Thursday, 29 April 2010

Is The UK Likely To Break-Up After The May 6 Elections?

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly known as United Kingdom or just UK, consists of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each of these regions is a sub-nationality with its own flag, saint and sub-culture. Scotland is much autonomous than the other regions and has a Parliament in Edinburgh headed by a First Minister. Northern Ireland has an Assembly at Stormont in Belfast which has the power to legislate on a number of issues. Wales too enjoys a fair degree of autonomy and in Wales, the Welsh language has the same status as English. Wales’s bickering with the UK is nothing compared to Scotland. Even though the UK as a whole shares the same culture, the Scottish National Party has raised the slogan of independence and won some degree of support (may be 30%) from the Scots. However, the majority of the people in Scotland do not support the demand for independence. In a sense, the least autonomous region within the UK is England, since MPs from other regions elected to the British Parliament are involved in making decisions for England.

The UK goes to the polls on 6 May. It is predicted that the elections may throw up a hung Parliament. Because the UK follows a first-past-the-post system, parties do not win seats in proportion to their share of the total vote. For example, in the 2005 elections, Labour won 36.1% of the vote and had 349 seats. The Conservatives won 33.2% of the vote and had 210 seats. The Liberal Democrats won 22.6% of the total vote but had only 62 seats in Parliament. It hardly needs to be stated that the first-past-the-post system favours the large parties and puts smaller parties at a disadvantage. Labour is the biggest beneficiary of this system and so has had little inclination to change it. Neither are the Conservatives minded to modify the rules. In the upcoming elections, YouGov predicts that the Conservatives will win 33% of the total votes, Labour 29% and the Liberal Democrats 28%. However, Labour is still likely to have the most seats in Parliaments – predicted to be 280 seats, while the Lib Dems with 28% of the total vote will only have 94 seats.

Since no single party will have a majority in Parliament, a coalition government is expected to be formed. This situation has placed the Lib Dems in the role of a king maker. All eyes are on Nick Clegg to see which party he will support. Will the Lib Dems support the Labour or can they co-habit with the Conservatives?

Gordon Brown is not a very popular man these days. When he took over from Tony Blair, Brown was hailed as a welcome relief from the Blair spin. For the old guard within Labour, Brown represented a return to Old Labour values. The man who had a very successful tenure as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the man who everyone believed did not support the Iraq war, was expected to trim the sails and return Labour to its past glory. Sadly, none of these materialised. Brown’s allegedly arrogant and high-handed manner alienated many civil servants and party colleagues. Unable to win support from the fickle public, Brown has had the misfortune of being at the helm at a time of the worst economic recession in recent years. As a final straw, yesterday Brown was heard to call Mrs. Duffy, a pensioner and a life-long labour supporter, bigoted. It is very likely that if the Lim Dems are to support Labour and form a coalition government, they will demand that Gordon Brown step down as Prime Minister.

The Conservatives are not very popular in Scotland and the Conservative Party is seen as an extension of the English aristocracy in a region which still bristles at the thought of its subjugation by Edward I, the English King known as the hammer of Scots, and a series of subsequent defeats and insults at the hands of the English. If the Conservatives form government after the upcoming May 2010 elections, support for Scottish independence is very likely to shoot up. Currently it runs at around 31%.

One of the reasons why Scotland never went all out for independence was because, like Wales and Northern Ireland, it relies heavily on subsidies from the British government, which receives a huge chunk of its revenue from the Square Mile or the City, as the financial district of London is referred to. Of late, the City has not been doing very well. Buffeted by the financial crisis and the enormous animosity towards bankers, which has caused politicians to come up with higher taxes for the rich, there has been a fall in revenues raised from the City. Each of the three leading political parties has a take on the financial crisis and how to resolve it. There isn’t much difference between the Tory and Labour positions. Both parties are pragmatic enough to realise that banking and bankers are necessary evils. Until the UK identifies and develops another cash cow, bankers can’t be dispensed with. I am not referring to high street bankers. I am talking of the kind who generate bubbles, record huge paper profits and pay themselves ridiculous bonuses. Around 40% of that obscene bonus goes to the government by way of income tax.

Lim Dems, newly introduced to the big league, plan to break all rules. Even though they don’t have a plan B to generate revenue, they are planning to be extra-harsh on bankers. Lib Dem proposals prohibit banks from paying bonuses over 2,500 pounds in cash. Any bonus over this tidy sum must be paid in shares, not redeemable before five years. Directors of banks cannot be paid any bonus. Banks will be required to publish the names of all staff who have salaries and bonuses greater than £200,000 pounds. All these proposals will doubtless go down well in the current economic climate, but do the Lib Dems have a real alternative plan for filling in the tax black hole? I don’t think so. Bankers are very likely to vote with their feet and move elsewhere if some of these proposals get implemented after the elections.

If the fall in tax revenues continues, the UK just wouldn’t be able to afford subsidies at their current levels for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In the absence of such subsidies, support for Scottish independence will increase. The Scottish National Party has all along been saying that Scotland will do very well on its own, citing Norway as an example. The SNP’s assertions are debatable, but will carry greater weight as the flow of money is cut. Within England, there is a greater clamour to reduce the subsidy paid to Scotland using revenue from the City and spend it on deprived parts of England such as the East Midlands. In other words, if Scotland wants to break-free, England may not try to hold it back.

