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

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

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The great Indian herd mentality

Are we as a society guilty of herding together within the confines of mainstream mediocrity?
Don’t we, like the proverbial crabs, pull down anyone who dares to be better, back into our shallow intellectual buckets? 
Did an eminent Indian hit the nail on the head by reportedly stating that 90 per cent of our countrymen are idiots?

We rush to worship mediocrity, and are suspicious of anyone with superior abilities. DH photo
Is it true that average Indians do not have the perceptiveness or determination to rise above casteism, corruption, communalism, rigged exams and everything else that prevents us from being a more advanced and prosperous society?
 We happily delude ourselves into believing that ‘we are like this only’. Poverty, garbage, farmers’ suicides and bribery are unquestionably accepted as part of our existence. 
We prefer to do what everyone else does, and uphold the status quo. 
It’s socially unacceptable to make optimum use of our intelligence, or strive to radically improve our circumstances.

Change is scary, and therefore taboo. Safety lies in siding with the majority, and crouching in our self-created ruts.

We rush to worship mediocrity, and are suspicious of anyone with superior abilities. We pin our hopes on good-looking young ‘leaders’ from prominent lineages, glossing over their lack of intrinsic merits and accomplishments. 
We hero-worship match-fixing cricketers and can’t have enough of B-grade movies or pulp books patched together by hack writers. This is how things are, and this is how we are convinced things will continue to be.

If someone dares to push for genuine change and improvement, we systematically close ranks to shut him out, or gang up to stifle his voice. If one from among us shines in any field, our collective herd reaction shows the depths of pettiness to which we can sink.As friends and neighbours, we raise our claws and fangs to belittle the achievements of our former friend.We then either socially ostracise him, or show him off hoping some of the glory will rub on to us. If we can’t snuff them out, we pretend superlatives cannot exist.

But, does popular appeal alone justify commonplace mediocrity?There’s nothing wrong in being average, which simply means normal or usual. The problems arise when we are content to mindlessly follow the herd without applying our own normal talents and intelligence for growth and change.

We need to remember that ‘normal’, ‘average’ or ‘usual’ are not absolute and ironclad.Once upon a time, it was perfectly normal for Indian widows to be burnt on the funeral pyres of their husbands. ‘Witches’ were routinely burnt on the stake in ‘civilised’ Europe, and the Spanish Inquisition was an accepted part of life. Average citizens of ancient Rome frequently enjoyed the spectacle of gladiators being mauled to death by hungry lions. Slavery, plagues, apartheid and famines were normal and usual experiences of average people in various times and societies.

In several respects, today’s normal and average is definitely an improvement over that of the past. 
Daily life for ordinary people has improved because of the efforts of pathbreaking thinkers, scientists and leaders. 
The unsung efforts of ordinary people like us has also contributed to our evolution, and improved the average quality of life in the course of time. 
When India gained independence, the average Indian did not live beyond his 40s. Today’s average Indian can expect to live well into his late 60s or 70s.A few decades ago, India’s hungry multitudes depended on food grains supplied by developed nations.While hunger continues to exist among today’s Indians, our average middle class citizens are eating well to the point of obesity.
Humanity has slowly but surely progressed since the dark ages, and we can look forward to a better tomorrow. 
But our dream of a rosier future will become reality only if each of us tries our best to make it come true.

Follow the crowd

The Great Indian Herd Mentality is a major factor pulling us all back into the mediocre and substandard dung heap. 
We consider ourselves to be far more intelligent than fellow bipeds, quadrupeds, arthropods, amoeba and other creatures that populate our planet. Yet, like other animals, when we superior Homo sapiens see a crowd moving somewhere, we blindly plunge in and do what everyone else is doing, without bothering to understand why.

Everyone cheats, so we also try to cheat when we think we can get away with it. Students cheat at exams, while teachers cheat students by not taking classes and diluting the quality of their lectures.
Housewives haggle and undercut vegetable sellers, and vegetable sellers inflate prices and cheat housewives. Property owners and entrepreneurs undervalue their assets to cheat the government by paying lower taxes. 

