue to be apologetic for no other reason, but for being what I’m, yes, just another Hindu.





Electoral Reforms in India: Who will bell the cat, anyway?

For a long time now, there has been a talk of electoral reforms in India, but unfortunately, very little has been done on the ground to ensure their effective implementation. Over the years, several commissions have been set up and a plethora of changes recommended, but often the successive governments, and even the opposition parties, drag their feet over these changes. No wonder, we have moved ever so slowly over the process of electoral reforms and consequently, our political culture has slipped into one logjam after another, virtually bringing the process of policy making and governance to a screeching halt.

Today, we find ourselves in an unenviable situation as far as our political culture is concerned. In the name of political debate, often charges are traded and abuses exchanged on the national television. In the Parliament, the most hallowed forum for public debate, business is rarely ever conducted with the kind of seriousness it often demands. Either the party in power bulldozes its way to manufacture consent it so desperately needs, or the opposition simply digs in its heels, regardless of the merits of the specific case and/or the supervening national interest. No wonder, our legislative assemblies and the parliament only demonstrate the proverbial ‘death’ of the public debate in our political culture.  

Of course, there are other serious questions about the style of functioning of our political masters, both in and outside power. For almost three and a half decades, West Bengal was ruled and governed by the CPM led front. After a great deal of hesitation and reluctance, the people of West Bengal voted for a change. The way in which Mamta-led TMC government in West Bengal is now tearing all pretence to democratic norms to shreds is already making the people wonder if they have made a grave mistake in doing what they have done. Ironically, only the political parties are voted in and out of power in our country, as our tenacious political culture, impervious to all changes, continues to stink, more than ever before.   

With the increasing trend towards criminalization of politics, it has now become almost a compulsion for most of the political parties, national as well as regional, to field candidates with dubious background, even criminal record. In the recent elections in UP, though Akhilesh Yadav came into power riding on the promise of development, performance and of ushering in a radically new political culture, he has miserably failed to resist the pressure of inducting legislators with known criminal background into his Cabinet. Despite all the efforts of the Election Commission to ensure free and fair elections, at all possible levels of people’s participation, from the village panchayats to the municipal corporations, from the State Assemblies to the National Parliament, the vital questions about the fairness of elections remain hopelessly unanswered. With the introduction of the electronic voting machines, booth-capturing and rigging may have been reduced substantively, but the use of money and muscle power is still so flagrant and widespread that even the Election Commission, with all its paraphernalia, finds itself completely helpless in containing it.   

Governance and policy making in India have increasingly become an insulated process, in which public participation, at best, remains notionally minimal. During the recent Anna Hazare movement for the Jan Lokpal Bill, the manner in which the role of the civil society was repeatedly questioned by the political parties of all shades and hues is a case in point. Never in the history of the parliamentary democracy in Independent India have the political parties across the ideological spectrum shown as much solidarity and unanimity as they did over the question of how the right of the parliament to legislate laws was being usurped by the ‘so-called’ civil society. The only time, the political parties wake up to the existence of the ‘civil society’ or that of the people is during the election season, and then, too, people are seen less as people, and more as members of different castes or communities, in short, the much desirable and sought after ‘vote banks.’

To put it another way, it appears to be really a hopeless situation. One wonders if there is some way out of this morass, some way of protecting our democracy, some way of arresting this precipitous decline in our polity. Often, when we talk of the electoral reforms, we interpret them in a very narrow sense. We think of them in the sense of ameliorative measures that could streamline the election process, improve the functioning, not of our democratic institutions, but of the elections, and thus help in containing, to some extent, the widespread and ever growing systemic rot. By thus focussing our attention on the electoral process, we often miss the woods for the trees. We forget that the electoral process is only a very small component of our political culture, and unless efforts are made to change this diseased and defunct culture, electoral reforms, of whatever nature, substance or content, shall fail to make the necessary difference on the ground.

