Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Expectations for the Future: Introducing a Young Artist

THE ACCOMPANYING painting of a bright, cute little girl with her pony tails was done by a bright, cute little girl of five called Saranya on Christmas Day.

When I saw her busy with the mouse, I thought she was again at the comics or racing games which are popular with her generation. In fact one of my major preoccupations as an elder citizen in the household during the school vacation is to sort out the occasional incidents of flare-up between the brother and sister on who to take control of the mouse and the game.

But when Saranya called me secretly and unveiled before me her new work of art, I was thrilled. I really liked the painting, and of course I felt a little important in the family circles, being the first person to be invited to witness her work of art. She has also confidentially informed me that when she grew up, she would want to be an artist.

It was really surprising. As far as I know there is none known as an artist in the entire family and I am sure she has never had any major encounter with works of art or artists in her little life. She lives in a small house on the banks of Kallai river in the ancient part of this third world city and the river and the street that leads to the river are reminders of past glory as Kallai river, once upon a time, was a great centre of timber trade in the world. Now what remain of this past splendour are the ramshackle saw mills on the river banks that resemble ancient cranes from the Dinosaur age looking for a catch in the water. The people live a hopeless life; they have lost their old means of livelihood and nothing promising is unfolding before them.

The river looks more like a ditch, with its muddied pools and encroached banks leaving little space for the water to flow into the Arabian Sea and often it appears like a river lost in its tracks, a confused and dejected river not knowing what to do and chose to remain static. It is a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

And if you had happened to walk on these parts, you would surely have come across dozens of people with elephantiasis, the swollen legs that look like that of an elephant, that was the mark of these regions only a few years ago. Things have changed now, thanks to the new drugs that have come to the market which are freely distributed among the public in the coastal regions.

The buildings in these parts of the city look very old, and indeed they trace their history to an age when the Arabs used to come and settle here for conducting their businesses as trade with the Zamorin's land was once monopolized by Arab traders. Hence the traditionally Muslim parts of Kozhikode city like Kuttichira overlooking the river and the sea had many ancient joint families settled in huge and sprawling buildings which are now being pulled down as families divide and new structures come up in place of the old ones.

It is in the midst of all these symbols of tradition and modernity that Saranya grew up but her world seems to be quite different, quite optimistic and romantic. When I look at the paintings she did, often on the computer and sometimes on paper, I realize that technology has done an immense contribution to this new generation of artists who are now growing up. Even a decade ago, her artistic efforts would have surely earned her a good slapping because instead of the virtual space on which she works now, she would have definitely defaced the walls. The defaced walls have nipped many a young talent in the bud.

But technology, especially the digital world, has changed all that:The children are now enjoying a new world and the opportunities the digital world opened up for them are immense. I know there is still a digital divide, there are many kids who are still denied access to this world, but the gap is narrowing and the world is definitely becoming a better place to live.

As the new year dawns, I do really hope and pray that our children shall inherit a better world.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Global Economic Crisis and Kerala's Future: A report from CDS

THE CENTRE for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapruam, has released its report on Global Financial Crisis and Kerala: Impact & Mitigation Measures, following a request from the State Government to assess the impact and possible measures and policy changes required to overcome he crisis.

The 98-page report (available online at www.cds.edu.in) is one of the first major attempts to put in perspective the crisis and how to face it and also possibly convert it into an opportunity to refocus on our economic priorities. The following observations are on the basis of the executive summary of the report which I had seen yesterday.

What strikes me as an extremely important warning signal in this report is that the already feeble sections of our economy and society are going to be hit hard again in this crisis. These segments, according to the report, are the traditional industries like coir and cashew, the cash crops like pepper, coffee, tea, rubber and spices, fish workers and other export oriented sectors, all of whom are dependent on a highly unpredictable global market. Unlike the IT units that are also likely to be hit, those employed in these sectors do not enjoy any financial stability or social security support at all. In fact most of them were already in dire straits, most of them neck-deep in debt and often witnessing a spate of suicides. I had occasion to do some work on the sectors like cash crop growers inWynad and fish workers in the northern districts. They are in a very serious plight and what has stopped- at least temporarily- the spate of suicides seem to be the steps taken as part of the Central Government intervention in recent months. Our own State Government's Debt Relief Commission has been a mockery of sorts as it could not offer any sensible aid to the majority of people who went there.

That, to my mind, is going to be our experience once again. We are going to get a lot of platitudes from our ruling politicians and precious little by way of action. In fact when I was reading State Planning Board vice chairman DrPrabhat Patnaik's tall claim in the Economic Review 2008 report that it was the State Government's Debt Relief Commission which had put a brake on farm suicides, I thought it was laughable because precisely at that point of time, things were quite different in the field with suicides spreading to new areas likeKuttanad rice bowl in the summer harvest season this year.

So this entrenched middle class segment that effectively control our political establishment, combined with the political leadership and intellectual bandwagon which actually cater to the middle class interest is going to be the real stumbling block in front of any reforms theCDS report calls for. The report calls for very serious policy shifts that will rekindle our economic activity, like a massive promotion of private investment, a private-public partnership, cut in subsidies in power, water supply and other sector to the middle class consumers, easing of legal hurdles in commercialization of agriculture, reducing controls on leasing landed properties, etc, which are all recommendations that go against the present rulers' economic wisdom.

A stark reality stands out in the report: The middle class would gain in this misery of the poor people, because when the prices fall their salaries are going to remain stable and real incomes rise. And when fresh money is pumped into the economy to recharge production, surely they will do everything to corner much of it and will stop any meaningful restructuring like rational power tariff or cut in subsidies or reforms in land legislation or introduction of the system of lease holding of lands to enable the landless to engage in cultivation.

Hence, it is necessary for the poor people to critically examine what is good for them, and not allow this middle class-controlled leadership to decide for them. I do feel that unless they make a determined effort to break this stranglehold of the government-employed, trade unionised middle class people who are holding sway in our public affairs, the really needy are not going to gain anything, and their misery would continue, they would keep committing suicide while the leaders would keep mouthing platitudes on how to bring in socialism...

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

When Even a Son's Dead Body Becomes Anathema to Our Mothers...

FOUR MALAYALI Muslim youths were shot dead by security forces recently on the India-Pakistan border in Kashmir. It is a mystery how these youths from Kerala, who hail from the remotest part of India, reached Kashmir to serve themselves as jehadi fighters, as the police and security forces claimed. Investigations are still on, and some of the leaks that come out seem to suggest that they were recruited by a group of shady spiritual groups who took them to Hyderabad and from there to Kashmir.

This raises a question: are there shady groups who try to entice Muslim youths to such adventurism, and get them into trouble? Is there a conscious effort to paint the entire community as anti-national as the Sangh Parivar in its frenetic campaign in the past few days tried to establish? This is an issue the Kerala society will have to address in the coming days, especially the more serious sections of the minority community and those sympathetic to their present plight.

But there were much more serious issues involved in this sordid drama. One was the way the parents of the slain youths refused to even accept their dead bodies. As the parents said they do not want to bring their bodies home, the security forces had to bury them somewhere in the border, unsung and without even a tear or prayer from their dear and near.

But why did the parents say in unison they do not want to see the bodies of their children? I feel we need to ask this question and face the terrible reality of the sense of alienation, fear and isolation our Muslim brothers are now undergoing in our midst.

Here is a note on this I sent to a discussion group on this topic:

The situation of ultra-nationalism and jingoism ruling roost even in our legal circles is so acute and has vitiated the atmosphere in our courts, from local courts to the highest. Now that even the lawyers in Mumbai Bar Association refuse to take up the brief for the Pakistani national caught in the Mumbai terror incident, I suppose this question of denying basic legal service on the basis of one’s community or nationality could be brought back into public focus and some redress sought.

It is worrisome the way our society is unwilling to look at the basic things from a legal and human perspective. The case of the four Malayali boys shot dead in Kashmir border is a dark pointer. Their bodies had never been brought back home because one of the mothers said she did not want it; and others followed suit. Why? Was it patriotism or was it simple, unalloyed fear at work?

And why fear to take one's son's dead body and bury him, even if he is the worst criminal possibly? Since when did we start finding fault even with a dead body?

Why nobody is asking who is behind this kind of engineered fear, a fear which is celebrated by none other than our Chief Minister himself, and why one can't ask questions? Why our lawyers, writers and intellectuals do not tell the people that we do have some rights and even a criminal has a right to a decent burial with his family and friends around, praying for peace for him at least in the other world?

I received some responses to my post:

Here is what a human rights lawyer, Bobby Kunhu, wrote from Bangalore:

I am with you on this- exactly what worries me: years of struggle to get the Government of India to see POTA/MISA/TADA as counter-productive and suddenly we are facing all of them together; the metaphor being the mother being scared of receiving her son’s body.

Poet and writer K Satchidanandan also spoke up as follows:

NPC, I am in complete agreement with you. I felt really bad about that mother who disowned her son, probably under visible or invisible pressure. The mother-son relationship has many dimensions other than political. Contrast her with the mother of the Naxalite in Hazar Chaurasi Ma by Mahaswetadevi or why, Gorky's Mother who helps the radicals: Remember the Naxalite and the Russian Revolutionary are also "traitors" in the jingoist's lexicon. Would Bhagat Singh's mother have disowned her son? Of course now the jingoist would say he was killing and dying for the motherland, but he was against the State too.

