Wednesday, December 29, 2010

In The Badlands of Klepto-Society: Wikileaks From Delhi!

With the Wikileaks sending shivers down diplomatic spines all over the world, I have often wondered how the American Embassy would be reporting back to Washington on happenings in India in general, and the kleptocratic society we live in, in particular. Here’s how it most likely would be.

Of the many things immutable in present-day India and amid other uncertainties that beset this benighted country called India, the longevity of the kleptocratic society is fully assured – this, for us, how reassuring is it! Hard to believe but reassuringly and surrealistically true is the fact that there is a mad scramble, so the story goes, among all insurance companies to insure it against a chance occurrence! The insurance shall never have to be redeemed; so cocksure are all Indians about its continuance without a hiccup.

To be fair, there is no dearth of Doubting Thomases who are forever prophesizing finis to this society. Such hopes are nurtured, happily (!), on the quicksand foundation of the sporadic recrudescence of activity displayed by the CBI from time to time and on the so-called hot air unleashed by the CVC in its periodic incantation of honesty. But like quicksand they surprise you with its hollowness; hot airs are hot airs good only for the formation of monsoon clouds. They are quickly forgotten.

As a counterpoint, see the foundations of this society – built on concrete, mortar, and steel! How deep the piled foundations go! The Indian Constitution provides so much security to public servants that anyone not indulging in heroics has to be really ninny! The procedures emanating from rule of law and natural justice make the hero count his blessings. And though they are not enough, the camaraderie all around sponsors quid pro quo! The denizens of this sublime society hail the visible achiever much as they castigate the voiceless, faceless nincompoop! Little wonder the foundations have been rendered earthquake-proof of any rich vicious magnitude (inquiry)!

And see the magnificent super-structure that seems to be forever growing into the sky! Everyday there’s something to the matter, the tall imperial edifice keep ascending to High Heavens as the myopic idealist standing on the ground misses out on the happenings in the rarefied stratospheric environs. The yawn widens further making the moralist hang in midair, in animated suspension, unable to appreciate the higher “reality”. All his ranting refuses to lift off the ground. He’s an anachronism.

See the flip side of this venerable society. Its roots are firm, almost invincible, and they run deep and criss-cross one another. The result: they bind the sub-soil inexorably, making a continental drift defy the time-tested laws of geology! On the surface it meanders much like limestone topography, giving rise to stalagmites, stalactites, and columns assuming shape and size depending on the availability of the stated quantum of precious lime.

In practical terms, they are the bourses encashable in the banks that can’t get illiquid because they have the backing of the rock-hard State apparatus. Who would like to dissolve such an apparatus unless he is bird-brained to do so! The apparatus subsumes all the tricks and rules of the game, all the propitious ground conditions that make a Tehelka possible, the large and petty crimes – CWG, Adarshgate, 2-G Spectrum scams – that make up a marketplace in whose entrepot CBI, CVC and such like other vigilante outfits draw succour and offer plentiful employment.

Paradoxical as it may sound, they subinfeud the system. Trust begets trust and it is the same theory here: carnal in appetite and bacchanalian in spirit. He who’s employed the short-cut clandestine route hogs it as an aphrodisiac. He would make no compromise on that score, for the meritorious path is not so meretricious and saturnalian. He stands to lose here. And they are the vociferous lot who make or mar Indian society.

Given the scams listed above, be convinced that the kleptocratic society is here to stay – for keeps. Mercifully, Klepto-society is proactive, making things happen. It is in the same breath also reactive – quickly playacting the ideal role when certain flagrante delicto is caught out to discomfit its kleptoacts. In such rare cases it pays to look the purist. Because kleptocracy is still not a staid term in the lexicon – even here in India – though the inhered histrionics practiced over years in varied situations and climes come in handy. Every experience counts, rich as it always is.

I must elaborate here to make it less abstract. Klepto-society believes in aggressive marketing. In a way, it has to. Because without this important prop it is liable to slip into disrepute and consequential obsolescence. With shamelessness its leitmotif of existence, the exercise is none too difficult – this exercise of self-promotion with a catholic heart. Where every creature comfort is peddled and provided to the powers-that-be so that the coffin’s shroud is left alone there, not resurrected. The lies and stealth remains embalmed.

A direct outflow of this is that the straitlaced is rubbished with impunity. Because the strait gate enjoins certain decorum and civility and mouthing even the unacceptable does not pass its muster. As a result, the filth and dirt stay hidden. The promotion campaign of the Klepto-society earns its rich dividends.

This is what makes this Republic of Kleptos impregnable. Their servitor manners and bootlicking instincts make them a veritable band of achievers who can pluck the moon for their seniors, if so asked. If the moon is unpluckable, not so their pluck and confidence. They may yet rustle up an ersatz moon from nowhere for the boss to moon over his own diktat. And all this achieved with the same joie de vivre as the one that minister to basal, carnal instincts. They are loud and rambunctious, gaudy and meretricious, opulent and generous – everything that admits of no limit. You come out of such experience in a daze, wondering if the act you’ve seen and enjoyed is real or surreal, imagining if these people of the habitat are not Martian men come calling to earth.

True, an odd hiccup can put pay to such impulses. But such one-offs hardly tarnish the Teflon-image. Public memory here is frightfully short, catalyzed as it is with innumerable scams that show up its putrescent heads to lie embedded in the avalanche of its own siblings. The Teflon-coat stays as lawyers make their killings and promote such august luminaries to other such august perches in this very lifetime.

So worry not; we need to vociferously applaud their goings-on with passionate fervour and declamation much as our President did in his address to the Indian Parliament and make them feel great as an emerged world power – both economic and political. This is the Indian summer of glory! As I write, I can see more of the Indian Neros go to fiddle as the nation now a teardrop in world economy and in complete disarray, slides to invisibility and into a quagmire of its own making.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

When C Equals M + D - A

It’s been incredibly mind-boggling these past few months. The CWG scam, the Adarshgate scam, the 2G Spectrum scam, the Karnataka land scam – the litany is endless; every bit surreal and growing. Lest anyone has any qualms about a humble unelected and unelectable individual like me making bold to touch upon these touch-me-nots, question-me-nots, let me say it upfront that I write this as a citizen and that I have an inalienable right and a bounden duty to do so. So please be disabused, you the eminent sons of this country who flaunt and parade patriotism on your shirt sleeves and on television studios, rolling out spiels of pious homilies to lesser mortals like me!

By any facile definition, corruption is immoral, it is illegal, it is illicit, it is illegitimate; no country has legalized bribery, graft, extortion, pelf, embezzlement, fraud, or nepotism. But peel off the epidermis that masks these abstractions and semantics, and you’ll see that corruption is also a crime of cold immoral calculus. Individuals weigh the benefits/costs of giving and taking bribes. They include moral costs shaped by individual consciences, social values, cultural norms, and ethical standards; they subsume economic calculations including costs of the illegal transactions.

Shorn of morals or attitudes, this is as true of the private sector as the government or the NGOs. Competition is less vulnerable to corruption than monopoly. Clear rules of the game are less susceptible to corruption than systems where discretion is paramount. Systems with accountability are less prone than systems whose lack of transparency readily lends to questionable operations. As Robert Klitgaard, an international expert on the issue of corruption says, “Corruption is more pronounced in systems characterized by the formula C = M + D – A: corruption equals monopoly plus discretion minus accountability.”

Put the three magnum scams through this sieve. The CWG scam stemmed from the monopoly of the Organizing Committee to do what its high priest and his cohorts willed or desired, giving the processes a go by. The discretion was not spelt out; there was simply no accountability. It was banana republic at its worst. The Adarshgate was everything that CWG was – and more. It was a criminal conspiracy, hatched with admirable planning and flawless networking. Discretion became the Dictator and Accountability crushed asunder. The conspiracy threw up its own Monopoly. How else would you expect the high and mighty to hide behind the fig-leaf of Kargil martyrs! It was not only a criminal conspiracy but the greatest shame that could have attended the armed forces. The 2G Spectrum scam was indeed sui generis. The unholy nexus among politicians-bureaucrats-corporates-media was caused by Monopoly with limitless Discretion and no Accountability.

How must we begin? First, promote competition. But willy-nilly there shall be certain monopolies that can’t be wished away – a nation’s natural and electromagnetic resources – and inevitably has to stay with the government. When Monopoly is inevitable, Discretion needs be circumscribed and Accountability total. In the case of 2G spectrum scam, Discretion, far from being carefully delineated, was given the freest and wildest run, and Accountability didn’t exist.

What must we do? As Klitgaard says, “Corruption is a crime of economic calculation. If the probability of being caught is small and the penalty is mild and the pay-off is large relative to the positive incentives facing the government official, then we will tend to find corruption. Fortunately, economic analysis suggests that it is possible to locate areas within an organization where corruption is most likely. A heuristic formula holds: Corruption equals monopoly plus discretion of officials minus accountability.”

Given human nature, there will be the impulse to improve one’s lot in a society that values hedonism – even when it is not legal. This kleptocratic instinct may not hold fast for all but surely for the majority. Consequently, officials will veer towards corruption when the ostensible gain from corrupt means far outstrips the penalty imposed times the probability of being caught times actually punished.

How, then, to limit corruption? It could be broadly two-fold: Institutional mechanism and strong punitive action. The obvious institutional thing is to reduce monopoly to the limit possible, circumscribe discretion and temper it with transparency, and enhance accountability. Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) is a kind of super-body against corruption. It combines investigation, prevention, and popular participation – all rolled in one.

The other aspect relates to exemplary punitive action. Klitgaard suggests picking the low-hanging fruits – selecting a type of corruption “where visible progress can be made soon, without too great a cost”. This would help making a statement that rings through the citizens’ psyche – that the corrupt shall not walk away free.

Coupled with this, there is a need to upset the applecart of the pernicious culture of impunity – to disabuse citizen’s mind that has, over time of inactivity against corruption, become jaded and defeatist. Corruption today is not only tolerated but has come to be accepted as a way of life, a modus vivendi that has to be lived with.

This can only happen if the Big Fishes are fried. As a former Hong Kong’s ICAC Commissioner wrote: “An important point we had to keep in mind is the status of people we prosecute. The public tends to measure effectiveness by status! Will they all be small, unimportant people, or will there be amongst them a proportionate number of high-status people? Nothing will kill public confidence quicker than the belief that the anti-corruption effort is directed only at those below a certain level in society.” Italy’s success in its fight against corruption was largely due to frying a top Mafia official, many top business executives, and several important politicians from the ruling party. This would make a splash; big guns have high visibility, and more the frying the more the message conveyed.

