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

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Wishes for the new year

 People light candles forming the words 'Happy new year 2015' on New Year's eve in Allahabad.  PTI photoAs another year ends and a new year begins, we look forward with hope, and with some trepidation. Will acchhe din be here to stay? Will we finally have rainbows day after day?

Which one of us wouldn’t wish for a world with rising pay packets and dwindling inflation? Bigger malls with even bigger discounts; smarter and cheaper gizmos to make life breezier; accommodating bosses and more opportunities for all of us to become bosses; a swachh Bharat free of garbage and pollution; friendlier neighbours across the road and borders; miracle pills to make us all beautiful and super brainy for a reasonable price; that’s just the beginning of our collective daydreams. Along with fresh hopes, each year also brings newer and recycled fears. This year too, we will need to grapple with various threats, such as deadly viruses, noxious chemicals, wayward comets, trigger-happy extremists or hostile aliens out to wipe us off the face of the earth. 
Indians excelled in many spheres in the year gone by. Kidambi Srikanth and Saina Nehwal bagged both the men’s and women’s titles at a major badminton tournament in China. Father Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Sister Euphrasia of India were conferred sainthood by Pope Francis at the Vatican. Our scientists’ efforts culminated in Mangalyaan, which was listed by Time magazine among the 25 best inventions of 2014. India’s Kailash Satyarthi won the Nobel Peace Prize. May we continue to shine and innovate, and do our very best.

However, we hope Indians will cease to outperform in the scams department. With so many thousands of crores of unaccounted money stashed away, who says we are a poor country? Yet the rich-poor divide continues to grow. Impoverished farmers commit suicide every day, sometimes honoured with tiny news items. In our cities, street children and migrant labourers lead harsh and deprived lives. The Rs 2,500 crore Saradha scam showcases our native talent as cheaters par excellence. Small wonder then that last year’s annual nation branding survey by research firm Anholt-GfK ranked India at a pathetic 31st among 50 countries. Efforts are on to curb our skulduggery. 

While signing a global treaty on sharing information to track black money, the government has decided to streamline resource-sharing between the investigative wings under the revenue department. The SIT probe has already brought under the tax net Rs 3,000 crore undisclosed money lying in Geneva. Eleven cases related to undervaluation of iron ore exports have been acknowledged by the traders, who have now paid up around Rs 117 crore due to the government. In another welcome move, all life-saving drugs will now come with a bold red-tag indicator of government-fixed rates, so that needy patients do not easily get cheated. May the coming year bring more such effective checks and balances, and may our scoundrels and crooks go out of business. While the rich prosper, may there be more equitable distribution of wealth so that our poor can also afford better lives.
May advancing technology offer us wonderful new ways to spread peace and healing. Science and technology are but neutral tools in human hands. We can use technology to create lethal machines of destruction, or to explore new worlds and new ways to fight death and disease. So, away with bombs and guns, and more innovations like robotic surgeries, please. We also expect more impressive forays into the vast unknown. European Space Agency’s Rosetta just landed on a comet. Our very own super smart MOM dazzled the world by reaching Mars on its very first attempt. Space exploration gives fresh hope to humanity. We seem hell-bent bombing and polluting our planet to death. Thanks to new discoveries in space, we can now aspire to junk the old home and move on to exploit new planets.  Meanwhile, we will never cease to be delighted by new ingenious gadgets that make chores easier, or simply make life a little more fun.  

Freedom reigns

We are fortunate to be living in a free country. We can rant and rave about the ‘system’ and the powers that be, without being packed off to concentration camps and gas chambers. May democracy continue to prosper, and may we use our rights and freedom with responsibility. 

Writers, intellectuals and the media have a vital role to play in disseminating information, moulding public opinion, and positively influencing those in power. Noted American author Ursula K. Le Guin foresees hard times, and the need for “the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope.” Let us echo her plea for responsible book publishing and authorship. May they rise boldly beyond the narrow bounds of commercial interests, sales strategies and advertising revenue. 

There is a growing public impression that the Indian media is no longer an impartial observer, but a participant in the power-games between commercial and political interests. Senior journalist Shekhar Gupta feels that “the media definitely has to do a lot of introspection.” He notes how Parliament recently “passed a major constitutional amendment without discussion. The entire political class got together against the judiciary. And there was no public protest... Today, sometimes, you get the sense that people are willing to crawl when nobody is bothering to ask us to even bend.” Let us hope for undying integrity among our opinion makers. May they continue to show us the light freely and without fear.

While technology and commerce are bringing the world closer as a global village, there continue to be enough divisive elements out to pit people against each other. Discrimination keeps rearing its ugly head in various ways. We Indians are masters at communalism, sexism, and all sorts of groupisms. We can be nasty racists too. 

