Sabarimala and the “Tradition” Conundrum!

As soon as the Sabarimala verdict was out a few days back whereby, the court pronounced that women of all ages can now be allowed to visit the Sabarimala temple, a childhood friend of mine asked me for my reaction to the verdict. He posed the question to me because, I was basically from Kerala and having known that I have been visiting Sabarimala since childhood. My view on the verdict was that as times change, situations change, ground reality changes. Time for traditions, culture etc. etc. to keep evolving with the times. And hence I was for the verdict.   Of course this was a simplistic view of a complex case the verdict of which, is now threatening to disturb the pluralistic, multicultural and accommodative fabric of our Indian society.

 

My view on the verdict was based on the premise that the reasons, (though may be valid at one point in time) for not allowing women in the menstruating age to visit Sabarimala, may no longer be valid in this day and age. And hence this ban doesn’t make sense any more. And I was also of the view that any condition set by force is fundamentally against principles of freedom and is discriminatory. And more importantly, I felt that if my teenage daughter asks tomorrow why she cannot visit the Sabarimala temple, I thought I had no tenable answer.

My view, that the Hindu traditions, religious practices and beliefs have never been cast on stone and have always steered their way along conveniences of mankind, has been consistent with my reaction to the Jallikattu controversy or the more recent controversy around Carnatic singers singing Christian songs. In the Jallikattu issue, I opined that Jallikattu in its present form is certainly cruel to the animal and needs to be reformed. In the interests of preserving tradition and culture a total ban is uncalled for but, certainly safeguards need to be put in place to prevent unethical and unhealthy practices.

However, in the past few days post the verdict I have been seeing some arguments against the verdict, some making sense and some completely off the mark. And the sensible arguments have sort of made me change my mind on my reaction to the verdict.

In Kerala, a state with almost 100% literacy and social indices far ahead of the other states in India, the women have been leading the fight back against the verdict. One of the pieces I read against the verdict said that women don’t feel discriminated at all in being allowed to visit Sabarimala. And it is a question of respecting a tradition which has been in place for so many years.  This set me thinking and this piece is the result of the churn in my mind, I guess.

What sets Sabarimala to be different from other temples in Kerala or for that matter in India, is the process of visiting the temple itself. One cannot visit Sabarimala just like that, though these days it is much easier and is more accessible. First of all, the temple is not open 365 days for pilgrims.  Even in the present times of increased travel comforts, the journey is comparatively arduous and one needs to make the last 6 kms. of hilly stretch from the Pamba river base to Sannidhanam by walk.  (“Dolly service” to carry people up this stretch is available). And there has been the tradition which most men follow of observing a Vratham for 41 days before you travel observing certain practices including celibacy during the period. As part of the rituals, you carry what is known as Iru mudi kettu and carry that all along the trek. And till now, women in the menstruating age have not been allowed. So all these traditions are what that finally make Sabarimala different and what it is today. Of course the practices have gone through their own evolution as I mentioned before, in tune with the times and available technology!

Sans these traditions and beliefs, Sabarimala will be like another temple, where one can visit whenever. If the Government wants, it can lay motor able roads right up to the Sannidhanam so that one doesn’t have to do the physical labouring from Pamba.  So, that brings to the main issue. If the following of these traditions is what eventually makes Sabarimala special, why to tinker with them now? If majority of women in Kerala and outside have not been concerned about being discriminated and were #readytowait where is the issue?

Just like this practice in question in Sabarimala, if one digs in deep, there are countless such beliefs, traditions and practices being followed in many places of worship all over India. Some of it may push the borders of one’s freedom, may seem discriminatory and even downright hypocritical. But which make those places of worship unique and special in their own way. It is important for us to pick the right battles to fight which have larger social ramifications rather than pick on potentially harmless issues.

Therefore, I now tend to agree with the lone dissenting voice and ironically the lone lady voice in the Supreme Court Bench – Justice Indu Malhotra, who said that it is not for courts to determine which religious practices are to be struck down except in issues of social evil like ‘Sati’.

Having said that, I am not buying some of the other frivolous arguments against the verdict being bandied upon bringing in false equivalence around practices being followed in other religions like Islam,..  It’s up to those faiths to pick up their fights!