The suggestions presuppose ringing in changes by simplifying laws, protocolizing procedures, and making processes transparent. Sadly, what we suffer today in India is not a lack of rules but a surfeit of them, with each caught up in tangles that makes legal interpretations – and consequential adjudicatory processes long-winded and endless – so cumbersome and infuriatingly exasperating that dares even to trivialize the constitutional performance of an august institution of Comptroller and Auditor-General.

The Big Three – CWG scam, the Kargil for Profit Adarshgate scam, the 2G Spectrum scam provide us with material that would make for excellent case studies – much like an articulated skeleton enabling medical students to understand human anatomy – to anatomize and educate the public. Given the outrage, they could be made the cornerstone for cleansing the system. Each one needs to be analyzed threadbare to lay bare how the processes were subverted and suborned and the nation deprived of its resources.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Why scams tail procurement, properties

Recently I was addressing a group of senior army officers at the ASC Centre and College in Bangalore covering the topic that seizes everyone’s attention today: procurement in defence procurement. I covered the whole gamut of revenue procurement enunciated in the Defence Procurement Manual, and mentioned en passant that with detailed procedures and processes in place we have/are still moved/moving into a regime of transparency.

I was besieged with questions. “You spoke about canons of financial propriety in making government procurement,” said one, no sooner than I had welcomed questions. “If I’ve to buy a TV for myself, I’ll opt for Sony, regardless of the amount which I know is the highest. But I can’t do that for the government. Why?” I laboured to explain that government procurement is price procurement while what he was referring to for himself was value procurement. He was right in that the lowest tender isn’t always the best buy in the long run, but in government, unless we did the life cycle costing to arrive at the ‘effective’ cost, amid the welter of factors, it is perhaps the best option possible for a variety of factors: tax-payers’ money, least discretion, and accountability; lowest common processes predicated on societal mores and benchmarked for transparency so that when decision-makers stand in the bar of history and their collegial acts anatomised post facto, this appears the most sensible.

Notwithstanding all that is obvious, I have often wondered one simple fact that has defied comprehension in government procurement. Year after year, procurement after procurement, the purchases of the same items made from the same firm(s) by the same organisation(s) keeps increasing. The ostensible reason, quite in sync with the outside world, is runaway inflation. This is the simplistic justification. To make matters worse, along with the price increase is cartelisation by firms which, in a manner of speaking, believe in and practice extortionist selling to a buyer (poor invisible person) seemingly driven to the end of his tether in exasperation. Often these very firms’ balance sheet would show that their entire earnings ever since they were set up are from the one or few government organisations which have had procured these at prices ‘dictated’ by them. It is one of those strangest cases where in a situation of monopsony — one buyer with many sellers — it should be the buyer’s market with the buyer calling the shots, it is made to morph into a monopoly (not even a duopoly or an oligopoly) where the seller pushes the buyer up the wall. Worse, the cartels flourish. This is rather intriguing.

About a decade ago in a certain case I had a gut feeling that the firm is taking us for a merry annual ride, year after year, and it was about time its bluff was called. I happened to have taken a decision instinctively much against the wishes of others in the committee, sticking my neck out, almost daring other decision-makers that they were wrong and I was right. Reluctantly, very reluctantly, they agreed, hoping and praying my plans failed. My instinct and action — much to the consternation and dismay of my fellow decision-makers — didn’t fail me: the recalcitrant supplier was made to eat the humble pie; and the overall saving to the government was in the region of about 60 per cent with the potency to cascade year after year.

I quickly came to the conclusion — already deductively ideated — that cartelisation in a monopsonic situation as in huge government procurement is an anachronism. If it still flourishes, be sure and be warned there is an unseen hand doing the rope trick! And such ‘unseen hands’ — capable of doing all sorts of smart magic — are not amused one bit when the cash outgo from government kitty is less than what they had originally envisioned. For many who work the government, spending less government money in buying the same item that can be bought at a higher price is thought of as a crime.

Now see all transgressions through this prism and the picture would become clearer. In government procurement, irrational price increases often masquerade as market trend and are adroitly touted and gracefully accepted; but be sure all this can’t be done without active insider’s connivance. The same goes with the wanton price increase through cartelisation. A young colleague recently told me an interesting case of three rates sourced from the same Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM): the first through a tender from the OEM itself (the highest); a second one from the trader quoting the OEM’s ostensible rate plus some add-ons (the second highest); and yet a third mentioned in the OEM’s website (the lowest). Not surprisingly the organisation was rooting to buy from the OEM as per its tender. Possibly in fulfilment of its mission to ensure the maximum cash outgo from government account.

Zoom out and look around you, again through the same prism and see the findings in the latest breaking news story concerning the Adarshgate in tony Cuffe Parade of Mumbai. This is the same syndrome that afflicts nexuses that bleed the no-one’s government through criminal conspiracy though in this case the legitimate beneficiaries — Kargil martyrs and war widows — have been two-timed. And see the names of the beneficiaries to know where the rot begins and how it has a trickle-down effect. How national tragedies are turned on its head to benefit mercantilists!. Despite all the brouhaha and public outrage, you would be an outrageous optimist to imagine we’ll see light at the end of the long tunnel.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Million Leg-Ups: Snapshot of India Snailing!

Of the many analogies that bonsai and encapsulate events and situations, particularly the firm tongue-in-cheek kinds, I’ve never seen anything approximate Indian reality more than the one going around the net. It is the old Aesop’s fable of the humble – yet hardworking – Ant, and the lazy – yet bumptious – Grasshopper, that typifies our Dharmic India Bharat Mahaan.

The Ant works hard in the withering heat all summer, building its house and laying up supplies for the winter. The Grasshopper thinks the Ant is a fool and laughs and dances and plays the summer away. Come winter, the Ant is warm and well fed. The Grasshopper has no food or shelter so he dies out in the cold.

This is the well-known universal story. But the Indian one is different, even nuanced – and not exactly malicious, if anything only a touch moralistic; and though we all know the parts, we rarely string them together into a kind of montage. So here it goes…

The Ant works hard in the withering heat and sweltering humidity all summer, building its house and stashing supplies for the winter. The Grasshopper thinks the Ant is a damned bloody fool and laughs and dances and plays the summer away.

Come winter, the shivering Grasshopper promptly calls a press conference and demands to know why the Ant should be allowed to be warm and well fed while others are cold and starving. The media is in full attendance.

NDTV, BBC, CNN show up to provide pictures of the shivering Grasshopper next to a video of the Ant in his comfortable home with a table filled with food. The World is stunned by the sharp contrast. How can it be that this poor Grasshopper is allowed to suffer?

Promptly, Arundhati Roy (Bless her spirit!), the doyenne of crusading spirits, stages a demonstration in front of the Ant's house.

Simultaneously, Medha Patkar (Salute her lifelong profession!) goes on a fast in company with other Grasshoppers demanding that Grasshoppers be relocated to warmer climes during winter.

Without ado, Mayawati calls this “Maha-Injustice” perpetrated on hapless Minorities and the destitute.

And without batting an eyelid, Amnesty International and Kofi Annan pitch in, criticizing India for not upholding the fundamental animate rights of the Grasshopper.

Pronto, the Internet – bless the netterati and twitteratti! – is awash with online petitions seeking support for the Grasshopper (many promising Heaven and Everlasting Peace for prompt support as against the Wrath of God for non-compliance).

Never the ones to miss out on such godsends, the Opposition MPs stage a walkout, while Left parties call for “Bangla Bandh” in West Bengal, and Kerala demands a Judicial Enquiry. In tune with past performance, the CPM in Kerala immediately passes a law preventing Ants from working hard in the heat so as to bring about equality and equal distribution of poverty among Ants and Grasshoppers.

Always at the ready to steal the thunder, Mamata Banerjee allocates one free coach to Grasshoppers on all Indian Railway Trains, aptly christened the “Grasshopper Rath”.

Not to be outdone, the Ministry of Civil Aviation issues directives to its state carrier to reserve all middle seats in aircrafts for Grasshoppers to travel gratis to escape the harsh northern Indian winters, if they so chose.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare loses no time to direct all government hospitals in the country to treat Grasshoppers free of charge when they present themselves for any treatment – largely arising out of lack of work and movement of limbs – and not necessarily connected with the cold and the blight.

Not to be left behind, the HRD ministry loses no time in sculpting out “Special Leg-Ups” for Grasshoppers in Educational Institutions and in Government Services.

Finally, the trigger-happy Ministry of Law quickly drafts the “Prevention of Terrorist and Anti-National Activities Against Grasshoppers Act” (POTANAGA) and the Parliament in a rare convergence of interest betraying a Good Samaritan passes the same unanimously in a jiffy without debate through a voice vote, and the Act comes into effect a month before the advent of the winter season.

The Ant is fined for failing to comply with POTANAGA and with nothing left to pay his retroactive taxes, its home is confiscated by the Government and handed over to the Grasshopper in a ceremony covered by NDTV, CNN, BBC courtesy their OB vans.

Arundhati Roy smirks and calls it “A Triumph of Ultimate Justice”.

Lalu, smug and grinning, calls it “Socialistic Justice” from the grass banks bounding his cowshed.

CPM calls it the “Revolutionary Resurgence of the Downtrodden and Upstaging of the Illusion of Thrift and Saving in Utopia”.

Not to be outsmarted, Kofi Annan invites the Grasshopper to address the UN General Assembly and the Security Council.

And many years later...

The Ant has since migrated to the US of A and set up a multi-billion dollar company in Silicon Valley while hundreds of Grasshoppers continue to die of starvation despite the wide array of support, and leg-ups granted them everywhere, even through such scams as Adarsh (see the delicious irony!) Kargilgate at every turn in India;


Consequent to losing all the hardworking Ants and patronizing the freeloading and state-protected and state-propped lazy, laidback Grasshoppers, India still snails along as a developing country, notwithstanding what Barack Obama had to say to pamper our uncertain ego and uneasy vanity. From time to time, to affirm its rightful place in the comity of nations and to get a ravishing feel-good factor going and flaunting itself as a resplendent emerging (even emerged!) economy, it covets to host such mega events as the Commonwealth Games that – despite its intrepid athletes – alas boomerangs and lands egg on its face, and paradoxically shows how much travelled it is in crony capitalism and as the last, living testimony of mercantilism in the 21st century.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Life After Sheru

Until One has Loved an Animal, a Part of One’s Soul remains Un-awakened – Anatole France.

