Tuesday, 30 December 2008

My God and I

Ingrid Betancourt said something on the BBC the other day that made me stop and think. “When it comes to God, it’s the questions you ask that really matter.”

As I heard her, I instinctively knew she was right. In my case, it’s not whether he exists that’s important, but whether I’m prepared to admit I need him. Today, in my fifties, I can accept I do. Whether I call that need God, or hide it from myself by using some other term, is a matter of mere detail. At its core lies the realisation that there are times when God, or hope — or an assurance — is necessary.

But was that always the case?

Yes, except I wasn’t honest about it. In my twenties or thirties, I claimed to be an agnostic. On the one hand, I did not have the certainty to be an atheist; but, on the other, I would guard myself by observing all the superstitions I knew of.

But when most in need, expediency would overpower my declared agnosticism! On such occasions I would actually bargain with God. So, for example, to ensure the right results after a big exam, I would strike a deal: if you give me a first, I would say, I will give up X and Y. Then, to twist his hand, I would make my sacrifice first. Reassurance lay in my presumptuous confidence God would deliver. Silly as it may sound, renunciation was my tool to propitiate — or, do I mean bribe? — the power that determines all our futures.

Over the years, as I have come to understand myself, I have also realised what I was doing. I was either camouflaging a need for God — or hope or reassurance — or, worse, contradicting myself. If I were to say the confidence of youth explains my earlier refusal to fully believe, you would be right to riposte that advancing age has probably conditioned my present acceptance.

Whatever the explanation, I’m no longer cold or distant to our human need of belief. It’s as much a part of our make-up as hunger or desire. Indeed, I would go further and say I don’t know if God exists, but I do know we need him. So, if he is our creation he is undoubtedly the most invaluable one. For, to him we look when we know we cannot help ourselves.

But let me be more explicit.

I do not have a particular God I believe in. In fact, I believe in them all — which is another way of saying I believe in the power of God. And indeed, if I’m honest, I only turn to him when I need him. It’s like food; the lure is powerful when you’re hungry and very different when sated. Which is why, even now, I think of him as hope or reassurance rather than the Almighty. You can’t have failed to notice I use the words synonymously.

Perhaps this is why religion, rituals, priests and piety irritate me. They are like the ceremony and etiquette of an elaborate meal which often detracts from the food being served. When I’m hungry, I want to eat, and then, like any other selfish diner, I push back my chair and leave.

I suspect Ingrid Betancourt’s relationship with God — or a hope or reassurance — was essentially no different, only more desperate and more intense. And I assume that would also be true of many of you who are reading this column this Sunday morning. It’s just that her years of dreadful captivity forced upon her an understanding that comes to the rest of us only with the slow passage of time. (Betancourt was rescued this July, after six years in the captivity of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.)

Listening to her on the radio, I could feel the penny drop. Admittedly, there was no audible clunk but there was a sudden acceptance of a truth, the comfortable feeling that you have always suspected something to be true but never before recognised it.

Awareness — if that’s what it is — happens in strange, inexplicable ways. Now, is that God’s work or just coincidence?

Sunday, 21 December 2008

A pertinent point

By Karan Thapar

The insistent ringing of the phone suggested it could be Pertie. Since his return last month he’s been unusually angry. I took this to be the helpless rage many of us have felt after Bombay but I soon discovered the cause of his wrath was quite different.

 “I think we ought to congratulate Bombay’s lawyers for their spectacular self-goal.” Even if this was intended as satire there was a distinct edge to his voice. “If they carry on like this they could lose the match for us!”

 Pertie was, of course, referring to a resolution by the Bar Council of Bombay directing its members not to defend Ajmal Amir Kasab. He found their argument that Kasab is a terrorist whom it would be wrong to defend difficult to accept.

 “Don’t they realise that if Kasab is to be brought to justice — as opposed to a public lynching — he has the right to a defence and it would be a meaningless right if no lawyer will actually take on his case?”

 “Sure they do”, I replied, “but they also believe there’s no room to doubt or question Kasab’s guilt. In such circumstances it would be morally wrong to defend a terrorist.”

 “That’s utter rot. No matter how you look at it, it doesn’t make sense. Not legally, certainly not politically and definitely not morally.”