Women students are arbitrarily banned from university libraries and rapes are an everyday occurrence. Meanwhile, anti-dowry laws are being misused by some wives to threaten and settle scores with husbands and elderly in-laws. So much so that the Supreme Court recently observed that the dreaded Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code had “dubious place of pride amongst the provisions that are used as weapons rather than shield by disgruntled wives.” Discrimination and bigotry in any form can hurt us all. As individuals, we should shun snap judgements and the urge to bully or deprive those who are different in any way. Let us work together towards gender equality and social justice.

Last September saw a mob assault on three African men — two from Gabon and one from Burkina Faso — at New Delhi’s Rajiv Chowk metro station. Would those men have been beaten less brutally, if they looked more acceptable to the bystanders who rapidly turned into a violent mob? The fact is, we Indians are more accepting of foreigners with lighter complexions, while African visitors can find it painful to overcome racial prejudices, and being stereotyped as criminals and drug dealers. In the coming year, may the spirit of tolerance and unity prosper, and narrow-minded prejudices be kept at bay. Neatly consigning people into categories robs them of their individuality. It also smacks of our own intellectual poverty. 

All men are not rapists, just as all Indian women are not Sitas or Savitris. All members of religions other than our own are not rabid fanatics. Let’s do away with the ‘us against them’ attitude and see others as fellow human beings, no matter where they come from. This is one area in which each of us can make a difference. 

Our rapacious greed is bleeding the life out of the environment. Pollution is increasing, and water tables plummeting as borewells run dry. The flora and fauna of the unique Sunderbans is threatened by a massive oil spill in the Bay of Bengal. Petition website Avaaz is mobilising public opinion against an Indian industrialist’s bid to raise a billion dollar loan from State Bank of India to build a coal port near the Great Barrier Reef. World heritage agency UNESCO has warned that the proposed project would endanger the world’s largest and most diverse oceanic ecosystem. Due to public pressure, Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan, Goldman, Citi, HSBC, RBS and Morgan Stanley have already opted not to be associated with this controversial project. Let us hope for more transparency and public debate over such environmental issues. Only then will the best decisions be taken for the long term benefit of us and our home planet.
What else shall we wish for? I, for one, would want a year filled with cheerful news headlines. Why limit your wishes to specifics, when fate and the ingenuity of other people can sometimes throw up undreamt of gems? But our dreams will remain daydreams in this fragmented and strife-torn world. Good news will be the norm only when the world is more peaceful and stable. We can of course wish for world peace, but that will be as improbable as a beauty contestant’s dream of becoming another Mother Teresa. What we can realistically wish for is that humanity learns its lessons and takes positive steps to atone for mistakes from the past. 

2014 marked the centenary of the beginning of World War II, and a quarter century after the fall of that grim symbol of Cold War, the Berlin Wall. The first Great War introduced innovative killing machines and strategies. Poisonous gases, battles with armoured tanks, and planes built to fight and kill from the skies, all began here. Empires and countries disintegrated, and new ones rose from their ashes. In times when there were far fewer people, the casualties of the war was the most stupendous faced by humanity. Around 16 million people were estimated to have died. Millions more were wounded and maimed. 

This “war to end all wars” unfortunately became the forerunner of more and fiercer wars, with newer and more lethal high-tech purveyors of death and mayhem. People, and those who lead them, seem to never tire of destruction and death. Friction and armed antagonism still simmers today in many parts of our planet. Ongoing conflict continues to claim innocent lives in Gaza. ISIS militants are spreading horror over West Asia.

Innocent aid workers, who chose to believe in the goodness of mankind, are being executed in the most gruesome manner. As the Human Rights Watch has pointed out, “Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, children have suffered the horrors of detention and torture.” The fate of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 brought home to people around the world, the terrible effects of war. 

That plane with 298 civilian passengers was shot down in mid-flight over Ukraine, a nation ripped apart. The dead are from various countries, ordinary citizens of nations at peace. A family looking forward to a vacation in Bali, a pilot on his way to celebrate his child’s birthday, a healer pursuing pathbreaking research on AIDS, all fell in a war which they were probably not even aware of. Such tragedies drive home the fact that we are all interconnected. Strife in a remote and little-known land like Ukraine can result in immediate and disastrous loss to people like us. 

May this coming year see less conflict, and strengthen the spirit of peace. Let’s keep in our hearts the sentiments memorably expressed by Bob Dylan:
Yes, ’n’ how many times must
the cannonballs fly 
Before they’re forever banned?... 
Yes, ’n’ how many years can
some people exist 
Before they’re allowed to be free? 
Yes, ’n’ how many times can a
man turn his head 
Pretending he just doesn’t see?...
Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one
man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it
take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’
in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Let’s hope for those winds of change, and that leaders around the world move closer to finding those answers. Let’s salute the voters of J&K, who came out with hope and courage during the recent elections. Braving boycott calls by separatists, the residents of Chrar-e-Sharif, once a hotbed of terrorism, registered an outstanding 82.14 per cent voter turnout. May their spirit inspire us to make our own individual efforts to bring about a better common future.
This essay is published in Sunday Herald