Shiftless and bribe-loving babus, spouses cheating on each other, corrupt netas, shady businessmen, unethical journalists, job aspirants with fake certificates; we all cheat and lie in some way or another. No wonder we are a corruption-riddled nation.
Our herd mentality pulls us down in many other ways.
We staunchly believe that what’s good for our neighbours, brother-in-law or boss, must be good for us too.This drags us neck-deep into many a pot of soup or sambhar.Parents shove their offspring into engineering and business schools simply because their friends are doing it. They don’t care about the child’s individual talents or aptitude.They don’t care that some of our engineering graduates end up being unemployable, or that all MBAs, even those from IIMs, don’t inevitably get plum campus placements.We are so obsessed with somehow grabbing prized qualifications for our children that we pay astronomical sums to buy them that coveted piece of paper from teaching shops of dubious repute. Who cares if such doctors or commercial pilots do not get adequate training?The distant threat of botched up surgeries or plane crashes don’t bother us as long as the victims are people we don’t know.
The Great Indian Herd Mentality shines through when Ponzi scheme promoters conjure up one magical money-minting scheme after another.People like us race to deposit their life savings, only to lose all to the next big scam.Whenever the stock markets move up in an upward cycle, everyone wants to grab a piece of the action and make as much easy money as they can.Smart investors cash in while the going is good, while gullible followers of the herd enter the market at high prices and incur losses. Then they blame the government for everything that goes wrong in their lives.

Hard-nosed businessmen don’t always fare better than the aam janata in the herd mentality department. 
One start-up comes up with a winning idea, and dozens of copycats follow suit with nothing new to offer. So we have droves of ‘me too’ matchmaking portals, travel websites, social networking sites and more. Mall after mall is constructed and then shut down in our city. 
Then the recently built building is demolished to construct yet another mall in the same location.
Many such ill-conceived commercial ventures are bound to fail when promoters mindlessly follow the trend.
Precious money and resources are thus thoughtlessly wasted by blind followers of the herd.

We are social beings, and it is but natural for us to reach out and associate with others. But when we abandon good sense and reason and are guided by fear of social censure, we can end up committing grave mistakes. 
The fear of what others will say and think of us; the fear of being left behind; the fear of being isolated or singled out for ridicule; these fears can push us into dangerous paths. 
We try our best to stick to socially sanctioned behaviour, values and norms. 

We often do not ask enough questions or raise appropriate doubts, even if we have them in our minds.
Hitler used this to bend the masses to his will. During his rallies, he would plant groups of his own lackeys among the audience.These people would raise huge cheers and clap, inciting others around them to do the same. When these speeches were broadcast, the thunderous applause could be heard by an even wider audience.Huge numbers of listeners were thus led to believe that since so many people were cheering, Hitler was indeed a great leader propagating noble ideas.
The electronic media has taken the herd mentality to unprecedented levels.All sorts of subversive and provocative posts do the rounds. Some of these have only tentative basis in facts.Fake photos and misleading quotes deliberately taken out of context are widely circulated. Videos of molestations are put up on YouTube without a care for the poor victim’s safety and mental peace.We, on our part, ‘like’ and forward these posts, and bask in the glow of self-righteousness for having done our good deed for the day.
It’s so easy to delude ourselves that we are making a difference, when all we do is click the mouse or swipe our smartphone screens before moving on to the next hot item of the day. Our insensitivity and indifference as individuals gets social sanctity because we are part of the herd.
We Indians are bogged down by our class snobbery and our urge to safeguard our hereditary privileges at all costs.Our society too often collectively pushes persons from privileged backgrounds without concern for their intrinsic merits. We are brought up to believe that only the children of doctors can be capable doctors and only the offspring of thespian families can be successful actors. The scions of established business enterprises are bred to head them.Why, then, do we criticise netas for perpetuating dynastic rule and filling up plum positions with sundry friends and relations? 

One of America’s greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, came up from humble origins. 
He is celebrated by his people for his great ideas and achievements, and his undying spirit in the face of overwhelming adversities is admired and respected to this day. Yet an Indian leader has recently been lampooned by some groups for having risen from the ranks of railway tea stall boys.

Why are we so ready to condemn initiative and herd together to support mediocrity? Are we afraid of exposing our own shortcomings? Are we afraid we shall fail if we try to improve our lot? Why do we hate the rare individual, who with his own strength and capabilities achieves feats beyond our dreams?
Is it because we feel small and mean before others with superior intelligence and accomplishments?

