Sunday, 27 December 2009

Bring Sarabjit Home

Sarabjit Singh has been sentenced to death and his sentence has been upheld by Pakistan's Supreme Court. Sarabjit has been convicted for carrying out bomb attacks in Pakistan. According to the Pakistanis, Sarabjit is an Indian spy. Sarabjit, on the other hand, claims that he is just a villager who strayed across the border after having had one too many. In the world of espionage, if a diplomat is caught spying, s/he is expelled. Diplomatic immunity is something which non-diplomat spies have. If caught, they are usually disowned and left to their own fate.

There are exceptions of course. Jonathan Pollard was a Jewish man working as an analyst for the American Naval intelligence. Caught spying for Israel, he was sentenced for life and continues to be in prison in the United States. For many years, Israel denied all official ties to him, though Pollard managed to get Israeli citizenship while in prison. However, the High Court of Israel ordered the Israeli government to admit that Pollard was its agent. Ever since then, the Israeli government has been trying to free Pollard, but the US has refused to let him go. Israeli has always done more than most other countries in getting in nationals back home. At present it is bargaining with Hamas over a deal that will see the release of almost a thousand Hamas militants for a single Israeli soldier held by Hamas. Pollard is apparently not very happy with this, but then you can’t please everyone.

Even if India doesn’t concede that Kasab was spying for India, there is no denying that he is an Indian national and nothing prevents India from doing more to get him home. The traditional (and generally speaking, the only way) of obtaining the release of someone in Sarabjit’s position is to exchange him for someone else. India has a mixed record in exchanging prisoners for its people held in custody elsewhere. When Rubaiya Sayeed (daughter of Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, India’s first Muslim Home Minister in the V.P. Singh government) was kidnapped by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, India released five militants to secure her release, despite the objections of Farooq Abdullah’s state government. Years later, a BJP led government released three top militants so that the hijackers of an Indian Airlines plane taken to Kandahar would let their hostages go. One of the militants released was Maulana Masood Azhar, the founder of Jaish-e-Mohammad. However, India hasn’t been able to secure the release of PoWs from the 1971 war who are reportedly still held in Pakistani jails.

I want to see Sarabjit released and sent home to India. I don’t know if he was a spy or just a villager who got drunk and lost his way. The Indian government has made various appeals for his release, but can’t it do more I wonder. Is there any Pakistani national in an Indian jail, one held to be a spy by India and renounced by Pakistan, who can be exchanged for Sarabjit? I don’t know. However, I know that India has custody of a Pakistani national who goes by the name Mohammed Ajmal Amīr Kasāb. Kasab is currently undergoing trial in India for having taken part in the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. Caught on CCTV, the case against Kasab appears to be an open and shut case and a death sentence seems to be very likely. After initial denials, the Pakistani government has conceded that Kasab is a Pakistani national, but it maintains that no Pakistani agency was involved in the planning or execution of the Mumbai attacks last year.

What would be the reaction if the Indian government offers to exchange Kasab for Sarabjit? The Pakistani government is likely to refuse. Sarabjit the official Indian spy has nothing to do with Kasab the Pakistani freelancer who fought for an Islamic militant organisation which is at war with Pakistan at the moment, Pakistan is likely to say. Kasab himself might not want to be exchanged for Sarabjit. However, just as there are many Indians who would like to see Sarabjit return home, there could be many Pakistanis who like the idea of exchanging Kasab for Sarabjit. Kasab was a pawn in a larger game. I don’t doubt for a moment that he is guilty as charged and deserves no leniency. However, if by giving him up, India could secure Sarabjit’s release, it should, in my opinion, do so immediately without wasting a moment.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Sarabjit is due to be executed soon. There are still a few good people working for his release. If you were to lend your support to his cause, he might still make it home.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Religious Fundamentalists Stick Together Irrespective of their Faith

Two weeks ago, the Right Rev Stephen Venner, retired as the Bishop of Dover and moved to Rochester with his wife Judy.

After retirement, the Right Rev Stephen Venner continued his role as the Bishop to the British armed forces, a role he has held since July 2009. After moving to Rochester, Right Rev Stephen Venner put his right foot as well as his left foot into his big, loud mouth.

In an interview with the Telegraph, the Right Rev Stephen Venner said that "the Taliban can perhaps be admired for their conviction to their faith and their sense of loyalty to each other." He added that "there's a large number of things that the Taliban say and stand for which none of us in the West could approve, but simply to say therefore that everything they do is bad is not helping the situation.”

To sum up, the Right Rev Stephen Venner said that we should not demonise the Taliban.

Needless to say, this unexpected support for the Taliban resulted in an outcry. The Right Rev Stephen Venner has been accused of giving comfort and succour to the enemy.

The Nazis were brave and courageous, at least some of them. They were good at organising themselves and from what I remember from reading Paul Kennedy’s ‘Rise and Fall of Great Powers’, even towards the end of the Second World War, the German army was losing only one soldier for every four or five Soviet soldiers they killed. However, it would be disgusting to admire the Nazi’s courage or loyalty to their cause or their organisational skills.

The Taliban are a bad bunch. Period. Their unquestioning loyalty to their brand of Islam is exactly what makes them so bad. It is a quality which should not and cannot be admired.

The Right Rev Stephen Venner’s comments however prove something I have always suspected. Almost all religious leaders without exception like the idea of unquestioning followers. They would like to Talibanise their flock. They would like to have sheep who do as they are ordered to do, people who follow religious edicts to the letter. Let’s admit it, till a century, there were lots of Christians in the West who were as Taliban as their Afghan brethren. There still are lots of Indian Hindus and Christians who are as fanatic about their religion as the Taliban are. The only reason they don’t stoop to murder and mayhem as often is because they won’t get away with it. The Gujarat riots are a case in point. I have heard more than one evangelical Christian and Hindu tell me exactly what the Right Rev Stephen Venner has said: that they admired the Taliban’s conviction and courage and wished they could replicate it within their own religion.

The Right Rev Stephen Venner has proved that there are Taliban in every religion.

The Right Rev Stephen Venner has done the right thing by apologising. Now he must resign.

Monday, 14 December 2009

New Labels for Food from the Occupied Territories

The British Government’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has issued new guidance for British supermarkets which says food imported from Israeli occupied territories such as the West Bank should be classified as either "Israeli settlement produce" or "Palestinian produce". Until now, food imports from the West Bank were simply labeled as "Produce of the West Bank", and there was no differentiation between food manufactured by Israeli settlements in the West Bank and food manufactured by Palestinians. The legal basis for this new guidance is that consumers are entitled to be informed of the source or origin of what they buy. Currently there are no Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip – the last of them were dismantled in 2005.

This guidance is not binding, but is likely to be followed by all supermarkets, and it comes after almost an year’s consultation which was started off after Oxfam wrote to Gordon Brown saying that Israeli occupation of the West Bank was resulting in impoverishment of Palestinians and that illegal Israeli settlements sustained themselves through trade. Supermarkets feel that the new guidance will allow consumers make informed choices.

As may be expected, the Israeli government has slammed the new guidance, while Palestinians feel that it doesn’t go far enough - they would like to see produce from Israeli settlements banned.

I feel that the new guidance from DEFRA is a positive development. No, I am not planning to avoid buying food manufactured by Israeli settlements in the West Bank during my next shopping trip. However, as I have mentioned in earlier posts, I firmly believe that Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza strip and East Jerusalem is illegal and Israel ought to withdraw to the pre-1967 boundaries. If Israeli continues to be unwilling to dismantle its settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights for much longer, people like me (who describe themselves as friends of Israel) may be forced to boycott produce from Israeli settlements within the Occupied Territories.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Is Obama Trying to Please the Taliban As Well?

I have blogged about Obama and the situation in Afghanistan many times in the past

My opinion of Obama has always been that he is a man of principles who also likes to avoid causing offence. A man who likes to please as many people as possible.

Obama has now announced a surge of up to 30,000 troops in Afghanistan. Obama has also set an 18 month deadline for the troops to return home.

How many people has Obama tried to please with his decision, which was so long in arriving at?

The citizens of America, who have long since lost the appetite for war in Afghanistan. However, many Americans would like to win before they leave.

Obama most probably feels the military will be happy. Enough soldiers while in Afghanistan and a definite deadline for coming back.

What about the Afghans themselves. They know that they will be left to the tender mercies of the Taliban in 18 months time. Of course, if the surge is so successful in wiping out the Taliban, they needn’t worry, but will it? And more to the point, considering the US track record in Afghanistan, will Afghans start cooperating even now in the hope that the US will be successful before they leave.

I am sure that the Taliban and the ISI will be happy. They only need to lie low and let the Americans think they have won and they will be free to take over the country in the summer of 2011. Will the Taliban and the ISI be able to work together once more, considering the campaign being waged against the Pakistani Taliban? Well, politics makes strange bedfellows and Islamic fundamentalists are no exception to this rule. There is no reason why the ISI and the Taliban can’t work together again.

The Soviet experience in Afghanistan shows that a powerful Afghan ruler with sufficient backing can hold Afghanistan and keep the Mujahideen at bay. The Soviets retreated from Afghanistan in early 1989. However, they kept up the flow of weapons and money to Afghanistan. Until 2001, Najibullah managed to hold off the Mujahideen. The siege of Jalalabad in the fall of 1989 was defeated. It was only after the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991 that supplies to Kabul stopped and Najibullah had to throw in the towel. Can Karzai do what Najib did two decades ago? I hope so.

