Sunday, June 24, 2012

Misguided patriotism

When fire had engulfed the Mantralaya building in Mumbai recently, some bravehearts stood on the burning deck whence all but they had fled, to ensure that no harm would come to the national flag. 

Here’s a typical news report from Mumbai on the incident: 

For Suresh Baria and his colleagues, the flames, which were beginning to leap towards the national flag that fluttered atop the structure of the secretariat, were no deterrent as they went ahead with their job, that of lowering the flag in the evening. at a time when everyone else around them was running towards the exit, Baria and his team had chosen to stay right beside the flag, refusing to budge until they were given orders to lower the flag safely. 

All Class IV employees of the PWD department, they stayed put for two hours on the terrace of the Mantralaya building, waiting for orders to lower the flag. 

They later pulled the flag down, folded it as per the guidelines and safely tucked it away in a special room. 

Another report adds: 

“We were together,” said a flag in-charge. “We were giving strength to one another. Our families kept calling us on the cell, but we couldn’t attend their calls as we were constantly in touch with our supervisors. When we saw people crowding near the lift and staircases were jammed with people, we thought of our duty to the flag. It had to be done. We removed the flag to safety.”  

Makes a very good story.  Unmindful of their own safety, these bravehearts saved the national flag from being burnt and all that. 

My own view is that patriotism of this variety is uncalled for. One must not be disrespectful to the national flag. All reasonable efforts must be put in to ensure that the rituals and protocol with respect to hoisting/lowering of flags are adhered to. But if some accident or natural calamity causes it to go up in flame, it is not an ‘insult to the nation’.  Thousands of paper flags are consigned to the dustbins once the Independence Day or Republic Day celebrations get over and we don’t shed tears. We understand the symbolism and the spirit behind hoisting the flag or pinning one on our shirts. 

It is irresponsible and even idiotic to risk one’s life without a thought for one’s family and dependents.  .  I’m sure that even professional firemen and army personnel, who are trained to put country before self, are not expected to sacrifice their lives to save a burning flag. 

If you perish while trying to save the flag, you’ll get an award posthumously, but fat lot of good it will do to your family. When a call has been issued to evacuate the building, obey those orders first and stop being a misguided smartass craving for attention and your ‘moment of glory’. You’ll serve society and the country better by not causing distress to your families.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The great diamond robbery

Till the nineteenth century, India and Brazil were the only two countries where diamonds were found and mined. Bijapur and Golconda were the places which had an abundance of diamonds. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a French traveler and merchant, visited these parts in the seventeenth century and has written in detail about the mining and the flourishing diamond trade. (Incidentally, he is also supposed to have stolen the 115-carat uncut stone to France and which later became the Hope diamond, now lodged at the Smithsonian Museum.)

I couldn’t find the translated version of Tavernier’s books, but The “Select Review and Spirit of the Foreign Magazines” published in 1809 quotes him extensively ( page 61-65): 

Here he is quoted describing the mining operations in Golconda:

"Round about the place where the diamonds are found, the ground is sandy and full of rocks, which contain veins from half a finger to a finger wide. These veins are full of earth, or sand, which the miners pick out with instruments on purpose, and carefully deposit in a tub, as it is amongst this earth that the diamonds are found. They are sometimes obliged to break the rock in order to trace the veins for the sake of the earth; and as soon as this is accomplished, and all the sand removed, it is carefully washed two or three times and the diamonds, if there be any, picked out. There are several diamond cutters at this mine, but none of them have above one mill, which is of steel- They never cut more than one stone at a time upon each mill, and use oil and diamond powder to facilitate the operation, at the same time loading the stone with a heavy weight." 

“.. the Indian lapidaries are very expert in cutting the diamonds, and will frequently undertake to divide a stone, which, from its unfavourable appearance, the Europeans will not venture upon. 

..they trade very freely and honestly, the king receiving two per cent, on all that are bought, besides a certain duty from the merchants for leave to dig- When these traders have fixed upon a spot, they begin their search, and employ a number of miners, in proportion to the hurry they may be in. 

Sometimes a hundred men are employed at once; and when this is the case, the merchant pays four pagodas to the king for every day they work, and two when the number is not so great. 

.., the poor people never got above three pagodas for the labour of a year, though they understand their business extremely well. These trifling wages, and the distress they suffer in consequence, make them hide a stone whenever they can find an opportunity. This, it must be confessed, is but seldom, as, besides being strictly guarded, they work almost naked; and therefore, not having any outward protection for their stolen goods, they are sometimes induced to swallow them. When any of these people chance to meet with a large stone, they carry it to the master of the work, who rewards them accordingly. 

