Musings, Remembering

Nation Notions

I was with a friend in her car. In the back were three more friends, all women, one of them Indian, the other two German:  a mother–daughter duo.  

It was the evening of January 25th, 2020, cloudy and chill at dusk. We were caught in a traffic jam—the only saving grace being that we were on the lovely Amrita Shergill Marg, bordering the Lodhi Garden in central Delhi, and so there was plenty of foliage (albeit blurry) to look at and discernible quantities of that rare element, oxygen, in the diesel-and- petrol -scented air. 

After about 30 minutes of crawl-and-halt, we drew alongside a small group of policemen, who were trying with limited success to keep motorists to their lanes.

“Jai Hind,” I greeted them, as I always greet personnel of our armed forces and police.

 “Jai Hind,” they responded.

“What’s going on?” I went on in my semi-tapori Hindi, “Why this jam?”

“The result of a little VIP transit, sir…it’ll all be cleared in a few minutes.”

I thanked him, and we sat in silence for a moment. And then my young German friend spoke up softly, clearly, in English: “Why did you say that to him?”

Puzzled, I looked around at her. Her Indian friend giggled but didn’t say anything. “Say what?” I asked.

“You said ‘Jai Hind’ to that policeman…why?” she murmured, now slightly embarrassed. Her mother, who spoke very little English, looked on in bemusement. Her Indian friend giggled again, in a slightly self-conscious way.

The question was simple, perfectly straightforward;   but in a flash I realized what it was she was really asking and why she was asking; and what the young Indian’s slightly nervous giggle might mean too. It was January, 2020—that was the time when the Shaheen Bagh street blockade was at its peak; when young women and men not just in India but across the world were charged up with the heady passions and revolutionary slogans of the quaintly-oxymoronic  ideology known as Left Liberalism; when any word, any sign, of showing solidarity with or pride in or support to even the idea of India was not only old-fashioned but had somehow become equated to becoming a ‘Modi-bhakt’, a ‘nationalist’, a ‘fascist’, an anti-Muslim fanatical Hindu. In India, and across the world.

It was a time when even uttering ‘Jai Hind’ more or less branded me as a narrow-minded bigot unless otherwise proven…or clarified. 

The two young women were – are- very dear to me; the question was honest, direct and clear; and so I thought awhile before I replied.  “’Jai Hind’means ‘Hail India’, or ‘Victory to India’ if you like,” I said. “I greeted that policeman with ‘Jai Hind’ because I am proud of my country, I love my country, and tomorrow is our Republic Day—the day when, in 1950, a couple of years after winning independence from British rule, India adopted its own Constitution and became a full-fledged Republic.  So then,  for the first time we Indians had drawn up and given ourselves our own rights, our own guiding principles to live by, the systems by which we would govern ourselves and so on…all the things that we had fought for and won,  and that we must hold on to and defend.  And so January 26th is a good day to remember.  A good time to say ‘Jai Hind’, and of course that’s why ‘Jai Hind’ is a good way to greet military personnel, police…”

I trailed off, wondering whether I’d made any sense at all. She’d listened attentively as I spoke; silent, clear-eyed, nodding slightly. 

“Ah yes, of course, now I see,” she murmured. In the meanwhile her mother, who had been listening as intently to our exchange, asked her daughter to explain in German, which she promptly did.

And then, both of them smiled and chanted: “Jai Hind!”

And we all chorused Jai Hind, and soon the jam cleared, and merriment returned and dissolved the tedium.

A trivial episode, no doubt; but for me it was important…and lingers in memory.  

I will always be grateful to my German friend for her question.

It helped me think a little, reflect a little, learn and re-learn and un-learn much more than a little.  About India, about what this insanely chaotic, wonderful nation means and what it is founded on, and what holds it together…and what can and does tear it apart.

Jai Hind.

General ravings, Musings

A lament for Civil Uniform Code

I wept when they told me he was dead.

I wept all the more bitterly, because I’d never known he’d lived.

With these words – whose source has vanished from memory and is untraceable even by her exalted Holiness Google Devi  – I dedicate this mercifully short ramble to the eternal spirit of one of the greatest spiritual teachers humankind has ever been cursed with: Alfred E Neuman, mascot of the long-deceased and bitterly mourned MAD Magazine, USA.

“What..me worry?”

 It is with the angst in these words, O Most Noble Reader, that I lament… because I’d never known how important the Uniform was, or is, to college students.

I lament as I behold the Great Non-Issue Over Uniform that started in Karnataka a couple of weeks ago and is now exciting and inflaming passions among people across India—young and old, infants and geriatrics, irrespective of our castes, classes, religions, races, sexes and all the other important and puerile characteristics that make us all human, inhuman, sub-human and uniquely Indian.

I weep in empathy with today’s youngsters, who are devoting so much of their time and creative energies in agitating for what they hold as their ‘religious freedoms’ to wear Hijabs and Scarves and Burqas and Shawls of assorted hues to their colleges and railing against the directives of their educational institutions and the Karnataka government that disallow them to do so.

