Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Our Tolerance of Others' Beliefs

On Friday, 18 people were killed in a Mosque. And on Sunday, 84 people were  killed in a Church.

The Muslims in Samarra of Iraq, and the Christians in Peshawar of Pakistan, were in their respective weekly assemblies to worship God.

But were killed. By those who worship terror.

Yes. For some murderous fanatics. 'Terror' is their God. 

Terrorism is their belief. Killing is their creed. Violence is their value.

We all know that however big they say their cause is, they are but senseless ruthless murderers. 

However lofty they say their ideals are, they are but brainwashed ignoramuses, and dastardly criminals.

Religion is not at fault. But the people. Some of its leaders. Leaders with twisted minds who pervert the truth, and preach lies to their gullible apprentices. Inciting them to hatred and violence.

It is a shame that, in our sitting rooms, we are becoming numb, day by day. We stand incapable, unable to react adequately and protest against these mass killings. As if, they are some regular expected phenomena.

It is a shame that we are getting desensitized to the value of human life. We stand nonchalant, helplessly watching rabid fundamentalism as it robs humanity of its very essence. As if, it is some normal predictable occurrence.

It is a shame that we are not holding responsible, the ruthless religious leaders and toothless governmental authorities. The blame lies partly on other religious leaders and governmental authorities who think they know what is right, and what to say and do. But yet, are not doing anything. 

My questions, on societal response to these types of tragedies, are myriad and many. Some of them may have no answers.

Call them aimless ramblings or call them needless rantings,  but they are ineluctable, nevertheless.

If those with knowledge do not teach what is right and wrong, who should? If those in authority do not control the law and order, who will?

If those with voice do not speak out for good, who should? And if those with power do not exercise their power for good, who will?

If preachers don’t preach love and harmony, and if teachers don’t teach freedom and wisdom, what will become of liberty and fraternity?

If politicians don’t make the right law, and if judges don’t give the right judgment, what will become of equality and justice?

Saying ‘knowledge is power’ is not enough. Spreading that right knowledge is vital. The spread of sound knowledge yields peaceful coexistence. 

Saying ‘we are open’ is not enough. Openness and Willingness are virtues that everyone - and especially the politicians and religious leaders - must have. Willingness to understand helps us to peacefully agree to disagree.

Those of us who think we stand on higher moral ground have a greater responsibility. We cannot, and should not, be mute spectators to this blood and gore thrown at us daily from our television screens.

If we are crusaders for higher moral values,and campaigners for peace and harmony, then we must take whatever action we can. In whatever form we can. To let others know that others' beliefs need to be respected and understood.

Religion is not evil. It is the disrespect and disregard of others’ religion that is evil. Men being men, and beliefs being beliefs, we must understand - and accept - that differences will be differences.

Respecting the differences and embracing the opposing is really the true meaning of life. It is the true reflection of harmony.

We have our own opinions. And we want to be free to express our opinions and profess our beliefs. Then, what right do we have to say that others cannot do the same?

We have our own minds. And we are free to make inquiry, scientific or spiritual, to investigate our belief systems. But, what right do we have to think, and say, that others are not doing the same?

Human beings are as much rational beings as they are emotional. But some leaders with contorted minds can feed only the emotional side,while subduing the rational side into muffled silence. They fan the feelings to a such a fiery passion that their rookies' recourse is only to violence and killings.  

When we cannot tolerate the belief of another, and when we cannot respect the thinking of another, we tear out the very fabric of fraternity from this planet.

Like that frog in the well that thinks it knows the world, we tend to wrap ourselves in our own belief systems without making any effort to understand others.

Like that tribal who lives in his village refusing to see the world outside, we tend to feel that our thinking is the best.

Our thought-pattern and our belief system will seem to us the loftiest. All others,we feel, simply do not know the truth.

How many of us - Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, or of any other religions - have made a conscious effort to make long-term sustainable friendships with those outside our belief systems?

How many of us have actually made some time and effort to visit other places of worship or listened to other preachers of different belief systems?

