Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Technology and humanity

DH photo-illustration: Ashwin HaldipurTechnology is advancing by the nanosecond, sweeping us into the tide of change. New gizmos and gadgets are radically transforming our lives. Electronic devices are our closest companions today. Wherever we go, the network follows. Social networks in the virtual world are overshadowing reality. We have no time to look at or speak to each other, though we tweet and text eternally. Recent research in Birmingham Business School (UK) shows that frequent posters of selfie photos or self-portraits on social networks alienate those close to them, thus weakening supportive human bonds. Is interaction between people and lifeless gadgets becoming more important than connections between human beings? Are we placing more value on technology and prepared to offer less to each other?
Rapid strides in technology improves our lives and offers hope for a better tomorrow. While scientific advances can have a backlash, technology can also help us find new remedies. Infections resistant to antibiotics, for example, are a matter of growing concern. But a new gene-editing system developed by scientists in MIT promises to selectively kill bacteria carrying harmful genes that cause antibiotic resistance and disease.  Human technology interferes with fragile ecosystems. This can trigger floods, landslides and other disasters. But technology is also helping concerned people join hands and volunteer for rescue work. It’s up to us to choose how to use technology.
In the good or bad old days, people cared and looked out for each other. Everyone cultivated their neighbours, colleagues and members of their communities. These people were a priceless social support network; sharing information and lending a sympathetic hand in times of need. Apartment dwellers in our metros now give murderous looks if you smile at them. Run out of sugar? Why disturb dragons next-door, when you can order grocery on-line and get doorstep delivery? Searching for an unfamiliar address? Locals can send you on wild goose chases. Why bother for random oafs, when the magical technology of Google maps lies in the palm of your hand? Jobs are no longer places where people grow roots, and colleagues become lifelong friends. The rat-race is everything, and our hunger to acquire expensive gadgets drives us.
High-tech playthings are radically altering our perceptions. They create the illusion of being connected, while isolating us. We all have thousands of ‘friends’ on social networking sites. But how many do we actually know beyond fleeting virtual contacts? Would we really bother to do more than click a mouse for each-other? When my father passed away last year, members of a local internet-based network of women professionals sent their condolences via sms and e-mails. Though we have met many times in real life also, only one of them personally met me. Social media is a delightfully convenient way to make us feel righteous and uplifted, without getting involved. All we have to do to demonstrate our concern is click the ‘like’ button or forward some e-mail, before we move on to the next cause of the moment. Meanwhile, one wonders about all those dazzling social lives on Facebook. If they really were enjoying life eternally, would they have so much time for Facebook?
Technology is a neutral tool in itself. What we can get from it, depends upon how we choose to use it. Social media can make us indifferent and even dehumanize us. As a wise person said, people are meant to be loved, and things are meant to be used. Much of today’s troubles arise because we love things and use people. But weren’t enough people callous and self-absorbed even in the technology-free past? If we want to, we can also use technology to draw people closer and increase intimacy. That’s what my school friend did, when she made a long internet phone call from the other side of the planet. Those words of solace from a friend who genuinely cared, compensated for the many who had only beeps and pings to spare.
Thanks to technology, you don’t have to be consistently helpful, caring or jovial any more to have a social life. Witty and enlightened conversation? It’s simpler to post selfies with your tongue sticking out and attract hundreds of appreciative ‘likes’ from virtual ‘friends’. Cocooned in an illusion of popularity, we are busy clicking, tweeting, pinging and beeping. We won’t notice if the man walking next to us on the street gets mugged or mowed down by a bus. People have been known to get run over by trains and cars, while they were busy on their cell phones. We have never been so constantly connected, and never so alone.
The virtual world is distorting our lives in the most surprising ways. Before we jump to blame corrupting western influences and praise our own culture, let’s make a reality check. According to recent news reports, a Bareilly college student decided that a woman from Kerala whom he met on Facebook, was better suited than his real parents to be his ‘mother’. The lady electronically transferred Rs22,000 into his account, and the young man used it to go and stay with her.
 If you think this is a crazy isolated incident, think again. Indian marriages are routinely made not in heaven, but in matrimonial portals.  Educated young Indians are too busy checking WhatsApp and Viber to compose an attractive and relevant profile. If they don’t care to write a few meaningful sentences about themselves, one can only imagine how they will treat their future partners and marriages. Everyone knows that Indian men lag behind orang-utans in the behaviour and intellect departments. Today’s tech-savvy Indian ladies are striving to outshine men in every way. Here are a few exact quotes (including bad grammar etc.) from actual profiles of professionally qualified young Indian women on marriage websites:
“Hi. am a v. simple gal doing M. A in English. I love 2 hv spicy foods, spending tym with frends&family, lstng music, dancing etc.”
 Brevity is the soul of wit for this 24-year-old woman doctor, whose complete bio note reads; ”i like France. I like saudi arabia.i like to watch movies”.
The woman who writes this one-liner, is refreshingly honest: “I am a Fun Loving Person who don't prefer to think much before doing anything.”