In my opinion, the financial crisis is the biggest threat to the UK and a Conservative government supported by the Lib Dems and forced to implement some of the Lib Dem’s agenda, may be forced to preside over its break-up. Of course, all this bickering, quarrelling and fighting is carried on with frigid politeness, a stiff upper lip and a remarkable absence of any form of violence, which is shocking for someone from the Indian Sub-Continent.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Book Review: Maria’s Room by Shreekumar Varma

Raja Prasad, the protagonist of Maria’s Room, is one of the most extra-ordinary lead-characters I have ever met in an Indian novel. He is tall and gangly and uncomfortable in his skin. However, everybody likes him or rather they all adore him. His father dotes on him and worries about his lack of hedonism. ‘My son is a saint,’ he wails in despair. Raja is at times irritated by his father’s nagging concern for him, but he manages to do what he wants to, without offending his successful businessman father. Wherever Raja goes, he finds people willing and happy to take care of him. Raja is a teetotaller and avoids any form of intoxication, which is not very easy when the novel is set in Goa and the smell of feni hangs heavily in the air. Raja is also a vegetarian, but is surrounded by meat-eaters in a monsoon ridden Goa. None of this makes Raja uncomfortable. Rather, he takes his boozing, carnivorous companions in his stride. Not once do we see Raja enjoy a meal in the entire novel, but again, not once do we see him yearn for a good vegetarian meal, though he is shown to be a fussy eater.

Just as one begins to write Raja Prasad off as a sissy, he gets the best of another man, this one a toughie, in a knife fight. Shortly thereafter, he also gets Lorna. A while later, we get to know of the woman in Prasad’s past life. All of this might give the impression that Shreekumar Varma’s character contradicts himself. Far from that, because Varma is such a splendid writer who effortlessly brings to his readers the sights, sounds and smells of a rainy Goa, Raja Prasad appears to be a very believable character, one who forces the reader to worry about him.

Maria’s Room is a ghost story. It is also a crime thriller. Narrated almost entirely in the first person, the reader gets to grips with Maria’s story, her room and her presence at the same time as Raja Prasad, the narrator. In other words, very slowly. It’s not that Varma doesn’t drop hints and clues almost from the beginning of this three hundred page tome. Even before Varma takes you past page forty, Raja Prasad hears the words ‘Maria, is it you girl?’ as he is about to slip back into sleep. The words sound like a ‘flare in the dark’.

It’s not just a solitary ‘flare in the dark’. Varma litters his very literary work with such similes and other word plays. A receptionist has ‘dancing piano fingers’, someone resembles a ‘forlorn peering vulture’ and a mobile is shaken ‘like a faulty thermometer'. Varma is so comfortable and confident with his English, which at times reminded me of R K Narayan, that even when some of the characters speak exclusively in Goan slang ‘only’, the language on the whole sounds very ‘propah’. In a way, Maria’s Room reminded me of Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, but Varma nowhere goes to the extent Chandra did in Sacred Games, which from what I recollect, had at least one tenth of its text in Mumbai slang.

Maria’s Room is no Tequila shot which will hit its readers in the gut as the book ends. Rather, it can be described as a very good single malt whiskey, one which goes down very well, smooth as silk, without any serious exclamations or jolts or hiccups on the way. It is not that Maria’s Room doesn’t have any mystery or surprise in it. It does and it is only the last dozen pages that Varma rewards his readers with answers, but one doesn’t sit up with a jerk when the tube light finally shines through. No, rather, one merely closes the book with the same satisfaction as when one has finished an excellent drink which was just as good in the beginning as it was towards the end.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Book Review: White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi is only 25 years old and she has already published her third novel. The first novel The Icarus Girl, was published when Oyeyemi was a 20-year-old undergraduate at Cambridge. There years later, The Opposite House appeared and last year at the age of twenty four, the third one – White is for Witching was published. Oyeyemi’s first two novels are ghost stories and the third one is no different. I am not really a fan of ghost stories, but once in a while I like to remind myself of the time when I was seven and scared of the dark.

White is for Witching has various narrators. Miranda or Miri the protagonist who suffers from an eating disorder called pica is a narrator. Pica prevents Miri from eating food and encourages her to eat stuff like plastic and chalk. Miri’s twin brother Elliot is a narrator and so is Miri’s friend Ore. There is yet another narrator, an omniscient being who chose to remain mysterious. Is it the house itself that’s speaking to us? Possible. After all, the house at Dover which Miri’s mother inherited from her mother is bewitched and narration is something that could comes naturally to such a bewitched house. The narrators keep changing and that’s something which keeps a reader on the toes.

Helen Oyeyemi is a talented writer. Extremely talented. When Oyeyemi describes how Miri’s father Luc who has converted the Dover house into a B&B takes her out shopping for clothes, she says:

“Luc refused Miranda every dress that she tried on. Every time he shook his head, she gauged the extent of his dislike for the dress by checking whether he had raised one eyebrow or both.

‘What’s wrong with this one?’ she’d ask. Mid-length sleeves, a demure hemline, a keyhole collar.’

‘You know you already have one like that.’”

The sheer idea that Luc (who is an excellent cook) could be much more finicky about Miranda’s clothes than Miranda herself is extremely interesting, but Oyeyemi makes Luc appear to be natural. As if all father-daughter relationships are like that.

