Journalism and the case against Dr. Haneef

The case against Dr. Haneef has finally ended. He is back home in the safe haven of his home country. Nobody can throw him in prison for being present illegally. But, during my three-day stay in Bangalore, I noticed something about the way the media has handled the case. My case against the media is restricted to the editorial line taken by the Times of India, one of the oldest and most respected newspapers in India. In its editorial titled “The Haneef Case”, dated 28 July 2007, the TOI says, When the Australian authorities realised they had made an error of judgment, they acted upon it. Which is not something investigating agencies in India always do. Police here have the dubious record of detaining suspects without charge for much longer than the 90-day limit….” It does not stop there. It goes on to claim that, yes, if Haneef is not guilty, his visa must be reinstated by Australia and he must be allowed to return to India with honour. But before we cry foul the next time an Indian is detained abroad, we could soberly reflect upon our civil liberties record at home and put in perspective any perception of unjust prosecution elsewhere.” I find this attitude both shocking and irresponsible especially since it appears in a serious and respected newspaper like the TOI.

If one were to accept the argument of the TOI, does the Indian government reserve the right to torture, kill or maim a Sudanese citizen on the grounds that the Sudanese government itself does not respect human rights? In Haneef’s case, does the fact that the Indian government does not have the moral right to demand fair treatment given its own civil liberties record justify the actions of the Australian Federal Police? I should think not. Human rights are universal. No matter what is done in India, no matter how bad our justice system, and no matter how flawed the actions of our police, I believe that all human beings deserve to be treated fairly and justly. If an Indian citizen suffers at the hands of a foreign government, it is perfectly normal that the Indian government mount pressure to obtain a free trial. That is exactly what the Government of India has done in the Haneef case. A newspaper as respected as the Times of India asking us to examine our own record before demanding justice for a citizen arrested abroad is unacceptable. To me, it is irresponsible journalism.

On literature and cinema

Over the past few days, I have heard more about Harry Potter than I did over the last 10 years. The hype surrounding the release of Book 7 is unbelievable. Among other unbelievable things is this article in the San Jose Mercury News about giving Harry a “proper send-off”. I began to read the article out of sheer curiosity. By the time I finished it, I was convinced that all the hype was unnecessary. To “hold “Goodbye, Harry” gatherings” and mock funerals seems utterly ridiculous to me. If there is one thing the Potter series has done to children, it is to teach them that death is a certainty. It tells the tale of an epic battle between good and evil and shows that many lives, some innocent and others not, will be lost in the process. When a series as realistic as this one ends, why should children go into a state of manic depression? It seems that when they do, they have not really learnt the lesson Jo tried so hard to convey. That “for the well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure.” If that is true, children would understand why the series has to end. They would understand that all good things must end at some point so that better things can take their place. By advising parents to hold mock funerals and memorial services in the memory of the fictional hero, I think psychologists and psychiatrists are underestimating the intelligence of children who read the Potter books. Perhaps, they have understood the point of the books better than we have as adults. Perhaps, they are not as dumb as child and family psychologists think they are.

Having said that, on to the second theme of this post. I recently saw the trailer of the forthcoming movie “Gandhi, My Father“. It’s tagline states that
“one family’s tragedy was the price of a nation’s freedom.” Why is that, you may wonder. For the first time, a movie humanises Gandhi and talks about the complicated relationship he shared with his eldest son, Harilal. As usual, the political parties claiming uphold the Gandhian legacy have created a furore about the movie allegedly tarnishing Bapu’s squeaky clean image. Why is it so difficult for us to accept that the man who brought us independence through the mantra of non-violence may not have been the perfect human being we make him out to be? Does his failure as a father undermine, in any way, his contribution to the Indian freedom movement? The question I asked a few months ago of Indian crickets is valid in this context too. Why do we seek to deify those who do us good? Why can’t Gandhi be human, with his flaws and drawbacks? Why does he have to be God-incarnate to hold a place in our hearts? To me, Gandhi is a man. A great man, but a man nonetheless. Yes, his contribution to the freedom struggle was invaluable. But he had his faults. Who doesn’t? I don’t agree with many of his principles, but I still respect him. If I were to criticise his ideals, do I become the Devil’s advocate? I don’t think so. I certainly hope people don’t stop questioning what must be questioned in an attempt at blind reverence. Gandhi was a great man. He was a Mahatma. But even Mahatmas have their flaws.