While people mindlessly following the herd can be dangerous, there is a flip side to the coin. 
The fact is, even ordinary people like us can make a positive difference.
A group of ordinary like-minded people can work together to make an even greater beneficial impact.
For this to happen, we need to think before we rush to endorse a cause, make assumptions, or draw conclusions on any issue. 
The power of well-reasoned individual votes can snowball to elect new leaders with strong popular mandates.Popular movements and pressure from large groups of concerned citizens can be agents of positive change. Our freedom struggle is an excellent case in point.Even today, strong public pressure can bring corrupt officials to book, and prevent upright officials from being victimised.Ordinary citizens have successfully formed social activist groups to help revive our city’s lakes, clear neighbourhoods of garbage and help uplift the underprivileged around us in various ways.The collective voice of a group is more powerful, and therefore a stronger agent of positive change when used in the right way.
If herd together we must, the way forward is for each of us to nudge the herd towards improvement. People like us, no matter how ordinary, can exercise some affirmative influence on our peers. Inspiration is all around us, and each of us is capable of creative and original thought.But nothing will happen if we sit and wait for someone or something to change on its own. If we keep our minds and hearts open to fresh ideas, we can work together for the common good. 

We need to step out of our comfortable ruts, think more and make choices. The simplest way to change our lives is to change the way we perceive things. Change will happen when we really want it to, and when we are ready to accept it.Simple, decisive actions taken by each one of us in daily life can add up to a palpable improvement in society as a whole. We need to get over our urge to make excuses, and point fingers at everyone else, and the Government, for all that ails us. We sit around waiting for another Gandhiji or some new godman to come and rescue the world. We don’t care what happens to others, as long as we ourselves are not affected. This dithering and indifference drags us down. Walk through any of our city streets. Mountains of piling garbage pull down our aspirations to world class luxury. We complain tirelessly about it, but that stinking garbage is dumped on the public roadside by ‘people like us’. We strongly prefer the easy way out by shirking responsibility. 

If things are to change, the onus is on us. Initiative must come from within each of us.
As Martin Luther King Jr so rightly said, we must never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. 
Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.
This essay is published in Sunday Herald

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Culling Mynahs and Crows; book review

I recently had the pleasure of reading Culling Mynahs and Crows by R K Biswas.

LiFi Publications                     Rs 325/-           Pp 476

This intriguing story set in West Bengal during the 1980s, explores the decline of the region’s culture through the eyes of two strong, unusual women. The bulk of the narrative revolves around Agnirekha, the firebrand journalist and snobbish “pedigree pooch” from the metropolis of Calcutta, as Kolkata was called in those days. Agnirekha’s life intertwines in mysterious ways with that of Agnishikha, an innocent and beautiful girl from the obscure town of Bisrampur, who is caught up in the dangerous underbelly of the big, bad metropolis. These two mirror-image names have a deeper significance in the narrative. As the author explains, “The two women Agnirekha and Agnishikha are from very different backgrounds and appear to be dissimilar. They are in fact opposite sides of the same coin; somewhere in the book the narrator calls them daughters of fire.”

culling-mynahs-optAgnishikha’s innocent dream is to settle into domestic bliss with her husband Sajal.  But Sajal, a government officer in Calcutta, wants to make his mark in life. His ambition and greed lead him down a slippery path to the point of no return.  His involvement with political bigwigs and goons, results in Agnishikha and Sajal becoming expendable pawns in their dirty games. Agnishikha single-handedly faces helplessness, shattered dreams and fear, losing everyone she ever loved. Yet she manages to rise above the tragedy and devastation, though something deep inside her dies in the process.
A victim of office politics, Agnirekha is sent on a wild goose chase in pursuit of a non-story from her headquarters in Calcutta to the backwoods town of Bisrampur. A serial killer serving time in Bisrampur jail is the object of her fact-hunting mission. The psychopath killer, known as Paglakhooni, is convinced that he is doing the world a favour by ridding it of people with pathetic, miserable lives. ‘What would you rather see, mynahs and crows or bird of paradise?’ Paglakhooni makes a brief, intriguing appearance in the beginning of the novel before being beaten to death in police custody. His skewed philosophy, however, echoes through the story.
The fictional little town of Bisrampur symbolizes everything that’s wrong in the Bengal of the eighties. Bisrampur’s people live in barren abjection among dilapidated reminders of a past flicker of glory. It is a place where local business enterprise is languishing; where the residents live in narrow ruts without hope for a better tomorrow. Naresh, the orphan reporter in Bisrampur’s local daily, personifies this emptiness and futility. Mesmerized by Paglakhooni’s crazed but compelling rhetoric, Naresh falters on the brink. He seeks guidance and solace from the high-flying reporter from a major newspaper, only to be rudely rebuffed.  Agnirekha the “attractive, educated young woman of good family and impeccable English” has no patience with failure, which she considers akin to death.

