On the Tragedy in Norway


Norway is a country respected by all. It is known for its beautiful fjords and the Nobel Peace Prize, a tradition of liberal democracy and the Vigeland Sculpture Park. It is a country where for decades now immigrants have gone and settled down with ease, from Sri Lanka and Somalia, from Morocco and India.

Who would have thought that such an atrocious crime would be committed there? Who could have imagined there was such deep rage and hate brewing in the heart of a Norwegian citizen, directed towards the growing number of non-white settlers in what he believes to be a county only for white Christians?

Perhaps some could have. It is no secret that the rising tide of Islamic immigration is rankling many Europeans. How many, no one can tell.  In Holland and France, in Germany and England more than a few have expressed their concerns in different, but not so abominably violent, ways.

When 9/11 happened, the vast majority of Muslims all over the world were outraged by the act. But a significant number also rejoiced in it, secretly or in street dancing. I suspect that while the vast majority of Europeans are stunned and angered by what that fanatical Norwegian did, a good many Europeans, deep in their hearts, are in sympathy with his concerns. After all, Momar Kaddafi asked Europeans Muslims not to worry for in fifty years they would be the majority in Europe.  True or not, such talk hasn’t really helped Muslims in Europe.

There is no telling how the course of history will turn when people feel – rightly or wrongly -that forces are afoot that will bring to an end  their economic security, religious beliefs, or cultural identity. Europe seems to be on this verge now, as is India.

We may pray and hope  in the interest of peace and humanity that the enlightened values that most Europeans and Indians uphold will prevent the spread of xenophobic catastrophes.

 July 27, 2011

Wisdom or Folly?


Subjecting of every facet of poetry, imagination, and spiritual experience to the microscope of rationality, empiricism, and scientific argumentation may not be the best application of scientific methodology..

No one can deny the enormous expansion of  knowledge and enhancement in perspectives, let alone the  plethora of creature comforts and ease of action and communication that Goddess Science has brought for humanity. These gratifications have been responding to our thirst and quest for knowledge about the physical world.

In the process of embracing the worldview erected by science, however, we have sometimes  diminished, if not let go, of other dimensions of being fully human. Ever since the rise of modern science sensitive poets and thoughtful philosophers have been warning us that reducing everything to order and pattern and empirical evidence could have unhealthy impacts on some important facets of our humanity.

But the appeal of pure reason and meticulous rationality that subtend modern science and the lure of  the fruits they bear through the medium of technology for lessening muscular efforts and providing  day to day enjoyments are so strong that people have difficulty taking the admonitions of poets and philosophers seriously.

Our  unquenchable hunger for energy has turned into an orgy of consumption and the rape of Nature. It is driving us to the brink, with little concern for the environmental assault we are engaged in. We are unable to heed the scientific warnings for the impending catastrophes.

Likewise, insightful peering into the nature of the phenomenal world has turned into a frenzy that attacks everything regarded as sacred, holy, and meaningful myth by past generations.

Beyond the experience of the past century which has seen increasing instances of psychological illnesses, broken marriages, and diseases arising from promiscuity, there are no solid proofs for a possible mental and spiritual chaos if the religions of the world are erased from humanity’s psyche. So, remembering only the atrocities committed in the name of God and religion, intellectual stalwarts of our times don’t seem to care what would human destiny be if or when our deepest longings and visions for something beyond are completely dismantled.

The big question is:   Is it wisdom or folly to call for a complete dismantling of all traditional religions, assuming that it is possible to achieve that?

July 21, 2011

Sa’di’s Gulistan


Once in Persia there was a king who had condemned a wrong-doer to death.

The angry man abused the king in his native dialect which the king could not understand.

So he asked a vizier to translate what the had said. The vizier said” “This man is saying that those who control their anger and forgive others will do to paradise. God will be good to them.”

The king was pleased and showed mercy to the helpless man.

Another vizier intervened and said: “It is not proper that we don’t tell the truth, oh King! This man was actually abusing his majesty and speaking ill of the king.”

The king replied: “I was happier with the falsehood of the first vizier which made me a benevolent king, than the truth you have presented which turns me harsh and heartless. Sometimes a falsehood that brings peace is better than a truth that stirs up mischief.

This story occurs in a marvelous work written by the great Persian writer and man of wisdom Sa’di. That work, called Gulistan (The Rose Garden) is said to have been written in 1257, more than 750 years ago. It has continued to be a major source of inspiration to the people for Persia during all these centuries. The stories and verses in Gulistan are as well known in that country as La Fontaine’s Fables are in France, Tiruvalluvar’s couplets are in the Tamil world, and Shakespeare’s plays are in the English speaking world.