But I also weep in remembered joy, at the realization that I and others of my age had experienced and practised much more genuine liberalism, enjoyed much more genuine freedom—of thought, of belief, of choice, of action— in our seemingly backward colleges in our seemingly primitive times, 50 years ago, than the agitated and agitating youngsters who inhabit today’s so-called Modern Mainstream India.

I studied in Shillong, Meghalaya from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s.

First, at a missionary-run boys’ school where we were taught, pretty early on, what the Uniform meant.

It meant just that: Uniformity.

Wearing the Uniform meant shedding all our conceits, all the egoistic notions we had about ourselves— our homes, our privileges, our outside lives and identities. We left all this baggage in a heap outside the school gate. In school, wearing the Uniform, we students were all the same and we were all treated the same.

We were learners, expected to learn what we’d come to learn. We were all expected to obey the school rules.  

And no rule was stricter than the rule about wearing the proper Uniform…which meant complying with the strict norms regarding design, quality, pattern, and hue prescribed for everything from shoes to sweater, socks to shirt, trousers to tie to blazer. 

Corporal punishment, progressing in intensity from a resounding slap to a severe caning, was the standard punishment for breaking the rules including the Uniform rule.  The canes were chosen with care by the Executioner from an array of options, ranging from stout local bamboo to the incredibly flexible, excruciatingly painful Malacca cane that occupied a special place of honour in the Principal’s Office (and whose ministrations I am glad to say I escaped). The caning was administered, if you were lucky, on the palms of your hand…or else on the seat of your trousers as you helpfully if unwillingly bent over a chair.

But here’s the interesting thing:  back in our time, in that school run by the strictest and most wonderful Irish Catholic missionaries, you could wear anything you felt like wearing that announced your religion or identity (or lack thereof) so long as it didn’t obscure the Uniform…and so long as you were prepared and capable of tackling the not-so-loving attentions and ragging of your colleagues.  

So, in school you would see  the occasional kufi caps, vibhuti marks, kadas, threads round wrists, crosses round necks, turbans, and so on…all these were just fine.  The Authorities really didn’t give a damn about what religion or social stratum or whatever any of us belonged to.  And because of that, all of us too very early on learned not to give a fig about what religion or social stratum or whatever any one belonged to.  We studied, we played, we ate and drank, argued, raged, fought, got caned, mourned and celebrated together and as equals. Because we were taught so, we discovered and knew we were at our core all the same.

Well…that was school.

In the missionary-run college too, the Authorities were very strict about certain things: like punctuality, attendance records, class discipline, performance in the quarterly tests, and suchlike.

But we had NO UNIFORM CODE in college.  Nothing was disallowed in attire; nothing was compulsory in attire.

For the simple reason that, all of us having crossed the age of 16, the Authorities treated us as reasonably sane adults, and therefore expected us to behave as reasonably sane adults in all matters including attire.

And I do believe we students kept our side of the bargain. We wore what we liked to college; I personally chose the habit of an advanced derelict (and behaved as one), which has since then become my lifestyle.

And to the best of my recollection none of us ever roamed around naked on the campus – at least not during class hours and/or when sober.

Coming back to today’s lunacy playing out over Uniform…

 I am all in favour of a Strict Uniform Code in schools. Because the Uniform is an important part of creating a ‘level playing field’ in school, as it is in the military services. It helps kids shed egos and pre-conceived notions about themselves and about others, it helps them make friends and engenders team spirit, it gives them courage and wisdom to fight and win their individual and often lonely battles against prejudices and discrimination outside the campus, throughout life.  

But I believe it is utter madness, sheer stupidity, for the Authorities in Karnataka or anywhere else to dictate what teenaged college students (young men and women!) should wear or not wear to campus.

For the simple reason that youngsters aged 16 years or more are maturing or fully matured; they will be opinionated and contrarian, they will be cussed, they will revel in their new-found freedom and test the boundaries of the law and the rules, they will routinely do precisely the opposite of what the Authorities in their misbegotten wisdom tell them to do.

It is Nature’s way for young adults to be like this.

To the Authorities and to the youngsters I respectfully offer a namaskaaram and a couple of suggestions that I believe will satisfy all.

To the youngsters I murmur: wear your hijabs and scarves and whatever else you like if you insist on exercising your freedom to wear your religious or secular identities on your sleeves —and on your heads and necks and shoulders and anywhere else you choose.

Only… make sure you retain the freedom to take these things off when you choose to.

To the Authorities, I say: Let these young adults be.  Let them wear what they like.

But if you want them not to wear something to college, don’t ban it – instead make it compulsory to wear.

And if you want them to wear something to college, don’t make it compulsory – instead ban it.  

Maybe, maybe then, the Authorities can get back to doing what they ought to be doing: improving curricula and faculty and infrastructure.

Maybe, maybe then, the youngsters can get back to doing what youngsters naturally love to do: running wild, breaking bounds, perhaps learning something in the interim, and driving each other and us crazy while taking charge of the future…which is their birthright.

Jai Hind.


[1] Alfred image from https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/2019/07/04/mad-magazine-quits-newstands-after-67-years/1650759001/

Musings, Potshots

AAP Fails AAPtitude Test with Honours!