Now see how the media and society seem to lionize those who refuse to carry out their normal professional duties in the name of patriotism. Here is a report from a Mumbai newspaper:

A mere refusal to handle the case of captured terrorist Mohammad Ajmal Amir Iman, alias Qasab, has given lawyer Dinesh Mota, 46, a hero's status in the city. From train passengers to strangers on the street, everyone is congratulating him.

On Monday, as Mota boarded his regular first class compartment on the 8.15 am local to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus from Bhandup, he was greeted with cheers from his co-passengers. "They gave me a standing ovation, amidst loud cries of 'hip hip hooray' and 'bravo'. Many people gave me the thumbs-up sign. Even the women commuters from the adjoining compartment began cheering and clapping when they learnt what the noise was about. I was completely blown away by such a reception."

Here is another report from Indian Express on how Surat’s real estate brokers are saving the Indian nation from jehadi threat:

Claiming Terror strikes like in Mumbai cannot take place without local support or contacts, Surat real estate agents and brokers have decided not to rent or sell houses to Muslims.

This decision was taken at a meeting last Sunday which was attended by some 300 real estate agents, many of whom responded to SMS invites. They initiated moves to form an association, hoping to complete the process before the month ends.

Well, our nation need not worry because the real-estate brokers (the comprador bourgeoisie of our times) are here to safeguard our freedom!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

David fells Goliath: A Biblical Tale for Comrades Karat and Yechuri from Kerala

Sitaram Yechuri says CPM will inquire into the electoral defeat of party candidates at the hands of rebels in Kerala: news

SITARAM YECHURI has said that the CPM central leadership will make an inquiry into the massive and humiliating defeat his party had suffered in the municipal elections in Shoranur where party rebels led by M R Murali trounced the CPM official candidates in eight out of the nine seats where elections took place.

All these nine seats were vacated by the rebels as they were thrown out of the party by Kerala unit of the CPM led by Pinarayi Vijayan. Throwing out those who raise questions and criticise the official line is the major activity we have seen in Kerala CPM during the past few years, especially since Pinarayi Vijayan took over as secretary of the State unit. If a rough calculation is made, I'm sure thousands of cadres must have been thrown out in various parts of Kerala in these few years. Of course more people are leaving the party on their own, and Kerala happens to be the State unit with highest desertion rates from its ranks as the documents approved at the recent party congress reveal.

Rebellion in the party is not a new thing: Comrades are raising a banner of revolt against the party State leadership in whom they seem to have lost confidence. But they do not have the strength to throw these self-serving leaders out because the party machinery is under the complete control of this group of leaders. In a party like CPM, if you are in control of the bureaucratic setup no one can challenge you. Then the only chance for change is for the edifice to self-destruct or for those who do not fit in to be thrown out.

So the throwing out business has been going on in full swing for years and now, I am afraid, the other business, of self-destruction is taking over. In Shoranur, the rebels have, for the first time, brought home the terrible fact that they can bring this party to its knees if they chose to. And Shoranur is not a small place, an insignificant place in the Communist history. It was here EMS Namboodiripad and others launched Prabhatham, the first left-wing weekly in 1935 and it was in this region that the party grew up as a strong mass-based political party in the forties and fifties. EMS used to contest from Pattambi Assembly constituency, nearby. It was an impregnable fortress for the Communists for long.

After Onchiyam, where the party has already split into two, comes Shoranur. This is a very very critical development and this trend, if goes unchecked, could finish the party in Kerala very soon.

Well, for the central leaders they may have enough and more to inquire into when they ask themselves why they faced this defeat in Shoranur.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Laughing Gas

Sonia Gandhi visits Bangaram in Lakshadweep, where husband Rajiv Gandhi once saved a stranded whale: news

Is it a thankful whale or someone with a ten-inch shoe...?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Barak Obama and the Skyscrapers of Expectations

My friend and former colleague in Indian Express K Govindan Kutty has been living in the United States for some time and he had sent me a few notes on his observations on American life especially in the days when Barak Obama was being elected to the presidency.

I think his notes are very perceptive and hence one of them is being pasted below to make it available to my readers here. (Please note that he eschews using capital letters.)

in what you presented as "american notes", we discussed last obama, lincoln and racism. they are now discovering new glories in obama, building up skyscrapers of expectations. and, i have been thinking of that, racism, colour, sense or lack of it of colour in all its conceivable manifestations. i have been doing so before i came here. i am sure it will nag my mind when i go away from here.

the thought came to me again when we had been to a photo studio in a sprawling mall
in virginia center commons the other day. this is the season everybody goes for a photo session. everybody means everybody, young and old, dead and unborn.when we were waiting for our turn to be called in by the young, buxom camerawoman, who enjoyed her work and kept animating the cramped room with her eternal giggling,
i saw an african-american family sitting by my side waiting for their turn.
the man had a weird hairdo, long yarns of matted hair flowing down his head,
much like long bunches of coconut flowers with their stem buried in a nirapara.
the woman had her hair intricately braided, some colourful net covering the pate.
the two kids also had their short hair meticulously done, reminding me the paddy seedlings tied with a band around them and thrown all around the field, ready for planting.

it stood out so starkly, their hairdo.it was, shall i confess, revolting to me aesthetic sense.consider the prospect of someone with that kind of remote and ribald hair style sitting in the oval office, chatting with heads of state of mighty and meek members of the wide comity of nations! i am sure you will not consider such a prospect because it is entirely unlikely. why do they do it? why do they wear such weird hair? mind you, it is quite expensive to put up your hair like that. it is quite time consuming.

i did not feel free to ask this question anywhere. such things, i am told, are not asked. it is a free country. anyone is free to wear his hair or whatever the way they like.i made a fool of myself one day by asking about the possible age of a rather decrepit woman in an assisted living home. that is their term for old age home. the woman was stretching herself to do with minimum help from others and it evoked my curiosity about her age. the officer of the home was aghast when i asked the question. my daughter-in-law was embarrassed. i should not have asked such questions. it is all a private affair. asking about the age range of someone who looked like in her eighties and still enjoying(?) being on her own and learning to
live with minimum assistance is an intrusion into her privacy. amen, i said.

so i never ask anyone about the african-america hairdo. i avoided looking at them for more than a second. my son has warned me that it is not safe to have eye contact with any group of african-americans going about boisterously. they could turn violent, he says. he should know better.our neighbour john, a policeman, whenever he stops by to have a word of pleasantry talks about his trepidation as he goes for patrolling in an african-american neighbourhood on dark nights. so i chose not to ask anyone about the hairdo. i am not sure if any african-american leader,
john brown or frantz fanon or frederick douglas or jessie or king, had said it would be useful to dispense with that kind of hair style that segregated them, visually, up to a point culturally.

gandhi would have done that in his time. making people clean was his way to introduce a kind of social equality. there is no need for homogenization. but there is a need for sophistication. i suppose it would be part of a modernizing exercise to declare such hairdo out of fashion. african-americans do not retain their old african tongues, swahili or whatever, as hallmarks of their identity. but they, many of them, enjoy sporting a primitive hairdo that costs so much money
and so much time, and makes them look rather aboriginal. i know it is a difficult thing to change such styles, without an ataturk. i recall stories of my father being practically disowned by his father when he had his tuft cut off and the style of the times reflected on his pate. my grandfather declared that he would not see
his son with such hair style. it took so long for us to agree that kuduma, whether tied behind or before, is not a sign of modernity.

my thoughts on segregating hairdo and slithering colour sense in america took me back home, took me back both in space and time. lines from an earliest verse i had learnt came back to me, rather raucously. i have no idea how it was taught. perhaps its meaning was lost on those who taught it and those who were supposed to recite it. it had built in its heart a strong sense of colour prejudice,a base view of contempt, which should not have informed any kid song. don't you remember that song?

varanda thondayode nhaan
varunnu kochumallike.
vallathum tharumo daaham
valarunnorenikku nee?
karivande varollente
aritkil then tharilla nhaan.
nalla poompaattakalkke nhaan
nalkoo madhuramen madhu.

look at it, you are a little black bee, and i have no love or honey for you.
my nectar is reserved for beautiful butterflies.

what shows through this kid song, recited by millions of kids with gusto,
is the seething contempt of the little jasmine for the colour of the thirsty lover,
more than even his pathos. what morale does it have? what do kids learn from that?

it bespeaks a mindset. and it was written by g. i would have never associated with him such prejudice but that is what shows through his popular kid song. i hold g in high esteem even though i am boggled by his monstrosities like ANATHANUKSHANAVIKASWARASUNDARAPRAPANCHADIKANDAM.
mind you, it is malayalalm. i am ready to live with it but that little poem about the insolent flower and the jilted black bee is pernicious.

that is our contribution to colour sense. do we still have it in our primary syllabus?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Laughing Gas

Kerala Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan disowns K Sureshkumar, the IAS officer, who took up cudgels for him against the party: news

A suicide bomber for hire...!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Look, It’s an Orphan Soul Hanging like a Dead Crow on the Tree…!

EVERY TIME I visit a super market or a mall to buy something, I come away with a sense of guilt because invariably I am holding a plastic carry bag like a dead rabbit.

