'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Monday, May 19, 2008

"In The Name of Ram...!"

"So Everybody! Watch, watch! And get ready for a mindblowing show from ... Baba Solapuri!"

I turn and watch. The place, a crowded road leading to Pune station. Mid morning. A dirty man in dirtier clothes is trying to get passers-by involved in some spectacle. On the pavement in front of him is placed a large, old, filthy and tattered teddy bear - a stave has been driven right thru its chest; twigs stick out from the ears and nose. The man is taking out stuff from a gunny bag and laying them out. First up there is a snake which turns out to be of rubber, then a scaled down croc, again of rubber; he arranges the two beasts on the pavement, locked in combat. About half a dozen people have already collected. More to come...

A stern voice rings out. "Arrey, what the hell can you do, you idiot! Thrust that stupid rubber snake down your gullet and bring a live one, then show something, if you can!" The speaker is a smarter dressed man; he appears to have decided to take on the Dirty Showman ("DS" hereafter) on rather head-on terms.

DS: You, who are YOU??

The Smart Spectator (SS): That is none of your damn business. But if you wanna show something, show something proper. This is Pune, not your stupid village!

DS: Of course, I know Pune. And I have been showing my Magic here for ages. And it is real magic. The real 'siddhi' from my Pir, my Guru, Baba Solapuri. And what the hell are *you* to challenge me?

SS: Arey, I know about magic. Real Magic is to be found in Bengal. Ever heard of PC Sarkar? He could cut a woman into three pieces and bring her back to life. THAT is real magic. And you... how would you have even heard of him, have you ever been to school, you dolt?

DS: Mind your language! Its none of your business if I went to school, and (to a small crowd which has begun to collect)here in this very bag, is the ultimate magic charm from my Master, the like of which none of you has seen, the Power which no Hindu ever prayed to in a temple, no Muslim ever bowed to in a Mosque. It is real Power! Everybody, get ready!

SS: Okay, folks! Let us see what this fellow has to show.

DS starts picking out articles from the bag. There are two three black homunculi (the kind of talismans one gets at the Sani temple at Shingnapur), then a lemon, then a piece of bone, ...

SS: Big deal! Folks, this guy is a bloody fake. He shows a piece of bone from some graveyard...

DS: Shut your trap! This is not just *some* bone. This has Power. Just see what it its gonna to do you!

SS: What the hell will it do? I stand here. Can you hang me from that tree out there like Vetal?

DS: Much more than that! You are going to be physically lifted up and stood on your head in full public view, right now. Here, Jhoo Mantar....

SS: Wait! Let us make this a proper deal. Here (picks out a fifty rupee note from his pocket) take this. If your magic works, you keep this note (steps forward and thrusts the note into DS's pocket) And if you fail, I take a hundred quid from you!
(stands to attention)

DS: Bullshit! This is no gambling den. Go elsewhere if you want to double your money. Get lost!

SS: Hey, he has admitted defeat! Give me my money back and go away. Don't waste everybody's time!

DS: Who said I lost? You are gonna be lifted up and stood on your bloody head. But I do not bet any money; am no gambler. But here, I bet something even more precious! If my Magic fails, you take this bag.

SS: Who cares for that stupid gunny bag... But, first let us see what you can show!

DS: Hey, wait! You keep bloody challenging me. Let me challenge you back. What goddam thing can *you* show?

SS: Arey, don't take panga with me! I know magic! I went to Bengal to learn magic, went to Orissa to learn it, went to Kerala, even to Arunachal... And I know the real thing. I can just set your bag alight with a single spell.

DS: Nonsense! Even if you can set this little lemon on fire, I will admit you can do magic. Can you do even that??

SS: You bloody well remember, you are gonna regret challenging me. Here...

DS: Right, Folks! Here is the lemon, I have cut it into two pieces. And I am putting one piece right here on the pavement. (To SS)You stand there and set it ablaze, with your Mantra or whatever.

SS: People, come closer. (The crowd which is now about 20-25 strong, begins to cluster around the two and I am slowly being elbowed out - at any rate, I do not press forward, fearing for my pocket); yes, that is better. And everybody, just come closer, fold your hands, whether you are Hindu or Muslim... Here, I invoke, the real power, folks,... in the name of Ram..."

The crowd has congealed into a tight knot around the two; I find myself drifting away and presently I am walking off towards the bus-stand to catch a bus back home.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A Spot Of Chamber Music

I saw a note in the local newspaper - 'Seenu Singh performs the works of Frederic Chopin on the Piano at the Poona Music Society'. Entry was free; and so was I for the evening.

