Saturday, December 31, 2011

Fire and Rose

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice

T.S. Eliot. Little Gidding


Unrelenting hope amidst unfathomable despair.

India was here before. Bofors, Shah Bano, Mandal, Kashmir, LTTE, Masjid, IMF, Bluestar, Bhopal. India endured.

Best part, it wasn't a messianic strongman who led us out.

Gandhi spoiled us. We search for superheroes who do not exist.

Democracy spoiled us. We seek angelic outcomes from human institutions.

Vastness spoiled us. We summon strength from our continent-sized weaknesses.

It isn't a superhero or an institution or her vastness that will save India, rather the common sense and ability and hard work of ordinary Indians.

I learned this from an illiterate Indian carpenter. Born in caste-riven Eastern UP to parents who could give him nothing, he bootstrapped himself out of despair, went overseas, and became indispensable to privileged hotshots like me. I asked him, why? So that, one day, my children will grow up to be like you, he told me.

I've never been more humbled in my life.

He couldn't care less for patronizing superheroes who saw only his faith and caste and poverty as vanity projects to pad their egos. There were no institutions where he grew up. He was a nobody among India's intimidating vastness. 

But this illiterate carpenter taught himself to be more skilled at what he did than superheroes could ever dream of being. He saved himself with unrelenting aspiration, sheer will, and his own two hands.

This is how India will be saved. All she needs is for superheroes to get out of her way.


Let me end where I started.

And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one

Happy new year!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


India's median age is 26 years and falling. A majority were born after Bangladesh. The '71 war is a fading memory. Alas.

Forty years have elapsed since that emphatic victory of light over darkness. Bangladesh finally became free. India emerged as a military power to reckon with. Pakistan shied away from overt war since.

The partition of Bengal in 1947 followed a debilitating famine. Its proud people, who share Tagore's music as their anthem, were torn asunder by forces impossible to comprehend. Denied basic human dignity, they asserted their nationhood. The Pakistani Army, which hasn't seen a war it cannot lose, unleashed a campaign of terror - a genocide on its own people that the world looked away from. Tellingly, there were no UN Security Council Resolutions on Bangladesh until December of 1971.

Yet, Bangladesh won the war. She thrives today, a nation at peace with her neighbors. Pakistan never found its footing again.

India did what any moral nation must. It intervened with decisive force and clear military purpose. Few military campaigns have been so effective since the Second World War. Korea remains in armistice. Vietnam burned America. Afghanistan toppled USSR. Other "savage wars of peace" have been costly, prolonged, and bloody. In Bangladesh, in a matter of weeks, Pakistan was crushed and shattered forever.

I look at Balochistan where Pakistan still wages the exact same war that lost it half of its bifurcated nationhood and most of its boastful manhood. But Pakistani Generals, sadly, see no parallels. If there were an exemplar of insanity, surely this is it.

Are there lessons from that great moral and military triumph? At a time when India is mired again in self-doubt and political paralysis, it's instructive and satisfying to note that - when the moment called for it - the nation came together, stared down two superpowers, and demolished the enemy with remarkable ease. It took conviction, iron will, and leadership. I watch Mrs Indira Gandhi's interview from then ( and take solace that, even in the era of Manmohan Singh and L K Advani, India may yet find a decisive leader among its Billion people.

Let me close by saluting the brave people of Bangladesh who won the war and the triumphant Indian army that made this happen.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

The Thunder, Perfect Mind

I am shame and boldness.
I am shameless; I am ashamed.
I am strength and I am fear.
I am war and peace.

From The Thunder: Perfect Mind


Veena Malik bared her body and exposed the nakedness of her society.

But she is not alone. In recent weeks, Egyptian Aliya Magda Mahdi posted bold self-photographs on her blog. Tunisian actress Nadia Bostah posed provocatively to promote a film.

Something's happening here. And it could be very significant.

We heard the footsteps of what was coming in Naipaul's 1982 classic Among the Believers. We sensed it in 1988 when Ayatollah Khomeini threatened Salman Rushdie over Satanic Verses. We saw it in the 1997 film My Son the Fanatic (based on Hanif Kureishi's short story).

Then we saw it play out on our television screens on 9/11.

The destructive anger, the rejection of modernity, the war on freedom.

Something had gone badly wrong in Islamic societies.

Much has been said about how to change this dynamic.

From toppling dictators to killing terrorists, from settling intractable political conflicts to encouraging democracy - all manner of ideas have been proposed to change this ugly bend of history.

There has been some success. Arab societies, in particular, have rebelled against their stagnant status quo. Their dictators have been shown to be paper tigers - they hide in spider holes and gutter pipes when under fire. Their armies are weak - they run from the battle and don't dare defend national sovereignty. These tigers, that roared at home and terrorized own people, turned out to really be mice.

Where change has been slower is social practice. The community's failure to stand with Shah Bano, the illiterate stabbing of Naguib Mahfouz, Salman Taseer's assassination by his naat-singing bodyguard all tell the story of social darkness. Honor killings happen even in the West, Saudi women still can't drive, Ahmadis cannot exhibit the Quran in India, and raped women are still put in prison. The 2002 Arab Human Development Report drafted by distinguished Arab intellectuals is a stunning and powerful lament on the horrendous state of that society.

This sad circumstance is partly due to a community frozen in the glare of excruciating scrutiny. Also, Wahabi and Salafist financing of mosques and madrasas is a major problem, even in secular societies. Finally, the men in this male-dominant community - with rare exceptions - have failed to champion change.

In response, non-Muslims have either taken the multicultural view of "respecting" the community's practices, looked to "moderate Muslims" to make change happen, or (in bigotry) claimed that Islam is somehow incompatible with modernity.

But none of this has led to change.


Then, Manal al Sharif decided to drive a car in Saudi Arabia. Prof Amina Wadud led Friday prayers in America. Shaista Ambar released a model nikahnama to protect women's rights in India.

And, yes, Veena Malik, Aliya Mahdi, and Nadia Bostah boldly defied the purdah.

These may seem like acts of small defiance but they are no less significant than an old man making salt to challenge the empire in which the sun never set.

We may be witnessing a nascent social revolution in Islamic societies. Their women have wept through vicious wars and suffered through brutal suppression. Now they are leaping to lead.

This is perhaps the most promising development of the last decade of war.

Social change won't be easy. Entrenched tradition and extreme misogyny are hard to overcome. But, such change is surely an idea whose time has finally come.

It's not our wars or diplomacy or aid that will make this happen. It's not moderate Muslims or reformist Kings who will make this happen. It's the humble Muslim woman in all our communities who will lead this change.

Standing with her as she fights to honor her faith, community, and society is the most important thing non-Muslims can do.