Mother Teresa and Modi as RSS strategy

The Hindu rightwing criticism of Mother Teresa has brought out the usual halo-wallahs, quite forgetting that both the Sangh and the good Mother have emphasised on superstition and faith to deal with practical issues. Devotion to a religion romanticises poverty and mortality.

On the face of it, this looks like an outrageous comment. At a function organised by a NGO, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat said:

"Mother Teresa's service would have been good. But it used to have one objective, to convert the person, who was being served, into a Christian. The question is not about conversion but if this (conversion) is done in the name of service, then that service gets devalued."

It is obvious that the RSS wants to consolidate its position as a social organisation and the moral keeper of Indians, mainly the majority community. It does not take long to associate conversions by missionaries with any activity run by a Church-affiliated individual.

There are no records of any conversions by the Missionaries of Charity, but as in other communities there could have been voluntary converts. This is hardly about pulling up a deceased person; it is more about trying to take the heat off the 'ghar waapsi' by the rightwing where Muslims and Christians are sought to be reconverted to what is assumed to have been their original faith, Hinduism. It is also to deflect from the recent attack on churches.

As is the tradition, the BJP and the RSS continue with their game of one taking on the opponents while the other acts moderate. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in the Lok Sabha:

“My government’s only religion is ‘India first’, my government’s only religious book is ‘Indian Constitution’, our only devotion is ‘Bharat Bhakti’ and our only prayer is ‘welfare of all’."

Was he assuring the people of India after the persistent hate speeches by members of various saffron groups, including a couple of MPs, or was he trying to convince the US president? After his much-touted visit to India as chief guest at the Republic Day function on January 26, Barack Obama had gone on to question India's record regarding religious tolerance:

"Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs — acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation."

While many did not like the idea of an outsider lecturing us, the BJP had more pressing concerns. They expected some sort of barter for the obsequiousness they displayed — a hand on the head, a few freebies. Obama for his part had his own selfish reasons. America is like the Vatican. Any attack on churches and Christians becomes its business, although it may not have any real engagement with either. It is more a political stand.

Modi could not look the other way and has felt the need to assert his 'religious' affiliation. The Constitution as scripture is hardly likely to result in devotion, for he has not responded to the utterances of the likes of Swami Adityanath during the election campaign and later. The timing of the PM's concern makes it evident that he wants to protect his reputation as well as the interests of the Indian expat community to which he is beholden.

While he is performing his political duty, the RSS is keeping the flag flying. They targeted a Christian icon who catered to what seems like a secular world of the very sick. This could well be their ideological position, but again the timing has to do with giving it to Obama.

Attempts to firefight are essentially a BJP need and not the RSS belief. Sitting in their cocoons, we now find famous voices doing their beauty queen wanting to do a Mother Teresa act once again, after having forgotten about their ambition in all these years.

Among the comments expressing anger over Mohan Bhagwat's statement that I came across, this one stood out: "Bengalis are an excitable community who would have rebelled if Mother Teresa was converting people in that state."

I doubt if Bengalis would have liked to be known as a city of many dying people either, all waiting to be laid to rest with dignity. Strange that those who have problems about stereotyping icons don't think twice before pigeonholing a group.

It is no surprise that the elite would speak. My first introduction to Mother Teresa was above an antique mantelpiece in the living room of a celebrity. She had equal space with Husain's horses in this chamber with fine crystal ware.

She might have had a noble reason — although there have been some reasoned critiques that point out her political motives — but for many of those 'touched' by her she was a collection, an investment. Even as penance.


Images: Both paintings by M.F.Husain. In the first Mother T and Krishna are in the same frame.

Sunday ka Funda

A nun who was searching for enlightenment made a statue of Buddha and covered it with gold leaf. Wherever she went she carried this golden Buddha with her.

Years passed and, still carrying her Buddha, the nun came to live in a small temple in a country where there were many Buddhas, each one with its own particular shrine.

