Friday, 6 February 2009

Incredibly stupid India

Incredibly stupid India ‘What on earth is going on?’ Pertie sounded intrigued but I could tell he was also exasperated. It was past midnight and there was an edge to his voice. “Have we all gone mad?”
As you know, this is how Pertie’s rhetorical conversations usually begin. So though I was tempted to reply flippantly, I bit my lip and kept silent.
“They’re attacking women for drinking in pubs near Bangalore. In Bombay they’re closing down shops called Karachi Sweets and banning the sale of Pakistani books. Elsewhere, courts are issuing notices to the producer of Slumdog Millionaire on the grounds the name is offensive. Doesn’t it seem as if, suddenly, everyone’s lost all sense of balance and perspective?”
“Oh come, Pertie,” I replied soothingly, trying hard not to tut-tut. “These are separate and isolated incidents. You can’t add them all up!”
“And why can’t you?” he shot back. “Have you thought of the damage they’ve done? They’re undermining the most important elements of India’s image. First, Bangalore is supposed to be India’s window to the world. It’s thought of as modern, liberal and welcoming. Well, your Sri Ram Sene has effectively put paid to that. Now it’s being compared to Jeddah, Khartoum and Teheran.”
Pertie, of course, has a point but I felt he was over-egging it. I tried to gently demur but I doubt if he heard me.
“Now turn to Bombay. First they resort to censorship and then, in the name of Indian nationalism, the twits from the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) have ripped apart India’s claim to be the original country of the subcontinent. The truth is it was all India before Pakistan was created. Pakistan, of course, doesn’t always accept that and now the MNS has corroborated their view that the land west of the Indus is different and separate. What a fabulous self-goal.”
This time I found it harder to disagree. But much like my earlier feeble interruption Pertie didn’t notice my silence. He was in full flow and, like a steam-roller, carried on.
“And then there’s Slumdog Millionaire. After Gandhi in 1982, no film has done more to make the world aware of India. It’s a runaway success. Yet what’s the response in India? Some foolish politicians think the name is offensive and at least one court has taken them seriously enough to issue formal notices to the producer. Talk about getting the wrong end of the stick.” Suddenly the penny dropped. Each of these was bad enough on its own. But together they made the outcome a lot worse. “What’s the world saying of us?”
“For many we’ve become a joke. People don’t know how to respond to girls getting beaten up for having a drink or shops forced to change their names because a handful of goons don’t like them. They’re laughing at us. But, sadly, the damage is deeper. It won’t be long before people start asking awkward questions.”
“Oh,” I replied, mystified. “Such as?”
“Such as: India is supposed to be a tolerant, liberal democracy. So how come we can’t accept a name like ‘Karachi Sweets’ and buy Pakistani books? Or: Hinduism is supposed to venerate women, we supposedly elevate them as goddesses. So how come we thrash them if they walk into a pub? And then: India is supposed to be an aspiring and dynamic society. So how come a rather clever name like Slumdog Millionaire can’t be appreciated but is, instead, considered offensive? These are disturbing questions.”
“And how will they be answered?” If Pertie had further insights I wanted to hear them.
“I don’t know,” he replied honestly. “But what I can tell you is that they underline the glaring difference between India and mature, self-confident countries. They’re tolerant and accepting. We’ve just exhibited fatuous levels of intolerance and a perverse inability to accept recognition. It could make people realise that the real India is not in the smart-talking drawing-rooms of Delhi and Bombay, but in its insecure, quarrelsome back-streets and in the nit-picking litigations of its carping politicians. And if that happens, it could take the shine off the India story.”

