Saturday, December 31, 2016

Recall of the wild

Get thee to a national park

(Published on December 31, 2016 in Business Standard)

There’s nothing as delicate as a spotted deer stepping through grass. Perfect ears swelling from slender stems, tiny hooves, liquid eyes, it picks up its feet like a dancer. Apex predators are fab, but there’s nothing boring about deer.

I had plenty of opportunities to admire deer because T1, the tigress, was evident only from her pug marks. She had walked the dirt track alone not long before our jeep made its way into a tangerine dawn breaking over the wilderness of Panna National Park, in Madhya Pradesh. Now only a line of jeeps, squashed together like bugs, gave away her location deep in a thicket. She was cuddling with her cubs, and she wasn’t coming back out. I wouldn’t have either.

We drove up one of the escarpments and, at the lip of a gorge, with the sun blunting the chill, we drank hot tea from a flask and looked at the shining golden grasslands. A bit later I was gaping at an abstract painting created by a tangle of slender trees, vines, and leaves mirrored in a quiet swampland. Panna is a varied landscape of grassland, hill, scrub, forest, and rock, nourished by the Ken river. You can’t believe the damage that that glassy ribbon can do. The last time I was in these parts was just after it had raged in flood, leaving fridges dangling in trees. You can still see the high-water mark in uprooted trees, cloth trapped in branches, stone shredded to rubble. It makes you want to conduct an appeasement ceremony immediately.

To enjoy the wilderness is to be rebooted to factory settings. Your eyes have to readjust their focal length from arm’s length to way, way across the bank, where the stone-still slab of a crocodile lies snaggle-toothed in the sun, or to where a crested serpent eagle perches in a complication of light and shade, considering its options. I’m always astonished by the skill and ease with which naturalists spot creatures in the wild. I can look straight at an animal without seeing it. But it’s not about having unique eyes, it’s all about learning—re-learning, really, to see. And it’s not just about eyes.

The challenge is to get your head out of your digital arse. The wilderness will bore you to tears until you re-inhabit your own physicality, nurture attention, and recalibrate your expectations of choice. But if you can do that, if you can see the drama in light and colour and form and movement; feel temperature and wind and texture; smell the riotous bouquet of resin, droppings, flowers, grass, and sunlight, hear calls and birdsong and movement, and taste the odd leaf—well then, the wild is the entertainment gift that never stops giving. (You can, of course, have a bit of both if there’s coverage, you rarely have to go cold turkey anymore. It’s a process.)

2016 has been, to quote Dame Helen Mirren, a “big pile of shit”. Murder, terrorism, war, noxious cultural tectonics, Brexit, Trump, Syria, demonetisation—all of it littered with the corpses of beloved musicians who soundtracked large parts of our lives. You can get hammered and set stuff on fire, or roll over and die, or you can remind yourself that the big pile of shit only seems to comprise the whole universe if you keep your nose to it. The virtual world is interesting, and creative, and important, but there’s a lot to be said for giving it an occasional sincere kick in the pants.

Climbing back into your senses in a wilderness is about the best cleanse there is for the toxicity normalised in modernity. It reminds you that you have a stake in speaking up in defence of the environment—a lonely battle if there ever was one, conducted by deeply committed and deeply vulnerable people who remind you of that iconic photograph of the student before the tank in Tiananmen Square.

When I was a kid, my tennis coach had one mantra: Come back to the centre of the court after every shot. Meditation aspires to the same thing. And being in the wilderness is a vivid enactment of it. We are animals, with animal instincts, animal needs, and animal dependencies, designed to live very differently from the way many of us do. Thank god for creature comforts, and thank god we have ways of protecting ourselves against the brutalities of nature. But it’s easy to forget that we come from it, and that its value is central, not peripheral, to our well-being.

So if you’re casting about for resolutions in the new pile of shit coming up, I recommend this: visit as many wildernesses as you can. They’re better than any spa, and you never know how long they’ll last. Happy new year.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Patriotism for dummies

A) You can’t force patriotic feelings. B) See A).  

(Published on December 3, 2016 in Business Standard)

These days there are so many reasons to hold one’s breath and count to ten that if we did it every time, we’d all get hypoxic and faint dead away. On the upside, that would save us from having to read things like the interim order just passed by the Supreme Court regarding the national anthem.

To recap, briefly, Justice Dipak Misra and Justice Amitava Roy issued an order making it compulsory for theatres to close doors and play the national anthem before every movie screening across India, and obliging audiences to stand for the duration. They said that this will inculcate patriotism and respect for the anthem. The order said that the anthem cannot be commercialised or dramatised.

What, you ask, are we still flogging that old horse? 

Apparently nothing says proud, free nation like corralling citizens into rooms to force them to love their country. It will create a virtuous cycle—every time Indians go to the movies in India, we will be reminded that we are Indians, in India, and that we love being Indians in India, and then maybe we won’t mind so much about being fully grown adults locked up in a room and told what songs to listen to.

“Be it stated,” reads the order, “a time has come, the citizens of the country must realize that they live in a nation and are duty bound to show respect to National Anthem which is the symbol of the Constitutional Patriotism and inherent national quality. It does not allow any different notion or the perception of individual rights, that have individually thought of have no space. The idea is constitutionally impermissible. ” [Sic to all of that].

They used to play the national anthem before movie screenings, back when the Republic was young and raw, and people were still learning the tune and all the words. It was a good way to shore up a fragile new national identity, and it must have been an exhilarating reminder of our freedom.

But unless you’re worried about a couple of oldies here and there still harrumphing about how things ran better under the Raj, today you can safely assume that everyone is aware that we live in a self-governing country. Plenty of people, of course, do not feel that they have enough of a stake in the nation called India, and who protest and resist, quietly or loudly, verbally or through action, briefly or for lifetimes. They are constitutionally entitled to do that; the Constitution is set up to protect the rights of a minority of one. Indian democracy has always been a kaleidoscope of these pushes and pulls, agreements and disagreements, loves and hates. To say that now, suddenly, the time has come to realise that we live in a nation, after 70 years of nationhood, is jarring. To say that different notions and individual rights are constitutionally impermissible when it comes to the anthem is difficult to take seriously—worse, it’s antithetical to the Constitution.

The order flows from Article 51(a), the citizen’s fundamental duty to respect the flag and the anthem. But fundamental duties are not enforceable. Justice Misra interprets respect as everyone standing in a closed movie hall. A previous, much more sensible Supreme Court judgement by Justice Reddy said that respect simply means not disrupting the anthem. The difference between these two interpretations is a little something called choice.

There are two rules for patriotism: A) You can’t force patriotic feelings. B) See A).
If making a reluctant Indian stand were to miraculously fill her with love for the nation, Justice Misra might be on to something. But since it is impossible to force patriotic feelings, all this order will achieve is to make her think that the nation is repellently bossy. And that closed doors are a fire hazard.

There are many reasons why you may not want to stand for the anthem. Maybe you love your country but don’t like public displays of affection. Maybe you feel bullied because all you’re trying to do is watch a movie. Maybe you haven’t decided how you feel about nation-states. Maybe you don’t like being told what to do. Maybe you’re a true patriot, promoting democracy by defending the idea of choice. The point is, standing or sitting or doing handstands in the aisles has nothing to do with how you feel about your country. Let the standers stand; let the sitters sit. That’s democracy.

What would really suck is if, every time you’re at a movie, the anthem served not as an exhilarating  reminder of your freedom, but as depressing reminder that a part of your freedom has been revoked. But Indians before us have been though that, and they came up with an excellent response. It’s called civil disobedience.