Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Gandhi's Baptism - Ridiculous but Rational

The news that the Mormon church has posthumously baptised Mahatma Gandhi drew a chuckle from me. But then I'm an agnostic. I shouldn't have been surprised to read that the effect it had on others wasn't quite the same. Some Hindus were offended.

Rajan Zed explained that Hindus did not mark death as the end of existence. Ancient Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita (Song of the Lord) referred to death as abandoning of worn-out clothes and acquiring new ones. Hindus believed in reincarnation with moksha (liberation) as a goal; which brought end to rebirth, embodiment and death.

Zed stressed that ancestors had always been highly important in Hinduism since ancient times. Hindus followed sraddha, pitryajna, pinda, etc., rituals for their ancestors. It would be really painful for Hindus if they came to know that somebody unrelated performed some rites on their ancestors without even asking them.

Translation: Your fantasy offends my fantasy. Your Easter bunny punched my sharabha and I'm really upset.

I have a simpler explanation for this event. Gandhi's posthumous baptism is an attempt -  an entirely rational one, mind you - by modern Christians to address an acutely embarrassing contradiction in traditional doctrine.

Christian doctrine holds that all humans are born as sinners thanks to the Original Sin of disobedience by Adam and Eve. Humans are therefore condemned to an eternity of Hell when they die unless they are "saved". The only way they can be saved is for them to repent their sins and accept Jesus Christ, who was himself free from Original Sin (being the virgin-born Son of God and hence not among the progeny of Adam and Eve) and who died for all our sins in an act of substitutional atonement.

[Rajiv Malhotra's response to Christian evangelists who knock on his door with the "good news" of salvation through Christ is to tell them about the "Hindu good news", i.e., that there is no original sin and that we are all innately divine. It's equally unsubstantiated, but a good riposte nevertheless.]

All well and good, but the problem with this Christian doctrine is its implication for "good heathens", i.e., people who have lived good lives but have never accepted Jesus as their saviour.

Gandhi is the exemplar of the good heathen. He lived a life of fearless truth, writing candidly about his many (real and perceived) failings, repenting and (often needlessly) atoning for them. He also practised non-violence, forever turning the other cheek, yet persistently confronting injustice, fighting for the rights of the oppressed and working for communal peace and harmony. The standard Christian escape route of the "deathbed conversion" also did not apply to Gandhi. He was publicly assassinated, and his dying words have been officially recorded to be "He Ram!" ("O Rama!"), an invocation of the name of a Hindu god. There is some controversy over what he actually said as he was dying, but none of the versions mentions anything about Jesus. So it's safe to say there was no deathbed conversion or acceptance of Christ in the case of Gandhi, and he died as he had lived, a "heathen".

[I believe Gandhi was very Christian in at least one negative aspect - he constantly suffered from needless guilt.]

The example of Gandhi as a person who wouldn't qualify for admission to Heaven according to doctrine has been a constant source of embarrassment to traditional Christians, especially in these modern times when a more secular interpretation of goodness is in favour. It seems unreasonable to more and more people to condemn a good man to an eternity of Hell just because he didn't accept one particular version of "the truth". The idea of a loving God threatening people with eternal torment if they do not accept Him sounds just childish. Many atheists have stated that such unjustifiable fundamentalism was what opened their eyes and turned them off religion. Doctrine is no longer taken on faith but is now expected to justify itself through reasonable argument.

I see this posthumous baptism of Gandhi as an attempt by the Mormon church to extricate orthodox Christianity as a whole from the embarrassing moral knot it has tied itself into. There is a window of opportunity here because, according to doctrine, souls don't actually go to Heaven or Hell until after the Day of Judgement (which hasn't happened yet), and so there's the chance that they can be saved while they're still waiting! Posthumous baptism gives the heathen soul another chance at salvation, and who's to say the soul won't eagerly grab the opportunity, now that the truth that was hidden from them earlier is plainly visible? The faithful can now say with relief that Gandhi will probably be judged worthy of Heaven because he must have accepted Jesus posthumously.

You have to admire the ingenuity of the idea. Embarrassment has been avoided without an overhaul of the doctrine itself!

I'm not offended, merely amused. Watching the shenanigans of the doctrinally religious is like watching contortionists in action, tying themselves into knots and trying to get out of them. For me, the atheistic explanation of our existence is still the simplest and most rational - and entirely adequate.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Recipe for Masala Omelette

What's so special about an omelette, anyway? Well, after a lot of experimentation, I've discovered how to make one with a subtly different flavour and texture. I call it a "masala omelette". Try this recipe to see if it works for you.

2 eggs
1/2 onion
1/2 chilli pepper (Jalapeno)
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
Seasoning paste (I used a Mediterranean seasoning with basil, oregano, garlic and bell peppers)
Salt and Pepper

Mix two eggs with salt, pepper and a squeeze of seasoning paste and stir well until uniform. Set aside in a bowl.