Farewell, President Kalam

This morning, I was watching the news on CNN-IBN. One report was on President Kalam’s last day in office. Tomorrow, the President-elect, Mrs. Pratibha Patil will be sworn in as President. On this occasion, CNN-IBN interviewed children in schools all over India to find out how they feel about the change of guard at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Why ask children? Because, this man is close to our hearts in a way no other president has ever been in the history of independent India. Because this man dared to dream of a super-power India by 2020. And because he took his ideas, not just to the people on the street, but to the citizens of tomorrow, the children of today.

The response of the children in question demonstrated the extent to which Dr. Kalam has made an impression on the future decision-makers of India. Practically all of the children interviewed said they were sorry to see him go. Some said he should remain president forever. Others said the way the elections had been held was simply dirty politics. Whatever be their opinion on the President and his successor, all of them thought he was the best President India has ever had the good fortune of having. To me, this attitude is gratifying. It is with great pride that I watched the report. It is reassuring to know that the children of today use their intelligence to judge the calibre of a person, something that our beloved adult politicians would do well to learn.

Personally, I could never respect another President as much as I respect Dr. Kalam. He is an exceptional individual. I am not a student of the hard sciences, but to be frank, I would not mind enduring mathematics and chemistry all over again just to be able to listen to him teach. I couldn’t agree more with the teens interviewed on television. He certainly is the best president India has ever had. Goodbye, Dr. Kalam. We will miss you as our president.

Where is the reading habit going?

The latest, and the last, instalment of Harry Potter is out. I am still awaiting the verdict from acclaimed critics and ardent fans, but the hype surrounding the book release has set me thinking. Yesterday, when I went to pick up my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I found that I was probably the only adult, apart from the harassed parent running to the bookshop early in the morning to shut their child’s whining. In fact, I suspect the other parents thought I too was a parent who came to pick up the book for her child. Anyway, there I was, picking up the book for the sheer pleasure of reading. Yes, Harry Potter is a children’s novel. But there is no rule that adults must not read children’s novels, is there? There is no rule that intelligent 25 year-olds wanting to do research on terrorism must not escape into the fictional and extremely fascinating world of Hogwarts, Voldemort and Harry Potter for the sheer fun of reading an extremely well-written piece of literature. So, why is it so difficult for my “mature” adult friends to appreciate my taste in literature without looking upon me as a mentally retarded freak who likes to read “kiddish” books with the zeal of a 13 year old?

Ok, now I am ranting. Back to the point I wanted to make. Where has the reading habit disappeared to in the children of today? While it is certainly true that the Harry Potter series has bought many a kid back to books, Jo has not entirely succeeded in weaning today’s child away from brainless cartoons and violent video games. I have been thinking about this whole issue ever since I got back home last evening. I live in an apartment where there are at least 25 children between the ages of 5 and 15. None of them, and I repeat, none of them were remotely interested in the fate of poor Mr. Potter in the final book released not 12 hours ago. I came home at 6 pm and buried my nose in the book almost immediately, pausing only for dinner, and finally stopping shortly before midnight because I could not keep my eyes open. The reading session continued this morning and continued only with brief pauses for bath and food until I finally finished the book around 2 pm. The kids around me seemed oblivious of the interest that the book generated and were quite content in watching Scooby Doo and Popeye on Cartoon Network, or whatever it is that they watch. To me, that was a travesty. I cannot imagine putting down an interesting book to watch a movie where I am not required to use my brain.

Unfortunately, creativity seems to be becoming a bad word for Generation Y (or Z or whatever) They are quite content copying answers from textbooks without questioning their rationality or relevance and watching stupid cartoons and equally stupid movies. They refuse to use the greatest gift God has ever given humankind, the ability to think and reason. Schools that they attend are equally content in accepting textbook answers to textbook questions and far from encouraging thought and creativity, actively discourage any variation from the accepted textbook answer. Any child impertinent enough to attempt an original answer is quickly sanctioned with low marks and a note to the parent complaining that the child is too arrogant for his own good. The charade does not stop there. The parents, obsessed as they are with grades and class ranking quickly stifle any more originality by ordering the child to do as the teacher says or face the consequences. And so starts the process of unquestioning acceptance of the written word. But wait, what are we doing? Why are we making a nation-full of people incapable of expressing original ideas and creative impulses? Why are we sticking to the colonial principle of making a nation full of clerks? If that is truly what we want, why are we complaining of the lack of research in Indian universities?

