Sunday, January 29, 2012

Salt of the Earth

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (January 29)

The virtues of salt are infinite, both in diet and language. Salt was a symbol of the honour code in the institution that held together empires and colonies, the army. The metaphor for a soldier's loyalty was salt. If you were true to your salt, you remained loyal to whosoever's salt you had eaten. You were namakhalal. The opposite, namakharam, is still an accusation that stings, although contemporary values are determined by mercantile attitudes rather than ancient oaths. In today's job market, one is more loyal to the next salary than word given to the company you kept.


Friday, January 27, 2012

The Tortured Eleven

From Byword- India Today (January 27)

The historic moment has arrived for a radical revolution in the rules of the game. There is no other option, if we want to protect hapless Indian masses from severe bouts of depression, leading directly to loss of national vigour and collapse of carefully nurtured pride. Cricket must now be played according to the laws of boxing.

Compared to cricket, boxing is a humane and civilised sport. It knows when to stop. If the referee feels that a contest has become a one-sided exercise in hammering, and infers that while a boxer might remain technically on his feet but his brain has become softer than an election candidate's morals, he arbitrarily stops a bout. By all norms of decency, the Australia-India series should have been halted. It is immoral to see eleven mature men, a fusion of superb spirit and individual brilliance, pummel a patchwork coalition of Dad's Army and Mum's Brats with ruthless ease and consistency. One of the significant successes of 20th century diplomacy was the Geneva Pact. It has banned torture. Why then does this callous world permit such unbridled torture on the cricket field? Why doesn't the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Amateurs) intervene in such a humanitarian crisis?

Purists will argue that India lost its way when Rahul Dravid dropped Mike Hussey at Melbourne in the first Test, and Australia recovered from 27 for 4 to an unbeatable 240 in the second innings. That sort of comment might, at best, fetch you a free coffee from naive friends. Wars are not lost because an officer dropped a flag. Every Indian journalist on tour has by now met the Australian taxi driver who asked the question, "What's gone wrong with your team, mate?" That question misses the point as inevitably as Indian batsmen miss the ball. India does not have a team. It has half-a-dozen players who are punishing their ageing limbs in search of even more cash from an indefatigable lottery. Some batsmen are more anxious about the prospect of free land from chief ministers under the spurious excuse that they are setting up cricket academies, than about their next score. A heretical question is circling around even the finest we have seen: are you playing for Bharat or for the Bharat Ratna? The formidable patrician Dr W.G. Grace, whose beard was as long as his wit was sharp, once told an uppity bowler who had the temerity to get him out that the British spectator had come to see Grace bat, and an upstart bowl. He continued at the crease. We should now apply that useful principle to Sachin Tendulkar: let him get his 100th 100, and get on with stitching together a totally new team, including at least one 17-year-old who can become our next Sachin.

Perhaps it is wrong to get harsh with Sachin Tendulkar, who still has runs to offer. Cricket is not a game you can play alone. But Sachin might yet want to recall what Vijay Merchant, the great Mumbai sportsman, once said: You should retire when the public still asks why, not when. But Merchant belonged to a generation when a Test player got one pound sterling as spending money per day on a foreign tour. Those players didn't know how to spell a five-letter word called 'crore'.

Don't get me wrong. There is nothing unethical about the wealth that now dominates the game. But money increases accountability. Indian cricket is, instead, controlled by a crony system in which administrators, selectors, players and their chosen commentators protect one another. Australia became invincible in my book on the day its captain Michael Clarke refused to cross Don Bradman's score when he could have easily done so. That was not merely team before self; it was homage to Australia's history, and a young genius telling us, with astonishing humility, that he would not break an implicit honour code.

If there was a Border-Gavaskar trophy for alibis, however, Indians would have returned with heaps of silver. Gautam Gambhir's throwaway accusation that the hosts had fixed the pitch was beneath contempt. Lose, but don't cry. It was not defeat that shamed India, but the manner in which the side crumbled repeatedly. Of course the players never allowed their performance to affect their camera-perfect preening. These guys are professional. After all, they spend more time on television than soap opera stars. Even a newcomer grimaces with distaste at the umpire after having pitched four balls short and one full in a single over. Nothing is ever his fault. And he either already has or will soon get an advertising contract to prove it.

The majestic Dr Grace had some useful advice for fellow cricketers faced with columns such as this one. "Never read print, it spoils one's eye for the ball." If India's present eleven had any eye left for the ball, there wouldn't be such print either.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The year of ludicre

From Byword- India Today (January 20)

What precisely is the difference between ridiculous and ludicrous? With their inter-changeable syllables they even sound like each other. Philology is not very helpful. One word has a root, ridicule; but there is no 'ludicre' in English. Why? Since language does not have a Pope whose word is law, we will never get an answer. My own view, that ridiculous is pathos and ludicrous is bathos, is probably no more than a literary conceit dredged up to justify the inexplicable.

