Salute to a Great Soul

I am going on vacation to India on Thursday, and shall be away for practically a month.  I was thinking of making a post in the usual vein – about books, movies or literary/ mythical themes.  However, something has happened which has resulted in a change of plans.  I have to pay tribute.

A great soul has left us.  An Indian, even after becoming the country’s first citizen, has forever identified with the common man.  A scientist who while crunching the numbers, never lost his touch with the music of nature.  An engineer who, while reaching for the stars, had his feet firmly rooted in the earth.

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Dr. Kalam, sir, as a technocrat you were an inspiration to the engineer in me.  As a statesman, you were a source of pride to me as an Indian.  As a human being, you were an ideal to strive for.

Your loss is irreparable.  Even though it is almost a cliché nowadays, I have to say this – when they made you, they really threw the mould away.

Pranamam.

Selling a Myth

The “warrior hero” is a familiar figure in mythology across the world. He is the lone wolf, riding off into battle, killing without passion with the clear realisation that his ultimate destiny is a violent death. He has no personal stakes – he kills because it is his duty (or karma, as per the Bhagavad Gita). Joseph Campbell talks about a samurai who desisted from killing his opponent because he spat at him; because he had made him angry! Killing in anger, in the heat of the moment, is always decried.

This mythical figure is enduring. We see him/ her in science fiction, fantasy, historical romances and tales of the wild, wild west: and also in various bestselling books on “war heroes”, soldiers who showed extreme valour on the battlefield in the World Wars I & II and other sundry battles. Forget the fact that there is seldom anything glorious about war or the gunslinger of the Wild West was most probably a rapacious murderer: we, as a species, do not want historical facts. Mythical truth is more essential.

(Please note that I am not using the term “myth” to denote “falsehood”. In my opinion, myth is an unavoidable part of the human psyche.)

Clint Eastwood must be the one person who used the appeal of this myth to the maximum. His “Man with No Name” characters in the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone are unforgettable portrayals of the warrior hero: the lanky and laconic loner who rides off into the sunset chewing tobacco, smoke streaming from the barrel of his gun. When Eastwood became a director, this figure reappeared again and again, and in the process gained a more rounded and philosophical personality (Pale Rider, Unforgiven). Recently, he has moved away from the Wild West but the hero is still in evidence (Gran Torino).

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So it was with mixed feelings that I watched American Sniper, the story of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in American military history. On the one hand, I was confident that Clint would deliver a terrific movie: on the other hand, I was not very comfortable with the “heroism” attributed to Kyle, who had stated

I am a strong Christian. Not a perfect one—not close. But I strongly believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible. When I die, God is going to hold me accountable for everything I’ve done on earth. He may hold me back until last and run everybody else through the line, because it will take so long to go over all my sins. “Mr. Kyle, let’s go into the backroom. . . .” Honestly, I don’t know what will really happen on Judgment Day. But what I lean toward is that you know all of your sins, and God knows them all, and shame comes over you at the reality that He knows. I believe the fact that I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior will be my salvation. But in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them. Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.

This is hardly what you’d expect from a hero! However, the movie did not contain a single objectionable statement. Chris was shown as rather honourable, having pangs of conscience before he shoots down a woman and a child who are carrying lethal weapons. Also, there are plenty of “evil” Iraqis out there (guys like “The Butcher” who drill children to death), so we get a feeling that the director is trying to say: “Look, American intervention in Iraq was not so bad!” This disturbed me, and I decided to read Kyle’s autobiography.

A good thing I did. I could immediately understand what Clint was trying to do – and it was something pretty insidious.

***

Chris Kyle sees the world in black and white: American is good, Texan is excellent, non-American is not-so-good, and Arab is bad. He has no doubt why he is fighting the war in Iraq: it is not to help the Iraqis (as the US government would have us believe), it is to “stop this shit from reaching America”. He has no qualms about killing; rather, he is at pains to tell us, over and over, that he simply loves it. He is not killing because he is a soldier and it is his duty: he became a soldier to kill.

A sample of quotes from the book is given below.

My shots saved several Americans, whose lives were clearly worth more than that woman’s twisted soul. I can stand before God with a clear conscience about doing my job. But I truly, deeply hated the evil that woman possessed. I hate it to this day.

Our ROEs when the war kicked off were pretty simple: If you see anyone from about sixteen to sixty-five and they’re male, shoot ’em. Kil every male you see. That wasn’t the official language, but that was the idea.

The people we were fighting in Iraq, after Saddam’s army fled or was defeated, were fanatics. They hated us because we weren’t Muslim. They wanted to kill us, even though we’d just booted out their dictator, because we practiced a different religion than they did.

