Thursday, July 24, 2014

I have no idea for a title here! It is on India, Israel, and Palestine.

As a young reader of The Hindu, I was tremendously impressed with Moshe Dayan.  Dayan was Israel's foreign minister as I was getting into my teens and he was in the news a lot thanks to the Israel-Egypt peace negotiations.  It was not the prospect of peace that drew my attention to Dayan--it was his eye-patch!  The guy looked like he had had quite some past and that he meant business.  If I had known then the word "awesome" I definitely would have used that ;)  It does not take much to impress a budding teenager!

Israel was in the news quite a bit those days.  Even though nobody I knew had a passport at that time, it intrigued me that the Indian government did not allow its nationals to travel to Israel.  Indian politics, which was dominated by Indira Gandhi's Congress Party, the various flavors of communist parties, and a few regional ones, was overwhelmingly against Israel and pro-Palestine.  That approach had been in place ever since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, who " was an outspoken partisan of the Palestinians."

As a teenager, I felt torn between an admiration for Israel's achievements and enormous sympathies for the Palestinians.  "If only India could be well organized and focused as the Israelis are" was a thought that often crossed my mind.  But, simultaneously, I was drawn to the Palestinian cause, and the PLO, as well and simply could not understand why there was this bitter conflict.  There is a good chance that many thinking people in my demographic group had similar experiences.

As I transitioned out of the teens, and was a tad more informed about the world, the admiration for Israel lessened, and the sympathies for the PLO significantly diminished.  There was nothing but violence from both sides, which did not appeal to my pacifist sensibilities.  Dayan and his eye-patch rapidly faded away.

Over the years, India's politics has also dramatically changed.  The fall of the Soviet Union and the changing global order also coincided with India's near-bankruptcy that triggered economic reforms.  A relatively liberal India began to look at the world differently.
Congress Party Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao ended India's Cold War hostility toward Israel by establishing full diplomatic relations in 1992
By then I was  easing into a life in the adopted country where politics was almost overwhelmingly pro-Israel while academe was (and is) predominantly in support of the Palestinians.  In one of the graduate school classes, Professor Lowdon Wingo even brought into the discussions the intifada.  Wingo walked a fine line expressing neither support nor criticisms for either side.  A wonderfully committed academic he was.

Since then, India has rapidly expanded its economic and military relations.
In terms of military cooperation, few countries have backed New Delhi as Israel did by supplying artillery shells during the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan. Since then, Israel has emerged as India's second biggest arms supplier after Russia. 
It is a different India now.  Especially with the Hindu nationalist BJP in power, and with a government led by Narendra Modi.  The old political calculations of empty rhetoric favoring the Palestinians as a way to appeal to the Muslim vote has been replaced by ache din aane wale hain.  So much has the political atmosphere changed that:
The NDA government came under sharp attack in parliament for refusing to allow a resolution condemning Israel for the strikes on Gaza even as the death toll crossed 500 on Monday. In particular focus is the BJP’s top leaderships’ close ties with Israel, given that Prime Minister Modi had travelled as Gujarat Chief Minister to Israel in 2006, promising to return if he became Prime Minister. As Home Minister, L.K. Advani was the first senior Minister to visit Israel in 2000, and External affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj once chaired the India-Israel parliamentary friendship group and led a delegation there. 
That same essay notes this about India's radically different stance on the Israel-Palestinian issue:
Former diplomat and UN official Chinmaya Gharekhan, who was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special envoy to West Asia and the Middle East Peace Process, told The Hindu, “There is no doubt that India’s position on the Israel-Palestine conflict has moderated gradually over a period of time, from its once categorical support for the Palestinian cause.” Mr. Gharekhan says the game-changer in this regard was Israel’s assistance to India during the Kargil war, when it supplied much needed artillery shells at short notice. “It was gratitude for this act and our growing defence relationship with Israel that made the difference in later years. Even at the UN, while we still support statements in favour of Palestine, we no longer co-sponsor such resolutions.”
 In the old country, it is not uncommon for seasoned commentators and intellectuals to look at what the "father of the nation" opined on this geopolitical struggle:
Writing in the Harijan newspaper, which he edited, in November 1938 on the vexed Palestine issue, Mahatma Gandhi declared that "my sympathies are all with the Jews... but my sympathy does not blind me to the requirements of justice." World War II was a year away and the world was yet to become aware of the scale of the persecution that befell the Jews and the enormity of the Holocaust and the Gandhi view merits recall.
In the same article, he continued: "Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs."
Much water and blood has flown since 1938 and the Jewish state is a reality, in much the same manner that Pakistan is - even though Gandhi was opposed to the idea. 
Hopefully, within my lifetime, everlasting peace will descend upon the troubled Israel-Palestine area, between India and Pakistan, and all around.  If nothing works, I will wear metaphorical patches over both my eyes and pretend that everything is well and good with the world.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

High crimes and misdemeanors ... in an Atlanta middle school?