Under Aam Aadmi Party, Delhi has plumbed spectacular new depths in crime monitoring, water contamination and air pollution

Preamble

This short report is about Delhi, where I’ve lived for over 28 years now. It’s been written between November 16th and November 30th 2021, when the air pollution levels have consistently exceeded the danger levels by 600% to 1000%.

The report focuses on the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government of Arvind Kejriwal.

Why?

Well… The AAP government has presided over the Capital since 2015, and hence must take its share of credits and debits as well as bear overall responsibility for Delhi’s accrued virtues and vices during the past six years.

Besides, while glancing through my dusty archives of political writings during the past decade or three, I find that I’ve directed  my words of admiration and admonition primarily at BJP, Congress, CPM, CPI, the Dravida duo, RJD, and Samajwadi Party. It strikes me that AAP might feel hurt at being left out. Hence, I focus this report on examining the initiatives and achievements of Kejriwal-bhai and his co-AAPted party workers and shirkers in managing three critical domains that impact daily existence in Delhi: law and order, water quality, and air quality.

But at this point, an important disclaimer.

Disclaimer

I hereby declare and solemnly swear, with all the necessary swearwords, oaths, and imprecations,  that I have been a votary of AAP since 2013.

Rationale

I support and vote for AAP – at least in the Delhi Assembly, not because of any particular public good it’s done for the people of Delhi, but because—unlike the earlier Congress and BJP governments which did nothing for the people of Delhi but only ignored, abused, exploited, pillaged, plundered, ravaged and otherwise looted us in disgustingly casteist, communal and communist ways—the AAP too has done nothing and continues to do nothing for the people of Delhi, but it does nothing in an admirably secular way, i.e., it ignores, abuses, exploits, pillages, plunders, ravages and otherwise loots us irrespective of our caste, class, religion, or ethnicity.

By doing nothing for the people of Delhi, good or bad, AAP gives us, the citizens, the liberty and licence to do pretty much what we the people of India in general and of Delhi in particular are talented at doing and love to do the most: namely, pillage, plunder, exploit, ravage and otherwise loot one other in secular, communal, communist and other politically and socially accepted ways with no interference from our wise AAP government.

And now, I proceed to summarize the evidence of AAP’s incredible and indelible achievements so that all of us can gasp in wonder, even as we gasp for the last remaining traces of oxygen in Delhi’s air.

AAP’s Achievements

Thanks to AAP’s capable and culpable governance since 2015, Delhi continues to maintain its top position in the country – if not the world – in many spheres of socioeconomic, academic and cultural inactivity.

Here are a few prominent Medals of Dishonour that AAP has won for Delhi:

  • The most lawless and crime-infested city in India.
  • The most corrupt city in India.
  • Ranked consistently among the top three dirtiest cities in India  
  • The capital city with the worst air quality on Earth for the eighth year in a row.
  • The Yamuna river is among the most polluted on Earth

But now I must pause. I realize it is cynical and unfair to say that AAP does nothing for the people, good or bad. I herewith apologize and respectfully amend my statement: AAP actually does one thing very well.

AAP has proven itself to be a master and/or mistress at Monitoring & Measuring (M&M) the many problems that have plagued Delhi since Independence (and quite possibly, since the time of Indraprastha).

Capturing Crime

Consider violent crime, that plagues our beloved city. Thanks to the tireless efforts of our AAP government, over 410,000 new CCTV cameras have been installed since 2015 across the city as of August 2021. Admittedly, these CCTV cameras haven’t stopped violent crimes—in fact, violent crimes continue to happen at accelerating rate. But these lakhs of new CCTV cameras have provided a wonderful M&M mechanism for street crimes, and a much larger number of the violent crimes are being recorded live. This enables the AAP government to compile much more accurate statistical data on violent crimes, thus providing a solid authenticated foundation for Delhi to claim and retain its top position among Crime Capitals of the World.  The CCTV footage and statistical data are also being provided by AAP to the main-scream TV news channels on ongoing basis for national and global-level entertainment. 

New CCTV cameras – strictly for the birds?

AAP has also taken pains to point out—through sustained year-round advertisement campaigns costing several thousand crores of taxpayers’ money year after year— that it has greatly improved public security by installing many thousands of new streetlights in crime-prone areas.

Critique

Some anti-AAP people (most probably nasty BJP and Congress-wallahs with hidden agendas) complain about the fact that over half the installed CCTV cameras have been imported from China—that too during the military stand-off between India and China at Galwan in 2020. They jeer at the fact that the CCTV cameras don’t capture criminals; they only capture their crimes. They even allege that the new streetlights are only helping the criminals see their victims better and plan their crimes more efficiently.

However, AAP correctly responds that:

  • Catching criminals is the job of Delhi Police which reports only to the Union Home Ministry and is thus controlled by those ☠@!##$%☠ BJP-wallahs;
  • A large number of CCTV cameras are being stolen and/or damaged on ongoing basis – most probably by dalals and stooges of those same ☠**%&☠☠ BJP and Congress saalas who want to give AAP a bad name.  
  • There is nothing wrong about importing CCTV cameras from China, because India believes in the spirit of vasudaiva kutumbakam.
  • The newly installed streetlights have not only improved the quality of the CCTV footage on violent crimes; they also enable the common Delhi citizen to take night-time selfies where night-time selfies were not possible before, to spot criminals sooner and have time to run like hell for safety before being caught, and to see and avoid pot-holes, open manholes, heaps of garbage and other hazards while running.
Big Beijing Brother is watching
Unreliable sources quote a CCTV thief as saying: “I locate where the CCTV cameras are by following the signs that say ‘You are under CCTV surveillance!”