I had once blogged that Obama will interfere in Kashmir very soon.

Here’s an interesting article by Ishaan Tharoor in the Time on the same point. Tharoor however, doesn’t mention the K word.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Is AKP’s Rule Good For Turkey?

Recently, I ran into a charming ‘Young Turk’ at a London pub who told me that she couldn’t stand the AKP which was in her opinion ‘anti-Turkey’ and ‘anti-women.’ This interesting comment forced me to read up on Turkey.

The modern Turkish state is the successor to the Ottoman Empire which was totally wiped out during the First World War. The Republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Pasha was staunchly secular and (at least on paper) a Parliamentary democracy, though Turkey had a single party system till around 1946 and long stretches of military rule after that. After the Second World War, it morphed into an US ally and during the cold war, was a leading player within NATO. The war with Greece over Cyprus did nothing to dislodge Turkey from NATO or its pro-US position.

The Turkish military has also played a special role in safeguarding Turkish secularism. This is understandable since Kemal Pasha was a distinguished military officer.

The Turkish form of secularism was, until recently, almost dictatorial in style. It was initiated by the Ataturk who banned beards, fez, veils and traditional clothing within government buildings and other public areas, forcing Turks to switch to western clothes. Even the tradition Turkish alphabet, based on the Perso-Arabic script was replaced with the Latin script. The Ottoman had a reasonably good record for treatment of Jews and under Ataturk, Turkey even provided sanctuary for Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe and Germany. After Israel came into being, Turkey developed friendly ties with it, unlike other Arab and Islamic states.

I was told by the charming ‘Young Turk’ I met that immediately after the EU was formed, Turkey refused an early invitation to join. That was when the EU was just a free trade zone rather than a political grouping. Later when Turkey started to show great enthusiasm in joining the EU, it received a lacklustre response from Germany, France and some of the more recent Eastern European entrants. For many Europeans, especially those in continental Europe, Turkey reminds them of the Ottoman Empire that once came up to the gates of Vienna and ruled over most of southern Europe. What such opponents fail to remember is that before the Ottoman Empire came into being, the land that is now Turkey was for over a thousand years, until the late fifteen century, a part of the Byzantine Empire, which was formed out of the eastern parts of the Roman Empire. Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey was once known as Constantinople, and was the capital of the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire.

In the 1980s, a specific ban on head scarves was imposed by the military government which feared a return to Islamic values.

On the plus side Turkey has a liberal society where its women are educated and most of the ills plaguing other Islamic societies are absent. On the flip side, human rights have been a casualty. Minorities such as Kurds who refuse to integrate (by calling themselves mountain Turks) are persecuted and many Turks cannot even wear the clothes of their choice!

The backlash against fanatic secularism started in the 1980s. It gathered momentum after the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in 2002. The AKP was formed mostly by former members of the Fazilet Partisi or Virtue Party which had been banned in 2001 for its non-secular nature. Led by an ethnic Georgian, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who used to be the Mayor of Istanbul and has served a brief jail term on account of his political beliefs, the AKP has sort of moved the clock back for Turkey. Some call it a return to the medieval past. Others say that Turkey is seeking to reclaim its Ottoman glory.

With roots in Islam and having values far removed from Ataturk’s fanatic secularism, Turkish policies have undergone a sea change under the AKP. The ban on headscarves in universities has been eased, by giving university students permission to wear traditional headscarves tied loosely under the chin. It was successfully argued by the AKP that not allowing students wearing the headscarf to enter schools and universities prevents them from having access to education. The ban on covering the head continues to be in force in other public buildings.

The AKP has moved Turkish policy towards its Kurdish minority and the Kurdish Freedom movement from confrontation to conciliation. Relations with former enemies Greece and Armenia have improved. Arab and Islamic neighbours such as Iran, Iraq and Syria have become friends of Turkey. The drive to join the EU has cooled down, though Turkey is formally still in the game. Ties with Israel are still warm, but it is noteworthy that Turkey did not take part in the invasion of Iraq, though it provided refuelling facilities to the US. A month ago, Turkey cancelled planned military exercises with Israel and scheduled joint training with Syria. Soon after, Prime Minister Erdogan led a 200 strong delegation for a state visit to Iran. The economy has grown under AKP’s rule. As the USA’s influence in the middle-east recedes, it looks as if Turkey is stepping in to fill the vacuum.

However, for many Turks, especially for the armed forces and those living in big cities, the AKP is the devil incarnate. It represents a return to feudalism of the Ottoman times. They fear the AKP and feel that the AKP is likely to take Turkey into fundamentalist territory. According to the lady I met recently, and I sympathise with her opinion, there is a high possibility that moderate Islamic rule will slide towards Islamic fundamentalism.

Pakistan is a very good example of how moderate Islam can slide towards fundamentalist Islam. Founded by Jinnah to be a sanctuary for Muslims with the intention of being a moderate state that would permit civil liberties for everyone, Pakistan is unable to ensure equal treatment for women of its other religious minorities. Will Turkey go Pakistan’s way? Or will it evolve into a benign regional power than other countries in the region can look up to, a country where everyone has the right to practice his or her religion, where women has the same rights as men, where diversity is respected, where Kurds, Georgians, Armenians and other minorities are able to cherish their languages and cultural heritage and still be considered loyal Turks? I hope the latter turns out to be true.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Not Everything About Dubai Was Bad

Enough has been written about the Dubai bubble, how its crash was imminent, how it was a mirage and how its dream sank in a sea of debt. Yes, Sultan Mahtoum and his merry men did go overboard in building hotels and islands and resorts. However, it should not be forgotten that Dubai has been the only corner in the Arab world other than Lebanon which was willing to accept change and modernity. In Dubai, women can work and can even drive to work. Liquor is available to those who wanted it. There are churches and temples in Dubai as well as a private synagogue. Of course, this liberalism was allowed so that expats would make Dubai their home. Also, this permissiveness does not cover the thousands of unskilled construction workers and maid servants who are exploited as much as in any other dark corner of the world.

The point I am trying to make it that Dubai stood for change in more ways than one and not all of it was bad. Now that Dubai is having its nose rubbed in the desert sand, I wonder what price it will have to pay to be bailed out by big brother Abu Dhabi. Will it have to give up control over its crown jewels such as the Emirates? Will Abu Dhabi insist that the Dubai don a purdah once more and take away the rights they have now. I hope not, but Shakespeare’s explanation of how ‘the good is oft interred with the bones’ keeps ringing in my head.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

I Was Wrong And Theroux Was Right!

In my review of Theroux’s most recent novel, I had said that Theroux’s story about a posh nanny who flaunts i-pods, drugs her young charge and makes money begging with the child at a traffic intersection when the she is supposed to be walking the child in the park, doesn’t ring true to an Indian ear. I doubted if any Indian beggar, even one with a drugged child drooling at the lips, would make enough money from begging to buy an i-pod and drugs.

Well, I just read this news item on Times of India. Titled ‘Nanny sedates baby, 'rents' him out to beggars,’ it says a nanny earned Rs. 100 a day renting out her charge to beggars. This story taught me that:

1. Beggars (or their controllers) make a lot of money in India, much more than Rs. 100

2. Drugs are quite cheap in India

3. I am totally out of touch with Indian beggars!

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Book Review: Paul Theroux's A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta

Paul Theroux is known primarily as a travel writer, though he has published many works of fiction. His latest book, ‘A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta’, is set in, well, Calcutta (Theroux does not even bother to explain why he prefers Calcutta to Kolkata) and though not a travelogue, benefits immensely from Theroux’s travel writing traits. Did Theroux make a trip to Kolkata just to get background material for this book or is it based on memories from an earlier one? I don’t know, but if it is the latter case, then Theroux has a fantastic memory.

The best thing about A Dead Hand is that one gets to see, hear, smell and touch Calcutta through Theroux. It is not always a pretty picture, but it is not particularly negative either. In any event, it is an honest, brutally honest, picture. Theroux makes his share of mistakes (a nanny is referred to by the South Indian ‘Amah’ rather than ‘Ayah’), and some of his ‘stories’, such as the one about a posh nanny who flaunts i-pods, drugs her young charge and makes money begging with the child at a traffic intersection when she is supposed to be walking the child in the park, don’t ring true to an Indian ear. I doubt if any Indian beggar, even one with a drugged child drooling at the lips, would make enough money from begging to buy an i-pod and drugs. Despite such minor hitches, Theroux’s Calcutta tales are splendidly narrated and mostly sound authentic. His reproduction of Indian English as spoken in Calcutta makes it sound lyrical and sweet and Theroux almost gets it right (I think). I mean, I am sure that there are at least a few Indians in Calcutta who speak the way Theroux has imagined them to speak.