It is frustrating to sit here and see children of today scorning the reading habit as if it were the plague. How does one explain the pleasure of spending a lazy afternoon with an interesting book in hand? How does one explain the thrill of imagining the deadly magical duel between Harry and whoever attacks him instead of having to make do with what Warner Brothers chooses to show us on screen? Why are the children of today becoming so lazy that even picking up a real book with paper and cardboard is a bother? At this point, after observing children around me, I only have questions. The answers seem too elusive to hope for in the near future.

Electing a President…

Electing a president for the world’s largest democracy seems to be getting more and more difficult. We have come a long way since the choice of a presidential candidate was reached through consensus among the largest political parties. The election of Ms. Patil seems to be getting dirtier and dirtier every day. Her candidature, which came as a surprise to most political parties, and the way the campaign for the presidential office has been conducted by the Congress and the Left parties tarnishes the image of the nation’s highest office. It is difficult to imagine Ms. Patil, with her typical politician’s zeal and blind and unfailing devotion to Ms. Sonia Gandhi occupy the same position that is currently occupied by someone as dignified and respectable as Dr. Kalam.

The excitement and euphoria of finally having a woman president disappears under the high drama of the elections themselves and I now find myself wondering if her election really means something for the women of India. I would say no. India’s First Citizen must be one to whom all his compatriots must look up. He/she should be able to inspire admiration, or at the very least, respect from the country’s major political parties. I do not see Ms. Patil acquiring that kind of universal acceptance anytime in the near future. I fear the President will become a mere puppet in the hands of Ms. Gandhi as she consolidates and perpetuates her hold over the Congress party and the Central Government. This time, I sincerely hope I am wrong. Only time will tell.

Ever tried doing nothing?

I am back after a week-long sabbatical. That reminds me, ever tried doing absolutely nothing? I have. And trust me, it’s not at all easy. I have been jobless over the last week and I am absolutely looking forward to having something to do once again. It is so goddamned difficult to vegetate. I feel like I have lost a couple of IQ points over the last week. The only thing that kept me sane was the news. I know that sounds pathetic, but it’s absolutely true.

Anyway, my last post was on Pottermania, something that I had written during my 9-hour long flight to Bombay. However, I spoke very little about the flight in itself. I would like to register my disappointment in, and utter lack of professionalism on India’s celebrated national carrier, Air India. Agreed, my experience with international airlines is rather limited. But, even in comparison with the not-so-good Delta Airlines, and the slightly better Air France, I can say that travelling by Air India is the worst experience one can ever have. Where do I start? Right! The baggage check-in. Air India must be the only blasted airline in the whole wide world that actually weighs your hand baggage. After a ten minute-long argument with the in-charge at CDG on my baggage, I was forced to chuck some clothes to bring my baggage weight down from an alleged 26 kilograms to 23 kilograms. First of all, I had serious doubts about the accuracy of the scales. It is difficult to lift a suitcase that weighs 26 kilograms. I could lift mine quite easily. I am pretty sure it was only about 22. Then came her problem with the tiny silver Ganesha idol I was carrying in my suitcase. She refused to let me check it in on the grounds that it was considered a cultural artefact and that I would have to declare its value at the customs counter at Bombay Airport. After much argument, which involved me telling her I would handle Indian Customs if the need arose, she allowed me to check it in. By the time I was done with that woman, I was so pissed off with the Airline that only excellent service could salvage their reputation in my eyes.

