Category Archives: Relflections

Note on fasting as a protest form

On fasts – A spoken word piece

A fast is not a childish tantrum. Childish tantrums are unconsciously selfish. A fast is not an adult tantrum. Adult tantrums are consciously selfish, and thus far worse than the unconscious tantrums of children.

A fast is conscious, and selfless. A fasting protester essentially makes this point – I believe in the justness of my cause far more than I believe in the importance of my own body or life. And it is this enticing hook, this glimpse of a larger vision, and higher possibility that makes supporters gravitate toward the center of this ultimate protest. The center, to borrow a Sufi metaphor, is the divine flame toward which rush the moths, seeking total annihilation and union with the divine.

Conscious and selfless activities usually disturb rule makers. The rule makers would rather have you lie in stupor, surrounded by the pettiness of your personal universe, and its little problems. Were you to peek over this wall and look out into the world, they fear you would see too much, and know much more. And knowing usually leads to doing – at least in the uninitiated. The well initiated know the pragmatic answer – that not acting is the best action to take.

At the center of the fast though, there is no room for pragmatism. At the center is a clarion call against the deepest instinct of self preservation. At the center is the echo of a resounding slap against the measured, risk free baby steps of our lives. No pretenses can hold their end of an argument here, in the face of a body that is consuming itself for a stand.

The journey toward that center is one we must take. In that journey something important may be discovered. That the gnawing “I” that takes up our all our time, doesn’t matter that much.


After note:

There is something very Eastern about fasting too. A culture that believes in the perpetuity of consciousness, regardless of the impermanence of the body clearly makes it possible for one to stake the body in the interest of a cause that could benefit humanity even in one’s absence. Of course the drive to seek justice in any case is a universal phenomenon.

Secondly, critics may argue that fasts are a form of blackmail, and hence must not be supported. However, the true success of a fast lies in the amount of support it garners from the general public. And it is here that we can hope that the moral compass of the ‘crowd’ will make the right choice, and support only just causes.


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Begging for attention

I wonder why people cringe and look away when encountered by beggars. I think there are two reasons. One reason could be that by looking away, we hope we don’t have to face the reality of the existence of such people. The other less obvious reason is probably to save the beggar the embarrasment of our gaze. I think both reasons play out simultaneously when we look away. It’s an interesting pointer to both natures within us – the tendency to exist in a cocoon of our private universe with its private reality, and on the other end, the humaneness in all of us.

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Kala Desh Ki Seva Mein

The Prithvi Festival’s tagline this year is – Kala Desh Ki Seva Mein [Art in the service of the nation]. It’s quite an interesting tagline. How can art serve the nation?

– I suppose art holds a mirror to society, and often tells us what we have become – sometimes criticising, and sometimes celebrating humanity.
– Art helps us reflect on, and influence our responses to the world we live in.
– I suppose art does provide employment too (though I doubt that that is the import of the tagline)
– Art certainly helps unite cultures, and helps us understand each other. We live in a world that is fragmented more than ever before by religion, terrorism, and war. Art is the underlying common thread across civilizations that helps us appreciate a ghazal, a classical raga, and hip hop at the same time.
– Art speaks an honest voice, uncluttered by rhetoric, political correctness, and cheap tittilation.
– Art helps us get away from our constructed urban realities, from the mundaneness of making a living, and gets us closer to humanity – ourselves.

I guess it was a good tagline to pick after all!

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Thought Experiment

In which disciplines do you find the most talented/intelligent people in India? The answer is : in any discipline where there is a rigourous selection process that filters out the best, such as the IIMs, IITs, the top medical colleges etc. In which discipline do we find the most incompetent people? The answer is -Politics – and that’s because democracy allows just about anyone to stand for office regardless of skills.

