A version of the following appeared in DNA on 24th August at http://www.dnaindia.com/opinion/report_the-magnificent-incongruity-of-onam-in-declining-kerala_1427765, and the pdf is at:http://epaper.dnaindia.com/epaperpdf/24082010/23main%20edition-pg10-0.pdf

The magnificent incongruity of Onam

Rajeev Srinivasan laments that the festival has been reduced to a travesty of its true self

The ten days of Onam arrived with multifarious splendors: flower arrangements in courtyards, maidens resplendent in off-white, gold-bordered two-piece saris, grand multi-course vegetarian meals served on banana leaves, boat races, sensuous tiruvatira-kali dances, and new clothes, ona-kodi, for all. The skies cleared post-monsoon, the beginning of the Malayalam year with the month of Chingam/Leo and the land is green and fertile, freshly-washed.

On the tenth day, thiruvonam, August 23rd this year, everyone dressed up to greet the legendary King Mahabali, of whose splendid reign the gods themselves became jealous, so that he was consigned to the underworld, whence he visits his beloved subjects on just this one day.

That is the theory. I wish this were still true in Kerala, but this native son is saddened by the reality. Onam is less and less relevant with each passing year. For starters, it is a harvest festival where there is almost no rice cultivation, or harvests.

Secondly, the old gods are eclipsed. Mahabali may have been compelling in a simpler time, but the post-modern denizens of Kerala may find him naïve: who allows himself to be tricked by a dwarf?

Thirdly, the landscape itself is changing. The infinite vistas of paddy fields are gone;  once-free-flowing, perennial rivers – the envy of those not so blessed – are now constrained ribbons in the sand in lean times. What looks like untouched wilderness in the High Ranges is a green desert of monoculture: plantation tea or rubber; it is no rainforest storehouse of genetic variation.

Fourth, despite all the talk of the Kerala model – anthropologist and environmentalist Bill McKibben once wrote stirringly about how Kerala mirrors the US in various indices, at one-seventh the income – the quality of life has deteriorated sharply. It now leads in suicides, alcoholism, and almost certainly in hypocrisy and crimes against women. The matrilineal joint family, a masterful social construct, has fragmented into nuclear families.

And almost all of this deterioration is man-made. While one must not, Canute-like, futilely order the waves to retreat, what has happened in Kerala in just a couple of generations is the very opposite of progress.

Let us remember that this is the fabled Spice Coast, whose riches, especially black pepper, caused the Roman senator Pliny the Younger to complain imperial treasuries were being drained. “Quinqueremes of Nineveh” used to sail to the great ports of Ophir and Muziris, modern-day Poovar and Kodungallur.

British surveyors arriving in Kerala in the 1800s were astonished at the clever use of agricultural implements and techniques such as sowing with a drill plough, crop rotation and propagation from cuttings. This tiny state, watered by 41 rivers, has some of the most fertile and well-watered land in the world. Abandoning agriculture there is a tragedy of the highest order.

The reason there is no rice cultivation in Kerala is that, in an example of the principle of unintended consequences, socialists hiked up agricultural wages. They did it to ensure laborers got a decent wage, but farming became inherently loss-making, and large acreage now lies fallow. Ironically, the farm laborers became destitute, as their jobs simply disappeared. Kerala subsists on rice, vegetables and other produce trucked in from neighboring Tamil Nadu.

As for the old gods of the land, they have been superseded by just one: Mammon. Kerala people hold nothing more precious than their wallets. In fact, Kerala is a cargo-cult, like those South Seas islands in the Pacific, which, after World War I,I became so dependent on goods imported from the US that they literally worship the ships bringing them.

Keralites worship Electronic Fund Transfers, because that is what keeps the state afloat. There is no mysterious ‘Kerala model’ of development: it is a money-order economy surviving on remittances from its sons (slaving away in the deserts of West Asia) and its daughters (slaving away as nurses everywhere).

The very flora and fauna are changing, too. The endemic thumba, celebrated symbol of purity and humility in Malayalam literature, has virtually disappeared. Flowering plants like the ixora and hibiscus yield much less; temperatures have risen. Traditional species of fish are disappearing from the catch both in lakes and the sea.

This once magnificent land, proud of its traditions, has changed beyond recognition. A little ditty, originally written about my father’s ancestral village, is appropriate for all of Kerala today:

Keralam mahadesam


Annam nasti, jalam pushti

Madyapanam mahotsavam.

Kerala is a great land,

The origin of untruth.

No rice, lots of water,

Drunkenness is the big festival.

And oh, the tight-fitting cotton two-piece sari, the set-mundu, a delight on shapely local lasses, has lost out to particularly ill-tailored, polyester salwar-kameez. The set-mundu is only trotted out on festive occasions; it, like Onam, and the local culture that gave us kathakali and the Sanskrit koodiyattam, is fast becoming a museum piece.