And then after Miranda finds a dress that Luc also likes, she says:

“It was dress to be worn by the sort of girl who’d check that no one was looking, then skip down a quiet street instead of walking, just so the fun of it was hers alone.”

Miranda and Elliot’s mother Lily was killed in Haiti while on a reporting assignment there. Miranda and Elliot are sixteen when this happens. Since this is a ghost story, Miranda can sense her mother’s presence in the house even after her death. Before Lily’s death, Luc had turned the Dover house into a Bed & Breakfast, but servants don’t stay for long in the bewitched B&B. Miranda suffers a lot, especially after her mother’s death. Elliot can feel her pain and he tries to help, but he can’t do much. However, when Miranda goes to Cambridge, she meets Ore, a Nigerian girl who has been adopted by white parents. Ore and Miri form a bond and when Oyeyemi writes about this friendship, she is at her best.

And that brings me to the crux of the fault in this novel. In a nutshell, it is ‘over-engineered’. There is too much technique in it and too little story, too much beautiful prose, but not enough plain speaking. The ghosts (or presences) make very brief appearances. They are a few allusions to spirits, but even they are not too numerous. The narrators flip back and forth too often. When Oyeyemi talks of Miri’s friendship with Ore and Ore’s love and friendship for Miranda, she doesn’t use too much technique (may be because it is something she knows that terrain very well) and comes out with some readable stuff. Generally speaking, I like straightforward storytelling and Oyeyemi does anything but that.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

What’s To Be Done with the Catholic Church?

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian church in the world with over a billion members. If you consider the fact that the global population is around 6.5 billion, then Catholics comprise around 15% of the world’s population. The Catholic Church claims that it is the original Church established by Simon Peter, disciple of Jesus Christ and the first Pope. In any event, it cannot be denied that most other Christian churches, the Anglican Church, the Lutheran Church etc. are breakaways from the Catholic Church. Over the centuries, the Catholic Church, led by its Popes, has played an important role in the Western World. Popes have organised crusades against Muslim ruled Jerusalem, appointed and anointed Kings and Emperors, sanctioned wars and authorised and blessed the conquest and colonisation of the New World.

After the Second World War, when the West entered a period of unprecedented prosperity, the power and influence of the Catholic Church has waned in the West due to a fall in the numbers of its faithful, though it continues to grow in Asia and Africa. In South America, even now a Catholic bastion, it has lost some ground to Evangelical and Pentecostal versions of Christianity.

Of late, the Catholic Church has been rocked by serious allegations, many of which have been admitted to be true, that Catholic Priests have abused children under their care. These allegations initially surfaced in the 1980s. Most of these incidents took place in the United States, Canada and various European countries. There have been a few cases from South America as well. It is now widely accepted that Pope John Paul II (who died on 31 March 2005) did not act as firmly against the guilty priests as he ought to have done. Greater emphasis was placed on protecting the reputation of the Church than in punishing the guilty priests. In many cases, victims were sworn to silence after an inquiry by the Vatican. The priests in questions were not always punished, and in some cases, they were actually allowed to continue to be in contact with children, only to offend again.

After Joseph Ratzinger took over as Pope Benedict XVI, there was a change in the Church’s approach. Benedict conceded that they Church has been at fault and there have been apologies. However, Benedict’s apologies have not always pacified the victims and others indignant at what is perceived as a grievous breach of trust. The problem seems to be that the Catholic Church treats these offences as sins rather than as crimes. Also, preserving the reputation of the Church is still considered to be just as important as preventing abuse. Pope Benedict himself has been accused of not taking action against a Californian Priest (Stephen Kiesle) who had been sentenced in 1979 for lewd conduct with two boys when he was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which deals with sex abuse cases. Cardinal Ratzinger allegedly resisted (in 1985) the defrocking of Kiesle, a convicted offender, saying "good of the universal Church" needed to be considered. In 2004, Kiesle was sentenced to six years in prison for molesting a young girl in 1995. This is a very serious allegation and there have been calls for Benedict to step down, something which the Vatican vigorously resists.

One of the key features of Catholic clergymen and nuns is that they are expected to remain celibate for their entire lives post ordination. Celibacy is not mandated in the Bible and many of the early Popes were not celibate. However, celibacy was always extolled as a higher way of life, the idea being to emulate Jesus who Catholics and many other Christians believe was celibate during his entire life. Celibacy for priests and nuns was only established as a rule in the early part of the 12th century. Can it be said that the celibacy rule is directly responsible for priests behaving like monsters towards children? There are arguments for both sides. The Vatican is eager to point out that child abuse is committed not only by priests, but also lay persons, some of whom are married. Even married Anglican priests have been found guilty of child abuse, but their numbers are much smaller.

The allegations and charges against the Catholic Church have shocked many Catholics and it can be said that the Church is at its lowest point in the West. India Knight, one of my favourite journalists who contributes a regular column to the Times, has summed the feelings of many Catholics in this article. Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist, has called for the arrest of Benedict when he visits the UK in September 2010, a call which has received support from various quarters. What really incenses most people, including myself, is the attempt to cover up by the Catholic Church, the effort to treat crimes as just sins and the belief in the Pope’s infallibility, a doctrine which definitely needs to be revisited.

