Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Ravana mode of development – V

The ‘modern’ which Gandhi critiqued was a process by which knowledge, science and economics were removed from their ethical and spiritual underpinnings and were pursued separately from moral philosophy. He recognized a key feature of modernity that had never been present earlier - the elevation of vices like greed and selfishness to the status of virtues resulting in the institutionalizing of irresponsibility. His concern had been based on his perception that modernity over-emphasized the material comforts of life and under-emphasized the ethical dimension – it encouraged the pursuit of bodily needs without the framework of ethics. This resulted in his seemingly weird criticism of doctors and lawyers – modernity had ‘freed’ these professions from the restraints imposed by morality. For eg., he says in Hind Swaraj about the practises of lawyers (all of which are practised more brazenly today and rationalized as 'normal business practice'):
...the profession teaches immorality; it is exposed to temptation from which few are saved... The [lawyer's] duty is to side with their clients and to find out ways and arguments in favour of the clients to which they (the clients) are often strangers. If they do not do so they will be considered to have degraded their profession. The lawyers, therefore, will, as a rule, advance quarrels instead of repressing them. Moreover, men take up that profession, not in order to help others out of their miseries, but to enrich themselves. It is one of the avenues of becoming wealthy and their interest exists in multiplying disputes. It is within my knowledge that they are glad when men have disputes. Petty pleaders actually manufacture them. 
Gandhi challenged the European claim that they alone valued truth and Indians did not. He launched a counter-critique by asserting that the European Enlightenment, by emphasizing pure reason, self-interest and the utilitarian calculus had in fact dethroned truth and morality. His objection to modern civilization was that it does not provide any 'inducement to morality'. It had always been known that there was a dark side to human nature that didn’t need much encouragement to show itself. There was recognition that there was some chance of keeping this unpleasant side in check only by over-weighting the moral aspects of social interactions. It can be said that over time, the balance had tilted too much against politics and economics in the Indian context and Gandhi was trying to correct this imbalance but to remove the checks altogether was asking for trouble. Modernity came in a beautiful garb but it had huge hidden costs and made people morally numb. This was the crux of Gandhi’s concern about it.

This moral degeneration is illustrated by the statement by the economist John Maynard Keynes that “For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not.” (It is fantastic to assume that after a century of internalizing this norm, society will magically revert to one populated by do-gooders.) The notion that private vices resulted in public good was opposed by Gandhi who believed that private morality had public consequences. His philosophical framework challenged the divorce of issues of justice and equity from business and economics. Gandhi wrote in 1937: “True economics never militates against the highest ethical standard, just as all true ethics to be worth its name must at the same time be also good economics.'

Gandhi observed that the fallacious assumption that informs modernity is the idea that 'might is right'. This was coupled with Spencer's unfortunate description of evolution as 'survival of the fittest' which was deemed to be a law of nature. This led to the 'greed is good' culture resulting in huge inequalities. This mind-set can be seen all the time - for example, compromises on human rights and environmental standards are justified because dominance in the global marketplace is given primary importance.  In the modern world, morality and politics are determined by economics. Economic advancement is a good servant but a bad master.
Gandhi rejected the worship of material advancement as an end in itself - a claim made by both capitalists and communists. He argued that the modern version of material advancement is a regression rather than a higher stage of human evolution, because it displaces dharma (as ethics) from its primacy. He argued that all efforts to improve the human condition are bound to fail unless they put dharma, or a moral framework and a sense of higher purpose, above the pursuit of artha (wealth) and kama (pleasure)(See Gandhi : Hind Swaraj and Other Writings.) Gandhi places the greatest importance on the means that are employed to attain a goal. He believed that only fair means can produce a fair end.

He accepted that some are more talented than others at producing the material goods of life but in his world-view, greater talent was always accompanied by greater responsibility. (The loss of the capacity to feel guilty and the consequent loss of a sense of responsibility may be the biggest problems facing the world today.) He said that education had made a 'fetish' of the knowledge of letters and ignored completely the ethical dimension, cultivating instead 'the pretension of learning many sciences'. He felt that science and technology were aimed more towards luxury than towards the discovery of truth. Truth for Gandhi was moral and experiential while science regarded Truth as a cognitive model of the world.

Gandhi was suspicious of the scientific world-view because it encouraged a psychological split - the dissociation of actions from feelings and ethics which allows actions to be pursued without being burdened by these emotions. The person cuts himself off emotionally from the subject of his manipulations. This promotes a focus on the universal and thereby the ignoring of the particular, a disease of modernity that concerned Gandhi. As Stalin said, 'One death is a story, a million deaths is a statistic.' (Although he didn't seem to care either way.) This split is the direct cause of immorality in politics and violence in society. Gandhi's view is echoed by Einstein's observation that 'before mankind could be ripe for a science which takes in the whole of reality, a second fundamental truth was needed...all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it.'