The older I get, the less I find most of the happenings in the world to be Manichean, binary, as in good or bad. Of course, there are instances when I have no doubts whatsoever--like how President "Dubya" Bush and his minions ought to be tried for war crimes and torture.

However, we hoi polloi don't get to positions of power and privilege, which means we have no idea how we might act if we, too, could bomb a country back to the Middle Age.  Criminal acts and high offices go together, I suppose!

Now, it is not as if we do not face moral questions day in and day out; we do.  It is just that our decisions influence the lives of very few others and, thus, we don't get accused of war crimes.

I urge you to read this essay in the New Yorker and judge for yourself whether the various characters mentioned there are guilty or innocent.  It is not an essay that deals with war. Nor is it about any form of violence as we would typically define violence.  It is all about a middle school cheating scandal.
(Btw, the magazine has opened up its entire content, archives included, in a summer-free-for-all. Read up all you can before the paywall goes up.)

So, a cheating scandal at a middle school. Given that it is a middle school, what can be the biggest scandal there that could merit a lengthy essay in the New Yorker?  It is not about misappropriation of money.  It is not about sex.  It is about, get ready, teachers and administrators fudging and manipulating the standardized testing so that their schools will not be dinged, and that the teachers and principals will not be fired from their jobs.  Slate described the plot well:
The story paints a portrait of how the pressure to meet unreal expectations on standardized tests drove teachers to cheat in order to save their jobs and prevent their school from shutting down.
If it were a work of fiction, we would refer to the teacher, Damany Lewis, as a protagonist.  Is he a hero?  A bad guy?  Do not jump into any conclusion until you have read that essay.  To quote from Slate, again:
Teachers at Parks Middle like Aviv’s protagonist, Damany Lewis, were forced to recalibrate their moral compasses to justify changing test answers on student papers or giving them test questions in advance.
Yep, "forced to recalibrate their moral compasses" because of the standardized tests that resulted from the highly controversial No Child Left Behind, which was the passionate domestic project of the war criminal, er, Bush.

Those war criminals didn't even get a rap on their knuckles, thanks to the snooper-in-chief who declared that "we need to look forward."  But, of course, the protagonist in this story loses his job, his marriage, his home ...
Lewis was the first to be fired. “I felt like someone had hit me with the butt end of an axe,” he said. He shaved off his dreadlocks, which, in Rastafarian tradition—a culture with which he sporadically associated—signalled the loss of a child. What troubled him most, he said, was that “I was fired for doing something that I didn’t even believe in.”
He applied for jobs at charter and alternative schools, community centers, and jails, but he didn’t get any of them. “Education let me go,” he finally concluded. He broadened his search, applying for positions that required manual labor. In interviews, he promised employers that he had the “persistence and tough skin of a middle-school teacher to bring to the workforce.” He applied for a job installing cable, and, after getting a nearly perfect score on the applicant test, he daydreamed about how he would use his teaching skills to help employees streamline the process. But a few days later the company told him that he didn’t have enough experience.
His house was foreclosed on and his car was repossessed. ... He supported his wife, their newborn son, and his daughter from his previous marriage by working as an auto mechanic.
Meanwhile, those war criminals are enjoying luxurious lives and spending hours painting awful art pieces!

Whoever said life is fair, eh!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Peacefully exiting when there is no exit

I have always strongly held on to an understanding that India is beyond understanding.  Things happen and  all I can do is merely try to follow the developments.  This is the case for me, who was born and raised in that old country; I have nothing but sympathies, therefore, for the true outsider, whether in love with India or filled with nothing but hate for it.

Thus, I felt blindsided when a friend asked me what I thought about India's supreme court's ruling on euthanasia.  "I was reminded of what you blog about in your Oregon" she said.  Of course, I first had to clarify that what we have in Oregon is not euthanasia but terminally ill patients having the option to call it quits on their own terms, death with dignity, without having to suffer through it all until the bitterest of all ends.