If India as a country is sort of unique in the world, it is because of our strong roots, culture rooted in traditions and our unwavering belief in “Faith”! So in matters of “Faith”, it will be ideal if the interested parties deliberate among themselves and bring in the reforms when needed rather than throwing the ball to the Courts which necessarily have to pronounce judgments keeping aside traditional beliefs and the underlying emotions involved. And as a society, I do believe that this judgement has opened up a Pandora’s Box and could set a precedent for many an issues involving “faith”, all of it may not have a peaceful pass as this one!

Kallum Mullum,.. – Kaalukku Methai,…” is one among the many slogans you raise to spur yourself while walking up the hill of Sabarimala barefoot. It means stones and thorns are like bed (of roses) to the feet. For an ardent Sabarimala devotee, the judgement though, is seen as a bed of stones and thorns in his hitherto peaceful journey! Having been conflicted on this one for a few days, I do believe that I have a plausible answer to give to my daughter on this “tradition” conundrum!

Image courtesy: Scroll.in

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Carnatic music’s recent discordant note!

In the ultra-fast moving news cycle these days, the rage over few Carnatic musicians singing songs on the Christ, is already behind us. Have not seen any vitriolic or otherwise WhatsApp forwards or posts on Facebook on this, in the past few days. Except for an update that, a group of volunteers from Washington DC have managed to organise a concert of T.M.Krishna at the same date and time as his earlier cancelled concert at Maryland temple. The organisers at the temple unilaterally cancelled his concert after Krishna tweeted out that he will from now on release a new Carnatic song on Allah, Christ,… every month!

To back up a bit, the trigger for Krishna’s announcement was the uproar among Carnatic music rasikas and right-wing apologists on social media over a proposed concert of O.S.Arun (titled ‘Yesuvin Sangama Sangeetam’ on the 25th of August in Chennai and its aftermath.  Arun quickly announced that he was backing out of the programme. The controversy didn’t end there. Other Carnatic musicians like Nithyashree and Aruna Sairam were also dragged into the muddle, citing some past instances of them singing Christ songs. They had to issue disclaimers, which they did.

One person who went against the grain was T.M.Krishna. As we all know, Krishna has been the rebel with a cause in the classical music scene these days. I don’t agree with him completely on some of the issues he has raised over Carnatic music but we will keep that for another Sunday afternoon blog! On this issue though, I tend to agree with him. He went on to say that there is nothing wrong in Carnatic musicians singing on non-Hindu Gods.

The furore over these Carnatic musicians were around few points and the goal post kept changing as the debate ensued.

First, it was about how can Carnatic music be used to sing songs on other religions? Is it not blasphemy? I understand completely where this argument is coming from. Carnatic music has its strong moorings on the Bhakti rasa. Invariably the compositions of the Great Trinity of Carnatic music – Thiagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Shyama Sastri are all on Hindu Gods. For that matter even the other composers outside the Trinity like Swati Tirunal, Bhadrachala Ramdas, Annamacharya, Papanasam Sivan and so on basically sang on Hindu Gods. This doesn’t mean that Bhakti rasa of Carnatic music cannot be used to invoke Gods of other religions and cultures.  If we accept that Carnatic is a form of classical music and music is universal, we must be open to it being adopted by other cultures.

While we are quick to denounce Carnatic musicians adopting other cultures, our hearts swell with pride when others adopt our culture. While on this, the oft repeated example is of K.J.Yesudas a born Christian who learnt Carnatic music under Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and till today revered as a top notch Carnatic vocal singer. As I know, his rendition of the famous Harivarasanam song is used every day in many Ayyappa temples in India and may be outside when the temple nada (door) is closed in the night after the day’s proceedings. And I have lost count of the times, I have been forwarded the clip of him singing the song live at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala as a matter of extolling the virtues of our tolerance and secular credentials.

And who can forget John Higgins, originally a famous Jazz musician who learnt Carnatic music out of his passion and love for the art. There is a story of him being denied entry into the Udupi Krishna temple because he was not a practicing Hindu.  The authorities relented after he sang the popular Kriti ‘Krishna Nee Begane….’ sitting outside the temple! Until fate snatched his life too soon, Higgins Bhagavathar, as he came to be known, was a celebrated Carnatic musician in India.

Similarly, when we forward the clip of the Malay-Chinese singer, Chong Chiu Sen singing ‘Ninnu Ko ri…, with the associated diction, body language of a veteran Carnatic singer at Puttabarti, we do that with a sense of pride and happiness that our culture is being adopted by others. So if the reverse happens, why the insecurity?

