Wednesday, September 20, 2023

How do you Solve a Problem like Tragedy?

 Bad things happen. And all the positive thinking in the world cannot change that. We know that. Even so, when tragedy strikes, none of us are remotely prepared for the raw grief and sheer extent of the devastation it unleashes. If heaven forbid, the victims are in our personal or social circles, one is never certain about the correct response. How can we help those reeling from the aftershock of gut – wrenching personal loss? Do we even want to be encumbered with such an onerous task in these dark times when our hearts are no longer in the right place and have long since been swallowed up into the bulging gut of the internet and regurgitated into the bottomless depths of digital dreck?

One supposes that sensitivity, compassion, kindness, and empathy always helps, even if the aforementioned are in short supply nowadays and therefore, absolutely essential not to mention invaluable. But how much is too much? And how little is too little? Even genuine concern can be cloying if it is constant and alloyed with awkwardness. Lending a shoulder for the aggrieved to cry on and all the ice cream in the world can feel pathetically, hopelessly inadequate. But only because it is.

In the face of overwhelming sorrow, hope for a better tomorrow is the first casualty because it seems sacrilegious to even think it, when someone we love or even only vaguely know is trapped in a quicksand of infinite pain and endless sorrow, marooned there by the sudden onset of misfortune. At times like that, it is hard to believe in the healing power of time, when every agonized second feels like an aeon and a half. What is one to do? Who has the inclination and the much-needed patience to let trouble run its course? To wait for a wound to stop bleeding. To refrain from worrying it. To let the scabs form and allow the healing to proceed at the inevitably lackadaisical pace which is so hard on the nerves. To be there for the ones we care about. To give them all the time, space and care that can be managed without being intrusive, invasive, or insensitive. That is hard. And few can manage the feat, even if inclined to make the effort demanded, especially if truth be told, we’d rather expend it all on ourselves.  

It is far easier to go on with our lives, putting aside the guilt over the gratitude and relief we feel that the dreaded bad thing has happened to someone else. Most of us are fully convinced that we can ameliorate a nagging conscience simply by putting up what we consider a poignantly worded post commiserating over the injured party’s loss and suffering. We might even throw in a prayer or two for aggrieved parties and hope that it helps them get back on their feet so that we can all put it behind us and try to move on. Preferably to admittedly insipid and fleeting pleasures which have been rendered even more attractive because we have been confronted with the possibility of our own mortality and the impossibility of holding on to our already limited hoard of happiness.

 It doesn’t help that tragedy brings out the jerks and trolls in droves. Every family and friend circle has its unwanted share of insensitive, rude pricks who always say the wrong thing, ask probing or inappropriate questions, and with a depth of cruelty that defies belief do not demur at all from inflicting further pain on those who are already hurting. We see this everywhere and up close and personal, but it becomes even more horrifying when well – known figures suffer from personal trauma which quickly explodes into a public spectacle. It is truly nauseating to see the massive pile – on as internet crazies get busy with conspiracy theories and news outlets have a field day generating provocative headlines, indulging the ever-growing public taste for sordid sensationalism, scandal, and endless speculation.

All the content in the world cannot compete with real life drama for sheer entertainment value especially when played out on a scale comparable to the elaborately gruesome and macabre spectacles mounted in the infamous Colosseum of ancient Rome to keep the masses appeased and conveniently distracted with an unhealthy overload of blood and gore. Even if we have been reduced to genuflecting before the purveyors of entertainment, does it entitle us to tear them apart when they are down? Why have we allowed ourselves to become such base creatures whose only requirement is the constant appeasement of a ravenous appetite for pleasure uncaring that it comes at the cost of someone else’s happiness or peace of mind?

By incessantly seeking little more than instant gratification we are no longer governed by basic decency or even reason. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to detox a little bit, practise austerity, and abstain from amusing ourselves all the time. With a little time and effort, it stands to reason we may just find our souls again and put the human back in humanity. At the very least, we will no longer allow ourselves to grow fat on the misery of others and join the feeding frenzy every time we scent blood in the choppy waters of this great tragedy we call life.  

Friday, September 08, 2023



Long before generating outrage became the rage for those looking to make a big splash, politicians were doing it with incendiary speeches and rabble – rousing rallies. They still do it, and the ramifications are as bad as they have always been times three in the big bad world of social media with its exaggerated focus on clickbait headlines and emphasis on ‘going viral’ to capture the fickle public’s fleeting attention. It makes sense from a political standpoint since divisive politics always serve to muddy the waters with misinformation and draw attention away from a typical politician’s multitude of misdeeds. From a practical perspective though, such ill – considered words and deeds do a lot more harm than good.