Every day, after dinner, the master of the miners brings the diamonds to the lodgings of the merchants, in order to show them and if the stones are large, or sufficiently numerous to amount to more than the sum of two thousand crowns, he will leave them for some days, that the merchants may have time to consider their value, and agree about the price. This, it seems, they are obliged to do before the return of the owner, who will never bring the same stones again, unless mixed with others.

….the diamond traffick is carried on by persons of all ages, and that even children are taught to barter for them. It is very pleasant,to see the young children of the merchants and other people of the country, from the age often to fifteen or sixteen years, who seat themselves on a tree that lies in a void place in the town. Every one of them has his diamond weights in a little bag hanging at one side; on the other his purse, with five or six hundred pagodas in gold in it. There they sit, expecting when any person will come to sell them some diamonds.

 If any person brings them a stone, they put it into the hands of the eldest boy amongst them, who is, as it were, their chief, who looks upon it, and after that gives it to him that is next him; by which means it goes from hand to hand, till it returns to him again, none of the rest speaking a word. After that he demands the price to buy it, if possible; but if he buy it too dear, it is upon his own account. In the evening the children compute what they have laid out; when they look upon their stones, and separate them according to their water, their weight, and clearness. Then they bring them to the principal merchants, who have generally great parcels to match; and the profit is divided among the children equally, only the chief among them has a fourth in the hundred more than the rest. Young as thev are, they so well understand the price of stones, that if one of them has made any purchase, and is willing to lose one half in the hundred, the other will give him his money." 

The secrecy which the Indians observe in their dealings with each other is singular enough; for they will contrive to sell the same parcel of diamonds several times to each other without speaking a word; so that no by stander can possibly tell what they have been doing. "The buyer and seller sit one before another like two tailors; and the seller, opening his girdle, takes the right hand of the purchaser, and conveys it, together with his own, beneath his girdle, where the bargain is secretly driven in the presence of many merchants, without the knowledge of any one. The parties never speak or make any signs with their mouths or eyes, but only converse with their hands; and this is managed in the following manner. 'When the seller takes the purchaser by the whole hand, it signifies a thousand; and as often as he squeezes it, it means so many thousand pagodas or rupees, according to the money in question. If he takes but half, to the knuckle of the middle finger, that is as much as to say fifty; the small end of the finger to the first knuckle signifies ten. When he grasps five fingers, it signifies five hundred; but if one finger, one hundred." 

After quoting Tavernier thus, the article goes on: 

Magellan tells us, that the greatest diamond ever known in the world is one belonging to the king of Portugal, which was found in Brasil, and is still uncut. This gentleman was informed, irom good authority, that it was once of a larger size, but that a piece was cleaved or broken by the ignorant countryman who chanced to find the gem, and tried its hardness by a stroke of a large hammer upon an anvil. This prodigious diamond weighs 1,680 carats and although it is uncut, Rome de l'lsle says, it is valued at 224 millions sterling. 

The diamond which is next in value adorns the sceptre of the emperour of Russia, and is placed under the eagle at the top of it. This stone weighs 779 carats, and is worth, at least, 4,854,720' pounds sterling, although it hardly cost 135,417 guineas. A singular history is attached to this diamond. It was formerly one of the eyes of a Malabarian idol, named Scheringham. A French grenadier, who had deserted from the Indian service, contrived to become one of the priests of that idol, and, watching his opportunity, stole its eye, and ran away to the English at Trinchinapeuly, from whence he carried it to Madras. A ship captain bought it for twenty thousand rupees; afterwards a Jew gave seventeen or eighteen thousand pounds for it; at last, a Greek merchant, named Gregory Suffras, offered it to sale at Amsterdam, in the year 1766, where it was bought by prince Orion" for his sovereign, the empress of Russia. The figure and size of this diamond is preserved in the British Museum.

The diamond of the Great Mogul weighs 279 carats, and is said to be worth 380,000 guineas. This diamond has a small flaw underneath near the bottom. Before this stone was cut, Tavernier tells us it weighed 900 carats; consequently its loss in cutting must be considerable. 

Another diamond, in the possession of the king of Portugal, which weighs 215 carats, is extremely fine, and worth at least 369,800/.

The famous diamond which belonged to the late king of France, called the Pitt, or 'Regent, weighs nearly 137 carats, and has been valued at 208,333 guineas, although it did not cost above half that sum. This beautiful gem was found in the diamond mines at the foot of the Gaut mountains, about twenty miles from Golconda. Another diamond belonging to the same monarch, called the Sancy, was reckoned a very fine stone, though it weighs only 55 carats. It cost 25,000 guineas, but is said to he worth a much larger sum. We must not omit to mention the diamond of the emperour of Germany, which weighs 139 carats, and is valued at 109,520 guineas. It is of a light citron colour. 