When these were logically pointed out, the argument then shifted from blasphemy to plagiarism. That these singers of the like of Arun, Nithyashree,.. were plagiarising songs of the great Thiagaraja by replacing the word Rama with Jesus/Yesu and so on. As much as I heard those songs, I didn’t find this. The songs were indeed based on ragas of popular Thiagaraja Kritis on Lord Rama but I didn’t see the virtues of Lord Rama being mapped to the Christ. While I accept that swapping words of Hindu Gods with others is a matter of gross impropriety, lifting tunes (ragas) isn’t such a big crime. In matter of composing music, imitation is the best form of flattery!

Then after, the discussions took more ominous turn. That of Christian organisations using Carnatic music and thereby musicians for their long-standing agenda of “conversion” in India. The whole issue of conversion is a complex topic with social, economic and cultural overtones. So, without getting into justification of the same, my limited point would be – To popularise Christianity and promote the religion, will not a more popular and mass music/art form be more effective than Carnatic which, as we know today has a limited following and reach? So, I find this conspiracy theory a bit far-fetched. Here again, I would like to point out that for a country which has withstood the onslaught of different cultures fairly successfully, the kind of insecurity is bereft of wisdom.

I am an ardent follower of Carnatic music and the subject matter of the composition doesn’t come in my way of enjoying the same. As we know there are many compositions in Carnatic music overflowing with Sringara rasa, patriotism and so on and we do enjoy all of them. In any concert, compositions of Subramania Bharatiyar which are not necessarily on Hindu Gods are a big hit!

The unfortunate part is, fearing a major backlash, except for T.M.Krishna who held his ground, all other musicians apologised on social media. It was tragic to hear a viral audio clip of a telecon between O.S. Arun and a Right wing activist who threatened of dire consequences if Arun didn’t mend his ways. Arun, who in that call initially tried to justify his position, later cowed down!

In this context, it is heartening to see that there are more mature and level-headed supporters of Carnatic music who managed to organise an alternate concert of T.M.Krishna when his original programme was cancelled.

Music has no boundaries. Carnatic included. Listening to his piece by T.M.Krishna on Allah which he sang in Mumbai in raga Behag is a case in point.

As a closing, I would only like to invoke the words of the great Thiagaraja in his fine composition – Pibare Ramarasam, Rasane,.. the translation of which goes like this:
“Drink the essence of the name of Rama, o tongue!
It will help you remove or be distant from association with sin or be distant from those who cause you to sin and you will be fulfilled with many kinds and types of rewards/gains”

If only those who took offence, follow this in letter and spirit and cut the bile.

Padmini to Padmavati to Padmaavat – The Journey from history to a ballad to Opera to a film!

Finally Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus hit the screens in Mumbai last week and I happened to watch it. I liked the film for its making apart from other reasons which make for a good one time watch! No, this is not review of the film, but there are spoilers ahead. In the whole of the long 2 hours and 44 minutes running time of the film, I didn’t find anything even remotely close to bringing dishonor to Rajputs or any others for whom the now infamous Karni Sena is holding brief. The fact that the Sena is continuing to spit venom and wreck violence in the country in spite of this, set me into spending most of the free time this weekend on doing some background research (read as Google search) on the topic. The findings led me to pen this out of turn 2nd post on this topic today.  My 1st post titled “The rise and rise of the Censor Senas” on this (read here) was when the film couldn’t get beyond the censors in November.

Much of what I am writing here traces its origin to what I found on the internet in different sites including Wikipedia. Since the authenticity of a source like Wikipedia is suspect, I hesitate to make this as a presentation of facts but just as some material of interest and intrigue!  I feel that what Bhansali set out to make and ended up making could be two different versions. And here’s why.

It’s only very recently I came to know that Padmavati is the same as Rani Padmini the Queen of Mewar in Rajasthan. I have faint memories of Rani Padmini from the Amar Chitra Katha book which I read as a kid like millions in India. Most of our lessons in history are steeped in volumes of Amar Chitra Katha, I suppose. While I don’t remember the setting and details what I remember is that she committed Sati at the end with many other women. I think even the cover depicted this.

