& occasionally about other things, too...

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Some Great Idea


When I came to Toronto a little less than five years ago, I found it utterly charming. It didn't have the frenetic pace of my hometown Bombay and had a definite character that was unique.

Geographically and culturally it is a North American city and it doesn't have the feel of a city that has been transplanted from America into an alien environment – an unmistakable and discomfiting feature of cities such as Dubai and Singapore.

Toronto retains its quality of an overgrown provincial town that hasn't quite understood its own uniqueness.

It's emerging as the new global city and as Edward Keenan observes in his Some Great Idea Good Neighbourhoods, Crazy Politics and the Invention of Toronto it's a city that has based its future on the strong and rooted traditions that are inherent to its past – the ideas of democracy, diversity and development.

Keenan’s book is a breezy introduction to the city and especially its recent history (last 15 years under three Mayors – Lastman, Miller and Ford).  

But it’s not just about the sordid politics of the city hall. The book also gives a glimpse of some of the great people who did their own bit to build the city - William Mackenzie, RC Harris and Jane Jacobs. They have - along with many others - made Toronto what is today – the city of the future, a city that the world is watching and waiting to emulate its success. If it is allowed to succeed.

As a newcomer who has made the city his home, I found the book a terrific mixture of history, facts, information and opinion. 

Unfortunately, it’s a bit too brief. I’d have loved to read some more of the ways the suburbs have developed similar to the insightful perspective that Keenan provides on the development of Woburn where he adroitly mixes policy and memoir.
Edward Keenan

Generally speaking, civic issues make for pretty dull reading but thanks Rob Ford Toronto, politics has become a source of entertainment that can easily rival any other form.

Keenan is an astute observer giving the readers of his weekly column in The Grid a ringside view on the impossibly lurid world of Rob Ford (our Mayor doesn't have a rival even in the usually colourful world of Indian politics).

The book is an extension of Keenan’s activism. He doesn't hide his politics but doesn't lose his objectivity either.  

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Some more reflections on a Saturday afternoon…I


There is a serious concern among many in India that Narendra Modi may become the next Prime Minister. This concerns stems primarily because of his unapologetic advocacy of the Hindutva ideology and his resolute refusal to apologize (or be remorseful) for the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002.

The media was abuzz all of last week as some of the biggest names of India’s business world gathered together to shower encomiums on him for his “spectacular achievements,” with the Congress spokesperson reminding the world that the German corporate sector shared a similar fascination for Hitler in the 1930s, and while doing so conveniently forgetting the party’s instrumentality in at least two equally gruesome massacres in the past.

The social media was fervently discussing ‘isms’. A particularly interesting debate involved capitalism and how the “capital class” in India by endorsing Modi is encouraging communalism.

The ideologies that espoused class struggle became obsolete because they fell short of two fundamentals requirements of human life – freedom and development.

The proponents of the ideologies claim that they remain relevant even today and protest that it was the practice of these ideals that subverted freedom and failed to deliver the promise of development.

Perhaps, they are not wrong.

Individual freedom is at the heart of this debate, and was at the basis of the differences between two eminent French writers Andre Gide (1869-1951) and Roman Rolland (1866-1944).

Both supported communism – Gide briefly and Rolland during his lifetime.

Rolland is known in India because of his association with Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, and because Swami Vivekananda’s interpretation of the Vedanta influenced him. Along with Leo Tolstoy and Gandhi, Rolland was a firm believer in non-violent non-cooperation.

Rolland was an early advocate of the Soviet Union and its form of communism. He remained a lifelong supporter (surprisingly) even of Joseph Stalin.

It may said in his defense – if it is necessary – that the worst excesses of Stalinism remained concealed until Rolland’s death, and the West took note of the autocratic intolerance of the Soviet state only after the Second World War ended. 

On the other hand, Gide supported Soviet Communism for a brief period but rejected it after a visit to Soviet Union in 1937.

Frederick John Harris’s Andre Gide and Romain Rolland Two Men Divided details the differences between these two French writers over many issues including the most crucial one – the interpretation of what constitutes art.

The book also discusses the different interpretation they gave to the role of the individual and individual morality in a society, and how the communist ideology as practised in the then Soviet Union dealt with this crucial question.

