Building institutions vs promoting individuals!

Two things that have occupied the media attention in India now are reinforcing a major problem we are facing. One has given positive signs and the other negative signs. Cricket world cup and the Aam Aadmi Party. Strangely, Indians are fond of characterizing the western world as selfish and the eastern philosophy as spiritual. Not surprisingly, the selfist west has produced institutions when India ended up promoting individuals. When one individual disappears, we wait for another individual to rise to the occasion. Rarely are they produced in a system.

I must congratulate Team India for a fantastic show in the world cup until the semi-finals. It was unusual for an Indian team to have not many in the list of top batsmen and bowlers but have a 7-0 record. Dhoni has proved to be a great leader who kept emphasizing about the process being more important than results. Team is more important than individuals. Though, I would have loved to have seen him defending the world cup in Australia, my admiration for Dhoni has gone up.

One thing I have noted all over India. Most of the people are not comfortable standing and talking as equals. They are either on your head or at your feat. I have heard from a retired Professor who had done well in India. This story was unbelievable. All through his career, his adviser was active and he could never do anything on his own. If he wanted to try something new, he had to go to his boss and say: ‘Sir, do you remember, we were discussing this last week and you told me that I should try this experiment’. The boss would say: Did I? yeah I must have, go ahead and try!’. If he ever started telling the boss that he thought about an idea and wanted to try, the response would be ‘Don’t waste your time, do what I say’. Independence was not encouraged even in scientific pursuit!

We were used to glorifying individuals at the cost of teams. Though, one cannot fault Sachin Tendulkar for his brilliance as a batsman, I used to be annoyed listening to Gavaskar and Sastry from commentary box when Tendulkar was close to a century. ‘He should be given some time to score that 100’ was the standard remark. In the process, a crucial number of balls would be wasted and India might end up loosing the game.

I remember when Tendulkar became the first person to score a 200 in one-day cricket. Luckily for him and India, Dhoni was in the other end and he kept scoring at a brisk rate. From commentary box, I heard comments like ‘Dhoni should give the strike to Sachin’ as Dhoni was not giving as often as the commentator wanted. Of course Sachin was tired too and was enjoying Dhoni’s game from the other end. Dhoni ensured that Sachin got just enough balls for him to get a 200 and still India got 420+. India won the game hands down.

Once BCCI organized a special test match for Sachin to get his 100th hundred in Bombay and arranged for a flat pitch. Sachin got out in his 90s. Ashwin as a bowler was very unhappy with the pitch and commented: Anyone can score a 100 in this pitch. The next day he did. If only the nation and the enthusiastic supporters were not so keen on seeing the 100th hundred and kept talking about it, Sachin may have scored that much earlier and a few more 100s.

Aam Aadmi Party had raised the aspirations of the masses like never before in my experience. I am worried about the way the party is becoming centralized. One is not surprised by the way BJP is rallying behind Modi or most other political parties rallying behind their ‘supreme’ leaders. After all ‘India was Indira and Indira was India’. I am reminded of a cartoon in Dinamani, a Tamil Newspaper. Rahul Gandhi stands next to a board with marks written and the few eminent men read: UP 7 on 70, MP 4 on 40, Bihar 2 on 50 (these numbers are not accurate but they tell you the story). They conclude: brilliant boy, he must be asked to lead the parliament election!

Tamil Nadu saw a great movement which was called the ‘self-respect movement’. ‘No one should fall on any one’s feet’ was the mantra. The political parties borne out of this movement are unable to produce successive leaders. A party which came to power with slogans like ‘Why should a carpenter’s son become a carpenter’ seems thrilled with the possibility of having CM’s son as CM, and MLA’s son as MLA and so on. Another party has a leader who cannot stand another person sitting on the dais! The next leader either raises from the ash on their own or pushed by the parents. We cannot have a system in which the leaders of the future grow through the rank due to their merit!

AAP looked different from day one. Now we see individual aspirations affecting the functioning of this party. When two founder members are thrown out because of a significant majority vote, AAP cannot be accused of not being democratic! However something is clearly missing.

I have not watched cartoon movies from Hollywood much until our daughters grew up. One day I took them to Lion King! The first scene stays etched in mind. A monkey as midwife helps the lioness deliver a cub. Monkey brings the cub out and raises it from top of a rock! All the animals shout and scream and rejoice: ‘The King is born’. It seems to me that most of us have not evolved from that stage. There is still hope, as some feel cricket is a religion in India. Will we learn to put team ahead of individuals?


Is it Kaliyuga finally or the more things change the more they remain the same!

