Friday, January 28, 2011

God and me

The only instance I remember of my dad hitting me was when I refused to say my night time prayers. It is one of my earliest childhood memories and a surprising one. Because the person who was most influential in inculcating religion in me was my mother, not my father.

I prayed everyday right through my childhood up until I left home for life in a hostel. Most evenings I sat before a lit lamp in the pooja room, singing prayers I had learnt from my mother and reading religious books. I remember the temples I went to regularly and where I broke coconuts or performed archanas on significant birthdays. Mostly these were rituals I followed quite blindly. But sometimes they were bribes and sometimes deterrents to horrible things. I did not enter the puja room or a temple when I had my period. It was an unquestioning world I lived in. There was no dichotomy in my mind between religion as I practiced it and the books and writers I loved and studied or the politics I followed (I was quite sympathetic to the communist cause).

I am not sure as to when exactly it was that I became aware of a dichotomy. Maybe it was when I met for the first time people who were so confident about the non-existence of god. College mates who thought not going to the temple on your period days was regressive. And family members who used my religion as a means of driving a very divisive political agenda. And by the time I read Richard Dawkins, I had already begun to feel the ambiguity about religion I most definitely feel today.

It is hard to explain. I sometimes find immense peace in reading those thousand names of Lakshmi, the Bhagavat Gita, Valmiki's Ramayan, a ritual I follow by rote everyday. The last time I went to the Padmanabha temple in my hometown, I was quite literally moved to tears when I stood before the idol. My mind still goes to the devi in my ancestral temple in times of stress.

But more and more, I find myself looking at this whole spirituality business as a crutch in an increasingly stressful world. And now there are even more forms of it to tackle - the new age gurus with answers to all of life's problems, the vipassana centres, the strangely hypnotic 'secret' to happiness, all of that multi-million dollar self-help industry. I ask myself when does ritual become superstition, whether it is at all possible to truly know and believe in things beyond the rational, the tangible, the here and now. I ask myself if I would not be better off spending my time and energy in doing things that make me the best me that I can be, today. Honest hard work, perseverance, goodness as human beings - shouldn't these be enough for happiness? Isn't blind belief truly scary? And if belief is not blind, can it really be belief?

It haunts me; this question of religion and its significance in my life. I push it away and it keeps coming back. Years of conditioning do not go away in the face of rational arguments. And reading Nadeem Aslam's God and Me in Granta brought all that ambivalence rushing back. Skepticism is a good thing, I tell myself. At least it gives the world one less thing to fight over.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Gratitude 2010:

A surprise trip to Prague courtesy a training programme. A sunshiny summer Prague as opposed to an October snowy one on my last visit. Charles Bridge still as pretty, St. Vitus cathedral still as majestic, the Astronomical clock in the Old Town Square still as underwhelming. But there was also watching the start of world cup football with hundreds of fans , beer and bright sunshine in the Old Town Square, girls night out at Hard Rock Cafe and some fascinating insights into the big changes happening at our New York office.

Followed by a spontaneous last minute unplanned trip with husband to Amsterdam. The picture post card-ness of the canals, bicycles, the canal houses, the flowers, the road side cafes. The hard-hitting and hard-selling advocacy of the Anne Frank museum. The tawdriness of the red light area. The excitement of the forbidden in the coffee houses. Amsterdam was a delight.

A 90 year old grandmother. Her birthday bash. With cousins, niece and nephews from Canada and Hong Kong. And quite a large extended family. Fun. Food. Nostalgia. Old photographs. Old memories. Quite lovely.

A tiger in the wild. Overwhelming. The rest of the wildlife negligible and underwhelming. Ranthambore. Luxury in tents. A quick unhurried leisurely weekend. Just the kind of break needed in the midst of a busy work year.

Delhi as a tourist. Coming face to face with ancient quiet history at the Qutub Minar and Humayun's Tomb and present day creation of it at Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Parliament.Reverence at the Jama Masjid. The splendour of the Taj through the eyes of a first timer, my mom. My love of forts rekindled at Agra Fort. Just dad, mom, me, once again.

Decent work at work. An effie. New role, new responsibilities. Some great new brands. Not the best of years, not the worst of them either.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Our Kind of Traitor

John Le Carrė

Le Carrė's British spy world looks a bit different after the end of the Cold War. Le Carrė is 80, Berlin now is the subject of cool travel magazines rather than the battleground of the Cold War, Britain's importance in the global spy market is a bit long in the tooth. But Our Kind of Traitor proves there is no questioning the competence of this man in writing suspenseful thrillers.

This time the context is the global financial markets and the dubious antecedents of the immense amounts of money that drive it. The Russian mafia has its tentacles everywhere, including the Mumbai stock market and the high end British banking establishment. And the opposition is a maverick spy with a conscience in MI6.

Dima is the Russian money launderer who wants to come in. And his choice of the messenger is downright strange. Perry and Gail. The blonde and beautiful Oxford professor of English and his equally blonde and beautiful girlfriend lawyer. Or barrister as the English say. They are on a tennis holiday (who goes on tennis holidays???) in the Caribbean when the Russian with his sons, daughters, his second wife and his bodyguards accosts them with a proposal that has them scurrying to the British spy system. It makes Perry and Gail enter the shadowy world, eager to escape their more mundane existences; and we the readers get to see this new murky world through the eyes of excited newbies.

The spies are Luke and Hector. Luke is the background man, the spy we see in all of Le Carrė's fiction, a quiet ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances fighting a war far bigger than his personal exigencies. Hector is the man running this particular show, a maverick in the system, out to nail the ones who make a mockery of the system. All a tad old-fashioned in the new world order driven by politics and money.

The gift is in the narrative. And the precision of the characterisation. We are drawn into the Luke and Hector narrative, men with personal foibles and problems, yet driven to their dangerous jobs with a sense of something bigger than themselves. Nothing pretentious or jingoistic, just some good old-fashioned British understated sense of fair play.

Le Carrė's signature was his injection of moral ambiguity into the spy thriller. His world was never a James Bond like evocation of sheer evil and implausible good. The moral ambiguity is alive and kicking here as well, where political expedience fights and wins against personal morality. That is Le Carrė's lasting legacy. And in his later novels, these become more pronounced - institutional corruption and governments doing wicked things are becoming more the norm rather than the exception. It is reflective of a less innocent world than the one Smiley encountered.

Our Kind of Traitor has its low moments - Perry and Gail's initial encounters with Dima are terribly drawn out and boring. But Le Carrė makes up for it as the story goes along, gaining tautness and a dark foreboding sense of menace. There is truly no greater pleasure than surrendering yourself to the competent hands of a master storyteller.