Monday, October 30, 2006

Am i an islamophobe?

Some of my favourite people in the world are Muslim. In my early teens, as an aspiring cricketer, my greatest source of inspiration was the fiery power of Imran Khan. In those days, I did not begrudge Pakistan its victories over India, as long as my hero had done well. There were times I wished I were Muslim, in the hope that a shared faith might result in shared ability. Since then, I’ve sought and found both warmth and love amongst Muslims, some of whom I count amongst my dearest friends. And yet...

It was a rare day this ‘autumn in New York’. Bright sunshine and Bach accompanied me to Journal Square where I boarded a train for what is still called ‘The World Trade Center’. I was distressed. The Jolie-Pitts were shooting for ‘A Mighty Heart’ in Pune, and I was too far away to honour whatever press invitations might’ve come my way (and you better believe there were some). After all, what is a Features Editor worth if he can’t feature ‘The Features’. More disturbingly, I had stayed up all of previous night watching a documentary about the abduction and murder of Daniel Pearl, and some of the footage was so distressing that I couldn’t sleep. I’ve always taken pride in being a liberal pacifist, and yet the collage of bearded faces creased with hate, the rising crescendo of “Allahu Akbar,” praise of the Lord demonised into a war chant, churned deep dark thoughts. In that bigoted moment, it was so easy to believe that every Muslim was a fire-breathing kafir slayer and so difficult to imagine any of them as loving fathers, doting husbands, dutiful sons or remotely human beings. I tossed and turned in my sleep struggling with the images and my convictions to the contrary.

The train started moving, and away from the darkness, in the buzz and bustle of the world’s busiest city, the thoughts seemed to fade away. But soon there was to be a test – a test I was to fail. At the next station, a young Arab entered the car. He had a heavy satchel across his shoulder and a book with Arabic inscriptions in his hand. Pairs of hitherto drowsy eyes watched, some with curiosity, others with disdain, even loathing, and I with interest that changed imperceptibly into apprehension, fear and worse. Thoughts of the previous night came screaming back. Memories of 9/11, 7/7 and the the man’s religious fervour, all seemed to suggest to my fevered brain that the man might’ve anointed us all for mass martyrdom. I got up, admonishing little voices in my head that tried to remind me that I was committing the very sins I’d condemned, and got off the train at the very next stop. “Better be guilty and safe than sorry and dead,” I told the voices but they grew louder still, driving me to shame and admiration. Shame, because I could not bear the thought of having betrayed my own beliefs and in many ways, the faith of my friends. And admiration for the millions of peaceful Muslims in the world, who repeatedly forgive the rest of the world for chaining them to the crimes of a deviant few, without compromising on their values as Muslims, and more significantly, as human beings. I owe that unknown Arab, and every such Muslim an apology, as I do to Pakistani New Yorkers like Tariq, who’ve welcomed me into their hearts, blind to the momentary prejudice that had wrought havoc with my beliefs. Students and friends, apologies, for having forsaken, albeit for a moment, all that I’d preached. Steadfast faith in the divine essence of every faith can truly make angels, if not gods, of human beings, for it cultivates forgiveness. Like in the grieving Amish, who forgave the very man who killed their daughters, by including the killer and his family in their prayers. To hate is not human, but to forgive surely divine; and may whatever powers that be give us the courage to forgive and douse the fire of hate in an ocean of unconditional forgiveness. Christ said it, Gandhi repeated it; and for the sake of ourselves, let’s live it.

The bullet and the cheek

Myriad are the manifestations of faith. While it makes for some stentorian expression in cruel bombings amidst innocent civilians in some cases, it barely stymies a lump in the throat with its generous tolerance of the most devilish delinquency. When Charles Carl Roberts storms into a one-room schoolhouse in the Amish neighbourhood of Lancaster County to pump bullets into little girls barely out of 10 years of their lives, one would imagine no ‘faith’ to come to the sympathy of the desperado, not even on his death. But the ‘backlash’ from this minority sect of Christianity – the Amish – has been one that restores humanity the quintessential virtue known to every faith on the planet: Forgiveness.