This problem that Gandhi foresaw was apparent during demonetization when it was said that there will be 'some pain' in the short run but big benefits in the long run. If 'some pain' referred to people like me, it was understandable but people lower down the social and economic ladder were in danger of losing their livelihoods. That  is not 'some pain'. This was also visible during discussions about GST. There were hardly any discussions about the likely problems for the small trader who has never used a computer or traders in villages that have little or no electricity.

Gandhi’s explanation for why history is not a good guide to human behavior is interesting. He writes in Hind Swaraj,  ‘History, as we know it, is a record of the wars of the world...How kings played, how they became enemies of one another, how they murdered one another, is found accurately recorded in history and if this were all that had happened in the world, it would have been ended long ago.' If people are sitting in a hall enjoying a musical performance, as happens all the time, it will not be recorded in history. But if a person throws a bomb inside the hall and kills 50 people, it will enter the history books. Gandhi says that ‘history is really a record of every interruption ‘ of the normal  tenor of life.

In Indian epics, there is no total demarcation between good and evil. There is something of a demon in a god and something of a god in a demon. The question is, which combination of characteristics do you choose? In Traditions, Tyranny and Utopia, Ashis Nandy writes, ‘The Ramayana did not reject Ravana intuitively, mechanically or purely ethically. He was considered, given due respect and then rejected as an unacceptable design of a person.’ This was how Gandhi rejected certain dominant features of modernity - it encouraged 'an unacceptable design of a person’ by incentivising the Hyde rather than the Jekyll within. His  action was never a total rejection. It was the much milder non-acceptance.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Ravana mode of development – IV

Gandhi disliked the utilitarian principle of ‘greatest good for greatest number’ which reduces justice to arithmetic calculations. For eg., it presumes that for the benefit of 51%, the misery of 49% is justified. It will always demand that some minority pays the price of progress. It is illustrative of an objection to modernity that Gandhi had - it reduces wisdom to instrumental rationality thereby reducing morality to self interest. This kind of thinking is shown by a policy-maker of the 1950s in a plan document. He commented that India's 'tribal brethren' were expected to make the necessary sacrifices for the future prosperity and happiness of the country (mentioned in Bonfire of Creeds). Gandhi said in Young India in Dec. 1926:
Judged by the standard of non-violence the late War was wholly wrong. Judged by the utilitarian standard each party has justified it according to its idea of utility. Even the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was justified by its perpetrators on the grounds of utility. And precisely on the same ground the anarchist justifies his assassinations. But none of these acts can possibly be justified on the greatest-good-of-all principle. 
In Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says that the worst problem of modernity is that one person gets the upside and a different person gets the downside 'with such transfer facilitated by the growing wedge between the ethical and the legal'. He writes, ‘At no point in history have so many non-risk-takers, that is, people with no personal exposure, exerted so much control.’ This was what made Gandhi say in Hind Swaraj, ‘That we should obey laws whether good or bad is a newfangled notion. There was no such thing in former days. The people disregarded those laws they did not like and suffered the penalties for their breach…. So long as the superstition that men should obey unjust laws exists, so long will their slavery exist.’

He was not saying that one should break all laws. As a matter of fact, he was a stickler for following laws. He only advocated breaking those laws that unjustly discriminated against a population and his conscience rebelled against following them. In this principle, he was at one with Thoreau, the difference being that while Thoreau advocated individual civil disobedience, Gandhi expanded its scope to mass civil disobedience. He realized that oppressors can succeed only with the cooperation of the oppressed. But he was careful to stress that you have earned the right to break an unjust law only if you have first learned to observe laws consistently even if they cause inconvenience, not by those who used every problem as an occasion to display their conscience. He insisted on the strict condition that satyagraha cannot be initiated for personal reasons but only for the good of others.

In an article in Young India in Dec 1928, Gandhi had pointed out the unsustainability of the Western model of economic development. ‘God forbid, he wrote, ‘that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts’. Two years earlier in Oct.1926, Gandhi had written in Young India that 'to make India like England and America is to find some other races and places of the earth for exploitation’. As it appeared 'that the Western nations have divided all the known races outside Europe for exploitation and there are no new worlds to discover’, he asked: ‘What can be the fate of India trying to ape the West?’ .

He was not saying that all amenities should not be provided to people. He was saying that if these amenities are provided by using the same economic model as the modern West, then colonization of some group of people is inevitable. And of course that is exactly what has transpired. Without the access to resources and markets that the West had when it began its march towards modernity, India has had no choice, once it decided to "ape the West", but to rely on the exploitation of its own people and environment. For eg., it has been estimated that twenty million Indians (a conservative estimate) have been uprooted by steel mills, dams etc.

The grand schemes of the 1950s and 1960s like Bhakra, Hirakud, Tungabhadra etc. were built with the villagers who were displaced being told that it was in the 'national interest'. It took two decades for this 'national interest' to be revealed as the interests of the urban-industrial elite. This is the case with all big development projects: they will ride roughshod over the basic needs of the local population while whoever is the beneficiary will never pay the costs. The same thing used to happen during colonial rule – the depredations in India used to enrich Britain. Covert colonization is worse than overt colonization because it passes unnoticed.