It has never been the same again. The memory of Sheru lying on the grass with eyes wide open as though he was staring at all of us though we had conspired to do the most awful, heinous act to put him down has stayed with me all these days, springing to mind ever so often as I walked around the house and reminding me of those small things that till the other day made up our everyday ordinary life. Every little place that I crossed or sat on held memories – memories of the sweet innocent dog who was a constant presence the past eleven years and more – that will be hard to efface.

The house felt a big vacuum. It had never been like this before. When I sat in the living room on my assigned sofa before the TV, my legs resting on the pouf and busy multitasking with the laptop, I sensed there was something ineffable that was quietly missing from my little world. Every time I sat on the sofa Sheru would invariably unobtrusively come over from wherever he was and plonk himself on the floor next to the pouf and lie down, barely a foot away from me. If I lifted myself and moved over to lie down on the divan to watch TV, he would without wasting any further time move over, just as gently, pushing himself to the side of the divan to be closer me. Even in his last few days when he was in pain he never missed out on this – his little pleasures of life.

Now when I got back to the same seat after his burial and sat down, teary-eyed, on the sofa, his absence hit me like a tracer bullet as though telling me I was living in a tornado-filled world all of my own. My mind refused to accept that Sheru was no more and that he wouldn’t ever circle around my feet as I went about my daily chores at home. Priyanka had joined me and was sitting on the divan, tears streaming down her eyes. Inevitably our conversation veered around Sheru.

I pulled the laptop lying on the other divan towards me and involuntarily my fingers went on to design a new page on Microsoft word. I tapped out equally involuntarily – Sheru: Story of a Loving Dog. And little below on the same page, my fingers tapped the following words in single individual lines: By Priyanka Mohanty, Prayag Mohanty, Shukla Mohanty, Sudhansu Mohanty. Yes, that was the cover page. I tossed the laptop over to Priyanka. She read it and her face lit up, throwing all the pain and sorrow off her mind. She knew instantly. Soon the family assembled in the living room and took a look at what I had written out – quite unbidden. Instantly, we knew the family would like to do a book on Sheru. And maybe very soon – before time and every one’s busy schedule relegated Sheru only into a fond, distant, loving memory. We knew that was going to be our loving way to remember him by.

It wasn’t that Sheru was the only dog any family had ever had. Nor were there no such other Sherus who lived or were still around. Every pet is special to his or her adoptive family. So was Sheru to us. But of all the dogs we had known over the years, either from close quarter or from the sidelines, what struck us about Sheru was that he was the closest approximation of a canine to a human being. Or so we felt every time he came into the scene, which was nearly always whenever we were at home. Always mature and proper, in the last few years he had matured and grown more human-like. He responded as though he was a human, even his responses were calibrated to understand our emotions and moods. His behaviour mimicked human emotions and responses.

It was never his habit to wake up anyone if he had to go out to answer nature’s call. Patient as always, he waited for Shukla or Priyanka to see him, resting his snout on the mattress, eagerly waiting to convey that it was rather late morning, well past his usual hours, and he had better go out. The same went for his food. When hungry he would quietly sit and rest at his “dining table”, his eyes travelling the distance, all the way to the kitchen, where Shukla pottered around preparing meals. Only when extremely hungry and he found us all busy chatting with guests well past his dinner time he would softly nudge Shukla with his paw. It was his polite way to tell her that he was hungry and he wanted his dinner be served.

We missed all this. In fact, we missed him being around us – always. When I got back for lunch there was the unmistakable whining and whimpering that was missing. It felt unreal. Because the tinnitus of whimper and whine was in my ears and refused to go away. My hands that in the past always lay buried on his neck and face petting him to my heart’s content, felt awkward. If I sat down he would promptly sidle up to me and rest his head on my lap. Same when I got back home in the evening. Now every homecoming for me was a grim reminder that loving Sheru was gone. And for good. I’ll never pet him again.

Even at home doing any chore was a constant reminder of the loss. At daybreak he would get up from the end of my bed where he set up camp wagging his tail as though wishing me a cheery “Good Morning”. It was invariably my job to take him out, throw in the leash around his fluffy neck and hand him over to someone around for his ritual ‘morning walk’. Minutes later he would be back after his morning ablution feeling light and frisky and telling me with his shiny expressive eyes and fluid grace and movements that he was ready for the day. The tail never stopped wagging as he would barrel to me wanting to be petted for a job well done. I would invariably be reading the newspapers in the sit-out. Once I took the leash out off his neck and he had had his fill of petting he would settle down on the edge of the sit-out with his biscuits, his paws spread out in front and his ears cocked and his attention riveted to the lawn and the compound wall beyond watching intently the toing and froing of squirrels. Them he didn’t mind. But if a rat (more a gutter rat) wheezed past within his eyeshot, he would quickly take to his feet and race across the lawn and vanish into the bush beyond, and minutes later come back empty-mouthed yet triumphant, though – to be fair to him – only after satisfying himself that our home was well beyond the interloper’s grasp. He chased crows with the same verve and devotion and would do his best to catch them as they perched themselves on the ground, perhaps hoping that one day he would get to them before they had the chance to fly away.

If I was late with my yoga and wasn’t through it yet, which I did on the carpet in the living room, he would get back and plant himself on one corner at the end of the carpet as to not come in my arm’s way. He would sit there patiently, head-on-paw, leash gracing his neck (which he didn’t like one bit at home), waiting for me to complete my asanas, get up, pet him and take the leash off him and give him his morning munch of biscuits.

Our house felt empty – very empty. The walls felt bereft without Sheru who adroitly hogged the walls in kinship and slept – all his paws often raised to high heavens. His “dining table” looked deserted, his utensil empty of bones and remnants of food, and his water bowl dry. After a decent interval Shukla removed his dining utensils and replaced them with a potted palm. But the heart gnawed. Every time I walked past the spot – and this was often – during the course of the day, there was the unmistakable stab of pain and feeling of loss.

While we missed him our every waking moment, what refused to leave my mind was Sheru’s last days when he had taken ill – his terminal illness – and especially his last few days when we desperately tried to get him around. What haunted me was his beseeching look when he was in obvious pain as though wanting to say something in a language I wish we could understand but couldn’t – the last few days before he was put down. I wondered what were his contours of thought when we nursed him day and night yet when we knew it was beyond human intervention to save him and thought it best to put him out of misery, what could have crossed his mind? Wasn’t our act awful, even heinous – though in genteel parlance we mouthed mercy killing – and, if Sheru realized, what we were planning, did he approve? Or did he feel let down, terribly let down, by the same family he had adopted as his very own and given his all – selfless love and undying loyalty – for our happiness and wellbeing and, most importantly, reposed blind faith in? Did he in his dying moment – after being injected with the sedative when he rushed out of the house to throw up in the lawn – realize for a trice before the vet pushed in the lethal shot that we were the perpetrators of his sudden end, much before his destined exit from this world? And if he indeed did, wasn’t it a classic case of betrayal of the blind trust he placed on us?

I never could find the answer, and surely never would. As days went over, we spoke about it in a tone of contrition and injured guilt, this betrayal – this very act of putting him to sleep; every time we spoke we consoled ourselves that what we had done was ultimately for his good; the world does it; all pet owners do it; euthanasia for pets was, in any case, legal, if for no other reason than that the pet’s consent isn’t necessary (and cannot be obtained) and that human beings haven’t condescended yet to battle over and join issue among themselves on aspects of animal ethics. I wasn’t overly bothered about what we thought and did, or the right or wrong of our action, or what the world thought and did. I was bothered only about what Sheru thought – even for those nano-seconds as he lay helpless, his mouth gagged, and his body and mind were snuffed out artificially through our design and machinations.

We humans, intelligent, cerebral, and cognitive that we pretend to be, place too much on our intelligence and emotion, and too little on other animates’ intelligence and feelings and emotions. For all our claims on animal research we refuse to admit that animals’ tears are connected to their emotion and pain. Tears for animals, our scientists say, are meant to keep their eyes clean and fresh and there is no connect between a dog crying tears and his pain and dismay. All bunkum this. I saw Sheru shed copious tears in his last days when he was in obvious pain. I refuse to believe that the streaks of tear lines below his two beautiful eyes were unrelated to his pain or even the realization that his days with us were numbered. And that was precisely the reason I wished to know if Sheru felt let down by us in his dying moments.

Within days of Sheru’s demise, I had left on an official tour to Pune half-hoping that the change would lift the blues off me and also give me a chance to revisit the very place where Sheru had lived in younger days and where he adopted us as his family. When I reached Mohan’s house in the evening, adjacent to the one we occupied memories rushed past my eyes in a collage in technicolour. My mind cast back rustling up memories, to the days when Sheru was a little pup – naughty, always prancing and dancing about – who rushed to the very car I was travelling in now, circling and jumping around till I alighted from the car and then leaped to me in uncontrolled glee to lick me and be petted and in the process dirtying my clothes with his muddied paws. By the time I entered Sukhi’s house that was ours and Sheru’s not too long ago (so it felt), my mind was flush with memories. I had no time to travel back in time awash with Sheru’s memories as we got chatting about this and that. The memories of a pet are so private and personal and it is hard for us humans to bring it to the fore in genteel conversation with people who hadn’t partaken ever their share of his joy. But at the back of my mind memories held firm and I sent out a silent prayer in Sheru’s memory.

When I got back home from Pune, after a couple of days – the first time after Sheru was gone – I was on the verge of whistling instinctively as I crossed the front window to enter the house, when it struck me it wasn’t necessary any more. Though Shukla and Priyanka were at home to welcome me back, there was something ineluctable that was missing. The bounding Sheru, grinning and smiling his way to me his own archetypal way, wagging his tail ceaselessly accompanied with the whine and whimper (the decibel higher and the whine longer and persistent when he found me heading back home after a few unconscionable, inexplicable days out in the boondocks! or so he would have thought) and brushing against me and accompanying me to my seat, was not there. It felt strange, almost surreal – this ineffable charm that always filled my heart and had made homecoming a sheer pleasure for me to look forward to and given me immense joy the last dozen years. I plopped into my seat, a vacuum battling in my mind and refusing to leave me. But I didn’t speak my mind out of choice. Silence, I thought was better; we needed to get used to life without Sheru, and it was rather we got on with real life. But was it?

