Saturday, April 30, 2011

Saint and sinner.

Venal, graft-riven, gimme-more-minded Middle India with so many sinister secrets tumbling out of its closet of late might as well lay a claim to Ludwig Wittgenstein as its saviour saint. Wittgenstein was seriously flawed, disturbed and tortured – nay, anguished by an awareness of sin and guilt and the need to do soul-searching aloud. In point of fact, he was the self-confessed sinner who aspired to sainthood. He was also phenomenally gifted so much so, in fact, that the Cambridge Apostles as well as the Bloomsbury crowd were duly deferential to him. Some of his biographers have revealed his “penchant for disciples” and his eagerness to dominate, cow down and virtually terrorize his followers as well as be venerated by them. Fania Pascal, his Russian tutor in the 1930s and later his colleague in Cambridge where he was the lionized philosophy professor described a bizarre incidence. Wittgenstein once insisted on reading to her, on a priority basis at a time when one of her children was ill, a written confession of his sins, viz., his failure to tell his friends about his Jewish ancestry and his denial of having physically abused a former pupil. To her irritated query halfway through the stiff recital: “What is it? You want to be perfect?” he answered with a thunderingly affirmative retort: “Of course I want to be perfect.” The other “father confessor”, Rowland Hutt, was equally uncomfortable listening to Wittgenstein’s loud recital of his purple misdemeanors delivered across a table in a Lyons cafĂ©. That very year, i.e., in 1937, Wittgenstein went to the village of Otterthal (Austria) to apologize to the parents of the children who had been at the receiving end of corporal punishment meted by him in his capacity as an elementary school teacher from 1924 to 1926. His open intolerance for his intellectual equals prompted his disciples into jeering at contrarian views. Mrs Pascal, though, thought of Wittgenstein as “remarkably unself-conscious”, oblivious of his capacity to wound others or arouse fear in them. He was unimpressed by class, status and temporal success. He was as demanding on himself as on others. He seemed to her the least neurotic of men: single-minded, resolute and steel willed. All this, in her estimation, would “… make him stand out as a prophet … not intrigued or amused by human nature ... [but] sure this nature was evil; and his attitude to it was one of despair.” To her, he appeared as a “free” man, one who had given up wealth, community, close national ties, pretence, adaptation so that he inspired awe among others. To John King, a student at Cambridge and friend, Wittgenstein was “a man of high moral, intellectual and artistic integrity ... tolerant of those who had less ability than himself and never censorious except of what he considered humbug, hypocrisy, affectation”. In his view, his teacher “saw a high seriousness and purpose in life”, and said: “Of one thing I am certain – we are not here in order to have a good time.”

Penny dreadful. Utterly awful.

A couple of days ago, I finally finished reading The Sexton Blake Casebook: A Collection of Adventures featuring the other world famous detective compiled by Mike Higgs (Galley Press, Leicester, 1987). I had acquired this curious volume off the footpath on Hornby Road back in the eighties. The hardcover volume in a large format has a slip-jacket sporting a woodcut illustration of Blake in a red nightgown smoking a pipe presumably in his Baker Street flat. It also has five novellas: [1] The Mystery of Glyn Castle (The Sexton Blake Library, No. 269, 31-01-1923, 4 d.); [2] The Case of the Society Blackmailer (The Sexton Blake Library, No. 12 New Series 31-08-1925, 4 d.); [3] The Crime in the Wood (The Sexton Blake Library, No. 104 New Series, 30-07-1927, 4 d.); [4] Down and Out (The Sexton Blake Library, No. 174 New Series, 03-01-1929, 4 d.); and [5] The Missing Millionaire: The Very First Sexton Blake Story (Halfpenny Marvel, 1893, Price not stated.) After plodding through these shoddily plotted and clumsily written tales set in sylvan Victorian surroundings about status-driven perils suffered by British toffs (blackmail, kidnapping and the like), understanding why Sexton Blake was anointed “the prince of penny dreadfuls” and “the office boy’s Sherlock Holmes” was simplicity itself. It is amazing how Sexton Blake, Tinker and Pedro the bloodhound have managed to survive from 1893 to the late 1970s not only in penny dreadfuls but also in comics, stage plays, cinema, radio, a 78 rpm gramaphone record and a set of playing cards. If Blakiana cm9zyp is to be believed, the saga carries on regardless even in the Kindle era. There’s no accounting for popular tastes, I guess.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Civil as in…