Managing Water Quality

Another important area where the AAP government has achieved remarkable landmarks through enhanced M&M capabilities is water quality; specifically, contamination of the Yamuna by untreated human wastes (commonly known as shit).

Now, we all know the Yamuna has been filthy since probably the time of Qutubbudin Aibak. But the BJP and Congress governments did nothing to clean it up, and so when AAP came to power one of its promises was to clean up the Yamuna and make it fit for bathing in by 2020.

At this point, a little gyaan. According to norms of WHO and Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), river water is unsafe and unfit for even bathing in if its faecal coliform count (i.e. a measure of how much shit it contains) is more than 2500 (per 100 ml water)

Now, to underline AAPs success in cleaning up the Yamuna (data from CPCB report, January 2020)

  • When Kejriwal’s AAP took charge of Delhi government in 2015, the maximum measured faecal coliform count at Okhla was close to 5000,000 per 100 ml (i.e. 2000 times the danger level).
  • By 2019, the faecal coliform count at Okhla had increased by leaps and bounds to over 9500,000 per 100 ml (i.e. 3800 times the danger level).
  • In March 2021 the Delhi Pollution Control Committee reported that the faecal coliform count in Okhla was 45,000,000 per 100 ml (i.e. 18,000 times the danger level)  [data from DPCC lab report here].
Graphic by R P Subramanian. Extrapolation based on AAP’s proven performance and data from op. cit. CPCB report 2020, op.cit. DPCC report March 2021. As for flush sketch – let’s drop the matter

Critique

Thanks to scientific M&M under the AAP government, and bolstered by the AAP government’s sustained ‘Clean Yamuna’ campaign, the faecal coliform in the Yamuna has increased by leaps and bounds: from 2000 times danger level in 2015 to an amazing 18,000 times danger level by March 2021.

Instead of being thrilled by this remarkable AAP achievement, the usual gang of AAP-haters and baiters (all BJP and Congress chamchas, for sure) complain that the Yamuna’s astronomically high coliform count only shows that the river water is now at par with the stuff we flush away in toilets. They add bitterly that if the current trend continues (as it will, if AAP remains in power for another term or two as seems likely), the Yamuna’s faecal coliform count will become so high that the river will solidify into a sludge of…well…shit.

AAP is unfazed by the criticism. Flushed with enthusiasm (so to speak), it has vowed to continue its ‘Clean Yamuna’ initiative. On November 19th, Chief Minister Kejriwal declared that “the Yamuna will be cleaned by 2025”.

We’ve heard that one before, haven’t we? 🙂

Managing Air Quality

Nowhere is AAP’s uniquely dismal aptitude (AAPtitude?) in governance more clearly visible (at least, on the 5-6 days in the year when an object 2 metres away is clearly visible through the smog) than in managing the quality of Delhi’s air.

The AAP’s sustained, hyperbolic and mutually contradictory efforts at combating air pollution during the last six years essentially boil down to the following:

  • Strenuous advertising campaigns that urge the Delhi citizens to use public transport like buses and Metro instead of private vehicles.
  • Reducing the fleet-strength of the city bus operator Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) from around 6000 buses in 2015 to 3000 buses as of today. [AAP’s Rationale: these old buses are inefficient and add to air pollution! Result: more people buy scooters/bikes and cars, adding more to air pollution.]
  • Opposing the expansion of the Delhi Metro’s Phase 4 corridor. [AAP’s Rationale: the Metro Phase 4 construction will require felling of several hundred young trees planted during AAP’s afforestation campaigns, mainly on wastelands. Result: as above. ]
  • Strenuous, continuous and almost completely useless efforts over the last six years to purchase 8000 new CNG buses (so that the DTC fleet can be increased to 11,000 buses). Not one new bus has so far  been procured. However, as a sign of great progress, AAP recently announced (November 6th, 2021) that 190 new CNG buses ‘will be inducted’ starting next year, i.e. 2022.
  • Setting up two ‘smog towers’ (in Connaught Place and in Anand Vihar) at a cost of Rs 40 crores while ignoring all warnings and criticisms including mine. These smog towers have proved to be a complete farce, as predicted. For instance, on November 6th, the smog tower at Connaught Place delivered ‘clean air’ which had a PM 2.5 level of 453 (against the maximum safety level of 60). See the report here.
  • Blaming previous BJP and Congress governments for not doing enough to clean up Delhi’s air, thus burdening AAP with a ‘legacy’ of air pollution
  • Blaming the BJP-ruled Union Government for not giving enough money to the AAP government of Delhi to fund its essential public-interest advertising campaigns in electronic and print media by which it attacks the Union Government for not giving adequate funds to the AAP government of Delhi to help combat various problems such as water and air pollution
  • Blaming the BJP-ruled governments of the neighbouring states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh for encouraging/allowing farmers to burn post-kharif harvest stubble in their fields and create smoke that adds to Delhi’s air pollution.
Smog tower at C.P.: A great place for a smoke-up?