Another emancipated young lady writes this sparkling one-liner to define her personality: “I love to do shopping, gossiping, eating, watching latest movies.” Such profiles are a dime-a-dozen, making one wonder how many understand the importance of marriage in fulfilling the human need for intimacy and emotional support. A healthy marriage can beat the stresses of today’s hectic lifestyle by binding two equal partners in a caring and nurturing relationship. But can such technology-dazed young people spare the effort and attention needed to build a healthy understanding with others? Relationships today are being made and trashed with sms, tweets and Facebook status updates. Can such a shallow approach enable people to seriously deal with life’s problems?
 Will future generations be able to strike the right balance between isolation and connectivity? Many toddlers in middle class Indian families are hooked on to shiny, noisy gadgets. Parents boast how kids can operate laptops before learning to speak sentences.  Even underprivileged domestic helpers use cell phones to amuse their children, while going about their chores. Such children tend to mimic the behaviour of characters in cartoons and video games, and confuse the imaginary world of electronic sounds and flashing images with reality. Children are spending more time viewing screens, than interacting with other children. This hampers the growth of their human relationships, and affects their development into responsible adults. Busy making money and keeping up with the twitterati, parents have little time to draw their children close and find out what is going on in their lives.
News today travels at the speed of light. Images of bomb blasts, beheadings, epidemics and war are served every morning with our breakfast. Technology thus interweaves violence into our daily lives. Are violent TV programmes and video games behind today’s culture of blood and mayhem? Or is the issue more complex? Electronic images aren’t monsters empowered to corrupt normal humans into killing machines. Well-produced TV programmes can educate and spread positive values while entertaining children. Video games can develop children’s motor skills and alertness, prevent them from feeling bored and lonely, and falling into bad company. Violence on screens is only part of a larger problem which makes children today more aggressive.  Rather than policing children, adults can proactively guide them to make the right choices. And leading by example is the best way. As parents, we can try to spend more quality time understanding and engaging our children, instead of posting selfies and status updates.
We don’t yet live in a world of unfeeling robots. Even when we surf the net or watch TV, the content has been created by humans, and is meant to interest other humans. We may connect with electronic signals to social networking sites in cyberspace. But we exchange texts and images with real people, even if they are not physically before us. Die-hard technology freaks haven’t yet completely forsaken human connections. Those cell phone calls and messages are made to other humans. On-line game players may spend hours in imaginary worlds. But they interact with fellow gamers there, and together they influence those worlds. Most LAN, WAN, and internet activity still needs human inputs although signals are transmitted by machines.
The future may change with advances in automation and artificial intelligence. Intelligent machines are already learning to pilot planes and cars, babysit children and prepare food. Someday, machines may fuel the main thrust to our progress. Robots could replace human friends, bosses, children and lovers. Robots could program themselves to evolve intelligence and abilities superior to humans, rendering humanity useless and powerless. They could turn into monsters out to exterminate their original human creators.
Such terrifying scenarios could, but need not necessarily translate into reality. Humanity can stay on the right track if we do not forsake our morals and principles in order to get ahead. Progress and ethics do not have to be mutually exclusive. Moral people need not be impractical dreamers. And crooked means need not be the only path to solid achievements. Striking the right balance and showing concern for our fellow human beings can be one route to improving our lives.
We have every right to try to fill our brief lives with joy. Technology opens up multiple worlds, adding fun and excitement to our existence. These worlds can be closely linked to reality, such as groups of former school and college mates. These worlds may be imaginary and fantastic, such as gaming and TV shows. Whichever options we choose to explore, we can gain new information and perspectives, and also simply enjoy ourselves. Learning, being productive and having fun need not be contradictory. Technology can broaden our perceptions in countless ways, helping unleash our creative potential. The best ideas and innovations are most likely to thrive when we have some liberty to explore and play with new concepts and experiences.
Today’s technology constantly swamps us with information. The noise and confusion can overwhelm us. We need to think clearly and choose how to best use our time and resources. When faced with conflicting options, we need to evade loud but misguiding voices vying for our attention. We must cultivate healthy scepticism and not believe everything we see and hear in cyberspace. Once we do that, technology can offer wonderful rewards.
By overcoming our self-centeredness, we can use technology to understand others, their lives and thought processes. Understanding others is about listening carefully to what they have to say, and analysing its significance. This helps us to be better parents, employees, bosses and spouses. We will also know how to persuade others to our way of thinking. This isn’t only about goody-goody altruism. If we can learn how other people think, the world can be ours. Ad and marketing men are already using social media to identify markets, and figure out the most appealing and convincing approach to sell Mt Everest. Terrorists are using social media to coordinate and plan attacks, and spread fear among the populace. Who do we want to be?