If this day and age, access to videos and reading material is not difficult at all. And similarly spreading our thoughts and feelings to others is not difficult at all.

We should combat, even if we cannot completely eradicate, the hate-mongering by ill-informed demagogues, with our own peace-messages.

We should contribute, by various means, towards the work of those people who are already building bridges between communities.

We should condemn irrational fanaticism and encourage rational understanding of ourselves, and of our relations with others.

Violence begets violence. But it is not enough to preach that "an eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind". 

It is important that we open our eyes. Wider. And help others open theirs. 

And our arms even wider. To embrace.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Talking from the Troposphere

To my left, through the window, I can see clouds below.

To my right is a passenger watching a movie on his laptop. He has an external hard disk connected to it, and is probably watching from there. He has headphones connected to computer, and is enjoying the movie.

And the lady beside him is probably enjoying the music on her iPhone. Her rhythmic-nodding of head - from either sides of which, two thin white wires curl down to the phone in hand - are indicative of that.

And here I am, tapping away on my iPad. In spite of other entertainment available. Well, the new age cyber world has 'virtually' sucked everyone into it. Pun unintended.

Like in the flight that brought us a few days ago from Abu Dhabi to New York's JFK Airport, the stewardess here too announced that we are now at the cruising altitude, and we can now switch on our mobile devices and access the plane's wifi system, or make calls from our mobile phones.

At about 38000 feet above ground, I never thought I'd be connected to the rest of the world from my plane seat. It was a dream just a couple of years ago.

Just like it was a dream, during my early childhood - for people of one Indian city to connect to connect with another city barely 400 kms away, by phone.

Yes. I remember, as a child, once when someone had died in Hyderabad, it was impossible to talk to someone in Bangalore for a whole day. The distance between the cities was only 354 miles. The "trunk-call" didn't easily get through. Even a telegram (wire service) used to take many hours.

I clearly remember the big news of STD (subscriber trunk dialling) starting and spreading across India, like some swirly friendly tentacles, connecting the cities, town and villages of the country in months and years. Then the world itself got closer home through IDD and ISD.

I clearly remember Pranoy Roy talking about 'information superhighway' calling it the Internet that is going to change our lives. And it did.

Today, I can talk to anyone , anywhere, from this plane on Skype from my iPad.

We have come a long way.













n my left is a lady munching peanuts listening

Friday, July 05, 2013

Suspense of Catastrophic Proportions

(Also here on Daily Tribune)


It is really a sin, just as the blurb says, to reveal anything from a Dan Brown book.  So, avoiding spoilers in this review is the best tribute I can give to the writer.

Inferno, his sixth novel, but the fourth featuring the now famous character Prof. Robert Langdon, had enough twists and turns, to keep me on tenterhooks all the while. Even on the 450th page of the 480-page hardcover, I was completely unsure about how it will all end.  

No wonder, since its release on May 14, Inferno has been on the top of the New York Times bestsellers list (Latest list here).

This time, the Harvard Professor of Religious Symbology is in a tearing hurry, racing through the pages, yet again with another beautiful young lady, trying to unravel complex codes from art and literature of the renaissance period, to save the world.  

But, strangely, the whole world is hell bent on making him fail.  Actually, ‘Hell’ is the key word.

Drawing great inspiration from Dante’s Divine Comedy which is actually made up of three canticas - Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise) and also from Malthus’ principles predicting a population catastrophe, one evil genius is doing something terrible to mankind at a global scale.

What exactly is it? When will it happen? Can Langdon stop it? And, in time? These are the questions that will boggle our minds as we run with the professor and the lady doctor, through Florence, Venice and another famous city which you can find out for yourself, when you read the book. 

The plot begins with Robert Langdon waking up in a hospital with strange dreams and 'retrograde amnesia'. 

I had recently learned about 'retrograde amnesia' from a Bollywood movie. It is a loss of memory-access to events that occurred, or information that was learned, before an injury; a partial memory loss of recent past.

In the movie Jab Tak Hain Jaan, Shah Rukh Khan plays a character that suffers the same memory lapse. It made me wonder if Dan Brown was a Bollywood fan. But then, that is beside the point.  

