Sunday, May 21, 2023

 Fear of Intelligence 

It has always been there, everywhere. The fear of loss of job and face and love. Man had just landed on the moon in the sixties when we had a soul shattering subject for debate in an inter-university youth festival in New Delhi: “Man’s landing on the moon has knocked the bottom out of romance.” It has not. In the ensuing half century, romance has remained ever vibrant, though perhaps with a reformed grammar and revised style.

No longer may Sakuntala be writing her love lyrics to an elusive Dushianta on a bhoorjapatra, nor may her diction be an involved Sanskrit. Digital epistles of love still mark human behavior and aspiration. The fear of loss of job articulated by the adopted sons of the working class  in the early sixties has turned out to be hypochondriac. What their shrill cry achieved was an undue delay in computerization in banks and railways where automation was first attempted. And, our familiar question for which we did not crave an instant answer was what would happen to man when machines took over his work. 

Two thinkers whose view of the last third question were a historian, Yuval Harari, and an engineer hailed as ‘godfather of artificial intelligence, Goeffrey Hinton. The historian is blunt. He is not a little concerned that AI has already hacked the operating system of human civilization. Storytelling computers will, he says, change the course of human history.” Hinton is worried about many things  including AI’s potential to eliminate jobs and create a world where people “may not be able to know what is true any more.” In a huff the other day, the septuagenarian computer engineer who did pioneering research in his field opted out of his top berth in Google.

Harari’s and Hinton’s apprehensions had been voiced by many who watched man’s ascent and adventure, employing literary constructs. About a century ago, when robots had not entered our kitchens or reading rooms, Nalappat Narayana Menon wondered whether man’s steady movement, stepping on his own body, was really heading upward. Edassery Govindan Nair, none too weighed down by tradition, asked if his beloved river would turn into a dirty drain when man who lived in fun and frolic became a machine. The age of change and machine did not daunt Vailoppilli but he too wanted to retain the “scent of the village” and its love even in the thick of industrialization. 

No one is unaware of whatever may happen when robots created by man take over man’s monopoly functions. In considering the para-humanizing impact of AI, I am more guided by the perspicacious and at once sober formulations by scholars like Californian computer scientist, Professor Stuart Russell. Prof Russell was at great pains to explain and assure us that man would not suddenly be a rudderless entity when Artificial Intelligence evolved by man throws him out of his cozy throne. In his illuminating Reith lecture, he set out three principles that would govern the progress of robots. One,  the machine's only objective is to maximize the realization of human preferences.  Two, the machine is initially uncertain about what those preferences are. Three, the ultimate source of information about human preferences is human behavior. Applying those principles, Prof Russell concluded: “I’ll say now, no, machines will not learn to copy evil human behavior, and no, I’m definitely not ignoring the wellbeing of other animals.”

That must be reassuring as far as it goes. But it will be foolhardy to expect change to take place only where man wants it, how he wants it. Robots may yet not write poetry or paint a Mona Lisa or execute an uncalibrated dance of love. They already show signs of learning language, though ridiculously imperfectly. Such robotic imperfection is what comforts people who would not want their existing applecart to be upset. At every threshold of change, they have put up blocking stones, raising the bogey of dehumanization or mechanization of man. The idea of entrusting all human work to a machine man is yet to find universal acceptance. 

It is hard to accept, certainly not welcome, the fact that man, like a mighty river, never remains the same, not for a moment. In its inexorable flow, the river leaves intact or behind not a single drop at the same spot, giving it a halo of eternity. Likewise, man passes through evolution not stage by stage but as a constant process. Evolution is current, not past or prospective. 

The fear of loss of job or face or love, social historians say, dates back to the industrial revolution. A closer look will take us further back in time when changes were resisted in what could be mistaken for a movement in defense of human civilization.  Consider the resistance to replacing a heavy grinding stone in the kitchen with a mechanical device, employing a tractor in place of an antiquated plough in the field, and introducing a ticket vending machine in the railway station. There can be no field where change, complete with the entry of robots, is preventable. As for the limited subject of human jobs, for instance, a quarter of content generated by human intervention can be handled by Artificial Intelligence. The western world will have 300 million of its jobs will be appropriated by robots. 

Martin Ford has provocatively titled his book as, Rule of the Robots: How Artificial Intelligence will Transform Everything. Ford says it is not a change limited to individuals or jobs. The change will be pervasive, permanent. “It could happen to a lot of people, potentially quite suddenly, potentially all at the same time. And that has implications not just for those individuals, but for the whole economy.”

It is tempting to hark back to Bhasmasura, our version of Frankenstein, who could turn to ash anything he touched. The first thing he set out to do was to burn down whoever gave him that extraordinary boon. A picturesque, metaphorical presentation but an idle and ineffective presentation at it. Artificial Intelligence may not be man’s undoing like the ungrateful “ash demon” was to his creator.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

 History of History

From Herodotus’s Histories to S Krishnaswamy’s Indus Valley to Indira Gandhi, it has been a long and frenetic effort to grapple with the truth of the past. The grand quest cannot but continue through the future,  as successive events show. 

The Greek historian was building his thesis on a murky foundation of mythology while his modern Indian counterpart set out to document an ancient civilization coming down to the twentieth century. Past or future, nothing remains static, everything being ever open to revision, because, as Albert Camus says,  there is no truth, there are only truths. And truth has to be constantly reviewed, if need be, rescinded. 

