Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Many Roads Through Paradise: Book Review

This anthology of literary voices from Sri Lanka offers a unique   Many Roads through Paradise: An Anthology of Sri Lankan Literature

Many Roads Through Paradise; An anthology of Sri Lankan Literature
Edited by; Shyam Selvadurai       Penguin               Rs 499/-                Pp 493

This anthology of literary voices from Sri Lanka offers a unique “opportunity to know a country and its various cultures in a holistic way.” In a war torn land where people are trying to heal deep wounds in the aftermath of widespread devastation, the anthologist hopes to provide “an opportunity to build bridges across the divided communities.” This literary bouquet will excite readers everywhere, by offering an intricate mosaic depicting Sri Lanka’s peoples and their cultures. Translations from Tamil and Sinhala are also included to give a faithful representation of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and literary diversity. For Indian readers, this collection shows how similar we are beneath the superficial differences. It also serves as a warning, portraying the dire consequences, the stupendous human toll, that results when neighbouring linguistic and religious communities sharing the same homeland push their differences to the point of fratricide.
The selections are grouped to show the build-up of social evils and events leading to intensifying conflict. The opening poem, The Chariot and the Moon by Mahakavi, portrays with powerful intensity the fate of youths of lowly caste, “who spread their wings to touch the moon” only to fall before the “frenzied passion” of people who consider their fellow human beings to be inferior. Our Valavu, by Vimala Ganeshanathan rekindles memories of old Jaffna, when life was peaceful, and “thieves were few”. As foreign rulers converted locals to Christianity, there sprang up eccentric hybrid names combining foreign names with the local Tamil ones. But in this melting pot of cultures with the “overlapping paints of Portuguese, Dutch and British rule, the American missionaries could not make a dent in the caste system.” Let’s Chat in the Moonlight shows how the social evil of untouchability is deeply ingrained even in the souls of moderate intellectuals who publicly preach against the practice.
The Perfection of Giving is rife with irony and satire, showing how the haves oppress the have-nots while professing morality and piety. “Big Auntie is always talking about giving,” says a little child, “but she’s not going to give Kusuma even a New Year present... Big Auntie is very mean.” The Hour When the Moon Weeps shows how lifelong oppression makes a basically good and sincere man want to take another’s life. “Thoughts of his elder and younger sons and of his wife who lay abandoned and later died in his hut, began to emerge. His life’s purpose after they had passed away, surged up in his mind as well. He must kill Mr. Hassan tonight.” The Rag by Nihal de Silva is “a toxic portrait of class rage turned inward and outwards,” which precipitate into the first and second JVP insurrections.
Several of these stories and poems deal with the plight of people dispossessed of their homes by war. In Cheran’s poem Cousin, “Upon ripped and fragmented land,
          men who hold no attachment to it
          nor kinship,
          squat, holding weapons.”
The House in Jaffna by Isankya Kodithuwakku is about patriotism, nostalgia and disenchantment. Through all his years as an expatriate who fled to England to escape the war back home, Mr. Nadarajah dreams of returning to his beloved Jaffna. News reports of a peace deal make him leave behind a well-paid job and comfortable life to head back home. But the reality of post-war Jaffna shatters all his hope and joy. “Yes, he would be able to get rid of the patches of green mildew on the ceiling and even fix the sagging. And yes, he could buy furniture for the house and even rebuild the temple so he could walk to it twice a day. But that splash of the bucket being let down into the well, it would never be quite the same splash because the hands that let it down were now too different. And even more than that, the ears that lay in bed and listened to that splash were too different. Mildew could be taken away from ceilings, but never from hearts and minds.”
The pieces in this collection explore every upheaval that has made Sri Lanka what it is today. From insurrections to the tsunami, from civil war to riots and excesses by the IPKF, these stories touch upon them all. In Yasmine Gooneratne’s words:
                                “The joys of childhood, friendships of our youth
                                Ravaged by pieties and politics,
                                Screaming across our screens, her agony
                                At last exposed, Sri Lanka burns alive.”
These are also stories of human beings and their experiences in troubled times. Child soldiers abandoning promising academic careers to end up biting a cyanide capsule; women who go to the Gulf to slave as maids; the schoolgirl Krishanthy, who was gangraped and murdered in 1996 by six Sri Lankan Army soldiers, after she was returning from her A-level exams; the widow who weeps for her dead soldier husband; the moderate politician whose pleas for peace talks are shattered by a deadly bomb blast; of feisty Burgher families who enjoy living and loving; their stories are voiced here.

This must-read collection brings to life the complex mix of beauty, human sentiments and fear that defines life in modern Sri Lanka.
This review is published in Sunday Herald

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The great Indian herd mentality

Are we as a society guilty of herding together within the confines of mainstream mediocrity?
Don’t we, like the proverbial crabs, pull down anyone who dares to be better, back into our shallow intellectual buckets? 
Did an eminent Indian hit the nail on the head by reportedly stating that 90 per cent of our countrymen are idiots?