The Empire strikes back

August 10, 2010

A version of the following appeared in DN&A on Aug 10th, 2010 at http://www.dnaindia.com/opinion/comment_britain-needs-to-show-contrition-about-the-raj-s-depredations_1421101.

A pdf of the page is at http://epaper.dnaindia.com/epaperpdf/10082010/9main%20edition-pg10-0.pdf

The Empire strikes back

The Cameron visit reflected realities, but we must not forget imperial barbarity: never again!

The recent India visit of UK’s prime minister David Cameron got less attention than it deserved. Cameron was clear that his intent was to build up business ties, reflecting the relative importance of the UK and India in the global economy. Cameron was explicit that he was speaking to India on equal terms; some might even say, to be dramatic, that he was a supplicant with a begging-bowl.

Cameron also made a statement about Pakistan’s role in terrorism in the Indian subcontinent, which, to any impartial observer, was justified by the evidence, especially the recent uncovering of 92,000 secret US Army documents. Cameron merely observed that Pakistan must be not be allowed to, well, speak with forked tongue, and export terror, which it seems to do quite happily today.

Besides, India refused to even talk of British poverty-reduction aid. But what was more interesting was the reaction of the British media to what they perceived as the humiliation of the British nation when it has to beseech India to increase trade with it.

India is waxing, and the UK waning. India’s economy will overtake the British economy even in nominal (it already has in PPP) terms soon. I have asked a number of Britons what exactly their core competence is – and the inevitable answer is “financial services”. Yes, that makes sense, because after all Britain manufactures practically nothing anybody else wants.

Britain has come full circle in that regard. When they appeared at the imperial Chinese court circa 1750, seeking trade, the Chinese told them they needed nothing of British origin. Of course, thereupon clever Brits introduced opium, which did make the addicted Chinese open up their purse-strings. Which opium (or in Marx’s terminology, opiate), I wonder, do the Brits have in mind now for India?

Intriguingly “financial services” is a euphemism for “the interest earned on the money we looted from your country”. I did a little accounting of the systematic loot by Britain, based on estimates by contemporary scholars such as William Digby and  Dadabhai Navroji, and later historians. The number is astronomical, not less than $1 trillion, and possibly as much as $10 trillion in today’s money. For comparison, US GDP is about $13 trillion. They don’t have much else: they have even pawned the East India Company and other family jewels. Hard times, indeed.

Not surprisingly, there was an outburst in the UK Daily Mail titled “Stop saying sorry for our history: For too long our leaders have been crippled by a post-imperial cringe”. This was from an obvious Blimp-type named Dominic Sandbrook who clearly felt peeved that Indians preferred independence.

What apologies? The British have never apologized for empire, nor have they given any reparations. Compare this to the decent Japanese, who, the Chinese have learned, can be made to cough up billions just by jumping up and down and screaming “Rape of Nanking”.

Even if there were no apology, an acknowledgment of mala fide would help. Instead, the visit of the British Queen and her husband a few years ago produced the black comedy of their insensitivity to the horrors of imperial rule. It appears the husband, Prince Phillip, is one of those upper-class people immortalized by PG Wodehouse (think Bertie Wooster, Gussie Fink-Nottle).

Phillip had the audacity to go to Jallianwallah Bagh and declare that there were really not that many casualties there. When asked to substantiate this startling statement, he airily said General Dyer’s son had told him. And who is General Dyer? Why, merely the guy who had ordered the firing at Jallianwallah Bagh. Talk of conflict of interest!

Sandbook’s broadside was followed by another by Nirpal Dhaliwal titled “Britain has no need to make an apology for Empire…”. I beg to differ. Britain, at the very least, needs to apologize for Jallianwallah Bagh – you know, defenseless crowd in a walled garden with no access, 1675 bullets, 1579 casualties?

And how about the horrifying famines circa 1890, which left upto 20 million Indians dead? The classic account of this, “Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World” by Mike Davis should be made compulsory reading in Indian schools. So should “The Raj Syndrome: A Study in Imperial Perceptions” by Suhash Choudhary, a brilliant expose of the belly of the beast.

We need to know that under British rule there were 31 major famines in 200 years, as opposed to 17 in the preceding 2000 years.

We need to know history so the healing can begin. Those wronged deserve apologies. The West is pretty bad at contrition. Every year, on August 5th and August 9th, there is no American repentance about the atomic bombs it dropped. I have been to Nagasaki’s peace park, close to Ground Zero. There are solemn memorials there from many countries, but not the US.