Krishnaswamy’s documentary was made about a half century ago. It was part of an  undeclared  plan to chronicle the glory of a civilization culminating in the origin and  growth of Indira Gandhi. Her decline was to be documented by others who wanted to divest her of her due berth in history. As if to foil their plan, she made available to the posterity her version of history in a capsule buried in the earth.

Recreation of history was a passion for anyone who was someone before Indira Gandhi. So is it now, reasserting the inexorable validity of Basheer’s fictional figure who kept mumbling My Grandfather Had An Elephant. Broadly, three revisionist streams can be identified in the study of Indian history. One, the Congress view of things, two, the grandfather-had-an-elephant approach to the Hindu halcyon days and three, the proletarian version which flourished with Damodar Kosambi in India and Eric Hobsbawm in Europe. 

In the second category was P N Oak who set up a seminal  Institute for Rewriting Indian History. Oak debunked the deference with which he thought India’s Muslim past, so to say, was being studied. So much so he had an unorthodox theory for the origin and authorship of the Taj Mahal. Oak inspired fun and frivolity. There was even a demand for his works to be removed from Parliament House library. 

To his ilk, Tara Chand’s magisterial Influence of Islam on Indian Culture is not a favorite reading. They would rather hail the harrowing  chronicles of what Muslim marauders did to Vijayanagara. Across centuries, Robert Sewell’s account of the total raid on that “forgotten empire” has been searing through our psyche. 

Sewell concludes his disturbing eloquence with these words:  “Never perhaps in the history of the world has such havoc been wrought, and wrought so suddenly, on so splendid a city; teeming with a wealthy and industrious population in the fun plenitude of prosperity one day, and on the next seized, pillaged, and reduced to ruins, amid scenes of savage massacre and horrors beggaring description.”  Enterprises of such vandalism are sought to be highlighted in the textbooks of history prepared by the National Council for Educational Research and Training(NCERT). Its endeavor is to give Indian history textbooks a degree of balance and comprehensiveness. Why not, for instance, enlarge the scope of history by bringing the Pallava and the Chola accomplishments within its ambit? Why not discontinue the obsessive preoccupation with the battles of the Mughals almost to the exclusion of the heights scaled by those regimes of southern India?

The campaign for balance and comprehensiveness has come in for criticism, particularly the so-called Left history buffs. Their comrades in Kerala, where they are in power, are working for a secularist desideratum. They indeed have a point to make there. For one thing, it will avoid dividing the past on religious lines and help evolve a consensual approach on the basis of socio-economic principles. For another, it will give a boost to Indian pluralism, and resolve issues that arise from the multi-religious character of the Indian nation.

Laudable objectives indeed, but no one mistakes their unregenerately proletarian strategies for anything other than a political ploy to earn the allegiance of Muslim masses. The Hindu masses never uniting as a phalanx historically,  non-Hindu consolidation may look like a need as well as a possibility. The fact, however, is that total secularization of history, or, for that matter, any other subject, will be hard to accomplish in India’s polyglot milieu. The communist dispensation in Kerala has decided to teach history in schools as before, not honoring New Delhi’s weltanschauung.

Proletarian perceptions, if they may be so defined, have often been at variance with Indian traditions and views which are marked by a spiritualist underpinning. Whether re-evaluating an episode of the freedom struggle or negotiating an alliance with a bourgeois political section, Left leaders had long taken a stance none too  helpful in fostering a politically healthy society. An unchanging view is with regard to what has been characterized as the Malabar Rebellion of 1921. The Left lobby likes to look at it as an agrarian revolt, inspiring fun and frivolity, as the Oaks of our times did it in another historical context.  

Revision of history is not a passion limited to India, or, to its tiny state, Kerala. Revisionist ventures have been reported from  time to time in every region, every religious approach. They seem to  happen across the world, across India, with an arresting, esoteric rhythm. In the limited scenario of Kerala, time-honored views about the second Chera empire and its self-indulgent golden age between the tenth and twelfth centuries have been rudely questioned. But the formulations of amateur historians like P K Balakrishnan have not yet found universal acceptance. But it has fortified the theory that history is hard to make, harder to revise. 

Such simultaneous posers and answers to historical questions have, as we said before, shown a certain repetitive ring. It is marked by what Carl Jung would have called synchronicity, many different things taking place at the same time in diverse settings. Revision of history is being attempted all over the globe, not as part of a search for self identity as in pursuance of a given leader’s anxiety to install himself or herself in the endless gallery of time. The more powerful a leader, the more the hostility he provokes, the more his obsession with  the historical image. 

Reports from South Korean capital Seoul suggest that the new-found enthusiasm for the fascist fringe is not inconsiderable. The Falange Movement  leader, Jose de Rivera, was a great supporter of the dreaded and discredited fascist regime run by Franco. Rivera’s body was exhumed the other day when crowds thronged to offer salute to the man of the murky memory. An exhumation of that order was executed long ago when Vatican brought the body of Pope Formosus from his grave and dressed up in papal habiliments to face fresh trial for a minor indiscretion. 

The old vernacular saying is still valid: Slap your mom, you will find someone to endorse it too. How Rivera and Franco will be portrayed in Spain’s new history in the making will be worth watching. Korea is a different story. Its loquacious leadership is divided between those who stand for closer ties with North Korea and those who shun the Kim company. 

