Sunday, September 28, 2008

A test for genuine secularism

The Wise Old Man on the Hill told me that there are two kinds of secularism – genuine and pseudo and that most of us are pseudo. This annoyed me, “I am secular,” I said.
“Are you truly secular,” he asked, “would you like to do a little test?”
“I will do any test,” I said, “I am truly secular; I have no problem with anyone following any religion.”
“What about when they question you on your religion,” he asked.
“I guess it depends on how they ask questions. But I don’t see why they will because I will not question them on theirs,” I said.
“Are you truly grounded in your faith?” he asked.
“I am as grounded as you are in yours,” I said shortly.
“Would you be able to take criticism of your religion from anyone of a different denomination?” he asked.
“I don’t think he would like to take my criticism of his religion,” I said.
“Why not,” he said, “If you are truly secular you should learn about the other’s religion and of course ask them questions about it.”
“But I am not interested in anyone else’s religion,” I pointed out.
“Suppose you are in a position to offer a job to one among three people who are equally qualified,” he said, “to whom will you give the job?”
“I will give the job to the best candidate, of course,” I said.
“Suppose one of them is from your religion; will you give the job to him or one of the other two from different religions,” he asked.
“Obviously I will help my own,” I said, “what has that got to do with secularism?”
“Do you ever question the tenets of your own religion?” he asked.
“What kinda dumb question is that,” I asked.
“If you have a maid servant in your employ, who is new to the place and needs to go to a temple, will you take her to the temple?” he asked. “Or will you make some excuse and hint that it is better if she stays at home?”
“She has come here to work; who has the time to take her on a tour?” I countered.
“If you have guardianship of a small child from a different religion, would you teach him your religion or would you teach him his?” he asked.
“That’s silly; why would I learn all about a different religion? I would teach him my own since I believe all religions are similar,” I said piously.
“If all religions are similar you can teach him all about his, can’t you?” he said.
“That’s stupid, because I may make mistakes while teaching him his,” I said.
“If your son or daughter wants to marry someone from a different faith, would you agree wholeheartedly?” he asked.
“Well there’s that whole thing of different cultures, etc,” I said.
“Would you agree to participate in two religious ceremonies?” he asked.
“You know how expensive marriages are? It would be a needless waste of money and the couple would need to save for their future, I would suggest a registered marriage,” I said.
“If you neighbour asked your advice about selling his house or apartment to someone from the minority community, would you encourage him to sell to the individual?” he asked.
“I like my neighbours and would not like them to sell and move away,” I said. “See, a neighbour is like a family member, I would tell him not to sell only because I consider him a family member.”
“Right,” he snorted. “And it would have nothing to do with the fact that he was planning to sell it to a member of a minority community.”
“Not at all,” I said. “So tell me how did I do in your ridiculously easy test?”
“You only proved that you are pseudo secular and a bigot,” he said.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Dishonesty Public Unlimited

Lately I have been given a lot of thought to crooks, especially thieves. Their operations are run along the lines of a successful corporate enterprise. A corporate enterprise has one aim in mind –increase profits and relieve the public of their money for certain goods and services the corporate enterprise provides. You have large conglomerates, you have medium sized companies, you have small enterprises and you have single owner entrepreneurs.

Now take thieves. You have the large conglomerate – the government with all its departments run by thieves all looking for profit. Then come the corporates or gangs of thieves that roam the country breaking into banks, houses, shops, places of worship at will helping themselves to whatever takes their fancy. There are the smaller outfits mainly friends or family members who plan heists in different areas of a district and take off to plan hits on another district. Then you have the loners or single entrepreneurs who work alone breaking into locked houses, shops, cars, temple and church cash boxes.

Their business plan is carefully thought out. I won’t say the obvious about the government; it’s there for anyone to see. We will start with the gangs of thieves. They sprout in all sorts of places. They could be poor, starving people unable to land a good job, or they could be white collared workers who get together and formulate a plan to make some serious money.

They need seed capital to start up their operations, because they need to travel to the area they wish to rob, stay in hotels, or rent rooms, they need to buy some form of transport, and they need to live in an area to get familiar with it. The next item on their agenda is to take a decision on a hit. Once that is done they hand out duties which play on the strengths of each gang member. The good looking charming ones become salespersons or boyfriends of the maids in the houses, they get a close look and inside information of what challenges lie ahead in terms of breaking and entering.

They have to be physically fit to carry out the actual robbery, climbing up drainpipes, or jumping from eave to eave. Then they have to plan their exit strategy, maybe have a vehicle that they need to transport their pickings. A subsidiary plan has to be made for stealing the vehicle and control has to be exerted not to get side-tracked into stealing vehicles for a living.

