Facebook Badge

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Acrid Stench of Death

Grief Eases, the Smell Lingers

On September 21, my mother would have turned 86. She died five months ago. But lest anyone thinks this another obituary, I want to make it perfectly clear that it is not. Rather I want to talk about the phenomenon of death and how it hits you in the face, even while you are busy making a life.

To begin with, there’s no escaping it. We are all on some supernatural death row from the minute we are born. Certainly, we give our lives meaning. We do amazing things: we build nations, machines, welfare systems, philanthropic organizations; we do astounding research in medicine, physics, chemistry; we sing songs, play guitar and make it snappy; we write symphonies and operas, novels, poetry, even columns like this one. It is our only shot at immortality. Buried, burned or otherwise disposed off, our mortal coil is just that: mortal. Remember the root of the word is Latin for death.

It’s not my intent to be a Woody Allen and obsess about death. We don’t need that because the fear of death is programmed into our DNA. We eat healthy, we work out; we give up cigarettes, booze and the libertine lifestyle. All in the hope we get a few years more on this planet. That desire drives people who live in sylvan estates or in deplorable slums; the investment banker who lives on 95 and Fifth in Manhattan as well the tribal in basic Africa; the person on a luxury yacht in the Mediterranean as well the illegal immigrant stowing away on a cargo ship.

Nobody told me that death is the only certainty in life for all the years I spent in respectable educational institutions. In school, there was an unstated belief in God that the Jesuits pushed; university life was girded by the Calvinist ethic of hard work, burning the midnight oil. After that, the job was the Holy Grail. You must find one, keep one and rise in the ranks. Better homes, nicer cars, club memberships, business class travel and various other diversions take your mind off from the inevitability of death.

So we build the tangled web of ambition and relationships. It diverts our minds, stuck as we are on this wonderful death row that we call life. I have a sunny disposition like Louis Armstrong, who in 1967 sang What a Wonderful World, a song that was written for him by the legendary jazz impresario Bob Thiele. Its opening lyrics went like this:

I see trees of green, red roses too
See them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
I see skies of blue, and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

We enjoy this world: springtime in Chicago, autumn in New England, a night in Manhattan, a drive on Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles, (corny though it sounds) an evening in Paris, a drive through the English and French countryside, a Beatles number, an Ellington tune or some good old Hindi songs by Rafi, Kishore, Mukesh or Geeta Dutt; even more mundane experiences like a drink at the retro bar in the air force station in Ayanagar on the Delhi-Gurgaon border, dinner with friends in Bandra, a singsong at our house, a great movie, a good concert, an absorbing play, a stirring opera. And for many of us, the satisfaction of work and the concomitant rewards, both spiritual and material.

My personal preference remains Goa in the Monsoon. There are trees of green and flowers too. But the skies are grey; the clouds are black and ominous; the night is indeed sacred and dark with sheets of rain and gale force winds. Contemplating the violence of nature, I am reminded that we are mortals and we can be swept away by the sinister forces of nature.

These experiences define our lives. Otherwise there is a void, a few lonely years in a death watch cell. We seek love and solace. When we get that, we are immortal; others want more and they are Shakespeare, Blake, DaVinci, Einstein, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Mozart, Beethoven, Edison, Burke, Jefferson, Voltaire, Freud, Marx, Gates or any of the IT pioneers. People like them advance civilization. The rest of us just enjoy the fruits of their genius.

In the end, there is no greater comfort and joy than sharing a daily dinner table, a weekend lunch in the garden or Christmas with the family. These experiences run for a good 50 years or so in an individual’s life until the children, both us and ours, grow up and move away, sometimes physically but always emotionally. We enjoy it while we can and then contemplate the sunset years. Some of us are lucky to have friends to brighten up our evenings and weekends; and work to keep us busy through the day.

Into this cocoon of happiness that we build and protect, sometimes the reality of life creeps in. This happened when my mother died and left my father with us, Alzheimer’s and all. The grief has eased but I cannot get rid of the stench of death in my house. It is an acrid smell that no amount of Lysol, scented candles and room sprays can get rid off. It hangs in there, dismal and irreversible: a sinister prospect of death. My father, who shared his birthday with my mother, turned 89 on September 21. In his dementia, I can hear the ticking of the mortal clock.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

From The Times of India, September 16, 2008

16 Sep 2008, 0000 hrs IST, RAJIV DESAI

Print EMail Discuss New Bookmark/Share

Save Write to Editor

As Delhi recovers from the shock of the terrorist bombings, it is apparent that India is under sustained attack. Weak governance, an intelligence failure and police bungling are the reasons the chatterati ascribes to the incident. It is almost as though they are inured to the random loss of life on the capital's mean streets.

