Friday, 20 September 2013

India's Perfect Storm - And Its Likely Aftermath

India is facing a perfect storm from a combination of political, social and economic crises that are rapidly converging and have already begun to have an impact.

The political and economic crises are more tangible, but their resolution will be comparatively simpler. It is the social crisis that will have a much heavier long-term cost.

India's political landscape is fractured. 1984 was the last year when a general election resulted in a single party winning an absolute majority. Since 1989, elections have thrown up hung parliaments and only coalition governments have been the norm. The splintering continues unabated. Although disenchantment with the UPA coalition government has never been higher, there are strong doubts about whether the opposing NDA coalition will succeed in winning enough seats and allies to obtain a parliamentary majority and form the government. It is likely that the hung parliament that emerges after the 2014 election will be so badly splintered and (more importantly) irreconcilably divided that a government may not emerge. If one does, it will probably not last long, and fresh elections may need to be called mid-term, with no guarantee of a more stable result. In some ways, the election will probably clear the air by showing the vocal urban right-wing minority just how much of a minority it really is, but in other ways, the poisonous hatred between political groupings will only intensify.

There are mixed signals on the economy, whose heady 9% growth of just a few years ago has now slowed to about half that value, and I am not enough of an economics heavyweight to sift through the noise and form an independent opinion. In blunt terms, one opinion is that India is stuffed, and without drastic reforms that take place very quickly, is doomed to remain a poor country for the foreseeable future. The other viewpoint is that a whole swag of infrastructure projects is already in the works, and when these start to come on-line in the next 3 to 5 years, growth will improve and establish itself at a permanently higher level. As I said, I have no independent means to say which viewpoint is correct.

The third area, the social front, is where I am most concerned. The recent riots in Muzaffarnagar are disturbing, because they are a watershed. They were politically engineered of course, as all good riots are, but this one is probably the first to occur in a rural area. Communal riots have generally taken place in urban areas, usually in lower- to lower middle-class localities, where social cohesion between recent migrants has never been high. This riot has shown, disturbingly, how easy it is to sunder the more cohesive fabric of the hinterland as well. I have the uneasy feeling that a line has been crossed somewhere, and India will never be the same again. I can sense the bottomless sense of insecurity that a Muslim would now feel in post-Muzaffarnagar India. The Indian Muslim's native land has suddenly become an alien land. This India will suffer the negative effects of widespread minority insecurity for many decades. And it was totally unnecessary.

There is a way out of the political and economic logjam. That is to make the centre less relevant. The way government financing works today is untenable and cannot continue. I have the following information from a very knowledgeable friend and old classmate:

a.  70% of all tax revenues collected go to the Centre. All the states share the remaining 30%.  This is as per a Constitution mandated Finance Commission.
b.  The centre during our socialist era under a strong Mrs Indira Gandhi used this money leverage to kill state leadership and play power politics. But since the 70s, her Congress party has been vanquished in several states.
c. The tax sources for states primarily revolve around real estate taxes, octroi and excise duty (euphemism for booze). So states that have gone outside of government sources to do stuff, have typically leveraged land - e.g., Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan. Other than land and waiving taxes there is not much they can do, money wise.
d.  States can't borrow directly on their own books - they don't have a revenue base worth talking about and don't run surpluses, by and large. All big foreign aid has to be approved through the Central government's Ministry of Finance. 
I wrote before that India's salvation would be a true federation of states, where states have much more power and autonomy vis-a-vis the centre. In that post, I neglected to mention financing arrangements, because I did not have my friend's depth of knowledge. After reading his inputs, I believe the regional parties must get together in the next parliament, and regardless of other affiliations, vote for an amendment to the constitution to give the states more financial independence. A part of all tax revenue collected should compulsorily go to the state where the revenue was generated. The states should also be free to solicit and get funding from overseas sources without having to go through the central government. This will free them from political interference. When the states compete for investment, the free-market energies that have been shackled by decades of socialistic central planning (which was needed in the early stages of development) will be unleashed.