Memory has this peculiar way of sneaking up from nowhere, often unannounced, and without provocation. Within a fortnight of Sheru’s passing, I was getting ready to catch a morning flight to Delhi. It was a short trip and I quickly packed my overnighter throwing in a few clothes and headed for the dining room to sip a cup of tea when I saw Priyanka sitting on one of the chairs and crying inconsolably. I knew it was Sheru’s memory that was making her cry. I sat down quietly looking at her from the corner of my eyes when she burst forth. “Was Sheru just a piece of furniture that can be replaced?” she demanded to know. And still sobbing, she told me how one of our relations had asked Shukla the night before if we had found a “replacement” for Sheru. She had learnt about it minutes before from a tearful Shukla and had immediately broken down and was now livid with shock and rage. “How insensitive can people be?” she continued. “They never can appreciate that a pet is not merely a pet, he’s much more than a pet – every inch a family member! Just because he cannot talk in a language we understand no way diminishes the role he plays.” She kept crying.

I didn’t have the heart to say anything to her. But I felt a stab of pain and hurt, though I fast realized that that was the way we humans mostly viewed pets as: as stress-busters and as objects of joy, a plaything to gambol with. How often a pet is replaced by another young number when the elder one dies and the home feels empty and doesn’t feel any more like a home? The “replaced” quickly makes way for the “replacement”. Within a few days the “replaced” becomes a part of history. As I sat in the car and drove away to the airport, my mind was abuzz wondering if pets are not kept for providing humans the comforts and conveniences of life, to be used and discarded, as though they were nothing better than pieces of furniture, and as though they had no feelings of their own beyond the ones shared with us for our own comfort and pleasuring.

The next time I went out on tour to Goa a month later I came back to an empty house. My flight was delayed and it was well past midnight when I reached home. Shukla and Priyanka had gone out to Pune to attend a friend’s daughter’s wedding. I fumbled to open the lock of the door in the tousled darkness and walked in. The silence was deafening. Emptiness assailed me, only this time accentuated by the eerie hum of midnight silence that rose to a crescendo in my mind, and the knowledge of absence of any one at home. The hurrying midnight traffic on either side of my house appeared a distant hubbub. I freshened up and changed into my night clothes, and turned in – in silence. But I couldn’t sleep. I kept tossing and turning in bed trying to stitch a sleep. Sleep eluded me. I sensed I was missing Sheru’s ubiquitous presence, his whines and whimpers and his many questions that gurgled out from his mouth in his argot every time I got back home from tour. To make matters worse, now he wasn’t there, lying, pressed against my bed.

Disconsolate, I came back to the living room to scotch the ennui gripping my mind like a vice, and thoughtlessly logged on to the net to catch up with my mail. I found a mail in my inbox from Anjali Ellis Shankar, my young colleague, titled A Pet's Ten Commandments. I clicked on it with bated breath. It went thus:

1. My life is likely to last 10-15 years. Any separation from you is likely to be painful.
2. Give me time to understand what you want of me.
3. Place your trust in me. It is crucial for my well-being.
4. Don't be angry with me for long and don't lock me up as punishment. You have your work, your friends, your entertainment, but I have only you.
5. Talk to me. Even if I don't understand your words, I do understand your voice when speaking to me.
6. Be aware that no matter how you treat me, I will never forget it.
7. Before you hit me, before you strike me, remember that I could hurt you, and yet, I choose not to bite you.
8. Before you scold me for being lazy or uncooperative, ask yourself if something might be bothering me. Perhaps I'm not getting the right food, I have been in the sun too long, or my heart might be getting old or weak.
9. Please take care of me when I grow old. You too, will grow old.
10. On the ultimate difficult journey, go with me please. Never say you can't bear to watch. Don't make me face this alone. Everything is easier for me if you are there, because I love you so.

I ran all the commandments in my mind, ticking off the ones that I or rather we had followed without a shadow of doubt. Yes, he was pushing 12 and just as the commandment says. We had given him time to understand him and him us. We had complete trust in him and he reposed full faith on us. We never had neglected him; maybe just kept him away in a room for a few hours so that the visiting tiny tots were not scared of his hulk. I couldn’t recall a single incident when we were angry with him, unless it was mock anger. And we spoke to him as often as we could. He was always a part of us, right in our midst when we sat down or busied ourselves with our daily chores or when people visited us. He was too well-behaved to need any reproach when food was served for guests and placed on the centre or peg tables – he never touched even when no one was around or looking. We treated him not like a pet, a dog, but as a family member. We kept telling the world that Shukla and I had two sons and a daughter, Prayag and Priyanka and Sheru. When on tour I spoke long distance to anyone at home no conversation was over till I had asked after Sheru. “What’s Sheru up to?” was my usual line. “Sitting here with us” would be the standard answer followed by something special of the day. “Relished his share of biryani or cream biscuit or performed his catching practice flawlessly with Prayag with the bones,” could be the addendum. I full well knew the answers but I wanted to hear all that. It made me feel happy and smug – to realize that everything was ticketyboo back home. He was every bit a family member. And he was always given his share of time and concern and importance.

True he had slowed down lately and he preferred to snooze often. A month before he became terminally ill he wasn’t keen on waking up and going out on his “morning walks” he loved. Sometimes Priyanka would cajole him and take him out. He went, more not to disappoint Priyanka than as something he looked forward to. For all our concern for him, I still can’t imagine why it never crossed our mind that he could be ailing. In retrospect, we now realize maybe it was the renal problem that was slowly taking its toll, inchmeal. But we in our naivety put it down to plain old age without thinking that his organs could be failing him. Always a small eater for his size, and always a gourmet he ate whatever he liked and never complained about anything.

As I ran down the list of commandments, I quickly realized that there was one commandment I hadn’t followed: the very last. Priyanka and I were too distraught to be by his side when he undertook his last journey. True Shukla and Prayag were by his side, but we were missing – by design. Now it made me disconsolate. I came back to bed, my mind whirring with a sense of guilt. Was it the right thing for us to do? Did he miss us? Was his fear aggravated by our absence? Wouldn’t he have felt better if Priyanka and I too had been by his side along with Shukla and Prayag in his final moments? He was always apprehensive of strangers and even in the best of times never liked to be petted by dog-loving people who saw him the first time and itched to touch him. Whenever he had his shots he would always like me to be around and would behave himself admirably, fully trusting me as though he were leaving all his worries with me. Whenever I wasn’t around when he was taken to the vet, no sooner he saw me he would keep whining endlessly telling me in his doggy language all the hardship his Mama had put him through when I wasn’t there. He made me feel as though I was a linguist enough to fully understand his complaints spoken in a tongue that I not only understood but could also decipher the inflection and nuances of his voice. But, in reality, I understood his many “accusations”. I would speak to him lovingly at great length and pet him hugely and slowly after considerable time, still being petted, he would be himself.

I felt guiltier than ever before. Perhaps we should have been at his side, no matter the hurt and the wrenching pain it caused us. Because Sheru would have liked it that way and it would have made his parting from us less painful for him and made his last journey perhaps more bearable, the memory staying with him. He would have been at greater ease, maybe more comfortable, certainly more sure about his surrounds and confident to face the harsh, cruel world that believed in time, death and mutability, with the little time left for him, ticking away rapidly. Did it hurt him, our very absence, away from him in his most crucial moment that would be firmly etched in his memory? I had no answer. I wouldn’t know. Nor would I ever know. Life has already left him days ago and there is no Sheru to ever tell me as he always did – through his whimpers and whines – what he felt, more when he was put through the wringer and was in clear dismay. If only we knew…

Many a time when we remembered Sheru, Shukla would often wistfully recall Sheru’s admirable behaviour a day before he was put down. In intense pain, his face twitched, his body convulsing over from spasm that thwacked him from inside, he slept in my bedroom, his pinched face and tucked under the table, away from our vision so that we did not see him in distress. He didn’t want us to see his suffering, maybe because he thought that was only going to cause us much anguish, and he did not want us to be miserable. “Even human beings won’t behave so,” Shukla would say, her eyes moisting over with Sheru’s memory. Who said animals lack feelings unlike humans? Only because they do not speak our language or we fail to understand theirs, doesn’t make them any less sentient, any less emotional, than us.

Now every time I sit in my assigned seat of the sofa and pick up my laptop lying on the divan to string my ideas together to write about him, I miss something that had been a constant, a part of my life that was so inextricably intertwined the past dozen years with this near-human being. The first time I did, I was beside myself with emotion and quickly put the laptop right back. I knew it was futile to make an attempt. I allowed time to go over, hoping that the passage of time will put distance on Sheru’s memory and make it a lot more bearable for me. Once when I had steeled myself to hammer out my thoughts, the telephone jangled. It was Dipika, my eldest sister. “What’s up?” she asked, by way of introduction. “Jotting down my thoughts on Sherubaba!” I said. It was perhaps just a week after Sheru’s passing. “Oh, no!” muttered Dipika, her voice tinged with emotion and choking. “I feel so bereft. I really do. I just can’t believe that he’s no more,” she added tearfully. It dawned on me how many hearts Sheru had won with his grace and sangfroid.

Sheru loved Dipika immensely. She worked in Mumbai when we lived in Pune and had seen Sheru grow up during her frequent visits. After we shifted to Bangalore she visited us often enough on sundry professional assignments and had seen Sheru mature and age over the years. Sheru, in turn, was incredibly happy to receive her every time she visited us, demanding to be petted and spoken to, his snout resting on her lap and refusing to leave her. I wasn’t surprised she felt Sheru’s loss as much as we did.

Last evening my sister Gitika called to enquire after our wellbeing. Inevitably the conversation turned to Sheru. I told her I’ve got started on the book about Sheru that we had planned. She too was very fond of Sheru much as Sheru was of her. “I’m gathering my thoughts to do a piece on Sheru as well,” she told me. It was poultice for my soul.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Adieu, My Dear Sheru

Sheru suddenly took ill. He refused food. We thought this was due to some gastric problem and he would get over it soon. But he didn’t. We took him to the vet who gave him gentamycin and vitamin B injections and told us that he would recover soon. We repeated the same course of treatment the next two days.

On September 1, 2010 his blood was sent for kidney and liver function tests, apart from other parameters. We were horrified to learn that his creatinine level stood at 10.7 mg/dl (normal: 0.5-1.5 mg/dl) and his Blood Urea Nitrogen (BUN) at 80 mg/dl (normal: 8-28 mg/dl). We were advised either hospitalizing Sheru or putting him on glucose to flush out the toxins. Since he was pushing 12 there was no chance of his undergoing dialysis.

