déjà vu

They are like a re-enactment of things that have happened before. Or, my imagination has been jolted into overdrive by the horrific events of the last few weeks.

In the Afghanistan-US collision I fancy I hear echoes of the first encounter of Out-of-Africa Homo sapiens with the local Homo neanderthalensis nearly 70,000 years ago. The US and Afghanistan could very well be divergent evolutionary systems and have nothing in common.

I imagine the Rohingya in Burma, Tigrayans in Ethiopia, and other clashes taking place right now on earth, also echo the past and reflect fault lines. Are there deep intangible differences between ethnic groups that can’t be bridged because they can’t be named, described, understood and resolved as they’re beyond the reach of language? Have democratic people created a collective delusion that we are all exactly the same, to which others don’t subscribe?

Are wars actually a face-off between species, then? Setting aside the fact that scientists are now revising the definition of ‘species’, are there actual evolutionary differences in how people’s brains are wired, the way we think and behave because of differences in genes inherited from different remote ancestors and subsequently altered further by adaptation?

Surely it matters, considering that genes decide who we are and what we prioritize in life. The differences can’t be put down merely to culture, which is a superficial construct.

Our common ancestor Homo erectus evolved from chimps in Africa about 7 million years ago and his descendants migrated to different parts of the world in waves. Each group of ancient people adapted to life as they found it: desert, ice, grasslands, dense tropical forest, altitude, level of UV radiation, availability of water and food, etc.

Over time, adaptations generated genomic signatures of natural selection. So, though we share basic emotions like joy, sadness, excitement, anger, hate, etc., the nuances differ enough to sometimes not be able to relate to people who think very differently from us.

There were at least 21 human species that existed on earth at different times. These species were different from Homo sapiens, and interbreeding between some of them happened thousands of years ago. All the other species died out, but left some of their genes in the cells of different groups of Homo sapiens.

Some populations living now have 2-4% neanderthal genes from Eurasia. The indigenous people of Oceania have 4-6% denisovan genes from Siberia. So do Native Americans, whose ancestors entered America via the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia.

Does that explain why people of different ethnicity differ beyond just skin colour? I wonder, because the same people, when transplanted in a different environment, adapt and assimilate within one or two generations. Maybe neuroplasticity offsets inherited traits, or maybe these traits lie dormant and don’t manifest unless triggered by insecurity, distrust, fear or anger.

The Chinese government has accepted the new Afghan set-up with no reservations. Again, in my imagination, an echo from the past: Timur admired Genghis Khan and tried to emulate him! While Timur killed 17 million people, Genghis Khan killed 40 million. What might these allies get up to! Will they endanger India?

Of course, I’m not stereotyping regular citizens of either country by saying this. Citizens anywhere can only protest, and taking out processions doesn’t work in any country, which is why governments allow them in the first place! The subaltern history of any place is summed up as a footnote: the citizens rose up against the state but the uprising was successfully quelled by police with lathis, teargas and firing in the air.

Strangely, there are no stories about indigenous Indian kings with the sensibilities of these two men and their descendants. Though the Mauryas, Guptas, Cholas, Pallavas, Karkotas, Ahoms and all the rest continuously waged wars, killed people and wreaked destruction, I haven’t come across accounts that indicate they crossed the line separating soldier from psychopath.

Of course, it’s possible such records existed in the Nalanda or Vikramashila universities that were destroyed by primitive marauders whose idea of treasure didn’t go beyond jewelry. A re-enactment of this wanton destruction happened in 2001 when the Bamiyan Buddhas, a fine specimen of Gandhara art from the 6th century, were blown up. Déjà vu.

I do wonder if present day Chinese leaders and the Afghans that currently hold sway tap into a deep intuitive knowledge of one another’s minds. I mean, do they recognize themselves in the other and instinctively know how to transact business with them?

India doesn’t have that best-friend thing with any country, though some say we do have a genuine connection with Russia and Israel.

We see how India completed several civil projects in Afghanistan over the last 20 years but didn’t forge a friendship. One can’t force friendship – it’s like college roommates, some are merely roommates while some become friends for life. What we had going with Afghanistan is closer to the former.

Treaties, pacts, partnerships, MoUs, promises and assurances don’t carry quite the same meaning and sanctity in all cultures. People with fewer scruples may use them as expedients, bait, or devices to achieve immediate goals. To unscrupulous people ‘a gentleman’s word is his bond’ means ‘a foolish man who deserves to be taken advantage of’. This is illustrated by one version of Prithviraj Chauhan’s fate that has gained publicity recently.

As an Indian I feel a niggling unease, as if the Ghori-Prithviraj interactions in the two Battles of Tarain 1000 years ago might be re-enacted anytime. The US is either as innocent as a child getting into a car with the ‘nice’ man he just met, or incredibly stupid, or there’s a clever foreign policy that is beyond the understanding of ordinary mortals, or there’s a conspiracy involved. It’s hard to believe the US didn’t know where its ‘aid’ was going for twenty years.

Perhaps the aftermath of the 20-year Afghan war is to Americans what our 1000-year history of being under relentless attack is to us, hopefully making them a little more circumspect in future while dealing with people who live by a different set of ethics.

Words like president and minister in the context of a government in Afghanistan sound contrived because people holding those posts have different qualifications and job experience in our world. Since it is not an elected government, the nomenclature doesn’t sit well with many of us. All they want is the $$$$$, the bag of goodies they feel entitled to receive from the international community, and everybody knows it.

But the images coming out of Afghanistan of malnourished and sick children, vacant-eyed mothers sitting by the hospital beds of their little ones, women howling in pain on being beaten up, these are tugging at people’s heartstrings all over the world.