The real failure lies in the divisiveness of the political class. From Bangalore, where the BJP is holding a convention, saffron grandees have pitched in with vicious criticism of the government. Nobody has come to grips with the real issue: a political consensus is vital in a modern nation state.

Certain issues of national interest are beyond partisan politics. The civilian nuclear deal with the United States was one such issue. The political bickering over it showed very clearly the lack of maturity in the political class. On September 6, 2008, the Vienna-based Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a consortium of 45 countries that seeks to control international trade in nuclear materials, technology and equipment, issued a "clean waiver" that exempted India from its own denial regime. The effort was spearheaded by the US government and supported by most of the original seven members of the NSG.

Where the global community rose to admirable heights to transcend its domestic political concerns, in India, the saffron and red opponents of the deal plumbed new depths of chicanery. Instead of closing ranks with the government, they dug in their heels and refused to acknowledge the importance of the NSG waiver and the potential it offers to transform India's standing in the world.

The intemperate response from the two opposition parties betrayed a poor understanding of the nature of democracy. The government won a confidence vote in Parliament, signalling it had majority political support for the deal. It went on to get its safeguards plan approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency and then finally won the confidence of the NSG with its assertion that it was against proliferation and a nuclear arms race.

Having tried every trick in the book to stall the deal, the opposition simply failed. They could have acknowledged that government won both domestic and international political support and as opponents do in a democracy, lined up behind the government to present a united face to the world.

Never mind what happens in specific sectors, the Indo-US deal is a strategic move that will help transform the Indian economy. We will engage as a mature power with the big boys and therefore learn that we must take ourselves seriously. We cannot say one thing and do something else. In that sense, the Indo-US agreement takes Manmohan Singh's economic reforms of 1991 to a new level. We will have to play by the rules and not hide behind political barriers as we have done at the WTO.

As it turns out, the business sector is already at it. For all the companies they have bought overseas and for all the foreign investment they have attracted, business leaders have understood the seriousness of contracts, intellectual property rights and the need for professional management. The Indo-US deal simply ensures that government will follow with accountability and transparency.

Concomitant with the rise in India's global status, its political class needs to come together on key issues such as the NSG waiver and terrorism. The opposition parties could play a constructive role in achieving this. Clearly, nobody expects the Left to sign up. The formation is an ideological dinosaur that opposes the deal because of its irrational anti-American mindset. As is now clear, it is China's cat's paw.

But the BJP could definitely play a bridging role. Its over-the-top response to the nuclear deal was based on the fear that the government has given up our right to test nuclear weapons. But the NSG waiver was to allow India the opportunity to do civilian nuclear commerce with the world. There is nothing in the agreement that talks about weapons testing. The waiver in Vienna is an overt acknowledgement by the world that India is a responsible nuclear power.

Remember, the NSG was formed in the aftermath of the Indian nuclear test in 1974 and was strengthened after the 1998 tests. Against this backdrop, the NSG waiver takes on historic and dramatic dimensions. It is a magnanimous gesture by the very countries that led the hostile reaction to India's tests.

It is sad that the BJP, whose support is crucial to achieve a national consensus on vital issues, continues to behave like a street-fighting unit. It must play the role of an opposition. But there is something called a loyal opposition, loyal to the Indian state. The BJP has every right to challenge the government. But it could temper the role it plays to be mindful of national interest.

The BJP's response to the nuclear deal and now to the terror attacks in Delhi underlines the inability of our political class to present a united national front on vital issues. In stark contrast stands the situation in the US in which presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain put aside their differences on September 11 to make a joint appearance at the World Trade Center in New York.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Rise of the Klepto State

Just Desserts for an Apathetic Citizenry

On Independence eve, as it is every day, Delhi was caught in massive traffic jams caused by incessant rain and weird security arrangements that may or may not catch terrorists but certainly hassle citizens. In most of the capital city, roads caved in, traffic signals failed and the police were nowhere to be seen because they were busy protecting VIPs.

Those who battled their way through the gridlock found the going smoother once they made it to Lutyens Delhi, the pleasant precinct of the Capital that the privilegentsia calls home. As you drive through, you can feast your eyes on blooming flowers in the traffic roundabouts and marvel at the smooth ride on perfectly surfaced roads.

This is a hallowed arrondisement meant for those whom we elect to govern us and the bureaucrats they appoint to hold us at bay. They have their own and India's only local municipal body that keeps the streets spic and span, grows flowers and organizes concerts and yoga workshops in the magnificent parks that dot the landscape.

