Resurrection Sunday

I have been away from regular blogging for quite some time now, due to travel, personal exigencies and a job change.  Wells, things are settled a bit now, and what better time to restart than this auspicious weekend, when Vishu (the Kerala new year) and Easter come together?

Vishu is always a new beginning for us Malayalees.  We wake up before the sun, and see good things as first thing in the morning – called ‘kani’ (കണി) – fruits, vegetables, gold, an image or idol of Krishna, a piece of new cloth… hoping the new year will bring prosperity. Then there are fireworks until daybreak. The young ones get money from the elders – kaineettam (കൈനീട്ടം); literally, “handout” – and then we have our sumptuous afternoon feast: the “sadya” (സദ്യ).  We hope for the same level of prosperity during the whole year – makes sense to a predominantly agrarian culture.

Easter is also a new beginning for mankind.  In the traditionalist literal Christian narrative, it is the historic day when Jesus Christ arose from the dead and ascended to heaven, thus opening the way for the salvation of man.  If we go to the pagan roots of the festival, it is the perennial regeneration of the sacred king, murdered and rejuvenated in perpetuity – Christianity destroyed the concept of cyclical time and established its myth in linearity.  Easter is also celebrated with feasting after a month of austerity.

On the personal front, I have completed about thirteen years of life as an expatriate and is finally coming back to live in my hometown.  A long-cherished dream of a personal library is also has finally come true.  So it’s a new beginning for me as well: a new phase of life in which I will slowly withdraw from active life and move into a life of contemplation.  Vanaprastha, the third phase of a man’s life according to the Indian ethos, is just around the corner.

So let my blog also take on a new lease of life on this day of renewal!

 

The Post-Truth World

post-truth

adjective

  • Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief:

‘in this era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire’

‘some commentators have observed that we are living in a post-truth age’

The above is from the web version of the Oxford dictionary.

I was not very sure of what this meant until I had an argument with a young man in my office.  This guy, intelligent and balanced in all other respects, shocked me by turning out to be an ardent Trump fan.  On further discourse, however, I found that he hated Hillary with an unbelievable passion, which he claimed was due to her dishonesty: but I suspect that it arises from a strong misogynistic streak in him, something which is buried in the shadow side of his personality (to borrow from Jung).

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton meets with civil rights leaders at the National Urban League in the Manhattan borough of New York

He kept on barraging me with the “evidence” of Hillary’s crookedness; but when I pointed out that most of these were of doubtful veracity, and a lot of similar allegations existed against Trump, he was at pains to point out to me that while most allegations against Hillary were “true”, those against Trump were “false”!  In short, he was doing exactly what the first example quoted in the above definition of ‘post-truth’ was trying to illustrate: cherry-picking data to come to one’s desired conclusion.

This brought up another unwelcome thought in my mind: aren’t I, a left-wing liberal, also guilty of the same thing?  We only have to look at Facebook to see that all and sundry keep on justifying their political stands on extremely shaky data.  It seems that if we look closely enough, we can always find something to “prove” just about anything.  So logic and reason have absolutely no say in human discourse any more – sadly, neither does truth.

***

This had me ruminating on the concept of “truth” itself.  I remember having this discussion on the Joseph Campbell fora (now sadly all but defunct): what, exactly, is “truth”?  Well, there are the indisputables: it is the truth that New Delhi is the capital of India, and that The Da Vinci Code was written by Dan Brown.  Only the severely delusional individual will dispute these, as we have concrete evidence to prove the same.  But what about, say, evolution?  The scientifically minded individual would say that it is the logical conclusion to draw from the evidence we have at hand, but it could hardly be called “the truth” as all said and done, it is a conclusion drawn by the mind.  So in our discussions, we decided to call the indisputable truths “facts”, and the proof for the same, “evidence”.  Truth was confined to the twilight zone where it was largely dependent on individual interpretation of evidence.

Things really became interesting in that particular conversation thread when someone said that the heliocentric universe was “only a theory”!  On the face of it, this claim was silly: but as the discussion went on, we found that this particular scientific “truth” was not as robust as those facts which I stated above.  I mean, we have ample evidence to show that the earth and other planets orbit the sun, but have any of us verified it first hand?  It could be that the whole scientific establishment is playing a massive fraud on us – in fact, this is what the Flat Earth Societies believe.

We have to accept that there are various shades to scientific truths also: while the heliocentric universe is on a relatively safe wicket, the theory of evolution is on more unsure ground.  And when we come to something economically and politically loaded like global warming – Al Gore aptly called it “An Inconvenient Truth”! – it seems that truth has become what we want to believe.  With science also influenced by politics nowadays, the fabled scientific method has become a tool for arriving at our desired conclusion.

***
Which brings us to politics, and how it permeates every thread in the fabric of human discourse in the current globally connected era.