The Rose Garden (translated many times into English) is an anthology of didactic stories and thought-provoking poems which deserve to be read by people all over the world. A quote from it is there for all to read in the Hall of Nations at the U.N.O. in New York. It reads:

Human beings are members of a whole,

In creation of one essence and soul.

If one member is afflicted with pain,

Other members uneasy will remain.

If you have no sympathy for human pain,

The name of human you cannot retain.

 

In our age of Orientalism-rancor and post-colonial writings, one may recall what one of the early English translators of Gulistan wrote:

… we find in Sa’di the science of life, as comprising morality and religion, set forth in a most suggestive and a most attractive form…

The “Rose Garden” has maxims which are not unworthy of being cherished amid the highest Christian civilization, while the serenity of mind, the poetic fire, the transparent sincerity of Sa’di, make his writings one of those books which men may safely take as the guide and inspirer of their inmost life.

July 20, 2011

Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Stanton


I recall a visit to Eisenhower College sometime in 1980 to give a talk there. That college 0 no longer in existence – was in the quaint little town of Seneca Falls which is in the Finger Lakes Region of upstate New York. I was told by a professor there that the town and its environs had inspired Frank Capra in his classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life.

No less importantly the town is famous for one of the earliest conventions in the country – perhaps in the world –  that discussed the topic of women’s rights. That convention began one hundred and fifty three years ago, on July 19, 1848, and lasted for two days. Few may remember the Quaker orator Lucretia Mottt (who would have been 200 this year) who was a leader there.  With her husband James Mott who founded the American Anti-Slavery Society, she  vigorously opposed slavery, and boycotted cotton clothes because slaves were used to pick cotton in those days. This reminds us of Gandhi who boycotted mill-manufactured clothes because the British took  away cotton from India and made them into textile which was sold back to Indians at huge profits.

It is interesting to recall that even enlightened men of the time did not approve of  Lucretia Mott or any other woman delivering speeches in public, least of all to audiences with men. They called this promiscuous behavior. When we are shocked or amused by countries which don’t allow women to drive a car these days, we have only to look back in history and remember how backward others have been not so long ago. The fault in unenlightened thinking, beliefs, and practices lies not so much in their unenlightened state, but in that they continue to sway the minds of  people in this day and age.

It is equally important to remember the  non-believing Elizabeth Cady Stanton, another ardent abolitionist who was also at that meeting, and who was also a relentless fighter for les droits des femmes.

Licretia Mott and Elizabeth Stanton  were among the pioneers who initiated a movement that gave women the civic rights and social dignity that were denied to them in many societies all over the world in pre-modern times. It is thanks to such leaders that we have women prime ministers, presidents, and secretaries of stet in today’s world. History moves forward only when it is pushed or pulled by bold visionaries.

July 19, 2011

On Thackeray’s Vanity Fair


Exactly two hundred years ago today, on July 18, 1811, there was born in a house on what used to be called Freeschool Street in Calcutta, not far from St. Xavier’s College where I once studied, a child to an English  couple serving the East India Company. That child was to become one of the immortals of English literature. His name was William Makepeace Thackeray (1811 – 1863).

He wrote many books, but the one that I read many years ago was Vanity Fair in which there is a description of how fairs used to be in those days: they were as different from the fairs to day in America are as these are from the melas of India. Here is the descrition Thackaray gave:

As the manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the boards and looks into the Fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him in his survey of the bustling place. There is a great quantity of eating and drinking, making love and jilting, laughing and the contrary, smoking, cheating, fighting, dancing and fiddling; there are bullies pushing about, bucks ogling the women, knaves picking pockets, policemen on the look-out, quacks (OTHER quacks, plague take them!) bawling in front of their booths, and yokels looking up at the tinselled dancers and poor old rouged tumblers, while the light-fingered folk are operating upon their pockets behind. Yes, this is VANITY FAIR; not a moral place certainly; nor a merry one, though very noisy. Look at the faces of the actors and buffoons when they come off from their business; and Tom Fool washing the paint off his cheeks before he sits down to dinner with his wife and the little Jack Puddings behind the canvas. The curtain will be up presently, and he will be turning over head and heels, and crying, “How are you?”