I say dead rabbit because a rabbit is one of the cutest little animals I have ever seen in my life. I still remember the little white rabbit we used to have at home as a pet, and when I came to know people would eat it as a delicious dish I was aghast. But I think my revulsion was quite out of place because people must eat to keep themselves alive and there is a saying in our language that the sin you incur in killing is washed away in eating. So there is a natural and symbiotic relationship between the hunter and the hunted; the prey and the predator. It is the natural order.

But why describe this ubiquitous plastic carry bag as a dead rabbit? Because like a dead rabbit's rotting carcass, these plastic carry bags keep proliferating, clogging our sewage systems and endangering the ecology of our planet. Go the remotest parts of Pacific Ocean’s islands or the most inaccessible parts of Amazon’s evergreen forests, and you are sure to come across abandoned water bottles or plastic food carriages.

Even the dead are not free from this plastic menace. Some time ago I went to the ancient temple in Thirunelli, on a steep hill in Nilgiri Biosphere, off Mananthavady in Wynad, where people conduct the final rites for the dead and gone. The Hindu belief is that once you carry out these rites, the soul comes to its final resting place, or kaivalyam; it would not wander in purgatory. So when someone is dead, his or her bones are collected from the ashes and then kept in an earthen pot to be carried off to Thirunelli(or any other sacred place) for immersion in sacred waters in the steam there. This river is called Papanasini, or the destroyer of all sins, a beautiful imagery of a person’s soul being washed clean of all her worldly sins for her final journey to the Almighty’s presence.

So I was there in Thirunelli to do the final rites for a close relative who had died. We had taken the ashes in an earthen-ware to be broken for immersion in the waters.

As I reached the ghat for the rites I was aghast that times have changed and even ancient customs have changed. Many had brought the ashes in plastic containers which were of course very convenient and they had the added advantage that they would not break, and the ashes and bones accidentally spilled out. But what was heart-breaking was that people instead of breaking earthen pots, were shedding out the bones and ashes into the water and then to ensure that all the remains did get immersed, simply throwing the plastic containers into the stream.

Papanasini is a small stream in the hills where wild animals roam about for food and water. I saw these containers in muddied pools of water everywhere in summer and they were seen even on the branches of huge trees downstream as when monsoon comes and water levels rise, they float about wildly. The poor ancestor’s soul, trapped in a plastic container, then hangs on the branches of a tree like an orphaned bat!

But local people told me they do much more harm than that. These containers often carry bits of food and other articles and foraging animals devour them, causing death. They said even elephants had been killed that way. A fine example of a soul on a murderous spree on its march to the heavens… Good heavens!

That is why I feel guilty every time I purchase something in a plastic container. But often one has no option. But today I was thrilled as I was offered a new, beautifully designed paper-and-yarn carry bag at a super-market, which weighed only a gram or two and looks elegant. The girl in the shop apologetically told me it would cost me one rupee extra. I said I am glad to pay that because I do not want my ancestors hanging on a tree like a dead crow with their souls trapped in a plastic bag.

(A version of this article is published at www.globalcomment.com, from London, Dec. 2008.)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

VS Achuthanandan's Office Plays Games on Him, and Gets the CM in Trouble

Kerala Chief Minister Achuthanandan's reference to a 'dog' stirs a hornets' nest: news

Every dog has a day...!

IS V S ACHUTHANANDAN meeting his nemesis? In the past few decades VS has proved himself to be the greatest political survivor, and his most surprising act would always remain the way he bounced back to the electoral combat in 2006 when his entire party State leadership made every effort to throw him out.

They failed. Because they were seen by the public as a gang of power-hungry clowns who were afraid of the popularity of this Communist who was unafraid of the high and mighty, who challenged them openly and defiantly. His party State leaders never calculated his staying power, his links to the masses and finally in the showdown, they blinked. They had to beat a hasty retreat when party cadres and masses launched demonstrations and agitations all over the State protesting against the party decision to keep him out of the race.

That put pressure on the national leadership and Prakash Karat announced his return to the race. Ever since there has been a running battle, between the State leaders and VS and in fact the State administration has been a victim of this low intensity warfare.

Most often VS won these battles, and in the past two and a half years of his rule, people also generally kept their faith with him.

But do they now, do they feel he is the trusted leader any longer?

The indications are that most people are now disenchanted with Achuthanandan and even the rebels in the party who supported him are no longer putting much faith in him. Janasakthi, the weekly magazine that was launched by them, has been folded up and the small groups that sprang up in various parts of the State are no longer looking up to him for leadership. He seems to have been hoodwinked by his own success.

And anyone who fails to watch his steps falls, and in politics it is doubly so. Last week we saw his antics over the visit to the slain Malayali soldier Sandeep Unnikrisihnan where he made his unnecessary and uncalled for reference to a dog in a televised interview. Watching him on the TV, I wondered why did he make this reference. It was absolutely unnecessary.

Then Prakash Karat termed it unfortunate in a statement. VS in the Assembly said Karat had misunderstood, but finally had to succumb and offer his unconditional apologies under pressure from party national leadership. It was fiasco beyond doubt.

Now comes the behind-the-back attack from his own hand-picked secretaries who say they are not responsible for the goings on in his office. It is a coterie or kitchen cabinet that decides things there. And everyone knows who this coterie is consisted of: People who were thrown out of the party, people who are opposed to the party and some media-persons who were working to split the party...

Now what will the Chief Minister do? Get rid of them or go down the gutter with them? It is a million dollar question, as they say.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Western Media and the ‘Collateral Damage’ in Mumbai

IN HIS sharp critique of the Indian television media in the three days of Mumbai terror, writer Mukul Kesavan brings into sharp focus the contempt with which the middle class, English-speaking, yuppie class of youngsters who make up the mainstream Indian television stations treated the poor people of India. He speaks about the way the thousands of people who suffered at the Chattrapathi Shivaji Terminus, formerly known as Victoria Terminus, received practically no attention from the TV reporters who focused all their attention on Hotel Taj, the ‘iconic symbol’ of India.

Mukul Kesavan has a point. For millions of Indians, who have been to Mumbai and lived there for a living, it would be this railway station that would emerge as the real icon of the city. But I was surprised that even sensitive persons like writer Aravind Adiga who won the Booker Prize this year for his novel, The White Tiger, which speaks about the divide between the rural and urban India, makes the same point that Taj is the symbol of India, its icon describing it as the real public space the Indian people share. I find this as an expression of the fact that even our public discourse, where we hope to find more nuanced, balanced and more sensitive opinions, is now being monopolized by the people with middle class, English speaking, urban background. For them India means the urban, shining India.

Continuing his criticism, Mukul writes again:

English and American papers treated the terror attack as an assault on the West. The terrorists had, after all, specifically looked for American and British citizens to murder. Ironically, even as NDTV, CNN-IBN and Times Now put hotel guests at the heart of the horror and bumped train commuters to its periphery, older English-speaking peoples counted their dead and dimly regretted all Indian casualties as collateral damage. In that residual category, if nowhere else, the Indian dead remained one People.

But here I am not sure whether he is accurate or fair to the more sensible and sensitive sections of western media, some of whom were keen to uphold the tradition of objectivity and fairness in their reporting and analysis. In my earlier post on Mumbai, I spoke about New York Times, to which I had been going back almost every hour of the crisis to get a balanced view of things.

And even in covering the heroism of people on the ground, they were much better than some of the Indian newspapers and television channels. For example, it was in New York Times that I read the wonderful story of the VT station's announcer who grabbed his microphone and urged the people to back off, to leave the station through the rear gate. He was shot at by the terrorists but luckily was unhurt. The story was one of the most moving tales of heroism I have read in this entire episode. Somini Sengupta of NYT wrote it. It is possible some local newspapers originally broke the story, but the credit goes to NYT for giving it the attention it deserved globally.

As for analysis, some of the analytical pieces they gave were superb, and even after a week of shrieking and shouting and hysteria that our TV people enacted, I am yet to come across anything as nearly sensible as these ones I read in NYT.

So perhaps, while most of the western media, as Mukul alleges, might have treated us Indians collectively as collateral damage, there were exceptions even in the west and they were honourable exceptions. They are the proud inheritors of the true traditions of journalism as an ethical and conscientious calling.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Laughing Gas

Shivraj Patil Quits as Home Minister (and India Heaves a Sigh of Relief.): news

A costume drama comes to an end...!

Mumbai's Agony and Media: What 24x7 Television News Said to Us?

DURING THE three days of terror that shook Mumbai and kept India and indeed the whole world on the tenterhooks, the media had a trying time. It is not easy to be a media-person in these days, when our entire society and polity is fractured, when one has to be very cautious in each and every step, every word, because at any moment one can fall a prey to the jingoistic nationalism on the one hand or the false propaganda and rumour mills that work over time on the other.

Both traps were there in plenty in those few days of acute national attention on Hotel Taj and a few other buildings in Mumbai. Rumours flew thick and fast and at one point the news channel telecast had to be shut down for a few hours in Mumbai to prevent spread of rumours. What provoked such an action at a time when the entire nation's attention was riveted on Mumbai was the rumours that spread like wild fire that gun battle again broke out in the Chattrapathi Shivaji Railway Terminus where it all started. It was an accidental shot from a policeman's rifle that caused the trouble.

