Hail to you, Muse of Poetry …

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Appreciation of fine poetry was never one of my virtues. With the exception of nursery rhymes and naughty limericks, I have always kept myself at arm’s length from the world of poetry. Quatrains and verses stirred nothing in me, rhyme and meter meant little, prosody a waste of my time.

When my friend Usha Rajagopalan prevailed upon me to purchase her book on the poetry of Subramania Bharati, I did so with some reluctance. The book remained safely unread on my shelf for a long time, until I finally took it up one idle winter’s evening.

And then something very strange happened. For the first time in many years, I read a book from cover to cover in one single sitting, without so much as rising from my chair for a break.

All I knew of Subramania Bharati was what I had learnt about him in school and what I had heard from my mother. That he was a renowned Tamil poet and a nationalist was not unknown to me, but other than that I knew little of him.

Thanks to Usha, I am now significantly enlightened – and quite furious with myself for not learning Tamil formally, when I had the opportunity.

Translating the work of a poet of Subramania Bharati’s stature is no mean feat, but then Usha Rajagopalan is no mean author herself. Most people have the very wrong idea that translation is a simple matter. Far from it. Almost anybody can transliterate. Few people can translate. And fewer still understand the fundamental difference between the two.

Usha demonstrates an insight that is not often seen among translators, as she accurately translates selected poems from the Mahakavi’s vast repertoire. In doing so, she gives the ignorant reader, i.e. myself, a look into the man’s mind and heart.

“The darkness of ignorance fades into the air, the radiant sun of knowledge rises steadily, casting its luminous golden rays everywhere…”.

My general impression of Subramania Bharati was that he was a fierce nationalist and that his poetry was largely anti-British in character.

“To take the name of Bharat, our country,
is to kill the fear of poverty and grievous enmity”.

“The mighty Himalayas belong to us!
The copious sweet Ganga is ours too”.

What I never knew that he was also a social reformist:

“The four castes are one.

If any of them were missing,

All occupation would be shattered,

And mankind would perish”.

And a feminist:

“Foster women’s wisdom and see,
The world shed its ignorance”.

And a passionate lover:

“I have fallen in love with you, Valli, with you!
Sweeter than life, you have no equal”.

And a philosopher:

“Show mercy to the enemy, kindly heart.
Show mercy to the enemy”.

One now realises that Subramania Bharati was a multi-faceted genius with a towering intellect and strength of character. What an enormous pity that he died so young, killed by serious injuries caused by a temple elephant.

Riveted to one’s chair, fascinated by what Usha Rajagopalan tells us about Subramania Bharati, one finally emerges with

“knowledge with clarity … and .. warm feelings that well up and flood the body”.

Of special mention is The Stream, this being the painting that makes the cover of Usha’s book, rendered by Achuthan Ramachandran, a Padma Bhushan awardee and one of India’s finest mural painters.

Usha tells me that her next book on the Mahakavi is in the offing. This time, I will not hesitate to read it!

Cheers … Srini.

Tea without sympathy – An Era of Darkness.

dsc08186History belongs in the past, but understanding it is the duty of the present. So Dr Shashi Tharoor proves in his latest book, An Era of Darkness, The British Empire in India.

Tharoor takes up the task of dispelling any illusions one might have had about the British Raj in India. In this he succeeds very well. Unlike many of my fellow Macaulayputras, as Tharoor refers to us (and himself), and in spite of my Catholic schooling, I always knew the British were not the ‘enlightened despots’ that our textbooks would have us believe.

Over the years, my own informal research into the subject made me realise how brutal and exploitative the Raj actually was.

Even so, An Era of Darkness is an eye-opener. Tharoor brings to light several nasty facts about the Raj that I never knew, and by his own admission, he did not know himself. Consider India’s caste system. Like many other Indians, Tharoor included, I too thought that the rigidity of our caste system and its consequent evils, predated the British.

However, “the idea of the four-fold caste order stretching across all of India…was only developed…under the peculiar circumstances of British colonial rule“.

As also the Hindu-Muslim divide, which haunts India till this day. “Religion“, states Tharoor, “became a useful means of divide and rule“. The Hindu-Muslim divide, we now learn, was a deliberate British strategy.

It comes as an unpleasant surprise that much of what we were taught about India’s pre-Raj history, and still are being taught, is essentially of British construction.

As exemplified by India’s most notorious Anglophile, the “cringe-worthy” Nirad Chaudhuri, as Tharoor aptly describes him, “colonialism misappropriated and reshaped” how we saw our own history and cultural self-definition.

