Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Forbidden Valley

“This valley is cursed, son. Every male entering this forbidden valley either loses his memory or becomes impotent!” Yikes! Shouldn’t they’ve put a sign saying that at the mouth of the valley as a warning? And…er…does one get to choose the punishment, I wondered? And what about this man, sitting here in the very lap of this beautiful valley…doesn’t the curse apply to him? “I am a baal brahmachari. I’ve vowed to remain celibate all my life…by choice”, he said, as though he’d read my thoughts. “Don’t worry...that curse was centuries old. A Gond princess, a tantric priestess, used to meditate in this valley. She believed that the valley was formed like a mandala (cosmic pattern) and one could acquire greater spiritual strength if one meditated in this valley. And in order to remain undisturbed during her rituals, she had the uttered the curse to protect herself from the distractive influence of any male force. Even male animals wouldn’t enter this valley in those days. But today, the curse isn’t as potent…visitors are safe here”, he said. Behind that mask, I thought I saw him smile...

But I’m getting ahead of my story. It all began on this hot summer day; the car was hurtling along the highway to Nagpur (90 kms away and from where I had to catch a plane to Delhi in the evening). Since I had some time and had heard about an ancient abandoned temple in the forests of Rukhad, I thought of stopping there, en route. However, once off the highway, the sorry excuse for a road had busted the car’s radiator. The driver disappeared into the forest with a jerrycan and since the summer heat was baking me alive in the car, I followed him into the woods. We reached what, in the monsoons, must have been a roaring river. Now in the dry season, it was just a little rivulet hiding under the boulders. While the driver was busy dragging the can along the river bed, I stumbled along the stones and caught sight of a bright red rag fluttering on the bank. “Tantric baba, sahab!”, the driver said. “We should go for darshan.” So, unaware of the curse, I thought, ‘what have I got to lose’, and off we went, following the river, into the mouth of what would soon be known to us as the forbidden valley.

Following a dung-dotted trail, past a cow tied to a stake and her sprightly calf, we reached a cave. It was empty, but for a beaten utensil sitting on a wood fire, the milk bubbled and boiled inside; an assortment of idols, and surprise, surprise – a solar panel. We must not have been waiting for more than a few minutes, when rose from the slope that led to the banks a massive head, with hair that grew almost as if it had a life of its own. The figure was swathed in black robes, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses and his face behind a white cloth mask. As he sat down in front of us, I noticed a trident by his side; I’d be lying if I did not confess to being mildly intimidated. After the aforementioned introduction, he told us about the magical valley where on specific days, one could hear “an om merging into the azaan, for both are cosmic truths”, and where at night the river fairies often play with the spirits of the forest. He claimed that these fairies and spirits had taught him all he knew about tantra. Apparently, this holy man had once been a regular college going kid who had been drawn to this valley because “the spirits called me to inherit the powers of this place”, he said, in the very words I’ve written. So he had a degree. Does that make him any more real than the imposters that abound? My companion had no such doubts for sitting there, jerrycan and devotion clasped between folded palms, he seemed to have forgotten all about the radiator.

“I could keep you rooted to this very spot if I want. Would you want me to?” He asked; my expression must have given my thoughts away. I smiled and asked him if he’d ever done that. He laughed and said, “Sure, just ask that cow. Actually a leopard that lives in a cave on the opposite bank had caught this calf and I used mantras to control the leopard’s mind and body and rescued the calf. These powers are not mine to keep. There are a few places in this country where geographic forces, mountains, rivers, underground streams etc. all come together to create a vortex of tantric energy. If you meditate here, even you could find yourself blessed. If you don’t believe me, stay with me for a while and you’ll see for youself…or, I could control your mind and body and make you stay here even if you don’t want to…” Hmm, interesting offer, but with a plane to catch in three hours, I had to pass. “Think about it. Why would I spend my time in the forest, spinning yarns? What do I get?” He had a point. As I got up to leave, I asked him why he kept his face and eyes covered. “You’ll go blind in 15 minutes if you were to look at my face and eyes. I could remove them if you don’t believe me”. The driver looked horrified but I smiled and shook my head. So this was a high stakes game, but I didn’t have 15 minutes. “I’ll be back”, I promised…and I’ll keep you posted.

Mystique of the feminine

The sexual connotations associated with Tantra are not altogether off the mark. Tantra can be traced to some fertility cults, like in the ancient Druid societies, apart from being tagged to most legends around Shiva and Shakti in the Hindu scriptures.