Since lists are a congenital part of year-end rituals, one feels obliged to offer some sort of homage to custom. A short list of two will do: the most ridiculous, and the most ludicrous. A rummage through politics poses a problem. There is simply too much to choose from. It doesn't seem worth the effort. The harvest is so much better outside the realm of pomp, power and pretty sordid levels of corruption.

Nothing I have heard in the deathbed year of 2011 was more ridiculous than Sourav Ganguly's command to our cricket team in Australia on the "Agneepath Series": Be Fearless! After which he added a paean to his own fearlessness. That was both cheeky and thick. Long before he retired, Ganguly began to play cricket with his neck: his neck was far more agile than his bat against the rising ball. On more than one occasion Ganguly developed mysterious back aches at the sight of a green pitch on the first morning. Whenever the world's quickies were short of a laugh all they had to do was watch a video of Ganguly trying to get out of the way, and the party could begin.

Ganguly had class, but he lacked courage. No one is perfect. Virender Sehwag has courage by the bucket, and talent by the pail, but when it comes to judgment you need to measure it by a tablespoon. That is him. Take it or leave it, and we take it, happily, for the joy at Sehwag's presence far outweighs the sniffle at his departure. On the other hand if you want an example of the ludicrous, you can watch the rate at which hair is reappearing on Sehwag's head. Since we don't watch Sehwag to study the pace of hair transplants, it doesn't matter. (Incidentally, what do Australians call the Agneepath Series? Probably the XXXXpath Tests; the Xs are of course code for a fourletter word called 'fire'.)

We may have to search elsewhere, however, for the heights of ludicre (what the heck: let's coin a word for the new year) established in 2011. It is well known that Press Council Chairman Justice Markandey Katju's heart is in the right place, and his high intellect worthy of those who have achieved a place on the Supreme Court bench. But his mind does like an occasional walk in space. He has said, in his new avatar as conscience-keeper-cum-godfather of hacks, that journalists can be unread, tasteless and enjoy a bit of opium in the office. In his ideal world, cricket and Dev Anand's death do not constitute frontpage news. By such Olympian standards he has a lot of work ahead, so let us wish him a happy new year.

But his campaign for a Bharat Ratna to Mirza Ghalib and Saratchandra Chattopadhyay is ludicrous. One of my great personal regrets is insufficient knowledge of Urdu, and ignorance of Persian: the two books I would carry to the proverbial desert island are the complete works of Shakespeare and Ghalib. Ghalib's poetry is eternal, but his views did not always belong to the narrative of the modern India. Ghalib lived through 1857. He watched 23 Mughal princes being hanged and fellow Dilliwallahs being massacred by merciless British columns. Ghalib was more interested in a pension from Queen Victoria, as is evident from his diary, Dastambuy, than a war for independence. This does not diminish his poetry, but it does raise questions about his politics.

Justice Katju has read a million more books than any silly journalist, but perhaps he has not come across Joya Chaterji's masterly Bengal Divided (Cambridge University Press, 1996). He would surely have noticed a speech that Saratchandra, an undoubted literary genius, made in 1926. There isn't space for the full text, but a few sentences establish the flavour-and trust me, I am leaving out the more gruesome bits: "The truth is that if Muslims ever say they want to unite with Hindus, there is no greater hoax. The Muslims came to India to plunder it, not to establish a kingdom... Unity can only be realised among equals... 'Hindu-Muslim unity' is a bombastic slogan... Hindustan is the homeland of the Hindus." Et al. Saratchandra's India was not the India that Mahatma Gandhi lived and died for.

The past has its glories. The past has its dilemmas. The past has its mistakes. The past has its rage. Shall we reserve the Bharat Ratna for those who fought for a future in which every Indian is an equal?

City Of Wailing Walls

From Byword- India Today (January 20)

The most complex word to explain is surely normalcy. The standards of 7,000 years flutter over the beautifully-lit battlements of Jerusalem. The sun sinks; the temperature plummets; the decibels fade: it has become a city of silence. The living trip warily around the dead, who are exalted in prophets' tombs, or massed in graveyards, or echo within memory and prejudice in competitive, combative narratives.

