About Me

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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Children of a lesser God ?

This piece was written on 6th August 2006. The war in Lebanon had been raging for almost a month. Pictures of the war were being streamed into our living rooms every minute. Some of us can remain detached. Some cannot. I must confess to getting rather despondent at that time.

At such times, I write. Write whatever comes to my mind. Write for myself - not for anybody else. It gives me some peace of mind. No, that is not right - not peace of mind, just some psychological relief.

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I am a disturbed person.

As the war in the Middle East rages on, the rest of the world tries to conduct its business in as normal a manner as possible. To be able to do so, requires a tremendous ability to distance oneself from events that one cannot control or influence. For the pictures streaming in on one’s home TV or on the internet (which is becoming as much of a medium, if not a more potent one, to share live pictures and opinion) make it very difficult to stay disengaged.

Those focussed on their own lives, and on the immediate world around them, will not have an issue at all. They realize that world events, especially wars and natural disasters, happen all the time. And as long as this does not touch them, they see no point in wasting time getting involved.

Sometimes I wish I could be indifferent too. Or just take it in my stride. If there is a war going on in Lebanon, why does it bother ME so much ? I don’t live there. None of the persons particularly dear to me in my life live in Lebanon or Israel, or even Syria for that matter.

Yet I am extremely disturbed by the war that has been raging there for close to a month now. It is not just the horrific pictures. From years of watching pictures of war on TV, I cannot remember images other than those of destruction, bloodshed, weeping family members and vows of revenge. And of course the mandatory military press briefing. That is the face of war that the public at large sees.

It is obviously not quite the same as actually being in a war-zone. Wondering when that next rocket is going to fall and how far from you that will be. Wondering whether you should move to another place (maybe a bunker close by) or stay put. Wondering how long the supplies you have will last you and your family and whether you should go for a replenishment trip. And if so, when.

The smallest of travails seems to have risk associated with it – something that those of us, sitting in the comfort of our living rooms, do not have to put up with. We just have to put up with the images we see on TV. And even that we do not have to – there are always the entertainment channels to switch to.

After all, it is somebody else’s war. It is somebody else’s nightmare. It is somebody else’s fate. We cannot espouse every cause in the world, nor can we help our own cause by getting involved. There is the political machinery of each country and established international institutions like the United Nations which have the political framework and the military apparatus to tackle war – it is their job to do so.

Indeed it is. We, the common people, have no role to play. We may have an opinion but it counts for zilch.

Maybe I just need to accept this. That my opinion counts for nothing. If I had wanted to be able to influence global events, perhaps I should have entered public life. Even then it would have been a very long shot to be able to make a difference but at least I would have been in the right profession. From where I am today, I feel I cannot even influence things happening in my own backyard, let alone things happening halfway around the world.

Somebody once said something about the pen being mightier than the sword. I think it was Rabindranath Tagore. Maybe that is an option. To be able to express oneself so powerfully and to be able to communicate with the masses and the powers-that-be , with just the power of the pen.

With the proliferation of communication means nowadays, it should be easy, sitting in one’s own drawing room, to be able to get one’s message across. A lot of people do this – and some, quite effectively too. My challenge is that I lack the self-confidence to put my views out there and to be able to engage in debate on them. I cannot argue on history, on what happened thousands of years ago around the time of Christ, what happened on the formation of Israel, what UN resolutions have or have not been issued since then to attempt to keep peace in the region.

The bottom line therefore is that if I choose to go the “power of the pen” route, I do not have enough content to be able to make a meaningful case for my argument. (To be honest, I doubt that a case can anyway be won on content in this highly-emotional, highly-disputable and fuzzy issue). I do not have a choice of going any other route because I have no political influence whatsoever.

On top of this, I feel that this war, whenever it officially ends, is only a precursor for bigger wars to come because the battle lines have been drawn so clearly now – and in blood – that rapprochement, always a difficult objective, is now going to be almost impossible to establish. Co-existence, for long a difficult but still viable mission and vision, now seems to be a million miles away.

And, I am not able to distance myself from this subject. It may sound stupid but I am just not able to look away from those scenes or switch off the TV or change the channel. For the truth is what it is – and does not disappear by one's choosing to ignore it.