Watching the various television channels that continued to report from the courtyard of Hotel Taj for more than three days, it was evident the hundreds of media crew who had camped in the vicinity of the hotel were taking heavy risks as the battle was still raging inside. Bullets were flying thick and fast and grenades were being thrown and some of the media-persons were even hit by shrapnel.

So indeed it was a huge task, a task which the Indian television media carried out rather successfully. They were able to provide minute by minute developments 24 hours a day for more than three days. It was a herculean task no doubt.

But that is about spot reporting. Even in reporting spot developments, they were focused on the two super star hotels of Taj and Oberoy Trident and then the Nariman House where some Jews were trapped, while there was practically no follow up on what went on in other parts of the city; there was nothing about the railway station, nothing about the hospitals that were attacked, nothing about the dozens of bodies that were lying unrecognized in morgues. Nothing about the life in the city, about the virtual siege of a metropolis with more than 12 million people.

They were most often talking about those icons, and I heard Burkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai and others keep on talking about those iconic buildings. How they were the icons of emerging India, how they represented the resurgent India, how they were the torch-bearers of India of the new century.

Sometimes I thought I was now in an election campaign, where they were once again talking about the Shining India. More than four years ago, I was in Delhi when the BJP-led Vajpayee Government launched this Shining India campaign, while the majority of Indian people thought otherwise.

This divide between the India of the upper class and middle class for whom Taj is the only icon that represents India, and the poor people who commute in the suburban trains from CST was more and more evident in all the days of this television cacophony. It was much sound and fury, with little substance.

So I spent much of my time on the net even as they kept on shouting on the mini-screen, some of their voices going hoarse, for credible information on what really went wrong in Mumbai. To get things in perspective, to know why these things happened and what lies ahead. It was a horrific failure on the part of our government, our administrative services, our security forces and our secret services. It was unbelievable that such a brazen assault was possible in any country with a minimum sense of security. It was as if they just came in, shot people as they wished and took the hotels and challenged the entire nation.

I must say our national reaction too was not sober. Many people on the television channels were shouting for tough actions, for tough laws and even a police state to put an end to terror. It was evident they were raising accusing fingers at the 'other', the enemy within, the Muslims in this country even as it was more and more evident that this heinous crime was committed by outside forces. The opinions that got aired vociferously on the channels were part of a pattern that we are very familiar with nowadays.

It was also part of this pattern that Narendra Modi appeared on the Taj premises at the peak of the conflict, denouncing the government. I was overjoyed when that dignified lady, Mrs. Kavitha Karkare, wife of slain Hemanth Karkare, refused to meet this cynical gentleman from Gujarat and spurned his offer of money. She gives me hope and confidence, that despite its terrible and traumatic experiences, this great nation's soul is still intact, that no Lucifer can overpower it, even in the most trying times.

Well, I must say that among the newspapers online that I searched, the one which proved to be most credible, most reliable and with maximum information from every part of the world was the good old New York Times to which I went back on almost every hour of this crisis as one falls back on a trusted friend in the hours of crisis.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Police Regaining 'Lost' Confidence

Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh asks police forces to regain the lost public confidence: news.

Bloody rascal, where have you hidden the 'confidence'?

Monday, November 24, 2008

K Jayachandran: Journalist, Cult Figure and a Friend Who Played with his Life

IT IS difficult to believe that K Jayachandran died ten years ago. Time flies, and for those of us in the daily news business time flies with supersonic speed.

Still the fact remains: It was on November 24, 1998 that a few of us took the body of K Jayachandran, leading journalist and television person, from the mortuary of Baby Memorial Hospital at Arayidathupalam in Kozhikode, and accompanied him on his last journey to the Calicut Press Club less than one km away, where he lay motionless unmindful of the grief and distress of his friends and admirers.

He had a large gathering of friends and admirers, in fact even in those days he had emerged as a cult figure with a dedicated band of followers. He was something very close to the godmen and godwomen we see in plenty in Kerala society these days, with lots of followers who look upon their idols as god's incarnation. No questions asked, only veneration there.

But Jayachandran was something more than a cult figure. He was a journalist with fire inside his belly, who relentlessly spoke up for the poor and the dispossessed. He was, surely, the best example of a subaltern class journalist among us. He was a committed journalist, who took a clear and decisive stand on issues, fought for those things which he thought were important for him and was willing to face the consequences.

He had to pay the price for his principles. Ever since 1979 when he became the Wyand correspondent of Mathrubhumi where he had made history with a series of earth-shaking stories, he was one of the very few journalists worth their salt in our state. Still, he lost his job very soon thanks to his unwillingness to play ball with the management baying for the blood of a colleague.

In Wynad, his best known story was about the policemen hurrying to scoop up a wild animal died in the huge land-slip that killed many people. The police were there to rescue people but their eyes were on the buck that was killed and would prove to be an excellent dish for the evening drink party.

Jayachandran got them on camera, published it in the newspaper next day and was promptly picked up by the police, bashed up and was almost dead.

But he was never bothered about it. I had seen him many times during those days but he never complained about the torture he had to face in the police custody.

It was this courage that marked him as a journalist. Vimsey (V M Balachandran) who was news editor of Mathrubhumi recalls an incident with regard to Jayachandran in his memoirs. Those were the days of Emergency and Jayachandran was a local reporter from Kayanna, his home town very close to the Kakkayam police camp which became quite notorious in later days.

One of those days Jayachandran came to his office with a report about a rumour that spread in his village that a young student, named Rajan, had been killed in police torture in a camp in Kakkayam and his body dumped in Urakkuzhi, the deep water-fall nearby in deep forest. It was a rumour but he thought it was important. Hence his story.

Vimsey was in two minds. He knew Emergency was not a a time to play with police; censorship was in place though Mathrubhumi had not been subjected to it much being a nationalist or Congress newspaper. But it was a news item that rankled in his mind and he talked to V M Nair, then managing editor. V M Nair lost no time to seize the copy, tear it up, burn the pieces and then flush it away leaving no trace of it in the newspaper office.

There are so many memories about Jayachandran and the kind of journalism he practised. After leaving Mathrubhumi, he was with Sadvartha for a brief period before joining Asianet, where he soon became a cult figure and a political bigwig. But that part of his story is a different one; and I often felt he was a celebrity though at times he came out with brilliant stories that shook the people from their complacency.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Indira Gandhi, Emergency and a History Book: Memories of Interesting Times

THIS WEEK I wrote a long piece in Mathruhbumi Weekly on my days as a student activist in the seventies and eighties. Those were very interesting times, as the Chinese saying goes and Eric Hobsbawm, my favourite historian says in his memoirs. For the ancient Chinese, living in interesting times meant living in turbulent times. For those of us who lived through the seventies and eighties, it was no different.

I must say I received quite a lot of responses from my readers, including from those people whom I have mentioned in the article to young readers of my children’s generation who look at the seventies and eighties as distant past.

I spoke only about the main events that shaped the student movement in the seventies and eighties when Students Federation of India (SFI) grew into the most important student organization in Kerala, and indeed all over India. In those days, it was led by people like Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechuri who are today some of the most important political leaders in the country.

One of the mails I received after its publication was from K Govindan Kutty, whom I came to know in 1979 during my first trip to Delhi to attend a national conference of students and youths, which was held at Mavlankar Hall, opposite the Vithal Bhai Patel House in Delhi. Govindan Kutty, one of the best political journalists of our time, was with Indian Express those days and later he became the bureau chief of the newspaper in Thiruvananthapuram and then associate editor in Delhi.

I had gone to the VP House to meet Appukkuttan Vallikkunnu, who was Delhi bureau chief of Deshabhimani those days. I knew him from mid-seventies when I used to work as a part-time employee in Deshabhimani’s Kozhikode desk during night time, after my college. So I went to meet him, looking for some help to buy a book on Indian history the Progress Publishers of Moscow had brought out a few months earlier and distributed in India by People’s Publishing House, owned by CPI. But my search for the book turned out to be big news that appeared on the front page of Indian Express. KGK, who like Jerry Yang of Yahoo writes eschewing capital letters, recalls this incident in his mail the other day:

i recall our first meeting in vithalbhai patel house in 79,
perhaps march, when you mentioned a rumour about cpi quietly
withdrawing from the market a book of indian history by two
russian writers who had nice things to say about the emergency.
rajeswara rao and company found it quite irritating to have such
a book in the market when they had changed their views.

and pph withdrew it promptly. i did a quick armchair research and
put out a story in indian express which i had joined only a month or two ago.
i recall pph manager jiten sen denying the story and
offering the withdrawn book. i had taken care to buy
it well in advance.

i do not know if you recall this incident or included it
your memoirs. life, as trotsky famously and tragically said, is beautiful indeed.
so long.

It was a memorable incident in many ways. I had heard that one thing that kept changing in the socialist Soviet Union was its history. When Stalin replaced Lenin, he had his own version of the CPSU (B) history, and when Khrushchev came we got a different version; then Brezhnev and his own…And of course when the Soviet Union came crumbling down we have had new histories like that of Dmitry Volkhogonov.

So what happened was that when I went to Delhi searching for the two-volume history of India, written during the Emergency of 1975-77 and unfortunately came to the market one year later when Indira Gandhi was facing the Shah Commission inquiry for her crimes during Emergency, the Soviet Embassy and the CPI could do nothing but to quietly withdraw the copies from bookshelves.

