Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Story Of My Experiments With Truth - M K Gandhi

I am not a Gandhi fan. At all.
The only reason I decided to read the book was that, it is the autobiography of a famous man. That too an Indian.
And he was instrumental in deciding the fate of India, whether or not I like it.

Having read the book, I must say there is no change in my sentiment towards him.
One thing I have learnt from this book however is that, men, very great and famous can actually be unbelievably bad at writing.

This is a badly written autobiography. Not that I have read many autobiographies, but I do know this one is really bad.
Add to that, the fact that this a Navjivan Trust publication.
Even as I turned the leaves, I could see the book growing old - pages tearing at the spine and all.
I wonder if the pride and joy with which Gandhi fans proclaim his generous act of restricting by law, the price of the book to 30 rupees a copy, for several years to come, is worth the quality of the book that will not survive a second reading.
Fortunately (for the already dilapidated book) not many would want to read it a second time.

1. There were way too many mentions of people whom Gandhi met in South Africa and India and none of the names are popular, so, I simply read on without interest.

2. The absence of dates obscures the picture. It leaves you without perspective of chronology. Part of the story is told. Part kept for later chapters. Therefore dates become important.

3. Certain parts of his life are omitted from the autobiography as he has already covered them in another book or article. There are missing pieces.

4. Too much digressing, too much dietetics, fasting etc.

5. Why were the Ali brothers arrested? What was wrong with Rowlatt Act? Nothing is explained. You don’t understand.

6. Much is said about Khilafat movement - but what was Khilafat?

7. The problem of Indigo plantation in Champaran is not explained in detail and even after reading the last sentence of that episode, I did not understand what the actual cause was.

These episodes might not have needed introduction/explanation those days. But he was mistaken in assuming that people would remember all about freedom struggle even after 50 years of it.

For these reasons and many more this is not a well written book.

The first 200 pages did not interest me much and hence took a long time to read.
The setting of the story was South Africa (mostly) and not a part of popular history taught in India.
The book actually became interesting at a point when Gandhi returned to India from South Africa and started his work in India. Only the last 100 pages are dedicated to India’s freedom struggle.

Those were the facts and now, my opinions.

I found the man eccentric. And I am not sure if his experiments and advocacies have any relevance in today’s time.

Since most of the experiments dealt with dietetics - eating one thing, not eating another, fasting and starving… he might as well have called the book ‘experiments with food’ instead of ‘experiments with truth’.

Some of his experiments are noted below.

Having one meal a day
Fasting (just like that)
Fasting as a penance for delinquency by pupils
Taking no grains
Taking no salt for years
Taking no pulses
Giving up milk
Living on a fruit diet

Most experiments conducted were at the convenience of others surrounding him (as he admits it himself).

What with his diet of fruit and nuts, goat’s milk and a thousand restrictions, wherever he went, he caused inconvenience to people around him, with everybody having to wake up the whole night peeling nuts for him, pay attention to him, take special/extra care and all.

I found all this complication directly in conflict with his principle of simplicity.

He believed that most of the illnesses could be cured with Earth and Water treatment. He refused medicines not only for himself, but his wife and son too, and that too when their condition was critical.

He refused milk even when he had pleurisy though Gokhale advised him to take milk.

He refused to take medicine even after 30 motions of dysentery – causing panic to everyone.

He threw away Kallenbach’s binoculars into the sea as they were against the ideal of simplicity.

Another of his experiments was Brahmacharya – abstinence from sex. With the consent of his wife, he took to Brahmacharya when he was 36. Not only that, he induced one of his friends to take the oath of Brahmacharya too.
But he does admit that he was very lustful before that. In fact when his father was on his deathbed, he was preoccupied with thoughts of his wife. He entered a room with his wife and by the time he came out, his father was dead. He confesses that he is most ashamed of himself.

What purpose all his eccentricity served, is not clear to me yet.

He condemns very generously, Hindu hypocrisy and slovenliness, as if there is no hypocrisy elsewhere in other countries and among other people.