Critique

The plain and bitter truth is, Delhi’s own traffic alone contributes to anything between 65% and 85% of all air pollution including particulates, depending on the time of year. Hardly surprising, considering that Delhi had nearly 12 million registered motorized vehicles on its choked roads as of March 2021.

The Delhi NCR’s own industry and construction sectors contribute most of the remaining air pollution throughout the year. Stubble burning contributes a maximum of only about 30%—that too for barely three weeks in a year! Likewise, the admittedly noisy and smoky but much-maligned Diwali crackers contribute no more than 10–12% of air pollution—for three days in the year!

The scientific studies are all out there, in public domain.

JFGI. If you dare.

O Gentle Reader, just imagine 12 million vehicles on jam-packed roads day after day, all that diesel and petrol and CNG burning, the CO2 and CO and particulates shooting out of those millions of exhaust pipes…

Yet, we Delhi-wallahs dare blame the farmers for stubble burning?

Who among us has the courage to call a spade a spade (instead of a spatially challenged diamond) and blame ourselves for spawning this choking horror that hangs over the city?

A word of praise is due to the media, for providing enthusiastic support to the AAP government in blaming everybody but the citizens of Delhi themselves for Delhi’s air pollution. Particularly noteworthy is Times of India’s ‘Let Delhi Breathe’ campaign, under which the most creative headlines, well-spun graphics, cunningly twisted data and plain fake news are combined to create a narrative that Delhi’s air pollution is entirely due to all those nasty stubble-burning farmers from Punjab, Haryana, and western U.P.

For instance, today (30th November), stubble burning contributes barely 2% to Delhi’s the PM 2.5 load. In other words, 98% of Delhi’s air pollution is of our own creation! But instead of headlining this, TOI obligingly plays up the stubble burning through crafty graphics and a headline that reads ‘Smoke without fire: AQI very poor’.

Times of India’s version of honest reportage: graphic from 30 November 2021, when SAFAR reports that stubble burning contributed only 2% to total PM 2.5. Notice the cunningly highlighted text!

Afterword

Enough. Bus ho gya.  

I have, after years of thought and dilly-dallying (Dilli-dallying?) resolved to move out from Delhi. Inshallah, by 2023…assuming I survive 2022.

Even as I write this, the prospect of leaving Delhi brings a wave of deep sadness; so deep that I wonder whether I should explore the Dark Web for a small but effective dose of potassium cyanide.

I gaze out the window at the dismal, grey-brown murk enveloping the sky…a darkness at noon … and then I cackle in glee.

I don’t need potassium cyanide to end it all.

All I need do is open the window and breathe deeply….

SamAAPt!

Musings, Verse perverse

Departure

Saying goodbye should never be hard…

Like atoms in a Universe are we all, drifting

Endlessly, without beginning, now here now there

Coming together perchance, then moving apart once more

In the Dance of the Cosmos, that began even before Time began

Union brings warmth, sharing brings joy, contentment

Fulfilment, perchance even Love

The nature of the Dance wills that we shall drift apart again

Why then grieve over farewells, so universal, so inevitable?

Love endures beyond farewells! Beyond Time

By Love indeed has One created this Universe…for a Loved One

Each nanosecond we are born, we dance, we die, are reborn

Atomic clusters and energy quanta come together, fall apart, merge in new shapes

Now a crystal, now a rhino’s ear, now a fragrance, a sparkle in thine eye

A lightning flash today, the power of a thousand minds tomorrow

Eternally changing….yet unchanged, eternal!

At times sedate, at times frenzied, we sway and whirl and careen

To a divine Music that strikes resonant chords in all

A Stellar Orchestra, a Cosmic Choreography!

We the dancers, our Selves the instruments…

And the Composer-Conductor-Musician-Choreographer Supreme in you

And in me, in all there is…

Always

Musings

Taste of Oneness

[Adapted with gratitude from ISRO’s Insat 3D photo]

As always we were at the park by 0700: to amble and breathe the crisp clean air, absorb the rare element oxygen and do a bit of yoga on dew-damp grass, enjoy breakfast and coffee beneath the trees…ah, all so good for body, mind and soul in these troubled times.

Presently we strolled around the stalls and tables in the farmer’s market, picked up a few leafy vegetables and some little green elaichi bananas to ripen at home. We didn’t really need dry fruit, having stocked up amply the previous weekend; yet we stopped by Her table. She comes from a village near the twenty-five-centuries-old trading town of Herat on the Silk Road— in western Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s iron fist has struck the hardest. Her family trades in almonds, pistachios, walnuts, dates, figs and other dry fruit from Afghanistan, of such exquisite and unique flavor that we value them infinitely more than the slight premiums at which she sells them compared to the prices of similar produce marketed by the mega-kirana shops of Bezos, Biyani et al.

As always, we shared a smile and a quick word or three. As we turned to go, she softly called: “Wait!”  She picked up a date in delicate fingers, deftly opened it down the middle, selected a walnut kernel and placed it inside the date, folded the date shut, and then offered it to us with both palm extended, eyes shining, radiant with the invisible smile beneath the mask that erased the lines of anxiety and weariness from around her eyes and forehead.

