Sunday, May 27, 2007

Bovine banter and upper stuff!

A strange dream, perhaps at the hour before dawn: The house seemed to quake in its foundations, shaken by what seemed like a freight train rolling right overhead. Rushing toward the courtyard and the sound, I climbed atop the high wall overlooking the narrow lane between the twin row of houses. It was a sight out of Kevin Costner’s epic Western, Dances with Wolves – particularly the scene where the prairies reverberated to the beat of thousands of hooves beating down on the shaken earth as the great herds of ‘buffalo’ thundered into the Sioux hunting grounds. Here below me, for as far as the eye could spy, charging through the narrow lanes of this south Delhi block where I live were cows, hundreds, maybe thousands of them, running, jostling and mooing, black and white, brown and grey, running away from a great force that seemed to usher them on toward their destiny. For what seemed like eternity, this great herd crashed through this narrow lane, sending vibrations up the wall and through my very soul, as I clutched at the ledge, in fear and wonder until the beasts had passed. ‘Twas then that I saw the straggler – a beautiful cow, in the prime of her life, or perhaps just past. Unlike those before her, she was not charging down but seemed to be looking for something. She lowered her head and tried to butt open the door of the house opposite. The lock held firm. The animal moved next door. I could see the sharp point of the left horn strike the aluminium sheet of the door repeatedly and leave it looking like a legionnaire’s battle weary shield that had seen its last bit of jousting. Thwarted by the barrier, the animal, now almost desperate, trotted ahead, stopped, swung in the opposite direction and rushed toward our gate – a flimsy wooden portal that just about managed to keep up a barely respectable appearance. I knew it would give way in no time to the cow’s persuasions and so I jumped down the wall, bolted across the yard into the house and closed the heavy iron door. I could feel the sharp horns poking at the door on the other side. Through the narrow space between the heavy door and the hinges, a musky bovine odour wafted in and I could catch the glint of a moist eye, surprisingly gentle, peering in. She kept poking for a while. Then she looked at me through the gap and in a gentle, human voice, said “Don’t let them take me away. They’re taking me away!” Stunned…, I asked where?, almost in disbelief. She said “To Kolkata!” Kolkata?! Memories came flooding back. As a child, at my grand uncle’s place on Linton street in Kolkata, I remember looking through the window one evening at cattle being herded along the road, goaded along by their minders. My eyes followed the large herd, trotting away into a smog obscured sunset, alongside hand-pulled rickshaws, yellow cabs and the odd tram. “Kaat teh niye jachhe, khoka! (Taking them to be slaughtered, kid!)”, the maid had said, even as I woke up.

The previous day, Elke, an exchange student from Austria had asked an awkward question. An outright activist, she was appalled about the manner we seemed to treat our ‘holy cows’, having seen them on the streets, eating garbage and worse, carrying ugly scars from battles with rush hour traffic. I recounted a story by the delightful James Herriot about a small-time farmer whose favorite milch cow had become too old for yielding another drop of milk. After the tradition of the day and borough, the farmer, though loathe to do so, sold his cow to the butcher. On the appointed day, the butcher took the old dame away. The disconsolate farmer watched his dear Daisy (or some such name he called her by) on her way toward becoming some stranger’s steak and the shoes of his children. The sad farmer was pining the evening away, when he heard a noise, like that of wood being dragged over the gravel path that led to his farm. As he approached the gate, in burst Daisy, a wooden stake dangling from the rope around her neck. The butcher, unamused, came in the next day and took her away. But come evening, Daisy is back again. With tears in his eyes and a smile on his lips, our farmer returns the money to the butcher, now crimson with consternation and Daisy lives out the rest of her days in peace. I told Elke that while the English farmer was an exception that proved the European rule, many if not most Indian farmers who are far poorer, would do the same. The only reason our streets double up as bovine country clubs is because other farmers, though unwilling to tend to a commercially worthless animal, forego the opportunity to make one last buck off their animals and turn them loose instead. Which option is more cruel to the animal is debateable, but it is undeniable that an Indian farmer, though poorer than his European counterpart, for reasons of faith if not compassion, refuses to profit from the death of an animal that served him for most of its adult life.

The moral, if I may say however isn’t about not eating beef or about worshipping cows. Such matters are and should remain, matters of personal choice. Yet, is it too much to ask of a civilized race that we take care of those who take care of us, be they parents, pets, retainers or perhaps even a creature that has carried the yoke of civilization on its shoulders or nourished it with her life-blood flowing through her udders, especially in their hour of need. “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” said a wise old man from Porbandar. The world hasn’t ever been riper for all and more of this wise old man’s words.