“Civil society” is the phrase making the rounds in the Indian news media these days. I wonder what sense “civil” conveys here. Webster’s defines the adjective six ways. In the first sense, it means “applying to ordinary citizens as contrasted with the military” as in “civil authorities”. In the second, it means “not rude; marked by satisfactory (or especially minimal) adherence to social usages and sufficient but not noteworthy consideration for others” as in “civil behaviour”. In the third sense, it denotes “of or occurring within the state or between or among citizens of the state” as in “civil affairs”, “civil disobedience”, “civil strife”, “civil unrest”, “civil war” and “civil branches of government”. The fourth sense signifies “of or relating to or befitting citizens as individuals” as in “civil rights” and “civil liberty”. Fifthly, it signifies “legally recognized in ordinary affairs of life” as in “the civil calendar” and “civil marriage”. In the sixth sense, it conveys “of or in a condition of social order” as in “civil peoples”. Though Webster’s does not mention “civil society” and “civil life” to illustrate the first and the sixth senses, my guess is that either of those must be the intended meaning of the current usage. But given that Indians are partial to their own choice of vocabulary, I cannot be too insistent that I’ve hit the nail on the head. After all, we’re prone to saying “rubber” when we mean an “eraser”; “flat” when we mean a “residential apartment”; “eve teasing” when we are thinking of a woman being harassed sexually by offensive words. We also use “tight slap” for “hard slap”; “pindrop silence” for “total silence”; “hill station” for “mountain resort”; “redressal” for “reparation”; “expire” for “die”; “prepone” as the opposite of “postpone”; “allopathy” for "conventional medicine"; “loose motion” for diarrhoea; "charity" for "philanthropy"; and "corruption" for "graft". Indian English tends to be in an on-going state of civil disobedience or civil strife, I guess.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Humbug? Bullshit? Claptrap? Hokum? Drivel? Balderdash? Travesty of truth? Fibbing? Fraud? Swindle? Fakery? Hoax? Or, plain lying?

A beautiful young woman, on an international flight, spoke to the priest sitting in the adjoining seat, “Father, may I ask you for a favour?”

”Of course you may, my child. What can I do for you?”

“Well, before boarding the flight, I impulsively bought this expensive electronic hair dryer in the Duty Free Shop. But it is well over the Customs Duty limit and I'm afraid that they'll confiscate it from me. Is there any way that you could carry it through the Customs for me? Under your robes perhaps?”

“I would love to help you, child. But let I warn you: I shall not lie.”

“With your honest face, Father, no one will question you.”

When they got to the Customs barrier, the young lady let the priest walk ahead of her.

The Customs Officer asked, “Father, do you have anything to declare?”

“From the top of my head down to my waist, I have nothing to declare.”

The Officer thought this answer strange, so he asked, “And what do you have to declare from your waist to the floor?”

“I have a marvelous little instrument designed to be used on a woman which is, till date, unused.”

Roaring with laughter, the Officer said, “God bless you, Father, go ahead.”

Moral of the story: Never tell a lie. Use your mind.

Question to ponder for the Catholics: What will the priest tell his father confessor? (“Father, forgive me. For I’ve sinned by fibbing the Customs officer at LAX…”?)

Question to ponder for all readers: How would you describe the Father’s reply to the Customs Officer? Your options are in the heading of this post.

Hints: (1) A helpful definition: “HUMBUG: deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody's own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.” (2) “Bullshit” is never well crafted or carefully wrought.

One more recent instance of probable fakery: Did Sarah Palin fake Trig’s birth just prior to running as the VP mate in John McCain’s 2008 US Presidential bid to cover up, maybe, for her daughter, Bristol? Also:

Thursday, April 14, 2011

What’s in it for me?

