Thursday, 29 May 2014

Rationalism As A Tool For Literary Criticism

As a rationalist, I'm always thrilled to see incisive analysis based on hard logic applied to subjects whose treatment has traditionally been reverential and unquestioning. Religious and quasi-religious texts have generally escaped critical analysis, but so too have some established classics in literature.

For an example of how a quasi-religious epic like the Mahabharata can be interpreted if one is only willing to approach it without reverence is illustrated by Seshadri Kumar's answer to the question on Quora, "What was the sole [motive] of Krishna behind the Kurukshetra war?"

As an example of a traditionalist Hindu answer (which is a supreme shrug of the shoulders - "God works in mysterious ways"), one Quora member says

Bhagavad Gita (Chapter IV-7)

"Whenever there is decay of righteousness O! Bharatha And a rise of unrighteousness then I manifest Myself!"

This sholaka form Bhagvad Gita answers the question why a war was essential; it was done to re-establish the Dharma and to teach the generations to come that whenever there is rise of Adharma, establishment of Dharma would be done by the Lord himself or by his messengers. 

Another member answers in a similar vein

At the beginning of the Mahabharata, there's an anecdote on how mother earth comes to Vishnu, to request Him to reduce her burden. Similarly, the rishis ask Him to save them from Kamsa. And Vishnu decides to take a poornaavatara. He descends to Teach and Establish Dharma and Fight and Destroy Adharma.
Seshadri Kumar cuts through to the heart of the matter, not letting the claimed divinity of Krishna get in the way. And his answer is illuminating.

I applied similar logic when discussing Shakespeare's play Hamlet with my son, and in the process, I discovered the major character behind the entire play, who only has a small role in the play itself!

Shakespeare's plays have enduring appeal because they speak to people in a highly personalised way. They are ambiguous and nuanced, and they lend themselves to alternative interpretations depending on the reader's point of view. Indeed, the same person revisiting a Shakespearean play many years later would get a different message from it.

This was indeed my experience. I had first read Hamlet long ago in my youth, and when I discussed it today, I found I was thinking about it very differently. When I was much younger, I took the entire play at face value and thought I had been able to appreciate it for what it was. I couldn't have been more wrong. Today, I realised that I had changed enormously as a person since I last approached the play, and consequently, it seemed a completely different story. The big change in my life has been my move away from being a religious believer to being an atheist or a rationalist. And when I thought of Hamlet today, I realised that the one aspect of the story that stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb was the ghost of the old king.

As a rationalist, I now know that supernatural phenomena like ghosts simply don't exist. So did Shakespeare do nothing more than write a silly ghost story?

Not so fast.

I applied the same logic that Seshadri Kumar did to the Mahabharata. I assumed that the play was literally true, i.e., that the characters all did see and do the things they have been depicted as seeing or doing.

Now, the play became a lot more interesting. If there was no ghost, then who was it that Hamlet, Horatio and the soldiers saw at the beginning of the play? It must have been a flesh-and-blood person, but what was his identity?

To answer that question, we need to ask ourselves what the ghost actually did. And the answer to that question is that the ghost incited Hamlet to kill his uncle in revenge for the murder of his father.

Now why would someone impersonate a dead king to incite the murder of the current one? Well, as the detective at the scene of a murder might ask, who stands to gain from the crime? Who is the beneficiary? And indeed, the answer is clear at the end of the play. It is Fortinbras, prince of Norway, who arrives in Denmark in time to see the ruling family dead and the kingdom ready to fall into his lap.

Who is Fortinbras anyway? He's the son of King Fortinbras of Norway, who was killed by the elder king Hamlet. The younger Fortinbras has been gathering an army to attack Denmark in revenge, but has been restrained by his uncle the current king of Norway.

Now that's very interesting. So Fortinbras wants to attack Denmark under its current king Claudius, avenge his father's death and win territory for his kingdom. He's thwarted by his uncle in his plans to attack Denmark outright, and so he goes on a campaign against Poland instead, for "a little patch of ground that hath no profit in it but the name". The campaign against Poland is therefore just a smokescreen. Although Fortinbras made a vow before his uncle "never more to give the assay of arms" against Claudius, it's clear he intends to achieve his purpose by other means. Denmark is always his primary target.

So, now that we have a suspect and have established a possible motive for his act, let's look at the options one would have in Fortinbras's place, now that direct military action is ruled out. The most obvious route is to look for and exploit schisms within the Danish ruling circle. After sufficient investigation, the murder of the elder king Hamlet by Claudius must have been uncovered, and in the process a potential ally (prince Hamlet) identified. But Hamlet was oblivious of his father's murder and would have to be told. Why would he believe an outrageous story like that? What proof could Fortinbras furnish to Hamlet to convince him of Claudius's guilt? None at all!