We empathize, because we’ve seen this before, whenever there is an upheaval somewhere in the world – Serbia, South Sudan, Burma, Honduras, Chechnya, Ukraine, Spain, etc. – and in our own country. Hopefully, the $1billion collected yesterday for food and basic necessities for the Afghan people reaches them.

the afghans and us

Every Indian has a representation of Afghans in his mind starting from school days. Our image of ourselves has been shaped by how Indian rulers of those times responded to attacks from the northwest, chiefly from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. And our core idea of Afghanistan is based on a whole lot of niche facts from History classes.

As 7th and 8th graders we were shocked by the savagery of Afghan invaders described in our textbooks. These accounts are based on what was written down by the invaders. They could be distorted by subjectivity, translation or victor’s bias. Or maybe that’s the truth, that’s exactly how they did happen.

Apparently, nothing was recorded by those whose lives were too disrupted by the maelstrom to muster up the will to record the events.

These are some of the invaders from Afghanistan that we had to learn up a lot about in school. After plowing through a few chapters it was like watching something play on a loop on a TV screen in a hotel lobby. They all began to sound the same!

Ghazni: 10th /11th century

Ghori: 12th century

Jalaludin Khilji: 13th century

Timur: 14th century

Lodi: 15th century

Ghazni:

Ghazni’s ruthless ransacking of temples, especially the Somnath temple that he robbed and razed 17 times, bewildered us.

And the Rajputs patiently rebuilt it each time! What drove them? Perhaps a sense of duty, coupled with acceptance of the temple’s destruction as either God’s will, the attackers’ ignorance, or a test of their own faith. Fatalism is in our genes and we do sometimes behave like automatons if we are exhausted from being hit on the head too many times. Anyway, the temple still exists.

Ghori:

Ghori conquered India thanks to the original Jai Chand whose name is now a pan-India metaphor for a traitor. But, as children, we felt ashamed that an Indian betrayed our country. After Ghori, his slaves, and then their slaves, ruled India for nearly 100 years! To rule only meant to exercise supreme authority. Royal qualities were not required, so it didn’t matter who sat on the throne! So, this was the oxymoronic Slave dynasty.

Khilji:

Jalaludin Khilji killed the last ruler of the Slave dynasty and declared himself king when he was seventy. He was killed by his nephew-cum-son-in-law, Alauddin, so he could be king. His dynasty lasted for only 30 years and is best known for destroying the Nalanda University.

The Khiljis were followed by the Turkic Tughlaq dynasty whose exact origins in the northwest are not known. But one of them provided generations of Indian school kids with much needed comic relief in the emotionally draining History classes that mostly featured cruel people and a lot of bloodletting.

Tughlaq is now a metaphor for someone who makes costly decisions that are doomed to fail, and everyone but the Tughlaq can foresee what is going to happen!

Timur: Timur captured and looted all the towns from Kabul to Delhi, killed with abandon, ruined and destroyed everything in his path, and then, on his way back, plundered the towns he had missed on his way in, like Meerut, Hardwar, Kangra and Jammu. He has the distinction of causing the deaths of 17 million people, i.e. 5% of the world population at the time.

He took away gold, silver and precious stones from India. I wonder what happened to all the treasure that reached Afghanistan from India. Maybe the Chinese will find it when they start digging, once they get the mining rights they’re angling for!

Lodi: Lodi was a Pashtun Afghan. He and his descendants were a harsh and bigoted lot and did exactly what their predecessors did. Ibrahim got his brother assassinated so he could occupy the throne, something we simply accepted as one of their rites of passage by the time we reached tenth grade and had been force fed this stuff for four years.

The Lodis destroyed temples and built mosques on top, another standard procedure, which made remembering facts about each of these people both easy and difficult while studying for exams, because they all blurred into one turbaned, bearded, mustachioed, sword-brandishing hulk on a horse.

So this is the historic Afghanistan-India relationship we inherited! Reviewing these events from the safety of 500-1000 years into the future makes it’s easier to talk dispassionately about them, the way historians write about Attila and Bleda the Huns’ onslaught on the Roman Empire in the 5th century, or the Norsemen’s on medieval England.  

But, as school children, these stories upset us enough to prefer Amar Chitra Katha comics. Many of these comics were about kings like Prithviraj Chauhan who fought back, valiant rulers who were dismissed in one short paragraph in our textbooks. Until last month’s Tokyo Olympics India never appreciated the efforts of people who didn’t win in a competition or war!

Meanwhile, we read Tagore’s short story Kabuliwala every year from 8th to 10th grade, either in English or in Hindi. We warmed to the big Afghan as he affectionately teased the author’s little daughter. We felt his pain when he shed tears for his little girl back home in Kabul.

You might say the pen is truly mightier than the sword if one Nobel-winning Indian writer could make Indian kids forget all the terrible Afghans in Indian history for the moment, and feel compassion for an Afghan trader down on his luck in the 1890s, but honestly, coming across a normal human being from Afghanistan was a huge surprise and a great relief!

In the 1990s we felt sorry for present-day Afghans and were happy that our country was giving them refuge. At that time I was friends with the Afghan refugees who lived next door – Naaz and Nazia – and we spent a lot of time in each other’s homes.

For the past couple of decades we were glad there was peace in Afghanistan, thanks to the US presence. From 2001 India invested US$3 billion in Afghanistan to build roads, schools, hospitals, dams – and even a beautiful parliament building costing $90million.

400 infrastructure projects across the country. Nice!

Now, here’s the thing.

In 2011 we signed the India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement and Afghanistan got duty-free access to the Indian market. Great. But I can’t find any information regarding what India gained from this deep engagement with Afghanistan!

I typed ‘What has India gained from Afghanistan’ – worded in many different ways to make sure Google understood – in the search bar and it returned 38,20,00,000 results for ‘What has India done in Afghanistan’! It never found the answer to my question! Perhaps private investors from India prospered and that doesn’t appear online?