Which party forms the government at the centre and who becomes prime minister will then be much less relevant to the daily life of the average citizen, because the centre's role in daily life will have been much diminished. Smaller states, each with financial and political autonomy, closer to the local people and more accountable, will become more efficient units of governance that will deliver quality of life improvements much faster. [I remember a relative from the US telling me that in any US state, "the governor is at least ten times bigger than the president."]

That single change could solve India's political and economic problems within a couple of years and place the country on a permanently faster path to growth and prosperity.

Which leaves us with the serious social problem. I blame the Congress party for pandering to Muslim leaders (as opposed to instituting measures to improve the life of the average Muslim). I also blame the Hindutva parties for stoking a problem that they cannot resolve, which will benefit them electorally but cost the country dearly. Together, their short-sightedness has seriously damaged India's social fabric and will continue to do so.

India has a significant Muslim minority of 15%, or about 180 million people. Any sensible and realistic person will see at once that such a large minority cannot be wished away by any means, no matter how fascist one's rhetoric may be (e.g., "let them all go to Pakistan", "drive them into the Arabian Sea", etc.) Coexistence is the only practical way forward. For coexistence to be viable in the long term, what is needed is a strong system of social justice, civil rights and fairness in all dealings by the state (government and judiciary). And this should have been easy, since India's diverse society has been inherently predisposed to coexisting. On the ground, there has been remarkable social cohesion between the communities, otherwise for a population of this size, there should have been widespread and bloody clashes occurring every day with a death toll going into the hundreds of thousands. The fact that violent incidents are so few and far between means that there is no inherent social tension.

Any problem that exists today has been politically manufactured. Political parties stand to gain by polarising the electorate and sharpening communal divides. The Congress has done a fair bit of damage over the years by yielding to hard-line Muslim leaders (as opposed to listening to and ensuring the welfare of ordinary Muslims). The shameful Shah Bano case comes to mind, in which the Rajiv Gandhi government overturned a secular court decision on granting alimony to a poor Muslim widow by deeming such issues within the purview of Muslim personal law. The widow then got no money under Sharia law, which weakened the average Muslim citizen's rights compared to other Indian citizens. The only beneficiaries were the hardline leaders of the Muslim community (who did not speak for the majority of the Muslims in any case), and the Hindutva parties, who gained from the Congress party's appeasement of the Muslim leadership by stoking and exploiting Hindu outrage. The Hindu parties have exploited every Congress mistake and gained from every incident since then, including the court-ordered unlocking of the Babri Masjid, which they then demolished a few years later, and went on to commit more and more aggressive acts, winning votes for themselves from a larger and larger segment of polarised Hindus, but weakening the country's social fabric in the process.

The Muzaffarnagar riot was in a way an expected consequence of the fractured four-way vote split in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Clearly, a more effective carving of the pie was called for, and what better way than for two of the four to gang up against the other two? The BJP and SP, nominal enemies, seem to have conspired to play the roles of majority spokesman and minority protector, aiming to win votes from the Hindus and Muslims respectively, at the immediate cost of the Congress and BSP.

Both the Congress and the RSS-led Hindutva parties have mortgaged India's long-term future to win short-term electoral battles. There was a time when I trusted in the wisdom and sagacity of the average Indian voter to see through these games when voting in aggregate, and ensuring sanity of political results. Alas, I no longer believe that the electorate is, in aggregate, wise. I fear that infection by communal poison has crossed a tipping point, and the average voter is now more self-destructive than wise. In this climate, the BJP has dropped the mocking term it earlier used ("pseudo-secularism") and begun to use the word "secularism" itself as a pejorative!

In summary, I think India has a chance to weather its political and economic storms with a simple change to the way states are financed. But its fractured civil society will probably never heal, and could lead in the future to a bloody civil war.

As a bankrupt Pakistan struggles through what could be its last decade of existence as a viable country, it may have the bitter satisfaction of seeing the Two-Nation Theory proved right after all. Hindus and Muslims can never live together in one country. Cynical politicians from opposing camps have cooperatively moulded the will of the people to a self-destructive end.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Chaos Is A Warm And Fuzzy Hairball, Or Is It?

