Thursday, November 27, 2008
I saw a movie called “Slumdog Millionaire” that opened yesterday. Set in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), this Bollywood production is about the stirring story of Jamal Malik, an orphan who has witnessed and experienced unspeakable horrors but who goes on to win 2 crores of rupees in the wildly popular Indian TV show called “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”
Jamal was born in the teeming slums of Mumbai. When he was about 5, his mother was killed by a Hindu mob in a burst of communal violence. He and his older sibling Salim are “rescued” by criminals whose “business” consists of turning helpless slum orphans into lifelong beggars and prostitutes, and a constant source of income, by disfiguring and brutalizing them.
The two brothers manage to escape and a harrowing sequence of events and escapades follow, with Jamal finally, and improbably, facing the arrogant game-show host. Each question is the source of flashbacks about how he came to acquire its answer through the hard knocks of life that he had to endure. While the older Salim becomes the goon of a godfather and loses his soul (eventually he redeems himself), Jamal retains his integrity in adversity while nurturing a keen aptitude for factoids. Not only does he win a gigantic pile of cash, in the end he even gets the girl. Bollywood melodrama notwithstanding, all of us came out of the theatre smiling.
The smile did not last. With life imitating art but in reverse, on the very same day, Muslim terrorists attacked luxury hotels, train stations, a synagogue and even hospitals in Mumbai, killing over a hundred people and injuring many more. These nihilists fired at random, apparently with “serene smiles” on their faces, as bodies fell around them.
No definitive details have emerged about them yet, but it is difficult to even imagine how human beings can become so brainwashed and turn into such cold-blooded murderers.
The murderous rampage by a few Muslim terrorists have made Muslims everywhere, particularly Indian Muslims, angry, frustrated and vulnerable. The last thing India, and the world, needs is Hindu-Muslim violence. Terrorism threatens us all. It is against all the values that we hold dear. It is against everything that gives life its meaning, irrespective of religion and culture. Terrorists have their own "religion," no matter what they may call themselves, and the essence of that "religion" is to hate and kill. We must unite against it. That is the only way we can defeat it. There is no other way.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
In the gloom of market collapse and foreclosures and layoffs, there was a rare burst of sunshine last week. An Indian frigate destroyed a Somali “mother” pirate ship in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Africa. Three speedboats packed with pirates unfortunately escaped.
These ruthless Somali brigands are causing havoc on maritime trade and costing the global economy millions. There have been 90 attacks this year alone, leading to the hijacking of 14 ships and 250 crew members, the latest being a tanker with $100 million worth of Saudi crude. The pirates’ goal: astronomical ransom in exchange for release of ship and crew.
Is the international community so helpless that these high-sea assaults cannot be stopped? The Indian Navy has proven otherwise by confronting the Somali warlords-turned pirates with decisive force.
I have some Somali friends in San Jose who are so outraged by the shame and horror these pirates have inflicted on the reputation of their country that they struggle for words. As they see it, there are only two rules of engagement with the pirates:
- Shoot first, ask questions later
- Capture as many as possible and put them on trial for a world-wide audience
Who will take the responsibility? Actually, any country’s navy can send the rogue ship and speedboats to the bottom of the ocean. Just ask the Indians. What is required is resolve and action. In spite of its disastrous involvement in 1993, my Somali friends feel that the United States should still play a leading role in putting an end to these attacks. Ordinary Somalis are trapped between the lawless and violent ways of rival warlords and are forced to suffer in silence in their failed state. Pirates have always been, and will always be, enemies of the human race. Their fervent wish is for the scourge of the pirates to end before the year is over.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
When he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was virtually unknown in the West.
His Gitanjali (“Song Offerings”), a collection of poems championed by William Butler Yeats, secured for him the highest prize in literature over contenders like Thomas Hardy and Anatole France. Tagore went on to create a body of work greater in scope and power than Gitanjali. His true genius bloomed after the Nobel Prize, a fact unique in the history of literature.
A significant amount of Tagore’s work is infused with a vision of the greatness he saw possible in his native land, a confluence of civilizations due to Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Christians, Moguls, Dravidians, and Aryans. India, as he saw it, was greater than the sum of its parts. Through poems and plays, speeches and songs, he strove for this possibility to the end of his day.