I haven’t heard of similar charges against Catholic priests in India or other Asian countries or in Africa, though one Father Jeyapaul who used to work in the US and faces abuse charges there, is currently living in Ooty (a mountain resort in Southern India), a free man. Most probably the reason for such accusations not surfacing in Asia or Africa is because there isn’t a culture of making such charges public, whoever may be the perpetrator. The total number of child abuse cases brought to court in Asia and Africa is abysmally small compared to Europe and America. Which is not to say that child abuse doesn’t take place in Asia or Africa. Far from it. The Catholic Bishops Conference of India is currently in the process of framing guidelines to deal with deviant priests, in the event such incidents are brought to light.

The law of statistics and averages dictates that a percentage of those who enter priesthood anywhere in the world are bound to be deviants and social misfits, men who would have trouble living a pedestrian married life. It takes a minimum of six or seven years (depending on the region) to complete the training to be a priest. The average time taken is around ten. Many trainees drop out before they complete their training and are ready to be ordained. It goes without saying that Catholic priesthood could be a convenient refuge for social misfits and deviants. The dropouts are much more likely to be normal people who don’t like the idea of a celibate life or find the Church’s insistence on total obedience too stifling. The percentage of deviants and misfits who complete their training and become ordained as priests is bound to be higher than in the original trainee intake. I have this theory that the percentage of deviants and social misfits amongst ordained priests is lower in Asia and Africa and possibly South America because in these regions, one important reason for wanting to be a priest is the social mobility and respect that priesthood offers. Many Indian Catholic priests that I know of come from families that are economically backward. Also, Catholic priesthood still carries a certain degree of respect and admiration in society. Thanks to the relative prosperity of the West and the lack of much social status for priests, practically no one decides to become a priest to escape poverty.

As a result of these scandals, I foresee the following:

1. I don’t expect the current Pope (Benedict XVI) to change the rules on celibacy. The doctrine of papal infallibility (that the Pope is always right) will also stay in place. As a result, the Catholic Church will become even more weak in the West.

2. The Asian, African and South American wings of the Catholic Church will become stronger. The next Pope will be from one of these regions and will be just as dogmatic and conservative as the current Pope and his predecessors.

3. The Catholic Church is unlikely to change its stance on homosexuality or admission of women to priesthood, since it will always be run by men who know-it-all and are ‘never wrong’. For example, the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, has very recently claimed that the Church's current crisis is linked to homosexuality and not celibacy among priests.

I hope to be proved wrong on all the above counts.

Monday, 12 April 2010

India’s response to the Maoists

After the shock over the loss of 75 CRPF jawans died down, India’s collective resolve to crush the Maoists stiffened. This across-the-board feeling has been expressed best (among the articles I have read) by Vir Sanghvai in his article The Maoists Have Left Us With No Choice . Sanghvi rightly says that since the authority of the State has been challenged by the Moaists, they need to be crushed. Sanghvi goes on to say that unfortunately, before the government can work out a process for upliftment of the region, the State’s authority must be reasserted.

Sanghvi also wonders why the Dalits are much more integrated into the national mainstream than the tribals even though the tribals form the majority in two states and have greater political power. This is a very important question for which there are no clear answers. Why are some communities able to benefit from or exploit reservations much better than others? Why do some deprived communities integrate better than others? Why is Arunachal Pradesh so much peaceful than say Manipur or Tripura even though all these states receive the same amount of largesse from the Central government?

However, on one point alone, I don’t really agree with Sanghvi. Sanghvi says that “Our Maoists will be crushed no matter how long it takes the Indian state to do this.” What gives Sanghvi the confidence to say this with such conviction? India has a tried and tested strategy for dealing with insurgency that has been used in almost all the seven north eastern states. This strategy is to flood the troubled region with troops – the army, the BSF and the CRPF – and fight a prolonged fight which will tire the insurgents and force the local population to yearn for peace. Any form of peace. Ultimately the insurgents are forced to the negotiating table. This has worked for Nagaland where a ceasefire has been in place since 1997. The Naga insurgency had started raging even before Nagaland was carved out of Assam in 1963.

But this time it is different for so many reasons. One, the area involved is much larger and the number of deprived people is much higher. It cuts across various states and tribes. Secondly, as India grows economically, the number of Indians willing to join the CRPF, the BSF and the army etc. will dwindle. Even now, the army faces a huge shortage of officers. At present, supply of men (not officers) outstrips demand. However, this will not last for long. Why spend the best years of your life in camps and on frontlines fighting your own countrymen when you have so many other options in a booming India? India just will not be able to fight a low cost thirty years war against the Maoists (and put on hold all developmental work in that region for that period) as it used to do in the past. Finally, if any of India’s neighbours decides to stir the pot a little bit, and we all know that India doesn’t have too many friends in its own neighbourhood, things can get very messy.

I have no doubt that the Maoists cannot give the tribals a better deal than what they are getting from the Indian state even now. However, do the tribals know that?