The story is narrated by an American writer, Jerry Delfont, who is in Kolkata to give lectures arranged by the American consulate. Having finished his lectures, Delfont has writer’s block and is trying to kill time. He is easily persuaded by pretty, rich, charming, middle-aged and tantric American Merrill Unger to stay on in Calcutta and investigate a dead body which turned up in a cheap hotel where Merrill’s son’s friend Rajat was staying. Merrill is a colourful and exciting personality and the detection of the murderer is as much about understanding Merrill as it is about solving the crime. Theroux shows his readers the various faces of Merrill, each as fascinating as the next. He tells us about Merrill’s past in bits and pieces that provide various contrasting facets, which add up to create a complex, but still incomplete picture.

Finally, just to make sure his readers don’t assume Jerry Delfont is Theroux himself, Paul Theroux makes a cameo appearance and chats briefly with Delfont!

Who is responsible for the murder? Since Theroux devotes so much time and space on Merrill, one is forced to wonder if Merrill is responsible, though she had called on Theroux to investigate the crime. Or is it Rajat, Merrill’s son’s friend in whose hotel room the body initially turned up? Or is it Merrill’s son Chalmers? Theroux keeps his readers guessing till the end. Do read this wonderful book to find out if you want to know who did it.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Afghanistan: What Next?

The Americans bombed Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in retaliation for having sheltered those responsible for the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Centre. Since Afghanistan was already in the stone-age, having endured the Soviet occupation and a long stretch of in-fighting among various groups of Mujahideen after the Soviet departure, there wasn’t much to bomb, but that didn’t stop the Americans from dropping ordinance. Having paid the Al Qaeda and their hosts, the Taliban, back with the same coin, the Americans landed their aeroplanes on Afghan soil and set up bases with avowed intention of planting democracy in that part of the world. And that was the beginning of the current set of troubles.

When Obama campaigned for Presidency he sort of implied that Afghanistan was a just fight, though Iraq wasn’t. The upshot of that assertion has been an increase in the number of US boots on the ground in Afghanistan and a concerted effort to extricate from Iraq. Obama has also tried to get US coalition partners to commit more troops, but with the exception of the UK, no other country has been willing to do so.

It was not Obama who sent US troops to Afghanistan. If 9/11 had taken place when Obama was in power, the US reaction would very likely have been different. May be the US would only have bombed Afghanistan and would not have tried to occupy it. George Bush most probably had colonial ambitions and wanted to discharge the ‘white man’s burden’ in Afghanistan. What Obama has inherited is an hornets’ nest and though the US would really like to exit Afghanistan if possible, and as soon as possible, without destabilising the whole region, it is unable to do so. However, if the US were to depart just like that, the Taliban will take over the whole of Afghanistan in no time. The civil war in Pakistan will intensify and Pakistani Taliban will be at a huge advantage. This means the US must stay on until they can leave without destabilising that region. For this reason, Obama talks about democracy taking root in Afghanistan. For the US, a democratic Afghanistan is one where the Taliban don’t have much support, where there is popular demand for an elected government, an Afghanistan which will not destabilise the rest of the region, especially Pakistan, after the US’s departure, an Afghanistan that will be an American ally or at least, not be an Islamic fundamentalist state.

Afghans have shown no great appetite for democracy. In a terrain bereft of democratic shoots or even roots, where most Pashtuns are either sympathetic to the Taliban or are the Taliban, the best foot the Americans have been able to put forward has been in the form of Hamid Karzai, a man who isn’t exactly a paragon of virtue.

As US and other coalition casualties mount in Afghanistan, Obama will be under increasing pressure to pack up and leave. My opinion of Obama has always been that he is a man of principles who also likes to avoid causing offence. A man who likes to please as many people as possible. If things don’t change in Afghanistan (and the Taliban show no indication of wanting to change), Obama might want to consider various options. And what could those options be?

1. It’s well known that Iran supplies funding and technology for Iraqi insurgents, especially Shiite insurgents. What is less well-known is that Iran also supplies weaponry to the Taliban, though they are predominantly Sunni and there is no love lost for Shiite Iran. The US could strike a deal with Iran whereby Iran is allowed to fulfil some of its nuclear dreams (without actually producing or acquiring nuclear weapons) and in return, Iran totally stops the flow of money and technology to Afghanistan. Iran might be allowed to conduct a nuclear test or two and Ahmadinejad will be allowed to strut and strike a pose in front of his people. Such a deal with make Israel very unhappy and there will always be the fear that if Iran is given a nuclear inch, it’ll take a nuclear mile. If this strategy is to work, Israel must not be allowed to attack any of Iran’s nuclear sites. Without Iranian support, the Taliban will suffer to some extent. However, as long as the border with Pakistan is not sealed, and it cannot be sealed, the Taliban will be able to breathe.

2. Supplement US troops with soldiers from Islamic states like Bangladesh and Indonesia which are officially American allies, but are not hated by Afghans. I’m not sure how keen the Indonesians and Bangladeshis will be to shed blood in Afghanistan. More importantly, by joining the Americans, they are likely to be tainted in the eyes of the Afghans. Of course, additional manpower will not do any harm to the coalition struggling to hold Afghan territory, but it will be very difficult and even expensive to persuade Indonesians and Bangladeshis to send troops to Afghanistan. If this can be achieved, the US might be able to get the necessary breathing space to carry out necessary reconstruction and build up the Afghan national army.

3. US troops can be replaced with soldiers from Islamic states like Bangladesh and Indonesia. If they replace the Americans rather than supplement them, the Indonesians and Bangladeshis will not look too bad in Afghan eyes. Also, people in Indonesia and Bangladesh might not resist the idea of sending troops to Afghanistan as much as they would if their soldiers are seen to be helping American troops. However, I am not sure how good a job the Indonesians and Bangladeshis will be able to do on their own. Without drones and hi-tech bomber planes answering calls for help within minutes, it’s unlikely that the Taliban can be kept at bay. In fact, if the Americans are replaced by Indonesians and Bangladeshis, there’s a very good change that the Taliban will be in control of Afghanistan very soon after the US departure. Of course, the US could give those weapons to the Indonesians and Bangladeshis and train them to use those weapons, but I doubt if the US would want to do that.

4. Persuade India to send troops to Afghanistan to help American troops. Indian soldiers will be hated as much as the Americans and may suffer as many casualties. In order to persuade India to put its soldiers in harms’ way, the US might ‘persuade’ Pakistan to accept the Line of Control in Kashmir as the international border and give up all claims on Indian administered Kashmir. US drones flying over Af-Pak might direct some of their fire over training camps for Kashmiri militants. Indian politicians might be able to sell such this solution to India’s population. However, this solution would be very unpopular in Pakistan. Any such settlement over Kashmir would be temporary and will last only as long as the Americans stay in the neighbourhood. China will not be happy with this, since a secure northern frontier will tilt the balance of power in favour of India.

However, in my opinion, if implemented, this plan has as much chance of success as supplementing US troops with Indonesians and Bangladeshis. By sheer numbers, Indian troops supported by US technology and troops will be able to keep the Taliban at bay. Let’s assume, this is maintained for a period of five years, until the next Afghan elections, by which time, a reasonably strong Afghan national army can emerge and reconstruction and redevelopment can be carried out. If the Afghans manage to elect a strong government in Kabul that is relatively progressive, stable and strong, Afghanistan might revert to the sort of peace it had when it was ruled by King Zahir Shah from 1933 to 1973. Though this option has a good chance of success, I just don’t see Obama even considering the possibility of seeking Indian troops for Afghanistan and siding with India on Kashmir.

5. The Americans and their allies could just pack up and leave, after declaring that their objective of brining democracy to Afghanistan has been achieved. After the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan on February 15, 1989, the Soviet protégé Najibullah managed to hold on to power for a surprising four years. The only reason why he was finally finished off was because of the enormous amount of Pakistani support for the Mujahideen. If the Americans were to just leave, just like the Soviets did, it is anybody’s guess as to how long Hamid Karzai will be able to hang on to power. The Taliban are bound to expand the territory they control – but will they be able to obtain sway over the whole of Afghanistan? In my opinion, they will, over a period of time. This process will be quicker if they can convince the Pakistanis to help them. To get Pakistani help, the Taliban must be willing to renounce any plan to capture power in Pakistan.

The ISI is mostly probably cursing itself for having allowed the Taliban to shelter the Al Qaeda. If Mullah Omar hadn’t permitted Bin Laden and his fellow nutcases to use Afghanistan as a base, no one would have given two hoots about Afghanistan. Pakistan would still have its ‘strategic depth’ in the west and Kashmir would be boiling. If the Americans were to pack up and leave, the ISI would want to just turn the clock back. Afghanistan would be run by the fundamentalist Taliban, while Pakistan would be modern and free from fundamentalists. This would be a dream ending for Pakistan, especially the ISI. However, would the Pakistani Taliban who currently control large swathes of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province be willing to give up their plans and either lead a quiet life or migrate to Afghanistan? Having tasted power, I doubt if Pakistani Taliban can ever be persuaded to give up their plans to capture power in Pakistan itself. They might pretend to do so for a temporary period till they capture the whole of Afghanistan, but sooner or later, civil war will return to Pakistan.

China will be very unhappy and uncomfortable if the Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan. As long as the ISI had control over the Taliban, very little external support was available to Uighurs in China’s restive xinjiang province even though many Uighurs have fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Recently the Al Qaeda openly called for a holy war against China. However the Al Qaeda and the Taliban are two different entities. The Taliban are much more realistic than the Al Qaeda. Will Pakistan be able to convince the Taliban to not support the Uighurs in China after the Americans vacate Afghanistan? They might be able to. It all depends on how quickly memories of the current rift fade and how quickly the clock is put back.