I understand that Padmini became more popular as Padmavati thanks to Albert Roussel, a French composer. After a trip to India and Rajasthan as early as 1909, he came across the story of this beautiful queen and became very interested in it. On his return to France, he styled Padmavati as a French Opera ballet. Written during World War I, it was first performed at the Paris Opera on June 1, 1923. Roussel’s version of Padmavati was drawn from a eulogical ballad titled Padmaavat by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, composed in the year 1540 AD.

In this poem, Rani Padmavati is described as coming from ‘Singhal Dweep’ or Ceylon (Sri Lanka). There’s an elaborate explanation of her background. Rawal Ratan Sen, the Rajput King of Mewar kingdom, as Ratan Singh was named by Jayasi, married her in a ‘swyamvar’ in Ceylon, where he goes to after hearing about her beauty from the parrot ‘Hiraman’.

The poem further introduces Alāʾ ud-Dīn Khiljī (1296–1316 the second and most powerful ruler of the Khilji dynasty that ruled the Delhi Sultanate in the Indian subcontinent) who learns about the beauty of Padmavati through a banished courtier of Rawal Ratan Sen who found refuge in Khilji’s court. Khilji lays siege to Chittor from where Ratan Sen ruled. Ratan Sen refuses his demand to surrender Padmavati. Following a truce, Ratan Sen allows the Sultan to enter the fort, where Khilji sees Padmavati’s reflection in a mirror. He then traps Ratan Sen into accompanying him to the foot of the fort, captures him and returns to Delhi.

After being rescued from Delhi by his two brave warriors – Gora and Badal, Ratan Sen reaches Chittor to learn that the neighboring king Devpal had sent a marriage proposal to Padmavati. An upset Ratan Sen goes to fight Devpal and the two kill each other in a combat. Ratan Sen’s two wives – Nagmati and Padmavati immolate themselves on his pyre (Sati) before Khilji’s army reaches Chittor and the battle begins. There is neither the mention of ‘jauhar’ or Ratan Sen dying while fighting Khilji.

However Roussel’s version veers towards a different interpretation. Known for his romantic sensibility, his opera focuses on a tale of passion – of an obsessed powerful emperor who fails to conquer a woman’s heart. It also turns the narrative on its head – with the queen Padmavati stabbing her own husband, Rawal Ratan Singh. This is for pleading with his wife Padmavati to give herself up to Khilji to protect his kingdom. Padmavati kills the Raja and then commits Sati to protect their kingdom’s honor from an angry, marauding Khilji. (This climax, I guess is the problematic issue for the cultural police and the senas)

Much before his venturing into making this film on Padmavati, I vividly remember Bhansali doing an Opera musical in France years ago. That was in March 2008 shortly after Bhansali’s film Sawariya bombed big time at the Box office. In his own admission, he was depressed and wanted to be away from India trying out something new.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali remains the first Indian filmmaker who was commissioned by the prestigious Theatre Du Chatelet of France to redirect Padmavati with a current day production values.  So he was in Paris in 2008 to direct the 1923 opera ballet Padmavati, written by Albert Roussel. I understand that the show opened to rave reviews and appreciation.  Being staged in France probably escaped the attention and fury of the Karni Sena way back in 2008.

Connecting the dots, the reasons behind the ruckus even on the 1st day of the shoot, is not difficult to comprehend. The presumption that Bhansali’s present day film Padmavati would also be similar in theme to his 2008 musical and the baggage Bhansali himself carries with his earlier outings like Ramleela and Bajirao Mastani where he was accused of twisting history and historical events to sensationalise his narrative, took their toll this time.

However, Padmaavat – the film is a completely different version.  Where Rajputs and their valour are put in a pedestal, though just in oft repeated lofty dialogues.  In this, the Rani doesn’t kill the Raja. So, only when Bhansali writes a memoir few decades hence, will we actually know if this was the film he wanted to make or he ended up compromising his creative instincts. In this journey of a character from history to a ballad to an Opera to this film, there are quite a few elements to conjecture that Bhansali ended up making a different film. If that is actually the case, irony just committed Jauhar!

Postscript: If you find all this too much of heady stuff and just want to laugh out loud, just watch this act by Varun Grover on the origin of Padmavati– Padmaavat & the Parrot!!!

The “New India” mirage amidst the Deras!!!