Not long after, we were sprawled in deep shavaasana at a favourite spot—a little grassy plateau in a secluded corner of the park, shaded by a thick cluster of young trees, with the scents of myriad flowers and wet leaves in the air, inquisitive squirrels scampering about, and an orchestra of sparrows, mynahs, crows and an occasional lapwing providing ambient music to soothe the senses. A murmur reached our ears, a gentle ripple that brought us out of dreamy reverie: four women, young to middle-aged, had wandered into the grove. Briefly, they glanced at us: quick smiles and nods, and then they returned to their quiet converse, their eyes scanning the foliage above them. From time to time they reached up and plucked slender stems lined with light-green leaves, which they gathered in their palms like little bouquets. As they came close we sat up and exchanged namaskaars,

“What will you do with those leaves?” we asked.

They laughed and chorused: “We’ll eat them, of course!”

“But…what leaves are those?”

 “Why, tamarind of course!” they laughed again. “Haven’t you eaten tamarind leaf?”

“Tamarind!”

 “Yes, tamarind,” murmured one of them, clearly the eldest. “The young leaves are sweet to eat,” she went on. “They’re good to flavor your dishes with too.  The leafing time is nearly ended now; it’s hard to find any young leaves, they’re the most filled with flavor. But still, if you look hard enough you can find some…” Her Hindi carried the flavors of Rajasthan, her smile smoothened the deeply etched lines of a thousand cares and never-ending drudgery.

She nodded in farewell, and the group wandered off through the trees. We sank back into reverie, emerging when she suddenly reappeared. “Here, these are for you!” and she thrust a bunch of light-green leaves at us. “Enjoy their freshness,” she cried with a laugh and darted off to join her friends.

Two little flavoured moments: sweet nuttiness blending with earthy, lemony tartness. Two little moments: so inconsequential, yet filled with so much affection, spontaneous generosity and warmth, power, shared joy… elements that will endure long after the toxins of these dreadful times have dissipated; the elements that make up timeless memories, that become anchors for us to find stability and equanimity in the choppy unpredictable currents of life, blessings for which we are infinitely grateful.

Musings

Good Taliban, Bad Taliban, Nice Taliban, Shoo Taliban

…And now, a Tolerant, Secular, Gender-Sensitive Taliban?

Everything seems to have changed. Nothing has changed.

Watching Taliban take over the last few remaining bits of Afghanistan, and the live footage of tens of thousands of terrified Afghans still trying to flee the country (some killing themselves or getting killed in the process), brings to mind the identical scenes from 1989-90 when Taliban first swept to power and began their Reign of Horror in Afghanistan – under the benign watch of Pakistan and the US.

Remember: Taliban is a creation of the USA and its then-stooge, Pakistan.

Remember:  Osama bin Laden was a creation of the USA and its then-stooge, Pakistan.

It’s a good time to remember these things. It’s very important never to forget these facts.

We must not waste energy screeching ‘foul’ at USA or US President Joe Biden or his GI Joes for ‘abandoning’ Afghanistan.

Because, for the USA, its entire involvement in Afghanistan , Iraq and other regions of Central Asia and the Middle East from the 1980s till 2021 has been nothing more, nothing less, than a long-term  project aimed at securing the USA’s long-term energy security: specifically, USA’s command and control over the region’s vast oil and natural gas reserves.

After all, in statecraft there is no ‘morality’; there is no ‘good or ‘bad’, there is only Supreme National Interest.

And Taliban, Jihad, Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 attacks, the ‘War on Terror’, Hamid Karzai, Zalmay Khalilzad, Saddam Hussein…all these have been just actors and components and phases of this wonderful American-led project that has spanned several US Presidencies, both Democratic and Republican: from Reagan to Biden.  

This is a project that never ends.

Bear with me, O tolerant Reader, as I dust off and present two of a few articles I’d written on this theme for Indian Express from nearly two decades ago.   I do hope they jog thy memories as they did mine, and help discern hazy outlines of the unchanging truth from the ephemeral peta-tonnes of post-truths, half-truths and plain lies that now fill our media and numb our minds.

Free kick to Unocal!

[Indian Express: June 17th , 2002]

Saeed Naqvi’s criticism of India’s apathy and lack of vision in dealing with the post-Taliban Afghanistan (‘Mindsets with Manacles’, IE June 14) is timely, because Hamid Karzai’s coming to power has deep implications for India’s economy and long-term security.

If the USSR invaded Afghanistan in the 1980s to secure a strategic gateway on to the Arabian Sea, the US-backed mujahideen war to evict the Soviets was driven by the Americans’ desire to wrest control of the vast reserves of oil and gas in the (then-Soviet) Central Asian nations.

There were two fronts to the US campaign. On the one hand, the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI set up a vast operation to recruit, arm and train Islamic radicals from all over the world to fight a jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Simultaneously, the $ 6 billion American oil company, Unocal, drew up plans for a giant pipeline that would transport LNG from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan, and thence, to Southeast Asian markets by sea.