First of all, we must look into the way the political parties function in our country. There was a time when ideology was considered to be the main bulwark of a political party and often the ideological constrains impacted not only the public policy making but also the governance. Nehru-Lohia debate is a case in point. Now, it is no longer so. Today, it is difficult to identify even a single political party in our country that would be prepared to sacrifice power for the sake of ideology. In relentless pursuit of naked power, often ideology is the most common casualty. Party positions depend not so much upon the ideological grounds as on the contingent factors that govern the rough and tumble of everyday politics. It might be argued that politics is, in the best or the worst of times, an art of managing contradictions and so why must we expect the impossible from it?

My point is that if the ideology can guide the work-a-day politics in the developed countries, why can’t it do so in the developing nations? In the absence of clearly defined ideological positions, most of the political parties, at least, in terms of their practices and functioning, seem to have lost their distinctive character and are beginning to look more and more like each other. In our context, ring-wing, left-wing and centrist positions keep shifting, depending upon the individual whims/convenience and/or political expediency, thus making utter mockery of the ideology or its role in the public affairs. Moreover, in the era of globalization and economic liberalization, all that the political parties can do is to hitch their band wagon to the economic reforms, with the ‘pace of the reforms’ being the only barometer of their political positioning.  

Corruption may be as much a part of political culture in the developed nations as it is in the developing ones, but in the developed world it is mostly restricted to the highest echelons of power. It certainly doesn’t take on the form of horse-trading, floor-crossing or shifting gears mid-stream by way of changing party affiliations, the way it happens out here? Out there in the West, a candidate may not be born into an ideology, but s/he certainly is initiated into one, and having been initiated once, prefers to go along with the party ideology, refusing to swerve from the chosen path every now and then. Besides, candidates are not hand-picked to join a particular political outfit or represent a particular constituency, as it often happens in our country, but are invariably men of proven public service record, who have already worked at the grassroots level for a number of years, before being inducted into the party or given a party ticket to contest the elections. True democracy demands that the individuals who wish to be the people’s representatives must have prior consent of the people and also a particular brand of political culture of a party whose ideology has nurtured them. Intra-party democracy, which is virtually unknown in our country, is almost a norm in most of the Western democracies.

So long as the money and muscle power continue to play an all-important role both in the selection and the election of the candidates, all talk of electoral reforms shall only be a form of empty rhetoric. In order to contain the role of money in the elections, apart from imposing an embargo on poll expenses (as the other initiative about the declaration of personal assets has been a non-starter of sorts), it is necessary to strengthen the institutions that help in the restoration of grassroots democracy. If a candidate has no known record of public service of minimum ten years, s/he should not be considered eligible for the party ticket of any political party. And if s/he is given a ticket in violation of this principle, the Election Commission should have the right to reject her/his candidature.

This would certainly be much better than prescribing minimum educational qualifications for our legislators, where the illiteracy rates are still very high among our politicians and the majority of those who enter politics are not necessarily university graduates. This would also discourage the perpetuation of dynastic rule in democracy, and compel people to undertake social service prior to taking a plunge into politics. No candidate should be given a party ticket unless he has won the confidence of the people in his/her constituency. Once we manage to do away with the practice of doling out party tickets, the highest bidders for the party tickets shall be discouraged, and prior acceptability of the candidates among the people shall further restrict the buying and selling of votes or voters at the time of elections.
This would also ensure that only candidates with a clean record enter the public life and criminals are not able to hold the entire electoral system to ransom, as they often tend to do in our context. As in this case, the responsibility of selecting the candidates shall rest with the people and not with the party, should they choose an individual with a criminal background, they would only have themselves to blame, not the party or the political culture. Besides, this would also inject into our political culture, the system of direct accountability of the leader towards his/her constituents and that of the people towards their leader. It is absence of this principle of direct accountability that has resulted in the virtual breakdown of dialogue between the political elite and the ruled public, and has also created a situation where the principle of accountability has surreptitiously been replaced by a more pernicious system of patronage and mai-baap culture.