I would have expected the government to get some quid pro quo for this construction work, like maybe lithium for our solar energy and electric vehicle projects?

The Ministry of External Affairs says we have ‘a people-to-people relationship’ with Afghanistan. I can’t decode that. I presume there is a solid reason for investing in a country that shares only a 106 km long border with us, thousands of feet up in the Hindukush Mountains; otherwise, we are separated by thousands of km2 of hostile land.

We are currently hosting over 20,000 documented refugees from Afghanistan and several thousand undocumented ones besides. We are providing for them, obviously, despite our own impoverished populace being hit by corona and job loss. The refugees say we’ve made a bad job of it – merely saving their lives doesn’t count! Therefore, those who were stranded in a gurudwara in Kabul last week refused to come to India.

As of now, it seems to me that India helped Afghan civilians painstakingly build a comfortable nest in which parasitic cuckoos have now laid their eggs. And the US has inadvertently provided equipment for their protection. The civilians who built the nest want to go to Europe because their nest is now a ghetto. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if any good comes out of what, at this point, looks like India’s vanity project in Afghanistan.

pursuit of political aims

In large families the eldest child is often the third parent, helping mum and dad get the younger ones to follow house rules. She has the privilege of her parents’ trust and almost as much power over them as their parents do. She is expected to never hit back if they pummel her with their little fists or kick her in the shin when she tries to bathe or dress them against their will. She is held responsible for any fracas involving the rest, often getting punished while the smaller children go scot-free. I know, because I was that eldest sister.

With this template, I entered adolescence thinking the government was right in overextending itself to take care of minorities at the expense of the ‘privileged’ majority.

When my siblings and I were in our teens I was battered in a fistfight with my brother who seemed to have developed superhuman strength overnight! Until then I had got by with a long, furled, towel stretched between my fists to use as a nunchaku when attacked by any of the younger ones. But that wasn’t enough when they were no longer little. They just yanked it out of my hands!

In 1990, when the minority Hindu Kashmiris were tormented and chased out of Jammu & Kashmir by that state’s majority, and the government did nothing, I questioned the label ‘minorities’ being applied to the group that was larger, disruptive and violent – the equivalent of my ‘defenceless’ brothers and sisters – for the first time.

In my last post I wrote about the Tuareg people being sidelined in Niger. That seems to be the pattern everywhere: minorities are sidelined, or even persecuted, or annihilated.

Unless, of course, the government accedes to the demands of ethnic minorities at the expense of the majority, as has been done in India. For example, churches and mosques get to use donations made by their followers for their own activities, as well as receive funds from the government, but donations made to temples by Hindu devotees go to the government!! For over 65 years our government had total faith in the gullibility, self-doubt and fatalistic acceptance that has been hardwired into the mental make-up of Hindus over centuries!

As Indian Hindus have a small presence in many countries, most people who have come in contact with them will agree that they are generally law-abiding, make no demands on the government, do not resort to violence, and do not try to convert local people to their religion. Their spiritual values are not rigid and they don’t concern themselves with other people’s gods and religions. Which is why democracy has survived in India, though I admit it is far from perfect.

I am pretty sure that some nations are incapable of democracy because the narcissistic upper echelons can’t imagine being equated to the hoi polloi. But democratically oriented countries propagate it with a missionary zeal, ignoring the fact that the countries they want to mould in their own image prefer oligarchy, so they can hold on to their limitless power over the tribe.

An evolving civilisation in its early stages tends to stick with tribal customs and hierarchies, and no amount of harping on democracy and human rights can change this. It looks like some civilisations refuse to evolve. They mark time rather than march forward, or even take a few steps backwards time and again.

Not even ‘education’ can help a community or nation grow intellectually and spiritually if its children are indoctrinated with ideas of ‘only one god, our god, revere him, serve him – or else!’ As we know, a lot of people who run terror outfits are ‘educated’, as are people who infiltrate well-knit communities to spread subversive beliefs, wreck social systems and cause strife.

Terrorism is defined as ‘the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims’. Regardless of what they claim, there is always a political goal, and I think that is the most important part of the definition of terrorism. Once terrorists achieve that goal there can’t be peace for ordinary citizens.

While unlawful use of violence is relatively easy to understand, intimidation is harder to define. It can be subtle, like people who aspire to power via religion threatening gullible people that they will burn in hellfire if they don’t toe their line. It’s surprising how naïve people are intimidated by threats like this, but it’s common enough, going by what I have heard from panicked patients who have had a breakdown when thus intimidated.

Minorities like refugees, traders and temporary settlers often request concessions to follow the ways of their homeland in their new country rather than assimilate. They can who-moved-my-cheese their way into political power right under the noses of the hosts if governments give in to all their demands. At any rate, that is how the East India Company jumped from being traders to colonisers in India! What followed was not different from terrorism, really.

Since getting free of the British, India has always had a problem of infiltration from the neighbouring countries they hurriedly hacked out of India along their Radcliffe line, etc. before they left. Plugging gaps in its land frontier – 15,200km of it – is an ongoing process, and hasn’t been very successful so far.

Even well guarded borders in developed countries are not perfectly sealed. Desperate people find ways to get in. And, with time, they become the ‘minorities’ and begin making demands on the host country’s government, backed by human rights activists, while citizens continue to fund them with the taxes they pay.

Countries that have traditionally been White majority are now uneasy about changing demographics. When European immigrants became the majority in the Americas the original inhabitants were wiped out, so the White world is fully aware of the danger of being in the minority, of being overwhelmed by people whom they allowed in as guests.

So, I discovered that my towel nunchaku could no longer protect me. Even if it had been the real thing I couldn’t have wielded it like Bruce Lee because I had no intention to kill my brother! So I turned my room into a bomb shelter, figuratively speaking, and used the dining and living rooms for civilized conversation when we had to sit together, what else! We all grew out of our teens and stopped terrorizing one another.