They did so, and no one noticed. It was then I landed up in Delhi looking for the book and Appukkuttan told me to go and meet Vijayakumar who used work in the PPH there. It was tough reaching the PPH showroom, but a friendly Sardarji driver took me there. When I met Vijayakumar, he told me the book was no longer available; he casually mentioned it was taken away by embassy people and when I asked why, he said it was because of some comments about Emergency in it…

I really do not know whether it was the Soviet Embassy who decided to withdraw the book because they did not want to antagonize the Morarji Desai Government then in power, or C Rajeswara Rao and his CPI who had confessed their mistake in supporting Emergency at Bhatinda a few months earlier. Anyway, it was history in the making…

I read Govindan Kutty’s story in Indian Express about the Book that Vanished, as I returned home in Kozhikode a few days later. But I kept on my search for the book and the next year as I went to Burdwan University in Bengal for a seminar as chairman of the Calicut University Union, I strayed into the College Street in Kolkata and got a copy of the book from another leftist book store there. By then Indira Gandhi was back in power in Delhi.

(The nation celebrated the 91st birth anniversary of Indira Gandhi earlier this week, on November 19.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Micky Mouse Turns 80 Today!

Micky and his Indian friends...!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

White Mughals in South India: The Life and Times of East India Company Officers in Malabar

WILLIAM DALRYMPLE's The White Mughals is a book which describes the fascinating life of the early British officers who came to India in the service of the English East India Company in 18th and early 19th centuries. Many of them fell in love with this exotic land of orient and became a unique society that was a heady mix of the east and the west.

There were so many British officials who came to South India during the same period, as the conquest of India started with the many wars they waged in the south, mainly against Hyderali and Tipu Sultan of Mysore.

After the second Anglo-Mysore War, Malabar, then under Tipu Sultan, fell to the British control in 1792. One of the fiercest resistances they faced then was from Pazhassi Rajah of Kottayam. It was Thomas Baber, the commander of British forces, who defeated Pazhassi Rajah. One of the natives who helped him was Pulapre Karunakara Menon who identified Pazhassi’s body.

Mr. Nick Balmer is a descendant of Thomas Baber and he was in Kozhikode recently visiting the places where colonial history was made. He has written extensively on this in his blog, Malabar Days. (malabardays.blogspot.com.) He recently wrote a few letters to me about the life of his great ancestors, and other things that came to him through the large collection of private letters he has seen.

I paste an edited version of his letters which are of immense value to an understanding of the life and times of the early British who came to our region a few centuries ago:

Dear Mr Chekkutty,

As an Englishman I feel that I should be very careful about interfering in India's affairs, and I can well understand that many people there must have very mixed feelings about things associated with what must appear to many as a dark period in India's existence.

But I believe that things like that palanquin [donated by EIC to Pulapre Karunakara Menon that was missing from Calicut University for some time] point to another side of those events a long time ago.

K Menon [Pulapre Karunakara Menon, an official with the English East India Company] was obviously a very effective individual, and he would have been an outstanding leader even if the British had never been there. As it was he worked within the British system to protect his community. It is very telling that in all the correspondence (several thousand letters) I have read he is almost the only Indian mentioned apart from criminals, rebels or rajahs.

He was also deeply respected for his abilities and knowledge by people like T Baber, Sir Thomas Munro and Graeme. They turned to him to explain how societies worked in Malabar.

Influenced by Menon they were trying to design systems of governance to enable the laws to be re-written to suit the local conditions. It was very sad that Sir Thomas Munro died of cholera before he could implement many of the reforms. That cholera bug set back India considerably.

Sadly most Brits were never able to get close enough to the local societies to become able to appreciate its good points. The generation of EIC civil servants who went out in the 1790s and early 1800s were quite different from the later 19th century ones.

I am afraid that my 4 x great uncle is responsible for a lot of the Malabar material in the British library, and the Victoria & Albert Museum. His brother, my 3 x great grandfather was Keeper of the Printed Books at the British Library from 1809 until 1835. He was a Vicar and was very interested in religious texts.

Thomas brought home at least 27 Granthams that he presented to the library. I cannot read Malayalam, or date Granthams, but a very kind and erudite lady from Cochin went with me to look at two of these Granthams. She thought they were of 16th century, and of the highest quality.

I don't know if he was given them, or if he acquired them by fair means or foul, but I do know that he was very interested in old Malayalam texts and spent so much time in Tellicherry temples that these temples hold a belief to this day that he became a Hindu.

I think that is one step too far, but he certainly had a great interest in Hindu texts. It would be surprising if he didn't, his father, grandfather, and especially great grandfather all had very big libraries. His great grandfathers took 11 nights to sell [the books] at auction in 1766, and was catalogued as being the largest collection of Spanish and Italian books in England, although it had Latin, Greek, French as well.

Thomas also appears to have collected and preserved many of the best of the weapons his men confiscated from the Pazhassi Rajah’s forces as well as the other insurgents (freedom fighters) he fought against. Many of these survived until 1924 in his house at Tellicherry. I held the last remaining spear when I was there. The rest went into a river to avoid there being used in the revolt.

However in 1832 he presented the best of his collection to the Royal Asiatic Society. I have discovered a list of these weapons with a very detailed description of each weapon. These went to the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1880s. I am currently trying to find the time to go to the museum to see if I can track them down.

It is very likely that they are in the reserve collection there.

Thomas commissioned portraits of many of the Nambootiris who taught him about Hindu culture.

I really enjoyed my trip to East Hill and the Collectors building. I spent several hours in the building which is very interesting for what it tells me about the mindset of the original builder. I don't know for definite who he was, but it could well have been Mr.Pearson.The bungalow and court appears to be built on a model derived from Classical Roman ideas, possibly to work like a Roman villa. At that time Rome provided the inspiration for many buildings in Britain and indeed across the world being built by these classically educated British.

I have contrasted it with the entrance room at Thomas Baber's house at Pallikunnu. The East Hill building was built 5 to 10 years before Pallikunnu. I believe Thomas Baber had visited East Hill, but I believe he understood that Roman, and indeed British law was not entirely applicable to the Malabar.

I have some very vivid accounts of Connolly’s death. He seems to have been a man with a genuine interest in the welfare of the villagers, and appears to have put great effort into developing teak plantations. I expect these must have affected many villages, and perhaps the villagers didn't like that.

I have a copy of a very interesting account of a trip made from Calicut in the late 1820's by Thomas Baber to Sullivan near Ootty. In it Thomas Baber describes and compares the landscape he is passing with its appearance when he had previously been along the same route in about 1803. It clearly shows that there had been a tall canopy forest over much of the route in 1803, but that forestry had removed most of the canopy trees by the late 1820s. If that was the case, there would only have been low re-growth scrub over much of the area formerly before 1803 covered by tall jungle.

It is odd that we think deforestation is a modern issue, but it exercised many minds as far back as 1820. But of course we never really learn.


Nick Balmer

Friday, November 14, 2008

Laughing Gas

Kerala Sahitya Akademi president M Mukundan says Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan is old stuff, needs to be replaced by young blood: news.

A literary rag-picker...!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Dangerous Blend of Culture Industry and State Sponsored Religion

THINKING ABOUT public broadcasters,we can't avoid a critical evaluation of how far they have been able to uphold the nation's fundamental principles of secularism, equality of opportunities and respect for all faiths and social groups in our country.

Watching the programmes of Doordarshan and listening to All India Radio over the past many years, I have always felt the secularism they have in mind is an eclectic collection of all religious faiths -- often most decadent, obscurantist practices that are purported to be religious practices. Religions have always been explained as a set of beliefs and practices,which are promoted by the most conservative and most oppressive sections in a community. If one keeps an eye on the various religious programmes that are aired on our pubic and private channels one may come to the safe conclusion that religion as an institution is for the elite, upper class and upper caste sections in our society. It is not only for them, but is by them and of them, as Abraham Lincoln said in a different context.

I cannot complain about private channels airing the most apprehensive, most negative, most retrograde programmes because they are not funded by public exchequer. Their negative campaign need to be challenged and rebuffed, but they need to be rebuffed in the public sphere as part of a larger campaign for a substantially different, people oriented, concept of secularism. Secularism, as our nation-state defined it in its formative years and in its Constitution, need some thorough re-examination because when we say respect for all faiths, no discrimination on the basis of faith, etc, what we mean is the established forms of religion and not the ever changing, ever evolving, people oriented nature of these faiths. Faith, as we know from experience, is not a dead entity. It is constantly evolving and changing, as every new generation tries to locate answers for their deeper existential, human and philosophical questions in them.

That is why Bhagavat Gita becomes a revolutionary text in the hands of Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi,who sought new meanings in the text that would give strength to a new nationalism rising in this country. Similarly, the Christian and Islamic faiths and their books have given rise to a series of profound reinterpretations that have given rise to many new movements, which have challenged the status quoist religious beliefs and practices and establishments from the roots. We cannot say that they are not part of religion; they are indeed part of an ever widening, ever changing ever vibrant organic system called religion.

But our statist understanding of religion and faith cannot accept this most revolutionary aspect of religion. For the state and its establishments, faith means a static system, another establishment, a system of rituals and practices, an oppressive and casteist mechanism that effectively prevents any social change.

