Friday, December 6, 2013

The meaning of Mandela to a Mahatma fan

Nelson Mandela was many things to many people. What the man and his message meant to South Africa and the rest of the world doesn't need repeating. As a citizen of the world I too reveled in his greatness, his capacity to spread cheer and hope with his very presence, his innate serenity that seemed infectious. But as an Indian and a lifelong fan of a man Mandela himself drew inspiration from, Madiba also gave me a distant glimpse into the persona of the Mahatma.

I am a privileged Indian born in a free country. But I came into this world a quarter century after Mahatma Gandhi had left it. Annual commemorations, history books and cinema kept bringing that great Indian harbinger of hope to life for me through my childhood, and I became a devoted fan. The strength that radiated from his small, frail frame was enough to rally an entire nation and bring an occupying empire to its knees. It still seems unfathomable that the force of the Mahatma's personality was enough to spread his message of peaceful resistance across a large country before the era of rapid transit, 24-hour news and instant messaging.

Whenever I watched interviews of people who had known or met the Mahatma, I was puzzled by their slightly mesmeric recollections. They weren't just recounting memories - it was as if they still felt his forceful presence. That bafflement and slight skepticism were put to rest when I stepped into Gandhi's small, sparsely furnished office at the famous ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad. I can't explain the depth of the feeling of serenity that descended into my person as I stood gazing at his floor-level scribe's desk with a pair of wire-rimmed glasses perched atop. Never until then - nor since - had I felt so calm, so humble. And visiting the mansion in New Delhi where the Mahatma was assassinated left me inexplicably agitated. For me at least, the Mahatma's aura transcended time.

Curious about what it might have been like for people who were blessed enough to be in the presence of India's great soul, I closely watched the faces of people who shook hands with the South African Mahatma of my time. Even on television I could see the pure joy on their faces and the instant relaxing of tense muscles. It was as if being in Mandela's orbit made them all want to be more humane, more forgiving, more resolute.

Mahatma Gandhi's legacy for India is uncontested. Without his stewardship our struggle for independence would have been a lot more bloody and devastating. But history is beginning to be a little more harsh in judging him as time goes by. There are now murmurings about some of his human failings. I, however, remain a staunch fan. Flaws and vices are part of being human. But how many of us had/have the fortitude to lead teeming millions to freedom from a brutal oppressor without much bloodshed?

Madiba and the Mahatma were remarkable human beings. They both chose the more difficult, morally sound path. Just apply their principles to your life if you still need proof of their fortitude. Isn't is easier to bear a grudge than forgive? Isn't it easier to be blinded by rage than be guided by calm objectivity? Isn't it easier to cower with fear than to stare your bully down? Aren't more of us increasingly opting for retribution over reconciliation? Can you imagine being locked away for a third of your life and coming out of it smiling, hopeful, forgiving and strong as Mandela did? You'd think it would take superhuman capabilities to do that. But these men were human, like you and me. If they can do so much, can't we do at least a little to be better and more humane?

Perhaps the next Mandela or Gandhi is already among us. I hope I get to meet him/her this time.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Sexist subtext

I've spotted a very subtle yet obvious sexist subtext to some television commercials in Canada of late and it is a little disturbing. On the face of it the ads don't seem offensive. But there is some subliminal stereotyping of female roles/behaviors and gender expectations being broadcast into our homes and collective sub-conscience.

The first is a Nivea anti-perspirant product for women that apparently combats stress sweat. Turns out the very stressed-out subject is the girlfriend or female friend of a contestant on a Who Wants To Be a Millionaire-type game show. She's extremely tense before the contestant locks in the final answer and apparently survives those trying moments of suspense untainted by perspiration only because she used the Nivea product. My question is if you're attempting to create the illusion of a very stressful situation, wouldn't making the woman the contestant have worked just as easily - perhaps better? I can bet the person in the hot seat would be more prone to perspiring than one in the spectator gallery.

The next comes from Canada's telecoms giant Rogers. This dapper man walks into a Rogers store to ask about changing his mobile phone plan. The whole time he has his phone to the ear and the girlfriend/wife's tinny voice coming through. Here go the stereotypes - she seems like she can talk the hind legs off a donkey; her side of the conversation is entirely about shopping; and she, naturally, talks about buying shoes. So our poor protagonist mentions his new couples plan better have unlimited minutes. This sexist overload is enough to make my brain explode.

The third offending commercial is from Vicks. On the eve of the dreaded flu season this company urges you to use its DayQuil and NyQuil to get mommy back on her feet as soon as possible so she can slave away to make everyone else's day better and easier. It shows a little brother and sister talking about what their mom will do for them the following day because she will - obviously- have recovered overnight. The premise is meant to be cute. I find it anything but.