Technology can help us understand others and be more innovative and effective in whatever we choose to do. It’s up to us to sustain our own principles. As Isaac Asimov rightly said, technology is but a neutral tool at our command. If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them.
This is published in Sunday Herald

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: book review

This well-crafted tale examines the essence of what it means to be a family. The author explores the exquisite beauty and human flaws of parental love. Where does sibling rivalry make way for deep loyalties?
How different are we from other creatures, who also have their own distinctive personalities and thought processes? What are the deeper significances of being human? Incisive yet tempered with gentle humour, this Booker-shortlisted novel probes the connections among all sentient beings.

Rosemary, an American college student, seems yet another intelligent but socially awkward youngster. Her brushes with the law and getting into scrapes with wayward companions, her references to her trying-hard-to-appear-normal family do not initially unsettle us. Indeed the author succeeds in making us smile, and even laugh. But they create the preamble for some startling revelations.

“My parents persisted in pretending we were a close-knit family, a family who enjoyed a good heart-to-heart, a family who turned to each other in times of trial. In light of my two missing siblings, this was an astonishing triumph of wishful thinking; I could almost admire it. At the same time, I am very clear in my own mind. We were never that family.”

As is true of many families, antagonism in Rosemary’s family “comes wrapped in layers of code, sideways feints, full deniability.” Their efforts to maintain peace make us smile in recognition. “No more politics, Grandma Donna had said as a permanent new rule, since we wouldn’t agree to disagree and all of us had access to cutlery.”

Rosemary’s psychologist father turns out to be a propagator of “science’s excesses, like cloning or whisking up a bunch of genes to make your own animal.” “Was my father kind to animals? I thought so as a child, but I knew less about the lives of lab rats then.”

Rosemary’s father makes his family part of an already dubious and discredited experiment. He raises Rosemary along with an adopted sister named Fern, ostensibly to compare and contrast their developing abilities. Rosemary’s childhood world is ripped apart with the sudden disappearance of Fern. Only in page 99 is the truth finally revealed.