Agnishikha is a striking character, and one can’t help but wish that her story had been given a bigger share of the overall narrative. As the novel stands, Agnirekha’s cribbing and carping goes on a tad too long, and her snobbery and insensitivity can be overwhelming. She is “too refined, too upper class; the nails at the tip of (her) slim fingers perfectly oval, and glistening with polish.”  Agnirekha’s sharp and callous reprimands cause Naresh to end his life. Agnirekha’s careless handling of Agnishikha’s confidences, results in a sensational news story flashed in every paper in Calcutta. This exposure shatters Agnishikha’s life, and is the direct cause of her losing everyone and everything she holds dear.
It is to the author’s credit that she succeeds in holding the reader’s interest in Agnirekha’s story. Towards the end, we learn of her alternate sexuality, and realize why she is so annoying and difficult. West Bengal in the eighties is vividly brought to life, in all its layers of decay. The author’s lively, detailed descriptions and images can be enduring. Thus, Paglakhooni’s taped speeches “scattered the letters of the word ‘assignment’ into different directions. Like a surge of water on a wriggling mass of tadpoles, freeing them violently from their jelly prison in the pond.”
In some places however, the writing could be tighter; where too many trivial details and verbiage add little to the story. Pages 310 – 332 offer a long-drawn account of Agnirekha’s drive from Bisrampur to Kolkata, with needless details such as their searching for restrooms, breakfast at a South Indian eatery, the bananas they ate in the car and the utthapams or sada dosas they order.

Overall, this is a fast-paced and exciting read. The powerful portraits of Agnirekha and Agnishikha, and the decadent milieu in which they struggle to find their own space, stay with the reader long after the last page has been read.
This review is published in Kitaab

Sunday, March 30, 2014

On Sal Mal Lane: book review

Further to my interview with author Ru Freeman, my review of her novel, 'On Sal Mal Lane' has been published in Deccan Herald

Ru Freeman's 'On Sal Mal Lane' revolves around the civil war in Sri Lanka. DH illustration for representation purpose only.This beautifully-crafted and memorable tale set in Sri Lanka in the 1980s is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. 

Ru Freeman’s gentle, lyrical prose brings to life a gracious past, where ethnic strife casts ominous shadows over a calm neighbourhood and its innocent children. 
Sal Mal Lane, a dead-end street in Colombo, is a microcosm of Sri Lanka’s multicultural society. 

The residents represent all ethnicities and walks of life, from the broad-minded and generous Herath family to poverty-stricken elders Lucas and Alice.

The Bollings exemplify promising lives gone to seed. Their son Sonna’s spirit is mangled with abuse. 

The Nadesans and Bin Ahmeds are cultured and reserved, yet gracious and accepting, while the Silvas are prejudiced hardliners.

As the omniscient narrator sums up; “Everyone who lived on Sal Mal Lane was implicated in what happened, including Lucas and Alice, who had no last names nor professed religious affiliations, the Tamil Catholics and Hindus, the Burgher Catholics, the Muslims, and the Sinhalese, both Catholic and Buddhist. Their lives were unfolding against a backdrop of conflict that would span decades involving intermarriage, national language policies, births, deaths, marriages, and affairs — never divorces — subletting, cricket matches, water cuts, power outages, curfews, riots, and the occasional bomb. And while this story is about small people, we must consider the fact that their history is long and accord them, too, a story equal to their past.” 
The author portrays with tender empathy how good intentions can result in warped and terrible outcomes. 

Cruelty, intended and unintended, to one person, can cause a chain of unforeseen and apparently unconnected disasters. 

Kindness can also come from unexpected places to usher in rays of hope. The significance of impersonal news reports of terror attacks, upheavals and the machinations of political leaders, finally reaches Sal Mal Lane. 