When I was young, I used to hear many stories from elders, read a lot of Tamil novels and watched a lot of Tamil movies. One thing was common in all these: In the end all good people had all their problems solved and the bad people were either killed or reformed. The good and bad were always clearly defined and there was never any doubt. All those living at the end, lived happily ever after.Thinking back, it was clearly not realistic.

As I have grown to be on the wrong side of 50 now, It is difficult for me to believe that the people were actually very different from the people we are today. However the stories that I was aware of largely ended this way. I am now wondering if there was an unwritten rule that every writer followed. Stories are supposed to motivate everyone and you cannot have a bad person winning in the end. Perhaps, I was not well read and there were realistic stories that I was not aware off.

Then I read a novel by G. Nagarajan ‘நாளை மற்றுமொரு நாளே (Tomorrow is just another day). This novel described one day in the life of a person who is born poor and is not certain if there would be breakfast. It was disturbing but one can sympathize with the hero. I watched Jayakandan’s ‘யாருக்காக அழுதான்’ (For whom did he cry?). It was a beautiful movie with the famous comedian Nagesh as the hero. He comes as a room boy who is accused of stealing a golden chain from a lady staying in the hotel room. There was no evidence but there was no need for any evidence. Who else but the poor room boy could have taken the golden chain? Everyone asks him, threatens him, beats him and he replies them all with a smiling face: I did not take that chain. In the end, the lady finds it safely in her possession but had forgotten. She says sorry and then he starts crying. There are stereotypes here but a bad man does not still win in the end.

Recently, I watched the Hollywood blockbuster King Kong. A ruthless, money minded movie maker cheats a whole lot of people, takes them to an island to shoot a film against their wish. He finds the giant chimpanzee, King Kong and all kinds of deadly animals. Many of his crew die in this adventure and the King Kong and the heroine become unlikely friends. He manages to capture King Kong and brings it to New York to be displayed in a show. King Kong tries to get out, destroys some parts of the city and is finally killed despite the best efforts of the heroine. The movie shows the ruthless man watching the body and walking away. No remorse, no punishment and life goes on for him. I did not feel good.

One of the super hits of Amitabh Bacchan from the 1980s was Don and Rajni Kant made it in Tamil as Billa. A villager looks like a lawless Don and they both end up in an hospital simultaneously. The don dies. The villager goes to the mafia in disguise and eventually helps the police win the mafia. These movies were remade recently in Hindi with Shah Rukh Khan and Tamil with Ajith as heroes. While the Tamil movie did not change the story line, the Hindi movie made a dramatic twist. The don survives and the villager dies. May be more realistic? In the end he cheats the police and everyone else to survive and live happily ever after. It did not feel good.

Tamil movies in the recent years have several talented new comers who make brilliant films. One such movie is சூது கவ்வும் (Evil engulfs). I thoroughly enjoyed this movie which could best be described as ‘irreverence at its best’ (One of my cousin had probably used ‘irreverence’ to describe this movie earlier). This is satirical and describes the story of some small time kidnappers who try to pull off a big one and get caught. In the end, an honest politician (who is not smart enough to make money) is replaced by his son who makes money happily ever after. It should have been as upsetting to me as King Kong and the Hindi remake of Don but may be as it was satirical, it did not feel that bad.

World has perhaps always had good, bad and ugly people. Some good ones may have lost and some bad ones may have won, temporarily or may be eventually. I am just wondering. Are stories in which the bad man wins in the end, are they new today? Were there stories in the past in which the bad man wins in the end without any remorse? Have we come to Kaliyuga, which is described as the end of one cycle in Hindu philosophy, if not the end of the world!

PS. Varnakuzhappam (racial mixing) is supposed to precede this end and that I can see happening. However, I personally feel racial mixing is for the good. Much of Europe today has citizens who are mix, half French, quarter German and quarter Polish and so on! May be such mixing of population between states of India would help India too! or is my thinking influenced by the Kaliyuga and we are really heading towards the end. I believe not.


Life of a girl/woman in India, and the World!

The documentary ‘India’s daughter’ is being banned by India and I think it is a terrible idea. It is high time, we look at the way we treat woman in our society and change our ways. It seems to me that the compelling reason for the ban was to stop the west from defaming India. There is really no substance in this argument. The Director has explained adequately and the parents of Nirbhaya have seen the movie and they were moved.

Every society that I have interacted with, has been patriarchal and remain so as of now. Historically, this could have been due to the biological fact that men are physically stronger than women and are expected to protect the family, mostly from other men and occasionally from nature and animals. It is perhaps changing at different paces all over the world. I have travelled extensively in many parts of the world and lived in South and North India and Midwest USA for more than a few years. Western world seems to have changed sooner than the east. South India has changed more than the north. However, these generalizations are no guaranty that women are safe from patriarchal men anywhere in the world.