So, the diamond from the idol of the Srirangam temple was stolen by the French grenadier posing as a priest ( I don’t know how he managed to do that among the brown skins), sold to the English for 20000 rupees, and finally ended up with the Russians.

Update: Do also read this " Account of the Diamond Mines in India" from a book by one Benjamin Heyne published in 1810. ( page 92-106)

Update 190612: Reader Thiru points me to this Wiki link on the Srirangam diamond which ended us as the "Orlav Diamond"

Saturday, June 16, 2012

He silenced his enemies.

Why do writers feel that for someone to be labeled  a champion or a hero,  he/she must be shown to have been through untold suffering - constantly warding off detractors and evil spirits, silencing the relentless doubters and critics, putting up with major inconveniences, struggling with poverty and so on? 

For example, a student who gets the first rank in the Board Exams must be described as one who read in the park everyday ( no lights at home) or walked six miles through slush everyday to reach school. I can almost visualize the reporter prompting the student, “ Did you have to study in candlelight or using kerosene lamps anytime?”.  “Yes, yes, now that you remind me. The evening before my Maths Exam, there was a two-hour power cut in our area…” 

A sports champion must be shown as one who came from a very humble background, practiced 16 hours a day, cycled 15 km for his coaching, caught up with his school homework at midnight and rose to the top through sheer determination in the face of adversity. 

Many of these stories are true, of course. We should not belittle them. But look at anybody’s life, I’m sure you’ll find some major setbacks they’ve faced or the many challenges they had to overcome. This is a reality and it’s ridiculous to hype this aspect. Every sportsman who has achieved something or not would have worked very hard at the game, often at the expense of something else in life. 

When Anand won the World Championship title for the 5th time recently, it was no mean achievement. He had to work hard against a formidable opponent who showed enormous resolve and intent to dethrone Anand. But that’s how it is in any sporting event. Theirs is often a reigning champion and someone else trying to unseat him from that position. At the level of a World Championship, it does get intensely competitive.

But when you put it this matter-of-fact manner, it sounds tame and insipid.  So, a special dose of melodrama needs to be injected into the narrative. That’s what Chidanand Rajghatta does in his report: 

They trash-talked him, ridiculed him, and wrote him off. They said he had slowed down, lost his flair and chutzpah, and become conformist and traditional in his play. But Viswanathan Anand took on everything the Russian-Israeli chess mafia and his growing band of critics threw at him and emerged on top yet again on Wednesday, winning the world chess title for the fifth time, and shutting up detractors for now. 

.. the Russian chess mafia has long been smarting at the loss of the chess crown to the genial Indian after the Karpov-Kasparov combine dominated the game for decades.

Anand has taken on everything they have fired at him from since 2000, including a divided and discredited world title. But since 2007, he had been the undisputed world champion, defeating the Russian Vladimir Kramnik, whom Moscow regarded as the heir to the two Ks, and the Bulgarian Veselin Topalov in 2010.

In each instance, Anand has had to battle not just his opponent, but also a mighty chess establishment, and sometimes even forces of nature. In 2010, he had to drive from Spain to Bulgaria, a distance of nearly 3000 kms across Europe, after the volcanic ash disrupted flights and the (challenger's) host country refused to delay the start, citing TV rights issues. He got to Sofia just in time -- and went on to win. 

So, this is the picture that Rajghatta conjures for you. Anand, the valiant Indian, all alone and with no weapons- surrounded on all sides by the evil, scheming Russian-Israeli mafia who want his blood to mix with their cocktail. He can hear his severe critics guffawing away in a menacing and cinematic voice over.  But Anand subdued and tamed them all,  as only Chidanand Rajghatta - out of the billions of people on earth -knew he would. For, he alone knew the size of Anand’s heart. 

Anand’s triumph was fantastic, even without bringing in these references to Israeli-Russian mafia and so on. But it had to be brought in by Rajghatta.  Perhaps he felt that  the reader won’t be able to appreciate the enormity of the achievement without this hyperbole.

Maybe, while reporting on achievers, the emphasis on the hardship is necessary to inspire so many people who are struggling with poverty and discrimination, to provide them the motivation to pursue a lofty ambition. If Ramanujam hailing from a poor family and who had his schooling in a small town could become a world-renowned mathematician, so can you. If Mary Kom can win five world champion titles in women’s boxing despite her background as the daughter of a poor farmer in a remote place in North-East India, so can you.  