It may seem churlish and unfeeling to cite the following two examples that illustrate Middle India’s persistently pathological sense of entitlement. Item #1: 5 members of the family of a SAIL employee who died in 1994 took poison because the Bhilai plant refused to give a job to his son. Item #2: Arunima Sinha, an up-and-coming volleyball player, lost her leg in a chain-snatching incidence on a train in UP. The Sports Ministry offered her Rs.25000/- as interim compensation, Rs 2 lakhs for hospital expenses and a job in railways – and still face the wrath of the athlete as well as media. What I find astonishing in the first instance is that the SAIL ex-employee’s family – which till date has not vacated the government premises to which he was entitled as a staff member – feels also entitled to continued employment of at least one family member by the steel giant. In the second instance, I find it equally flabbergasting that the victim holds the railways and probably both the Government of India and the UP Government responsible for her sorry plight. If a chain of responsibility must be traced, I would say the fault lies principally with the goldsmith who made and sold the gold chain she was wearing and with her for buying it and flaunting it in a manner that tempted the thieves to snatch it. If it comes to that, she need not have resisted the chain snatchers. A limb is any time more precious than a gold chain. Passing the buck and pointing fingers at others ought to stop.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The baksheesh culture.

It’s time to celebrate the birth of Rama, the mythological king of Ayodhya who stood for all that’s just, moral and righteous in this world. It’s also the right time for Middle India to seethe with righteous indignation and rile at the ten-headed demon of corruption. What an Indian means by “corruption” is “graft”. Or, “baksheesh” in street parlance. If history is any indication, we Indians have been giving and receiving baksheesh with guiltless impunity from time immemorial. It stems from our feudal past that has seamlessly extended into our present. Again, if history is any indication, it will continue to extend effortlessly into our future too. The Middle Indian housewife who was excitedly waving a candle just yesterday to support Anna Hazare will hand out baksheesh to the peon in the school where she is seeking admission for her darling son to help her jump the queue for the admission forms the very next day − without blinking an eyelid. In the bad old days of Socialist India, it used to be fashionable to curse the licence-permit-quota regime for nurturing the baksheesh culture. It is ironic that, in the times of liberalisation, Middle India has become even more liberal with baksheesh. The baksheesh culture, further bolstered by the spread of rentier capitalism, has an insidious way of spawning an endemic sense of entitlement even among non-performers and marginal factotums. The queue of ministers, bureaucrats, go-betweens, petty officials and other hopefuls at the receiving end grows longer by the minute. Can you imagine the lewd obscenity of the baksheesh announced for the World Cup heroes. As if they were playing for peanuts in the first place!

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Lost and found.

This, believe it or not, is a story with a happy ending − the ‘Lost and Found’ story, not The Cloud & The Kite tale. You may find it hard to accept the happy ending assertion simply because this blog, which as a rule tends to be subdued and cynical rather than over-the-top optimistic, says so.

The story started, if memory serves, in 1977. I was working in Everest Advertising at the time. The comprehensive dummy of the children’s book The Cloud & The Kite, written by me and illustrated by my friend Sanat Surti, was lying in a drawer in my cabin in the office. Then, one day, it suddenly went missing along with the typed manuscript or original text. This dummy had had the rare distinction of having travelled all the way to Japan and back.

Yesterday morning, believe it or not, I found the carbon copy of the long lost original text at home. It was lurking in a long forgotten bunch of papers tucked away in a drawer that had not been opened for years. If only, hoping against hope, I can now persuade Sanat to redo it, we may be able to take a crack at getting it into print as a children’s book.

Meanwhile, I am going to post the entire original text here so that, even if it doesn’t get published, it will get read by at least a few people. I have always felt that The Cloud & The Kite is a children’s book that deserves its place in the sun and that even some grown-ups with their inner child still extant may relish it.

By the way, the story-propelling device used in it is what you may call the plodding “if not this, then what” trial-and-error modus operandi of deductive reasoning. Read it and you’ll know what I mean.

[The Cloud & The Kite original text starts here …}

The Cloud & The Kite

By Deepak Mankar

Pictures by Sanat Surti

©Deepak Mankar 1976. Pictures ©Sanat Surti 1976.

A little cloud was wandering all alone in the sky one day. His name was Meghashyam.

“Oh, how I wish it were the monsoon,” he thought. “Then I would have lots of friends for company.”

But the rainy season was still far, far away. The sky was clear and blue but for Meghashyam.

“I shall change my shape and watch my shadow on the ground,” said he. “That will surely pass the time and keep me happy.”

First, Meghashyam turned himself into a rabbit with long ears and a cotton-bud tail.

“Ha, ha, ha,” he laughed. “Look at the funny bunny. Just look at his long, long ears and short, short tail.”