I reached well before time and watched the audience trickle in - building up to a total of around 150. The Poona Music Society is an interesting gathering of people - the only language one hears is English, the dresses are western, the ambience even more so (the only vernacular I got to hear was a few words of Marathi spoken to an attender by the doorkeeper). And there was a remarkably high number of very elderly people in the audience - including some who looked in their nineties.

The artist, Seenu Singh, has an interesting Indian name but looked at least partially European and spoke with what to me was a crisp-as-toast French accent. And he spoke well, beginning with - "A request to the audience: Please remember to switch your cellphones *on* after the concert is over". Then he gave verbal descriptions of the various genres of piano compositions Chopin produced and went on to play nearly a dozen of them. The audience maintained a very prim silence during the concert; they would applaud each piece very formally. And the end of the concert, there were some appreciative voices: 'Encore!(*)'; Singh obliged, playing an extra piece. The only 'odd event' during the concert was when an electronic version of one of Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons' suddenly - and very briefly - rang out from somebody's cellphone.

All the piano pieces played by Singh sounded sweet, highly atmospheric and intricate(**). But I still don't think I can tell a Nocturne from an Etude, a Barcarolle from a Scherzo. Hope I can, at some point!

Even more than the sheer novelty of the music, this Concert was an intro to an interesting aspect of the culture of the very richly diverse city that Pune is. Although I have attended several Hindustani concerts here, this was my first exposure to Western Classical; and the difference in the 'audience culture' was huge. At the 'Sawai Gandharva', thousands of people come to listen and socialize and turn the concert into a colorful Mela and family picnic (sometimes they overdo the socializing - a constant gossipy chatter in the background can be pure torture when one is trying to concentrate on an intricate 'alaap'); and Sawai has a very local, Marathi-dominated setup. The Music Society crowd is a world apart, comprising "Semi-Firangees, quasi-Firangees and pseudo-Firangees", as someone rather uncharitably (but not entirely untruely) remarked; indeed, they have still not even switched their name from the anglicized 'Poona' to the local 'Pune'(***). Simplistically speaking, these two social formations tellingly illustrate the centuries old 'Pune Core City vs Poona Camp' divide. Of course, I observe and enjoy both from my outsider's vantage point.

(*) - I had thought of 'encore' as a *repeat performance* of a popular piece - sort of a response to cries of 'Once more!'. Here is the rigorous definition (wikipedia): "The encore is an additional extra performance of a musical piece at the end of the regular concert, which is not listed in the event setlist,... The artists usually perform an encore when the audience requests it by long applause or standing ovations in order to thank the audience for their appreciation." In other words, "Encore!" means not "Once more!" but "One more!". The Poona Club audience, of course, knew what is what.

(**) - Indeed, Seenu Singh remarked playing Chopin's pieces could stretch the fingers and ligaments joining them to the limits and beyond - trying to reach the right keys at the right time; I noticed later, Singh himself has large palms and lengthy fingers which were quite out of scale with his rather short-statured, slight constitution.

(***)- At the end of the concert, a young lady went on stage and garlanded Singh; and that was Desi all right - no bouquets and stuff!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Indoctrinations - 2

"The Soviet Union is a great workshop constantly striving for greater progress and productivity, to ensure a better future for not only its citizens but for the whole of humanity, indeed to forge a better Man. Admittedly, mistakes have been made and debris and filth have accumulated in a few corners of this vast laboratory but it continues to thrive and labor, with sure confidence in its basic purpose and undimmed optimism, that its quest is bound to succeed"

(from the 'Soviet Diary', a travelog by SK Pottekkat, published around 1955)

"Our regime, as I have learned since 1937, is definitely a fascist regime, and it could not change by itself in any simple way. . .. I believe that while this regime exists, it is ridiculous to hope for its development into some decent thing. . .. The question about a peaceful liquidation of our regime is a question about the future of humankind. . .. Without fascism there is no war....It is quite clear that Lenin was the first fascist.”

(statement attributed to Lev Davidovich Landau, Soviet physicist)


Let me narrate part of a story from distant memory:

"There was once a farmer in Russia. And he was rather unhappy about various things – his poor finances, poor yield from his land, (what he thought was) the inability of the Government to help him adequately.... He had heard of one Comrade Lenin who lived in Moscow and who was very great and powerful and very kind to the poor and so forth, so one day he decided to go and meet this man and ask for some serious assistance."

The farmer made a journey of several hours and reaches Kremlin, where he asks for Lenin. He is led into a big building and thru several long corridors and eventually into an office room piled with papers. A man sits at a table, poring over the papers. Being deeply immersed in work, he does not notice the farmer, who waits impatiently for the great Lenin to appear. The ‘file-porer’, after a short while, puts the papers aside and reaches for a small pot from which he starts to hurriedly eat some ‘kanji’. The farmer now begins to feel pity for this man who has so much work to do and such pathetic food to eat; but he also is eager to meet Lenin and talk business. He asks: “My good man, could you tell me where I can find Comrade Lenin?” The kanji-eater, who has noticed the visitor only now, answers, softly: “I am Lenin. What can I do for you?”