Sunday, May 20, 2007

A bedtime story from hell

Breendonk is like a blotch of dark dried blood on the canvas of time. Usually not on the radar of travellers passing through Europe, Breendonk is hidden away behind the shimmering lights of Brussels and Antwerp. While travelling on the highway between the two cities, Antonio – a Belgian of Portuguese descent and a dear friend – pointed out the forbidding walls of Breendonk, Europe’s smallest WWII concentration camp. The Holocaust and its enormity is often lost on non-Europeans, perhaps because an Indian like me reads about death and destruction in some corner of his world every day. He is perhaps justified in being a bit blasé about a genocide that is more than half a century old. However, Antonio insisted and under the cold gray skies, I entered the cold, gray concrete walls and was struck by the macabre morbidity of this ‘hell called Breendonk’.

On September 20, 1940, Fort Breendonk, under German occupation, received its first prisoners. More of a transit camp, hundreds of bruised and battered Jews and Belgian resistance fighters huddled against these walls before being carted away to the horrific death dungeons of Auschwitz in Poland. But Breendonk always exacted its pound of flesh, often literally. Hundreds – beaten, tortured and starved to death. I could almost hear the heavy boots on cobbled stone, the cries of “Heil Hitler!” and tortured screams echoing against these narrow walls. I witnessed torture chambers where man tore man, limb from limb, because there was nothing to make his morale fall in an environment where cruel intentions received communal sanction. I realised that in the lives we share in India, there are no shrines to the dead of Godhra and Gujarat, to the Sikhs of Delhi and in Kolkata, to the victims of the great Kolkata killing to remind us that here too, man often fell as low, if not lower. In each of these cities, like in Breendonk, people – like you and me, and a number of them – blinded by blood lust, deaf to the wails of women, and the pitiful cries of little children in mortal pain, bathed in an orgy of bloodletting. Bound like Fernand Wijss, a popular 21 year old athlete, transformed by the war into a cruel, ruthless camp guard, who beat, mutilated and killed detainees at Breendonk. Patriots, communists and Jews were welcomed to Breendonk by Wijss, who declared ‘This is hell and I am the devil!’. And the devil he was, for at his trial after the war, he claimed “I was only motivated by the love of violence.”

Remorseless and undaunted, he was unmoved and unaffected when the courts sentenced him to death. Much like Eugene Raess, a 22 year old carpenter, who became a member of the Flemish SS (Schutzstaffel – Protective Squadron) and was known to particularly enjoy torturing prisoners in Breendonk. After the war, Raess was convicted of war crimes and was singing SS songs even as he was being sentenced. These young men, as motivated as they were cruel, were driven and desensitized by propaganda that corrupted hitherto disfranchised people like Wijss and Raess with power and a false sense of purpose. Wijss and Raess were no different from the young men and women of today who strap themselves to a bomb in search of martyrdom, glory and the same false sense of purpose.

Men like Wijss and Raess will continue to destroy their world and their souls till we can build a society which is prepared, to its last individual, to question its dogmas and understand what is good and most importantly, has the moral courage to withstand suffering. It isn’t easy as Marcel de Saffel and Kapo Walter Obler discovered. Marcel, a journalist who once wrote against Mussolini’s fascism was arrested by the Nazis and given a choice – he could ‘co-operate’ with the Nazis against his countrymen or he could face the fate of an ‘enemy of the regime’. De Saffel cooperated and how, by beating and brutalizing inmates at Breendonk. When tried as a war criminal, de Saffel was the one of the rare few to repent and ask for forgiveness. Obler was a poor Jew who loved the opera. Arrested and brought to Breendonk, Obler became a work supervisor and shocked even the Jew hating Nazi Commander with the severe beatings he inflicted on his fellow Jews. Many died, broken and mangled under his truncheon. Unlike Wijss and Raess and like many amongst us, Obler and de Saffel knew the right path, but just did not have the courage to walk on that path.

Courage of the kind that a little known man, Mark Angel lives by and demonstrates everyday. I read about Mark, an American salvage diver, in a magazine, that spoke of an incident in Oregon, where he dove into the depths of a river with a broken leg in search of a 17 year old girl who had drowned. He dove again and again in search of the girl till he pulled her out. Although he lost thousands of dollars worth of equipment and suffered painful injuries, he did not accept payment for this task.

In an ordinary world, where Wijss, Raess and the devils that manipulate them lurk in every corner, the world would become a better place if more of us could muster courage like that of Mark Angel.