Seasoning paste - the "masala"

Chop the onion and chilli peppers finely and fry in grapeseed oil in a saucepan until the onions are almost brown. I always fry the onions and chillies first. I know lots of people just add them to the eggs and pour the mixture into the saucepan, but I think fried onions taste better.

An aroma to die for

Now transfer the fried onions and chillies into the bowl with the eggs and mix in well.

Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and make the omelette as usual, turning over when appropriate.

Yum! All that remains is to ruin it with ketchup :-)

The garlic, I suspect, causes the omelette to fluff up a little more than normal. The seasoning paste gives the omelette a subtly different flavour, a blend of spicy chilli peppers, garlic and herbs.


Sunday, 26 February 2012

Marriage - Before and After

Humour alert!

Spider-man before marriage:

Spider-man after marriage:

As they say, when you sink into someone's arms, you may end up with your arms in that someone's sink. Super-heroes are no exception...

Update 28/02/2012: In a sharp riposte, my friend Roshan Singh sent me this pair of photos to prove the distaff side of the argument.

The Mughal Emperor Akbar and his Rajput bride Jodha in the 2008 Bollywood movie "Jodhaa Akbar" (played by Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai), - a picture of harmonious equality:

The same couple after 30 years of marriage have done their dirty work, as portrayed in the 1960 movie "Mughal-e-Azam" (played by Prithviraj Kapoor and Durga Khote):

Moral of the story: Girls, marry a super-hero, not a moghul :-). Guys, a crown is the ultimate super-power.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Rudd vs Gillard - Round Two

[Update 27/02/2012: The vote is over, and Gillard won, as expected. Good.]

Australians have to wait until Monday to know who will be leading their country. With the Labor party voting to decide between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the man she deposed in 2010, Kevin Rudd, there are at least three possibilities:

1. Gillard can inflict a humiliating defeat on Rudd such that he retreats to the back benches or resigns from politics altogether, and she continues to be PM until the next elections in 2013. I think this is most likely.

2. Rudd can pull off an upset victory and retake the crown. I think this is least likely.

3. The victory of either may be so slender that it wrecks the Labor government and brings on a mid-term poll, which then goes in favour of the Liberals. I think the odds are even on this.

Two very nice pieces of commentary among all the feverish reporting going on are this op-ed by Michelle Grattan of The Age on House leader Anthony Albanese's decision to support Rudd, and a somewhat last-minute kiss-and-tell by former Rudd speechwriter James Button. I have always had a lot of respect for Anthony Albanese, a man who habitually kept a low profile and quietly delivered results. Grattan's write-up makes clear that Albanese's support for what she considers to be the losing side (i.e., Rudd) is a sign of conscience and courage. His unhappiness with the way Rudd was deposed in 2010, together with opinion polls showing greater support for Labor under Rudd, have combined to swing his vote towards the former Prime Minister.

At the same time, James Button's lengthy exposé paints a rather unflattering, although by no means unbelievable, picture of Kevin Rudd. We've all heard the stories, and Button now brings them into graphic relief on the eve of the spill. He has to be congratulated on his timing.

Albanese's effort could blunt the tide against Rudd within the Labor caucus, just as Button's article could dampen public enthusiasm for Rudd a tiny fraction. However, it's the caucus vote that counts, and it's far from clear that Kevin Rudd is going to win. The other curious fact about the opinion polls is that while people prefer Rudd to Gillard by a significant margin, they're evenly split about a change in leadership. "What happened in 2010 was wrong, but two wrongs don't make a right, so just keep going" seems to sum up the popular mood.

[The Australian public is a bit strange that way. There was widespread outrage at the sacking of the Gough Whitlam government by governor-general John Kerr and the installation of Malcolm Fraser in power in 1975. Yet, when elections were held soon after, Malcolm Fraser was returned to power comfortably and Whitlam did not benefit from the popular outrage at his ouster.]

My take on all this:

- Kevin Rudd did some things right when he started, but he suffers from some serious and incorrigible personality defects. These traits of his severely damaged the government and Labor's prospects, and so he had to go. In retrospect, I agree with Gillard's decision to oust him in the interests of the party and the government.

- However, the way he was disposed of was unseemly, and contributed in no small measure to Gillard's subsequent unpopularity. I liked her a lot when she was Rudd's deputy, and would have supported her wholeheartedly for PM had she moved up to that role in due course, but the sudden coup put me off her, big time. I think Labor's PR around that was a disaster. It was a bit like Brutus having a strong case for doing Caesar in until Marc Antony came along and ruined everything.

- I would still like Gillard to keep her job, however she got it. All things considered, she's probably the best of the three (herself, Rudd and Tony Abbott).

- I like and respect Anthony Albanese even more than I did before. I would go so far as to say he's the only Labor party MP and minister I respect without reservations. I hope he stays in office regardless of who wins.