Harris notes, “…both believed that the communist revolution would necessarily achieve harmony and the general well-being of humanity, for this was mankind’s destiny and its truth. Both recognized the value and the necessity of liberty in a well-developed society, and both knew before going to Russia that Soviet society would not in all respects live up to their own personal aspirations. Rolland, however, returned convinced just as he was before his departure, that despite all, Soviet Russia was on the right track; Andre Gide returned with the impression that the Soviet experiment had derailed somewhere along the line.”

Continued in the post below...

Some more reflections...II



Continued from the post above...

Rolland went to Russia in 1935 on invitation of Maxim Gorky and upon his return to France wrote that while his body had returned, his spirit was still in Russia. Harris observes, “He was contemptuous of the Western press, which he accused of not appreciating the greatness of what was happening inside Russia.”

Gide visited Russia in 1936 and a day after his arrival (17-June) Maxim Gorky died. In November 1936 he published Retour de l’ URSS and bluntly stated: 

“Three years ago I declared my admiration and my love for the USSR…if I was mistaken at first, the best thing is to recognize my error as soon as possible; for I am responsible here for those the error leads on. No conceit is valid in this case; and besides I have very little. There are some important things than the USSR: humanity, its destiny, its culture.”

The following passage explains Gide’s aversion for the many ways in which communism throttled individualism:

“When I write that I am unwilling to recognize as essentially irreconcilable a “properly understood” communism and a “properly understood” individualism, I mean such as I understood them myself. I must therefore explain how I understand them. It is certain that I do not see an equalitarian communism, or at least that I see equality of conditions only at the outset; that for each person it would imply merely equal chances but in not a uniformity of qualities, a standardization that I consider at one and the same time impossible and hardly desirable, for the individual as well as for the mass. And, likewise, an internationalization of economic interests would not imply the suppression and ignoring of racial or geographical peculiarities, the happily irreducible differences among cultures and traditions. The very diversity of the players makes the wealth and beauty of the symphony, and wishing that all the instruments, brasses, violins, oboes, or clarinets, produced the same sound would be as absurd as to think that each instrument would play better if it broke away from the ensemble of the orchestra and ceased following the measure.”

Eventually, individualism triumphed over the collective in the war between communism and capitalism. Even if democracy and capitalism may have emerged as the only acceptable political and economic models in the present century, the struggle to redefine them continues. The gathering storm over the political and economic rights of the indigenous people is a good example of this struggle as is the Occupy Movement.  

Today even the most die hard proponents of the capitalist way agree that there is a dire need to modify it to make it work justly. And the proponents of individualism are unable to explain the growing rise of individual violence (read Ashish Nandy’s analysis of how individualism has contributed to a violent society: Shadows of New Violence).

An aside: I bought the book many years – actually decades ago – from Bombay's Smoker's Corner. The book tangentially talks about the thriving art and literary community in Paris in the 1920 and 1930s (no, not of the expatriate writers and artists who became famous subsequently and beautifully depicted in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris) but of the French and European writers – Rolland and Gide, and also Paul Valery, Rainer Maria Rilke, Stephan Zweig and Emile Verhaeren.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Reflections on a Saturday afternoon…

150th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda

At a recent lecture in Toronto, MJ Akbar said when Jawaharlal Nehru was asked by a western journalist what was his biggest achievement, he had noted the passing of the Hindu Code Bill. That India’s first prime minister should consider the empowerment of Hindu women a bigger achievement than India’s independence is indicative of the man’s true character. It also underscores the struggle within the Hindu society for social reforms.

(Read MJ Akbar's column on the subject Guardians of the pulpit)

That the mere passage of laws didn't (and doesn't) lead to any significant improvement in women’s status in the society is an altogether different matter.

Anyone familiar with 19th century social and political history of India will know of two very clear streams within the Hindu society – one which advocated that social reforms should be a priority, and the other section that resisted western-inspired and British-instituted reform measures. This section wasn't opposed to reforms. They wanted the reforms to be generated from within the Hindu society.  

That the Hindu society didn't (and doesn't) have any self-regulatory mechanism to have initiated this process is evident from the severe opposition Nehru faced during the codification of the Hindu personal laws.

