Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Drone’s Drone

Growing up in a boys’ school, I worshipped women with the silent zeal of a rabbi in a concentration camp. I thought them no less than Goddesses; high born souls far removed from boyish preoccupations like digging noses and breaking wind. Whole rivers must’ve passed under the bridge before I realised that they too were of flesh and blood, no more divine than fellow school-mates like young Fabian, who routinely announced his deep set understanding of elementary mathematics by depositing a steaming turd on the vinyl classroom floor every time he was asked the difference between 10 and 11, or ‘digital’ geniuses like Baby Bajaj, who once declared to an admiring audience that his fingers could reach his brain through his nose.

Flesh and blood they might well be, but it is an inescapable fact that Providence had dealt ‘man’ an unkind hand and created him as a mere serf to her favourite child – the woman. For a fair few centuries after we emerged from the caves, women remained the centre of the family. The woman served nature’s purpose of furthering life and nature gave her all she needed to survive. To begin with, nature endowed her with an extra helping of fat to help her survive famines that made pickled cadavers of us men (blame it on the rain, or rather the lack of it, if it doesn’t fit honey). Secondly almost every disease known to a woman, including breast cancer is, statistically speaking, almost invariably more likely to kill a man than a woman. And worst of all, from bridal beds to hospital beds, women simply last longer. Men are nothing but expendable worker bees who struggle with killer trucks and stressful jams, border disputes and despotic bosses, addictions and affairs just to be able to bring home the bacon to the queen bee, who holds a generation in her womb.

For a long while, woman’s true stature as the centre of the human universe was undisputed. While she carried the future and sustained the present, men, when not serving their ‘queen’, were engaged in little bouts of jousting and hoarding – relics of our animal past that advertised our potential as desirable mates (Incidentally, in almost every species, while each female gets to mate and bear children, only the strongest and healthiest of males get to pass on their genes to the next generation – a right often won at the cost of male lives and limbs.

And while some like the male Red-tailed Phascogale, an Australian marsupial are so exhausted by the mating game that they die of exhaustion, some insects like the male Praying Mantis are cannibalised by the female after coitus - consumed after consummation. Now, that’s a sobering thought if you are a man and are wondering about where you stand in Nature’s scheme of things). But soon, our little boyish games matured, as did our toys. Flints and sticks were soon replaced by guns and bombs. Suddenly, our hoards had become the capital that financed trade and cities and our jousts had become wars – world wars. As the enduring spectacle of evolution was pushed to the background, and the viewer friendly charade of wars and commerce began masquerading as the essence of ‘civilisation’, the woman was eased out of her throne, and after this evo-revo-lutionary coup, the slave became king and ‘man’ wore the crown, which is where I think we lost the plot.

One look at Nature’s blueprint - the animal kingdom reveals that in all of creation, it is the feminine force that drives life across the species barrier, while the male flits from being a mere sperm donor like a pea-cock (wonder why they’d call any male animal that!) or a Brad Pitt to a genius like Da Vinci or Mike (a relatively tiny male chimp who revolutionised chimpanzee politics by using tin cans, now immortalised in Jane Goodall’s memoirs) whose creative perspectives helped a race transcend it’s limitations. Male reactions to the stress of everyday management is proof of the fact that the male brain is happiest being either a jack-ass or a genius and the intolerable middle ground is best left to women. Matriarchal societies have always been more rational and more peaceful than patriarchies while the inherent risks of a creative challenge are bound to stimulate the reckless male mind more. So lets turn the world over to our women, loosen our neck ties, and settle down under a tree and talk of poetry, pottery and philosophy… Happy honey?

Sex, Lies and Misunderstandings

Men don’t listen and women talk too much. This social axiom has exemplified the man-woman divide over the ages in popular culture and defined gender equations. If the two most essential components of society are so different from each other then how do they manage to work together? It’s not that both genders haven’t attempted to explain this anomaly. Many books have been written in search of a deeper understanding of this subject. One of the most famous ones, a veritable classic is Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus by John gray. The book explores the fundamental differences between men and woman and how misplaced expectations creep up on unsuspecting couples and deepen the divide. Allan and Barbara Pease explored the genre further with their books Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps and Why Men Lie and Women Cry. Invoking evolutionary biology and social psychology and garnished with oodles of wit, the Peases crafted quite a social manual to help bridge the gender gap. Books however can only take you so far for the proof of the pudding lies in the eating as they say.