The Tantra philosophy propounds the attainment of pure consciousness or bliss by the symbolic union of the feminine energy (Shakti) that is dynamic, and the static masculine energy (Shiva). In Tantra, Shakti is considered the primal divine force – the fountainhead of cosmic energy and power. Little wonder that Tantra constitutes religious norm in most matriarchal societies.

Kundalini Yoga, that arguably makes the most ostensible harness of Tantric traditions, talks of awakening the potent energy that rests at the base of the spine – Kundalini Shakti – to rise through the six other energy centres (chakras) in the body to ultimately unite with the energy of Shiva in the Sahasrara chakra at the crown of the head for the realisation of the Shunya mandala, the blissful Void.

Tantra doesn’t enjoy popular following as a mainstream practice like Yoga, thanks to misplaced notions of having to do with black magic, or even some depraved exploitation carried out in its name by dirty delinquents. It is, however, still practiced in places like the Kamakhya Temple of Assam, the Viswanath Temple of Varanasi, and lately convened as an academic discipline in Thanthra Vidya Peedhom in Kerala.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Flesh and blood

Last week, I’d promised to offer concrete logic as to why we ought to consider vegetarianism as a serious lifestyle choice, and here’s what I’m going to try… I could tell you how great a strain a non-vegetarian diet places on the planet’s stretched resources; how each morsel of meat you put in your mouth, turns the heat up a notch on the global temperature scale, but I won’t…

I could also tell you about the cancers and the cholesterol, possible by-products of your violent dietary habits, but I won’t…

..for then all I’d have told you is why it is wrong to kill to eat, but what I really want you to know is why it is right NOT to kill…

I could tell you about the unimaginable suffering that a living creature endures as it’s dragged onto the conveyor belt that conveys it from birth to your plate, which I will, but that suffering isn’t half the reason why you might consider ignoring another helping of a blood-meal….

It was an early winter morning and the sunbeams had drilled their way through the morning mist and opened up the highway to Ghaziabad. After driving past apartment blocks, malls and marshes, we finally reached the killing fields. You don’t need signs to this place. Long before you reach the slaughterhouse, you smell it - a revolting waft that heralds both the stench of rotting flesh and human waste from the land fill next to the slaughter house. The strange mix assaults your nostrils and clings to your clothes and sears itself into your memory of this place. As I moved closer, I was guided by some more emissaries of death… dark shadows in the sky, hundreds of them… Pariah Kites. Big brown birds, hunters and scavengers, that ride the thermals, waiting to swoop in for the scraps that remain after the day’s bloodletting. The place is almost surreal… in the drains run rivers of blood and through the dusty haze and stench, strewn around like dirty snow flakes lie blood soaked feather balls, rolling in the wind and clinging underfoot… the kites fly so low and bold that you can hear them flap their wings … and in corners there are dogs playing tug of war with the entrails of slaughtered animals. The abattoir is the axis of this world, be it beast bird or man. I asked a young boy for directions, and as the lad gestured with his hands red with blood, a drop fell on the car’s sill. My colleague shuddered and looked away. ‘Your hands are as red as his, you know…’, I told her. Melodrama? Perhaps… but you’ve got to concede that there’s some truth to what I’d said… The bakra mandi where goats are slaughtered has a sanitised appearance and while I could hear the plaintive bleating of the goats and the frantic kicking of their legs as they were hung upside down and slaughtered, this place was off limits and so I headed for the murga mandi.

Here, once we’d made it past the rows of live caged broilers, cockerels and turkeys and the intense stench of the birds, their remains and their droppings and reached the slaughtering yard, we were struck by a sight that could’ve made Genghis Khan blanch. Along the yard’s walls and in the centre, there were different ‘wards’ where chickens were being slaughtered.

You could tell one ward from another by looking at the different heaps of blood soaked corpses, some nearly five-feet high. It was a grisly sight. And then, I saw it being done. One man picked a rooster from its cage and tore the feathers off its wings as it struggled. There was fear in its eyes, and those who say that an animal doesn’t know what is happening to it lie, for I saw the fear of pain and death in the eyes of that rooster as I did in the eyes of that goat… there is that physical agony of death to follow, but far greater is the mental agony as it awaits that death… it doesn’t matter how the animal is butchered and what the butcher’s religion might be… a living being had to endure untold agony for your pleasure. I’m telling you this to remind you that these animals suffer, and it is a suffering that is undertaken on your account… because you demand death for your pleasure.

There are those amongst us who feel that these animals need to be killed and eaten, otherwise there would be too many for their own good. But they know that they’re just lying to themselves. These animals are bred because we buy them… and it is our demand that regulates their supply. The question really is, that though undoubtedly cruel, is this bloodshed justified simply because the creature killed is another species, a species that our ancestors had forever hunted?