That's probably why Fortinbras decided to use the stratagem of impersonating the king's ghost and telling Hamlet the story from the old king's point of view. As a superstitious man (like most people were in that society), Hamlet would not dare ask the ghost for proof. He would accept the story without question. And that is exactly what happened. With the seeds of doubt planted in his mind, Hamlet then set about doing all the things he had to do before the play ended. And once Denmark's ruling family lay dead, Fortinbras mysteriously appeared to claim the Danish throne and avenge his father.

A dark night, a bit of makeup, and an armor that hid everything about a face except for the eyes exposed by a visor - that was all that was needed. (It need not have been Fortinbras himself who impersonated the dead king. It could have been anyone from his entourage who had similar features.) The plan worked brilliantly. Hamlet was so convinced by Fortinbras's story that after some hesitation, he set about planning his revenge. The later scene of the ghost when Hamlet is alone with his mother is probably Hamlet being delusional. His mother can see no ghost. It is entirely in his own imagination, unlike at the beginning of the play, when Horatio, Bernardo and the soldiers can all see the ghostly figure in armour.

And so this is Shakespeare's clever story of Hamlet - a story of how the young prince Fortinbras of Norway avenged his father's death and won a victory over his enemy Denmark by setting the prince of Denmark against his own uncle. The entire play was about how Fortinbras's brilliant plan to conquer Denmark succeeded.

As with Seshadri Kumar's analysis of the Mahabharata, my own analysis of Hamlet from a rationalist point of view led to an answer that should really not be surprising in hindsight.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Modi's Tenure - A Retrieved Reformation?

The genius of O Henry shows in his stories, full of clever insights into the human condition, with humour, pathos and the mandatory twist at the end. One of the nicest is A Retrieved Reformation, the story of a professional safecracker called Jimmy Valentine who changes his ways, decides to live a straight life and marry the girl he loves - a banker's daughter. But the law is catching up with him for his past. At the story's denouement, a detective is waiting to arrest him at the bank owned by Jimmy's future father-in-law. An unexpected moment of drama occurs when a little girl gets locked inside the bank's vault. Jimmy is forced to risk losing it all by revealing his true identity when he decides to crack the vault and save the child. Moved by that selfless act, the detective who has come to arrest him pretends not to recognise him and leaves.

An O Henry-esque story is playing out in India with the inauguration of Narendra Modi as prime minister. Regardless of Modi's vaunted skills as an administrator and a no-nonsense decision maker, one aspect of his past that he has been unable to live down is the planned rioting and huge loss of life that occurred on his watch in Gujarat in 2002, in which mainly Muslims were targeted and killed. Modi's complicity in the riots could never be proven "beyond the shadow of a doubt", the standard required to secure a conviction under the "innocent until proven guilty" legal system. However, the evidence for it, although circumstantial, is still substantial. A secretly recorded sting video of a few key players in those riots (one of whom was later sentenced to life in prison) reveals that Modi not only knew about, and encouraged, the riots, but also used his power as Chief Minister to protect the perpetrators and thwart justice later on.

Warning - some of the admissions here are graphic and chilling

Today, this man is India's prime minister, elected on a plank of development. There are millions of people who are quite willing to forgive and forget whatever happened in 2002, provided he delivers the economic benefits that he has been promising - benefits that even Muslims will enjoy, as people keep pointing out. It's a Faustian bargain made by the electorate, and not one that can be easily condemned. After all, the alternative to Modi's BJP was the Congress, with its staggering tradition of corruption and its own dirty list of planned riots and killing over the decades. In a near-binary system, a rejection of one party automatically means the elevation of the other, and so the BJP's turn at power was probably the only realistic outcome.

For his part, although Modi has consistently denied involvement in the riots, he has hinted obliquely that they will not occur again. He has promised to make development his sole agenda, and there are strong reasons to believe that he is sincere. Indeed, he cannot afford another conflagration on his watch. It will put paid to his hopes of leaving behind a legacy in which he is remembered as 'Vikash Purush' (Man of Development).

But all this still leaves one with a philosophical dilemma. Must we always be forced to choose the lesser of two evils? And by what measure do we decide which is the lesser evil? How do we view crime, punishment, expiation, reparations, forgiveness, and reconciliation? The Nuremberg trials and the African Truth and Reconciliation Commissions offer very different models of closure. One deals with "justice" of a retributive kind, the other of a pragmatic way to let people move on. The Nuremberg model has been attempted, and it has failed. Modi has been officially acquitted by the highest court in the land, and the legal option has therefore run its course. Reconciliation seems the only realistic way to move forward, but what we have today is an uneasy limbo. The main element of reconciliation is remorseful acknowledgement. "I'm sorry I murdered your family" is what many people in Rwanda said to genocide survivors, and then they all moved on. There has been no such acknowledgement by Modi or the BJP, just a promise of economic benefits that aren't quite called reparations. It's like corporations paying compensation to victims without admitting wrongdoing. Muslims are expected to collect the economic benefits of a Modi government and forget 2002.

