Monday, August 29, 2011

Where will Anti Corruption Movement go from here

The huge success that the UPA government has conceded the Anna team may be euphoric for theoretical reasons like trump of people, assertion of democracy etc. But it’s also equally worrying. Emboldened by success, Anna has announced his mission number two, a nationwide campaign to ask people to punish corruption-tainted MPs by not voting for them. I thought the bill they have proposed was enough to address corruption by MPs.

Anna has also said that our educational system requires correcting, so another campaign will be launched to address the concern. Is there anyone to tell him that education is handled by HRD and they can make their recommendations to the ministry?

This disregard for the system is ominous. Even the staunchest of Anna supporters would not like the country to lose whatever little it has in the way of system. It’s one thing to picket at Ramila Maidan but quite another to have Ramila Maidan replace parliament. Moreover, no popular movement remains apolitical forever. Anna’s movement has been alleged to have mild BJP leaning but there has been nothing found to conclusively prove the allegation. However, it’s anyone’s guess which party will gain the most from the movement and which will take the hit.

You can say the political fallout is a natural corollary of the movement and something the Anna team can’t be blamed for but can’t argue that in the highly competitive environment of Indian politics a politically virgin movement (considering that it doesn’t have any political association already) which is supremely popular will not be snapped up by a political outfit.

I don’t doubt Anna’s integrity but the movement’s course of action is not decided by Anna alone.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Is Anti-Corruption Movement Degenerating?

When a popular movement develops a huge following, it runs the risk of becoming jingoistic basing itself not on reason or concern for common good but the collective might of a community/group religious or otherwise. Anna’s movement has currently acquired this muscular characteristic.

Anna Hazare enthusiasts have become a common sight on the streets, going by bikes or walking in processions waving the national flag and sloganeering aggressively. This aggressive enthusiasm leaves me thinking whether they are open to any kind of reasoning. I shudder to think what would happen of me if I approached them and told them that, while I want a corruption-free India and don’t doubt the intentions of Anna, I would like to see the other versions of the bill discussed in parliament. Or Anna is great, but, like everyone else, he is also fallible.

But you can’t blame them for that. They are behaving that way because they have internalized the message of the movement. The movement has become an outlet to ventilate their pent up feelings. Anna has become a stick for them to hit the high and mighty with. The success of the movement for them no more lies in combating corruption and improving the society but to have their way if not by the power of reason then by power of the lung.

However, funnily, it’s not the fringe supporters alone who are behaving this way; even the core team of Anna, which advises him and comprises of highly professionally-accomplished people, is behaving likewise. How else can you explain their insistence on flouting the standard parliamentary procedures to pass their bill? Why would they say they were not happy with the government agreeing to 70 per cent of their bill and would want 90 per cent of it accepted? Why would they not understand that before a fair government, which UPA is certainly not, their bill is one among many bills proposed by various parities? If this is not gundagiri (hooliganism), then what is?

I think this intransigence of the Anna team has swelled the ranks of its detractors in last four to five day. To be fair to the Anna team, the government has done little to inspire their trust and it has done everything it can to undermine the credibility of the movement. But, even if all that is true, the government can’t forgo certain procedures. And if it does, it wouldn’t be good for our system. The Anna team has to understand this.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Uniqueness of Anna Hazare Movement

On Friday, a friend of mine called me for general chit-chat and asked about my views on the Anna Hazare movement. In last two or three months, I, like many of you, have read so many streams of views on it that I found myself in a bind to consolidate my own. Later I decided to step out of the present bubble, to insulate myself from the high decibel the movement has acquired, and think how some years from now I would remember the movement. I would remember the A movement for the very reason that I would remember the year 2011. (Now that we have lived through the larger part of the year, it’s not premature to take a panoramic view of it.)

Let alone a year or two back, even a month or two before the onset of this year, many of us would not have thought that 2011 would bring a chain of popular revolutions (or proletariat uprising as some left-minded chaps would like to say) reestablishing our faith in people power.

First, the streets of the Arab world erupted in protest, and then we heard China putting down sporadic popular uprisings in the country. Meanwhile, various countries in Europe saw people hitting the streets questioning government policies. And finally, England, a part of the continent that’s supposedly home to most discipline-loving people (no pun intended), caught cold with London going up in flames.