We took him to the CUPA (Compassion Unlimited Plus Action) hospital for administering him glucose. Much to our surprise, Sheru behaved admirably and sat stock-still as he received the treatment. He was given an antibiotic to ward off infection, Perinorm to take care of his nausea, Rantac to contain his acidity, and B-Complex to help him get his appetite back. He sat there in vajrasana posture, his eyes fixed on me as I stood in front of him and Shukla and Priyanka sat on his either side.

We continued with the treatment the next day. In the evening, he was thrilled to see Prayag straight from the airport walking into the hospital room. He wagged his tail in delight (he rarely did when being administered medication intravenously) and kept cooing and whimpering through his tied mouth. In his own language, he was conveying his sense of joy to Prayag, whom he least expected. His day was indeed made; his family was by his nursing table!

We took him to CUPA everyday, morning and evening. But his appetite showed no signs of improvement. His eyes were wet, and were leaking tears. Slivers of tear-lines were by now clearly visible beneath his two beautiful eyes. I tried to wipe them off with wet cotton wool but they refused to go away. They stayed.

On Sunday evening as Sheru received his treatment I saw another dog, a Labrador, receiving similar treatment. I went over what appeared a father-son combine sitting on either side of the dog. They told me their dog, Roxy’s, was a case of renal damage. Her creatinine level had gone up to 22 mg/dl. She had a renal problem since a year.

On the way back Sheru was restive, refusing to sit quietly on the rear seat. He threw up. He was still restive. I was at the wheel and he kept tugging at my left shoulder as though desperately trying to convey something. Shukla thought he wasn’t happy to sit amid his puke. The moment I pulled over in front of our house he quickly jumped over Shukla and leapt out of the car and ran down to the lawn to urinate. We then realized what he had desperately been trying to convey to us the last twenty-odd minutes!

On Monday, the 6th September, we took Sheru to the CUPA hospital for treatment. It had been 4 days since he had been on IV fluids and it was time his blood was tested again. Sheru had a bit of vanilla ice-cream on two separate occasions the last two days and had refused any other food. Apart from the normal injectibles he took, today the vet gave him Prednisolone – a steroid shot to make him feel good. His activity level seemed to have improved and he looked better. We were hopeful the blood test would show an improvement in his kidney function.

Evening, when we got back to CUPA we learnt that Sheru’s creatinine values had gone up from 10.7 mg/dl to 17.6 mg/dl and the BUN from 80 mg/dl to 107 mg/dl. It was as though lightning had struck us. The doctor told us politely that there wasn’t any hope of Sheru’s recovery. Age was against him. Which is why despite the intensive treatment, his kidneys seemed to be getting worse. Since we had already got him to the hospital we thought we could continue with the treatment. Priyanka was absolutely shattered and broke down as Sheru sat on the table receiving his treatment. I pulled Priyanka away from Sheru to one of the chairs placed at the entrance.

The thought of losing Sheru soon was difficult to accept. Frankly, it hadn’t ever crossed our minds despite his age and illness. I had no words to console Priyanka. Both of us shed copious tears and then mustered the courage to go back to Sheru and join Shukla. Since Sheru understood our every emotion and mood, we decided to put up a brave front before him.

Sheru was happy to see us back, wagging his tail and irradiating redoubled happiness. We stood beside him petting him and looking at him with extra indulgent eyes. Our minds, in a funk, refused to believe that this dog with all his responses alive and mentally alert to every possible stimulus could be so ill that we were going to lose him in a few days time. It felt surreal. It hurt, it pained.

I spoke with the vet once more. “Was there no chance of him getting better?” I found it hard to control my emotions. My voice was shaking. He patiently explained me the implication of keeping him alive. “He’s up and about now thanks to the nutrition given him intravenously. Yet his condition has deteriorated. It’s only going to get worse from now on. I know it’s a very hard decision for you all; the family is so fond of him.”

Confused, I got back once again to Sheru and petted him to my heart’s content. He was visibly happy. We talked things over huddled around Sheru. How could we let him go just on the basis of one blood report? No, we won’t give in, we decided unanimously. We’ll continue with the treatment and two days down the line get his blood tested in two different labs. Then we could take a call.

We got him back to CUPA again the next morning. We spoke with Dr. Gowda, the senior-most veterinarian in the hospital. We told him our plans. He endorsed our idea and said that if his condition didn’t get worse he could live for six months to a year on renal diet. This cheered us up. I told him Sheru was plucking grass and chewing on it imagining he had had a case of indigestion and he could cure himself by throwing up and cleansing his gastro-intestinal track. How wrong poor Sheru was! Dr. Gowda told us to try force feed him small quantities of beaten curd every two hours and continue with intravenous administration of fluids once-a-day. On that day the vet administered an extra dose of 100 ml dextrose for energy. Sheru was up and about but his tears refused to staunch. He refused to touch food. We force-fed him some 30 ml of beaten curd through a syringe. He used all his energy to fend us off and was left short of breath after the ordeal.

On September 8, 2010, we took him to CUPA early morning. He was reluctant to go. As he sat on the table receiving the injectibles I saw Mr. Kurup. I asked him after Roxy. He moved away with wet eyes, unable to say a word. They had got Roxy over to put her to sleep. I walked over to Mr. Kurup and his son standing at the entrance, crying. Words failed me. Helpless, I put my arms around Mr. Kurup.

Roxy was just eight. A vegetarian, she was on renal diet the past one year. Lately her condition had gotten worse. The blood sample had revealed her creatinine value at 22 mg/dl. On the advice of doctors they had decided to put her out of misery. “Roxy got up shivering at 4 today,” said Mr. Kurup. “But before we headed for the hospital she was moving about normally.” It was a hard call for the Kurups.

When I got back to Sheru still tethered to the intravenous line, my thoughts were ominous. He wagged his tail, his eyes glinting, and asking me accusingly why I’d stayed away from him for such a long while. I petted him calling out by his sundry loving names I always called him by to reassure him.

On the drive back home he sat with Shukla in the rear seat keenly surveying the bustling Bangalore traffic. Back home he wasn’t too well and was clearly restless. This, despite a shot of steroid and an extra 100 ml of dextrose. By the time I got home for lunch he wagged his tail but the zing was missing. His look was woebegone, as though telling me with his eyes that he was in pain. In the evening I laid the carpet on the living room and spread a bed-sheet to sit with Sheru and cuddle and pet him as he lay on us.

For Sheru, the carpet and the sheet were off limits. Now, even in pain, he couldn’t get over this. I cajoled him to come over and sit with me. Shukla and Priyanka too joined us. We cuddled Sheru and conveyed him how much we loved him.

Late evening before he went to sleep we tried to force feed him some beaten curd like the evening before. But he protested. We let him be. We decided to take him to CUPA the next morning like other days but we already were no-hopers.

When we got up the next morning, September 9, 2010, we were unanimous there was no point in taking Sheru to the hospital. He looked wan and drained of energy. He looked at me and Shukla beseechingly, almost imploring us to put an end to his misery. I sensed the kidney damage was now affecting his other vital organs. His face wore a pained look. “He’d come happily to us and he must leave us happily too,” Shukla said. We agreed with her in silence, tears streaking down our eyes. Today or tomorrow was the question. Priyanka wanted it the next day. We agreed.

That day we spent our entire time sitting by Sheru, reminiscing the good times, and the unconditional love and unwaveringly loyalty he had given us. We dialed back and telescoped time when Sheru, the stray pup, had won Shukla over with his beautiful deer-eyes, resting his head on the kitchen’s window-sill of our Pune house. A chapatti or a piece of chicken was enough for this never-snatching, well-behaved, all-patience frisky pup. Soon he had won our hearts over. And in no time he had adopted us as his family. Our home was his too. That was 11 years ago.

When we shifted base we got him to Bangalore. We weren’t sure how he’d adjust. But he did admirably, maturing over time. The last few years he was the elder statesman of the family, tearfully worried when I was admitted in hospital for surgery and always keeping a benevolent, pigeon eye on activities at home. Never demanding of anything, forever giving and loving, he aged gracefully.

Now he lay helpless – in pain. We took a few photos though his face was pinched and his eyes shed tears. My mind, at times, was also elsewhere, the practical side, to tie things up for the morrow. I called up Dr. Gowda and had it fixed at 9 the next morning. I made arrangements for his burial. All this as I whispered love into Sheru’s ears and eyes, lulling him into a false complacence of giving my best for his recovery, and allowing him not a shred of a chance to imagine that I was conspiring his doomsday! That’s life, more aptly a dog’s life in modern times, I consoled myself. We’re making arrangements for his mercy killing! Euthanasia was legal.

Around 11, as we planned to retire, Shukla and Priyanka were keeping Sheru’s company. “Just look at Sheru. He’s looking so much the better.” Shukla paused. “Tell me, are we really doing the right thing?” I gulped midway and took a close look at Sheru. Yes, it was true, his face had brightened up and his eyes shone. But I put out all thoughts of outsized optimism from my mind. I remembered what Mr. Kurup had told me about Roxy hours before they put her to sleep.

Sheru slept in my bedroom. I woke up around 1.40 A.M. He had moved over from his original place close to my bed, midway to the door leading to the stairways. I woke up again at 5.25 A.M. This time he was sleeping at the doorway. He was restless. Within minutes I found Shukla and Priyanka sitting beside him and petting him. I got up and went over to the bathroom. When I got back to the room he wagged his tail as was his wont. The three of us sat beside him. In our individual minds without anyone saying so, the countdown had begun. We didn’t want to miss a moment of it. Nine o’clock was less than three hours away.

Soon, as we sat with him, we noticed his laboured breathing. He was clearly in some discomfort. At 6.45 A.M. he mustered whatever remained of his waning strength, circumambulated the dining table to walk out of the house and onto the lawn. He was straining to throw up which he did in two bouts. He staggered back, his hind legs weakened with age and lack of nutrition the past twenty days, screeching on the sit-outs’ floor now and being dragged forward by his front legs. He sat down this time in the dining room pushing himself against the wall. He hadn’t had any intravenous fluids and medicines the past 48 hours. The nausea rising in the pit of his stomach was getting back at him. We sat around him caressing him lovingly, his final hours.

But he was in distress. His eyes though were alert and observed our every movement. He was back to breathing with considerable labour and looked in some pain. The peristaltic movement that heaved his whole frame and drew him forward almost every minute told us unmistakably that living was getting difficult for him by the minute. Suddenly after about an hour he pulled himself away from us and rushed out to the lawn to throw up yet again. Every effort he made to retch appeared as though his last ounce of his flagging strength was been expended. It was a sight we wished we had never seen.