- I hope Tony Abbott doesn't end up becoming Prime Minister because of all this Labor infighting. That would be a disaster of unprecedented proportions for Australia.

Oh well, Monday isn't too far away.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Shepherd to a Civilisation

Rajiv Malhotra is fast becoming one of my intellectual heroes.

Indians and India-watchers would find this seminar talk and round-table discussion of his very interesting. The talk and subsequent discussion cover a number of points but they essentially centre around the need to reclaim the intellectual treasures of Indian thought from under the avalanche of western analysis, critique and frequent misappropriation that has all but buried them over the last few centuries. The clip is a little long at about an hour and a half but I personally found it fascinating.

An interesting point he makes is that Chinese civilisation has begun to reassert itself in the wake of increased economic self-confidence. The Chinese are beginning to reject the Protestant work ethic as a model for development in favour of their home-grown Confucian work ethic. I like this because I believe that in many contexts, there is no single truth (indeed, no reason why we should wish for a single truth), but many different, equally valid, approaches. "Let a thousand flowers bloom" seems the apt thing to say in this context ;-).

An earlier talk of his on some of the ways in which Indian civilisational thinking differs from the Western/Abrahamic tradition is also very interesting.

[I have listened to his talks at non-Indian venues also, but he seems more guarded and formal in his language when speaking to non-Indian audiences. It's when he speaks at Indian fora that he is at his relaxed, colloquial and humour-laced best. That's why both the samples I've selected are of him speaking in India.]

[Update 23/02/2012: A clip of his address to students of Somaiya College, Mumbai is also likely to be very inspirational to Indian youth. It's a wonderful critique of current Indian attitudes and an exhortation to develop greater self-esteem.]

Let me explain where I'm coming from in all of this. I am the product of two mindsets. By virtue of my English-medium education, my upper-middle class, academically-inclined family background, and my reading habits that predominantly favoured English language books by Western authors, I am highly Westernised in the way I think. However, I also have a great curiosity and love for various cultures, languages, and civilisational histories. I have a science background and abhor superstition, yet remain interested in superstitions as historical cultural artifacts. I'm very wary of organised religion yet remain fascinated by religion as a social phenomenon. I think it's fair to say I have a universalist view of humanity, yet want to experience human civilisation in all its flavours.

Curiously, as I have developed in this universalist worldview, I have rediscovered my interest in India. There may be some truth in the view that an English language education tends to make Indians embarrassed about their own culture. If so, then I'm only now beginning to be secure enough to take pride in the civilisation that I'm a part of. But so far, I have had no trailblazers to follow. Most middle-class, English-educated Indians tend to be of the faintly embarrassed variety who fall back on an aseptic "secularism" that denies all civilisational uniqueness. Those who embrace their Indianness (specifically their Hindu-ness), on the other hand, tend to be jingoistic in their cultural pride and their views tend to be exclusivist and often denigrating of other cultures (especially Islamic and Western cultures). There has been no middle path to follow, until now.

I realise now that Rajiv Malhotra is the cultural thought leader (dare I use my civilisational term guru?) I have been waiting for.

Rajiv Malhotra is a remarkable "civilisational thinker" who may be single-handedly igniting a renaissance in original Indian thought - a worldview that is neither slavishly westernised nor chauvinistically anti-western but independent, self-confident and assertive. He isn't part of any -ism or any contemporary political grouping but is a genuine academic and philosopher.

I would say he is a shepherd to a civilisation that seems to have lost its way, and more importantly, its nerve.

Monday, 20 February 2012

The What-People-Think-I-Do Meme

We've been seeing a new meme lately - "What-people-think-I-do/what-I-really-do"

I used a "meme builder" to create one for my current situation. Enjoy.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Gen VK Singh Case: India's Supreme Court Lowers Itself

Gurcharan Das, in his excellent book, The Difficulty of Being Good, describes a seminal episode from the Mahabharata epic where a powerful legal authority, when appealed to for justice, becomes so tied up in legalistic definitions that he fails to deliver justice. The echoes of that shameful scene were felt in India on Feb 10, when India's highest court not only tied itself up in legalisms but even went so far as to say it was not interested in establishing the truth! In doing so, the court missed an opportunity to fix one of Indian officialdom's most pervasive ills.

Some background is necessary on both of these matters that I'm alluding to.

In one of the early scenes of the Mahabharata, Draupadi, queen of the Pandava king Yudhishthira, was staked by her husband in a game of dice. When he lost, she was dragged from her chambers to the court by the victorious Kaurava prince Duhshasana, where he attempted to disrobe and humiliate her. The Kaurava king Dritharashtra and the elders of the court watched in shocked silence. None stood up to condemn the act.

What is relevant to us now is that at this point, Draupadi appeals to the oldest and most revered of them, the grandsire Bhishma. She asks if her husband had staked and lost himself first. In other words, did he even have a right to stake her?