Though the reasons that triggered these protests were as diversified as their geographies – in Arab and China political and civil rights and in Europe economy (and as for London, some would say plain looting) – a common thread ran through them: Outpouring of popular anger expressed not through any regulated outlet – like conventional media – but by people themselves taking to the streets. The Anna Hazare movement shares this commonality.

However, there is a significant difference between Anna’s movement and the other ones. The difference is while the other movements are more of leaderless-faceless-sporadic- spontaneous uprisings, the Anna movement has always had a particular man at its centre – Anna - around whom the movement started and then slowly built up. (Some political observers have likened it to the JP and Mandal movements of the past, but even there Anna’s movement is different as it’s allegedly apolitical and, being so, it has been able to attract support from all sections of society.)

The A movement has another vital difference. Unlike its foreign counterparts, this movement is (and always has been) around a single cause: corruption. And I think this singularity and universality of the cause (corruption being a problem that touches everyone’s life, rich and poor) is behind its success.

But I also believe its cause- corruption - is its biggest undoing. I don’t have enough familiarity with the bill proposed by the Anna Team to understand whether it would be effective in eradicating corruption or not, nor am I qualified to do so. But I think having a society completely free of corruption is a utopian idea - simply because corruption doesn’t just reside in any one layer of the system, but it’s available everywhere. How much will you stem, how far will you go?

But that’s no excuse to not try to cleanse the system. Every society is corrupt, but some are more corrupt than others. We may or mayn’t become a fully corruption-free country, but we can certainly avoid topping international charts on corruption.

The A movement has scored several successes so far: It has developed a pan-India appeal, it has forced a reluctant government (!) into acting on corruption, it has assured us that the Indian middle class, for all its indifference, can rally around a public cause etc. But the biggest achievement is it has brought corruption at the centre stage - which will occupy the place of prominence on political manifestos for sometime to come.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Passage to India by EM Forster

After reading the reviews of A Passage to India by EM Forster in blogosphere and finding it deferentially talked about in interviews of noted writers writing on India, I had been looking forward to reading the book.

A Passage to India is set in a small town, Chandrapore, which is home to all that characterized the relationship between the natives and their rulers, social divisions, cynicism about the other, etc . Mrs. Moore visits Chandrapore with Miss Adela Quested to get her married to her son Ronnie. Adela is curious to know the ‘real’ India which she believes only a native can help her with. In comes Aziz, an anglicized doctor and a perfect bridge between the British and the native. They meet through a social acquaintance and Aziz proposes to take Mrs. Moore and Adela to the Marabar Caves. While returning from Marabar Caves by train, Aziz is arrested on the charge of making sexual advances on Adela in the Caves.

The book was published in 1924, a time when, thanks to the national movements taking place in India, a political awareness had developed among the masses about the present and future of India and its place in the commity of nations. And the book presents glimpes of that. 

But political awareness had hardly narrowed the gap between the two races. You have to read the book to know how deep the divide between the two societies ran. Of course, there were occasional intersections of paths but without any integration. This divide was consciously maintained by British officials as a matter of policy because distance, they thought, would help establish their superiority over the subject race. After Aziz has been arrested, an English character says each time there is an attempt to break the divide, a crisis of this nature will ensue.

What makes the reading more enjoyable helping you understand the flavor of the time is a very informative foreward, slightly long, by Pankaj Mishra. (The one I read is Penguin Classics.) It informs that Forster visited India around the time of the First World War and after returning to England, he had written Maurice, not A Passage to India. It had taken him 10 years to start writing Passage. It means by the time Forster had started writing the book India’s political atmosphere had considerably changed since he had visited India. Probably this lack first-hand experience explains why Forster says nothing about what was happening during this time in the larger India. Although telling so would be slightly outside the immediate scope of the plot, the reader would have enjoyed a little sprinkling of the general political climate as those were exciting times.

The book, however, often refers to Mughal rulers to indicate how Mughal greats like Akbar and Babar have remained a part of popular imagination and discourse.

Foster often uses farfetched analogies to explain his points. The analogies read well but at times they can be too long and break the reading flow. The story is generally slow-moving with some occasional fizzes, like when Adela accuses Aziz of misconduct, the pace of the story suddenly peaks only to slow down again.

