Author Archives: Siddhartha Sarma

The Compleat Cat

Many years and extinct species ago, there was this survey on the world’s favourite animal and, wouldn’t you know, the tiger was voted number one. The dog came second. Running my eye down the top ten list I asked myself: ‘Where is the cat?’

Because the cat, children, wasn’t there.

I looked at the problem from every side and decided I would have none of it. So I collared the organisers of this so-called survey.

‘Look here,’ I said (I have a short way with these surveyor types), ‘This won’t do. It won’t do at all. How is it that the snake made it to no. 6, and the cat isn’t on the list at all?’

The conversation, I regret to say, went steadily downhill. Allegations were made (by me) of undue favours to chimpanzees (eighth) and orang-utans (ninth). On being pressed, the organisers confessed they did not exactly know what ‘favourite’ meant. Perhaps, ventured one grey-bearded fellow, it referred to charisma?

It is a fraught word, charisma. It may be taken as the difference between the clearly popular tiger and the pen-tailed shrew, a little fellow who lives on trees and subsists almost entirely on pure alcohol. Difficult to be charismatic when you are sozzled, but the shrew (I am told) doesn’t mind.

Try that with a cat. Charisma doesn’t quite cover what cats have. With a dog, you can nod and talk about the weather and so on, pass the time of the day. With cats, you have to be on your best behaviour, and as dignified as you can be, and hope for the best. You might get polite interest from them, or perhaps haughty disdain. It’s a matter of chance. Since dignity doesn’t come easily to me, I always feel, when conversing with cats, that my hair is a mess or my knees are knobbly.

She’s just not that into you

The Prof had a cat, RK, who was particularly fastidious about the content of academic discussions. He would recline… which reminds me. Humans can’t recline. They might use the word loosely, and hopefully, to refer to a set of marginally awkward arrangements of the limbs, and dogs may sprawl as they choose, but only cats are known to recline in the proper sense of the word.

So our RK would recline on a piece of furniture at a vantage point and survey the eclectic group of visitors at the Prof’s place. He would listen impassively to the discussion, and occasionally yawn at some ill-thought out argument. Wittgenstein versus Russell moved him not. The group would feel acutely conscious of such a connoisseur, and would try to be their best, in a subdued and reverent way. RK was the litmus test of these discussions, a furry facilitator of discourses.

An author friend, meanwhile, has been graced by the presence of Toothless, a dragon who, seen under certain kinds of light, resembles a cat. Toothless has declared suzerainty over a substantial portion of the house, and is on his way to becoming an old-school conqueror.

I had, over the years, been allowed to host and be a general factotum to five cats. Mostly, they came and went, and ruled far-flung places with iron paw. Their air of majesty was so awe-inspiring that I felt like an intruding mendicant.

My dog R’s approach to cats was, regrettably, one of truculence. He refused to believe their poise and dignity was inviolable, and there existed a permanent state of war in the garden and the neighbourhood. On various occasions he succeeded in treeing some feline visitors who would, on getting the high ground, hiss epithets at him. R however claimed victory on these occasions and vested on himself the (additional) title of ‘Confounder of Cats’.

One autumn morning, on a walk in the neighbourhood, R and I spotted a striped and portly fellow coming up the lane. Battle-cries were uttered, insults were traded and the face-off ended with the cat making it up a nearby tree in record time. I was impressed with the speed and agility of such a rotund one.

So I stood under that tree and applauded, while the cat began a long and complex story on the theme of ‘Defiance to Dogs’.

‘Haw, you fantastically flexible feline!’ said I. ‘You majestic and magnificent mouser! You robust rat-rousting raconteur! You miaowing milk-maniac! You weirdly wonderful whiskered wizard! You frolicsome fish fanatic! Truly you are a delight and a marvel to behold. I humbly apologise for my friend’s behavior. He knows not the rules of civilised people.’

The cat didn’t care. R, who I eventually convinced into leaving the theatre of conflict, said I was a disgrace.

Sometime around 3200 BCE, the Egyptians, for reasons best known to them, began cat worship in a serious way, and I do not blame them. The cat-headed Bast was a genial goddess (‘genial’ in Ancient Egypt being ‘eye-skeweringly hardcore’) and her cult was very popular. Worshippers probably told her: ‘Please have these offerings of milk and Whiskas, it was the best I could do. Please?’ Prayers to her were probably haughtily ignored.

Tolkien’s cat, in the poem ‘Cat’, may think of his distant predator ancestors in the forest, and TS Eliot’s Mungojerrie and Griddlebone may contemplate their secret names, or Macavity, that Napoleon of crime, may work on the next dastardly plot, but the fact is we just don’t know what a cat is thinking about. What we can be certain of is the cat is not speculating about us. It has better things to do.

And therein lies the answer to my question about the survey. ‘Charisma’ doesn’t cut it. Because the cat, children, didn’t care about any survey, and just didn’t turn up.

