Saturday, 29 June 2013

By The Grace Of God...

When I started `Mitti Pao!’ I had vowed to steer clear of two subjects – politics and religion. The former already has too many voices, each trying to out-decibel the other, and I didn’t want to add to the cacophony. As for religion, it is too personal an issue, and too easily causes offence.

Besides, apart from factors such as upbringing and education, one’s beliefs are formulated more out of felt experience. And since cogent reasoning or logic rarely contribute to these beliefs, any argument or discussion is pointless, and will generate more heat than light. 

But whenever I think of the role organized religion plays in life, the conclusions I reach are pretty depressing.

At the outset, let me apologise in advance for any offence this post may cause. These are my views, and can quite easily be junked without causing me any ofence!

If not an out and out atheist, I am definitely an agnostic. This may seem to many like `playing it safe’ – or as my friend Gururaj would say, `applying for anticipatory bail’ – on the off chance that there is a God, and he may actually smite me for these views!

The floods that have ravaged Uttarakhand are an unmitigated tragedy. Thousands have been killed. But each survivor has been effusive in his thanks to God for saving his/her life (“Bhagwan ne bacha liya, saab!”). So if God has indeed saved these survivors, by the very same logic, hasn’t he also killed the thousands that died?

A building collapses in Mumbai, killing about 60 odd people. A few days later, a child is rescued from the rubble, still miraculously alive. The cry goes up “The child is blessed! God has saved her!” So the natural corollary, if that is so, hasn’t He also killed the other 60?

If you’re giving Him the credit for saving one life, also apportion to Him the blame for snuffing out so many others! But that will never happen. The child survived, it’s due to the grace of God. So many died, it’s due to their bad karma! Karma, that handy excuse for actually letting God off the hook! As Mir says..

Naahaq hum majbooron par yeh tohmat hai mukhtaari ki
Chaahatein hain so aap karein, hum ko abas badnaam kiya..

Worse. The floods in Pakistan in 2010 were blamed on the `wrath of God’. Even as great a person as Mahatma Gandhi decreed the 1934 earthquake in Bihar as just punishment from God for the unspeakable sin of untouchability!  Why Bihar, when it was the Southern states where this sin was most rampant, had no answer..

The brilliant Arun Shourie, in his book `Does He Know a Mother’s Heart?’ talks of how human suffering refutes religions. Arun’s son Adit was struck with cerebral palsy when he was just 3 days old. His wife Anita has been suffering from Parkinson’s Disease for the last 23 years. Shourie has seen human suffering up close, and the book is his answer to everybody who has offered him the solace that his travails are basically `God’s will’.

Personally, looking around me, I have HUGE issues in believing that an all powerful, all knowing, omniscient, compassionate power is at the wheel. And which God would permit a child to suffer? Did the four year old whose legs were blown off in Gaza have bad karma?  The karma theorists would have you believe that it must have been his deeds in his previous life. And how do they know that? Because his legs were blown off! Now what would you call that? A circular argument?? Blaming the victim?? You tell me!!

And if the argument isn’t circular, it always concludes in ignorance – ‘God’s ways are inscrutable, and beyond our understanding..’

And yet we continue to petition Him all the time – to ensure our children do well in exams, to ensure that a sick relative gets well, to ensure success in our profession or our business. “How are you doing?” you ask a friend. “God has been kind”, he responds, “Business is really looking up.” If God is so busy ensuring people’s businesses prosper, no wonder He has no time for climate change! Result? Uttarakhand!

It all boils down to time and chance, I feel. The problem arises because we posit a God to try and explain human misery. Take that away, and it becomes ever so simple. As Donald Rumsfeld put it so succinctly, `Shit happens!’ 

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Shaheen banata nahin aashiyana...

Here is a beautiful response to my last blog post `Of Destinations and Destinies' from Samina Rizwan, a proud Pakistani citizen who has been an Air Force beti, an Air Force biwi and of course, is so, so proud of both. She is an outstanding writer (that's how we became friends), and heads the Asia-Pacific region at Oracle Corp. She is currently based at Dubai. She has graciously permitted me to reproduce her response in `Mitti Pao!'


Nostalgia hits hard with this one.  The military brat gains and loses thanks to his/her peculiar status.  My thoughts go to the rest of us, though, who are hit with a double whammy - military brat and spouse.  What of us, Harish? Are we double confident, more dysfunctional or less, always searching or arrived....?  I was always supremely comfortable amongst my Air Force family, but destiny has me still searching for a `home’.  As Iftikhar Arif said..

Mere khuda, mujhe itna to mautabir kar de....
Mein jis makaan mein rehta hoon, usko ghar kar de..

Pulling at the heartstrings is the matter of losing a life in the line of duty.  Watched Superman a few days ago; asinine though the plot was, I had to appreciate a line "A good death is its own reward".  This gives me comfort, and so should it you when you shed a tear for those who transitioned (it is a transition you know, not a departure!) too early, violently, believing in a cause, gallantly offering their lives.