To feel that a certain act, no matter how heinous, is justified as long as it happens to one who is ‘not one of us’ is a feeling that once justified the enslaving of blacks by whites, the gang rape and murder of a lower-caste woman by upper-caste men, riots, the annihilation of one nation by another and the Holocaust- racism, casteism, communalism, Nazism and the ism in question, speciesism (having different moral standards for species other than our own). These aren’t my thoughts alone. I’m echoing the thoughts of thinkers who have shaped mine, from Gandhi to Coetze and Singer to Pollan. Most agree that while it may have been a part of our animal inheritance to kill and eat, this animalism needn’t be our destiny too. Suspended between our animal instincts and our humane potential for divinity, the food we eat today might decide whether we veer one way or another. There was a time when cannibalism, rape, slavery, apartheid, the inferior status of women were all accepted practices of life. But with each passing century, we’ve learnt to understand what’s right, what’s wrong and learnt to let go of prejudices and pleasures that we now recognise to be perverse. I don’t doubt for a moment that perhaps not long after our time, meat-eating too would be consigned to this pit of historical and evolutionary crimes that were shed even though they might have shaped us once. The question is, at that point in time, how would you rather be remembered…

The Slip Stream

Get veginspired!

Even the “non-vegetarian” jokes, as risqué humour is often referred to, is more fun. So how do we sex up “veg” for the recent converts or the aspiring ones? Here’s inspiration…

Website: www.goveg.com It doesn’t get more direct than this. But seriously, here is where you’d find every reason to turn vegetarian, including celebrity veggie testimonials, great recipes and incriminating evidence of cruelty which that “pork-on-your-fork” involves.

Expert: One of the oldest patrons of vegetarianism, Rose Elliot’s first book ‘Simply Delicious’ in 1967 was described to have been to veg cooking what “the Ford Model T was to transportation”! Author of best-sellers like ‘Not Just a Load of Old Lentils’ and ‘The Bean Book’, she has even been awarded the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for her contribution to making veggies chic again.

Book: Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian Cookbook. Queen of Curry – renowned culinary expert – Madhur Jaffrey brings fascinating veg recipes from around the world – oriental, Mediterranean, Hispanic and many others – for any occasion you name: fine dining, or the weekend picnic. Beetroot will never be the same again…


Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Slaughter of Innocents

Happy New year, folks! So how good have you been with your New Year resolutions so far? Are you about to give in to the seductions of that cigarette you’ve spurned for a week? Or are the mornings too cold to venture out for the workout you’d promised yourself? Chances are, your resolutions must’ve eloped with last week’s hangover, so let me find you a new one… one that might help you save both your heart and your world… I say, go veg!

Now, before you dismiss me as a sentimental extremist, you’ve got to give me a fair hearing, so don’t go about turning the page just yet. You just love the flavour and the aroma of a slice of juicy steak or the greasy deliciousness of some well cooked butter chicken, don’t you? I can imagine… in fact, why imagine… I can remember… Till about five years ago, I loved eating meat. Chicken, beef, turkey, duck, veal, mutton, lamb and pork… and I liked the last one best… roasted or cured, as salami or bacon, pork was my meat of choice, just ahead of turkey and veal. At the same time, I was also an active conservationist and an animal rights activist. I loved animals… it’s just that I loved some animals on the plate too. When I would be asked how I could possibly lobby for the conservation of tigers and the prevention of cruelty to draught animals over a plate of pepperoni pizzas or lamb chops, I would reply that the tigers are endangered by commercial greed, not hunger and while it maybe a goat or a chicken’s natural purpose to be eaten (since their wild cousins are classified as prey species), it was never a bull-buffalo’s or horse’s natural purpose to be flogged to death under the yoke of a heavily overloaded cart. Moreover, I would tell them, “I owe it to my genes to eat meat”, for I’d heard (and I hope I remember correctly….) on tv that if we hadn’t started eating animal proteins at a certain stage of our evolution, we might not have developed the brain capacity of modern humans. The space in our skulls that is taken up by grey matter today would’ve been reserved for powerful chewing muscles and thick jawbones for masticating tough plant matter which is harder to digest and low on nutrition. Also, this simple evolutionary decision of consuming other animals instead of plant stems had liberated proteins from the onerous task of strengthening the digestive system (as in the case of herbivores) and given them the freedom to aid the growth of the most magnificent of organs – the super-sized human brain. So, eating meat, I told them, wasn’t my decision but nature’s… I was just acting in accordance with an evolutionary master script, inspite of my great love for ‘all creatures great and small’.

