Monday, September 27, 2010

A fortiori ad victoriam

For anyone who has been or is currently engaged in the pursuit of that heavily-loaded term, ‘sport’ - in the competitive, emotionally-charged and passionate sense of the term --when applied to a contest against evenly matched opponents - the feeling of that adrenalin rush which characterizes the final burst towards the finishing line/the goalpost/ the basket/ the match point in a racquet game; that results in a final victory or a sweet culmination of a well-played sweaty interlude in one’s chosen competitive arena… is a memory that is verily de rigueur. It speaks to many glorified impulses in basic human nature: those that seek to outdo one’s fellow man in a contest of skill, physicality and tactics, all other things remaining the same… and there are very few base emotions of self-satisfaction in the human condition that can match the one that immediately follows a victory over another in a sporting arena.

To ponder the last-dash preparations over the Common Wealth Games in Delhi, the shadow of the forthcoming verdict on the Ayodhya title suit, the benighted state of the latest rounds of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations or even the impending mid-term elections in the U.S., a sportsperson is tempted to recall that last push. It is the hardest thing in competitive sport to close out a game that has been hitherto going in one’s favour right until the closing minutes, and the history of sport is replete with instances of teams and individuals on the threshold of almost certain victory losing games in the dying moments. The victors in these instances always steeled themselves against the hint of a contemplation that they might lose, doggedly carrying on the challenge, and most times even raising the standard of their game(s) when it mattered most.

Why cannot those of us with a stake in how the world conducts its affairs look at situations in public life with a similar spirit? It would certainly be calamitous if large-scale violence broke out across the country over the Ayodhya verdict, or if the Israelis continued their universally condemned apartheid-esque policies against the Palestinians, or if crack-pot Tea Party insurgents rode an anti-incumbency wave to sweep into power in the U.S. mid-term elections… but to navigate these possibilities with the understanding that they are but the last brush of a dying wave that is about to capitulate to a rising tide of glory, and to feel that sense of exhilaration when one is so close to one’s goals… is verily better than the sad scepticism and advancing cynicism we currently feel on being exposed to everything the mainstream media throws at us through these dark days.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Great Indian Rope Trick

It is 1992

The tendentious Congress government is grappling with the massive political repercussions of the dissolution of the Soviet Union only a year ago, and has just about averted a balance of payments crisis by freeing the anesthetized Indian economy from paralyzing governmental controls, in the process reluctantly reversing an economic policy that allowed the annual growth rate to stagnate at 3.5% per annum for over 40 years. The main party in opposition at the centre is the BJP whose election campaign in the general elections held last year is lopsidedly centered on the building of a Hindu temple at the exact location where an early 16th century mosque presently stands, in a town teeming with an innumerable number of temples all vying for breathing space within a 10 sq km radius, in a state in which it is the party in power. No one has been allowed access to the mosque since 1949 when the Government of India imposed a lock down on an area that had been subject to controversy ever since a particularly zealous Central Asian Muslim invader heralded in the Mughal Era of Modern India’s history. It is said that the conqueror Babur demolished a sacred temple complex in the town of Ayodhya and bid his general Mir Baqi build a mosque, the Babri Masjid, on its ruins in the year 1527.

We wake up on the 6th of December, 1992 to the news that a mob of over 150,000 people are demonstrating outside the site of the mosque and are being held back by a completely outnumbered and monstrously unmotivated police cordon. It has been common knowledge through recent months that Hindu fundamentalist organizations and their political party affiliates have been conducting large-scale recruitment sorties all over India to mobilize followers to descend upon the town of Ayodhya and, in turn, to pressurize the judiciary to allow them to build a Mandir (temple) on the site they claim is the revered birthplace of the Lord Ram, immortalized in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, and believed to have ruled the Kingdom of Ayodhya circa 1400 BCE. At noon, a teenage Kar Sevak is ‘vaulted’ on to the dome - a signal that the breaking of the outer cordon has begun and, as the country waits with bated breath, the structure of the mosque is fully demolished by the time the sun sets.

The immediate fallout of the Babri Masjid demolition was that 3000 people died in rioting across India and very many local terrorist organizations were born in a country that is home to 138 million Muslims who live alongside 828 million Hindus.

It is September 2010 
The Babri Masjid/ Ram Mandir case is the longest running legal dispute in India. The demographics of the nation, meanwhile, have changed inexorably over the past 17 years to support an i-pod wielding, facebook and twitter-obsessed, materialistically chauvinistic 300 million strong middle-class, and the country is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, clocking an average growth rate of 8% over the last decade and is well on its way to becoming a globally important consumer economy. Indian per capita purchasing power parity is forecast to significantly increase from the current 4.7% to over 6% of the world share by 2015. But in Ayodhya, it all boils down to who owns the land where the Babri Masjid used to stand. The first court ruling on the dispute from a petition filed in 1886 by the head of an Ayodhya-based Hindu organization asking for permission to offer prayers to Ram inside the Babri Masjid ended with the judge stating, ‘It is most unfortunate that a mosque should have been built on land specially held sacred by the Hindus, but as that event occurred 356 years ago, it is too late now to remedy the grievance.

Since then and from 1950 onwards five title suits have been filed in the Allahabad High Court of the State of Uttar Pradesh where the town of Ayodhya is located. All the suits stake claim to the title of the plot of land of the Babri Masjid, four being filed on behalf of Hindus and the fifth on behalf of Muslims. The title suits will now be decided on by a three-judge bench of the Allahabad High Court. The bench comprising Judge SU Khan, Judge Sudhir Agarwal and Judge DV Sharma will answer the following questions: Did a temple exist at the disputed site before 1528 when the Babri Masjid was constructed? Was Ayodhya really the birth place of Lord Ram and is there evidence to show that Hindus have been worshipping in the town for millenia? Did Muslims abandon the mosque before India became independent? Even after a verdict has been passed, the appeals process will see the case appear before the Supreme Court of India in what could take years. 