Dictators like history. They order appropriate revisions of the past from time to time to make sure usurpers do not sully or hijack their reputation. It is said that Joseph Stalin.who expertly managed the Soviet Union’s murder machine was a connoisseur of music and history, besides his pet project of liquidation of dissent. Leon Trotsky who lost the power war to Stalin was aghast that the dictator had made history his handmaid. Before his head was broken with an ice axe in his hideout in Mexico City, a caption Trotsky gave to his historical account was: How Stalin Falsified History!    


Sunday, May 7, 2023

 Calling People Names

If there was one wrong thing the venerable bard of Stratford upon Avon ever uttered, it was that a rose would remain a rose whatever you call it, there being nothing in a name. For naming our ever loyal monkey god in an election address in Karnataka, Prime Minister Modi is facing a demand for apology. Congress spokesperson Surjewala will rest content only after the wounded faith and feelings of Hanuman devotees are duly assuaged. 

Surjewala is no ignoramus. He knows Hanuman’s superhuman or sub-human qualities of head and heart: piety, commitment, loyalty and, if you like, some incendiary and investigative tendencies. The mighty monkey had the presence of mind to upload a whole hill  to take out a life-saving herb whose name he had forgotten. When he was tied up and prepared for live cremation, he broke out of captivity and comprehensively torched his captors.

Watch out, it is risky to play around with names. Surjewala’s big boss knows that as well as anyone else. The boss knows too. He is required to explain in court after court, from Surat to Patna, how he took Modi’s name in a manner some thought was bad naming. The word for it in Hindi heartland is appropriate: badnaam. Rahul’s father had made a faux pas too when he called a garrulous senior lawyer  not a monkey but by a canine name. Duly incensed, Rajiv’s verbal victim resorted to an interrogative response, asking every day of the ensuing month ten questions that would trap the respondent either way, affirmatively or dismissively. 

So it is not wise to play around with a monkey’s name. No naked ape, whom Desmond Morris identifies as our early ancestor, may like to be called that, ape, naked or dressed.

Ape is an epithet of condescension, abject abuse. I am not too proud of my tribe’s tendency to vilify people for no fault of theirs. In our lexicon of abuse, what is viewed as the harshest is sex-related. Suitably described, genital organs yield good results, infuriating their objects. One may not mind being accused of felony or theft but one would not like to be called a bastard. One may not like being called bald or ugly but one would not put up with an ape-related accusation. Don’t call one by one’s racial name. 

Surjewala seems to know all the attributes of Hanuman. As a boy, when sleep was elusive or an irrational fear coursed through my veins, I used to recite Hanuman’s ten names: Sri Hanuman Anjana suno, Vayuputro Mahabala… My hope was that the redoubtable monkey would calm me  down and hoist me on the wings of sleep  and dream. I am not sure it worked any better than a compulsory chanting of the thousand names of the supreme goddess: Sri Mata Sri Maharajni Srimad Simhasaneswari. Naming, name chanting, that is, is no mean feat, as the Congress spokesperson may helpfully endorse. 

Thiruvananthapuram, where I live, has two giant monkeys installed on divine platforms with sundry minor deities sharing a berth with him in his hallowed premises. How they came to grab such good space near the legislature complex and the military station may be of historical interest. But they evidently generate enough funds to maintain themselves and their managers. In Suchindram, close to Kanyakumari, where K K Pillai made a seminal study of temple architecture, there is an imposing statue of Anjaneya who is pleased when he is offered a garland of vada. Little round southern snacks with a growing hole in the middle. Mind you,  I can vouch for the crispness of this well-fried delicacy. 

Hanuman can work wonders if you keep him on your side. I have grown up with stories of our legendary village sorcerer, Appu Paniker, befriending both the monkey god and the goddess and using his divine influence to strike terror or, as the case may be, calm in the deepening rural darkness. Paniker was said to have spent forty-one nights in breast-deep water in absolute seclusion seeking the benediction of Hanuman and Devi. The eerie penance, throughout  which the thousand names of the deities were chanted under a whisper, rendered Paniker capable of mind-boggling feats. My mother took me to him once to heal my migraine-like headache but Paniker’s potion gave no more than an imagined cure. 

The monkey god was one whose name was considered for my son when he was born. I shouted my preference for a non-divine name but one that would not be comic. It was a million dollar search,  patently futile, because there was no name that a god or goddess claimed as theirs. That solved, three years later, the problem of finding my daughter’s name as well. There was no escape from gods when you look for names or namelessness. I felt,  as Wittgenstein said, I was growing stupider and stupider every day. 

So monkey is a monkey is a monkey. You imbibe his sacrament, delicious vada, place an appropriate garland round his neck, chant his fear-removing, sleep-inducing names with buoyant hopes, right or wrong. But you don’t call a monkey a monkey, as Surjewala and his boss must have discovered, no less than Narendra Modi. That there was nothing in a name was an error made by our myriad-minded poet. If he were around when an African tyrant was ruling the roost, he would have had a hearty laugh, sparing himself the agony of a Hamlet or Iago.

The tyrant had been given an unusual name, Canaan Banana. Some miscreants who could not make sense of his dictatorial name, who found no fun or fervour in it, began bandying it about, liberally, indiscriminately. Though a tyrant, Banana had not been drained of all his sense of humour and indignation. The insinuation triggered by the anonymous crowds of miscreants was not lost on him. He banned his own name.      .   