Be it reports of one of the schoolgirls ‘offering’ herself before others for the murderous mission or the local Reverend’s statement that they “will do anything that (we) can to make her life better” on behalf of the community sharing the grief of Roberts’ widow, the bewildering gestures are just a way of life of the Amish. With the Anabaptists (as the Amish are called), turning the other cheek is not an inspiration from some latest movie, but another way of reminding and reinforcing their distinction from the ‘other’ world. What remains to be seen is which part reaches out for the other, first…


Monday, October 23, 2006

Setting sail...

...for the Cape of Good Hope

Maybe Africa just isn’t ‘hot’. Who cares if Somalia is disintegrating by the day? Who cares that it is difficult to walk through parts of Darfur, Sudan, without stepping on dismembered limbs, split skulls and bits & pieces of the dead or the dying, and who cares if the beautiful green forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo are splattered everyday with the blood of more than a thousand people in a conflict that has claimed 4 million lives in less than a decade? Then again, who really cares if the World Health Organisation bleats plaintively that AIDS could wipe off almost a quarter of Africa’s beleaguered population?

Bet you didn’t see any of that getting past news about a war-mongering president, a paedophiliac Congressman and India’s brush with Hollywood in therapy either in print or on TV the past week. And why would you? Perhaps there just isn’t enough there to ‘oil’ the humanitarian machinery. Funny, how weapons of mass destruction demand more attention than just mere mass destruction.

It would not do for the world to forget about Africa as it gathers bone dust. From Sudan to Zimbabwe and Ethiopia to Liberia, it is the same story of mindless tribal violence, corrupt, despotic leadership, starvation and disease and general international apathy. It is a sad travesty of fate that the cradle of human evolution seems to have got little rewards for its labours. Africa seems both blessed and cursed with nature’s bounties. From ebola and elephants to fruits and famines, Africa had it all, and in plenty. Enslavement, civil war, genocides and horrific epidemics, the continent has endured all with the resilience of the very rocks that herald its presence. And yet, the ordeal persists.

Imperialism, freedom, democracy and dictatorship have all failed in most of Africa. It is almost as if the Continent has lost faith; faith in its ability to cope with challenges, faith in the ability of Africans to find solutions and faith in faith itself. Even in Kenya and some other relatively stable states, democracy and civil rights have been as ethereal as the morning mist in the Sahara. Christians and Muslims, Negroids and Arabs, tribes and clans, brutal rebels and ruthless governments, all routinely indulge in the orgies of mutual massacre.

Yet, it is faith and spirituality that could ultimately rescue Africa from the precipice of destruction, towards which the continent seems to be hurtling at breakneck speed. Not just individual or local faith in tradition (like Voodoo and other animistic beliefs) or other great religions, but a faith born out of spiritual awakening is rooted in the spirit of Africa. Whether the religion is adopted or indigenous isn’t as important as the fact that it has to connect with the African thought and then provide spiritual inspiration and direction, thus resulting in a concerted social and therefore political movement that will help Africa mature through democracy, economic growth and African brotherhood. Africa has bled enough. This suffering must end. The UN will do what it can, but it’s time you and I, dear reader got together to do our bit. Contribute funds, volunteer services to heroic organisations like Doctors Without Borders, and if there are other wounds that seek your healing touch, go ahead, tend to them first. But remember that our ivory towers will crumble, sooner than later, if the gale force of human suffering continues to beat against our door and the magnitude of Africa’s suffering is greatest of all. Africa needs a miracle and it is up to us to work it out.

A matter of choice

Triumph of good over evil is a thought visited very few times a year; during festivals, in between binge and bluster, when suddenly we can’t seem to recollect the reason to the fanciful fervour. That’s a statement we’re heard repeating to ourselves – and others – loud and clear. It doesn’t seem to matter at other times when we blithely turn a blind eye to the pursuit of evil or deferentially remain indifferent to its equivalent in the civilised world war.