When our cultural industry that is promoted and financed by the state exchequer like our Doordarshan dabbles in faith matters developing and airing programmes they often serve a most negative and anti-people platform, even promoting most fundamentalist, communal and obscurantist streams of social consciousness.

I would like you to think about the eighties when Doordarshan was the one and only platform of visual communication when our epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata made a triumphant entry to to our drawing rooms. I have seen many families who, in the most ritualistic manner, getting themselves ready, for the airing of the programme in the early afternoon in a curious blend of faith, entertainment, business and communication which was a unique experience in those days. Nobody noticed the kind of ideology that was slowly emanating out of it, spreading like noxious fumes all over the country, spoiling our social life which later developed into a political turmoil that shook the fundamentals of our nation-state. The transmigration of some of these epic characters like Diipika Chikalia from mini-screen to the political platform is a known fact; also known is the fact that the rath-yatras of the eighties were choreographed in the same way as the epic raths and characters were choreographed, bringing a new kind political idiom to our pubic life. That was dangerous.

I remember a speech made by our former president K R Narayanan in the late eighties in which he spoke about the serious implications of the weekly dose of soft Hindutva to our social psyche. He felt it would spell doom for our future and now watching young female sanyasins turning experts in bomb making to destroy imagined enemies within and without, we do realize that what he predicted has come true. These dress operas had a political schema: An idol of a hero, an epic idol who seeks out his enemy and destroys him, like a Rama destroying a Ravana. The stereotypes they promoted helped evolve a decadent and dangerous political culture in the eighties. We have paid a huge price for this and even our future generations will have to pay an enormous price for our blind and potentially harmful interpretations of our own past and culture.

But let me point out that unlike this statist and puerile interpretation of our epics that we were fed on Doordarshan,there were much more nuanced, more creative and more sensitive treatment of the same subject in our cultural domain. I do not wish to go in detail to this aspect but I would like you to remember a movie like Kancahana Sita by Aravindan which gave us a Rama and a Sita who are fundamentally different from the grand characters Doordarshan gave us. hey were more human, closer to the life and times of our epics when a Sambuka had to lose his head for the sacrilege of sanyasa, and hence more truthful to the real Indian tradition. But who cares?

Here I am not arguing for a particular reading of the history or our epics, though it is possible and necessary to read and reinterpret all these texts that make our national cultural assets from the point of view of sections who had hitherto remained subaltern or sidelined. The nation needs to accept that our national tradition cannot be one-sided or partisan. It has to widen its scope to accept and celebrate the varied strands in our social and political life whether it be the the lives of our tribal people, the women, dalits or the minorities and untouchables, who were denied the rightful place in our history. But when we accept and follow a static historical and cultural model, we are sure to fall prey to more partisan, parochial and inherently counter-productive tendencies in the name of nationalism. Hence I do believe we need to think about a more comprehensive, more accommodative and more tolerant variant of nationalism and national tradition when we think of cultural products in the contemporary Indian context. The pubic broadcasters do have a major role to play here; they have failed to uphold this role in the past. Hope they will not in future.

(A note prepared for the editors conclave held in Thiruvananthapuram as part of Public Broadcasters Day, November12, 2008.)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A Visit to Al Jazeera and Search for Media Alternatives

AL JAZEERA's studio and office complex in downtown Doha is an imposing structure. It is a sprawling campus, its glass and concrete buildings providing a cool and professional ambience for an international news media organization.

My friend Ajit Sahi of Tehelka and myself were there for a short visit last week, and when I was entering through the guarded gates, I was thinking how different it was from the poorly lit, badly furnished, poor and shabby two-storey building back in Kochi, where we built up the news division of Kairali Channel eight years ago. Still, both belonged to a class of organizations which sought to challenge the western media monopoly in our times. Of course, they won and we lost.

It was Sunday afternoon, a working day in Doha. Dr Jaffer, who works in the major government hospital in the city, was so keen on his excited debates as he drove the car that often I wondered how his swanky Ford car manages to avoid having friendly encounters with the ones moving in front and the sides. The Doha roads in the rush hours looks like any other city: A relentless stream of cars, inside them solitary figures trying to manipulate the heavy traffic.

At Al Jazeera too, it was a busy day for them. It was the day of the state visit of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, on a tour of West Asia to persuade the rich sheikdoms to part with their money to help the struggling financial sector back home and in Wall Street. For Al Jazeera, it was also the occasion of the 12th anniversary of the channel and they were organizing an international seminar on human rights as part of a new division they were launching on human rights with Sami Al Haj, as its head.

At Hotel Sheraton on West Bay, Ajit and Rasheed Bhai had a brief chance meeting with Sami Al Haj the previous day. Sami is a dark and lean man from Sudan, who had spent six and a half years at the Guantanamo Bay, after being arrested by the US troops in Afghanistan. He was a camera-person with Al Jazeera who went to Afghanistan to report on the lives of the people there but ended up being news himself. Released a few months earlier, he was now back in Al Jazeera, trying to rebuild his life and that of millions of others in every part of the world whose lives have been shattered by the bullies.

Most of the people we met in Doha had some India connection. Among Qatar's expatriate community, Indians are perhaps the largest in numbers and most successful. Sami too has an India connection because he went to college in Pune. Like Doha, Al Jazeera too is an an example of cosmopolitanism at its best. Its staff members are drawn from 40 nationalities, said Sarah Mahmoud Taha, a slim and darkish Arab girl who was our host in the channel.

Sarah, who is the international relations coordinator at Al Jazeera, too was very busy that day, but she took us around and answered all our questions. We first had a look at the Arab channel premises which is now 12 years old. Its Iraq bureau is also functioning from the Doha headquarters as after the US bombing of their bureau in Baghdad, they were not allowed to function in that country. Sarah too has her own India connections. Her father, a scientist, went to college in Mysore. I told her Mysore is close to my home town, Kozhikode, and Jaffer remembered one of their slain staff members in Baghdad bombing too went to college in my home town, at Farook College. She was very pleased with the information.

The premises of the English channel, launched two years ago, are close by but definitely much better and glittering. It is a world of glamour, glitter and technological prowess as the Emir whose rich oil fields finance the channel has not spared any expense to make it world class. Before leaving, we had a meeting with Satnam Matharu, a pleasant young executive who heads the international division. A person of Indian origin, his family migrated to Canada from Punjab.
Al Jazeera, though a representative of the new forces challenging the west, seems not to be very keen on covering India and other developing countries extensively. He said they do not have any office in India right now, except some arrangements for news coverage.

The concerns about media, its lopsided coverage,lack of sympathy for the live issues of the poor, dispossessed and oppressed were the major themes in the the three public functions we addressed in Doha. All of them were well attended and there was a lively exchange of ideas as the audience raised several sharp and very pertinent questions. The point I wanted to drive home was that it was futile to complain about the way mainstream media behaves. They are controlled by their class interests. If you want to raise your voice, then try to develop your own media organizations. Like Al Jazeera, like Tehelka and like our own three-year-old daily newspaper, Thejas, which I represented at these meetings. We have a new challenge here and great opportunities offered by the wonderful tools made available the new technologies, the high levels of public consciousness and the effective way resources could be raised from a vigilant public for a noble cause. What we needed to answer the challenge of monopoly media was determination and faith in our own strength.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Change Comes to America...!

Barak Hussein Obama is elected the 44th president of the United States of America.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Narayaneeyam and the Lord of Guruvayur

THE FIFTEENTH century Manipravalam poem, Kokasandesam, is one of the earliest texts that refer to the temple of ‘Kuruvayur’ which later became one of the foremost pilgrim centres in Malabar region. It was the reign of Zamorins, who came to power in 12th century with the port city of Kozhikode as their capital, and Guruvayur was on the outer limits of his kingdom and was a strategic location where his forces often used as a transit point during their raids to the southern kingdoms.

The temple and its deity, Krishna, had become quite famous by the end 15th century and early 16th century. Bhakti poet Poonthanam and scholar-poet Melputhur Bhattathirippad were closely associated with the temple and some of the historical information we have on the early days of Guruvayur come from their writings. Poonthanam’s Jnanappana, one of the early Malayalam texts along with Cherusseri Namboodiri’s Krishnagatha and Ezhuthacchan's Adyatma Ramayanam, give us an insight into the development of the bhakti cult in deep-south which all over India had, by then, been spreading a renaissance culture with focus on the language of the common people, unlike the more Brahmanical Sanskrit which held sway in the classical ages. One of the interesting aspects about all three poets is that they belonged to the northern part of Kerala, Cherusseri hailing from a region under the Kottayam Rajah while Poonthanam and Ezhuthacchan lived in the Zamorin kingdom.

One of the specific mentions of the age and time is seen in Narayaneeyam, the great Sanskrit kavya by Melputhur, who ends his poem with a note on ayurarogyasoukhyam, a reference to a Kalidina number which translates into a date in late 16th century according to the Kollam Era that was popular in this region. Since there are references that both poets were contemporaries, we infer that Poonthanam and Melputhur lived in the kingdom of Zamorin in 16th century.

Narayaneeyam is a text that is more pedantic and scholarly, and according to legends the lord of Guruvayur himself had commented he preferred the bhakti of the poor Malayali Brahmin to the vibhakti of the Sanskrit scholar-poet. Surprisingly, we see that Melputhur always held sway in the temple town despite the deep bhakti that we encounter in Poonthanam.

