Thursday, October 28, 2004

Regarding Patriotism

A recent e-friend sent me an essay he wrote in 2002 called "On Patriotism". He was responding to the then-crisis of the Indo-Pak stand-off at the borders in late spring. Reading his essay reminded me of my own bleak thoughts on the subject:

For some years now, it's been clear to me that patriotism is no longer a worthwhile ideal. More destruction and grief is sponsored in its name, more envy, greed and vanity, than anything else. Most of us are brought up to feel an automatic devotion to the flags and anthems under which we are born, and most of us respond with warm loyalty. I wasn't any different when I was a child, but I grew up outside my country. I can remember the sense of pained shock and disbelief I felt when I returned at the age of eight -- nothing I saw around me conformed to my ideal of a country that I could feel proud of, or love.

Today of course, what I'm questioning is the need to feel those kinds of emotions at all, in reference to countries. We make a mistake, I feel, in thinking of countries as people. Assigning them personal pronouns and ascribing emotions to them merely distorts our understanding of what they are: groups of humans collected under a banner, in a particular geographical location. When we make countries into people, we set ourselves up for feeling emotional about them, as if they were our parents or our enemies. But they are nothing of the sort. They are figments of the collective imagination, merely a means of organizing humans into groups, quite often arbitrarily. Many countries are populated by several different ethnic groups, even though the governments of most nations try to put forward an image of homogeneity or choose one group over other groups as being the most representative.

Patriotism is a false ideal. Unlike (say) love or devotion to our parents, or the desire for food, there's nothing natural about patriotism. It's something we have to be taught, which we would never learn on our own without specific prompting. Its aim is to inspire loyalty in individuals so that they will act in the national interest when called upon, rather than in their own interest or in the interest of something larger than a single nation's or individual's needs. Most of us are brought up to relate to Our Country as if it were a benign parent, yet as adults we're surely aware that there's very little confirm this status.

Mostly, what we learn to understand as we grow up is that Our Country is US -- we make it what it is by our pattern of voting and tax-payment. If we're conscientious and if the machinery of government works smoothly, we can ensure a tolerable standard of living for ourselves. Most often, though, we discover that there's no special mystique to citizenship: however much sentiment we load onto the plate of patriotism, it can just as easily be tipped up and replaced by despair or contempt following a change of government. Contrast this against feelings towards parents/family -- whether we love them or hate them, there is an internal stickiness to familial bonds that can't be erased by fiat. They can't be forged artificially either: it has surely happened often enough that a person is brought up out of contact from his/her biological family and finds, when united, that sharing DNA isn't enough after all. It's like missing something crucial like a tongue or a retina at birth -- even if artificial substitutes can be constructed by medical science later on, the nervous system will not have developed a vocabulary of comprehension. An artificial eye (even if such a thing existed) could only work on someone who had already learnt to see.

I believe that the effort of instilling patriotism is a little bit like attempting to install a sense organ -- such as an eye or a tongue -- for which there is no corresponding neural network in the human brain. Many of us are conditioned to believe there is, so we can fool ourselves into responding emotionally to claims upon our patriotism but the fact that some people can transfer their allegiance to other countries and to other ideologies suggests that the same is true for all of us.

Consider for instance the way that the patriotic citizens of all the various countries on this planet appear to feel equally passionate about their nations' history/geography/culture/biota: how do we make sense of that passion? How is it possible for every citizen to be right? Either everyone is equally deluded about his/her own country's virtues or there are real differences in the physical and cultural assets of nations, yet everyone is brought up to be blind to the assets of all other nations save their own. Either way, there is self-deception.

I can remember, for instance, feeling so vain to know that I belonged to the nation that housed the Taj Mahal! But over time, as I met the citizens of countries that housed (say) the pyramids or the Golden Buddha, or Mt Everest or the Great Barrier Reef ... well, the preciousness of my national asset seemed hard to maintain -- not because it was less or more, but only because it seemed rather the same. There's no way I can decide whether or not the Taj Mahal is more precious than the Great Barrier Reef or the Great Wall of China. So I would rather avoid the whole business of feeling proud or not-proud -- after all, how can I lay claim to the beauty of the Taj? It's just a coincidence that I happened to be born whithin the geo-political entity that contains the monument. It really owes nothing to my efforts or even my ancestry. I can admire it and enjoy it, I can be astounded by the craftsmanship that went into it -- just the same as I can enjoy the Sphinx or the Great Wall -- and that's about all.

