Tuesday, March 27, 2007

She is the best gift

God gave me two of the most wonderful gifts, I could ever ask for. My two lovely daughters Lakshya and Disha .

I would not call them princesses or angels, but they are two of the most   lovable brats, you would ever meet. Mischievous, they can drive you to exasperation at times.  The many broken toys and items in our home are testimony to that. But yet without them, my life would have been totally meaningless. So what is the best gift I can give these two little bundles of joy. Expensive toys, fancy chocolates, costly dresses, weekend bashes . Maybe, but there are some things more precious than those. Am I being very old fashioned , out of tune with the modern world? If being modern , means forgetting some basic values, and being pretentious and showy, no thanks, I would rather be old fashioned

Too often we feel that just because something is expensive, and very trendy, we must buy it for our kids. And we feel proud that we are showering the most expensive gifts on them. But have we any time asked, do they really want that?  Yes they do watch ads a lot and that could be an influence. But at the end of the day, they want something because they like it. I once remember giving my daughters some very expensive Swiss chocolates , which one of my friends had bought me. They did not like it very much. But their faces light up when I bring that small packet of Marbles , because that’s what they really like. They take more pleasure in that small plastic toy or that nameless battery operated car, rather than those expensive brands which cost a fortune. Kids love the simple things in life . They like spending hours in the sun playing cricket with a plastic ball and bat. My elder daughter loves to ride her cycle, all day long. The best gifts which you can give, are not the most expensive or fancy ones. It is those gifts which make your daughter genuinely happy. Does she love that kitschy looking plastic toy, she has seen on a pavement? Buy it for her. We have long ago stopped appreciating the simple things of life, why should we deny her those simple pleasures? 

My elder daughter, Lakshya , was in the hospital. The doctor and nurse remove her stitches which she had recently. I still remember her cries, calling out for me, as she felt the pain. She is alone in the hospital room, and though the doctor and nurse are trying their best, to make her feel better, she wants me to be by her side, more than any one else. What if I had not been there? I shudder at the very thought. We might shower our kids with the most expensive gifts, but nothing, can substitute for being there when they need us . I can see it whenever my younger daughter, Disha , starts to weep, when she does not see her mother around. I can see it, whenever my daughters clutch me hard, while I hold them asleep. And I see it every evening, whenever I ring the doorbell, and they come running for their Dad . The best gift, you can give your daughters, is being there when they need you . Nothing beats it. 

I often work on the lap top, at home, or just do some browsing. Whenever I work on it, both my daughters come running there. They often keep disturbing my work, and at times I do get irritated. But then when my elder one, Lakshya , keeps pointing and says, “Daddy what is this? Windows” , “What is this? Intel”, and then the other one Disha pipes in with “Daddy, Laptop”. Very often, when I need to work, I put on Cartoon Network , as my elder one, is especially hooked on it. I assume that she would be busy with it, and I could go on with my work. Tough luck, after some time, she comes to my side. It happened yesterday again, when she came, and saw me writing the review. That is when she also wanted to type something. And that taught me one thing, never take your children for granted, don’t assume things . They want to be part of whatever you are doing, and unless you are totally busy, involve them in it. 

The first book I gave my daughter was that of wild animals. She kept on me, until she made sure, that she knows the name of all the animals. And so on it was with vegetables, fruits, transport. Kids have lot of curiosity, they want to know a lot. Don’t deny them that pleasure. Read to them, show them things, instead of spending time on TV. One of the best gifts you can give to your daughters is knowledge . And somehow I find this ironical, we blow up money on a dress, which wont be useful after a couple of years. We take pride in how extravagantly we have celebrated our daughter’s first birthday. But when she asks for a book, which hardly costs anything, we don’t even care to listen to her. I have ensured that I read to my daughter regularly. And at 4 years, she knows the names of all planets, she can identify any animal coming on Animal Planet, she can identify the flag of a country. 

