Monday, August 11, 2014

First Field Marshal

In my years in the land of the free, whenever the conversation turned to India's freedom movement, my American friends would ask me if Mahatma Gandhi was our "George Washington". My answer would always be an emphatic no.

To me, George Washington was the general on horseback who drove the redcoats to the north. "In the rockets' red glare and the bombs bursting in the air." Of all the founding fathers of the United States, he is the most revered. His military skills were so valued that it is said that long after he ceased to be president, the reigning president, John Adams wanted to bring him back as a General during the Quasi-war with France -- to "scare the French."

George Washington was the only American leader, who could "scare" a reigning superpower at the time.

And that, always brought me back to our own founding fathers and the empire that they took on. Having read all I have about Bapu, I understand that he worried the British a lot. But scaring was reserved for only one national leader, with the same stature as Gandhi. If the British were truly scared of an Indian independence leader, it was Netaji Subhash, because, he wanted a military end to the freedom struggle. The last thing that the British ever wanted, was another 1857, and so, Netaji scared them -- like no other leader did.

During the second world war, Netaji's INA was charging on India's north-eastern frontier.  For a few months, in a small part of Indian territory, the Indian national flag flew. That part of India (Hind) was made independent (Azad), and Netaji became the Indian general on horseback, who took on the redcoats and drove them out. To me, the leader from India's freedom struggle who was the closest to what General George Washington was to the Americans, is Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. No one even comes a close second.

And that brings me to the fresh controversy that is brewing in the air. The newly elected Indian government, wants to honor Netaji Subhash with India's highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India). And since Netaji has never been honored (posthumously) due to a controversy surrounding his death, the new government feels that it is time to give Netaji his due. The people who oppose this thinking say that Netaji was way above this award, and giving him the award after it has been conferred on "lesser mortals", would tarnish his stature. So, I thought that I would give you Desi Babu's opinion in this regard.  

The only other Indian leader of that stature who has never been given the Bharat Ratna is Mahatma Gandhi, since the father of the nation is "above" the award. It is well known that the person who conferred that title on the Mahatma was Netaji Subhash. In addition, Netaji gave a modern perspective to India's freedom struggle and was known to be responsible for India's state symbol and the state salutation (Jai Hind). The only person in the history of the Indian National Congress that ever took on Mahatma Gandhi (and defeated him) was Netaji.

So, if Netaji has the same stature as Gandhiji, how exactly should we honor him?

One option is to do nothing, like we do in Bapu's case. We do not confer posthumous awards on Bapu, although, we do give out awards in his name. Perhaps, we could do the same for Netaji.
The other option, is to confer a military honor (bold emphasis needed) on Netaji. The highest civilian honor does not quite cut it, but honoring Netaji, who always considered himself a military man, should be a military matter.

In the year 1976, during the American bicentennial, General George Washington, the General on horseback who drove the redcoats to the north, was promoted by a special act of Congress to "General of the Armies" (equivalent to Indian Field Marshal), the highest military rank. Only one serving officer in American military history, received the honor before. This posthumous conferral was unprecedented, but if any American deserved this stature, then it would be Washington.   

So, in Desi Babu's opinion, the government should consult the military top brass and through an act of parliament, create an honorary title of "First Field Marshal". India has two field marshals already, but in the order of precedence, as the first general in command of the army of Azad Hind, Netaji needs to be first.

The Bharat Ratna is an award for civilians. A soldier of Netaji's stature, deserves a military honor of the highest category. And, as the Americans showed two hundred years after their independence,  it is never too late to do the right thing.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Those Bundles of Papyrus

Recently, I read an intriguing comment on this blog, asking me what my favorite books were.  It has been a while since I have thought about that question.

All my life, I have read a lot of books. I have liked some, but never hated any. Books are the fruits of love and labor, and like you don't scorn someone Else's child, you don't scorn their books either. However, the word "favorite" conjures up a completely different set of emotions. The ones, that come from being awake all night.

I have always divided my books into the ones that can keep me completely oblivious of the need to sleep at night -- and, the ones that don't. One can understand the need to complete the journey, if a voluminous account of an arctic adventure on a sledge through a blizzard, is given in a larger number of pages, than a single night allows to complete. But, the ones that used to keep me awake, were always short stories. Somerset Maugham had a knack for spinning a web around characters, living in the most nondescript islands in the pacific, and keeping me awake till I would find out their fates. One story always ended into another, but the night never did. It was much later, that I got somewhat tired of his stories -- his times suddenly seemed remote, so remote, that I couldn't stretch and touch the characters any more.

The writings of Sir Vidiadhar, have always appealed to me. In spite of the times when he referred to me, and a countless number of my compatriots, as denizens of a land of darkness. I forgave him, for he makes me see the things, that I am otherwise quite blind to.

No other British writer has ever appealed to me, not even the great bard, whose plays, I do like to watch.