Apparently, Adivasis are worse off in independent India than during the colonial period. They are caught between the violence of the naxalites and the violence of the state and have nowhere to turn. They seem to be in the same position as the fool in King Lear, ‘They want to whip me for telling the truth, you want to whip me for lying, and sometimes I’m even whipped for keeping quiet.’ As Benedict Anderson said, “No one can be a true nationalist who is incapable of feeling ashamed if his or her state or government commits crimes including those against their fellow citizens”. If Gandhi had lived after Jan. 1948, the Congress would have found him their most formidable critic. Godse did them a favour.

J.C. Kumarappa (who was known as the Gandhian economist), after being thoroughly disillusioned with the Congress regime after independence, said that India will ‘out-British the British’. He had observed that colonialism was not due to the venality of particular countries but was the necessary corollary of an economic model that advocated unbridled consumerism. It is not much noticed that India is buying agricultural land cheaply in Africa  while indulging in environmental damage and exporting the food for the Indian market at the cost of the locals, practises which are astoundingly similar to what India used to blame rich western countries for. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between India in Africa and the English in India regarding the exploitation of local resources for the home market.

The distance between the central planner and the person at the local level  caused by increasing centralization promotes the dissociation between reason and feeling.  The lack of regular social interaction between the decision makers and the victims of their decisions gives the former the illusion that their abstract theories, spreadsheets and statistics are sound, rational, responsible ways of making decisions but instead it makes others abstract items. The authors of Postmodern Gandhi and Other Essays write, 'Silencing and patronizing the countryside reflects the modern state's pursuit of centralized power and rationalized power at the expense of efforts by ordinary citizens to govern themselves locally.'

The difference in perspectives between the distant central planners and their increasingly voiceless objects of manipulation is shown by an anecdote in The idea of India by Sunil Khilnani. This was 1950s when imposing dams, power and steel plants embodied for ‘those who imagined them into existance’ a spectacular vision of the modernity to which India had committed itself. Nehru asked a worker who labored at the site of the Bhakra Nangal dam, ‘Why are you doing this work?’ The worker replied, ‘Sahib Bahadur, that man tells me to take these stones over there. At the end of the week he gives me money. That is why I do it.’ Ashis Nandy says in Bonfire of Creeds:
Many political economists...have drawn attention to the fact - uncomfortable to the Third World elites and intellectuals - that the Third World usually maintain within their borders exactly the same violent, exploitative, ethnocidal systems which they confront in the larger world: the same centre and periphery, the same myth that the sacrifices made by people in the short run will lead to the beatitude of development and scientific advancement in the long run, the same story of over-consuming elites fattening themselves to early death at the centre and starvation, victimhood, and slow death at the periphery. Because of this, the demands of the Third World for more equitable and just terms in North-South exchanges often sound dishonest or hollow.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Ravana mode of development – III

Gandhi distinguished between swaraj as self-government and swaraj as self-rule (the quest for self-improvement and command over one’s own passions). He realized that conjoining the two concepts of swaraj is the basis of being truly civilized. In the absence of such rule over the self, Gandhi insisted, we will not be in a position to fully develop the positive values that have emerged from modernity like civil liberty, equality, religious toleration, human rights, etc. He insisted that rule of all without rule of self is deceptive. Thus, the mind emerges as the key faculty in Gandhi’s political philosophy - the locus of control was internal, not external.

Gandhi emphasizes moral and individual change as the precursor to social and economic change and believed that private morality had public consequences. He considered as futile the modern quest of trying to make institutions so perfect that they would obviate the need for the individual to be good.  Post-Independence India is a continuing illustration of that truth. Morality cannot be imposed from outside but has to be the result of self-effort. (For any trouble, a time-tested way to avoid any responsibility is to say that it was a ‘systemic failure’. The underlying theme of the whole book The Black Box Society can be this observation by Gandhi.) He had seen the disquieting signs before Independence itself.

He had received lots of letters from freedom fighters asking for posts in Independent India. On May 22, 1947, Gandhi said, "The Congress was fast becoming an organization of selfish power-seekers and job-hunters. Instead of remaining the servants of the public, the Congressmen had now become its lords and masters. The Congress was torn by petty intrigues and group rivalries." Soon after Independence, Gandhi received a letter from a friend in Telugu country saying that the local Congress leaders were indulging in corruption and people now think that colonial rule was better. It confirmed Gandhi's fears that swaraj as self-government without swaraj as self-rule may not have good results.

