Sunday, 20 April 2014

Echoes Of Hymns Past

The name "Saravana Bhavan" came up in conversation today. This is of course a famous chain of restaurants that originated in Tamil Nadu and now claims to be the largest chain of vegetarian restaurants in the world.

The name set off a curious chain (if you will) of thoughts in my head. I remembered hearing a religious song long ago with the words "Saravana Bhavana" in it. My own parents didn't play much religious music in the house, but when I used to visit my grandmother in Madurai (which was once or twice every year), I would get to experience a different kind of lifestyle and culture. I remember my aunt playing the song "(S)kanda Sashti Kavacham" (or "Kandar Sashti Kavasam"), a song in praise of Lord Muruga (also known as Karthikeya or Subramaniam).

Since everything is on YouTube nowadays, I was quickly able to track down the song. Hearing it with adult ears gave me a different sense altogether. As a well-designed piece of music, it has few parallels. The tune is catchy, being quite melodious and repetitive, with some variation to keep it from becoming too monotonous. It employs alliteration and onomatopoeia. I guess the devout would also find the lyrics very moving.

Speaking of lyrics, I could only understand about half the words, since I have never formally learned Tamil (the formal and colloquially spoken forms of the language are very different). I found a clip on YouTube with lyrics, and I realised with dismay that not only was my vocabulary inadequate, my ability to read the script was so far below par that I could barely keep pace with the song. If I had to sing karaoke, I would fail miserably. I guess that's what comes from growing up in another linguistic state from your own. I can read Kannada faster than I can read Tamil, and I can read Hindi far faster than either Kannada or Tamil. Hindi was my second language at school, and Kannada my third, and of course, I never learnt Tamil formally at all. Not surprisingly, my skills in these languages follow that order. I taught myself Tamil in my late teens and early twenties when studying at IIT Madras. On my weekend city bus trips to visit my local relatives in Madras (now Chennai), I would look out of the window at the shop signs (which were in both Roman and Tamil scripts) and try to decipher the Tamil words. Gradually, I got better, to the point where I can now read and understand cartoons in Tamil. (My ambition is to improve to the point where I can read Kalki's classics in the original - Ponniyin Selvan, Sivagamiyin Sapatham and Parthiban Kanavu.)

[It's related to my belief that if Indians studied the history of the Pallavas and Cholas more and that of the Mughals less, they would have greater cultural self-confidence because of the emphasis on victories and successful power projection far afield rather than of defeat and humiliation at the hands of foreign invaders. And no, I'm neither jingoistic nor one of those Hindutva types, just someone impatient with the attitudes of servility and diffidence that have sapped the Indian character.]

Anyway, here is "Kanda Sashti Kavacham". I enjoyed it, and I hope you do too.

Kanda Sashti Kavacham - The odd references to cat's hair (11:08) and suchlike are added curiosities

Sunday, 13 April 2014

From Yashodhara to Jashodaben - The Unsung Victims Of Patriarchy's Noble Heroes

The uncertainty over the marital status of Indian prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi was finally cleared when the candidate declared in his nomination papers that he was indeed married, and to one Jashodaben (The Gujarati variant of the common Indian name Yashoda). The lady is a retired schoolteacher on a modest pension, who has lived alone or with her brothers ever since her non-starter of a marriage to Modi.

Details of the marriage are murky, but the broad outlines of it seem to be that Narendra Modi and Jashodaben had an arranged marriage when they were both very young (whether it was a child marriage is in dispute). The marriage was not consummated, and Narendra Modi left his young wife to become a "pracharak" (evangelist) for the Hindu Nationalist RSS, since that organisation insists on celibacy for all its pracharaks. He apparently lived in solitary simplicity for many years while he served his organisations (the RSS and its political arm, the BJP), until he finally entered the limelight in 2001 with his elevation to the position of Chief Minister for Gujarat. But even in the 13 years since then, when he was no longer an RSS pracharak and hence no longer under the requirement of celibacy, he did not acknowledge his wife and instead continued to project the public image of a bachelor.

Today, a number of questions are being asked about this behaviour.

To the traditionalist Hindu BJP supporter, such questions are outrageous. The phenomenon of householders renouncing their worldly ties and taking up "sannyasa" (the way of life of the renunciate) is a common one in Hindu culture. It is glorified as a spiritually meritorious act. To such a follower, Narendra Modi's act of walking away from his marriage and his young wife in order to serve his nation was an act of sacrifice that is highly praiseworthy.

Indeed, the person Modi is often compared to in this regard is Prince Siddhartha, one of the most famous renunciates in the history of the subcontinent, who later became the Buddha. One night, while his young wife Yashodhara and baby son Rahula slept, the prince stole away from the palace, and embarked upon his long spiritual quest, which ultimately led him to enlightenment and gave the world a new religion.

In these days of feminist-inspired thought, a few brave voices have dared to ask if the Buddha was a great soul, or a really lousy husband and father. (Similar questions are asked of the behaviour of Rama in the Hindu epic Ramayana).