Throughout the war-torn 1990s, then, Unocal busily lobbied with various ethnic factions in Afghanistan to secure its proposed pipeline. In 1995, it strongly backed the Taliban regime. Its efforts were openly endorsed by Robin Raphel, then US assistant secretary of state (South Asia), and by Tom Simmons, then US ambassador to Pakistan, who encouraged the Pakistan prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, to grant Unocal exclusive transit rights for oil and gas across Pakistan.

One of Unocal’s most able executives in Afghanistan during this period was Hamid Karzai.

On February 8 this year, Pakistan’s General Musharraf and Karzai agreed on a $ 10 million deal confirming the pipeline arrangement.

There is another strange and murky twist to the Unocal tale. The company is closely associated with Saudi oil giant Delta; and Delta is closely linked to Turki bin Faisal, who until 2001, had headed Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service Istakhbarat.

 In the early 1990s, Faisal promoted the image of Taliban as ‘liberators’ to the US, thus endorsing Unocal’s stand. But Faisal did much more (as recorded by Pakistan journalist Ahmed Rashid in his book, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia).

At the urgings of Pakistan’s ISI, Turki bin Faisal provided a ‘royal prince’ to inspire and lead the Saudi contingent of mujahideen in Afghanistan

This ‘prince’ was none other than Osama bin Laden.

In the absence of any credible alternative, Hamid Karzai has now been chosen by the Loya Jirga as leader of Afghanistan for the next two years. Hopefully his election will bring a measure of unity and peace to the shattered peoples of Afghanistan. But his ascension to power also means that the US has finally have achieved the goal it has sought since the early 1990s — absolute control over Central Asian oil reserves.

A victory soaked in children’s blood

[Indian Express: Apr 22, 2003]

Iraq’s tragedy is symbolized by the fate of 12-year-old Ali Ismael Abbas. A Coalition missile strike killed Ali’s mother and father, sheared off his arms and destroyed his home. Ali has now been shifted to a hospital in Kuwait; there is talk of his being sent to the UK for advanced medical treatment. Surely this innocent child deserves the best care and assistance to start life anew.

But there are a thousand other Iraqi children like Ali: maimed, orphaned, homeless, nameless. What did they have to do with issues such as the removal of Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction, or terrorism, issues cited by the US and UK to justify the Coalition campaign?

The military strikes are all but over. The Coalition forces have not captured Saddam or any key figures of his regime (unless an estranged ‘half-brother’ falls under the category). They have not found any WMD. The only ‘terrorist’ they have found is an ageing Palestinian who hijacked an Italian airliner 19 years ago, and against whom even Israel dropped all charges long ago. As for liberating the Iraqis, the irony is that the Coalition faced far fiercer resistance in Basra populated mainly by Shias, who were brutally oppressed by Saddam’s Sunni-dominated Ba’ath regime, than they did in Baghdad or even Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit.

So what has the Coalition campaign achieved?

The plain truth is, the US has secured its long-term strategic interests by paving the way for the installation of a regime that will allow it control over Iraq’s vast oil reserves.

In an energy-starved world, control over energy resources is the key to global dominance. Iraq has proven reserves of 115 billion barrels of oil (compared to Russia’s 49 billion and the Caspian states’ 15 billion barrels).

Significantly, US President Bush has appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as his special envoy to Iraq.

Khalilzad was earlier special envoy to Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan and both Karzai and Khalilzad were key advisors to US oil giant Unocal. Karzai’s installation in Afghanistan has enabled US oil majors to finalize plans to access Turkmenistan’s oil resources via a trans-Afghanistan pipeline to Pakistan. With control over Iraq’s oil resources, the US has in effect acquired a stranglehold over two-thirds of the world’s proven oil reserves. America will now use energy costs to wield global economic influence.

Today, the US and UK media strive to project their forces as saviours providing drinking water, medical assistance and electricity to Iraqis. Conveniently overlooked is the fact that the water and power infrastructure was destroyed in the first place by Coalition air strikes. Like little Ali, surely the Iraqi people need all the help they can get. But they know and the world knows that the Coalition campaign was never about saving the Iraqi people; it was about their oil.

[P.S.: Spare a thought – though perhaps little sympathy – for the Pakistani establishment: with Taliban at their gates, and no USA any more to turn to for dollars or for refuge in the short-term, they will soon learn the bitter truth of the old maxim: “Sow the wind, and thou shalt reap the whirlwind.” Of course, there’s always China...]

Musings, Verse perverse

Tumble-Wash Epiphany

Of late I’ve been experiencing a strange mental turmoil.

Days and nights have been passing in a timeless, rather pleasant blur—nothing unusual about that, as the passing of days and nights in a blur has pretty much been part of my philosophy and lifestyle since 1963, when my Class 2 teacher recognized and highlighted it with a vitriolic comment or three. But in the past few months, the blur has been interspersed with short but incredibly vivid interludes of fantasy that are as engrossing and disturbing as they are impossible to wipe off the cerebral slate.