(Note: I must mention here that I have nothing against tigers, chimpanzees, snakes or orang-utans. They are all respectable fellows. I hesitate to claim that I have actually seen an orang-utan in the flesh. I once went to a zoo and saw a creature which my class teacher assured me was an orang-utan, but I have my doubts. It could have been a small fellow in a suit paid by the hour.)

Destiny is the mischief child of god!

Guest post by Krishna Mangalam

Sunday, December 6, 1992, at Ayodhya saw an event which launched my career. As a writer.

Only that, a full 25 years later, I have nothing to show as a writer! Not one piece published by any journal. A career launched by a momentous event; one that never really took off the ground, let alone make a mark in people’s mind.

A career that never was.

Rest in peace, thinker! Bury your pen! One that flowed with such flourish, with such wit and verve, over that, and all the later events. A critique of reason. One, which never saw the light of day.

Today, I celebrate the silver jubilee of that event. One that launched a career. One that never took off.

Who will ever say I was a thinker, or, even ever know that I felt and thought deeply — over events that engulfed my people, and my nation.

Who cares for a feckless, forlorn critic, and his critique?

Who cares for an unborn child!

Who cares for the pangs, and the pain, it never felt?

Who knows what joy or despair, what wisdom or folly, it would ever unleash once it came into the world and saw the light of day!

25 years gone, and only a hack!

I was ambitious, but destiny had already carved my role.

“Only a pawn!” it wrote in my lifebook, and I took it lying down.

“OK!” I said. “One day, maybe, you will just change the script!” I said, and smiled and simpered, thinking that destiny would hear.

It did, I am sure; but it did not listen to my soft prayers.

Destiny kept playing footsie, and raised a 100 people all around me, raised them up for all the world to see, and crowned them — “Thinkers, Poets, and Wits !”

I was happy. Happy that my time, too, would come.

Today, I still wait. And smile, and simper!

I no longer write.

I retired my pen and sent it back to its quiver.

You see, I cannot justify the treadmill I put my poor pen through, if there is not even a speck of light to grace on its wet ink.

Who cares for wet ink?

Who gives a thought to inchoate wit and vision, not blessed by the publisher yet!

Now, I am only a hack.

No higher purpose than the cheque at the end of the month.

So, why do I still smile and simper, and bow obsequiously, whenever I think destiny is looking my side of the town?

It is a habit.

Why should I abandon worn and trite habits?

They give me a reason to live.

And, while I live, I smile and simper all the more, whether destiny looks hither or not.

Also, I bow to it, obsequiously, every now and then, for the cheque I get every month end.

Once, I was ambitious. But, never was I an ingrate.

I believe in destiny.

There is little other reason I see in all those men, once fools and men of straw, risen to the ranks of wits, poets, emperors, generals, and statesmen, but for the play of destiny.

I think destiny is the mischief child of god.

A god, who has gone and parked himself in another Universe.

(Krishna Mangalam is a senior journalist with The Times of India)

Ode to Shashi Tharoor

There never was a math as poly

As Shashi Tharoor, gruss Gott and golly:

His mien grave, his accent mysterious

(But cruel voices hiss ‘Another Pistorius!’)

Pay no heed, the calumny is old,

What Shashi touches turns always into gold.


A diplomat, writer, now a historian,

His pincered wit is, verily, lobsterian.

Observe him on stage, waving to acolytes,

Fending queries from moss-covered troglodytes;

So far along the curve you can barely keep up

On Shashi’s ideas the Right doth trip up.


Master of mots, both bon and juste,

Rivals quail, and fail, and bite the dust.

From Twitter to ‘gram, his triumph is plain,

His typos send us to dictionaries in vain.

Do you have a cause, unchampioned but dear?

He’s the man, parachuting in without fear.


A Bill should do it (but the Act will be stuck!)

But brownie points were there to pluck,

And a wedding proposal, also some humour,

But further progress is just a rumour;

Other fields, fallow, untilled beckon

Ideological windmills of number without reckon.


The Tharoor’s big foes are Brits — gadzooks!

We’d forgotten those colonial crooks;

Reparations he seeks, and a sorry, to boot,

For Hastings and Wellesley’s orgy of loot.

Their guilt the Brits have repeatedly shown

(‘But Shashi’s forgotten the Peacock Throne!’)


The Persians, Burmese, Afghans and Turks

Are aghast: ‘He ignored our genocidal works!’

Or the Japanese, for ’43, ’44, ’45 —

But Tharoor dreams only of ‘mea culpa’ from Clive;

Post-colonial, you see, seeking political renown,

Jewel with a conscience of the Stephenian Crown.


We’ve had many PMs, to our great misfortune,

Statesmen and dictators, to realities immune;

To ‘entire pol science’, from a quiet economist

Like doomed puppets in the wind we twist.

Now Tharoor, they say, will take ‘em to the stars;

In which case, goodbye, I’m leaving for Mars.


That’s where I’d wanted to end my verse;

But wait, there is something much worse,

In ’02 (Gujarat) I said I would secede

If NaMo to RCR did ever proceed;

It happened, I was stuck in durance vile —

An exit strategy was never my style.