That possibility of civilised diplomatic dialogue between nations has been taken away by events of the past two decades. Trust and respect have both disappeared completely from the international political scene. The spread of terrorism has left us with a choice of upgrading our weaponry or building bomb shelters. Or both. Unfortunately.

sidelined

A few days ago, I saw on the news that Niger wants France to clear up radioactive waste in the French-owned uranium mines around the city of Arlit.

I was surprised that anyone would leave radioactive material lying around, and that too, France, which generally comes across as a responsible country. Fifty percent of the uranium ore from Niger’s mines goes to fuel France.

I could be wrong, but it looks like no country has a perfect plan for disposing of radioactive waste. There is a stockpile of radioactive waste from nuclear reactors in the world stored in temporary facilities. The intention is to eventually bury it deep underground in cement canisters.

I know that ‘high-level’ waste is less than 3% and the rest is ‘low-level’ waste that supposedly decays and becomes harmless over time, and this depends on the half-life of the element. I know very little beyond that and hope people who operate nuclear reactors know what they are doing.

Three months ago Japan announced that it planned to release treated radioactive water from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea starting two years from now. Japan says nuclear power plants all over the world routinely release water that has minute amounts of tritium into the sea anyway!

After the Fukushima incident, some countries like Germany and France have started shutting down their nuclear reactors and are temporarily going back to coal until they can increase renewable sources of energy like wind and solar. Italy closed down its nuclear power plants in 1990 following a referendum. Some countries are opposed to nuclear power and have never set up nuclear power stations.

It seems such a shame, because nuclear makes for a cleaner environment than coal. On the other hand, there have been a total of more than a hundred serious nuclear accidents in the world, five or six of them in India . . .

To come back to Niger, I wondered why a system hadn’t been put in place in the forty years France has been mining uranium there. The locals must have been adversely affected for decades, so who exactly are these affected people?

Apparently they are mainly the Tuareg nomads, an ethnic minority, who have lived in those parts from the 5th century CE. They are spread across many countries – Libya, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, as well as Niger. They are more loyal to their Tuareg identity than to Niger and are often at odds with their government over the ownership of the land leased out to foreigners for mining uranium.

Like the Yazidis, Kurds and other ethnic groups that are spread across many countries and don’t have a nation of their own, I guess they get sidelined in the affairs of their country.

Some activists have taken up their cause. But I get the impression that the European Union politely listens to their concerns, waits for the spike in public interest to subside, and ultimately doesn’t do much.

Then again, why will the ‘world’, i.e. the G7+EU+/–Russia+/–5-emerging-economies, care about the tribulations of a nomadic tribe that doesn’t contribute to the world economy? The ‘world’ is like an eye, the economy occupies the fovea, and images of events that are seen as dragging the economy down land on the blind spot, the point that ironically connects the eye to the brain! Of course, the fact that I get my ‘news’ from English-language channels and sites decides what I ‘know’, so someone somewhere might be taking action on this and I may never hear of it.

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These were some of the thoughts triggered by what I read off the ticker on TV. Then I browsed the net a bit and found that pros and cons are still being debated furiously. While environmentalists have raised concerns about the ‘dangers’ of nuclear reactors and radioactive waste, the World Nuclear Association and scientific journals and blogs have countered the ‘myths’.

So I’m none the wiser!

If I have to choose I might throw in my lot with Science, because I believe scientists take a calculated risk after working out the theoretical framework of anything experimental. And new findings are peer-reviewed and replicated by others. It is not my business to make judgments on nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.

Leave alone nuclear reactors, I wouldn’t have had the imagination to invent a bicycle if it didn’t exist! I wouldn’t think it possible to stay balanced and move forward on two narrow wheels attached to a frame, a thing on which I can stay astride only as long as I constantly work my feet up and down!

Auroville, India

greener grass

When I was a kid we sometimes visited relatives in a village called Kesaragadde near Mangalore during school holidays. Their farmhouse stood in the middle of lush green rice paddies. We would want to run out into the fields like we had seen people do in the movies. How different it was from the narrow road and tiny park of our neighbourhood in Bangalore, how vast and open!

But, no. Our aunt said that villagers who didn’t have toilets in their homes used random fields, so you never knew what you might step on . . . There were many questions about this, like what happens when you need to harvest your crop, or but isn’t it your field Uncle, and why don’t they build their own loos, but mum’s warning look kept us from asking them.

Children’s storybooks from England were the staple when I was growing up, and the kids in those stories hiked through fields, woods and grassy meadows all the time. They camped out in tents far away from civilization. I did wonder, even then, where were the facilities in those wild, lonely places? It was obvious they used the fields and woods too, like the villagers in Kesaragadde, and some of the places they wandered through were private property too. That didn’t make it okay as such, but that’s the way it was everywhere, then, perhaps?

Anyway, I finally got my chance to run up a gently sloping grassy hill in England on a family holiday a few years ago. We passed these beautiful velvety green hills while driving through the Lake District and pulled over into a convenient little bay near a stile. We rushed excitedly up the slope, enjoying the feel of springy grass underfoot, the kids shouting to each other that they could roll down the hill like people did in old Hindi movies . . .

Hardly five metres up, and we stepped straight into piles of sheep droppings! So much for plans for rolling down the slope! And don’t even talk about the scraping of soles before getting back in the car.

For me, a childhood fantasy got a reality check. For the kids, a lesson: The grass might look greener on the other side of the world, but it’s as full of s––– as the grass on your side of the world!

After a couple of days we visited the Linlithgow palace in Scotland set amidst lovely lawns. The kids joyfully ran up the slope towards the castle. They looked so carefree, so exhilarated, such a joy to watch . . . At the top they came across a sign: Keep off the grass.