The novel exposes the hollowness and  pretensions of average people, and shows no nobility of character or heroes worthy of admiration. Rather it shows how cleverness is often associated with craftiness,  and goodness with mediocrity, even stupidity. It is a sad reflection on the human condition. Indeed the subtitle of Vanity Fair  is: A Novel without a Hero. One wishes we lived in a  better world.

But then, Thackeray did not have a very happy life. His wife became mentally ill, and fell off a ship when they were sailing to Ireland. He had a couple of unrequited love affairs, and he was to die when only in his early fifties. So his cynicism was understandable. But he was a master story teller, a good painter with words of human feelings and foibles.

July 18, 2011

Ghazals


Poetic forms know no cultural or linguistic barriers. Thus there are not only rhymes and meters, but also odes and sonnets, elegies and story-poems  in English and French, in German and Italian and more. Likewise, one can find ghazals in many languages: not just in Arabic and Persian where they originated, but in Turkish and Urdu, even in Bengali and Gujarati.

Ghazals are poetic forms cast in a strict pattern, usually expressing a longing for lost or separated love, and extolling the greatness of love. It is a poetic-spiritual sublimation of the emotion of intense loss and unreachability, the kind of romantic fantasy in words and music that is virtually impossible in a world where physical proximity and carnal intimacy are all to easily available; even as writing an endearing  billet-doux and waiting impatiently for a reply via a posted letter have become passé in this age of e-mail and twitter.

Some mystical poets also wrote ghazals. The thirteenth century Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi is the most famous of them all in the Western world. Here is one of his ghazals, tranalted by Jack Marshall:

You who are not kept anxiously awake for love’s sake, sleep on.

In restless search for that river, we hurry along;

   you whose heart such anxiety has not disturbed, sleep on.

Love’s place is out beyond the many separate sects;

   since you love choosing and excluding, sleep on.

Love’s dawn cup is our sunrise, his dusk our supper;

   you whose longing is for sweets and whose passion

                                       is for supper, sleep on.

In search of the philosopher’s stone, we are melting like copper;

   you whose philosopher’s stone is cushion and pillow, sleep on.

I have abandoned hope for my brain and head; you who wish for

   a clear head and fresh brain, sleep on.

I have torn speech like a tattered robe and let words go;

   you who are still dressed in your clothes, sleep on.

In Hindi-Urdu speaking India, the best known poet of this genre is Mirza Ghalib (1797 – 1869).

Friedrich Rückert (1788 – 1866) was a professor of Oriental Languages who is said to have written more poems than anybody in his native German in his century. He was also a versatile linguist who studied many languages, including Sanskrit, Persian, Chinese, Arabic. He was the first to present German translations of gazals (1821). He was followed by Count August von Platen (1796 –n 1835) who also published many gazals. The great German poet was somewhat critical of his attempts and sarcastically noted that there was the risk of “eating too much from the fuit of the Garden of Shiraz and vomiting up ghazals.” [Calvin Thomas, A History of German Literature].

July 17, 2011

Thoughts Provoked by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 -1400)


Many decades ago I had skimmed through some of Chaucer’s  Canterbury Tales, in the modern intelligible version, for sure. I recall how that reading, with a version of medieval English on another page, made me aware of the way  languages change with time. What we write today will be hardly understood by people five hundred years from now.

Years later, when I  saw Chaucer’s  name and tomb in Westminster Abbey, I had difficulty believing that beneath that stone lay some of the remains that genius of the English language, surrounded by those of other illustrious poets.

I thought at that time of two other immortal poets: Kamban of  Tamil literature and Kalidasa of Sanskrit. Their bodies were cremated and have become one with the planet, but I wished I knew where exactly they breathed their last.

Back to Chaucer, I remember reading a book on him by Derek Brewer. wherein I discovered that Chaucer had written several other books, bearing such titles as The House of Fame, Romaunt of the Rose, and the Parlemant of Foules. This last work is also known as the Assembly of Fowls. Here one reads about a parliament where three aristocratic birds (eagles) are seeking the hand of she-eagle. The birds of the non-noble caste protest. Mother Nature gives a whole year to the she-eagle to decide. The fantasy story is narrated in a dream.

It is difficult for us of this age to imagine how the prolific writers of those distant days wrote and propagated their works. Maybe a good many works of geniuses all over the world have perished beyond a trace, and only a handful of them have remained for the benefit of posterity. Quite possibly many wonderful compositions of African creative genius have also disappeared because of only the oral tradition which has no guarantee of long-range survival.

July 16, 2011