Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Inspiring Fathers - Nehru and Lincoln

I am reading Jawaharlal Nehru’s Glimpses of World History. Truly, leaders such as him, are scarce to find in the present world. I found Nehru’s keenness to pass on his own values to his daughter, Indira, most touching. Through the letters he wrote to her from the prison, he attempted to impart knowledge to her, while at the same time, sneaking in capsules of character building verses. Narrating historical events from around the world, he tries to mould her character, subtly infusing into her the qualities of legendary heroes who had lived in the past.

At times, he is quite blunt in telling her how she should live her life. I liked this passage, early in the book:

Often we may be in doubt as to what to do. It is no easy matter to decide what is right and what is not. One little test I shall ask you to apply whenever you are in doubt. It may help you. Never do anything in secret or anything that you would wish to hide. For the desire to hide anything means that you are afraid, and fear is a bad thing and unworthy of you. Be brave, and all the rest follows. If you are brave, you will not fear and will not do anything of which you are ashamed.”

This passage is part of Nehru’s letter to Indira on her thirteenth birthday. No wonder, Indira grew up into a daredevil politician and was once hailed as “the only man in her cabinet.”

No less inspiring is former American President Abraham Lincoln’s letter to his son’s teacher…

He will have to learn, I know, that all men are not just, all men are not true. But teach him also that for every scoundrel there is a hero: that far every selfish politician, there is a dedicated leader…

Teach him that for every enemy there is a friend. It will take time, I know a long time, but teach, if you can, that a dollar earned is of more value then five of found.

Teach him, to learn to lose…And also to enjoy winning. Steer him away from envy, if you can, teach in the secret of quiet laughter.

Teach him, if you can the wonder of books…But also given quiet time wonder the eternal mystery of birds in the sky, bees in the sun, and flowers on the green hillside.

In a school teach him, it is far more honorable to fail than to cheat…

Teach him to have faith in his own idea, even if anyone else tell him they are wrong…

Teach him to be gentle with gentle people and tough with tough.

Teach him to listen to all men…But teach him also to filter all he hears on a screen of truth, and take only the good one that comes through.

Teach him, if you can, how to laugh when he is sad. Teach him there is no shame in tear.

Teach them to sell his brawn and brain to the highest bidder but never to put a prize tag on his heart and soul.

Teach him gently, but do not cuddle him, because only the test of fire makes the fine steel.
Teach him always to have sublime faith in himself because then he will always have some sublime faith in mankind.

This is a big order, but see what can you do… He is such a fine little fellow, my son! Dad

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Poems I fell in love with

I have no great interest in poetry. Whatever little poetry I had read, was in school and college. But some of them made a strong impression on my mind at that young age. Those few poems I liked were written in simple language - a style I adored, and wished I could emulate. Using simple words to convey powerful messages and stir up human hearts and minds, calls for extraordinary skills, and more importantly, a total dedication to the cause one espouses.

My top three favourite poems are: The Patriot by Robert Browning, Laugh and be merry by John Masefield, and Stopping by woods by Robert Frost.

The lines I took to heart and drew inspiration from were Masefield’s:
“Laugh and be merry, remember, better the world with a song,
Better the world with a blow in the teeth of a wrong.”

And Robert Frost’s:
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”

Check out the full poems, if you would like to.


An old story

It was roses, roses, all the way,
With myrtle mixed in my path like mad:
The house-roofs seemed to heave and sway,
The church-spires flamed, such flags they had,
A year ago on this very day.

The air broke into a mist with bells,
The old walls rocked with the crowd and cries.
Had I said, "Good folk, mere noise repels--
But give me your sun from yonder skies!
"They had answered, "And afterward, what else?"

Alack, it was I who leaped at the sun
To give it my loving friends to keep!
Nought man could do, have I left undone:
And you see my harvest, what I reap
This very day, now a year is run.
There's nobody on the house-tops now--
Just a palsied few at the windows set;
For the best of the sight is, all allow,
At the Shambles' Gate--or, better yet,
By the very scaffold's foot, I trow.

I go in the rain, and, more than needs,
A rope cuts both my wrists behind;
And I think, by the feel, my forehead bleeds,
For they fling, whoever has a mind,
Stones at me for my year's misdeeds.

Thus I entered, and thus I go!
In triumphs, people have dropped down dead.
"Paid by the world, what dost thou owe Me?"--
God might question; now instead,
'Tis God shall repay: I am safer so.