This is our world - these are our children who are dying due to politics and war. What have they done wrong ? I don't care whether they are Israeli or Lebanese. Jew, Muslim or Christian. Try explaining to these innocent souls about UN resolutions. Are they children of a lesser God ?

Like I said at the start of this piece, I am a disturbed person. Small wonder.

Nights at the Opera

Having spent a lifetime perfecting the art of appearing to be interested in the finer aspects of art and culture - including a monthly visit to the opera which made even visits to the dentist seem pleasurable - I decided that enough was enough. Not only was this making a serious dent in my pocket, I found myself, even after half a dozen visits, completely unable to appreciate any of the supposed subtleties of this form of culture. I never managed to understand the variations from bass to baritone to tenor to soprano, though I tried hard. Honest, I did.

Adding to my misery was the realization that the timings of the opera often seriously clashed with day-night cricket and football, making me the only possible sports lover in the world sitting in a room full of culture geeks on a Friday evening when I could be sitting in front of the telly, beer in hand, perversely watching Australia dish it out to England in the one game and Brazil do likewise to England in the other.

In fact, so desperate had my desire to enjoy the small pleasures that I hold sacred in life become, that I even toyed with the idea of carrying with me into the concert hall, hopefully unnoticed, a transistor radio to at least catch, if only sneakily and occasionally, the commentary of the games that I was destined to miss. It would be no substitute for the fully stretched-out, lazy couch-potato opportunity but, hey, it was still better than nothing.

But, for all my craving, this remained no more than an idea, partly due to an entirely unrewarded sense of sensitivity for fellow opera-goers but more due to a fear that this might result in thrusting me prominently in an unfavourable light with the one for whom I was going through all this torture in the first place, should she catch me in my moment of indiscretion. No sir, if a charade had to be carried out, it had to be carried out to perfection, however tempting other options may be.

After six-and-a-quarter opera sufferings, I could take it no more. (The quarter, for those interested, was when I managed to feign jetlag and oil out of one of these occasions when it was less than an hour into its horrendous glory. I had just arrived from New York that morning and, although I felt perfectly fine, it would have been criminal to have allowed this great opportunity to use this mother-of-all-excuses for serious avoidance to go waste).

I asked myself – is this the basis of our relationship ? Granted that she is worth every bit of opera suffering but I could not help feeling that surely there was something wrong about the situation. The fact that she had not shown the slightest interest in anything that I was interested in – and then I am talking cricket and football in particular – did not escape me. Whenever I had brought up the subject, she had conveniently managed to flutter her eyes and talk about the next art exhibition coming to town or a visit to Christie’s. No, not the slightest interest in my interests.

And here I was, pandering to her every request like a lapdog, completely devoid of any sense of self-esteem. What would be next ? A ballet-dance trial ? Or a high-society costume party ?

I cringed. The truth, painful though it was, had hit me all of a sudden. I knew where I belonged. And more importantly, knew where I did not.

The phone rang.

“Don’t forget to pick me up at 6.30 sharp. We need to be there by 7.00 and I do not want to be there a minute late”.

“Who is on tonight ?” I still feigned interest, though I could not care less.

“Frittoli”.

“Sounds like a nice Italian dish”. I murmured under my breath.

“What ?”

“Nothing. Listen, can you excuse me for tonight ? Something’s come up”.

“Cancel it. You know this is our opera night - and you also know how I feel about this”.

“Yes, I guess you are right”.

“Good. 6.30 then”. She was about to hang up.

“Hang on. You are right – I know how you feel about opera. Pity you don’t know how I feel about cricket.” I could not believe I was saying this. I do not know from where I mustered the strength to say this but I knew I had to put an end to this madness.

Silence.

“You know what ? There’s this neo-realism exhibition that everybody’s talking about. I think we should definitely go there next Wednesday. It is on only for three days”.

“Wednesday is European Cup football. Sorry, no can do”.

Silence.

“What are you saying ?”

“Listen, I like you a lot. But let’s face it – we live in different worlds. My world is cricket and football. Yours is operas and art exhibitions. Unless there is an exhibition on high-society cricket, I doubt we will find ourselves together in one place, both enjoying ourselves.”

“Ok, 6.30 then”.

“Fine”. I sighed - it was worth a try anyway.

And that, my friends, is how I got to hear and hear of Barbara Fritolli. And Sonia Ganassi. And Michele Pertusi.