 “Why?” I saw it in shades of grey. For Pertie it was stark black and white.

 “Because even Satwant Singh, who several people saw killing Indira Gandhi, had to be tried in court before he was convicted and he had a lawyer to defend him. Ram Jethmalani took on the case. Kasab is in a similar situation. Due process of law requires a legal defence and if that is not forthcoming it would be a mockery of justice. If a trial without a defence lawyer is actually held it would embarrass, even undermine, the Indian legal system.”

 “Alright,” I said, perhaps a little too quickly. “What about Subramaniam Swamy’s idea of declaring him an enemy alien? Then the government could invoke Article 22 (3) and deprive Kasab of the right to a legal defence.”

 “That would, no doubt, please people like you,” Pertie retorted. Now the mockery in his voice was as sharp as a knife. “But first you have to declare Pakistan an enemy country! And what would the rest of the world think of that? Where would that leave our proud boast of restraint? The world would think we are spoiling for a fight.” 

 “The prisoners of Guantanamo are considered enemy aliens.” I shot back. 

 “So?” Pertie was equally fast. “Is that the example you want to emulate?” He was laughing at me. “Anyway, don’t you know the US Supreme Court has ruled that prisoners in Guantanamo have a right of defence?” 

 This time I had nothing to say but my silence wasn’t sufficient to appease Pertie’s rising anger.

“Do you know the worst of it? If Kasab doesn’t get a lawyer because none is prepared to take up his case then why would Pakistan agree to extradite its citizens like Masood Azhar? After all, we claim we want to try him in our courts but if we can’t guarantee a defence for him then what sort of trial would that be?”

 “Hmmm?”. I wasn’t avoiding an answer. I was thinking about what Pertie had just said. But before I could speak he pronounced the conclusion himself.

 “Wouldn’t this be an excellent reason for Pakistan to refuse extradition? They could cite Kasab to prove India cannot guarantee justice and we’d be left with nothing to say. Even our friends in America and Britain would be unable to come to our help.”

 Perhaps I gagged or, maybe, I gasped but I was taken aback. Pertie was right. No one else had thought it through the way he had. 

 “It won’t be long before Pakistan picks this up” he said, as he got to the end of the call. 

“Now that Dawn and GEO TV have accepted Kasab is Pakistani they’ll have no hesitation claiming he won’t be given a fair trial.”

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Well done, Mrs D!

By Karan Thapar

If Sheila Dikshit is smiling contentedly as she sips her coffee and glances at the Sunday papers this morning, that would not only be justified but, more pertinently, an understated response to her phenomenal victory. 

In her place, others might have jumped up and down and shouted ‘whoopee!’. The credit for this third consecutive victory is undoubtedly hers. No doubt Sonia Gandhi and the Congress can claim a share but first, foremost and, indeed, most of all, it’s Sheila Dikshit’s.

If you don’t believe me start by looking at the odds she faced. To begin with she had already been in office for ten years and one would have expected a vote against her simply for that reason alone. It didn’t happen. 

But beyond that, she was the chief minister who presided over the Bus Rapid Transit corridor, urban sealing, Blueline murders and repeated terrorist attacks including the controversial and divisive Batla House encounter. 

If the BJP thought these constitute good reason for turfing her out, most of us would have agreed. Yet that’s not all. On top of all this there was also the frighteningly high rate of inflation and the dark shadow of the Mumbai terror attack. The Delhi electorate was more conscious of both than perhaps any other. Yet they deliberately and knowingly overlooked all of this. It’s not just incredible. It’s almost unbelievable. 

However, anti-incumbency is not the only element of conventional wisdom Sheila Dikshit has turned on its head. Age is the other. Next March she will be 71. Yet a city where more than 50 per cent are under half her age has given her a clear majority with 82 per cent more seats than the BJP. This time the BJP can’t believe it.

But how can I confidently assert the credit goes more — in fact far, far more — to Sheila Dikshit than either the Congress or Sonia Gandhi? Simple. Just compare the Vidhan Sabha results with those for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi elections 19 months ago. Then the BJP won 60 per cent of the seats, overturning an 80 per cent Congress majority in the outgoing house. Sonia Gandhi and the Congress party were at the front of that campaign. Sheila Dikshit was virtually absent. This time it was Mrs Dikshit who was the face of the party. Those of us who voted, voted for her.