The author portrays their terrible effects on innocent children and well-meaning adults, as the residents of Sal Mal Lane stand bewildered and helpless before a tsunami of violence. 

The cultured and prosperous Herath family, particularly the four children, are at the heart of this story. 

The Heraths are Sinhalese Buddhists, who respect all religions. Mrs Herath sings carols during Christmas, and shares the festivities of her neighbours from other religions. 

They are generous people who assimilate even the shabby Bolling twins and the dim-witted Raju into their welcoming fold. The Heraths’ lives are filled with music, which enthrals Suren, the eldest son. 

Rashmi is the perfect Sri Lankan daughter, with her impeccable behaviour and top grades at school. Nihil, the younger son, is a budding cricketer who has a way with words. 

Devi, the lively youngest daughter, is born on an inauspicious date. Nihil takes it upon himself to protect their darling baby sister from disaster and premature death.

As the narrative builds up, we are shown how violence is taking over a peaceful land, and spilling into the lives of the people of Sal Mal Lane. 

At times, the ominous build up of the Tamil separatist movement is deftly crafted into the story. 

Raju, his mother Mrs Joseph, and their neighbour Mrs Silva discuss how Sinhalese hooligans burnt down the Jaffna Public Library, with its store of priceless manuscripts, and how Prabhakaran, claiming leadership over all Tamils, is leading them into a war against the state. 

What matters to these neighbours meeting for a chat is the here and now. 

“Only situation for us to worry about is trouble brewing in the North,” says Mrs Joseph.

“Soon, I’m told, it will all come spilling here, to Colombo. To our streets too!” At another point, old Mr Niles reflects how “the matter of language, not of street signs but of education and examination, had been manipulated by both Tamils and Sinhalese in turn, the one alongside the British colonisers, the other after the colonial power had been driven out.” 

At times, the exposition can get prolonged and tedious. 

The characters come across as mere mouthpieces explaining communal tensions.

From pages 190 to 199, we get dialogues which seem contrived to offer an account of how “Vellupillai Prabhakaran, who was leading a terrorist outfit from the jungles of Jaffna.
Prabhakaran is Tamil, Prabhakaran’s group is Tamil, but not all Tamils support Prabhakaran.

” The riots and its effects on Sal Mal Lane are beautifully rendered, showing the human cost of strife.  Violent death visits the lane, ironically caused by the residents themselves. 

The book ends on a sad yet hopeful note. 

The people of Sal Mal Lane are scarred forever. Yet each character, no matter how insignificant or apparently vile, shows some saving graces. 

Sonna Bolling, the ruffian ‘bad boy’, does his best to limit the destruction in his neighbourhood.
Jimmy Bolling, the insensitive and cruel father, goes forth to help his neighbours in distress. 

The neighbourhood shopkeeper refuses payment for food intended for riot victims.  Even the bigoted Silvas leave buckets on the road, for neighbours to douse fires caused by rioting. 

The children are weighed down by the knowledge that what has been lost can never be regained. 

Yet there is life beyond the ashes of arson, looting and death. 

Suren continues to seek solace in music, while Rashmi immerses herself in cooking delicacies Devi loved, and then sharing the treats with others less privileged.  
Nihil learns to put behind his resentment, emerges from his self-created cocoon of isolation, and reaches out again to Mr Niles. 
On Sal Mal Lane
Ru Freeman
pp 388
Rs 499

Monday, March 24, 2014

Ru Freeman: Author interview

Ru FreemanRu Freeman is a Sri Lankan–American writer and activist. Her debut novel, A Disobedient Girl, was longlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and translated into seven languages. She has been a fellow of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Yaddo, and the VirginiaCenter for the Creative Arts. She blogs for the Huffington Post on literature and politics and is a contributing editorial board member of the Asian American Literary Review. She calls both Sri Lanka and America home and writes about the people and countries underneath her skin. Her first novel, A Disobedient Girlis the story of Latha and Biso, two Sri Lankan girls working as domestic helpers, who strive for a better life. Her latest work, On Sal Mal Lane, is a sad yet hopeful tale of children growing up in times of civil strife and impending civil war in Sri Lanka. This beautifully written novel has also been longlisted for the DSC Prize. Sal Mal Lane, a dead end street in Colombo, presents a microcosm of Sri Lankan Society. The well to do Heraths are kind and generous Sinhalese Buddhists who celebrate all religions, from singing Christmas carols to sharing Diwali sweets with their neighbours. The other neighbours are Sinhalese Catholics, Burghers, Tamil Catholics, Tamil Hindus and the reticent yet gracious Muslim Bin Ahmed family. The novel explores through the eyes of the children, the effects of increasing communal tensions. Riots, death and destruction visit this happy and peaceful community, and battle lines get drawn. The children realize that what is lost forever cannot be regained. They try to come to terms with this loss in their own ways.
This interview is published in Kitaab