There have been a few attempts to translate Narayaneeyam into Malayalam, one of the well known works being that of C V Vasudeva Bhattathiri. Recently I came across a new translation done in Dravidian metres, Neythiri, executed by Balendu. This is a commendable effort for a variety of reasons, first and foremost being the difficulty of rendering a popular text into our language without losing its musical and poetic elements. As I went through the text I found it was a beautiful rendering of Narayaneeyam in Malaylam and it deserves a better attention from Malayali reading public.

I had a talk with the poet, who hails from Elanhi in Ernakulam and now lives in Bangalore, on his work:

On the poet’s devotion and inspiration to work:

I am a believer in God as a source of Divine justice. More than any of the famous temples I like Gramadevatha. I like the epics as the best purposeful fiction. Krishna is my favourite character. I don’t consider Rama as very significant. I like Ramayanam. I went inside Guruvayur Temple only after writing Neythiri. I have “read” in few sapthahams just to read Bhagavatham.

On Narayaneeyam:

Till 1994 my only encounter with Narayaneeyam was through P.Leela’s rendering. I don’t know Sanskrit. I tried to read Narayaneeyam, but could not make much headway till I joined a group of devotees in 1999 in chanting sessions.

The musical quality attracted me the most. I loved the literary excellence too. As a spiritual work I think Jnaanappana is better.

Idea of translating:

It struck me like a blitzkrieg (October 2002). It was as a means of understanding Narayaneeyam better. My close relatives have always liked my translations. (I know six languages).

On other translations of Narayaneeyam into Malayalam:

I have seen a few translations. I did not see any that was worth talking about. Those which were in the sankrit vrithams had a lot of handicaps. I had seen only one like Neytthiri, in Dravida vrithams, but not before I had actually started mine. Well, I believe it is a sloppy work.

How long it took to complete the work:

Almost three years, from October 2002 to 25th July 2005. Spasmodic is the proper adjective for the process. Or rather like Punartham njatuvela.

What were the problems faced:

Mainly Pattery’s slesham. It is simply un-translatable.

Even Kumaran Asan had spoken about the limitations of our language:

I disagree. He was talking about language in general. Not about Malayalam specific, when he said, innu bhaashayithapoornnam.

As a translator how did you find these limitations:

My work is not exactly a translation. It is Narayaneeyam retold.

Where do you place Narayaneeyam:

Narayaniyam’s place is very high; should be at par with Bhagavatham and Ramayanam. But, it is in Sanskrit

Do you look at your own translation as a contribution to the rich tradition of devotional literature?

Well! Is it not better that I leave it for the readers to answer that. So far many (well known writers, spiritual gurus, and well read public) appreciated the work. Only three persons have pointed out mistakes. One is my wife, the two others had extremely good intentions.(Such good work should be spotless, they said.)

On Thunchan:

Thunchan is my inspiration. I believe Malayalam as a language has not progressed from where he had left it. His works are also punaraakhyaanams, not paribhasha.

What else did you do by way of original writing:

I have published six books for children. Three are collections of stories, two novels, one kuttikkavithakal. One of my stories is a lesson in 4th standard Malayalam text.

Details on the book:
Neythiri, Sahitya Manjari Publications, Onakkur, Ernakulam. Price: Rs.180.
Contact the poet: kavibalendu@gmail.com

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Poet and Friend, P Udayabhanu Passes

I WANTED to write this note yesterday itself. but I was too tired to do anything, after a day at the hospital and witnessing the last journey of a friend whose memory takes me back to a romantic and revolutionary time which seems to be completely lost to us.

P Udayabhanu's death was quite unexpected. He was the most unlikely candidate for a sudden demise. He was extremely careful about his health; he never smoked, never took drinks, never indulged in any of the vices of our generation. In fact his careful and frugal ways made him a success in a material way while most of his comrades who took up guns in the mid-seventies now live a wrecked and wretched life.

He was a poet of rare sensitivity, but beyond that he was a person who in his teens dared to dream big. When he joined the band of revolutionaries who went to attack the Kayanna police station, with the fond hope that they were very close to the Spring Thunder of revolution in the days of Emergency he was being led by this fire of idealism. He was only an undergraduate student those days. He spent a long time in the Kannur Central Jail and it was on his return, that he made a determined effort to rebuild his life. He was a success.

Many others were not. Yesterday, Madhu Master, who was part of the movement, was there in the hospital and at his home, and he was recalling the days when "we thought revolution was nearby." It wasn't. But still, there was something the movement left behind, its legacy: A sense of values, a glimmer of hope in the times of decadence, hopelessness.

I remember the long association I had with Udayabhanu who became a friend with me after he joined Akashvani. But I knew about him from earlier times, when one day P N Das, who used to edit Prasakthi, brought it to me in our college in those days of anxiety, excitement, hope and despair. I first came to know the power of poetry in this publication when I read KGS, Satchi daa and others there. That powerful impact left by Bengal of KGS still remains etched in my memory that never fades even after three and a half decades...!

I write this note just to say goodbye to a friend, a comrade and a person whose memory takes me back to a time when we had better dreams to dream of, better thoughts to think, and an immensely better world at least in our inner self...

How different it was from this insipid times we are going through in contemporary Kerala, where Swami Santhosh Madhavan and Baba Abdulla Faizi are leading our liberation struggles!


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Why do Muslims Complain about a Conspiracy of Silence in the Indian media?

BJP president Rajnath Singh objects to the use of the term 'Hindutva terrorism' by the media: news

'Of course, we have no objection to using Islamic terrorism...!'

RECENTLY I had to take issue with some articles written by Praveen Swami of The Hindu which, I felt, were more tendentious and subservient to the interests of the security agencies who seem to take a partisan view of things as far as Muslim community is concerned in many recent terror incidents(except the Malegaon case in Maharashtra.) One of the grievances raised by Muslim leaders and masses is that the angle, whether their enemies do have a role in these incidents never get probed by these agencies.

That is why the complaint that terror inquiries are being converted into a witch-hunt. My experience is that there is some substance in this allegation. Here is a post l had made to a discussion group on this and some reactions to them:

Since we have plenty of western experts to tell us from where terrorists come from even in remote Asian villages, I do not know whether a local narrative could sell in this highly monopolistic market.

But I do have a story to tell, because I happen to come from a village from where recently a 'terrorist' came up. And his story would give us an insight into how they are made to order and how they are disposed of.

His name suddenly came in Bangalore newspapers as part of terror network with a sophisticated training in Information Technology. Yahya Kammukkutty, who hails from Mukkam, a few km from my village, was indeed working in some IT company in Bangalore and he was earning some good money too. He had married from Karuvanpoyil, a small village where I had my primary schooling.

So Kammukkutty was picked up and Times of India gave a front-page news that terror network in IT business had been busted. Check out Bangalore newspapers of a few months back and enjoy the kind of cock and bull stories they built up on the Islamic terror network to finish off India's Silicon Valley.

But this move backfired when they named a person called Sheriff, a highly respected IT businessman in the city, as one of the kingpins of the network. Even the global names in IT business who knew him pooh poohed at this story and put an end to the cynical attempt to destroy the few fledgling IT businesses set up by Muslim community in the city.

Now what about Kammukkutty, my village terrorist? His wife and her people say he had plans to set up a new company and it was business rivalries that caused his ill fate. The police worked in cahoots with his rivals. Of course, that's a point to be proved or disproved in a court of law. By the time, sure, his life would be destroyed.

And do we expect him to get a fair hearing in a court of law? After all we have a democracy here, that too a vibrant democracy...(Remember Madani trial. Didn’t he get off, after nine years in jail?)

After a series of brain mappings, narco tests and all that, some of these cases were to be taken up by some lawyers but when he went to the court to file some petitions, he was not even allowed to enter the court. The 'nationalist' lawyers in Hubli and other places, where cases are pending, had decided not to take up cases relating to terrorists.

The point here is that the due process of law is being upstaged and upset by the law enforcing agencies themselves. The police are taking a partisan line, the laywers are refusing to take up cases and even physically stopping a few who dare to do so, and what would a poor man do?

Is a kangaroo trial enough for the wretched and the poor of this country? What is eerily fascinating is the fact that they had to face the brunt of even the most cynical actions of criminal conspiracy as in the Malegaon case, where a group of Hindutva activists are now taken into custody for planting a bomb outside a mosque the day before Bakrid last month.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Here We Go to the Moon...!

India's Chandrayaan-1 blasts off; ISRO says will land an Indian on the moon by 2015: news.

Surely we would have loved a vehicle that would launch us to the seat of power...!

Monday, October 20, 2008

In Memory of a Departed Tree in our Neighbourhood…

from a letter to a friend:

LAST TIME we met I wanted to talk to you about my life, my work, my home and so many other small things which I wanted to say to someone who can understand me. But somehow we are all drawn uncontrollably into a huge current that is life and I was unable to bring myself to a mood where I could talk, without any inhibitions, fears, hindrance...

I hope one of these days I would be able to unwind myself and keep talking and talking and do nothing but talk. As you can see I am always keeping myself busy, doing so many things at the same time, engaging with so many tasks so that I do not have to think of myself and my life. Perhaps this is what they call a great escape. Escape from one's own shadow.