Before TV became so popular, one had to take an effort to know the news – it was possible only through reading.  And it required some effort.  Reading the newspaper was almost and educational activity during my childhood; both our parents and teachers encouraged us to do it. I remember that in those days, news was more heavy on content and less on sensationalism – there were no colour pictures, no controversial statements which were highlighted in the headlines and much less of opinion pieces (if at all there were, they were clearly tagged as opinion).

The advent of television changed all that.  Now we had a movie screen in the house to watch the news as it happened, and it was much more exciting (also, it required much less cerebration).  I think none of us noticed how much it took away from the advantages of reading the newspaper.  Because as we read, our mind continually analyses the information and forms conclusions – when we watch it on the screen, the thinking mind is largely dormant and we react emotionally to the visuals.  We were getting dumbed down despite ourselves.  And when cable TV debuted, we had a multiple set of viewpoints barraging our audio and visual sensitivities.  News suddenly became big-time entertainment.th

But the most decisive factor in ushering in the post-truth era is, I feel, the internet.  Now information was available literally at the touch of a finger.  To “google” something became an accepted verb.  Students doing school projects, instead of poring over heavy tomes in the reference section of their libraries, just opened Wikipedia, downloaded the pictures, copied the text, and aced their grades.  Everyone became an expert on various subjects due to their web browsing skills alone.

facebook-logoWhile this interconnectivity had its positives, it has its negatives too: the most obvious one being the loss of veracity.  Anyone with a good vocabulary and a smattering of knowledge can put up articles which would have a sufficient veneer of truth to hoodwink the gullible.  And with social media now ruling the roost, truth has gone for a toss.  The same syndrome is affecting the so-called “debates” on TV, which are nothing but shouting matches, each participants brandishing “facts” to support his or her viewpoint.

***

Is man essentially rational or emotional?

I remember discussing the “Rational Man Hypothesis” with my brother-in-law, a psychiatrist, some years ago.  This postulates that man essentially acts rationally, weighing all information objectively before reaching a conclusion and takes action accordingly.  However, enticing as this view is, it is utter poppycock: other than the half-Vulcan Spock nobody behaves in this way.  Man is essentially an emotional and instinctive animal even after centuries of evolution.  Reason is slowly mounting an attack on emotion, and gaining ground inch by painful inch, but it is still an uphill battle.

What social media and reality TV has done in the recent past is to reinforce this emotional quotient to an unprecedented degree.  With a world which is teetering on a precipice both politically and environmentally, it seems that mankind has retreated into its pre-enlightenment mentality, at least partially.  In a dog-eat-dog scenario, it’s every man for himself – I think the rise of the radical right can also be partially linked to this turbulent emotional environment where fear is the predominant emotion.

***

Is there a way out?

I cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel in the immediate future.  However, recognising our basic irrationality might be a beginning.  Reading up on different viewpoints on the same issue, keeping one’s emotional reactions in check, is also a method of rationally approaching an issue.

The fact that “truth” is not one size fits all.  The concept of objective truth, borrowed from Western science, is essentially a chimera.  Truth may be different for different people – each of us has his or her own path.  According to the Isavasya Upanishad:

“hiranmayena pātrena satyasyāpihitam mukham

tat tvam pūsan āpāvrnu satyadharmāya drsṭaye”

(The face of truth is concealed with a golden vessel.  O sun, please open it so that I, who am truthful, may see)

The sun here, I feel, is the one that burns within the spirit.  One has to let it blaze forth so that the golden vessel of our prejudices may melt away… and we may see the truth finally in its entirety.

1

The Hated “Other”

On the night of 28 September 2015, a mob of Hindus attacked a Muslim family in Bisara Village, near Dadri, Uttar Pradesh. The middle-aged head of the family, Mohammed Akhlaq was beaten to death: his son was critically injured.

dadri_8a9b1f94-6cc3-11e5-9358-ce0f694bc37c

Photo courtesy: The Hindustan Times

Instead of condemning the event immediately, the Prime Minister kept his silence. Encouraged by this kind of tacit acquiescence, leaders within the BJP began to make provocative statements.

Six Outrageous Things BJP Leaders Have Said About Dadri Murder Over Beef

Ever since the BJP government of Narendra Modi took office at the centre, Hindu fundamentalists of all sorts had been rattling their sabres with increasing ferocity, always finding some issue or the other to keep communal tensions alive. This murder seems have acted as a rallying point for them. Understandably, the other side – mostly left-wingers of varying colour from light pink to deep red, and the Indian National Congress – condemned the incident vehemently, accusing the BJP of direct complicity. The country went into emotional overdrive.

Confession: yours truly also reacted, dashing off angry posts on Facebook, and as usual drawing the ire of the conservatives. Over a period of days, however, after the initial heat has cooled down, I have started noticing a disturbing trend.

In olden days, such a dastardly act in India would have drawn universal condemnation from most Indians. But today, no BJP supporter is coming out to condemn the murder unconditionally. They always qualify it with statements about the sacredness of cows or how this is all a conspiracy to malign the BJP. Even the Prime Minister has made a roundabout speech, urging both Hindus and Muslims to preserve peace, as if both sides were equally faulty. On Facebook, even people from Kerala (where beef is eaten by the majority of Hindus) seem to take it as an “Us vs. Them” religious issue, with a pound of beef at the centre, rather than a straightforward question of the murder of an innocent man.