Saturday, April 29, 2023

Twin Suns in the Sky

Given my lassitude, it was to be a non-starter, my research on twin suns in the sky, their simultaneous rise. Some friends, more importantly.Shamar Rimpoche among them, were all agog with enthusiasm. As if to commit myself to the esoteric enterprise, we gave it a tantalizing title, Buddha is not Laughing. When indeed was Buddha laughing?

As far as we know, Avalokitesvara was not a self-involved prophet of laughter, at least not so much as a philosopher of sorrow and carnal temptation, that is, an eight-fold path leading out of primordial human misery. The prince of Kapilavastu had lived too long to spare himself life’s essential ennui. Possibly Buddha’s portrait as an amused man came into circulation when someone produced an artifact, a statuette, of a laughing man with a bald pate and christened him accordingly. So incongruity, there. When we had our prestigious nuclear test, we chose for it a three-word announcement, ‘Buddha is laughing!’ 

Buddha never dies, nor is ever born. Gita enthusiasts are apt to bind him with a line from Krishna’s gospel, na jayate mriyate etc, though we are not sure whether the charioteer preceded or succeeded the mendicant. Till his ultimate return to nothingness, Buddha keeps happening. It is a perpetual experience of rebirth, Rinpoche being the honorific of the soul in pursuit. That holds good for everyone, not excluding our most famous contemporary Bodhisatva, Dalai Lama. And, Dalai Lama, who combines spiritual and temporal power in a heady measure, is always the cause or the consequence of one controversy or another.

The current controversy is not over reincarnation or relapse into the ultimate void. For a ridiculously mundane act, like asking a little devotee to suck the blessed tongue, Dalai Lama has been caught napping. A shrewd observer of the ways of the world and beyond, he knew everyone would not take kindly to the egregious ritual, he has apologized for any hurt caused to the boy or his kin. It seems it is no furore that will die down soon. The civilizational order headed by Dalai Lama is itself under severe stress. Nothing may please Beijing more. 

Tenzin Gyatso, which is Dalai Lama's given name, reached where he has by winning friends, influencing the powers-that-be and astutely balancing the wheel of dharma through the past half century and more. No politician or religious power broker has accomplished his kind of acrobatics. He fled his native land, set up home in a different land and won global laurels with other big players in world politics. The government of the country of his adoption, from where he trained his cultural guns with unerring marksmanship against his native land and its communist commissars, had no role to play in his anointment as the quintessential prophet of peace. India could not but watch with dismay or delight Dalai Lama’s rise in the firmament of freedom. That China was not too pleased to see its neighbour harbouring and honouring someone whom it had roundly treated as a fugitive became agonizingly clear in a few years after the Tibetan diaspora had its fateful trans-Himalayan trek in the late fifties.

The communist upsurge in China which swept through the Tibetan Autnomous Region was feared to become a cultural invasion, a clash of civilizations. It was fashionable to debunk the unabashed aggrandizement from Beijing. New Delhi’s foreign office was right from the beginning infatuated with Dalai Lama and his entourage. It held His Holiness in awe and reverence, never summoning courage to tell the spiritual savant that he should avoid taking positions that would embitter Sino-Indian relations. As an aside, we had through the diplomatic grapevine a bit of news that foreign office luminaries insisted on a bullet-proof BMW for His Holiness’s use though India’s prime minister could make do with a fortified Ambassador. 

What was being endangered in Tibet was a life module frozen in time.  Dalai Lama was at the pinnacle of a social order in which a nameless  populace saw in its leader god and man all at once. The system worked so ferociously that it provided scope for total command at the top and absolute obeisance at the bottom. Birth, death and rebirth came to be maladroitly manipulated  for the benefit of the power elite. Reincarnation politics was what has since come to be known as the bane of life and religion in Tibet. 

Tenzin Gyatso, current Dalai Lama, could not have been here now but for certain accidents of life and politics. Another boy had been identified as the new Dalai Lama in the late forties but he died in a road accident preparing the ground for the ascent of a newly chosen cleric. Reincarnation was the principle of succession in three other sects of Tibetan Buddhism as well but that did not unleash a widespread tug of war since they had no temporal authority to invoke in times of stress. If senior monks had perfected their plans to install a teenager as a sect’s head, they would have their way with no questions asked. 

The identification of a reborn Bodhisatva had a time-honoured tradition to follow. In spite of our reincarnation mythology, India has not evolved a system to explore the progress of a dead guru. Fifty years ago, H N Mukherjee, a professor of Parapsychology in Rajasthan University, had toyed with the idea of research on reincarnation and trans-migration of soul. Nothing significant was reported about it later. Tibetan tradition of identification followed the ancient pattern. When a fairly important person was dead, his confidantes would have an inkling of the arrival of the new soul.

If there was rivalry, more Rimpoches than one would be identified, revalidating a hackneyed theory of one becoming two or more. The newborn, as soon as he was able to follow or issue instructions, would identify his prototype, so to say, by recognizing his sandals, clothes, other articles of personal use. When a rebirth takes place, divine signals will ensue. There may be a constant clink in a kitchen vessel, a revelation to a trusted monk through his meditation or, hold your breath, twin suns in the sky.