It’s just been over 2 weeks since the Prime Minister, from the ramparts of the Red fort, in his Independence Day speech, talked about taking the country forward with a pledge to build a New India. Among other things, he essentially meant that the India of tomorrow must shake itself off from the past, leave aside past prejudices, let go its insecurities and have its priority singularly on development. For a country with demographics by its side, this made ample sense.  The youth of today are more concerned about their aspirations and dreams and less attached to worldly emotional issues which plagued India in the past. Or so it appeared till a couple of days ago.

On the 25th of August, when most of India was celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi with great fervour, by evening, parts of Haryana and Punjab were on boil. By now, it appears that over 36 people have lost their lives. Hundreds have been injured. Public and private property worth millions have been ransacked. Normal life in this part of the country has come to a standstill. Neighbouring and related areas have been on high alert. All this due to mob violence unleashed by supporters of a self-proclaimed Godman by name Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, following his conviction on nothing less but rape charges. And I hear that in preparation for tomorrow’s judgement day, schools and colleges will be shut, Internet services have been suspended and curfew is to be continued throughout the day!

My first brush with Dera Sacha Sauda and its head Gurmeet Singh was in June 2009. It was a Friday and I was getting back home from work late in the evening. As I was nearing Mulund, a north eastern suburb of Mumbai where I live, it resembled a riot hit town. Armed police were in the streets in full strength and I could see groups of Sikhs huddled together engaged in animated conversations. This was a first for me in Mulund, usually a peaceful suburb where a mix of people including Gujaratis, South Indians, Maharashtrians, Christians, Sindhis and Sikhs live in harmony. As I waded through the tense streets and reached home, I came to know of the genesis of that situation. That evening Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh had visited Mulund and was seen shopping in the Nirmal Lifestyle Mall. The choice of Mulund was not by chance, as I could sense later. Mulund had a decent Sikh population who settled after partition in Govt. established settlements. So were Sindhis. A group of Sikhs who spotted him there immediately gathered a few of their brethren and started shouting slogans against Gurmeet Singh. Singh has been a target of Sikh ire back home in Punjab after he dressed up as Guru Govind Singh, the last Sikh Guru to which the orthodox Sikhs took strong exception. When crowd started swelling up and they attempted to block the way of the Gurmeet Singh, his body guards opened fire in which one Sikh businessman got badly injured. He succumbed to the injuries in the hospital soon. As this news spread, mobs spilled into the streets demanding action against Gurmeet Singh.

The next day – Saturday saw a more organized protest with more and more Sikhs, brandishing swords and lathis, blocking trains, buses and other vehicles demanding action against Singh and his body guards. Gurmeet Singh’s cavalcade was intercepted in Navi Mumbai and his body guards were taken to custody. It took a few days for the situation in Mulund to return to normal.  Here was a man whose body guards could just open fire and kill people at free will that too, in an alien city in broad day light for showing dissent. Ironically, all the 14 accused (basically body guards of Gurmeet Singh accused for firing at a mob and killing one person) were acquitted by the court in 2011 for lack of evidence!!! This was when my antenna went up first, about this self-styled Godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, as one who ticked all the boxes for an emerging power centre who could bend things at his will.  He, by then had won over even the orthodox Sikhs as well and of course political parties.

Coming back to the events of the past 2 days, all the arson, violence and the mindless protests by thousands of people were actually against the law taking its course.  And that too for a crime as heinous as rape of young girls (not one or two but many) within the premises of the Dera.  The fact that many news reports of the shady happenings inside the Dera for so many years didn’t stop the public from continuing to follow and support this so called Baba is startling in itself! What is of course not is, political parties rubbing shoulders with these Godmen from time to time. Any individual who appear to have some influence on few thousands of people, become a natural ally of choice for political parties. In this, no party has been an exception.

In India, this story of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh is not alone. We have had similar exploitative tales of Sant Rampal in the north, Swami Nithyananda in the south, Asaram Bapu in the west and so on. What explains this mindless following by people of these so called Godmen, even after seeing them exposed in the past?  While at the outset one could come up with different reasons like faith, belief, upbringing and so on, I guess in the core of this, is “Insecurity”. Insecurity among people of all hue – literate/illiterate, Rich/Poor, Urban/Rural, Upper Class/Lower class, Young/Old, and Men/Women.  Insecurity about their future. Insecurity about their position. Insecurity about their existence. It is this insecurity that these conniving Godmen tap into, quite successfully over a period of time.  So, at the centre of the rise of a Baba lies the insecurities of We, the people!