Then came the flight itself. What can I say about it? It was a Boeing 767 bought by Air India sometime in the 1970s. And, it has never seen the inside of a mainenance shed since then. The window edges were blackened and rusted and the wallpaper (or whatever you call it) was peeling off from everywhere. To top it all, the aircraft smelled of ginger, garlic, onions and fish, mixed with sweat and cheap perfume worn by its illustrious passengers from Newark, its original airport of departure. As for the pillow and bedsheet provided, the less said, the better. It smelled like my grandmother’s old saree that had been abandoned at the bottom of the attic for several years. In short, the flight was the dirtiest and worst-kept I have ever seen.

Now, all this brings me to my overarching concern. What image does the illustrious national carrier present to the rest of the world? I do not know if India is shining, but after that flight, I can say with conviction that Air India definitely is not shining.

The Harry Potter Phenomenon

While on a smelly 7-hour long Air India flight from Paris to Mumbai, one tends to try and distract oneself by reading. And that is precisely what I did. Before I proceed, let me register my disappointment with the state of India’s shining national carrier. After a highly annoying conversation with the Air India Paris representative about baggage allowances and laptop computers, I boarded the flight with an armload of magazines and newspapers. The flight’s condition gave me serious doubts about its air-worthiness and made me wonder if Air India had at all bothered to maintain its fleet since it first acquired the aircraft in the 1970s. Trust me, it was that bad.

Anyway, back to the point. Once I got over the shock of seeing the state of “Air India shining”, I began to read the highly interesting, but atrociously expensive Time Magazine. The article in question was about the efforts of the “Harry Potter Brain Trust” to keep up the net of secrecy surrounding the much-hyped release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. While the process in itself was extremely interesting, what spurred me on to writing this post was the conclusion of the authors, Lev Grossman and Andrea Sachs. They ask whether the publishers of the Harry Potter books are not under-estimating the power of the same series they are working so energetically to promote.

This was a particularly interesting question. If people only read books to find out the story and the ending, nobody would read the same books more than once. Such is not the case, as we all know. Dickens, published many decades ago still holds a sway over lovers of books. Some books are classics and we never tire of reading them. I have read David Copperfield and many times over and the books hold the same appeal today as they did all those years ago, during the first reading. To cite more examples, the story of Iliad and Odyssey are so famous that they must have become boring by now. But no, they continue to inspire the production of such blockbusters as Troy and Gladiator. The same goes for the Potter books. Why then, are we obsessing with secrecy? Why are we so paranoid about spoilers on the Internet affecting our enjoyment of the books? So what if we do find out the ending? Do we not read a book simply because we want to read it irrespective of who killed whom and who defeated whom?

As a student of literature (ex-student, but that’s beside the point), I find that it only makes sense if Harry finally defeated the evil Voldemort. Why would Jo create the character only to have him defeated at the hands of the most powerful and evil sorcerer ever? From a purely literary perspective, that is the only thing that would make sense. The good must always triumph over the bad. That is poetic justice. And not even J K Rowling would throw us a googly on that. That brings us back to the original question. What is the point of reading. The point is to spend time with the book and enjoy the time thus spent. It is appreciate and even experience a good book. And Harry Potter, is a good book.

USS Nimitz visiting? What’s the fuss?

The USS Nimitz, a nuclear-powered US aircraft-carrier has come to India. So, what’s the problem? Leftist and centrist political parties seem to think there is. Left parties claim that the visit is a move by Washington to bring New Delhi under its strategic umbrella. More here. To make this look even sillier than they already are, protesters are holding noisy demonstrations with slogans such as “Down with US Imperialism” and there is talk of US “Gunboat Diplomacy.” To me, it looks like the protesters are barking down the wrong well. If they must protest, there are plenty of other things to protest about. Like the war in Iraq, for example. Or the fact that 40% of Indians are illiterate. But no, the Communist Party of India and its Marxist counterpart are still citing Cold War-era actions in the protest against the USS Nimitz. The involvement of famous writers such as Arundhati Roy and Mahashweta Devi, far from lending credibility to the protests has served to make the whole thing look rather ridiculous. Talk on India’s foreign policy objectives from someone like Arundhati Roy seems just very out-of-place. With all due respect, Roy is a brilliant writer of fiction but know absolutely zilch about politics and international relations.