I am disappointed to see commercials like these in a country that claims to value rights above all else. Some might say I'm reading too much into what are meant to be light, amusing vignettes from everyday life. But the problem is that this subtle reinforcement of gender expectations and generalizations is being absorbed on a mass scale. It sneaks into the subconscious, hibernates there undetected and can spring out and ambush us some day. So why not vet commercials a little more before they're released? Self-regulation should be good enough because I still have faith in people's innate goodness. And Canadians have to protect their reputation of being proper. Let's not send these messed-up messages out there.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Syrian conundrum

(May 29, 2013, Facebook status)

Spare a moment to think of what it might be like to live today as an ordinary Syrian. What is it like to not know if you'll see tomorrow, if your children have a future at all? Not know who to trust? To see a government that is supposed to look out for your welfare turn up to butcher you and your family instead? To see a resistance movement hopelessly start to lose its way and become a pawn in the hands regional geopolitics? To watch the world stand idly by, reluctant to intervene? To watch it shed tears for victims of terrorists and natural disasters elsewhere but turn its back on the mass murders you're living through every moment? How can one have the will and grit to live through months of this torture, endure the unendurable for so long? How can a man be so hungry for power that he thinks nothing of nearly wiping out his brethren just to remain in office? How is this possible? Why is it being allowed to happen? Can we do absolutely nothing? There must be a way to end this cycle of insanity. How can ordinary people like you and I help?

(August 22)

Conditions in Syria seem to have escalated from horrific to barbaric and the world still stands by wringing its hands in helplessness. How can this butchery be allowed to go on?

(August 28)

The world's conscience is finally forcing a move on Syria. But things will likely get much worse before they get even a little bit better. If an attack is opened, the prospect of civilian casualties fills me with dread. But is there any other way to dethrone that madman Assad?

(August 29)

How deep runs the devastating legacy of the Iraq misadventure! All the leading military powers that feel intervention in Syria is becoming essential are continually second guessing themselves and each other. Britain's Labour Party, which under Blair made the UK blindly follow Bush into Iraq, is now espousing extreme caution, calling for "evidence" before action. Every power is praying that clinical strikes launched offshore will be enough to cower Assad, praying a solution can be found without deploying boots on the ground. What a difference a decade makes.

Jai Hind

(August 15 Facebook status)

Sending my love to India on Independence Day. Ours is an astounding land of over a billion people, over a billion opinions (generally loudly expressed), and over a billion gripes. A place where there is so much wrong, yet so much right. Mumbai's local trains are a perfect microcosm, don't you think? The hordes rush to board. There is some gentle elbowing, some aggressive pushing. Yet in the end we make room for everyone, we "adjust". It may be a little bit uncomfortable at times, but it'll get you where you need to go. Vande Mataram, and Jai Hind all.

Secularism defamed

 (July 30, 2013, Facebook status)

We grew up learning that secularism is a virtue when it comes to governance. The idea that personal faith shouldn't dictate government functioning and policy to me, even today, sounds like a very sane principle to follow. Religion and governance should never mix in an ideal world. After moving to this part of the world I was shocked to learn that "secular" can be construed as a bad thing. I am speaking of the conservative political forces in the West to whom "secular" and "liberal" are terrible, dangerous words. Now I hear that back home BJP's Rajnath Singh has launched a broadside on what he reportedly calls "secularitis". The BJP's religious leanings are no secret. But when its leader openly launches an attack on one of the ideals enshrined in the preamble of the Indian Constitution, it doesn't bode well for the country.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Can people please get back to being perverts on their own private time. Are men so hard up (pun unintended) for sex that they have to watch pornography at work? And what does it say of them if the workplace happens to be a legislative body or a police department?

First we hear of a few lawmakers in the southern Indian state of Karnataka watching porn on a mobile phone while attending a legislative assembly session. And now we hear that police in Vancouver are taking disciplinary action against 14 officers and a civilian employee for e-mailing porn on the department's computers.

Jeez! A little self-restraint, please. Watch all the smut you want at home. There's no place for pornucopia in public life. Having to mind the minders is a disgraceful waste of resources. So grow up and rein in the inner sicko.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Parents say the darndest things

A couple of nights ago, as we were making our usual torturous, slow march towards the kids' bedtime, I suddenly found myself hollering: "And remember you have to brush every one of your teeth. Not just the ones in front".

As soon as the words escaped my mouth, I realised I had never in my life thought I'd ever need to say anything quite like that. An exchange of this kind would sound so very peculiar to someone who has never been a parent. But to any mother of typical, scraggly pre-teen boys, that sentence is nothing out of the ordinary.

Every time my father overhears me saying something that bizarre to my kids, he guffaws and refers to the 1960 Doris Day classic Please Don't Eat the Daisies. Now that movie title would flummox most, but never a parent of young children. To a mum or dad it sounds like a completely sane and reasonable request to the imps.

As a parent, you do honestly catch yourself saying the strangest things every once in a while. Like I distinctly remember telling one of my boys once not to lick the banister. And another time to kindly not try to stuff his head into a dog's mouth. And to please not press the elevator buttons with the nose. And to please not use his teeth to pick litter off the carpet. And to please not leave shoe prints on the ceiling by tossing footwear up every night. And to please not chuck the school uniform out of the sixth floor window when changing. And to please learn to ignore the monster he imagines is standing behind him when he is in the shower (this at lunch today).

If you're not a parent, yes, our breed does say the darndest things. If you are a parent, please share some of the gems in your "things you never thought you'd say" collection.