Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Please Repeat Our Mistakes

I read an interesting article in the Times which basically calls upon Chinese consumers to repeat all the mistakes that western consumers made over the last century. According to the author Carl Mortished, the way to revive the global economy is for consumers to revert to the spending spree that characterised the bubble which preceded the recession. Since western consumers are supposed to lack money, Mortished wants Chinese consumers (especially the rural ones who would rather save than spend) to splash out on “TVs, fridges and knock-off Prada shoes”

Articles like this one are very common. The thesis goes like this: If only consumers would start spending again, the recession will disappear. This prompts me to ask: Wasn’t such extravagant spending coupled with cheap credit responsible for creating the bubble which exploded and caused this recession? Why on earth should any one recommend that in the long run extravagant spending is better than saving? Isn’t it time we realised that any economy that is reliant on customers (where ever they be located) spending money on unnecessary goods can’t be stable?

Friday, 24 July 2009

Short Story: The Departure

Rupini peeped into the dining room. They were playing ‘Elephant’ with Pappathy walking on all fours and Nidhi on top of her. Girish was looking on amused, as if he wouldn’t be caught dead doing something like that, though he hadn’t been very different when he was Nidhi’s age. It was such a pity that Pappathy had to go, Rupini thought.

Once again, Rupini rehearsed in her mind what she was planning to tell Pappathy. You are good with the children, but I can’t keep you on after what you did last week, she would tell Pappathy. There would be protestations and appeals. Pappathy would remind her of her usual good and charitable nature and beg to be given another chance. But no, Rupini would be firm. Should she allow Pappathy to say goodbye to the kids? No, it would be better if she just left. Actually, she wasn’t too sure. What was the harm in allowing Pappathy to bid adieu to Girish and Nidhi?

Both the kids would be upset when they were told that Pappathy was leaving or had gone already, but it couldn’t be helped. Hopefully the new girl would fit in and the kids would eventually get used to her.

Rupini went in search of Shekar who was in his study surfing the internet, though he had claimed he
needed a couple of hours to finish off some office work he had brought home.

‘Shekar, can you please take the kids to the terrace? I am going to deal with Pappathy.’

Shekar grunted, scratched his balls, the baggy shorts he was wearing leaving ample space for his fingers to do their job, and said, ‘ask them to come here.’

‘You don’t want them in your study, do you?’ Rupini asked with a smile.

‘No, no, of course not. Okay I’ll take them to the terrace.’

Rupini stood where she was and a few moments later, she heard whoops of joy. A patter of feet followed by the opening of the entrance door and the click of the latch as the door was locked from behind. Shekar spent so little time with the kids that even a brief outing to the terrace made the kids so happy!

Slowly and deliberately Rupini made her way to the dinning room where Pappathy was flipping through the pages of one of Shekar’s IT journals. Normally Rupini would have shouted at Pappathy, but today she was patient.

She stood by the door and waited for Pappathy to notice her presence, which she did after a few moments.

‘Amma, I was only looking at the pictures,’ Pappathy guiltily said as she closed the magazine and pushed it away from her.

‘No, I thought you had become an expert on computers, considering the speed with which you flipped through the pages.’

Pappathy giggled. She was slightly younger than Rupini, but she looked ten years older, her hair almost entirely grey.

‘Let me go and see to the lunch. Have you decided what you want me to make?’

Pappathy, forget lunch. Tell me, last week when you went shopping, didn’t you tell me that you lost the receipt?’

Pappathy looked surprised. Then she said, ‘yes Amma. It fell from my hand as I walked home.’

‘And that was the third time you’ve lost the receipt, isn’t it?’

‘Amma, I’m so sorry. It won’t happen again.’ Pappathy had the air of one who had made a mistake that didn’t matter at all.

‘Don’t worry, I’ve got the receipt,’ Rupini said very smoothly.

‘What? Oh!’

Pappathy’s face registered shock and surprise as Rupini took out the duplicate receipt she had got from the shopkeeper.

‘Look, this says three hundred and forty rupees.’

Pappathy was silent, guilt splashed all over her face.

‘When you lost the receipt for the second time, we became suspicious. Didn’t you think we would suspect something? All shopkeepers have a duplicate of the receipt they give you, didn’t you know that?’

‘How much did you steal the first time? And how much the second time? Was it always forty rupees?’ Rupini’s voice lost its calm and rose to a high pitch. Shekar slogged so hard five days a week, putting in such long hours at his firm that he almost never spent any time with the kids during weekdays and this wretched woman had the nerve to steal their money!

Pappathy was in tears. ‘Amma I’m so very sorry. Please forgive me. I won’t do it again.’

‘How can we every trust you again Pappathy? Haven’t we treated you as one of the family? Have I given you so many of my sarees? All of the clothes Girish and Nidhi outgrew, I’ve given to you. New clothes for Deepavali, we’ve done so much for you. And yet you had to ….. steal.’

The word ‘steal’ brought on a fresh outflow of tears from Pappathy.

‘Can you count how many of Ayya’s shirts and trousers I’ve given you for your husband?’ Can you?’ With that Rupini broke down.

‘Amma, please forgive me,’ Pappathy begged.

‘How can I?’ Rupini asked Pappathy, wiping away her tears.

Pappathy was silent. ‘How can I forgive you Pappathy?’ Rupini asked once again, her voice hoarse with anger.

‘Pappathy, you must leave!’ Rupini declared. ‘Just leave right now.’

‘Amma, please have mercy. I have three children, I needed money, that’s why I….’

‘If you needed money, you should have asked me. How many times have I lent you money?’

‘Amma, just forgive me once, please. I’ve been here for five years! And I won’t be able to bear it if I have to go away from thambi and pappa.’

‘If you cared so much about thambi and pappa, you shouldn’t have done what you did,’ Rupini told Pappathy in a feeble voice. She realised that she would, after all, have to let Pappathy say goodbye to the kids. Well, it wasn’t the end of the world if Pappathy told the kids she was leaving.

‘Tell you what, I’ll call down Girish and Nidhi from the terrace. You can say goodbye to them and leave. I don’t want you here for another moment.’

‘Amma, please forgive me once. I won’t do it again.’ Pappathy had stopped crying. ‘Let me go and see to lunch. The children will be hungry soon. It’s already eleven thirty.’

‘Don’t worry about lunch,’ Rupini became angry once again. What right did Pappathy have to presume that she was indispensable? ‘I’m going to have lunch delivered from the Charminar. And a new girl will be starting here tomorrow. It’s all been arranged. Why do you think I waited for a week before asking you to leave?’

Pappathy was silent.

‘Today is the fifteenth of July. Here are your wages for the last fifteen days.’ Rupini pressed five hundred rupees into Pappathy’s palm. Surprisingly, Pappathy did not refuse the money. Rather, she accepted it and tucked it into her blouse and said, ‘Amma, I’ll leave now.’

‘Let me call Girish and Nidhi from the terrace. You can say good bye to them.’

‘No!’ Pappathy’s voice was firm. ‘Don’t bother Amma. I don’t want to say goodbye to thambi and pappa.’

‘You don’t want to…?’ Rupini’s voice trailed off.

‘No Amma, I don’t want to. And why should I, if I’m leaving anyway?’

With that Pappathy strode off, closing the front door behind her with a firm click.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Israel and Pakistan – One Parallel Too Many?