The nun wished to burn incense before her golden Buddha. Not liking the idea of the perfume straying to others, she devised a funnel through which the smoke would ascend only to her statue. This blackened the nose of the golden Buddha, making it especially ugly.

(A Zen story)

I don't know what category to put this story into. Is it about greed, or selfishness, or possessiveness? Perhaps it could be envy. How can it be envy, you might ask. After all, the nun had the incense and wanted to deny it to others. If anything, others should envy her. That is the point. Very likely she envied the emptiness she assumed and found arrogant solace in what she had but did not really need.

In the more material world you will find many such instances where those who apparently have everything will assume others want what they have, and then they proceed to deny others what they have no use for but which helps while away their time by fattening their sense of superficial self-worth.



I have started writing out "and" in full, instead of resorting to the ampersand symbol. That little gesture seems to have taken me back to a few things, including using pen and paper.


As if to answer to a call, I find notebooks inside drawers, even in a cupboard. Notebooks with blank sheets, some with ruled lines, others with checks; a few have quotations at the bottom. "A thing of beauty is a joy forever," says one. It sounds banal now, but the fact is that it is a remembered quote. I cannot understand how a thing of beauty can be a joy forever, though. Unless one is close to that beauty forever — whatever that time-frame means — it can only give one temporary pleasure. Its memory may kindle a sense of satisfaction. But are such memories permanent only for the beauty or is there something else, perhaps a feeling that was triggered by its charm?


I am tired. Yes, tired. Right now after typing the above sentence. It is not the content that has made me tired; tiredness just set in without preamble or reason. But I want to continue. I write, although it's been a few days that I have not posted anything.


Once again somebody said that whatever I write tends to be too intense — and it was not an observation; it was an indictment, like I had to change, even improve. Improve upon it with levity? I have discovered that some people are artful enough to explain this as simplicity. Simplicity is seen as a virtue, even as they scour the online stores for Havanas and caviar body cream.


I slather a rose-scented cream because it is there. I don't like to smell of flowers; I like the woods to engulf me. The rose is not bad, though. I found a body mist and sprayed it. It was only after I smelled of Vanilla, that I read that it was Vanilla. It was bought three years ago and was in a plastic bag where I found it together with two lipsticks. And because they were there, I dabbed them on my lips — first the mauvish pink, then the caramel one. I felt all dressed up.


The note book was out. The very old one I pushed away. Do you realise how notebooks smell like notebooks only when they are too old and need to be pushed away?


Last evening there was The Lunchbox on TV. I switched it on when it was past the half-way mark. There was this scene where Sajan Fernandes is leaving Mumbai for Nasik upon retirement. In the train, an old man is telling him about his own retirement, all the time tapping his gnarled fingers on the table. Sajan averts his eyes from them. He returns to Mumbai. Escaping the old to return to the old.


By the sea, a crow sat on the back of a chair. We seemed to be looking at the same thing. The only difference was he could fly and perch higher and get a bird's eye view. But then things, including people and birds, get proportionally reduced. How he viewed me would be no different from how I viewed him.


Don't scream. Don't teach me feminism, you birdbrain. Don't teach me what the books have taught you, what you want to show off about. Don't teach me about what I have experienced. Don't.


A Japanese man is taking pictures of the sea. He is fidgeting, focusing-refocusing when all there is the sea. I hold up my phone camera and am done. When I zoom in on the result, I see a young couple. For a moment it feels like infringement on privacy, but I can't see their faces. It is bright and all they have is a closed beach shack to lean against. There is no cover, no privacy. No Do Not Disturb sign to place outside room doors.

All doors can be prised open by those with unsatisfactory lives prying into yours, not by chance but design. Scavengers foraging for tinsel to cover the soot they collect.


A stray walks past. I've seen it before. All strays look alike. At sunset, there is a barking sound as the horizon glows. I now call the cur a Golden Retriever. I dust off sand from my ankles.

And there is a whiff of vanilla.