Trust Indians to put a positive spin on their country's worst characteristics. It's certainly easier than improving!

I was recently pointed to a TED talk by that well-known ambassador for Indian culture, Devdutt Pattanaik. His argument reminded me of a similar talk I have heard from that doyen of scholars of Indian civilisation, the erudite and much-respected Rajiv Malhotra. Both pieces are brilliantly argued. The core thesis, formulated in an attack-is-the-best-form-of-defence kind of way, is that any perceived "chaos" in India is just a symptom of a problem in the Western mind. There really is no chaos. It's just "diversity", "inclusion" and "negotiated boundaries", in the words of Pattanaik, or as Malhotra would put it, it's just everybody doing his own thing in a spirit of live-and-let-live that happens to result in "cognitive overload" within Western minds that are used to only "simple models".

Is that the simple explanation that reframes what happens in India and turns the daily unpleasantness and frustration of the Indian experience into a beautiful set of patterns, now that we are newly enlightened?

Somehow, I would find Pattanaik's glib characterisation of an Indian road's "negotiated boundaries" more convincing if India didn't have the highest number of road fatalities in the world. And since it has also been reported that the majority of victims belong to poorer sections of society, I think I have a pretty good idea of how those negotiations go. "Might is right" may in fact be a better description of the operating principle behind Indian roads than either "inclusion" or "negotiated boundaries".

Likewise, Rajiv Malhotra's benign characterisation of the Kumbh Mela as a self-organising system with no event manager or schedule of events may inspire awe, until one realises that stampedes are a regular feature of this periodic gathering of devotees. The deadliest was in 1954 (over 1000 deaths), but recent years have seen fatalities too (39 in 2003, 7 in 2010 and 36 in 2013).

I have a less rose-tinted view of India's systems, having suffered them for many years. Indian systems are expedient. They sort of work because they have to. People need to get their work done, and they will brave the lack of defined process stoically, negotiating as best as they can against the elements and other people, and be satisfied with the outcomes they get. Contentment with one's lot is just a coping mechanism to avoid perpetual frustration. It certainly should not be glorified as some kind of civilisational wisdom, which is what these popular modern philosophers are trying to do.

The big picture view in such cases is also horribly cruel, because it dismisses the fatalities, the injuries and even the individual frustration that systems may cause. A "Western" view of a system would be that even one fatality is one too many. In India, life is cheap, and there are doubtless many who would view 10 deaths at a Kumbh Mela stampede as "fairly low" for an event that attracts tens of millions of devotees. I think that is the core difference between Western and Indian systems. In spite of Pattanaik's characterisation of Indian systems as more "inclusive" than Western ones, at a practical level, the individual gets much more respect in the Western system than in the Indian one.

Malhotra dismisses the negative side of the Indian lack of systemic rigour with a chuckle that his audience shares. Work not delivered at the agreed time, quality and quantity of agreed deliverables not being met, etc., are serious issues, not endearing cultural traits to be affectionately chided. These are flaws in the Indian character, and they need to be fixed. Malhotra does concede that India needs to learn some order from the West, but does not see it as a symptom of a larger problem, which is that Indians are essentially a defeated and cynical race. We have simply given up on striving, and are content to survive, get by, negotiate slightly better deals, cut corners, bribe, cheat our neighbour, beat the system, and in general, win little tactical victories at an individual level rather than lift ourselves as a society to a higher plane of existence.

There have been many who have called out for improvement in the Indian character, Mahatma Gandhi being the best known of them. Such people make the rest of us uncomfortable, and I'm sure Gandhi would have ended up being shot by some other disgruntled group if not the one that did do him in. Today, it seems the most popular thought leaders are those who assure us, Reagan-like, that there is nothing wrong with us and that we are in fact the greatest.

A more effective call to inaction I have never seen.

Devdutt Pattanaik's warm and fuzzy speech "India is not chaotic", only slightly dampened by the statistic that the system of "negotiated boundaries" kills 13 people an hour on Indian roads.