But this aspect need not take over the narrative and become the dominant or central theme.  And, as in the case of Rajghatta’s report on Anand, new forms of hardship or adversity need not be invented just to conform to the template.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Vacuous and Verbose-32

The Hindu Metroplus has a feature called ‘Proust Questionnaire”. Every now and then some celebrity is invited to answer questions based on a standard template. 

Today’s edition carries answers provided by Ketan Mehta, a filmmaker and apparently one who has won  several international awards. 

Some of his answers: 

What is your greatest fear?
That I'll be happy. 

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
My need to like myself. 

On what occasion do you lie?
When life is a lie - how does it matter? Sab Maya hai. [It's all an illusion.] 

What do you dislike most about your appearance?
That I can't disappear at will. 

My question to all my readers ( not part of the Proust Questionnaire) : 

Do these arty types become so because they view life this way, or do they start talking such nonsense after acquiring fame as an artist? Do they feel this compelling urge to sound profound all the time ? Do they assume that the nuttier their reply, the artier they’ll end up sounding?

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Freedom of expression. Who sets the limit?

A picture of the South African President, Jacob Zuma, drawn by artist Brett Murray had to be withdrawn from the website of a newspaper following protests. As pictures go, it was a nice one, the only point of controversy being that he was shown nude waist down, with his private parts displayed. (source)

The artist says she was ‘abused’ and therefore was compelled to remove it. Most writers and columnists rallied to her support and expressed their sympathy. Their contention was that she merely used her artistic licence and the basic right of freedom of expression. 

There have been enough debates in different countries involving various artists on what constitutes freedom of speech or expression. Writers and artists who make a living out of such stuff want unlimited rights and no curbs whatsoever. Govts and censors like to restrict this freedom when they sense trouble brewing from some other section of society. 

So where does one draw this line between ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘vulgarity’ or ‘offensiveness”?Who defines where this line is?

A.C.Grayling discusses this dilemma in an essay:

The central point around which the others must revolve, is that free speech is a fundamental of such great importance that without it we could have only the most limited society and the most stunted possibilities for individuals. This is because without free speech we cannot claim to other liberties and rights, or defend them when they are attacked; we could not have democracy, which depends on the expression of opinion, debate, criticism and challenge; we could not have education worth the name, for it depends on the free exchange of information; we could not have any but the most pedestrian and formulaic literature, theatre, television and art; in short without free speech our lives would be as closed as our mouths.

But we know very well that for all its vital importance, free speech is not an absolute. It has to be responsibly and maturely used, all the more so because of its potential for misuse. It can be a fig leaf for doing damage and stirring trouble from motives that are not consistent with the other family of ideals in which free speech is a member.

It is in fact not hard to draw the required line. To speak insultingly or act discriminately- even if you do it indirectly- with respect to the race, sex, sexuality, age and disability if any, of other people, is unacceptable. These are things over which individuals have no choice or control. In respect of what people can choose, such as their political or religious commitments, how they dress, how they entertain themselves, it is open season: people must bear the consequences of their choices, including the disagreements, amusement and even the contempt of others. “Feeling offended’ is no defence against attack on your political or religious views by those who do not share them, and indeed it is a vital feature of a healthy society that over matters of choice there should be a vigorous debate, of which satire and humour are a welcome and often revealing part”. 

Using this principle, it can be argued that the artist merely depicted the South African President-  as he really is below the waist, and therefore he has no grounds to take offence. Can it? I’m not sure.

What about religion? Is it in my control? I was born a Hindu, and did not exercise any choice. Am I then entitled to take offence when Husain paints pictures of nude Hindu goddesses? No. Applying Grayling’s logic, I have chosen to remain a Hindu when I could possibly have converted to some religion, or could have cut off allegiance to any religion. As I chose to remain a Hindu, I must bear the consequence and accept criticism. Similarly, Muslims cannot take offence when a Danish cartoonist comes up with something that caricatures them. 

Grayling doesn’t claim to provide unambiguous answers. Obviously, in such matters, there may not be any. But he points us in the general direction of a possible answer. In fact his essay is part of a series called “ Thinking of Answers’

Sunday, June 03, 2012

The killjoys.

After the defeat in Australia in the Test match series, P.Sainath of The Hindu did an exhaustive analysis and came up with this conclusion: 

Just weeks ago, the pundits said this was our best chance ever to beat Australia in Australia. Our best team possible. Did the best team ever age in weeks? What happened? 