They need confidence, clear heads, focus and hard work. They have to go over their plan minutely, checking for blocks to their operation at every step. They have to think up a Plan B for every stage. Because you just might meet up with a strong woman who hits first, ties one of the gang up to a tree and calls the cops later. So many things can go wrong. In some posh localities, the streetlights are not working and everything is going just nicely, when a large group of stray dogs suddenly start barking, or worse, they start biting.

It’s high risk work but the pickings are huge. In really wealthy households the owners never give the actual value of cash and jewellery stolen for fear of attracting the Income Tax authorities.

Remember the jewel heists in Goa within the last ten days – fake policemen who relieved Goan women of their jewellery, the trio who posed as Navy personnel, bringing great losses to local jewellers, and now three women from Maharashtra who helped themselves in a Margao jewellery store.

Successful heists need planning, execution and courage. If only these skills were adapted to legitimate use … But then there’s that phrase that someone coined about this kind of individual: They’d rather make a crooked penny, than earn an honest pound.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The trouble with children

They don’t call them ‘kids’ for nothing. A kid is the young one of a goat. I like the four-legged kids - they are cute, funny and delightful. The two-legged species are (and I speak from bitter experience) generally spoilt, cranky, messy and demand to be carried.

One of the great fall-outs of the joint family of great-grandparents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers and sisters, giving way to the nuclear family of young father, mother and squalling toddler, is that tourist spots are over-run with young couples who let their kids do pretty much what they please. In the past couples who wanted to ‘travel’ would leave their kids at home with the rest of the joint family and take off for a holiday without a care in the world, except maybe a long list of gifts to be brought back. Today that is not the case. If you want to travel you pack the toddlers along with the toothbrush.

I often wonder whether young families really enjoy their holiday. The other day while visiting the Chapora Fort I learned a few things: that Sandak sandals are the perfect footwear for walking up a steep slope made up of rock and small loose round pebbles; that carrying a baby to experience the heart-stoppingly beautiful view from the fort is a harrowing experience, but carrying that baby down the slope is torture of a special kind; that the fathers are usually deputed to carry the generally overweight child, while the mothers gasp for rest-stops every three feet; that there is a man selling cold drinks at the fort, but there are no toilet facilities.

I looked at the fat child in the arms of a pale and perspiring father and told him to take a picture so that he could later tell his son of one of the sacrifices he made for the brat. The man smiled through his wheezing, but the child looked superciliously at me and flung his tetrapack apple juice on ground. “Nahin Raja” crooned the mother, but she let it lie there and they walked around to photograph the view and themselves.

More and more players in the hospitality business are putting up one more sign in their establishments: Children Not Allowed. Some restaurants, multiplexes and aircraft have banned children below the age of three. While there are many who disapprove, there are many who hail the idea as a good one and want adults-only eateries and movies.

I remember accompanying a woman and her 18-month old daughter to a very large, very quiet department store somewhere in England The child was born to the parents after 18 years of marriage and was spoiled sick. She was a screamer and her scream would put a train engine’s whistle to shame. When she screamed in that department store her scream went into one’s brain and spiraled around in it. A young guy was carrying her while her mother shopped madly. The child wanted her mother to carry her, so she screamed. Right in her carrier’s ear. He turned pale. She screamed again, louder and longer and other shoppers looked distressed. Her mother merely caroled, “Wait beta.”
Beta drew in her breath to let loose another scream when I reached forward and gave her a sharp pinch on the bottom. She was so taken aback; she glared at me and opened her mouth. I bared my teeth and made a pinching gesture again and she was quiet for the rest of the morning.

More annoying than that however was another toddler who had come to a restaurant near the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala. He was accompanied by his entire joint family of loud happy Gujaratis. There must have been a dozen of them of all ages and sizes and had eaten well, with lots of pure veg thalis all over the long table. The toddler climbed on to the table and walked in and out of the thalis with the remnants of the rice and dal. He smashed his way through papads and tipped over two glasses of soft drinks on the white table cloth while his adoring family laughed and told him to be careful not to fall. The waiters looked on grimly. Now I for one would not be surprised if that restaurant carries a board which says: “Children Under Age 3 Not Allowed”.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Malar Bonderam walks the talk

Like most people living outside Divar, I have in the past chosen to attend the Piedade Bonderam with all its vibrant colour and chaos and sizeable float parade. The entire exercise of crossing in the ferry to the island, attending the festival and crossing back to the mainland in that rusty old ferry was not to be repeated in a hurry. So the smaller Malar Bonderam was generally missed. This year I missed the Piedade Bonderam and decided to make it to the Malar Bonderam instead. I make good decisions and bad decisions. Going to the Malar Bonderam was a good decision. I learned many things.

That big need not necessarily be better and that though the Piedade Bonderam was really great fun, the Malar Bonderam stirred me in a strange way. We talk about our culture fast disappearing, our cuisine falling into disuse, the Goan way of life going, going, gone, but except for some tokenism, we do nothing much about it.