Fern is a chimpanzee. While her mother regresses into mourning, her older brother Lowell no longer believes that their parents’ love was unconditional. “He’d been told to care for Fern as a sister. He’d done so, only to see her cast from the family.”

Lowell nurses deep resentment and finally leaves home for good to seek his sister Fern, and champion the cause of mistreated animals. Rosemary realises that she “had been valuable only in the context of my sister.” One day, she was the subject of study.
“The next, I was just a little girl, strange in her way, but of no scientific interest to anyone.”

Rosemary finally leaves behind the ignominy of her ‘chimpanzee girl’ past when she enters a far-off university. Her roommate Scully echoes her sentiments when she confides, “You know how everything seems so normal when you’re growing up, and then comes the moment when you realise that your whole family is nuts.”

Are humans truly superior to other animals? “Dad’s experiments suggested that contrary to our metaphors, humans are much more imitative than the other apes... Human children overimitate, reproducing each step (in a puzzle) regardless of its necessity.

There is some reason why, now that it’s our behaviour, being slavishly imitative is superior to being thoughtful and efficient, but I forget exactly what that reason is.” There’s a hilarious reference to humans’ capability to govern themselves. “The only way to make sense of the United States Congress, my father told me once, is to view it as a two-hundred-year-long primate study. He didn’t live to see the ongoing revolution in our thinking regarding nonhuman animal cognition. But he wasn’t wrong about Congress.”

Rosemary observes that every time we humans announce that “here is the thing that makes us unique — our featherless bipedality, our tool-using, our language — some other species comes along to snatch it away.”

This novel is memorable for raising far-reaching questions, for daring us to push the boundaries, and reconsider our sense of being ‘superior’ human beings. All the characters, including chimpanzee Fern, are portrayed with compassion. The author’s sense of humour makes this a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Some passages discussing the failings of humans, references to scientific laboratories, farms and slaughterhouses, the indignation at those who profit from the misery of animals do weigh heavy and can come across as propaganda. “In 2004, Jacques Derrida said that a change was under way. Torture damages the inflicter as well as the inflicted.

It’s no coincidence that one of the Abu Ghraib torturers came to the military directly from a job as a chicken processor.” While this enhances the overall impact of the message the author intends to convey, it also makes us conscious that there is indeed a message which sometimes overshadows the narrative.
This review is published in Sunday Herald

Saturday, November 08, 2014

UNESCO World Heritage Sites photo exhibition

Call for entries for the Photo Exhibition on UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India from January 9th to 11th, 2015 at Alliance Francaise de Bangalore 
After the great success of the five Editions of seminars , two editions of our photo exhibitions and the publication of the book ‘The Great Outdoors’, Essen Communications  is organising a Photo Exhibition on UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India from January 9th to 11th, 2015 at Alliance Francaise de Bangalore. 
The proposed photo exhibition will showcase an array of more than 120 photographs on World Heritage Sites by photographers, heritage buffs and various Tourism Boards. The event will be attended by travel agents, tour operators adventure enthusiasts, photographic fraternity, expatriates, corporate executives, educational institutions, stakeholders in tourism and the public.                                                         
List of UNESCO Heritage Sites in India is furnished below for reference. (For further details refer to the website on
 Bihar- Mahabodhi Temple Complex, Bodh Gaya
Agra - Agra Fort, Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri,
In and around Delhi- Red Fort Complex, Humayun’s Tomb, Qutab Minar & its monuments Goa – Churches and convents
Gujarat- Champaner-Pavgadh Archaeological Park, Rani –ki-Vav at Patan,
Karnataka- Group of monuments at Hampi & Pattadakal
Maharashtra- Ajanta Caves, Ellora Caves, Elephanta Caves, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus
Madhya Pradesh – Group of monuments at Khajuraho, Rock shelters at Bhimbetka, Buddhist monuments at Sanchi
Orissa-Sun Temple, Konarak
Rajasthan – Hill Forts of Rajasthan( Chittogarh, Kumbalgarh, Ranthambore, Amber, Jaisalmer, Gagran) , Jantar Mantar at Jaipur,
Tamil Nadu- Great Living Chola Temples (Brihadeshwar Temple, Gangaikondacholapuram, Darasuram in Thanjavur dt ), Monuments at Mammallapuram,
Natural sites- Kaziranga National Park, Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, Sunderbans National Park, Nanda Devi & Valley of Flowers National Park, Keoldeo National Park, Great Himalayan National Park Conservation Area,
Western Ghats (in Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu & Maharashtra)
Mountain Railways of India