Till such time, we don’t shrug of these insecurities which, I feel is tied to India emerging as an undisputed developed nation and continuing to stay so for a few decades, enough to cleanse the minds of a couple of generations, New India will remain a mirage where Deras will continue to hold sway. Just as one did a few days ago.

Pic credit: Bollywoodlife.com

The Four letter F word News!!!

As far as I know, A.R. Rahman is an accomplished music composer. A musical genius, he is also known to be a very humble and genial human being. Usually minding his own business which is churning some out of the world, awesome music day in and day out.  Hence my antenna went up when I saw a post on Facebook and WhatsApp recently attributing him to a quote in a publication called ‘Verve’ claiming to be “the World’s No.1 Bulletin”. The postcard with his picture quoted him of being a Sufi Muslim and conveyed his stand against Cow slaughter. The post ended with him welcoming the Govt.’s recent move to curb Cow slaughter.  Only that, as I suspected this was a Fake News and the post entirely made up with his quotes taken out randomly from old interviews.  He had nowhere opined on Cow slaughter at all.

Welcome to the “New Normal”. Where it is quite normal to see “Fake News” being packaged and circulated as authentic News. Not just A.R. Rahman. Few weeks ago, a similar quote was attributed to Google’s chief Sundar Pichai as well. There was a time when there was just News. Not prefixed by any adjective of any kind. But the situation today is different. We have News of all kinds. News, Fake News, False News, Authentic News and so on.  If we just go by the Fake News around is, our National Anthem is the best in the world, the new 1000 Rs. note has an embedded GPS chip and some more inanities like that.

In Tamil Nadu, where I grew up, ‘The Hindu’ Newspaper was then the “Gold” standard for Newspapers. The joke then was even if there was a murder in broad daylight in front of the newspaper office in Chennai, The Hindu will not carry the News of that murder till the police came, filed the FIR and the postmortem report confirmed that it was indeed a murder! From that to what it is now, we have come a long way. I don’t know if The Hindu still maintains the same yard stick for reporting or not. But in general we know that with a smart phone in hand, everyone has become a reporter of sorts. And in the era of limited attention spans and competitive journalism, “Speed” of breaking the News has taken precedence to accuracy. In this race of “Breaking News” by the minute, truth and validation of News have fallen by the way side. Ironically.

While the above could be attributed to the tyranny of competitive journalism and not probably malafide intent, what is of more concern these days is the deliberate intention to spread False News, thereby outrage and influence opinion. Day in and day out factories in remote corners of India equipped with Internet, Photoshop, Video editors and Mixers churn out “Fake news” taking off from happenings of the day around the world. Thanks to the much empowered Social Media the output from these “Fake news factories” quickly attain ‘Viral velocity”. And when one gets up in the morning into your smart phone as usually it happens, these Fake News posts are on your face.  And without realizing, we contribute our might to the viral velocity by forwarding/Sharing the posts on a dozen odd groups we are usually part of these days and on our social media timelines. All these posts with an intended objective of colouring our opinions slowly do the trick in our mind. Result – we feel happy that though Rahman is a practicing Muslim he abhors Cow slaughter and quote this when the opportunity arises to few others.

You and I doing this is still fine. But the “Fake News factories” of late have started imbibing in its ranks opinion leaders, leading politicians, senior journalists and the like. They also seem to be falling prey to this and in their own naiveté or intent add value to the barrage of Fake News.  While the print medium is still immune to this Fake News syndrome, I feel that the Online medium where our consumption of News is the most these days is seriously afflicted. So when we see any News these days it becomes imperative to step back a bit and decipher if it is indeed News or News preceded by the dreaded 4 letter F word. “Fake” I meant.  Though Social Media sites like Facebook and Twitter have in the recent past resolved to put an end to the “Fake News” problem, the nature of the platform makes it almost impossible to put a stop to this. Yes with better technology and resources they can attempt to minimize. In India, the advent of few sites who now have taken up the role as watch dog for News/Media like Newslaundry, Altnews,.. does provide some hope.  By calling out Fake News as quickly as possible, these sites at least help to contain the damage before hell breaks loose.