Man, this is going to be good, I thought. We are going to kill massive amounts of bad guys. And I’m going to be in the middle of it.

..I went to war for my country, not Iraq. My country sent me out there so that bulshit wouldn’t make its way back to our shores.

I never once fought for the Iraqis. I could give a flying fuck about them.

On the front of my arm, I had a crusader cross inked in. I wanted everyone to know I was a Christian. I had it put in in red, for blood. I hated the damn savages I’d been fighting. I always will. They’ve taken so much from me.

The portrait of an extremely juvenile character comes out from the book: a person whose ethical sense has been stunted in his pre-teens. The themes which are repeated again and again – his addiction to video games, the comic book heroes he tries to emulate, his simple pleasure at shooting a human being – presents the picture of a kid who have never really grown up. And he does not even bother to hide his racism; he says he would have shot any Arab carrying a Koran with pleasure, had the higher-ups allowed it.

It’s interesting to see how the tone changes when the Marines and SEALs are at the receiving end. Then people are not “killed” but “murdered”. Also, it’s interesting to hear him lamenting about the fact that the Arabs hate him just because he is a Christian, and that religion should be about tolerance – when he is ready to drop anybody with a Koran.

On top of all this bigoted racism, the book is badly written to boot. Of course, he is not a professional writer, but you would expect some coherence and sequence. The narrative comprises short staccato sentences, repetitive descriptions of Kyle’s kills interspersed with detailed discussions about arms and military vehicles.

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***

Clint Eastwood’s movie bears no relation to this narrative than the bare outline. By infusing a storyline into it, introducing murderous Iraqi characters and peppering it with philosophical dialogue, Eastwood has tried to present a sympathetic view of Chris Kyle. It’s rubbish.

But what he has accomplished is to make a movie which is astonishingly value neutral. You cannot pick a single incident from it to show its hidden bigotry: the script is expertly written. However, a right-winger can take what he wants from it – a celebration of “America”(see how the movie has been praised by hardliners in the US); a leftist or a liberal will be mildly disturbed, without being able to exactly put his finger on the source of the unease; and a middle-of-the-road person may think: “Well, maybe I’m misjudging those brave marines”.

This movie, declared as anti-war by Eastwood, is nothing of the sort. It is the selling of a myth, after subtly subverting to suit the aims of a murderous colonial power – a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Clint Eastwood ensures commercial success along with the spreading of an obnoxious right-wing philosophy. Unless one catches the subtext, it is liable to percolate into the psyche.

In my opinion, herein lies the danger.

The Debt Trap

During the nineties, I procured my first credit card. Being a cautious socialist who distrusted private banks on principle, the card was from the State Bank of India. Initially I didn’t do much with it, but use it to shop at our local supermarket: the novelty was in taking it out and flashing it instead of a bunch of dirty notes. So things went on satisfactorily for a few months.

1-1204463487cJKyThen, the temptation of buying beyond my means was too much – I purchased something (I don’t exactly remember what) through my card which could not be paid off immediately. In addition to this, I took some cash advance on my card to take care of the expenses of my father’s sixtieth birthday celebrations.

Suddenly, the card had me by the throat. All that was left of my salary after monthly expenses was going towards the minimum payment on my card; however, the outstanding amount was decreasing only minimally. To put it simply, I was paying out interest while the principal remained largely untouched. Moreover, my card had become useless because the credit limit had been reached.

Well, I am glad to say that I caught on to the danger after only a few months, and took out a non-refundable loan from my provident fund to settle the amount on the card in full. After that incident, I started using a credit card only after I came to the Middle East in 2004 – and I am extremely careful settle the outstanding amount in full each month.

I had experienced the nightmare of the never-ending debt loop.

Usury

Matsys_the_moneylenderMoneylenders have always been a despised lot in history until modern times. Usury, the business of lending money at high interest rates so as to make a profit is condemned in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (though Jews are allowed to do so to non-Jews). Christ reportedly drove away usurers from the church with a whip: Islam even now practices a special type of banking without interest. Due to widespread anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages, usury was the only profession allowed for Jews, thus giving rise to caricature of the covetous Jew a la Shylock: ironically, this became a vicious circle of hatred.