Sunday, May 13, 2007

In defence of oedipus

Middle school: A mid-summer day. The exciting discovery of a magazine lying carelessly on top of a stack secreted away in a friend’s elder brother’s room. The magazine, under the unashamedly flimsy veneer of being a lifestyle magazine, was, in those days (when you could put the net in the surf but not surf the net), the first introduction to the ways of the birds and the bees for many oat-popping young Indians. Leafing through this brave new world, in mock horror, masking wide eyed wonder, I remember reading the word I-N-C-E-S-T for the first time. Years later, in college, as a student of literature, that terrible word encroached upon the collective sensibilities of the class as the works of D.H. Lawrence, Sophocles and that 16-year-old who forgot to grow up (and thank God for people like him!) – Sigmund Freud – came up for discussion. It was a difficult subject to discuss, and not just with teachers, because unlike other subjects pertaining to sexuality, this was taboo even amongst friends. Once, misled by unfounded rumours that I wasn’t all that bad with literary interpretation, a junior did seek my opinion on the subject. I remember saying that while I ‘understood’ why Gertrude and her sons were tied together by a cord more Oedipal than umbilical, it obviously wasn’t right. Not for reasons of morality, but biology. Nature has created safeguards against inbreeding in both the animal and the plant world, because such alliances compound genetic weaknesses and defects. Young males and young seeds are both driven away by the contrivances of nature from family groups across the food chain. Human cultures too mirror this taboo by drawing up various complicated equations of endogamy and exogamy to avoid ‘incestuous’ alliances.

Although Freud has argued that incestuous love is one of the prime human motivators and we merely transpose our incestuous lust by seeking a mother/father figure in our partners, a lesser known contemporary of his – Finnish anthropologist, philosopher and sociologist Edvard Westermarck – propounded the Westermarck effect, that claimed that children raised together, especially till the critical age of 3-4 years, irrespective of whether they are related or not, build a psychological resistance to sexual intimacy between them. Look around you, and chances are that you’ll see the world tipping the balance in favour of the Finn. Who knows, maybe even the ‘seven year itch’ is but a latent manifestation of the same phenomenon. Incest, of course, is the new (out?) rage, because a German citizen, Patrick Stubing and his sister, Susan Karlowski (who also happens to be his lover and the mother of his four children) are fervently lobbying to have Germany’s incest laws repealed, because the brother-sister couple wants to live together as man and wife. Stubing is not alone, for an article in The Guardian once talked about a number of individuals who felt an intense sexual attraction for a sibling,

a parent or an offspring. Interestingly enough, just like Stubing, these individuals had no early contact with the object of their affection, because one or the other had been given up for adoption during that critical period. Barbara Gonyo, one of the individuals interviewed, admitted to having lusted for her 26-year-old son, who she had given up for adoption while he was a baby. It was while searching for the root of this strong and overpowering emotion that swept her away when she was reunited with her son and she stumbled upon the idea of Genetic Sexual Attraction (GSA). GSA is a little known, but extremely common phenomenon, wherein blood relatives who did not see each or the other grow up, but met as adults, are drawn toward each other sexually. Humans are subconsciously attracted to physical/mental images similar to their own and ergo, a late reunion with a blood relative is likely to trigger an attraction due to the same principle. Nowadays, adoption agencies warn individuals about GSA, when approached by those who seek to locate their blood relatives.

There is nothing ‘icky’ about Stubing´s passion for his sister. The two are consenting adults, who fell in love as adults and it is unfair to brand them with the same mark that society reserves for depraved men like Virendra Kumar Mahoba, a Sub Divisional Magistrate, who is now on the run for repeatedly raping his daughter. While I maintain that civil society does not have the right to impose its sanctions on consenting adults and the nature of their relationship, irrespective of gender or bloodline, I also believe that a couple does not have the right to ‘deliberately’ burden their own children and society with congenital defects that could ruin the child’s life and prevent the child from contributing toward society. Incidentally, two of Stubing’s children through his sister suffer from congenital defects. Incest, between consenting adults, is really none of our business, but unborn children and society should definitely not be asked to pay the price for such a union. The same argument holds true for every couple that runs a greater than average risk of conceiving children with disabilities, irrespective of whether it is so because of illnesses – congenital or acquired, advancing years or the nature of the relationship. The globe is coming apart at the seams, and the ethical option for an increasing number of couples (especially such ‘special couples’), would be to adopt unloved children. In the words of a fisherman’s song, ‘Love, like a river shall always run its course; many it’ll nourish, and a few, it is said, might perish . . .”