For details of participation contact:
Email: or call 094483 63336/ 09880443532 

Monday, September 15, 2014

It's a rich man's world

The inequality between the urban rich and the poor slum dwellers has been continuously rising in India's cities. This chasm is growing, despite increased welfare programmes... In today’s world, humanity is evolving into advanced new avatars — the rich, and those who fear or worship them. Step out onto any of our pothole-riddled, garbage and sewage-swamped streets, and you will encounter pinnacles of the evolutionary process. Yes, we’re talking of those magnificent Indians in cars broader than roads, costing more than the annual GDP of a typical tehsil. Our progress is stupendous indeed, for such affluent Indians are more commonplace than public toilets or parks.

Money is today’s new religion, and the focus of our existence. It gives us a reason to live, defines our place in society, and inspires us with a sense of purpose. Best of all, more people are now making more money than ever before.

Society today is growing more open and inclusive. Control over wealth is no longer confined to ruling aristocrats who enjoyed traditional privileges and status due to their noble or ignoble pedigrees. In the bad old days, royal and aristocratic dynasties controlled military and political power. Their wealth came mainly from the control of fertile land, and the labour of expendable peasants and slaves. Those retrograde snobs zealously guarded their wealth and privileges. They ostracised the poor populace and upstarts who chanced into wealth.
As civilisation evolved, a new breed of entrepreneurs rose from among the masses. They refined the techniques of transforming riches into power, and power into more riches. They discovered the truth that continues to govern our world. Anyone with enough money can gain prominence, influence and supremacy over others. These innovative people discovered how to channelise available resources into profit-making ventures, which in turn generated more wealth. Modern market economies evolved from this basic principle. You no longer need to be a blue blooded aristocrat to aspire to live in grand mansions, flaunt grand clothes and jewellery, acquire businesses or win popular votes. Let’s sing praises to our democratic polity where anyone can be elected to power. People like us, too, can hope to become leaders and make a fortune. If we are too squeamish to mastermind scams, we can at least follow the frugal example set by a former chief minister who reportedly had her official residence fitted with 31 ACs, 15 desert coolers, 16 air purifiers, 25 heaters and 12 geysers. 
Modern day demigods of wealth defy nature and turn age-old conventions on their heads. Why bother to work so hard to change the world? They use their money wisely to transform themselves instead. They boldly reconstruct ugly noses, and pay surgeons to remove excess fat caused by gluttonous gorging. It’s passé to simply buy high-funda educational qualifications to get that stamp of intelligence. The super-rich will buy up engineering or medical colleges, and print their own degrees instead. Kickbacks, bribes, buyouts, embezzlement and corruption on colossal scales, need true guts and grit to pull off. Plotting mega scams is challenging work, and only for the superior and daring elite. When pitted against these ‘best’, the ‘rest’ of us lesser mortals can only cower in awe and terror. How they go forth proudly, as though they own the roads, and even the country, with its floundering economy! 
Wealth equals success and commands respect in public perception. In these progressive times, even ordinary crooks can dream of reaching a holier-than-others status with the help of riches. All one needs to join the privileged club is the cunning and gumption to make megatons of money.
As the rich are getting richer than ever before, the standard of living of lesser mortals is also rising. Personal cellphones are a necessity rather than an undreamt of luxury for domestic helpers, carpenters and their ilk. Neighbourhood vegetable and milk vendors now do their rounds on motorcycles instead of going on bicycles or on foot. However, while the rich are becoming wealthier, the gulf between them and the poorest sections of society is increasing phenomenally. While economic activity is growing and more wealth is being generated in the world, it is not being equally enjoyed by everyone. As Pope Francis so aptly observed, “It is increasingly intolerable that financial markets are shaping the destiny of peoples, rather than serving their needs, or that the few derive immense wealth from financial speculation while the many are deeply burdened by the consequences.” 