Rajiv Malhotra's engaging fireside chat explains India's perceived chaos as a product of the mind of the Western observer, while making light of the Indian unconcern for quality, time and the other person

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Cultural Relativism Is Nonsense - Barbarity Is Barbarity

In a horrifying exposé of a mediaeval practice, an eight year old Yemeni girl has died of "internal injuries and heavy bleeding" after having been essentially raped on her wedding night. The practice of having underage girls married off (often to older men, and often in exchange for money) seems to be very prevalent among Muslim communities in Asia. Such marriages also occur among backward Hindu communities in India, e.g., in the state of Rajasthan where it is estimated that about one-fourth of girls are married before they are 18.

What saddens me as much as this phenomenon itself is that criticism of such barbaric practices is often derailed on flimsy grounds. For example, when Westerners criticise these practices, they are attacked as racist and xenophobic. Sometimes, other Westerners oppose such criticism too, under the misguided philosophy of cultural relativism, believing that it is wrong to criticise other cultures since we do not understand them.

This is nonsense. This is not about Western culture against Eastern culture. This is civilisation against barbarity, plain and simple.

Ethnic people have an important role to play here. We should stand up against barbaric practices when they occur among our kind, so that no one can deflect criticism by crying racism.


  • Forced marriages are evil and should be made a crime in all countries
  • Marriage of under-age persons is evil and should be made a crime in all countries
  • Marital rape should be recognised as a concept and made a crime in all countries
  • Cruelty and lust should be condemned by all societies

Here is one brown man who is willing to stand up and condemn all of these practices.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Candid Conversations With Oneself

Two friends posted similar items on Facebook within a few hours of each other, which was a surprising coincidence.

At first glance, these items didn't seem too similar, apart from the common theme of unhappy mental conditions. One is an article on loneliness; the other is a TED talk on schizophrenia. However, I felt similarly about both of them, because they relate to an important skill I learnt over the years - the ability to talk honestly to myself.

The TED talk is by far the more dramatic. It's the journey of a courageous woman who had an abused childhood, and whose trauma began to manifest itself later as voices in her head. After being diagnosed as a schizophrenic and suffering for many years through what passed for "therapy", she finally learnt to look upon those voices not as threatening or menacing, but as her own subconscious feelings about things. Once she opened her mind to what those voices were actually saying, she gained a window into her own mind, and that set her on the path to healing. Today, she teaches other schizophrenia sufferers not to fear their condition but to learn to connect with themselves.

Eleanor Longden's inspiring tale

In some ways, her experience reminds me of the movie "The Sixth Sense". Partway through watching it, I realised that it was not a scary movie. It was a sad movie. I suddenly realised that the ghosts in the movie were not dangerous. They were in need of help. All of them had suffered, and they needed someone to help them move on. I could relate to her talk when she spoke about the voices in her head representing parts of herself that were hurt.

I have never had an extreme experience like hearing voices in my head. But I have experienced analogous incidents when my subconscious mind tried to communicate with my conscious mind.

I used to remember songs.

That sounds downright silly. Doesn't everyone remember songs? Well, I can't speak for other people, but there was a period when specific snatches of songs played in my head at specific times, and I learnt to figure out what they meant.

The very first time I became aware of this was when I found the same song starting up in my head at the same time every day. I was a student at the time, and I was doing a project that required me to book a time slot in the card punch room (it was always the same time every day) and spend an hour punching cards. (Computers needed to be fed with punched cards in those days. Yes, I'm that old.)

The room was air conditioned and freezing cold. After a few days, I realised that the same song started playing in my head within a few minutes of my starting my work. The song was "Valentina Way" by Al Stewart. Why was this particular song playing every time I entered the card punch room? I paid closer attention to the lyrics. Sure enough, the snatch of the song that was playing was this

[...] the atmosphere's too cold in here [to attract a butterfly like that]

Of course! That's what my subconscious mind was trying to tell me - the atmosphere's too cold in here!

After that epiphany, I began to pay closer attention to songs that came into my head. If they popped up for no reason at all, there was usually a reason!