“Ho, ho, ho,” answered someone suddenly. “Bunnies are white and fair, not grey and dark like your silly shadow.”

“Who said that?” cried Meghashyam angrily.

He looked and looked but could find nobody.

So he went back to his game. He changed the rabbit into a flower with tiny petals and a short stem.

“Ha, ha, ha,” he roared with laughter. “This time, it is a cute little flower with a short tail. Just take hold of the tail and you will get a beautiful flower.”

“Ho, ho, ho,” jeered the same voice again. “Flowers are pink and fair, not grey and dark like your silly shadow.”

This time Meghashyam looked longer and harder than before. But he still could not find the owner of the voice.

“My ears are playing tricks on me,” he said.

“No, they are not,” said the voice shriller than before. “I am right here, behind you.”

Meghashyam turned round and noticed a kite flying smartly and shining brightly in the sunlight.

He had never met a kite before. Kites do not fly in the rainy season, do they?

“My name is Meghashyam. It means a dark cloud,” he said politely. “And, who are you?”

“Why don’t you find out for yourself,” asked the kite, smiling mockingly.

“Are you a balloon? You shine like a balloon,” Meghashyam told the kite.

Then he turned himself into a balloon and looked at his big, dark shadow on the ground.

“No, you are not. A balloon looks like this, not like you,” he said.

By now, the kite was giggling unabashedly.

“Try again, you silly cloud,” he shouted.

“If you shine like a balloon but are not a balloon, are you a butterfly? You are full of pretty colours like a butterfly,” said Meghashyam.

Then he changed his shape to resemble a butterfly and looked at his big, dark shadow on the ground.

“No, you are not a butterfly, my friend. A butterfly looks like this, not like you,” said he a wee bit sheepishly.

By this time, the kite was guffawing brazenly.

“Try once more, you woozy goose,” he cried.

”If you shine like a balloon but are not a balloon, and if you are colourful like a butterfly but are not a butterfly, you must be a bird. Your tail flutters like a bird’s tail,” Meghashyam told the kite.

He at once took the shape of a bird and looked eagerly at the big, dark shadow on the ground.

“Oh, no. A bird you surely are not,” he said disappointedly. “A bird looks like this, not like you.”

That remark made the kite go into even louder peals of laughter.

“Try one more time, you oaf,” he taunted Meghashyam mercilessly.

“If you shine like a balloon but are not a balloon, if you are colourful like a butterfly but are not a butterfly, and if your tail flutters like a bird’s tail but you are not a bird, you must be an aeroplane. You fly like an aeroplane,” said Meghashyam hopefully.

Then the cloud became an aeroplane and looked expectantly at his big, dark shadow on the ground.

“Oh, no. You are not even an aeroplane. Because an aeroplane looks like this, not like you,” he wailed bitterly.

The kite was about ready to split his sides with laughter.

“Try really hard this time, you numbskull,” he screamed scornfully.

But Meghashyam was feeling sorry for himself and in no mood to oblige. He started crying.

“No, I will not. Sob, sob, sob. I give up. Boo-hoo, boo-hoo. I do not even want to know who you are anymore.”

You know what happens once a dark cloud begins to cry. It just cannot stop until it has shed all the tears.

The cloud was no more his former sneering self. Now, for the first time, he felt a tinge of fear. He knew that once he got wet and soggy, he would never be able to fly again.

“Please, oh, please stop snivelling, Meghashyam,” he pleaded. “I am really, really sorry I made fun of you. I take back all the wicked things I said. I will even tell you who I am. But please stop crying at once. There’s a good boy.”

But, try as he might, Meghashyam just could not stop crying.

So the kite got wet and soggy and nosedived alarmingly.

On his way down, he got caught in a huge tree and could not free himself.

That day everyone in the neighbourhood wondered how it had rained so heavily when the rainy season was still far, far away.

Nobody thought of asking the kite caught in the tree.

But then nobody could tell he was a kite anymore.

Because he did not shine like a balloon anymore.

Because he did not look colourful like a butterfly anymore.

Because he did not have a tail fluttering like a bird’s tail anymore.

Because he could not fly like an aeroplane any more.

Well, well, well. Even Meghashyam did not find out who the kite was, remember?

[The End.]