But, euthanasia in India, and its supreme court has asked for a debate? Seriously?
The issue concerns the rights of a terminally-ill person, after doctors unanimously rule out chances of survival. Active euthanasia would involve a doctor injecting a lethal medicine to trigger cardiac arrest. In passive euthanasia, doctors, with consent from relatives, withdraw the life support system of a person being kept alive with the help of machines.
Very different from the Oregon protocols.  But, am shocked that India is now engaged in this discussion.  The India of the sacred cow when governed by the saffronists?
Union health minister Harsh Vardhan here on Sunday said there should not be any rush to decide on euthanasia and efforts should be made for a national consensus on it.
"A consensus should be developed on whether to allow killing of terminally-ill people with no chances of revival. It is a complex issue. There should not be any hurry to decide on this highly emotive subject," the minister said, responding to a query on the July 16 Supreme Court decision to adjudicate legality of euthanasia.
An open discussion despite using phrases like "allow killing of terminally-ill people"?  Only in India!

Even stranger is this: the newspaper reporting on that, the Times of India, has set up a website exclusively for this discussion!
The Supreme Court has in the past acknowledged that the right to dignity in life also extends to the right to a dignified death, though that ruling applied this principle only to ‘natural death’. It is time now to extend it further and adjust the law to the reality and to a more modern moral sensibility by allowing people to choose to die peacefully.

This paper has in the past campaigned in favour of passive euthanasia and decriminalization of attempted suicide. Besides allowing passive euthanasia, the Supreme Court recommended in the Aruna Shanbaug case that the provision penalizing attempt to suicide should be deleted by Parliament. We believe that the time has come not only to do away with Section 309 IPC but also to enable active euthanasia.

In line with the Supreme Court’s  decision to throw the issue open for debate, The Times of India is launching an online campaign so that those who favour active euthanasia can signal their informed support.
Only in India!

Of course, India is not the only country struggling with policies on end-of-life.  For that matter, in the US it is even more of a struggle about the beginning of life itself!  The Economist also has taken a principled stand on this:
Death is a fearful thing, but it is the pain of life that leaves many ill people in despair. Like Nicklinson, some people would like to die peacefully, at a time of their choosing and with the assistance of a doctor. Their desire for a humane end should not offend liberal societies, which rest on the principle of self-determination, so long as one’s actions do not harm others. This newspaper supports making assisted suicide legal. So, according to polls, do more than two-thirds of Americans and western Europeans.
Assisted suicide.
Active euthanasia.
Looks like we in the US are wimps who way prefer euphemisms instead of the brutally honest descriptions.

Whatever be the language used, I hope we will get into honest discussions on this profound public policy issue.  After all, we might even be able to get away from the taxman, but there is no escape from death.  Here is to hoping that death with dignity will become a human right.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Life is some serious shit. So, joke around, dammit!

"I have been saving two jokes for you" she said as she started scanning my groceries at the checkout counter.

"Why does a doctor always carry a red pen?"

I repeated the question.  I asked for the answer.

"Anytime he might have to draw blood" she said.

"Cool.  What's the next one?"

"Have I told you the one about the roof?"

"No."

"That's ok. It is way over your head."

Even before I could respond, a female customer who was right behind me in the line chuckled and said "good one."  I looked at her and said "I pay for the jokes. They throw in the groceries for free."

Apparently such playfulness helps:
People who exhibit high levels of playfulness—those who are predisposed to being spontaneous, outgoing, creative, fun-loving, and lighthearted—appear to be better at coping with stress, more likely to report leading active lifestyles, and more likely to succeed academically.
Wait, there is more:
As British researchers Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin argue in their 2013 book, “Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation,” it’s crucial to distinguish between engaging in behavior that is technically play—battling it out in an intense game of tennis, for instance, or wasting time on an addictive iPhone game—and doing it in a way that is actually playful, which for Bateson and Martin means “cheerful, frisky, frolicsome, good-natured, joyous, merry, rollicking, spirited, sprightly [and/or] vivacious.” An important challenge facing researchers in this field is figuring out how to isolate and define playfulness as an internal state of mind rather than a mere description of how someone is acting.
 I ain't acting. I swear. If you don't believe me, I will knock your teeth off ;)
Growing up, in other words, doesn’t have to mean cutting fun and lightheartedness out of our lives. On the contrary, it may mean realizing that engaging in such childishness is an excellent use of our time.
I now have more reasons to use those groaners in my classes; I feel sorry for the students.  But then they need to understand that being playful helps with academic success too! ;)