We rush to worship mediocrity, and are suspicious of anyone with superior abilities. DH photo
Is it true that average Indians do not have the perceptiveness or determination to rise above casteism, corruption, communalism, rigged exams and everything else that prevents us from being a more advanced and prosperous society?
 We happily delude ourselves into believing that ‘we are like this only’. Poverty, garbage, farmers’ suicides and bribery are unquestionably accepted as part of our existence. 
We prefer to do what everyone else does, and uphold the status quo. 
It’s socially unacceptable to make optimum use of our intelligence, or strive to radically improve our circumstances.

Change is scary, and therefore taboo. Safety lies in siding with the majority, and crouching in our self-created ruts.

We rush to worship mediocrity, and are suspicious of anyone with superior abilities. We pin our hopes on good-looking young ‘leaders’ from prominent lineages, glossing over their lack of intrinsic merits and accomplishments. 
We hero-worship match-fixing cricketers and can’t have enough of B-grade movies or pulp books patched together by hack writers. This is how things are, and this is how we are convinced things will continue to be.

If someone dares to push for genuine change and improvement, we systematically close ranks to shut him out, or gang up to stifle his voice. If one from among us shines in any field, our collective herd reaction shows the depths of pettiness to which we can sink.As friends and neighbours, we raise our claws and fangs to belittle the achievements of our former friend.We then either socially ostracise him, or show him off hoping some of the glory will rub on to us. If we can’t snuff them out, we pretend superlatives cannot exist.

But, does popular appeal alone justify commonplace mediocrity?There’s nothing wrong in being average, which simply means normal or usual. The problems arise when we are content to mindlessly follow the herd without applying our own normal talents and intelligence for growth and change.

We need to remember that ‘normal’, ‘average’ or ‘usual’ are not absolute and ironclad.Once upon a time, it was perfectly normal for Indian widows to be burnt on the funeral pyres of their husbands. ‘Witches’ were routinely burnt on the stake in ‘civilised’ Europe, and the Spanish Inquisition was an accepted part of life. Average citizens of ancient Rome frequently enjoyed the spectacle of gladiators being mauled to death by hungry lions. Slavery, plagues, apartheid and famines were normal and usual experiences of average people in various times and societies.

In several respects, today’s normal and average is definitely an improvement over that of the past. 
Daily life for ordinary people has improved because of the efforts of pathbreaking thinkers, scientists and leaders. 
The unsung efforts of ordinary people like us has also contributed to our evolution, and improved the average quality of life in the course of time. 
When India gained independence, the average Indian did not live beyond his 40s. Today’s average Indian can expect to live well into his late 60s or 70s.A few decades ago, India’s hungry multitudes depended on food grains supplied by developed nations.While hunger continues to exist among today’s Indians, our average middle class citizens are eating well to the point of obesity.
Humanity has slowly but surely progressed since the dark ages, and we can look forward to a better tomorrow. 
But our dream of a rosier future will become reality only if each of us tries our best to make it come true.

Follow the crowd

The Great Indian Herd Mentality is a major factor pulling us all back into the mediocre and substandard dung heap. 
We consider ourselves to be far more intelligent than fellow bipeds, quadrupeds, arthropods, amoeba and other creatures that populate our planet. Yet, like other animals, when we superior Homo sapiens see a crowd moving somewhere, we blindly plunge in and do what everyone else is doing, without bothering to understand why.

Everyone cheats, so we also try to cheat when we think we can get away with it. Students cheat at exams, while teachers cheat students by not taking classes and diluting the quality of their lectures.
Housewives haggle and undercut vegetable sellers, and vegetable sellers inflate prices and cheat housewives. Property owners and entrepreneurs undervalue their assets to cheat the government by paying lower taxes. 

Shiftless and bribe-loving babus, spouses cheating on each other, corrupt netas, shady businessmen, unethical journalists, job aspirants with fake certificates; we all cheat and lie in some way or another. No wonder we are a corruption-riddled nation.
Our herd mentality pulls us down in many other ways.
We staunchly believe that what’s good for our neighbours, brother-in-law or boss, must be good for us too.This drags us neck-deep into many a pot of soup or sambhar.Parents shove their offspring into engineering and business schools simply because their friends are doing it. They don’t care about the child’s individual talents or aptitude.They don’t care that some of our engineering graduates end up being unemployable, or that all MBAs, even those from IIMs, don’t inevitably get plum campus placements.We are so obsessed with somehow grabbing prized qualifications for our children that we pay astronomical sums to buy them that coveted piece of paper from teaching shops of dubious repute. Who cares if such doctors or commercial pilots do not get adequate training?The distant threat of botched up surgeries or plane crashes don’t bother us as long as the victims are people we don’t know.
The Great Indian Herd Mentality shines through when Ponzi scheme promoters conjure up one magical money-minting scheme after another.People like us race to deposit their life savings, only to lose all to the next big scam.Whenever the stock markets move up in an upward cycle, everyone wants to grab a piece of the action and make as much easy money as they can.Smart investors cash in while the going is good, while gullible followers of the herd enter the market at high prices and incur losses. Then they blame the government for everything that goes wrong in their lives.