What happens when you custom-make a country specifically for people belonging to a particular religious persuasion? Can such a country accommodate religious minorities? Is such a country destined to be theocracy? Or can it put up at least a modicum of secularism?

Pakistan came into being on 14 August 1947. It was carved out of British India for the express purpose of providing a homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent. Despite an exodus of Hindus and Sikhs from West Punjab and East Bengal, Pakistan, especially East Pakistan, had a large number of Hindus and Sikhs. Just over a year after Pakistan came into existence, its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah died. Jinnah was a non-practising Muslim who had managed to harness Muslim fears of marginalisation in a Hindu-majority India, to create Pakistan. Jinnah had publicly proclaimed that he wanted Pakistan to be a secular land where minorities would be safe. However, pretty soon after Jinnah’s death, Pakistan commenced its slow descent into the fire pits of Islamic theocracy and fundamentalism. However, it was not until Zia-ul-Haq came to power in 1978 that this descent gathered momentum.

Currently Pakistan is in the throes of a ‘do or die’ battle with the Taliban and other Islamic fundamentalists. After many a hesitant jab at the militants, Pakistani society mobilised itself and launched a full-scale assault at Baitullah Mehsud’s men in Swat and Waziristan. The battle in Swat is almost over, with the militants there in full retreat. The battles in Waziristan don’t seem to be close to a conclusion.

Once the militants are subdued, and I have no doubt that they will be, at least in the short term, the million dollar question facing Pakistan will be the degree of Islamisation it should permit itself. Should Islam continue to be the state religion? Should Islamic signs and symbols be so prominently displayed everywhere? Is it possible to be in a state of equilibrium where Islam plays a predominant role in everything without slipping into a state of fundamentalism? If for some reason Pakistan were to swing to the other extreme, to that of a state which is officially secular, where religion plays no role in public life, the rationale for partition would be lost. I doubt if even liberal Pakistanis want to be in such a state.

Just like Pakistan, Israel was created in order to provide a sanctuary to a specific religious grouping – to Jews. In theory, Jews are of the Semitic race, just like the Arabs. However, in reality the Jewish Diaspora scattered all over the world is composed of so many different races and ethnic groups. Though Hebrew is the official language of Israel and all immigrants to Israel are forced to learn Hebrew, Israelis speak a motley of languages. Many of the founders of Israel were not fervent practitioners of Judaism. Rather they were socialists and Zionists who only wanted to create a homeland for all those where persecuted in Europe and various other parts of the world for being a Jew.

However Israel has moved away from the socialist idealism of its founders. Ben Gurion and Golda Meir were ardent Zionists, but had little in common with the Haredim or other orthodox Jews. Currently the Likud party is in power and has the fundamentalist Yisrael Beiteinu headed by Avigdor Lieberman as its coalition partner.

Just as Pakistan is almost in the throes of a civil war, the battle between secular liberals and fanatics is on in full swing in Israel. When police in Jerusalem arrested a Haredi woman for allegedly having deliberately starved her three-year old son, ultra orthodox Jews protested in large numbers at what they termed as interference in their community. When municipal authorities in Jerusalem announced plans to keep a car park open in Jerusalem on Saturdays (when orthodox Jews observe the Sabbath), ultra-orthodox Jews protested violently, throwing stones at and clashing with the police.

As any visitor to Israel knows, the country comes to an almost complete halt for Sabbath. Any travel on a Saturday is a nightmare, except in Arab towns such as Nazareth. When I travelled to Israel last year, I had to travel from Nazareth to Tel Aviv via Haifa on a Saturday. I managed to do that through a combination on buses run by Arab bus companies, sheruts and taxis. I remember feeling a bit miffed about the inconvenience. I can only imagine how Israeli citizens who are not orthodox Jewish would feel about this state of affairs.

Orthodox rabbis have produced blacklists of music deemed unfit or non-Kosher for orthodox Jewish years.

One of the things that fascinated me when travelling in Israel was the way the same name had two or three different versions in Hebrew, English and Arabic. Kafer Naum and Capernaum are the same. Jerusalem is Yerushalayim in Hebrew and Al Quds in Arabic. Israel has now announced a plan for using the Hebrew version of place names even for signs in English and Arabic.

One of the most unfair rules followed in Israel is the one which says conversions to Judaism are valid only if they are performed by an orthodox rabbi. Therefore anyone who migrates to Israel must get a certificate of Jewishness from an orthodox rabbi. Unlike Pakistan where a victory for the forces of liberalism may be possible, Israel seems to have put itself in an unalterable trajectory towards greater fundamentalism with this rule. Interestingly in the UK, the court of appeal has recently ruled that a very reputed Jewish school (the Jews’ Free School) was guilty of race discrimination when it refused admission to a student whose mother converted to Judaism in a progressive synagogue and not an orthodox one. The court said that deciding whether one was Jewish or not on the basis of descent is contrary to the Race Relations Act.

Will Israel ever become a land where Arabs and Jews have equal rights not just on paper, where orthodox Jews are forced to keep their fundamentalist beliefs under wraps, where Arabic can be spoken freely? Will Pakistan ever become a nation where its Hindu, Christian and Sikh minorities can practice their religion without having to pretend that Islam is superior? To me, in both cases, the answer seems to be a sad shake of the head.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Short Story: Marketing Tricks

‘Don’t mention the product until I am done,’ Mustafa reminded Ashwin yet again as they waited to be called into the CEO’s office.

‘I won’t,’ Ashwin promised Mustafa as he had done just a few minutes earlier. ‘And you will rub your palms together when you are done?’

‘Yes and then you can start your pitch.’

Ashwin clenched his jaw, gripped the arms of the black leather sofa he was sitting on and nodded his head. The reception area was just about average for a bulk printing firm anywhere in India. The yellow paint had faded, but wasn’t peeling. The carpet was threadbare but had no holes in it. If sofa they were sitting on hadn’t been within firing range of the pedestal fan that stood in a corner, keeping the air in circulation, they would have been sweaty.

The CEO’s secretary came out of the cabin and told them, ‘please go inside. Sir will see you now.’

They both got up and walked into the small cabin which was plastered with flowery wall paper. Ashwin’s eyes searched the room till he located the a/c unit. It was quite small and more importantly, old, Ashwin noted with relief.

Mustafa started off with profuse thanks for having been given an opportunity to see the head of such a reputed organisation. They had heard so much about the CEO, and of course about the company, that it was a pleasure to travel all the way to Nagpur to meet with the CEO in person. They were not there to sell anything, no, they only wanted to pay homage to such a great organisation and fantastic personality.

‘That Toyota Corolla parked under the neem tree, is that yours sir?’

The CEO was forced to admit that it was.

Mustafa admitted to having an uncle who had a worked in Dubai for twenty years and when he came back, he had brought back the Corolla he had driven in Dubai. Mustafa had been allowed to drive that vehicle once. What perfect gears it had, what fantastic suspensions, what splendid acceleration it possessed!

‘Actually the Toyota doesn’t have great acceleration,’ the CEO objected mildly, though he didn’t look too displeased. 'The Jag has much better acceleration. It’s a sports car. Some of those German cars do as well. Like the BMW.’

‘You’re right. What I meant is that the Toyota is so optimum in everything. I’m sure it gives you the sort of mileage a BMW can’t even dream of. It’s my dream to buy a Toyota one day,’ Mustafa declared.