Laugh and be merry, remember, better the world with a song,
Better the world with a blow in the teeth of a wrong.
Laugh, for the time is brief, a thread the length of a span.
Laugh and be proud to belong to the old proud pageant of man.

Laugh and be merry: remember, in olden time.
God made Heaven and Earth for joy He took in a rhyme,
Made them, and filled them full with the strong red wine of His mirth
The splendid joy of the stars: the joy of the earth.

So we must laugh and drink from the deep blue cup of the sky,
Join the jubilant song of the great stars sweeping by,
Laugh, and battle, and work, and drink of the wine outpoured
In the dear green earth, the sign of the joy of the Lord.

Laugh and be merry together, like brothers akin,
Guesting awhile in the rooms of a beautiful inn,
Glad till the dancing stops, and the lilt of the music ends.
Laugh till the game is played; and be you merry, my friends.


Whose woods these are I think I know,
His house is in the village though.
He will not see me stopping here,
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer,
To stop without a farmhouse near,
Between the woods and frozen lake,
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake,
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep,
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The man who wanted to dry up the pond

Here’s a story that my father narrates often. It was his mother’s favourite, he says. I don’t know if any of you have heard it before. But it’s fun, and has a moral too. Here goes the story.

Many years ago, there lived a blacksmith in a village. He was a talented craftsman, but was proud and conceited. He constantly preened of his skills. He boasted that he had the skill to bend iron and do with it what he liked. The nice villagers did not mind his bragging. They were happy as long as he did the work for them.

As days passed by, the blacksmith’s ego became so bloated that he thought without him nothing would work in the village. He demanded preferential treatment at functions and expected people to show him respect.

One day at the marketplace, he picked up a quarrel with a villager. A wordy duel followed. The issue was petty, but the blacksmith was agitated in his mind. He was so upset that the villager had dared to talk back to him.

He was angry that none of the villagers had supported him. So, he decided to teach the villagers a lesson. A lesson the rustics would never forget for the rest of their life, he thought. He sat up in the night and began to scheme. Then, he hit upon a plan.

He thought of the red-hot hammer in his workshop. With it he had forged the strongest iron at his workshop. He played back the scene in his mind. All of a sudden a brainwave hit him. He froze the picture in his mind. What he saw was the red-hot hammer dipped in the bowl of water. And, the scalding tool licking the water with a hissing sound.

He did not wait for long. In the middle of the night he set out to his workshop. There was no time to lose. He hurriedly built a fire and heated the hammer till it shined red in the dark. He picked up the flaming tool and ran towards the village pond. The pond was the only source of water to the villagers. The people would die if there were no water in it.

Perched on the bank of the pond, he took one last look around the place. Satisfied nobody was watching him, he threw the hammer into the pond. “Sorry folks!” he thought. “This is the price you have to pay for what you did to me. From tomorrow, you sons of the devil, will have no water to drink. Die, all of you!” he cursed, and ran all the way to his house.

Back home, he packed up his things. Under the cover of darkness he fled the village. The story goes that many months later, the now impoverished blacksmith returned to the village to check the plight of the villagers.

Of course, the pond was brimming and the villagers were happy and there was a new blacksmith in the village.

Moral of the story: Nobody is indispensable in this world. Those who think they are, invariably learn the hard way they are not.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Auroville - In the News Again

The news item in Times of India (TOI) some days ago, ‘Frenchman’s killing stuns Auroville,’ caught my eye, and set my mind racing back to my brief stay in the international township near Puducherry. We had done a story on the Auroville township in Tehelka last September. I thought it would be a good idea to post the TOI report and the Tehelka story in my blog. Auroville has never ceased to be in the news. The Tehelka story was an attempt to peep into the inside of the much hyped dream city. Happy reading!
Frenchman's killing stuns Auroville
28 May 2009

PUDUCHERRY: A French industrialist, Andre Viozat, 66, who settled in Auroville nearly four decades ago, was hacked to death in his 13-acre farmhouse on Wednesday.