There is an urgent need to bridge the gap between the rulers and the ruled and also put the rulers in a tight spot where they are left with no choice but to follow the principle of accountability. Restoration of accountability would further act as a deterrent to the unbridled and unabashed misuse of power, position and authority by those who wield it. The real question is: are our politicians ready for this principle of accountability? Are they prepared to bring in the legislations that will ultimately curb their illegal and unlawful manipulation of the levers of power? Or to put it differently, is anyone ready to bell the cat or conversely, is the cat ready to bell itself?   

Professor Rana Nayar is Professor of English at Department of English & Cultural Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Nothing to Hide and Everything to Declare

When I finally step out of the station, my thoughts are neither about hunger nor food; these are about order and stability. Walking back, I am mulling over the entire experience, admiring the way things function here. Be it the airport, railway station or the coach station, it’s the orderliness of the English life that strikes everyone, especially an Indian mind that often assumes that chaos is the most natural state for a man to live in. Whosoever said that India is a ‘functional anarchy’ perhaps could not have put it any better. What I find truly amazing is that here everything appears to work to a plan. It’s almost as if there is not a single cog out of place in this huge wheel. It moves as though it is well oiled and well heeled, and grease is something it would never ever require. Just when I was about to break into a hymn in praise of English orderliness, I stepped inside a phone booth across the street. What I saw inside made me wonder if I was right about whatever I had understood about the notion of order and stability. It was while inserting the phone-card into the phone that I found several provocative, hot and steamy photographs staring back at me. Small advertisements, displaying all kinds of women, half-naked or barely clothed, baring their bosoms or fingering their private parts, with telephone numbers and inviting, come-hither messages. These messages were about phone-sex or paid-sex, mistresses or girl friends of all shades and hues, black, white, Thai or Latino. Was this just another face of a society that could justifiably pride itself on its impeccable, flawless sense of order? Was this order only skin-deep? Was there a raging tumult of sex and passion waiting to explode or go bust (that pun is most certainly not unintended)? Was this just another side to this information society? Or was it merely an expression of an unhindered freedom of speech? Whatever it may be, one thing is clear that ‘sex’ is not a private affair in English society. It is something of a public performance, a way of demonstrating to others, more than oneself or one’s partner that you do care or do love. Later when I saw an endless stream of couples, young and not-so-young, hugging and kissing each other or coiled up in each other’s lap, unconcerned making an open display of the emotions or passions they either felt or never felt, I was surprised, less and less. Who were they trying to convince of the intensity of their feelings, themselves or others? It was almost as if the walls of bedrooms in several houses had collapsed all of a sudden and I was left peering inside or was it now, outside? The words of the thickset man behind the counter at Heathrow inevitably rang in my ears, ‘There’s no place in London as cheap as this.’ But the telephone booth appeared to suggest otherwise. Sex, it appeared to proclaim, was cheap; cheaper than the hotel-room where it could be bought and performed. It made me somewhat less guilty about the uncivilized way in which I had satiated my hunger earlier on in the day. The hunger that rises a little below the stomach is perhaps much more unsettling than the one that rises from it. 
Late in the evening, quite accidentally, I had turned in to BBC 2. Louis Theroux was cruising the streets of US again, in his inimitable style, searching for yet another subculture. And this time his cameras had trained themselves on Porn Industry in the US, picking up some lurid images that easily reminded me of the pictures I had seen inside the phone booth, earlier on in the evening.  It was sheer curiosity, of whichever kind you might say, that made me stay tuned in. Was I disappointed? Frankly, no Louis Theroux had managed to trick me in. Much before I could sit back, turning into an incorrigible voyeur, he had already slipped out of his position of narrator-commentator and become a subject himself. An aspirant model, hunting for an assignment that could, quite literally, help him ‘strip off’ all his talents.