Friday, 9 April 2010

Book Review: “The Fate of a Man and Early Stories” by Mikhail Sholokhov

Nobel prize winning writer Mikhail Sholokhov is one of those rare breed of Soviet writers who managed to captivate the West while remaining a true blue communist till his death in 1984. Unlike his contemporary Solzhenitsyn (who unfairly accused Sholokhov of plagiarism and became a dissident and later a defector) Sholokhov unashamedly flew the red flag of the revolution till his dying day. Author of novels such as Quiet Flows the Don, Virgin Soil Upturned, They Fought for their Country etc. Sholokhov is where Tolstoy meets Jeffery Archer. I still remember reading Sholokhov when I was in my early teens and India was firmly in the Soviet bloc. I was not particularly keen on socialism in those days (which is putting it mildly) and very often wished that India were an American rather than a Russian ally. Yet when I read Sholokhov, I became a communist, until I put the book away, that is. Here is a writer, who managed to write about the October Revolution, the ensuing Civil War, the break-up of the old way of life and the Second World War and managed to make the Red side look decent, civilised and comparitively better than the White Russians, without losing the ring of honesty and truthfulness.

Recently I happened to re-read a small collection of short stories (The Fate of a Man and Early Stories) by Sholokhov, all of which are about Don Cossacks and the impact of the October Revolution, the Civil War, the mass collectivisations and the Second World War on their way of life. Sholokhov's language is flowery, poetic and beautiful and his story telling has just the right amount of melodrama so that you can't physically stop reading a story till you reach the end and then you are forced to start the next one immediately. I must have read this slim collection atleast half a dozen times earlier and some of Sholokhov's text is ingrained in my memory. Yet, when I started reading them again, it was as exciting as if I was reading them for the first time.

'The Birthmark' is the story of a 18 year old communist soldier, Nikolai Koshevoi's, meeting with his long lost father who is with the White Russians in the course of the Civil War. Father and son are on the opposite sides of the fence and don't recognise each other. The father only knows that the son has a mole, as big as a pigeon's egg, just above the left ankle. This is how Sholokhov introduces Nikolai Koshevoi:

“He's only a kid, a mere boy, a greenhorn,” they say jokingly in the squadron. “But just try to find someone else who could wipe out two bandit gangs without hardly losing a man, and lead his squadron through six months of battles and skirmishing as well as any veteran.”

Nikolai is broad in his shoulders and looks older than he really is. It's those creases at the corners of his eyes, and his old mannish stoop, that age him.

When a messenger tells Nikolai of another incident of banditry (by the White Russians), Nikolai thinks to himself: Another band. Just as I was hoping to go and study somewhere.... The Commissar's always on at me about it. You are a squadron commander he says, and can't even spell properly. But was it my fault that I never got throught the Parish school? Can't he see that? ... And now here's another band. ... More blood .... I'm sick of living like this. I've had enough.

Almost all young communist soldiers in these short stories dream of going to school and getting an education. Sholokhov's wrting has a large dose of drama, cliches and stereotypes, but it's still bloody good writing.

This is how Sholokhov describes Koshevoi's father and their imminent meeting:

........ an ataman leads his band – fifty Cossacks of the Don and the Kuban who have a grudge against Soviet rule. For three days, like wolves that have plundered a flock of sheep, they have been making their getaway by road and roadless steppe, and all this time, Nikholai Koshevoi's detachment has been on their trail, watching out for them.

A hard bitten lot they are, old army men, well-seasoned, but all the same, their ataman has to keep his wits about him. He stands up in his stirrups, scans the steppe wih eyes that are like feeling hands, and counts the miles to the blue fringe of forest stretching away on the far side of the Don.

What happens when young Nikholai meets his father, the ataman of the bandits? Do they get along? Please read this story to find out.

'The Herdsman' is the story of Grigory, a young communist, who has been hired by a village to tend their sheep. The village still has a few who don't like Soviet rule and these don't really like Grigory, but the Party Chairman hasn't given them a choice. Grigory's sister Dunyatka stays with him. Grigory and Dunya were practically starving, but now they have hope.

“By autumn, Dunya, we'll have earned enough grain to go to town. I'll get into the Worker's Faculty there and fix you up – something educational too, maybe. We'll have all the books we want in town, Dunya, and the folk there eat proper bread, not stuff with grass in it like ours.”

Do things work out for Grigory and Dunya? Do read this story to find out.

'The Getling' is the story of Misha and his father Foma Korshunov who has just come home from the wars. The village is in turmoil. Land is being redistributed. Foma is made Chairman of the local Party unit. Surplus grain is being requisitioned. Since Misha's father is a communist, his family is happy to hand over their surplus. The local priest's family isn't.

“Well Grandad, tell us the truth. How much grain have you buried?”

But Grandad only stroked his beard. “My son is a communist,” he answered proudly.

They went to the barn. The soldier with the pipe glanced at the bins and smiled....

“Cart one binful to the granary,” he said, “and keep the rest for your yourself, for food and seed.”

Later Misha is playing with the priest's son at the priest's home. The requisitionners come calling.

The priest's wife came hurrying into the kitchen, her hair all in a mess.

“Would you believe it gentlemen,' she said, with a foxy smile, we haven't got any grain at all........”

“Do you have a cellar anywhere?”

“No, no cellar. We've always kept our grain in the barn.”

Misha remembered very well how he and Vitya had played in a spacious cellar that they got into from the kitchen.

“What about the one under the kitchen where me and Vitya played?” he said turning to face the priest's wife. You must have forgotten”

The priest's wife laughed but her face had turned pale.

Many weeks go by. Misha doesn't have any friends in the village. One day some bandits gather near the village and the local Soviet militia gathers to fight them. Foma goes with them.