An idea called Obama

Let me begin with an admission. On Tuesday night I became a convert. To put it simplistically, Barack Obama has one more fan. I must be number 3 billion, 451 million, 346 hundred thousand and whatever. But the story I want to share with you is how this came about. You could call it my conversion on Obama’s road to Washington.
A year ago, my position was very different.
When Hillary Clinton still stood a chance of winning the Democratic nomination, I was rooting for her. I believed that it was time for a woman president. Even when Obama won, I felt the presidency was beyond his grasp. America, I argued, was not ready for a Black president. Obama’s candidature would only ensure a McCain victory.
I suppose my transformation began with Obama’s acceptance speech in November. Though it was bright daylight in India, his soaring oratory, the musical cadences of his delivery and the poetry of his expressions had the magical qualities of a dream. I had tears as he spoke and I wasn’t ashamed to cry. It felt like cleansing. More importantly, I felt being a part of a community, one that embraced members from within America and also internationally. Obama was speaking to all of us. And for all of us.
On Tuesday, as I watched millions gathering on the Washington Mall in freezing cold for Obama’s inauguration, the penny dropped. Obama was not just a president and he was far more than an icon. He was an idea.
Like all powerful ideas, we interpret this one — and then believe in it — as we want. In fact, Obama, the idea, is a part of us. It could even be, in part, our creation. That’s why we hold to it with such passion and raw emotion. And that’s why Obama, the person, has become so important and, yes, so beloved. He is the living embodiment, the very personification of that idea. He is, therefore, a reflection of us, not what we are or could become but what we’d like to be. We see in him the ideals we value, the perfection we seek and the person we want to be. Obama, we believe — or pretend — is us.
If this can be the case for a once-disbelieving Indian, watching from 10,000 miles away and at the other end of the world’s time zones, can you imagine what Obama means to his fellow Americans, and to Blacks in particular?
I would say he is at once the clearest and the most focused expression of their collective desire for change. But I would also go farther: they despise what they ended up as and they want to be very different. Obama both personifies that sentiment and he has been elected to realise it.
Now, of course, all successful politicians represent an idea. Some even symbolise it. But Obama is the only one I can think of who, in my lifetime, has come to embody an idea. In fact, he has become the idea. That’s why Obama’s appeal spans continents, languages, races as well as a vast range of levels of economic development and intellectual sophistication.
Obama speaks in English but he can be equally effectively understood by those who only know Swahili, Serbo-Croat or Sinhala. Language, in fact, is not necessary to grasp what he’s about. All you need is a sense of romance, a craving for justice and a belief that there is a better way.
In other words, you only need to be a human being with dreams to see him as their means of realisation.
I can’t say Obama will make the world a better place. In fact, it could end up the other way round. But I do know that he will end up changing the world. That process began with his election. It will continue and accelerate with his inauguration. That change will be Obama, the idea, realising itself. And the world he will leave behind — be it in four years or eight — will have that idea written all over it.
All we can do is wait to find out what it will be like.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Goodbye Georgie Boy!

I wonder how history will remember George Bush? If it’s kind it might find a little place for the things he said. I know of no other head of government who spoke to such perplexing effect.

Consequently, even when his actions produced tears, his comments were often greeted with smiles — wry ones at the time. But today, as we look back on his closing presidency, the amusement is more genuine.

The BBC has put together a collection of Bushisms with precise references to where and when they were first spoken. I find them hilarious. And very revealing. If you want to judge for yourself go to the web page

But if you want an easier route, read on. Here’s a selection of the best of them.
Did you, for instance, know Bush was a great supporter of education? “You teach a child to read,” he once said, “and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.” This was for him a truth beyond questioning. As he put it: “Rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?” In fact, he always maintained, as he pithily put it, “Reading is the basics for all learning.”

Amazingly, Bush was compassionate even if none of us ever found out. Listen to this: “First, let me make it very clear, poor people aren’t necessarily killers. Just because you happen to be not rich doesn’t mean you’re willing to kill.”

He also had infinite trust in the press, particularly when appointing his Cabinet: “I do remain confident in Linda [Chavez]. She’ll make a fine Labour Secretary. From what I’ve read in the press accounts, she’s perfectly qualified.”

And he knew how to judge people, particularly his predecessors: “That’s George Washington, the first president, of course. The interesting thing about him is that I read three-four books about him last year. Isn’t that interesting?”

