Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Amitav Ghosh's latest book and The Great Gatsby

Amitav Ghosh, for all my money, is one of the finest authors in India today. I have found both his fictional and non-fictional works outstandingly perceptive of anthropological issues and what makes them special is Ghosh's deep compassion for the human condition- a rare quality these days especially when most authors are preoccupied with brandishing their opinions missing out on the delight of communicating experience without judgment.
I haven't read his latest book, The Sea of Poppies, but I plan to read it sometime soon. I came across this (rather long but nonetheless interesting) interview of Amitav Ghosh by a refreshingly perceptive and intelligent interviewer. While much of their discussion is about themes and techniques in The Sea of Poppies, the author also talks about the ideas that influence and inspire his writing. The latter part of the conversation begins at the use of language in the book and how the medium of expression itself can become a theme in the narrative. Ghosh shares some fantastic history on word origins that is worth reading:
Which is why I feel that if me, and other Asian writers, if we are going to write in this language at all, then we must reclaim for it what it historically had. When an English newspaper says about our writing that these guys are bringing all these new words into the language, it’s nonsense – those words have been there for centuries!
Some colourful swear words were in the dictionary too. Let me tell you about something interesting I came across in the lascari dictionary written by Lt Thomas Roebuck, in 1812. When he lists the words of commands...have you ever heard the word “habes” (pronounced hab-iz)?No. In lascari, when you wanted to tell a sailor to pull, or heave, the translation that Roebuck provides is “habes”. I’m not sure what the root is, but it was a very common command.
So he provides this word and then adds in brackets, “Sometimes it may be necessary to include a few words of abuse, for example ‘bahenchod, habes!’ Or ‘saale, habes!’”We have somehow become very embarrassed about these things today. I hope I’m not offending you, but the word “beti-chod” (daughter-fucker) has been used going back to the 17th century, in English as well.
A preceding post in the blog actually discusses some interesting linguistic gymnastics that Ghosh indulges in, in the book.
I just finished reading The Great Gatsby. The book is one of the earliest 'American novels' and to say that it is a fantastic read would be an understatement. Indians (from time to time) like to indulge in coffee-table criticism of the wanton materialism that has forever prevailed in the west while being happily oblivious (or indifferent) to the rising tide of extravagance that carries us all. In that, F. Scott. Fitzgerald was one of the earliest critics of the materialism and economic opulence that followed the first World War in America.
There is a difference between scholarly criticism and haranguing. The former stimulates the reader to evolve as a thinker rather than blindly marry to the ideas that any good writer would be able to weave into a convincing prose. Both Fitzgerald and Amitav Ghosh belong to the former category of intellectuals; in writing, they acknowledge the difficulty of translating experience into ideology. Personally, this limitation is the strongest case in point for the necessity of fiction in our lives. It is in this exploration that the seed of imagination germinates and it is important to experience it rather than be instructed by it.

Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Indus Valley

The debate as to whether the Indus Valley civilization was a progenitor to the Hindu culture and tradition has been an area that has been intensely pursued by the BJP/VHP brigade in recent times. While this issue is yet to assume proportions comparable to the Ayodhya and the Ram Setu propagandas, it is noteworthy as a case in point of how political vested interests corrupt debates that ought to be resolved through simple falsifiable evidence. Thank god that the sites lie in Pakistan for I wouldn't have been surprised to find shiva lingas mushrooming from the excavation site with Hindu groups striking vehement claims to the hallowed land of their ancestors.