The PAF pilot is called "Shaheen" after the glorious bird.  It was characterized by the great Iqbal in his poem of the same title.  It was Rizwan's favourite and it described him so accurately.  His destiny was long decided, it was never really with me, and these lines played like a broken record in my head for several weeks after:

Kiya mein ne uss khakdaan se kinara
Jahan rizq ka naam hai aab-o-dana
Yeh poorab yeh paschim chakoron ki dunya
Mera neelgun asmaan bekarana
Parindon ki duniya ka darwaish hoon mein
Ke Shaheen banata nahin ashiyana

So Harish, for the fighting man, what is "home"? I don’t think he expects to have one!

My Note – Samina lost her husband Air Cmde Rizwanullah Khan in the air crash that killed the then Pak Air Chief, Air Chief Marshal Mushaf Ali Mir on 20th Feb 2003. I have truly been privileged to call her a close friend for almost 10 years now. The poem she talks about, the favourite of her husband, is Iqbal’s `Shaheen’ (The Falcon). Here is my humble attempt to translate the almost impossible-to-translate Iqbal, along with the original Urdu. This one’s for you, Air Cmde Rizwan – hope it meets your exacting standards..

Kiya main ne uss khakdan se kinara
Jahan rizq ka naam hai aab-o-dana

Give me not bread nor water, nor grain
I soar in the skies, I’ve forsaken all pain

Bayaban ki khalwat khush aati hai mujh ko
Azal se hai fitrat meri rahbana

The solitude, the wilderness, those are for me
For I am a falcon, I’ll always be free

Na baad-e-bahari, na gulcheen, na bulbul
Na beemari-e-naghma-e-ashiqana

No flowers, no spring, no nightingale’s song
No ballads of love, can ever belong

Khayabanion se hai parhaiz laazim
Adaen hain inki bohat dilbarana

These colourful blossoms, these flowers I shun
Their seductive charms have often undone

Hawa-e-bayaban se hoti hai kaari
Jawan mard ki zarbat-e-ghaziyana

The storms of the desert are ours to embrace
They forge our sinews, and give us our grace 

Hamam-o-kabootar ka bhooka nahin main
Ke hai zindagi baaz ki zahidana

I seek not a pigeon, a swallow or seed
For I am a falcon, and this is my creed

Jhapatna, palatna, palat kar jhapatna
Lahoo garam rakhne ka hai ek bahana

The swooping, the soaring the lunge and the dive
Just warm up my blood, just keep me alive

Ye poorab, ye pacham chakoron ki duniya
Mera neelgun aasman baikarana

To East, to the West, the pheasants can fly
For me, I just crave the vast open sky

Parindon ki duniya ka dervaish hun main
Ke shaheen banata nahin aashiyana

A dervish am I, no nesting for me
For I am a falcon, I’ll always be free

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Of Destinations and Destinies..

Check out this soulful number from `Seema’ – the inimitable Balraj Sahni (ok, Mohd Rafi) pacifying the restless Nutan, as she tries to flee, to run from life..

Kabhi yeh bhi socha, ke manzil kahaan hai
Bade se jahaan mein, tera ghar kahaan hai..

Good question. So where exactly is home?

In the 28 years that I served in the Army, I saw 12 postings, changed 29 houses, and my children attended 11 different schools!  In contrast, the 18 years that preceded my joining the Indian Military Academy were all spent at Poona, in practically the same house, and I attended just 2 schools!

After hanging up my boots (Oxford pattern shoes, actually) at the end of the 20th Century, I joined the Corporate sector, and moved from Delhi to Poona to Kuwait to Iraq to Calcutta, then finally back to Poona again. The circle is now complete, am back in the familiar surroundings of Pudumjee Park, where it had all begun.

Am lucky I have roots to fall back to. And luckier still that the evening of life finds me back among those roots. But what of my kids, or the kids of all my fauji mates – what place will they call home? Of the 11 schools they attended, they only remember the Army Public Schools at Bangalore and Dhaula Kuan (Delhi) with any degree of fondness. As for places, it’s only Udhampur, Bangalore and Delhi that are spoken of with any affection.

Of course the frequent moves and changes instill in the fauji kids a sense of bravado and confidence and an in-your-face presence, as any Miss India pageant will testify. I attended the May Queen Ball held at the Army Club last month, and was totally floored! Of the 14 finalists, 12 were in the age group of 16 to 18 attending Class 11 or 12, one was a medical student in her 20’s, and the oldest, at 32, was actually a mother of two! And what confidence they all oozed as the sashayed down the ramp. The Army – and by extension the Navy and the Air Force – must be doing something right!

But the lack of roots is something that must hanker.