So here is an idea, my last play,

And Tharoor can take or toss it away:

Your attempts at academia I’ll still deplore,

But parachute politics I may just ignore,

Get a ‘sorry’ from the Mongols, on a contrite note,

And, Chetta, you may (probably) get my vote.

What’s the problem with squirrels, anyway?

I have the highest regard for all species, barring humans, of course. There are just two other exceptions. I don’t like monkeys because they don’t follow the rules, or know of them but don’t care, which is worse. Predators come at you, and prey run away. Monkeys are not prey, but they not only come at you, they are also not clearly predators, so there is very little you can do except hand over your ice cream and back off. And they hang about in gangs. A traumatic childhood incident comes to mind, but I have talked about it before and mustn’t bore you.

But squirrels, now they are a totally different matter.

They just rush around and look busy, and make you feel guilty for slacking off, even when you aren’t. I don’t understand why they have to act so busy. And when they pass you by, they sometimes stop mid-stride and stare at you like they are some kind of superior beings. I am convinced it is all an act, and they just behave like that to annoy people.

Take parks, for instance. I don’t usually visit them, not in the city where I live, because they are crowded. Once, after several weeks of staying at home, I went out into a park next door. Very beautiful place it was, I remember. I was sitting on a bench when I was ambushed without provocation by a most horrible human infant which had crawled underneath. I don’t know where the fellow came from, or what he had against me, but he bit my ankle. Some of you may remember I had immediately returned home and announced that the Infantocalypse had started and we should head for the hills.

Don’t get taken in. It is up to something

Anyway, the point of this digression, amusing though it may appear to you (it is not to me, or my ankle, because I have been permanently hocked since then) is that parks in my city are hazardous to begin with, so it doesn’t help that there are squirrels running around all the time. They are up to something, I am sure of it. Some kind of infernal conspiracy.

You remember that poem by that fellow we all had to read in school? ‘What is this life, if full of care…’ and so on, that’s how it went. I had found it a ridiculous read back then. It was redundant for me. I was always standing and staring. In fact, people used to think I was slow, which I probably was. Thing is, there is this bit about ‘No time to see, when woods we pass/ Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass’. The reference to nuts would make us boys giggle stupidly, but the bigger point is, the poet clearly doesn’t know what he is talking about. Have you ever seen a squirrel hide anything on the ground? Nope, they hide stuff up in the trees somewhere. Probably giant hoards of stuff. So they are up there, and they watch us all the time, and they act smug.

Back in my college days, I was once sitting in my room at the hall of residence, not attending classes but reading something of great significance. I put down the comic book and looked outside, and there, on the first floor balcony, was a squirrel, staring at me. I immediately went for the (slightly) modified airsoft gun on my desk. Man of action, that’s what I was. I realized the fellow was there to whack the piece of moderately burnt toast I had kept from breakfast.

‘Begone, foul fiend, to the depths of the Abyss from whence you came!’ said I. In my fury I tended to get biblical back then.

‘Begone, you pestilential peanut-procurer! Avast, you areca-acquiring arboreal assassin! You cashew-craving crook! I shall defend my toast to the last breath, preferably yours. And if you say “Nevermore”, I will run away, which I feel too lazy to do,’ I said.

That squirrel just stared at me for a while, and then (I am not making this up) turned a double somersault on the spot and ran away. Why would any decent animal do that? Would you, after staring at someone eating a quiet toast in her home, turn a double somersault just for the heck of it and disappear? What explains this level of d-baggery?

So they are up to something. Some kind of universal plot. We may find out to our peril someday soon. You mark my words. Even now they are running around, passing messages and acting like they know something you don’t.

They haven’t even left mythology alone. So there is this fellow, name of Ratatoskr, from the Norse sagas. Runs up and down the World Tree, carrying news from the serpent Nidhoggr underground to the eagle Vedrfolnir on the top branches. Why does it need to do this? What business is it of this squirrel to be a busybody? Why can’t he leave the eagle and the serpent alone? Doesn’t he have some World Acorns or something to gather?

I understand some of you may have a soft corner for this animal. But remember my warning. They are up to no good. Be on the alert.

What a Quaint Idea

S. prepared to leave his hermetically sealed house for work. Outside, the great city of Delhi, also known as the Big Kof, stirred to life. Giant purifiers rumbled in the outskirts, trying, and failing, to maintain the mandated PM 2.5 AQI of 1200. In the hinterland, the shattered remnants of a centuries-old agricultural society struggled to save the harvest season.

No birds sang.

Miniaturisation and Some Problems in Respiratory Mechanisms for Avians. In one of his explorations of the city’s archives, in the academic section, S. had found this old paper from one of the bigger scientific journals. The biggest journals, of course, were about respiratory mechanisms, miniaturisation and portability. This paper was a several thousand-word white flag, admitting that birds and breathing masks didn’t go together. And hermetically sealed birdcages were not a sound investment in a world falling apart. So there were no birds left to sing.