One becomes two or more depending on the need or for the convenience of those who are in a position to leverage political power with spiritual claims. For instance, my friend Shamar Rimpoche, a high lama of the Karma-Kagyu sect, which claims an antiquity even beyond Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa order, had a running feud with another disciple of his guru, the late Karmapa. Through his meditation, Shamarpa identified a boy in Tibet as his venerable guru’s reincarnation, while his rival came up with his counter claims.  So it was that a dead man may well come up as two or three or more. In a few years of tutoring, the young fellow will mature as a perfect guru, handing down homilies and commands. 

Coming back to the obsessive apparition of twin suns in the sky, Shamar Rimpoche and I had extended conversations about signals from the sky and the revelations through meditations. Over a generous glass of Black Label, I argued that one sun could be seen as two or three because of some discrepancy in the cognitive system. Either when one has a brain in trouble or one drink too many, one can be assailed by double visions, not otherwise. Hallucinations are part of a pathology, not any divine epiphany. Heartily guffawing, Shamarpa would dig his teeth into a large chicken leg and observe that he was a meat-eating monk while I was a tame or timid vegetarian tiger.  Before he could follow up his visions or help me to put together our promised volume, Buddha is not Laughing, Shamarpa was gone. 

Such belief systems as those that stultify faith and reason in our times do not contribute to the growth and glory of a sub-Himalayan society. Beijing has long been playing its cards cleverly, bludgeoning Dalai Lama’s hopes for a return to his throne in Potala Palace. It knows its rebirth politics only too well. As and when time is up, Dalai Lama, who is braving his eighties, may well be replaced by a requisitely amiable monk in China. The savant of Dharamsala is not unaware of various possibilities. He has even threatened to close the route of reincarnation, saying, in an after-me-the-deluge tone,  “there would be no more Dalai  Lama.” That does not preclude the possibility of a comradely monk coronated with revolutionary greetings.  



Monday, April 24, 2023

 Mind of Madhavikkutty

A library in my neighbourhood has an interesting practice. It sends round a girl or two from time to time, visiting houses to inflict  books on potential readers as well as chronic enemies of letters. Where she placed me, I am not sure.  Anyway, that comely and committed library assistant asked me this time  to read an old book by Madhavikkutty, My World. “You would like it, sir,” she said presciently. I did. 

My World  is a sequel to Madhavikkutty’s early autobiographical writing, My Story. The  World covers events and ideas, and her fantasies, following the Story. The Story was somewhat of an explosion when it appeared about a half century ago. Like it happens to everything in repetition, the World did not upset anyone’s sleep or set off  a literary revolution.

Madhavikkutty, writing as Kamala Das in English, has, in a sense, demystified literary archetypes. What may seem quotidian becomes a soulful experience in her hands. She turns ordinary things, non-things, if you like, into subjects for study and exploration in mind’s unfathomable labyrinths. Her expression has a certain freshness about it, her ideas have  an unusualness. 

With all that in her capacious portfolio of ideas, she was apt to win the state government’s Ezhuthachan Award sooner or later. When she won the first award, many suspected para-literary considerations had weighed down the official decision. One tour de farce she accomplished in between was to change her religion. I have no problem with someone changing the  faith or going in for reconversion in pursuance of a new enlightenment. 

Even Ramakrishna Paramahamsa had converted to Islam for a while experimentally and then returned to his old spiritual garb. In recent times, a neurosurgeon, Narayanan Namboodiri of a famed Brahman household of Koodallur, had a convulsive faith change. He became a prayer warrior in Christian Medical College, Ludhiana.

If conversion is prompted by less than genuine reasons, like some material inducement or professional ascent, the character in question falls in social estimation. Such sham is necessarily predicated by an instant realization that whatever conviction one had upheld a whole life was grossly inadequate, even patently faulty. What paroxysms Madhavikkutty’s mind went into in the run up to her conversion into Suraiah are anybody’s guess. It is beyond question that Kamala Suraiah hadn’t  revised from top to bottom her  views on life, love, literature and god, or its absence, when she became a Muslim. 

Madhavikkutty being Madhavikkutty, there was bound to be high drama in her change of faith and religion. Unwittingly perhaps, but none too innocently, she said and did things in a manner that would strike headlines. She liked being noticed, as author of her writings or one who lived her life the way she lived it. If that was showiness, Madhavikkutty was showy. She honestly believed she was a woman of destiny. The world had several deficiencies to be set right and she felt being called upon to correct them. That urge for showiness, blended with naivete, and inability to place herself in the matrix of society, was what dawned on her as an epiphany to contest the assembly assembly elections in 1982.

She took herself seriously as a candidate while a band of workers who clung to her as primordial leeches saw around her trappings of buffoonery. They set up an election camp at her home and had a good time for three weeks, holding demonstrations, putting up her cut outs at street corners, plying her vehicles as she drove around setting cardinal election issues in focus. She came one day, accompanied like a shadow by her amiable husband, Madhava Das, to place an advertisement of her candidature in our paper. 

No sensible paper would turn down an ad and she wanted to make it as big as possible. Das left it to her to decide how it should be. On my part, I suggested a token insertion. We struck up some compromise. She was more than crestfallen when the results came. She had polled less than invalid votes. I was sure her literary fan club had not wasted their votes on her. By and by, she must have become sure too. 