The polarisation of India on religious lines, which gained momentum during the 2002 Gujarat riots, seems to have attained new heights. The “otherness” of Muslims has been established.

Now, it only remains to eliminate them.

We have seen this happening on a grand scale once in history – in Germany and the countries it conquered, during the Third Reich. Traditional anti-Semitic sentiments in Europe were inflamed by Hitler to dangerous levels which led to the torture and extermination of six million Jews. Hitler did not do this alone: many people abetted him while the world stood by and watched. Why? Because in the minds of most Europeans, the Jews were the hated “other”.

***

220px-HumanzoodesIn this context, I recalled The Human Zoo, a book by the anthropologist Dr. Desmond Morris that I had read in the early eighties. In it, Dr. Morris says that the human species has grown too fast so that he “does not fit his primate boots” any more: anthropologically, he is still a tribe member, but his tribe has grown to a “super-tribe” – humanity – a huge entity he cannot identify with.

So what does he do? Create “in-groups” and “out-groups” – tribes within the super-tribe. These groups may be divided on national, religious or linguistic lines. The common factor is that we are part of one group, competing with the members of the other group in the bloody game of survival. It is “us” versus “them”. In Dr. Morris’s words:

What is it that makes a human individual one of ‘them’, to be destroyed like a verminous pest, rather than one of ‘us’, to be defended like a dearly beloved brother? What is it that puts him into an outgroup and keeps us in the in-group? How do we recognize ‘them’? It is easiest, of course, if they belong to an entirely separate super-tribe, with strange customs, a strange appearance and a strange language. Everything about them is so different from ‘us’ that it is a simple matter to make the gross over-simplification that they are all evil villains. The cohesive forces that helped to hold their group together as a clearly defined and efficiently organized society also serve to set them apart from us and to make them frightening by virtue of their unfamiliarity.  Like the Shakespearean dragon, they are ‘more often feared than seen’.

Such groups are the most obvious targets for the hostility of our group. But supposing we have attacked them and defeated them, what then? Supposing we dare not attack them? Supposing we are, for whatever reason, at peace with other super-tribes for the time being: what happens to our in-group aggression now? We may, if we are very lucky, remain at peace and continue to operate efficiently and constructively within our group. The internal cohesive forces, even without the assistance of an out-group threat, may be sufficiently strong to hold us together. But the pressures and stresses of the super-tribe will still be working on us, and if the internal dominance battle is fought too ruthlessly, with extreme subordinates experiencing too much suppression or poverty, then cracks will soon begin to show. If severe inequalities exist between the sub-groups that inevitably develop within the super-tribe, their normally healthy competition will erupt into violence. Pent-up sub-group aggression, if it cannot combine with the pent-up aggression of other sub-groups to attack a common, foreign enemy, will vent itself in the form of riots, persecutions and rebellions.

groom applying sindoor in hair parting d5500abb6c1fb82e485462035a217c9b

In times of intense group rivalry, the subgroups start wearing their tribal colours aggressively, to mark them out from the others (think of our religious symbols or even, football club logos!). Usually, these groupings are temporary and artificial, and are taken off once the populace settles back into peace. However:

An entirely different situation exists, however, when a sub-group possesses distinctive physical characteristics. If it happens to exhibit, say, dark skin or yellow skin, fuzzy hair or slant eyes, then these are badges that cannot be taken off, no matter how peaceful their owners. If they are in a minority in a super-tribe they are automatically looked upon as a sub-group behaving as an active ‘them’. Even if they are a passive ‘them’ it seems to make no difference. Countless hair-straightening sessions and countless eye-skin-fold operations fail to get the message across, the message that says, ‘We are not deliberately, aggressively setting ourselves apart.’ There are too many conspicuous physical clues left.

Rationally, the rest of the super-tribe knows perfectly well that these physical ‘badges’ have not been put there on purpose, but the response is not a rational one. It is a deep-seated in-group reaction, and when pent-up aggression seeks a target, the physical badge-wearers are there, literally ready-made to take the scapegoat role.

The author is here talking about racial prejudice. But it is my contention that it can be religious too, especially in India – because in a caste-ridden society like ours, it is difficult to separate the individual from the faith which he or she was born into. For a religious minority, this provides a permanent sense of insecurity. What to do – disown the badges of religion and risk losing oneself in the mainstream, or wear them proudly and be the object of suspicion and hatred? It seems that the Muslim minority in India, for the major part, has taken the second route.

Unfortunately, this has pushed Hindus more and more into aggressive tribal displays. In the past few years, the Hindu religion which had been relatively private and individualised has moved into the public sphere. The symbols of religion (the vermillion spot on the forehead, the rakhee on the wrist) are brandished as objects of pride.