S. waited at his doorstep for his vehicle, listening to the hiss as his door sealed shut. Goggles protected his eyes from the early morning smog. Today it was a Level IV, which meant he ran an immediate risk of temporary blindness if he were to remove them, which he wasn’t going to.

There wasn’t much to see. The road disappeared a dozen feet away, and his neighbouring houses were dim visions. An Air Police car went past, the masked policeman giving S. a quick glance. Not that they would suspect him of anything. This neighbourhood had administrative officers and researchers, hardly the place to find a malcontent. The Air Police prowled the city, looking for Violaters: anybody out jogging, or exercising, or, Vayu forbid, sneaking around on a contraband bicycle. The Governing Council authorised strict and immediate action against anybody trying to breathe more than permitted, and strenuous exercise was a Red Violation. Immediate banishment, and complete denial of respiratory aid. It was rarely revoked. A few weeks, and it became a capital punishment.

The government vehicle arrived, and S. was sealed in for the rest of the journey. He was senior archivist at the Documents section, which oversaw the storage of every single piece of administrative and academic printed material. And any historical documents which had been saved.

It was the Red Season of the year 178 ATS, that is, After The Smog. There were three seasons of the year, with Red coinciding with a slight dip in the temperature. In his researches, S. had discovered that the pre-Smog people used to call it ‘winter’ from a very ancient word, ‘wintruz’, which meant ‘the wet period’. But the Red Season was neither cold nor wet. It was Red because the air quality was in the Red Zone, the worst of the year.

The best time of the year, people said, was the Blue Season, because tiny parts of the sky could be seen if one stared upwards for a few minutes, on a good day. S. did not bother either way. The differences in periods of the year were just academic.

Of the events immediately preceding the Smog, very little could be reliably established. What was known was the basis for industrial society had been saved, although there had been losses. Populations had been decimated. Small towns and small cities were in ruins. The Big Kof had endured because of what historians S. knew called ‘urban inertia’, that is, a city could actually be large enough, and chaotic enough, to survive an event like that, and the deaths of a few million. So Delhi had grown and enveloped its outlying urban centres, and a megapolis had emerged. The agricultural areas around it, dependant on city dwellers for their markets, had also survived precariously.

The rest of what had once been a country was largely shattered, except a few cities as big as Delhi.

But much of what had caused that cataclysm was still unknown. Some documents survived; most had not been permitted to by the Governing Council. Too complicated for a society whose members already had to deal with the physical complexities of daily existence. The dominant and official theory was farmers of the hinterland had risen in revolt over some obscure grouse and burnt their crops, causing the thickest smog in the history of mankind to envelop the city permanently. But there were heretical positions on this, uttered in whispers.

S. went to his office from the underground parking area. There was a lot of work, and some pending requests for locating material in archives. His colleague, T., had already arrived. T. drove himself, and was a member of the ruling party. There was really just the one party, but appearances had to be maintained, or the other cities would laugh at them.

The ruling party blamed the farmers for the cataclysm two centuries earlier. Committed party members firmly believed that the air quality was better than in the past, and they also advocated the continued and indiscriminate use of SUVs. Therefore the ruling political formation was known as the Suvver Party. It frowned on the idea of public transport. Anyway, almost everyone who used public transport in the pre-Smog years had died after the cataclysm because they could not afford the expensive respiratory devices or the sealed houses, as S. had discovered in the archives.

T. was a Suvver, and therefore powerful, although he was not a bad worker. S. nodded at him and got to work.

The rules were very strict about speech. Even inside sealed government buildings, air flow was regulated, and workers were warned about not using more than their allotted share. So long speeches, or conversations longer than the very brief, were discouraged. Raised voices were a serious offence. Phones came with auto-cutoffs to prevent long conversations. Any action that could cause overuse of the air supply was punishable. Even names were reduced to a few syllables. S. remembered a famous case where a low-ranking official had been found with an antique walking machine in his house. The records said the machine used to be called a ‘treadmill’ by the ancients. The official had been banished from the city immediately.

S. got back to his work. There were reports of more Breather activity in the suburbs.


“So, you saw the reports,” said V., at his house, after S. arrived in the evening. This was their weekly informal gathering, with a few other friends. At least none of them were Suvvers, so S. could relax with them.

V. was a noted expert on miniaturisation, and a talented engineer, and thus favoured by the Council. This was one of the few residences in the city where the oxygen usage was not permanently monitored.

There were half-a-dozen of the friends already present, a collection of senior doctors, a chemist, a webcaster and other specialists.

“So, you saw the reports,” said V. again.

“About the Breathers? Yes,” said S.

“Is it true that more graffiti has turned up in the suburbs?” asked J., the webcaster.

“Yes, and at several places,” said S.

“Fundamentalists,” said P., the chemist, a moderate.

The Breathers had suddenly emerged a few years ago. From some stray reports, their activities had become a regular occurrence, and the Air Police had been deployed to track them down. Mainly, what the Breathers seemed to want was purer air. What exactly that implied, nobody knew. Their graffiti asked for the right to breathe without masks, for instance. They asked for lower restrictions on air usage, and uniform distribution to the less privileged. They called for use of public transport, and smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles.

