Saturday, March 18, 2023

Protest Too Much

There are so many who protest too much but not many who do it in a refreshing idiom. The current idiom is the ancient idiom. A shout from the housetops, an incendiary speech from behind the podium, an exhortation for severe action against alleged wrong-doers, a promise to wreak vengeance on accredited enemies of society, an obstruction of the ruling class's highways, an insuperable roadblock halting VVIP peregrinations--all these mores and methods of protest have been tried and tested for long. 

For participants in and leaders and witnesses of protest processions, those methods have become tepid and ineffective and, therefore, boring. To be effective and illustrious, protest forms must be violent and intimidating. Even inquilab  for peace and order are apt to turn warlike, showing what Desmond Morris calls contradictory signals, waging war for peace, provoking the police to swing their batons or opening fire. No procession of protest is worth its name if it does not leave behind a martyr or two and a dozen law-keepers and law-brekers wounded. And that prepares the field for another battle. That is a specious quality of processions of protest. They are, like god, self-generating and repetitive, happening in times of stress, age after age.   

When V S Naipaul wrote first about India, his ancestral homeland, he called it An Area of Darkness, arguably. It was followed by A Wounded Civilization, where India's cultural overhang was being put to test, and A Million Mutinies which were searing through its psyche. Every segment of society was grippped by an urge for protest.  Any leader worth his salt would not only rally a motley crowd behind him but introduce a new idiom to say his piece. How to make protest reasonably headline worthy was the concern of the leadership. 

But the age of processions and mammoth public meetings was long gone. In legislative bodies, walk out and boycott soon ceased to be fashionable. Antics of P C Thomas and Lonappan Nambadan come to mind. Thomas, ploughing a lonely political furrow, had brought theatre to the august Lok Sabha. Outside, when others were carrying on conventional warfare against the Mullapperiyar dam, he resorted to jalasamadhi, meditation on water, shallow, of course. Nambadan made his presence felt  in the Assembly by striking a matchstick and  burning a bill whose vernacular version was not available.  

Siege of Parliament became the order of the day. Kerala made its contribution to the protest movement in its own way. Jumping into the well of the House, whether in New Delhi or Thiruvananthapuram, became a reflexive act. Law-making bodies often turned into a forum for fisticuffs. There seemed to be an underpinning of violence and a glib assumption that physical militancy could be a viable answer to problems that defied solutions through discussion. What was   not amenable to persuasion was hoped to be achieved through physical resistance. That was the essence of animal behaviour. 

There is need for creative forms of protest. Blocking the way or burning up the constitution or the Manusmriti or the staging of shenanigans in support of some demand can be no more than foolhardy. Jesus was one man who showed a new form of protest, showing the other cheek when one cheek is hit. Hitting back was not his way of registering protest against injustice. More recently Gandhi showed the way to win freedom without firing a shot. He made a weapon out of peaceful resistance. Ironically, Jesus died on the cross, abandoned by almost all his followers   except three women. Gandhi was shot dead in retaliation for his unique peace mission. What may weigh with our apostles of protest is a Mahabharata dictum: Just because there isn't enough force to win, don't lapse into adharma.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Sense of Deja Vu


Sense of Deja Vu

I was struck by a sense of deja vu when I watched fisticuffs in the Kerala Assembly yesterday. People of my vintage would dismiss it with a perfunctory nod, "Oh, what is there? We have seen it all before.." 

The disruption of the proceedings, the physical exertions by the honourable members, the determined move of the watch and ward guards, the complaints about their excesses--we have been treated to it all over decades. If there was a difference between then and now, it was in specifics. There was no KK Rama then to bemoan that an MLA had kicked her. 

Another difference. Television had not got going when I first witnessed, not without glee, legislators and their guards being locked in combat right inside the great portal of democracy. Nor was television coverage possible when I saw ruling party activists rounded up a legislator and bashed him up severely.  He was an iconic presence everywhere when he was fire-breathing Marxist. The activists had to thrash him, kick the renegade around, to illustrate their allegiance to the party. 

Today's rulers were yesterday's resisters. It was their resolve that K M Mani, finance minister, who was facing charges of graft, should not be allowed to present the budget. It was no bland appeal; it was a revolutionary decision to block his entry into the august assembly. Those who orchestrated the resistance revolution believed, of  course, stupidly, that they had enough physical prowess to rout the state's police.  Two scenes of that farce remain vignettes of my memory. In one, a woman legislator dug her teeth into another legislators arm. In the other, a doughty comrade was seen jubilantly pushing the speaker's high-backed chair down the rostrum. 