Maybe it’s only natural that, with the increased conviction of their religious identity, Hindus have started regarding Muslims as hostile to their very existence – aided by selected readings of history, carefully orchestrated by unscrupulous political ideologues. In such a situation,

A vicious circle soon develops. If the physical badge-wearers are treated, through no fault of their own, as a hostile sub-group, they will all too soon begin to behave like one. Sociologists have called this a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.

It is at this point in the book that Dr. Morris sets out the fictitious example of the “Green-haired Man” who is racially profiled and targeted. This example has stayed with me for more than three decades now, so vivid was it: it was this which made me remember this book in the current situation.

Let me illustrate what happens, using an imaginary example. These are the stages:

  1. Look at that green-haired man hitting a child. That green-haired man is vicious.
  2. All green-haired men are vicious.
  3. Green-haired men will attack anyone.
  4. There’s another green-haired man – hit him before he hits you.
  5. (The green-haired man, who has done nothing to provoke aggression,
  6. hits back to defend himself.)
  7. There you arc – that proves it: green-haired men are vicious.
  8. Hit all green-haired men.

This progression of violence sounds ridiculous when expressed in such an elementary manner. It is, of course, ridiculous, but nevertheless it represents a very real way of thinking.  Even a dimwit can spot the fallacies in the seven deadly stages of mounting group prejudice that I have listed, but this does not stop them becoming a reality.

After the green-haired men have been hit for no reason for long enough, they do, rather naturally, become vicious. The original false prophecy has fulfilled itself and become a true prophecy.

Just meditate on the above passage, and think about the demonisation of Islam in today’s world – does anything ring a bell?

227355-gujarat-riots

A Review of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini

(A couple of days back, the images of Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai accepting their respective Nobel Peace Prizes were the toast of the majority of Indian news channels, a welcome relief from the grim news about terrorist violence in Pakistan and the menace of increasing Hindu fundamentalism in India. It made me think of this book immediately. The demon of intolerance and violence lies hidden inside all of us; it may escape its cage and take wing any day, then it may be impossible to cage it again. We need people like Malala to remind us of the fact – also that there are bright spots even in the darkest of times.)

*

All citizens must pray five times a day…

All men must grow beards…

All women must stay inside at all times…

No woman, under any circumstances, may show her face…

Singing is forbidden.

Dancing is forbidden.

Playing cards, playing chess, gambling and kite flying are forbidden.

Writing books, watching films and painting pictures are forbidden.

Cosmetics are forbidden.

Jewelry is forbidden.

Women will not wear charming clothes.

Women will not speak unless spoken to.

Women will not laugh in public.

Girls are forbidden from attending school.

Women are forbidden from working.

If you steal, your hand will be cut off.

If you commit adultery, you will be stoned to death…

Listen. Listen well. Obey.

Welcome to Taliban country.


What is the enduring attraction of dystopias? Why do we keep on reading about these hellish landscapes where humanity is long dead? Maybe it’s just the devil within, that makes many of us stop and stare at road accidents; maybe there is a cathartic effect, showing us that however bad things are, they could be worse. Or maybe it is the fascination of watching the human spirit soar above the inhuman universe. Most probably, it is a combination of all three.

Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is a dystopia with a difference: instead of being hatched in the brain of some gifted writer, it is one which existed, very near to us in time and space. For the second time, Khaled Hosseini trains his spotlight on his unfortunate home country-however, whereas in The Kite Runner it was only a plot device for the protagonist’s personal redemptive journey, here it is one of the main characters, this land of A Thousand Splendid Suns.

This novel is the story of two women, and through them, Woman in general; as she exists and endures in most parts of the world. Marginalised, a vagina in her youth, a womb in her womanhood, and a pair of hands for sweeping and cleaning in her old age. Created by God as an afterthought as a playmate to His star creation which He made in His own image.

Mariam is a harami, born on the other side of the blanket to the wealthy Jalil Khan and his housekeeper Nana. Nana accepts the fact they are outcasts, while Mariam doesn’t. She demands her share of her father’s love, which he is ready to give on the sly – the problem is, she wants it publicly. Her insistence on visiting her father at his town house ends in her mother’s suicide. Orphaned Mariam, an embarrassment to her father and his three wives, is married off at fifteen to Rasheed, an elderly widower… with whom she endures a loveless and abusive marriage. She is also an object of shame to him because she consistently fails in carrying a baby to term.

Laila is better off as far as family is concerned – she has an educated and loving father, a mother who is much more considerate than many others (even though she is slowly on her way to madness because of her missing sons who have gone off to fight the Soviets), and a charming friend, the one-legged Tariq, who is fast becoming much more than a friends as the children mature. However, her world slowly starts to unravel as Afghanistan’s war with the USSR is won and then the various resistance groups starts fighting among themselves. One of her best friends meets a horrible death, another friend is married off, and Tariq leaves for Pakistan with his family. Ironically, when her family finally decides to move to Pakistan, a stray missile lands on her home killing both her parents. The injured Laila is taken in by Rasheed; with ulterior motives, it is soon revealed. However, she has no option but to become the second wife of the lecherous old man as she is carrying Tariq’s illegitimate child: and the news of Tariq’s death has come from across the border.

