Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Mind of MK Gandhi.

I've always thought highly of MK Gandhi. My unpublished novel, The Last Gandhi Movie, has him as the thematic pivot. I recently read Girja Kumar's BRAHMACHARYA Gandhi & His Women Associates. It perturbed me and gave me serious misgivings. This narrative is based mostly on Gandhi's own writings. In it, the so-called Mahatma comes out as manipulative, pathologically obsessive about sex and sin as well as power-crazed. His logic sounds circuitous, serpentine and often self-contradictory and specious, at times even inane. He apparently played God with the lives of those close to him. He was too intrusive and interfering. His charisma was undoubtedly legendary. If he was obsessive about truth, how come he said/wrote different versions of an event to different people? If he was a god-fearing person, how come he believed the worst of his friends and associates time and again? Also, he was in the habit of praising a person to high heaven for a while and then suddenly cutting the ground from under her feet. He was so deeply involved in and on the centre stage of national politics for most of his adult life. How then did he find the time, the emotional resources and the energy to behave like a virtual puppeteer controlling the lives of those in his fold and under his care? All this seems nothing short of weird to me. His tryst with brahmacharya too is an enigma. He seemingly had an extreme revulsion for sexual intimacy. There was a deep emotional scar left on his psche by his failure to be present at his father's bedside at the moment of his death because he was partaking carnal pleasure with his wife. This is usually trotted out as the reason for his guilt feeling. This reminds me of what Aldous Huxley wrote in Proper Studies: "Defined in psychological terms, a fanatic is a man who consciously over-compensates a secret doubt." And: "An intellectual is a person who has discovered something more interesting than sex." (Attributed by Peter J. Mayhew in Discovering Evolutionary Ecology: Bringing Together Ecology And Evolution. Also attributed to Edgar Wallace. In tandem, both seem particularly apt in Gandhi's case. Maybe, Gandhi was a bit like George III in Alan Bennet's dramatic and cinematic versions of his life. In a group reading of Shakespeare's King Lear in the asylum, he suddenly realised why others thought him mad and regained his sanity. Time for yet another of Huxley's accidentally Gandhi-centric pearl of wisdom (this time from Texts & Pretexts): "Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him. It is a gift for dealing with the accidents of existence, not the accidents themselves." On this score, maybe Gandhi was found wanting. And, what about the persistent speculation about Gandhi's tantric leanings as reflected in his brahmacharya experiments with his women associates as guinea pig? There is a cogently reasoned study by Nicholas F. Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho, Was Gandhi a Tantric? which nearly convinces one of the likelihood. After reading Girja Kumar's book, taking Gandhi at his own words seems a bit dicey to me. Even if we find him innocent of prurience, we cannot always believe in the consistency of his utterances. Dr Sushila Nayyar told Ved Mehta that "brahmacharya" was a latter-day invention of Gandhi to ward off criticism of his interaction with his female intimates. Earlier, she used to sleep naked with him for reasons of nature cure (p.41 of Girja Kumar's book). What can we make of all this? Perhaps, the answer is as simple as the moral of this Zen tale. Nan-in, a Japanese master of the Meiji era, received a university professor who came to enquire about Zen. When serving his guest tea, Nan-in kept pouring even after the cup overflowed. The professor after watching could contain himself no more: "The cup is overfull. No more will go in." Said Nan-in: "Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculation. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?" Milord, I rest my case.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ten. Far better than Tolkien.