It would be so great if, wandering the globe, we could all be enabled to think: there's our Sphinx -- our Machu Pichu -- our Easter Island -- our golden marmoset -- our Grand Canyon -- our Emperor Penguins -- everything belongs to every one of us resident on this planet and we can all rejoice equally in all of it.

Of course, in the real world, what matters is economic rather than cultural assets. If we as a species could pool the world's resources of petroleum, wood, water, agricultural land and all the rest, PERHAPS we'd have made the first true step towards unity, peace and international understanding. Then again, if we really did pool our resources, if we really did dole out assets on an equitable basis so that no nation or ethnic group had a greater share of the pie than any other ...


Wouldn't last a decade, would it?

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

An Elegant Darkness

Back in the capital. My final night in Madras was spent speeding my way through a novel called "A Dark-Adapted Eye" by Ruth Rendell writing in her persona as Barbara Vine. R.R. is best known for her carefully crafted murder-mysteries, but I've never managed to get into any of her books before. Maybe I've just never tried, or maybe the ones I've dipped into previously haven't had quite the quality of highly polished, finely tuned intrigue that this one has.

It begins with a situation in which a family of three, a daughter and both her parents await the hour of a relative's death. My first assumption was that all three were conspirators in a murder, because the narrator tells us that there's only one situation in which we can know the exact moment down to the minute of a person's death-to-be. Ah yes, I say to myself, it's going to be one of THOSE books, in which a whole family is party to a ... then I realize I'm wrong. It's no mere murder that the family is silently awaiting the exact timing of, but a hanging. The father's sister is a condemned woman. The narrator's voice, belonging to the to-be-hanged woman's niece, allows us to share the singularity of such a situation and with this introduction leads us step by gentle step down a cold and tragic path.

The quality of this book lies in the exquisite care with which the characters are drawn and the astonishing complexity of a plot that appears at first glance almost pitifully obvious. Since we know without doubt that a violent crime has occurred as a result of which a woman is hanged, what remains is to understand the nature of the crime and the background to it. It is an unusual entry point to a murder mystery -- because there seems to be no mystery. And yet ... there is. Not only is it one that makes for compelling reading, it remains a mystery right till the very last page. And perhaps even beyond it.

The story is located in a small village in England and much of the action takes place during the war years, between the first and second, then into the second and ending somewhat after it. The exposition of the plot takes place at a slow but exceedingly precise pace, like a highly detailed tableau in cross-stitch. We are introduced in pairs and groupings to the members of an English middle-class family, with care taken to show to what precise degree each one is set off from their preferred locations on England's social scale and why. The story centres on two women, the aunt who is hanged at the beginning of the book, Vera Hallyard and her younger sister Eden.

There is a powerful sense of place and the author's absolute understanding of social niceties pickled in time, even as she reveals them in transition. Whereas our murderers of today are often presented as psychotic freaks, the woman at the heart this story is neither a psychotic, nor a freak. Just an unfortunate being, trapped in the amber of her situation, unable to break out of it, unable to bear it. In her desperate condition, we might all glimpse a mirror of so many familiar family situations -- the kindly uncle who slopes into alcoholism, the beautiful cousin who throws away all her chances for a worthless swain, the chance encounter that reveals a vast clanking machinery of hidden passion that was undreamt of till that moment.

It's not the kind of book that will be found in bookshops, but it was in the British Council Library in Madras -- and that, of course, was why I HAD to finish it all in one desperate day, ending bleary-eyed but hugely satisfied at 4.15 a.m.! Fortunately my flight was scheduled for the afternoon and I had 12 hours left in which to gather my wits and return to Delhirium.

Ah yes -- and I also managed to visit my favourite little bookshop, the well-loved, the one-and-only GIGGLES of Connemara Hotel. The owner, Nalini Chettur, is famous for her ability to assess a reader's tastes, always managing to offer up delicacies for each individual's reading needs. She does a great line in coffee and conversation too, so I came away from my encounter feeling well-stuffed besides being laden down with EIGHT books. Two I have despatched without much amusement, but they were ones that I asked for, not offered by Nalini: ARABAT by Clive Barker and ERAGON by Christopher Paolini -- the latter was much vaunted, as its author was 15 when he wrote it. However it doesn't(I'm still reading it) hold my interest, despite a fetching dragon on the cover. The former, about a young girl's adventures in a mysterious OtherSpace called The Arabat simply didn't(I've stopped reading it) hold my attention beyond the first six chapters being neither magical nor well-written enough for me. *shrug* Guess I don't share tastes with the millions of readers who made this a coast-to-coast bestseller in the US.