Last night, I actually experienced intense déjà vu within dream. The weird thing is (or was), in my dream I was not myself—meaning, I was not this dusty old bandicoot who even now sits in a dusty corner of East Delhi on a sultry mid-August night writing this crap. Instead, in my dream I was a dusty old historian from South Delhi in body, mind and soul, a part-time heritage walk mentor specializing in ancient Sultanate and Mughal monuments. I was walking through the Mehrauli Archaeological Park area on a grey, misty, bitterly cold January day with a small group of men, women, children, and a few other creatures including a squirrel wearing bifocals and the crafty look of an avaricious advocate. The walk was going quite well in my dream, though I was mildly irritated by the squirrel which kept asking me searching and intelligent questions about squinches, domes, arches and other such architectural things that I knew very little about, and  that chuckled and chittered loudly and derisively whenever I fumbled for answers.

All at once, without warning, the swirling mist intensified into a white-out fog. Alarmed, I froze in mid-step and called to the others to stop …even in dream I remember noting how flat and muffled my voice sounded. And then, like the clouds of moisture-laden air that wander amidst the deep gorges of Sohra and Pynursla, the dense fog magically thinned into great billowing columns that parted like pearly curtains and evaporated into blue nothingness, and I found myself bathed in brilliant sunshine, and that’s when I realized two things:

One: I was no longer with my group in Mehrauli but standing alone, utterly alone on a vast, treeless sweeping slope strewn with scree, surrounded by incredibly tall snow-streaked mountains;

Two: I knew for sure I had never stood on that slope or ever seen those mountains in my life, yet I knew I had been there before, experienced that experience before…just as I knew exactly and fully what I would think and see and  hear and smell and taste and feel at the very next moment and at every moment from then onward, for ever and ever…

…And that’s when, even as I clutched on to that timeless déjà vu, it slipped away and vanished with the growing awareness that I must be in the coils of dream, because there was no way in which I, a heritage walk mentor, could have transported myself from Mehrauli in south Delhi to what appeared to be a steep mountain-side amidst the high Himalayas…leave alone experience déjà vu in that desolate place. And with that awareness that I was dreaming came a tidal wave of terror that I might awaken to find myself not the historian/heritage walk mentor that I actually was, but as someone else…perhaps even as a decrepit old writer lying in bed in east Delhi. And at that thought a great abyss of dread opened up deep within my mind as the tidal wave tossed and turned me hither and thither and eventually flung me, battered and bruised, on to the shores of consciousness where I lay trembling, awake at last.

How could I possibly have dreamed such a dream, in which I was not only someone else but had actually experienced déjà vu as that someone else?

I have no answers; only questions, that sound so demented I am almost too scared to voice them.

Yet I must.

Have the global clouds of angst and anxiety, spawned by Covid-19, finally overcome my cerebral defences? Do they now wait, like monsoon clouds in their brooding and silent enormity, to pour forth their giga-tonnes of fluid insanity and wash away what remains of my cognition in a raging neural flood?  

Have I waded for too long in the limpid pool of Mann Ki Baat, to now be flushed away and drowned in the foaming toilet of Monsoon ki Bath? 

Have I finally achieved the position grimly foretold for me by my class 2 teacher, and become quietly yet indubitably insane?

In the sacred name of Bakasura the Ravenous, will I ever be able to escape from this realm of Guiche into which I have wandered wonderingly and now wonder wanderingly?

These and other troubled musings kept me tossing and turning till dawn; whereupon, after a few cups of healing tannin and caffeine solutions, I went up to the terrace and put a load of clothes to wash.  Watching the sheets and pillow cases tossing and turning in the washing machine just as I had tossed and turned half the night, I began to feel better. Slowly but surely, that familiar old timeless and rather pleasant blur of being returned to soothe my frayed neurons, dendrons and rhododendrons. The washing machine hummed contentedly; the birds chirped happily as they hunted bugs in the foliage; a squirrel streaked across the tiles, sat on its haunches a few feet away, chirruped a series of questions and stared at me through shrewd eyes, waiting for a response.  I stared back at it, wondering why its accent seemed so familiar…but the moment passed, as did the squirrel.

My questions may have no answers; I realize that now, as I write these words.  

Indeed, my answers may have no questions.

Yet I find some blurry comfort in the immortal lyrics of that great and little-known Tamil bard of yore, Konal Kuttilingam (c. 644–596 BCE) whose octrain ‘Ode to Calavai-Pen‘ was translated and soulfully rendered by Irish blues singer Anne O’Nimus at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, 1963 shortly before her tragic demise due to an accidental overdose of pandemonium nitrate.

Wash’d like a garment might thou feel, O beloved, in this Kaveri of Life

Beaten and scrubb’d by Great Calavai-Pen* on Her adamant stone

Yet despair not! Only by this Bath of Anguish, this Path of Strife

May’st thou for many Muttal-Thanams@ of the Past atone

Be joyful, then, as She cleanses thee, wrings thee

Spreads thee to dry: do not moan and groan

Behold! the Vapours of Illusion leave thee, pure and free

To ask: “Dog without bone, or bone without dog…who is more alone?

[(Tamil) *Calavai-Pen = washerwoman; @Muttal-Thanam = idiocies; boo-boos. Translation by the late lamented & lamentable Periachandu Dorai II of Mayiladuthurai (1946 – 1997)]