He went ahead and got himself photographed in nude from one of the agencies that did talent hunting for the industry. It was quite bizarre! Perhaps, he was going too far in search of a journalistic story or was this his way of creating sympathy for his subject? Here were men and women, willing to risk everything they had, including their lives, by making ‘live performance love’ to just about anyone, all for what they called ‘great money.’ It was interesting to see how Louis was on the trail of subcultures in American society, when his society had far too many of its own thriving in its backyard. If every spectator were to become a participant and every voyeur, a victim, perhaps human world would have a much better understanding of itself than what it has today. These are the two faces of English society, one that makes ‘cheap sex’ available and the other that warns against the dangers of giving in to it.
Sex is an absorbing subject, but only for the great minds. Yes, someone like Freud could talk about it intelligently. For lesser beings like us, it is not a matter to be theorised, only to be performed and experienced. Or perhaps, one could digress, as we often do, when ‘sex’ is the subject and talk not of the performance, but of the post-office. It was only my first day in England and I was already looking for a post-office where I could buy a few aerograms to be able to write letters back home. It was, indeed, amazing the way in which I had suddenly found myself outside a post-office quite by chance. As I bent down to ask for the aerograms, I saw an Asian face looking up at me; a long face with buckteeth and hair blown back. Handing in a pack of ten aerograms at a concessional rate of one pound ninety, she surprised me by asking a personal question I least expected her to, “Are you from India?” When I told her that I was from Chandigarh and had just come in that day, her face did not light up. It fell rather unexpectedly as she mumbled, “I, too, am from Chandigarh. My parents live in Sector 35.” I told her that we, too, had stayed for long, not very far from her parents. Our conversation over, I came out. I do not think we are ever likely to meet again. Though we may not meet, I would perhaps always remember that a little way off the Belgrave Road is a post-office where a woman from Chandigarh sits behind the counter, selling stamps and envelops. It is strange how sometimes fleeting moments seal off bonds one may never be able to return to, ever. And repeating the name of Chandigarh had worked like a mantra. It had carried me back home almost instantly. Walking back to the hotel, I was already writing out the letter in my head. Back in the room, they just had to be copied down. There was so much to write and so little space within which I'd have to write it all. For a traveller in a foreign land, what he experiences always exceeds what he expresses and what he expresses is always much more than what he can ever make sense of. It is something like the excess baggage we all carry, hiding it from the prying eyes of the customs or the airline officials. When it comes to experiences, we can easily off-load it and say, ‘Well, I have nothing to hide and everything to declare.’
Much as you want to, you always find things to hide when you travel abroad. There are always things you like to stuff in those corners of your bags where no one can easily find them. Just as you press down secrets in your heart that threaten to break out into the open. One thing that I had not been able to declare to Christine Wilson was my pathetic ignorance about the computers. When in her letter she had sought to know which computer programme I used, Microsoft Word or Word Perfect, I simply didn't have the heart to tell her 'neither.' It was perhaps hard for her to imagine that there were people living in certain parts of the world who still managed life without the computers. Only on arriving in England was I to learn that professional life was, indeed, inconceivable without computer(s). How could I tell her that I had a certain dread of computers and that the very sight of the machine filled me with all kinds of unimaginable fears! While indicating my determined preference for the Microsoft World, I had not quite anticipated how my harmless lie would return to haunt me, one day. It was not much of a lie, really. Before starting from home, I had taken a crash course in computers from Roopinder, a friend. He had overestimated either his own ability to teach or mine to learn. Armed with a crash course but little practical experience of using computer, I had landed in Norwich, only to be given a Toshiba laptop. I still remember how triumphantly I had walked back to Norfolk TerraceA.03, laptop in one hand and the printer in another.
