Times of India

A Fine Balance

Last week I met a young lady from Japan. We got talking and she said that she was travelling around India exploring our spiritual traditions. In an unguarded moment she admitted that she was seeking solace from her lonely, banal and desperate life and hoped that India might offer her a spiritual guide to the art of living. Nothing unusual in that, I thought. She is part of a great tradition of travellers to India who have sought consolation from the material world. The tendency goes back to Fa Hien and Huan Tsang, two Chinese travellers in the first millennium AD, who came looking for Buddhist wisdom.

A South Asian Puzzle

The stubborn persistence of child malnutrition in India is truly one of the tragedies of our time. Many of us have long agonised over this preventable problem, and we continue to ask, why do half our children not get either enough or the right food or adequate care? Even in sub-Saharan Africa only thirty percent of the children are malnourished versus fifty percent in South Asia. And this 20-point gap exists despite our much higher levels of per capita income, education and even safer water access. One-third of the babies in India are born with low birth weight compared to one-sixth in sub-Saharan Africa.

Guiding Your Karma

The recent World Cup of football entertained 1.5 billion around the world, and people drew all sorts of lessons, but it confirmed to me once again the role of luck in human affairs. At crucial moments, it was not skill that separated winners from losers but chance, and part of the peculiar beauty of human excellence on the football field is, I expect, its vulnerability to things we cannot control. If it was skill alone Brazil should have won all the 14 World Cups, as the German coach confessed.

Garbage

It is a relief that Indo-Pak tempers have cooled and we can once again get back to our lives. As we do, let us ponder over Isaiah Berlin's words, “Men do not live by fighting evils. They live by positive goals.” Berlin was a great intellectual presence in the mid-20th century, and one of his positive goals that many Indians seem to be seeking today is a clean city. I realised this after reading the unusually large mail that my column on civic pride generated last month from communities across the country.

When Less is More

Soon after he became prime minister, Winston Churchill wrote to the First Lord of the Admiralty to ask, “Pray Sir, tell me on one side of one sheet of paper, how the Royal Navy is preparing for the war.” Churchill knew that if he did not qualify his request he would have received an unreadable 400-page report. Brevity is a great virtue, and nowhere more needed than in India. Our judges write judgements that are too long; our lawyers ramble on; our executives try to impress with lengthy memos; our politicians--well, try to get in a word. Our public affairs would improve tangibly if our power to be silent were equal to our power to speak.

Peace, Not War

It is difficult to speak of the murder of innocent people, but it is also impossible to remain silent. First it was Gujarat, now it is Jammu. The nation's mood has turned angry, and far too many sensible people are ready to go to war. In these troubled times, I sometimes think we are fortunate to have a hesitant poet for a prime minister. But our hawks accuse him of indecision and clamour for an American or Israeli style response. The Prussian master of strategy, Clausewitz, teaches that one must only start a war that one can win.

A Matter of Civic Pride

This government often reminds us that we ought to have more national pride, but I think that civic pride is more important, more durable, and a stronger foundation for nationhood. Indeed, a more civic-minded citizenry might have been able to contain the damage in joyless Gujarat, if not prevented the tragedy. Mahatma Gandhi, a Gujarati, often counselled Indians that they would not be worthy of independence until they became more caring and considerate neighbours.

Disappointed Idealism

Like any great tragedy, the communal violence in Gujarat is full of other sadnesses. One of these is that we have begun to lose faith in our ideals. We had already lost faith in socialism, but now we have begun to question the efficacy of secularism as well. Part of the reason is that it has been unable to prevent or stop this murderous carnage. A major failure of contemporary Indian public life is that we do not hear voices of moderate Hindus or Muslims. We only hear the shrill voices of extremists at both ends. It was not always so. Earlier, we had sensible public figures who were also steeped in religion. Mahatma Gandhi, Maulana Azad, Vivekananda used to speak with credibility on behalf of the vast majority of religiously minded Indians.

Home, Sweet Home

When I was young, owning a home was a hopeless dream. Either the company or the government provided shelter to the salaried middle class, and at retirement one scrambled to find a place of one's own and a lower standard of living. But today, this is all changed. Even a young person starting a career can put down a deposit of ten per cent of the cost of a house and can easily raise a fifteen-year mortgage loan, and this explains why the housing finance business has been growing 30 per cent a year for the past four years, and why there is a boom in middle class housing in Gurgaon, Thane, Powai, and many cities of India.

What to Believe?

The past month has been the saddest in memory as the communal violence in Gujarat has not only diminished us all but has brought home the truth that Hannah Arendt uttered forty years ago, that evil, in the end, is banal. Some Indians have persistently asked, what let us down? Others wonder what do we dare to believe in now?