Editorial / Year of extremes
On not being able to pray
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

�May you live in interesting times�� is a Chinese mode of greeting. The first year of the 21st century by any reckoning has been very interesting, though what was intended as a benediction has turned out to be a curse. Nobody quite wished the year 2001 to turn out to be interesting in the way it has. One single event on September 11 has transformed the world. The fin de siecle had held out the promise that after the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War, the world would enter a period of peace which would be dominated by the United States of America. That promise now lies shattered. The new century has already seen its first major war and there are no guarantees that this will be the last.

The enemy of freedom and democracy is once again an ideology but it is not one that is located in a nation state. Its pernicious presence is in the hearts of all who feel that their religion is superior to the faiths of others and that they can use terror to spread their faith. It is a mobile terror that knows no national boundaries. Religious fundamentalism has erupted in the 21st century as the new synonym for violence. To counter it, the US put together a global coalition and fought a war in Afghanistan. The war is over, though the culprits who masterminded the violence of September 11 are still at large. The war against religious fundamentalism and terrorism has not yet been won.

The global crisis precipitated by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon inevitably affected India. India was an active partner in the global coalition against terrorism, sharing intelligence and providing strategic support. India�s position on terrorism has been vindicated not only by the events in the US and Afghanistan but also in New Delhi. The attack on Parliament on December 13 showed that terrorism in Afghanistan may have been bombed out but has not been eradicated elsewhere. After December 13, the temperature of jingoistic rhetoric has been raised in both India and Pakistan. Call it a phoney war or call it an eyeball to eyeball confrontation, but India and Pakistan stand today, as the year closes, at the brink of a war which nobody really wants. The US, if it is to remain true to its self-appointed mission of being the world�s sheriff, must force the Pakistan government to suppress terrorist organizations based in Pakistan, and also unearth taliban leaders who have escaped into that country.

Some of the economic consequences of these political developments have been analysed in a previous editorial in these columns. The profound social impact has caused a miasma of fear to spread across the globe. If the end of the 20th century held out the hope that the state would increasingly retreat from the working of society and leave individuals free to pursue their lives and interests, the beginning of the new century has obliterated that hope. The state has emerged as a crucial agency to fight terror, promote economic renewal and protect the lives of individuals. The irony in this might bring a smile to the faces of historians in the next millennium: for the nonce the shadow violence and the shadow of the state intersect to create transient space for hope against hope.


A little more than a year ago, a friend of mine flew from England to Calcutta because his mother was ill. She, whom I shall call Mrs Sarkar, was being looked after by her younger son and daughter-in-law, both of whom worked in Calcutta, and had married not long ago. The younger son (by now also a friend) had long been a carefree bachelor who had resisted his brother�s exhortations to settle down; and then surprised everyone by finding the right partner. Now, his mother�s illness had plunged the recently wedded couple into the infernal circle of Calcutta�s hospitals, nurses, attendants, and medical outlets.

At the centre of this disquiet, and at the end of my friend�s journey, lay Mrs Sarkar. She is among the loveliest people I know: mild-mannered, simple, and serene. I first met her at my daughter�s annaprasan ceremony. From her son, I learnt that her serenity was misleading; that she suffered acutely from nervous tension, and that life-shortening disease that many Bengali mothers are afflicted by � hyper-empathy. Her oldest son had died young, in an accident, leaving the two brothers I knew. Ever since then, the younger son told me, she�d been tormented with worry about the lives of the two remaining sons. Then her husband had died. All this had, over half a lifetime, damaged her heart near-fatally. The long years of nervousness had ended in the ICU and in cylinders of oxygen.

�The doctor has asked her to avoid stress,� said the younger son, as his mother began to slowly recover, smiling sadly at the impossibility of the demand. �I�ve inherited her genes,� he said, studying the future. �I can see myself going the same way.� A few days later, he said, �The doctor�s asked her to pray. It�s a way of calming the heart and beating stress. You know what she told me? She said, �I grew up in a Brahmo-influenced family, without rituals or gods. I can�t pray. I don�t know how to.��

I could see what he was talking about; I could recognize the kind of family he was describing. My mother�s family was Brahmo-influenced, and I�d grown up in a household without rituals; my parents had taught me nothing about god or religion, and I have never been to a temple except as a tourist. To be influenced by Brahmoism, or one of the nineteenth-century reform movements, meant that you were neither part of some alternative �church� or sect, nor of mainstream Hinduism; you wove your own way through life, your relationship with eternity a personal, makeshift, experimental affair. And it meant you were not able to pray: you were cured of that certainty.