Though I had little understanding of computers, whenever I thought of acquiring a PC, it was none other than a laptop. Mohan Bhandari has a story on a young man whose childhood dream of becoming a poet had been soured by his poverty and he had ended up as a donkey-herd. It is perhaps not right for the mule-herds to dream of becoming poets. Nor is it quite right for someone mulish to dream of acquiring something as poetic as a laptop. I had visions of endless reams of papers rolling off the printer as I worked on the laptop through the night. So the moment I reached my flat, I cleared off the table and created the space where laptop could sit in all its splendid glory. I fixed up the wires as best I could, plugged the switch in and waited for the miracle to happen. Roopinder had warned me that I should not use the computer until I had read the instructions very carefully. Ignoring his cautious advice, I decided to press on ahead when it offered no resistance and instead obeyed all the commands I keyed in. I was already typing out a short story. Lo and behold!  My work had begun with a singular flourish. So overjoyed was I with this initial success that I could not simply wait to get through to the end of the story. I decided to take the printouts of the very first page I had so cleverly keyed in. Pressing the print command, I relaxed in my chair, waiting for the laser printer to show its magic. The printer ran full steam, but nothing came off it. I checked all the points and repeated the command. This time, a few jumbled letters spluttered off the printer and again it stopped. How could a mere printer fail me when I was so close to success! I simply refused to accept defeat and in my impatience pressed, I don’t really know, how many and which all commands. Even a child balks when he is given contradictory commands and this was, after all, a computer. It immediately went into a long sulk. Believe it or not, it just got into a logjam and stopped functioning. By now, signs of real worry had begun to appear on my brow. Beads of perspiration thickened as the prospect of having ruined a BCLT computer on my very first day of arrival in Norwich came back to haunt me. What would happen now? How would I face Christine? Where would I take the computer for repairs? All kinds of questions started hammering inside my head. Meanwhile, it flashed a sudden message, which dipped my spirits only further as it said, ‘Low battery.’ That moment I just wanted to run out of the room, into the wilderness of the forest outside. It was becoming impossible to stay closeted with this computer in the same room, any longer. I rushed out for some fresh air, thinking it just might help my mind or bring the computer back to life through some unexpected miracle; neither happened. On the contrary, as I was gingerly walking back to my room, half an hour later, I lay surrounded by all kinds of feverish, nightmarish images. I could see the computer going kaput right before my eyes, sparks flying out, my room and my flat on fire. And the next moment I heard Christine tell me, ‘Oh dear, I’m afraid, you’re being asked to return home.’ I’m sure people have had to face deportation for several reasons, but never for the kind of reasons I then imagined myself being deported for. Now, when I think about it, I can afford to laugh at it. But that moment it was a question of life and death. My blood pressure had suddenly plummeted and so had my confidence. More than the blood pressure, I was concerned about the fall of my confidence for it can sometimes help us sail through situations, which are otherwise hopeless. It was, after all, April 8. So the number eight had played its sinister role, again. It was hard to believe that this black numerical sign of Saturn had come all the way from India, tugging at my sleeves to this far-off land of the whites. Does our destiny travel with us? Do our superstitions and prejudices overleap themselves, travelling faster than we do? Is travelling a way of confirming one’s half-baked ideas or growing out of them? I am yet to know and discover.
Often when we travel to other cultures, we carry a cartload of stereotypes with us. We continue to look at the people through this invisible, myopic lens permanently grafted to our eyes. It is always more convenient to fit people into the categories we know rather than invent categories to fit our knowledge of people after we have known them. Besides, how does one know people well enough to be able to talk about them with a degree of certitude? Was it Eliot who said, “What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them! They have changed since then, but to pretend…” yes, when it comes to knowing people, one always has to pretend that one does know. My first meeting with Peter Bush, the Director of BCLT, was surprisingly informal I had been with him for barely ten minutes when he looked at his watch and declared, “How about some lunch?” It was still 12.30 p.m. and I was quite undecided. He thought my hesitation was a sign of affirmation. Coming out of his office and peeping into Christine’s, he asked her to join as well and together we walked down the long corridor of the Arts building, talking of translation and English weather. Of course, he did most of the talking and I, the listening. I was still at a stage where one listens more than one talks, and one observes more than one sees; something of a silent stage that a child goes through in the process of language learning.