 How do you develop your characters? Were Raju, Kala Niles, Joe Bolling or Nihil Herath, for example, based on people you knew?
My father, during my last visit, on whom I have based Mr. Herath: Ru Freeman
My father, during my last visit, on whom I have based Mr. Herath: Ru Freeman
Most of what we write is non-fiction, in my opinion. My characters are composites of people I know but they hardly ever appear as themselves. There are bits and pieces of Devi which were drawn from my own childhood, and that of my nieces and daughters, there is a piano teacher who still lives across the way from my parents’ home down a dead-end street in Colombo, but Kala Niles is not really her, and so forth. I don’t know where they come from, except that the story needs these people and so they arrive from memory and imagination.  

What were your influences in the early years?  And later on as you matured as a writer and published author?

I believe we all wrote because we wanted to escape certain difficulties in our lives. My parents had a hard personal life and my brothers and I responded to that by disappearing into books and writing. Still, we also admired them greatly and emulated some of what they did. My mother had written for documentaries and directed plays, so we wrote in that vein too, or tried to anyway. I’ve always written because I love doing it, but after I came to the U.S. I was exposed to more living writers and grew to also love the influence of their company. I owe a vast debt of gratitude to all of those people – Jane Hirshfield, Michael Collier, Ursula Hegi, Lyn Freed, Peter Ho Davies, Charles Baxter, Karen Russell, Cristina Garcia, Edwidge Danticat, NoViolet Bulawayo, to name a very few – who affirmed me as a writer and a peer.
Many authors say that there is a little of themselves in their stories and characters. Do you feel this is true of your own writing? Do you rely heavily on personal experiences, write from what you know, or do you rely more on research and external knowledge?
The two books I’ve written thus far were both set in Sri Lanka. My country runs through my veins. You don’t have to research your own blood! Yes, there is a lot of autobiographical detail in this book, but only as a point of departure. It is fiction.
Children play a pivotal role in On Sal Mal Lane, and you treat them with deep sensitivity and understanding. It is through their eyes that we see the escalating strife unfold. What were your reasons for choosing this approach in a novel meant for adults?
I like the way children almost always sense things, but never have all the information, all the pieces of the puzzle as it were. Having grown up in Sri Lanka through these years (I only came to the U.S. to go to college), I had very strong opinions about what happened. But in writing this novel I had to let go of what I felt/knew and tell a story that was compassionate to everybody. I felt that would be best accomplished if I went with the children. In telling a story through their eyes, I had to shut my own.
“The street where my parents lived and where I grew up and on whose configuration I have based Sal Mal Lane” — Ru Freeman. 
Do you also plan to write for children and young adults?
Well, it seems to me that there is a great deal of money to be made in writing dystopian novels for young adults, but, although I certainly would like to be wealthy, I am not sure I have the inclination or the skill, necessarily, to write those books.
Many Asian writers based in Western countries tend to write stories about the homeland left behind, rather than the land where they now live. What were your reasons for writing such a purely Sri Lanka story. Why did you choose this over east-meets-west stories favoured by expatriate writers?
I find the east-meets-west stories boring since I am living that life. It would be like detailing the minutiae of my existence which is dull enough on most days! As a Sri Lankan, I am engaged not only in writing stories, but detailing the history of my country and making it come alive for people who may know nothing about it. I consider that a privilege and a responsibility. I do write stories that aren’t set in Sri Lanka, but most of what I write (short fiction, poetry, personal essays), are about considering human beings, the things we lose when we imagine that we are gaining something.
What are you working on now?
A new novel that is not set in Sri Lanka – so far, anyway. And putting together two collections of short-stories. One set in Sri Lanka and another everywhere but there.