Growing divide
This divide between the haves and have-nots is defined by the huge difference in their respective quality of life. Those with more money obviously live better and more fulfilling lives, enjoying superior homes, healthcare, education and luxuries. But the presence of many poverty-stricken people around us affects us all. Poverty leads to malnutrition, diseases, drug addiction, crimes, illiteracy and domestic violence. People mired in such distressing conditions find it difficult to rise up, and this in turn leads to more poverty. The side-effects spread beyond the miseries of these unfortunate poor souls. Property prices are reduced by the proximity of slums. Poverty leads to an increase in crimes, and this fuels the need for more policing and jails. Slums breed diseases, which can spread to those living nearby in posh settlements as well. More public money needs to be spent on doles, and to maintain order and provide basic amenities among the growing numbers of poor people. Poverty breeds social unrest and political upheavals, and can threaten democracy and stability. In the course of history, Tsars have been exterminated, and kings and queens beheaded, as fallouts of popular uprisings. The cadres of Naxalites and other militants in rural India are often driven into anti-social and anti-state activities because of poverty. 
These unfortunate poor people are born with as much innate intelligence and capabilities as their more privileged neighbours. Sadly, poverty holds them back from improving their education, and ill health dogs them because they cannot afford nutritious food or optimum healthcare. They are thus unable to make the best use of their inborn human potential, and the hidden cost to society as a whole is beyond all measure.

The inequality between the urban rich and the poor slum dwellers has been continuously rising in India’s cities. Now, the rising gap between the rich and poor in rural India is surprising economists. This chasm is growing, despite increased government welfare programmes in villages. Inequality levels, computed from the National Sample Survey on Household Consumption Expenditure for 2011-12, shows that though the proportion of the poor declined between 2004-05 and 2011-12, the divide between the rich and the poor increased for the first time in rural areas in almost 35 years. This gap also peaked to an all-time high in India’s cities. 

Points to ponder
Why is it that in this nation of over one billion, only a tiny percentage of people benefit from a major chunk of the income? Why do a handful of people enjoy palatial homes with every conceivable luxury, while innumerable migrant labourers living in the shanties around them consider modern sanitation and plumbing, clean toilets and pure drinking water as luxuries? 
One reason for the growing divide is the ongoing migration of rural people who seek better opportunities in the cities. They do earn more in the cities than they may have as landless labourers or marginal farmers in their own villages. Unfortunately, that money is not enough to get them decent food, housing or education for their children in the expensive big cities. 

Inflation is another reason why poor peoples’ money buys them less and less. Many of them end up sleeping on footpaths, or setting up homes under plastic sheets propped up on poles. The prices of food items too are shooting through the roof, making even basic essentials like potatoes, onion and milk unaffordable for the poorest Indians. Thanks to inflation, the government’s treasuries are being emptied on doles and sops. The same concessions which were affordable a year or two ago, are now being cut back. Reduced government subsidies have led to higher prices of cooking gas and petrol. This has directly and indirectly hit the poorest people the most. Funds which could have been used for building infrastructure are now being spent to somehow maintain the poor at their present level.

Another problem is corruption, which compromises the government’s welfare measures. Funds meant for the poor are too often siphoned off into the pockets of middlemen, and corrupt officials at every level. Though colossal sums are allocated by the government for welfare schemes, corruption prevents benefits and doles from reaching those who need them most. 