“Radicals. Utopians. Some of the graffiti, I am told, even says there was a time when people breathed without masks, and went for runs in the open,” added P.

“Theoretically, that may not have been impossible, you know,” said V.

“Yes, in the pre-industrial world. Theoretically, the great god Vayu, in which our beloved Suvvers believe so much, also exists,” retorted P.

“Anyway, S., someone gave me this, so I wanted you to take a look and tell me what you think of it,” said V.

It was a fragment of what appeared to be an official report from a monitoring agency. It was not too different from what the Governing Council issued. But it indicated that the AQI of PM 2.5 was 80. S. looked up, incredulous.

“When was it dated?”

“We do not know. It is only a fragment. It is said to be from the early 2000s, by pre-Smog reckoning,” said V.

Nearly two decades before the cataclysm.

“So, what do you think?”

“Clearly a forgery.”

“That’s what I told them,” said P., triumphantly. “It has been proven that AQI of PM 2.5 has historically never been lower than 800. It’s just Breather propaganda, but they don’t know where to stop. 600, or even 500, and we could just dismiss it as a fairy tale. But 80? That’s just a poor forgery.”

“But that does not mean they are wrong to demand better air quality,” said Q., a respiratory diseases specialist.

“What, you are a Breather now?” asked P.

“No, but are you a Suvver?” said Q.

The chemist and the doctor had these friendly arguments all the time.

“You know if you start discussing what the Breathers want, there will be no end to it. You don’t want to engage with radicals, or you will go down a series of rabbit holes,” said P.

“A rabbit,” explained J., the webcaster, “Was a small burrowing mammal of the family Leporidae, now extinct, of course. The metaphor refers to a theoretically unending or complicated topic.”

S. thought about the fragments which V. had got from his sources in the past. Some claimed to be from the years just before the Smog. Some talked about policies by the long-dead administrators of the city.

“You remember that paper which talked about something called the Odd-Even system? Something about rationing car usage?” asked S.

“Of course. A card-carrying Suvver would have a cardiac arrest if he were to read it,” said V.

“And the one about an order from some ‘Supreme Court’ about banning fireworks on Diwali?” said S.

“That one would have got us all exiled,” said P.

Diwali was a sacred day for Suvvers. The bursting of firecrackers, and lighting of giant oil lamps which gave out greasy smoke, and the burning of large effigies labeled ‘farmer rebels’ was an important part of government-mandated celebrations. Not bursting fireworks on Diwali was another punishable offence.

“So what are you driving at, S.?”

“So what I find interesting is this pattern. There seems to have been an attempt at curtailing emission of what used to be called ‘pollutants’ by citizens. Daily pollutants, that is, or seasonal mass pollutants. It is interesting how the dating indicates these were from the period just after this fragment.”

“You mean there is a possibility that the administrators back then were thinking of measures to check increase in PM 2.5?” asked Q., the doctor.

“That and other particulate matter. Their sub-categories appear to be somewhat primitive, though. Not as many as our reports have. What I am saying is, is it possible that there is an element of truth in this?” asked S.

There was a brief silence. Even in unregulated conditions, the group was not used to long, free-flowing conversations.

“You mean it is possible that these factors actually led to a rise in particulate matter?” asked V.

“That is your field. I just see too many coincidences,” said S.

“Still, no mention of farmers or stubble burning, is there?” asked P.

“We haven’t found it so far. Also, I have often wondered. The countryside was farmed for centuries, and stubble was, presumably, burnt as a seasonal activity. So could a giant peasants’ uprising alone have caused the cataclysm?” said V.

“You know, just saying that would get us all exiled,” laughed P. It was an abrupt sound to hear, because under section 7, sub-section 13 (c) of the Manual of Prohibited Activities, laughter, which required considerable use of the lungs, was quite clearly outlawed.

The group drifted off into other topics and finished their dinner. As they were leaving, P. asked S., “Still thinking about the fragments?”

“Perhaps, yes.”

“Don’t worry. Just Breather propaganda. A fairy tale.”

S. called for his car and left for home. Two SUVs passed him on the way, one apparently carrying a senior Suvver. There wasn’t much to see outside, so S. adjusted his face mask, which he wore in the car, in compliance with regulations, and again thought about the fragments V. had shown him in the past few months.

PM 2.5 at 80? What a quaint idea.

How religions work: The Assam example

Critics of Islam write that the religion has been, historically, a vehicle for Arab imperialism, based on two important aspects: the prominence of Mecca and the insistence that the Quran must be studied in Arabic (I do not refer to Islamophobes here, who do not have the patience for even such a partially-nuanced argument). There may be some substance to this, although the rest of Islam, including its history, was created with considerable non-Arab influence.

However, such imperialisms are common to virtually all organized religions. When you have sacred geographies, and scriptural infallibility, you will have belief systems where the believers have to acknowledge the prominence of places and languages not their own. Hinduism is no different.