As he was leading us into the Bowl, the campus restaurant, I noticed his impressively tall frame, which occasionally gave him a natural swagger as he walked. But that was not a sign of arrogance as I was to soon discover. Once in, he not only bought lunch for both of us but also carried our trays across to the table. Looking at him, I wonder if an Indian professor in a similar situation would have ever done what he had. Peter certainly had no professorial airs and graces and was remarkably unpretentious, quite the observe of what I had anticipated an average British professor to be. Where was the proverbial stiff upper lip or the somber, self-absorbed look, I wondered all to myself as Peter quizzed me about my other interests, apart from translation! His soft and benignly curious eyes often peered at me from behind a bespectacled face, wonderstruck, especially when I made some off-the-cuff comment, which to my discomfiture I did make quite often. It was my first ever meeting with a British professor and though he was disarmingly informal and courteous, I was certainly more self-conscious and guarded than was necessary. All along I was being cautions, avoiding an unfavourable impression upon him or Christine. It was, I suppose, this self-consciousness that often led me into the trap from which I was desperately trying to save myself. After we had finished our meals, I stood up, little realising that the tray had to be carried back to the kitchen. Halfway across the hall as I turned back, I saw Peter lifting my tray off the table. Do I need say what an acute embarrassment it was!
Without a word, Peter had made it known to me that while I was in Britain it won’t be a bad idea for me to practise a wee-bit of self-help. And this was the beginning of my education in the mores and customs of the English society. I was to learn in the days to come that self-help was not only an important part of table manners in a restaurant but almost a national attitude, practised on a much wider scale. It was perhaps the only survival kit that an advanced, competitive society puts at the disposal of its people to get through the daily business of living. Later, at every stage, I was to learn the importance of self-help. Whether it was the computing centre or the library, one had to know how to find one’s way or to get around things. A certain amount of basic techno-literacy was almost taken for granted. For instance, it was expected that once you were given your user number and a password, you knew exactly how to operate your e-mail account. (It took me good fifteen days to start using it without getting into many scrapes). Or walking into the library, you could not only sit in front of the computer but also access information on the books and periodicals available there (I had to seek Eliff’s intervention and that I did, after much hesitation, that lasted, if you please, only a little less than a month). Or that net surfing was as much your passion as it was anyone else’s. (I got to read The Tribune after a month and a half, first time on May 20). Perhaps it was hard for the English society to imagine that there were people in the world who were simply neo-literates in computer and almost illiterate when it came to its multiple operations. (Apparently, I’m not making any insinuations, only talking of my own peculiar case). Not that there was any dearth of information; it was everywhere. In catalogues, brochures, tables and assorted printed material, even on the tip of people’s tongue; only it rolled off the white tongues very rarely. The personal help was not given, unless it was actively and consciously sought. Having put everything down in black and white, it was as though the English had absolved themselves of the responsibility of sharing information through human agencies. That is when it dawned on me, for right reasons or wrong, that a society becomes advanced not when it invents things or starts using them in daily life, but only when it begins to rely less upon the spoken word and more upon the written word. It’s the transition of a society from the inchoate oral stage to the orderly materialization of the written stage that actually puts it way ahead of others. As people begin to speak to each other more and more through the written documents such as books, reports, diaries, newspapers and recorded histories, they also begin to speak less and less to each other. What makes people more productive is exactly what makes them more impersonal, too. Meeting Peter has been quite thought provoking. Walking back to my flat, I’m already turning over in my mind the possibility of fighting long spells of silence that lie ahead, of course, with black ink spilling over reams and reams of white paper.
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(Excerpts from TO ENGLAND, WITHOUT APOLOGIES: A Travelogue)