So, Lesson #2: If the grass looks good, and is not pasture, you aren’t allowed to step on it!

They quickly got off the lawn, disappointed.

And, therefore, Lesson #3: Do well in school, go to college, get a job, buy a house and have your own lawn 🙂 Don’t wait to be ‘allowed’, make it happen!

While writing this, I suddenly remembered that I had visited Kesaragadde with my son when he was four, just for a few hours. I dug out the snaps from that trip. So I had got a chance to walk through the fields after all, and the paths had been clean, and it had been a nice, happy, sunny day . . .

the yin and yang of enid blyton

Enid Blyton has recently been accused of sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and lack of literary merit. Well! After 70 years, an organization called English Heritage chooses to reappraise her works through the filter of the current value system. Not my circus, not my monkeys, except that I grew up loving her books in faraway India, and feel impelled to speak up.

Even if some of this harsh criticism were true, I would say her characters simply reflected the mores of those times, or at least what most ordinary people of that time might have agreed with. As someone who has read her books over and over as a child, and later as a mom, here’s my take.

Sexism: That Georgina of Famous Five wanted to be George was not hard to understand. Growing up with brothers who had more freedom, I could see the advantages of being a boy too! Cousin Anne preferred being protected to being free, so she was considered a normal girl, in keeping with patriarchal attitudes that, by the way, are still widely prevalent. Then there was the fiercely independent Henrietta, who went by Henry, in Five go to Mystery Moor, and the fearless Wilhelmina, who went by Bill, in Malory Towers. Wilhelmina didn’t want to be a boy, but growing up with seven brothers might’ve made her boyish.

Racism: There’s ambivalence towards the French in many of her books for sure. She often said that French kids did not have the ‘famous English sense of honour’ and, therefore, lied to get out of things like swimming and nature walks, but in the next breath she hastened to highlight their cleverness, artistic talent, sense of humour and forgiving nature. Actually, her ambivalence comes through more clearly in the characterisation of the various Mam’zelles.

She talked up the Irish, Scots and Welsh who were always frank, outspoken, dependable and righteous people, loyal to the idea of a united Britain, perhaps reflecting Enid Blyton’s own pride in the British Empire.

Circus folk in the Mr. Galliano’s circus series, Circus of Adventure and Five Have a Wonderful Time were multiracial and exotic and she gave them a wide berth when it came to bad manners, a lack of hygiene, lack of integrity, bad grammar (yes! like “didn’t ought to”), and other traits she disapproved of in civilized folks.

Americans were ‘large’ and hearty and addressed people as ‘Honey’. They longed to acquire an English accent. They had big cars and were rich and vain, but also generous.

Enid Blyton did try to balance the yin and yang of a lot of her characters!

However, Indians were caricatured, like Mr. Hohoha of Bong Castle, India, in the Mystery of Tallyho Cottage, or used as a simile to describe a sunburnt White person’s skin tone.

Xenophobia: No. In fact, she was careful to not ruffle international feathers and invented countries like Prince Paul’s Baronia (Spiggy Holes) and Prince Gussy’s Tauri-Hessia (Circus of Adventure) instead of setting villainous kidnappings and murders in real countries. Villains whose names sounded Spanish or German usually belonged to unnamed European countries, though she sometimes slipped up, like making Engler the villain an Austrian in the Mystery of Banshee Towers. But, frankly, nine out of ten criminals were White and British, so I won’t even make a representational list here.

Homophobia: There was hero-worship of older boys/girls by younger boys/girls certainly, but there was nothing sexual, not even the hint of a crush anywhere! Blushing was either due to shyness or because a bolder child had made public a secret talent or good deed of a timid one!

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The slight snobbery of the upper middleclass Find-outers was obvious to me because I recognized it here too. They had a benevolent but faintly patronizing attitude towards the house help and the policeman’s nephew, Ern Goon. But the fact that the children were always trying to be fair in giving respect, praise and criticism registered subliminally. It did bring about a subtle positive change in how I interacted with people who worked for my family.

The Famous Five seemed to mix around with gypsies on equal terms though, but mostly because the gypsies were unscrupulous and dangerous. The Five came in contact with all sorts of lowlife but dealt with them with dignity, with Timmy the dog’s help, of course. Even the bickering and making up among them influenced me to behave better when my siblings and I squabbled.

The School stories derided snobbery and strongly advocated looking at the strength of a girl’s character and not her parents’ wealth or social standing. Character was a big deal, a common thread running through most of her books. That, and a sense of honour. Humility was much appreciated. Even gifted girls with musical or artistic abilities of a high standard were ‘taken down a peg’ if they thought too much of themselves.

What I’m saying is that I – and many of my generation – benefitted from Enid Blyton’s books, apart from truly enjoying her stories in the mystery, adventure and school genres. Younger children enjoyed the magic realism in The Wishing Chair and The Faraway Tree series, and fantasy in the Noddy (wooden boy who comes to life, like Pinocchio) and Mr. Pinkwhistle (half man, half brownie) series. I remember how much my sister loved Mr. Pinkwhistle and Mr. Meddle stories when she was in second grade.

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There are two genres that I have not seen mentioned in any of the articles that have been in the media recently: Drama, and what could be called Documentary.

Drama:

There are a whole lot of books, family dramas, from which I imbibed many good values as a girl. Being children’s books, the characters are necessarily black and white, but that doesn’t matter, as I realized during my multiple readings for each of my kids.

Each story deals beautifully and lovingly, but sensibly and firmly, with how families cope when bad luck befalls them and they are beset by difficulties; how they all pitch in and pull their weight; how each member contributes and grows from the experience. The stories deal with relationships and family dynamics, often including extended family – cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents – and farm animals and pets too.

