Books and Butterflies

Yesterday I was cleaning the bookshelf. Much dust has gathered. Many pages have aged; some came off as flakes that look like butterflies with no energy left to fly.

I feel like that sometimes. However, it is not because I lack energy or drive, but I seem to have tied my own wings. I say "seem to" because I am not quite sure. Come to think about it, leaves too fly in the wind and they have no wings.

Why am I talking about wings? Books. Yes, to return to the subject. This picture is perhaps from one rack, and I plopped them on the floor on sheets of newspaper because I did not want them to get dusty. The books already have dust on them. So, what was I protecting — the books or the floor? Who protects what and from whom can be a big circular argument.

I began to riffle through the pages of some; strangely, I had inscribed a book on Kali with a Bob Dylan verse:

"She takes just like a woman, yes, she does
She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl..."

And it wasn't to be gifted to anybody.

There is not too much fiction. I like stories and am truly riveted by a well-told one. However, whoever says that non-fiction is not about stories? We live through the big and small events, and are no less than characters playing our parts — the parts need not be grand; in fact, they might be as props or bystanders. Bystanders are not to be sniffed at. Just as spectators make a performer, bystanders give an event meaning.

I pretend to be a bystander as I clear the shelf. The books become events — did Jesus live in India? And can that be somehow tied to the history of the Arab peoples. I noticed it then and I note it again. It is 'Arab peoples'. The plural of the plural.

Pluralism is a word much in currency these days. Pluralism, as these books reveal in their wondrous variety, is eclecticism...In this lot, i realised there was one book I had not placed there. My own.

Why we behave the way we do, says another book. I as bystander will never know because the 'we' here is iffy. Cultures can only be about mores, but behaviour is more driven by how we think individually.

Or how we break cages.

"My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms." (The Waste Land, T.S.Eliot)

As I return to the shelf, now clean, I find no butterfly flakes. No wings to untie. I shall just walk, instead.


Laloo is the mouse that's licked all the cream: Bihar elections

Like many others, I too have been riveted by the Bihar elections. Or, rather, its coverage. And the feeble response to and recognition of the man whose party has got the maximum number of seats. RJD chief Laloo Prasad Yadav is being treated as a side dish when he is the main course.

The media influence has resulted in drawing room opinion that he will pose to be an impediment to Nitish Kumar, leader of the JDU, an ally in the Grand Alliance, and Chief Minister of the state. "Laloo will try and halt development," they say, when the whole country is wondering how development has in fact been about benefiting only a few. If anything, Laloo should most asseetively work as an opposition within to keep Nitish Kumar on his toes to ensure development for everyone and not just the chosen ones.

Bihar, even its cities, does not really qualify as urban in the metro sense of the term. However sleek the new roads and development the new anthem, the ethos of the state is grounded in a more basic sense of roots. Denial of this beneath the blanket term progress, or even secularism, would mean denying the majority of its population an identity.

The slur of "backward" for Lalu is essentially an insult to those deemed "backward caste" for centuries. But, as he himself had stated with some arrogance long ago, "Jab tak samosey mein aalu, tab tak Bihar mein Lalu." It was, and is, as basic as that.

Here is my column from Rediff (April 21, 1997) when he was CM:

When the chief minister of Bihar, one of India's worst-ruled states, organises a mother or father of all rallies, there are sniggers. Laloo Prasad Yadav has become a joke but, let us be fair, he is not quite our Dan Quayle.

In fact, he is good for our culture. He is the living example of the virtues of being oneself. Whether elections are rigged or the coal mafia rules, Laloo remains Laloo.

The Yadav who has made it big suffers from the pride of the lowly for their humble background and the insecurity his new position has thrust upon him. That is the reason he is slightly brash. He is up against everything -- hypocrisy, stereotypes and our congenital pigeonholing of men in power and how they should behave.

Yadav behaves in no particular manner. He has no set agenda for his politics or his life and, in a world that is getting increasingly ideological (never mind that the ideology is to blow up someone's brains), this might seem like a classic case of spinelessness.

Instead, he comes out trumps. He has made this an anti-establishment stand, though riding on the back of the establishment is his unique selling point.

