I am utterly and completely convinced that liberal thought is the only way forward for the human civilization. And yet, when I see the growing power of radical elements around me and how their simplistic solutions have enticed so many intelligent, educated people, I wonder if human beings are simply bent on self-destruction, as a race!
A few ideas from this weekend’s editorial pieces struck me as interesting in this context. The Hindustan Times carried a set of articles on radicalization in India and it did not make for pretty reading. Educated people are turning on this path of blood boiling hate and cold-blooded planning of destruction. Whatever they may be, Islamic jihad or Hindu terror, they are making the world less safe with each passing day.
This idea of radicalisation of society is scary indeed and seems to be happening in the entire subcontinental context. I have not had a lot of time to read up on what’s been happening in Bangladesh and Taslima Nasrin’s piece “Why I support Shahbag” came at the right time. To offer a background, protestors in huge numbers were out on the streets in Bangladesh to demand the death penalty for a 1971 war criminal called Abdul Kader Mollah. Mollah, like many war criminals, is an Islamist. Protestors fear that Mollah, who is currently serving a life sentence, will be freed if the Jamaat-e-Islami came to power. And hence the demand for the death sentence. In a nation that is being rapidly Islamicised, the Shahbagh protests stand out in their demand for banning an Islamist organisation like the Jamaat.
This is happening at a time when liberal voices are being ruthlessly suppressed in Bangladesh and atheist bloggers have even been killed for their views. By labelling the protestors at Shahbagh as ‘atheist’, Nasrin writes, Islamists are trying to make pious Muslims who are part of the protest uncomfortable. Protestors are caught between believing in the legitimacy of their demands and proving themselves to be believers! The paragraph below from this piece resonates strongly with me in the context of what is happening around us in India. You could replace Bangladesh with India and Islam with Hinduism and this would still hold true!
“It is very alarming that the word ‘atheist’ is being considered as a filthy, obscene word in Bangladesh, and the liberal people refrain from doing anything in support of the freedom of expression of atheists. They must know that Islam should not be exempt from the critical scrutiny that applies to other religions as well; in their mind, they must understand that Islam has to go through an enlightenment process similar to what other world religions have already gone through, by questioning the inhuman, unequal, unscientific and irrational aspects of religion.”
Which brings me to one the strongest arguments I have against the Hindutva sort of religious extremism. If we are so critical of another religion’s extremist tendencies, then we really ought to evaluate why we are heading in the same direction. I sincerely hope we are not, though the chain of hate mails below even the slightest criticism of Hindutva extremist thinking is worrying indeed.
As for me, I am as close to being an atheist as anyone can be, without actually taking the plunge. To me, the concept of God and religion is a cultural one and the world is richer for its varied cultures, isn’t it? I find it unbelievable that we fight so much over something so abstract, but in reality the fights are about the deepest aspect of human greed-access to wealth and resources- and religion seems to hold the key to power and identity, which in turn are channels to achieve material goals.
At work, we are often disconcerted to see organizations and individuals focus too much on the end product without giving due attention to process. In my view, process is key and we can learn far more from studying the process of creating a solution or product than from deploying the solution per se.
An interesting example of this came up when we were watching Aadyaa’s class show on Saturday. At Shikshantar, Hamara Manch is an institution. Literally ‘Our Stage’, it is a platform for children to express what they like or feel, the way they want to express it. A friend and a parent I was speaking with was commenting on how her child’s class did not do ‘as well’ as last year and how she felt they should do something different, better, etc. She was entirely focused on the product on show before us, the parents, today.
However, as a few of us went on to point out to her, the children view Hamara Manch as a process. Over a month, they select an idea, story or theme that they like. They have to agree on something as a group, not an easy task for little children, but they do it with the able facilitation of their teachers, whom they affectionately call didis. Then they develop the theme or story into a performance. Teachers share with us sometimes the process of casting and it is interesting to see that, unlike in many other schools, it is not the natural talent or most gregarious personality that lands the meaty role. Often, children opt to do something they really like, even if it is a small role. For example last year, Aadyaa’s class did a take on the Ramayana. Her teachers wanted her to be Laxman, but she opted to become a butterfly because she loved the idea of wearing colorful wings and pink! Go figure! Often, they draw lots to choose and they learn to accept collective decisions even if they are against their individual liking. An important social skill and attitudinal attribute for the adult world as well!