In India too, the moneylender (often caricatured in movies as a ‘Bania’ with his characteristic cap and strongbox, sitting cross-legged in his tiny office and fleecing villagers) was not a liked figure. Many people have been fleeced of their life savings and domicile by these rapacious characters. Debt bondage was also common in India, where people were forced work free of cost for generations in the service of the person who lent them money – the debt and interests keep on accumulating.Christ_drives_the_Usurers_out_of_the_Temple

It must have been with the rise of industry, banking and international finance that charging interest on loans lost its stigma as a malpractice. When the borrowed money is used to generate more money on its own, it seems only fair that the lender is compensated – after all, theoretically the profit would have been his, had he used it the way the borrower did. Anyway, except in the Islamic world, lending money on interest is no longer a shameful activity: rather, it is the backbone of the current market economy-driven world. If one is to listen to the bards who sing the praises of capitalism, this is the only sustainable model.

But is it? Since the recession of 2008, I have begun to have serious doubts.

Virtual Money

I am not an economist. In fact, even though I have taken a Post-Graduate Diploma in Financial Management, I am very weak in understanding the vagaries of international finance. Other than the basics of balance sheets, discounted cash flow and future value, I am lost.

However, there is one aspect of modern finance which I am sure is an ultimate recipe for disaster – virtual money, symbolised by the ubiquitous credit card.

Just think about how we do finance nowadays. Most of the money is just numbers on a computer system in a bank’s server. When you buy or sell something, the numbers are adjusted accordingly. And when you buy something on credit, the numbers readjust based on the assumption that you will be able to pay back. If you are not able to, the bank will come after you.

This system will work as long as the majority of the people play by the rules. But when the majority starts defaulting, that’s when things start to come unstuck.

Exploitation and the Myth of Infinite Consumption

“Exploitation” is the cornerstone of the capitalist world we live in today. Even communist ideology is dependent on the “exploitation” of natural resources. Now this is a key word: it creates the impression that exploiting anything and everything for one’s benefit is the natural way of things. This, coupled with the myth that there are infinite resources to go around, has created a covetous, rapacious, dog-eat-dog society where the aim is to get ahead, even by trampling down the one beneath you, paying scarce heed to the voices of reason saying that the current pace and direction of humanity is unsustainable. Social Darwinism, as promoted by Ayn Rand, has become the norm. Is somebody living a miserable life? Well, he deserves it for being too lazy to do better for himself! This is blaming the victim with a vengeance.

Socially conditioned rapacity coupled with the ability to consume beyond means – it was only a question when whole thing would collapse. Well, it has happened. Starting in 2008, we are seeing the beginning of modern society’s one-way roller-coaster ride to disaster.

Greece

Greek-Communist-Party-pro-005Greece is a fine example of what will happen when a government becomes beholden to moneylenders. When a country’s money is invested in “securities” provided by international financiers who know that they are based on subprime mortgages, and later, when these instruments fail and the money vanishes, the same financial vultures force the government to pay back huge amounts – this is nothing short of debt bondage. And the price to be paid? Austerity! Increased privatisation and reduction of government funding on public amenities. To quote a colourful metaphor from the website, http://www.filmsforaction.org:

If you are a fan of mafia movies, you know how the mafia would take over a popular restaurant. First, they would do something to disrupt the business – stage a murder at the restaurant or start a fire. When the business starts to suffer, the Godfather would generously offer some money as a token of friendship. In return, Greasy Thumb takes over the restaurant’s accounting, Big Joey is put in charge of procurement, and so on. Needless to say, it’s a journey down a spiral of misery for the owner who will soon be broke and, if lucky, alive.

(Read the full article, here.)

This is financial extortion on an international scale. Ironically, we find mainstream media blaming the Greek people for this catastrophe.

Even though Greece has voted emphatically against austerity, there is little hope that the vultures will leave off. The country will be squeezed and people pushed into unbelievable misery until these corporate bloodsuckers get their pound of flesh.

***

Unfortunately, we are all cogs in the wheel, and cannot escape the mammoth capitalist behemoth which controls society nowadays. We cannot do away with investments and virtual money. This is why leftists like me are called hypocrites many a time by conservatives, and they are right. All of us are culpable.

But is there nothing we can do? I believe there is.

At this point, I would like to quote the story of the squirrel, from the Indian epic Ramayana.

Legend has it that Lord Rama built a causeway across the ocean to connect India to Sri Lanka, to go over there with his monkey army to fight the demon king Ravana and recover his wife Sita, whom Ravana had abducted. As the mighty monkeys were throwing rocks into the sea, Rama spotted a squirrel running into the water, running back to the beach and rolling in the sand, then running into the water again. When asked the reason for this strange behaviour, the squirrel replied: “I am participating in the building of the causeway. The few grains of sand which stick to my back will also contribute, no?” It is said that Rama became extremely happy and blessed the squirrel.