Ashwin easily managed to avoid looking surprised. He had never heard Mustafa voice such an opinion before, but then Mustafa frequently came up with such dreams. Their last meeting was with the CFO of a bank, and Mustafa had told that man that his dream had been to do an MBA in finance, as the CFO had done, but he was too dumb to do that – and had been forced to do a marketing MBA instead.

Next Mustafa took out three sachets of Paan Paraag from his pocket and offered one to the CEO and another to Ashwin.

‘I am addicted to this stuff,’ the CEO told Mustafa and happily took a sachet from him.

How on earth did Mustafa find out that the CEO liked Paan Paraag? Ashwin wondered as he accepted the sachet from Mustafa, popped it open and dumped the contents into his mouth.

Mustafa then turned his attention to a framed photograph kept near the PC.

‘Your son is very cute,’ Mustafa told the CEO who took in the compliment with a narrowing of his eyes. He started to say something, but Mustafa interrupted him to say, ‘really cute. And smart looking. I’m sure he is as intelligent as his father.’

Ashwin looked at the photograph once more. The CEO’s son definitely took after his father, which was a pity since his mother was quite good looking. But no, the baby boy had inherited his father’s very broad forehead, chubby nose and rather sharpish eyes.

‘He must be three?’

Barely had the CEO nodded when Mustafa said, ‘I have a nephew that age. In my opinion, three is the best age for children. They are past the terrible twos and …’

Once again Ashwin got the feeling that if Mustafa didn’t chatter too much, the CEO would have said something important, something he wanted to say.

‘Very, very cute,’ Mustafa concluded his monologue. There was an uncomfortable silence after that.

Mustafa looked at Ashwin and rubbed his palms together.

Ashwin launched his spiel, but the CEO was not really paying attention. Or rather, it was obvious that the CEO didn’t want to pay much attention to them. If at all, the vibes emanating from him suggested that he wanted them out of the office. The warmth that had oozed from the man when he took the Paan Paraag from Mustafa had totally evaporated. Nevertheless, Ashwin put on a brave face and explained to the CEO how he could do much worse that purchase a central a/c system from their firm for his entire office.

They wrapped up rather quickly and came out. The CEO was to revert to them in a week’s time after giving their proposal some thought. Outside the office, Mustafa dialled a number on his mobile. He held the mobile to his ear for a few seconds and shook his head in frustration. ’He never answers the phone!’ he told the world at large, rather than to Ashwin.

‘Who’s this guy?’ Ashwin asked, without really expecting a reply since Mustafa did not always care to elaborate.

‘That’s a chap who works in that office,’ Mustafa said as if by reflex action. It must be the chap who told Mustafa that the CEO liked Paan Paraag, Ashwin deduced.

‘It went off well, didn’t it?’ Mustafa asked Ashwin, before adding, ‘but not too well.’

Ashwin hesitated to give his verdict and Mustafa said, ‘everything was fine till I told him his kid is cute. Now why would he have a problem with it, even if he knows that miserable boy is anything but cute? Unless he has just found out that he was being cuckolded and it’s not his kid. But that’s not possible. That boy is a spitting image of his father.’

Then Mustafa’s mobile rang. Mustafa looked at his mobile and said, ‘it’s him.’

‘Thank you so much for your help,’ Mustafa told his contact, before adding, ‘yes everything went off too well. Your boss said he would confirm in a week’s time.’

Mustafa had a blank expression on his face as he said, ‘yes of course, if we get this contract we will pay you a thousand rupees.’

And good luck with your thousand rupees mate, Ashwin thought with a small smile playing around his lips. It was very warm, though they were standing under a tree that shaded the main gate.

‘We talked about everything under the sun. We had so much in common.’ Ashwin wished Mustafa would hail an auto and then carry on with his conversation once they were inside the auto.

The man at the other end must have said something longwinded since Mustafa was forced to listen for a while. The frown on his forehead grew wider and he listened.

‘We may be invited home to meet his family. He hinted at that. Yes. After the contract is concluded. Yes. To meet his wife and son!’

‘A daughter is it?’

‘You say he has a daughter and a son?’

‘No? Only a daughter?’

There was silence for a while.

‘So that kid in the picture is his daughter, is it?’

‘Ha! I would never have guessed.’

‘Did I say it was a boy? Of course not, I’m careful about such things. I did have an inkling you see.’

When Mustafa hung up, Ashwin quickly turned around so that he didn’t have to meet Mustafa’s eyes.

‘From behind him, Mustafa asked, ‘do you think he’ll hold it against us?’

‘He might not.’ Ashwin was silent for a few moments. He then carefully added, ‘we’ll know in a week’s time, won’t we?’

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Is it Time to Start Boycotting Sri Lanka?

According to this article in the Times of London, yes, it is time to start boycotting Sri Lanka. In a series of articles focussing on Sri Lanka, the Times has alleged that the Sri Lankan government has not taken adequate steps for the welfare of Tamils displaced by the civil war. In what can only be termed a very serious allegation, it is said that 1400 civilians die every week at Manik Farms, the largest of various welfare villages set up to house Tamil civilians displaced from the recent war theatres. Even if the figure of ‘1400’ is shown to be an exaggeration, it is very, very likely that a large number of civilians are dying every day for want of medicines, food and on account of the unsanitary conditions prevailing in this particular ‘welfare village’ and others like it.

When set up, the Sri Lankan government had easily brushed aside claims that the welfare villages are actually concentration camps for Tamil civilians. Its claim that it needed to screen the civilians for the Tigers was could not be rejected outright, though international concern for the civilians held there was always high. There were reports of how Sri Lankan officials did their best to improvise and feed the detainees in the face of scarcity of everywhere. However, it’s been almost two months since the LTTE Suprémo Prabhakaran was killed and the government’s aura of righteousness is fading away and fast.

The Sri Lankan government has announced that it will increase the strength of its already bloated army by 50%, making it 300,000 strong. It has also asked the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to scale down its activities in Sri Lanka. The ICRC has been forced to comply. This is not a positive step.

For one, as this BBC report says, the Red Cross is the only international organisation with a presence in Sri Lanka and if it were to cut back its staff strength considerably, it will drastically curtail independent monitoring of various government run ‘welfare camps’.

More importantly, since Sri Lanka obviously does not have the resources needed to maintain the inmates of the ‘welfare villages’ with even basic amenities, the demand that the Red Cross ought to scale down its activities can only be described as callous and cruel.

It is not only inside the welfare villages that the Sri Lankan government is being found wanting. This article (again from The Times) talks of how the Sri Lankan government is trying to coerce Tamil speaking Muslims, who were forced by the LTTE to leave their homes in Jaffna 18 years ago, to return to their villages immediately. Apparently their rations have been cut drastically so that they have no choice, but to return to Jaffna where they may be targeted by the remnants of the LTTE.

Recently I happened to read Michael Ondaatje’s classic ‘Anil’s Ghost.’ I am an Ondaatje fan, but I hadn’t read this novel till last week, though it is supposed to be one of Ondaatje’s best, if not the best. Anil’s Ghost is the story of Anil Tissera, a Sinhalese girl who goes abroad when very young, studies medicine at Guy’s hospital in London, and later trains as a forensic anthropologist in the US. Anil returns to Sri Lanka after an absence of 15 years in order to carry out an investigation on behalf of a UN agency into the numerous extra-judicial murders taking place in the emerald island. Anil stumbles into ‘Sailor’s skeleton and she struggles to discover his identity and prove that he was picked up by the government’s men and ‘disappeared.’