Gandhi felt that the political and the spiritual could be harmonized. Many maintained that a spiritual person should not dabble in  politics and economics which were thought to be dominated by ‘I win - you lose’-type zero-sum games devoid of moral principles. But Gandhi disagreed and said that a truly spiritual person had to be engaged with society – he could not be indifferent to the social ills that he sees around him. If he is indeed an indifferent spectator of these ills and prefers to pursue his spiritual quest in isolation, then there is something wrong with his concept of spirituality. (A discussion about this issue can be found in Gandhi's Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony by Anthony Parel). He said in 1920:
If I seem to take part in politics, it is only because politics encircle us today like the coil of a snake from which one cannot get out, no matter how much one tries. I wish therefore to wrestle with the snake.
Thus Gandhi practiced moral politics in an arena where it was thought to be impractical. He succeeded to a significant extent not only in maintaining his own values but also in pulling up the moral standards of his followers. Patel acknowledges his restraining influence (as quoted in Patel: A Life). Patel had to deal with a functionary in a princely state named Virawala who indulged in a lot of intrigue. When a worker likened Virawala to a witch or a demoness, Patel said ‘If I had not met Bapu, I might have ended up like Virawala.' In Gandhi's time, khadi was a symbol of humility and simplicity but after his death, it gradually became a symbol of arrogance and power.

In The Good Boatman, Rajmohan Gandh writes about a Russian novelist who told him about the decisive difference between Lenin and Gandhi - Lenin dismissed as inconsequential the murder of two political opponents while Gandhi stopped a nationwide movement when some of the Raj's policemen were killed at Chauri Chaura. This had to do with Gandhi's conviction about the unavoidable link between means and ends - fair means lead to fair ends. He was convinced that avoiding responsibility by merely saying 'stuff happens' would eventually lead to a less desirable end-point. After Gandhi was removed from the field, politics gradually degenerated into its usual mode of intrigues and zero-sum games. Ashis Nandy writes about Gandhi's idea of moral accountability in Bonfire of Creeds:
...it is possible to argue that all accountability is odious, that ideas are important in themselves and independent of the personal lives of their proponents. But Gandhi was always skeptical of the modern claim that perfect institutions would one day eliminate the social need for individual morality. He therefore believed that accountability should be demanded at least from those whose theories of social intervention demand sacrifices and accountability of others.
It didn't take long for Gandh's fears that the British will be copied to materialise. In response to riots in the Punjab in Feb-Mar 1947, the interim government at the centre, two of its most prominent members being Nehru and Patel (the latter being Home Minister) imposed press censorship. Gandhi wrote to Nehru asking for some details saying that he only knew ‘what is allowed to appear in the Press which I thoroughly distrust'. He expressed  unhappiness about what he called the “hush hush policy” and wrote, ‘It is amazing how the country is adopting almost every measure which it criticized during the British administration. Of course, I know the reason behind it. It makes no appeal to me.’

In Hind Swaraj, responding to the opinion that the English Parliament is worthy of emulation, Gandhi had several criticisms of its functioning.  He said that when important matters are being discussed, ‘its members have been seen to stretch themselves and to doze’. The ‘so-called dicipline’ of members makes them vote along party lines and if a member votes according to his thinking, ‘he is considered a renegade’. The PM is ‘more concerned about his power’ and on ‘securing the success of his party’.  PMs ‘certainly bribe people with honours’. All these practices have been copied diligently and bettered in legislatures across the country.

Politicians speak with great confidence about complex social issues and easily speak about some ’one size fits all’ policy. For eg., they will say that the 'Gujarat model' of development will be replicated across India. This was a complete contrast to Gandhi for whom truth was situational not universal and depended on a particular context including the attitudes and motivations of the contending parties. He would also have rejected the economists’ penchant for thinking that only appealing to reason by providing lots of data is enough to convince people. Economists have what somebody called ‘the completeness of limited men’. The authors of Postmodern Gandhi and other essays write:
Gandhi is clear that mind without heart, reason without emotion, cannot be persuasive. In this Gandhi’s position accords with the recent revival of Spinoza’s view of the mind-body relationship…The neurologist-philosopher Antonio Damasio has argued in his recent book, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain, that Decartes was wrong that feeling is the enemy of reason, and that Spinoza was right to believe that feeling was thought’s ‘indispensable accomplice’. Gandhi, in effect, critiques…[the] conception of deliberation by insisting that rationality without feeling cannot yield knowledge, truth, or the public good.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Ravana mode of development – II

Gandhi had seen signs of militarization in India and was worried that an arms race between India and Pakistan would divert resources from areas like education, which is of course what happened. He said that India had accepted his remedy only because a violent alternative was not visible. In these days of guided missiles and misguided rulers, his observation in Nov 1947 is still relevant: 'Our statesmen have for over two generations declaimed against the heavy expenditure on armaments under the British regime, but now that freedom from political serfdom has come, our military expenditure has increased and still threatens to increase and of this we are proud! There is not a voice raised against it in our legislative chambers.'

A basic justification that was given for colonialism was the civilizing mission of superior-matured men of West over inferior-childish men of East. Gandhi rejected the idea of viewing West's masculinity as matured, aggressive and civilized as against East's masculinity as childish, passive and barbarous.  (As discussed by Ashis Nandy in  The Intimate Enemy.) The authors of Postmodern Gandhi and other essays say, ‘Gandhi turned the moral table on the English definition of courage by suggesting that aggression was the path to mastery of those without self-control, non-violent resistance the path of those with self-control.’