A very interesting article that was linked from another blog reviews the various theories that attempt to explain the collapse of the Indus Valley civilization. As to whether that remarkably advanced civilization finally evolved (or should I say degenerated) into the later Hindu civilization- the people who gradually drifted eastwards, to settle on the Gangetic plains or whether it was annihilated by Aryan invaders (as an excavator of the name Wheeler had suggested in the 1940s) who brought the Vedic culture with them is an issue that remains to be resolved. But the extent to which bigoted vested interests constantly supress true scholarship is evident from the following passage from the essay:

Did the Indus directly seed what eventually grew into the second wave of Indian civilization? That is a hot political as well as scholarly topic. "This plays a significant role in today's India," says Possehl. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which ruled India from 1998 to 2004, declared the Indus to be the progenitor of Hindu civilization, a controversial claim in a country with a large Muslim population. While in power, BJP pumped additional funding into Indus-related digs, and its influence over archaeological matters remains strong. Last fall, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was harshly criticized in Parliament for asserting in a report that the underwater ridge connecting India and Sri Lanka was natural rather than the remains of a bridge built by the traditional hero Rama. Under pressure, ASI suspended two senior employees involved in the report. In May, members of India's Supreme Court expressed sympathy for a lower court decision ordering ASI to investigate the formation.

Such are the reasons why most of the advances in the historical understanding of this subject have been made by Western academicians and not researchers from the subcontinent. A disgusting case of falsification of evidence to buttress the Hindutva-mediated hypothesis has been documented in The Argumentative Indian. Despite much contrary evidence, the Hindu camp has constantly asserted with absurd confidence that the Indus Valley civilization was Sanskritic in nature. Two Indian researchers, N. S. Rajaram and Natwar Jha published a book in where they claimed to have deciphered the 'hitherto-undeciphered' script of the Indus Valley civilization. They attributed the script to 4000 BC (which was nearly a thousand years before what had been established earlier) but also claimed that the tablets found referred to the Saraswati river mentioned in the Rigveda. They produced a seal with a picture of a horse on it, which was amply forwarded as 'indisputable' proof of the Vedic/Aryan identity of the Indus Valley civilization.
It was later found that the alleged horse-seal was a fake, the credit of its creation going to Hindutva activists. Researchers from Harvard University demonstrated the fraud beyond reasonable doubt. But as Sen says, even the demonstration was not enough to end references in school textbooks to the 'Indus-Saraswati civilization'.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations- then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations.If it is found to be contradicted by observation - well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

-Arthur Stanley Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (1928)

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Damn those puritans

William Dalrymple writes about the retrogressive fate of sexuality in the Indian culture through the ages in this highly informative article.

As McConnachie makes clear, the Kamasutra was in many ways an act of resistance against the growing tide of Hindu and Buddhist ascetic puritanism that was beginning to question the libertine lifestyle of the third-century nagarikas—or young men about town—at whom the text was aimed. These polygamous and hedonistic nagarikas sound a little like characters from a classical Indian version of Sex and the City. They "incline to the ways of the world and regard playing as their only concern," writes Vatsyayana. Such a man, he writes, chooses to live in a city "where there are smart people" or "wherever he has to stay to make a living." He sets up the perfect home, "in a house near water, with an orchard, separate servants quarters, and two bedrooms." One is for sleeping. The other is devoted entirely to sex. Inside he keeps his vina to strum, implements for drawing, a book, garlands of flowers, a board for
dice, and cages of pet birds. His bed should be "low in the middle and very soft, with pillows on both sides and a white top sheet." His orchard should have a sturdy swing.

In the early evening the nagarika should attend a courtesan's salon, to discuss art, poetry, and women. Later he should visit a musical soiree before returning home to await his lover. If she arrives wet from the monsoon rain he should courteously help her change, before retiring to the frescoed bedchamber which has been festooned with flowers and made fragrant with incense. Dancers and singers will amuse the lovers as they chat and flirt. Only then are the musicians sent away—and the lovemaking begins.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

free speech

The state of free speech in India, if I may be so optimistic to use the very term, has always been of concern to me. The the current populist spirit of 'better fed than free' makes sense when you speak of the imminent priorities of the country, but I believe (and hope) that there will be some time in the future when the right to expression would be more intensely promoted in the public sphere than what is being done today.