Now the critical question is, what about Sheila Dikshit does the Delhi electorate find so reassuring? I would say the answer lies in three qualities. 

First, her image is appealing. The soft-spoken, grey-haired lady in printed silk sarees is attractive to all eyes. Second, her manner is caring. She is accessible, responsive and willing to accept mistakes. 

Third, Delhi has seen some — albeit limited — progress under her. The state of our roads, the spread of flyovers and the Metro, and the stabilisation of electricity, at least in winter, are the pluses. It may not amount to much, but for an electorate skeptical of politicians it felt like a lot.

But Mrs Dikshit was also helped by the opposition she faced. Clearly, V.K. Malhotra was not acceptable as the alternative. Whatever his political skills and acumen may be, he did not appeal to the electorate. And this point only underlines the fact that people want to know who will rule them. 

They may or may not like the choice on offer but a faceless, leaderless campaign is seen as undemocratic and, worse, it’s viewed as an attempt to deceive. 

However, there is also a caution one can sound. Third terms are tricky if not downright difficult to handle. What usually happens is that while a leader’s mandate has been renewed, the vision has also diminished and, often, the stamina is simultaneously exhausted. That’s precisely what happened to Margaret Thatcher 20 years ago and then, again, to Tony Blair 17 years later. Could the same fate befall Sheila Dikshit?

Guard against this Mrs D. But for today, keeping smiling. You’ve earned the right to a little self-satisfaction.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Memories & a promise

By Karan Thapar

Memories can be tricky, even unreliable. But those I have of the Taj and Oberoi in Bombay most definitely are not. They’re vivid, detailed and unshakeable. They capture something of the special quality of these hotels — their indomitable spirit, air of privileged class and soothing service.

It’s the shining brass surfaces of the Oberoi that first come to mind. Even late at night, there was a discrete footman ready to rub off grimy fingerprints as guests pushed the large revolving door to enter the hotel. Having done so, he would melt away as swiftly and silently as he had emerged.

In the mornings there was a similar attendant with a dust cloth standing by the lifts. He kept the brass surfaces so highly buffed you could check your hair or the crease on your jacket in the reflection. And, if I’m not mistaken, he was always smiling. A boyish, perhaps impish grin, that seemed to forgive you for soiling the gleaming brass.

Wood was the dominant feature of the old Taj. It gave the hotel its historic look. As you walked past the rooms, your hand dawdling on the smooth painted balustrade, you could feel yourself travelling back in time. And if you walked down the grand stairs, you half expected to see a horse-drawn carriage or, at least, an open top Ford Model T waiting for you.

Unless someone had told you, you’d never have realised the Taj was built the wrong way round. But this meant the pool was always bathed in sunshine. And there was always laughter from the happy guests surrounding it. The back verandahs were a favourite place for tea and snacks.

But the memory that I cherish is of a quiet swim late one summer evening as dusk began to fall on the city. As the gold and auburn colours of the setting sun fell across its surface, the pool seemed to turn magical. I was alone and the only sound apart from the swishing water was a gentle breeze in the trees.

Both hotels maintained coffee shops that welcomed fugitives escaping the hot sticky Bombay afternoon. If the Shamiana was better known, the Samarkand, as it used to be, had the advantage of a location outside the hotel itself. I read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in 1981 over two consecutive afternoons and several cups of espresso. Cappuccino was still unknown in India. The waiters knew I was a student who couldn’t afford more but they treated me like any other guest.

I was a teenager when I first dined at the Zodiac Grill. The restaurant had an awesome reputation and I was both excited and intimidated. Sitting at the table, facing its collection of glass and shining cutlery, I felt awkward and self-conscious. Yet the waiter, who shook open the napkin before handing it over, treated me like an adult. When he realised I was ordering injudiciously, guided more by the cost than an understanding of the dish, he gently steered me 

to a wiser choice. It turned out that Sole Albert, my initial pick, was just a fancy name for a very expensive steamed fish.