My World has a short portrait of the British writer Aubrey Menen, a relative Madhavikkutty, his last name punctiliously spelt as Menen, so as to avoid being mistaken for his better known but equally irascible namesake, V K Krishna Menon. When Madhavikkutty was in Mumbai, Aubrey Menen visited her with a handsome offer of tips on life, death and alcohol. It was a free offer. 

The first piece of advice was that she should keep her home bar well-stocked  with premium brands of brew--which was what he obviously looked around for when he stepped into the apartment. Madhavikkutty heard him in enforced silence as he went on with his bacchanalian obsessions. “Out with all your lassi and lime juice!” That was his curt command, keeping boozers’ interests uppermost in  his mind. For all her famed directness of speech, she stopped short of handing down a judgment on the distant cousin who had his friend always with him as an inseparable shadow.

Make no mistake, Madhavikkutty was no puritan who would shun  any company where liquor was liberally served. I had not heard of her views on Aubrey when she had some of us for dinner at her place inThiruvananthapuram. It was not a liquor crowd. If anything it was a guest gallery that thrived on buttermilk and tender coconut. The glittering guest of the evening was A P Udayabhanu, an octogenarian Congressman, who wore his allergy to alcohol on his kurta’s lapels. 

Probably, her son, M D Nalappat, formerly a shareholder and editor of Mathrubhoomi, had arranged the dinner bash. Nalappat would have expected to use the occasion to get closer to a live wire Karnataka politician, Veerappa Moily, than with a spent force like Udayabhanu. Between them, the old guard of the Congress and the neo-vendor of power in the Kempa Gowda country made it an imposing atmosphere. Even those of us who had liquor on their palette didn’t feel free to gobble it up when offered. 

That was when Madhavikkutty came out with a bottle of White Horse  asking us if anyone would care for a ride. Moily lapsed into an embarrassed silence. Udayabhanu was engrossed in a self-sustaining oration, oblivious to whatever we were imbibing with pronounced gusto. Aubrey Menen would have risen to the occasion if he were around. Retrospectively, I was relieved he was not in  our midst.

I have never met or read Aubrey Menen. For all I know, he was a self-important man, proportionately repugnant. He had descended on Thiruvananthapuram with his ubiquitous companion and let us know that he was available for a few minutes’ chat with newspaper reporters. He thought we were waiting for the wonder call. My colleague, K M Thampi, a young man with a creative way with his words and polite to a fault, was drafted to deal with the doughty writer.

Aubrey Menen’s book, presumptuously titled as The Ramayana as told by Aubrey Menen, had raised hackles among the votaries of the Maryada Purushothama. As a matter of political rule, it was banned for a while. The twentieth century author who probably hoped to excel the robber-turned poet could not have asked for more. The ban rendered the book a sought after reading. Pitifully, I had not read it. Nor had Thampi. But we could, we knew, always make do with an instant reading of the blurb or a hearsay review. Clever authors know it only too well that a good way to make a book move in the mart is to have it lampooned by a listless  readership or proscribed by an obliging sarkar. 

Thampi could not have been with the twentieth century Valmiki for more than five minutes when he walked out in a huff. We did not know what the author with a bee in his bonnet, as they say, had expected of us. Whatever it was, we were not ready to play the game except on our terms. Yet it was curious that someone with Thampi’s mien, his modesty, had been so rudely provoked. Just as he was returning to the bureau with ill-concealed agitation, Aubrey’s call came from the hotel asking us to depute another reporter. 

Nothing doing, we said. While we were yet to piece together what had happened between Aubrey and our ace and sensitive reporter,  we would have no one else to talk to him. Either the reinvented shadow of the poet of the wilderness talks to Thampi again or he talks to no one else. It was hard persuading our reporter to call on again a man on whom he had walked out. When he finally agreed to meet the man at his hotel again, we were all happy to hope for a good read. We had fortified him with support and suggestions that he keep his cool in the unlikely face of provocations. 

Our ace reporter was back to the bureau almost before he left for the unwelcome interview. It was a fiasco, again, he confirmed in a staccato tone. We did not plumb for details. We left it at that. Our neo-Valmiki did not call again. We adjourned for a celebration of an interview article that had not taken place. I felt good that I stood my ground. 

Aubrey Menen came back alive the other day in the form of a short note on him by Madhavikkutty in her My World.   The Ramayana as told by Aubrey Menen remains unread because there was no mandatory reason to rush through it. Given a choice, I would first pick up A K Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas. Maybe the library girl would bring it to me one of these days. Thanks.      



Thursday, April 13, 2023

 Politics of Memorials

What is to be done with what is left of Sugathakumari’s house is the current topic of discussion in Thiruvananathapuram. A small outhouse has been razed to the ground. Her fans and friends want the government to acquire the main house for a befitting memorial. In response to the campaign, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has asked Culture Minister Saji Cheriyan to ascertain what best can be done. 

Simultaneously, there is a running discussion on who should have what kind of memorial and how the government should associate itself with the project. Like industrial policy, farm policy, health policy, culture policy and what have you, there is scope for a comprehensive memorial policy. Comprehensive because death will, for all we know, remain eternal and memorial plans permanent. Politics and economics of memorials need constant study.

The importance of being Sugathakumari is more than that she was a poet. Poetically she created her own kind of Radha who pined for Krishna’s company but didn’t want him to see or hear her. Even when she bemoaned that all her poetry had dried up, she liked reciting her compositions, not particularly musically, but indeed soulfully. I remember her singing her famous love song, “What is the colour of love?,” when she joined us to take a mentally ill psychiatrist  to a psychiatrist. 