There is a strong emphasis on consequences of actions like lying, stealing, shirking responsibility, laziness, procrastination, carelessness, etc. Some books focus exclusively on the importance and value of friends. Issues of fairness, loyalty, trust, dependability and courage get spotlighted in these.

This is the list of family dramas that I read to my children, simply explaining anachronisms as I went along, like telling them that there used to be dolls called ‘gollywog’ a long time ago. In the welter of gnomes, goblins, fairies and elves, plus toys that came alive at night, I felt it was okay for the moment to not launch into details, given that children are naturally accepting of differences.

  • The family at Red-Roofs
  • Those dreadful children
  • The children at Green Meadows
  • House-at-the-corner
  • Six cousins at Mistletoe farm
  • Six cousins again
  • The Put-em-rights

Documentary:

I had read a book by Enid Blyton called The Six Bad Boys when I was 11 years old. It was about neglected children ending up in a gang and getting in trouble with the police, then going through the Juvenile Court. I was deeply impacted – cried buckets – by this book because it is about kids with uncaring, irresponsible parents, something unexpected in Enid Blyton’s books, and something unexpected in my 11-year-old life. I wanted to buy a copy (as the one I had read was from a library that happened to shut down soon after) but it wasn’t available for years.

A few years ago I came across it in a bookstore and bought it. I read it again, as a parent this time. It’s a book that is still relevant, maybe even more so now, and I wish every parent would read it.

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In Norse mythology the gods amused themselves by throwing objects at Baldr, the much-loved son of Odin, because he was not susceptible to harm. Loki the evil god handed a sprig of mistletoe to Höd the blind god to toss at Baldr. It was the only thing that could kill him. And it did.

Like Loki, the National Heritage people seem to be handing out sprigs of mistletoe in the shape of a bunch of modern –isms to the blind Höds among us who cannot see the joy Enid Blyton has given millions of children all over the world. Her books have been translated into 90 languages and sold 600million copies!

Do we really want interest in her books to die? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to use instances of her biases to learn and educate, so we don’t make the same mistakes? Or even better, pick up what is good and worth emulating in her characters? Surely, cancel culture is not the most effective use of history.

remarkably like us!

‘A virus is a small collection of genetic code surrounded by a protein coat’. A human being is a collection of genetic code enclosed in a physical body.

‘Viruses infect cells and use components of the host cell to survive and make copies of themselves’. Human beings live on earth and commandeer its resources to survive and make copies of themselves.

‘Viruses can replicate only inside the living cells of an organism’. Human beings can reproduce only on this planet because earth makes homeostasis – and therefore life – possible.

‘Often, they kill the host cell in the process, and cause damage to the host organism’. Often, they destroy essential elements of the earth in the process, and cause damage to the host planet.

In other words, our lungs are home to the corona virus just as the earth is home to us, and it seems we treat our homes the same way!

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There’s news that the Delta variant of Covid-19 that first surfaced here in India has mutated into a more virulent version. It’s called Delta+ and seems resistant to currently used medicines.

We have watched the unicellular virus mutate over several virus generations now, and seen how it’s been adapting to stay one step ahead of us. Since we are multicellular and complex, we can observe human adaptations over generations only historically.

Our ancestors took thousands of years to change from quadrupeds to bipeds. Our out-of-Africa ancestors who migrated north took thousands of years to develop blue eyes and blond hair . . .

Over time, human beings tamed animals much bigger and stronger than themselves: cows for milk, oxen for plowing fields, horses for transport, elephants to haul logs and granite blocks, whales for oil to light lamps, feral dogs trained to herd flocks of sheep, etc.

We devised apiaries to lure bees into making honey for us, cooped up fowl, penned in sheep, goats, pigs, cows and other even-toed ungulates our gods permitted us to eat.

We designed dwellings to keep out big cats, and snakes, lizards, cockroaches, mosquitoes and other ‘vermin’. . .

Then we made anthelmintics to kill or paralyse worms that use us as hosts for part of their life cycle, we made antibiotics to attack cell walls of bacteria, antivirals to block receptors on our cells that viruses use to hook their spikes into . . .

We did a good job of promoting ourselves, perhaps at the expense of others who also live here on earth. I’m not complaining, it was a question of survival, and Nature is not kind to weaklings. We’ve come a long way, but I confess I am bothered by the use of animals in labs, slaughter of animals for meat, sometimes by caged animals in zoos too, but as debates on these topics are never conclusive, I never get into them.

Human exceptionalism has made us believe we own the earth and all its other inhabitants. We have behaved towards other animals exactly as did colonisers who invaded other continents and treated indigenous people as lesser beings, to be used and abused. We have turned the planet into an exclusive gated community for humans.

For all we know, Corona might be an Avenging Angel acting on behalf of all the animals that have fallen prey to Homo sapiens, the ultimate predator, for hundreds of years! And to think we might have shot ourselves in the foot this time by creating our own tormentor! God must be watching grimly from heaven, having decided He won’t lift a finger to help us.

perhaps a silver lining

I got my second vaccine dose yesterday. I’m done for now, but who knows how the final vaccination schedule will pan out, with newer strains, or variants of concern as they are called, still proliferating. These vaccinations could turn out to be an annual ritual. I’ve stopped questioning. What’s the point anyway?

A genuine accident, an act of carelessness, supreme recklessness, a deliberate plan, whatever it was, it has changed everything. I’m talking about the origin of the almighty Virus, of course. Our individual worlds are now tiny spaces in which the same activities repeat day after day, especially during the weeks of lockdown.

For some, it is getting the body battle-ready for COVID – drinking brews made from ginger, turmeric or pepper, squeezing lemon juice on everything that’s served, three different types of exercise regimens scheduled at intervals through the day . . .

For some, it is cleaning out the airways and lungs by inhaling steam with the hope of killing the viruses before they can get in there and start a cytokine storm . . .