Balwantrao Gangadhar Tilak (after Sant Dnyaneshwar and Shivaji Maharaj, the tallest Marathi manoos of all times, and after him Babasaheb Ambedkar and then Sachin Tendulkar?) belonged to the latter group that was opposed to British-led social reforms. 

His response to his gradual eclipse from public sphere in the late 1880s and the passage of the Age of Consent Bill in 1891 (which raised the marriageable age for girls from 10 to 12) was to launch the public celebration of the 10-day Ganapati festival in 1893 – the same year that Swami Vivekananda delivered the rousing speech at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.

Vivekananda didn’t belong to either school of thought although he was a strong advocate of social reforms based on inherent strengths in the Hindu society. And while Vivekananda was not directly involved with the political aspect of the freedom movement, the Ramakrishna Mission became a hotbed of extremist nationalists from 1880s onward.

It is difficult to straitjacket Tilak or Vivekananda. 

Today, more than a century later, both Tilak and Vivekananda divide Indians, with both the secular and the communal elements claiming them as their ideals. History is reinterpreted by both the groups to justify these claims. It isn't such a bad thing because it is only through revisionism that we uncover new and concealed facts about the past. 


Of course, there are innumerable quotes that can be reproduced to portray both Tilak and Vivekananda as votaries of Hindu nationalism. A contributing factor – especially in Vivekananda’s case – is the whole scale usurpation of his ideology and thinking by the Hindutva brigade. In Tilak’s case they don’t do so probably because Tilak’s collaboration with Jinnah in 1916 for the Lucknow Pact.

About Tilak, historian BR Nanada, has said, “(Tilak) has probably suffered no less at the hands of uncritical admirers, who have tended to present him not as a flesh-and-blood politician, but as a mythical hero. The image of Tilak as an uncompromising champion of swaraj, a reckless patriot hurling defiance at the mighty British raj, while the craven moderates lay low, does less justice to the subtlety, stamina and flexibility of a consummate politician who managed to survive the bitter hostility of the government for nearly forty years.”

About Vivekananda, academician Sabyasachi Bhattacharya has said, “Admittedly, there are indeed some passages in Vivekananda’ s writings where he speaks of the need to find the common bases of Hinduism and awaken the national consciousness among Hindus. But one or two such rare passages (usually occurring in addresses to meetings of a Hindu association or local community) are insignificant compared to the vast number of the contrary kind where he emphasizes the unity of all religions.” (Read the article here: Vivekananda)


On the 150th anniversary of Vivekananda, I read a number of newspaper and magazine articles on him and remembered reading Tilak’s meeting with him. (Read an interesting book excerpt: Dharma for the State

The two met at Bombay’s Victoria Terminus (CST) in 1892 when Vivekananda was an unknown sanyasi on a trip across India, and on his way to Poona. Tilak invited him to stay at his place in Poona, and was impressed by his knowledge of the Bhagawat Gita, and the similarity of their views on the core essence of Krishna’s message. Tilak himself was a scholar and in his Shrimad Bhagwadgita Rahasya forcefully advocated that the philosophy of the Gita is not renunciation because Krishna narrated the Gita to Arjun to motivate him into action. Vivekananda’s views on practical Vedanta are also similar.

Tilak has written about his meetings with Vivekananda.

Here is a passage: “Two or three years thereafter Swami Vivekananda returned to India with world-wide fame owing to his grand success at the Parliament of Religions and also after that both in England and America. He received an address wherever he went and on every one of such occasions he made a thrilling reply. I happened to see his likeness in some of the newspapers, and from the similarity of features I thought that the Swami who had resided at my house must have been the same. I wrote to him accordingly inquiring if my inference was correct and requesting him to kindly pay a visit to Poona on his way to Calcutta. I received a fervent reply in which the Swami frankly admitted that he was the same Sannyasin and expressed his regret at not being able to visit Poona then. This letter is not available. It must have been destroyed along with many others, public and private, after the close of the Kesari Prosecution of 1897.” (Read the passage here: Tilak-Vivekananda meeting)

They met again (either in 1886 or 1901) during a session of the Indian National Congress in Calcutta.