Cry censorship, then apologise: the AIB Knockout's fake fight for FoE

When a comedy show that has managed to bring out the closet bad taste in comedy elite to openly vouch for it offers unconditional apology for hurting religious sentiments, does it have a leg to stand on where freedom of speech is concerned? More importantly, will those who stood up for it now feel let down?

In the most recent complaint against the AIB Knockout, a Roast organised by the All India Bakchod (AIB) group of comedians with Bollywood stars Karan Johar, Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor, the Catholic community was upset. In its response, AIB wrote:

It may be relevant to mention here that during our interaction with the archdiocese, both parties agreed on another important thing; these matters are best solved by frank, patient conversation, not by pointless rabble-rousing or politicization or by taking up adversarial positions for the sake of eyeballs.

Till just the other day, they and their cheerleaders were talking about the right to offend and how terrible it is to be touchy. It is quite obvious that this new-found need not to grab eyeballs is a result of some chastisement from those with hurt sentiments over jocular mentions of the virgin birth and altar boys. If all expression is to rely on seeking permission, then quit the grandstanding about breaking the mould and feeding the unpalatable truth.

Nothing exposes the hypocrisy of a society better than how it treats freedom — its own versus that of others. It is invariably about Us vs Them and it does not matter if Us agrees to apologies to Them.  It was anyway about a selective sense of outrage where one version of the outrageous was okay.

Professional liberals who spend their waking moments trying to be politically correct are holding a candle for all that is politically incorrect and offensive. When AIB took down its YouTube video, there was more breast-beating. It would not do well to highlight that the organisation had said they were not threatened and they were only being pragmatic.

The first complaint was from the president of a Hindu sounding organisation, which said:

"The show, which can be seen on YouTube and other websites, was extremely abusive and it is not only ruining the clean image of the Indian culture & women, but is also misleading today's youth."

This business about the clean image of Indian culture is ludicrous, because culture is certainly not the moral prism of one group.

However, the posting of pictures of ancient art in response to this does not serve to make any cogent point. If we do not wish to wind the clock back, why use the examples of temple sculpture? At the very basic level, those sculptures were supposed to be a celebration of the body and sexuality. The Roast was about insulting these. The jokes were the sort most people are done with by the time they've finished college. So, the content was not a surprise, although there was an attempt to promote it as bold and shocking.

The reason I don't have a problem with jibes at girth, sexuality, colour is because nothing should be sacred if everything goes. The debate on freedom of speech has impeded what should be a more serious discussion about 'taking it'.

We had two young Bollywood actors seemingly being sporting about the digs at them. I say seemingly because the jokes were already vetted by them. They knew what was coming, so they were prepared with their spontaneous jollity. In the event, one wonders just how accommodating they were and whether vetting itself is not a form of censorship.

In the event, director Karan Johar's sexual orientation being discussed was not a surprise to anyone, including him. His social career is pretty much about it. His adding nuggets about his favoured position just made him more accessible to the posh crowd that usually likes to fake liberalism.

If his sexual preferences were so normal to them, why would there be the awkward guffawing as though it is not? Karan Johar revels in being the lonely guy despite a hectic public life, so all of the jokes played according to script.

Similarly, why would a Ranveer Singh, who does not have too many hits to his credit, mind if he is portrayed as a playboy? Or why would an Arjun Kapoor who is typecast be bothered about references to it when that is how Bollywood gives you a niche? These are all safe areas.

Yet you have people talking about how the show pushed the envelope, when all it did was get some 4000 people, many friends and families of those participating, to buy tickets that cost Rs 4000 and laugh publicly at old jokes they've laughed over privately. The money collected would go to charity, which immediately gives all elite liberals an opportunity to make a conscience argument.

The organisers had already expressed concerns about backlash, not just from the political class but the industry. How come nobody questioned probable pressure from the latter?

It is rather obvious that much of FoE in these instances is about the right to air inside jokes. Add to it is the belief that these would never be seen as vulgar. They run down folk humour that uses lewd language and double entendre, but expect different standards if these are in English.