Sugathakumari picked up a movement Mother Teresa had touched off in one massive move to deliver justice to mentally ill people. She was a friend of destitute women. Inevitably, as a poet, she was a nature enthusiast. She was editing a journal for kids, a Lions Club project, when I got to know her. She had a raw deal from her benefactors and we made a song and dance about it, inviting leonine wrath. They threatened to take us to the court but tactfully spared her. What can be a memorial for a half-century of poetry, peace, sanity and concern for every living thing, trees among them? Maybe you took a different view but you liked to know what she thought of every emerging issue. Who would build a memorial for her?

That poser is apt to bounce back without an answer. A striking feature of democracy is that every orphan issue is consigned to the sarkari web. Whatever no one else may not or cannot perform is assigned to public exchequer. This is not to say that  the government can do  it well and fairly even if it can marshal money to lavish on memorials of sundry shapes and sounds. For every man, that includes woman, who croaks would like to have a memorial for himself or herself.  The government machinery will find it difficult to decide who must be installed where in the burgeoning gallery of honour. 

Anyone may be pushed up the gallery of fame, given a committed  cautery that will work with unstinted enthusiasm to immortalize the dead dignitary. Which is why it is said one needs more friends and fans when one is gone than when one is still around. Epaulletes and badges and golden shawls do not fall down like manna. Someone somewhere has to work for it, pulling the right wires, as the indigenized idiom goes. Take, for instance, a man of letters like Sooranad Kunjan Pillai. I was talking about him with his son, neurologist Rajasekharan Nair. There was a low note of pique when he said two chief ministers had shown interest in building a memorial four quintessential lexicographer but half a dozen chief ministers had come and gone after them leaving it all but a comedy of amnesia. There was no effective campaign to make E MS Namboodiripad’s austere house in Shanti Nagar, Thiruvananthapuram, an EMS Archive.

Ideally memorials should be instituted by voluntary bodies, fan clubs of the deceased. They will not be hamstrung by any sense of fairness or objectivity. Their singular obsession will be with the posthumous image of their heroes and heroines. Clever guys in the fan fiefdom can often  put the memory of the lost hero to petty personal use. A familiar antic is to institute a prize in the name of the departed panjandrum, and amass funds for its presentation even if no one seriously thinks of finding a genuine recipient. 

If not a prize or a statue, it may be a souvenir or even a bulky book, unlike one brought out by the Union government’s publications division in honour of Vallabhai Patel. Patel Memorial Lectures were a great intellectual event when they were in vogue, great minds addressing great contemporary problems. The publications division, in a wave of serendipity, stitched all of them together so unimaginatively that pages would come off loose even before a reader opened it. All India Radio, in its wisdom, stopped that memorial service. British Broadcasting Corporation is going ahead with applause for its four annual lectures in memory of its first legendary general manager, John Reith.

There are easier ways to ensure immortality. The easiest way is to name a road or its destination after the dead dignitary. Depending on the reach or relevance of the celebrity, it can be a panchayat bus stop or a university laboratory or a  marriage hall. Time was when people were named after places; places must now be lucky to be known by a dead resident’s name. Let it be noted with no irreverence that two Gandhis have lent their names to places and palaces in India more than all others--Mohan Das and Indira. In Kerala, Narayana Guru adorns, more than anyone else, memorials with his busts or road signs or community halls. P K Balakrishnan, whose Guru biography remains a magisterial work, used to say snide remarks about unaesthetically executed clumsy statues bringing bad nicknames to that savant of our times. 

Memorial politics is not a new episode in our human drama. It dates back to ancient Egypt, a succession of pharaohs building gigantic pyramids to house their tombs. After an excursion to the Nile, my grandson was overwhelmed by the great river and the memorials of pharaohs. He seemed mentally flying back to the lands and the times of Khufu and Tutankhaman. When he lectured on the bygone glory of Egypt, I argued that those ancient West Asian seekers of immortality had not only carried with them articles of their personal use but their servants also. They wanted nothing of theirs to be left behind after they were gone. Our widow-burning tradition was a medieval extension of that ancient atrocity. 

Looking at our tradition, one nice thing about it is that it is not tainted by the elemental urge for immortality. I grew up, with a vague trepidation, seeing tombstones in cemeteries adjoining churches and mosques. Those were times when imposing memorials had not come up in the rural hinterland. Hindu tradition provided for no permanent memorial. Where the body is buried or burnt, a banana is planted. In a year, the dead person is subsumed in the earth, in fulfillment of the saying,  “from dust you come, to dust you return.” Those whose concept of time  is longer, a coconut tree takes the place of the short-lived banana.

Ancient Egyptian pharaohs and modern memorial builders may never overtake Mughal emperor Shah Jahan who had his wife’s mausoleum built on the banks of Yamuna. Ustad Ahmad Lahori’s grandiose design took 22 years and 20000 workers to be executed. No love has been so immortalized; no memorial such as Taj Mahal may ever be built again. For all its splendour, Sahir Ludhianvi had a contrary view of Taj. “In a fit of love, aided by wealth, an emperor has teased our poverty!”





Monday, April 10, 2023

 St Antony Pray for Us!