Although I have always harboured deep misgivings about Narendra Modi, I have reconciled myself to his election victory and to the fact that he will probably serve more than one term as prime minister. The previous Congress government was so bad that he can only be an improvement, and he is sure to want to prove himself with a vengeance, so he will almost certainly effect many welcome changes and be rewarded with a second term.

But it is not for me to reconcile myself to anything. I lost nothing in 2002, except in a vicarious humanistic sense. It's the Muslim community that has to do the reconciling, and it is admittedly harder for them, just as it has been hard for the Sikhs to reconcile themselves to the Congress party after the 1984 riots. Modi could make it easier for everyone by apologising and seeking forgiveness. That would be the best way for the country to move forward, but I suspect that is not going to happen. The hardliners in his own party would view that as a betrayal.

There is an old Jewish principle that I have read about, which says there can be no forgiveness without apology. Even with the best hopes of Indians realised and an economy that grows at a stellar rate over the next few decades, without true reconciliation that comes from an apology, India can achieve no more than Trishanku's heaven.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Liberal India's Fear Of The Unknown

Why is Narendra Modi's possible victory causing so much dread in so many Indians?

Is it just a mindless fear of the unknown, as some have suggested? Or is it the insight from Organisational Behaviour that culture is always more important than strategy?

The latter idea takes a bit of explaining. It is the observation that an organisation with a healthy culture will have the wherewithal to adapt to circumstances and try various strategies until it finds what works. A organisation with a brilliant vision and strategy but with a toxic culture will ultimately fail. It will lose customers, it will be punished by the stock market, and its executives may even go to jail.

This wisdom about culture trumping strategy every time is as true of countries as it is true of corporations. A country with a tolerant, pluralistic culture can leverage its diversity to its advantage. Its elected governments learn to be inclusive and fair, pursuing balanced growth over unequal development. In contrast, a society that pursues "purity" (by whatever ideological criterion) risks not only losing the advantages that diversity brings with it, but even weakening itself. Germany exemplifies the latter, where a popular vote in favour of strong leadership in 1933 resulted in utter devastation in just 12 short years. Historical analysts have written tomes about the various reasons for Germany's catastrophic fate, but ultimately, the reason can be stated in a nutshell. The cause was the German populace's willingness to cut corners on culture because they were impatient for a leader with a vision and strategy.

This is the real reason why many Indians fear the advent of Narendra Modi, his fervent followers, and all that they represent. This is not primarily about the 2002 riots, although one could view that as a symptom of what is to be feared.

It is the general mood of impatience, and the willingness to cut corners to achieve objectives. It is the elevation of strategy over culture.

India's culture of pluralism and tolerance did not come about with the adoption of a democratic constitution in 1950, or because of the moral leadership of Mahatma Gandhi in the couple of decades before that. Rather, the inherent culture of India from time immemorial has always been pluralistic and tolerant. In fact, this culture is what shaped the philosophy and strategy of leaders like Gandhi. It is this culture that made a progressive, secular, democratic constitution an easy fit for a country with such an ancient civilisation. But today, this very culture has come under threat from the grassroots up. There is a chill in the air, an increasing intolerance of dissent and criticism, with friends and clansmen turning against one another with rare hostility over political difference. Even during the Emergency of 1975-77, one could trust one's close friends and relatives when criticising Indira Gandhi's government. Today, hundreds of thousands of friendships have been strained (most visibly on social media) because of political difference. Many more people are choosing to maintain a discreet silence rather than voice unpopular opinions.

In this stifling atmosphere, one mollifying mantra is chanted to drown out all others - Development. Development will heal all the wounds that intolerance may inflict, so the theory goes. Elect a "strong" leader, suppress all contrary opinions, watch the country grow at a rapid pace, and finally everyone will benefit, majority and minority alike. It's an appealing argument. Unfortunately, that's also the classic fallacy of neglecting culture for strategy.

The toxic culture of intolerance for dissent that we are witnessing has been commented on by many writers, including Sagarika Ghose and Aatish Taseer. And ironically, the invective that is heaped on such people in the guise of rebuttal serves to underscore their arguments. India is sliding towards a more dictatorial culture, one personified by an emerging political leader but also one that is eagerly fanned by his willing followers.

Indira Gandhi had to pay goons to silence her opponents. Modi's goons (of both the white collar and the blue collar variety) do the job willingly, out of righteous conviction - the conviction that the ends (a strong economy) justify the means (a markedly less liberal society). Such stories do not end well in either fiction or in history, as JK Rowling and 1930s Germany can tell us.

And this is why liberals fear for India.