So next time you stumble upon a vicious and seemingly propagandist post on WhatsApp or Facebook, step back a little and don’t jump to forward to other groups or share in your timeline!  You could thereby avoid becoming part of the “sleeper cell” of Forward factories trying to manufacture outrage by setting a convenient narrative.  As the old adage goes, “News comes first and then the Narrative”. And not the other way about as is the wont these days.

Postscript: And as far as those rib tickling LOL memes on Alia Bhat or for that matter on tomorrow’s Ind Vs Pak match, bring them on!

The Passport called English Medium!!!

Hindi Medium for the uninitiated is a Hindi film that hit the screens last week sans the trappings of the typical Bollywood fare but which holds a mirror to the society with a strong social message. Without any of the leading “Star Khans” but with just Irfan Khan as the lead star, I am not sure how far the film will reach eventually. After 3 Idiots if there was one Hindi film which leaves you thinking as you left the cinema hall about your kid’s education this must be it. In the film, the lead couple go to unimaginable lengths just to secure admission in one of the Top English medium schools in the city.  Because in the lines of the mother, “If the child goes to a Govt. school, she can’t learn anything. If anybody talks to her in English, she will not be able to fit in the society. Hence she will be lonely and will get depressed.”  The extremes the couple stretch themselves to secure that admission in a top English medium school like even trying to transform themselves to poor people to take advantage of BPL quota as per RTE act may sound preposterous.  But the message – that “English medium” is a mandatory passport for one’s flight to success in life is not lost on anyone.

Not just this one, but there were other films like Chetan Bhagat’s novel turned film – One Half Girlfriend and Sridevi’s super hit – English Vinglish dwelling on the theme of the need to master English to get recognized/get ahead in life. Ironically this is not some typical Bollywood fantasy but stark reality of India being mirrored in films.  At workplaces today, one’s command over spoken English is considered essential to rise up the corporate elevator whether you like it or not. There are very few careers I can think of today where one can still succeed without mastering the English language. Probably politics (where being oblivious to the English language can become your calling card) or some creative fields could be those. Otherwise even in medical field the reality is, you feel comfortable of a surgeon’s ability if he is able to explain the diagnosis and treatment course of your patient in eloquent English!!! Narayana Murthy of Infosys once controversially observed in the context of IITs that with Indian politicians “rooting against English”, the task of getting good English speaking students at IITs gets more difficult and that affected their quality .  He was being practical and honest. In urban India the caste system based on Manuvaad is gradually on the wane. But in its place there is a new caste system based on “Medium of Instruction” – English medium being forward caste and any other being backward!!!

However this is not the case in many other successful countries. In Germany you don’t need to master English to head an organization. In Japan, though knowledge of English is an asset particularly in an Export driven economy like theirs, lack of flair in English has never been a liability.  Same is the case with China.  It’s another matter that they probably now realise that if they had imbibed the English language they could have ruled the global commerce not just in Mfg. but even in services!

But then India is not a homogenous state with one culture, one lingo like Japan or Germany. We are “United States of India” where our culture, language, food habits,…,.. keep changing every 500 kms. We sort of got stuck in the middle where we couldn’t have Hindi or for that matter any other Indian language as a universal Pan Indian language due to our cultural diversity. At the same time English being a language imported due to the colonial rule couldn’t achieve the universal reach across the board. Result – we have a language divide. If we have to get out of this situation, it’s too late or virtually impossible to go back to a Japan or Germany universal Indian language model.  So it looks like adopting English language universally in India is only the practical option left with us to go forward from here.

“Universally” is the key. It was the very articulate Shashi Tharoor who once said, “Denial of opportunity to learn English to our children would be tantamount to destroying their future” and I agree. It’s unanimously accepted that India’s command over English has been one of the key attributes to our success in Software business worldwide. So why not we build on our strengths and leverage the same? That is certainly not by keeping English a privilege of few and sowing the seeds for another conflict. Instead a way forward could be to make ‘All” schools in India – English medium schools and phase in English as the universal medium of instruction from a particular year in the very near future. This is not to shortchange our own native languages which still needs to be taught in the same schools but need not be the “Medium of instruction”. We could expect politics to play and outrage factories running on full capacities over this move.  But then have we seen wards of politicians who get educated from Non English medium schools?  By the way in our neighbouring Pakistan in 2013, I heard that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province took a call to switch over from Urdu to English medium gradually in a period of four to five years!!! This could be a significant reform in the field of education that would ensure English not just being a passport to economic, social and educational advancement universally but a ‘Visa on Arrival” for growth, the likes of Donald Trump notwithstanding!!