Sunday, May 6, 2007

The Mayor of ghost town

Beyond the twin beams of a pair of flagging headlights, the inky blackness hung like a thick shroud. A pair of eyes, like glowing embers’ appeared, and then disappeared into the shadows of the night. I stole a glance at the man sitting next to me. Oldish, with craggy features, a long grey beard and twinkling greenish brown eyes that were not uncommon in these parts. I wondered if there was more to this mysterious stranger I had offered a ride to than what met the eye. He seemed to read my mind, for he turned and said “Main insaan nahin hun, beta!” and as he spoke, the clouds enveloped the crescent moon and all was dark again, as the car rolled along the lonely road across the forests of Kalighati, that led us away from ‘ghost-town’. Let me start with where it all began, on an impromptu trip to a lost corner of Rajasthan – the desolate and abandoned ruins of Bhangarh – where it is said that the disembodied spirits still roam, and when the moon rises, one can still hear the strains of singing and dancing, music and laughter, like the patchy sound track of a period film, bouncing off these forgotten walls. While the sun shines, this remote deserted valley, framed against the backdrop of brown, barren hills, where great gnarled trees now rule, their roots curled up against these once formidable ramparts, exudes a sad beauty.

As dusk set in, the calls of the peafowl gave way to a deathly calm. The hills, silhouetted against the increasingly darkening blue of the Bhangarh sky, radiated an eerie gloom that seemed to seduce and threaten in the same breath. I had over stayed my welcome, for as per ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) rules, no one is allowed to stay within the precincts of this ghost town after sunset, and though a part of me was desperate to stay the night in search of the paranormal, most of the rest of me was rather glad that the decision wasn’t mine to make. Walking back along the ruins, in the young light of a new moon, on more than one occasion, my spine tingled, as if alive to the presence of a shadowy entity. Perhaps, it was just a mere over sensitive overreaction, or perhaps something a bit more real, but all I remember now is picking up the pace as I walked toward the car, looking over my shoulder, hoping to find nothing; and then stopping, daring the shadows to come to life before my stomach churned and I renewed my nervous shuffle past the now forbidding mesh of roots and remains. As I drove out of the gates that swung close with an ominous clang, secure in my car, my appetite for apparitions returned with vigour, and in good time too for the night wasn’t done with me. At a village tea stall, not too far from Bhangarh, I stopped to ask about the legend. The owner pointed toward a man in yellow robes and said, “He can tell you… he spent three years inside the Bhangarh ruins, meditating at night. The ASI tried to evict him, but couldn’t.”

“I see spirits as clearly as I see you” said the man in robes, in fluent English, “I used to be in the navy, but I became a tantric (a yogi with occult powers) because Bhangarh called me.” Incidentally, the legend of Bhangarh is inextricably intertwined with a tantric named Singhia, who had cursed the city with ruin and destruction before dying – some say crushed by a stone due to a spell gone wrong, while others claim he was executed by a jealous king. On that string cot, surrounded by farmhands and cowherds, with his matted locks and long, grey beard, he looked as far removed from a naval officer as Richard Gere is from Ram Dev. But when Baba Budhnath, (for that is what they called him) went on to explain in seven languages, including Russian and Japanese, that he could control and command spirits to do his bidding, I was more than a little intrigued. Minutes later, Baba Budhnath was sitting beside me as we headed toward his ashram deep in the forests that lay between Rajgarh and Bhangarh.

Apparently from the royal family of Alwar, and cousin of a local MLA in this (his fourth!) birth, Budhnath claimed that in his first birth, he was born as the king who ordered the execution of Singhia. Delusional? Delirious?! Stoned?!! I don’t know, but he sure did leave me with a disconcerting thought or two. “We’re not alone. My friends, the spirits… they’re here in the car with us. They like you” he said, and smiled. (I just hoped to god, they liked me enough to get off the car with their friend and master) . However, in spite of his claims to the contrary, he seemed very much a human being, and a good one at that. The locals seem to like the eccentric old man, who they say can exorcise both ghosts and disease. Friendly and kind, he refused to accept money or the gifts I offered. He even offered to help when told of a dear friend whose mother happens to be terminally ill. Wish I could tell you more, but better still, if ever in the vicinity, do seek out Baba for a chat and chai. You won’t be disappointed. As for me, he has promised to materialise in my dreams. “I’ll introduce you to your soul”, he said. Can’t wait, Babaji.