Lord Vishnu sounds like quite a brainy god. Look at the functionally appropriate forms he assumed in his dasavataras or ten reincarnations. In other words, if the task was, say, to bring up a sinking earth from the depths of the ocean, he would promptly become a tusked boar. My first introduction to it was as a child when we used to chant the Dashavatara Aarati to my khelacha (play) Ganapati at 233 Khetwadi Main Road. Lord Vishnu, the Preserver in the Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh Trinity, would arrive among his true believers (bhaktas) having assumed what I described earlier as a "functionally appropriate form" to restore the balance between good and evil, he told Arjun in Bhagvadgita (iv, 7 -8). When the asuras stole the Vedas, Vishnu assumed the form of a fish (matsyavatara) to save Manu, the primordal human being, from the Great Flood. In the kurmavatara (Vishnu as tortoise), he carried the sinking Mount Mandara on his back during the churning of the ocean to find the divine nectar, the so-called amrit. Enter Hiranyaka next. This demon misbehaved or sinned so much that the earth was unable to bear the load of his wrongdoings and literally did the sinking act. The ever-alert Preserver immediately put on his tusked boar form (varahaavatara) to prevent the calamity. Another demon king with a similar-sounding name, Hiranyakasipu, his twin brother, terrorised the devotee Pralahada. The Preserver had no option but to assume narasimhavatara (the man-lion form) because the perpetrator of the atrocities had a boon that he could be killed by neither man nor animal. A combo could however do the trick. A part of the boon also was that he could not be killed on land, water or air, in day or night, inside or outside his abode. So, Vishnu placed him on the man-lion's lap (neither land, water or air) at dusk (neither day or night) and at the entrance of the house (neither inside nor outside). The first four distinctly anthropomorphic avataras were in the satya or krita yuga. The next four happened in the treta yuga and the dwapara yuga. The fifth avatara was the dwarf son (Vamanavtara) born to Kashyapa, one among the Saptarishis, and Aditi, the daughter of Agni, the Fire God. I wrote about his conquest of the all-powerful King Mahabali here: Vamana tricked him into surrendering his kingdom comprising heaven, earth and underworld by requesting for a plot of land admeasuring his diminutive three steps to which the generous king readily agreed. Vamana then regained his viraat swaroop (the original gargantuan form) and occupied the entire kingdom. (By the way, Mahabali happened to be the fourth direct descendent of Hiranyakasipu. Please see above.) So far, the Preserver was involved with fighting the demons. The sixth avatara (Parsurama) though, went after the human Kshatriya warriors. And, that too twenty one times. Yes, twenty one. They must have been up to big mischief, to be sure. In the next two episodes of Ten that reputedly took place at the cusp of the treta yuga and the dwapara yuga, Vishnu switched back to looking after the humankind as Rama who got rid of the ten-headed rakshasa, Ravana and Krishna who did likewise to Kamsa. Lord Buddha is most likely the next avatara in which case it occured in the kali yuga. Not everybody agrees with this version, though. They take Balarama, elder brother of Krishna and slayer of several demons in the dwapara yuga, as the holder of that honour. Avatara No. 10 Kalki is likely to come into the world on a magnificent white stallion when the kali yuga is about to end. Some people believe it will happen in 2012 A.D. His mission statement? Destroy all the mleccha. & Free the world from the clutches of Kali, the very embodiment of strife. Re-establish the perfect dharma. Inaugurate a new time cycle of existence with a brand new satya yuga.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Curl up in bed with a good book.

This morning, Ujwal was desperately looking for old issues of The Reader's Digest. I asked her why. The reason startled me. A Grade 8 student of hers attending an ICSE school had been asked to write a book review. The condition was the book should not be a "classic". Ujwal was trying to help her find a "book digest" that was appropriate to her level and that she could manage to read over the weekend and write a review of. This is unconscionable sadism on the English teacher's part if you ask me. An 8th grader who probably reads only school books, that too under extreme duress as likely as not, and spends her leisure avidly watching the Idiot Box and gossiping about Hritik Roshan and Salman Khan should not be asked to write a book review. To be a book reviewer, you have first to be a book lover and a book reader. When she was here this summer, I listened to Avantika blithely complaining about having to read Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro and the review she had been asked to write in school. When I ribbed her about Ernest being the greatest American writer and a Nobel Prize winner no less, she didn't seem overly impressed. If you must teach a contemporary 8th grader writing skills, please teach her how to write a better SMS, text message and email. If you must make her write reviews, please ask her to review the latest soaps and movies. I could go on and on foaming at my mouth on the subject. Instead, I will direct you to my earlier pearls of wisdom cast here:

P.S.: By the way, for people like me who actually curl up in bed with a good book (my latest is Girja Kumar's BRAHMACHARYA Gandhi & His Women Associates), there is actually such a thing as a book specially printed sideways to make it easily readable in bed. The only catch is, they have at present in print only "classics", maybe of the lapsed copyright kind.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Gauri comes calling.