I am a proud Indian , and I love my heritage and culture. But at the same time, if my daughter loves to watch Tom &Jerry or  Disney , I am not going to throw a fit. Tomorrow if she wants to learn Salsa instead of Bharat Natyam , I am not going to get a heart attack. Don’t push your ideas on her. Too often I seen parents, wanting their daughter to be something, because they were not, that is criminal in my opinion. Teach her to be broadminded enough to appreciate diversity. Being proud of your culture, does not mean, being a frog in the well, and treating everything western as an abomination. At the same time, trying to appear, modern, and looking down on everything Indian, is like the tale of the crow who tried to look like a peacock. Today my daughters love seeing Tom & Jerry , but they also love Krishna and Hanuman . While she loves to decorate a Xmas tree, she also loves to celebrate Ganesh Puja

No gift is more precious than being there for your daughter, holding her hand and giving her love, care and affection. All the IPods, Xboxes and Play Stations can never compensate for the feeling that you are always there for her. That in effect is the best Gift I can give my daughters.

Indian Classics- Panchatantra

In the south of India, there was a king called Amarasakti. His concern was his 3 dullard sons who showed no interest in anything. So he called his council of ministers and asked them for advice.
One of the ministers suggested the name of Pandit Vishnu Sharma, a renowned Sanskrit scholar. The king summoned Vishnu Sharma and asked him to train his sons, who promptly took this up as a challenge. The scholar took the 3 sons to his ashram, and trained them in the matters by teaching them on 5 strategies. And in six months, the dullard sons were transformed into men of impeccable learning.

Those 5 strategies were what all of us in India know as Panchatantra. To most of us, Panchatantra is a collection of simple tales, with a moral in each one of them. Aha but there in lies the beauty of the whole work. While the tales are simple, the overall structure of the work is one of the most complex and brilliant piece of literature in a very long time. The scholar thought these princes, the strategies of life, but using simple language. Each strategy is narrated as a tale in a tale. And sometimes the tale in a tale, has another tale to it. Each of the chapters itself is a story, and this in turn contains tales, told by the narrators.

The first strategy is Mitrabheda or Loss of Friends. The story starts off with an abandoned bull Sanjeevaka, becoming the friend of a lion called Pingalaka. The tales in this part are narrated by 2 jackals Karkataka and Damanaka, who are the advisers for the lion. While Karkataka is more of a person who doesn’t want to get into intrigues, Damanaka is more cunning. The jackals are jealous of the lion’s friendship with the bull, and how they cause differences between them, and how ultimately, the lion kills the bull, is what makes up this chapter.

The second strategy is Mitralabha or Gain of Friends. This part is about 4 friends, a crow called Laghupatanka, a rat called Hiranyaka, a turtle called Mandharaka and a deer called Chitranga. How these friends come together, and how they unite to save the life of Chitranga from a hunter, depicts the value of bonding and friendship. The discourses on value of friendship are told again in a series of tales.

Suhruddabheda or Dissension between Friends is what makes up the third strategy. Here the tale is centered around traditional enemies Crows and Owls. The king of the crows Meghavarna, faces a threat from the colony of owls, who kill an crow, straying outside the tree.The king of the crows calls his ministers on how to tackle this threat. One minister calls for tactical retreat as a strategy, another minister calls for trickery citing the Mahabharat example of Bhima-Kichaka, the third minister suggests they spend time in exile and regroup for attack, while the next minister suggests that the king should gather allies and attack the owls. The wisest of the lot Sthirajeevi, suggest that the best way is to cause dissension among the owls, or put it simply Divide and Rule. So he pretends to have a fight with the crows, and gains the confidence of the king of owls Arimardana. The owl king has a conference with his ministers about what to do with Sthirajeevi. His most trusted adviser Raktaksha, advises him to kill the crow immediately, saying an enemy can never be trusted. But his other minister Kruraksha advises him to give shelter to a refugee, while another adviser Deeptaksha, feels Sthirajeevi would be of help in knowing the enemy. Another adviser Vakranasa, feels that when two rivals fight, it is they who would benefit and another minister Prakakarna, feels that cooperation is the best. Arimardana disregards the advice of Rakthaksha and has to pay a heavy price for this later.