Time was when Vakkom Purushothaman ruled, let us say, the roost as the speaker. Following some commotion, he sternly suspended four members including Marxist militant M V Raghavan. His party would not approve of the speaker's order. Raghavan led what could be called Operation Vakkom, trying to force their entry into the assembly. Vakkom never brooked defiance. His order to assembly guards was to let no suspended member get into the assembly hall at any cost. They obeyed the speaker's order meticulously. In the melee, one member, now a minister, Krishnan Kutty, had his hand grievously crushed in a closing door. 

MVR was himself the victim of a vicious assault by his former followers. He had changed his party and had a point or two to make when T K Ramakrishnan, home minister, was giving a garbled version of an incident involving him. Raghavan rushed down the aisle to force into the home minister's pocket. In a moment the enraged crowds of comrades swarmed around him, manhandling him, kicking him, lapsing into vituperative pyrotechnics. The victim was not ready to clear out, yielding to the massive attack. As he dared his tormentors, challenging his former followers to do him to death, speaker Varkala Radhakrishnan, adjourned the house. 

There were tides off the beach of Sankhumugham. MVR became a minister. The comrade crowd could not come to terms with his survival. They were determined to block his movement everywhere. Blocking a class enemy, physically, violently, if need be, was still the Marxist method of resistance. When he went to address a meeting in Koothuparamb, hyperactive comrades dared the police which opened fire, killing five workers. That was subject for a new movement of resistance.

Blocking anyone's way, preventing any assembly proceeding, is not the way of democracy, not exactly. Democracy is all about letting a contrary view to be expressed without hindrance. For participants in the democratic process, it will be useful to remember that militant or military moves against an established authority is not likely to succeed. 




Parents and Wards

Parents and Wards


Satyavati was uniquely blessed. Hers  was the first conjugal relationship on an inter-caste basis. She was a fisherwoman, and smacked of fish. A matsyagandhi.

But her olfactory disadvantage was more than offset by her visual charm. So much so Parasaran, who had made an art of self-denying celibacy, was fired by a carnal urge at her very first look. 

As the guileless ferry woman was taking him across the turbulent river of passion, our venerable monk lost all his self-possession. To make her agreeable, he lavished all his power of penance so get her out of her obnoxious ambience. Satyavati and Parasaran had a good time in her country boat, yielding an extraordinary son. The son was dark and uncouth, but  redoubtable not only as a progenitor but an editor-raconteur of stories of war and peace. Krishnadwaipayana Vyasa was a useful son to Satyavati.

The ugly compiler of scriptures left her in his teens,  probably in search of his elusive father, but not without assuring her that she could depend on  him to find a solution to any newly emerging crisis. Such a crisis engulfed her long years later when she had two more surviving sons from an inter-caste matrimony. This time round, her suitor was a fun-loving king, obsessively seeking out mates, not a phlegmatic sanyasi given to matters mundane only occasionally.  

The two sons who inherited the Kuru throne were ill or impotent. They eventually croaked. Mom Satyavati sent for her peripatetic eldest son whom she wanted to sire the issues of her daughters-in-law. Vyasa, ugly genius for all seasons, turned up to father his siblings’ kids. The rest is history as is what happened before. Monks were no self-abnegating monks, emperors could trade their power for a game with a ravishing girl, caste shackles were not necessarily restrictive when it came to marital alliances, mothers could deploy an omniscient son to beget children in her other sons’ widows. The last assignment, siring kids in Vyasa’s siblings’ widows, was a rare role in which any mother could cast her son. 

Another mother, Olympias, was Alexander’s guardian in every sense of the term, guarding him against conspiracies even by his father, Philip, of Macedonia. But she was playing no unusual role. Mothers and fathers have always been solicitous about their wards’ wellbeing. From ancient Greece to modern mohallas, parents have taken it upon themselves to build and repair the relations of their sons and daughters whenever there was a prospect of rupture. 

Not equally frequent was the intervention of sons and daughters when their parents were locked in conjugal combat. Yes, there was Puru’s illustrious performance, offering his youth to his father, Yayati, who wanted to have more good time himself, trading his old age with his youngest son. There was Rama of Ayodhya who gave up his right to kingship to redeem his father’s vow given in an unguarded moment. 

There were unrecorded chronicles as well when children set out to mend their parents’ endangered relations in a perfect reversal of roles. Yes, as against fathers and mothers correcting their children’s relations, quite a normal way of brokering peace at home, there were also glorious, though fewer, episodes of filial mission when children set out to correct the conjugal course of their parents. Satyavati and Olympias had indeed unusual roles to play vis-a-vis their wards but even more unusual would be filial intervention in times of discord.  