Our Ramayana portrays Rama as the ultimate king who sentences his own wife Sita and sends her out with two young kids as the Queen should be above suspicion. Rama knows she is not guilty. There was no need to prove the guilt in a court beyond reasonable doubt. After all, Rama won her in an open competition and Sita never had a choice. The values were indeed different at that time and I am not pointing this out to pass judgements. That was the way of life as described and she did not complain. Even in modern law, I am not sure if anyone can be prosecuted, unless the victim or someone else complains. Now even a Prime Minister or President can be taken to court unlike in the days of Rama.

Before, I give some more examples from Indian history/mythology, I should recollect the autobiography of a successful physical chemistry professor from the USA, which was published in 2014. He mentions about his mother, who was expected to be a housewife in 20th century USA. Order in society is helpful if everyone is respected, knows their duty and does their part. That would be an ideal situation which is just not practical. We do need a rule of law which ensures that everyone is treated with dignity and respect.

I remember two of the successful movies in Tamil, Thaen Nilavu (Honey Moon) and Uyarntha Manithan (Honourable man). In the former, a greedy husband attempts to kill a wife. The wife is saved by some tribals. The husband is tried in a court for murdering his wife. In the climax, she shows up in the court and tells that the husband was innocent. I was shocked. The movie of course shows the husband to be remorseful and they live happily ever after. All is well.

In the later movie, a rich lad loves a poor girl from a village. His father does not like it and arranges for her to be burned alive in her hut. Later on, the lad agrees to marry a girl found by the father and leads a normal life, once in a while saddened by the past. I was at a loss to figure out how this title hero is called The Honourable Man! The movie does not show anything about this crime. No complaints, cases, sentences, no nothing. The poor girl’s fate she loved a man she cannot afford and paid the price.

When I was in the USA, I saw a Japanese movie by chance, Tampapo. The movie is largely about Japanese way of life and eating noodles. It did not have a major story line but shows several incidents. One of the incident was stuck in my memory. A husband, working in an industry has a phone call from home. He is informed that the wife is unwell and he should reach home soon. He rushes home in Tokyo traffic. He sees the wife lying down in the hall and two kids sitting next to her and staring at her. He tells his wife: ‘But, we haven’t had our dinner yet!’ The wife manages to get up, go to the kitchen and fix their dinner and falls down dead! Movie goes on to show something else in the next scene.

I have heard numerous stories from the mythology, some of them became movies, about dutiful wives. One such heroines was ‘Sati Anasuya’. She was the greatest of all dutiful wives. She carries her husband, who could barely walk, to a prostitute. The husband was not just able to walk but otherwise fit. He wants to visit the prostitute and his desire is his wife’s command. You see now. Men being physically stronger than women may have led to this arrangement of convenience all over the world. However, thanks to the laws or customs that developed, even in this case, the wife has to not only obey the husband but carry him too.

We have several old Tamil movies with titles which can be loosely translated as: ‘The husband is the only asset for a wife’ (மணாளனே மங்கையின் பாக்கியம்), ‘Husband is the most revered God’ (கணவனே கண் கண்ட தெய்வம்). We have proverbs in Tamil which tells the girls from a very young age: ‘Even if it is a stone, it is your husband; even if it is a grass he is your life-partner’ (கல்லானாலும் கணவன் புல்லானாலும் புருஷன்). We have proverbs favouring a boy over girl: ‘Even if he is short, he is a boy’! How can we stop using ‘proverbs’? Can these be banned?

Thirukkural, which I admire for the most has one Kural often quoted to tell women how to behave: When the wife, who does not pray to God but treats her husband as God, asks for rain, it will start raining (தெய்வம் தொழாள் தன்கணவன் தொழுதெழுவாள் பெய்யெனப் பெய்யும் மழை). In a way, the dependence on the unpredictable monsoon could very well explain the fatalistic attitude that is prevalent among ourselves.

If all these sound like tales from a distant past, we do have some in India living today in that past. This has no doubt led to a conflict between those who want to break away from the shackles and those who feel secure in the confinement. I only hope everyone realizes the importance of treating all human beings with dignity and respect.


God as a partner in crime and quid pro quo

When George Bush started a ‘pre-emptive’ war on Iraq, he said ‘God is with us’. The USA won the unprovoked war and innumerable innocent lives were lost. One of the following conclusions could be drawn: 1) God was indeed with George Bush and helped him win the war 2) God was not with George Bush but could not do anything about the loss of innocent lives (this would not agree with any definition of God) 3) God was not with George Bush but chose not to do anything about the loss of innocent lives.

