& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, November 30, 2015

Pi-Dog - A poem by Arun Kolhatkar


This is the time of day I like best,
and this the hour
when I can call this city my own;

when I like nothing better
than to lie down here, at the exact centre
of this traffic island

(or trisland as I call it for short,
and also to suggest
a triangular island with rounded corners)

that doubles as a parking lot
on working days,
a corral for more than fifty cars,

when it's deserted early in the morning,
and I'm the only sign
of intelligent life on the planet;

the concrete surface hard, flat and cool
against my belly,
my lower jaw at rest on crossed forepaws;

just about where the equestrian statue
of what's-his-name
must've stood once, or so I imagine.


I look a bit like
a seventeenth-century map of Bombay
with its seven islands

not joined yet,
shown in solid black
on a body the colour of old parchment;

with Old Woman's Island
on my forehead,
Mahim on my croup,

and the others distributed
casually among
brisket, withers, saddle and loin

- with a pirate's
rather than a cartographer's regard
for accuracy.


I like to trace my descent
- no proof of course,
just a strong family tradition -

to the only bitch that proved
tough enough to have survived,

first, the long voyage,
and then the wretched weather here
- a combination

that killed the rest of the pack
of thirty foxhounds,
imported all the way from England

by Sir Bartle Frere
in eighteen hundred and sixty-four,
with the crazy idea

of introducing fox-hunting to Bombay.
Just the sort of thing
he felt the city badly needed.


On my father's side

the line goes back to the dog that followed

on his last journey,
and stayed with him till the very end;
long after all the others

- Draupadi first, then Sahadeva,
then Nakul, followed by Arjuna and,
last of all, Bhima -

had fallen by the wayside.
Dog in tow, Yudhishthira alone plodded on.
Until he too,

frostbitten and blinded with snow,
dizzy with hunger and gasping for air,
was about to collapse

in the icy wastes of the Himalayas;
when help came
in the shape of a flying chariot

to airlift him to heaven.
Yudhishthira, that noble prince, refused
to get on board unless dogs were allowed.

And my ancestor became the only dog
to have made it to heaven
in recorded history.


To find a more moving instance
of man's devotion to dog,
we have to leave the realm of history,

skip a few thousand years
and pick up a work of science fantasy
- Harlan Ellison's A Boy and his Dog,

a cultbook among pi-dogs everywhere -
in which the ‘Boy' of the title
sacrifices his love,

and serves up his girlfriend
as dogfood to save the life of his
starving canine master.


I answer to the name of Ugh.
not the exclamation of disgust;

but the U pronounced as in Upanishad,
and gh not silent,
but as in ghost, ghoul or gherkin.

It's short for Ughekalikadu,
famous dog that I was named after,

the guru of Kallidevayya's dog
who could recite
the four Vedas backwards.

My own knowledge of the scriptures
and ends, I'm afraid,

with just one mantra, or verse;
the tenth,
from the sixty-second hymn

in the third mandala of the Rig
(and to think
that the Rig alone contains ten thousand

five hundred and fifty-two verses).
It's composed in the Gayatri metre,
and it goes:

Om tat savitur varenyam
bhargo devasya dhimahi
dhiyo yonah prachodayat.

Twenty-four syllables, exactly,
if you count the initial Om.
Please don't ask me what it means, though.

All I know
is that it's addressed to the sun-god
- hence it's called Savitri -

and it seems appropriate enough
to recite it
as I sit here waiting for the sun

to rise.
May the sun-god amplify
the powers of my mind.


What I like about this time and place
- as I lie here hugging the ground,
my jaw at rest on crossed forepaws,

my eyes level with the welltempered
but gaptoothed keyboard
of the black-and-white concrete blocks

that form the border of this trisland
and give me my primary horizon -
is that I am left completely undisturbed

to work in peace on my magnum opus:
a triple sonata for a circumpiano
based on three distinct themes -

one suggested by a magpie robin,
another by the wail of an ambulance,
and the third by a rockdrill;

a piebald pianist, caressing and tickling
the concrete keys with his eyes,
undeterred by digital deprivation.


As I play,
the city slowly reconstructs itself,
stone by numbered stone.

Every stone
seeks out his brothers
and is joined by his neighbours.

Every single crack
returns to its flagstone
and all is forgiven.

Trees arrive at themselves,
each one ready
to give an account of its leaves.

The mahogany drops
a casket bursting with winged seeds
by the wayside,

like an inexperienced thief
drops stolen jewels
at the sight of a cop.

