Feb 17, 2009

Don’t Wait For Godot: 26/11 Mumbai Blasts

The Mumbai blasts took place only a few days after I’d returned from the U.S amidst much eager anticipation at the change I would witness in the nation of my birth, my home. The next few days saw a flurry of activity, with everyone from journalists to the aam aadmi holding candle light vigils, writing petitions, sprouting bombast and criticizing the rescue operation. Almost everyone was sure that change was imminent and everyone from Javed Akhtar to Anu Kapoor proved their patriotism by yelling ‘Enough is enough’ repeatedly. Waiting for concrete action and change has become akin to that much celebrated vigil for Godot.

Now, almost 3 months later, much posturing, jago re and slogan writing later, we are still haggling over the issue of Pakistan’s guilt or innocence, the correct response to our unfriendly neighbour, what authorities from the U.S and U.K think about Pak’s role and ways to reform civil society so that such incident can be avoided. While it is important that the new American president understand and share our concerns regarding Pak’s support of the Kashmir insurgency and its attempts to destabilize our economy, it is equally important for us to rely on our own strengths; to understand that to expect others to fight your own battles will at best yield talks of solidarity and a lot of peace documents, much like the ones Israel routinely inks with Palestine.

Most people I know even made a lot of noise about the outrage the leaders of the minority community had expressed over 26/11 and lauded them for ‘condemning the heinous attacks’. What else should they have done, I wondered? Why should we even expect them to think or behave any differently? Last week I attended a meeting in Mahim where leaders of the minority community were asked to suggest ways to educate the common people and avoid their infiltration by the jihadi elements. Most of them blamed their poor economic and social status for their problems but failed to see that for every muslim who is poor or deprived, there are 3 hindus. Even Kashmiri pundits who are forced to flee the valley in what is perhaps one of the worst instances of ethnic cleansing the world has seen, do not take up arms against their persecutors in the name of some religious war. While grievances of social inequality should not be disregarded, they are by no means a valid justification for mindless murder and mayhem. Even if one were to accept such justification, it doesn’t in any way explain the collapse of the twin towers, or the bombings at Bali, Madrid or Glasgow.

A related problem is that of education. It is high time we banned all such institutions that impart education by adhering to the tenets of a particular religion to the exclusion of all else and thus breed intolerance. Before we mull attacking or reforming Pak, we must deal with the enemy within; we must abolish and ban the madarsas that dot the landscape around MP and UP and are breeding grounds of misinformation, hatred and intolerance. One of the most famous instances of this brand of education is the Darul Uloom in Deoband, UP who openly advocates an exclusivist brand of Islam while uttering polite denunciations against terrorists. While such teachings may be routine in Iran or Saudi Arabia, we know that India is different and we fight to preserve this difference.

Finally, we come to the ‘village syndrome’. In 17 century New England, rumors of witchcraft started in small isolated villages and soon flamed into a conflagration that saw hundreds of women being burnt at the stake during the Salem witch trials. While almost all of India was burning with anger against the British in 1857 and the Peshwas were actually mulling mutiny, all it took was a small regiment from Barackpore to start the Sepoy Mutiny. All it takes is one village, one community, to stand up and reject an evil that has taken root so deep that unless it is uprooted for good, it will devour all. Tavleen singh writes, “The best defense against this kind of murderous violence is to limit the pool of recruits, and the only way to do that is for the home society to isolate, condemn and denounce publicly and repeatedly the murderers — and not amplify, ignore, glorify, justify or “explain” their activities.” There is a lesson in this for all of us, notwithstanding our minority status or otherwise. There is a lesson for those Hindus like me who rejoice Narendra Modi’s sweeping victory in the Gujarat elections, as also a lesson for those who cheered when the U.S was brought on its knees in the wake of 9/11. We are all pawns on the same chessboard and what is mine may well be yours tomorrow.

Feb 5, 2009

Fallen Angels - On Expressions of Grief

Currently there is a debate raging within the U.S. military over its awarding of the Purple Heart – the prestigious President’s medal to war veterans. Historically, the medal has gone only to those who have been physically wounded on the battlefield as a result of enemy action. The Pentagon’s recent decision not to award the Purple Heart to soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress (PTS) has caused great controversy and disappointment to family members of those suffering from PST. During the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry’s Purple Hearts, awarded for his service in Vietnam, were dismissed by his opponents because the wounds he suffered were not considered grave enough. While many who suffer from ‘perforated eardrums’ (the commonest war injury) receive the Purple Heart, the Pentagon has overruled the eligibility of those other fallen angels, those suffering from PTS, to receive the same, citing ‘difficulty of accessing seriousness’ as its chief justification.

At the heart of the Pentagon debate lays the futile attempt to somehow, quantify and qualify such variables as damage, grief and pain. So accustomed have we become to ISO certifications, benchmarks, standards and regulations that we are in fear of losing our essential humanity, that single bond that alone can mitigate our individual tragedies and sorrows. The vainglorious and impatient man is so insulated in his plush cocoon of temporal victories, of troubles overcome and hurdles crossed, that he forgets that there are those who may not share the same fortitude or courage that he’s been blessed with.

“Stop wallowing in self pity, after all you have other things to bother about. Look around, there are millions with far greater problems than this stupidity you’re obsessed with”, had said the mother of the 18-year old girl who committed suicide over one of the commonest trifles in almost every adolescent’s life – heartbreak, a broken relationship. Actually, it could be a host of other similar issues – poor academic performance, failure to gain admission into IIM at the third try, merciless ragging in the hostel. We laugh at these curious instances of adolescent angst and grief and loftily proclaim a hierarchy of sorts.

After all, what are these when compared to the headaches of us middle aged busy professionals – endless mortgage payments when you’ve just lost your job, a messy divorce, a diabetic father-in-law who refuses to watch his diet and requires hospitalization almost every week, the daughter whose blood transfusions are getting more frequent with every passing day, a philandering spouse or … … hey, feel free to add your own variations.

No dialogue is possible between the two groups for each is competing with the other to prove the supremacy of their grief, not share it.

People make a big thing of those who complain, who seek to share their sorrows; crudely put - of the proverbial pain-in-the-ass. He/she is shunned at office parties, goes uninvited at weekend luncheons and is barely ever asked out during a Friday night drinking binge. People assume he’d either decline, or worse still, spoil the soiree. We never stop to ask ourselves if there is any relief we could offer to the poor soul, concentrating instead on what he can or cannot offer us.
“Take it easy/ move on/ look towards the end of the tunnel” – life is so replete with these utterly moronic exercises at profundity that I wonder how will such sage discourse help a mother whose 25 -yr old firstborn is counting his last days in the hospital; likewise how can I even dare to advise/show the Citibank executive how he should channel his rage after he has just lost his job and has a family of six to look after? To attempt to write off or qualify any of their concerns reeks of the worst degree of insensitivity and high handedness.

It’s said that happy people make happy employees. Fair enough. Are we then suggesting that we marginalize the unhappy, the depressed, and the unfortunate (for whom happiness is a premium). Why can’t we, the merry band, take a bit more onus for the others? After all Bill Gates could as easily have sprouted the famous management mantra to the refugees in Congo and Rwanda, “Work your ass off, or languish in hell.” But he didn’t. To never have felt pain and yet weep for another who is in pain calls for far greater nobility than an ordinary human being can summon. Pushing the envelope is what I call it, and maybe, it’s just a dash of empathy that we all need today.