The children are totally involved in creating the backdrop and the props, customizing their costumes as well. Everyday we hear of the next steps taken in developing their little show, everyday we see the excitement and the involvement of the children. It’s a beautiful, enjoyable, democratic participative process.
So when we come to see their little show on Hamara Manch day, we must see it in the light of this process; not merely as a product. And like the children learn a zillion soft skills in their month long journey, we must learn to see many aspects of what they present and appreciate the tremendous talent and team work that has brought their efforts to fruition. Once learnt, it is something for us to apply to our adult lives, to situations at work and at home. Whenever I find ourselves quick to criticize or tending toward cynicism, I will now think of Hamara Manch and review my reaction to what is before me!
The disturbance goes deep in urban middle class India. The events of the past few years has certainly shaken the complacency out of the average educated city dweller. Two small incidents this morning have driven this home to me.
A lady I meet every day while dropping off the kids at the bus stop, but never really gone beyond exchanging pleasantries, started a conversation with me this morning. Her statement was- It’s cold here. We just got back from Bombay. It’s so safe there. Here in Delhi, people get raped, abducted..it’s not safe here.
Well, I had just read about the 22-year old girl in Mumbai being knifed to death by her classmate right outside college. So I was really wondering how to break it to this lady- no place is ‘safe’. It could be relatively safe, but human beings especially women are always vulnerable. I took a deep breath and launched into the conversation. She heard me out about the need to change attitudes and go beyond protesting one case. But I was struck by her urgent need to discuss and express her opinions, which were not particularly well-informed.
Later, I was walking to the gate to pick up Aadyaa when a gentleman I’ve never seen before struck up a conversation with me. He was being critical about the layout and planning of the apartment complex where I live. I was amused, of course. I am a political critic; I think negative, he said! So obviously I asked him why he wasn’t spending his time criticizing the government and picking on private builders who have no incentive to design better as pretty much anything they build sells in this market. His response: Government doesn’t listen, there is no point in criticizing or saying anything, but still we do it! I discovered in a minute or two that he has been a journalist and now heads a media company.
Neither of these conversations were bizarre, but I noted a sense of discontent, frustration; a need to drive home to our government that citizen needs deserve to be speedily addressed. A cynicism, but beyond that a support of activism, a mood that leans towards demanding our rights, not sitting around waiting for them. People need to do something….there is a restlessness, a hunger for change.
Unfortunately though, we need leaders who can anchor and channelize this growing dissent. Leaders who take a stand and who can bring some rational perspectives in. Take responsibility. Listen before talking. I’m unsure if the Aam Aadmi Party can play that role. I wonder why the BJP doesn’t set up a special committee that looks into laws related to public safety and police processes. I would think a situation like this, a mood like this, would be like a fruit ripe for picking for politician. And parties would fall over each other to woo the electorate…to make the right impression, to do the right stuff, make the right noises. But no. Our leadership is bereft of ideas. Bankrupt. Lazy. Complacent.
This is the real tragedy. We are a nation of passionate people, led by a pack of indolent hyenas! I know this is a rant, but I really do wish this mood could be converted so people think of situations through multiple perspectives, come together on a platform to debate and take forward specific agendas and also to act to create more awareness, combat misconceptions and work towards a society that embraces its plurality and does not get defeated by it.
I admire art and I admire artists more. Art demands an honesty and level of consciousness that is exhausting while requiring at the same the exact opposite, spontaneity. Anyone who can pull all of that off together while exhibiting magnificent technique and composition and content is a magician of sorts.
I try and bring that sort of almost brutal honesty to my writing, but I do find myself playing to the gallery once in a while or simply exploring tangents that take my fancy without real conviction. Those are also important aspects of the journey of an artist. And yes, I do consider myself a part artist or an aspirant at least.
But at what point does an artist know that she has arrived at a point when she can share her work with the world at large? When does she throw herself bare and invite reactions? Some artists I know say that they knew when they were ready. They just felt it. Were more confident and had more clarity. Others say there was no defining moment. They simply toiled away at it till someone pushed them to share their work. They took tentative steps forward into the public realm and only when appreciation came in did they realise they were on to something.
I guess in art, like in everything else, how you perform is as much a matter of talent as that of the personality of the artist. In this too, there are contrasts. Reticent and quiet people can be aggressive in self promotion and social, gregarious artists can be self deprecating and low on confidence. The training of an artist, therefore, needs to be about art and attitude in equal parts. Which is true for a lot of other things as well I guess.