St Andrew's church tiptoes back to its place,
shoes in hand,
like a husband after late-night revels.

The university,
you'll be glad to know,
can never get lost

because, although forgetful,
it always carries
its address in its pocket.


My nose quivers.
A many-coloured smell
of innocence and lavender,

mildly acidic perspiration
and nail polish,
rosewood and rosin

travels like a lighted fuse
up my nose
and explodes in my brain.

It's not the leggy young girl
taking a short cut
through this island as usual,

violin case in hand,
and late again for her music class
at the Max Mueller Bhavan,

so much as a warning to me
that my idyll
will soon be over,

that the time has come for me
to surrender the city

to its so-called masters. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Nehru in heaven?

Last year on my trip to India, I subscribed to the Indian Journal of Secularism. Yesterday, I received four issues of the journal. The journals will keep me busy for some time. While browsing through one of the issues (Volume 19. No. 1. April-June 2015), I came across a paper by Prof. Monirul Hussain titled ‘When Nehru Died: Excavating the Response of Muslim Minority Citizens in a Small Town of Assam.’   

While most of the paper describes the reaction of the people in North Lakhimpur (in Upper Assam) to Jawaharlal Nehru’s death in 1964, and especially the devastation stemming from fear that Prof. Hussain’s maternal grandfather experiences, towards the end, he narrates his own efforts to make sense of an event that obviously had a great personal and public impact.

Prof. Hussain narrates: “When we all went to bed at night I was very much disturbed. As a 12 year old child I was thinking of life after death. What would happen to Nehru in the aftermath of his death in the court of invisible Allah/God? 

Our Moulvi Sahib told us earlier that only Muslims will go to heaven. Next morning when our Moulvi Sahib came to teach us how to read the Holy Quran, I raised a question before him. The Moulvi had quite hard opinions about religion. I asked him whether Nehru is going to heaven or not? The Moulvi was somewhat embarrassed. He wanted to avoid the question I raised. He asked me to concentrate on reciting the Quran. However, I was not relenting I raised the question again. 

He paused for a while and said, “Nehru will go to heaven Insa Allah.” I reminded him that it was he who told me on an earlier occasion that only Muslims will go to heaven after death. He paused for a while again, and then asserted very firmly: “Don’t you know the Muslims all over India are praying for him hence Nehru will go to heaven Insa Allah.” 

As a 12-year-old child I was relieved that Nehru will go to heaven! Later in the day I saw the Moulvi Sahib attending the Sarba Dharma prayer along with the priests of all other religions at the local Gandhi Maidan.”

Saturday, November 28, 2015

A book all non-Muslims in Canada must read

The Syrian refugee crisis and the November 13 Paris attacks have once again focused the West’s attention on the Muslim Question. The abominable and reprehensible Paris attacks pushed to surface the subterranean resentment that western societies harbour against Muslims and Islam.

The attacks clouded the West’s effort to provide humanitarian succour to the millions of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. The debate that should have focused on humanitarian objectives such as providing safety to the fleeing millions, turned into fear-mongering, and resulted into devising means to delay if not altogether prevent the influx of the refugees.

Arguments such as why the Arab states aren’t offering aid, to the Arab world need to fix its problems, and statements such as what if ISIS terrorists pretend to be refugees and infiltrate western societies to wreak mayhem, to western societies should have a right to choose who it should take in, were (are) being made not merely in everyday conversations, but even in policy-making forums.

Canada emerged with dignity from a particularly brutish election campaign where the Conservative Party of Canada led by Stephen Harper focused on portraying Canadian Muslims as a threat to Canadian values. Justin Trudeau’s sweeping victory may provide temporary relief to the embittered Muslims of Canada, but unless the new Liberal government resolves to undertake substantive measures to rectify inherent biases, no far-reaching, long-lasting systemic changes should be anticipated.
Haroon Siddiqui at the
launch of the book

The Relevance of Islamic Identity in Canada published by Mawenzi House and edited by Nurjehan Aziz analyzes critical issues pertaining to Islam and Muslims. (Disclosure: My essay ‘Married to a Believer’ is in this anthology).

The essays in the volume discuss nearly every aspect of the Muslim identity, and how it impacts and is impacted by Canada. The collection is a great mix of the personal, the academic, and the polemical; all the 11 essays address the issue of identity, and what it means to be a Muslim immigrant. The volume offers a rich diversity of opinions, reinforcing the fact that Islam in Canada is multicultural and varied.