Bhishma's answer is a classic of intellectual sophistry and moral cowardice. He wonders aloud about the legal pros and cons of the situation and finally tells her, "Dharma is subtle, my dear." With that non-answer, he abdicates his authority and lets the shameful humiliation continue. It falls to Lord Krishna to step in with a deus ex machina in the form of an endlessly unfurling sari that serves to protect Draupadi's modesty.

Bhishma had the authority to step in and stop the atrocity. He could have struck Duhshasana down and restored the dignity and dharma of the court. He did not. He talked about dharma but did not act it. A reader of the Mahabharata even today feels vicarious shame at the old man's inexcusable failure to act when he should have.

When Gen VK Singh approached the Indian Supreme Court in January this year to force the government to accept his date of birth as 10 May 1951 and not 10 May 1950 as it existed in his service records, he was appealing to the court to do the right thing. The "right thing" in my mind would be to establish the truth. What was the general's true date of birth? The answer to that question should have settled every other.

Instead, the two judges of the Supreme Court hearing his case argued that since the general had twice in the past agreed to accept the date of 10 May 1950, he had no right to raise the issue again. In other words, he had to "forever hold his peace". That's an absurd argument because the general did try to correct his records on two occasions but was knocked back each time. In other words, he did try to speak up but was silenced. Hence the admonition to him to keep his peace has no basis in natural justice.

Yes, your honours, dharma is subtle. But the truth is also simple, if you would only choose to cast your eyes in that direction.

The actual point of law raised by the appellant in both these cases was badly advised. Draupadi was damned whichever way her question was answered. If her husband had not lost himself first, then it would imply that he had a right to stake her, in which case her tormentors would be legally entitled to humiliate her. If her husband had lost all rights to her, then her status would be far worse, because she would be akin to a widow, and widows were treated terribly in Hindu society. What was needed was for Bhishma not to ponder the legalities of her question but to step up and do the right thing, which was to land a mighty sock on Duhshasana's jaw (or smite him with his mace if that was more in keeping with the mores of the time) and send him scurrying off like a rat.

The issue that Gen VK Singh raised was one of honour, which was a silly thing to raise at this stage considering that he had swallowed his pride on two past occasions and backed down before his superiors.  But the court should have seen beyond his appeal to recognise the very serious problem his issue was highlighting - the systemic malaise in India's institutions that makes them prize adherence to procedure above concern for establishing the truth.

Rather than debate the issue in narrow legalistic terms, the legal luminaries in each of those cases should have been more concerned with what was right, rather than clauses and subclauses of the law.

This is the Supreme Court, not a lower court that simply applies the law. The Supreme Court has the power to revisit the law, if necessary to overturn precedent and to re-interpret its letter to better obey its spirit.

It has done this before. In the early nineties, the Supreme Court forced the government to implement its clean air policies and thereby significantly reduced pollution levels in Delhi, even setting up its own expert committees to provide detailed advice. Under Justice PN Bhagwati, the Supreme Court had a welcome focus on the basics, i.e., justice for the common man. Justice Bhagwati innovated the concept of "epistolary jurisprudence", wherein a common man could write a simple letter to the court (i.e., there was no need for a writ petition drafted by a trained lawyer), and the court would be obliged to look into the matter to ensure justice was done. This started the era of Public Interest Litigation. Justice Krishna Iyer once said, “Judicial activism gets its highest bonus when its orders wipe some tears from some eyes”.

There is, after all, a far more important issue at stake here than the general's date of birth, his date of retirement, or even his honour as he chose to frame his case. It is that India's institutions are systemically flawed in that they are not concerned with establishing the truth but rather in ensuring adherence to procedure. If something is procedurally admissible, then no eyebrows are raised even if horrific injustice is thereby done. The court should have pointed this out and rapped the army and the ministry of defence on the knuckles for not pursuing the truth when they were informed of a discrepancy in their records. It is especially shocking that an institution like the army would resort to bargaining by issuing threats of withholding promotions and postings rather than set about establishing the truth with alacrity once a discrepancy was pointed out. Unfortunately, the two judges in this case have turned out to be far smaller men than Justice PN Bhagwati. They missed the chance to improve the system for the common man. After all, if this can happen to a general, is any citizen safe?

The important questions for the country that remain unanswered are:

- Why doesn't India have official records of birth? If a school leaving certificate is the authority for a person's date of birth, what does it say about the pathetic state of record-keeping in the country?

- How can someone be forced to "accept" a certain date of birth? Isn't there a notion of establishing the objective truth?

- Why is Indian administrative culture so concerned with procedure that it is blind to truth and justice?

The Supreme Court is now unfortunately no longer seen as a good referee or even as a referee; some even see it as a player. The entire episode has become one of mirth and merriment.

A learned and insightful critique of these systemic lapses in the light of this case would have done the institution of the Supreme Court an honour by affirming its authority, both legal and moral. The Supreme Court should be a beacon lighting the way to a better tomorrow, not a myopic microscope preoccupied with minutiae.