Of course, Iraq was his downfall. But what’s surprising is the things he said about the country. They’re almost perceptive: “The vast majority of Iraqis want to live in a peaceful, free world,” he said, and then immediately added, “We will find these people and we will bring them to justice.”
The problem, of course, was Saddam Hussein. This is what he thought of him: “The war on terror involves Saddam Hussein because of the nature of Saddam Hussein, the history of Saddam Hussein and his willingness to terrorise himself.”

But, astonishingly, he was also aware of his own limitations: “One of the hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror.”
Even though he was the most embattled president of recent times, George Bush was something of a visionary. He saw things the rest of us could not: “I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.” At times, he was like Peter Pan: “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.”

On other occasions, he was more prosaic: “I understand small business growth. I was one.”
But there were times when Bush was a little confused. Usually Texas had something to do with it. Here’s one example: “I want to thank my friend, Senator Bill Frist, for joining us today. He married a Texas girl. Karyn is with us. A West Texas girl, just like me.”

And another: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on... shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.”
However, in political terms he understood himself better than anyone else. Even in his first few months in office he was able to say: “They misunderestimated me.” Then, as his confidence grew, he proclaimed with pride: “I’m the decider and I decide what is best.”
And by May 2008 he was positively cocky: “I’ll be long gone before some smart person figures out what happened inside this Oval Office.”

For all his eloquence, Obama won’t be the same.
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to miss George Bush.

The Sens and sensibility

The story of Dr Binayak Sen makes ironic reading at a time when we want to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai strike to ‘Indian justice’. It questions the phrase I have deliberately placed in inverted commas. Is Sen receiving justice or has he become the victim of a travesty?
I can’t offer a definitive answer because I don’t know enough. But after spending an hour with his wife, Ilina, I feel the details she has to relate deserve to be better known. They challenge the concepts of fairplay and honesty without which justice is impossible. If what Ilina Sen says is untrue, incomplete or selective — and therefore misleading — let the state of Chhattisgarh rebut her.
But until then, the cry of a wife whose husband has been in jail for 19 months, facing a trial that could drag on for years, despite appeals for his release from 26 Nobel laureates and most of the civil liberty associations in India, needs to be heard. We would be heartless and wicked if we are deaf to such cries.
Binayak Sen was arrested in May 2007. His wife tells me he is accused of “treason, waging war against the state and abetting activities of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist)”. More specifically, it is claimed that he passed on letters from Narayan Sanyal, a Maoist prisoner in Raipur jail, to a certain Piyush Guha, a local businessman said to be close to left-wing extremists. These letters, its alleged, were obtained during 33 visits to Sanyal made under false pretences.
Now for the facts as reported by Ilina.
Binayak Sen does not deny meeting Sanyal. As general secretary of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, visiting prisoners in jail is one of his duties. More importantly, he did so with permission from the authorities. But to prove he ‘conspired’, the prosecution has to establish Sen also meet Guha. Otherwise how could he pass on the letters? But this they’ve failed to do.
When the trial commenced in April 2008, 83 witnesses were listed for deposition. By November, 16 were dropped by the prosecutors themselves, six declared hostile and 30 others deposed without corroborating the accusations. That left just 31.
Meanwhile, Ilina tells me, the desperate prosecution tried to rig the evidence. She says a sealed envelope with 10 documents seized at the time of Sen’s arrest — each of them countersigned by Sen and the arresting officer — was opened in court and found to have 11 documents. The 11th did not bear Sen’s signature but did carry that of the arresting officer.
Sensing that the case was collapsing, the defence appealed for bail. It was
not the first time they had done so. But now, in the changed circumstances, they felt they had good grounds to try again. Ilina says bail is normally only refused if the court believes the accused will tamper with the evidence, prejudice witnesses or run away. That hardly applies to Sen. He chose to voluntarily go to the Chhattisgarh police when he learnt he was under suspicion. Yet, his bail
application was dismissed without being entertained.
However, the very next day, the police filed a supplementary chargesheet adding another 47 witnesses to the original list of 83. At the rate at which the case is being heard, Ilina concludes, it could drag on for several more years.
While in prison, Binayak Sen has won the prestigious Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights. He is the only Indian to be so honoured. The citation reads: “He has spent his lifetime educating people about health practices and civil liberties… his good works need to be recognized as a major contribution to India and to global health; they are certainly not a threat to state security.”
Among those who have appealed for his release are Amartya Sen, Noam Chomsky, retired Indian chief justices, Magsaysay and Booker Prize winners, and eminent Indian and international academics, scientists and filmmakers. Their pleas have been ignored.
Ilina left me with three questions. How long can a man be kept in prison by refusing to grant him bail? Is this case being dragged on by an obdurate prosecution unwilling to accept it made a mistake and, therefore, unable to face up to embarrassment? And finally, is the prestige of the State more important than the liberties of an individual citizen?