Trying hard to recall his memory, our protagonist realizes he is thousands of miles away from his natural habitat, the campus of Harvard University. He is in some small hospital in Florence. But someone doesn't want him alive.

And from here,  the race begins as he seeks to find out what he himself was after. And why. The troubled young prodigy Dr Sienna Brooks helps him escape his pursuers.

We get to learn a lot about Florence as the couple dodges their pursuers through museums, gardens, churches and some mysterious passages in between them; as they give readers good value for money.  

Some literary critics have, however, lambasted this book saying Dan Brown is 'the worst prose stylist in the universe', and 'the most dastardly thriller writer who compels the reader on a headlong quest after clues and revelations'. 

But I have seen prose of some Man Booker Prize winning novels where grammar is completely thrown to the wind. And I have read writers with half-baked knowledge of history, passing of as erudite when, in actuality, their writing is downright childish.    

Some call Dan Brown’s writings as being primarily focused on minting money. They allege he creates religious controversies like how The Da Vinci Code did.

But isn't money something most writers hope to get from their books? And in the course of it, if they are increasing our knowledge and critical reasoning, what is wrong? I feel The Da Vinci Code made the readers to revisit scriptures, which is good.

As a Christian, therefore, I would not approve of his ideas or agree with his opinions. But as a reader I must acknowledge his penchant for research and his talent in employing that gripping writing style. He uses many facts but he tells us that it is all fiction. So, why raise a hue and cry on some harmless fiction?

I believe good writers of fiction must know how to weave historical knowledge into engaging stories.  And Dan Brown does just that, once again, with Inferno, very effectively.

With amazing facts from art and literature, with shocking truths from history and archaeology, and with mind-boggling advances in genetics and biochemistry, this is a veritable fare, a power house of knowledge.

If one cannot stomach this kind of writing, they can stick to vampire romances, political deceptions, or those sexual shades of fifty or more.

Dan Brown’s writings make his readers want to visit the places mentioned, even if one has already visited them earlier. This time, for a closer and better look.

If Angels and Demons is largely set in Rome and Vatican City, The Da Vinci Code in Paris and London, and The Last Symbol in Washington DC, Inferno is set in Florence, Venice, and another city which you will have to find out when you read the book. And you will want to visit all those places.

Calling this book 'a page-turner' seems absolutely hackneyed. But it is an apt phrase, nevertheless. 

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Internet and the Global Music Industry

(This view is published in letters column of Gulf Daily News on 11 May 2013)

Here's my  2 fils worth to add to what HG says about profits in the changing music industry in his letter.

When ‘Gangnam style’, the K-Pop music hit of Psy, became the first official video to record 1 billion views on YouTube, it showed us a new drift. It showed how listening and viewing habits are changing in what will perhaps soon be called as the post Generation-Y era.

Who would have ever thought that one music video could be watched a billion times, the world over? This particular video’s views are actually 1,582,919,501, as I write this letter at 3 pm on 6 May 2013, and still counting.

So, quite clearly, Psy the singer, must get his due, for the interest he generated, and for the entertainment he gave. Personally, I dislike the video. But, I admit, creatively, he did a great job.  Just look at his fan following!

I see that I am not alone in my dislike, but 765,804 others pressed the ‘thumbs down’ on this Gangnam Style video. But, that’s beside the point.

The point is this. In this era where fame is often measured not by talent but by fan following, we must give the devil its due. After all, fame – whether one is getting it for being outrageous or not – has its own cost to the fame-attempter. And, it must be compensated. Creative work which people enjoy must be paid for, by the people.

As an erstwhile Radio DJ, I remember how I used to log in the names of the tracks and records I played in the radio station each day, so that the recording companies got paid their royalties; and thereby the original artists get their due.

But now, an mp3 audio file can be easily converted from a YouTube video. Now, access to music is almost instant, at the global launch of the music. Gone are the times when even Radio Stations had to wait for records or spools to arrive.