Monday, March 13, 2023

Elegy for Earth

Elegy for Earth

When will the ground under my feet fritter away? When will the walls of my house cave in? That is the constant fear of the people of Istanbul after the earthquake at the Turkey-Syria border which claimed fifty thousand lives. When it will strike is uncertain; that it will is certain. The historic Turkish metropolis which has been the cradle of many a civilization is in the grip of  mortal fear of another devastation.

Earthquake, bhookampam, was no more than a metaphor for me till my late teens. Any shake up, commotion, if it was to be reported in hyperbole, was a bhookampam. The first time I felt it, an experience hard to explain,  was in Delhi. A momentary tilt, a subtle swing, a clank in the kitchen--and then it was all over. It was more fun and wonder than fear. Indraprastham, which had witnessed the rise and fall of  seven imperial regimes  through centuries, was not shaken. What spared Delhi was to hit hard again and again Nepal,  a tiny kingdom on the trail of the Himalaya which Kalidasa  hailed as the earth’s measuring road.  

My blessed state, Kerala, has not had to bear the brunt of disasters, natural or man-made, till a few years ago. It did not have the trauma of a war. Monsoon floods required the rehabilitation of people in low-lying areas. Landslides blocked traffic for a while. But earthquake was an unheard of calamity. Then we started a grand scheme of deforestation, bringing down forest cover from two-thirds to one-third or less. In an obsessive fit of construction, waterbodies, including the sea, were reclaimed and buildings were put up on the newly found land. It was a valiant venture to emulate Parashurama who had reclaimed a large tract of land from the sea to settle his minions. And, as Ayyappa Paniker said,  monsoon became half, and half’s  half, 

The denizens of the land of the Brahman with the axe were slowly introduced to mild tremors, particularly in high ranges, where what may be called a poachers’ paradise flourished. Flash floods became a routine affair, rendering roads into rivers. In a recent calamity, a good part of a village, Kavalappara, vanished into thin air. No one may now come up with the confession that the greenest state of India had not been forewarned. In a famous Elegy for Earth, O N V Kurup bemoaned the disrobing of Mother Earth, forcing her to saunter along the highway of the solar system, insulted,  head clean-shaven. The Greek story of the son marrying the mother is old. The new story has Mother Earth’s sons molesting her ecstatically. Addressing her, ONV says “you are not yet dead. Your end is imminent. We will join you.”

Disrobing Mother Earth was not started yesterday. She has suffered too much since the early years of human civilization. She is sarvam saha. In her repository, she has enormous wealth. She is Vasundhara. God had to recreate himself as a boar to rescue her from Hiranyaksha who had abducted her to the depths of the ocean. Her inheritors have not yet realized the enormity of their misadventure. 

The sages of the Rig Veda had some idea of Earth’s travails. One mantra says: “He who fixed fast and firm the earth that staggered, and set at rest the agitated mountains, Who measured out the air's wide middle region and gave the heaven support, He, men, is Indra.” Herodotus, arguably father of historiography, has left some clues to what we modernists call the rape of earth. She was always ready with succor to those who needed it. When Sita was down and out, reflecting the indignity inflicted on women down the ages, Mother Earth was there to absorb her in her bosom. It provoked even Rama, our famously equanimous man-god. He threatened to plough earth up and down, inundate it, even remove it from the schedule of five elements that constitute life. 

Five years ago, earth erupted in Mexico City. The inheritors of the Mayan culture were not overawed. They have got used to the vicious moods of Mother Earth. My son and daughter, who happened to be there together, had left their hotel a minute before its coffee shop crumbled, of course, burying alive its leisurely patrons without notice. Tsunami is a comparatively new entry in our disaster lexicon. Though we are not endowed with Japanese resolve for recovery, my blessed state has begun to feel the pangs of Mother Earth’s tremors. Something turned in its bowels violently in 1977 and irate Indian Ocean waves sprang up to the crowns of tall, desolate palm trees. While going round Machilipattanam and many wrecked villages on Andhra coast, covering the calamity for All India Radio, I was appalled by the eerie  harmony on roadsides where thousands of human and animal bodies lay without protest, awaiting the overworked disposal squads. 

Reports from Istanbul are shattering. Hundreds of buildings, houses and offices, in the historic city of Constantinople have been declared unsafe. Scared citizens are unable to decide whether they should abandon their apartments where they have been living for so many years or risk being around as guardians of their endangered city. Most edifices built on specifications of safety, they say, may not withstand another tremor which comes in  repetitive ruthlessness. A morbid but persisting, relieving,  thought is that it may yet not happen in our little homeland. It may not happen tomorrow but it will a day or two later. Hey man, watch your word and deed. Mother Earth is angry.