Combining these two thoughts, I would like to see something along the lines of CAT or the IAS examinations for qualification into politics. The ‘office of profit’ issue makes it clear that there is a school of thought that believes that politics is a profession in itself. So, why not set some minimum criteria for a person to get into the profession. I would like my average politician to have a good understanding of the following

  1. National and Local history: This would ensure that our leaders can put forth coherent arguments founded on facts when it comes to controversial issues like Ayodhya, reservations etc.
  2. Economics: An understanding of basic economics would help people understand why prices cannot be artificially kept low (petroleum), and interest rates cannot be kept artificially high (the provident fund issue), and why goverment should by and large stay out of ‘business’.
  3. Social Sciences, International relations etc.
  4. Basic Sciences
  5. A standard IQ test (to eliminate Arjun Singh types)
  6. Proficiency in the local language
The top 10 percentile would qualify for standing for office. The rest could try again next year. The score obtained by a candidate in such a selection process would be valid for say, ten years during the course of which he can choose stand for elections. In other words, you can spend upto 9 years building financial stability for yourself before entering into a monetarily less lucrative profession (bribes and kickbacks are ofcourse ruled out).

Political parties would compete with each other for this top 10% (the way companies scramble for candidates at the top b-schools). The top 1% would probably by default become cabinet ministers at the state or national level. In other words, we would move from being a democracy to a democratic meritocracy – and history shows us that this model works best whenever you want to ensure that the best and most competent people get into a profession. Needless to say, the score on the test would only be an indicator. The candidate would still have to stand for elections (or shall we call it an interview?) where he would have to convince his constituency that he is the best man for the job (possibly by highlighting CV bullet points like past leadership experience, demonstrated capabilities in serving society etc.)

As a citizen in a democracy, I have to always compete with other citizens for getting into the best educational institutes, the best jobs, and all kinds of other opportunities. Why then, do we set such low standards for people who get to occupy the best leadership roles in the country? Beats me.


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The Tagore-Gandhi disagreements and the Vedas

Amartya Sen’sThe Argumentative Indian‘ speaks about disagreements between Gandhi and Tagore on various issues (though they had a great degree of respect for one another otherwise). One bone of contention had me thinking. Gandhi recommended that all Indians must spin the charka for atleast 30 minutes everyday, to enable fortunate, well-off people to be able to identify with the less fortunate. It was almost a symbol of gratitude, this act of spinning the charka. However, Tagore was strongly against this idea, because he felt that ‘The charka does not require anyone to think; one simply turns the wheels of the antiquated invention, using the minimum of judgement and stamina.’

I found this whole debate to be a lot like the debate on true Hinduism. The Vedas, said to be the source text of Hinduism, have two parts – the karma kanda, or the part outlining the rituals; and the jnana kanda, or the part containing deeper philosophical ideas. Most Hindus throughout history have been content with the karma kanda – the rituals, the poojas and the sacrifices. They hardly understand that the rituals are only symbolic in nature. Similarly, I suppose, Tagore too must have felt that charka spinning was becoming more of a dumb ritual than anything else.

This seems to be the problem with most forms of symbolism. With time, people lose touch with the core principles behind a symbolic act, and instead lose themselves in the physical act itself. For instance, traditional Hindu rituals use burning camphor to perform the aarti. One theory is that camphor, when burnt, leaves no trace behind it, not unlike the ego, which when burnt by the pure fire of knowledge, disappears completely. Interesting isn’t it? But, Hindus spend more time performing these rituals, rather than reflect on their spiritual significance.
Meanwhile, I am deeply engrossed in ‘The Argumentative Indian’ – among the few gripping (as opposed to dreary and academic) non-fiction books I have read.

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The myth of a 9 to 5 job

As people go higher and higher up in an organizational hierarchy, they actually have lesser and lesser to do. In a company that sells a product or service, it is the frontline sales team that actually has a REAL 9 to 5 (or 9 to 9 in certain companies) job. This is because the time they spend on the job directly influences the business they get. Heads of business units and senior managers rarely actually go out to the market place and source business. This means that the time they spend on their jobs has no direct correlation with the success of their organizations. Most of their day is spent on man management, data analysis and decision making.

Read the full post at my management blog.

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