The farmer said: “Comrade Lenin, I came here to seek assistance for what I thought were my poor finances. But now I realize how fortunate I am compared to the starving millions in our country - and I deeply appreciate your working so hard and eating such simple food. I have brought some bread and ham for my own Lunch. Can you share it with me?” And Lenin says: “The kanji I eat is my rightful quota as a citizen - in view of our food supply situation. Ham is a luxury. Still, out of respect for your kind offer, I shall have a little bit.”


The last post here was primarily on Hindu and 'anti-Hindu' versions of History. Here I talk about another Religion I have been part of, unofficially but rather fundamentally - Communism. Of course, referring to Communism as a religion might raise eyebrows - and hackles - and much else...

The state-approved primary school syllabus of Kerala (during my long-gone childhood) used to served out hefty dollops of nationalism and, for variety, a dash of communist spice and flavor (the above Lenin story was from a lesson I learnt at school, at age 6). In those Cold War days, we were quite clear of the following: (1)India was always right and upright (2) the Soviets were our staunch friends in need, saving us from the machinations of the somewhat shady Americans. “The Soviets are ‘our’ friends, and they are Communists.” - things were as simple as that. Of course, I knew precious little about communism as a social system.

It was the norm to contrast the heroism of Lenin and the Bolshevik revolutionaries with the pure Evil of the 'Czarist oppression' that they overthrew. Indeed, in textbooks and popular culture, ‘Czar’ used to be synonymous with the devil (a rather bungling kind of devil at that). In a biographical textbook on Madame Curie, there were these lines: “In those days, Poland was ruled by Russia. And the Czar, the Russian Emperor, was very cruel to the Polish people”. I also remember a popular play of those days (set in Kerala); the idealistic hero reminds a sly politician: “Don't ever think you can get away with *anything*. The days of the Czar Emperors are long gone!”

At High School, I came into contact with 'Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad' (KSSP) a Science Popularization ogranization which was very active in schools. The Parishad used to publish hundreds of books and several magazines for spreading awareness of science among schoolers and also the general public. I did not know then that just as much as Science dissemination, which it doubtlessly did, the Parishad was into propagating Communism – it was pretty much a feeder organization for the Communist party.

One of the Parishad’s big projects was a series of 50 volumes titled ‘Science Cream’ which was meant to be a ‘Junior Macropedia’ of science and social studies. Along with fairly well written volumes on Outer Space, Gravitation, Genetics, Ecology,… ( Mathematics was unpardonably neglected; more on that later!) there were some *even more interesting* volumes titled: “Marx and the Capital”, “10 Days that shook the world”, “Spartacus”,…

The biography of Marx was plain hagiography. He was described as a Sage, an Acharya, a Visionary and so forth, a brave revolutionary devoted to bringing justice to millions of suffering people all over the world, a brilliant scientist who pursued his studies under grinding poverty, a devoted father and husband ….(*)

And like any religion, Communism had its mythology - and the ultimate mythical hero was 'Spartacus’, a slave turned rebel waging war against the Roman oppressors. He was cast as a proto-communist; his manifesto: “We will destroy Rome and its class structures. We will create a world where all are equal; no master, no slave. We will share the fruits of our labor equally!” His rebellion is crushed by Roman military power, Spartacus dies a martyr for the cause. One of his most trusted lieutenants, a Jewish former slave named David is caught and sentenced to death. The last chapter of the book describes the crucifixion of David. With his last breath, he defiantly yells out: “We shall return in our Millions!”.

Much later in life, I read at Wikipedia the following description of Spartacus by Marx himself: "the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history".

But among the 'Science Cream' set, it was “10 Days that Shook the World” which was by far the most interesting. Loosely based on John Reed’s chronicle(**) of the October Revolution, the Parishad version was structured thus: Ravi, an intelligent young man, is accosted by two children, Gopi and Suma, who want to hear a story. He proceeds to narrate the story of Lenin and his revolution. Here are some of the exchanges.

1. Ravi: Long ago, there was a Czar known as Peter the Great. He wanted a city built on the Neva river delta. He ordered millions of his subjects to work – to fill out the swamps, to dig the foundations, to lay out the streets and parks, to raise the palaces,… These poor people were asked to work round the clock with meager food. They had hardly any tools. With their bare hands they dug the ground and shifted the earth in their own clothes. Braving the freezing weather, and fearing the wrathful Czar, they toiled … Thousands perished. And from their sweat, blood and flesh a grand city rose. The Czar named it after himself – St. Petersburg.