Third choice can equally be interpreted as God does not take any side and does not intervene in human affairs.  Might is right in the earthly affairs. Democracy is a mild threat to might but it is no guaranty against injustice. The USA likes to follow the rules. George Bush amended the US law which prohibited preemptive attack on another nation. He got bipartisan support for this unjust war, as God was with him.  A whole country can be fooled without much difficulty and who can argue against patriotism! The God of the might then turns out to be the most potent. If we would like our God to be the most potent, we need to grow in stature in the world.

I come from a surrounding where people pray to God to get a cure from common cold to passing JEE. There were specific promises to the God that on getting this favor, some thing will be done in return.  This could be breaking coconuts, lighting lamps, shaving off one’s head, money in the Temple Hundi …. you name it. I have seen people carrying out the promise when their wish came true. I always wondered what was done when it did not come true or when the deal was not kept. God perhaps never bothered about individual promises and was not keeping track.

During my youth, I prayed to God with specific promises for personal favors on a few occasions. One was when a new-born child in our close family circle was in a serious condition. I had a silent prayer and promised to God that I would do something if the child survived. The child did and I kept my promise to God.  In the next few years, we had another young relative in serious condition and I made the same offer to God. This young relative did not survive. For some reason, I thought I should still keep my promise to God and did. God must have tried hard and the efforts must be rewarded, not the end result.

People around me had Murugan as their favorite God. Bathing Him in milk was often a promise to get something from Him. I remember carrying a pot full of milk (Paal kudam) when I was a kid during a specific festival known as Paal kudam. Devotees would become hysterical as they carry the Paal kudam towards Thirupparankunram, one of the six temples of Murugan. I was carrying the Paal kudam with no emotion whatsoever.

Another occasion I prayed to God was when I wrote the entrance exam for IIT Madras, MSc admission. Unlike the other two incidents mentioned above, this was in a lighter vein. Just for the sake of it, I prayed that we will give a ‘milk bath’ to Vinayagan, the elephant God, brother of Murugan. I thought Murugan was getting far too much milk and Vinayagan did not get any share. The deal was complicated. Myself AND a friend of mine should both get admission to IIT Madras. He was a top ranker and I was a reasonably good student. We both made it and as a bonus, two more of our classmates got admission. One of them was a christian! They were both good students too.

Now we were in some kind of a shock and denial. Many temples of Murugan do this routinely and at that time I was not aware of Vinayagan temples doing this. My friend asked me, where should we do this now? We had our own Vinayagan temple in front of our house where we lived all our childhood. I told him that we would do it in that temple and he agreed. We arranged a function and did do what is known as ‘Paalabhishekam’ or giving the statue a milk bath. Until that time, I had not witnessed such a ritual in Vinayagan temples. To our surprise, when we reached IIT Madras, there was a Vinayagan temple in the woods. We accidentally walked through the temple on our first day and there we witnessed the same event once again. It was an incredible sight.

Selection was based on the performance in the exam and as long as God helped us perform better, it would be alright. I hope the God did not do anything to favor us at the cost of another more deserving student and that would be unlike God. Often when my students ask me about God and religion, I tell them this: When your experiment works if you want to thank God, go ahead. When it does not work, don’t tell me that you have prayed to God. Better sit in the lab and fix it.

If you look at the world today, it would not be difficult to identify the major causes for conflict. One is energy and another is water. Iraq war was not for restoring democracy. I was born in Tamil Nadu and work in Karnataka and our states fight for water, even when India and Bangladesh seem to have some water sharing agreement. However, if you look around, both water and energy are available in plenty. Two thirds of our earth is water and everything is energy (E = mc^2). The trouble is that portable water and usable energy are not freely available. For that, you need to understand and make efforts. Clearly, God wants you and me to work. If not, ocean could have drinking water and the energy in my pen could be used readily.

In the recent days, I have been reading about so many murders in the name of God. I have also read news paper reports about large amounts of cash and Jewels being deposited in the Temple Hundis. The common perception is that this is a share from ill-gotten wealth. Fortunately for God, none of the Lokpal bills (anti-corruption bill in Hindi) have any provision to touch God even if God were given a good share of the loot.

I must add one thing before concluding.  I have seen this in India. People who grow by cheating a system eventually suffer even if they had given a fair share to God. May be one life-time is not enough to see what happens to a country or group, which in the name of God commits atrocities. May be the law of nature or God will eventually make things even. How can I ensure that no one blames God for killing another person? The nation-states of today should ensure that.