All this for what is, essentially, an area that measures 60 ft by 40 ft.

Please readThrough the Stained Glass, Darkly forthwith

Friday, September 10, 2010

Ultimo Evangelism

It seems fitting that as the 9th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is almost upon us, the date also marks the convergence of three major religious festivals that are celebrated with gusto across the South Asian sub-continent - a region of the world where the repercussions of that heinous event are being, arguably, the most profoundly felt.

Perhaps a little primer on the festivals at hand might imbue us with a sense of brotherhood and historical perspective on this, the most consecrated of the year’s weekends.

Ganesh Chaturti
The Indian freedom fighter and social reformer, Lokmanya Tilak transformed the annual (and hitherto small) festival of Ganesh Chaturti into a large, well-organized public event in 1893. Tilak recognized the wide appeal of the deity Ganesha as an everyman god within the Hindu pantheon, and championed Ganesh Chaturthi as a national festival in order to bridge the communal divide between Brahmin and non-Brahmin Hindus and find a context in which to build a grassroots unity among them. He believed that this would in turn generate a sense of nationalism among the people of India against British colonial rule. Originally the festival facilitated community participation in the forms of: public debates, poetry recitals, plays, music concerts and folk dances. Tilak encouraged the installations of large images of the popular god in public pavilions, and also established the practice of submerging idols of Ganesha in ponds, tanks, rivers and in the sea on the tenth day after Ganesh Chaturthi, a practice followed to this day across Central and South India.

According to Islamic tradition, it was in the year CE 610 when the Prophet Muhammad, while meditating in Mount Hira one night, had a vision of the angel Jibril (also known as Gabriel) appearing before him, revealing to him his name, and declaring to the latter that he was the messenger of God. Though the angel informed him that he was the messenger of Allah and that he was going to be a prophet for his people, the prophet was reportedly greatly disturbed at his meeting with Jibril. It is believed that he considered the angel an evil spirit at first. It was left to his wife Khadijah to eventually allay his fears, when she reminded him of his good conduct until then and, therefore, that it was impossible for him to be visited by a demon.
It is said that the Quran was revealed to Muhammad during the month of Ramadan. As a mark of respect to Allah and to show gratitude to him for the true knowledge that was given his sons and daughters, the prophet instructed his followers to pass the month of Ramadan in fasting, prayers and other austerities and to end the month with festive celebrations. This is how Eid-Ul-Fitr was born. The aim of the festival is to promote peace, strengthen the feeling of brotherhood and bring oneself back to a normal course of life after a month-long period of self-denial and religious devotion.

The feast of St. Mary
The feast of the Nativity of Mary originated in Jerusalem in the fifth century CE as the feast of what is now the Basilica of Saint Anne. In the seventh century, the feast was celebrated by the Byzantines and at Rome, as the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. The source for the story of the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the Protoevangelium of James, an apocryphal gospel written about CE 150. From it, we learn the names of Mary's parents, Joachim and Anna, as well as the tradition that the couple was childless until an angel appeared to Anna and told her that she would conceive.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

"I'm just kidding..."

The Hurt Locker (2008)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty

The Americans are finally leaving a bruising, expensive and ultimately unrewarding theater of conflict in Iraq and this perhaps might just be the perfect interval in which to review The Hurt Locker.

The movie begins by bringing you crash bang straight into the action and establishes the main characters and the relationships between them almost intuitively in a matter of minutes. Before you’ve had time to place yourself in geographical and historical context within Iraq, you are cheering on a bomb disposal expert (played by Guy Pearce), you root for his team, you palpably feel the tension in the air, and you marvel at a beautiful slow-motion close-up when an IED eventually goes off. The screenwriter of The Hurt Locker is also the screenwriter of In the Valley of Elah – a movie that showed us the moral bankruptcy that comes of putting one’s faith in an archaic concept of patriotism as applied to meaningful personal relationships. The Hurt Locker on the other hand focuses almost solely on the animalization that is visited on those who have had to submit to the process of war, without ever having a choice in the matter. There is even a poignant scene in which a suggestion is made to a soldier by the psychiatrist counseling him that the experience of war could be thought of as fun, instead of an ordeal that one must somehow get through before the next troop rotation.

I must confess that some scenes in the movie had more of an impact on me than others: The hint of personal violence implicit in a tense exchange between the black Sergeant Sanborn and the newly arrived Staff Sergeant James in a common toilet, the frantic searching for a detonator within the cramped confines of a car carrying more than five IEDs and in which a fire had just been put out, the grim focus of the sniper when he has to wait at the trigger of his unloaded rifle while his last remaining magazine is being cleaned of blood so that it doesn’t jam the weapon, and all the scenes in which the main character James uses the phrase, ‘I’m just kidding’ after pushing all the characters he shares these scenes with, almost over the edge with his horseplay.

Though it is of course futile to expect that film-making such as this will lead to a general mass uprising against any further military forays into regions of the world where the US is to the locals as little green men are to the planet Mars… it might just be that the scales are tipping.
A world without war will not need heroes like Staff Sergeant James, who are so impulsive that the fatal consequences of their actions never seem to influence their standing amongst their colleagues, or their own ambivalent humanity.