Ondaatje manages to capture the mental state of a country at war, where everyone looks across his or her shoulder, where fear stalks the land, where the life of a man who speaks out against the government is worth nothing. There are Tamil rebels and JVP fighters in Ondaatje’s book, and of course government forces who carry out extra-judicial killings. Somehow the men doing the government’s dirty work appear to be much more nasty and cruel than both groups of rebels. It is a disturbing picture, one that will not easily go away from any reader’s mind. I am sure that Ondaatje has accurately captured the state of Sri Lanka, which in all probability exists even now.

Should the international community boycott Sri Lanka as advocated by the Times?

No, I don’t think so. Not yet anyway. The Sri Lankan government is not the only government to win a war and be unprepared for the ensuing peace. The United States and its allies were caught with their pants down in Iraq after they had comprehensively defeated Saddam’s forces. However, the United States and the rest of the coalition did mobilise resources and make an effort to make up for their lapse, though it hasn’t been a resounding success. The Sri Lankan government has only a fraction of the resources that the United States has and ought to be given a bit more time to prove its credentials. However, if matters don’t improve for the hapless people struck in the welfare camps very soon, Sri Lanka may soon find itself at the wrong end of international scorn and anger.

The only reason why the Sri Lankan government received so much support in its fight against the LTTE was because the LTTE was so much nastier than the Sri Lankan government, which is, all said and done, a democratically elected government. So many unpardonable unpardonable crimes were committed by the government’s men during the civil war, acts like Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder and the killings of so many journalists and activists. The international community (I include myself in this community) overlooked all that. Now that the LTTE is no more, the Sri Lankan government will find that the universe is no longer so tolerant.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

I Don’t Have A Surname. Do You?

Recently a friend of mine who finished a Masters degree from a prestigious university in the UK received an offer of employment from a firm that designed oil drilling equipment. One of the conditions of the offer was that my friend had to produce copies of his A Level, undergraduate and post graduate degree certificates. Within a day of emailing scanned copies of the certificates, my friend received a call from his future employer’s HR department which wanted him to explain why the name on his A Level and undergraduate certificates was different from the one on his passport and post certificates.

My friend hails from a town in southern India and his name is Srinivas. To use a turn of phrase used very often by western newspapers, like many others in southern India, my friend has only one name. It’s Srinivas. Period. His school records mention his name as R. Srinivas, the patronymic ‘R’ in front denoting his father’s name ‘Ramaswamy’. When the time came for Srinivas to travel to the UK for his higher studies, he applied for a passport. An Indian passport application form requires all applicants to have a ‘Given Name’ and a Surname’ and so Srinivas expanded his name ‘R. Srinivas’ to read as ‘Ramaswamy Srinivas’. When Srinivas reached the UK, he entered his name as ‘Ramaswamy Srinivas’ in his university records. People started calling him by his new first name, ‘Ramaswamy’. When they wanted to become formal, they would call him Mr. Srinivas.

To cut a long story short, it took Srinivas a great deal of effort to convince his new employer that he was both R. Srinivas as well as Ramaswamy Srinivas.

For the Christians of Kerala, names are usually a jumble of biblical and/or Indian names thrown together. The Indian name might be a given name or the family name. Not all names have family names on record (as in my case, which I am not too unhappy about since my family name ‘Purayidathil’ can be a mouthful) and when it makes an appearance, the family name may be at the beginning of the name. To use an example, the Indian defence minister A.K. Antony’s name may be expanded as “Arakkaparambil Kurian Antony.” The family name is “Arakkaparambil” and it appears at the beginning of the name whilst the Christian name Antony appears at the end. ‘Kurian’ is Malayalam for ‘Cyriac’ and takes middle stage. According to this Indian government website, A. K. Antony’s father was Arakkaparambil Kurian Pillai. However, in the case of A. K. Antony’s two sons, the family name “Arakkaparambil” does not make an appearance at all and the boys are named “Anil Kurien Antony” and “Ajith Paul Antony”.

To use another famous person as an example, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu has only one name (Karunanidhi) but has three wives and a number of children. The Patronymic ‘M’ is installed in the beginning of the name to denote Karunanidhi’s father’s name ‘Muthuvel.’ All of Karunanidhi’s sons sport the initials M.K - M. K. Stalin, M.K Azhagiri etc.

It is not only Indians from Southern India who suffer from a need to have surnames. For a decade or so until 2007, Canada operated a rule which prohibited the use of ‘Singh’ or ‘Kaur’ as surnames by individuals applying to migrate to Canada. The rationale behind such a rule was that there were too many Singhs and Kaurs in Canada and it was well neigh impossible to distinguish between them. Patel is supposed to be one of the most common surnames in the UK, even though ethnic Indians form only 1.8% of the British population and Gujaratis are outnumbered by Punjabis two to one.

The fact of the matter is that neither Singh nor Kaur nor Patel is a surname, as it is understood in the West. No, they are community names, as are names like Jains, Goels, Chopras, Mukherjees, Nairs, Menons or Sinhas. Most Indians don’t have surnames. Period.

It is not only Indians who don’t have surnames. Arabs too don’t have surnames. Instead, they have a chain of names and a father’s last name may not be the same as a son’s last name.

The Chinese have family names, but the family name comes first followed by the given name. Of course, the Arabs and Chinese, just like the Indians, tamper with their names so that they fit western templates.

Japanese names follow the western format since Japanese rulers have over the years forced their people to adhere to a strict set of rules for naming children. Thailand forced people to adopt a surname in 1913 and every family is expected to have a unique surname. It is also common for Thais to change their surnames frequently.

As the world becomes more inclusive and tolerant, I think it is high time countries all over the world ditched the notion that every name should consist of a surname and a given name. Every individual should be entitled to have a name of his or her own choice. Everyone must write their names in full and not have to break it up into given names and surnames. Forcing a person to change his or her name or tamper with it is a gross assault on the victim’s individuality.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Should Everything Be So Spic And Span And Pretty?

The other day while travelling by train, a lady sitting next to me started complaining (to the man she was travelling with) how dirty the train was. ‘Why don’t the cleaners do a better job?’ she asked.

To me, the train didn’t seem to be particularly dirty. True there were a few specks of dust on the windows and the seats, but there wasn’t any dirt that was visible to my eye. The bins were not overflowing, rather they had just been emptied, and there was no litter scattered on the floor. Did the lady expect the cleaners to vacuum the windows and the seats during the thirty minutes or so when the train rested at London Waterloo before starting its journey back to Bournemouth? I wondered.

The lady supplied the answer to my thoughts when she told her travel companion, ‘they ought to spray everything with disinfectant at least every alternate day.’

I think the woman’s travel companion was as much fussed about cleanliness as I was, and he gave the woman a tolerant and amused smile. I had visions of travelling in a train where everything was spotlessly clean and smelt of anti-bacterial disinfectant, like a hospital ward. I shook my head to get rid of that image. I much rather have a little bit of dust and dirt around me rather than the smell of disinfectant in my nostrils. Surely not all bacteria are harmful? Some of the microbes that are killed off by spraying disinfectants are bound to be the useful ones.

The woman’s comments had me thinking. Are we, at least in parts of the world which have achieved a relative degree of economic prosperity, moving towards unnecessary cleanliness? The sort of nitpicky and fussy cleanliness that only damages the environment and causes global warming? No, I am not a scientist and don’t have technical knowledge of chemicals, but I do know that spraying disinfectants causes global warming. No, don’t ask me how, but I know.