After a while he moved over to the living room and plonked himself next to the pouf I use as leg-rest when I sit on the sofa. This was one of Sheru’s favourite spots. It was nearing 9. It was a strange feeling – to see that Sheru is put out of misery and yet we dreaded as we closed in on the time for the vet’s arrival. Prayag had also joined us as we crowded around Sheru and took a few more pictures, desperately clutching on to the few precious moments slipping away so rapidly.

He got up this time and walked over to his “dining table” placed betwixt the living and dining rooms – ostensibly to drink water. He was too weak to walk those six eight steps, and sat down. With considerable hesitation, almost apprehension, he slurped water from his bowl. It was now well past 9 and my heart was thumping. I withdrew and sat down on a chair, few feet away from him. There was still the glint in his eyes as he stared at me, his gaze steady, unflinching, and piercing.

The vet called to say he was caught up in an emergency and had asked another vet to come over and the latter will make it around 11. Sheru was already experiencing spasms of pain with repeated retch and appeared in the throes of another.

The vet materialized around half past eleven. “Please ensure it’s painless,” I told him.

“I’ll first sedate him and then put him to sleep.”

“Do you need to sedate him?” I asked, my voice choking and my mind confused.

“I’ll just put him at ease,” he replied. “And then put him to sleep.”

Priyanka and I cuddled Sheru one final time and kissed him. “Till we meet again, my son, my Babula, my Pua, my Sheru sahib, my Sherunu,” I whispered. We bid him a tearful adieu and walked out of the house – to the lawn.

In the lawn we stood with our hearts pounding and tears streaking down our eyes. Is the end going to be peaceful? Or, is Sheru going to suffer as life is snuffed out of his mortal frame? I was consoling Priyanka holding her tight in my arms when we heard a commotion and saw Sheru rushing out of the house to the lawn where we stood. We were stupefied. I asked if he had been given the lethal shot. The vet had given an intramuscular shot of sedative after Sheru’s mouth had been tied and shortly after that he wanted to throw up. He struggled to remove the cord tied on his mouth and rushed out to vomit. He retched and then fell to the ground – too weak and too sedated to realize we were yet again bidding him farewell, before rushing this time into the house.

Sheru was put to sleep at 11.45 A.M. on September 10, 2010. An era had ended for our family. Life will never be the same again. Time can't heal this loss; at best, it can only cure. There can’t be another Sheru. The void will remain unfilled - forever.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Of Kleptolords and Kleptocratism

It’s Kleptolords, stupid. Or, to be more precise, the bumbling kleptocratism that kleptocracy engenders and the kleptolords who hold sway over palm and pine, as it were. This sums up the exceptional mess wrought upon by CWG that today is so gallantly, yet retributively, expanded to Corrupt Wealth Games. The newly endowed eponym says it all.

Enough has been hyperventilated about the shenanigans in the CWG to need any more elaboration. It is important though that we understand the root of this malaise and not its mere symptoms. Which is why I’ll confine myself here to the philosophy of this practice — kleptocratism — and its passionate practitioners — kleptolords — who extract the most mileage from such given opportunities.

First kleptocratism. Put simply, it is kleptocrat’s ‘ism’. Interestingly, despite its omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, and despite its limitless practitioners, this is the only philosophy in the annals of humanity that its followers, admirers, and converts are wary of writing about. Consequently, the rich tapestry of this multi-hued, will-o’-the-wisp construct has remained largely, if not entirely, unexplored.

Unlike sibling nihilism or anarchism, strangely kleptocratism does not believe in chaos and anarchy. It flourishes best in an orderly state where the State and its various organs take care of law and order so that the Hobbesian state of nature with solitary existence, incessant duelling, nasty guerilla warfare and brute mannerisms are not for it to worry about. It has one dominant and defining theme that it promotes and espouses: to pillage the State exchequer noiselessly at every conceivable turn so that the practitioners’ future generations are taken care of in its pre-and-proto-embryonic state.

End, not means, is the basis of a kleptocratic outfit. This bedrock of acquisitive, possessive individualism embraces the ardent practitioners of the same craft. Kleptocrats hunt in packs — pillaging. Much the way group dynamics contribute to its synergy, the merger and acquisition of various groups likewise contribute to a transcendent synergy. It is an ethereal sight when the Johnny-come-latelies hug the upstarts and mesh with the parvenu and the resultant sanskritisation is a sight to behold. The field surprisingly is free of acrimony: no fight over the proverbial bones; no turf battle; instead a vivid peace hangs thick over the pie-dogs.

Kleptology has its own immutable logic and inexorable raison d’etre. It is more a science than an art form even in its philosophical foundation. So attractive is the philosophy of kleptocracy today and so immune is it to the reach of the precarious State apparatus that the followers are legion. It appeals greatly to the till-now-deprived who have suddenly found a perch to voice their own aspirations in a hierarchical society that despite modernism still values the feudal order of things. The easy way out for an upward social mobility in a stratified society through riches and power/pelf serves as the opiate for the masses. The dispossessed is ready to undo the historic wrong perpetrated on generations of his forbears. The clock has come full circle.

Though proletarian in spirit, kleptocratism stops here unlike the Marxian model, and wishes the State to stay for perpetuity. Presently it does an encore and the kleptolords — the smoothest and most selfless of all lords — take charge. This is the gentlest brand of overlordism known to humanity.

Kleptolords are a vastly understanding lot, very understanding of fellow klepto-humans. So empathetic are they of their klepto-denizens and their myriad problems that they move heaven and earth to resolve and garnish them so that others — the prying, despicable moral kind — are shushed. The instinct is tribal what with their hunting in well-oiled clusters and the entire parody of desecration sculpted in a commune way and living. The symbiosis of existence has all the crest of symphony only occasionally punctured by the trough of cacophony — of that microscopic minority that pretends uprightness and fair-play.

The kleptolord knows that he can best flourish in a group, excellently networked, so that the phalanx move is seamless and works with clockwork precision. Celerity is the kleptocry, and loyalty to the ranks is the heart of the matter. So socialistic are the networks and so strong its foundations that there is no discrimination on the basis of the pecking order, sex, caste and rank. The commune-thinking treats every heaven-born member in the same manner.

Now, do you see a pattern emerging in all the goings-on of the CWG? Whether it is the post of chairman or vice-chairman of the Organising Committee or the various procurements made or unmade by hand-picked personnel or the tribal instinct of mutual back-scratching in awarding various contracts, the entire edifice is based on the philosophy of kleptocratism and lorded over by a kleptolord, who, with rich past experience, knows in his bones, no harm and nothing untoward can come his way.

If you still harbour the idea and delude yourself with the thought that the various oversees — group of bureaucrats (GOB) or group of ministers (GOM) — would stop the carnage, throw such outlandish wishes out the window. No sooner the game ends and the dust of success that’s going to be inevitably tom-tommed settles down, other scams and scandals would inexorably fight for space to take centre stage, pushing CWG out of the public gaze and thereby consigning it to the ever-growing dung-heap of scandals. We live in Hamara Bharat Mahaan, don’t we? Indeed, we proudly do.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Cousin who, uncle who? we are a nuclear family

“Remember, the family's been nucleated,” intoned my son Prayag. “I needn't do all that you did or still keep doing!”

He was responding to my idea of being in touch with his aunts, uncles, cousins, now that he is settled in a new job.

For him, as with most children of his generation, the family begins and ends with the nuclear family. Cousins are cousins — not their own siblings; the uncle-aunts are uncle-aunts — not like their parents; the grandparents too are grandparents — distant and remote, and, surely, not the elder father-mother figure they were for us. Their world encircles them, their siblings and their parents. It's a table-top, ending sharply at the family's edge.

How different our worlds were in the 1960s and 1970s! Our world was small, with big families. One's recognition was via the family; one's name was incidental and could and, indeed, was often forgotten. “He's the son of so and so, the grandson of so and so or the nephew of so and so.” That's how one was introduced. The ubiquity of the family couldn't be missed.

Family embraced cousins — close and many times removed — and relatives and friends, also cousins of cousins, relatives of relatives, and friends of friends! They're welcome any time of the day and night. There were no fixed visiting hours, no prior intimation. Prior knowledge of visit had an air of artificiality about it, a feeling of incipient urban dross enveloping the pristine rural-feudal mindsets of unspoilt values — the pleasant and pleasurable elements of thrill diminished, not to say that it negated the familiar ring of vasudhaiva kutumbakam — and sublime equations.

I still recall the string of people who visited us all day. If it was lunch time, they had lunch; if it was dinner time, they had dinner. Often relatives came and stayed with us — not exactly with a purpose or on a sundry assignment. They came and stayed because they liked to come and stay! This never forebode well for my brother and me for, we were the ones to first take the hit, and had to promptly make way for our visiting relatives to grace our beds! But we cheerfully ratcheted up and rehabbed ourselves with our makeshift floor-beds for the nights! And even felt bereft when they left after months of stay, so much had they become a part of the family's collective unconscious! No questions asked on the purpose or length of stay — that was apostasy and solecism that didn't behove of honourable families!

Of the many who came and stayed with us and who I addressed in familiar endearing terms, it came as a big surprise one day years later when I realised that the old couple who lived with us for months every year (and not with their only son and his family who lived in the same city), were in no way related to us but had lived close to my parent's house years ago in the 1940s and had grown mutually fond of one another, and adopted my mother as their daughter!

How the world has changed! The joint-and-nexus-family construct — that existed in the same space — alas, has crumbled inexorably in the face of modernity. The dispersal of family members across the earth's surface with putative clamours of a globalised world doesn't warm the cockles of my heart. Each sculpts out his mode of living in his habitat with its bespoke ecosystem, each with his own outlook and esoteric worldview humming along that admits of few common denominators running through as a strand. To my heart still dipped in nostalgia recalling my indelible childhood world, this is far from warming. I make memories and memorialise them — how families were tirelessly generous and entertaining, even exceptionally welcoming.

I know the world has changed, certainly not always for the good. My children would differ, consider me prickly, and argue vociferously, reminding me that I'm caught in a time-warp and that my go-go world has become passé and no amount of soulful nostalgia will get it back for me. They demand their independence, their private spaces denied to me in my growing-up years because it wasn't thought necessary, but which, as the world changed, I ungrudgingly granted them. I tell them about the value of family, the family values and honour but I sense they place more value not on my construct but on theirs — nucleated — that one day when they set up their own homes not too far-off I'll be pushed beyond the immediate concentric ring to the one next, as I grow old and decrepit with the Methuselah gene bump full up against my inability to accept the change and forlornly look upon them with wistful indulgent eyes.