But people still seem eager to adopt the western definition of courage marked by aggressive self assertion. This can be seen in various debates one sees on TV where participants think that admitting an error is a sign of weakness and muscular responses are seen as being desirable. The responses will sound as if they are saying 'Mistakes were made but not by me'. In Great Soul, a book that shows many of Gandhi's compromises, inconsistencies and objectionable statements, still comments on his contrast with present-day politicians:
Seldom does he give in to the politician's usual temptation to blithely sweep away any sense of letdown, to proclaim victory at every juncture. This unsatisfied Gandhi, the one who doesn't know how to pretend, is the one who still makes a claim on Indian social conscience, such as it is. 
In Nationalism (a book that would be banned as 'anti-national' if it was published in these days of manufactured nationalism), Tagore criticized the ‘fierce self idolatry of nation worship’. Tagore was surprised why Gandhi took to nationalism while it, according to Tagore, negates other benefits of modernity such as freedom, equality etc. But Gandhi’s nationalism was not exclusive, it was “intense internationalism”. When I heard about the SC making it compulsory to stand in theatres for the national anthem, the first thought that occurred to me was a statement by Gandhi during his trial for sedition in 1922, 'Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law.'

Gandhi's nationalism was very different from Hitler's nationalism. By using one word to describe such a wide spectrum of sentiments, a lot of confusion is created. If you wield a stick and tell a person to say 'I love you' and you really think the person loves you, you have to be quite naive. As Ramachandra Guha writes, 'Speaking of 18th century England, Samuel Johnson famously said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. In 21st century India, it seems to be the first refuge of the incompetent and malevolent.'

In Nationalism, Tagore said that if India tried to copy Western countries (he was talking specifically about political nationalism) without taking into account its own history, ‘it will be as absurd as if Switzerland had staked her existence in her ambition to build up a navy powerful enough to compete with that of England’. I saw an instance of such imitative modernity in Bonfire of Creeds by Ashis Nandy. Apparently, the Bhilai steel plant, located at a place where the winter temperature rarely falls below 55 deg. F, has a roof modeled on a Russian prototype which is designed to withstand heavy snowfall.  Such blind mimicry will be given some fancy name like ‘technology transfer’.

The latest in this spree of copying is the bullet train project which has no relevance to the overwhelming majority of the population. It reminds me of an episode in Yes, Prime Minister where there is a proposal to buy the expensive Trident missile. The bullet train is India's version of something at Harrods:
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Don't you believe that Great Britain should have the best? 
Jim Hacker: Yes, of course.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Very well, if you walked into a nuclear missile showroom you would buy Trident - it's lovely, it's elegant, it's beautiful. It is quite simply the best. And Britain should have the best. In the world of the nuclear missile it is the Saville Row suit, the Rolls Royce Corniche, the Château Lafitte 1945. It is the nuclear missile Harrods would sell you. What more can I say? 
Jim Hacker: Only that it costs £15 billion and we don't need it.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Well, you can say that about anything at Harrods.
In The Good Boatman, Joshua Oldfield, who had shared a room with Gandhi during his college days in London, discusses about Gandhi not following the habit of other Indian students. He says, 'I have always felt since that the Indians coming to England have to face the same great testing examination. If they fail, they prove that they have commonplace minds and they drop into the ordinary run of English diet, English habits, and general mediocrity.' You don't have to go to England now to see that.  Macaulay’s aim, set out in his infamous “Minute on Indian Education”  - to create 'a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect' - is still operational.

You can see this Western mode of living in many cities - the way of dress (suit and tie in the middle of an Indian summer), in the foods they prefer (pizza or burgers), the language they speak (Hi dude - or 'bro'-, cool hairdo!), the antics during various sporting events like the IPL...(somebody called these people 'Resident Non-Indians'). My physiotherapist said that his daughter (in kindergarten) had been told by her teacher to speak in English at home! Sujit once told me with great excitement, 'Tonight is El Classico!'. Uh, what's that? It turned out to be a football match between  two European clubs which was apparently followed avidly in his college. Ashis Nandy writes in The Intimate Enemy, '...once the British rulers and the exposed sections of Indians internalized the colonial role definitions….the battle for the minds of men was to a great extent won by the Raj.'

I keep hearing foreigners say that India has become more confident. It seems to mean that India has become better at copying. What is copied is the worst of the West, not its best like respect for institutions, defence of free speech etc. On a visit to London in 1931, for a conference on determining India’s political future, Gandhi was asked by a British journalist what he thought of Western civilization. “I think it would be a good idea,” he replied. I heard a modern spin on this incident. An Indian intellectual said that if Gandhi was alive today and was asked what he thought of Indian civilization, he would reply, “I think it would be a good idea.” As it says in The Mahabharata, 'Alas, having defeated our enemies, we have ourselves been defeated.'