Gopi: Terrible! But then, why is that fellow called ‘the Great’?

Ravi: Well, *some* people say he was great!


2. Ravi: (During the heat of the revolution in Petrograd) a group of counter revolutionary Junkers took Comrade Antonov, a Bolshevik leader, hostage. Their idea was to use Antonov as a 'human shield' to escape. But their nefarious designs were foiled when a mob of revolutionaries trapped them. The junkers now pleaded with Antonov to intercede on their behalf and to have their lives spared. Antonov did so at great personal risk and saved their lives.

Suma: But then, why did he have to save those evil fellows?

Gopi: And then, did the revolutionaries agree to spare the Junkers?

Ravi: The Junkers were taken to jail. Still people were so angry with those treacherous fellows that they killed off 5-6 of them on the way.

Gopi: Fair enough!

3.On the deposed Czar Nikolas’s fate:

Suma: And what did the revolutionaries do to the cruel Czar?

Ravi: The Czar was imprisoned for his misdeeds, with his family. Then they tried to act smart and run away and the revolutionaries caught them and finished them off.

Gopi: Good riddance!

Suma: Yes, serves them right.

4. On Aleksei Kaledin, a counter-revolutionary.

Ravi: Kaledin created plenty problems for the Bolsheviks but was finally defeated and cornered. He put a pistol to his chest and pulled the trigger.

Gopi: Dead?

Ravi: Yes.

Suma: Wow! So, Ravietta, all the villains are finished. The revolutionaries can begin governing untroubled. Peace!


5. On Kerensky, who governed Russia after the Czar’s abdication and before the Lenin and the Bolsheviks (whom he briefly and unsuccessfully resisted) took over.

Gopi: So, what did Kerensky finally do?

Ravi: He escaped, disguised as a naval officer.

Gopi: And the revolutionaries allowed him to escape after all the nonsense he did?

Ravi: Actually America helped him get away and even granted Kerensky asylum.

Suma: But why? The Russian people’s revolution is none of the Americans’ business!

Ravi: Well, the Americans are always like that. They are always opposed to the aspirations of the working class; wherever the revolution happens, they try to sabotage it.

6. And here is the end of the story:

Gopi: We are so unfortunate, India did not have a great man like Lenin!

Narrator: Even Ravi who had answered everything so far, could not console Gopi.


Tailpiece: In adulthood, I met a Russian physicist (somewhat older than self) who grew up in the Brezhnev era and later lived thru the collapse of Soviet Communism. He once told a group of us Indians: “Some people still say Lenin was great, that he was a genius,… I have absolutely no comments on that, no opinions!”

Leningrad is now St. Petersburg all over again. The 'bad' Czar Nikolas II is now a haloed martyr of a resurgent Russian Orthodox Church. An extract from Wikipedia says: "A poll of young Russians found that they felt Nicholas II had done more good than harm, and all other 20th century Russian leaders more harm than good—except Khrushchev, about whom they were evenly divided", And back home, a glam-couple from Bollywood have named their newborn son 'Czar'!
And yes, in middle age, I remain sympathetic to Socialism.

(*) - Even in 'Sarkari' textbooks of a generation ago, Marx had a larger than life presence (again, in Kerala). A couple of pages of our History textbook in class 10 was devoted to a dense summary of the Doctrines of Marx and we had to learn phrases such as 'Dialectical formula', 'Dialectical materialism, 'Mind being an 'Emanation from Matter'' and how surplus production and profit leads to a consolidation of the Capital. No other philosopher/economic theorist/political scientist of any nationaliy/inclination was even mentioned anywhere in that book. And the only seemingly heavy-handed measure due to Stalin mentioned in the same text was: "The land-owning class, known as 'kulaks' resisted collectivization; and they were totally done away with."

(**) - Here is a bit from Wikipedia on John Reed's book: Stalin was apparently very unhappy with the book because it strongly highlighted his arch-rival Trotsky's role in the revolution; Stalin himself was mentioned but twice in the book and once as just another name in a list of members of some committee. So, during the Stalin era, the book was banned in the Soviet Union, along with all of Trotsky's works.

Interestingly the Parishad condensation of Reed's book too mentions Stalin perhaps only once or maybe twice - and on both occasions, it is indeed something on the lines of "Stalin *too* was a member of the ... Council", the tone there was as if the reader already was aware of Stalin's general importance and only needed some reassurance that he too was involved big-time in the revolution. But more interestingly, in the Parishad version, Trotsky plays a very small role (even as late as 1980, mainstream Communist dogma probably had not fully rehabilitated him); he appears once to condemn some counter-revolutionaries as "ignorable entities, destined for the dust bin of History!" and that is about it!