For some, it is protecting body and soul through prayer, meditation and chanting, because they believe nobody in the world knows anything about this thing that has descended on us like a swarm of locusts . . .

For some, it is keeping track of the virus in real time, listening to Dr. Anthony Fauci’s pronouncements, picking through whatsapp forwards for new information, following the COVID stats gravely intoned by TV presenters . . .

For some, it is watching movies and shows on Netflix to escape into a world where nobody wears masks and there’s no social distancing, and life is the way it used to be . . .

For some, it is work-from-home, probably the least dysfunctional activity in these times. Those living in the tiny universe of their w-f-h jobs stole a march over COVID by sequestering themselves in makeshift home offices even before the lockdown was announced . . .

For some, it is filling up waking hours with up-skilling, to be eligible for job promotions ‘after COVID’ . . .

For some, it is cooking for family members w-f-h, doing dishes, sweeping, mopping, dusting, occasionally popping out at 7:00 a.m. to the neighbourhood general store for groceries and little necessities . . .

For some, it is reading all the unread books bought over the years, thankful for the uninterrupted time to read, at times marveling at the kind of books their younger versions had chosen to buy!

And so on . . .

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Sometimes I feel like a bewildered child that has passed through Bowlby’s stages of Protest and Despair and has reached the stage of Detachment. My deadened limbic system doesn’t react to news anymore. My head does not process stats and graphs, or try to figure out details about the virus, vaccine technology or vaccine politics.

As far as I’m concerned, it no longer matters whether the Chinese painstakingly crafted the ‘novel’ corona virus in their lab at Wuhan, or tossed some bat viruses into the Hadron collider and zapped into existence a new species with superpowers.

I’m never going to know whether American and European scientists – as recent reports say – were involved in the gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab or it was China’s independent project.

I will never know whether it is a biological weapon surreptitiously unleashed on the world, or an accident that serendipitously brought prosperity to China while decimating the economies of other countries.

The damage is done.

Nobody’s going to confront China anyway. Even Tedros and his WHO team weren’t given access to raw data on their fact-finding mission to Wuhan earlier this year. And if other countries were indeed involved they will go into a secret huddle, make deals, and issue a cleverly worded press statement. A thousand TV channels will convey it to a not-so-gullible, but ultimately powerless, public . . .

I don’t believe our vote is as powerful as it is made out to be, because most of the people who stand for elections are very similar when you scratch the surface and look.

I never said the world is fair to all, and it is very much in the natural order of things, for example, that CONMEBOL (governing body of football in S America) has got Brazil to agree to host Copa América despite being a COVID hotspot, because CONMEBOL has had much bigger losses than the ordinary citizens of Brazil, right?

The same goes for the International Olympic Committee’s reluctance to cancel the Japan Olympics this year even though 70% of the population does not want the Games held there. Risk-benefit analyses depend on who has more clout, not on what is fair or humane.

These corona years will pass into history in a couple of years. Millions will have died, millions will have been pushed into poverty and, yes, a few billionaires will have been created by COVID economics.

Alongside all this, though, armies of young Indians – all with their heart in the right place – will have quietly discovered how much they are capable of achieving if they use their smarts and their considerable skills for the greater good. The newspapers are full of stories of initiatives taken by Indians of all ages, most especially the younger lot, and they kindle hope that the future of our youth may not be as bleak as it seems.

This, then, is what I choose to see as the silver lining to this disastrous pandemic.

depending on dwarfs

Some Indians have been asking the government “Why did you send vaccines meant for our children abroad?”

It’s common knowledge that when Serum Institute of India (SII) agreed to produce the millions of vaccines the world needed last year there were certain licensing agreements with AstraZeneca, UK.

One of them was the WTO’s stipulation that 84% (not sure of this number) of the manufactured vaccine was to go to the COVAX Facility for distribution to low- and middle-income countries, ninety-two of them.

1.1 billion vaccines were apparently manufactured last year on these terms. So the vaccines sent abroad were not the ones “meant for our children”.

The picture is different this year. India has millions of cases and needs millions of vaccines. So India has had to renege on the deal to supply vaccines to COVAX countries. For a while, the country did gamely try to live up to being ‘pharmacy of the world’ . . .

The CEO of SII, Adar Poonawalla, is unable to scale up vaccine production because he does not have the raw materials. They are apparently sourced from 300 different suppliers across 30 different countries, and a typical vaccine manufacturing plant uses 9000 different materials (Indian Express, 30th April 2021)! The US and European restrictions on raw materials have hit production, yet he is under threat to somehow deliver!

Reminds me of the fairy tale ‘Rumpelstiltskin’. It’s like Mr. Poonawalla has been locked up in a palace in a room filled with bales of hay and asked – under threat of death – to spin the hay into gold like the miller’s daughter in the story! He’s waiting for the dwarf to come and work his magic, the dwarf being the US and Europe.

Everybody knows that we need international help to scale up vaccine production in the country: raw materials and patent waivers. The former has apparently been sorted out and the latter is in the process of being sorted out, if news media are to be believed.

As it is getting increasingly obvious that ‘no one is safe until everyone is safe’ it does make more sense for the world to pool its resources. However, by the time all the petty little quibbles are set aside and the bureaucratic machinery of each country is set in motion to let SII have the raw materials it needs, there could be more B.1.617 variants moving rapidly through the air, infecting more and more of the world.

World leaders have already talked about this possibility, so why are they dragging their feet on it?

news ticker in my head – scroll, reappear

One of my dearest friends is down with COVID. She is a neurologist who goes in to work at a general hospital everyday.

Right now she is being treated in the ICU of the same hospital. She has a bed, good medical and nursing care and as much oxygen and meds as she needs. These are the blessings we are counting, considering that her immune system was overwhelmed, two jabs notwithstanding.