825 words, Aug 8, 2010

Errata: It is Suhash Chakravarti, not Suhash Choudhary, who wrote the outstandingly brilliant ‘The Raj Syndrome’

A version of the following appeared in DN&A on Aug 4th as a debate between one Ram Puniyani and me at http://epaper.dnaindia.com/epaperpdf/04082010/3main%20edition-pg12-0.pdf as a follow-up to my column of the previous week on the alleged “Hindu terrorism”, an oxymoron (click here)

Here is my side, as originally written. DNA edited it to some extent:

Ram Punyani’s assertions are a textbook example of the classical “charvita charvanam” – literally, chewing the cud, or metaphorically, “truth by repeated assertion”. Apparently “progressives” in India are incapable of a single original thought or insight – they specialize in recycling bromides of vintage circa 1950, courtesy the London School of Economics.

The fact is there is a history of Semitic/Abrahamic faiths all of which accept the dichotomy between Good and Evil. They are paleo-Semitic: Zoroastrianism and Judaism; meso-Semitic: Christianity and Islam; and alas, neo-Semitic: Communism, Fascism, Nazism, and various violent, nasty little quasi-religions. You know what they are in India.

There is a vast gulf between Indic religions and these religions of the desert. The former are fundamentally accepting of diversity, while the latter declare their allegiance to a “jealous god”. Communism falls squarely into that category – after all, like in the Crusades and Jihad, Communism too has sacrificed a hundred million people to its own jealous god. Just look at Cambodia for an example.

Communism, stripped of propaganda, is identical in structure to the Christian church. It too has its traditional church – the Soviet one (although sadly eclipsed now) and the Protestants (the Chinese church). It has its schism, its scriptures (Marx’s and Mao’s works); its martyrs (Che Guevara), its missionaries (all those comrades), its blind faith in dogmas with little basis in reality (“the state shall wither away”).

Besides, whenever a new religion is created, it does not consider itself a religion, merely “the way”, just as Communism does. But it has to differentiate itself from all incumbent religions for marketing purposes. Thus Christianity’s differentiation from the existing pagan religions – “thou shalt not worship graven images”.

When Communism was invented, the only differentiation left was to say “there is no god”. So they did say exactly that. However, it is interesting that new religions generally violate their own dicta – thus Christianity treats the bible and the cross as sacrosanct idols; similarly, Communists invented a jealous, vicious little god called “Dialectical Materialism” or “Historical Imperative”.

Furthermore, Punyani’s claim that the various shades of Communism are vastly different is laughable – they are all intent on seizing political power, and their differences are either over personalities or about hair-splitting theological arguments, like medieval Christian monks argued about the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin. Punyani’s understanding of Communism is either naïve or meant to obfuscate.

Punyani segues cleverly into the Moral Equivalence tap-dance favored by India’s “progressives” – claiming crusades, jihad and dharma-yuddha are the same. Not true. The concept of “just war” inheres in all cultures, and is religion-agnostic. In the case of Hinduism, it was never used as an excuse to attack those of other religions.

India’s “eminent historians” keep claiming that there are innumerable instances of Hindu kings fighting religious wars against Buddhists and Jains. However, when pressed by Arun Shourie for actual evidence, they were only able to come up with two examples, after much huffing and puffing. One, Pushyamitra Sunga, whom Punyani dutifully trots out. The other was a Kashmiri king. Well, it turns out that the Kashmiri was influenced by Muslim generals into looting both Buddhist and Hindu shrines.

Some researchers believe that Pushyamitra Sunga attacked Buddhist shrines. But consider this: here is the lone example of a Hindu king, in 5,000 years of Hinduism, having attacked a rival for religious reasons. Did someone say something about the exception that proves the rule?

Puniyani’s grand finale is the blanket assertion that all religions support terrorism, and therefore there is no such thing as religious terrorism. Pretzel logic, and wrong again. Hinduism does not support religious terrorism: here is nothing in Hindu scripture that asks its followers to indulge in holy war. Even the much-maligned caste system has no scriptural authority, only the support of a dyspeptic medieval monk.

But in the case of Christianity, there is the clear edict that “the sons of Shem shall rule over the sons of Ham”. Conveniently, various groups, especially blacks, were declared to be “the sons of Ham” and oppressed. The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa and various Southern churches in the US used this very idea to justify apartheid and slavery. The Jewish genocide had similar sanction.

Similarly the bits about “killing the idolaters wherever you might find them” in the Koran are well known. No, Punyani, the US media and the CIA did not invent this.

In both cases, there is an explicit injunction in their books to go out and convert all infidels to their faith; this justifies crusades and jihad. There is nothing comparable in Hinduism. Krishna advises Arjuna about the need for war only after all other avenues, samam, danam, bhedam, that is, negotiation, concessions, and attempts and division, have failed. This strikes the impartial observer as rather fair. Appeasement at all costs is a self-defeating proposition.

Punyani valiantly aired many red herrings, clichés (half-baked platitudes like vasudhaiva kutumbakam) and diversionary tactics. This sort of dissimulation is a thriving cottage industry in India.

815 words