So, new technology is making ripping and copying music very easy. But new technology is also finding new ways to overcome the problem of piracy. So, I am not going to lament about what the music industry could be losing, or will lose.

Considering the fact that YouTube has introduced the Content ID system, which ensures that copyrights are not easily violated, the real owners of intellectual property could now safely depend on their rightful earnings.

According to an article called How record labels are learning to make money from YouTube, (The Guardian, 4 Jan 2013), Martin Mills, founder and chairman of the Beggars Group (home to artists such as Adele, Jack White and The xx), says that in 2012, 22% of the label group's digital revenues came from streaming.

The new truth is this - the majority of its artists earn more now from ‘track streams’ than ‘track downloads’, which I think is very fair.

From vinyl records to cassettes to CDs to mp3 files to streaming audio-visual content onto phones and computers, we have come a long way. And we did that within the lifetime of the likes of Chuck Berry, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger.

I strongly believe downloads will be a thing of the past soon. Rising broadband connections, with high speed data on fiber optic cables and 4G LTE, will ensure that we can avoid overloading hard-disks and phone-memory chips with content which we can always, easily, go back to.

And every time we listen to an artist, our streaming that content must let the copyright owner get his due.

I agree with many of HG's views in his letter, but I disagree that “The music industry may never again enjoy the soaring profits of half a generation ago”.

No. Profits will soar. But, they will soar in a different form. Technology will triumph. It will find ways in which piracy is beaten. It will make 'filling-up-of-memory-chips-with-content' redundant.  Then artists and record companies will get revenues from their tracks that get streamed on the Internet. The sheer volume of data-traffic tells us that it is going to be a whole new world, yet again.

New, private, paid-channels on services like YouTube will generate revenues tremendously. I can see music industry generating bigger and bigger profits. I can see it happen just around the corner. At that turn of the year 2015. Maybe, sooner.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Good News from a Day of Bad News


From BBC News - Africa
With news stories of Boston's marathon blasts, Iran's earthquake, and Jaipur's public apathy towards a family of accident victims, the day was destined to be bad. Or so, I thought.

But the good news I heard on BBC Radio is this. "The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has settled a decades-old border dispute between the West African nations of Niger and Burkina Faso".

It made me see that glimmer of silver lining among the ominous dark clouds of terror, tragedy and trauma that seemed all set to make pessimists of all of us.

We know from history that the issues of borders between countries can go on for years and years and can cost scores and scores of lives. But, according to BBC, "the Hague court demarcated territory covering an area of 380 km, over half the length of the border between Niger and Burkina Faso. And, the representatives from both governments expressed satisfaction with the ICJ ruling".

The best sentence I think is this: "the representatives from both governments expressed satisfaction with the ICJ ruling".

How many countries can settle border disputes like this? Can, any?

Well, Bahrain and Qatar can. And, in 2001, they actually did. You can read it here and here.

Hawar Islands, held by Bahrain, were claimed by Qatar for many years, among other territorial claims and counter claims. The two nations almost went to war over the dispute in 1986, according to BBC.

The case at the International Court of Justice, launched by Qatar in 1991, was the longest in the court's history, at that time.

But, finally, in 2001, when I was new to Bahrain, I remember following the story and liking it, when I read that both countries were satisfied with the decision.

ICJ said : "The court concludes that Bahrain has sovereignty over the Hawar islands, and that it therefore cannot uphold the submission of Qatar."

Judges ruled that both Qatar and Bahrain had given their consent for Britain to resolve the Hawar dispute in 1939, and so it remained binding on them (as per BBC).

The court awarded control of two minor islands, Janan and Hadd Janan, to Qatar.

Since Qatar, like Bahrain, has repeatedly said it will accept any verdict by the court, the representatives of both countries shook hands, and hugged, over the verdict.

Now, today, I hear and read that Niger and Burkina Faso did the same. God bless countries that believe in this civil way of solving disputes.

How I wish many International border disputes could be settled like this.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Indian Budget 2013-2014 - Is it Prudent?