Britain in Tagore’s time ruled India with an iron hand. But the rulers were becoming nervous. A young activist named Mohandas Gandhi had returned from South Africa in 1915 to lead the nationalist movement, becoming a proponent of Satyagraha (literally, “eagerness for truth” but more commonly interpreted as passive or non-violent resistance) to British rule. Although Tagore and Gandhi differed on ways to achieve independence, both believed in regenerating their people through the curbing of communal instincts. The challenge of this possibility continues to this day.
Politics did not interest Tagore but that did not keep him from boldly opposing British tyranny. When government troops led by English officers opened fire on a political gathering in Amritsar in 1919, killing 379 Indians and wounding scores of others, Tagore renounced the knighthood that England had bestowed on him four years earlier. As a poet, he felt it was the strongest statement he could make to draw world attention to the crime.
It cost him friendship and popularity in the literary circles of Europe and even in America, but he considered this act one of the high points of his life. It was also during this time that he composed some of his most powerful poems against oppression and injustice. When Gandhi was imprisoned without trial in 1932, he condemned it. In a letter to England’s Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, he warned that the British were closing the door on peaceful negotiations with Indian leaders.
Tagore was self-taught. Attempts by his parents to educate him in schools had failed. Young Rabindranath found conventional classrooms suffocating. In 1901, he founded an experimental school at Shantiniketan (“Abode of Peace”) near Calcutta, free from traditional restrictions. Classes were held in open air and joy in learning was given the highest importance.
By 1921, the school had evolved into Vishwa-Bharati University (World University) where students from all over India came to study. It is a testimony to Tagore’s ideal that funding for the University came from both Hindus and Muslims.
Tagore did not live long enough to see the end of the British Raj and the partition of the sub-continent along religious lines in 1947. He died six years earlier, still nurturing a harmonious vision of India, as riots were flaring.
In “The Religion of Men,” a set of lectures delivered at Oxford in 1930, Tagore said: “Freedom in the mere sense of independence has no content, and therefore no meaning. Perfect freedom lies in a harmony of relationship.” In an earlier poem, he had written of the perfect union of knowledge and freedom that he came to embody in his own supremely creative and protean life:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by
narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arm toward perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the
dreary desert of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening
thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.
Friday, November 14, 2008
As economic misery mounts for the average American, pundits are busy pointing fingers. You can almost hear them coo: “I told you so!” Yet the same pundits told us before the bubble broke that we were in the era of limitless prosperity, that only the sky was the limit for hedge funds and stocks. The laissez faire market stretched to its extreme has gone bust. Bankers don’t regulate banks any more than inmates regulate asylums. (Coming to think of it, that’s what has been going on in these institutions of higher capitalism!) Ascribing altruism to Wall Street executives makes as much sense as asking a tyrant to punish himself for his crimes.
With the onset of the credit crunch and the scaling down of various forms of want, I have noticed a rather funny reaction among my fellow Muslims. It is a variation of “I told you so,” only more arrogant. If only people were not as greedy or selfish or unjust, this would not have happened, they say, conveniently forgetting that on average, Muslims are as guilty of unchecked materialism as anyone else. All scriptures advise believers not to live beyond their means, not to consume recklessly, not to engage in usurious transactions. But, of course, belief is easy and action difficult.
We need to change our habits and attitudes. Looking back, I see how much “stuff” I bought over the years that I had no use for. My overfilled garage bears testimony to my expensive foolishness. I had to have these things because … well, it was cool to have them. It satisfied a primal hunger for possessions that I felt helpless to resist until economic reality set in. Now the latest in digital cameras and smart phones and smarter toasters leave me looking the other way, in disgust or indifference.
I doubt that we will ever return to the “less is more” trend of the ‘60s and ‘70s but at least we are beginning to reflect on what is important and what is not, what is "need" and what is "want." We knew all along that as the newness of a gadget or a tool or a car or a house wears off, it loses its grip on our psyche and on our sense of happiness. But it made no difference to our desire to acquire, relentlessly and indiscriminately. Tough adjustment, however, has revealed the stark emptiness of toys, gilded or plain, and we are the better for it. If only this sense lasts even if the “good times” were to return!
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
The improbable candidate achieved the unimaginable and overnight, the world became a better place.
Four years ago, the president-elect said at the Democratic National Convention, “I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.”