The very same Balraj Sahni, this time in the voice of Manna Dey, pines for his `home’ in Kabuliwala. Note the heart wrenching lament..

Chod kar teri zameen ko door aa pahunche hain hum
Ab toh hai yehi tamanna, tere zaron ki kasam
Hum jahan paida huye, uss jagah hi nikle dum…

The tug of the heartstrings for one’s roots is palpable. In his memorable ode to the Indians who died in Africa, TS Eliot says..

A man’s destination is not his destiny
Every country is home to one man
And exile to another. Where a man dies bravely
At one with his destiny, that soil is his
Let his village remember..

Am not religious by any standards. But the only place I have felt myself treading on hallowed ground is at a War Cemetery. The one at Kohima reduced me to tears. Young, 19 year old boys lie buried so, so far from their homes – generations of Britishers still visit these graves – this soil is surely theirs, and it is heartwarming that their villages back home in England still remember.

I also had occasion to pay homage at the El Alamein War Cemetery in Egypt. The cemeteries of the Allied soldiers lie just across the road from the German ones. They fought tooth and nail for that desolate desert stretch in a battle that was to turn the tide of the Second World War, and now lie forever almost within hand shaking distance. 

My children were not surprised to see the mist in my eyes, and my daughter – as only daughters can – gently held my hand. Surely their lives meant something, I said. She quietly pointed to the memorial which said `Their name liveth forevermore’.

I guess, in a manner of speaking, they were finally home.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Father's Day Musings..

Dear Puja and Siddharth,

These days since I have nothing to do, and all the time in the world to do it in, I thought I’d pen some `Father’s Day’ musings..

There’s little I can really pass on. You guys already know so much, and have seen more of life than I had seen at your age. Nevertheless parents have an incurable habit of proffering advice, in season and out of it, even when it is not needed. It arises from affection, from protective desires and from anxiety for your welfare, born out of love. If you find what I say superfluous, as I sincerely hope you will – nay, am sure you will – you can ignore it forgivingly (so what’s new, you may well ask).

First of all, let me thank you in advance for the Father’s Day wishes, and the gifts you have always given me. Not just the ones wrapped in cellophane (although those are appreciated too), but the real gift of making me proud at the wonderful human beings that you have become. You two are by a HUGE distance the best things to have come out of my life..

As a dad, my father didn’t set the bar very high. Even so, I truly wish I had raised it higher than I eventually did. Today, in the evening of my life, when I look back to my own childhood and early adulthood, I can’t but help feel that my generation has been the `in between’ generation - stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea. We are the ones who `copped it’ from, as well as failed equally the generation that preceded us, as well as the one that followed us.

Take the case of Mrs X, who had a rough time with her mother in law. The saas had virtually made her life a living hell. And like the Duracell ad, the old lady just went on and on, showing no signs of calling it a day. When she finally did hand in her dinner pail, she was well into her nineties, and Mrs X herself was pushing a weary sixty. But did she get any relief? Perish the thought! For who should be her new tormentor? Her daughter in law – right! As the lady put it in the delicate way only a true blue Punjabi lady of her generation can, “Sari umar saas meri chaati pe baithi rahi, aur jab woh gayi, toh bahu aa ke baith gayi!

We couldn’t utter a word in the face of our parents for fear of being castigated. Now we don’t utter a word in front of our children for fear of being ignored or merely laughed at! How will it be between you guys and your children, I wonder..

Now that you both are married and have your own lives and priorities, you will face similar quandaries, and I’m sure you’ll handle them with much greater wisdom and sagacity than my generation ever did.
I know that, as time goes on, your interaction with us is bound to become less and less frequent, and also more and more brief. This is nothing to feel guilty about. It is a sign, not of callousness, but of an expanding horizon and a change in perspective. But do be in regular touch – however briefly. You are more important to us than we are to you. Also with the years, our need of you will grow greater, your need of us less. Therefore be kind and considerate. Our demands will be urgent to us, but not great or difficult to fulfill . . .

This letter has almost become like Polonius’ speech to Laertes in `Hamlet’ (yes, do look it up, it is pure genius - something only the great Shakespeare could pen). It’s probably as full of clich├ęs and as pompous as Polonious’ string of wise sayings was. But pompousness does come with grey hair and expanding waistlines – it’s a package deal.
A last word of advice. I may not bequeath you great wealth or fortune, nor filthy lucre, but what I would really love to leave behind as my legacy is that the two of you be there for each other always – through thick or thin. Towards this end, I know your spouses too would have to chip in and play their part, but knowing Sukh and Sowmya, I’m sure the legacy is in good hands.
Lastly, whatever you do in life, do have a good time – I am using ‘good’ in the Greek sense. The Greeks had the word kalos, which meant three things at once – the great, the good and the beautiful – for in their great wisdom they realised that all three were inseparable.