After I closed the book, there remained in my mind the question of the relevance of such abstinence in the present times, especially since religion and spiritualism are no longer the opium of people unlike in yesteryears.
One of my friends argued that they are still the opium of people. Look at how many of them go to cults and how much money these cults are making.
True. Cults (Art Of Living, ISKCON, Sai Baba…) are making money but the shopping malls, the movie theatres, the eating joints and boutiques are making more money in a day than a cult makes in a month.
The opium of today’s people is entertainment, recreation and indulgence.
I don’t deny the presence of an element of spirituality or religion in the lives of people but they occupy a different position in the lives of people today than they did during Gandhi’s times. Today, spirituality is merely an instrument and not a goal in itself. People don’t go to spirituality in order to realize the supreme self but because there are other incentives. They do pranayama because it increases lung capacity, prevents cancer, keeps them healthy. They meditate not to realize the supreme self but because it releases stress, improves concentration/memory and so on.
So spirituality is a convenient and handy instrument with which people may further their goals, all of which are well within the paradigm of the material world (not the spiritual world) –the instrument of spirituality to achieve material goals.

Abstention from indulgence is not the objective of people anymore – not even of an idealist of today’s times.

To this, friend said ‘we do abstain. From sex, for instance. We are well into twenties and have abstained from sex.’
I say - the kind of abstinence we practice (not smoking, not drinking, not eating meat, abstaining from sex) is no abstinence at all. It comes naturally as a consequence of the unconscious conditioning of the mind. It’s a way of life. It does not require humungous effort on the part of people.
Whereas the abstinence advocated and practiced by Gandhi was not a way of life even in those days. People those days, though they abstained from indulgence to a much greater extent than we do today, did not practice the kind of abstinence that Gandhi did. He went out of the way.
His abstention required humungous effort and it was severe - not eating salt for 8 years, only groundnuts and dry fruit, goat’s milk, Brahmacharya after marriage and all. And how such abstention helped and whom, I do not see at all.

An idealist living in today’s times will surely, be required to live by a set of principles, follow some discipline and make certain sacrifices but what kind of ideals and goals will call for severe abstention of this kind, I do not understand.

For all the audacity of the above opinions and impressions that I hold to now, I know my knowledge of the man is only partial.
I am, therefore, going to give myself another chance by reading his biography. I am sure there are many of them. You are welcome to recommend one to me.

And now…

Facts I noted as I read…

During his struggle in South Africa, he was loyal to the British empire and believed it existed for the good of the world.

He did not believe in formal education imparted in schools and colleges and deprived his own children of formal education. He believed that children should learn through parents.

Imparting education through education and not formal training was what he believed in.

As Ahmedabad was an ancient centre of handloom weaving, it was likely to be the most favourable field for the revival of the cottage industry of hand-spinning.

He recruited people for the war. To fight for the empire.

“As I grew up, several well meaning attempts were made both in India and South Africa to reinvest me with the sacred thread but with little success. If the shudras may not wear it, I argued, what right have the other varnas to do so? And I saw no adequate reason for adopting what was to me an unnecessary custom. I had no objection to the thread as such, but the reasons for wearing it were lacking.”

Certain lines from the book that I found to be of value.

The newspaper press is a great power. But just as an unchained torrent of water submerges whole countrysides and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within. How many journals in the world would stand the test? But who could stop those that are useless? And who should be the judge? The useful and the useless must, like good and evil generally, go on together, and man must make his choice.

A poet is one who can call forth the good latent in the human breast. Poets do not influence all alike for everyone is not evolved in an equal measure.

A lawyer’s profession is a liar’s profession.

In trying to cure one old disease, we give rise to a hundred new ones; in trying to enjoy the pleasures of sense, we lose in the end even our capacity for enjoyment.

Ahimsa is a comprehensive principle. We are helpless mortals caught in the conflagration of himsa. The saying that life lives on life has a deep meaning in it. Man cannot for a moment live without consciously or unconsciously committing outward himsa. The very fact of his living - eating, drinking and moving about - necessarily involves some himsa, destruction of life, be it ever so minute. A votary of ahimsa therefore remains true to his faith if the spring of all his actions is compassion, if he shuns to the best of his ability the destruction of the tiniest creature, tries to save it and thus incessantly strives to be free from the deadly coil of himsa. He will be constantly growing in self-restraint and compassion, but he can never become entirely free from outward himsa.