As Afghanistan moves through the Civil war era to the Taliban era, the two women, initially hostile, form a bond. The bond is strengthened when Laila gives birth to a girl and loses glamour in the eyes of Rasheed, making her a fellow-sufferer with Mariam: and Mariam simply loves Aziza, Laila’s daughter, all the more because she is a little harami like herself!

Things slowly spiral to a climax when Tariq returns. It seems the story of his death has been manufactured by Rasheed. In a climax slightly reminiscent of a Hindi movie in the best Bollywood tradition, Mariam puts paid to her brute of a husband with a garden shovel, as he is trying to strangle Laila. Laila escapes with Tariq and her children, while Mariam confesses to her crime and receives the Taliban’s swift and brutal justice.

In the last part, we find Laila returning to the Taliban-exorcised Afghanistan, where she makes a pilgrimage to Mariam’s birthplace and unexpectedly receives the money left for Mariam by her repentant father. With it, she revives the orphanage and school where Aziza had been given shelter during the worst years of her life. We leave the story with the news of her third child growing inside her – whose name is already fixed (we can all guess what it will be!), should it turn out to be a girl.

*

Khaled Hosseini is definitely not a literary writer. His style is emotional: the story is given all importance, not the way it is delivered. There were complaints (rather justified, IMO) about the lack of dimension of the characters, especially the villain, in The Kite Runner: Hosseini was accused of playing up to the gallery by vilifying the Islamic world for the benefit of a largely Western audience. In hindsight, I have to reluctantly agree, even though I loved that book.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is slightly better in the sense that all the characters are better drawn. The Taliban are shown as human beings, even though believers in a barbarian philosophy. Rasheed is unabashedly evil, however: but that has nothing to do with religion or geography – SOB’s like him are a dime to dozen in almost all third-world countries. However, the women protagonists are well-etched. Thankfully, they fight back even when the dice is loaded against them.

The novel follows a beaten path: there are very few surprises. The narrative structure is linear, and the author does not challenge the reader at any time within the narrative. The result is a story which flows at breakneck pace, loaded with emotion. We root for the good guys and boo the bad guys at all the appropriate places. And in the end, when Mariam cracks open Rasheed’s skull, we stand up and applaud. But I do not care if the emotion is cheap – I thoroughly enjoyed it. One needs to load up on junk food now and then!

The most noteworthy thing about A Thousand Splendid Suns is the way Afghanistan is portrayed: one weeps for the destruction of a beautiful country, gang-raped and mutilated by hordes and hordes of marauders. One wishes that the current tenuous peace holds, so that she can get back on her feet.

*

Once a taxi driver here in Abu Dhabi talked to me about his family back in Pakistan, on the hilly borderland near Afghanistan. These areas are still outside the police scanner and largely controlled by the Taliban. He told me how his brilliant daughter was forced out of school by armed men on pain of death. He had wanted to make her a doctor, and now she was confined to sooty pots and pans in the backyard. The poor man was almost in tears.

I remembered him when Mariam brought down the shovel the second time on Rasheed’s head. She was striking a blow for the taxi-driver’s daughter: and all such women, crushed under the iron boot of tradition which gives them existence only as man’s playthings and possessions.


You are fearsome: yet I bow to you, O Mother.

Conspiracies

Morpheus: I imagine that right now you’re feeling a bit like Alice. Tumbling down the rabbit hole?
Neo: You could say that.
Morpheus: I can see it in your eyes. You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he’s expecting to wake up. Ironically, this is not far from the truth. Do you believe in fate, Neo?
Neo: No.
Morpheus: Why not?
Neo: ‘Cause I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.
Morpheus: I know exactly what you mean. Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know, you can’t explain. But you feel it. You felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there. Like a splinter in your mind — driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Neo: The Matrix?
Morpheus: Do you want to know what it is?
(Neo nods his head.)
Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere, it is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, or when go to church or when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind. (long pause, sighs) Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back.
(In his left hand, Morpheus shows a blue pill.)
Morpheus: You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. (a red pill is shown in his other hand) You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. (Long pause; Neo begins to reach for the red pill) Remember — all I am offering is the truth, nothing more.

  • The Matrix

I do not think many of us would need an explanation where the famous dialogue is coming from: the 1999 movie “The Matrix” is iconic in the SF canon. The basic premise that nothing is what it seems: we are all puppets of an oppressive system which keeps us in blissful ignorance. There will be the occasional doubt, the flash of sudden clarity, gone before it can be clearly registered in the mind. You remain a slave unless and until you are ready to swallow the red pill (which itself has become a metaphor)

I was reminded of this movie the moment I picked up the book Debunked! by Richard Roeper, popular columnist from The Chicago Sun-Times. In this book, Roeper goes on to enumerate and systematically demolish various “conspiracy theories” – defined as “an explanatory proposition that accuses two or more persons, a group, or an organization of having caused or covered up, through secret planning and deliberate action, an illegal or harmful event or situation” (Wikipedia). We have many, some truly momentous and global (“9/11 was an inside job”) and some of a more mundane nature (“American idol is fixed”).