Advances in technology can hit the poorest of the poor the hardest. The middle classes have the time and money to master computers and new technology, and this knowledge increases their earning capacity. The poorest of the poor are too busy struggling to get a roof over their heads and food to fill their bellies. They have no time, energy or means to improve their education, and have to confine themselves to less skilled, menial jobs which pay less. Meanwhile, technological advances enable machines to do more of these menial jobs, and there are fewer such jobs to be had. This is how the poor continue to lag behind because they are less educated and skilled. 

We are too ready to blame the poor for their miserable plight, just as we rush to worship the rich for their wealth and status. We harshly dismiss the poor for their shiftlessness and lack of enterprise. After all, isn’t wealth the reward reserved for only those who strive tirelessly to gain it? Others among us make snap judgements against the rich. Would the poor be so miserable if the wealthy were less selfish? If only the wealthy were more compassionate, and made more efforts to help the less privileged! However, such ideas are too simplistic. They do not take into account the importance of sound government policies for all-round growth and development at the macro level.

Ethic of reciprocity

Various religions have attempted to explain these gross inequalities. Many have offered solace by saying that it is the natural order of things ordained by higher powers. But is it our fate or past karma alone that defines our wealth and worldly comforts, or the lack of it? Conversely, religions also advocate the virtues of compassion, charity and benevolence towards all less fortunate and privileged than us. Visionaries and saints have always urged rulers to mitigate the plight of the poor and to govern according to the principles of justice, impartiality and altruism. 
The fault does not always lie in our stars, but also in our own attitudes. Making easy money, not struggling to earn it, is today’s success mantra. In our rush to keep up with the rat race and acquire material wealth, we neglect our spiritual and human sides. Our greed and increasing lack of moral scruples to get rich quick makes us forget that money is not an end in itself. 

Misery is sure to overwhelm us, if we allow money to rule our lives. Money, when used wisely, is a good servant. But it can be a terrible master. People who are slaves to money study courses not because they are interested, but which they hope will make them rich. Money rules their choice of career, life partner and their friendships. They constantly compare themselves with others, lack confidence in themselves, and are jealous of anyone they perceive to be doing better. Their lives are ruled by inflated egos, avarice, and discontent, and all joy and mental peace is banished from their dismal, self-absorbed lives. The overriding compulsion to make money makes them blind to the immense joys of family, friendships, good health, peace of mind, and the beauty of nature. There are some people so poor that all they have to call their own in this world is just money.

When we spend more and more money on our personal desires, the returns diminish. Owners of several cars or mansions are unlikely to grow proportionately happier if they acquire many more of the same things. True joy can come if we also use our money to spread sunshine among those around us. A gold biscuit stashed away in a vault will bring less real happiness than spending the same sum on a holiday with loved ones, or sponsoring the education of a poor child. When we have enough for ourselves, sharing and helping those less fortunate can bring us priceless spiritual rewards. It is next to impossible for ordinary people like us to radically change the world. But we can make a difference by devoting some of our time, energy and resources to help others who are less fortunate. As a wise person rightly said, there is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.
My essay is published in Sunday Herald

Monday, July 21, 2014

Many Roads Through Paradise: Book Review

This anthology of literary voices from Sri Lanka offers a unique   Many Roads through Paradise: An Anthology of Sri Lankan Literature

Many Roads Through Paradise; An anthology of Sri Lankan Literature
Edited by; Shyam Selvadurai       Penguin               Rs 499/-                Pp 493