Sunday, August 19, 2007

Alexander's forgotten question

The spiralling staircase, the rooms adorned with hunting crops, harnesses and an assortment of lances and maces arranged in museumesque splendour and a hallway that captured the leading lights of the Wodeyar dynasty, had given way to a huge hall. Paintings, antiques and perhaps thousands of books lined the walls, where in a corner, sat a big burly man. Though dwarfed by the mile high ceiling and the scale of the architecture and furniture, his form was imperious. Weighed down by heavy bracelets, rings with rocks that could sink a ship and a massive girth, sat Srikantha Datta Narsimharaja Wodeyar, the last in line of the illustrious Wodeyars.

Honestly, I was a trifle disappointed. I had walked in expecting to meet a king - a man who was born to rule the millions, were milling around outside these walls before the wheels of time and republican democracy snatched away what had hitherto been a birthright for the Wodeyars. And while the visual similarity with Henry VIII was unmistakable, it still was quite a challenge to the untrained mind to be able to envisage the portly individual sprawled out in front of us in a black tee and shorts ‘ensemble’ (His Highness happens to be a designer) that seemed a size too small as ‘the man who should be king’. He must have been equally disappointed when yours truly happened to saunter in, devoid of any semblance of grey, both within and without his big head, for His Highness just looked down the tip of his royal nose and closed his eyes. Whether he was muttering silent curses for having agreed to meet the dullard sitting across him on an afternoon made for siestas or merely hoping for the glorious return of the good old days where he could have dismissed pesky members of the press to the palace dungeons, is for you to gather, but after a few silent awkward moments, the interview began.

Taking an interview is a bit like pearl-diving. Every question is like a dive into the unknown. It’s not your world but your subject’s, a world he knows well and one, no matter how well prepared you are, will always remain alien to you…with pearls rare and dangers galore for the unsuspecting interviewer. Soon, the titular Maharajah had left me embarrassed though for the unkind thoughts I had harboured at the beginning of this encounter. As far as the pearl diving analogy goes, this was an environment both benign and bounteous. Candid and unassuming, His Highness spoke like a favourite uncle recounting a favourite story. But while he spoke of friends and foes, Gods and guardians, legacies and losses, I became aware of a pall of gloom that seemed to be creeping upon us, hanging heavy from the ceiling and the walls. It was then that I realised that His Highness didn’t seem to be a particularly happy man. Beneath his veneer of regal dignity and his reputation as a legendary reveler, he seemed scarred and tormented.

Srikantha Wodeyar’s peace of mind has been ravaged by a no-holds barred legal battle with the state over his rights to his home – the magnificent Amba Vilas Palace. “If I lose the case, to walk out of the Palace with my clothes on would perhaps be illegal,” he said, a sad smile masking his anguish. The woe of the Wodeyars is further compounded by a curse uttered 400 long years ago by the wife of the vanquished viceroy of Vijaynagar that every Wodeyar king shall remain childless, seems to have stuck with the clan. HH Srikantha Datta too is childless and ‘well placed sources’ in the state tell me that much like Lord Dalhousie’s infamous Doctrine of Lapse, the state government too hopes to use the fact to its advantage and acquire the property worth 100s, perhaps a thousand crores or more. While there are two sides to every story, and the state claims that it is acquiring the property for the ‘benefit of the people’, it truly is a sad sight to see the scion of the noble Wodeyars, lament “there are times I think ‘why should I live any longer?’... And I don’t regret not having a child… I’m not too sure the present circumstances would’ve allowed him to live with his head held high….” Call me a petty royalist but I can’t help but wonder what kind of independence he must celebrate every 15th of August….