I have friends (mainly English) who will not drink water from a tap, even though tap water is potable almost everywhere here. In the almost seven years I have lived in England, I have always drunk tap water and have never suffered as a result of it. If it were up to me, I’d ban bottled water wherever potable water is freely available, as Bundanoon, a rural Australian town has recently done.

I know of people who will always carry tissues with them just in case they are in a ‘dirty’ place. I know of one chap who avoids shaking hands with people as much as he can just in case they pass on something dirty.

There are lot more allergies in the developed world than in the third world. Even in the ‘west’, people have allergies that were unheard of till thirty years ago. ‘Nut allergy’ is so very common in the UK and other western countries that practically all food products contain a warning regarding this. Most people hadn’t heard of this allergy till a few decades ago.

There was this interesting study conducted in what was once East Germany, which showed that prior to unification with West Germany, East Germans had lower rates of allergies. Apparently after the merger, East Germany became cleaner and neater and less polluted and the people living there consequently became a lot more finicky, which caused an increase in allergies.

It is a proven fact that exposing children to dogs, cats and other animals at a young age reduces their chances of developing common allergies.

Within the developed world, the Japanese are supposed to be the fussiest of the lot, when it comes to (unnecessary) cleanliness.

Most flats in the west prohibit residents from hanging their washing on balconies. In the Australian state of New South Wales, one may even end up in jail. It is a fact that flats cease to look very smart if festooned with washing like a Christmas tree. But in a cold climate, it takes an unbelievable amount of electricity to tumble dry clothes. Many people who live in flats dry their clothes on stands kept in front of radiators, a practice which increases humidity inside the flat drastically.

However, there are certain aspects of hygiene and cleanliness where the West ought to be emulated by the developing world, even if it adds to gaia’s burden. For example, in all the ‘developed’ countries, people dispose of their garbage in plastic garbage bags, which usually aren’t biodegradable. The garbage is collected in special vans or trucks that take them to landfills or in some cases to recycling centres. In most developing countries, garbage is left in the open, is picked up by trucks or manual collectors, who carry it away exposed to the elements and dump in at vacant sites. In the developed world, the use of garbage bags and special collection trucks does add to the damage cause to the environment. However, I would say that such use is justified since it reduces the spread of disease. One only has to see the poor state of garbage collection and disposal in the third world to realise how important it is to collect and dispose of garbage in a hygienic manner. Of course, it would be great if bio-degradable garbage bags that are not too expensive could be made available all over the world.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Short Story: The Best of Both Worlds

Mini saw the grin on Abhilash’s face and immediately said, ‘don’t spend the whole weekend playing. Try and study a bit. You have an exam next week.’ She resume powdering Abhilash’s face and when she was finished, she patted his shirt to remove the few specks of talcum powder that had flown down from his face and landed on the light blue fabric of his shirt.

‘But the test is only next Thursday! Why should I start studying now? And it’s only a class test.’

‘Because you must. Because I said so. Just do it, or you may fail the test.’

Mini gave Abhilash’s belt a tug so that the buckle would be positioned perfectly in the centre. However, she must have tugged a mite too hard since the belt moved too much to the right and had to be moved back.

‘Ouch! No, I won’t. I know most of Chapter Three anyway.’

‘Don’t you have both Chapter Three and Chapter Four?’

‘Yes, but Chapter Four is very small and ..’

‘Revise them both once. At least once. Okay? Make your Daddy sit with you when you revise.’

‘But Daddy says we should only have fun when I am with him.’

‘Don’t you have fun when you are with me?’

‘Yes, I do Mummy!’ Abhilash gave his mother a hug, which Mini grudgingly accepted.

Mini was about to say, ‘but you like your Daddy better, but she stopped herself just in time.

‘Mummy, if I get full marks in the test, will you buy me a mobile?

‘No, you are only ten. Ten year olds don’t need mobiles.’

‘What if I get the third rank in the half-yearly exam?’

‘No. If you come first, I’ll buy you one.’

‘But I won’t get first rank!’ Abhilash wailed. There’s Renju who is so clever and there’s Jincy P. Kuruvila and …’

Mini’s mother breezed into the room, ‘Is Abhilash ready yet? He might as well leave before it gets dark.’

‘Is Jobin here yet?’

‘Yes, he got back ages ago.’

‘Normally he doesn’t get back from the market so quickly.’

‘Yes, but today he wants to go for a movie with his family after he drops off Abhilash.’

Mini grunted to show her displeasure.

‘Abhilash, tell your Daddy to cut down on the liquor.’

‘But Daddy has stopped drinking.’ Abhilash looked at his grandmother’s face to see if she believed him. ‘Yes, since last Christmas, he hasn’t touched a drop.’

‘That’s what he tells you. Won’t I know better? That man won’t change.’

‘Mama, drop it,’ Mini admonished her mother.

Abhilash picked up the small suitcase that he was to carry with him.

‘See, he is raring to go,’ Mini told her mother. ‘Don’t be in such a hurry,’ she added to Abhilash.

‘Ammachi said I should get there before dark. That’s why I was in a hurry.’ Abhilash put the suitcase down and waited for the two adults to make up their minds.

Ammachi took a deep breath and Mini clenched her teeth, though Abhilash’s monthly trips to Panampally Nagar to visit his father had been going on for almost a year.

‘He might as well go,’ Mini said. ‘It will get dark pretty soon.’ She added.

Mini’s mother was less forgiving. ‘I hope they give him dinner when he gets there. ‘Are you feeling hungry?’ she asked Abhilash.

‘No. Not at all,’ Abhilash replied, trying to hide his anxiety.’

‘Is mon ready?’ Jobin’s booming voice could be heard from the courtyard. Jobin was almost fifty and only Mini’s father had the guts to reproach him.

In the absence of any injunction from his mother or grandmother, Abhilash picked up his suitcase which was propped against the light green wall. ‘Mummy, I will come back before it gets dark on Sunday,’ he told his mother and walked out, trying hard not to put a spring in his step.

He would be at VeegaLand tomorrow!

Forty minutes later, he was knocking on the door of his father’s bungalow at Panampally Nagar.

Forty one minutes later, he was enclosed in a bear hug, his father smelling of something nice, something he would definitely drink when he was older.

‘Moné, you look so very thin,’ his father’s mother said. ‘Don’t they give you enough to eat?’

‘They do Ammachi.’ Abhilash turned around whilst still inside his father’s bear hug so that he could meet his grandmother’s eyes.

‘Why did you bring that suitcase? Don’t you have enough clothes here?’

‘Daddy your paunch is even bigger.’ Abhilash got out of the hug and wrapped his arms around his father’s tummy, which couldn’t be encompassed with his two hands.

‘Yes, it is,’ his Daddy cheerfully admitted.

‘You are going to stay here forever, aren’t you?’ his grandmother asked.

Abhilash smiled back at her.

‘Give him something to eat,’ Abhilash’s Daddy commanded his grandmother.’

‘Yes, let me do that. Here give me your suitcase.’

‘Where is Hannah?’

‘Where else? She is in front of the TV.’

Abhilash’s father put him down and Abhilash ran upstairs to the second drawing room where the TV was always on. Unlike the TV at his own place, which he could switch on only after he finished a certain amount of homework, depending on the mood swings of his mother.