As it happened, the learned judges failed. Like Bhishma before them, they now stand exposed as bumbling old men who can debate the nuances of the law but miss dharma by a mile.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

India Trip 2011-2012 - Mumbai

After a whirlwind tour of Ahmedabad, Baroda and Jaipur, we went to Mumbai for a more restful eight days of socialising and shopping. Most of my photos from this leg of the trip pertain to family lunches and dinners, hence aren't of much relevance to this blog.

However, I did have some observations to make about Mumbai on this trip.

I'm constantly amazed at how Indians can live and work amidst such filth and wretched infrastructure. It's both a strength and a weakness of the Indian character, I guess, a blend of resilience and low standards. The photos below show vibrant economic activity in the midst of seeming devastation. It's like a market economy thriving in a war zone.

Santa Cruz market

Fruit stalls, advertisements and a gleaming skywalk, all cheek-by-jowl with potholes and rubbish

Speaking of skywalks, these have mushroomed all over the city. There are no lifts for the elderly and the infirm, but other than that drawback, they are a wonderful way to escape the congestion, traffic hazards and dirt of the roads below. Hopefully lifts or escalators will be added at a later stage. The skywalks are a welcome development for a city like Mumbai.

Use the Skywalk, Luke - The network of skywalks near Bandra station

At the Palladium shopping centre in Lower Parel, there is a nice Gujarati/Rajasthani vegetarian restaurant called Rajdhani. At INR 289 per plate, it's considerably cheaper than the INR 405 per plate we paid at LMB in Jaipur, plus the food was much tastier. Both establishments offered "unlimited" refills, so this is an (ahem) apples-to-apples comparison.

Highlight: the waiters at Rajdhani bring an ethnically-styled brass jug of water and a basin with a discreet grill covering to your table to let you wash your hands before the meal is served. A good thing too, because too many people today have forgotten the lessons of their childhood and don't bother to wash their hands before eating!

Gujarati thali at Rajdhani - tasty food, and relatively inexpensive for a city like Mumbai and a posh shopping centre like Palladium

Another food tip for those in the vicinity of Linking Road, Bandra: The restaurant called Mainland China right next to Shoppers Stop has yummy Indian Chinese cuisine. At least, I thought it was Indian Chinese, but their website says, "Compromise is never made in maintaining authenticity of the cuisine. Our Master Chef from China chooses the delicacies from his vast repertoire that are more suited to the Indian palate but never "adapts"."

If you say so :-).

I don't have too much more to add about our Mumbai trip. After returning to Chennai for a brief stopover, we were on our flight back to Sydney.

And that concludes my chronicle of our India trip, 2011-2012.

IIT Alumni Association Picnic - Sydney - 12 Feb 2012

The IIT Alumni Association in Sydney (officially called the IITians Association of Australia) had a picnic on Sunday the 12th February 2012. This was at Bobbin Head in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.

The organisers had booked a nice covered area called the Pavillion within the Park, very close to the Bobbin Inn.

The Pavillion can easily hold 30 to 40 people

The scenery around the park is excellent.

Fishing in the creek

Amusement area for kids

Initially, we just spent time milling around and chatting in small informal groups.

Later on, there was food, of course. A great variety, since every family had brought a dish or two. Most of the dishes were also vegetarian.

No get-together would be complete without some music. IITians and their families sang with abandon.

We had remembered to bring a bicycle along to the picnic.

Ostensibly, this was for my son to ride in the park.

But I could hardly resist the temptation to take it for a spin myself.

I obeyed the sign and took a second round ;-)

The National Park provided a glimpse of some wildlife as well.

An iguana on a tree

A family of ducks

The ducks take a stroll

Someone was feeding the ducks, which got them to overcome their shyness and approach

Then there was a group photograph.

Someone actually held up a tablet to take a photo.

That concluded the picnic. We had excellent sunny weather right until 1600, when the picnic officially ended and everyone packed up to leave. Right after we began to drive away from the site, the heavens opened up to an extraordinarily heavy downpour. It was as if the weather gods had done the IITAA a favour and refrained from ruining our picnic.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Karline McLain's Brilliant Analysis of two Indian Phenomena

Sometimes it takes an outsider to understand what is happening within a country and to explain it in a way that seems obvious in retrospect.

Karline McNeil is Assistant Professor of Religion at Bucknell University. She is perhaps best known for her book on Amar Chitra Katha, - "India's Immortal Comic Books".

Here's her first insight: She makes the very interesting observation that Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) comics have instilled a sense of national identity and a deep knowledge of India's mythology, history and national heroes among the Indian middle class and the Indian diaspora. The English edition of ACK comics has been the most popular among this segment.  Thinking back to my own childhood, I would say this observation is very true. Everything I knew about Indian history and mythology came from Amar Chitra Katha, and through the medium of English.