I say this because, at the time, by some coincidence, my father too was not well, and had to have an operation, and then another one. These operations were nothing to be unduly alarmed about; and yet my mother, another example of a woman whose nerves are frayed by concern, worried overtime. A member of my father�s family, after a telephone conversation, admonished her, �Leave everything to god. Pray to Kali.� My mother said to me, bewildered and exasperated, �How could I tell her that I can�t pray? I don�t believe in god.�

Since then, I�ve thought of what it means � this inward resistance to, and negotiation with, eternity in my mother and Mrs Sarkar. Among its representations in literature, one of the greatest, surely, is to be found in Hamlet, in King Claudius�s speech, �O, my offence is rank!� Claudius�s failure at prayer is, of course, quite different from the very modern difficulty, and dilemma, that Mrs Sarkar and my mother face. Claudius has murdered his brother, Hamlet�s father, and, midway through the play, he decides he must pray; but he neither knows how to pray nor what to pray for: �But O, what form of prayer/ Can serve my turn?� Is he praying for forgiveness, or respite, or tranquillity? Claudius must ask the angels for assistance � �Help, angels! Make assay./ Bow, stubborn knees; and heart with strings of steel,/ Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe./ All may be well.�

As he kneels, Hamlet watches from behind, contemplating if this is to be the moment of revenge, and whether he should kill Claudius. Murder, prayer, vengeance: the scene is a savage parody, and allegory, of the way religion resides somewhere between the individual soul and the fabric of politics and war. But Hamlet sheathes his sword; he�d rather kill him when �he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,/ Or in th�incestuous pleasure of his bed,� so that his soul might go straight to hell; murdering him at prayer risks sending it to heaven. Hamlet leaves; meanwhile, Claudius has finished. He has been unsuccessful � �My words fly up, my thoughts remain below./ Words without thoughts never to heaven go.�

Although the reason for Claudius�s failure is guilt, the scene also subtly alerts us to the fact that, in the age Shakespeare was born to � of Renaissance humanism and the Reformation � religion had been taken out of the Roman Catholic church into the sphere of �ordinary� lives and the parish, that the Book of Common Prayer had been introduced some time before Shakespeare�s birth. In the wake of the Reformation, prayer itself became independent of the church, and had become, as for Claudius (and as it would for Mrs Sarkar and my mother, products of a later, but not unrelated, humanism and history of reform), a matter between the individual conscience and god.

Having grown up the way I have, I find it embarrassing to make even the token gesture of pranam for the anjali during Durga Puja. But, as a pupil in a Protestant school in Bombay, I was introduced early to prayer as a forced regime each morning at school, a regime we subverted by mumbling rather than uttering the words. Nevertheless, when I was very small, I used to pray, as the car approached school, to Christ to save me from P.E. classes. I outgrew this habit when I opened my eyes one day to find I was being laughed at by a group of older girls in a school bus.

When I was eighteen or nineteen, I became attracted, without warning, to the world of polyglot Hindu religious experience, and the catalyst was music. I was living on the topmost storey of a twenty-five storey building; and, although the intensity of the phase was temporary, it permanently opened to me the existence of a different world. The question of belief didn�t arise; but I was deeply moved by the relationship between man and his gods which I discovered through Shyamasangeet, from my parents� collection of Pannalal Bhattacharya�s records; from Chandidas�s kirtans sung by Radharani on a 78 RPM record long in our possession; from the bhajans my mother sang; and, finally, through Hindustani classical music.

There seemed to be no immediate explanation, in my background, for this absorption: not in the example of my agnostic parents, not in my profane, Westernized education, not even in my school�s half-hearted Protestant observances. But, just as there are certain acts of dissension, like not being able to pray, which are partly the outcome of history, there are certain accidents of devotion that we inherit in the blood. Although the cultural parameters of home were Brahmo-influenced, my father�s family, to whom I had not been close as a child � because my father is an only child, and because most of them still lived in Bangladesh � were devoutly Vaishnav; their strain of faith, a very real one in pre-colonial Bengal, had been relatively untouched by nineteenth-century reform. As I got to know them later, I realized that something of that devotion, without its adherence to belief, must have found its way to my bloodstream, and drawn me, in secret, to that polyglot world.