When I was a child growing up at 233 Khetwadi Main Road Gauri Pujan used to be an annual occurrence there. It was all celebrated in the spirit of a married daughter of the house coming, after a long absence, to visit her parents for just a couple of days. It was more a social and family occasion than a religious ritual. No priest officiated on the avaahan (arrival), pujan (worship) and visarjan (departure) days. It was the Lady of the House and other womenfolk who did all the honours. I remember my mother and others like an aunt, a cousin, even Ujwal after our marriage collectively placing and arranging the Gauri idol on a huge teakwood bajot set against the west wall of the passageway that divided our terrace flat in half. They all kept mum while they were doing it for what reason I could never fathom. Gauri's special zari saree was stored in its own black tin trunk. Her ornaments were kept in a brass grill-work oblong container with a lid. In my childhood days, my aunt from Khar and her daughters used to come and stay with us for three days. So I, a lonely child most of the time left to my own devices, had some company for a change. Naturally, I used to look forward to Gauri's annual visit. On the second (pujan) day, in the evening, women guests would arrive for darshan and were given prashad (two saffron- and cardamon-flavoured pedhas wrapped in thin transluscent cellophane specially ordered from Damodar Mithaiwala on Grant Road opposite the Novelty Cinema and haldi kunku on the visiting daughter's behalf. It was an almost all-women affair except for a few exceptions made for the immediate family and friends - quite a gala occasion at 233 Khetwadi Main Road as I remember. I was allowed to skip school on that day. For a few years, I even used to have a khelacha (play) Ganapati for ten days. It was a silver idol with its own simhasan (throne) and chhatri (umbrella) and its own set of miniature silver puja paraphernalia all purchased from Mhaskar and Company on Girgaum Road where my mother shopped regularly and even had a charge account. I remember that, on one occasion, I created a miniature zoo with miniature animals, trees and stuff all from our in-house toy collection. On another occasion, it was a toy train on a ghat with a station on one side and so forth. Our second-floor neighbours, an extended Gujarati family, used to worship two Ganapati idols for 5 days. We used to go there for the evening aarati and also hold our own. Gauri ceased calling at 233 Khetwadi Main Road only after the death of my mother.

Breaking "news".

Your correspondent has been boring you to distraction for quite a while with the Chronicles of The Mankars at 233 Khetwadi Main Road Now he has some "news" for you to get all breathless in Bombay (now Mumbai) about. It concerns the conquest of the Fort of Baçaim (later Bassein, now Vasai) by Chimaji Appa, a Maratha (Peshwa) General in February 1739. In the success of this expedition, Khanduji Mankar, a Pathare (Pratihar) Prabhu, and Antaji Kawale, a Yajurvedi Brahmin, were believed to have played a pivotal though unspecified role. The latter was even promised the jagir of Malad but, after Bajirao I's and Chimaji's death, the new Peshwa reneged on the promise and made life miserable for the Yajurvedi Brahmins and their associates, the Pathare Prabhus. The latter community migrated to Bombay and joined the service of the Company.

In Chapter 6 of Madame Helena Patrovna Blavatsky's From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan (1879-80), she wrote about visiting a Patara Prabhu household in the Bombay Presidency for an evening meal on a Monday (probably a shrawan Monday). A vegetarian menu, including panchamrit, a favourite of Ashu's usually included in a Pathare Prabhu marriage feast, was mentioned. According to her host, Sham Rao Bhaunathji, the Pathare Prabhus were Kshatriyas (warriors) and direct dscendents of Ashvapati (700 BC), a lineal descendent of Rama. Ashvapati was cursed, because of an unintended lapse, by Sage Bhrigu that all his progeny would perish. He, however, managed to get a part reprieve from the Sage and the Pataras became the Patans (the fallen ones) but did not entirely disappear from the face of the earth. She writes about how their current generation was living "by their pens" which is to say "occupying all the small Government posts in the Bombay Presidency, and so being dangerous rivals of the Bengali Babus since the time of British rule. In Bombay the Patan clerks reach the considerable figure of five thousand. Their complexion is darker than the complexion of Konkan Brahmans, but they are handsomer and brighter."