The Indian family has changed. I continue, cast in past tense that touches on family lives, and continue being swept up in seemingly unending self-pity as my eyes sweep right, then sweep left, yet miss the entire point as thoughts I'd pushed out of my mind for years come rushing back constructing a Venn diagram of family. But I'm none too sure if it's for the good, this moral outrage, this doleful cocktail, that's taken the mickey out of me I think malicious.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

CWG: Place Procurement in Public Space to expose Con-men

How the Commonwealth Games (CWG) preparation sucks even before the games have begun! The past few days have seen a new low in our public functioning. But what is singularly remarkable in this huge con-game – preceding the real sporting one – is the brazen manner the powers-that-be of the CWG have played out the shenanigans in full public view telling the world how much CWG is their baby and that we wretched public had better stay off it. After the crime comes their outsized belligerence! Pray, as though the world around is one big fool-dom!

More seriously, I’m least fazed with all this. It’s disquietingly natural that when you place a huge corpus with a body answering to such ad hoc name as Organizing Committee (OC) of CWG, with no firm rules and regulations, precedents and norms, procedures and processes in place, mis-and-malfeasances are bound to take centrestage. That it took such a long time for the bubble to burst over is indeed surprising.

Procurement everywhere is fraught with difficulty and temptation. This is why elaborate procedures involving checks and balances are put in place. Despite all this, scams have surfaced in the past embarrassing and sweeping governments world over off their perches. This, however, is the symptom – not the cause.

The cause is human nature, which – microscopic exceptions apart – is basically kleptocratic in nature. Let me explain. “Klepto” is thievery and “cracy” is rule; what human nature throws up is a “rule of the thieves” and these “honorable denizens” dish out a kleptocratic order that is built on the bedrock of pillage. To ensure good governance, therefore, there is need to place checks and balances, where all wings – executive, legislature, judiciary, media – pitch in with their bit to checkmate any wrongdoing. In other words, governance is best done not by a cartel of handpicked people under the blessings of one patriarch but with involvement of people from diverse disciplines, and each one of them acting independently of the other. This is the basic tenet.

Look at the OC through this prism. Without going into great detail, from the recent reportage in the media, it is amply clear that the constitution of the OC was a sure recipe for disaster and scam. No organization that has a well-set procedures and processes in place and practices the same to set up a world class facility involving India’s pride can afford to botch things up, regardless of any kleptocratic undertones. That it has come about can only lead to one or the other conclusion – lack of procedures, and lack of overseeing apparatus – or both.

It’s a complete tease to me why in today’s world of information technology, the CWG – that keeps tom-toming international best practices and standards to match Beijing and Sydney games – could not think of e-procurement. Not only would that have been faster (rather fastest) and economical and effective but also the most transparent. Digital signature – required for such tenders – has already been legislated in India. The details of every such procurement could’ve been put up in the CWG’s website for people all over the world to see. With nothing secret about the items procured (like in defence contracts, where too many items can be secreted away from classified “secrecy”) or infrastructures set up, any organization believing in transparency would have gone the whole hog to embrace this.

That the CWG didn’t think of doing this leads to few ineluctable questions. Today they can’t hide behind the fig leaf that it was beyond their knowledge. Or, they didn’t have the wherewithal to do it. I simply can’t think of either. Which, much as I hate to believe, tells me that CWG wanted the procurement to go this way only and no other – certainly not the e-transparent way.

For e-transparence has its own Achilles Heel and is (sadly) its very own enemy. It bursts forth everything onto public gaze, almost frothing over and bridling when wrongs are perpetrated; it hides nothing – more appropriately, it simply can’t, no matter how much it tries. It puts every activity otherwise closeted in red-taped files onto public space. This, to the honest, is rather enviable because he receives instantaneous applause from unknown public quarters.

But, for the dishonest with his hand in till, this is hara-kiri, pure and simple. It leaves no room to manoeuvre. And that is very limiting. Up until now, public officials (unlike their corporate counterparts) have been merciless in their pillage. This is because, and only because, the institution that’s bled could afford such indulgences, because it has not a soul; it is merely an abstraction going by the grandiloquent name of a nation, a State with all the properties that in-animality engenders. It can, with reasonable safeguards, be bled; and die it won’t. That’s the magic of it all.

Yet, even now not all’s lost. Let all procurement made till date be put (including file notings) in the public domain and let all future procurement and contracts be put in CWG’s website. We don’t need any judicial commission to take years to come out with its findings, thereby taking the wind out of present public outrage. Knowing public memory is woefully short we shouldn’t give in to this; rather the established system is enough to use this outrage to take quick, punitive action against the wrongdoers and ensure that procedures and processes are in place when public money is transacted in future. We need an honest head honcho to ensure this.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

APAR: When Transparency Breeds Hypocrisy

“In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence,” said Laurence J Peter, his tongue nowhere near his cheek. He quite meant it. It is as much applicable in the USA as in India, though there is a fundamental difference. Unlike the USA, in India the rise is mostly by default and, in a manner of speaking, emblematic of the unprofessional environment that is cranked up all around the government machinery.

The Department of Personnel and Training (DOPT) for once tried to set it right, though it was thanks to a hand-me-down from the Supreme Court. In an order that memorably broke with the bureaucratic past, the DOPT, vide its OM No. 21011/1/2005-Estt (A) (Pt-II) dated 14th May, 2009 inter alia directed that Annual Performance Appraisal Reports (APAR) be communicated to the officer reported upon for representation, if any, for the sake of fairness and transparency in public administration. This was done in the wake of the Supreme Court’s judgment of 12.5.2008 (Dev Dutt vs Union of India) which opined that the object of writing the confidential report is to give an opportunity to the public servant to improve performance. The Second Administrative Reforms Commission too had recommended that the performance appraisal system for all services be made more consultative and transparent.

The salient points of the order are: (i) The nomenclature of the Annual Confidential Report be modified as Annual Performance Assessment Report (APAR); (ii) The full APAR including the overall grade be communicated to the officer reported upon; (iii) The concerned officer be given the opportunity to make any representation against the entries on the specific factual observations and the final grading given in the Report beginning 2008-09; (iv) The competent authority may consider the matter objectively to accept, modify or reject the representation.

The DOPT’s order was doubtless a move in the right direction to ensure transparency and to reduce, if not eliminate, subjectivism in report-writing. The numerical grading, with numbers assigned to the important aspects a civil servant is supposed to focus on, is well-merited. But the idea is predicated on one basic postulate: professionalism. Is the Indian civil service today professional enough for these laudable impulses to succeed?

The honest answer, sadly, is a resounding no. Put another way, this effort to transplant objectivity through transparency on a system that is unprofessional and nurses an antediluvian outlook is bound to throw up its own internal dynamics and, most likely, come a cropper. Today, sadly, nepotism, favouritism, and networking, overpower professionalism and merit – evident from the quality of personnel who grace important posts.

Take APAR-writing. With everything a civil servant achieves or fails to achieve hooked to APARs, one wonders how many seniors would have the intellectual honesty to assess their subordinates objectively and have the courage of conviction to call a spade a spade. More often than not, the impulse will be to be goody-goody and play to the gallery and not invite trouble from subordinates; consequently reports written will mostly be an exaggeration of what officials deserve.

The problem gets worse compounded because most civil servants suffer from a grand delusion of personal competence and excellence; everyone thinks of himself as nothing short of outstanding – notwithstanding his level of application and smarts. So, with APAR made transparent now, any grading less than outstanding is not going to satisfy public officials.

Worse will be those who are absolute no-gooders in mental acumen or in application to jobs. Remember today there does exist the FR 56J provision whereby officials can be weeded out for non-performance after completing 30 years of service or after attaining the age of 50. Sadly, this provision remains only on paper; everyone sails through unharmed – Indian sentimentality trumping non-professionalism!

This lot largely remained in the penumbral zone where opaqueness spawned a no-man’s land, prompting reporting officers to be bold and honest. They continued – but only just. Now this so-called honesty will be sacrificed on the new-falutin bedrock of transparency. How many officers will make bold to grade subordinates who fall below the benchmark? Maybe, just a few.

And these few will be the odd-men, dubbed gadflies – scorned, best avoided and condemned. No one relishes such categorizations. So whither APAR – when the very purpose of transparency is apt to be defeated because people want not subordinates with long faces, subordinates who plot every moment to embarrass them, slyly baying for their blood – because they have earned grades they quite rightly deserved, but can’t yet relish?

A professional would take it, would endeavour to improve upon his performance, but not the sluggard, the schemer – because non-professionalism admits of no such self-introspection, self-cogitation, self-communing – who would like to go on inexorably to shirk work and responsibility, hoping the Indian umbrella of nephewism would take him up and up the totem-pole in the escalator-paradigm the system follows, where experience is measured not with reference to the quality of service but the length of service rendered and where seniority, not merit, is the emperor. Few realize the professional definition of experience: Experience = Capacity to Learn (CL) x Desire to Learn (DL) x number of years of service; put a zero at CL or at DL and you know what I mean! APAR, one would surmise, in such an environment will, unfortunately, not breed transparency but, paradoxically, hypocrisy.

One solution is to go the whole hog: let APARs be placed in the public domain for everyone to see one another’s; the magic of openness acting the ombudsman and shaming or blessing all actors – officers reported upon and reporting/reviewing authorities – thereby nipping any recrudescence of baseless favouritism and misgivings amongst them that otherwise shall lie tucked between reporting/reviewing officers and the officer reported upon. Not to forget that such openness will bring in real transparency since the other major stakeholder (the public and the customer) will get to see the fairness of the assessment done on the public servant. Touché!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Mother Earth: Invoking Culture of Permanence

This year Delhi experienced the highest minimum temperature in June the last forty years. A consequence of global warming, it’s a grim reminder that our buccaneering attitude towards environment and ecosystem has made climate change the most important issue today. While the IPCC’s claim that the Himalayan glaciers will melt by 2035 A.D. is a lot of hot air, that we earthlings have savaged the earth and environment cannot be denied.