The murder sent shock waves across the international township in suburban Puducherry where more than 1,300 foreign nationals from 35 countries have made their home. Andre’s body was found on the lane leading to his house inside the sprawling farm. Police sources said some unidentified persons managed to enter the farmhouse, ‘Turiya’, tied the French man’s hands and legs after sprinkling chilli powder in his eyes. He was then hacked to death with sharp weapons inflicting wounds on his neck and head. Andre married an Indian woman Chandrika Krishnan from Kerala. However, they were separated four years ago and Chandrika now lives with their daughter Savithri in Puducherry. The couple had sought a divorce and a case is pending in court. The police said the culprits damaged the surveillance cameras inside the farmhouse and also attacked a pet dog of the Frenchman. "We have begun investigations from all possible angles," inspector A Sabibullah said. Inquiries with Andre's neighbours revealed that the Frenchman taught mathematics in France and Africa before reaching India inspired by the teachings of Sri Aurobindo in 1971. He built huts for residents of Auroville and a poultry farm. He set up a factory to manufacture electronic leather-measuring machines and sprayers to paint leather. The firm was initially established as a part of Sri Aurobindo Society but was separated later. He was also instrumental in establishing another unit to manufacture ozone generators. He taught mathematics at Lycee Francaise during his early days of stay here to fund his industrial units. "He was a perfectionist and a hardworking man. He was always engrossed in work," said a neighbour.

The End Of A Dream?

Auroville was created as a ‘universal city’ free of discord, but is riven by allegations of paedophelia, dubious land purchases, and racism, discovers PC VINOJ KUMAR

THERE SHOULD be somewhere on earth a place where no nation could claim as its own… a place of peace, concord and harmony… In this ideal place money would no longer be the sovereign lord; individual worth would have a far greater importance than that of material wealth and social standing.”
Such was the dream of Mirra Alfassa, Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual partner and successor, known to her followers as The Mother. In 1968, five years before her death, the dream led to the establishment of Auroville, a “universal town” as it calls itself, currently home to around 2,000 residents from 40 countries. Located 8 km from Puducherry, Auroville is run on government and UNESCO grants and the proceeds of its commercial projects. Best known today as an offbeat tourist attraction, deep rifts with the local community have, however, seen serious charges levelled against the community, ranging from allegations of certain residents sexually abusing children from nearby villages to claims of extortionate land acquisition. Local resentment has now burgeoned into an active campaign to have the town shut down, with some opponents even decrying it as a threat to national security.
Auroville started out as part of the Puduchery- based Sri Aurobindo Society, under Mirra Alfassa’s direct control. Following her death in 1973, divisions between residents and the Society resulted in almost two decades of wrangling over the town’s administration. Ultimately, in 1991, the Auroville Foundation (AF) was established by Parliament.
Not all who live in Auroville agree that this has worked. Some are frustrated and feel that the community’s original ideals and freedoms are fading. The AF is optimistic, though, and its Master Plan predicts Auroville’s population will reach 50,000 by 2025. In its design, however, the plan included several acres of yet-to-beacquired land belonging to nearby villages. While expansion of the 20 km campus has been sluggish, current AF secretary M. Ramaswamy, a senior IAS officer, has made land acquisition a priority, and, by January 2007, as reported then in community bulletin Auroville Today, purchased around nine acres for the town. This more than tripled in the following year, with the creation of the Auroville Land Fund, whose April-June newsletter states that 31.97 acres had been bought during 2007-08.
Villagers, however, allege that not all these purchases have been conducted on an entirely principled basis, and accuse the AF of using strong-arm tactics. S. Mathialagan of Edayanchavadi village says he ran foul of the AF after he refused to sell his land and accuses Ramaswamy of behaving like a property broker. “Ramaswamy uses the police to intimidate villagers who don’t want to sell,” Mathialagan told TEHELKA. “When I turned them down, they lodged a complaint against me and I was taken to the police station. I was only freed after the villagers protested.” Villupuram SP A Amal Raj, however, denied any villager had lodged any complaint on the issue.
Villagers are also unhappy with Auroville’s attempts to regulate land transactions in the area. In 2002, the late LM Singhvi, then an MP and a member of the AF governing board, wrote to the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalithaa, proposing an order that would bar land development or sale of areas that fell within the Auroville Master Plan, unless under AF approval. The order did not come through, but Ramaswamy is said to be pursuing the matter.
While a land tussle could be said to be a purely local issue, far more serious are the charges of abuse. M. Kandavel, who leads a ‘Ban Auroville’ movement, alleges the place has become a haven for paedophiles. To back his claim, he quotes an August 2001 issue of Auroville News, in which a resident writes: “How many of us know, that there are Aurovillians who have sexually abused their maids, that Aurovilians have sexually abused village children; that Aurovilians have funded political gangs and allegedly incited violence in the villages?”
The child abuse charges got additional attention following a BBC report in May, which, while acknowledging Auroville’s endeavours in education and reforestation, reported the community authorities as admitting that it “did in the mid-90s include a convicted paedophile”. Talking to TEHELKA, Auroville Working Committee member Carel Thieme placed the number of Aurovillians asked to leave because of suspected involvement in paedophilia at three.
As Aurovillians themselves ruefully admit, not all who come here in pursuit of the ‘ideal’ life are themselves ideal. Residents and visitors have been known to overstep the bounds of decency, as evidence of which Kandavel cites a 2002 incident involving the wife of Tathagata Satpathy, a Biju Janata Dal MP from Orissa’s Dhenkanal constituency. When contacted, Satpathy, a devotee of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, told TEHELKA he had planned to spend New Year’s Eve in Auroville but was repulsed by the atmosphere. “I had gone there hoping for a spiritual experience. What I encountered was the opposite. People were drunk. Many were high on drugs. My wife wanted us to leave, but as we were doing so, some foreigners misbehaved with us.”
Adding to local animus are the state benefits Auroville receives, including a fairly sizeable grant, with Rs 5 crore allotted for 2008-09. Its commercial units also enjoy tax exemptions. The Chief Income Tax Commissioner has reportedly argued for having these enterprises taxed, but Auroville has managed to retain the exemption. The arrangement requires owners of commercial units to pay 33 percent of their profits to the AF while keeping the rest. AF members, however, claim that these profits ultimately return to the community.
All Aurovillians work in one or the other of the town’s commercial units or in its administration offices. A maintenance stipend is available, though not all Aurovillians avail of it, particularly Westerners. Of those who do live on the stipend, some maintain that the stipend of Rs 5,000 to Rs 8,000 is insufficient. “The cost of living is quite high in Auroville,” rues resident Ramachandra Mohanta. Other Indian Aurovillians echoed his views, saying life here is difficult if one does not have sound financial backing. AF member Sanjeev, however, points out that residents and their families get several facilities free, such as education and healthcare. When asked about the economic disparities among Aurovillians, he wryly remarked, “Auroville is not an egalitarian society.” The realisation of the equality the Mother envisioned is still some way off.
WHEN TEHELKA visited Auroville, this reporter stayed four days in ‘Aspiration’, one of the community’s oldest settlements, and also one of its poorer ones. Members share food expenses and have a common kitchen and dining hall. Though it is claimed that Auroville fosters human unity, complaints of racial discrimination persist and rarely did we see people of different nationalities interact.
Critics also disapprove of Auroville’s financial handling, which, in keeping with the way the rest of the community runs, is relatively unstructured. The Auroville internal audit of 2004-05 practically concedes this — while bringing no charges of funds mishandled, it made reference to several irregularities and systemic deficiencies in financial management. “There is no centralised accounting of income reflecting the totality of income and expenditure,” it said. “There is no overall budget for Auroville. The Foundation has no system to ensure that all money received through various channels is properly accounted for and utilised.”
Aurovillians will tell you their community is a “living human laboratory” and should be looked at with sympathy, not critically or analytically. However, while local antagonism toward the town and the resultant criticism of its practices and philosophy does not abate, it is perhaps time Auroville took heed and looked to ways of reaching greater accord. •