It’s hard for artists though, because they rely on self discipline and mentoring to learn and progress. It isn’t usually an institutionalised process of learning and progression; and certainly not time bound. Finding the right mentors and having a sense of purpose and balance become critical ingredients to the artists journey.
But balance can often take away from the passion needed to bring out your art, deter you from taking a stand and inhibit expression perhaps. It’s an old joke, that artists are slightly unbalanced, eccentric, crazy. Indeed they must be, for they hold up a mirror to society and human nature, both of which are twisted and complex, and perhaps even unfair.
Every Friday, I am struck by the number of people sharing their joy of the anticipated weekend with the world. On Twitter and Facebook, elated office goers heave sighs of relief and announce their weekend plans. It’s a virtual war out there, a subtle but keen competition for who will have the best weekend.
How about all those scores of people, though, who work through the weekend. It occurred to me today, that a privileged lot actually get the weekend off. A whole bunch of people work through Saturdays and Sundays providing services, manning retail stores and salons, movie theaters and car parks. When do they spend time with their children, with their families? When do they shop, eat out, relax?
Being married to a pilot, weekends are an interesting concept in our house as well. The kids follow a strictly weekday-weekend routine thanks to school and my life sort of loops around that. Rahul’s availability on a weekend has always been a luxury though. There have been times when he has been out on several weekends in a row and cooling his heels at home on a weekday, when the rest of us have no time for him. When he is in, we’re all happy to plan something special or just chill at home! Because I do not work full time, weekends do not need to be cluttered with chores like shopping. I manage to finish all those at some point during the week so we have clear weekends to enjoy. But, I digress.
I’m amazed that our mindsets are so set on this weekday-weekend pattern despite the fact that many people in a modern economy work on very different schedules. It is one of those things most of us do not really dwell on and that also feeds off the fact that Indian cities are very diverse. People from varying income groups, classes and backgrounds co-exist and therefore, many of these aspects get evened out because expectations differ hugely.
For many of the people I observe who are the worker bees that fuel businesses in retail and entertainment, a day off is a luxury. These are the hard working masses that really hold our cities afloat. With varying levels of education, their assets are things like skills acquired on the job, temperament, the ability to do repetitive tasks, take orders, etc. In conversations with a cross section of people like shop attendants, security guards, waiters, chefs, ticket checkers, those who man cash counters at superstores, etc I am amazed at how satisfied they are with their lot. They are happy to have a job, to earn a decent living and be treated with dignity. A day off here and there is good for them and they seem to make the most of this day. The guy who cuts my hair, for instance, takes Tuesdays off to visit a Hanuman Mandir somewhere near ISBT and his faith is a matter of great satisfaction for him. Of course, their lives may be difficult, they may not always be treated well and jobs may come and go. But the weekend and the crazy premium we attach to it is absent from their lives. They are hugely aware of how important it is for ‘us’ though, their customers who set the cash registers ringing starting Friday night up until Sunday night! I guess we could call it a symbiotic relationship!
Nostalgia is passé. Post 35, when you meet friends from the past, especially those buddies from college, you talk kids, ethics, life experiences and value systems. Your discussions veer towards perceptions and issues and incidents are shared in the context of making a point.
As Richa’s beautiful little girls hung around us (or pranced around us in the case of the younger one), the four of us- Upali, Richa, Julius and me- talked about the things that concerned us most. I was amazed to find that, despite living countries apart, what worried us all the most were common. All the issues we discussed pertained to the desire to see an improved world in the future. We talked of education quality, the value societies attach to learning and education, the business of education and healthcare, dealing with class issues in a society in rapid transition, parenting and how to help our kids to be good humans while utilising their potential and talent, how it is important for poor business models to fail so that there is a value attached to risk as much as there is to reward (great learning for me, thank you Julius!), can we ever outgrow the obsession for white skin (Upali returned to India after a gap to find the obsession had grown), why advertising and media feeds on insecurity and fear, you get the drift I am sure.
It amazes me and heartens me that there are others (and I have heard from many since I began this blog) that worry like me, that passionately hope for change. That recognise that the sharp edge of profitability must be balanced by the service of the larger good. That balance, not unconditional growth is the way forward. That creativity and design have a larger role to play for humanity to continue a meaningful existence.
I had planned to take pictures of this mini reunion, but I have not a single one. Conversation and food flowed seamlessly. Life was good. The hospitality the best (thanks Richa). Comfort levels high. I guess we’re not the posing types!