A few thoughts for 2009

I doubt if 2008 could have been worse than it was. But now the most important question I can think of is, can we be sure the new year will be better? I doubt if anyone knows. More significantly, I fear the portents suggest it might not be. So, whilst we apprehensively wait to find out, here’s a little insouciance to cheer you up.

My cousin Ranjit has put together a collection of witticisms that seem remarkably apt in the circumstances. “Smile, it makes people wonder what you are thinking”; “The light at the end of the tunnel may be an oncoming train”; “If you can’t convince them, confuse them” and “The road to success…is always under construction”. Here’s one, in particular, for smokers: “The cigarette does the smoking; you are just the sucker”. And another for those who are married: “Marriage is one of the chief causes of divorce.”

If you fancy yourself as someone who can turn a pretty phrase, Lakshman, another cousin, has sent me a few quotations you could easily twist for your own use. For instance, if someone’s cracked a poor joke try Mark Twain’s comment on Germans: “Their humour is no laughing matter.” And if you want to rile a Bihari or a Bengali you can always adapt Sydney Smith’s attack on Yorkshire: “Never ask a man if he comes from Yorkshire. If he does, he will tell you. If he does not, why humiliate him?” Finally, if your neighbour and his pooch have got to you there’s always Edward Abbey’s riposte: “When a man’s best friend is his dog, that dog has a problem.”
Of course, most of the time when someone pops an awkward question you’re left searching in vain for something clever to say. The silence that follows is hideously embarrassing. Well, here are a few retorts worth remembering. Asked how many husbands she had had, Peggy Guggenheim replied: “Mine or other people’s?” Questioned by a rude TV anchor if she realized that the class system had ended, Barbara Cartland hit back: “Of course I do, or I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you!” And then there’s the old chestnut. When you’re questioned about a disagreement with someone and need to explain it away, try this one-liner from the Cambridge Union: “The difference between X and I is a question of mind over matter. I don’t mind and X doesn’t matter.”

General Jacob, who’s a bachelor, has sent me a collection of wisecracks about marriage. I wonder how many of you, joined in wedlock, agree with them? “Two secrets to keep your marriage successful: first, whenever you’re wrong, admit it; second, whenever you’re right, shut up.” Here’s another: “The most effective way to remember your wife’s birthday is to forget it once.” Yet one more: “My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met.” And finally: “When a man steals your wife, there’s no better revenge than to let him keep her.”
Meanwhile Bamby Rao has forwarded a list of what he calls ‘gentle thoughts’. If the start of another year makes you feel conscious of how time is catching up, he’s offered a little consolation: “Eventually you will reach a point when you stop lying about your age and start bragging about it.” On the other hand if you want to depress yourself, Bamby has another recipe: “First you forget names, then you forget faces. Next you forget to pull up your zipper. It’s worse when you forget to pull it down.”

And, do you remember Mary and the little lamb? Here’s a version of the nursery rhyme created for that moment when Mummy is fed up of her little darlings: “Mary had a little lamb, her father shot it dead. Now it goes to school with her, between two hunks of bread.”
Finally, if you love journalists as much as I do be grateful to Humbert Wolfe: “You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank god, the British journalist. But seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to!”
Happy New Year, or so I hope!