Would liberals enjoy being the butt of a Roast? How about the TV anchors and martyr editors of mainstream media who stand up for such freedom — wouldn't it be nice to see them as the subject of a good Roast?

The fact is they would not like it one bit, and might try to scotch it in their own patented devious ways. The "if you don't like it, don't read/listen/watch" argument gets a bit tiring and fake, especially if the urbane talk about shutting down an Astha channel and how the media should not entertain discussions on ayurveda.

This should tell us that freedom is not the fiefdom only of those who talk about it in a socially incestuous setting. They cannot have a problem with others objecting because freedom also means the right of others to object. 


RIP ISIS – Rot In Purgatory

We seem to have become numb to the dehumanising methods of the ISIS. The response to the Jordanian pilot burned to death has been that is the worst. Is their cruelty to be judged on the basis on degree?

The fake Caliphate is well-organised and the killings are their calling card; they have nothing else to show by way of commitment. When we start comparing the different methods they adopt, it ends up as a stimulus for them to provide more and varied instances of what they can do.

They are adopting the modus of the Middle Ages simply because they claim to want to turn back the clock. Each time they are shown their regressive face, it is a victory for them. Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh was taken hostage while on a US-led coalition mission against the ISIS in Syria. They demanded the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi suicide bomber now facing trial in Jordan. There are political analysts who believe that if Jordan sends her to the gallows it would amount to revenge, which isn’t any good. She has been on death row for a while for the attacks that killed 60 people in Amman in 2005. So their logic makes little sense.

The matter of concern here is that she was not a bargaining point at all. Kasasbeh was killed a month ago; it is only the video that has surfaced now. The ISIS is therefore not only brutal, but also vicious. They do not stand for anything, other than a temporary belief in their infallibility.

The response to their actions is often disturbing. Invariably, the victim’s moral prism is exhibited, when that is never a point of dispute. However, it does convey all sorts of messages. How does it matter that he was a devout Muslim? Does it mean that one who is not devout, or not a Muslim, does have some kind of naturally probable victim license in our neatly-arranged conscience? We may RIP the victims, but it should really be RIP ISIS. They need to rot in purgatory. 

I have read comments about how burning is anti-Islamic. Those who argue that ISIS is not Islamic lose a lot of ground with such careless statement that indirectly suggest that perhaps beheading is halal. There are also some comments about how burning alive is prevalent in India for honour killing and dowry. Why do we remember it only now? All crimes committed by terrorists exist in society, so trying to find an opportune equivalence is not only naive but designed to show selective liberalism. 

Burning at the stake was a practice prevalent in France in the 14th century, primarily for heresy/blasphemy. The ISIS has no locus standi to even judge, but even if they were Kasasbeh cannot be accused of it. It is the arrogance of the ISIS and its belief in its own godliness that needs to be weeded out. Meanwhile Barack Obama has got an opportunity to state: 

"I think it will redouble the vigilance and determination on the part of the global coalition to make sure they are degraded and ultimately defeated.”

Degraded it a typically moral term. It is this that leads the Japanese to refer to the hostages from their country as “another 9/11”.  Has not Japan been through horrific terror in its history? Why does all contemporary terrorism need to be legitimised by the United States of America?

After the beheading of Kenji Goto, an old tweet of his from 2010 went viral:

 “Closing my eyes and holding still. It’s the end if I get mad or scream. It’s close to a prayer. Hate is not for humans. Judgment lies with God. That’s what I learned from my Arabic brothers and sisters.”

The ISIS is not choosing victims who need to be taught a lesson, so emphasising their humaneness is a non-sequiter.  And how does one know about the humaneness of the hostages who do not have much of a visible presence, like say Haruna Yukawa the other Japanese who was beheaded before Kenji?

The public space will once again thrown up a few fake moderate Muslims battling biting cold in fireplace rooms who will post #notinmyname tweets to fight the imminent threat ISIS poses to their cocooned world.