The moral of the story is simple – nothing is too little. We all can contribute our mite to bringing down this corrupt edifice. Blood-soaked revolutions are not required, nor are they essential.

The first step is control our appetites. It will not be easy – but we can do it. Start slowly and in a limited fashion. Do you need to buy all those consumer products advertised in the TV? Is it required to use your petrol –drinking monster of a car for going that one kilometre? Is air-conditioning absolutely necessary in all rooms of your house?

The second step is to see ways of becoming self-sufficient and promoting self-sufficiency. Do you need to visit that international retail chain for buying vegetables, when your neighbourhood grocer may be able to supply the same? Can you not try to cultivate at least some vegetables in your backyard, or terrace garden? When equivalent brands are available, can you not choose a local one over an international one?

The most important step, in my humble opinion, is to never borrow beyond one’s means.

These are all suggestions and not diktats. I am also a person who is struggling to find ways of escaping from the clutches of the faceless corporations who have no caste, creed, colour or nationality. If we do not, I am afraid that soon sovereign governments may become history, and the world would be divided up among the financial Leviathans.

A Review of “Room” by Emma Donoghue

Warning: This review contains spoilers

Room_coverRoom by Emma Donoghue is an extraordinary book. It is not literary, despite the Booker nomination: the first half reads like a thriller of the darker variety and the second half like a tear-jerker. The whole story seems contrived, and one part (the escape of Jack from the Room) stretches credibility almost to the point of breaking. Yet, the novel is strangely compelling and once taken up, hard to put down. Why?

I believe this is because of the psychological and mythical depth of the narrative. The author herself has said two things prompted her to write this novel. One, the extraordinarily limited world of a person forced to stay in close confinement for an extended period of time: the second, the bond between the child and the mother, especially in the early oral stages where they are scarcely two entities. Let us examine each in turn.

Jack’s Ma (she is never named in the novel: she exists only as the Mother) has been confined in a soundproof, eleven feet-by-eleven feet shed in his backyard by a psychopath (known only as Old Nick) for seven years. She has been abducted by him and kept there as his sex slave since she was nineteen: Jack has been born in captivity, her second child by Nick (the first had been a stillbirth). Jack has never been outside the shed. He calls it Room, and it is all the world to him: a living, breathing entity. What is seen on the TV is a myth, and all the people inhabiting that world are unreal. The only other real (or semi-real) entity is Old Nick, whom Jack has never seen, as his mother hides him in the wardrobe as Nick comes for his nightly visit. Nick is known to Jack only through the creaks of the bed as he rapes his mother.

Jack’s world is claustrophobic, but he does not know it, as it is the only world he has known for the five years of his life. For him, the existence is idyllic, a composite entity composed of only he and his Ma. All the toys, books and collages made from junk by his mother are living entities for Jack. We see Room only through his eyes: Emma Donoghue has done a fantastic job with the kid’s POV. He is very advanced in certain ways but extremely juvenile in other. His language is a curious mixture of portmanteau words, grammar mistakes, and long phrases picked up from TV. It is the brilliance of the author which makes us feel the claustrophobia of the atmosphere for Jack’s mother even when he himself revels in it.

Coming to the curious relationship between Jack and Ma, the Oedipal suggestions are very evident. Ma still breast-feeds Jack, even though he is five (it is called “having some” – I found that terminology vaguely vulgar, therefore effective): his penis always “stands up” in the morning. This is the “mythical drama played out in every nursery”, as Joseph Campbell said: the urge of the son to kill the father and marry the mother – and the father here deserves very much to be killed.

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Jack is the hero of all the fairy tales his mother tells him, like the eponymous hero of most English fairy tales. His birth in captivity, escape and rescue of his mother also parallels the story of many a Godchild (Krishna comes to mind immediately). It is highly significant that Jack prays to the Baby Jesus, and also that the villain is known as “Old Nick” – the name of the Devil.

The book is split in two: the first part in Room, and the second out of it (or “Outside” as Jack calls it). The author’s aim in structuring the narrative thus is evident; to show that Jack and Ma have become a single entity almost, impossible to separate. In fact, Room has travelled with them. The invisible prison continues to suffocate Ma to such an unbearable stage that she tries to commit suicide.

Ultimately, Jack is partially rehabilitated when he goes back to the Room and says goodbye to it. We feel that finally there is a ray of hope. However, even with that upbeat ending, one has to say that the novel sort of loses steam in the second half.

However, for the daring concept and the craft of keeping the child narrator’s voice genuine through 400 pages (no mean achievement): also for the very real claustrophobia of Room and the mythical and psychological dimensions, I would highly recommend this book.