Also published in Daily Tribune on 8 March 2013. The link to open a pdf file (takes a few seconds) is here

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Great Hindu Monk's 150th Birth Anniversary.

Today is the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda who, without a doubt, can be called the greatest missionary of Hinduism. I remember exactly this day, 25 years ago, I stood at Belur Muth, Kolkata, India, in front of 7000 people - with butterflies in my stomach - speaking about the youth perspective on National Integration from his teachings.

I was 20. And I was proud. So, were my parents, and my college's principal, because I was selected from among all the colleges of Hyderabad to represent Ramakrishna Mutt, Hyderabad at theYouth Session of the 125th Birth Anniversary Celebrations of this great Hindu teacher.

What I learnt about Swami Vivekananda during my preparation for the talk, and especially during my six-day stay at Belur Muth, Calcutta (as Kolkata was called then) was truly, and amazingly, eye-opening and mind-opening. So, I am dedicating this post to the monks I met during that time.

As a Christian who grew up questioning my religious belief, and as a young boy who was seeking knowledge on how religion matters, I was truly blessed by my association with Ramakrishna Muth, Hyderabad. I really do not know how much the current leadership of this mission is doing in promoting discourses and debates on religious values and their application to everyday living, but it had had a profound impact on my personal value system, during my formative years.

Today, even though I am now a Christian by personal choice and conviction, my respect for this amazing and zealous teacher has only grown with age, and I am sure, it will never diminish. I just wish India produced more such philosophers and teachers.

I had a couple of rare opportunities to actually talk with Swami Ranganadhanandha and Swami Prabhupadananda, who were at the Hyderabad Center of the Ramakrishna Mission - a mission founded by Swami Vivekananda in 1897, and which bases its work on the principles of karma yoga. It subscribes to the ancient Hindu philosophy of Vedanta..

The Mission's headquarters at Belur Math in Howrah, near Kolkata, India, was a great place for me to spend six days understanding the Hindu belief system. I must have talked and questioned very immaturely then, but I will not forget my discussions with Swami Krishnamachari, who patiently explained 'Vedic Hinduism' and even  surprised me with his interpretation of what Jesus could have meant when he told the Samaritan woman He meets at the well, about 'living waters'. I came to understand that these Hindu monks of the mission take-up celibacy - only to devote more time to studying Hindu scriptures and comparative religion. And they go through years of education, like any Christian pastor or priest would do, at a seminary.

Like the other seven speakers at the youth session selected from across the country, I received eight huge volumes of 'The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda' which I will always cherish. I will never forget the amazing way in which Swami Vivekananda talks about Jesus' teachings in the 4th Volume, which I have brought to Bahrain, and I keep referring.

Recently, less than six months ago, when on a sight-seeing trip with family and friends, I had the pleasure of renewed memories when I stood on Vivekananda Rock Memorial, and explained to my two daughters, the greatness of this man who stunned the world with his Chicago Address.

Here is his very interesting perspective of Christ, when he addressed a gathering in Los Angeles in 1900 :

"Many times you forget, also, that the Nazarene himself was an Oriental of Orientals. With all your attempts to paint him with blue eyes and yellow hair, the Nazarene was still an Oriental. All the similes, the imageries, in which the Bible is written--the scenes, the locations, the attitudes, the groups, the poetry, and symbol,--speak to you of the Orient: of the bright sky, of the heat, of the sun, of the desert, of the thirsty men and animals; of men and women coming with pitchers on their heads to fill them at the wells; of the flocks, of the ploughmen, of the cultivation that is going on around; of the water-mill and wheel, of the mill-pond, of the millstones. All these are to be seen today in Asia." ----You can see the full text here

He died when he was just 39. But by then, he had traveled the world, when airplane travel was unheard of, and had influenced the generation of that time, and this one.

On the 150th anniversary of his birth, I salute the great teacher.

...