It’s somewhat disappointing to note how, despite a-book-a-faith preaching about love and tolerance, greater curiosity lies with the 6th century treatise on warfare, penned by Sun Tzu. Chapters uniquely dedicated to the art of trouncing the enemy, The Art of War – having found followers in myriad fields – claims to not even mandate physical combat necessary in the craft. What match in comparison is The Art of Loving by Eric Fromm? Sublime thoughts on the human heart and its default settings of love and compassion, it is still looking to be picked by those other than the romantics. In Jimi Hendrix’s words, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”…


Monday, October 16, 2006

My pound of flesh...

Deconstructing the meatrix...

Flight CO083. Destination: New York. Time: Somewhere between 1 am New York time and 11 am New Delhi time, a couple of hundred vertigo-inducing miles over Greenland, a uniformed matron in a Mohawk (apparently they call ‘em hostesses up here), who looked like she just got fired from her job as a warden for delinquent kids, asks me if I’d like a vegetarian snack or eggs instead. Strengthened by a surprisingly strong gust of early morning integrity, the struggling vegetarian in me settled for the former. But lo and behold, lurking in the corner, behind a row of beans lay the evil temptress, a mouth-wateringly sweet-smelling sausage. A casanova in the nunnery would not have known greater temptations of the flesh than the seductions of that beenie baby... Whether Americans consider anything with vegetables, ‘vegetarian’, or did that drill sergeant in a skirt think I was too ‘brown’ to care, I’d never know , but to cut a long story short, my vow survives, for now.

For the record, I’m not really a vegetarian, nor have I ever been one. Not too long ago, I used to be a connoisseur of flesh… all kinds of flesh. From snails to whales, raw or rare, I was your man without a bone to spare. Consuming meat for strength and health, I would extol the virtues of meat eating to vegetarians, reminding them that we humans owed a great deal of our intellectual and physiological growth to the extra proteins of a meat-enriched diet, which perhaps was an evolutionary choice that wasn’t available to our fellow primates. Some of them would perhaps remember how I’d maintain that although I loved animals – and not just on a plate – I “owed it to my genes” to live off meat.

And yet, it’s been years that I’ve given up meat, though I still yearn for it on occasions. My ‘epiphany moment’ has nothing to do with the innumerable acts of cruelty perpetrated on our behalf by the meat industry on a variety of livestock from poultry to retired race horses and milk dry cows, or with the terrible toxins pumped into such livestock, which find their way into our blood streams and erupt as cancers. No, dear reader, the reason I urge you to consider vegetarianism has nothing to do with these ethical or medical issues, but with our fundamental desire for growth, development and freedom.

There isn’t a soul in this world who can truly claim to ‘live’ without being loved and the secret of being loved is to be able to give without need, to be able to serve without want, to be self sustained and therefore truly free. By this, I do not mean to ask you to sacrifice your desires for the sake of others, but to simply remind you of the axiom that service for returns begets profit, while service without, love. But true service can only begin when we are ready to give away and not just share resources. From Christ to Krishna, Gandhi to Mother Teresa and from Che Guevara to Jane Goodall, they are all loved by those who loved them because they gave off themselves, free from the shackles of needing anything at all, but simply spiritual expression in return. There are many other hallmark examples of individuals who have exhibited such remarkable freedom in their lives, and whose tales I’ll pleasurably share with you in issues to come, but for now, at least, it is fair enough to know even this that the path to freedom and love surely cannot go through an abattoir, where others die to keep me alive.

Weaned on the green

The dilemma that self-proclaimed vegetarians often find themselves in, is described best in the hilarious scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. John Corbett, at his in-laws, declares he’s a vegetarian, to which one of the many Greek aunts spontaneously offers, “That’s OK. I’ll make lamb!” The vegetarian platter and its crunchy greens may not exactly match up to the succulent snacks made out of knifing life, but nutritionally, there’s enough and more.

Tofu: Commonly called bean curd, Tofu is to soy milk what paneer is to cow milk. If proteins are your excuse to dig into non-veg, Tofu is sufficiently stuffed with those, minus the curse of cholesterol. For appetiser, main course, or accompaniments…

Fruits and Nuts: Fresh or dried, fruits are nature’s sweetmeats that are deliciously filling, any time of the day. Avocados to pistachios, bananas to raisins… healthy options that would bear ‘fruit’ for a long and healthy life to come.