Throughout the still night, he clearly heard the shooting, somewhere beyond the village. Scattered shots at first, then regular volleys.

Bang! Bang-bang!

Like somebody hammering nails.

Misha was frightened. He moved up close to Grandad.

“Is that my Daddy shooting?” he asked.

Grandad did not answer and mother was crying again.

The shooting went on all night. At daybreak, all fell silent. ................. smoke rose in a black pillar over the village Soviet.........horsemen charged up and down the street. One of them shouted to Grandad.

“Got a horse old man?'


“Hitch up then and go fetch your communists. They are piled up in the brushwood. Tell their folks to bury them.”

Is Foma one of the dead communists? Do read this story to find out.

'Golden Steppe' is a story recounted by Grandfather Zakhar whose grandsons Ssemyon and Anikei get caught up in the revolution. The local Landlord Tomilin is chased away and his land is redistributed. However Landlord Tomilin attacks the village with a Cossack force. The Soviets beat back the attack twice. The third time they fail and the communists are rounded up for execution. Grandfather Zakhar has served the Tomilins all his life and so he pleads for his grandsons lives.

So I went up the steps and knelt before him. “I have come to save my grandsons. Have mercy master! I served your father, God rest his soul, all his life. Remember my zeal master and have pity on my old age!”

And this was his answer: “Listen to me Granddad Zakhar. I greatly appreciate your service to my father, but I can't pardon your grandsons. They are out and out rebels. Humble your soul, old man.”

I crawled up the steps and kissed his feet. “Have mercy master. Remember dear boy, how Grandad Zakhar tried to please you. Don't ruin me. My Semyon has a baby son at his mother's breat!”

......Tomilin relents and says: “Go tell the scoundrels to come to my quarters. If they beg forgiveness, well and good. I'll have 'em thrashed and enlist them in my detachment. Perhaps they will atone for their shameful conduct through zealous service.”

So off I ran to the yard to tell my grandsons. Pulled at their sleeves I did. “go and beg forgiveness you madmen, don't get up from the ground till he pardons you!”

But Semyon didnt as much as lift his head, just sat there on his haunches and scratched the ground wih a stalk. And my Anikei, he took a long look at me, then snapped, “Go and tell your master that Grandad Zakhar crawled on his knees all his life, and so did his son, but his grandsons don't want to any more. Tell him that!”

What happens after that? Does Zakhar still manage to save his grandsons? Do read this story to find out.

'The Foal' is the story of cavalry man Trofim whose mare delivers a foal during a campaign.

Head foremost, legs outstretched, the foal emerged from its mother's body into a world of bright daylight, beside a dungheap swarming with bottle-green flies. Its first experience in this world was terror. A sharpnel shell burst overhead, in a soft swiftly melting grey-blue cloudlet, and the fierce whine of the explosion sent the damp, new born thing cowering to its mother's feet.

Should Trofim keep the foal or kill it? Trofim's commander orders him to shoot the foal, but Trofim delays the inevitable. How long and to what end? There's only one way to find out.

'A Different Breed' is the story of Old Gavrila, a Cossack who would rather die than submit to Soviet rule. Old Gavrila's son Petro goes off to fight the commies and gets killed. A bunch of grain requisitioners come to Gavrila's house to collect the surplus grain and while they are at it, a group of White Russians (bandits in Sholokhov speak) attack them. All the requisitionners are killed. All except one who is wounded. Gavrila and his wife look after the communist requistioner and nurse him back to health. He soon takes the place of their dead son Petro and they even call him Petro.

The next question was hard to ask, but it was what he had been leading up to.

So, you are a Party man then?

'I'm a Communist,' Petro replied smiling openly.

And that frank open smile swept away Gavrila's fear of that foreign sounding word.

Gavrila obviously wants Petro to stay with him forever, but will Petro do that. Or will he answer his Party's call and go away?

'The Fate of a Man' is the last story in this collection. The story of Andrei Sokolov who leaves behind a wife, two daughters and a son, to fight for the Soviet Union is the longest and the best of the lot in this collection. I really liked the way Sholokhov glossed over the Soviet Union's disastrous opening in the war against Hitler's armies as a result of Stalin's incompetence.

I got a lot of letters from home, but didn't write much myself. Just now and then I'd write that everything was all right and we were doing a bit of fighting. We may be retreating at present, I'd say, but it won't be long before we gather our srength and give the Fritzies something to think about.

Andrei becomes a prisoner of war and is put to work in various factories of the Third Reich. In one stint at a quarry, he says something to a fellow prisoner who snitches on him and as a result, Andrei is summoned to the camp commandant (who speaks fluent Russian) for an imminent execution.

He gets up and says, “I shall do you great honour. I shall shoot in person for those words. It will make a mess here, so we'll go into the yard. You can sign off out there.”

“As you like,” I told him. He stood thinking for a minute, then tossed his pistol on the table and poured a full glass of schnapps, took a piece of bread, put a slice of fat on it, held the lot out to me and said, “before you die Russian Ivan, drink to the triump of German arms.”

“I had taken the glass and the bread out of his hand, but when I heard those words, something seemed to scald me inside. “Me, a Russian soldier,” I thought, “drink to the victory of German amrs? What'll you want next Herr Kommandant? It's all up with me anyway. You can go to hell with your schnapps!”