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Ravana mode of development – I

Never has the individual been so completely delivered up to a blind collectivity, and never have men been less capable, not only of subordinating their actions to their thoughts, but even of thinking. - Simone Weil

In Asuras, a novel based on the Ramayana from Ravana’s point of view, when Ravana faces defeat at the hands of Rama, he starts wondering how he had failed as a king. How did he, a mighty emperor of a vast empire, fall to an immature prince of a vassal state? He then reflects on his rule: he knew his people and ruled them with an iron fist. He had ensured that he was surrounded only by people he trusted. ‘I thought that my empire was built on a foundation of steel…but I discovered that it had been built on nothing’. He says that he had built great roads, taken fertile lands for grand building projects, damed rivers that irrigated the countryside, diverted water from fields to cities, etc. He reflects:
When I strove for bigger things – for bigger cities, magnificent temples, wider roads, better ports, larger ships, increased trade, improved business, making a name among the nations of the world, making my country the richest in the world - I forgot something simple and basic: I forgot my people. I thought glittering cities marked progress, I forgot about the people who lived in gutters.
He says that he had become ‘intoxicated with praise’ and had thought that ‘the glitter was all that mattered’. And when the crisis came, ‘the foreign-educated, Sanskrit-speaking, betel-chewing wealthy gave me advice from their hiding holes, but nothing else’. It is apparent that Ravana’s Lanka is post-independence India. That last comment reminds me of an article by Ramachandra Guha where he says that the most vitriolic, nationalistic comments he receives for his articles are from Indians who left long ago and are settled in the West. As Ashis Nandy says in Bonfire of Creeds, '...the more doubtful one's roots, the more desperate one's search for security in exclusion and in boundaries.'

In September 1909, The Illustrated London News published a stinging attack on the idea of Indian nationalism written by G. K. Chesterton.  He had been reading a journal called The Indian Sociologist and he found the ideas there just copies of British ideas. He wrote, ‘the principal weakness of Indian Nationalism seems to be that it is not very Indian and not very national’. He found praise of Herbert Spencer among the nationalists and wrote, 'What is the good of the Indian national spirit if it cannot protect its people from Herbert Spencer? I am not fond of the philosophy of Buddhism; but it is not so shallow as Spencer's philosophy; it has real ideas of its own.' He then wrote:
When all is said, there is a national distinction between a people asking for its own ancient life and a people asking for things that have been wholly invented by somebody else. There is a difference between a conquered people demanding its own institutions and the same people demanding the institutions of the conqueror.  
Suppose an Indian said: "I heartily wish India had always been free from white men and all their works. Every system has its sins: and we prefer our own. There would have been dynastic wars; but I prefer dying in battle to dying in hospital. There would have been despotism; but I prefer one king whom I hardly ever see to a hundred kings regulating my diet and my children. There would have been pestilence; but I would sooner die of the plague than die of toil and vexation in order to avoid the plague. There would have been religious differences dangerous to public peace; but I think religion more important than peace. Life is very short; a man must live somehow and die somewhere; the amount of bodily comfort a peasant gets under your best Republic is not so much more than mine. If you do not like our sort of spiritual comfort, we never asked you to. Go, and leave us with it." 
Suppose an Indian said that, I should call him an Indian Nationalist, or, at least, an authentic Indian, and I think it would be very hard to answer him. But the Indian Nationalists whose works I have read simply say with ever-increasing excitability, "Give me a ballot-box. Provide me with a Ministerial dispatch-box. Hand me over the Lord Chancellor's wig. I have a natural right to be Prime Minister. I have a heaven-born claim to introduce a Budget. My soul is starved if I am excluded from the Editorship of the Daily Mail," or words to that effect.
Gandhi  was electrified by the article and decided to be the Indian nationalist that Chesterton was looking for. He then wrote his trenchant critique of modernity, Hind Swaraj (a useful introduction to it can be found in Gandhi Hind Swaraj and Other Writings by Anthony J. Parel) containing thoughts that had been brewing in his head for some time. What appears obscurantism and the typical NRI gloating about the glories of India's ancient past (Gandhi had till then been abroad for most of his adult life) was an attempt to dismantle the ‘white-man’s civilizing role’ self-image of colonialism so that it can be made a byword for racism and exploitation. Gandhi became appreciative of the fact that colonialism was not just a geographical reality but also a colonization of the mind. In Bonfire of Creeds, Ashis Nandy explains the reasoning behind Gandhi's strategy while fighting colonialism:
Gandhi acted as if he knew that non-synergic systems, driven by zero-sum competition and search for power, control and masculinity, forced the victims to internalize the norms of the system, so that when they displaced their exploiters, they built a system which was either an exact replica of the old one or a tragi-comic version of it. Hence, his concept of non-violence and non-cooperation...He thus becomes a non-player for the existing system - one who plays another game, refusing to be either a player or a counter-player.
The difference between Jinnah (and most others on either side in the freedom movement) and Gandhi is that Jinnah struggled for a piece of land but did not ponder over the kind of state that would develop there while Gandhi had started thinking about it even before he had joined the freedom struggle. He did not accept the idea that ends justify the means and thought that there was an inextricable link between the two. He insisted that ends were shaped by the means that lead to them – you cannot directly control the ends; you can only influence them via the means that you adopt to reach that end. Thus, Gandhi tailored his strategies according to the picture of the Indian government that he visualized at the end of his struggles.