This anthology of literary voices from Sri Lanka offers a unique “opportunity to know a country and its various cultures in a holistic way.” In a war torn land where people are trying to heal deep wounds in the aftermath of widespread devastation, the anthologist hopes to provide “an opportunity to build bridges across the divided communities.” This literary bouquet will excite readers everywhere, by offering an intricate mosaic depicting Sri Lanka’s peoples and their cultures. Translations from Tamil and Sinhala are also included to give a faithful representation of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and literary diversity. For Indian readers, this collection shows how similar we are beneath the superficial differences. It also serves as a warning, portraying the dire consequences, the stupendous human toll, that results when neighbouring linguistic and religious communities sharing the same homeland push their differences to the point of fratricide.
The selections are grouped to show the build-up of social evils and events leading to intensifying conflict. The opening poem, The Chariot and the Moon by Mahakavi, portrays with powerful intensity the fate of youths of lowly caste, “who spread their wings to touch the moon” only to fall before the “frenzied passion” of people who consider their fellow human beings to be inferior. Our Valavu, by Vimala Ganeshanathan rekindles memories of old Jaffna, when life was peaceful, and “thieves were few”. As foreign rulers converted locals to Christianity, there sprang up eccentric hybrid names combining foreign names with the local Tamil ones. But in this melting pot of cultures with the “overlapping paints of Portuguese, Dutch and British rule, the American missionaries could not make a dent in the caste system.” Let’s Chat in the Moonlight shows how the social evil of untouchability is deeply ingrained even in the souls of moderate intellectuals who publicly preach against the practice.
The Perfection of Giving is rife with irony and satire, showing how the haves oppress the have-nots while professing morality and piety. “Big Auntie is always talking about giving,” says a little child, “but she’s not going to give Kusuma even a New Year present... Big Auntie is very mean.” The Hour When the Moon Weeps shows how lifelong oppression makes a basically good and sincere man want to take another’s life. “Thoughts of his elder and younger sons and of his wife who lay abandoned and later died in his hut, began to emerge. His life’s purpose after they had passed away, surged up in his mind as well. He must kill Mr. Hassan tonight.” The Rag by Nihal de Silva is “a toxic portrait of class rage turned inward and outwards,” which precipitate into the first and second JVP insurrections.
Several of these stories and poems deal with the plight of people dispossessed of their homes by war. In Cheran’s poem Cousin, “Upon ripped and fragmented land,
          men who hold no attachment to it
          nor kinship,
          squat, holding weapons.”
The House in Jaffna by Isankya Kodithuwakku is about patriotism, nostalgia and disenchantment. Through all his years as an expatriate who fled to England to escape the war back home, Mr. Nadarajah dreams of returning to his beloved Jaffna. News reports of a peace deal make him leave behind a well-paid job and comfortable life to head back home. But the reality of post-war Jaffna shatters all his hope and joy. “Yes, he would be able to get rid of the patches of green mildew on the ceiling and even fix the sagging. And yes, he could buy furniture for the house and even rebuild the temple so he could walk to it twice a day. But that splash of the bucket being let down into the well, it would never be quite the same splash because the hands that let it down were now too different. And even more than that, the ears that lay in bed and listened to that splash were too different. Mildew could be taken away from ceilings, but never from hearts and minds.”
The pieces in this collection explore every upheaval that has made Sri Lanka what it is today. From insurrections to the tsunami, from civil war to riots and excesses by the IPKF, these stories touch upon them all. In Yasmine Gooneratne’s words:
                                “The joys of childhood, friendships of our youth
                                Ravaged by pieties and politics,
                                Screaming across our screens, her agony
                                At last exposed, Sri Lanka burns alive.”
These are also stories of human beings and their experiences in troubled times. Child soldiers abandoning promising academic careers to end up biting a cyanide capsule; women who go to the Gulf to slave as maids; the schoolgirl Krishanthy, who was gangraped and murdered in 1996 by six Sri Lankan Army soldiers, after she was returning from her A-level exams; the widow who weeps for her dead soldier husband; the moderate politician whose pleas for peace talks are shattered by a deadly bomb blast; of feisty Burgher families who enjoy living and loving; their stories are voiced here.

This must-read collection brings to life the complex mix of beauty, human sentiments and fear that defines life in modern Sri Lanka.
This review is published in Sunday Herald