So long as there are different religions, every one of them may need some outward distinctive symbol. But when the symbol is made into a fetish and an instrument of proving the superiority of one’s religion over others, it is fit only to be discarded. (the holy thread)

I prevented the struggle from assuming a political aspect.
Even where the end might be political, but the cause was non-political, one damaged it by giving it a political aspect and helped it by keeping it within its non-political limit. The Champaran struggle was a proof of the fact that disinterested service of the people in any sphere ultimately helps the country politically.

The performance of a duty automatically confers a corresponding right.

You can wake man only if he I really asleep. No effort that you may make will produce any effect upon him if he is merely pretending sleep.

This characteristic difference in the popular attitude- partiality for exciting work, dislike for quiet constructive effort…

My last thought. People those days were prepared to sacrifice their all for public work. I don’t know if they were superior people or their circumstances made them that way.

That’s all. Until I read more about Gandhi.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Embracing The Brazen

Last week, for the first time in my life, I watched a Belly Dance performance. That too in Jayanagar, a conservative South Bangalore area. That too at Jagadguru Sri Sri auditorium (JSS College auditorium), 5 minutes’ walk from my place.
First I thought it was a publishing mistake of where I found this show. They do that sometimes.
I went there anyway just in case the program was happening indeed.

When I saw from a distance that a crowd had gathered outside, I expected to meet the kind of girls and boys I bump into on Brigade road; fashionable and stylish, feeling out of place in Jayanagar on their first visit.

I couldn’t be more surprised when I got closer. I saw families, Chudidar and sari clad women with their husband and kids, some teenage college goers and I was amused to see so many grandmothers with salt and pepper hair among the audience. Some of them were eagerly pushing through their way when the entrance doors opened. To watch a belly dance performance!

I enjoyed the show on the whole.
The girls were in costumes; colourful skirts and sleeveless tops with their midriff and navel exposed.

Music was not very good. I was hoping to find some authentic Arabian music but didn’t.
Though the entire body has to move in all dance forms, the main focus of this dance form was the hip movement.
In between performances, the master of ceremonies read out verses of introduction to the next performance written in poetic style giving the whole program a solemn feel.

Some of the girls were dancing really well, but many of them were obese and it looked bad.
The troupe leader Payal performed solo and was the best - good looking, good body, nice red costume and perfect movements.
The grand finale with all the 35-40 girls on stage in green, orange, blue, pink red costumes was delightful to the eyes.

I walked home thinking how much had changed in our society. Though I enjoyed the show, the costume was quite a culture shock for me.

It was during the billion dollar celebrations of Cognizant (my erstwhile employer) that I first noticed that change was more rapid than ever, that generation gap was no longer between parents and children but between two batches of graduates passing out of college within 4 years of each other, that the gap between two generations had narrowed to 3 years from 30 years.

On the stage, dancing for the latest Hindi song, in palace grounds, were a group of girls wearing sphagetti straps fashioned after the costumes of Bollywood actresses performing in film-fare award functions. Following this performance, was another salsa dance where girls and boys danced in pairs and the boys lifted the girls up in the air, swung them around and twisted them around their body.

These were our juniors who had joined the company 3 years after us.

What was unthinkable in our time was such a casual act then! What more, parents of these girls were among the audience, cheering and clapping for them.
My parents would have shot me then and there or hanged themselves.
"Dancing with men on stage, wearing sphagetti straps and occasionally showing cleavage!" they would have excalaimed.
And most of the parents of friends and students of ‘my generation’ would have done the same.
What a change, I thought.

In the end of the belly dance too, Payal the troupe leader dedicated the show to her mother without whom she said the show would not have been possible.

What would have received a lot of jeer and leer, shouting and hooting just 5-6 years ago was well received with applause and admiring sighs and comments from the spectators. What would have been considered too bold for ‘our culture’ has now gained social acceptability.