Even a demagogue like Udhayanidhi Stalin, son of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, MK Stalin, who claims to have called out an issue for the purpose of liberating the downtrodden, has not managed to achieve anything beyond arousing the anger of a large section of the populace. In addition to being ineffective considering the larger problem he tried to address, the minister (he holds the youth affairs and sports department portfolio) may have just shot himself in the foot with his sally against Sanatana dharma.

Dissecting a dirty business

Udhayanidhi, the scion of the DMK party, put himself firmly in the eye of the storm and stirred up controversy with his problematic statements on Sanatana Dharma which he equated to malaria, dengue, and mosquitoes, before calling for its complete eradication. In the face of mounting fury and a Rs.10 crore bounty placed on his head (an unconscionable and unpardonable call to violence by the chief priest of a temple in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya), Udhayanidhi held firm, refusing to apologise or retract his remarks, insisting that he had only condemned caste discrimination and his statements had been made in the interest of upholding humanity and human equality.

On examining his provocative pronouncements at length, one is forced to wonder why the honourable minister, if acting in good faith and seeking to eradicate the caste system had simply said as much instead of using the term ‘Sanatana dharma’ with its profound relevance to Hinduism, which in turn has guaranteed that clarity be decisively removed from the equation setting off a chain reaction of confusion and chaos. Hinduism’s overt and covert endorsement of the caste system is a glaring issue but our collective persistence in perpetuating this evil, despite knowing better is the bigger problem and the minister is being disingenuous by refraining from saying it as it is.

As always, the great majority who have taken to social media platforms to register their assent or dissent over this fracas in the most flavourful language imaginable seem to have very little understanding of Sanatana dharma and what it stands for in relation to Hinduism as well as the critiques against it by social reformist stalwarts like E.V. Ramaswami aka Periyar and Baba Sahib Ambedkar, whose teachings Udhayanidhi referred to in his ill – advised call to eliminate Sanatana dharma and by extension an entire religion.

Sanatana dharma vs Periyar and Ambedkar

A deep dive into the finer points of Sanatana dharma as well as the teachings of Periyar and Ambedkar is beyond the band – width of most who are too attention deprived to do anything other than form their opinions based on headlines and even quicker to censure on the strength of a succinct if misleading WhatsApp note. But it is important to do so to fully understand this controversy and form an opinion that is not entirely lacking in sense and sensitivity, all conspicuous by their absence not just in the statements of Udhayanidhi but others like DMK’s A. Raja and BJP’s Home minister, Amit Shah, and spokesperson, Amit Malviya.

In the simplest terms, Sanatana dharma refers to the ‘eternal way’ and implies the timelessness of the soul as it journeys through multiple incarnations via the cycle of births and rebirths. Believers will talk about the inherently diverse, tolerant, and pluralistic way of life embodied by this faith which is traditionally in favour of incorporating noble ideals into its belief system even if from other faiths. Detractors will point out that Sanatana dharma emphasizes belief in the caste system as well as faulty notions of purity which has subsequently resulted in the oppression and suppression of multitudes. Neither side is incorrect though both are inaccurate if they fail to see what Sanatana dharma stands for in its entirety. Choosing to adhere blindly to everything it purportedly conveys without weeding out the problematic parts or callously insisting on throwing the baby out with the bathwater are equally worthy of condemnation.

As for Periyar and Ambedkar, the former was the founder of the self – respect movement who advocated strongly against Sanatana dharma which according to him was being used to keep the lower castes chained to the needs of the privileged. He discouraged blind obedience to rites, rituals, and superstitions, urging his followers to cultivate a spirit of scientific enquiry, and a critical outlook bound by logic and rationale. Ambedkar, the brilliant lawyer and scholar who played a key role in framing the constitution blamed Sanatana dharma for the evils perpetrated against the ‘untouchables’.

Both men advocated strongly against the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, Shastras, and Manusmriti while calling for a truly democratic society where human dignity and equality would be upheld at all costs. A lot of people today quote these two fiery thinkers and activists who condemned the discriminatory nature of Hinduism but unlike Periyar, an avowed atheist and Ambedkar, who embraced Buddhism, the intention does not seem to be to eliminate the caste system but merely use it as fuel to keep the flames of unrest and hatred burning bright in the interests of safeguarding a corrupt system that has made a laughing stock of the true principles of democracy.