IPL happened. And happened long before the disaster tours. A team full of players carrying injuries playing 90 days of sub-standard club-level cricket happened. That prepares you only for more sub-standard stuff, year after year, not cricket at the highest levels. They continue playing there with injuries because the BCCI-IPL has brought big bucks to the privately-owned side of the sport, not to the domestic game. 

What is the man’s credentials to make such an assessment? Zilch. 

Mukul Kesavan wrote in a column  that the IPL is stage-managed with nexus between the BCCI and the owners. But the most damning point, according to him, is the fact that there are cheerleaders: 

…the most obvious token of the IPL's decadence is the dancing girls. These aren't cheerleaders (though sometimes they pretend to be) because this isn't collegiate America. These are young women paid to tart up the tournament with their bodies, to strut their stuff for mainly male audiences in a country where every adult woman has suffered the predatory gaze (and worse) of Indian men.

This edition of the IPL has them in the television studio as well for the delectation of the anchors. When the governors of cricket in India begin to use female bodies to sell tickets and capture television ratings you know that a cricket tournament has lost its bearings and become something else. And when the journalists who enable the tamasha and the audiences who watch it begin to take the dancing girls for granted, there is a larger sickness abroad. 

Ramachandra Guha, in an op-ed in The Hindu has several points of criticism on the ‘smash and grab crony league”. Just to cite two of his points: 

The IPL has given capitalism and entrepreneurship a bad game. But it has also been bad for Indian democracy, in that it has vividly and even brazenly underlined the distance between the affluent, urban middle classes and the rest of India. Consider the fact that no city in India's largest State, Uttar Pradesh, which has an excellent Ranji Trophy team, was awarded a franchise. Nor any city in Bihar, Orissa, or Madhya Pradesh either. To leave out four of India's largest States — all cricket-mad, and which collectively account for close to half the country's population — must seriously disqualify the League's claim to be ‘Indian.' 

Yet it can still be called ‘Premier,' for it speaks for the more prosperous parts of India, and for the more prosperous sections within them. The very names of the teams are a clue to its elitist character — two ‘Kings,' two ‘Royals,' and one ‘Knight,' this in a democratic Republic whose Constitution and laws (rightly) did away with aristocratic titles of any kind. 

So, what this guy wants is an IPL which is a microcosm of the country, with every state and every tribe from far-flung hamlets represented. And, combining both his points on the states and the titles, we should name teams as “Patna Petty Paupers” and “Bhopal Wretched Beggars”. No kings or chargers or knights to figure in the titles, and no teams from decadent cities such as Chennai or Mumbai or Delhi. 

Why do these fellows constantly need to make us feel guilty for the entertainment we choose? Are they the only socially-conscious people around? Is it a zero-sum game? Is my watching the IPL at the expense of some farmer’s happiness? Who the hell are they to pontificate on what constitutes the right form of cricket? If the spectators didn’t like it, it wouldn’t have lasted 5 seasons. And the spectator has a right to choose his form of cricket. 

IPL was the reason for our loss in Australia? Damn it. There were cricketers in the Australian team who had played the IPL too. 

What’s immoral or vulgar about cheerleaders? Bloody hell, far worse things are shown in the most decent of Hindi or regional movies. 

Why are these fellows such killjoys? Why can’t they tolerate people having some legitimate fun? The only explanation that I can think of is this. 

These are all professional writers who have built their own individual brand by hyping some theory or other. And they make a living out of their writing, and must find as many outlets as they can to get their ‘writing’ published.

An event such as IPL is an excellent means to grab public attention by writing a column or two. For a professional writer, it’s too good an opportunity not to encash on. Sadly for these disgruntled writers, no newspaper would invite them to write a regular column on the IPL, for the simple reason that nobody will read their dreary stuff. Therefore, the only option is to somehow persuade their newspaper to allow them to write a contrarian piece bad-mouthing the IPL and to keep it in line with their brand image. So one guy can write that farmers are dying while we are fiddling, while the other guys can use the chance to hold forth on their respective pet theories cleverly weaving in the alleged ills of IPL. Their hope and intention is that such of their readers who are also IPL followers must die of guilt and shame. 

Ironically, all the papers that carried these critical articles on IPL benefited immensely from the advertisements placed by IPL and the franchisees.

Much as I hate it, ‘freedom of expression’ means that such writers who make a living by spreading gloom and guilt should be allowed to do so.  But I wish they would be socially ostracized for causing incalculable damage to the morale and happiness of the people. 

 “How dare you be happy?” is their refrain, as I blogged once. I would argue that even when the economy is depressed- or particularly when- people must be allowed to celebrate if, when and how they choose to, so long as such celebrations don’t come at the cost of someone else who is not a part of it.