The episodes of Taslima Nasreen, MF Hussain and Kumar Ketkar have shown glimpses of the extent to which certain groups can oppose free speech to promote self-interests. It is also pathetic to see how the higher judiciary in India still refuses to come under the purview of the RTI, in spite of much support for the motion among the Indian intelligentsia. The smug unwillingness to show transparency is an abomination, especially after reports of many judges indulging in extravagant misuse of the state funds have pointed fingers at the judiciary. Another deplorable example showing the extent to which legal mechanisms can be misused to protect vested interests is that of the Ahmedabad police commissioner filing charges of sedition (not defamation, mind you) against the TOI for publishing reports that questioned his competency in providing anti-terrorist security to the Gujarat citizens. See Jug Suraiya's article about the dubious nature of a concept like sedition itself, and its recent appearances (and its misappropriations) in political rhetoric.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

A passing note

With my masters dissertation approved, the last of my IIT duties have been dispensed. The next few days involve actively avoiding the computer and indulging myself to irresistible Bombay monsoons. The air outside my room is amazingly fresh and inviting; I want to indulge as much as I can.

I have decided not to subscribe to TOI anymore on Google reader, because it is an ordeal to go through every irrelevant and stupid news piece that it sends you. Check out this and this.

Thursday, 5 June 2008


Amit Varma has cited two passages, one by Gandhi in 1934 and the other a recorded quote by Sharon Stone recently, where both describe earthquakes as cosmic punishments meted out to sinful humans. I was reminded of an interesting piece from Sam Harris's An Atheist Manifesto:

As Hurricane Katrina was devouring New Orleans, nearly a thousand Shiite pilgrims were trampled to death on a bridge in Iraq. There can be no doubt that these pilgrims believed mightily in the God of the Koran: Their lives were organized around the indisputable fact of his existence; their women walked veiled before him; their men regularly murdered one another over rival interpretations of his word. It would be remarkable if a single survivor of this tragedy lost his faith. More likely, the survivors imagine that they were spared through God‘s grace.

Only the atheist recognizes the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved. Only the atheist realizes how morally objectionable it is for survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving God while this same God drowned infants in their cribs. Because he refuses to cloak the reality of the world‘s suffering in a cloying fantasy of eternal life, the atheist feels in his bones just how precious life is--and, indeed, how unfortunate it is that millions of human beings suffer the most harrowing abridgments of their happiness for no good reason at all.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

When I heard the learn'd astronomer

(A poem that I don't agree with but whose spirit of naked rebellion of order I find difficult not to admire)

When I heard the learn'd astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and
measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much
applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

- Walt Whitman

Jai Jai Money

Taking inspiration from Tirupati, it seems now that even the Vaishno Devi shrine authorities have adopted the concept of 'priority darshans'.

The decision to organise paid darshans was taken by the Vaishno Devi Shrine Board on Sunday. Now a traditional mata ki aarti can be organised inside the sanctum sanctorum at Rs 1000. And those who are unwilling to wait in long queue can enter the shrine by paying an entry fee of Rs 500 or Rs 200. This reduces the darshan time by over 50 to 70 per cent.

"The facility is like a tatkal service for devotees who have tight schedules and are keen to offer prayers at the earliest," M K Dwivedi, Additional Chief Executive Officer, told PTI.
In the age of Blackberries and palms, it is only fair that Gods have their schedules optimized. Darshan has become like an FMCG, and John Milton, unless his remains have long vapourized, would definitely be turning in his grave.

That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."

Monday, 2 June 2008

A Free Man's Worship

The Dawkinsque critique against theism is primarily occupied with countering literalist claims to the nature of reality and the universe presented by religious institutions and hence is considered atomistic and reductivist by many critics. Stephen Fry states in an interview that such a world view (referring to Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens) is devoid of the poetic liturgy that the believer can identify with in her copy of the King James Bible or the Bhagavad Gita. While literalism of any kind reflects a deeply entrenched delusion that needs to be uprooted through systematic reasoning, atheist rhetoric needs to traverse beyond the present counter-argumentative nature that merely confines itself to scientific diatribe against Intelligent Design.