They say men are much less in touch with their own feelings and emotions than women are, and this is probably true. I might have remained completely ignorant about my own emotions if not for this entirely fortuitous discovery of the musical channel that my subconscious was using to tell me what I was feeling.

Sometime after I discovered the significance of songs that popped into my head unbidden, I ran into a girl on whom I'd had a crush in my teenage years. I was by then in my mid-twenties and hadn't seen her for many years. We had a platonic chat and I was congratulating myself on my composure and level-headedness. I had clearly gotten over my teenage crush. As I left, an old Hindi song began playing in my head.

sau saal pehle...mujhe tumse pyaar tha...mujhe tumse pyaar tha...aaj bhi hai...aur kal bhi rahega

(Loosely translated: A long time ago... I was in love with you...I was in love with you...I still am...and will always be)

I realised with a shock what my subconscious mind was telling me - in spite of my outward calm, I still had feelings for her!

The incident was a shock to me in more ways than one. It wasn't just that one instance of an emotion I was unaware of. It was the possibility of a whole seething mass of emotions writhing under the surface that I was probably not aware of. The thought disturbed me profoundly.

Ultimately, I came to a level of comfort and peace with myself. I began to accept that pure and honest emotions like love were nothing to be ashamed of. They in fact enriched one's existence and made one a complete human being. It was confirmed by something I read to the effect that emotions that touch the heart are pure and wholesome. Once I accepted and embraced that side of myself, I found myself feeling more "whole" and more positive about myself. To this day, I continue to have fond feelings for all the girls I ever had a crush on (although I have no desire to do anything stupid!) I'm still good friends with those that I remain in touch with. And I'm not ashamed in any way of my past feelings. They were pure and honest and nothing to be ashamed of. When I look at myself in the mirror, not only can I look myself in the eye, I actually approve of the guy on the other side.

When I was a young and single man, a lot of the songs that played spontaneously in my head were love songs, and this was no coincidence. By this time, I was a practised hand at analysing the songs playing in my head to understand what I was feeling! It was a strange window that I had into my own mind, but I used it without questioning.

As another example, I used to catch the bus to work on my first job, and there was a girl who caught the bus at a stop after mine and got down before I did. I never spoke to her or even found out her name, but it gave me pleasure to see her get into the bus every day. One day, she failed to appear at her usual stop. As the bus pulled away, I heard Stevie Wonder's song "Whereabouts" in my head:

Where is the missing one? The missing one?

It was uncanny. I developed a profound respect for the DJ inside my head. The guy knew exactly what song to play and when.

Over a period of time, as I learnt to be more honest with myself and acknowledged every emotion that I was feeling, without denial or shame, the songs gradually stopped. I had developed a more direct communication line with myself, and there was no longer any need for my subconscious mind to send me coded messages.

And this brings me to the article on loneliness that I talked about at the beginning.

There was a time when I felt socially awkward and paradoxically lonely when in a crowd, such as at a party where everyone seemed to be having fun. I used to think everyone else was part of a well-integrated and happy crowd and I was the odd one out, with no friends and feeling lonely and miserable. But thankfully, I read somewhere, not long after, that everyone feels lonely at parties! I learnt with relief that the paradox of feeling lonely at a lively party with lots of laughter and merrymaking was a paradox not only for me, but for virtually everyone.

That turned out to be a wonderfully liberating piece of information. After that, I have never felt lonely at a party ever again, because I know that in spite of their cheerful and boisterous appearance, almost everyone there is actually feeling lonely, vulnerable and insecure! I don't bother to strike up awkward conversations with people anymore or even wear a stiff smile. I go straight for the eats and stay comfortably by myself, just observing everyone else. When I've had enough, I leave. If I meet someone I know and genuinely like, I talk to them. But I don't push myself to be something I'm not. And so parties hold no more terrors for me. I now see them as places where poor, lonely folk gather to suffer their individual and private misery together. But there's also food there, and that's the one thing that makes the event worthwhile, so I tuck in shamelessly.