There were dance performances and dancers 10 years ago too. Or even 20. But they always came from a certain ‘type’ of families/society and not from ‘our’ middle class conservative society.
I remember attending a Canara Bank function in Gujarat when I was 9-10 years old. A ripe woman danced to the song “Mere Hathon Mein Nau Nau Chudiyan Hai’ from the then latest movie, Chandni.
After the program, when I asked if she was the daughter or wife of one of the bank officers, my father’s colleague had said, shaking his head vigorously “No No, she is some dancer invited to perform for the occasion. Will any woman from our kind of families dance like that?”

As I said, boldness itself is not the change but the acceptance it has gained in the middle class society is a big change. Its percolation from the domain of the high society to the middle-class is a big change.
A leap, I should say.
I wonder how and when it came to happen. It’s amazing how imperceptible the phenomenon of change is. It’s amazing how something abhorred by an entire generation becomes an innocuous part of life within a few years.

I would like to know who these belly dancers were, which part of the country they come from, what their ethnicity was, whether they belong to the high society or the middle class, their caste, religion and other demographic details. Do all of them have families that consent their choice? Were there among them, some reluctant parents that had to be convinced? Were there run-away-from-home cases? All academic questions. No judgment here.

I am curious to know whom change has affected and to what extent. Are all sections changing uniformly or some sections only? To what extent people have accepted boldness and how and when this change came to happen?
With so much having gained acceptance, what remains forbidden yet?
And… what surprises we will wake up to, 10 years from now…

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Unfolding. One Day At A Time. Twin Paradox.

I bought an ABC book for the fraternal twins next door from Landmark. She gave it to one of them and the other was trying to snatch it. The mother said ‘henceforth, whatever you buy, you have to buy 2 copies’.
I said, no, you should teach them sharing and caring and discourage selfishness and exclusive possession. She said it did not work. Both of them want the same thing at the same time. And almost always, the boy has the upper hand in the scuffle.

She probably knows better but I am not sure.

She added that when she sent them to school, she would put them in 2 different sections. Remembering what I had read in ‘The God of Small Things’ about twins – that they were two bodies and one soul, especially if they were identical twins – the exact phrase the author used was ‘Siamese souls’, - I told her not to. Twins should not be separated, as far as possible.
(All the twins I have known in my life have gone to the same school and the same section. Why? These sisters in office that merely look like twins go to the restroom together).

So I told her not to separate them.
To which she replied that the doctor had advised her to do so. These teachers can be insensitive you know, she said. They will start comparing the two. Usually one of them is brighter, sharper than the other. So the teacher will taunt the weaker ‘He can write. Can’t you? ‘

A valid argument but quite an unusual thing to do – to put twins in separate sections.

And isn’t fiction based on reality? What about all that I read in the book ‘God of Small Things’ with twin protagonists?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Unfolding. One Day At A Time.

I joined Twitter a few months ago. Initially I was not sure what to tweet about. I am sure everyone had a similar experience. And only after a few weeks of tweeting, a pattern comes out.

For a long time now, I have been using Twitter to journal. The restriction of 140 characters made it rather frustrating. Also your tweets are at the mercy of the owner of the site who may delete your diary entries anytime and without a warning.
So I decided to start a new blog just to journal. An online diary of sorts.

I actually started a new blog yesterday, chose a nice template and was all set. I was not sure if it should be a private or a public blog. After much thinking, I chose the name ‘Unfolding. One Day At A Time.’ I had decided to keep the posts small. 280 characters if not 140. But constitutionally incapable as I am of short posts, I ended up typing 1293 characters (with space) in my first post.

Today, I have decided to do away with the second blog (I have always wondered why people have multiple blogs) and make my online diary part of this blog itself.

Soon after the happening, incidents and occurances leave impressions that seem important or noteworthy. In the heat of the moment, it is difficult to tell the trivial from the momentous. You have the impulse to record them all. But if you read the old entries of your diary, most of them seem a waste of paper and only a few of them evoke the memory of someone or something that made a difference, changed you in a way - from the most imperceptible to the revolutionary – a conversation, a meeting, a movie, a dinner, a purchase, a restaurant, a song, a book, a journey, a solitude…

In this series, I will record such happenings of my everyday life – if there is a happening.
I shall use some filtering to write only what I would like to read again after an year.