As expected, Hannah was watching TV, some boring girlie cartoon that Abhilash would never watch if the remote control were in his power.

‘Ammae,’ Hannah called out and almost left the room, overcome by a sudden bout of shyness. Abhilash wished she would relinquish the remote, but she didn’t. If anything, her fingers tightened her hold on the remote. There was another TV in his father’s bedroom, but it was rather small and he sensed that his father didn’t really want him watching it, even if he never said anything when he occasionally did.

The next day his Daddy took Hannah and him to VeegaLand as promised during his last visit. They had to make the most of Saturday, since Sunday would be a washout. They would have to go to church in the morning and that would take up the best part of the day. He was expected to get back to his Mummy before sunset, though the court order said nothing of that sort, he knew for sure.

For some reason, Hannah’s parents, Jeboy uncle and Vimala Auntie decided to tag along when they went to Veegaland.

He had been to Veegaland before many times and he knew every ride and every nook and corner very well. May be he ought to have demanded something else, he felt. May be he should have asked that he be taken to that resort at Boulgatti. Never mind, there would be other weekends with his father, he consoled himself.

Vimala Auntie was someone who knew a lot about medicines, though she was not a doctor or anything. She had a chest full of medicines, which she happily dispensed to all and sundry along with a volley of advice, if they cared to listen.

Abhilash made the mistake of sneezing once when standing close to Vimala Auntie. They were about to get into a ride, one which ended with a splash in a pool of water.

‘There, he has got a cold,’ she told Abhilash’s father. ‘I don’t think he should take any of the water rides.’

‘Nonsense, my son doesn’t have a cold. He just sneezed once.’

‘Oh, let him be,’ Jeboy uncle also chipped in. ‘A single sneeze never hurt anybody.’

That almost settled the matter and they got into the queue for the ride. But then, Abhilash sneezed again.

‘There, I told you,’ Vimala Auntie said. ‘Please let’s not take this ride,’ she beseeched Jeboy uncle and Abhilash’s father. ‘I have a strip of Coldarin with me. I’ll give one to Abhilash right away.’

‘May be we shouldn’t,’ Abhilash’s father agreed. ‘Abhilash’s let’s not do this ride. Let’s find something else to do.’

But Abhilash loved the water so much and didn’t want to give in so easily. ‘But Daddy, Mummy always lets me play in the rain. Last week it rained and I went out and played for an hour! Mummy thinks it makes me stronger. And if I catch a cold, she doesn’t give me any medicines!’ The last bit was addressed to Vimala Auntie.

Abhilash’s father was silent for a few seconds. Jeboy uncle looked down, as if he were embarrassed. Vimala Auntie looked angry. But Abhilash didn’t care.

‘Please Daddy, I won’t be back here for a long time,’ Abhilash pressed home his advantage.

‘Fine,’ his father relented. ‘In any event, you can come back here next month as well.’

Abhilash wasn’t sure if he wanted to come here when he had his next visit, but he didn’t reject the promise out of hand. He might feel like visiting Veegaland next month, who knew.

‘Take a Coldarin before you go. At least, the cold won’t get worse.’

Abhilash accepted the Coldarin and swallowed it with some water from the bottle his father had in his backpack.

That evening, they had dinner at Morsels. When they got home, his Daddy said, ‘I have a surprise for you. Guess what?’

‘A cricket set.’


Abhilash now knew that it had to be either a mobile or the model aeroplane. These were the only pending items that deserved the dignity of a ‘surprise’. He looked at his father. Generally he could make out what was coming from the gleam in his eyes. His father was really excited. It had to be the mobile.

‘The model aeroplane?’ Abhilash asked tentatively.

‘No,’ his father sang out and waited for Abhilash to make another guess.

‘A pair of jeans?’ There was a stretch of four months when everything time Abhilash turned up, he got a pair of jeans. It had taken him a while to gently move his father from his jeans fixation to something else.

‘No, not a pair of jeans.’ His father’s eyes never lost their gleam, until they did actually stop gleaming. ‘You do have enough clothes don’t you?’ The intense dark eyes were now full of concern.

‘Yes Daddy I do. Lots of clothes.’ It was a fact. He had a dozen uncles and aunts on each side of the family and they all made it a point to buy his clothes, as if worried that he might be naked on account of his parents’ divorce.

‘I’ve got you a Nokia mobile phone!’ his father intoned. Abhilash jumped with joy that was almost entirely genuine. A few months of lobbying and subtle hinting had finally paid off.

Abhilash paid close attention as his father showed him how his mobile worked. Of course, he had a pretty good idea, having paid close attention to the phone used by his mother, which was a Motorola.

‘Let me save your number Daddy,’ Abhilash said as soon as he managed to prise the phone from his father.

Abhilash knew his father’s mobile number by heart. ‘94471… Now I can call you from school everyday,’ he confirmed to his father.

‘Don’t get into trouble calling me,’ he father cautioned him.

‘No, I won’t.’

‘Do any of your friends have a mobile phone?’ his father asked.

Abhilash hid his irritation at being asked the same question again. ‘Geojit does, but it’s not a new phone. Preetha also has a used phone.’

‘So you will be the first one in your class to have a brand new mobile phone?’

‘Yes Daddy. Abhilash gave his father another hug.’

Sunday was a washout as Abhilash knew it would be. He took a short nap after lunch and woke up at around four. He was to leave at five so that he would be at his mother’s home before six.

His grandmother sat glumly on a rocking chair, rocking herself slowly. On the other hand, his father was a bundle of nervous energy, which he tried to dissipate by walking up and down. Every few minutes, he would ask Abhilash some inane question, which Abhilash tried to answer as best as he could.

‘Do you want to take guitar classes?’

‘I do.’

‘Why won’t your Mummy let you do that?’

‘She says I will not study if I go for guitar classes twice a week.’

‘Why can’t you take those lessons when you are with me?’

‘Because I must take those lessons at least once a week. Else, there is no point.’

‘So why can’t you… Okay, okay.. Shall I speak to your mother? No, I won’t… there’s no point. Why don’t you ask her yourself?’

‘I did.’

‘And what did she say?’

Abhilash wanted to scream at his father. Instead, he mustered together the last vestiges of his patience and said, ‘she said No. She thinks I will neglect my studies if I go for those classes.’

‘I can give you the fees for those classes. No, that won’t help.’

Finally his Jeboy uncle and Vimala Auntie came into the drawing room (they had been keeping away till then) and took charge.

‘He grows taller each time we see him. Soon he will be taller than his father.’

His father and grandmother were silent since agreement would mean that he was being fed properly by his mother.

‘Do you need anything?’ Vimala Auntie asked him.

Nothing! Abhilash shrugged his shoulders. Departure was always a touchy issue and there was little he could do to make it easier for anybody. If only the adults could be pragmatic about things like this instead of lugging so much excess baggage around!

Finally, Kochamma the maid who had been with the household for over thirty years announced that tea was served.

‘I don’t want any tea,’ Ammachi announced wiping away a tear.

Abhilash was embarrassed. He always felt that way when any grown-up cried. It was the same with his maternal Ammachi who broke into tears every now and then when discussing her daughter’s predicament.

Never mind Ammae, let’s all have tea,’ Jeboy uncle declared.

They trooped into the dining room and took their places. There were mutton puffs, banana chips, pancakes, avalose undas, shortbreads and a big bunch of small yellow plantains.