I realised then another truth about loneliness. It only strikes you if you can't live with yourself. If you're comfortable with whoever you are and accept yourself, you won't be lonely. A lonely person isn't craving a connection with other people. They're craving a connection with themselves.

And that reminds me of something I read a long time ago.

The day a boy realises that all adults are imperfect, he becomes an adolescent.
When he forgives them, he becomes an adult.
When he forgives himself, he becomes wise.

I make no claims to wisdom, but I do forgive myself (too easily, as my wife says in jest). All of us are human, and each of us must accept our own individual selves as human too. We must acknowledge our feelings and emotions without shame, with perfect honesty, and realise that virtually everyone around us is a vulnerable, insecure being. We are no different from anyone else, and we're all flawed beings who nevertheless deserve acceptance and love.

When we learn to have candid conversations with ourselves, many things in life become simple. One of the blessings of a simplified life is something I have enjoyed now for many years - I tend to fall asleep when my head touches the pillow.

[These are probably point-in-time truths. All emotion is caused by chemicals in the brain, and an imbalance at a later stage in my life could leave me feeling very differently about all of this. But this is my current state of mind.]

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Our Sterile Monoculture Of Storytelling

When reviewing the movie "Madras Café", I mentioned my disappointment that the movie eschewed the traditional Bollywood style of storytelling in one very important respect - it had no dances or even songs. There are many who think this makes it a "serious" movie, because songs and dances distract from the storyline (at best) and trivialise a serious story (at worst).

I'm actually disturbed at this. Different cultural traditions have different storytelling styles, and none is inherently more or less valid than another.

A non-Japanese watching the Kabuki theatre might wonder why there is so much slow movement and screaming. A Japanese might point out that a member of the audience who sees the performance in such terms is in fact a philistine. [Confession: I have watched bits of Kabuki as part of Japanese movies and must count myself among the philistines.]

Movie buffs would know the subtle differences that exist between American movies, English movies and Australian movies, even though all of them are in the English language. Readers of "Asterix" and "Tintin" comics would surely have noticed the distinctly European sense of humour in these stories. What a pity it would be if this rich variety did not exist. We would lose something if all English-language movies had the same "feel" to them, or if all comics exuded the same sense of humour. We must not lose the diversity of the world's storytelling cultures. To avoid such a loss, we must actively train and sensitise ourselves to appreciate this diversity.

I have explained before why Bollywood movies cannot be lightly dismissed as "musicals". In the Indian movie tradition (not just Bollywood but the various regional language movies as well), songs and dances are part of the entertainment package. The best movies manage to weave these sequences into the flow of the story so that they advance it in their own way. But even those that don't cannot be faulted. A song sequence in the middle of an otherwise gripping story is an admonition to the audience to stop and smell the roses. Life is multifaceted, and the goal of watching a movie is not to rush headlong towards the dénouement, but to savour every subtle emotion along the way. It's an attitude that should inform one's approach to life itself. Life is not a rat race in which we have to get somewhere. The journey itself is the point. That's why Indian movies are often called "masala" movies. They're a mix of flavours, all of which are meant to be savoured. Viewing Indian movies through a Western cultural prism (according to which the movie's sole purpose is to relentlessly advance the storyline) only exposes the viewer as a philistine.

I believe it is legitimate to challenge an audience to evolve in sophistication to appreciate an art form, rather than to demand that artistes dumb down their art to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

That's why I'm unhappy that "Madras Cafe" has no songs or dances. In its quest for respectability in Western eyes, it has sold its soul. It's now a Hollywood movie with Indian names in the credits.

Movie Review - Madras Café

This isn't going to be a comprehensive review, just a few "sound-bites" of my impressions.

We've seen lots of war movies from Hollywood. I've grown up with movies about the Second World War ("The Bridge Over The River Kwai", "The Guns of Navarone", "The Battle Of The Bulge") and in my youth we saw movies about the Vietnam War ("Apocalypse Now", "Coming Home", "Platoon") and lately, we've begun to see movies about the two Gulf Wars ("Courage under Fire", "The Kingdom", "The Hurt Locker"). 