Blavatsky did not mention, indeed did not seems to be aware of, an alternative interpretation of the prefix Patan. It has been postulated that the prefix probably sprang from their hailing from Patan, Gujarat, and arriving in Bombay in the 13th Century during Raja Bhimdev's (or Bimb's) reign. Another theory by the art historian W E Gladstone Soloman is that, in Marathi, Pathar means "table land" or flat land and these people occupying the plains of Rajasthan came to be known as Pathare Prabhus. Raja Bhimdev created twelve Kshatriya Lords (Prabhus) of the Solar Race with surnames like Ajinkya (= the invincible), Dhaiyarwan (= the courageous), Dharadhar (= the supporter of the earth), Dhurandhar (= the foremost), Gorakshakar (= the protector of cows), Jayakar (= the victorious), Kirtikar (= the illustrious), Kothare (= the administrator or manager of the store house/granery), Mankar (= the noble one), Nayak (= the leader), Rane (= the kingly lord) and Rao (= the noble lord). These surnames persisted even after they lost their warrior status and became minor officials under the Marathas and civilian officials under the East India Company. "If the sword had brought them glory, the pen now gave them wealth, and it is said that in the Eighteenth Century they were among the richest folk in Bombay." Around this time, the easy going and luxury loving Pathare Prabhus must have been nicknamed sokajis. (The closest English equivalent for this tag is a bon vivant as well as a fop or a dandy.) Later in the British Raj, they held important offices in the Bombay Presidency as judges, educationist, lawyers, doctors, merchants, architects, artists and engineers. This account tallies with Blavatsky's.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Pathare Prabhus were reputedly the owners of prime properties in Mumbai: in Fort, on Palav (now Girgaum Road or Jagannath Shankarseth Marg), in Navi Wadi, in Laini (now Princess Street), on Girgaum Back Road (now Vithalbhai Patel Road), in Malad, Goregaon, Bhayendar, Kashi-Mira, Uttan, Uran, Kelve Mahim (now Mahim), Chene and a large part of Khar (West). They were also supposed to have built prominent Mumbai landmarks such as the Mahalaxmi Temple, Bhau-cha-dhakka (Ferry Wharf), Gora Ram Temple, Kala Ram Temple (both in Thakurdwar close to where I stay), Prabhadevi Temple (Mahim), Shri Ram Temple (Kalbadevi) and Kirtikar Market (Dadar). The Maheshwari Temple in Navi Wadi (enshrining the Mankars' family deity) is believed to have a swayambhu (spontaneously created) idol. The one trait of the Pathare Prabhus mentioned by W E Gladstone Soloman (p.49 ), the composing and singing of epithalamiums during the marriage ceremony, is something I can personally vouch for. Written in flowery and hagiographic Marathi, I have heard them at several weddings sung to the tune of the mangalashtakas (mantras solemnising the nuptials).

Finally, Dr Babsaheb Ambedkar wrote in Annihilation of Caste with a Reply to Mahatma Gandhi about the Pathare Prabhu's abandoning their custom of widows remarrying as follows:"At one time the Pathare Prabhus had widow-remarriage as a custom of their caste. This custom of widow-remarriage was later on looked upon as a mark of social inferiority by some members of the caste especially because it was contrary to the custom prevalent among the Brahmins. With the object of raising status of their community some Pathare Prabhus sought to stop this practice of widow-remarriage that was prevalent in their caste. The community was divided into two camps, one for and the other against the innovation. The Peshwas took the side of those in favour of widow-remarriage and thus virtually prohibited the Pathare Prabhus from following the ways of the Brahmins."

Time out for a personal memory before closing: At one point in her narrative, Blavatsky wrote: "At the foot of a broad, carved staircase we came across a couch or a cradle, hung from the ceiling by iron chains." This sentence reminded me of the wooden swing we used to have in the central north-south passage way in our terrace flat at 233 Khetwadi Main Road. It was rectangular with horizontal slats, made of teakwood most likely. It hung from a special beam halfway from the ceiling - I have no clue if it had been there before we moved to the flat or not, though considering that the building was originally built and owned by an Arab diamond merchant, it's more than probable that it predated us there. The swing had four brass chains. One more thing I remember about it is that it had an almost identical twin in my uncle's ground floor flat facing the Roxy Cinema where I was born. Our swing used to be my make-believe Deccan Queen. I used to play a game of Bombay to Poona on it all by myself, varying the speed and the sweep of the swing depending on whether the Queen was running on level ground or doing the ghat gradients.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Best of Enemies.

I don't know why enmity was so widely and avidly practised by the Aryan denizens of The Mahabharata. It's astounding how most of the principal characters had prima donna tendencies: quick to take offence, quick to anger, quick to feel envy, quick to seek revenge and retribution. The higher-caste ones, Brahmin and Kshatriya, were remarkably similar in this respect. They would do just about anything for power, glory, fame and all that jazz. To my mind, the only totally harmless and thoroughly well-meaning character was the low-born (suta putra) Vidura, the half-brother of the defective duo: blind Dhritarashtra and impotent Pandu. The poor fellow would have most likely made an able and just ruler. But just because his mother was of suta extraction, he was denied the throne. He looked after the Pandavas and, in their absence, after their mother, Kunti. The other (mock) suta putra, Karna, was of course a thorough scoundrel of the first order. He was the one who provoked the Kauravas to disrobe Draupadi in the royal assembly, saying that any woman who married five men was no better than a whore. This was after Dharma had gambled away everything the Pandavas owned in the dice game master-minded by Shakunimama. What's more, Karna was no match for Arjuna as a couple of instances before the Great War amply proved. Drona, a Brahmin turned Kshatriya, was the tutor of martial skills for the royal cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas. He got Arjuna to vanquish King Drupad because, earlier on, the latter, who was his fellow-student and a close friend, had insulted him when he went to his court seeking his patronage. Thereafter, instead of ending the feud there and then by reminding Drupad of the error of his ways, he deprived his former friend of half his kingdom. In the best of the Mahabharata vein, Drupad promptly worshipped Agni and asked for a son who would avenge him. Out of the ceremonial fire emerged the fully grown twins, Dhrishtaduymna and his sister, Draupadi. The themes of greed and hate, retribution and revenge, oneupmanship, jealousy and envy keep recurring in the epic. There was also the pastoral Aryan lifestyle being forcibly imposed on the native Nagas, very much reminiscent of what is going on even today in India. If there is a moral to the story, it is probably the following. Learn not to take offence. Learn to keep anger in check. Avoid violence. Eschew greed. Learn to compromise. Learn to control your tongue. Maybe, I'm looking at it through a post-modern pair of glasses, though. (By the way, "Maya", the previous post, is also about The Mahabharata.