The others are much more promising. Two by Henry Petroski, who writes marvellous essays on design: SMALL THINGS CONSIDERED and PUSHING THE LIMITS; a Desmond Morris with all the usual pop-sexy trivia: THE NAKED WOMAN; Umberto Eco with ON BEAUTY; MAY CONTAIN NUTS edited by Michael Rosen, a compendium of USAnian humour pieces and THE FULL CUPBOARD OF LIFE by Alexander McCall Smith about our favourite Botswana Detective, Mma Ramotswe. I will report on them as I read 'em, though of course the Eco and Morris are really sort of picture books and won't yield much in the way of reading.

And as for Bartimaeus ... not now, Kato, not now!

Friday, October 22, 2004

Gator Grabbing

Well today I picked up a Nalligator. Yep. A two-year old female, all of two feet long, with the dearest little paws and diminutive ridges all down her scaly back and a smooth-as-silk underbelly and the tiniest, darlingest wee set of razor-sharp teeth you ever saw ...

Yes, it's true, I am a gator-grabber. Actually, a general reptile-fancier, though I'm not brave enough to go running after wrigglies in the wild. But show me a hand-reared, farm-bred beast and I'm ready to place my extremities at risk -- because, of course, there IS no risk, with a friendly, attractive handler standing around, holding the beastie by its neck and tail before placing it carefully in my hands.

This interesting event occurred this afternoon at Madras's Crocodile Bank, a well-known tourist attraction started by Rom Whitaker and his (ex)wife Zai. They also started the equally well-known Madras Snake Park. I've been to the Croc Farm before and watched the snake-venom extraction and gawped at their (now) 16-foot Salt Water Croc, the largest of the world's crocodillian (sp?) species some of which grow upto 25 feet. But this was the first time I ever had a hands-on encounter. There was a rather fetching Green Iguana too, with skin the colour of moss and the texture of a very sturdy foot-scraper. I would have liked to get up close and cuddly to the gharials but our charming guide, a personal friend of my niece's, assured us that despite their impossibly dainty-looking jaws -- they look like a pair of pencil leads equipped with double rows of inch-long sharp white teeth tacked onto standard-issue crocodillian head and body -- they can do damage when provoked. Of course, human beings are not their average prey so they'd much rather run and hide when faced by one of us, except when defending a nest, whereupon they might stand their ground and wave their snaggle-toothed snouts threateningly in our direction.

While we watched, we saw a wading bird -- a Lesser Heron, I think -- actually snatch a fish out of the water not five inches away from a lurking gharial. And what did our ferocious aquatic predator do? Nada, that's what. No wonder they're on the endangered list! They can't even confront a Lesser Heron, for gosh sakes, how will they ever face the challenge of sharing a planet with the Supreme Predator of All -- i.e., us?

While at the Crocodile Farm, it was hard to ignore the several herds of Supreme Predator Familiensis. I have grown so misanthropic that when I see children dangling close to crocodile-pits, my one instinct is to push them in. Words such as "culling", "extermination" and "triage" come to mind -- nasty words, such as might be encountered only under extreme conditions like war and genocide -- but when one witnesses the rate at which our species is reproducing, surely we have to realize that these ARE extreme conditions? Catastrophic reproduction, spreading squirmy, greasy human duckweed across the face of our once beautiful water-planet ...

Okay, time to stop. Gotta suppress my demons and go to sleep -- ah, speaking of demons: I did promise to write an appreciation of BARTIMAEUS didn't I? But not tonight.

Sunday, October 17, 2004


For the past week, I've been in Madras in the bosom of my family. I do love being 'home' -- it isn't home in any sense except that my Mother lives here and also in the sense that I don't have any other plausible base -- but I am also strangely transformed when I am surrounded by my nearest and dearest. For instance, I found I couldn't blog while I was sharing this room with my sister and niece, even though we are all self-contained and have no difficulty leaving the others alone while we pursue our various private obsessions. I could, for instance, play URU's expansion packs while my sister complained about my lack of manners/taste/sense -- but blogging? No, I couldn't do that.

Lots of interesting things seen and done. It is so curious to be immersed in multiple streams of consciousness. For instance, in the past week, one of the on-going stories concerns a young first-cousin-once-removed (i.e., the offspring of a first cousin), a girl. There's a long, complex story involved but this week's episode saw this eighteen year-old of divorced parents choosing to leave the comfort and security of her grandparents' home to live with her largely-absentee (so far) mother. What has amazed and saddened several observers is that by doing this, the girl seems bent on destroying her chance at going to college (the grandparents begged of her to wait till she'd got a degree before leaving their care -- she'd already had one month in the hostel, and had started attending classes) in favour of a mother who has never been able to hold down a job and who has no independent means of support. Yet from her point, this lady is her MOM and certainly in the eyes of most outside observers, a mother's bond with a child can never be substituted by any other agency, however well-intentioned.