Jerusalem is the theatre of the final judgment for Jews, who will either descend to gehenna (Arabic: jahannum) down the hill, or pass through God's gate of mercy above. Christians lament the betrayal of their saviour, Jesus, not merely by Judas, whose guilt drove him to suicide, but also by Peter, who choked whatever anguish he may have felt. They mourn the crucifixion and celebrate resurrection. Muslims glory in the ascension of Prophet Muhammad to heaven from the rock on the mount at the spot where Solomon built his great temple.

If faith was not enough, Jewish' Crusader and Arab empires have left their mark on stone. Dinner conversation creeps through the intricacies of claim and survival, possession and legitimacy, construction and decay, before it gets lost in the labyrinths of ultra orthodoxy, Salafist exclusion, aggression, response and the diminishing core of secular liberalism.

Fear, pride, bitterness and the excitable phantoms of suspicion hammer away at Jerusalem's humanists. Time has not been kind; it has created new barriers in the city famous for walls. Today's divisions, marked in cement and electricity, cut through emotions like frozen laser beams. Sunrise through a red haze over east Jerusalem brings light, but not much clarity. The horizon is lost in the Judean desert, among the Jordan hills, battlefields of a war in all its creative facets.

Within the city, a turn of a street defines the difference between the first world and third. But the first is not always a modern world. The last time I saw the Wailing Wall of the Temple, devotees mingled; this time they were separated by gender, testimony to the rising grip of ultra orthodox Jews upon the holy city. Their numbers have been estimated at some 2,40,000 in a population of 7,00,000; roughly the same number consider themselves secular Jews. The rest are largely, but not solely, Muslim Palestinians. They live in Jerusalem because they are determined never to leave. They do not, however, participate, awaiting instead another tide to shift the destiny of unborn children. A century is a mere page in a long history.

Palestinians lost their part of Jerusalem in the 1967 war. Since then, the defeated have been in search of alibis and victors have been in search of peace. If the first is delusion, then the second is destabilising. Attrition debilitates one tiny nerve a day, but eventually it leaves both sides unnerved.

Israel might be able to deal with Palestine, but how long can it deal with the world? It can't build electronic walls against London and Paris. I picked up Haaretz, Israel's leading newspaper, established in 1919, just after the Balfour Declaration that set the stage for the creation of Israel in November 1948, on Tuesday, January 17, for breakfast reading. Here is a mix of the day's news. In London, Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg condemned Israeli settlements on Palestinians' land as "deliberate vandalism". In Paris the Foreign Affairs Committee of Parliament had published a report accusing Israel of using water as "a weapon serving the new apartheid". 450,000 Israeli settlers, it pointed out, used more water than 2.4 million Palestinians. Vandalism. Apartheid. These were words being used not by the Muslim Brotherhood but by friends of Israel.

The enemy, in the meantime, had switched generations. Hackers based in Saudi Arabia, with net names like Group XP and Nightmare Force, had exposed details of thousands of Israeli credit cards, blocked access temporarily to El Al, the national airline, and engineered the crash of the Tel Aviv stock exchange website. The young Arabs behind this technological warfare promised much more, even as Israel's tech-security elite scrambled to build yet more walls, this time in cyberspace. On the edit page of the same day's Haaretz, columnist Yitzhak Laor said all he needed to say in the headline over his short, sharp piece: "Arabs have never been equal under the law". Many would find such news good reason for not reading a newspaper. But there is an uplifting part of the story. Israel has a free press, guarded vigilantly by Israelis with a strong liberal conscience. It is such a welcome fact in a dictator-rich neighbourhood where a whisper has often been the only instance of free media.

Conflict is always dangerous to the survival of a liberal. But it is only when the liberal voice commands that peace will obey.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Toxic circle in deadly triangle

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (January 15)

Pakistan's first coup was led by a civilian. When the bureaucrat-turned-Governor General Ghulam Mohammad arbitrarily dismissed Prime Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin on 17 April 1953 he was a little apprehensive about intervention by Queen Elizabeth II of Britain. He had reasons to be worried, because Pakistan was still a Dominion State, and the Queen was legal monarch of the Dominion. Pakistan became fully independent when it adopted a democratic Constitution on 2 March 1956, but it never got the chance to become a democracy because General Ayub Khan stepped in through a military coup before an election could be held. What is curious is that 56 years later its civilian rulers still look abroad for help in a crisis.


Friday, January 13, 2012

Bedside manners

From Byword- India Today (January 13)

The much-married diva Elizabeth Taylor had an unanswerable riposte for a pesky reporter after one of her husbands, Mike Todd, went up to the Great Hollywood in the Sky. "Mike's dead," she said, "what do you want me to do, sleep alone?"