The basic premise of a conspiracy theory can be explained in one sentence – “nothing is what it seems”. They usually highlight some arguably improbable aspect of a famous incident and try to establish that the incident did not happen in the way the official report of it goes. So why was it modified? Because some conspiracy is to be covered up. By whom? By “THEM” – the all-powerful establishment, corporate group, fifth column… and those who debunk the theory that such a conspiracy happened? Why, obviously they have been bought off – or frightened into submission.

The beauty of this scheme is that a conspiracy theory can never be disproved even if they cannot be proved; because all adherents will simply dismiss any evidence against it as manufactured. And since unusually powerful underground agencies are at work, nothing is beyond their power. Our only recourse is to swallow the red pill.

One of the most famous and enduring theories of recent times is that the 9/11 attacks were planned and executed by the US Government itself, to provide them with a valid excuse to wage war with the Islamic world. Even though it takes a staggering leap of faith to believe that the government of a country would murder so many of its own citizens and destroy millions of dollars’ worth of property to build up a pretext for war, conspiracy theorists do so based on one flimsy piece of “evidence” – steel does not melt, so the twin towers could not have collapsed in on itself due to fire from external impact. It was the work of strategically planted bombs within the facility. This they will repeat, even after we comprehensively prove that steel does not have to melt, only deform for the building to fall down. But as Roeper says, no amount of common sense arguments will satisfy the conspiracy theorist – he will still hold on to the most tenuous of circumstantial “evidence” to substantiate his pet theory.

I did not find Roeper’s book earth-shaking – it’s funny and good to while away a few hours on a long haul flight or a boring wait at a doctor’s or dentist’s, that’s all – but it got me interested in conspiracy theories in general. Because with advent of the internet, they have been spreading like wildfire. India is no exception. One of the persistent ones is the one about Rajiv Gandhi being born a Muslim (Feroze Gandhi, his father, is Feroze Khan according to this legend) and a converted Christian. The story goes on make all kinds of accusations about Sonia’s family and ultimately hints that her whole idea of marrying Rajiv Gandhi was a takeover of India. (This is surprisingly paralleled by the urban legend of Barack Obama being a Muslim, and the Islamic takeover of America.)

Another legend doing the rounds is the one about the Taj Mahal being a Hindu temple called Tejo Mahalaya. According to this, there are locked chambers inside the building where the original Hindu idols are stashed. But God alone knows why the government wants to keep it hidden.

Why do we believe in conspiracy theories? Wikipedia discusses exhaustively on the subject. According to my reading, the main reason is a sense of insecurity. As W. B. Yeats said:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

In an increasingly complex and frightening world, where there is no stability any more, we have a need to believe it’s not all just random. There are enemies, within and without. Hindus suspect Muslims, Muslims suspect Hindus, Americans suspect Arabs, conservatives suspect liberals… so when something goes wrong, it’s a plot: by the dreaded “THEM”. The faceless, nameless horde which swoops down on us in the darkness of night; the dark figures pulling the strings which manipulate the puppets who are running the government. It’s a classic case of shadow projection.

Conspiracy theories can be dangerous. For example, the Reichstag fire was used by Hitler to “prove” that communists were plotting against Germany and was key to the establishing of Nazi rule. Similarly, politicians have used isolated incidents worldwide as proof of conspiracy to cement their rule and as an excuse for ethnic cleansing.

A heady dose of common sense is the only way to fight against such nonsense. We have to swallow the red pill – but not in the sense Morpheus meant. The red pill here would help us to shine the cold, hard light of logic on the nebulous strands of vapid fancy which constitute such theories, and see them evaporate.

But then, they are always good for good science fiction story!

The Returning King

I could not do the usual weekly update of my blog last week as we were busy with the “Onam” celebration of our college alumni here in the United Arab Emirates. “Onam” is the main festival of the people of Kerala in South India. It’s a harvest festival of mirth and plenty, when people are supposed to forget all worries and celebrate four days with song, dance and feasting. We make the “pookkalam” (floral carpet), have a sumptuous “sadya” (feast) in the afternoon, and there are various traditional games. In the Middle East, due to the abundance of expatriates from Kerala, Onam celebrations go on for literally months.

Belief is that the legendary ruler of Kerala, “Maveli”, comes to visit his subjects on that day from his abode in the netherworld: and we have to show him that we all are living in the lap of luxury as we used to during his reign which is regarded as a mythical golden age. As the following famous song says:

“When Maveli ruled the land,

All people were equal,

All people were happy,

And all free from harm…

 

There was no anxiety or disease,

Child deaths were unheard of,

Evil people could not be seen,

There were only the virtuous on earth!