Loss of Gains is what makes up the fourth strategy. Here the dialogue is between a monkey Raktamukha and a crocodile Karlamukha. The crocodile tries to kill the monkey, and how the monkey outwits the foolish crocodile, and makes him see wisdom,is what the strategy is about. This part shows that at times, even when we have everything to gain, we end up losing all, thanks to our foolishness.Imprudence is what the final strategy is about. This advises that an action done in haste without proper thought would always result in grief. Though the actions of two Brahmins Chakradhara and Suvarnasiddhi, this shows that wisdom by itself has no meaning unless it is applied properly.

The 5 strategies are what made up Rajniti. These tales though simple, contain a lot of meaning, especially in areas like statecraft, politics and diplomacy. And the entire work is totally open ended. Each tale has a moral, but there is also another tale with a conflicting moral. Nothing is deemed as wrong or right, but taken in context of the situation. If ever there was a work on human nature and complexity of life, this is it. This is one of the best books, you can read to your children, Amar Chitra Katha has a wonderful series of comics dedicated to this, which are written in simple language. If you do want to go deeper into the complexities of this wonderful work, there are many books in the market, which have a more voluminous version. As a simple morality tale for kids or as a complex structure dealing with the intricacies of political life,the Panchatantra is a work that would be forever immortal.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Diary of Anne Frank

The Holocaust was not about 4 million or 5 million people dead. It was the fact that such large millions were brutally exterminated, just because they did not satisfy weird ideas of cultural supremacy.
The Holocaust was not about gas chambers or concentration camps. It was about whole families torn apart for no fault of their own. Fathers from daughters, mothers from sons, brothers from sisters, entire families just shattered. Babies wrenched from their mothers arms, old men considered unfit and thrown from balconies, young women and men worked to death in sub human conditions.
An entire generation destroyed to satisfy the whims of a megalomaniac. The Holocaust was not about Jews or Gypsies or Poles or Communists. It was the fact, that human beings were reduced to a state, where they had to live like animals, fighting for survival. The Holocaust is the single biggest disgrace in human history. And no amount of denials or fabricated evidence can erase this biggest stain on our conscience.

And one of the best novels to deal with this is Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young girl published in 1952 ( the Dutch version came in 1947 ). Anne Frank was like any normal girl, she loved playing around, had friends, dreamed of a Prince Charming . Just like any normal girl of those times, but she was a Jew , and that was a big crime in Nazi Germany . Her father Otto Frank , had long ago migrated from Germany , to the more safer climate of Holland in 1934 , when anti Semitic demonstrations broke out there. He started his own business in Amsterdam , and the family led a comparatively happy and peaceful life there. Anne and her sister Margot , were good students at school also.
Till the Nazi army, attacked Holland in 1940. Holland was one of the few places in Europe , which had a more liberal climate, and that was anathema to Hitler . The ill equipped Dutch army was no match for the professional Nazi army, and soon the country came under the Nazi jackboots. And like in most other countries under Nazi rule, they started to come out with blatantly discriminatory rules. The mandatory wearing of the yellow badge , segregating the Jews into ghettoes, decreeing that they could attend only Jewish schools.