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The good Doctor endorses my copy of his book.

Thus, page by page, Tharoor’s book unapologetically and systematically lays bare the reality of the Raj. The scientist in me demands hard evidence, and Tharoor does not disappoint. The book is thoroughly researched, with an exhaustive list of references at the end. One expects nothing less from a scholar who holds multiple doctoral degrees.

What I admire about the man is his lack of hesitation in pointing out the wrong-doings and mistakes committed by Indian leaders of the day, that served the British cause well.

Take for example his explanation of why Nehru’s decision to order his colleagues to resign from all provincial ministries in 1939, was “a monumental blunder“. As also Tharoor’s unflattering and accurate analysis of the Quit India movement of 1942.

Notwithstanding their errors of judgement, he does acknowledge Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru as the great leaders and statesmen they really were.

Tharoor is especially harsh though, and very deservedly so, on Winston Churchill. The truth about this alleged “apostle of freedom” is described in considerable detail in the book.

Thankfully, Tharoor firmly dispels any apprehensions about my favorite English author, PG Wodehouse. There were times when I would feel a bit guilty about enjoying Wodehouse so much, on the belief that he was a colonialist. Tharoor assures me that I am wrong, to my considerable relief.

Frightening, enlightening, educational, spine-chilling, profound and made immensely readable by the author’s characteristic style of writing, An Era of Darkness is a volume that one would recommend to serious students of Indian history and to connoisseurs of the English language alike. Tharoor is the only English author for whom I need a dictionary (or Google) by my side.

One reading of the book will not suffice, I must tell you. You will need to read the volume two or three times to understand its import, that “sometimes the best crystal ball is a rear-view mirror“…

… and that one does not need to espouse right-wing values in order to be a true nationalist.

Cheers … Srini.

This man is different. He has guts.

It’s good for the economy. No, no, it’s bad. GDP will increase. No, no, people will starve. It will flush out black money. No, no, it won’t. Real estate will come down. No it won’t. Yes it will. No it won’t. Corruption will vanish. Of course it won’t. Indians will be Indians.

Opinions. Counter-opinions. Raving. Ranting. Live telecasts of mile-long queues outside ATM’s and banks. People allegedly dying while waiting in those queues. Table salt allegedly being sold at Rs.400 per kg. Non-BJP politicians yelling their guts out, threatening to bring down the wrath of God upon the nation – but offering no practical solutions whatsoever. A former prime minister who is a PhD in Economics no less, and was at the very helm of India’s economic affairs for forty years but chose to remain silent all through, suddenly finds his voice and presents a speech filled with bromidic criticism – and nothing else – to the nation. Left-wingers and “liberals” gleefully predict the downfall of Modi et al. Etcetera. Etcetera.

It is now three weeks since NaMo’s DeMo. Three weeks since Mr. Narendra Modi shook the nation to its core. Three weeks since 86% of the country’s currency was suddenly demonetised, an event that has happened perhaps for the first time in world history.

As Modi said during his broadcast on Nov 8, with a soft voice and with a straight face, “As of this midnight, your 500 and 1000 rupee notes are worthless pieces of paper”.

The nation-wide pandemonium that immediately ensued was understandable. I received the news via Whatsapp and promptly dismissed it as a hoax. I happily handed over my last Rs.100 note to the autorickshaw driver as I got back home. And got the shock of my life when every TV channel told me that the net-worth of all the cash I had withdrawn just an hour ago was exactly equal to zero.

Mom was blissfully ignorant of all the halla-gulla going on across the nation. I, on the other hand, cannot afford the luxury of ignorance. Heart palpitating, brow sweating, pulse pounding, limbs trembling, I gulped down an extra tablet of my heart medicine and took stock of my situation.

Once my panic subsided after the medicine took hold, I realised things weren’t that bad after all – for me at least. All utility bills for the next three months already paid on-line. Groceries and vegetables were being procured on-line anyway. Henceforth I could pay for my transport only via my phone, so for the time being travelling by bus was ruled out. No big deal. I’m told that BMTC will introduce smart cards for bus travel in two months.

While our elected representatives shouted and screamed and brought the parliament to a grinding halt, ordinary citizens quickly adapted to the situation and went out of their way to help others. While the scion of India’s former ruling family rode around in his air-conditioned million-dollar SUV claiming that he could feel “the pain of my people”, students in my city went round on foot offering refreshments to people standing outside banks and ATM’s.

