Archive | October, 2019

Thoughts on the eve of Diwali – October 2019

26 Oct

Another year has gone by and tomorrow, 27 Oct 2019, India will celebrate Diwali.

In Hindustan (Hindi speaking states of India), Diwali is celebrated as the day when Lord Ram returned to Ayodhya with his wife, brother and Hanuman after killing Ravana.

In some areas in North India, Diwali is celebrated as the day when the Pandavas returned to their kingdom in Hastinapur, along with their wife Draupadi and mother Kunti.

Diwali is also celebrated as the day on which, Goddess Lakshmi emerged from the sea of milk. The night of Diwali is celebrated with colors to celebrate the marriage of Lord Vishnu to Lakshmi.

In Eastern India, Diwali celebrations remind us of the victory of Kali over demons.

About 50 years ago, in Kerala and Tamilnadu there was virtually no celebration of Deepavali (not Diwali). However, some communities in the Deccan Plateau, located South of the Vindhyas, in the area between the Malabar Coast and the Coromandel Coast, celebrate Diwali as the day on which Lord Krishna triumphed over Narakasura.

Kerala splurges on the Onam festival at which time it is believed that King Mahabali visits his people. The most important festival of Tamilnadu is Pongal, although they have a festival of lights known as “Karthigai Deepam” which falls during the month of Karthigai (Nov-Dec). Lamps are lit to celebrate the day when the moon aligns with the Karthigai constellation. It is also believed to be the day on which Lord Shiva appeared in Thiruvannamalai hills and to commemorate this event, a huge fire is lit atop the hill.

Due to high economic growth and low population growth in the South Indian States, there has been a steady flow of North Indian migrant labour arriving in the South Indian States in search of jobs since the 1980’s. This explains the celebration of Diwali in some districts in South India at present.

For some communities in Kerala and Tamilnad, Deepavali is celebrated as the day Lord Krishna defeated Narakasura.

For the Sikhs, Diwali is celebrated in memory of the day when Guru Har Gobind was freed along with fifty two rajas from the Gwalior Fort. This celebration coincides with the Hindu festival of Diwali, although the Sikhs call the day, “Bandi Chhorh Divas” (day of release of detainees).

On Diwali day, usually in October-November, the Sikhs have a one-day celebration in their Gurdwaras. Illuminations with Deewé (earthen oil lamps) decorate and light up the Gurdwaras and homes.

For Jains, Diwali is the day when Mahavira attained nirvana.

***

After the death of Aurangazeb in 1707, the mighty Mughal Empire began to break up and regional rulers consolidated their power even as central control began to crumble. The violent raid of Nadir Shah in 1739 in which thousands of innocent citizens of Delhi were slaughtered was probably the death blow to the Mughal Empire. Accumulated Mughal treasure of centuries including the famous Peacock Throne of Shah Jahan was carried away by Nadir Shah.

The East India Company which had come to Delhi as petitioners to the Great Mughal now began to assert its power, enforced by a trained army and navy. Technology in the form of firearms and gunpowder enhanced and consolidated their power.

After the Mutiny in the Bengal Army in 1857, the East India Company shed the pretense of being vassals of the Mughal Emperor and gradually morphed into the British Indian Empire, after sending the last Mughal into exile in Burma (Myanmar).

At the time of Indian Independence in 1947, in addition to the areas directly ruled by the British, there were some 565 Princely States which were allowed limited powers although they were under the oversight of Political Officers called, “Residents”.

So we have the “India that is Bharat” which was handed over to an Indian Government which legislated the partition of the country into India and Pakistan (which had territories in the North West and the North East called East Pakistan.)

There is an appearance of similarity in religion, culture and language in this patchwork state, which on closer inspection reveal significant differences.

The way Diwali is celebrated all over India is a good reminder that despite our different beliefs and practices, there is an overall unity and good natured co-existence. Pax Indica is disturbed when we mistake unity for uniformity. Real skill lies in managing the diversity, not using brute force to produce ethnic, religious, cultural and political clones in the country.

***

Diwali “celebrates a move from darkness to light. It is the ultimate triumph of good over evil.” (https://www.narendramodi.in/diwali-a-move-from-darkness-to-light-the-ultimate-triumph-of-good-over-evil-3082)

A well known prayer frequently used in Indian schools and during spiritual functions in India is a Shanti Mantra from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishads (1.3.28):

असतोमा सद्गमय ।
तमसोमा ज्योतिर् गमय ।
मृत्योर्मामृतं गमय ॥
ॐ शान्ति शान्ति शान्तिः ।।

asato mā sadgamaya
tamasomā jyotir gamaya
mrityormāamritam gamaya
Oṁ śhānti śhānti śhāntiḥ

From ignorance, lead me to truth;
From darkness, lead me to light;
From death, lead me to immortality
Om peace, peace, peace

Daylight and darkness provide a basis for the natural rhythm of our lives. They also symbolise the binaries of knowledge and ignorance, chaos and order, and life and death.