India has changed beyond wildest of imaginations since Foster wrote the book, although our social attitudes have remained the same in many ways. So while Passage is a passage to the past, it also throws up what is current and relevant to the India of today. Perhaps A Passage to India was not an irrelevant book to read on the 64th year of India’s independence.

A Passage to India is a must for those interested in British India.

Friday, August 5, 2011

River of Smoke - A Delightful Read

Some weeks ago, with rave reviews River of Smoke made an arrival similar to its prequel Sea of Poppies a year or two back. The book was much awaited by the ones who had read the first installment as Ghosh had left many an end untied: Neel, Ah Fatt, Deeti, Kalua etc, and the fate of the schooner Ibis. In River of Smoke, Ghosh deals with majority of those characters briefly, with the exception of Neel, giving them temporal conclusion; maybe to revive them again in the last and final part of the trilogy.

River of Smoke moves the location of the Ibis trilogy from India and the Ibis to noisy, chaotic Canton, bringing in a host of new characters and a whole new world.

Bharam Modi the central character is an opium trader who, like many others, brings his opium cargo aboard his ship, Anihita, with an entourage of retinues, from Bombay to Canton, dropping anchor in Hong Kong as the Chinese authorities have banned the import of the murky substance into mainland China, albeit, despite this ban, foreign merchants continue to bring opium into China aided by Chinese mandarins and commoners, enslaving swathes of its population (rich and poor, old and young) to the deadly substance, ruining their lives for good.

Bahram has made his fortune from opium and is content to overlook the immoral aspect of his business, like his co-merchants, most of whom are English, who justify their occupation by employing the principles of free trade.

The story moves along through a mosaic of plots, sub-plots and details creating the world of Canton and its various characters and their involvement in the main plot in varied capacities. It absorbingly details how the trade goes on under the blanket of ban through an efficient network of people and methods making its pursuers wealthier and greedier all the while. Similarly, Ghosh has described life in Canton with such detailing and skill that it feels like a city and world you know.

Another narrative runs parallel to the opium plot: the search of the golden camila, an elusive flower believed to be available in China and to have great aphrodisiac powers. This part of the story again displays Ghosh’s flair for description and skills with minutiae and shows the amount of research that has gone into writing the book. Belonging to this narrative strand is a character called Robin Chinnery, a young aspiring painter.

Robin often writes letters to another character in the book detailing the general goings-on in the town, bringing to the reader the perspective of a detached observer. As the plot tightens towards the later part, Ghosh effectively uses Robin’s letters to take the reader away from the middle of the action and give a panoramic view of matters. The letters are full of details and are very interesting to read. (Robin, by the way, is my favorite character apart from Bahram Modi.)

The book is a parable on free trade. A huge share of the British empire’s revenue came from opium trade, although the substance was banned in England and in other parts of Europe. When the Chinese authorities clamp down on the trade, the English merchants defend their right to trade opium employing the tenets of free trade and assert that, if required, Britain would not hesitate to declare war on China to defend that right.

But for all their free-trade bluster, the merchants would be forced out of Canton by the Chinese authorities, although the success of the Chinese authorities would be short-lived, attracting the wrath of British and French naval forces to force opium back on the country (the British and French retribution, however, has been briefly talked about by a character in the end and will hopefully be covered in the third book).

This is a book you don’t want to miss and even if you haven’t read the first part – Sea of Poppies – you can start with River of Smoke as it is like a standalone book for most part with very occasional references to the earlier book which hardly break the narrative flow.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Just Books Membership

Last week I took membership of Just Books library. It’s a chain of libraries with operations in two cities, Pune and Bangalore. If I am not wrong, they started their operations in Bangalore about a year and a half or two back and within a short time, they have grown into a big library chain with outlets in strategic places covering most of Bangalore. I don’t know whether their Pune network is as wide.

They distribute a free magazine laid on the concierge’s table for visitors to pick up. It carries book reviews and pieces on various literary activities they take up. I asked the counter person who helped me with membership formalities how the outlet is doing. He said they have a good base of members.

There are a few aspects, I think, Just Books can work on. There is no consistent decorative theme that runs through the outlets. Each is different from other. Probably having the same decorative pattern across outlets would give them stronger brand identity. Their collection is not very deep but contains some books of almost all genres. Probably they will improve it overtime.
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