The cash I had withdrawn was handed over to my local pharmacist, in exchange for six months supply of my medicine, so that took care of that. The local milk vendor told me he’d take “old” Rs.1000 notes till end-December, so that took care of my daily milk supply. The local kirana shop owner told me the same thing, so I could continue to buy daily stuff like bread, eggs and the like. The gas delivery boy proudly showed off his new debit card swiper and his ability to use it. My maid cheerfully told me that I could pay her salary after a couple of weeks. In turn, I helped her out by buying her groceries and veggies on-line. Even my local barber accepted on-line payment for my monthly haircut.

No doubt there are predators who will exploit the situation and prey on the helpless, as there always are. No doubt there are people who curse and suffer. No doubt every Indian citizen has been hit by Modi’s DeMo bombshell. But the vast majority of the people I know are solidly on Modi’s side. No question about it.

While there are people who question the government’s implementation, and perhaps rightly so, few question the government’s intention.

Is Modi’s move right or wrong? Will it eradicate black money? Remove corruption? Frankly, I do not know. I’m not an economist. My auditor and the few bankers and economists I do know tell me that Modi is on the right track.

I fondly hope so. But let me tell you what I feel as a layman.

Modi has guts.

I’m not a BJP man. Not a left-liberal either. Definitely not a political analyst. Certainly not an economist. And most certainly not a presstitute. Just another long-suffering tax-paying Brahmin who has become inured since forty years to politicians who talk a lot, fill up their own coffers at my expense, and do nothing else.

This man is different.

Modi and his team must have known that they would be mercilessly attacked by their detractors. Modi must have known that his own job, credibility and career would be at stake. That they still went ahead with their plan indicates that they know what they’re doing. And this is only the beginning, Modi tells us.

To me, that looks like a man who has the courage of his convictions. He will act, while other men just talk.

I’m not entirely convinced about what he did and what he might do in the future. But for the first time, we see here a politician who is unafraid of administering the bitter pill and the swift kick on the rear that our country sorely needs.

Right or wrong, he will do what he has to do. And for that, he has my respect.

What will happen in the days ahead? Will India’s financial Augean stables get a thorough cleansing? Will this usher an era of prosperity? Will India arise at last to take her rightful place amongst the nations of the world? Will I prove my doctors wrong and actually live past the age of sixty?

Only time will tell. But for now, I can tell you this.

This man is different.

Is PM mein dum hai.

The silent renaissance of Samskritam

dsc05400Who says Samskritam is a dead language? Far from it.

The usage of Samskrit declined dramatically after the British annexed India. Historically, we blame the British for the near-demise of Samskrit and that blame is well deserved. The Mughals, in their 600-year rule over India, did what they could to subdue Samskrit, but I believe the British did a far better job of it.

That the British were extremely efficient in destroying India’s economy, culture, educational system and language is historical fact. To quote Shashi Tharoor, “In Power, the British were, in a word, ruthless”.

But that is history. To quote Tharoor again, “History is neither for excuses, nor for revenge”.

It is time we stopped blaming our former rulers for the plight of Samskrit, time we moved on, time we accepted the responsibility of preserving our own culture and language.

Thus, I took it upon myself to learn Samskritam. Since I am quite fluent in both Hindi and Marathi, and can read Devanagari script easily, I found it reasonably simple to learn the basics of Samskrit. In the past six months, I have picked up sufficient Samskrit to be able to appreciate some of its nuances, and to be able to dispel the myths associated with it.

First of all, it’s not pronounced Saanskrit or Senskrit. It’s Samskritham or Samskrit, if you will. Pronounced as “Sum-skri-tham”.

The very word means “refined speech“. That indeed was the defining characteristic of those who used Samskrit through our country’s history – they were refined in their manner, refined in their culture, refined in their philosophy.

Myth 1: Samskritam is a very difficult language to learn.

Have you ever heard of an ‘easy’ language? Each language has its own syntax, rules and structure. Each language poses its own challenges to novices. Try learning Mandarin or Japanese. Then you’ll know.

For most Indians, Samskrit comes with a built-in advantage. If you know any Indian language, and it is likely that you know more than one, then you already know several Samskrit words and are already familiar with the basics of Samskrit grammar. Over the past thirty centuries, Samskrit has contributed directly to the evolution of almost every Indian language currently in use.

Try listening to the Samskrit news on Doordarshan and All India Radio. You’ll be surprised at how much of it you can understand, even if you have never formally learned Samskrit.