Undrawing the Line: R.K.Laxman

He was the only public intellectual in India who could make sense of the nonsense. The good thing is that he would baulk at being referred to as an intellectual. R.K. Laxman is dead.

Those who think a cartoonist cannot be an intellectual just need to trace his work. He could pare down the tonnes of bibliography and tomes to one box. He distilled them and came up with a trenchant take.

While some of it made us smile, he was certainly not a comic. His work was political and social commentary at its best. And he exposed it without moral pretensions. You instinctively knew that he was not scoring any points or patting himself on the back, something that latter-day cartoonists in India seem to revel in.

He did not appear to be friends with politicians, but he was no enemy either. That imbued him with a practicality and it reached the reader as an objective and concerned voice.

His caricatures were precise, taking one sharp feature to delineate the personality. You knew Indira Gandhi would follow the moment you saw the nose line. I thought he captured her hauteur perfectly. There are many more of other leaders and I would urge you to look for them.

However, his creation of the common man surpassed everything else, so much so that the dhoti-clad, checked raggedy jacket, half bald caricature has become to represent the aam aadmi. No political caps claiming the common man will ever be able to take the place of the Laxman one, because it came from a penetrating eye and a deep sense of anguish that did not disappear to get political mileage.

His common man is an observer occasionally forced to be a participant. But he does not lose himself. And when the need arises he even contributes with his commonness to become rather special. This gesture is not covered with tinsel as a celebration, but rather subtly it gives us a peek into what equality really means.

R.K.Laxman does not need a photograph to be recognised. His lines are intimations of, pardon the hyperbole, immortality.


Obama, Modi and Chemistry

India's Republic Day has given an opportunity to leaders of two of the biggest democracies to showcase themselves.

The media, and the public that views TV, reads newspapers and is connected to social media, are all agog by the display of camaraderie. Does this in any manner indicate change in Indo-US ties? How good is it really for India?

That does not seem to be of any immediate interest. We are all lapping up trivia. It began the moment an invitation was sent and accepted. To the run-up we were told how roads would be cordoned off, how the four-layered security would work (including 12 dog officers arriving ahead of the visit to sniff out danger).

Obama's office sent out the message that there should be no terror attacks during his trip or there "would be consequences". There was no statesman-like no terror at any time before or after. This sort of arrogant and insensitive statement set the tone for what is clearly modern-day slavery where bonhomie buys acquiescence.

Narendra Modi broke protocol and went to receive Barack Obama. Images of him with the President and the First Lady after they alighted have sent the BJP supporters in a frenzy. Had this been the President of Nepal or Fiji Island would they feel as elevated?

Personally, I do not like over-familiarity between political leaders in the public space. It is less about warmth and more a public relations exercise. Both are conveying a message to their international constituencies.

Their lunch menu became news. Planting a sapling became a huge moment. And tea became "chai pe charcha", which Modi had used during his election campaign. He is apparently still campaigning.

At the joint press conference, Modi referred to the US president as "Barack". He spoke about chemistry between them. One is surprised he did not quote from Linda Goodman's sun signs to establish just how compatible they are.

The BJP had opposed the Indo-US nuclear deal during Manmohan Singh's tenure. Today, Modi and Obama have taken this even further. Modi informed us that the US would be an ally in defence. He parroted the terror line. If the US is so confident about its defense, it would not bulldoze other countries.

The so-called largest democracies are really about both wanting to play Big Brother. Sometimes it is good. Mostly it is not and proves to be a nuisance to others.

As I write this, the droning sounds continue on TV. The breathless, "Oh my god!" tone of the anchors seems to convey they've never seen an American President with an Indian Prime Minister feeling so jolly good before. For them, I have a few images from Barack Obama's previous visit.

And Obama cancelled his proposed visit to the Taj Mahal to visit Saudi Arabia to condolence the death of the king. Joe Biden was already attending to that. Here, the Hindutva bhakts we already speaking about how the Taj was a temple once. Should they not, then, see it as a rejection to their claims, if not of this ancient heritage in preference for a dead Arab King?