What's common to all of them is that they are all narrated from the Western point of view, and they concern wars that have touched Western folk. The impact to the West is what makes these wars important, even if their impact on other people is far higher. And of course, wars that don't involve the West at all are never discussed, even if their impact to other people is enormous. Case in point: the Iran-Iraq war. As in all things, the Western view of the world dominates the media, crowding out other voices and other viewpoints. [There are exceptions. Sometimes, stories of human poignancy trump Western parochialism and break through the media silence, e.g., "Hotel Rwanda", "The Kite Runner". But these are only exceptions. As a rule, Western characters need to be impacted for a story to be considered worth telling.]

Measured as a cultural force, Bollywood and Al Jazeera are probably the only non-Western voices that command a significant worldwide audience. Bollywood is no stranger to war movies, since India has been shaped in a significant way by its partition and the wars with Pakistan. [My favourite story, a coming-of-age tale set against the backdrop of the Kargil war, is "Lakshya". A more comprehensive, if somewhat rambling, movie on the Kargil war is "LoC Kargil".] But in spite of some excellent storytelling, no one outside the subcontinent ever seems to be interested.

The East Bengal genocide that culminated in the liberation of Bangladesh is the single biggest South Asian tragedy since partition, with anywhere from a million to 3 million civilians killed. That story has been told on screen many times, but it has never had a significant non-Bengali audience. No Westerner was harmed in the course of that tragedy, and so, from the perspective of the world at large, it may as well never have happened.

The next biggest South Asian war as measured in blood and human suffering, and far bigger than most of the Indo-Pakistan skirmishes, is the Sri Lankan civil war. Grinding its way over 30 wasted years, it is a story of folly all through, with avoidable causes and lessons that have still not been learnt. It is another non-Western story that begs to be told. And Shoojit Sircar's "Madras Café" is the first attempt in that direction.

The very photogenic John Abraham and Nargis Fakhri in Shoojit Sircar's violent docu-drama

The official movie trailer

There are many factual errors that have been criticised in this movie, to be sure, ranging from the superficial to the substantive. But flawed as it is, the creation of this work is to be welcomed. It has started a conversation, if nothing else.

I have been an amateur student of world history for as long as I can remember, and have followed the Sri Lankan conflict since the early 1980s. I remember reading with horror about the Colombo riots of 1983, as reported in Indian newspapers. I also remember wondering why the Indian government was sitting by doing nothing while the Sri Lankan army was persecuting the Tamils in the north. And I remember feeling relieved in June 1987 when Rajiv Gandhi's government chose the middle path of airdropping food supplies over northern Sri Lanka, sending out a message to the Sri Lankan government that it would not stand idly by, and yet stopping short of actual military action.

It seemed at the time that President Junius Jayawardene's government saw the writing on the wall, since the airdrop was shortly followed by an invitation to India to send a peacekeeping force to Sri Lanka. But very soon, this became India's quagmire. Jayawardene, the wily fox, had seemingly trapped the inexperienced Rajiv Gandhi in a Vietnam-style guerilla war that India could not win.

Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi (left) signs an agreement with Sri Lankan President JR Jayawardene (right). The old fox died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 90. The brash young man stumbled into the old man's war and paid with his life.

However, even at the time, we knew that there was more to the story than this simplistic summary. Indira Gandhi had been fishing in Sri Lanka's troubled waters for years. While the Sinhalese did create the initial problem by deliberately disenfranchising the Tamils, Indira Gandhi helped the Tamil militant groups in a bid to keep the Sri Lankan government off balance. That was simply her DNA and her style, which she used against opponents both at home and abroad. The similar meddling she engaged in in Punjab created the Sikh terrorist monster that ultimately cost her her life.

Tamil Nadu's politicians were also enthusiastic partners of the militants, giving them the run of the state's coast, hiding places among the mangroves and a thriving traffic in arms. India's hands were thus hardly clean. It's one thing to support the rights of the Tamils against a very real political disenfranchisement in a neighbouring country. It's quite another for India to do in Sri Lanka exactly what it was accusing Pakistan of doing in Kashmir.