A scene from Vasavadatta, a work that I would never have heard of but for Amar Chitra Katha

ACK's art work was always good, and the imagery often seemingly divinely-inspired. This scene from Mirabai where mythology in the form of Lord Krishna intervenes to save the life of a historical figure (Mirabai) is one of my favourites.

The Mahabharatha: This scene of Karna's willing sacrifice was a very touching one for me

One of the few non-ACK works that I did read was Rajagopalachari's Ramayana, but that was also in English. By and large, ACK was the only source of knowledge about their country's heritage to a whole generation of middle-class Indians. As part of her insight into what happened with ACK and the Indian middle class, McLain links this phenomenon with the advent of the Indian nuclear family, which greatly reduced the role of grandparents and other elders as storytellers and torchbearers of cultural knowledge. Amar Chitra Katha stepped into the breach, and the rest is history (no pun intended).

Karline McLain also gave a short speech recently in which she analysed the phenomenon of the recent rise in popularity of Shirdi Sai Baba. Here's her second insight: She believes many Indians have turned to Shirdi Sai Baba and his unifying message because of their growing unease with the polarising politics of the Hindu right wing. That video is worth watching, and she has written a paper on that topic as well. What she says echoes what I feel about the Hindu right. These political parties have distorted (in fact, negated) the universalism of the Hindu approach to the world and turned it into a saffron jihad. They don't speak for me, and if Karline McLain is to be believed, they don't speak for an ever-growing number of other Indians. As my late father once said in disgust, "In the name of Rama, they act like Ravana." I don't know if the recent (i.e., in the last two decades) popularity of Shirdi Sai Baba is an independent phenomenon or if it is a rebuke by the Hindu mainstream to the militant Hindutva concept. Nevertheless, the idea is novel and certainly worth considering.

Karline McLain is a non-Indian who has grasped some key elements of what modern India is really like. Sometimes the perspective of distance bestows a wisdom that is denied to those in the thick of a phenomenon. As Kipling rightly observed, "what should they know of England who only England know?"

Thursday, 9 February 2012

India Trip 2011-2012 - Jaipur

From Baroda, we took an overnight train to Jaipur, the capital of the state of Rajasthan ("The Land of Kings").

Our train's name was a little disconcerting ("Dee Garib Rath"), because "garib rath" means "chariot of the poor", and I must confess we did have visions of hundreds of people clambering onto the train without tickets and forcing us to share our berths with them. Fortunately, the name turned out to be just populism on the part of India's former railway minister, the rather clownish Laloo Prasad Yadav. The train itself was air-conditioned and the journey was quite comfortable. It's a bit like a budget airline in that you have to pay extra for blankets, but at 25 rupees per person (about 50 cents), that wasn't a consideration at all.

Virtually all middle-class Indians have grown up knowing what overnight train travel feels like. The rocking motion of the train is wonderfully relaxing, the dim blue night lights in the compartment letting you see just enough to keep an eye on your bags. The faint sounds of tea vendors on the platform when the train stopped at stations along the way would only vaguely puncture our sleep, and we would drift off to the gentle rocking of the train as it got underway again. I have fond memories of my father rigging up an elaborate cocoon for me on the top berth using a bedsheet, tying it to the grill to keep it (and me) from rolling off in the middle of the night. As children, we used to fight for the top row berths, while our parents indulgently took the middle and lower berths. That's one of the uniquely Indian experiences my son has never had the good fortune to have, so this trip was an opportunity to fix that.

My son (top row) and wife (middle row) read themselves to sleep  on board the Chariot of the Poor

We stayed with a relative in Jaipur. On our evening walk the very first day, we came across the unusual sight of a peacock walking across the road in front of us, stopping at the gate of a nearby house, then hopping onto the gate and then onto the roof. I suppose the locals must be used to this kind of sight, but it was a new experience for us.

Another common sight around Jaipur is that of brilliantly caparisoned camels. Much of Rajasthan is desert, hence the popularity of camels.

There seemed to be some event on at every city we visited on this trip. In Ahmedabad, it was the IIM alumni reunion (although it's not fair to count that because that event was the very purpose of our being there). In Baroda, it was the 150th birth anniversary of Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III. And in Jaipur, it was Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, - the very first time the event was being held in this city. "Pravasi Bharatiya" means Non-Resident Indian (NRI), and this is the day India honours its diaspora. The date (9th January) marks the return of Mahatma Gandhi, arguably India's greatest and most famous NRI, to India after his stint in South Africa, where a series of incidents turned him from a loyal servant of the British Empire to its deadliest nemesis.

Jaipur was decked up for the occasion, with most government buildings lit up like fairytale palaces.

The Jaipur Vidhan Sabha, the state legislative assembly

The gates of the Vidhan Sabha

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to be in town during our time there, as this welcoming hoarding reveals. We never saw him, though.