Suppose you are an old woman in a village in the far eastern part of Assam. All you have known or connected with in your life is your village community and the Brahmaputra, if it is next door. Then one day you die, and if your sons (it’s always sons, isn’t it?) can afford it, they cart your ashes to North India and immerse them in the Ganga, accompanied by hymns in a language you never knew. It is not much different from the Haj, structurally speaking, or rabbis insisting the Judaic Pentateuch can only be understood properly (that is, as Yahweh meant it to be) in Hebrew.

But when such structures cause the progressive disintegration of a society, one needs to be concerned.

Sacred stones in Meghalaya

‘Assamese society’ is a problematic term, and much hair has been split, and considerable blood spilt, because it is problematic. Broadly, it consists of people who speak Assamese as their first language. Over the centuries that this society was formed, it has been composed of Hindu caste elements and tribes. Of these, the Brahmins were said to have been descended from families out of Kanyakubja (modern Kannauj).

I will not go so far as to say that in the past this society was one long happy picnic in a still densely forested part of the world. No society has ever been like that, and in India, people never live with each other as much as near each other, in an ersatz community. But there was a semblance of fellow-feeling and not much overt falling out.

Of course there were religious influences from the rest of the country. This included appropriation of indigenous beliefs, and importing of others. The Kamakhya temple, which the scholar Banikanta Kakati concluded was built on an old sacred ground of the Garo tribal goddess ‘Kamekha’, was then fully integrated into the Puranic canon. Vaishnavism arrived in the Middle Ages, and songs were written about the ‘vrinda’ groves of far North India. This too, was inevitable.

For 600 of those years, from 1228 to 1826, and particularly for the last 250 years of this, Assamese society was under the political rule of the Ahoms, of Tai Shan extraction from northeastern Myanmar. They too were eventually Hinduised.

After the British came, however, the resulting Assamese middle class charted a course that I am deeply uncomfortable with. Finding themselves, for the first time in the history of the land, to be politically connected with the rest of India, they dug up the old gotras, the genealogies of their upper caste forebears. They looked west, seeking social legitimacy with the other middle classes of India, themselves composed of the upper castes. And in this process, there was a subterranean fracturing of Assamese society. Caste Assamese began to see themselves as different, as more connected to the great history of Indian (read Hindu) civilization than to their neighbours, the tribes.

Hindu beliefs and practices, rooted as they are in notions of ritual and genealogical purity, make it extremely difficult for truly multicultural, multiethnic social formations to emerge. Adherence to the caste system, or even the pale facsimile of it found in Assam, made it easy for caste Hindus in the 19th century to express disdain for ‘the tribal’, for ‘the hillman’, for the ‘Anarya’. These attitudes were gradually and easily internalized, until the fractures became profound.

And so the Nagas, with who Assamese society, particularly in East Assam, had such intimate connections, were estranged. So were the Garos and Khasis with West Assamese society. But that was just prologue. By the late 20th century, the Bodos asserted their difference, their separateness from Assamese society. A decade later, Misings, Tiwas and Rabhas, who speak Assamese at home, who celebrate Bihu (if a song and a dance can be the ultimate cultural identifier, which it can, in some cases), have periodically expressed intentions of going their separate way. Even the Ahoms, who gave so much to the land and its history, who created its true Golden Age, feel slighted enough to want their own space. This is unprecedented even by Indian standards.

How did Assamese society come to this? At the dawn of British rule, the emerging Assamese middle class had a choice. They could be true to their local heritage, or they could behave true to form and be what Hindu caste-based societies have mostly been: fractious, exclusivist, revisionist social formations that ignore existing realities for a mythic heritage.

Something similar happened in Manipur, although the Meiteis successfully held on to both Krishna and their local god, Pakhangba. But the Hinduisation of Manipur pushed away the tribes around them, a process worsened by the rise of the Meitei middle class during British rule. And therefore, lurking in the back of both the Meitei and Assamese mind has been the question — am I Hindu enough? And if I want to be more Hindu, what needs to be done?

So do not be surprised if the Hindu right makes even more inroads into Assamese society, and these fractures deepen. The process started a long time ago, and was waiting to happen in its current iteration. Because the imperialism inherent in Hindutva is also the imperialism inherent in similar organized religions and religion-based structures.

Basho and the art of travelling light

I have usually travelled alone, the erratic behaviour of my early companions on the road convincing me this was the better option. But a fellow-traveller on some journeys, particularly in explorations of eastern Bhutan, has been Matsuo Basho. In India, where I mainly journeyed by night and saw the sights by day, taking a book along appeared superfluous. But amid the clamour that any day on the road in the sub-continent brings, Basho can be a quiet voice of wonder and calmness, a voice delighting in the joy of discovery.

Basho was born to a bushi family of the then Iga province in central-eastern Honshu in 1644. With his master Todo Yoshitada, he began, as a child, to compose renka, a form of collaborative poetry in which individual verse components, called hokku, by alternating creators, could be linked into longer sequences. Individual hokkus would by the 19th century be called haiku. The way of the warrior, then, was not his calling (although prominent bushi have created notable hokku).