The Malar Bonderam was small and very well organized. The fancy dress participants really took pains. In fact one ‘male bangle seller’ was made up so well and was so authentic in costume and props, that I was shocked to find out that not only was the bangle seller not male; she was an old friend who works in the Mamlatdar’s office and I did not recognize her. The coconut breaking contest saw two women smashing the coconuts comprehensively, while most of the men missed the target completely and everyone cheered madly. The floats were few but excellent. The flags snapped in the island breeze and all through the festival Konkani music played. Good, foot tapping, Konkani music with its mixed Latino, calypso, reggae, pop rhythm. The last Fontainhas float played Portuguese Music and the Afro float African music. The Quepem dance troupe danced their hearts out. The food was Goan and one stall sold wine.

There were no sponsored floats. There was no English music during the parade, and no Hindi music. Just a vigorous celebration of the ancient rhythms of Goa. This was possible because the Government of Goa had no hand in the festival which was funded and organized by the people of Malar themselves. Churchill Alemao spoke of how elsewhere in Goa he sees 90 percent non-Goans, but here in Malar he could see 90 percent Goans.

Of course when speaking to Divadkars two subjects were discussed threadbare ¬– the ancient rivalry between Piedade and Malar and how 50 percent of the people wanted a bridge and 50 percent did not want a bridge. We all agreed that a bridge would turn Divar into a Panaji or a Taleigao and that the inconvenience of waiting for a ferry was nothing compared with the flood of builders who cut the island up into large, medium and small plots for people from all over the country and world to set up holiday and retirement homes, people who find our ways strange and seek to smother our culture with their own. Where those magnificent old mansions would be torn down and ugly apartment blocks with tiny ugly balconies and no sewage systems or garbage disposal system will ram the final nail of the coffin home.

As if to underline our discussion, a family of Indian tourists, man, woman and child were also waiting for the ferry back to the mainland after the parade was over. The woman asked if there was a bridge and I said there was no bridge. “There is only this ferry to go across?” she asked shocked. Expecting her to ask what the people would do in a medical emergency, another man told her that the ferry is always there and can be used in an emergency. But that was not troubling the Indian tourist. She asked a question which made me snap, “That’s why the people of this island don’t want a bridge; because outsiders will destroy Divar the way they are destroying the rest of Goa.”

It was unpardonably rude of me, but her question which got me so mad was this: “But how will you bring construction materials here?”

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Educating MLAs

“I am happy that Goa University will be given Central University status,” said the Old Man on the Mountain.
“Many in Goa University itself are unhappy about that,” I said.
“That’s because they are afraid of competition,” he said.
“What competition,” I asked, “who will come to Goa to study? Only those who are looking out for a good party.”
“On the contrary, students will come in from other states and other countries and they will want quality teaching,” he said.
“But Shantaram Naik says we should not agree to it, because the land that Goa University occupies is worth crores of rupees and we should not let the Centre take over this prime real estate,” I said.
“That’s all he and his type can think of; they don’t mind selling the entire state to builders and they complain if the UGC takes over the university,” he said.
“Others are worried that our Goan students will not stand a chance against the students from places like Chennai and Delhi,” I said.
“Then how is it that when our Goan students go out of the state they do very well?” he asked.
“I don’t know; maybe the weather is better there,” I said.
“Our weather is fine; it’s our system that’s so bad here it can only improve once the Central University comes in. After that the colleges and schools and primary schools will have to pull their socks up,” he said.
“And you think that is going to change the system?” I asked.
“I have an even better plan,” he said.
“You will have to speak to the new education minister,” I said.
“Oh yes he will like my idea, have you seen his educational qualifications? Pathetic,” he said.
“Well the others are not very well educated either,” I said.
“So that’s my idea. The new Central University must have a high-security wing with forty seats in it for the 40 MLAs. They are in power for four years, yes?”
“Yes, you want to shift the Assembly to the university?” I asked.
“No! Since they will be occupying those seats one way or another for four years it is enough time for them to earn a degree through the University,” he said.
“But you keep saying that Arts graduates are running the world and destroying it,” I said.
“So they will learn Pure Sciences, Mathematics, Literature, Ethics, Accountancy and History for four years,” he said, “and at the end of four years we will have forty ladies and gentlemen who will know all about cause and effect. Since they are always re-elected, it would be taxpayer’s money well spent. They will learn all about the reasons for global warming, they will learn how to put into place good infrastructure and they will be statesmen, not a bunch of buffoons making merry with money that does not belong to them.”
“What about those who work in government offices,” I asked. “They too need to learn about cause and effect. That when they goof up or goof off, the repercussions are slow but devastating.”
“Of course. There will be short courses. For instance PWD staff can sign up for civil engineering courses; Electricity staff for electrical engineering and so on, where the medium of instruction will be Ethics. It will be so good,” he said.
“Ehhh, it won’t work; they will want free bicycles, laptops and raincoats,” I said.