The first part of the diary covers the period between June,1942 and December, 1942 . Most of the early entries center around her life, her family, her school, her dates, much like a typical school girl of 13 years. But she also lists some of the more restrictive rules that the Nazis placed on them. For eg the compulsory wearing of the yellow star and her relocating to a Jewish school. During July, 1942, her elder sister Margot was ordered by the Zentralstelle für jüdische Auswanderung, basically a Nazi front organization in Amsterdam , which dealt with forcible deportation of the Jews . This is what makes the family go into hiding from the Nazis. They hid an annexe in their office building, in fact walking all the way, as Jews were forbidden to use public transport.
And they hid there for most of the time, till they were captured. This is the most critical part of the diary. Basically it covers 2 periods Dec,1943 to April,1944 and from April 17,1944 to August 1,1944 when she and her family were betrayed and arrested by the Gestapo . Most of the diary is addressed to her fictional friend, Kitty, and begins with the line “My Dear Kitty”. This is where she describes about how it is to live under constant fear, her feelings, her beliefs, her ambitions, and those topics she felt could not be discussed with any one. She also writes of God, and human nature. And her relationship with her boyfriend Peter.
As a book, Anne Frank’s Diary , hits you in full force. How would you feel living under a constant fear, that one fine day, your entire life could be gone? Today we lead a comfortable life, and often get irritated over minor things. But what of this young girl, who finds her dream breaking away? Who dies every day to live another day? Anne Frank’s diary is at once depressing and yet uplifting. You feel depressed by the fact, that such a lovely young girl, finds her life being shattered. Yet at the same time you are inspired by her courage to face life as it comes.
She does not go into self pity, she faces death with a tremendous sense of equanimity. The horrors of facism when seen through the eyes of a young girl, hit you brutally in the face. You keep asking yourself why.
What crime did this girl commit, that her life was cut short so brutally. What crime was commited by so many families like hers, that they had to live with the trauma for their entire life? What made humans so inhuman to another human, that they would willingly destroy entire families? Why was such a megalomaniac man, allowed to get away with his crimes?
Yes the Allies won the war, and Hitler himself commited suicide, but at the cost of millions of lives. Millions of innocent lives snuffed out, families destroyed, cities reduced to rubble.There is a scene from the movie, The Pianist . An old Jewish woman, is carrying some meager food. A hungry Jewish man, assaults her, and as the food falls down, he frantically, laps it up, trying to stuff as much.
The old woman sobs as her meager rations are also lost. That is what the Holocaust did, reducing human beings to animals fighting for survival. And tragically we have not learnt any lesson from this. Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, Kashmir the names change but the story remains the same. Of a brute majority, supressing the minority, just because they happen to be of a different stock. We don’t understand the fact that bigotry and racial hatred, ultimately destroy us. The whole of Germany had to face a heavy price, for Hitler’s Aryan supremacy. In that sense Anne Frank’s Diary is a novel, that needs to be read, by every human being, to understand the futility of fascism.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Animal Farm