The chief guest at each Pravasi Bharatiya Divas function is a person of Indian origin who has attained a position of eminence outside India. This year, the chief guest was the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Mrs Kamla Persad-Bissessar. Her name itself is fascinating, showing how Indian names gradually morph away from their original Sanskrit roots ("Kamala Prasad Vishweshwar") through generations spent in foreign lands. The former Mauritian prime ministers Sir Seewoosagar Ramgoolam (could that be a hybrid Sanskrit-Arabic name "Shivsagar Ram ghulam"?) and Sir Anerood Jugnauth ("Aniruddh Jagannath") are other favourites of mine.

Much as we might like to preen about Pravasi Bharatiya Divas being about "us" (i.e., today's NRIs) and to downplay its association with Mahatma Gandhi as just cynical tokenism by India's venal political class, the fact remains that the status we as Indians enjoy today and are likely to enjoy in greater measure in coming years owes an immeasurable debt to that one man's courage. Independence for India, won by peaceful and non-violent means under his leadership ("We've come a long way with the British. We must see them off as friends"), laid the foundation for a country that has been moderate and responsible in its role and will hopefully continue to play a positive role in the world. Disdain for Gandhi was a common attitude of our youth, but in my mellower years, I realise that modern India and its children would not be where they are but for this man. I doff my hat to the Mahatma.

More pictures of Jaipur and its surrounds are here.

History continued to remind me of its powerful echoes when we visited the fort of Amer (built 1592) outside Jaipur (for some strange reason spelt "Amber" in English).

The main courtyard of Amer fort, and in the misty background, another ridge with battlements

Amer affords many picture-postcard views like this one.
My complete album is here.

One of the first curious sights that struck my eyes was the gate called "Ganesh Pol" (Ganesh Gate). Do you see anything curious about this?

Ganesh Pol (Ganesh Gate) - An arch doorway built in the Moghul/Persian style with the distinctly un-Islamic image of the Hindu god Ganesh at the top!

I wondered a lot about this, then subsequently read up on the history of Amer fort. It turns out that this fort belonged to the Hindu Rajput king Raja Man Singh (1550-1614). I had read about Raja Man Singh as a child in the popular comic-style illustrated story from Amar Chitra Katha on Rana Pratap Singh (1540-1597).

The story talks about Raja Man Singh at the palace of his peer Rana Pratap Singh, who at one stage, refuses to eat with him. On being asked why, Rana Pratap answers, "because you have sold your soul to the enemy". Raja Man Singh then leaves in a huff and war ensues between the Mughal empire of Akbar the Great and Rana Pratap. Raja Man Singh, as the Mughal emperor's brother-in-law, fights on his side against his fellow Rajput king Rana Pratap.

It then made perfect sense why an image of Lord Ganesh would adorn an arch built in the Islamic style. The Rajputs who chose to ally themselves with the Mughal empire (such as Raja Man Singh) were Hindu, but adopted the architectural style of their Muslim overlords. It always gives me a thrill to see cultures and civilisations influence each other. History generally records the clash and tumult of war when worlds collide, but the deeper, longer-lasting effects of cultural cross-pollination are subtler and harder to dig up, yet our world is what it is on account of such blending. I like to call this "When Worlds Collude".

And like I did in Baroda, I began to muse about the relative merits of fighting invaders versus cooperating with them. In Baroda, it was Maratha king Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III working under the British to bring prosperity to his people. In Amer, it was Raja Man Singh owing fealty to Emperor Akbar's Mughal empire to similarly give his people a peaceful life. In contrast, Rana Pratap Singh, hailed as a great Indian hero, personally suffered and also put his people through suffering by his unrelenting war against the Mughal enemy.

It does take two to tango, though. Indian history reveres Emperor Akbar (1542-1605) for his wisdom in instituting a federated empire with semi-autonomous fiefdoms like Raja Man Singh's Amer. The satraps and the empire both benefited from the arrangement, and there were very few wars and rebellions after the initial years of Akbar's long reign. Religious tolerance was also a notable hallmark of Akbar's reign. But Akbar's great-grandson Aurangzeb (1658-1707) executed a complete U-turn in policy. His reign saw a nominal expansion of the Mughal empire's borders, but his autocratic and centralised style, with no tolerance for religious diversity, saw the empire constantly embroiled in revolts and rebellions, which kept him fighting until he died. His empire swiftly crumbled after his death.

[Interestingly, while Indian textbooks idolise Akbar the tolerant, I'm told Akbar is held in disdain in Pakistan for hobnobbing with Hindus. Pakistan's favourite historical hero of the Mughal era is Aurangzeb, who put the kaffir Hindus in their place. Pakistan seems to be the Bizarro India, and the widely divergent trajectories of the two countries that were once one is only to be expected.]

There is a lesson in the results of Akbar's and Aurangzeb's governing styles. Large, diverse countries like India cannot be governed in a centralised and autocratic manner. A federal system is the only workable one, and it has taken India three and a half centuries after Akbar's death to once again achieve a stable and sustainable polity as a federation of quasi-autonomous states in 1947.