There has been a cottage industry (pdf) over the years pointing out the objectionable things that Gandhi wrote or said while ignoring other things in his oeuvre. (About 90% of the reactions when people are told that I am reading about Gandhi these days suggest that they are thinking, ‘This guy has finally gone nuts!’) Newton spent the major portion of his life on alchemy and trying to interpret some Bible codes but that doesn’t mean that his science should be ignored. Indeed Neil de Grass Tyson says that he was the smartest person who ever lived.  It just shows that contradictory things can co-exist comfortably in the same mind. In the enthusiasm to point out Gandhi's faults and mis-steps, what is often missed is that he was astonishingly prescient on many issues that others weren’t even thinking about, seduced as they were by the glitter of modernity.

Is Gandhi relevant today? The question is asked with unfailing regularity as his birthday approaches each year on October 2. I think he is more relevant now than he was at the time of Independence. In Bapu Kuti, Rajini Bakshi makes a distinction between the historical Gandhi and the civilizational Gandhi. The historical Gandhi may be criticized and condemned as an ordinary figure. But the civilizational Gandhi, the Gandhi of the  ideas and concepts and uncomfortable questions scattered throughout his works about what a good society should be like, is a far more imposing and enduring figure. Getting lost in extreme statements distracts from the substance of Gandhi’s critique of modernity. Gandhi was great because he had faults like anybody else but had the guts to put them in the public domain, examine them and correct them. By tying to pull him down we diminish ourselves.  As an Urdu verse says, 'nai duniya ke hañgamoñ meñ 'nasir'/dabi jaati haiñ avazeñ purani' (In the tumult of the modern world, old voices get suppressed.)

PS: I got that Urdu verse from rekhta.org, a site devoted to Urdu poetry. Someone said that Hindi and Urdu are a great language separated by a script and a lot of politics. Javed Akhtar once said that when Hindi speakers understand something, they say it is Hindi and when they don't understand something, they say it is Urdu. The great thing about this site is that when you click on any word in a verse, a window opens up telling you its meaning.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Reunion again

In late December last year, I attended the 25th year reunion of my IIMA batch at Ahmedabad. Jimmy Connors once said, 'The trouble with experience is that by the time you have it you are too old to take advantage of it.' This is not always true. Since I had been to Ahmedabad 4 years earlier, we were familiar with what the journey entailed so the soul-searching, preparations and tensions of last time were not present this time. (I remember another quote about the lateness of learning from experience - 'By the time you realize that your father was right, you will have a son who thinks that you are wrong.'.)

All the batch mates from my dorm (D2) attended the reunion. During our campus days, we had styled ourselves 'Enlightened Rogues'. This was a term that I had completely forgotten till I read it  in a Whatsapp message. This was the first time since our campus days that all of us rogues (enlightened ones, don't forget) were together. (A friend from D1 - which was a girls' dorm - did not fail to remind me that the enlightening was because our dorm was located next to theirs!)

With 'Enlightened Rogues' (From left): Sidey, Sardar, Chandu and Pondy
Anitha, the wife of one of my dorm-mates (Sidey) has been my unofficial medical advisor for about 15 years now but we had never actually met in person. All our interactions had been through Whatsapp and email. She is from Chennai and practises in New York. Sidey is from Mumbai and works in New York. I am from Palakkad and settled in Coimbatore. Jaya is also from Palakkad and settled in Coimbatore. It must be obvious to you now that we had to travel to Ahmedabad to meet for the first time.
With (from left) : Sidey, Jaya, Anitha, Sujit, Pondy and Chandu
This being the 25th year reunion, there were many more batch mates attending than was the case last time. So I met a lot more friends who I had thought I would never meet again. As it has happened at all reunions, I was astonished at how much people could remember about various incidents that had happened in our campus days. In the Yearbook that we were given, I couldn't remember many incidents that my batch mates had described. While going around the campus, my recollection of some regular haunts was quite hazy. It was another reminder of how my life before my stroke is becoming more like a hazy dream. 

I was having more trouble remembering incidents and places rather than people which is a blessing. 'My path, thank God, took me to Oxford but my path, thank God, took me away from it', said Santayana. I can make a similar remark about my areas of study in college - 'My path, thank God, led me towards Engineering and MBA, but my path, thank God, led me away from them.' But I cannot make a similar remark about the friends I made there. In their case, I would say - ''My path, thank God, led me to them and my path, thank God, kept me with them.

Apparently, Confucius said that if a person is searching for happiness, it is essential for him to find the right chair to sit. This worthy problem has been addressed satisfactorily for a while in my case so I have to consider what else Confucius said. Unfortunately, I don’t have a clue. I am sure that meeting friends made long ago and exchanging gossip with them would have figured very high in his list.