 

There was no deceit or cheating,

Not even a trace of lying,

All the weights and measures,

Were according to the norms…”

 


 

This local king is now strangely entwined with the Asura (demon) king, Mahabali, of Hindu myth who was humbled by Lord Vishnu in his Vamana avatar. According to the original myth, Bali was an Asura – one of the permanent antagonists of the Devas, who are the ostensible “good guys” in the Hindu pantheon (however, their “goodness” is highly questionable). Bali was the grandson of the virtuous Prahlada, a devotee of Lord Vishnu. His only negative personal trait was his pride. Bali conquered all three worlds (heaven, earth and the netherworld).

The Devas were distraught, and rushed to Lord Vishnu as usual to intervene. Vishnu was loath to proceed against his devotee; but the Devas had to be pacified. Also, the god was upset that his devotee was subject to the sin of pride. So he took the form of a Brahmin dwarf (“vamana”) and visited the Asura king during the Aswamedha Yaga (Horse Sacrifice) he was conducting to cement his mastery over the universe. Bali welcomed the Brahmin boy and asked him what he wanted as an offering, according to custom. Vamana asked for the land he could cover in three paces.

King Bali was amused and granted the boon, against the advice of his Guru Shukracharya: and Vamana grew to a massive size, and paced out the earth and netherworld with his first step and the heavens with his second. Then he asked the king for space to put his third step. Bali could now recognise the dwarf for what he was: his lord, out to kill the sin of pride in him. Humbled, the Asura removed his crown and asked Vamana to put the third step on his head.

Lord Vishnu was delighted at the grand gesture of his disciple. Bali became “Maha” (great) Bali on that day: and Vishnu raised him to the region of Sutala, where he could reign forever without pride.

Readings

This myth has been interpreted in many ways. It is a classic story of the humbling of a great person, thus rounding out his virtues – a staple of Hindu myth. It is seen as a symbolic retelling of the treacherous takeover of Dravidian lands by the Aryans through the machinations of wily Brahmins. In Kancha Ilaiah’s book that I have reviewed elsewhere on this blog, there was even a very strange retelling where the Brahmin Vamana crushed the Dalit Mahabali’s head with an iron boot!

The classical myth has been appropriated by the Malayali, and the Asura king has been recreated as Maveli, the ruler of Kerala as mentioned at the beginning (maybe a symptom of the Keralite conceit that all three worlds are contained in his small fertile strip on the southern tip of India). However, the conclusion of the story has been modified and a tailpiece has been added. Instead of setting up Mahabali to rule in Sutala, Vamana kicks him down to Patala, the netherworld. Properly humbled, Maveli begs a boon of Vishnu – to be allowed to visit his subjects once a year, and see his fertile country. Vishnu agrees.

Thus “Onam” is born.

Of course, the country is no longer the egalitarian paradise it was earlier. But we should not let the monarch know that, lest we hurt his feelings: therefore we have to pretend. It is said that one should sell even his ancestral property to celebrate Onam!

The fact that Onam is actually the harvest festival of a bountiful country, and Maveli is supposed to come up from the netherworld, set a lot of mythical wheels turning in my mind. The first thing was the abduction of Persephone by Hades in Greek myth.

Persephone, the daughter of the earth goddess Demeter, was coveted by Hades, the god of the underworld. Demeter did not want her daughter to go permanently underground, so refused marry Persephone off to Hades – and the Lord of the Underworld kidnapped her. The angry Demeter made the earth barren in retaliation. Hades had to return Persephone; but he tricked her into eating the food of the underworld before she came back to earth. Therefore, she had to spend part of the year underground – the winter months. Then she comes up along with the first shoots of spring.

This is an agrarian myth, developed around the annual cycle of the crops: and we can immediately see the parallel in Maveli, who comes back to visit his people during the harvest month of Chingom (August-September). The previous month, Karkidakam, is known as “drought-month”, when torrential rain pours down and many people would have starved in the era when the state was dependent upon the produce of the fields for its livelihood. So the golden sunshine of Chingom would have been seen as really divine – and the larders would have been full after a month of starvation.

I would also like to link this myth with the history of the immolated kings. Joseph Campbell, in his The Masks of God, Vol.I: Primitive Mythology, talks about kings among primitive peoples who were killed at the end of a certain cycle of years, as a form of ritual regicide (there is a curious story about the king of “the south Indian province of Quilacare In Malabar[!]” who publicly used to hack himself to death, but I take this with a pinch of salt). Campbell quotes from Leo Frobenius regarding the mythical significance of this gruesome act.

The great god must die; forfeit his life and be shut up in the underworld, within the mountain. The goddess (and let us call her Ishtar, using her later Babylonian title) follows him into the underworld and after the consummation of his self-immolation, releases him. The supreme mystery was celebrated not only in renowned songs, but also in the ancient new-year festivals, where it was presented dramatically: and this dramatic presentation can be said to represent the acme of the manifestation of the grammar and logic of mythology in the history of the world.

The dying and returning god is a motif which is as old as the hills. Krishna has promised to return every time Dharma weakens in the world. Jesus Christ is supposed to return, once and for all, at the end of the universe.