Nurjehan Aziz notes in the Preface of the book that it “began as an exploration” of What does it mean to be a Muslim, and that “the responses have been illuminating, though-provoking, and also disturbing…To our great surprise, however, one observation was almost universal: recently in Canada Muslims have found themselves the objects of vilification and discrimination. Being a Muslim then means being a victim.”

The three essays that contribute original though on the issue of Islam’s place in Canada are by Monia Mazigh (Reexamining Relations Between Men and Women); Haroon Siddiqui (Anti-Muslim Bigotry Goes Official – Canada’s Newest Dark Chapter); and Mohamed Abualy Alibhai (The Future of Islam in North America).

Audience at the launch program
Alibhai’s essay in particular is radically refreshing in its approach to interpreting Islam in present times. He says, “The time may have finally arrived when North American Muslims will not be able to avoid thinking the unthinkable with respect to verbal revelation. The experience of American Jews teaches us that once the question is raised it is difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. The only way forward is to abandon the belief in the verbal revelation of the Quran and to adopt an alternative understanding – for example, that the words of the Quran are words that Muhammed uttered and authored in a divinely inspired involuntary and creative cognitive-emotional state.” 

He adds, “Perhaps the most important practical consequence of abandoning the belief in the verbal revelation of the Quran is the corresponding abandonment of the legalist conception of Islam. The new denomination would be premised on the principle that it is possible to practice Islam without the Shariah.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

An Evening with Barbara Ehrenreich: Inequality in the United States

Across the developed world, a debate that has been gathering momentum and seems to be on the verge of taking over public discourse, is the flagrant and growing inequality in these societies. Inequality is no longer merely economic, although it is the economic dimension that seems to be the most obvious. 

For instance, in the United States of America, a country that even now retains its sheen as the world’s beacon of hope, a mere one percent of the rich control 80 percent of its wealth.  

From a democracy, the US (and, for that matter, most of the developed world) seem to be veering away to plutocracy where the rich have become the occupying force that arm-twist the apparatuses of the state to suit their ever-increasing greed.

A growing band of activists have persistently raised awareness of the masses by asking inconvenient questions and telling truthful tales that are at once shocking and hair-raising. For instance, corporate America indulges in wage theft to the tune of $106billion, by making workers labour more hours but paying only for regulation hours.

And that while corporate America continues to resist the implementation of $15 an hour minimum wage, the minimum hourly wage required for bare minimum, subsistence existence as determined by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Barbara Ehrenreich is among those activists who have consistently spoken out loudly against the inherently unjust system that has been created in the last four decades in the United States.

Author of over 20 books, Ehrenreich was in Toronto to deliver a special lecture under the aegis of the F Ross Johnson-Connaught Speaker Series organized by the Munk School of Global Affair’s Centre for the Study of the United States. 

The program was titled An Evening with Barbara Ehrenreich: Inequality in the United States.

Unrelenting, scathing and sarcastic, Ehrenreich lambasted the present state of the United States where poverty is treated as a character failing. “Poverty is a shortage of money. It is not a character failing,” she declared.  

The author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001), and Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America (2010) castigated the overwhelming tendency of the police in the US to victimize the African American minority, including minor school girls.

Describing the police as an occupying force, she said that police harassment of the blacks and minorities has actually increased manifold after the economic downturn because it has become a major revenue earner for the law enforcement agencies.

An honourary co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, who also serves on the NORML Board of Directors, the Institute for Policy Studies Board of Trustees, Ehrenreich said it was time fundamental changes were introduced that would skew the balance in the favour of the poor, who at present seemingly have just two choices – destitution or incarceration, which is a direct result of the criminalization of poverty.

These changes include: 
  • Stoppage of upward distribution of wealth and distribute it down; 
  • Stoppage of wage theft by corporate America; stoppage of police assault on people of colour; 
  • Regulating the untrammeled flow of money into politics, which results in policy formulations that favour the rich.

Before becoming an activist, she studied cell biology and physics, graduating with a degree in physics from Reed College in 1963, and a Ph.D. in cell biology from Rockefeller University in 1968. Ehrenreich has taught at State University of NY, Old Westbury, University of Missouri at Columbia, New York University, and at Sangamon State University.

In 2006, Ehrenreich founded United Professionals, an organization described as a nonprofit, non-partisan membership organization for white-collar workers, regardless of profession or employment status. Her latest publication is entitled, Living with a Wild God (2014).