At the cusp of the 20th century humanity started life on earth where about 50 per cent of its ancient forests were still intact. Though far from pristine, it was a sublime world of rolling seas, of land masses teeming with varied lives; vast expanses of wildlands sparsely peopled by original aboriginals who knew how to draw sustenance from nature’s bounties. Things are different today – the equilibrium has been cleaved.

A legacy with less than 20 per cent of its original forests intact and most of the readily available freshwater already spoken for and most of the wetlands and reef systems destroyed or degraded wouldn’t make our progenies happy. Plus they shall very likely inherit a stressed atmosphere and an unwanted remnant of toxic waste in soil and water. Missing from their domain will be countless species, much as the troves of aboriginal knowledge would’ve disappeared as tribals lose their lands or abandon their traditional ways.

Sadly, though the problems are real and portentous, the response of the international community has been all smoke and mirrors. The reality is that the loss of species is accelerating and ecosystems are getting fragmented.

One issue surfacing today is “water terrorism”, clearly manifested during Somalia’s civil war and the Bosnian war. The Serbs who besieged Sarajevo quickly discovered a tactic more devastating than direct assault: shut off the electricity and water supply, and the enemy is easy prey. The Bosnian and Somali episodes are just the previews of “water wars” that one day will engulf us in getting access to aqua pura.

Recall June 1969 when the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire. The bizarre picture of a river burning (Time magazine called it the river that “oozes rather than flows” where a person “does not drown but decays”) brought home to the American people that something was seriously wrong.

Population continues to explode. For aeons Malthusians are sounding out a bleak future. The disaster though averted, the apocalypse hasn’t been staved off. This is disturbing since the technology advantage of the past decades is tapering off with the likes of Bt crops nowhere near acceptance.

The urban problems get worse by the day. Several megacities are already past their limits to accommodate the influx of rampaging humanity telling on urban tolerance threshold. Fresh air gets scarce as auto exhaust suffocates, while new cars continue to suffuse roads not meant to hold so many vehicles.

There are telltale signs that the planet’s protective blanket is getting too clogged for comfort; few years ago there was flood in the Rajasthan deserts. One prediction is partial melting of the polar ice-caps and consequential rise in sea-level that could submerge parts of coastal cities around the world.

Forests continue to get depleted what critics of the unrestrained free enterprise call Wild Capitalism in developing countries and formerly Communist nations. And nowhere is the entrepreneurial spirit more savage than in Russia which accounts for 23 per cent of the world’s woodlands. When Moscow and regional satraps desperate for hard currency opened up the forest to foreign exploitation in the 1990s, there was a mad scramble on the invite. The result has been despoliation of forest on a breathtaking scale. Same in the Amazon, west and central Africa, Indonesia, Alaska and western Canada – where logging and deforestation continued as though there were no tomorrow.

Charles Darwin once waxed eloquent about the “primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man”. Today people treat forest in the most cavalier fashion, as a capital to be liquidated, forgetting that they provide the protective umbrella for life. Forests are home to most of the world’s indigenous people; they act as “carbon sinks” and keep global warming at bay. Forest loss contributes roughly 12-15% to annual greenhouse gas emissions – about the same as the entire global transportation sector. Ditto reckless and unbridled mining, which today has given rise to social problems as the Maoist insurgency, apart from savaging the Good Earth.

Today the pulse of environmental awareness has begun to surge around but its progress is halting, its focus ponderous. Environment is fairly new to the pantheon of policy issues; policy makers are unclear how ecology relates to issue of trade and economic development.

The wounds suffered by the planet have already forced various disciplines to rethink basic assumptions. Economists are wrestling with the absurdity of a mechanism of national accounts that views liquidation of forests as a positive contribution to GDP – adding new concepts like New Economic Welfare, Green Savings, Green GDP, Beyond GDP, and Gross State Product to the lexicon.

Given the growth impulse, governments have focused on GDP growth rate obsessing on natural capital to increase their wealth. Now the question is: will value changes in stocks of natural capital and the ecosystem services help advance a science of new metrics capable of inclusive sustainable policy choices? And will they satisfy emerging economies in these times of senseless consumerism to heed the warning and pursue global futuristic altruism?

The vital question stays undimmed: Will the fertile ingenuity of our consumer society revive exhausted Mother Earth? Can the cerebral stimulations of the apologists of Mammon that spurred a culture of materialism as a final piece of alchemy, turn its head and become the evangelist to halt environmental degradation and stop us from looming ecocide?

We need to learn from history. As George Santayana once said, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. We know nuclear weapons can snuff out life on earth. Today humanity could accomplish this horrific feat through its mad lust for accelerated economic growth. But as Edward Abbey observed: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Endless, thoughtless material expansion will eat into the earth’s biosphere just as malignancy metastasizes and lays waste to the human body.

Now’s the time we realized to focus on the quality of growth – not the amount of material gain. Wanton material gain has become passé. The new era calls for what environmental writer Alan Durning says “culture of permanence” – meeting the needs of the current generation without jeopardizing the prospects of the future ones. Our forebears instinctively saw the dependence on the natural world and the natural order of things; they revered the equation and viewed trees and animals as sacred and treated them with respect. It’s time we returned to that reverence.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Jagannath Cult and Rath Yatra: Mystique in Peoples' Collective Unconscious

Few festivals in India are celebrated with such boisterous frenzy as the Car Festival of Puri. The Oriyas call it the Rath Yatra and consider it their most auspicious. This chariot ride of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Lady Subhadra down the main thoroughfare of Puri attracts devotees who throng the Bada Danda with the zeal of one possessed. This fare is not confined to the Hindus; the curious, the heathen, the agnostic, the Buddhist, the Jain, all commingle in bonhomie, bemused at the sway Lord Jagannath holds over people’s collective unconscious.

The history of Jagannath goes back to the hoary past when it was worshipped as a Brahmanical deity. Later it passed to the Savaras, and then to the Bhaumas from Assam, who carved three wooden images and installed them in a temple called Nilachala, after their own Kamaksya.

The present temple of Jagannath was built by Chodagangadeva of the Ganga dynasty in the first half of the 12th century A.D. The holiness of the shrine was enhanced by the Muslim invasion of India, when Orissa remained an independent Hindu kingdom up to 1568 A.D. The devout, harassed in other holy Hindu shrines, worshipped at Puri.

It was around this time that the cult of Jagannath assumed a composite character. The three sects of Hinduism – Saivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism – welded with earlier cults like the tribal and the Buddhist and Jain strains. This syncretism manifested itself in the art, sculpture, literature of the age evident in the worship of Saura shrine at Konark’s Sun Temple, and the Lingaraj – a mix of Vishnu and Shiva – at the temple in Bhubaneswar. It was catalyzed by visits of great saints to Puri: Sankara, Ramanand, Ramanuja, Madhava Tirtha, Narahari Tirtha, Kabir, Nanak, Chaitanya – each contributing to Jagannath’s catholicity.

Today Rath Yatra is celebrated on the second day of the bright fortnight of Ashadha. The chariots are like moveable temples where the deities sit and symbolically survey the universe and the people, as devotees pull at the ropes to surge the chariots ahead on its way to Gundicha Ghar, the Garden House. Jagannath’s chariot is called Nandighosh, Balabhadra’s Taladwaja, and Subhadra’s chariot – Devadalan.

Once the deities are offered the bhoga and brought to their respective chariots, it is time for cherapahanra. The Raja of Puri sweeps the platforms of the chariots with a gold-handled broom. Legend has it that King Purusottama was keen to marry the princess of Kanchi. But he was thwarted when the king of Kanchi was aghast to see Purusottama perform the ritual ‘cherapahanra’, refusing to give his daughter in marriage. An irate Purusottama vowed revenge swearing to seize the princess and marry her to a sweeper. But to no avail. Beaten back, he craved for Jagannath’s indulgence. Jagannath and Balabhadra cantered ahead of Purusottama in black and white chargers and beat back the king of Kanchi. Purusottama captured the princess and instructed his minister to find a sweeper as her bridegroom. The minister accompanied by the princess of Kanchi happened upon the king while the latter was performing cherapahanra, and urged the princess to garland the king. Purusottama though perplexed, meekly acquiesced.

Now the moment everyone anxiously waits for, arrives. The ropes are fastened and the rath dahuka (car caller) lets out obscenities to the devotees below to show their strength and tug at the chariots. Balabhadra’s chariot is pulled first followed by Subhadra’s, Jagannath’s coming last. As the chariots hurtle down the Bada Danda, the roar of its creaking wheels merges with the devotees’ loud frenzy. The crash of coconuts, mangoes, bananas flung at the deities and an assortment of money, jewellery, and valuables thrown by devotees bespeaks the blind devotion to the Lord and adds to the overall din.

Jagannath’s chariot, unlike the other two, stops at the mausi ma temple (the temple of mother’s sister) before proceeding to the Gundicha Temple. This temple – dedicated to King Indradyumna’s consort is built on the site where the king performed the ashwamedha sacrifice urging the Lord to reveal himself. The story goes that the log was found, but the king’s expert craftsmen failed to carve out the images – their tools breaking down at the touch of the log. The king despaired.

Ananta Maharana, an old carpenter volunteered on condition that he be holed up with the log for 21 days. But the Queen doubting Ananta’s expertise got the gates of the temple opened before the assigned day. The images lay in varying stages of progress – without hands and legs, and incomplete. The carpenter had vanished, and in this bizarre, half-complete state the triad came to be worshipped. It is believed that the carpenter was the divine craftsman Vishnu.

The mystique of Jagannath and the Rath Yatra seems to have rubbed off on the British as well. Baffled by the cult and the teeming multitude furiously pulling at the ropes to haul their Deity, they wrote of human sacrifice at the giant wheels, and adding the term “juggernaut” to the English lexicon. Later the cobweb of doubts was removed; they realized the devotees crushed under the wheels were the ones who accidentally slipped in the melee and inevitably run over.

Once, every twelve years, the wooden logs of the Deities are changed in an event called Naba Kalebara. A party of 20-odd temple servants sets off to Kakatpur, sixty kilometres away. They offer the ‘mahaprasad’ and worship Goddess Mangala in her temple. One of the brahmins is soon intimated by Mangala in a dream the location of the tree that provides the log for the Deities. Whereupon the party proceeds to trace the tree with distinctive signs of sankha (conch), chakra (disc), gada (mace), and padma (lotus) and located near an anthill/river/pond/cremation-ground and a Shiva temple.

The mystique stays undimmed – in the Lord’s righteousness that doesn’t admit of any social hierarchy and His timelessness where the conceptualization of time remains outside the ken of Hindu worldview.