Rolls Royce’s and 21 gun salutes are what you would normally associate with the Indian princes of the past. Their days of glory are very well known. Especially the last Nizam of Hyderabad, who even appeared on the cover of TIME magazine in 1937 as the world’s richest man. Said to have 200 Rolls Royce cars on his beck and call (a feat unequalled since) he knew how to live in style. Perhaps that’swhy when the time came to accede to India he resisted, hoping that he could carve out an independent state within the state of India, to no avail, he was forced to accede in 1948. Time has been harsh for much of the former princely states after Independence, deprived of much of their status, pomp and ceremony, they have withered, especially after Indira Gandhi abolished the practice of Privy Purse in 1971. Deprived of the means to generate upkeep for their huge properties, many, like the Maharanas and Maharajas of Udaipur and Jodhpur, were forced to open them up for commercial uses, thus retaining more than a mere shadow of their past glory. Others, much like Srikantha Datta have embarked upon fairly successful political careers, riding on the popularity that their title and legacy allows them and invested in businesses and recast themselves as entrepreneurs. And some like the Hyderabad Nizams have frittered away their wealth between countless claimants and prodigal excesses.


Sunday, August 12, 2007

Thought for food?

I’m a proud, badge-bearing member of the ‘green brigade’. And if you can’t afford a house in any of the Beverly Hills that lie between Haryana and Hollywood, maybe you ought to be one too. You see, originally, the green in the brigade stood for envy. We couldn’t afford the houses we wanted, the cars we fantasized about or the social perks that accompany those who drive around in them. Shunning the materialism we desired but couldn’t afford, we reverted to discussing the conjoined virtues of Marxism and Buddhism, sneering in public and salivating in private at the bourgeois comforts of ACs, CDs and brand new Maruti 800s. And we thanked our stars for having been born after the A-ha and Madonna generation who made clothes that were falling apart fashionable. The only other recognisable pop figure of sorts till that time whose clothes resembled ours was Chunibala Devi, whose desperately poor, 80 year old character in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali wore sarees that looked like the first and last chapati I ever made – badly burnt, with gaping holes, and frayed at the edges - hardly a teen-aged cult figure, you’ll agree.

Environmentalism soon overtook every other subterfuge though. Small cars for instance, suddenly seemed justifiably better than the big cars we couldn’t afford. I , and many others of my generation looked at this new ism, as a convenient mask for our desires and insecurities. But an assumed superficial image often conspires with circumstances and becomes life’s driving force – the shell becomes the tortoise. As we dug deeper and searched harder for more convincing connections with this new ‘green’ brigade, we became increasingly convinced of an impending doom. Initially, all that seemed threatened was human morality and ecological diversity. The brigade volunteers ranted and raved in seminars and journals, became career environmentalists, authors and charming bummers. Some species loss was averted, at least for a while but the vast majority of the population still seemed to regard us with a sense of pity and mild irritation, the type usually reserved for a senile neighbour, even as they continued to drive around in monoxide spewing public and private transport and choke drains, dustbins, cows and everything else with an opening with plastic bags and garbage. They built malls, factories, apartments and dams over arable land, forests and lakes believing that the green revolution, genetically engineered crops, pesticides and Mcdonald’s would keep us fed forever. And then, like Godzilla, the spectre of global warming rose and nothing seemed certain any more.

Forget about melting polar caps, retreating glaciers and the Poseidonic wrath of tsunamis and hurricanes. Global warming and its agents have begun to threaten the very food on our tables. The rice bowls of the world aren’t spilling over any more. In South and Southeast Asia, rice production is slowly but steadily declining and prices are rising. Droughts and floods have been affecting various corners of the world, often in unison. But though times are bleak, there is hope yet. Long ago, in Paramhamsa Yogananda’s spiritual classic – Autobiography of a Yogi, I had come across an intriguing sepia toned photograph of Giri Bala, the famous non eating saint who claimed nourishment from astral light. More interestingly, in a relatively recent book, I came across the claims of a 50 year old Australian who calls herself Jasmuheen - the ‘breatharian’, and says that she hasn’t eaten a morsel of food ever since 1993 and that she survives on ‘pranic nourishment’. Equally astonishing was the story of Hira Ratan Manek. I had heard of him at a Surya yoga seminar, where one of the yogis was talking about how various medical agencies have studied Mr. Manek’s ability to nourish himself and stay without solid food for months. Can these individuals possibly be living testimonies to the unlimited potential of the human body? Is their ability to live without eating an example of one of the many ‘siddhis’ promised in yogic texts like Patanjali’s sutras? Both Jasmuheen and Mr. Manek claim to have acquired their ability after undertaking a rigorous transformational process which trained their body and mind. It is a tempting thought that not just the famines of today but even the terrible prophecies about the global warming induced agricultural catastrophe of tomorrow would be far less cataclysmic if more and more amongst us could resort to breatharianism.