Our king, Maveli, returns every year to bless us with bounty. And as we Keralites spread out across the world, our king’s visit becomes more and more global.

Ultimately (who knows?) he may conquer the universe once again…

Some Thoughts on Valentine’s Day

I have been absent from the blogosphere for about three weeks now: this is what happens when life intrudes on the virtual world, where many of us who pursue the intellectual pleasures are more comfortable! However, we have to come down to earth once in a while. The reason for the hiatus was our College Alumni annual get-together, which took place on Valentine’s Day on the 14th of February: my wife and I were in charge of putting up two stage shows for this themed event (the theme was Love, as can be easily guessed). Most of my creative energies were channelled in that direction. Afterwards, my sister-in-law, brother-in-law and their daughter visited Abu Dhabi for five days, and we were having great fun gallivanting all over Abu Dhabi and Dubai, so the blog took a back seat again.

I thought I will signal my return with some thoughts on the significance of Valentine’s Day. This is a controversial subject nowadays. In conservative theocracies (Saudi Arabia for example), Valentine’s Day is attacked with a ferocity which is surprising. Even in a country like India, where sex is traditionally celebrated as an art, both Hindu right-wingers and leftists have targeted this poor saint as being against Indian culture and a consumerist import from the capitalist West, respectively.

Why this anger against love, when it is an essential ingredient for the propagation of the species on earth?

Love is unconventional. It is against the status quo. It does not respect the state institution of marriage: as Joseph Campbell said (quoting the example of Queen Guinevere and Lancelot), the emphasis in mythology is on amorous love. St. Valentine himself is a legendary figure shrouded in mystery. Most sources state that his identification with romantic love was an invention during the Middle Ages. In my opinion, he is a product of the unlikely marriage of a mostly celibate Levantine religion with a pagan tradition rich in amour. This is why Valentine’s Day upsets the powers that be, the minions of organised religion and the totalitarian state: it allows the soul to rebel in its own mythical space.

So it was fitting in a way that the themed dance choreographed by my wife was based on Krishna, the ultimate rebel.

***

The image of Krishna is multi-faceted. Even though he has been appropriated by the Hindu establishment as a spokesperson, he is too mercurial a figure to be concretised thus. As M. T. Vasudevan Nair once said, Krishna is the child every mother wants and the lover every girl wants. Across the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent and psyche, this dark god with his mischievous smile strides like a colossus. The poet Yusuf Ali Kechery wrote: “Even though countless writers have dipped their quills into the inkpot that is you, you still remain full!” True.

Krishna is the ultimate lover: sixteen-thousand and eight wives, apart from the unnumbered gopis (cow-maids) whom he cavorted with during his teens. Most of these girls were in amorous relationship with him; some were elder to him and some were married. The Rasa-Kreeda (literally, “sex-game”) celebrated by Krishna and his loves in the sylvan landscape of the mythical Vrindavana is a Bacchanalian revel which has no comparison anywhere in world mythology. No wonder the puritanical West initially saw him as a lecher, a proponent of sin. No wonder the flower children of the seventies adopted him, in part at least. There is something heady about Krishna’s no-holds-barred sexuality.

But there is also something inherently spiritual about Krishna: I am reminded of the old story, told to me by mother, about the jealous Indra, who went to see Krishna cavorting with the gopis. It seems Indra saw a Krishna with each of them! Thoroughly confused, he looked again, and saw one Krishna in the centre, eyes closed in meditation. Apparently, this was the real man, aloof and untouched – the others were illusions.

The gopis’ love for Krishna, in metaphorical terms, is interpreted as the longing of the atman (soul) for the brahman (the universal soul): this is epitomised in Radha, Krishna’s favourite lover, whom he is always pictured with. Many a time, he is known as Radha-Krishna (contrast with Sita-Rama, where Sita is Rama’s wife). Radha loves Krishna with a careless abandon, expecting nothing in return; rather like the troubadours with their lady-loves, whose faces inspired them to hopeless battles. It is this giving without any intention of taking that gives love its spiritual strength: here, the boundary between the physical and the platonic is erased. This is the Indian tradition, where god is love in all senses of the term and nothing but.

***

In Indian aesthetics, vatsalya (love of a child), prema (amorous love) and bhakti (love of god) are considered to be different forms of the same base emotion – Meera Bai, the sixteenth century devotional poet who sacrificed herself for the love of Krishna is thus considered an incarnation of Radha by many. Keeping this in mind, the dance was split into three parts – the first showing the mischievous child Krishna with his doting mother Yasoda, the second, the teenage Krishna in the company of his loves and the third, showing the starry-eyed devotee Meera singing a famous hymn to her celestial lord. It was well received, but I do not know whether we succeeded in conveying the whole message to the audience.

But a dance about Krishna on Valentine’s Day in an Arab country – being a fan of Joseph Campbell, I could not help feeling thrilled at the mingling of cultures and mythologies.