These are accidents of devotion, and they must necessarily remain mysterious. My mother, for those who know her as a singer, has always been admired for the devotional timbre of her singing. Thus, in Hindi, she sang bhajans; even the few ghazals she sang, people would say, sounded like bhajans. In Rabindrasangeet, it is the the �Puja� songs she sings best; and it is this sub-genre she has largely concentrated on. It�s not that, she says, she feels a particular affinity towards the words in comparison to the words of other types of songs; it�s just that her voice expresses a certain sublimity whether or not she feels that affinity. What is this sense of the devotional, then � does it come from within, or is its provenance, like that of creativity, seemingly arbitrary? �I don�t know why god gave me a devotional voice,� she�s told me many times, amused at the great joke of creation. �Because I don�t believe in god.�




Birthday in style

Power changes, and absolute power changes absolutely. Not long ago, the BJP was the bitterest critic of personality cults, or what it called adhinayakvad. The sangh parivar had always been derisive of attempts to place any one individual above the organization, and one of its favourite butts was Indira Gandhi. AB Vajpayee was particularly trenchant in his criticism of Indira Gandhi�s party�s efforts to build a personality cult around her. Much water has flowed under the Jamuna bridge since then, and December 25, 2001, saw all newspapers across the country full of paid features glorifying Atal: The Person, The Personality. Various Central government departments announced special projects and schemes to mark the present prime minister�s 77th birthday. Vajpayee�s backroom boys gathered a seven thousand-strong crowd, among them ordinary people, industrialists, VIPs, to greet him on his birthday at his official residence. Earlier, the entire staff of the PMO had assembled on Christmas morning to wish their boss happy birthday. Small wonder there are some who say in jest that Vajpayee is probably the last Congress prime minister.

A touch should be sweet

But again, some people don�t change. The Trinamool leader, Mamata Banerjee, seems to be one, surprisingly enough. There is an unchanging pattern in her famous changeability that is beginning to emerge through time. It is clear that she is getting extremely bored sitting out of cabinet. She really has nothing to do in her home state � there seems to be a sudden dearth of persons victimized by the CPI(M) there � nor can she sustain her tiff with Ajit Panja for any length of time without an added political dimension. Yet there are no signs of a cabinet expansion. Always one for upping and abouting, she has now turned her charms on LK Advani. No doubt she feels the Union home minister�s importance should be appreciated. So she approached him with sandesh, the Bengali sweet full of the goodness of notun gur. Advani relished it greatly, or so the reports go, but is that going to be all? The Mamata camp is wondering whether Advani got the real sandesh � that is, the news � hidden deep down in the heart of the sweets.

The poor need a dress code

There is another area in which Mamata has shown no change. In her dress code. If there were a prize for the worst dressed politician in India, dear didi would be sure to walk away with it. As a matter of fact she wouldn�t do so badly on the world stage either. Dresswise. Commentators and observers are convinced that her look is too much a part of her mass appeal for her to go for an image overhaul. Her critics aren�t very nice about it. The crumpled white sari with a dull border, rubber chappals and a jhola are aimed at cultivating a pro-poor image. What�s wrong with that anyway?

Gentle spirit of hange

Talking of change, here�s another one. Not a change in any real sense, but an additional hat for a many-hatted person. Salman Khurshid is known as lawyer, historian, politician and actor. And also as a champion. He is heard to be taking up theatre to talk about Islam. Apparently he will be reciting the Quran in a unique theatre idea envisaged by Gopal Sharman. While Karan Singh will be highlighting the Vedas, Khurshid will be explaining the spirit of Islam in accordance with the Quran. A man for the times, Khurshid will also be contesting in the Valentine Day elections in Uttar Pradesh from Farukkabad. From one stage to another, or, perhaps, both at the same time?

Prowling around for the biggest cakes

Remember Balmiki Prasad Singh? The man LK Advani removed quite unceremoniously as his home secretary and who subsequently managed the most coveted post of executive director, World Bank. He�s on the prowl again. It has been whispered that Singh was helped by a fellow Bihari to land the job, but then, detractors will say anything. They also say, these detractors, that Singh didn�t quite bring glory to the Indians in the bank. But all this is quickly to become the past, because our hero�s stint at the bank is coming to an end. And he is said to be eyeing high profile posts, may be a governor somewhere, or even chief vigilance commissioner once N. Vittal retires. Well, what are his chances? He has two things to go on. One, Vajpayee government�s propensity to reemploy superannuated bureaucrats. Two, the appointment of the former cabinet secretary, Prabhat Kumar, as governor of Jharkhand. Especially since Mr Kumar�s past isn�t quite squeaky clean. The jailed Flex Industries boss, arrested while trying to bribe the Delhi excise and customs chief, said all sorts of nasty things about Kumar to the CBI. There is no reason for Singh not to be hopeful.