By his 30s, Basho’s poetry was famous in the land. But celebrity pushed him inward, and he turned to Zen meditation. In 1683, after two successive tragedies including the death of his mother, Basho set out on the first of his travels, to the foothills of Fuji.

‘I set out on a journey of a thousand leagues, packing no provisions. I leaned on the staff of an ancient who, it is said, entered into nothingness under the midnight moon,’ writes Basho in Nozarashi kiko (The Record of a Weather-exposed Skeleton), the journal that resulted from this travel.

In seeking the road, Basho sees himself on the footsteps of Buddhist and Confucian spiritual forebears, but does not find the philosophies adequate to the real world. He finds an abandoned baby on the way, and offers it some food, speculating on whether its parents hated it. Then he concludes: ‘This simply is from heaven, and you can only grieve over your fate.’ He chooses not to find solace in the Buddhist notion of the karmic cycle.

By the time he returned, Basho was determined to be back on the road as soon as possible:

‘Another year is gone

A traveller’s shade on my head,

Straw sandals on my feet.’

Back at home, Basho wrote what is considered his most famous hokku:

‘An old pond

A frog jumps in —

The splash of water.’

Apparently, the verse was so influential that it triggered a rash of frog-themed hokkus by other noted poets and by his disciples, who numbered in the dozens by then. And there is hardly a modern haiku writer who hasn’t made one on frogs. Back in the day, I remember writing one, too.

Basho, meanwhile, chafed at this further celebrity, and couldn’t wait to get away. He would make four more journeys, venturing up the length of Honshu, always looking for new roads. These resulted in journals like Oi no kobumi (Account of a Travel-Worn Satchel) and Kashima mode (Pilgrimage to Kashima Shrine).

In May of 1689, Basho left Edo (now Tokyo) again, accompanied by a student. Over five months, on foot as always, Basho journeyed to Ogaki, a distance of 380 km, but which must have been considerably longer because of his meandering route. The result would be Oku no hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North), his greatest work.

The hokku format, with the 5-7-5 syllabic structure, permits poets to use ideograms in original, innovative ways. Even though a lot of the fluidity of the Japanese ideograms’ arrangement is lost in translation into alphabet-based languages, some of the fluidity, particularly of the greats like Basho, is still retained.

The journal records his travel to various shrines he had heard of, and been meaning to visit. But it is also about his observations on human nature, on the seasons, and the local legends he hears along the way, and his impressions of the weather, and conversations with himself. The overall result is Oku no hosomichi is a long quiet conversation Basho has with himself while resolutely walking down country paths. The effect can be deeply calming. At the town of Sukagawa, thinking about a recent, particularly difficult stretch, he writes:

‘Imagination’s birth —

A song for planting rice

In the deep far north.’

At a place called Maruyama, Basho visits what used to be the mansion of a noted lord, Sato Shoji, and takes a look at the family cemetery. He remarks on the tombstones of two women ‘who left behind them such a name for courage. My sleeve was wet with tears. You do not have to go so very far away to find a tombstone that makes you weep.’

But Basho on the road is no mere philosopher on being and nothingness. Local traditions, myths and even the quaintness of names in the countryside are fodder for his hokkus. On crossing the villages of Minowa (raincoat) and Kasajima (umbrella) during a heavy shower, Basho quickly writes, tongue firmly in cheek:

‘So, whereabouts is

Rain-Hat isle? How far along

Muddy roads in June?’

Elsewhere, he sees great beauty in the everyday, and in small gestures. At the town of Sendai, his host, an artist, gives him straw sandals with straps painted blue, like an iris. Therefore:

‘I will bind iris

Blossoms round about my feet —

Straps for my sandals.’

Basho’s sleeve comes to his aid frequently when he is overwhelmed by emotions. After visiting a pilgrimage site at a place called Three Mountains, and being asked to write about his experience:

‘I cannot speak of

Mount Yudono — yet see how

Wet my sleeve is now.’

At Kisataka, near the sea, Basho pauses a while to contemplate silence:

‘Crossing of the tides;

A crane, its long legs splashing —

Ah how cool the sea.’

By 1694, Basho had retreated further from the world, although his celebrity had only risen. After more personal tragedies, he decided to set out on yet another journey. But this time, his health failing, he could not walk on his own and had to be carried, and eventually died on the road.

Basho’s poetry and his journals are perfect companions on journeys, particularly on foot. If there is one voice you want with you to interpret the deep silences that some places still have — or the deep silences within yourself — it has to be in his writings.

About a decade ago, on a secret road in the far east of Bhutan, I sat on a rock in the middle of a valley. It was two days after I saw a clouded leopard for the first time, and I was halfway into a 40 km walk to a village where I was to put up for the night. There was a mild wind, I remember, and the end of spring, and I had just passed a small roadside shrine, with a spire painted golden. This is what I read, from Oku no hosomichi:

‘So the rains of spring

Fall and fall, yet leave untouched

This bright hall of gold.’