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 37, Dated Sept 20, 2008

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Post War Quest For Justice In Sri Lanka

For those following the ‘post-war quest for justice’ in Sri Lanka, The Times editorial, ‘Time for Witness,’ is a must read.

The Editorial States: “The Sri Lankan Government has much to account for. Yet it has responded with disingenuity and fantasy. It first denied the deaths of civilians and then claimed that the photographic evidence, repeated by independent witnesses, had been forged. In doing so, it is perpetrating sins of omission in order to obscure those of commission. Mr Ban must speak; the UN must investigate. Nothing else will demonstrate a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.”

Some recent articles in The Times, New York Times and Washington Post, on the dark happenings in Sri Lanka have created the impression that the western media appears to be determined to get an investigation into the war crimes of the Sri Lankan government. Their resolve has not diminished even after what happened at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) last week. Sri Lanka managed to get the majority support in the 47-member UNHRC and successfully thwarted a probe into allegations of massacre of an estimated 20000 Tamils in the final phase of its battle-to-the-finish with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

But true journalism is all about the determined pursuit of truth, and the unrelenting quest for justice, even against seemingly heavy odds. Those who doggedly fight injustice are bound to win. Villains of humanity cannot always prevail. Their downfall is just a question of time. History has demonstrated this time and again. Sri Lanka cannot be an exception.