Amazingly, though it is the most prized real estate in the country, most of the people who live there are tenants. Most homes there are two-and-half acre lots with retinues of government-employed serfs, who live on the property and serve whichever grandee occupies it. Cooks, bearers, gardeners, security staff are at the service of the occupant. They live on the estate in slum-like conditions and are attached to the property just like doors, windows, lawns and various mod cons, except in this case they are feudal rather than modern conveniences.

Denizens of Lutyens Delhi live in this sylvan world, claiming to represent the real India. Actually, they are completely out of touch. The story is told of a senior political leader who came to a meeting at an office near Connaught Place in the late 1990s. It was early evening and as he stood in the plaza of the office building, he said, “God, how this place has changed!” He was aghast at the traffic chaos and generally run-down appearance of the place and went on to volunteer that he last visited the area with Sanjay Gandhi, who died in June 1980. And his house was no more than a couple of miles from the place.

The Delhi problem, which is unique, has to do with the governance setup. Neither the municipal corporation (MCD) nor the police nor the land grant agency, the DDA, reports to the local government. As such, none of the agencies are accountable to anyone but bureaucrats. The only agency that is on its toes is the New Delhi Municipal Committee because it has to answer to the powerful residents of the Lutyens enclave.

It doesn’t matter if it is the Congress or the BJP or any one of the subaltern political formations that have sprung up in the past decade. They live in this favored enclave and are whisked here and there in cars with flashing lights and convoys to shoo other motorists off the road. For all the years I have been involved with the political process, I was always made to feel I was not in touch with the real India because I wore suits, spoke English and harbored subversive ideas about political accountability and performance. Quite contrarily, the Lutyens lot prefers ambition and sycophancy.

Strangely, the political leaders and their apparatchiks are there because they claim to represent the less fortunate people. In their scheme of things, they have the pulse of the people; those of us non Lutyens Delhi types, who pay exorbitant amounts on taxes and on rent or purchase of property, are dubbed “middle class” and shunned by the radical chic ideologues of the Lutyens quarter.

Meanwhile, outside the favored enclave in Delhi and in other lesser ones in the various state capitals, we fight to get ahead on the roads to get to schools, colleges, offices. We give way to netas and babus but will cussedly deny right of way to others like us, including ambulances.

Only recently, government grandees have grudgingly focused on improving infrastructure. These are half-hearted efforts upended by corruption. Just consider the shiny new expressway from the Delhi airport: it is poorly designed, confused and deadly. Two- and three-wheelers are forbidden but merrily cruise the highway, slowing down traffic. If you tell the policemen to control their access, they rudely ask you to mind your own business. All they want to ensure is VIPs have a smooth passage. Unpoliced, the expressway is a dangerous nightmare because of the unlettered habits of the capital's citizenry that cause backups, accidents and death.

As such, Delhi and the rest of India are flagrant scofflaws. Most do as they please in public: drive like lunatics, spit, urinate and even defecate in public spaces. The other half of India, they trade for dowry, burn, rape or at the very least molest them in public. Is this a mahaan or mayhem Bharat.

Twenty years ago, there was hope for a breakthrough when Rajiv Gandhi appeared on the scene. Some of us even chucked comfortable lives in the US to join the revolution. We were excited by the possibility of change we glimpsed in the young leader’s vision. Indeed, there were many changes made. He opened up the closed economy to foreign investment, liberated the moribund financial sector with credit cards, mortgages and consumer loans. The Doordarshan monopoly was destroyed; the civil aviation sector was set free; the old socialist rust bucket economy was replaced by a shiny and enticingly new consumer economy.

Even the current opening to the US had its roots in Rajiv’s vision of cultural and individual exchanges as the base for improving ties with the superpower. His believed in “letting our people earn a living;” he swore by the need for voluntary community action and for arousing civic consciousness; he saw through the vested interests of politicians and bureaucrats; he played fair and square in the crooked public life of India.

All that’s happening today goes back to the Rajiv Gandhi era in the 1980s when orthodoxies were challenged and new perspectives came into play.

Seventeen years after his death, we are faced with his legacy: a growing economy that empowers people. On the other hand, we must contend with a political system that he condemned as one that seeks to plunder the wealth of the state. Our infrastructure is a mess; our education policy is criminal; our public health and welfare services are terrible and our politics divisive. The economy, which was the bright spot, is beginning to falter thanks to bureaucratic mismanagement and bleeding-heart, wasteful welfare politics.

Meanwhile the citizenry remains unconcerned and continues to divert itself with the consumerist joys of the new economy, buying baubles and trinkets. No wonder surveys show Indians are among the happiest people in the world.

copyright rajiv desai 2008