"It is a truth tested by experience that sons dissipate what their fathers gained in the sweat of their brow."

These are not the words of a contemporary commentator on the fluctuating father-son relations as exemplified by senior Congress leader A K Antony and Anil Antony who has gone in search of new political pastures. The son is now an activist of the Hindu-oriented Bharatiya Janata Party which the father is sworn to fight till his last breath. Reacting to Anil’s somersault, Antony moaned: “I am deeply hurt.”

The opening quote on the historical course and scope of father-son bonds is from Niccalao Manucci, an Italian writer who worked for a scholarly Mughal prince whom his brother killed for power. Driven by compulsions of power, the killer emperor had dumped his dad in a dungeon overlooking the Yamuna and his wife’s grandiose mausoleum.   

Niccolao Manucci, who worked under Jahangir's grandson, Dara Shikoh, began his discussion of Jahangir by saying: "It is a truth tested by experience that sons dissipate what their fathers gained in the sweat of their brow." Niccalao made this observation  while discussing his benefactor’s grandfather, Jehangir.

If Mughal tradition is broadly accepted as Indian tradition, disaffection between Antony and Anil is quite understandable. There was perhaps only one emperor, dynasty founder Babur, who happily yielded power to his son, even risking his life. Babur traded his robust health with Humayun, who had fallen terminally sick. Such transfer of health or ailment was possible in ancient Bharatavarsha where Prince Puru took over his father Yayati’s senility.  The aging emperor wanted to have some more good time. There were other illustrious, self-effacing sons like Rama of modern Faizabad who not only abdicated his inheritance but went into a long spell of self-exile.

Akbar was, like Antony, a good father. But the Muslim emperor who propounded his own religion of dharma was not always on good terms with his fun-loving son Jehangir. The son had the father’s close consultant, Abul Fazal, murdered.  In a military encounter between the Mughal force and Jehangir’s seditious troops, the latter lost. For the prince to be made the broadminded emperor’s heir, influential women in the harem had to exert pressure on Akbar. To make the transition swift and smooth, it was said, Jahangir had arranged to poison his father. Subsequent inquiries acquitted the son who reigned for two decades and more, leaving the administration to his factotums, himself wallowing in dance, drama, drinks and drugs. 

Saint Atnony of Padua, after whom A K Antony is named, was a man of peace and amity. He was an effective orator and his homilies were lapped up by his devoted followers. True to his cult of convergence and consensus, Antony of Chethala tried to steer clear of confrontation, just as his patron saint of Padua devoted more time to study and meditation than to priestcraft and attendant pettifoggery. Anthony of Padua was canonized soon after his death. So obvious was his mission which really required not many miracles. St Antony, pray for us!

We have not yet heard in detail from Anil Antony why he thinks he is right in deciding to work for the vanguard of Hindutva and his father is wrong in suffering the association with a party tied to the pulverized pillars of an ancient party. The mullahs and the pundits of his new party will use him, his very presence, that is, to embarrass his dad's party. Anil Antony may not garner significant electoral advantage on his own but Congressmen will find themselves ridiculously ham-handed while inventing an eloquent repartee to their familiar diatribes. An important activity in elections is to inspire an ambience of victory. Nothing wins like victory.

Where is the harm if the father and the son take opposite positions? Why should not a son strike a new note in political affiliations, deviating from the path prepared by the father? There are fathers and fathers, just as there are sons and sons. Prahlada was an impossible son who would give no quarter to his father Hiranyakasipu. The son was a preceptor of immanence; the father saw nothing divine, nothing other than himself, inside or around him. That the tempestuous relations between the father and the son had a gory end for the father is, right now, beside the point. Prahlada’s discord with Hiranyakasipu should be seen in that perspective, not as a symbolic equalism of episodes and characters.

Indian tradition of relations and power struggles can be viewed in various angles. Prahlada’s grandson showed the way by abdicating authority  to redeem his word and honour. Though there is no national version of the story, Mahabali’s surrender of power and acceptance of self-exile should serve as a foil to the unvarying tales of treachery and vulgarized father-son relations. Mahabali kept his royal word even when it meant his total dispossession of power. Balamani Amma saw in that gesture a glimpse of divinity stepping on the head.

A blind king’s concern for his son was what brought on us a fratricidal war, annihilating everything on earth, victors and the vanquished, barring a dozen desolate persons. Uninfluenced by that collective memory of carnage, we have, at different stages, worked overtime to fortify the claims and interests of our sons. Like the beleaguered god, we exclaim “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” Contemporary history is full of illustrations for that infectious dictum. Antony cannot be faulted for it. Anil Antony ploughing a different furrow must be seen in that light. In fact he will invite much less opprobrium when his son joins another party than when and if he is propped up in his own party.

The Greek ways are comprehensively grotesque, father and son falling for the same woman in a fit of amorous outrage. The son first kills the father. And then he weds a woman who was his mother. There could probably be no more egregious account of human conduct than this story of Oedipus killing his father, Laius, and wedding his mother, Jacosta, and begetting a child in her. Oedipus does it all in ignorance. It is a gruesome story of relations going haywire, being stultified, reducing the character to a tragic hero in a distorted setting of relations.

Oedipus had a sharp limp. From his childhood he had it. That was his mark of identity, a limping leg. In fact oedipus literally means a swollen leg. His relations were so too. Let us check if our legs are swollen!j