Last night, it all came together for Barack ("blessing" in Swahili) Hussein Obama in a way that even he could not have dreamed in 2004.
Obama stirred hope in the hearts of people, not just in America but around the globe, but let us not forget that he matched his hope with hard work, undaunted by setbacks and by those who said, “No you can’t.”
“Yes we can” is now a part of the American vocabulary.
By electing an African-American as the 44th president of the United States, America has finally crossed the race Rubicon.
Martin Luther King’s dream that we should be judged not by the color of our skins but by the content of our character is now a reality, even if tempered by memories of hidden wounds too painful for some to forget.
African-Americans voted overwhelmingly for Obama but he could not have been elected president if whites did not vote for him in such unprecedented numbers also, from idealistic students and blue collar workers to liberal intellectuals and Hollywood moguls. Consider this stark fact: North Dakota, Utah, Montana, Vermont, Nebraska and New Mexico went for Obama although there isn't much of an African-American presence in those six states. The biggest shocker of all: Obama won North Carolina and Indiana, two of the reddest states in America. Until now.
America has become colorblind.
While this holds profound lessons for all, it is particularly meaningful for European nations where immigrants are often treated as second-class citizens even after decades of invaluable contributions to their respective societies. Perhaps Obama’s victory will convince France, England, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Spain and other countries to also become colorblind and inclusive. There really is no other way.
Until now, when the world looked up to America, it was because of its science and technology and medicine. But now the world will also look at America with awe and wonder because of its socially enlightened citizenry. Who could have ever imagined that?
Reversing the “either you are with us or against us” threat that defined George Bush’s belligerent foreign policy is a priority for Barack Obama. He has promised to meet unconditionally with any world leader to discuss and negotiate peace. The international temperature seems to have already cooled by a few degrees, and even though securing agreements with nations alienated by American arrogance may take time, the prospects are promising, given the spontanaeous outpouring of global goodwill for the president-elect.
The danger posed by global warming is another priority. Throughout his campaign, Obama spoke passionately about the earth’s dwindling resources, its relentless exploitation by all but Western countries in particular, the urgency of clean energy sources, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint, and legislating sane policies based on scientific evidences to protect us and our children from rising seas and diminishing landmass.
But the sheer wonder of an African-American making the White House his home for at least the next four years is so astonishing that it blocks out other thoughts.
It was on New Year’s Day in 1863 that Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. A hundred years later, in 1963, Martin Luther King informed Americans and the world that he had a dream. A year later, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, outlawing racial segregation in schools, public places, and employment. Johnson followed it up with the National Voting Rights Act in 1965 to empower African-Americans to cast ballots without fear.
But the laws were only theories and it took many more years before they became reality for those they were meant to protect. A movie currently playing in theatres –The Secret Life of Bees – based on the best-selling novel of the same title by Sue Monk Kidd – gives viewers an idea of how many lives were lost and shattered before African-Americans could actually vote.
While many commentators have reflected on these historic milestones in the wake of Obama’s victory, one name has gone unmentioned. It is that of Muhammad Ali. Obama inspired us with the audacity of hope but in the ‘60s, Ali lifted our spirits with his raw audacity alone. From “I have seen the light and I am crowing” to “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” Ali spoke truth to power, opening raw wounds in the psyche of America that provoked anger and revulsion but in the end proved cathartic for the nation. The change that he brought about through his audacity and moral courage surely played a role in the election that transfixed us on November 4th and transformed the world.
P.S. Toni Morrison, the last American to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993, gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal on 11/7/2008. The relevant excerpt follows:
Q. What do you think Mr. Obama's win says about American conception of race?
A. We're still a very active, volcanic country which is part of its excitement - the reinvention of ourselves and the constant search for what democracy means. I'm keenly aware of this peculiarity for this country. You couldn't imagine a win like this in Europe, because they're more static in how they run things. I can't imagine a Senegalese man in Paris running France - but now maybe.
Q. It's interesting that very little of the public discourse about Mr. Obama deals with his mixed-race status.
A. The other part of his race and his cultural experience was swept under the rug. That was deliberate so he could be the quintessential American even though the country was built on diversity. They had to tiptoe around that, but I think that nuanced discussion will happen. I kept saying that this is not an African-America but it's this specific man. This man. I can think of a lot of African-American that I would not vote for.