In other religions too, moving from darkness to light; from ignorance to knowledge is a recurring theme.

There are frequent references in the Bible to darkness and light. In John 8:12, Jesus is identified with light:

Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life‘”.

Pre-Christian Gods like Mithra and Helios were both Sun Gods who represented light which dispels darkness. Mithra was an Indo-Iranian God while Helios was a Greek God. Sunday is believed to have been made the day of worship for Christians because Emperor Constantine of Rome (AD 306–337) wanted to superimpose Christianity over Mithraism with minimum changes in worship rituals.

The Koran says, “Allah is the Guardian of the believers — He brings them out of darkness and into light. As for the disbelievers, their guardians are false gods who lead them out of light and into darkness. It is they who will be the residents of the Fire. They will be there forever.” {Chapter (2) sūrat l-baqarah (The Cow) Verse (2:257)}

Enlightenment is a central concept of Buddhism. The word “Bodhi“, a Sanskrit and Pali word that means “awakening,” is often translated as “enlightenment.” For the devout Buddhist, enlightenment means finding the truth about life and achieving Nirvana which releases him or her from the endless cycle of rebirth.

This year, as we celebrate Diwali, let us re-dedicate our lives to continuing our journey from darkness to light. Let us consciously reject the powers of darkness that seek to envelop us and take us back to the void where life began.

***

Musings on a Lazy Sunday – 6 Oct 2019

8 Oct

In the year 2001, I got one of my most prestigious assignments with the Asian Development Bank (TA 3485-IND) named, “Participatory Poverty Assessment for all 14 districts of Kerala”. I got a life-time opportunity to travel to the farthest corners of my home state, in search of poor communities. I carried a letter of introduction from the Secretary, State Planning Board, the Kerala Government department to which I was attached. I had six months to travel, interview communities, eat local food, find an excuse to buy an expensive camera with extra lenses and make plans for writing a novel on poverty and a violent reaction to it.

In the midst of my regular field work, I was constantly on the lookout for sources of the undying spirit and pride of hardworking Malayalees all over the world.

One of my visits took me to Kumaranelloor, about 50 kms north of Thrissur and 15 kms south of Kuttipuram, which lies on the northern bank of Bharathapuzha.

Just as the river Periyar dominates the culture of Travancore & Cochin, the Bharathapuzha [river] dominates the culture of the Malabar. These two are Kerala’s longest rivers (Periyar 244 kms and Bharathapuzha 209 kms).

A professional colleague insisted I should accompany him to the home of his wife’s parents and have a traditional meal. I joyfully agreed and was delighted to meet Prof. K.Vijayakumar who at that time was Head of the Department of History at the Government Sanskrit College in Pattambi.

He was sufficiently impressed with my curiosity about the culture of Malabar to give me a copy of his book, “Kalaripayatt – The Power and Beauty of Keralam”. Vijayakumar is a specialist in “Medieval Warfare in Kerala”.

This book is a treatise on Kalaripayatt, the martial art of Kerala. Although my Malayalam is just good enough to pass Kerala’s literacy test, I manfully read the whole book and made detailed notes.

I made references to this book in both my novels, “The Nawab’s Tears” (2018) and the “Return of the Yakshi” (2019).

The sandy banks of the Bharathapuzha river was traditionally the stage for the Mamankam festival which was held once in twelve years. The popular belief was that on the first day of the Mamankam, Goddess Ganga descended into Bharathapuzha and hallowed the river waters.

The Mamankam celebrations were held under the oversight of the Thirunavaya Temple which is on the northern bank of the Bharathapuzha. The contests included debates, intellectual contests, cultural activities, rituals and martial art performances.

The Thirunavaya temple is one of the 108 Tiruppathis (Most Holy Temples) in the country. Eleven of these are in Kerala and Thirunavaya is one of them.

The Mamankam celebrations were discontinued towards the end of the Eighteenth century. The memories of feudal Malabar still exist and contribute to the pride and glory of the Malabar region.

My college friend P.K.Moideenkutty loved to boast that the waters of the Bharathapuzha flowed in his veins.

One of the assertions in K. Vijayakumar’s book that made an impression on me concerned the difference between the concepts of Deception (Adavu) and Treachery (Chathi). Deception is an important item in the bag of techniques of the Kalari exponent. Treachery, including taking advantage of a fallen or wounded opponent is against the Code of the Warrior. The cult of “Chaver Pada” or suicide fighters was developed among the Kalari-trained soldiers. Their honour would never allow them to turn around and retreat. They would fight to the last breath.