And yes, I too wish they were pasta dishes.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The genesis of war

It is when I am in a Wordsworthian "vacant or pensive mood" and do not, unfortunately, have the serenity of watching daffodils out of my living-room window that my mind begins to dwell on subjects, abstract at a personal level, but close enough to my heart to occupy meaningful mind-space.

One such subject is war - often glamorised by the victors (as if there are any). As Israel-Lebanon commemorate the passing of one year since the Lebanese war - and lives continue to be lost in Iraq every day - and there is not the slightest signs of any quelling of the voices of mistrust and jingoism around the globe - I return to a piece I wrote a while ago.

Normally, any writing tends to get dated and loses its relevance and sting over a period of time. It is a sad and sobering reflection of the power (if that is the right word to use) of war that it enjoys perennial currency.

So when I picked up this piece that I had written exactly a year ago (mentally troubled as I was during the Lebanese conflict), I found that, sadly, nothing much has changed. The one positive development in the last twelve months is the brokered peace in Northern Ireland - one that I hope will be sustained. The key ingredient for any brokered peace is trust, and while I am cautiously optimistic about the situation, it is early days yet.

Anyway, onto my piece - as it was written on 18th July 2006.

Since time immemorial, man has been fighting man. Over land, over religion, over women (for example, Helen of Troy and Rani Padmini of mediaeval India).

One of my ex-bosses, a cynical man if ever there was one - an Italian by origin, a Welshman by birth, an Englishman by upbringing and a Dutchman by domicile – once made one of the most startling comments I have heard about war and peace. In his inimitable style, he said “Peace is just an interlude between two wars. It is man’s biggest folly that he believes he can live in uninterrupted peace”.

He was a cynical person, so let us not take this statement too seriously. But he was also very well-read – especially on world history and politics and could discuss, in great detail, events that triggered off and occurred during the Greek, Roman, Persian wars before Christ. He could just as well analyse the Crusades, wars that happened during the “dark ages”, wars fought in Europe for the last five hundred years (almost every country fought with every other country and the map of Europe has been changing every century), wars fought in Japan and China, down to the most recent wars of the last few decades.

I was amazed at his knowledge. He would be able to analyze cause-and-effect and the spillover effects of various wars. For example, Russia pulled out of Afghanistan finally in 1989 – and immediately the Kashmir issue, which had been dormant for many years, suddenly raised its ugly head again with kidnappings and increased violence in that region. Could it be that suddenly there was a huge availability of arms in Afghanistan (most of them provided by America by the way), there was a generation whose only skill was to fight – and suddenly there was a vacuum when their primary cause for fighting died out ? So, hey, suddenly “the liberation of Kashmir” becomes a welcome cause for this passionate, restless soldier community.

I still believe he was exaggerating when he made that comment. But sometimes you have to exaggerate, for effect. He had me for sure completely shocked by his statement. That statement was made sometime in 1997 or so but it has remained etched in my memory. I have thought a lot about it in the years since.

War is a complex subject and to try to analyze it purely factually would be to do grave injustice to the many non-quantifiable factors that play their role in the creation of circumstances that lead to a war or to the war itself.

I am a simple man and I try to figure out, for my own simple mind, why people fight with each other. And I come to the following conclusions.

Greed. This is the single biggest reason why people fight with each other. Whether you are arguing with your neighbour over what exactly constitutes your fence boundary with him, or you are eyeing that weak country that you could “grab” hold of, it amounts to greed. In previous millennia, it was very common for emperors to expand their territories by marching into others’ territories and forcing submission by war if necessary. Reason : acquisition of more wealth, lands, slaves.

While the flavour of such expansionist ideas did change over the centuries, the concept continued till at least the end of the First World War. The powers of the world then (many of whom by then had whetted their appetite for political expansion) suddenly tried to appear more civil and set up the “League of Nations” – a first, rather hurried effort to try to bring “world order” into place.

Mr. Adolf Hitler, who had not only missed out on all the fun of land-grabbing but also felt that the final whistle had been blown at a wrong time for his country (Germany lost huge terrority to France when the Versailles Treaty was signed after World War I ), decided to give it one more try. It did not work for him. The biggest villain of the twentieth century was, to put it simply, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just a century or two earlier, and he would have been remembered as an inspiring leader. Now he was consigned to be remembered as the man who cost the world a few million lives.