We currently live in a very interesting period in time. Let’s see how events in Afghanistan unfold.

If the Americans leave, can the ISI and the Taliban turn the clock back?

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Are Reservations Justified?

Prominent blogger Amit Varma recently published a brief and succinct post on why he thinks reservations based on caste are unfair, According to Varma, reservations perpetuate caste rather than do away with it.

When I was a student, I used to feel exactly the same as Varma does even now. However, after I started working in the late nineties, I began to have second thoughts and asked myself: Why should people who come from very disadvantaged backgrounds be treated on par with those born with a silver spoon? My antagonism towards reservations totally melted away after I came to the UK. Compared to the UK and other European countries, India is a very unfair society with a rich-poor divide that can’t be justified by any stretch of imagination. Middle class Indians seem to able to tolerate a degree of poverty around them that would be unacceptable to most Europeans. Most Indians living below the poverty line come from the lower castes and it cannot be denied that there is an undeniable link between poverty, social backwardness and caste. In other words, caste is the best or the most efficient yardstick for measuring social and economic backwardness. Granted there are Indians from the lower castes who are no longer poor or even socially backward, and there are some backward castes which are no longer backward, but on an all-India level, such people and castes are very few in number.

Social backwardness is something that is very different from financial poverty. To give an example, a businessman who goes bankrupt may be poor. He may have to live on handouts from relatives or send his kids to a government run school. However, he is not socially backward. He will be able to talk to people on equal terms anywhere in India, especially in his home territory. He will know how to work the system and will, with some luck, bounce back in life. His children will have their education paid for by family members. Even if they struggle through college, they will have necessary soft skills to do well later on in life.

Now take the case of a dalit from a village where untouchability is still practised, who manages to go to college on the strength of reservations. Even after he goes to college, he is still a dalit. He stands out from the college crowd on account of his shabby clothes and lack of confidence. After he gets a good job (once again thanks to reservations), he is still a dalit, though he will have started to acquire some social graces by then. However, when sends his kids to the best school in town, they will not be treated as dalits. Let’s assume the kids are smart, but not smart enough to get admission to a good engineering or medical college on merit. However, they are very likely get admission to the college of their choice, since they have reservations. By the time those kids pass out, they have as much social standing as any of their classmates.

Most jobs require soft skills that are not taught in schools or colleges and are available only to those from the upper crust of society. In fact I know of many sensible organisations that keep away from applicants with a sterling academic performance but without any extracurricular ribbons. In other words, a socially backward individual is very unlikely to bag a job that requires soft skills. We all know that such jobs are the highest paying ones in the market.

To be fair, the main reason why so many upper class Indians hate reservations not because they are nasty people, but because of India’s extremely high population. There are too many Indians who want to join the IITs, IIMs or top medical colleges like AIIMS and too few seats available at such institutions. Gaining admission to such an institution virtually guarantees a comfortable living for the rest of one’s life. Mind you, once admission is secured, one does not have to be a rocket scientist to clear the course, though it must be admitted that in general those admitted on merit pass out with better grades when compared to those who got admission through reservations.

There are some like Mr. Narayana Murthy who say that reservations should be based solely on economic criteria. I do not agree with this stand. For one, it ignores social backwardness which is, in my opinion, a bigger handicap than economic weakness. Secondly if reservations are made available to all those below the poverty line, you can be sure that a brisk trade will develop in fake income certificates. In a country where very few of those liable to pay income tax do so, policing a system of reservations based solely on income will just not work. Even if it can be made to work, I feel that reservations ought to target social as much as economic backwardness.

I will not dispute that caste is not a perfect yardstick and the presence of a creamy lawyer prevents reservations from benefiting those who most deserve it the most. A few months ago, I was having a chat with a friend and the discussion moved to reservations and caste. ‘Oh when do you think will we be able to do away with reservations altogether?’ my friend wondered aloud. ‘Just as how they stopped giving free milk in schools here.’ There was a time when British school children were given free milk in schools. Then one day in the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher decided to stop giving it away free to older children and to be honest there were lots of complaints. Milk is available cheaply in the UK, as in the rest of the developed world, and even the poorest of the poor can afford it. Despite all that, many Britons cribbed. One can only imagine the hue and cry that will arise if the Indian government were to announce an end to reservations. More importantly, the government that ends reservations is bound to get trashed in the next general election.

In my opinion, purely caste-based reservations do perpetuate caste divisions in the short term. However, they also uplift untouchable and backward castes, to a large extent, though it is at the expense of the upper castes. If (social and economic) upliftment of the lower castes is the sole objective behind reservations, rather than doing away with caste altogether, then caste based reservations do work. Tamil Nadu is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Since many decades, Tamil Nadu has had up to 69% reservations for admissions to colleges and in state government jobs. There has been a great degree of social and economic mobility as a result of this. Sadly the Tamil Brahmin community has been largely driven away from the state as a result of this reservation policy (coupled with the vehement anti-Brahmin rhetoric of various Dravidian parties).

There are so many questions that need answers. Are reservations a form of compensation to the lower castes for many centuries of discrimination? If yes, is it fair to make the present generation of upper castes pay for what their ancestors did? Should India restrict reservation benefits to two generations so that college admissions and jobs go to the neediest and the most deserving among the lower castes?

Can it be said that if caste based reservations continue for some more time, caste divisions within society will disappear? In my opinion, it will take many, many decades of reservations before the lower castes achieve some degree of prosperity and parity with the upper castes. It is very likely that many upper castes will end up a few notches down on the social and financial ladder as a result. However, caste divisions can disappear only when such social equalisation is matched by a tremendous increase in the overall prosperity within society. Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and Japan managed to create societies with very little class distinctions (as compared to India) only because they achieved a great degree of prosperity. There was so much around for everyone that some of it trickled down to even the poorest individual.

India has got so many more people than all these countries I have just mentioned and so much fewer resources. Also, India has even now, more poverty and social backwardness than any of these countries ever had in the last hundred years. Which takes us back to a very basic question – if reservations are likely to only sharpen caste distinctions in the short run and if they can work in the long run only if there is an overall increase in prosperity, should India persist with reservations? What if India can achieve a critical mass of prosperity (that will make it possible to push every Indian out of poverty) faster than it will through reservations by moving to a purely merit based regime right away?

It is tempting to say (as Amit Varma does) that India should ditch reservations and pursue pure merit at once without waiting for reservations to uplift the downtrodden castes. However, I doubt if our politicians will want to take the risk of trying to persuade India’s long suffering populace of the efficacy of such a measure. I have a feeling that reservations will be a fact of life for Indians for at least a couple of generations to come.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Booker Prize 2009 Goes to........

The Booker Prize for 2009 has just been announced. Wolf Hall written by Hilary Mantel and published by HarperCollins, Fourth Estate, is the winner. I had reviewed it a few days ago.

Here are links to my reviews of four of the other shortlisted books:
Summertime by J M Coetzee(Random House, Harvill Secker)
The Quickening Maze by (Random House, Jonathan Cape)
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (Little, Brown)
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (Little, Brown, Virago)

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Book Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Henry the VIII’s England was a cruel and nasty place. It was a land where death came very fast, where the summer plague carried off many victims every year, where one could be burned at the stake for one’s belief. Reading the Bible in English (rather than in Latin) was a capital offence. Important men like Sir Thomas More wore hair shirts to punish themselves for their sins and earn merit in the eyes of God. The Tudor era was also a time of social mobility, when a butcher’s son or a blacksmith’s boy could become a cardinal or a lawyer. It was a period when trade with continental Europe flourished and the wind of reform initiated by Martin Luther blew into England.

Thomas must have been the most popular name during the Tudor era. There was a Thomas Wolsey, a Thomas More, Thomas Cranmer and a Thomas Cromwell. Wolf Hall is primarily Thomas Cromwell’s story, though the other three Thomases and the swashbuckling Henry the VIII play vital roles.

Thomas Cromwell is the son of a Putney blacksmith who thinks nothing of hitting his son on the head with a big block of wood (we are not too sure of this since the blow comes from behind) and then repeatedly kicking him, putting the victim, young Thomas, at risk of suffocating on his own vomit. Cromwell moves on, an inch at a time and gets to his sister’s place and sanctuary. Mantel turns the pages very fast and shows us a Cromwell who has become a lawyer and is the chief advisor to Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey is rapidly falling out of favour with Henry the VIII since it is unable to get him a papal divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon, who bore him a series of children all of whom, except a sickly girl May, die very young. Henry is besotted with the scheming and wily Anne Boleyn and is also obsessed with the idea of having a male heir. All the people surrounding Henry (with the exception of Thomas More) want him to get what he wants – namely a divorce, their own progress depends on Henry doing well. Henry has convinced himself that he is legally entitled to a divorce. After all, he had married his brother Arthur’s wife and the Bible (Leviticus) does frown on such a practice and a special papal dispensation had been necessary for his first marriage to take place.