Milk: More than half the numbers of sinewed stars internationally have been caught soaking up on steroids, but the traditional strong men of India – the pehelwans – will tell you that a diet rich in milk is all it takes! And tell the lobbies to go after the colas…


Monday, October 9, 2006


A toad’s ode for a god called religion...

It’s a strange dance in the ball of civilisations. Muslim and Christian theocrats and worse, each claiming representation for their respective faiths and its followers, locked in an awkward waltz, each stepping on the other’s toes, out of spite, or perhaps inspite of their best intentions. From paper lampoonery to papal flippancy, the west has been guilty of, amongst other things, being insensitive to the plight of its own constituents more vulnerably placed than they. Now that ideologues have been reduced to demagogues and the dance has regressed into an old fashioned scrap for souls, the spate of conversions amongst white and mixed race Christians on both sides of the Atlantic has set alarm bells ringing. And in the wake of Don Stewart-Whyte’s pursuit of an overly simplistic solution to the world’s woes and his own complexes, it seems understandable.

Islam’s allure stems from its unique ability to liberate through dogma. By offering a detailed socio-moral blueprint for spiritual attainment, it seemingly answers all questions asked by its ‘believers’ thus becoming a spiritual spectre that provides both strength and sanctuary. But it is a ‘total solution’ which demands ‘total surrender’, consequently lending itself to abuse.

While recent ‘Allah or the sword’ type conversions in Iraq have done little to assuage western apprehensions over what many perceive to be Islam’s medieval sensibilities, worlds on either side of a mosque wall have been served well by those that were not born into the religion but embraced it later. Muhammad Assad, the Jewish born raconteur, introduced the West to the honest beauty of Islam through his spiritually evocative treatise – The Road to Mecca. In the 1950s black supremacist Malcolm X, converted to Islam and railed and rallied against the ‘White devil’ and his white god. But a trip to Mecca had a profound effect on the firebrand leader and a much softened Malcolm declared to all who’d listen “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I am a human being first and foremost, and… I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”

Religion perhaps wasn’t meant to be something one is born into. Maybe, it is best if each soul chooses its own spiritual path like one does a vocation, depending on the individual’s spiritual needs, and the stage of life, for not every Muslim is a Muslim in equal measure, and the same is true for a Christian, a Hindu or any other believer. In fact, almost every great religious leader practiced a faith he wasn’t born into and perhaps mankind would’ve been better served if we’d followed their example more than just (what we’re told are) their words. Like Idris Shah, the great Sufi poet once said “The way of the Sufi is not to get bogged down in believing that one religion or philosophy is the truth, but to develop an openness that frees us to be able to reconcile opposing ideas.” The world, until it learns to love without the shadow of hate, will keep clinging to its need for hate, whether it is Imperialism, or its enemies, Nazism, or its enemies, Communism, or its enemies, or a religion, or its enemies. It will keep looking for a reason to hate a distant foe so that it can love an immediate neighbour. Until mankind learns to love without cause or hate, it will find its reasons for war, either in holy books or in unholy intentions

The Sufi spin!

Mystique of the whirling dervishes ...unravelled

In certain parts of the world at least, if you don’t like going round and round in circles, you won’t get very far. Maoulana Jalaluddin Rumi was not a subcontinental bureaucrat but a great 13th century Persian Sufi mystic, remembered for the profound beauty of his poetry and music, who founded the order of the Mevelevi, the whirling dervishes who dance in circles to reach out to the divine. Popularly known as sema, the dervish dance has become an icon of psycho-spiritual mysticism and is especially popular along the Mediterranean coast from Turkey to Tunisia.

The dervishes dance themselves into a into blur till they collapse and then their mind enters a deep meditative state, where they seem to be in communion with divinity. The frenzied whirling of the dervishes apparently unleashes the energy trapped in the body’s energy centres and bestows great virility and vigour. Similar practices also find mention in ancient Tibetan health manuals which, claim the lamas, can reverse the ageing process. Try the Sema, and for all you know, your meditation in motion might just uncork the fountain of youth.