In one of his incomparable works (I don't remember which one),  one of the timeless Wodehousian characters (I seem to have forgotten who it was), said, “One of the poets, whose name I cannot recall, has a passage, which I am unable at the moment to remember, in one of his works, which for the time being has slipped my mind, which hits off admirably this age-old situation.” I find myself in the shoes of that Wodehousian character - I am sure there was a poem which described beautifully the pleasure of meeting old friends after a long time but I am not able to recall which one it was.

I once heard Jorge Luis Borges say, 'You can read what you want but you can't write what you want; you can write only what you are able to.' It is generally agreed that I can't write a decent poem to save my life. That being the case, I will spare you the torture of reading my pathetic attempt to mimic that great poem. (It really was great, take my word for it.)

With all my batch mates
One of de riguers of any reunion is a DJ night and we had two of them. It is a time when middle-aged folks try to emulate youngsters while their amused children look on. A friend was telling us about the lunch menu at her office meetings. I forget the sequence of items but  the final course would always be thairu shaadam (curd rice). For many Tamilians, a meal is never complete without some thairu shaadam. A DJ night is the thairu shaadam equivalent of reunions.

PS: In the two years that I was in Ahmedabad, I had never thought of going to Sabarmati Ashram. Over the past year, I had been reading about Gandhi and have become a big admirer so I decided to go there on this trip.
With my brother-in-law at Sabarmati Ashram

Monday, January 8, 2018

Another curious nurse - II

The nurse seemed to have a persecution complex and seemed to feel that everybody was always talking about her. For example, she will sometimes clean the tracheostomy tube in the morning thinking that Jaya is not at home.  Jaya will come to my room after some time maybe to tell me about a guest who would be coming home later that day. About an hour or two later, the nurse will suddenly ask me why Jaya was displeased about her cleaning the tracheostomy. I will be surprised since the topic had never come up.

She will crib to me about such matters when Jaya is not around so I will not be able to clear the air. But I think even if somebody was around to clarify matters, she would not have been convinced since she was always right. She seemed to have an inferiority complex in front of Jaya which she countered by adopting a superiority complex. Like Neetu Singh, she used to keep saying,  ‘I know everything!’

Once Jaya had some health issues and the doctor told her to lose some weight. Accordingly she joined a gym which increased the nurse's ill-feeling towards her. The reason was that she used to see Jaya going alone to the gym and wondered why she was not taking me also along with her. She was convinced that if I did the exercises in the gym regularly, I would become alright! She would mention her idea to the physiotherapist who would just smile. She concluded that the physiotherapists were useless - she was giving them such great suggestions which were not being taken seriously!

She was fond of buying lottery tickets and would look religiously in the newspaper to check if she had won. (One of her favorite movie scenes was regarding a Malayalam comedy actor being fooled about a lottery ticket.) She is the only person I have met who had won a lottery. She used to win small amounts like Rs. 500 or Rs. 100 quite often. She would tell me that when she wins a large amount, she will buy me a wheelchair! She was convinced that nobody bothered about me. Although I don't know why she decided on a wheelchair because I never heard her criticizing the one I have.

She would imply that my feeding had not been proper and now that it was 'proper' after she came, I didn't have any excuse for simply lying on the bed without speech. She would say, 'If you don't speak, how will the nurses who come after me be able to understand you?' It didn't seem to occur to her at all that she had been here for only a year while my stroke had happened over 18 years ago.

A reason why the nurse thought that nobody was bothered about me was that Jaya often avoided coming to my room when she was present so that arguments are avoided. Jaya tells me that whenever she comes to my room, her eyes will immediately fall on the one thing that was not ok! It may be the feeding vessel that had not been washed properly, a bit of the medicine still sticking to the porcelain bowl in which the tablets are crushed, etc. The nurse will never agree that she is responsible for these things so when she is not around, Jaya will set these things right.

It is said that on Krishna's hint, Bhima tore Jarasanda's body into two halves and threw them in opposite directions. Listening to the nurse's comments, I would be similarly torn between the opposing emotions of wanting to keep my cool and wanting to 'snap' at her in irritation. In Very Good, Jeeves, when Bertie Wooster realises that Jeeves was actually steering him away from a soup when he had thought that he was being led into it, he says:
It was like those stories one used to read as a kid about the traveller going along on a dark night and his dog grabs him by the leg of his trousers and he says, 'Down, sir! What are you doing, Rover?'and the dog hangs on and he gets rather hot under the collar and curses a bit but the dog won't let him go and then suddenly the moon shines through the clouds and he finds he's been standing on the edge of a precipice and one more step would have - well anyway, you get the idea...
As so often in the past, my equivalent of that faithful dog was my lack of speech. I would try my best to be like a well-bred statue and would just try to contort my facial muscles into what  I would hope approximated a smile. I would not always succeed and I would sometimes go over the edge of the precipice much to my regret later because I must admit that she ultimately did stick on for one and a half years which was a lot more than what many other nurses managed. Also she was the only nurse in the last 4 years or so who got up at night when I wanted to pass urine.