Abhilash was hungry and he dug in with vigour. His father, Jeboy uncle and Vimala Auntie sat around nibbling.

‘Where’s Hannah?’ Abhilash asked, in between mouthfuls.

‘She’s still sleeping.’ Vimala Auntie told him. Abhilash was irritated. Why couldn’t Hannah have the grace to wake up and say goodbye?

‘Wake her up!’ he told Vimala Auntie.

‘She fell asleep at three thirty. Let her sleep for some more time,’ Jeboy uncle replied good humouredly.

Abhilash stopped eating. He was almost full, but if Hannah had been brought down to say good bye, he would have eaten a bit more.

‘Have you had enough?’

‘Yes,’ he said sulkily.

‘What’s the matter?’ his father.

‘I don’t want to go back Daddy!’ Abhilash burst into tears at that. He felt a bit guilty for a very brief while. No, he hadn’t done anything wrong. Admitting that he was bugged with Hannah for not being awake would have sounded very childish.

His father hugged him, put his down and walked out of the room for a few minutes. Abhilash knew he was crying and felt very bad. Vimala Auntie wiped away a tear. Even Kochamma who was standing in a corner started to sob. Jeboy uncle was the only dry-eyed person in that room.

‘Ten minutes to five. You might as well say goodbye to everyone,’ Jeboy uncle told him.

Abhilash washed his hands in the washbasin that stood in a corner and went to the drawing room where Ammachi was still rocking herself on the rocking chair.

‘Ammachi, I am leaving.’

‘Moné, take care of yourself. Study well. Don’t …’ The rest of Ammachi’s advice was lost in a sudden outbreak of tears.

Abhilash turned on his heels and went back to the dining room. Thankfully Jeboy uncle made the rest of the good byes easier.

‘Give your Daddy a hug. Yes, there, now a kiss for Vimala Auntie. Good. A hug for me.’

Abhilash did particularly want to hug Jeboy uncle since he didn’t seem to be as much affected by his departure as the others were. Nevertheless he hugged Jeboy uncle and he was done.

As expected, his Dad pressed a wad of notes into his pocket. Yes, he knew his father paid his mother a fixed amount of money every month for his upkeep, but this pocket money was strictly a deal between them.

Finally Abhilash was in the car. As the car started moving, he quickly waved goodbye to his father and the others and settled down. They turned a corner and he could no longer see his Daddy’s house. He took out the wad of notes from his pocket and counted them. The usual one thousand rupees in hundred rupee notes. He put five hundred rupees back into his shirt’s pocket and the rest into his trousers’ pocket. His mother expected him to be given some pocket money and she would ask him what he got and take it from him. He would part with the money in his shirt’s pocket. The balance would be added to the pile he hid in the cavity he had dug out in the Rabbit.

Abhilash took out his new mobile phone. His father had assured him that he needn’t worry about the bill, which would be sent to his father. The SIM was in his father’s name anyway.

He dialled Shibu’s home number and got a message that suggested that he had the wrong number. He dialled again and got the same result. Ah! He had to add Kochi’s STD code before dialling the number, didn’t he? 0484… he dialled and soon Shibu’s mother answered the phone.

‘Is Shibu at home?’

‘Shibu? Do you know how I am calling you?’

By the time he hung up, Abhilash had made Shibu very jealous. He then dialled Junaid. Unfortunately Junaid was not at home, Junaid’s mother informed him.

‘Are you acting in the play as well?’ Junaid’s mother asked him.

Oh yes, he was.

Junaid’s mother knew all about the play. She was so much looking forward to seeing the play when it was staged in around six week’s time.

Should he invite his father to come and watch his play? If he did, his mother would be mighty bugged. If he didn’t, his father would be very sad. Not angry, but sad. Later year, he had wanted to invite his father to his school for Sports Day, but his mother had thrown such a big tantrum that he hadn’t.

Sports Day was no big deal. He was not particularly good at any sport and he hadn’t won any prizes. He knew he wouldn’t. But the play was different. He had the second most important role and he had never acted in a play before. His father would be thrilled to bits if only he knew. He almost broke down as he imagined how hurt his father would be if he ever came to knew. But he resisted the tears. His father was no saint. Didn’t he hit his mother so often when they all lived together? Of course, his mother had once flung a dish full of curry at his father. And his father’s mother used to crib every time his mother went out. His mother had once called his father a bastard. Some of the memories were a bit vague, but Abhilash had no doubt that they were all a bunch of nasty idiots who deserved no better.

He fished the mobile out of his pocket and dialled Sanjiv’s number.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The Roma’s Indian Origins

I have blogged about the Roma in the past. The BBC has this very interesting report on the Indian origins of the Roma.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Book Review - The Wish Maker by Ali Sethi

I have just finished reading The Wish Maker and the sights, sounds and smells of upper-middle class Pakistan are still with me. Though I am nowhere near Pakistan, I can still see around me the crowded thoroughfares of Lahore. If twenty-four year old Ali Sethi’s main objective was to convey to his readers an idea of what life is like for Pakistanis of his class and ilk, he has succeeded admirably.

Having spent all his life in Pakistan, except for a brief holiday to Spain, Sethi’s protagonist Zaki Shirazi goes to the US for his higher studies. The novel starts with Zaki’s return to Lahore from the US for his cousin Samar Api’s wedding. Actually Samar Api is not his cousin, she’s his father’s first cousin and consequently his aunt. However, Samar is generous enough to treat him as a cousin most of the time, though occasionally she reminds him otherwise.

Zaki’s father was an airforce pilot who died in an accident when Samar was ‘minus two months old’. Zaki is brought up by his mother Zakia who is a journalist and a political activist. Surrounded by women, his mother, his paternal grandmother – Daadi, the domestic help Naseem and Samar Api, Zaki has an unusual childhood. For example, he gets to accompany his mother to a political protest and they end up spending the night in police custody. Zaki is sent to a posh school where he makes some friends and even tries to get picked (by his teachers) as a class monitor. There is a surprising amount of politicking, buttering up and back stabbing involved in getting picked as the class monitor. School politics almost mirrors the politics played by adults in the big, bad world outside. Zaki gets into trouble once in a while. What child doesn’t? Sethi does a very good job describing Zaki’s school life. I’ll leave it to you to read the book and find out more for yourself.

Zaki’s cousin Samar Api is an Amitabh Bachchan fan and when she has an affair, she is looking for her Amitabh. When Zaki returns to Pakistan for Samar’s wedding, he knows that the London educated lawyer she’s marrying is her Amitabh.

By way of flashbacks and otherwise, Sethi tells us the story of three generations of Pakistanis. We are shown Papu and Mabi, his maternal grandparents. Papu migrated to Pakistan from his ancestral home in India and he ends up as the General Manager of a posh hotel. Mabi is the hostess of a Chinese restaurant inside the hotel. We get to know how Zaki’s parents met. We are shown the (decadent?) lifestyles of some of Zaki’s cousins. As I have mentioned earlier, one gets to smell the real Pakistan, albeit from an upper class balcony.

Political events in Pakistan form the backdrop to this story. One gets bits of commentary on everything from the Partition, the various coups that took place in Pakistan, Zulfikar Bhutto’s execution, Benazir Bhutto’s election etc.

Sethi’s language is pretty straight forward and matter of fact, except when he makes a conscious effort to use poetic language. This happens only in a few paragraphs and they stand out. No, I’m not saying they don’t gel with the rest of the book, but they do stand out.