Coming back to my point – the biggest reason for war is, in my opinion, greed. Greed for more power, more land, more wealth.

Supply-Demand imbalance. This to me is another major reason for war. As long as there is plenty of supply of any commodity, mankind will be relatively at peace. I say “relatively” because there are still those greedy elements who, inspite of having more than their requirement, will not spare anything for the more needy. But, by and large, surplus supply of any asset is not something that one often complains about.

When there is a shortage, that is when there is definitely stress – and struggle. Whether it is a shortage of jobs, or land – tensions mount. Where there are haves and have-nots in one society, and there are extremes between these two, there is always a chance of civil war. There may be other mitigating factors for this but if the institutions of that society are not strong enough (for example, if the power is not derived through democratic means), the exposure level of that society is high. The most recent example we have of this is Nepal. One may argue that there were other reasons for the Nepalese tensions but in my simple mind, it comes down to haves and have-nots and the imbalance in the power equation.

Make no mistake - the war in the Middle East (in and around Israel) is not just a war about ideologies, although this is used very effectively to rally forces to your cause. It is also a war about limited resources, land, jobs, water – everything that you fight for in those regions. And then, the difference in religious ideologies just takes the conflict to a different level altogether.

So, would an economically developed Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon be able to live in peace together ? I would love to say yes but that is where I would be very na├»ve in not recognizing that third demon of all wars – religion.

Many are the wars that have been fought over religion. This is very ironic considering every faith professes peace as one of its primary teachings. But, whether it is the Crusades fought over centuries, or wars fought in Bosnia and Chechnya, they have had religious differences as their driving force.

There are other reasons for war too. Anything that divides people can cause war if the circumstances build up to such a flashpoint. In Rwanda and Burundi, the war between Hutus and Tutsis in the 1990s which killed millions, was one fought on ethnic differences. If you delve deeper, you will find that even here, the root cause is the more dominant ones – supply/demand imbalance and to some extent, greed for power. The Hutus were the original settlers in Rwanda and tilled the land. The Tutsis were a nomadic tribe whose main occupation was cattle-herding. As they got more economically dominant to the soil-tilling Hutus, they began ruling the Hutus, though they were in a minority. The Hutus began losing more and more of their land, though they outnumbered the Tutsis. The stage for a grand civil war was set and it was a disaster just waiting to happen. The world could only watch as the atrocities mounted every day and people died by the millions.

A rather perverse reason for war, and one that is not realized very often, is the sheer availability of means. We keep talking about motive – but any good detective story will tell you that motive and means are both required for a successful murder to be committed. All the above reasons are about motive – but if there are no means for war at all, there is a chance that a disagreement will not blow up into a full-scale war. But if the means are also readily available – as in my earlier example about the situation in Afghanistan after the Russian retreat – then the situation gets that much more explosive.

As I said earlier, war is a complex subject. There is rarely just one reason for it, often one reason feeds another. Greed for power or land, often creates a supply-demand imbalance.

So, now that I have had my theoretical say on what I believe is the genesis of war, do I have solutions ? At least theoretical ones ? I daresay I do.

As with my holistic approach to try to explain to myself why people go to war, my solutions too are only holistic. Unless one side in a war is so overwhelmingly dominant as to completely exterminate the other side and its ideology – that too, for generations to come, I fear that violence will only serve up more violence. Unfortunately, modern weapons of warfare are not confined to just one side in a war and that makes the likelihood, scale and duration of a war far more frightening than ever before.

But, if my assessment of the root causes of war is even reasonably accurate, would it not help to at least try to mitigate conditions that create war-like circumstances ? For one, reduce the supply-demand imbalance. Share more resources instead of the “I want it all” approach.

I know that a suggestion to reduce means will directly hit at the supply capability of the not insignificant global armaments industry. After all, in peacetime, production goes on and stockpile only accumulates dust. I have always been a bit wary of sincerity in various “arms reduction treaties” between warring factions – but where there is a will for warfare – and a means - there is, frighteningly enough, almost always a way.

So work on the will AND on the means – and you will working on the root causes of war.

And hopefully, my erudite ex-boss, for all his knowledge of every war that has ever been fought by humanity, will be proven wrong about that “war and peace” observation.

I know, for all his wisdom and ego, he would love to be wrong on this one.