Wolsey is unable to deliver the divorce mainly because the Pope is practically a prisoner of other political powers and England’s relationship with such powers is frosty. However, Wolsey is removed from his post and dies on his way to his execution. Cromwell, totally amoral and very liberal, soon becomes Henry’s Chief Minister and chief advisor and plays a key role in breaking up with Rome and setting up the Church of England.

Hilary Mantel tells the story of Thomas Cromwell from 1527 to 1535, stopping much before Cromwell’s or even Anne Boleyn’s execution, using language that sounds so authentic that you are immediately transported to the England of the 1500s. Tudor history is well known and Mantel assumes that you have paid attention to your history lessons while at school and makes no effort to keep the story simple – the cast list alone runs to five pages. Wolf Hall is post-history story telling at its best, though this 650 page tome makes very slow reading, forcing the reader to pause every once in a while to absorb before moving on.

Mantel takes pains to show Cromwell as the exact opposite of Thomas More, who has at times (especially in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons), been depicted as a saint. A very reputed scholar and a man considered very intelligent, More is shown to be straitjacketed, especially in matters of faith, whilst Cromwell is open to persuasion from all sides. Cromwell is all along shown as a man who looks after himself and his family, unlike Thomas More who is shown as being nasty to his own children. Thomas More replaces Cardinal Wolsey as the Lord Chancellor, though his opposition to the split with Rome and Henry VIII’s divorce costs him his head. Cromwell tries to persuade More to change his mind, but ultimately plays a role in the trial that orders his execution.

In Mantel’s hands, Cromwell who has at times been described as cunning and calculating, comes across as a warm and open hearted liberal who unashamedly looks after his own welfare. For example, Mantel describes Thomas Cromwell’s abilities thus:

His legal practice is thriving, and he is able to lend money at interest, and arrange bigger loans, on the international market, taking a broker’s fee. The market is volatile - the news from Italy is never too good two days together – but as some men have an eye for horseflesh or cattle to be fattened, he has an eye for risk. A number of noblemen are indebted to him, not just for arranging loans, but for making their estates pay better. It is not a matter of exactions from tenants, but, in the first place, giving the landowner an accurate survey of land values, crop yield, water supply, built assets, and then assessing the potential of all these, next putting in bright people as estate managers, and with them setting up an accounting system that makes yearly sense and can be audited. Among the city merchants, he is in demand for his advice on trading partners overseas. He has a sideline in arbitration commercial disputes mostly, as his ability to assess the facts of a case and give a swift impartial decision is trusted here, in Calais and in Antwerp. If you and your opponent can at least concur on the need to save costs and delays of a court hearing, then Cromwell is, for a fee, your man; and he has the pleasant privilege, often enough, of sending away both sides happy.”

Cromwell is a man who can hide his anger and get along with people who are nasty to him, such the Dukes of Norfolk or Suffolk, so that he can get what he wants. Thomas More describes Cromwell’s character thus: “lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.” This description reminded me of Cark Gable/Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind playing cards with his jailers, though I don’t think rough and ready Cromwell was half as good looking as Clark Gable.

Cromwell gets along with Thomas Cranmer, the Boleyns’ family priest who has a few children on the side. No, Cromwell, does not pretend to like Cranmer who later ends up as the Archbishop of Canterbury, he actually likes him, especially the fact that he can’t control his desires despite being a priest.

The book is named after Wolf Hall, residence of Jane Seymour who was Henry’s third wife and succeeded Anne Boleyn. The reader is never taken to Wolf Hall, though it is referred to very often and ultimately, Thomas Cromwell is shown to be headed towards Wolf Hall.

Wolf Hall is one of the six books shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2009 and is the bookies’ favourite to win the Booker.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The Roman Polanski Case – I am Shocked and Angry!

I am unbelievably irritated, shocked and angry as a result of the Roman Polanski affair. No, I am not angry with the Swiss authorities for arresting him or with the US authorities for wanting to have him extradited to face charges over what he did more than thirty years ago. What upsets me is the enormous groundswell of support available to Polanski even though he had pleaded guilty to the very serious charges levelled against him three decades ago and has been a fugitive from justice ever since. The victim is supposed to be a thirteen year old girl, who could have been twenty five. Since when did it become acceptable to have sex without consent with a thirteen year old who could have been twenty five? Why should Polanski receive a different form of justice merely because he is a brilliant movie director?

French authorities have expressed solidarity with Roman Polanski and are ‘outraged’ over the arrest. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has said that he hopes US authorities will respect Polanski's rights "and that the affair will come to a favorable resolution. Swiss filmmaker Christian Frei says he feels deeply ashamed of what his government has done. The Swiss Association of Directors has called the arrest "a grotesque judicial farce and a monstrous cultural scandal". The Bulgarian Director-Designate of Unesco, Irina Bokova, has declared that "Polanski is a world renowned intellectual... even though I am not aware of any details, this is shocking." Well, if Bokova is not aware of the details, she ought to keep her mouth shut. If you want details of what exactly Polanski did, you will find them in this article in the Independent.

American Film producer Harvery Weinstein writes in the Independent that Polanski has served his time and must be freed. Has he indeed? It is true that a plea bargain was agreed between Polanski and the US Judge in 1977, but Polanski jumped bail and fled the US before the court proceedings were complete, an act which makes him a fugitive from justice.

Even if it had been consensual sex, Polanski’s action would have made him guilty of ‘statutory rape’ since the victim was only 13. The jurisprudence behind ‘statutory rape’ is based on the assumption that a child under the age of fifteen or sixteen is incapable of consent and so even consensual sex amounts to rape. So why on earth should there be so much sympathy for a man who plied a thirteen year with champagne and drugs and sodomised her?

What about the feelings of the victim who had earlier filed a civil suit against Polanski and settled it for an undisclosed amount? The victim, Samantha Gailey, now known as Samantha Geimer, says she could do without all this attention. Samantha understandably wants the charges dropped. Unfortunately, in a criminal matter like this, the wishes of the victim do not count. When you commit a criminal offence, you are breaching the laws of the state and so criminal cases are always fought between the state and the person accused of the offence. The victim has very little say in the prosecution of the case. Even if the victim of a crime does not want to bring charges, the state may still do so.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Book Review: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

I have never been a fan of ghost stories and I started to read The Little Stranger for two reasons only. One because it is on the Booker Prize shortlist for 2009 and secondly because until now, all of Waters’s books have had gay and lesbian themes and I thought a shift from gay/lesbianism to ghosts sounded very interesting, if not challenging. To be honest, Waters had already started drifting away from gay and lesbian themes in her fourth novel, The Night Watch, which preceded The Little Stranger and is set in the 1940s. Like all her other novels, The Little Stranger is a ‘period story’ and is set in the period just after the Second World War. Though a ghost story, The Little Stranger is as much about English society after the War and the changes to the English class system, as it is about ghosts.

Using a GP as her narrator, Waters’ tells us the story of the Ayreses who live in the Hundreds Hall in rural Warwickshire. At one point, the Ayreses had wealth and social standing. When the story begins, they only have the latter and we see Roderick, the only male left in the Ayres family struggle with his bills as well as his war wounds. Roddy’s sister Caroline, an intelligent, but plain girl, does a substantial amount of manual work in the farm and in the household. The mother Mrs. Ayres has seen much better days and would like to keep up appearances.

Dr. Faraday the narrator is a middle-aged doctor who comes from red-blooded working class stock – his mother was a maid at the Hundreds Hall many years ago. In fact, Dr. Faraday has been to Hundreds Hall as a kid for an Empire Day function, when he was allowed into the big house as a treat. Dr. Faraday is now a GP who has not done spectacularly well for himself. He is called out to Hundreds to treat the maid Betty who has started working there very recently. Betty is faking a tummy ache and Faraday latches on, though he doesn’t snitch on her. That there is something very wrong with Hundreds Hall becomes apparent very early on, though Waters takes her time to build up the tempo before she makes it clear that the place is haunted.

Waters also takes her time in telling her readers officially that there is a spark between Dr. Faraday and Caroline, though most readers will start wondering very early on why Dr. Faraday doesn’t woo Caroline when he admires her so much. It is only when one reaches the halfway mark of this 500 page tome that one see Dr. Faraday and Caroline make the moves. Even after the spark is officially lit, it flickers and even disappears for certain stretches, despite all around approval for the match.

Even though ghost stories don’t appeal to me, I really enjoyed The Little Stranger, mainly because Waters devotes a considerable amount of effort and space in building up the atmosphere and the characters. It’s not just the main characters (who are few in number) who sound and smell authentic. Even the peripheral ones come across as genuine 1940s vintage.

Whilst telling us the story of a possible ghost, Waters tackles a host of social issues ranging from landowners’ resentment towards Atlee’s Labour government, the introduction of the National Health Service, lack of social mobility (in those days) etc. For someone not familiar with post-war England, The Little Stranger is full of surprises. Food is rationed and even the well-off struggle to buy food. To buy clothes, you need clothes coupons. Dr. Faraday uses up all his coupons to buy a wedding dress for Caroline. Gas is rationed as well, though Dr. Faraday is able to drive everywhere he wants to, since he is a GP. One gathers that there was no law against drink driving in those days since Dr. Faraday gets puking drunk on more than one occasion and drives home without a care in the world.