So don’t you worry about how difficult you think it will be to learn Sanskrit. You are already using Samskrit without knowing it. You do not need to know Devanagari script, although it is preferable that you do. Samskrit speakers use Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, Bengali and just about any Indian script they are comfortable with. Remember, Samskrit has always been a phonetic language, with much more emphasis on correct pronunciation than on the script used.

And, it’s not as if you are expected to study Samskrit for decades and become a Vedic scholar, though you can if you wish to. For most of us, even a working knowledge of Samskrit is enough to enjoy the richness of the language, for which just a few months of study will suffice. Since you know one or more Indian languages, you already have a head start.

Myth 2: Samskrit is meant for certain castes only.

Bullshit.

Myth 3: Samskrit is a boring, ancient language and is only about old scriptures and mumbo-jumbo.

Once again, bullshit. That’s like saying that English is only about Shakespeare and the Canterbury Tales. There is no shortage of modern Samskrit literature, scientific publications, articles, fiction, non-fiction and poetry. No matter what your field of interest is, you will find a modern Samskrit publication in that field.

Myth 4: I’m not a Hindu. Samskrit is not my language.

So what if you’re not a Hindu? You’re still an Indian, aren’t you? Samskrit is not a “Hindu” language. It’s an Indian language. In fact, it is the Indian language, the progenitor of all other Indian languages. If you speak any Indian language, you are using Samskrit without knowing it, no matter what your religion is. So what’s the big deal about learning it formally?

I haven’t come across any Samskrit institution that turns away anyone who wishes to learn.

Myth 5: There is no practical use of learning Samskrit. What do I gain from it anyway?

Ah. The million-dollar question. What’s the point, what’s the use, what’s the benefit?

For starters, one does not learn a language solely in order to make money out of it. Not necessarily.

That said, even if you want to learn Samskrit merely for personal gain, you will not be disappointed. No matter what troubles you – business, finance, management, science, philosophy, work, personal life, health – you will find the answers you seek in the Samskrit works of India.

So don’t bother about the material benefits of learning Samskrit. They are already available to you.

Myth 6: There are very few institutions that teach proper Samskrit.

Now that is so not true. There are many institutions that can teach you Samskrit, on-line and otherwise. From a basic working knowledge of Samskrit to PhD programs, you will find top-quality institutions across India, and in some countries outside it.

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My Samskrit class, in session

My new friends in Samskrita Bharati have been teaching Samskrit to all sections of society since 1970. Check out their website here, and choose whatever course suits you. You will be taken aback at the absurdly low fees they charge. Samskrita Bharati regularly conducts 10-day courses in conversational Samskrit, utterly free of cost. That would be a good starting point for your journey into the world of Samskrit.

Across India, a silent renaissance is going on, in case you haven’t noticed. Thousands of Indians have committed themselves to the learning and propagation of Samskritam. And that includes Yours Truly.

I could not see any viable reason to not learn the language of the Gods – and several reasons why I should.

So stop making pathetic excuses and get off your backside, will you?

Pathatu Samskritham. Vadhatu Samskritham.

Cheers … Srini.

The extinction of Brahminism.

Question: Who is a Brahmin’s worst enemy? Answer: Another Brahmin.

Brahmins will be extinct by 2050.

Brahmins are less than 4% of the total population and declining at a rate that will result in extinction within four decades, give or take a decade.

We won’t be missed after we go extinct. Brahmins are already irrelevant in Indian society. We are out of the mainstream. Neither in government jobs nor in academic institutes are Brahmins wanted. Every year, reservation quotas increase and opportunities for us decrease, no matter which political party is in power. That is because our votes are too few to matter.

Battered, humiliated, hounded and reduced to a negligible minority, we are in fact the most marginalised section of Indian society.

And yet, who is a Brahmin’s worst enemy? Another Brahmin.

All the grief I have faced in my life – personal and professional – has been caused to me exclusively by fellow Brahmins.

This is how we are making ourselves extinct:

1) Exogamy: Simply put, marrying out of caste. Brahmin grooms are no longer preferred by Brahmin brides – especially a Brahmin groom who is not an NRI. It’s called “empowerment” you see.

On the other hand, Brahmin grooms are no better!

It sounds terribly old-fashioned, I know. But I believe the choice of your life-partner is best left to your elders. I speak from harsh experience, people!

2) Soaring divorce rates: The divorce rate for upper caste marriages is far higher than other castes. Once again, “empowerment”, you see.