Among American writers, Hemingway has always been a favorite. F. Scott Fitzgerald is fun to read, and James Michener, for some reason, makes me reach out to the people across time, that Maugham made too distant to touch.

I have no favorites from the Russian, East European and Latin corners of the world. Not because I don't like reading translations, but because a lot gets lost in translation.

Of all the Indian writers that I have ever read, I have three favorites. R. K. Narayan, though from times that are long gone, stirs the soul. Khushwant Singh, now gone, will forever be the only writer that has scolded me, and made me laugh in the same page. And Ruskin Bond has made me cry -- many times.

Of the new crop of "famous" Indian writers, I don't like any. Some are too bombastic with their choice of words, and some are simply too commercial. Biswanath Ghosh, has great potential, for he writes from his heart, but unlike the great sardar, Mr. Ghosh, seems to have a drink too many, when he writes. He does make me laugh and cry though -- sometimes -- alternately.

One more writer that deserves a special mention, is Shobha De. I have read too many Indian writers who like to impress with what they know. Mrs. De, is quite the opposite -- she lets the reader discover what she already knows. She writes beautifully, and the impact of each word is carefully measured. Her language is deliberately kept simple, something, that the new crop of Indian writers can learn from. Her stories, though sometimes shocking, awake me to some aspects of India, that Sir Vidiadhar was perhaps too reluctant to experience and write about. And, being the gracious writer she is, she always responds to my emails.

Other than Maugham, the only ones that have kept me awake through the night are R. K. Narayan and Ruskin Bond. Both, with their short stories, some of which, have also made me cry.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Hark! The Aardvark or the Lark?

Summer holidays in India can be extremely boring.

As a child, I used to get pretty excited in April, about the impending holidays. Around this time of the year, you could still find the red and orange Palash flowers on the hilly trails of Jharkhand. The Lantana bushes would be overgrown and messy, and one would have to wade through them to stay on the beaten track. Then, the summer would quickly arrive. The bushes would become dry and shriveled, and the afternoon sun would be too bright to make a trip outside the house possible. Around an hour after lunch, when everyone would have fallen asleep, a black crow, which used to live in the tree behind the house, would start cawing incessantly. For some reason, it always reminded me of my English teacher.

Right before the school closed for vacation, our English teacher would remind us that at our age, he knew every single word in the English dictionary. And so, inevitably, on most afternoons, after the crow stopped cawing, I would take out my well-worn edition of "The Oxford's English Dictionary", and turn to page one, with the resolve that I too would become the dictionary one day. But it was always the first word, that stopped me dead in my tracks. How in the world, would a snouty ant eater, make it to the most coveted spot in the English dictionary. The Aardvark, I always thought, must have friends in really high places.

Since the two As put the Aardvark in quite an enviable spot in the English dictionary, I always wondered if India's newest political party with national ambitions, had similar objectives, when they chose their name. The Aam Aadmi Party (common man's party), would easily appear at the top of any alphabetical list of political parties in India. Were you to abbreviate it to AAP instead, you still wouldn't be able to dislodge it from the top. In fact, I have had a gnawing suspicion for quite some time, that someone in the AAP, in his or her childhood, had come to envy the Aardvark -- just like me.

Since we are talking politics, and since the largest democracy in the known universe is going through its largest transfer of responsibility and blame, from the huddled masses to a few chosen ones, I thought that I too, should express my opinion by cawing a bit.  And trust me, I would not have. In fact, I was planning to quietly march up to the nearest polling booth on election day, and vote. Simply. And then, came the postman.

The Economist, our favorite family magazine, has decided to usher in the daybreak this week, by playing the Lark. I don't like to beat about the bush, and so, I will just say it -- this week's edition disappointed me.

On the cover, they have put a photograph of a stern looking Mr. Narendra Modi, who has also thrown in a frown -- for good measure. In its editorial, the "newspaper" has expressed its inability to "back" Mr. Modi for India's highest office. First, it acknowledges the fact that Mr. Modi is perhaps better qualified than anyone else, to lead India to better times and deliver the fruits of economic development to the aspirational youth of today. Next, it reaffirms that in spite of the good things that Mr. Modi might have done, he has not yet apologized for the riots of 2002, from which, the judicial system may have exonerated him. And then, it chides Mr. Modi, for not wearing a skullcap in atonement.

While Mr. Modi may have been condemned for being biased, the esteemed "newspaper" cannot claim to be completely free of the same hazardous human infliction. What if I called The Economist a magazine, generally written for, and read by the rich white anglo-saxon man? What if I said that expressing public distrust in the judicial system of an "inferior brown-black" country, shows bias of the kind that cannot be washed down with the choicest of single malts, that the Scottish bureau might dispatch respectfully to the editor, from time to time? And what if, the fact that the editorial staff does not show up for work in turbans, can be construed as utter disrespect for the Sikh community in Britain?

Nonsense, they would say. And so do I.