Back on earth after our philosophical ruminations, here are a few more photos of Amer fort.

The intricate patterns in the architecture of Amer's buildings are breathtaking

Entrance to the Sheesh Mahal (Hall of Mirrors), probably not a patch on Versailles, but nevertheless quite nice

A view of the courtyard from a lattice window above

Sweeping women posing invitingly for photographs. Foreign tourists readily obliged.

Elephants carrying tourists pass under a historical guard tower

Maintenance work being done on the Sheesh Mahal (Hall of Mirrors)

Tourists get the local experience, complete with headgear

What an idea, Sir ji! Pay toilets maintained in very good condition, and only 5 rupees (10 cents) a person

Another picture-postcard shot of elephant rides along the fort's periphery

A langur and her baby - I couldn't get a shot of the little one's face. A guard chased them off with a stick.

I had an opinion (probably unfair) of Rajasthan as a state that kept women under purdah, but Jaipur and its surrounds seemed quite normal in that there were lots of women out and about in public, many in uniform like this one.

A policewoman and her friend

Tourists disembark after their elephant ride

So that was Amer fort, and you can see more photos of it here - lots of breathtaking views.

We also visited the Albert Hall museum in Jaipur city.

A view of one of the canopies (chhatris) from a window inside Albert Hall

I wonder what the Buddha has to do with industrial art.
They shall beat their swords into ploughshares?

Another example of cultural cross-pollination:
A scene from the Hindu epic The Mahabharatha, with text in Persian

Stonework - Lord Vishnu resting

More shots of Albert Hall are here.

There is a City Palace within Jaipur itself. One of the kings of Amer, Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, established a city in the plains beneath Amer fort. This city was named after him and became - what else? - Jaipur. The royal family lives in a part of the City Palace even today. Sections other than their living quarters are open to the public and the royal family lives on the tourist revenue that it shares with the government.

Something about the way the City Palace presents itself to tourists strikes me as being dishonest. There is a fee for cameras (still and video) at the point where one buys tickets, and this creates the impression that photography is allowed everywhere within the palace. However, there are three halls within the palace (small museums) where photography is not permitted. I wish they had made that clear at the ticket counter itself. I wouldn't have felt so cheated when I came upon the No Photography signs inside.

My photos of the City Palace are here. These are just a small sample.

Note the intricacy of the artwork of this column...

...and this door.

Detail of the door

These guys have Rajasthan written all over them

More photos of the City Palace are here.

One evening, we went to an open-air fair that was inaugurated just that day.

A vendor with handicrafts

Standard wooden handicrafts...

...and less conventional woodwork

One of the tourist attractions in Jaipur that features in all the brochures is the Hawa Mahal ("Palace of Winds"), an extension of the city palace. This structure is actually just a thin façade rather than a solid building. Its purpose was to allow the ladies of the palace to view street processions without being seen in public themselves. That's purdah in action.

The classic view of the Hawa Mahal

When one steps inside, not everything is well-maintained. India's centuries-old historical treasures lie shamefully neglected and in a terrible state of disrepair. I felt very sad at this because countries like the US and Australia, with barely three centuries of history (neglecting native American and Aboriginal cultures) are able to preserve, package and showcase those few years in a highly effective manner to tourists. India with three millennia of rich history and culture is unable to do anything comparable, except for one or two favoured destinations like the Taj Mahal. Heck, we even destroy our own archaeological treasures that are half a millennium old, in the name of politics!

Rubble on the inside of one of Jaipur's major tourist landmarks

Those who have seen the Bollywood movie Paheli (Riddle) know that it was set in Rajasthan. Two characters who appear as commentators at intervals within the movie are ghosts in the form of local puppets.

The puppet-ghosts discuss the wisdom of Shah Rukh Khan (background) revealing his identity as a ghost to Rani Mukerjee thereby presenting her with a paheli (riddle)

It gave me a thrill of recognition to see the same style of Rajasthani puppet in a shop inside the Hawa Mahal.

These two looked almost like the ghosts in Paheli

Like the puppets, Rajasthani mirrorwork is distinctive and famous. Across the road from the Hawa Mahal was this shop selling ethnically styled umbrellas and other items.

I wouldn't have the heart to expose this umbrella to the rain!

More photos of the Hawa Mahal are here.

We had been advised by friends not to miss the restaurant at the Laxmi Mishtan Bhandar (a sweet shop). The food was very pricey by Indian standards (405 rupees a plate, just about 8 dollars), and wasn't that great - definitely not worth the price. In contrast, an Indian Chinese lunch we had at the Four Seasons restaurant was extremely tasty and reasonably priced.

The thali at LMB - looks better than it tastes

The next leg of our journey took us to Mumbai, and I'll cover that in my next post.