Friday, September 05, 2008


The first thing my son Ashu said while giving me his copy of The Palace of Illusion was: "I wish somebody would make a movie of it."

After having read it, I couldn't agree less.

While there's plenty of spectacle, action and drama in Chitra Banerjee Devakaruni's novelisation of The Mahabharata - in other words, what a shrewd filmmaker looks for in a novel before deciding to make a movie of it - most of it "happens" in Draupadi's mind. How do you show it except, maybe, using the current by-now already clichéd device of switching to (say) black and white footage from full colour to depict what she "saw" in her mind's eye?

Not good enough, if you ask me.

While the event horizon of the novel broadly resembles the Vyasa epic's, Devakaruni's reference point seems more in the vicinity of Dr Irawati Karve's Yuganta: The end of an epoch. She mentioned it as one of her secondary sources in a recent Sunday Mid-day interview. Chapter 7 of Yuganta, by the way, is about Mayasabah, "The Palace of Maya".

The closest a movie can come to a book is by suggesting instead of actually showing. Alfred Hitchcock knew this well. He never forgot the unique movie screen and projector each one of us possesses. His was the conjuror's art.

This is the kind of stuff The Palace of Illusion and The Mistress of Spices are made of. When you read them, you can run your own movie in the privacy of your mind.

Just after I started reading The Palace of Illusion, I thought it was a bit overwritten. I changed my mind on that score soon enough. In fact, whenever push came to shove, I found Devakaruni at her deftest. She knows her craft really, really well. She knows when not to overdo it. She is the Mistress of Spices. And, of Illusions. She is the supreme sorceress of subtlety when it comes to story-telling. Draupadi's swayamwar, her disrobing, the 18-day war and its aftermath are all written with great restraint using the power of suggestion.

The Palace of Illusion, a Vyasa redux in one sense, makes light even of its load of Advaita sagacity. Try to remember that you are the instrument and I the doer, Krishna, her platonic boy friend, tells Panchaali when he comes to help her soul's final journey.

(By the way, I owe the Krishna="boy friend" equation to Dr Irawati Karve's Marathi eponymous essay written in 1970, the year of her death. She described how her son-in-law called Vithoba of Pandharpur her "boy friend" once after her return from her journey there. It puzzled her first, she writes. On reflection, she found the descriptive tag appropriate. After all, had Vithoba (an incarnation of Vishu) not been called "mother", "father", "companion", "relative", "sweetheart" and the like? So what was wrong with "boy friend"?)

Earlier, when told to confirm if Sikhandi's narration of his past is true, Krishna says: “He believes it to be so. Isn’t that what truth is? The force of a person’s believing seeps into those around him – into the very earth and air and water – until there’s nothing else.”

In reply to Panchaali's final query Are you truly divine?, he laughingly replies: "Yes, I am. You are, too, you know!"

No drum roll. No trumpets. The world is maya after all.

Got it?

P.S.: Devakaruni's feminist and pacifist concerns make their presence felt throughout, though. For instance, the initiative taken by the women of the Pandava clan as well as Gandhari to rehabilitate the widows of the war is strongly reminiscent of Maitri, the helpline for Asian women in abusive situations that she established in 1991.

Afterthought: Avantika, 15, Ashu's younger daughter, a Digital Native from New Jersey, a good writer for her age but a lazy and reluctant reader, was given the first option on The Palace of Illusion by her dad before it was passed on to me. I hope she decides to read it someday soon.