That refreshing cup of tea

What does the PMO do when it receives a complaint from a hotel about one of the government�s most prized ministers? Apparently this gentleman is demanding that the hotel pay the entire expenses for the tea and snacks given to the visitors who call upon him at home. It seems there is a cool little tea-making gadget installed in the minister�s house by a particular company. The minister expects the hotel to pay the expenses on the gadget too. According to rumours, this is not as strange as it sounds. Evidently, the gentleman in question had a PSU associated with his earlier ministry to pay the expenses on the gadget. He has a new ministry now. So he�s looking around.

Footnote / Learning to do it just right

Slow steps to wider horizons. The Congress leadership in Uttar Pradesh is quite eager that Priyanka Gandhi campaign for the forthcoming assembly elections. But the leadership is looking round to see whether the experiment should be confined to a few districts only. During the Lok Sabha elections Priyanka campaigned only in Amethi and Rae Bareilley. This time the route may be expanded towards regions including Allahabad, Varanasi, Lucknow, Mirzapur, Kanpur and so on. After all, she is the last, the very last, possibility of a trump card, and the party would not like to bring her out till it is certain the experiment will be successful. The place she is not being asked to is Punjab. Her mother is now acceptable enough to be able to address a few rallies in the state, though only a few. This is the one state where the Nehru-Indira Gandhi all-India image comes a cropper. The history of the relationship has become too stained with blood. Since the state Congress committee seems quite sure about this, Punjab will be left out of Priyanka�s campaign itinerary for the moment.    


Batting on regardless

Sir � It was a welcome change to read about the cricket match that was held between the Lagaan team and the Britannia XIII team, �Lagaan lucky even with 13� (Dec 26). For once, especially since the September 11 attacks, the front page of the newspaper did not forebode doom. In a time of terrorism and diplomatic warfare, countries and their people sink into gloom. Matches such as the Lagaan one, remind us of the humour and joy of life. Actors can do wonders to cheer up the people. Other actors should take a leaf out of Aamir Khan�s book and do their bit to boost the flagging spirits of Indians.

Yours faithfully,
Ratna Pal, Calcutta

Empty houses

Sir � I wonder how the taxability of the sum received by a tenant from his landlord against the surrendering of tenancy came up for discussion in the Bombay high court (�Value for money�, Nov 21). The payment of money to a tenant so that the latter vacates premises is a criminal offence and prohibited under the rent control law. In cases where money has been paid, the offender has to be first identified � whether the offender is the landlord for offering money or the tenant for accepting it. After this, it is expected that the court will start proceedings against the offenders.

The report, �Engineer held taking bribe� (Dec 21), stated that an engineer of the public works department was arrested when he was caught accepting a bribe of Rs 15,000 from a contractor for passing the latter�s bill for road construction. By applying the same logic that has been used by the court in the Cadell Weaving Mill Company Private Limited versus Income Tax Commissioner case, this bribe can be viewed as an �income� and can therefore be taxed. But to demand cash or kind from a landlord in exchange for the vacating of a rented property is a form of extortion.

Yours faithfully,
Rudra Sen, Calcutta

Sir � The recent judgment by the Bombay high court in the Cadell Weaving Mill Company Private Limited versus Income Tax Commissioner will make landowners unhappy. To demand vast amounts of money from landlords in exchange for vacating their premises has become a common practice for low rent tenants who have been living on the premises for a long time. It has also been taken for granted that a landlord has to pay his tenant if he wants to recover possession of his apartment. To demand or receive money as consideration for vacating property is unlawful under all state tenancy acts. In fact, the entire act of payment is tantamount to blackmailing the landlord. By coining the term �surrender value� the judiciary could open up the way towards the legalization of bribes and kickbacks.

Yours faithfully,
Samir Ghosh, Calcutta


Sir � The report, �Seniors, shape up or ship out� (Dec 24), clearly shows the strict attitude which the Board of Control for Cricket in India has adopted for the first time. Senior players, like Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar, always take their place in the national team for granted. This is why the players need to be told that if they do not perform well they will not be included in the team.

It is puzzling that the selectors stick to a few regulars. For instance, although Jacob Martin is a very good player he has been given only a few chances to prove himself. It is as confusing that Ashish Nehra was dropped from the team, in spite of a good performance in South Africa.

The �business minded� approach of Jagmohan Dalmiya needs to be encouraged. Without a strict approach, there is little chance of performances improving.

Yours faithfully,
S. Poddar, Calcutta

Sir � Jagmohan Dalmiya has drawn the ire of the Indian cricket team by stating that all members have to meet certain fitness requirements if they wish to remain in the team (�Seniors, shape up or ship out�). The team, known for its lax training and health routines, needs this kind of ultimatum if it is to win a few matches.

Yours faithfully,
Partha Guha, Barasat

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