I have no new thoughts. The same old thoughts have been going round and round in my head since March 2020. With more information – especially contradictions in scientific news regarding corona – getting funneled into my eyes and ears everyday, the nonsense in my head only gets more nuanced, my understanding doesn’t get more lucid!

The healthcare infrastructure in India has always been inadequate, so it’s absurd to think we could scale up at a time like this! When it comes to healthcare, we sometimes seem like a country without a standing army, one that depends on a hastily assembled militia to beat back attackers. In fact, the healthcare system not being overwhelmed in 2020 was the surprise, and what’s happening now is more on the lines of what we expect based on decades of observation.

Yes, the second wave was swift and ferocious, but not unexpected. We knew it was predicted to hit in April. I’m not surprised the world is asking why we didn’t prepare for it. Every year, when forest fires rage through California, I question why the American government doesn’t prevent them by managing their forests better, why it exposes its citizens to the danger of losing lives and homes. Likewise, the world is looking at India accusingly with astonishment and disbelief – you knew the danger, yet you did nothing!

The same thing happens every monsoon when rains lash peninsular India. No steps are ever taken between monsoons to avoid catastrophes like landslides, flooded cities and the inevitable loss of lives.

Qualified people like environmentalists and urban planners have advised successive governments for nearly seventy-five years, but very few of the measures have been implemented because of lobbying by entrenched interest groups that need development to not take place, or ‘development’ to take place in a way that might be detrimental to everybody else. So we have gradually descended into the state called learned helplessness that was first described by psychologists Seligman and Maier in the 1960s. At least, I know I have.

Right now, we have a shortage of oxygen. If what I read is true, why do Delhi hospitals rely on Assam, nearly 2000 km away, for their oxygen? Last October, the government announced that 150 new oxygen plants would be set up on the premises of various hospitals, but only 33 apparently were! And we also have a vaccine shortage now. Like a whole lot of others in Bangalore, my second shot is due but I’ll have to wait.

Balancing economic activity with COVID safety has proved impossible. People have been meeting and there have been large crowds on streets and in shops and markets. Only about 50% of people are masked, not always effectively. All these people are confused by the contradictory information they have been getting about the virus, COVID symptoms, vaccines, precautions, treatment, and even regarding the existence of the virus itself, for one whole year!

Between December 2020 and March 2021 my son and I have gone up into the hills surrounding Bangalore eight times on one-day treks and have often drifted into conversation with villagers. They insist there is no corona virus, nobody has fallen sick in their village, nobody has died, and they sympathise with us for having to live in unhealthy Bangalore!

Only large gatherings are reported in the media, the ones they call superspreaders, though the small ones are equally dangerous. It’s like saying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the only significant collection of plastic pollution, when we know that plastic pollution is everywhere, in every nook and corner of the world that’s overrun by human beings. There have been smaller gatherings over Ugadi, Easter and Ramadan, but the thing is, when things are this bad and confusing, people go rushing to their gods for help. Besides, people need to be around others to feel connected, to feel they are not alone.

Pandemics have happened before. They are random events. We have been the undisputed reigning species for so long that we can’t imagine another species getting the better of us, making us scoot for cover for a change. It’s not just a viral disease, it’s a lesson like plague epidemics of the past were lessons in hygiene that taught people filth, rats and the plague, go together (though the role of rats in the Black Death is now disputed!). The lessons might differ depending on where we live, though – the lesson for the Chinese could be different from the lesson meant for us or Australia or Brazil, if geopolitics underlies this scourge as some news reports claim.

The rapidly mutating virus is hard to vaccinate against perfectly, 70-90% immunity at best. It’s transmitted through the air we breathe. All we can do is mask up, not go close to others and not give it to ourselves by scratching our noses with contaminated, unsanitised hands. Even after receiving our two jabs. We need to protect ourselves – individually – because nobody else can. The government can only order lockdowns and try to ensure vaccines and medical facilities are available.

A pandemic comes in waves. It follows a pattern of its own. There could be more surges coming, in different countries at different times. Governments will be blamed for every surge, and extolled in the media every time a wave ebbs. In the larger scheme of things epidemics come and go and we don’t have as much control over the earth and its other inhabitants as we think we do. Scientists’ projections have some validity but, with all the new variants, there is no telling.

Stories of people dying of COVID are sad. They had no time to protect themselves.

Sadder still are reports of people not being able to reach help in time to prevent death. They tried and lost.

Saddest are stories of very sick patients left waiting for a bed for hours outside hospitals on gurneys, of profiteering by hospitals and pharmaceutical companies, by those who hire out ambulances and hearses, by those who manage crematoria and burial grounds. They were let down by people they trusted.

Beyond saddest are the disgusting stories of callousness and cruelty of bed blocking scams, and hoarding of medicines and oxygen to sell on the black market, if these are true. They were cheated by fellow human beings.

Beyond disgusting are stories that leave us numb with horror, like those of a fire in the ICU of some hospital that charred patients to death. They were . . . what? I don’t know.

And these stories never stop.

Somewhere in the cobwebby parts of our mind we are dimly aware of a few sources of hope. We dare not cling too hard to them in case they prove to be wisps of gossamer and evanesce.

That dedicated doctors are silently working in hospitals all over the country, some of them regularly appearing on TV to answer questions and clarify doubts, or writing informative articles and making videos for the general public.

That our overworked, hardworking, nurses are tending to patients with all their might despite their drastically lowered strength caused by the flight of Indian nurses en masse to the middle-east to take advantage of the 10X remuneration for merely administering vaccines.

That ordinary people, especially our youngsters, have created helplines for people to reach out to, and are working tirelessly to pick up the slack where government measures are inadequate.

That we are back in a lockdown and – since it helped last year – it might work again . . .

Though, right now, it feels like we are pushing against something we can’t budge . . .

Kootgal, Ramanagara, Feb 2021