Of course there are many more twists and complexities, but at the heart of the story is the question: is a parent/child bond really all that sacred? Is there too much sentiment riding on these issues? Of course each individual will have his or her own perspective, based on his or her own experience of life. My own view is that the girl is making an idiotic mistake but then ... that's just me. I find emotional/sentimental resolutions unnerving and irritating, but apparently most humans thrive on them.

Another weird point that I find myself contemplating when I am surrounded by family, and thus living in a psycho-social bath of personal-histories streaming away on every side -- couplings, recouplings, replications, terminations, renewals, reversals, tragedies, triumphs -- a rather unfortunate thought keeps recurring: that at least from the point of view of the traditional world, having daughters really IS a drag. Isn't this a ghastly realization to have? But really, when I hear several variations upon the theme of people who beget daughters, then keep them contained in tiny, air-tight containers, then shatter into vicious little fragments when the daughter -- god curse her hormones! -- succumbs to evolutionary forces and gets preggers ... well, from the point of view of such people -- who represent apparently the over-whelming mass of the world -- a daughter is a blue-chip liability. But it's not because of anything inherently nasty about the female condition; it's the inability of human society to cope with the realities of reproduction. A very carefully plotted, cunningly maintained and ferociously defended form of extreme stupidity.

Aside from these disturbing ideas ... I can report that the most interesting read I've had in a while has been the first two books of the BARTIMAEUS TRILOGY, by Jonathan Stroud. Utterly delicious. When I am feeling strong enough (in a day or two) I will post a long appreciation.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

A Minor Whine

The other day, I took a short walk out of the gated colony in which I live, to the nearby market. As I approached the back-gate, a man passing within a few feet of me, turned his face to one side, away from me, and spat.

Let me be clear: I knew he wasn't spitting AT me; he was small-built and spare, shorter than me, wearing a workman's grimy pajamas and thin vest, dark-skinned, black-haired, moustachioed. He might have been a carpenter or day-labourer. Such a person, typically, is brought up to feel he doesn't have the right to look directly at someone like me, and so he doesn't. Yet I knew that the spitting action was in some way related to my presence on the street, because it's a gesture I've seen many times: a quick, sideways voiding of bodily waste, by men and sometimes women too, who spit as an instinctive response to feeling discomfort.

It's really not a big deal, because it happens all the time. The only difference, perhaps, on this occasion, was that I was still under the spell of New York. I had not yet zipped up my custom-designed invisi-lenses which protect me from sights I'd rather not see while out on the streets here. So I noticed the gesture more than I normally would, more than I WILL, in a few weeks from now, when it will have become so routine that I will no longer pay attention to it. It got me thinking about the way it makes me feel to know that my sheer presence can cause another human being to feel the need to void a little body fluid.

It was not because of anything particular in my personal appearance -- actually it probably had very little to do with me personally. It was a generic response to something unfamiliar or unexpected. Maybe my presence there on the back-lane, en route to the back-gate took that young labourer by surprise. Maybe my hair was a little too short or my blouse a little too bright a shade of red for his taste. Whatever it was, the sight of me triggered a response. I am sure the man would be astonished to hear that I (a) noticed his action (b) thought twice about it. Because another feature of the exchange, if I can call it that, was that it was supposed to pass unnoticed. I don't believe the labourer intended me to notice his action, and it's even possible that I'm simply over-reacting to something that had nothing to do with me. He had a need to spit, I happened to pass by at that precise moment, and so when he spat, I imagined it was on account of me.

Except that it happens routinely. At any time, when I am walking around in a public place, it can happen that someone passing by me -- a cyclist, an autorickshaw driver -- turns his head to one side and spits.

Most of the time, it's true, I screen it out of my mind. I'm sure that's a much more practical response. But this morning -- like I said, I wasn't wearing my mental shields -- I noticed and reacted (privately) to the incident. I mean: whether or not the gesture is aimed AT me, surely it has to remind me that I am not a valid or acceptable feature of the environment in which I live? Surely it is a hostile act?