All in all, I would definitely recommend this book, though I am sure that Sethi’s best is yet to come.


I have a few grumbles about the book. My main crib is that Zaki’s relationship with Samar Api is not covered as well as it ought to be. After Zaki lands in Lahore for Samar Api’s wedding, he doesn’t go and meet her and the reader doesn’t meet her either, except when the wedding actually takes place. You are told that Zaki and Samar are very close, but you see Zaki going around town with his other cousins, and Samar doesn’t make an appearance for a while. In fact, the only time Zaki and Samar are shown to be close and talking and exchanging secrets is when they are both very young and they have a few mutual friends. After Zaki is moved to a posh school, Samar Api sort of disappears. Samar Api doesn’t have a presence in a large swathe of the book.

My only other point of dispute with Sethi, and I am nitpicking here, is the scene which takes place in the days just after the US started to help the Mujahideen fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Zaki’s mother, the political activist, is shown telling a retired Brigadier that the US and Pakistan were making a mistake by helping the Afghan fighters. Just before she does that, a visiting American intellectual and a friend of Zakia, declares that the blowback (from helping the Mujahideen) would be costly. If Sethi didn’t have the benefit of hindsight, I doubt if he could have written anything of this sort. Just after the Soviet invasion, I don’t think there were any Americans or Pakistanis worrying about the “blowback” from helping the Mujahideen. In those days, the only serious dangers the world faced came with a capital C – Capitalism and Communism, depending on whose side you were on. Religious fundamentalism was not a major problem. Many Arab nations such as Egypt were going through a phase of Arab nationalism and socialism.

I’m sure we’ll get to read a lot more of Sethi in the days to come.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Runaway Spanish Judges To Be Reined In

The International Court of Justice at The Hague (“ICJ”) has a dual role. As stated on its website, the ICJ acts as a world court and decides, in accordance with international law, disputes of a legal nature that are submitted to it by member States. It also gives advisory opinions on legal questions at the request of organs of the United Nations, such as the Security Council or specialised agencies authorised to make such a request.

In 2002, an International Criminal Court (“ICC”) was set up at The Hague as a permanent body for prosecuting individuals for crimes against humanity, genocide etc. So far 108 countries have signed the Rome Treaty that gave rise to the ICC. India and China have not signed up to the ICC. Israel and the United States became parties to this treaty (after some hesitation), but later withdrew from it. The ICC can only prosecute crimes committed on the territory of signatory states and by individuals who are citizens of a signatory state.

However, since over ten years, a third entity has been playing a role on global stage in the field of international justice. Spain’s National Criminal Court, the Audiencia Nacional, started to intervene in cases involving international human rights abuses over a decade ago. According to this BBC report, the Audiencia Nacional has been happily hearing and disposing cases involving human rights abuses from places as far afield as Guatemala, Rwanda, Chile, Tibet, Gaza and Guantanamo. No, not all cases have a Spanish link and the only justification for hearing such cases seems to be that they involve human rights violations or abuses of such a grave nature that they give raise to ‘universal jurisdiction’ and any court in the world would be justified in trying them. The only bar to the Audiencia Nacional trying a case is the knowledge that another court elsewhere is already on that case.

The main difference between the Audiencia Nacional and the ICJ is that ordinary mortals cannot take a dispute to the ICJ, whilst the Audiencia Nacional happily caters to individuals who are unable to obtain redress in their home states. As for the ICC, its jurisdiction is restricted to member states and it can only try offences committed after 1 July 2002 (when the Rome Treaty came into force) or the date when the relevant member state signed up to the Rome Treaty, which ever is later. If Israel were to sign up to this treaty in 2010, Israeli nationals cannot be tried for their actions during the January 2009 invasion of the Gaza Strip.

The most spectacular international case tried by the Audiencia Nacional was that of General Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator. Based on an arrest warrant issued by the Audiencia Nacional, General Pinochet was arrested in the UK where he was undergoing medical treatment and placed under house arrest. After a lengthy court battle, he was released on medical grounds. On his return to Chile, he was indicted and another series of trials ensured. Before any conviction could be made, General Pinochet died on 10 December 2006. Even though General Pinochet was not formally punished, the international arrest warrant issued by the Audiencia Nacional almost delivered justice to his numerous victims.

Currently the Audiencia Nacional is considering action against Bush’s advisors who helped establish the legal basis for waterboarding and other interrogation tactics used at Guantanamo Bay. Also visible on the cross hairs are Israeli politicians and generals for their actions in the occupied territories during the recent invasion of Gaza and Chinese officials for alleged human rights violations in Tibet.

One of the reasons why the Audiencia Nacional is so much admired and feared is that many dictators and other nasty people like to travel to Europe for some decent R&R after having carried out various excesses back home. The threat of a warrant from the Audiencia Nacional has forced many a dictator to cancel his European travel plans.

The Spanish government has not been very happy with the actions of the Audiencia Nacional which are obviously not designed to improve Spanish relations with powerful and mighty states such as the United States and China. From time to time, the Spanish public prosecutor has tried to rein in the judges at the Audiencia Nacional, without much success. Therefore, it came as no bolt from the blue when the Spanish government formally took steps to curtail the Audiencia Nacional which not surprisingly has been the darling of human rights activists worldwide. The Spanish Parliament, the Cortes Generales, is all set to pass a law which will prevent Spanish courts from trying cases unless either the perpetrators or the victims are Spanish or there is some other link to Spain.

For various reasons, I’m glad that the Spanish government is clamping down on the judges at the Audiencia Nacional. My main reason is that I don’t like the idea of Spain (or any other country for that matter) taking on the role of a globo-cop. Spain has one of the worst records among the various colonial powers, it was an ally of Nazi Germany (though it didn’t take part in the Second World War) and had a horrible human rights record until General Franco’s death in 1975. It is only in the last thirty years or so that Spain, like most other Western powers, cleaned up its act. Memories of General Franco’s atrocities are still afresh and it rankles a bit when Spain unilaterally takes on the role of global arbitrator.

It is very tempting to saying that courts anywhere in the world ought to be entitled to try grave violations of human rights under ‘universal jurisdiction.’ However, despite claims by the judges at the Audiencia Nacional, we are yet to evolve a universally acceptable standard for ‘grave violations of human rights’. A judge in Saudi Arabia may decide that the CEO of a Scottish brewery is guilty of the worst form of abuse (by encouraging drinking) whilst a judge in Jakarta may rule that employees of an NGO working for Gay rights ought to be hanged. Further, if courts all over the world start trying alleged human rights violations, it is only a matter of time before biases start creeping in. Courts in Colombo may rule that fund raisers for the LTTE are all guilty of abetting the worst form of human rights violations, whilst Malaysian judges will not be sympathetic to companies supplying weapons to Israel.

Courts in Belgium used subscribe to the theory of universal jurisdiction on account of a 1993 law which purported to give Belgian courts jurisdiction over offences committed anywhere in the world if they are grave enough and contrary to basic human values. However, after the ICC came into existence in 2002, Belgium modified its laws and drastically reduced the scope of universal jurisdiction wielded by its courts.

Unlike Belgium, Spanish courts adopted the principle of universal jurisdiction without a specific legislation. Now it looks like they will have to be forced by the Cortes Generales to give up the power they took on ten years ago without statutory authority.