Waters's story telling skill is so very good that my interest never flagged while reading this tome. After the Ghost’s presence was more or less confirmed (around Page 300 or so), Waters’ did get me to sit of the edge of my sofa for the rest of the book.

Does the romance between Dr. Faraday and Caroline come to a successful conclusion? Is the Ghost laid to a peaceful repose for eternity, as many ghost stories do? Does the Hundreds Hall regain its past glory? Do read this wonderful book to find out.

The Little Stranger has been shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, which will be announced on 6 October 2009. Waters has been shortlisted for a Booker twice in the past. Though I am not sure if a ghost story has ever won the Booker Prize, there is a very good possibility that Waters will be third time lucky in 2009.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Book Review: The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds

There are very few sane characters in The Quickening Maze. Charles Seymour is one. Locked up at the behest of his father at the High Beach Private Asylum, a lunatic asylum run by Doctor Mathew Allen who is relatively progressive for his time, Charles’ refusal to renounce his unsuitable lady love is the only thing that prevents him from being released. The intelligent and accomplished Doctor Allen, the father of three girls, is not so very sane himself. Despite having gone to prison in the past (on account of debt), Mathew goes ahead with a very reckless scheme for mass producing furniture using a steam-driven machine invented by him. Persuading friends and patients to invest in his venture, the energetic Dr. Allen makes much headway till he realises that his scheme will not work.

John Clare (13 July 1793 – 20 May 1864), who was during his time known as the "the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet" is the leading character in this novel. Lord Alfred Tennyson also has an important role. Clare is mad. Tennyson isn’t, though his brother Septimus and many of his family members are. Clare is the son of a farm labourer with limited education, a man who is so used to living with nature that he finds it intolerable when he is locked up and cut off from forests and wildlife. Tennyson is not particularly concerned with nature. He is at the High Beach Private Asylum solely to take care of his brother Septimus. Tennyson ends up investing in Dr. Allen’s mad venture.

There are many more individuals in The Quickening Maze, many of whom are insane and a few of whom like Dr. Allen’s wife, daughters and helpers are very much sane. All of them have their characters built up and described in very beautiful prose that is very economical and judicious with its use of words. Epping Forest on the outskirts of London, within which the High Beach Private Asylum is located, is one of those characters brought to life by Foulds. Since Foulds is a splendid poet who won the Costa Poetry Award in 2008, The Quickening Maze definitely has a lyrical touch at all times. However, the poetic touch never goes overboard.

One of the things I didn’t like about the Quickening Maze is that it has many characters and Foulds switches from one to another at a breakneck speed, leaving the reader a bit bewildered and even insane at times. Maybe it’s intentional. Another feature I didn’t like is that Foulds does not tell his readers what happens to his various characters. We see Clare slipping into greater insanity, at times imagining himself to be a prize fighter, at times to be Lord Byron. Is there any escape for Clare? We won’t know from this novel. What happens to Alfred Tennyson? Hannah, one of Dr. Allen’s daughters, has an innocent crush on Tennyson and pines away for him. Does she succeed? The reader never finds out. However, Foulds does tell us what happens to Charles Seymour, a man locked up so that he can be cured of his love. Do read this wonderful book to find out.

The Quickening Maze is Fould’s second novel. The first one, The Truth About These Strange Times, won the 2008 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award. The Quickening Maze has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2009, which will be announced on 6 October 2009. In my opinion, this novel has a decent chance of winning the Booker.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Book Review: The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

By the time I finished reading Simon Mawer’s Glass Room, not only was I conscious of having read a fine piece of literature, I was also convinced that Mawer is as good, if not better, than pulp fiction writers like Jeffrey Archer and John Grisham in packing mystery and suspense inside a novel. Before I say anything further, let me confess that I am big fan of fiction with a historical base. The Glass Room, set in Czechoslovakia from the period after the end of the First World War till the time when communism started to collapse in Eastern Europe, is one of the best pieces of historical fiction I have ever read.

There are many characters in the Glass Room, but it would not be possible to point anyone as the most important person in the story. Viktor Landauer, a Jewish businessman who owns a motor car manufacturing business is definitely one of the main characters, as is his Gentile German wife Liesel. Viktor and Liesel commission a German architect, Rainer von Abt, to build their dream house on the land gifted to them by Liesel’s father as a wedding gift. Believing that ornamentation is a waste, if not a crime, the Glass Room is built as a tribute to modernism, without any ounce of ornamentation and as a symbol of a clean break with the past. The story revolves around the Glass Room throughout, even after the Laundeurs flee from the Nazis and escape to the United States through Switzerland.

The Nazis convert the Glass Room into a laboratory where experiments are carried out on human beings. Here’s a conversation between Stahl, a German doctor, who heads the team that carries out research on human specimens in the Glass Room and Hana, Liesel’s closest friend who has stayed on. Stahl is explaining how his daughter Erika contracted infantile amaurotic congenital idiocy when she was very young.

He sits there in the Glass Room among the trappings of scientific measurement, in the pure proportions of the place, and talks of irrationality and senselessness. ‘It’s to do with a chemical, a particular kind of fat that the body makes when it shouldn’t. It accumulates in the brain and somehow turns the nerve cells off, that’s what the specialists say. It’s what’s called an inborn error of metabolism. Inside me, inside every cell in my body there is this genetic mutation. Recessive. You need one from each parent before you have the disease.’
‘So Hedda had it too.’
‘Of course she did. The same mutation, running in our family, but brought together by our union.’ He pauses. ‘It’s one of the Jew diseases.’
‘A Jew disease? Is there such a thing?’
‘Jews particularly suffer from it, along with many other diseases of that kind. Degeneracy, you see. They are a degenerate people.’
‘And does having it make you a Jew?’
‘It doesn’t make me a Jew, but some Jew introduced the disease into the family four generations ago. A great-great-grandfather. That is what I believe.’
She comes over from the windows and stands beside the piano. ’And the baby? When was this? I mean, is the baby still_’
‘Do you know how such children die? Finally they lose the ability to swallow. You try to feed them but they just choke everything up. Either they starve to death or they die of pneumonia. There is nothing anyone can do. Nothing.’
‘And that’s what happened?’
‘No, that’s not what happened.’

After the Nazis are overthrown and the proletariat takes over, the Glass Room becomes a gymnasium. The original owners are never forgotten by Mawer and towards the end of the book, one gets to see them again. Not only that, many loose ends are tied up in the final thirty pages or so of this absolutely wonderful book. I wouldn’t want to say any more and spoil the fun for those who read this review.

There were a few bits I didn’t like, such as when Kata Katalin ends up in the Landauer residence, aka the Glass Room, after she becomes a refugee. However, such instances are very few and far in between and are within Mawer’s author’s licence.

To summarise, this is an absolutely brilliant book. There is suspense, there is violence, there is eroticism, there is history, all of which is tied together by Mawer’s brilliant writing. The Glass Room is one of the six books shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2009 and is, in my view, a very strong contender for the trophy.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Book Review: Summertime: Scenes from Provincial Life by J. M. Coetzee

Unlike a biography, an autobiography requires the author to analyse himself. The degree and nature of analysis determines how interesting the story will turns out to be. In M.K. Gandhi’s My Experiments With Truth, the author sets out facts in a gentle and undulating manner, interspersing facts with explanations. There are admissions of failures and of mistakes made, of weak moments and errors of judgements. Unlike Gandhi, J.M.Coetze takes self analysis to an extreme in his latest book Summertime, a fictionalised autobiography and third in a trilogy which began with Boyhood and Youth. By using the services of one Vincent, a biographer who wants to hear all about Coetzee from various sources so that he can pen Coetzee’s tale, Summertime examines Coetzee’s adult life from various angles and paints a very unflattering picture of himself.

There are stories from Julia, a married woman with whom Coetzee had an affair, from Margot, a cousin whom Coetzee wanted to marry when he was young, Adriana, a Brazilian lady whose daughter took English lessons from Coetzee and from Martin and Sophie, two colleagues with whom Coetzee worked. In addition to these sources, there are extracts from Coetzee’s diaries. With tales from all these sources, as narrated to Vincent, Coetzee paints a self portrait that is so ruthless that you don’t even feel sorry for the author.

John Coetzee is shown as a misfit, always ill at ease, shy and reserved, without any friends, a man in need of a decent haircut. Despite all this, Coetzee does not come across as a man who deserves any sympathy, though he is shown as a loser, time and again. For example, with cousin Margot, Coetzee goes on a long drive across the veldt in his pickup truck and the engine conks off in the middle of nowhere. Coetzee and Margot are forced to spend the night inside the truck, hugging each other to keep themselves warm. This is the same Margot whom Coetzee hoped to marry when he was young. Margot doesn’t feel anything for Coetzee, though they are alone and hugging each other to sleep. It could be because Margot is happily married to someone else. However, in Margot’s own words, ‘why is there no male aura about him? Does the fault lie with him or on the contrary, does it lie with her, who has so wholeheartedly absorbed the taboo that she cannot think of him as a man? If he has no woman, is that because he has no feeling for women, and therefore women, herself included, respond by having no feeling for him? Is her cousin, if not a moffie, then a eunuch?

The reader knows that Coetzee has feelings for women, that he has had affairs before, that he still loves Margot. We know that he is not a moffie (a derogatory Afrikaans term for a gay man) or an enuch. No, Coetzee is just not man enough for Margot.