One of the most virulent objections to the arrival of the USS Nimitz is that it is a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and is capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The United States Navy had refused to confirm or deny the presence of nuclear warheads on the vessel, in accordance with their long-standing “say nothing” policy. The Indian Ministry of Defence has issued a statement saying that there is no known presence of nuclear warheads on the vessel. NGOs, forever ready to jump on to the bandwagon, have expressed concerns of leakage of nuclear waste in the Bay of Bengal. Now, that sounds hypocritical. On the one hand, India has nuclear ambitions and on the other, it pretends that all things nuclear are bad. The same people rejoiced and celebrated after nuclear tests at Pokhran in 1998. Where did concerns for the environment go then? All this protest about India abandoning its policy of non-alignment is redundant too. Communists still cite the ancient Panchasheel doctrine of the 1950s to criticise the government on its shifting foreign policy stance. Of course, they conveniently forget that the Panchasheel resulted in the 1962 war with China and in one of the worst defeats the Indian Army has ever suffered.

To me, these objections hold absolutely no water. Even if India is increasing military cooperation with the United States, I fail to see why this is such a bad thing. Is it not time we get out of the “we-represent-all-the-oppressed-third-world-countries” mindset and act like an emerging and responsible political player? India has claims to first-world status in the next 30 years. Should we not start with behaving as one on matters of international politics and stop exaggerating the intentions of the “American Imperialists”? Why would the US want to colonise India anyway? I firmly believe that India has a lot to gain by cooperating with the US on nuclear-technology, especially for energy-production and everything to lose by refusing to do so. The biggest cities in India suffer periodic power black-outs and struggle to cater to the needs of the burgeoning economy. The harsh truth is that we are in dire need of energy to keep our growth rate robust and economy healthy. Why should we not cooperate with the US and build a healthy and lasting political and military partnership with it? It is the biggest extra-regional power in the Indian Ocean and India will only stand to gain by cooperating with the US Navy. After all, we need to secure our maritime and continental borders too. If the US is helping us make our immediate strategic environment more secure, then what is the problem?

I do not believe that military cooperation with the US will result in the transfer of sovereignty or the loss of autonomy of the Indian Government. It will only help India secure its frontiers better in the long run and build a healthy relationship with what is arguably the world’s most powerful country.

A hyper-connected generation?

I came across this article on BBC News a short while ago. An increasing interest in social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Orkut is giving rise to hyper-connected generation. As the writer puts it, users are not only sending mails and text messages but “lifecasting” words and video 24 hours a day. I wonder whether all this worth something. Why are we so obsessed with remaining “connected” with the rest of the world all the time? Why are we so entirely incapable of living our lives “offline” without feeling the obsessive need to check our mails every 10 seconds? There is also apparently a new phenomenon that the author calls micro-blogging. They are one-to-many messages broadcast like blogs that help people keep up with goings on in your life.

Now, I am all for blogging, seeing as I am myself a regular blogger. However, I fail to understand why anyone would be interested in whether you have brushed your teeth and had coffee in the morning. Being on both Facebook and Orkut myself, I can vouch for the fact that both are terribly addicting. In fact, they actively encourage you to abandon all pretense of productive work and distract yourself. I have been guilty of the behaviour several times myself. But now, the novelty has worn off. I am no longer as interested in either site as I was when I first joined. It is convenient to get in touch with friends when you feel like, but sometimes I feel constrained to check and update my profile because my friends expect me to do so.

Then, there is the question of who exactly a “friend” is. Does someone you knew when you were five years old and in kindergarten count? Believe it or not, I actually got a request from someone claiming he was in kindergarten with me and would like to be my friend. He added, in his scrap on Orkut, that he thought I was a fantastic person and warm-hearted too!! What the hell? How does he know I am a nice person when he hasn’t even seen me for 20 years? This spurred me on to abandoning my Orkut profile. I am back on it now, a year later but am much more conservative about who I accept as friends than I was then. There are days when this networking nonsense goes completely out of hand and I feel like a fool for having accepted it in the first place.

So, while staying in touch is an excellent thing, a balance must be struck between a person’s online and offline life. To me, my offline life is more important than my online life, hopefully. And, I certainly hope I never become one of those Facebook-obsessed individuals who are online all the time. I do have a life outside of the Internet and proud of it!