The moment the exchange occurred, I became conscious of a number of things: that I was bigger than the man; that I occupied the middle of the lane; that I walked with the confidence of someone who felt it was my right to be in the middle of the lane, while he sidled along the margins; that very likely, in his view and in his society, women ought to walk with their heads modestly covered and perhaps their faces averted from men; that women over a certain age should not go around in bright red clothes; that women who don't wear clear and positive marks identifying their marital status (as I do not) are to be considered suspicious, and very likely of shady character; yet on the other hand, my gait and confident presence suggested that I could only be a resident of the colony, and therefore a member of that class to which this labourer would feel himself bound to show respect; that I live in a city where the overwhelming majority of my fellow citizens do not recognize me as being a member of their tribe, but an outsider in some fundamental way. An outsider to their idea of a decent and normal world.

It is very disorienting to return to what is supposed to be 'my country' and yet feel so utterly distanced from the people around me. Or -- to immediately amend that statement -- it ISN'T really disorienting at all: it is the norm of my experience and I usually don't notice it, or pay attention to this sensation, because it would take too much energy to keep on and on noticing it, and the only reason (I think) I reacted on this occasion is that I had just returned from being a foreigner in another city, where, by contrast, I felt entirely comfortable. No-one paid the least attention to me: I was neither more nor less visible than anyone else on the streets. What a privilege it was, to be invisible!

-- uh-oh -- the power's gone! Gotta post and exit --

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Return to Nude Elly*

*That was a favourite joke of mine, back in the days when I indulged in uninhibited, unprotected e-chats at the public boards at Rediff. The lively web-rats there would snuggle up with "ASL pliz?" and I would rattle back with: "43-F-Nude Elly" (I WAS 43, eight years ago) -- and that would crack them up coz they refused to believe that such dinosaurs could ever be found waddling about cyberspace and then they'd want to know where in the universe Nude Elly was ... I just told them to say it out loud.

Anyway, so here I am, returned after six thrilling weeks amongst the skies and scrapers of NYC.

Flew back on the national carrier. I wish I could report that it was really no different to any other airline -- because I like to be loyal, and one of my good friends is a top exec -- but ... it isn't. Never mind the behind-the-times seats (what??!! No bendy flaps on the head-rests? No foot-rests? No in-seat video screens? And NO, I was flying Economy, just like the rest of the cattle, on BA last year), what was not acceptable was the crust of dirt that lined the joint of the floor with the wall of the aircraft. No aircraft, however third-worldy, needs to actually LOOK dirty. I am sure they are all equally disgusting if picked apart with a fine toothed comb, but I am no fine-toothed comb, and I rarely notice dirt unless I trip over it. This was of the 100% can't-miss variety.

Not only that, but a passenger two seats ahead of me suddenly leapt up in the manner of a young woman who has been accosted by an animal I will only refer to here as a C-Roach(because I hate to acknowledge their existence). I mean, I guessed from the way she became briefly airborne what her problem was and then, a moment later, heard her exclaiming to her equally young companion -- they were both in their early nineteens, I'd guess -- "Did you see the SIZE of the thing?" No other creature elicits such a response, so I KNEW. Another passenger, sitting in the seat in front of theirs began swatting at the ticketless traveller with a newspaper, and apparently succeeded in subduing it with extreme prejudice. Then a senior airhostess sauntered by and when the girls (Indian, but UK-based, from accent and acreage of skin on view) complained about their six-legged companion, had a hearty laugh! The young passengers were NOT amused and demanded change of seat, restitution of bug-free rights, ticket-refund, etc.

Aside from this, there were no incidents worth reporting. Oh a passenger appeared to have lost his wife to the Shopping Arena, during the 20 minute stop-over in London -- but I didn't hang around to witness the resolution of this situation, because by then one of the child passengers with an over-active voice box was experiencing a major seizure and it took all of my energy to tune out the sound. I read somewhere that a baby crying is second only to a jet-engine taking off in the decibel department and it was certainly easy to believe. There's a lot of money to be made for the inventor of a device that mutes the sound of a crying infant -- I have in mind a sound-proof globe that fits over a child's head, with a safety light to alert the parent to the fact of a crying fit in progress -- after all, there may be, in rare cases, some genuine reason for the vocalizing.

Seven hours later, I was back in the capital city of our glorious republic. The immigration process has been speeded up and customs is no longer interested in laptops, so it was a mere 40-minute breeze-through to the arrival lounge where E was waiting to collect me. My cell-phone had chirped to life the moment I turned it on in the Immigration Q -- and we'd been chatting about how long the baggage was taking to appear. Oh what a relief not be on the US cellular networks, bleeding dollars with every second of phone-time! Really, someone should rescue the World's Only (remaining) Super Power from the clutches of third-rate cellphone service providers with their year-long contracts, inflexible payment options and scanty coverage.

Ahh ... but that's all behind me for the moment. Hello Hutch! Goodbye Sprint! And goodnight to you all, goodnight.