Why do revolutions often end up devouring their own kind? The French Revolution was fought on the principles of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity , yet it ended up creating a regime, as despotic and tyrannical as the one it overthrew. In Russia , the revolution against the autocratic Tsarist regime, created a new dictatorship of it’s own. Dictators in Africa, Asia and Latin America , who came to power fighting against unjust regimes, totally turned tyrannical themselves. Was their revolution for ideals or simply a lust for power? We have seen it back home in India, where the Angrez were replaced by the Brown Sahibs , infinitely worse.
George Orwell’s 1945 classic, Animal Farm , is one of the best novels, dealing with such questions. Short, but powerfully written, this is one of the most biting satires on communism you could ever find.
The novel deals with the story of Manor Farm , where animals are exploited by the humans owning that farm. Old Major , a prize winning pig on the farm, rallies the animals, saying that he has had a dream, in which all humans are gone, and animals can live in peace. Though Old Major dies, his two associates Snowball and Napoleon , two young pigs, rally the animals in a major revolt against the owner of the farm, Mr Jones and his family. After the owners flee, it is renamed as Animal Farm .
Snowball formulates the Seven Commandments of Animalism , and the 7th one is important, “All animals are equal”. Snowball teaches the animals how to read and write, and becomes a popular leader. This is however not to Napoleon’s liking, who creates an army of dogs, and chases Snowball away. Napoleon , who earlier opposed Snowball ’s idea of a windmill, takes the credit for it, after his ouster, and brainwashes all the other animals against him. He eliminates all of Snowball’s close associates, through his dogs, and of course he has a ready made propagandist in a pig, Squealer , who projects him as a hero. In the meanwhile he has a faithful ally in the hard working horse Boxer , who loyally follows the leader. Napoleon creates his own personality cult, and runs a reign of terror on the farm.
What started out as “All animals are equal” becomes “Some animals are more equal” as the pigs begin to assume special privileges for themselves. What happens to Napoleon’s dictatorial rule and how the revolt goes horribly wrong is what needs to be read. What makes the novel fascinating are the animal characters who have in fact been modeled on the real life characters of that time. Animal Farm is a scathing attack on Stalin’s dictatorial regime, and the Communist Party’s corruption.
Napoleon : This character is based on Stalin , and his nine dogs represent his secret police with which he harassed his opponents. He alters the original principles of Communism to suit his own personal interests. And his deal with the human beings, is akin to Stalin’s deal with Nazi Germany. At one stage in the story, he orders collection of hen’s eggs forcibly. The hens destroy all their eggs rather than give it to him. This is again in reference to his brutal collectivization program, where Ukrainian peasants, preferred to destroy their farms, rather than hand it over. George Orwell was a socialist, but he hated Stalin’s tyrannical rule.
Also the part where Mr.Frederick with whom Napoleon has made a pact, betrays Animal Farm and attacks it, is akin, to Hitler invading Russia , in spite of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Also Napoleon replacing the original anthem Beasts of England, with a totally mediocre one, is reflected in Stalin’s replacing the Internationale with Hymn of the Soviet Union .
Snowball : He is Napoleon’s rival and is ousted from the farm. This is based on Stalin’s real life rival Leon Trotsky , whom Stalin exiled from Russia . Like Snowball , Trotsky , was a popular leader and a passionate believer in the ideology of the revolution. When Snowball is driven out from the farm, Napoleon makes him the scapegoat for everything wrong. In real life too, Trotsky, was subjected to character assassination by Stalin’s cronies.
His close associates were all murdered, which is depicted in the book by Napoleon using his dogs to get rid of Snowball’s men. Trotsky was in fact later assassinated in Mexico , on the orders of Stalin himself.
Squealer is a pig, who is a crony of Napoleon, and indulges in his praise always. Orwell here was referring to Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s crony and the Russian newspaper Pravda . Together they indulged in blatant propaganda of Stalin and covered up his misdeeds. Squealer uses the bogey of humans coming back to take the farm, much like the standard Communist propaganda about enemies of the revolution.
While Old Major represents Lenin himself, the most tragic character is that of Boxer , the horse. Boxer represents the ever exploited, hard working, gullible working class. His loyalty is used by the pigs for their own purposes, and when the purpose is served, he is killed and disposed of. Mollie a white mare who loves ribbons and leaves the farm, represents the pampered elite of the Soviet Union , who fled after the revolution.
The hens whom Napoleon starves to death, are reminiscent of the Kulaks , who resisted Stalin’s forced collectivization program, and paid a heavy price for it. Mr Jones the owner of the farm, represents Tsar Nicholas II , the autocratic ruler who was executed by the revolutionaries, while Mr.Pilkington who represents the rival Pinchfield farm, represents Hitler .
Though Animal Farm is a satire on Stalin’s rule, it could apply to any country anywhere around the world, including India. The names might change but the basic characters don’t. Orwell, drives home the fact, that every revolution, which came to power, claiming to fight for the rights of oppressed, became much more oppressive than the previous regimes. During the Early part of the 20th century, in a world, shattered by the Great Depression , the World Wars , and rising anti colonial movements, Communism with it’s egalitarian ethos, held attraction for many people.
However in power, the Communist rulers, proved to be worse than those whom they had overthrown. What was supposed to be a movement, for equality, became one where the Communist leaders enjoyed a privileged life, while the ordinary people, still lived a life of misery. That was why in 1989, there was a massive upsurge against the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe , and they fell like nine pins. The ordinary people in Russia had to stand in the biting cold for hours together to buy a loaf of bread, while the pampered Communist officials, enjoyed caviar and vodka, in their plush homes. It was as if one set of opressors, was replaced by another one.

Closer home, we fought a battle against the British, but for what. The Gora Sahibs were replaced by the Brown Sahibs, a class of people, who were worse than the British. A class of people, who had no love for the country, corrupt to the core, and looted it. And the tragedy of India, is they still continue to loot the country. Animal Farm is a powerful satire on what happens, when the ideals of a revolution get distorted, by people for their own selfish ends. And it holds true even today, with regimes promising change, ending up like their predecessors, or maybe even worse. Short, concise and hard hitting, this book deserves to be read by every one, just to understand how we the ordinary people are being fooled and exploited in the guise of ideology.