By all accounts, just as Yashodhara before her, Jashodaben is a model Indian wife, bearing her lot with patience and continuing to pray and fast for her husband's success and happiness, and this is again something that the traditionalists point to with approval and pride. But is it indeed something praiseworthy, or is it a kind of cultural Stockholm Syndrome where the victim does not even imagine herself to be the victim, and even fiercely defends her oppressor?

Indian society is entering a new age, and fresh winds are blowing in alien ideas, ideas that suggest that men and women are equal human beings with equal rights, that marriage is a commitment for both parties, that one party to a marriage cannot unilaterally decide to end it without some form of compensation to the other, and so on. These ideas may infuriate the traditionalist, but they are here to stay.

After the horrific Delhi rape of December 2012, and the continuing cases of rape and molestation all over the country, popular attention has focused strongly on the treatment of women and the root causes of it. Patriarchal attitudes are increasingly acknowledged to be the real cause of women's poor status. This is a culture that makes a show of treating women as goddesses or as mother figures, but balks at treating them as equal human beings. 

Indian governments at both the central and state levels are increasingly expected by a young and idealistic nation to exercise modern, progressive value frameworks to make decisions concerning women rather than the feudal and patriarchal ones of traditional Indian society. In this situation, a potential prime ministerial candidate who has exhibited the classic patriarchal lack of concern for his duty towards his wife is cause for worry. How will his government prove responsive to the concerns of women when the person who should be waving to the crowds at his side remains consigned to the shadows?

One thing is clear - Modi will find in the days ahead that the 2002 riots are not the only uncomfortable topic that he will be questioned on.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

India's Watershed Election - Why It's Still Not A Now-Or-Never Moment

In heated political discussions with friends, one point that has been repeatedly made by supporters of Narendra Modi is that India faces a now-or-never moment with the 2014 general elections. If Modi is elected with a clear mandate, he will clear the cobwebs of corruption and inefficiency that plague the economy and restore the country's earlier trajectory of high growth. If the Congress party is re-elected (a remote possibility), or if the next government comes to an effective standstill due to an unwieldy coalition, then India would have missed a historic chance to improve its economy and will thenceforth be condemned to remain a poor nation, perhaps for all time.

I don't buy this doomsday argument. I don't believe that this is a bet-the-house kind of election at all. Yes, it is a moment in India's history that could mark a turning point in its fortunes, but there could be others in case this moment is missed.

Some of my friends have pointed out examples of great historical characters who have changed the course of history, implying that Narendra Modi is one such rare giant in a field of pygmies. If India fails to elect him, their argument goes, it will be stuck with pygmies who will fail to restore the country to greatness. However, what's often forgotten is that even great historical characters are products of a society that is ripe for their ideas, because the same ideas have fizzled out when another leader espoused them in an earlier age when society was not ready.

No leader achieves anything alone. They have to motivate and inspire followers, and in order to attract a critical mass of followers, it is imperative that their message, however revolutionary, resonate with a significant number of people. In other words, society has to be ready for change in order for a great historical character to be able to work their magic.

India has been ripe for change for a few years now. That's really why the Congress is finished. Corruption, inefficiency, all of these have played a part, but now the operative force is the electorate's desire for change. Rahul Gandhi simply doesn't represent change! He's just more of the same. His father Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 was described by political pundits as representing both continuity and change. Rahul does not have that cachet.

Whether one likes it or not (and the BJP and AAP supporters will both resent the comparison), both Modi and Kejriwal are expressions of the Indian people's desire for change. Electoral arithmetic will tell who succeeds in this election, but the winds of change are durable and not dependent on a single person, because they spring from the aspirations of Indian society.

That's why I'm sanguine about India's progress. It is going to happen because people want change and society will throw up a leader who will bring about change. It may be Modi, or it may be someone else. The actual person doesn't matter. Even if today's top leaders are nowhere on the scene, change will still occur. New leaders will be found, and things will change. Even if the parliament that emerges after this election is hung, and the government collapses in a couple of years, there will be another chance and another leader. And another. And another. Because people's aspirations are not going to be set aside just because one particular political configuration did not deliver.

My personal preference, as I described in my article for McKinsey, is for a federal polity where the states are autonomous and compete with one another for investment and labour, and where it is less important who the prime minister is. I think decentralisation will willy-nilly come about because it is the only way to resolve the logjam of coalition politics at the centre.

In any case, India will be unrecognisable in 15 years. The change will have been brought about by the people. Even if Modi is PM for 3 terms, this progress would not be due to him, but due to the forces already marshalled and waiting for the moment.

In the early sixties, the question "After Nehru, who?" used to be despairingly posed by people even when Jawaharlal Nehru was still alive. He would respond jocularly, yet entirely seriously, "After Nehru, you!"

So let it be in 2014. The leader is only the vehicle. The true agent for change is the populace. 

A National Geographic picture of an Indian crowd which I cropped into a silhouette of Narendra Modi using The GIMP.