Sam Harris says in his manifesto that "atheism is not a philosophy or a view of the world". I disagree with him when he says that it is simply a "refusal to deny the obvious". In the present format, atheism probably isn't a philosophy. But I believe it needs to strive towards being one. Religion finds staunch adherents, not because it offers a particularly appealing picture of the universe or nature, but because it pretends to offer transcendence to its followers. It appeals to the human condition in a way that one finds liberating from the instincts and desires that bind one to one's earthly existence. Religion took the easy way out because the quest for its perpetuation was always a quest for power. Through deceit and cunning, through the continual inculcation of fear and prejudice, by tabooing and chastising the spirit of inquiry, religion ensured its propagation through the ages. In its most iniquitous forms around the world, it persecuted the powerless, trapped others mentally causing them to turn a blind eye towards the suffering of their brethren and caused a systematic degeneration of a large part of society (which continues) ensuring that the parochial walls of fear and dogma-based faith make it impervious to reason and the nobler ideals of humanism.

Hence, if a rational and a liberal atheism has to triumph, it has to be integrated with a larger and a more universal world view that moves beyond merely debating the existence of a God. It has to strive to achieve those ideals for the individual and society which religion only pretended to achieve all these years. It has to convince man that the world holds in its bosom, a vast potential to the achievement of transcendental ideals, those that elevate his pursuits above and beyond the realms of his appetite.

I give you two excerpts from an essay by Bertrand Russell. It was one of his first essays arguing the case for atheism. While Dawkins, Harris and even other texts by Russell have convinced me of the intellectual, ethical and moral rectitude of being an atheist, this is perhaps the only essay upon reading which, I have felt truly inspired to proclaim that I do not require any God to lead a life that can extend beyond personal goals and ambitions.

1. Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins--all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.

2. The life of Man, viewed outwardly, is but a small thing in comparison with the forces of Nature. The slave is doomed to worship Time and Fate and Death, because they are greater than anything he finds in himself, and because all his thoughts are of things which they devour. But, great as they are, to think of them greatly, to feel their passionless splendour, is greater still. And such thought makes us free men; we no longer bow before the inevitable in Oriental subjection, but we absorb it, and make it a part of ourselves. To abandon the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things--this is emancipation, and this is the free man's worship. And this liberation is effected by a contemplation of Fate; for Fate itself is subdued by the mind which leaves nothing to be purged by the purifying fire of Time.

Single mothers, Gay and Lesbian couples win right to parenthood

In a landmark resolution in UK, single women and lesbian couples have been granted parental rights. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill waives the requirement that women need a male support in order to approach a fertility clinic. It is also expected (and naturally correct) that gay men who use surrogacy will be allowed to enjoy similar rights. It is said that the Bill will also recognize both partners as legitimate parents of the child as opposed to considering only the natural mother or the father involved in fertilization.

Understandably, there are dissenters. And it is no surprise to notice which ideological camp most of them come from. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster thinks it strange that the Government should want to take away not just the need for a father but the right for a father. Others disapprove stating that this would amount to conveying that fathers are not important, or are less important than mothers.

Such detracting criticism reflects the nature of the deeply entrenched patriarchy and religious literalism that plagues even fairly progressive societies. If the well being of every British child is what truly concerned these dissenters, then why isn't there a proposal to make every couple desirous of parenthood pass through a socioeconomic filter that would decide whether they are capable of raising a child in the first place? Does the presence of a father implicitly assure a good childhood as the Archbishop seems to suggest? Consider the first two comments following the news post:

1. Incredible. A male child growing up without a fatherly influence, will not get to know the behaviour of a mature man , like a father . Male childs will be weak if they get raised up by women only and when these humans grow up to their their twenties, they ll act more like a mother than a father.

2. And we wonder why society is breaking down, why young men who have no father figure knife each other. Get a grip NuLabor, your time is up.

I fear with the very thought of being around at a time in the future when these issues would be discussed in India; when these voices, reeking of the past and a lack of imagination, would be lurking around only to emerge from different faces.