Hard-nosed businessmen don’t always fare better than the aam janata in the herd mentality department. 
One start-up comes up with a winning idea, and dozens of copycats follow suit with nothing new to offer. So we have droves of ‘me too’ matchmaking portals, travel websites, social networking sites and more. Mall after mall is constructed and then shut down in our city. 
Then the recently built building is demolished to construct yet another mall in the same location.
Many such ill-conceived commercial ventures are bound to fail when promoters mindlessly follow the trend.
Precious money and resources are thus thoughtlessly wasted by blind followers of the herd.

We are social beings, and it is but natural for us to reach out and associate with others. But when we abandon good sense and reason and are guided by fear of social censure, we can end up committing grave mistakes. 
The fear of what others will say and think of us; the fear of being left behind; the fear of being isolated or singled out for ridicule; these fears can push us into dangerous paths. 
We try our best to stick to socially sanctioned behaviour, values and norms. 

We often do not ask enough questions or raise appropriate doubts, even if we have them in our minds.
Hitler used this to bend the masses to his will. During his rallies, he would plant groups of his own lackeys among the audience.These people would raise huge cheers and clap, inciting others around them to do the same. When these speeches were broadcast, the thunderous applause could be heard by an even wider audience.Huge numbers of listeners were thus led to believe that since so many people were cheering, Hitler was indeed a great leader propagating noble ideas.
The electronic media has taken the herd mentality to unprecedented levels.All sorts of subversive and provocative posts do the rounds. Some of these have only tentative basis in facts.Fake photos and misleading quotes deliberately taken out of context are widely circulated. Videos of molestations are put up on YouTube without a care for the poor victim’s safety and mental peace.We, on our part, ‘like’ and forward these posts, and bask in the glow of self-righteousness for having done our good deed for the day.
It’s so easy to delude ourselves that we are making a difference, when all we do is click the mouse or swipe our smartphone screens before moving on to the next hot item of the day. Our insensitivity and indifference as individuals gets social sanctity because we are part of the herd.
We Indians are bogged down by our class snobbery and our urge to safeguard our hereditary privileges at all costs.Our society too often collectively pushes persons from privileged backgrounds without concern for their intrinsic merits. We are brought up to believe that only the children of doctors can be capable doctors and only the offspring of thespian families can be successful actors. The scions of established business enterprises are bred to head them.Why, then, do we criticise netas for perpetuating dynastic rule and filling up plum positions with sundry friends and relations? 

One of America’s greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, came up from humble origins. 
He is celebrated by his people for his great ideas and achievements, and his undying spirit in the face of overwhelming adversities is admired and respected to this day. Yet an Indian leader has recently been lampooned by some groups for having risen from the ranks of railway tea stall boys.

Why are we so ready to condemn initiative and herd together to support mediocrity? Are we afraid of exposing our own shortcomings? Are we afraid we shall fail if we try to improve our lot? Why do we hate the rare individual, who with his own strength and capabilities achieves feats beyond our dreams?
Is it because we feel small and mean before others with superior intelligence and accomplishments?

While people mindlessly following the herd can be dangerous, there is a flip side to the coin. 
The fact is, even ordinary people like us can make a positive difference.
A group of ordinary like-minded people can work together to make an even greater beneficial impact.
For this to happen, we need to think before we rush to endorse a cause, make assumptions, or draw conclusions on any issue. 
The power of well-reasoned individual votes can snowball to elect new leaders with strong popular mandates.Popular movements and pressure from large groups of concerned citizens can be agents of positive change. Our freedom struggle is an excellent case in point.Even today, strong public pressure can bring corrupt officials to book, and prevent upright officials from being victimised.Ordinary citizens have successfully formed social activist groups to help revive our city’s lakes, clear neighbourhoods of garbage and help uplift the underprivileged around us in various ways.The collective voice of a group is more powerful, and therefore a stronger agent of positive change when used in the right way.
If herd together we must, the way forward is for each of us to nudge the herd towards improvement. People like us, no matter how ordinary, can exercise some affirmative influence on our peers. Inspiration is all around us, and each of us is capable of creative and original thought.But nothing will happen if we sit and wait for someone or something to change on its own. If we keep our minds and hearts open to fresh ideas, we can work together for the common good. 

We need to step out of our comfortable ruts, think more and make choices. The simplest way to change our lives is to change the way we perceive things. Change will happen when we really want it to, and when we are ready to accept it.Simple, decisive actions taken by each one of us in daily life can add up to a palpable improvement in society as a whole. We need to get over our urge to make excuses, and point fingers at everyone else, and the Government, for all that ails us. We sit around waiting for another Gandhiji or some new godman to come and rescue the world. We don’t care what happens to others, as long as we ourselves are not affected. This dithering and indifference drags us down. Walk through any of our city streets. Mountains of piling garbage pull down our aspirations to world class luxury. We complain tirelessly about it, but that stinking garbage is dumped on the public roadside by ‘people like us’. We strongly prefer the easy way out by shirking responsibility. 

If things are to change, the onus is on us. Initiative must come from within each of us.
As Martin Luther King Jr so rightly said, we must never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. 
Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.
This essay is published in Sunday Herald