But still there are moments when I do get a chance to look at life, its simple beauties and wonderful colors that often escape me. Most of the days I used to wake up so early in the morning when I heard the cuckoo sing as a bird seems to have perched somewhere on a tree in my compound quite close to my bed room. It sings so well, it has a friend keeping him (I suppose the habitual singer is a male) company and I used to watch them play in the yard...

But I miss them in recent weeks after the rains and I don't know where they have gone. I thought they would come back once spring is here and I was looking forward to their company during the Onam days. However, they were missing. Now even after Puja, they are still not seen. Do you think they might have shifted somewhere, may be they found a better place to spend their lives?

The mango tree in my courtyard sheds its dead leaves in plenty and it keeps the terrace and compound full and people say my place looks a bit untidy. Our neighbour, who came from Chennai after a long career as a successful businessman who keeps telling me about the wonderful job his son has in Sweden as an info tech expert, has a fine jack tree in his front yard, a huge and majestic tree that is bigger than any in the lane, and I was pained to see that today workers came to cut it down. When I was leaving home this afternoon I saw them cutting it down branch by branch and I am sure, by the time I go back home tonight, it would no longer be there.

Somehow, this tree has been something more than a mere tree to me; it was a friend for over fifteen years when I lived there, my life going through many a twist and turn in the meantime; often I was alone, looking blankly to the world outside, talking to myself, ruminating about my life and this world, dreaming up the scenes and characters in my novel, watching the still and imposing figure of this tree in the twilight and in the gloomy darkness, which stood there like a magnificent presence of a celestial being, giving me hope and a sense of the immensity of our universe in my despair reminding me how small and insignificant a thing I was.

Well, now it is gone. This is just an ode to a departed friend written in a hurry...

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Vanishing Hillocks in Kerala: An Ecological Disaster in the Making

SMALL AND medium-sized hillocks are a common sight in the midlands of Kerala. They are beautiful, giving a curvaceous shape to entire landscape, with plenty of vegetation, most of them covered with all kinds of plants and trees and providing rich grazing areas for cattle. Ecologically they are critical to the region, as they are the main repositories of water resources keeping the millions of wells well furnished, providing drinking water to the people.

Sadly, this is undergoing a fast transformation today. The growing commercialization of land, expanding urbanization and the consequent hectic activity of a booming construction industry has put a death knell for the hillocks. In the past ten to fifteen years, a substantial part of the hillocks in Kerala's countryside have been demolished and carried away for filling low-lying lands for the construction industry, say recent studies which highlight the threats posed by the massive excavation activity now on in various parts of the State. Recent micro-level studies conducted by the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), a people's science movement with widespread network in the State, point to the alarming fact that since 1987, more than 50 per cent of the hillocks in the various panchayats and municipal towns that came under their survey, had been subjected to heavy excavation and removal of earth; among them 10 to 15 per cent had suffered extreme levels of losses, if not complete eradication.

The destruction of hillocks can have very serious and long-standing repercussions for the state's drinking water availability, says Dr A Achuthan, an eminent hydrologist and conservationist who was one of the pioneers of the Sastra Sahitya Parishad movement. He said in the next decade, the most important ecological problem the people of the State likely to face is the drinking water scarcity as the State's traditional water sources are now being upset and no new sources are identified. Already in recent years, every summer the scarcity of water in local wells has become such an acutely felt phenomenon in most parts and the gram panchayat, corporation and municipal authorities are hard-pressed to supply drinking water in container lorries in those places, he pointed out.

the problems of water scarcity now being experienced in most parts of the State, the demolition of hillocks and the filling up of low-lying lands, paddy fields and water-bodies are interconnected. The alarming nature of this problem has been recognized by the authorities and has led to adoption of harsh measures like the recent legislation like the Kerala Conservation of Paddy fields and Wetlands Bill, 2007 passed by the State Assembly in July 2008. The Bill seeks to protect the remaining paddy fields for cultivation of rice and other food articles, as according to the State Planning Board, in the period from 1980 to 2007, the State has lost as much as 500,000 hectares of wetland and paddy fields for construction and other commercial activities including conversion of lands for cash crops like rubber.

Much of the low-lying lands and water-bodies were filled up with earth made available from the demolished hillocks that were excavated making use of JCBs, the ubiquitous excavator that is seen in every village today. Village roads are full of earth-mover vehicles which cause frequent road accidents because of their reckless speed to avoid authorities. In a recent accident in Malappuram, an excavator itself was crushed under the crashing earth from above, killing two people instantly. (See picture.) Such accidents are now quite common and go without much comments in local newspapers.

The seriousness of the situation has not been formally assessed by any official agencies though the non-governmental sector has done some studies to highlight the risk. The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad conducted its survey during May-June 2006, focusing on the changing land use patterns and the impact of these changes on environment and people's lives, selecting a number of panchayats and municipal towns in all parts of the State. Though the survey was of a preliminary nature, its findings point to the massive tendency to fill up water-bodies and for demolishing hillocks which are known as the major sources of water storage, say its activists who were involved in the study.

C M Muralidharan, secretary of the KSSP during the period of the survey, said that it was conducted mainly with a view to identifying the land use patterns in Kerala in order to finalize a strategy for campaign on these issues. He said after the preliminary results were compiled, the organization had plans to go for a multi-disciplinary study involving government agencies like the Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS), Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM), Kerala Land-use Board, etc, to assess scientifically how the changing patterns were going to impact the society in the long term. However, no such comprehensive study had been undertaken later even though the past few years have seen an intensification of the process.

The KSSP had conducted the survey in as many as eight districts out of the total 14 in the State and the district-wise data show that in comparison with the southern parts of the State, the north had witnessed a heavier assault on its land resources though the commercialization and industrialization has been much faster in the south. In fact the two districts which had witnessed the severest attacks were Kannur and Malappuram, both in the north. In Kannur, the survey had examined 33 gram panchayats and two municipal areas which had as many as 196 paddy fields and 163 hillocks. Of these paddy fields, 146 -- a whopping 81.6 per cent -- had already been filled up for either planting cash crops or commercial activities, building houses, etc. The study had included areas with a minimum of ten metres in height and 1390 hectares as base in the category of hillocks. Of the 163 such hillocks identified in the study, as many as 57.67 per cent (94) had been affected by excavation at various levels of progress. According to the study, 68 hillocks had lost as much as 25 per cent of the total area, while another 12 had been in the region of 25 to 50 per cent loss and 14 of them had lost more than 50 per cent.

P V Divakaran, a KSSP activist who was involved in the study, said that they had noticed 73 hillocks in the areas during the survey, without any damage. But since then, at least some of them had faced threat, he said. He said the eastern hill regions had experienced severe ecological damage because of the excavation of hills as proved by the fact that traditionally water rich areas like Iritty are facing water shortage these days. In this region, another ecological development causing concern is the frequent land slips that have destroyed property and lives. The instability created in the hills' landscape because of uncontrolled excavation has contributed to land slips, say local people. In a small village called Thillankkeri, which had six hillocks, all of them have been demolished giving the once leafy village a barren look.

Dr Achuthan, who had done extensive studies on the soil and water conversation patterns in the State, said the loss of hillocks in the north could prove to be a very serious hindrance for water safety in these regions as the laterite rich hillocks were the most important storage of water here. In fact, the rivers are fewer and far between in this region and even when they are full after rains, they take less than 48 hours to empty much of it into the sea. In Kasargode and parts of Kannur, a tradtional way to sourcing water is known as surangam, which is a unique way of collecting water dripping from the interiors of rocks and other laterite formations.

Compared to the north where the survey found loss of hillocks to the order of around 58 per cent, the actual loss in the south was much less, around 34 per cent, said K M Elias, convener of the environment sub-committee of the KSSP. They had surveyed 147 hills in Ernakulam district, one of the most industrialized areas in the State, and found that around 50 of them had been subjected to excavation, suffering moderate to heavy losses. Of them, 35 had suffered losses up to 25 percent; four had been in the region of 25 to 50 per cent damage; and 11 had been heavily damaged. However, majority of the hillocks, as many as 97, had not been as yet touched by the excavation lobby.

He said the situation was most likely to have changed since then, as new development projects in the area like the Vallarpadom Container Terminal, the Smart City project, etc, were now on full stream making construction booming. In fact as Dr Achuthan pointed out, recent data released by World Watch Institute point out that while the construction industry grows at five per cent globally and at nine per cent in India, it grows at 15 per cent in Kerala. Still one of the interesting facts borne out of the survey is the higher level of demolition of precious natural resources in the north. The reasons seem to be the comparative lack of public resistance and environment activism in the region, coupled with a higher level of poverty in villages, as most land owners have no option but to lease out their lands for construction purposes because of poor farm earnings. In fact, most of the farmer suicides were reported form the northern districts in Kerala in recent years compared to the southern parts.

The government action of preventing paddy field conversion with the recent bill providing for strict punitive provisions including jail term and hefty penalties as fine has been welcomed by a section of environmentalists, but many feel it could only aggravate the problems faced by farmers and land owners who are in distress. As the statistics on the damage to hillocks itself seem to suggest, the real issue behind this ecological disaster is not a lack of concern for environment, but the pressing problems of poverty and destitution.

(A version of this article is published at www.infochangeindia.org October 2008.)