I don't care what his motives are. When he appointed Harijan priests in temples and Harijans as Shankaracharyas, the media response was typical: it was a political gimmick rather than a reform measure, they said. This is only partially true, unless you insist on wearing blinkers of doubt. Here, Yadav was "testing the Hindu religion."

It would have been far more dramatic and gimmicky had he put a brahmin on a donkey and paraded him through the streets.

To suddenly upturn what, for centuries, has been the status quo requires guts. This is not mere symbolism. He has put those who were considered the scum of the earth into the most sanctified position; he has legitimised their place in society. He may look like a country bumpkin but it is no more passé to be so. Because there is a certain confidence instilled in the people who have been at the receiving end of atrocities.

In a country where 180 million people belong to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, we still have a situation where action for crimes committed against them is slack, despite untouchability being forbidden by law by the Civil Rights Act of 1955 and the Scheduled Caste and Schedules Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Yadav is not the panacea; he is merely the looking glass; he has shown that it is possible to hold your head high wherever it is you come from.

How, then, can anyone dismiss Laloo Prasad's efforts only because, as a lot of academics are fond of saying, they come naturally to him? We have the amazing ability to transfer our tunnel vision into overviews - they sound so much more authoritative. Hence, Yadav's looking after the interests of the lower castes is considered a one-dimensional approach.

This is what has kept Harijans in a bind for years. In Bombay, there is a small colony where sweepers live. On my visit there once, they were celebrating Dussera. For the first time, I realised how important these festivities are for them -- while the ghettoisation is complete, this is the one time when it does not become circumscribed.

I know that talking about Harijan values may seem like a very patronising thing to do, but there it is -- a nice little hierarchy wherein one scheduled caste person is superior to another.

These are the lessons history has taught them. That equality is a myth. That someone has to pip someone else to the post. That tomorrow is not another day, but a continuation of today as today was of yesterday. That you are stuck for life.

And in this marshland appears Laloo Prasad Yadav. Not to tell us about the lotus in the gutter or the phoenix rising from the ashes. But about how cheese balls sometimes fail to become rat-traps. He is the mouse that's licked all the cream.


"Because it is 2015" and other lame reasons

Fifty-five days from today the phrase "because it is 2015" will become stale, its heft redundant. So, why has it gained the currency of an aphorism? In fact, its transformation into an aphorism itself exposes the levity.

Justin Trudeau, all Hollywood good looks and geek-certified, flashed his cabinet as the new prime minister of Canada. "Why is half of your cabinet made up of women?" somebody asked. He replied, "Because it is 2015." The world went into a tizzy. This is what a cabinet should look like, they chorused, this is a modern man, moving with the times.

There is a small technicality here. 50 percent of the ministers, who happen to be women, will now be seen as harbingers of a period in time. That these are competent women who have been chosen for their ability to work in government gets lost in the exclamatory nature of their initiation/welcome.

Why is half your cabinet made up of women?

Because they were the best and most suited.

This would have sounded better and apt. Instead, Mr. Trudeau's statement sounds like he is following a reservations template: give the women 50 per cent seats because it is 2015, and to hell with other things.

Women aren't the only beneficiaries of the PM's 'goodness'. He has included people from different provinces, minorities, an aborigine, even a refugee. There are three Sikhs, and the one who is Defence Minister also "took on the Taliban". (Yo, turban versus turban.) We are told that somebody is a paraplegic and somebody else is recovering from cancer.

To make matters worse, all this variety will lead to profiling the ministers on the basis of whether they can be mainstream enough. Already TIME magazine has carried a photospread of the women in his cabinet, as though they are bunnies at the Playboy mansion.

Trudeau calls the mix of his cabinet "like Canada". Diversity of people in government is always a good thing, but here it does seem like it was about ticking the right boxes.

Governments the world over, including India, make it a point to pick members from certain groups. These are often sops, however inclusive they might appear to be. Indeed, cynicism should not prevent such choices. However, the celebration should wait, for It makes him into a benefactor, when it should be about the talent pool he could benefit from.

No wonder the reactions have been breathless whistles of how "cool" and "sexy" Trudeau is for being open. People have ended up lauding not the cause but the one they now consider the new messiah.