This reform may not be “the” only cure for all the ills in our education system but would be a good place to start.

Postscript: While on this, just after the ascent of Mr. Chandrasekharan as the Tata supremo, a picture of him and his 2 brothers has been doing the WhatsApp rounds. It talks of the fact that the 3 brothers are actually are from Tamil medium schools from a village in Tamil Nadu and that today they were head honchos. The message being, one doesn’t need to be necessarily from English medium schools to get to the top. Well, not sure even if Natarajan Chandrasekharan will accept that premise today and forward that to his WhatsApp groups!!!

The Noisy Indian Traveller!

In the last few years, Indians have been travelling abroad like never before. On vacations, for jobs, on business trips, on incentive tours, for studies, to meet their kids and the like. So, travelling abroad is no longer a “class divide” in India as it was a couple of decades ago. So far so good. But along with this, it has also brought to the fore another race called the “Noisy Indian traveler” – one who lacks the basic etiquette.

Last night on my return flight from Beijing to Mumbai via Bangkok, all was well in the 1st leg till Bangkok with very few of us Indians in the flight.  But in the 2nd leg, it was a full house from Bangkok to Mumbai with many returning Indians on the plane. Just as we settled down in our seats, ruckus started with 3/4 passengers from Gujarat talking and laughing loudly non-stop. Quite obviously they were under the influence of alcohol and repeating among themselves the same lines one being – Aap, Mein aur Bagpiper!!! They were refusing to take their seats and finally one of the crew members had to politely but firmly request them to settle down so that the flight can take off. The guys settled down after getting commitment on their share of Whisky and Vodka once the flight takes off!!!  While this was going on, the rest of us were squirming in our seats with embarrassment.

Was this an isolated episode? Nope. Few months ago on a Srilankan Airways flight from Colombo to Chennai, the situation was similar. This time with a few raucous folks who are called “Kuruvis” doing the odd courier jobs. For almost 40 minutes after boarding the plane, a group of 20 guys were stuffing and re-stuffing their bags, littering the cabin, arguing with the cabin staff who were asking them to put the baggage in the overhead cabin and carrying out business transactions loudly literally exchanging notes before they were all forced to settle down by a harried crew.  Once the flight took off and the “fasten your seat belts” sign went off, these guys were back on their feet trying to pack/unpack their stuff once again!!! Followed by the usual haggling for hard drinks and more and more peanuts on that very short one hour flight!!!

Not just in the planes. We Indians are noisy and create a furore everywhere we travel. Like I saw once a group of Indian tourists at Sentosa, Singapore waiting for the elevator among many tourists of different nationalities suddenly starting a loud countdown. Much to the chagrin of those waiting there and embarrassment of fellow Indians!

I can go on and on with more such episodes. You get the drift anyway.

I am now told that in places like Singapore, Thailand, … which are increasingly popular with the Noisy Indian traveler – the local tourist agencies are wary and have started to handout a set of Does and Don’ts to Indians which include of course being on time and being less noisy.  And it seems Airlines have separate training modules on how to handle rogue passengers from this part of the world!

Is this lout behavior – a culture thing? Or a “GDP” thing? Or a literate illiterate thing? Or a combination?? I find it difficult to comprehend and conclude either way.

The Chinese I find also are generally noisy people. They talk loudly among themselves. But I don’t see them behaving like we do while travelling.

I am certain that this behavior has nothing to do with the “Education” thing – for many of the fellow travelers I see are certainly not the illiterate variety. These are all educated folks but with no life education!

Has this got to do with the economic growth of a country? In the sense as a country gets better with economic growth, do these kind of behavior come down?  Probably. But, am not sure.

So in India we have a dual problem. One is to get people to behave well “with” tourists in India so they leave with a lasting positive impression about our country. The other is to get people to behave well “as” tourists when they travel!  I think both are important. In the end, “we the people” are the brand ambassadors of the so called Incredible India! As of now, the brand ambassadors are doing a lousy job for sure!

In any case, it is high time etiquette training is brought in as part of our curriculum in schools and we try to mend behavior while young.  At home we as parents must give equal importance to “up bringing” as much as “bringing up” our kids!!  Lest the world will soon label the Noisy Indian traveler as lousy too and slam the doors!