Even after the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) landed in Sri Lanka and began to disarm the militants, stories began to emerge of Indian favouritism. There were many Tamil militant groups, of which the LTTE became the best-known in later years, but I remember others in 1989 with names like PLOTE and TELO. One of the smaller groups was called the ENDLF, and this was the group that India seemed to favour unfairly. While other militant groups had to hand their weapons over to the IPKF, the ENDLF cadres were seen strutting about with their guns. Little wonder that the LTTE grew alarmed at the selective disarming and pulled out of the peace accord.

So yes, the LTTE did break the accord, but it was at least partly because India didn't play fair as a referee.

The IPKF bungled its way through its peacekeeping duties almost from Day One. Its first commander was the flamboyant Maj Gen Harkirat Singh, who thought the whole exercise would be a walkover and loved holding press conferences. Once it became clear that Harkirat was in over his head, he was replaced by the vastly more serious and low-key Lt Gen AS Kalkat. But he couldn't retrieve the situation either, and the IPKF finally withdrew in disgrace.

There were a dozen other wrinkles to the conflict as well. In addition to all the militant Tamil groups, there was a moderate political faction called TULF, led by the mild-mannered Amirthalingam, who was rewarded with a bullet for his moderation. As in Kashmir, moderates who are willing to talk to the government are executed by the militants, and peace never really has a chance.

It's unrealistic to expect Shoojit Sircar's movie to go into all of these issues, especially when it pretends to be a work of fiction. Hopefully, other moviemakers, encouraged by its commercial success, will follow with more focused narratives. Given the limited time into which to squeeze fictionalised versions of real-life people and events, it's quite amazing what the movie does manage to do.

For example, it was only after some research that I realised there were strong parallels between the movie's journalist who interviews the militants' leader and the real-life Anita Pratap's interview with the LTTE's Pirabakaran. Even more striking is the parallel between the movie's Malayalam-speaking RAW Madras desk head Bala and the real-life KV Unnikrishnan, also RAW's Madras desk head, who had been similarly honey-trapped by foreign intelligence agencies, but whose story remains unknown to most. In retrospect, the conspiracy theory espoused by the movie seems increasingly plausible. According to this theory, foreign corporate interests with advisors drawn from the ranks of retired secret service men, rather than just governments, were responsible for arming the militants and prolonging the civil war.

As an Indian movie about Sri Lanka, "Madras Café" suffers from its own version of parochialism. In the minds of Indians, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi towers over so many other events of that war, and Sri Lankans can be forgiven for viewing this as Indian self-importance and arrogance. But it isn't all parochialism. After all, it was Rajiv Gandhi's assassination that shattered the cosy romance between India and the Tamil militants, paving the way for the latter's eventual defeat by the Sri Lankan army, so that was a watershed event even from a dispassionate analysis.

One of the strengths of this movie is the depth of the "bench", i.e., the uniformly good performances by all characters in the movie, not just the leads. They were all very believable. And that's my definition of good acting. If I find a character authentic, it says to me that the actor has done a good job. By that token, all the actors in "Madras Café" were excellent. So I really can't understand the comment I keep coming across in multiple reviews - "John Abraham can't act." I think this is just a euphemism for "John Abraham is very good-looking and I'm jealous"!

Another notable aspect of "Madras Café" is the complete absence of songs and dances so characteristic of the Bollywood genre. I guess this burnishes its credentials as a "serious" movie. But by whose standards, I wonder. Different cultural traditions have different styles of telling stories, and it's disturbing that one culture's (i.e., Western culture's) yardstick of "serious" storytelling has begun to influence others. More on this in a separate post.

In short, I think "Madras Café" is more of a conversation-starter than a definitive documentary of the Sri Lankan civil war. I hope it opens the floodgates, because we need more non-Western voices talking about the events that have affected non-Western people. It may not gather much of a Western audience, even with its attempts to be a Western-style movie. But it will surely capture the traditionally large Bollywood audience in Asia and Africa, and that's a good thing. There are important aspects of world history that should not be neglected, and if non-Western people don't talk about the events that have affected them, no one will.