I put the glass down on the table and the bread with it, and I said, “Thank you for your hospitality, but I don't drink.” He smiles.“So you don't want to drink to our victory? In the case, drink to your own death.” What had I got to lose? “To my death and relief from torment then,” I said. And with that I took the glass and poured it down my throat in two gulps. But I didn't touch the bread. I just wiped my lips politely with my hands and said, “Thank you for your hospitality. I am ready Herr Kommandant, you can sign me off now.”

But he was looking at me sharply. “Have a bite to eat before you die,” he said. But I said to him, “I never eat after the first glass.” Then he poured a second and handed it to me. I drank the second and again I didn't touch the food. I was staking everything on courage, you see. “Anyway” I thought, I'll get drunk before I go out into that yard to die.” And the commandant's fair eyebrows shot up in the air. “Why don't you eat Russian Ivan? Don't be shy!” But I struck to my guns. “Excuse me Herr Kommandant, but I don't eat after the second glass either.” He puffed out his cheeks and snorted, and then he gave a roar of laughter, and while he laughed, he said something quickly in German, must have been translating my words to his friends. The others laughed too, pushed their chairs back, turned their big mugs round to look at me, and I noticed something different in their looks, something a bit softer-like.

The commandant poured me out a third glass and his hands were shaking with laughter. I drank that glass slowly, bit off a little of bread and put the rest down on the table. I wanted to show the bastards that even though I was dead with hunger I wasn't going to gobble the scraps they flung at me, that I had my own Russian dignity and pride, and that they hadn't turned me into an animal as they had wanted to.

Andrei obviously makes it through the war (since the story is in the first person), but what happens to his family? Please read this 'must read classic' story to find out.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Book Review: ‘Confession of a Buddhist Atheist’ by Stephen Batchelor

Stephen Batchelor is a Scottish born writer and lecturer who calls himself an ‘atheist Buddhist’. According to Batchelor, what Buddhists practice in various parts of the world is a mix of what the Buddha taught and beliefs held by the local culture before Buddhism arrived. Thus he feels that belief in karma and rebirth, which are considered by many Buddhists to be intrinsic to Buddhist faith, is not something Siddhattha Gotama (sic) taught, but are features of Indian culture which predate Buddhism.

In Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Batchelor attempts to do various things. He tells us how while on the hippie (and pot) trail to India, he ‘discovered’ Buddhism while trying to find ‘answers’ to his questions, his experiences in learning Buddhism in Dharmasala (India) and later in a Korean monastery, his relationships with Lamas of various schools of Buddhism and with the Dalai Lama. Batchelor also tries to tell us of his efforts to strip Buddha’s teaching of local cultural distortions in his effort to find out what exactly Siddhattha Gotama (sic) preached. While doing all this, Batchelor creates an extraordinary piece of writing which tells the readers as much about Batchelor as its does about Siddhattha Gotama (sic) and his teachings. For someone not much familiar with Buddhism, as I was when I started reading this book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist also serves as an excellent basic primer on Buddhism, as it is practised in various parts of the world and the various schools of Buddhism.

Just as a goldsmith assays gold, by rubbing, cutting and burning, so should you examine my words. Do not accept them just out of faith in me,’ Batchelor quotes a saying attributed to the Buddha. This principle forms the backbone of Batchelor’s research into what the Buddha actually taught. Batchelor questions everything that he is taught and when he does not find answers, moves on to find them. Batchelor is unhappy that though Buddhist philosophy encourages questions, in practice the Lamas are unwilling to question deeply held beliefs of their respective schools.

Questioning is encouraged, provided the student ultimately arrives at the pre-fixed destination. Thus there is consternation when Batchelor tells his teacher that he is unable to believe in rebirth. In one of the best scenes in this book, at a meeting held in Dharmasala to commemorate the fourteenth anniversary of the Tibetan uprising in Lhasa in 1959, the Dalai Lama addresses a group of monks and lay persons under a canvas awning. It starts raining. A Lama perches on a ledge on a far away hillside and with the help of a thighbone, bell and mustard seeds, he chants mantras and chases away the rain from the venue, though it rains elsewhere. After the meeting, a small group of European (i.e. White) Buddhists reverentially discuss how the lone Lama chased away the rain. Batchelor knows that they are not speaking the truth. It is not uncommon for rain to fall a short distance from dry ground. Though Batchelor does not believe in the Lama’s spells, he too joins in the general appreciation of that Lama’s work.

Unlike Christians, Buddhists do not seem to be particularly interested in Buddha’s life and the culture in which he grew up. For example, nothing is known of Buddha’s life between his adolescence till he was in his late twenties. Batchelor speculates that being a nobleman, Gotama might have gone to Takkasila (Taxila in modern day Pakistan) then capital of Gandhara and a centre of learning. Or Gotama might have served the King in an administrative capacity. Batchelor feels that not knowing more about Buddha’s life is a mistake and prevents one from understanding his teachings, though he also concedes that his own approach to Buddhism is very much influenced by his European/Christian background.