Monday, January 07, 2013

Les Miserables (2012) - My Review


Within first three minutes into the movie, Russell Crowe, starts speaking in verse. I knew, immediately, that its music would be good. But I did not expect the whole movie to be in the same unusual format.
This 2012 film - adapted from the 1985 musical of the same name - is based on the literary-masterpiece and hit-novel of  Victor Hugo, first published almost a century earlier, in 1862.
With the movie tag-line proclaiming ‘The Musical Phenomenon’ on all posters, I obviously expected music. But, I did not expect music all through the movie. I did not expect that there would be no normal dialogue.
So, watching Hugh Jackman , Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, and all other actors sing-song their way, through a dark and grim movie, could seem unnerving and irritating to some.
But being a lover of musicals, and having seen an earlier version of Les Miserables – which, by the way, Hollywood has remade at least 4 times - I found this version of Les Miserables powerfully touching.  

You might like to know that the movie should be correctly pronounced in french as,
Lay----me-zah-ra'a-bl. Which means 'The Miserable Ones'.
Jean Valjean, the protagonist (Hugh Jackman), is the first miserable one. He is just released from prison in 1815, in post-revolution France, when France is experiencing several after-shocks of revolutionary activities.
After his release, this man, our prisoner 24601, stays a night at a Bishop’s house, but is tempted to steal again. The Bishop’s pardon, however, makes him a new man (Some may have read a famous short-story called ‘Bishop’s Candlesticks’ based on this portion of Hugo's novel). Anyway, he becomes a rich gentleman soon. Our prisoner. Not the Bishop.
But since Jean Valjean has broken parole, he is being chased by a determined Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who vows to bring the ex-convict to justice.
Meanwhile, in one of Jean Valjean’s factories works a young lady called Fantine (Anne Hathaway). Her jealous self-righteous colleagues drive their immediate boss, to sack her. Her crime? She's an unwed mother. Left by her lover. We learn that Fantine's child's name is Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). And it is for Cosette's upkeep that she needs money. She regularly pays an Inn Keeper and his wife - rascals cheating everyone - who demand more and more money from Fantine, to take care of her daughter.
With no job, Fantine ends up selling her hair, her teeth and even herself, at a dark, dirty den of prostitutes.
Now, the rest of the story is all about how Jean Valjean, our prisoner 24601, promises to a dying Fantine that he will take care of her daughter Cosette. And how he goes to Paris, how he and Cosette get caught up in the June Rebellion, how they try to escape the persistent grip of Inspector Javert, how Cosette grows up into a beautiful lady, how she falls in love with a revolutionary activist Marius, and how - in the background of France’s post-revolutionary times - several aspects of human judgments of the main characters are put to severe tests.
Duty. Justice. Forgiveness. Love. Hope. Strength. They are all dealt with in a thought-provoking manner. I think the movie does justice to the book.
My favourite songs are two. First, ‘I dreamed a dream’ by Fantine (which Anne Hathaway sang herself, in the movie), but which we all know as being made popular by Susan Boyle - when she performed it (from the stage musical, Les Miserables) in Britain’s Got Talent. I still feel Susan Boyle’s stage rendition was a lot better than Anne Hathaway's movie rendition. Second one, Red And Black , a song in ABC CafĂ©, where students, led by leader Enjolras, meet to discuss their revolutionary plans. It has that powerful revolutionary beat to it. A very appropriate chant-song showing us the mood of those times. People in poverty and misery yearning for the overthrowing of the government.
Technically, the movie should be rated brilliant. At the start of the movie, when the camera pans from the front of a huge early 19th century ship up to the masthead and zips down through the ropes to zoom-in onto prisoners pulling the ropes, made me wonder how much they have been spent for a shot that is barely a few-seconds long. 

The dark and dirty, muddy and murky, alleys of decadent brothels, and the wide and long, bright and busy street scenes of Paris of early 1800s show us that the preparation of sets as well as the work of camera is excellent.
I only wished there were some dialogues. But from the way the Arabic audience was sitting with rapt attention, reading the sub-titles, and following this musical story, I know it will appeal to audience with taste. From the wat it deals with a range of moral issues, from Duty to Love, from Patriotism to Tyranny, I can say it is a masterpiece.
Yes. You can judge a book, by its movie.