In the 90s, when work took me to Bombay three times a month, my favourite was the lobby level coffee shop at the Oberoi. I would often weekend in the city and brunch on Sunday morning was a particular pleasure at La Brasserie. There was so much to choose I was often paralysed by indecision. “Try a little bit of everything,” one of the waiters said on my first visit. I did. I ended up changing plates seven times.

But I do have one regret I could kick 

myself for. I wish I had spent more time in the Sea Lounge at the Taj. I meant to but apart from tea on a couple of occasions we remained strangers. Now I promise 

to atone as soon as it reopens. I’ll find a place by an open window, looking out, beyond the promenade, deep into the azure Arabian Sea, where I shall sip fragrant Darjeeling tea and nibble Petit Beurre biscuits.

Monday, 1 December 2008

When Zardari came to town

By Karan  Thapar

“There’s a little bit of India in every Pakistani and a little bit of Pakistan in every Indian. I do not know whether it is the Indian or the Pakistani in me that is talking today”

The more I think about what he said, the more stunned I am he said it. But it’s not just his content that is startling. The fact that Asif Zardari was speaking as President of Pakistan to an Indian audience, in full knowledge that he was doing so on live television, makes his statements all the more amazing. Not one of his predecessors would have spoken so openly and with such obvious personal conviction. Indeed even his late wife, Benazir, would have been more circumspect.

To begin with, it’s the number of commitments he readily made. Pakistan has accepted a no-first-use of nuclear weapons policy. “I can assure you that Pakistan will not be the first country ever to use (nuclear weapons)”, he said. When I asked if this was a no-first-use assurance, adding “if so you have just made headline news”, he immediately replied: “most certainly”.

At one stroke, the Pakistani President reversed his country’s traditional insistence on keeping open the option of using nuclear weapons first. I don’t know what his army thinks, but Nawaz Sharif’s PML (N) has publicly endorsed the Zardari line. So even if voices in the press are critical, he has majority support in Parliament.

Next were two expressions of future intent. He wants to see India and Pakistan establish an economic union. He did not explain in detail but he said they should aim for joint economic super power status. And he said he was in favour of “a flexible visa regime, eliminating travel documents … replacing them with (a) smart card enabled E-visa system.” 

“We don’t feel threatened by India”, Zardari said. “India should also not feel threatened by us.” And then, to re-inforce his point, he added: “I want change and reconciliation.” 

For me, however, the most important thing Asif Zardari said was not in response to questions and so it can’t be explained away as an off-the-cuff or unthought-out answer. It was part of his prepared speech. It was, therefore, a well-considered, planned and carefully crafted statement which, of course, makes it all the more incredible.

“There’s a little bit of India in every Pakistani and a little bit of Pakistan in every Indian”. As he said those words a perceptible hush fall on the audience. They literally couldn’t believe their ears. But Asif Zardari wasn’t finished. “I do not know whether it is the Indian or the Pakistani in me that is talking to you today”. As I looked at the seated dignitaries in front of me I saw a sea of flashing smiles and sparkling eyes looking at Zardari on the big screen. Seconds later, they were vigorously applauding.

Asif Zardari said he was quoting his wife. Benazir Bhutto had spoken in 2000. In fact in 2005, when he visited Lahore, L.K. Advani said something very similar. But both of them were leaders of the opposition, a post that allows the holder to speak freely. And they weren’t speaking at a high profile gathering broadcast live. In contrast, Zardari is President of Pakistan. He was addressing one of the most publicised conferences in India. And he knew the media was waiting for every word he said.

I’m not sure if the presidents of North Korea or East Germany (whilst it existed) have ever spoken in such terms, but I doubt it. Certainly the leaders of divided Ireland have not. Nor the Malays and Singaporeans or the Indonesians and East Timorese. Yet the President of Pakistan has! I see this as an indication of Asif Zardari’s thinking and his attitude to India. And I believe he meant it because if he did not the sentence would have got stuck in his throat. It’s almost impossible to express such sentiments when you are lying.

The only question is can he deliver? And, I suppose, how soon? But there is another question we should pose to ourselves: how can we strengthen his hands without, of course, embarrassing him? If a friend can help you, whilst helping himself, it makes sense to help him too. Kids understand that instinctively, adults sometimes forget!