Excising caste from the core of Hinduism

Udhayanidhi’s statements could have made a powerful case for the need to annihilate caste which is entirely doable if we come together as a united nation against this ancient evil but by conflating caste based oppression solely with Sanatana dharma believed to convey the essence of Hinduism as opposed to viewing it as a preventable injustice wrought by prejudiced and self – serving human agency which has cherry – picked through and subverted the sacred texts for unscrupulous reasons of enslavement, he has taken a Quixotic tilt at Hinduism itself which is ineffectual at best and hate mongering at worst. Calling for the eradication of a religious way of life through a sustained attack on one of its core tenets does nothing other than hold up a mirror to the fact that we as a nation have little interest in tackling the problem of caste with a firm hand. Instead, we content ourselves by saying things for shock value, get bent out of shape over the inanities uttered by the inept and carry on being uncaring about a pressing problem that is a matter of national shame.

The caste – system championed by some has contributed to endless exploitation and it cannot be glossed over or rationalized any more than the latent homophobia and misogyny evidenced by other religions. This is a many – headed Hydra that needs to be decapitated with Herculean labour. This is a cancer festering away at the beating heart and soul of Hinduism that needs to be excised immediately before it becomes even more malignant. This is what needs to be done at the earliest but by persistently participating in screaming pseudo wars over religion, genocide and the rest of the ridiculous rigmarole foisted on us by self – serving politicians we are missing the forest for the trees and have become equally complicit in preserving the very evils that have enslaved us.

An edited version was published in India Today

Saturday, September 02, 2023



A quick scan of trending news feels like deja - vu. Those of us not over the moon with joy with the successful landing of Chandrayaan – 3 and taken off to the weird new world of Elon Musk’s mysterious X to celebrate the heroics of chess prodigy, Praggnanandhaa as well as Neeraj Chopra’s gold at the World Athletics Championships are busy lamenting the state of a country where a teacher egged on her students to beat up one of their own while harping on unforgivably about his Muslim identity.

In fair Madhya Pradesh, a Dalit woman was stripped, and her son killed by a mob, hellbent on pressuring her daughter to withdraw a sexual assault case she had filled. Those who had tuned out the news preferring to binge watch season 2 of the hit Amazon Prime series – Made In Heaven could not help notice the very public feud provoked by a controversial episode featuring a Dalit wedding where the protagonist played by a fiery Radhika Apte asserts her rights to have a ceremony that reflects her roots. The kerfuffle was between the Dalit director of the episode – Neeraj Ghaywan, Dalit author Yashica Dutt, who argued that her life and works had been appropriated without recognition or renumeration and Dalit legal scholar, Sumit Baudh who claimed in a tweet that Dutt herself had not given him credit for an idea she had appropriated from his article.

In all these instances, one can see the familiar pattern of charged encounters along the divides of national pride, caste identity, political affiliations and religious sentiment which has led to escalating conflict in a divided society where nobody gives an inch, and everybody spews out volcanic rage. Worse, there seems to be no resolution in sight but that doesn’t seem to deter anyone because these public altercations ensures that the people involved get some much-desired visibility and an army of like – minded followers, which appears to be a somewhat self – defeating and morally dubious end goal which nevertheless has the potential to be leveraged for big bucks.

The mainstream news media has long been playing its part in generating chaos and pandering to a simplistic, tidy narrative where in the interests of coherence and brevity, complexity and compassion has been severely compromised, creating a warped reality where one side is purely good and the other is entirely evil. We seem to have deliberately forgotten that all human beings are complex, contradictory creatures with varying views and moral ambiguities. This Us versus Them mentality has sucked the oxygen out of every heated discourse leaving us gasping for air, in a perpetual state of agitation with its ugly sister, aggression for company and our brains deprived of good sense.

In this era of slavish devotion to a politically correct narrative formulated by self – serving activists more committed to looking good rather than doing good, it is not surprising that we all have leaned into an innate confirmation bias where we increasingly choose to believe news and Whatsapp forwards that confirm our personal beliefs while dismissing all evidence to the contrary. Many no longer trust formerly respected news outlets because they are tired of being afraid and have had it up to the gills with the endless cycle of rage, rebuke, and recriminations that leads nowhere and does little to empower the downtrodden while bringing about the betterment of society at large.

If we wish to excavate deeper, life affirming truths instead of grappling in the dirt at a very superficial level, where core issues are concerned, it is necessary to make room for complexity and nuance with the view to listen and understand the motivations of those whose views are not necessarily aligned to our own. It won’t change the world, but we can hope that this might lead to a future where we are all polite to each other, choose to be nice rather than nasty and make room for real conversations on dicey subjects where everybody feels listened to and understood rather than condemned and scorned.