After a lifetime of living with the certainty that deception is mistruth, the Way of the Warrior presented a challenge to my basic values.

We have here a basic conflict between two opposing philosophical views.

On the one hand, we have the moral position that we must live by principles, and our actions should not be judged by the results but by whether or not they were in conformance with the performance of our duty.

An opposing, utilitarian view holds that our actions are right if they benefit the majority of people as a result of our telling the truth or lying.

With a national motto like सत्यमेव जयते (Satyam-eva jayate) Truth alone triumphs”, we can hardly push “truth” out of sight as inconvenient! This motto is a part of a mantra from the ancient Indian scripture Mundaka Upanishad.

Quid est veritas?” (What is the truth?) is Pontius Pilate’s question to Jesus after which he declares to the Jews gathered there, “I find in him no fault [at all] (John 18:37-38, KJV).”

That brought me to the subject of writing fiction, which raises relevant questions about truth and mistruth.

Frequently when reading a novel, which has been declared to be ‘fiction’ with the statutory disclaimer that the characters, situations and events are all fictitious, I wonder how it is possible to write something so completely fictitious…

An interesting quote suggests, “I know that every word of the conversations between the men, every action, is invented, made up, to be precise, lies. And yet after finishing the story I was emailing fellow writers saying buy this book, read this story, it oozes with ‘it’, it resonates, it lingers, it makes you feel, it makes you sense a fundamental truth, let’s you see.” (Alex Keegan, The Art of Telling Lies).

Thomas Babington Macaulay observed, somewhat cynically, I think, that “The object of oratory alone is not truth, but persuasion”.

We are all familiar with the power of oratory and how it can sway herds of sheep who dont worry about truth or logic or reasoning. Do we worry that influential orators may be telling lies to the masses?

Historical fiction presents its own challenges because it requires hop-step-and-jump between known ‘facts’ (with all their inherent prejudices and propagandistic content) and creative sub-plots. Fictitious characters and conversations may not be essential for creating dramatic effects or for racking up the tension; but may nevertheless be important to make the story sound authentic and help the reader to understand the environment within which the story unravels.

This element of story telling, known as ‘exposition’ is essential for explaining situations and providing the building blocks that will be used to lay a strong foundation, and for the desired superstructure of the story. Sometimes a flashback is used to add depth to a character or a situation. Readers understand that a character is the product of his or her history and flashbacks help to build the cause-effect connection.

A fiction writer can use his creative license to cook up up the perfect glue to hold the story together. Apart from descriptions of visuals, sounds, smells, and natural phenomena, description of what a character feels can help build a strong connect with the reader.

Exposition should not become a distraction and break the continuity of the story plot. This is where zooming into the past and getting back to the present time becomes an art of superfast time travel, saying a lot with a few words.

Fiction helps authors to exhume the truth about ‘facts’ (“true facts”???) and their feelings with regard to them. In daily life we tend to cover up facts to avoid confronting the pain of our failure, our hurt or our betrayal. Story telling can bring out the bare facts forcing us to stand up to the truth. This means that stories help us re-write our life’s stories through our characters and examine a “what-if?” situation. In this sense, fiction writing brings us face to face with the truth as only we can present it.

On Friday, 2 December 2016, I wrote a love story titled “Lal Salaam, Captain Shree” which told the story of a romantically involved extremist couple who came under police fire. The couple had to part ways and years later the man got an unexpected communication from Captain Shree. This story was published on FaceBook.

That evening, I got a message from a very lively lady friend to ask, “So why didnt you marry Captain Shree?”

I was disoriented for a few seconds until I realised that my friend thought that my FB story was true and about me. I had a hard time convincing her that it was pure fiction.

I admitted to her that like Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses said:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.”

Fiction writing helps to reshape humdrum stories by creatively ‘touching them up’ with a gripping process and a dramatic climax. Banish boredom, welcome to the world of mesmerising plots and surprise endings.

You can create villains based on people whom you have observed being cruel and brutal to others. You can transform a plain looking housewife into a beautiful princess. That is the power of creative story telling.

I am sure Ian Fleming came across a real-life Korean bodyguard who inspired the silent but menacing character of “Odd-Job” in the James Bond novel, GOLDFINGER.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created his famous character Sherlock Holmes based on Joseph Bell, a surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. “Like Holmes, Bell was noted for drawing broad conclusions from minute observations.”

Where does the truth end and where does deception begin?

In this age of “Alternate Facts” and “Fake News” do we cling to the “truth” or go along with the masses and accept what they believe as the truth?