So, why blog about all these, right?  Is it some kind of a thumping of my chest to expound to the world how awesome my mind works?  To take off from a Woody Allen line, I was born into the Hindu persuasion and now I am into narcissism? Is this part of that playfulness? Does it help with deal with the stresses of life?  Or, will blogging make me unhappy?
Today, each of us can build a personal little fan base, thanks to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the like. We can broadcast the details of our lives to friends and strangers in an astonishingly efficient way. That’s good for staying in touch with friends, but it also puts a minor form of fame-seeking within each person’s reach. And several studies show that it can make us unhappy.
Phew! I am safe, for fame is not what I am seeking here.  I blog and you treat me to free dinners, right Ramesh? ;)
We look for these things to fill an inner emptiness. They may bring a brief satisfaction, but it never lasts, and it is never enough. And so we crave more. This paradox has a word in Sanskrit: upadana, which refers to the cycle of craving and grasping. As the Dhammapada (the Buddha’s path of wisdom) puts it: “The craving of one given to heedless living grows like a creeper. Like the monkey seeking fruits in the forest, he leaps from life to life... Whoever is overcome by this wretched and sticky craving, his sorrows grow like grass after the rains.” ...
it requires a deep skepticism of our own basic desires. Of course you are driven to seek admiration, splendor and physical license. But giving in to these impulses will bring unhappiness. You have a responsibility to yourself to stay in the battle. The day you declare a truce is the day you become unhappier. Declaring war on these destructive impulses is not about asceticism or Puritanism. It is about being a prudent person who seeks to avoid unnecessary suffering.
In other words, being playful is how I deal with the unpleasant aspects of life, like that favorite topic of mine.  No wonder that my blood pressure was a calm 125/73.  But, that means that I will be that much more stress-free and will end up living until I am 120?  Damn!  I better start drinkin' and smokin' and cussin' ;)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Ramadan slows us down ... to think, again, about "why this competition?"

Taking the back road is always wonderfully scenic in this part of the world.  A writer's paradise. Well, a paradise for this wannabe writer too ;)

But, there are reasons why a back road, with only one lane in each direction, might not have been taken even by Robert Frost. The sight of dead deer is not for the faint of the heart.   Traffic, however feeble a trickle that might be, can come to a stop if there is any mishap on the road. Or, even when the traffic moves, it can be at a snail's pace because of farm vehicles, like what happened the other day.

I was about six miles away from the destination when the smooth drive was interrupted by brake lights ahead. And then we crawled at between fifteen and twenty miles per hour.  Five miles more and my mind worked out the math of the additional time this stretch would take because of the differential of forty miles an hour. (We will find out how good you are at math.)  I tell ya, there is no shortage of materials to keep my mind occupied!

Some of us take life the way it unfolds, and then there are others.  The driver in the vehicle that was immediately behind me was one of those others.  He (yes, it was a male driver) made clear he wanted to pass me by edging the nose of the vehicle into the other lane and then pulling back because of oncoming traffic.  I wondered what he could possibly achieve by passing me when there were at least six other vehicles in between me and the farm vehicle in the lead.

And then, just like that he shot into the other lane and jumped back in immediately in front of me.  I hit the brakes. I grabbed my cellphone. And clicked.


It was a long line of vehicles behind me.  Nobody was going anywhere until the farm vehicle was off the road and, yet, the impatient driver couldn't be patient.


Thus it was on a hot summer day that I was, yet again, reminded of Rumi:
Inside the Great Mystery that is,
we don't really own anything.
What is this competition we feel then,
before we go, one at a time, through the same gate?
Perhaps the driver of that Suburban has never thought what Rumi wants us to reflect on.

If only all of us thought more about that competition in daily life at least during the scheduled calendar dates of a Christian's Sunday, or a Hindu's Ekadasi, or a Muslim's Ramadan.

Caption at the Source:
In this photo taken in Sarajevo on Tuesday, July 15, 2014
a restaurant waitress dressed in traditional clothes of Bosnian Muslims prepares food for iftar