Buddha was a nobleman from Sakiya who owed allegiance to Pasenadi, the King of Kosala. Pasenadi was not a nice human being. He was, as were most kings of that age, ruthless and cruel as he suppressed his enemies to retain his hold on power. Buddha managed to win his patronage and get perks from him, which allowed him to spread his ‘message’ of dharma. When Pasendi had his own army chief Bandula killed (on the basis of falsehoods spread by Bandula’s enemies), Gotama does not rebuke Pasenadi, because he can't afford to anger his King and patron. Gotama is no saint and has several blemishes. When Pasenadi is desperately trying to have a male heir (and bedding a few women in the process), one of Gotama’s cousins gets his daughter (born to him of a slave) married to Pasenadi without disclosing the girl’s lineage. Gotama knows of this deceit, but he keeps quiet. A male heir is born to Pasenadi out of this marriage. Much later, the truth comes out and there is carnage as a result. Gotama feels guilty as hell, according to Batchelor who is very keen to show Siddhattha Gotama (sic) as a human being with a few frailties rather than as the perfect Sakyamuni. Gotama has his share of enemies, especially because he preaches contrary to various fondly held beliefs of that day and age. Towards the end, Gotama is denounced by one of his own disciples and dies after a meal of tenderised pork, which was most probably poisoned.

Some of the more interesting aspects of this book (for me) are the conflicts between various schools of Buddhism. It is not just that Mahayana and Hinayana (or Theravada) are so very different. Many important Buddhist writings in Pali (the vernacular form of Sanskrit spoken in Buddha’s time) are not even known to or acknowledged by the Tibetan school of Buddhism. Even within Tibetan Buddhism, there are four major schools and thousands of deities. Batchelor’s initial exposure to Buddhism is from the Geluk School, to which the Dalai Lama himself belongs. Batchelor has a ringside view of the conflicts involving adherents of ‘Dorje Shugden’ and practitioners of ‘Dzogchen’. Dorje Shugden is a deity revered by many in the Geluk and Sakya schools, believed to guard the purity of the teachings of Tsongkhpa, the founder of the Geluk School. ‘Dzogchen’ on the other hand is a contemplative practice found in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism and is based on acquiring a ‘pristine awareness’ with help from an experienced Lama. The Geluk School doesn’t like ‘Dzogchen’ on the ground that it is a remnant of the Zen doctrine and also that it is possibly a thinly veiled version of the Brahmanic belief in 'Atman'. In order to promote unity among Tibetan Buddhists, the Dalai Lama suppresses public worship of Dorje Shugden. Though a part of the Geluk School, the Dalai Lama also received instruction in ‘Dzogchen’ from an eminent Nyingma Lama.

When Batchelor tells his Geluk Lama tutor that he wants to go to Korea to train in Zen Buddhism (which is also part of the Mahayana branch), he receives a stern response: ‘Dé Hoshang gi tawa, ma réwa?’ – ‘That’s the view of Hoshang isn’t it?’ Hoshang Mahayana was a Chinese Zen teacher who was roundly defeated in debate by Indian Pandit Kamalashila at a Lhasa monastery towards the end of the eight century and ever since then, Zen Buddhism has been banned in Tibet. Why on earth would Batchelor want to learn something that had been proved to be wrong many centuries ago?

In early 1985, Batchelor made a trip to Southern China and Tibet. Batchelor’s vivid description of the great loss suffered by Tibetans as a result of the Dalai Lama’s departure, the destruction of Tibetan Buddhist buildings and culture by the Chinese army and the imprisonment of anyone who dared to resist their freedom from feudal enslavement by the Chinese, is bound to evoke a pang of sorrow in every reader. However, Batchelor is brutally even handed. As he speaks with the Tibetans in Tibetan, a language he learnt in Dharmasala, he quotes a lone dissenter who says ‘it was not only the Chinese who destroyed things, you know. Tibetans did that too.

Equally interesting is Batchelor’s description of his tour of the northen Gangetic plain in 2003 when he travelled around the towns and villages where the Buddha, lived and preached in order to produce a photographic record of such places for a friend’s book. Thanks to continuous deposits of sediments from the Himalayas, the alluvial Gangetic plain is currently around eight feet higher than it was during Buddha’s time. There are no landmarks such as mountains or hills or valleys in this great plain which would make it possible to identify places. It is while telling his readers of this tour that Batchelor sketches Gotama Buddha’s life, the people he lived with and how he played politics to get his teachings across to the masses.

Batchelor's style of writing is factual and to the point, something I like a lot. Though the book is not very bulky (around 300 pages including notes, glossary and a very useful index) it is crammed with facts and historical titbits. For example, when Batchelor tells us of Takkasila (Taxila in modern day Pakistan) then capital of Gandhara, which was a satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia, we get to know that at the time of Gotama’s birth, Indian soldiers from Gandhara were fighting for the Persian army against the Greeks at the famous Battle of Thermopylae, a hundred miles north west of Athens.

Like the Catholics, Buddhist monks are expected to be celibate as a way of totally dedicating themselves to realise nirvana. Batchelor does not appear to be very keen on this practice and wonders why a married person can’t live a Buddhist way of life as much as a celibate monk.

Batchelor meets Songil, a French nun while at the Songgwangsa monastery in Korea. Songil’s real name is Martine and soon both of them decide to disrobe and get married. In case you are expecting some ‘exciting’ or ‘steamy’ stuff as two monks turn back from monkhood and get married (in Hong Kong), you will be disappointed (as I was). Despite this minor disappointment, ‘Confession of a Buddhist Atheist’ is a great piece of work. Please do read it.