For the rest of trivialities, there is always Twitter.

I loved the template of the blog I am now going to have to delete and I think it worth capturing a sample of that template here. So attached is the picture…

Friday, September 17, 2010

Ladakh - Day 10 - The Unexpected Turn of Return

I have to stay in a place only for 3 days to feel its my home and I have been living there forever.
Heavy at heart, I left Changspa to the airport. The flight was delayed, by I am not sure how many minutes.
They took away my baggage and checked it in, telling me it was a sensitive airport. I had been told by someone Srinagar airport was sensitive.
Just when I thought it was all over, it turned out there was some surprise delight waiting for me during take-off.

From the tiny window, I saw an ocean of mountains below; miniature Ladakh; a view you get only from the plane. I was absolutely delighted. How smooth, how harmless, how innocent these looked from that height! One had to only touch them to get a bruise.

I landed in Delhi and my friend Rajan, a Delhi-ite I know through Toastmasters, was waiting outside.
We drove to this resort passing India gate, Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Kutub Minar on the way.

The wide 8-10 lane roads in a particular stretch with no human in sight; not even a dog, no roadside shops in sight and vehicles zooming away without a care –was most depressing to me. All large structures – large organizations, large cities - are characterized by alienation, estrangement and apathy but this was alienation at it’s worst. Or that’s how it seemed to me. And I don’t think I want to impute this to the intoxication of the mountains.

After lunch we chatted for a few hours. I showed him some pictures and he was awed. Come evening and it was time to return.

We did not care too much for a margin of time and left just sufficiently in advance to reach the airport on-time.
We had journeyed for 15 minutes and I suddenly remembered I had forgotten my camera charger in the resort. After a brief one minute dilly dallying, we decided to take a U. the car sped to the resort, Rajan ran inside, grabbed the battery while I waited in the car.

And this time, the 10 lane hell was not as free as it was that noon. We sped through vacant stretches, of which, there weren’t many. We honked. We scrambled. We switched lanes. There was just half an hour left.

Our last hope was that the flight was delayed. Rajan asked me to call up the airline. And we scrambled. This time, for the right number. I dialed this number and that before I could speak to the right persons. I was told that the flight was on time.

Rajan was speeding now. We had to stop at the toll gate. There were 3 cars before us and each second of waiting had the weight of an eternity upon us. We paid when it was our turn and we were speeding again.

We saw the airport but it was to take us 5 more minutes of driving before we reached the right terminal. I said a quick goodbye, grabbed my luggage and ran in. Rajan left at once telling me he would most probably have to pay a fine for stopping the car in the wrong lane or some such thing.

I reach the airline counter for the boarding pass. There were only 15 more minutes left.

I gave the staff my e-ticket. But alas! She shook her head and said I was too late. Passengers were expected to report 30 minutes before departure, failing which they were not allowed to board!

I called up Rajan in a panic and he asked me to tell her it was a medical emergency.
I tried but she shook her head firmly.

And then, after a few minutes, she said she would put me on another flight of a sister airline company which was flying 40 thence. I would incur not a rupee extra. What a relief it was. And I didn’t know these fellows were capable of such generosity.

I called up Rajan and our joy knew no bounds.

Knowing I had 40 minutes, and driving as he was, still in the proximity of the airport, he asked me to expect him at the entrance in a few minutes.

Pushing the trolley, I went to the entrance, shook hands briefly, thanked him profusely by which time I realized I had to rush if I did not want to miss this flight too.

I actually ran, my trolley speeding on its wheels on the smooth granite airport floor. When I thought I was going to hit this guy and cause some serious injury, I panicked for I could not break my own speed suddenly. But fortunately the trolley stopped when I released the handle with the kind of meticulousness that only a machine is capable of (I like technology sometimes).

In a few minutes, I was on the plane, occupying the very last row, and happy to have it all for myself.

It was an episode from Bollywood.

And yet, it was not over.