So, what happened? Well, to answer your question, I’ll have to take you to a small seedy lane in south Delhi that connects the affluent islands of Defence Colony and South Extension. This dirty lane, hidden behind dusty woodwork stores, characterised by open drains on one side and tiny boxy butcheries, huge strips of marbled ham hanging from the rafters like forbidding curtains, on the other, was my cycling shortcut to my office in South Ex. Once, while returning from office on a summer afternoon, I heard terrible ear splitting squeals piercing through the dull din of the traffic. I followed the sound to an open patch behind the row of meat shops where a group had tied a tiny piglet’s legs and were about to skewer it alive. I had never seen a pig being killed before and while I understood that a bit of bloodshed might have been necessary, I had no idea, that deliciously pink meat reached me through such violent cruelty. I bought the little animal before they could kill it and took it with me to an animal shelter nearby called Friendicoes. As the piglet was released in its holding area, it nuzzled up to me, refusing to budge from where I stood. The traumatised little animal refused to trust any environment beyond the security of my presence and squealed pitifully as I walked away after giving it a cuddle. I still remember its big ears and long lashed beady eyes following me as long as they could… begging me to stay…

I did order a pepperoni pizza once after that but I couldn’t eat it. I felt like I was betraying the memory of those eyes expressing their trust and exhorting my protection. And I swore off meat altogether. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite and say that it was okay for me to eat mutton and chicken but not pigs, or dogs, cows or whales, just because of cultural biases. The ethics of eating an animal ought to be a question of morality not culture, or religion. So it is either okay to eat animals or it isn’t. It is unfair to crinkle our noses at cultures that eat dogs, whales or other people just because we don’t and prefer goats and birds instead.

The question is, now that evolution has done its bit and man has found access to various kinds of proteins that allow him the fulfilment of his genetic potential without having to kill other creatures for food, where does he draw the line, if any?

I don’t need meat to survive or evolve. That is a fact. But why give up on one of the greatest joys in the world… the primal pleasure of biting into protein rich meat? I gave up because I couldn’t answer the questions in the eyes of that piglet. But for you, in future columns I’ll try and bring you more compelling reasons. Meanwhile, before you eat meat ever again, I urge you to go to a slaughterhouse and witness firsthand ‘the slaughter of an innocent’, so that you could savour the flavour of that flesh… you owe the animal at least that much…

Vegetarians are easy meat?

“You don’t win friends with salad… you don’t win friends with salad,” teased Bart and Homer Simpson, when Lisa pledged vegetarianism in America’s favourite dysfunctional family. As it turns out for vegetarians, you not only don’t win friends with salad, but you can’t be too sure of salad itself now. Ever tried looking closely at those Good Day cakes – soft and spongy cakes promising the wholesomeness of milk and other nutritious flavours? The wrapper has a tiny red dot in a red square denoting non-vegetarian ingredients, in this case, animal gelatin. Not many notice. But what’s worse is the countless other food items consumed by unsuspecting vegetarians, for lack of adequate warning on animal product ingredients used. Think ice creams and cookies. They not only have eggs beaten in, but even gelatin which is a nice sounding name for protein extracted from the bones of animals. French fries? Once upon a time McDonald’s fried those potatoes in 93% beef tallow (fat). The innocuous cheese on the breakfast table is curdled with rennet, or enzymes obtained from the stomach lining of calves. And beat this: the fresh sweetmeats that you bring home from the halwai and often even offer to the gods (diet preferences unsure) are covered in fine silver foils which again are hammered casings of cattle intestines. Are there any vegetarians still in the room?


Sunday, January 4, 2009

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). More disturbingly, I had stayed up all of the 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.

Epilogue: I was brought up to believe that terrorists aim to terrorise, but over the last few months I’ve grown to realise that the current brand of terrorism in our country only aims to polarise. I wrote the above column two years ago, believing that the world could only get better… But it has been a protracted illness. Our hate and fear has only grown. As for my own, I confess, they return every time I see a person I’m glad I didn’t know being carried like a sack on the streets, his/her innards disembowelled by a faceless bomb, in the name of an orphaned and disowned (by the very people the bomb claims to represent) faith.

But amidst the din of bombs and bullets, political rhetoric from both sides of the border, saffron bigotry and Antulayan antics,even if for some moments, an act of violence forces me to react like a Hindu because it pigeonholes and reduces me to being only that – a Hindu, I always try and remind my self that my religion is only about my relationship with God, not my relationship with man, be he Hindu, Muslim or Jewish. And I remind myself that my destiny, just like yours, is intertwined, across communities and borders, for cleaved halves we may be, but we are one whole, waiting to unite through all that divides us. And this isn’t misty eyed sentimentality speaking… just look back on the last few centuries and you’ll know…