But there’s a pesky fly in the ointment that threatens to crash this food-free party. Both Jasmuheen and Hira Manek have so far failed in their attempts to prove beyond doubt the authenticity of their claims, and while especially the former has many followers, a handful actually starved to death while fasting. Personally, I wouldn’t discount the possibility and the idea is surely worth chasing, but choosing jute bags over plastic and chick peas over chicken while recycling and cycling might be a more comfortable and a more realistic route towards protecting the planet and our future.

The slip stream


So you want to be a breatharian? Well long ago, when Paramahamsa Yogananda had asked Giri Bala to share her secret of divine nourishment, she refused to divulge much. Yogananda however reveals that Patanjali’s sutras state that concentrating and meditating on the vishuddha chakra, fifth of the seven chakras of the human body could enable the human body to live off etheric energy. On the other hand, Jasmuheen’s technique’s involve fasting and meditation but some of her followers paid with their live while trying to emulate what they believed to be her teachings. Meanwhile, Hira Ratan Manek had told The Times of India that he acquired his powers of drawing energy from the sun by staring down the rising sun, beginning with a few seconds and going up to quarter of an hour, while simultaneously fasting for long hours.

It’s a perilous path and one to embark on only in the presence of an accomplished and genuine (if such a thing exists) master. Incidentally, Luis S. R. Vas’ Pranic Living and Healing is an interesting introduction to ‘breatharianism’ - A world both mysterious and exciting....


Sunday, August 5, 2007

Music, magic and a mystic

The dargah of Hazrat Khwaja Nizamuddin Awlia is a revered shrine amongst Muslims and Hindus alike. Barren wombs sprout life and stubborn ailments disappear, it is said, if the faithful pray at the shrine of this Sufi saint. I was accompanying Amim mian, a friend, a colleague, and a dargah regular.

Skewered meat hung in front of a cluster of stalls on my left and on my right sat maimed beggars, with wispy greying beards, arms raised, heads shaking to a near rhythmic chant of “Ya Allah! Ya Allah!” In a corner stood a sheep, the likes of which I hadn’t seen before – the dumba – large, without horns and with a bean bag for a tail. Minarets and domes rose up along a narrow lane. As far as the eye could see, there were prayer caps bobbing in front of me, as I followed the faithful into the cramped lane. Ignoring hawkers, vying for attention, we stepped into a small courtyard as the muezzin called for the evening prayers.

The courtyard was crowded. In the humid July heat, I waited at the tail end of a long serpentine queue of devotees. Mercifully, a middle-aged woman walked up and started waving a pankha (a hand fan). There were others like her at different sections of the queue, all serving the faithful in the hope of alms. The place was crawling with beggars of all ages. Our lady with the fan had only one good arm with which she held the pankha while her other arm lay limp across the front of her torso. Out of gratitude and against my better judgment (beggars should be given food and clothing, not money) I took out my wallet to give her a few rupees, and in response, in the manner of a person who knew more than she was letting on, she said, “mobile sambhal ke, babu”. And something in her tone told me that I would not find my phone in my pocket and sure enough, my pockets were empty. She perhaps knew who might’ve taken it and while she sympathised with me, her loyalties perhaps lay elsewhere. I just smiled and acknowledged my loss but honestly, I was more than a little miffed.