Time and again, Coetzee fails to make an impression on the people he meets, despite having very strong convictions and views on issues ranging from animal rights to vegetarianism to apartheid. Coetzee’s convictions and ideology make him stand out from the crowd at all times, however. For example, Coetzee believes that white South Africans ought to do manual labour rather than rely on hired black helpers. For this reason, he tries to maintain his pick-up truck himself, does all repairs to his house himself, learns Khoi, a Hottentot dialect which is not spoken by anyone else etc. None of these activities manage to win him brownie points with anyone except maybe his own father, who lives with him and is portrayed in an equally pathetic light.

I have been a Coetzee fan ever since I read Disgrace which won Coetzee a second Booker in 1999. Coetzee is one of two individuals who have won the Booker twice. In 2003, Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Summertime has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize which is to be announced on 6 October 2009. If Coetzee wins a Booker for Summertime, he will be the only author to have won a Booker three times.

I really enjoyed Summertime. Like his other books, it is dry, sparse, to the point and cruel. However, I doubt if it will win the Booker.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Book Review: My Friend Sancho

Amit Varma is a blogger I admire a lot. Like many tens of thousands of Indians, I get withdrawal symptoms if I can’t check his blog Indiauncut at least once every day. The symptoms are equally bad if Varma doesn’t update his blog daily. Of late, Varma hasn’t been posting as regularly as he once used to. The culprit behind this disaster is Varma’s debut novel My Friend Sancho (MFS), published by Hachette India. I happened to read MFS recently

More a novella than a novel (since by my own reckoning it doesn’t exceed 40,000 words), MFS is the story of an ambitious reporter (not unlike Varma who once used to be a journalist till he turned to full-time blogging) named Abir Ganguly who also happens to be an Indiauncut fan. Using a simple, but very realistic, plot and uncluttered English that gets to the nub of the matter without prevarication, Varma tells us a tale that has shades of Love Story in it. MFS is a very good read and Varma easily held my attention effortlessly for the entire journey.

Varma makes no bones about the fact that his only objective is to entertain and that he has no lofty literary pretensions. In the beginning of the book, Abir has a conversation with his boss, which goes on as follows:

“So what kind of stories do you want to write for us, young man?”
“You tell me, sir.”
“No, you tell me. I want to see what you want to do first.”
“Sir, um, I want to do the kind of stories that reveal, um, what this city is all about.”
“What is this city all about?”
“Sir, um, this city, sir, has, um, lots of struggle, and life is hard, and...”
“Enough. Do you watch movies?”
“Yes sir.”
“Do you watch sports?”
“Yes sir.”
“I'll tell you why. Because you want drama. Our lives are boring, so we want drama everywhere. That is why we gossip. That is why we peek into our neighbour's houses. That is why we watch movies, watch sports. That is why readers buy The Afternoon Mail. Drama! Now, I want you to understand one thing.”
“Yes sir.”
“Your job, as a reporter, is to find drama. People want story: conflict, love, action, violence, sadness, regret. Give them story. You know that old cliché of 'dog bites man' and 'man bites dog'? I want 'man bites dog'. Every story you write must be 'man bites dog'. Drama!”

Recently Varma posted an article giving blogging tips for aspiring bloggers. Value your reader’s time; Keep your English simple; Focus on the content rather than use ornamental language. These are some of Varma’s commandments. Varama is obviously one of those teachers who practice what they preach since MFS follows all these rules and is a lesson is English writing for all aspiring writers who are not native speakers of English.

However, the most outstanding feature of MFS is also its main drawback. Since Varma obviously believes that his reader’s time is very valuable and that readers are fickle creatures who will drop his book and wander away at the slightest slack in his writing and because Varma believes that his readers want pure unadulterated entertainment that doesn’t require the exercise of grey cells and nothing else, MFS is crammed with sarcasm, cynicism and WTFness that are so very familiar to Indiauncut readers. Such writing is, in my opinion, very much appropriate for blogging on the internet where readers have so many distractions and moving to a different web page is so very easy. However, when reading a book one has bought for a few hundred rupees, a reader can be expected to be a bit more faithful. At times I did find Varma’s attention grabbing tactics distracting. I believe that if Varma hadn’t been so worried about keeping his readers entertained by every word he wrote, if every word wasn’t expected to count, MFS would have been a much better read.

Another drawback (or flaw) in MFS is that Varma doesn’t do justice to Muneeza, Abir’s love interest in the story. Muneeza is shown as having had a traditional (Indian Muslim) upbringing, but displays streaks of rebellion and independence. If properly developed, Muneeza could have been a very interesting character. However, readers are given a hasty and one-dimensional view of Muneeza.

Varma’s writing can only get better, provided Varma stops worrying that his readers will run away if a single word in his work fails to entertain.

A Video is worth a Thousand Claims

Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, a Sri Lankan human rights organisation has presented the world with a video that purportedly shows executions being carried out by men dressed in military fatigues. It is not crystal clear who is killing whom, but various Sri Lankan Tamil organisations based in the West, including the LTTE’s unofficial mouthpiece Tamilnet, have been quick to claim that the video shows Sri Lankan government soldiers killing Tamils held in their custody. The Sri Lankan government has denied such claims, taking the stand that the video is a fabrication.

In my opinion, in all probability the executions are being carried out by Sri Lankan soldiers. The victims are very likely to be Tamils, possibly captured LTTE cadres or even sympathisers. The UN has called upon the Sri Lankan government to carry out an enquiry into the video.

Both sides to this conflict have routinely accused the other of human rights violations, including extra judicial killings and assassinations. However, so far neither side had managed to provide video evidence of such extra-judicial killings.

These days when mobile phones with cameras are so very common, the chances are that the video in question was taken by the perpetrators of the killings to record their dirty exploits and show off. Meant for limited circulation among friends, it must have dropped into the hands of Journalists for Democracy by accident. This won’t be the first time when soldiers carrying out human rights abuses got into trouble by the videos and photos they took. In Iraq, prisoner abuses by coalition troops came to light when photographs taken by the culprits fell into unintended hands. Technology has made it practically impossible for governments to use their delinquent soldiers to commit murder and get away with it!

Channel 4 which aired the shocking video for the first time has now come up with a second video which shows how grim life is in detention centres for Sri Lankan Tamils. Videos like these are bound to erode what little remains of the global backing, sympathy and support that helped the Sri Lankan government defeat the LTTE.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Book Review: Arzee the Dwarf

Chandrahas Choudhury is a very well-known blogger within Indian literary circles. His blog, The Middle Stage, is in my opinion, one of the finest literary blogs on the World Wide Web. Having followed the Middle Stage for the last few years, I was pretty sure that Choudhury’s debut novel would be very good. I turned out to be wrong. Arzee the Dwarf is not just very good, it is outstanding.

Published by Harper Collins, Arzee the Dwarf tells the story of a vertically challenged man for a few turbulent days of his life. Arzee works for a cinema, the old fashioned and moth eaten Noor as an assistant projectionist. One of Arzee’s dreams is to become the head projectionist, an event that is not so much out of reach since Phiroz, the head projectionist, is old and close to retirement. Another dream is to get married to an ordinary girl not afflicted with dwarfism. Using beautiful prose that is almost poetic and which pushes your imagination to stratospheric heights, without using a single redundant word, Choudhury floats Arzee to the peak of happiness and then drops him into a valley of despair before he brings out a banner of hope. Do Arzee’s dreams materialise?

Set almost entirely in Old Mumbai, in and around Breach Candy, Grant Road, Mumbai Central, Khar Road, Jogeshwari etc, a geography where Choudhury is entirely at home, Arzee the Dwarf makes its readers walk over rotting garbage, wade through dirty puddles, smell Arzee’s foul armpits and bad breath, all the while entranced by Choudhury’s golden yarn.

There are surprises galore. What is taken for granted by the reader is turned over and made to stand on its head, time and again. The linkages that lead from one significant development to another all almost entirely realistic and even where they are not, Choudhury is very much within his creative licence. One of the best things about Arzee the Dwarf is that each one of Choudhury’s main characters is out of the ordinary, eccentric even, but very, very real. Choudhury’s characterisation, in my opinion, takes Arzee the Dwarf close to magical realism.

If at all there can be any grievance about Arzee the Dwarf, it is that Choudhury could have told us more about some of his secondary characters, having piqued our curiosity sufficiently about them. For example, I would have liked to know more about Phiroz’s daughter or Arzee’s brother Mobin. However, Choudhury gets one so close and personal to Arzee and other main characters such as Deepak and Phiroz, that this drawback doesn’t register till a few hours after one has put down the book.

Arzee the Dwarf runs to around fifty five thousand words (by my own estimate). It is not only ‘unputdownable’, but also does something most books by Indian authors fail to do. It makes its reader smile frequently, even when the protagonist is not doing very well for himself. At times, the smile turns to a chuckle. But don’t worry, there is no danger of you laughing uproariously when reading this book.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Frequency of Posts - An Update

I was expecting some work which has been delayed for a month. Therefore, I will post regularly for another month or so before fading away.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Next Post on 15 September 2009

I’ve had a good run on this blog so far. Despite having a full-time job and a family, I’ve been able to average two or sometimes even three posts every week. Now my other commitments seem to have caught up with me. Henceforth I will be able to post only once a month and it will be on or around the 15th. So do take a look at this blog for something new on 15 September 2009!