Elizabeth Taylor should be formally recognised as the defining icon of contemporary Indian politics. True love has its limits. Romance is nice, but not essential to fill a bed. What do you expect political parties to do when a partner is dead or departed? In practical terms, the second is worse than the first, just as a divorcee has more problems than a widow.

Alliances do not come apart for tactical reasons. They disintegrate over strategic interests. In Bengal, Mamata Banerjee and Congress are not squabbling. They are preparing for the inevitable battle for the same space. Both Mamata and Congress know that the Left Front will need a decade in Bengal before it can revive, but that there is an election due in another four years. The Congress will be Mamata's principal opposition in the next Assembly elections. For the Congress, the Trinamool Congress is an usurper and a maverick intervention in what should have been a natural return to power for the Congress.

The Congress lost Bengal in stages, through a two-step alliance between a breakaway Congress faction and the Left. Its first manifestation, in the 1967 elections, was the United Front. It took ten turbulent years, including a bloody Naxalite insurrection and the Emergency, for the Left Front to emerge as the natural ruling force of Bengal in 1977. While there is no certainty in politics, it is possible that Congress will mount a similar two-stage assault on Mamata Banerjee, which means an initial alliance with the Left in the next Assembly polls. Mamata Banerjee is certainly worried about such a possibility, not least because it makes sense for those determined to dislodge her at any cost.

Congress and Left are not in a hurry because time is always on the side of Opposition. Mamata Banerjee is in a hurry for precisely the same reason. She has to maximise her strength at the peak of her popularity. There is after all only one direction in which you can travel from a peak, downwards. Mamata Banerjee has a vested interest in a mid-term poll, because she (along with Jayalalithaa) is certain to make huge gains from a Parliament election. She could easily have 30 or even more MPs if polls were held this year, with commanding Cabinet portfolios in the next Central government. Some of the butter salesmen in her entourage might even be encouraging dreams about the Prime Minister's gaddi.

Ideally, Congress would have wanted Mamata Banerjee to merge her party into the national organisation, but the Lady of Calcutta has tasted independence, always dear to a Bengali's temperament. Conversely, the patterns emerging out of Uttar Pradesh suggest a slow transition that fructify into a Congress-Samajwadi Party alliance that could, in a few years, lead to merger. Congress is not as hopeless in UP as it is in Bihar, but nor is it a natural claimant for power. It needs some bulk infusion of ground presence, in addition to its high-flyer leaders. SP provides that. There are no serious ideological differences between the two parties, given that ideology has shrivelled into a corpse anyway.

SP faces one serious problem, however. For nearly half a century UP has been a rewarding playground for fractious parties. The reasons are slowly becoming irrelevant. UP's political consciousness, shaped by the freedom movement, as a bulwark of nationalism and natural home of prime ministers, will reassert itself, and sooner rather than later. The next general elections could well be the last in which regional parties get any mileage; after that the state will gravitate between the Congress and the BJP. Regional leaders will have to choose in order to survive. The appetite for separate identity will fade once the vote begins to wither.

Mulayam Singh Yadav was weaned by Dr Ram Manohar Lohia's socialist, anti-Congress thesis. His son and heir Akhilesh wears the party red cap but has no real interest in such baggage. Mulayam is a child of the Hindi movement of the 1960s. Akhilesh is a child of the English movement that has been such a remarkable fact of the last two decades in India. The British Raj has been replaced, after an uncertain gap of a few decades, by an English Raj. Its powerful bureaucrats in media have already discovered, to their delight, that Akhilesh is "one of us". The English-centric Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav make comfortable partners, and might wonder why they are contesting on separate symbols, and for the same Muslim vote, by a general election in 2019.

Both in the contrivance of Hollywood and the simulation of politics, marriage is a pact held together by convenience.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Overtake, and die happily ever after

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (January 8)

Philosophers use deconstruction as an academic tool to understand intention or deceit behind words. In India, deconstruction is a highway epidemic. We construct a beautiful road with World Bank or Japanese funds, and then deconstruct it, bit by bit, pothole by pothole, entirely with Indian ingenuity. Indians never need foreign aid to destroy. This is totally within the Indian range of core competence.


Sunday, January 01, 2012

On the Record

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (January 1)

The principal difference between an "off the record" and "on the record" conversation with a politician is that the former is likely to be much closer to the truth. Off-the-record does not mean outside-the-discourse; after all, the best way to keep anything to yourself is to remain silent. When a politician chooses to talk without attribution, it only means he, or indeed she, is sending a message with an in-built denial clause. Off-the-record is a means of placing frustration and anger into public play. This is par for the course, and far more fun than the carefully chosen phrases of official fudge.