I had come here expecting the healing touch of Sufism – the other side of Islam. The one that lay hidden beneath news reports that suggested that it was the purported fuse that threatened to explode into a clash of civilizations, fuelled by jehadi rage and reactionary outrage – the faith that inspired an Amir Khusro to write “Kafir-e-ishqam musalmani mara darkaar neest…” (I am a pagan (worshipper) of love: the creed I do not need…, We have God in our midst: the pilot we do not need). But I was a trifle disappointed. I did not see the ideal I had come to seek, of crowds of Hindus, their heads covered by a cotton handkerchief, milling with Muslims in skull caps. Perhaps, the winds of suspicion that blew from Glasgow to Brisbane, had reached the little hamlet of Nizamuddin too. Hiding my disappointment over the loss of a phone, & worse, the loss of a notion, Amim mian and I made our way through the throngs toward the final resting place of Hazrat Nizamuddin whose unfettered compassion for both Muslims and Hindus and his miraculous achievements seem to touch the lives even today. His living presence, many say, can be felt to this day, by those who enter these walls with a pure heart.

As the sun set, a soul stirring voice pierced through the thrum that had enveloped the shrine. The qawwals had taken stage. We were standing at the back but one of the qawwals saw us and perhaps he could read my disappointed mind for he motioned for us to come forward. Immediately, like the parting of the Red Sea, the crowd gave way and welcomed us to the front. A group of singers, the Nizami brothers, sang with voices that were loud, grainy, powerful, and yet soothing and beautifully harmonised. Their impassioned piety had the entranced crowd clapping and swaying in rhythm. A man jumped up, eyes closed, he swayed and danced like a man possessed. Still no Hindu men sporting handkerchiefs but I did see some Caucasian women, who in their Western attire blended with surprising ease with the burqa clad Muslim women and were treated with great respect. The evening had acquired a magical hue. From a crowded, grimy courtyard, where thieving fingers lurked in every corner, it had been transformed into a platform where music, poetry, prayer and faith blended to create a timeless, transcendental vignette that touched the very soul of the audience. Listeners and performers swayed in unison – qawwals and faqirs, white women and brown rickshaw pullers, phone-less columnists and turbaned sheikhs, in sync and rhythm with a smile on their lips and peace in their hearts.

The qawwals did not let us leave till the end of their performance and then we were ushered into the inner sanctum of the shrine by a good-looking man wearing a waist-coat and a black cap. “He’s a pirzada, a direct descendent of the saint” Amim told me. After we’d said our prayers, the pirzada draped a holy chadar around my shoulders and Amim’s and blessed us. As we left the shrine, a tall, bearded man with piercing kohl-lined eyes and long henna red hair, in a black tunic walked up to us. The faqir looked fierce but he looked at me, pointed towards the heavens, tilted his head and smiled, as if to acknowledge a secret between, God, him and me. And then he disappeared. I felt blessed and enlightened for I realised that here there was love for man (irrespective of his God) and faith in God, and where there is either, there is no reason to fight. Perhaps this is Islam….

A peerless pir

“Hanoz Dilli door ast!”, Hazrat Khwaja Nizamuddin Awlia had uttered these famous words when Sultan Ghiyas ud-din Tughlaq had threatened the Sufi saint with dire consequences for refusing to let go of the workers who had been working with the saint, trying to construct a water tank for the villagers of Ghiyaspur. The Sultan was shifting his capital to Tughlaqabad and had decreed that all workmen involved in independent projects were to be relieved so that they could be put to work, building the new capital. But Delhi was indeed far away for the Sultan. Tughlaq was on his way back to Delhi from a campaign, but on the very outskirts of the city, the Sultan was crushed to death under a structure raised in his honour.

Tughlaqabad is now in ruins and the dynasty is dead but the tiny village of Ghiyaspur still stands. It is called Nizamuddin after the saint who lived out his pious life in the village, spreading love, blessings and good cheer. Born in 1238 AD in Badayun, the great saint’s mausoleum (where his beloved disciple, Amir Khusro too, rests in peace) is a powerful shrine that shines like a beacon of secular celebrations and one of those rare corners of the globe where different faiths merge into humanity.