We few and flew, it got darker and darker but the light at the horizon would not dissolve. It turned from a yellow to orange to crimson even as I kept looking at my watch that showed 8:30…

Monday, September 13, 2010

Ketan Panchal's Review Of My Blog

Ketan Panchal, a fellow blogger became a follower of my blog a few days ago and was kind enough to include me in his blogroll. Thanks Ketan :-)
With his permission (of course), I share with you all what he has to say about me.
Your comments are welcome :-)

Narcissist by Sowmya. This is one of the most individualistic blogs that I have found on the blogosphere. And by which I mean, there is very little she writes dispassionately. Everything on her blog has a stamp of her person - her feelings, her opinions, her ideals. She has this amazing ability to transform into words and pictures, everything that goes into making a shower of sensations an experience - sights, sounds, taste, smell, people... The instant impression on reading some of her posts is one of living 'inside' of Sowmya, and which is not at all a bad thing, because it is a very interesting world in there! Her posts make you feel you're taking a walk on a winding path along with her thoughts!

She is a very well-read person, and many of her posts are detailed reviews of books and lyrics she had liked.

I recommend:
This Too Shall Pass
Zest. For Life. In Spite Of Life

Categories: Anecdotes, Catharsis, Reviews, Poetry, Essays/opinion

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Ghosts, Shadows & Memories

Other Worldly. That’s how I am. That’s who I am.

My existence is divided between reality and imagination. And it’s an unequal division. And as you have guessed, the bigger portion is in the firm grip of imagination.

The real people in my imaginations, those making imaginary conversations with me and those silently watching me make conversations with other people in the imagination. Quietly observing me, admiring me, loving me, caring for me, growing fond of me.

Shadows, ghosts and memories that live with me every day and every night. That’s who I live with more than the flesh and blood people that surround me in reality.

Laughter. Togetherness. Fights. Anger. Reconciliations. All imaginary. Only my love for them is a reality.

It’s alarming and I don’t know since when, these have come to constitute my life.

These people became part of my world because they meant so much to me. And the more I think of them, the more space I give to them in my imaginations, the more they come to mean to me.

My love for them, my attachment to them is a reality that feeds on my imagination, for want of sufficient fodder of reality to feed on.
And it’s amazing and dangerous how much more fodder imagination can provide than reality.

Thus, reality and imagination feed on each other in a vicious circle spiralling me to dangerous heights.

I have lived and re-lived imaginary conversations and episodes so many times in my mind that the line between reality and imagination has become blurred and smudged.
Sometimes I do not know whether they really said those things or I imagined they said them, whether they had that look in their eyes when they spoke to me or I am imagining they looked at me with those eyes.
I have to impress deep and hard into my mind that line which is blurring and reinforce the demarcation out of fear it will dissolve completely.

But what do I mean to these people? Something. Perhaps nothing.

He passed by my desk, shook hands with two others, and walked out of the floor as they wished him happy journey. He forgot to tell me. Just like that.

And I woke up from my dream. The vicious spiral exploded in a brief moment of painful disillusionment and brought a torrent of tears.

Occasionally a jolt of reality presents enough proof of the fact that these people I live with are mere ghosts and shadows. All their responses, their reactions, the lives they share with me and the relationship they have with me have been created by my mind.
For all the feverishness with which I love them day and night, I am just someone they bump into and greet for politeness’s sake. They like me. Sure. But that’s all.
I know it. It hurts. I resolve to accept and sustain my disillusionment.
But only for a moment.

Before long my imagination engulfs me again and I submerge into the comfortable, familiar abyss of illusions.

When the sentinels and defenders of my good sense try to salvage me, I fool them. I point to them those fleeting moments of smile, laughter and sweetness these people brought to me casually, by the way, without looking back and without noticing how my heart leapt.
And I reassure myself that I mean the world to them. Like they mean to me.

And at last when I have let go a shadow, a ghost, a memory, I have already picked up other shadows, ghosts and memories.

I believe what I imagine so often and so completely, that believing what I see has become unbelievably difficult.

Like those dreamers in that movie who are so addicted to dreaming, to whom dreams have become reality that they go to sleep everyday so they can wake up to their reality.