Here’s wishing all Indians a very Happy Independence Day and all Pakistanis a belated Happy Independence Day!

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Syrian Christians, Brahmin Ancestors and St. Thomas

The Syrian Christians of Kerala form a caste that is as distinctive as any other in India. Within this caste, there are many sects. Syrian Christians may be Syrian Catholics or Jacobites or Orthodox or Marthomites or even Anglican Christians. Syrian Catholics owe allegiance to the Pope in Rome, the Jacobites to the Patriarch (or Bava) based in Antioch (modern day Turkey), the Orthodox Syrian Christians to a Catholicos based at Devalokam in Kottayam, Kerala, the Marthomites to a Metropolitan based at Thiruvalla in Kerala and the Anglicans to the Archbishop at Canterbury.

Most (but not all) Syrian Christians, irrespective of their sect, have two pet beliefs. One is that each and every Syrian Christian is descended from a Namboodiri or Keralite Brahmin convert to Christianity. The other belief is that their ancestors were converted by St. Thomas, one of Jesus’s twelve disciples, who reached Kerala in the year 52 A.D.

I use the word ‘belief’ for the notions I have mentioned above, because that’s just what they are.

The first belief, that all Syrian Christians have a Brahmin heritage, was never taken too seriously by historians or other experts. I remember reading a book by Sheila Chandra many years ago (I can’t lay hands on this book now) which explains in detail why this is a ridiculous idea.

Recently Varkey Cardinal Vidayathil, the senior most Catholic clergy man in Kerala and one of the cardinals in the Papal conclave which elected Pope Benedict XVI, was interviewed by author Shinie Antony for a Rupa anthology on Kerala titled ‘Kerala, Kerala, Quite Contrary’ (which by the way has one of my short stories titled ‘A Matter of Faith’). Cardinal Vidayathil’s interview is published in this anthology in the form of an article titled ‘Stone the Sin, Not the Sinner.’ In this piece, the Cardinal says that the theories about the Brahminical origin of Syrian Christians are baseless and shouldn’t be taken seriously.

The second belief is that St. Thomas visited the land, which is now called Kerala, and converted a number of Namboodiris (Brahmins of Kerala) to Christianity. According to this belief, St. Thomas did not seek or make converts from any other caste. Anyone with a basic idea of either Indian history or Christian ethos will realise why this sounds very ridiculous. If at all St. Thomas visited India, he is unlikely to have been casteist and would not have focussed only on the upper castes. After all, wasn’t Christ’s mission all about helping the poor and the down-trodden?

Unlike other disciples like Peter or Mathew or Luke, not much is known about the early life of St. Thomas, that is, his life before he became a disciple of Jesus. In fact, it is not even clear if ‘Thomas’ was his real name. ‘Thomas’ means ‘twin’ in Aramaic and it was most probably just a nickname. It is well known that Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen and that Mathew was a tax collector. If St. Peter were to have visited India, you can be sure that he would have had a special message for fisher folk, though he is very unlikely to have interacted only with the fisher folk. If St. Thomas had been the son of a rabbi, he might have found it easier to converse with the learned Namboodiris, but he is very unlikely to have focussed only on them.

Secondly, if you subscribe to the Aryan migration/invasion theory, which I do, the migrant Namboodiris made their way to Kerala only by around the 7th century. If there were no Namboodiris in Kerala two thousand years ago, St. Thomas is unlikely to have converted them to Christianity.

It is also a matter for debate whether St. Thomas visited Kerala in the first place. Even though Syrian Christian tradition fervently believes that St. Thomas did visit Kerala, Christian scholars and western historians are yet to agree on this. A few years ago, Pope Benedict XVI created a controversy when, while addressing a vast crowd at the St Peter’s square, he stated that “Thomas first evanglised Syria and Persia and then penetrated as far as western India from where Christianity reached also south India”. In other words, according to Pope Benedict XVI, St. Thomas never visited or evangelised Kerala, but only visited the land which is now Pakistan and if at all Christianity spread to Kerala, it was from north India.

Pope Benedict VI’s statement caused a furore in Kerala. George Nedungatt, a Keralite scholar based in Rome, declared that the Pope’s statement was tantamount to declaring that St. Thomas was the 'Apostle of Pakistan', rather than that of India. George Nedungatt is a faculty member of the Oriental Pontifical Institute, Rome.

Pope Benedict XVI, despite various shortcomings, is a scholar and a theologian. He is the first Pope to seriously question the belief that St. Thomas visited and evangelised Kerala. Prior to that most Popes had towed the populist line without actually affirming that St. Thomas was in Kerala. For example, in 1990, Pope John Paul II wrote that the Syro-Malabar church of Kerala "as the constant tradition holds, owed its origin to the preaching of Apostle St Thomas."

It is a fact that when the Portuguese arrived in India, they found Christianity already in existence in Kerala. It was an Indianised form of Christianity, barely differentiable from Hinduism. Jesus was yet another God in the Indian pantheon of Gods. The Portuguese didn’t like what they saw, especially the fact that the Christians owed allegiance to the Syrian Orthodox Church which had its head quarters and a bishop in Antioch (then a part of the Ottoman empire, now in modern day Turkey) and that the mass was recited in Syriac or Aramaic (hence the name Syrian Christians). The Portuguese, using a mix of force and persuasion, managed to convert many of the Syrian Christians to Catholicism. Those converts became Syrian Catholics and switched allegiance from the Patriarch in Antioch to the Pope in Rome, though their mass continued to be in Syriac. Till 1965 when the Second Vatican Council decided to allow mass in the vernacular, Syrian Catholics continued to have their mass in Syriac, while other converts to Catholicism used Latin. Since almost all those converted from Hinduism to Christianity by the Portuguese were lower castes, in Kerala, Latin Christians came to be classified as a backward class, which Syrian Christians, supposedly the descendants of Namboodiris, were treated as upper castes.

Syrian Christians have always occupied a very high position in Keralite society. Those who believe in a Brahminical lineage would say that this status is because all Syrian Christians are Namboodiri converts. However, it is very likely that the initial converts to Christianity came from a variety of backgrounds, but because of their ties with the traders who converted them, were much more commercial and hence prosperous and respected. Over a period of time, before the arrival of the Portuguese, they must have coalesced into a monolithic community.

Despite pressure to switch to the Catholic faith and the Pope in Rome, many Syrian Christians refused to tow the Portuguese line and continued to owe allegiance to the Patriarch in Antioch. In 1653, a number of them took a public oath at a place called Koonan Cross or Koonan Kurisu to defy the Portuguese and to persist with the Syrian rites and liturgy. This section, now called the Jacobites, have seen various splits in their ranks in the last two hundred years.

In 1836, a reformist movement arose within the Jacobite Church, which sought autonomy from the Patriarch at Antioch. This movement eventually led to the formation of what is now called the Malankara Marthoma Syrian Church. As mentioned above, the Marthomite church is headed by a Metropolitan based at Thiruvalla in Kerala.

In 1879, missionaries from Church Mission Society of London (part of the Anglican Church) established a branch of the Church of England in Kerala. Many Jacobites and a few Syrian Catholics joined this Church which is now called the Church of South India (CSI). However, most members of the CSI Church are direct converts from Hinduism.

In 1911, Bishop Wattessril Mor Dionysius led a group of Jacobites, mainly from southern Kerala, who broke off from the Jacobite church and formed the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church which doesn’t have any ties to the patriarch at Antioch. Instead, they report to a Catholicos of the East based at Devalokam in Kottayam, Kerala,

On 20 September 1930, Bishop Mar Ivanios broke off from the Jacobites and joined the Catholic Church. The Jacobites who thus became Catholics form the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, which can be described as a semi-autonomous church within the Catholic Church.

Apologies for having digressed, but to get back to the issue as to whether St. Thomas did visit Kerala, the answer is, ‘we don’t know for sure’. However, we do know that Christianity has been in existence in India, especially in Kerala, much before the arrival of the Portuguese. In all probability, Christianity arrived in Kerala along with the spice trade that has been going on for many millennia. It is an accepted fact that a bunch of Christians from Syria came to Kerala in the 4th century and settled there. This community which is called the Knanaya (meaning “of Canaan”) community, did not co-mingle or blend with the native population, whether or not there were any Christians in Kerala at that time. It practised and still practices purity laws akin to that of the Parsis whereby anyone who marries outside the community is ostracised.

Prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, the Syrian Christians of Kerala, not only owed allegiance to the Patriarch at Antioch, they also had pretty good cultural exchanges with other Syrian Christians elsewhere in Asia Minor.

None of this however can prove or disprove whether St. Thomas did visit Kerala.

It is understandable that many Syrian Christians were upset by Pope Benedict’s statement that St. Thomas never visited Kerala. I would like to see Syrian Christians take the view that it doesn’t matter whether St. Thomas visited Kerala or not. Christianity is supposed to be an egalitarian religion. One converted by St. Thomas can’t be superior to one converted by a common trader from Asia Minor or someone else. However, as a matter of curiosity, I would like to see historians establish the truth one way or the other, in my lifetime that is.