3) Emigration: India not good enough for you? Quit India. Whichever country you emigrate to, loudly mock India at every opportunity and on every social forum. And then wonder why resident Brahmins like myself hate you so much.

4) Cannibalism: Yes. Cannibalism. As I said, a Brahmin’s worst enemy is another Brahmin. We are the most intolerant people in the country. Shaiva versus Vaishnava. Iyer versus Iyengar. Vadakalai versus Thenkalai. North versus South. Aryan blood versus Dravidian blood.

Ever seen Brahmins from different sects arguing? They will come to blows over the most trivial differences. The argument about which symbol should be painted on the forehead of a temple elephant has been raging between Vadakalais and Thenkalais since two hundred years

Talk to an Iyer and he will vehemently explain to you why an Iyengar is an arrogant idiot. And vice-versa. The Nambudri says his form of Brahminism is the highest in the universe, while the Havyaka says the same about his version. The north Indian Sharma makes fun of the south Indian Hegde because he cannot speak Hindi. The Madras Iyengar laughs at the Palakkad Iyer because his Tamil isn’t “pure”.

We cannot stand each other, cannot tolerate minor differences, cannot even accept other Brahmins as fellow Brahmins. How can we blame other castes for wiping us out?

Thus, extinction is inevitable. Not because of other castes. We will eradicate ourselves.

We have two choices then – either we go extinct, or we don’t. The fundamental question is, are Brahmins worth saving? Does Brahminism deserve to survive?

Why not? Why the hell not?

As a Brahmin, I am unique. My culture is unique. My traditions are unique. My identity is unique. Like most other Brahmins, my bloodline is at least six thousand years old. Who are you to wipe out my culture, my traditions, my identity, my bloodline? Who the eff are you?

Brahmins and Brahminism. We have the right to survive, to live and to prosper. Like anybody else.

How do we prevent extinction then? Isn’t it obvious?

Don’t marry out of caste. At least, marry someone from another Brahmin sect, if you cannot stand your own. Do not marry for a green card or for money. Instead, marry into a family that is rich in culture and values.

If you think marriage is “slavery” and are unwilling to commit yourself to your spouse, then do not marry at all. Better that you remain single and not screw up another Brahmin’s life. Committing yourself to a Brahmin marriage also means committing yourself to creating a Brahmin family. If you are against the idea of child-rearing, that’s your choice – but then do not get married, please.

Mind you, I said “spouse“. Gender non-specific.

No one is stopping you from leaving the country, and I don’t blame you if you do. But do not abuse the country you left behind.  For thousands of years before you, your forefathers lived and died here. The sterling qualities that made you attractive to your adoptive country are a genetic legacy from those very forefathers. If you cannot honor them, then at least do not abuse them in front of foreigners, you ungrateful dickhead.

Give something back to your sect and your country. What you do for your fellow Brahmins depends entirely on you. Get a job abroad for a fellow Brahmin, help him or her in education, do business preferentially with resident Brahmins who are not as fortunate as you are. Do whatever you think fit. But resolve to help other Brahmins prosper in any way you can.

If you’re an employer in the private sector, hire Brahmins. The private sector is still free from reservation quotas – but not for long. Not for long.

Get familiar with your Brahmin culture, before you make fun of it for the amusement of others. I do not know much about the Vedas and other scriptures. That’s because I’m not very good at Sanskrit. I’m learning Sanskrit now, at this advanced age. But that’s just me. It is not necessary to be a great Vedic scholar, not necessary to recite hundreds of shlokas verbatim, not necessary to conduct Vedic rituals yourself, in order to appreciate your culture.

Even a working knowledge of Sanskrit and an acquaintance with our culture will do. You have no idea how rich our Brahmin culture actually is. Indian science, medicine, surgery, technology, philosophy, art, music, language – created, developed and nurtured by Brahmins over thousands of years.

For example, read the English versions of Kautilya’s Arthashastra or Charaka’s Samhita, and be astonished at how relevant that ancient wisdom still is today.

Invest a small amount of time in learning about who we are and where we come from, and I guarantee you will feel an enormous surge of pride in your identity.

And don’t screw up your fellow Brahmins in their respective jobs and businesses. If you cannot or will not help them, then don’t add to their misery either.

Or, continue to cannibalise your own caste, continue to be trod upon, keep whining about what’s happening to the Brahmins in India – and watch as we are driven into extinction.

I don’t want to be extinct. How about you?