It was a good day. With Basho, the road is always free of burden.

(I have not used phonetic notations in the transliteration of Japanese words here. Although Basho has been translated by several scholars, the most accessible, and fluid, version of his journals is by Nobuyuki Yuasa, himself a poet and writer)


Hard boiled: The awesomeness of the Continental Op

Detectives in hard-boiled crime fiction are as tough as they come. The genre is thematically quite distinct from noir, not just in the respective decades of their greatest prominence. Noir crime tales are to do with perpetually grey individuals, about personality types and interactions which blend the bleak with the cheerfully cynical, with very few illusions about human nature. The genre’s greatest period, the late 1940s and ‘50s, mirrored existential questions in American society, with the beginning of the Cold War and the McCarthy era’s general paranoia.

Hard-boiled fiction’s three greatest writers, by general consensus, are Dashiell Hammett, James M Cain and Raymond Chandler, of which the first two are qualitatively far superior to the third. The genre has survived and even prospered in the decades since — favourite hard-boiled characters from later years include Donald Westlake’s Parker, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Robert B Parker’s Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall and the wonderful Raylan Givens by Elmore Leonard.

But the greatest hard-boiled characters are from the Depression Era. Unlike noir, hard-boiled crime stories are about a certain type of person taking on a thoroughly corrupt establishment, including civic bodies, the police, federal agencies, big business and journalists. The stories reflect society’s cynicism about structural solutions to their problems. So the solution had to Red Harvestcome from the proverbial outsider, a one-man response to corruption and failing institutions. And the protagonist had to be tough, perhaps even supernaturally so.

Of the early hard-boiled characters, the greatest, and the archetype, is the Continental Op, created by Dashiell Hammett. He works for the Continental Detective Agency, and we never get to know his real name. He is the actual ‘Man with No Name’ long before Eastwood (indeed, the latter’s character in A Fistful of Dollars, and the plot, are derived from the Op’s adventures). So he uses aliases everywhere. With this comes a chameleon-like ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

The Op listens to his boss, ‘The Old Man’, and uses his wits to solve problems as they come up, but at his core his experiences with humans and with compromised institutions have left him completely cynical and detached from the follies and foibles of mankind. He has no expectations of nobility from humans, and is sometimes surprised to find there are actually good people around. He also has a sense of irony, frequently manipulating the bad guys into neutralising one another to arrive at his own idea of justice.

On the move after his quarry, the Op is pretty much unstoppable, a force of nature, and always gets the job done, and then some more. Solving cases becomes secondary to fixing the system as he sees it, even if sometimes the Old Man disapproves.

The Op’s greatest story is Red Harvest, where he turns up in the town of Personville, called ‘Poisonville’ by many, perhaps as a mispronunciation. But the moniker is apt, because Poisonville has nothing good to recommend either to visitors or residents: a town whose institutions, and leading citizens, are thoroughly compromised. So when ‘the last honest man’ in town is murdered, and the Op finds himself in the thick of things, he decides to take on the whole town and fix things his way. As with the Op, so with the story: Red Harvest is the archetypical hard-boiled tale, and among the greatest crime novels ever written.

Hammett is unarguably the greatest noir and hard-boiled writer of them all, and many of his characters and plots became templates for later writers. Sam Spade and the highly-recommended private eye couple Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man) are prototypes for both genres, mainly tending towards noir. But the Op is a masterwork in character creation, and reinforces Hammett’s literary significance.

The Op has been hugely influential across literature and cinema in the years afterwards. There is an opinion that Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is a more than subtle nod to Red Harvest, although Kurosawa himself credited Hammett’s The Glass Key. But in terms of character, Sanjuro in Yojimbo is closer to the Op than to Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key. Besides, regardless of Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name’, Toshiro Mifune’s Sanjuro is the closest any cinematic character has come to capturing the nuances of the Op’s character.

Hard-boiled plots frequently verge on the noir, and the greatest noir detectives are often close to the hard-boiled archetype. But never mind the Philip Marlowes and the Sam Spades. The Continental Op is the greatest of them all. And if you don’t agree, the Op will just shrug it off and walk away to have a drink. Pissing contests are not his line. Solving problems, and tearing down structures and demolishing people he doesn’t like, is. And he is the best at it.

What the newsroom taught me: Part II — Intellectual commensalism

Ladies and gentlemen, our next exhibit in the newsroom menagerie is the Echeneidae, a family of fish better known as the remora. An interesting fish it is, and I warmly recommend you to study it in some detail. The remora comes with suckers atop its head, by which it latches on to bigger organisms and derives sustenance from them. This sort of relationship is called commensalism in zoology. The larger organism derives neither benefit nor harm from the remora.

The average newsroom tends to have a large number of people with artistic, academic or intellectual inclinations. Several have genuine academic heft, and produce, sometimes in arcane fields, admirable scholarly works. Others write non-fiction, some very well-researched, either on current events or on subjects that bridge the newsroom-academia divide. Both types, as I have seen from personal experience, try their best to reconcile the everyday demands of the newsroom with their respective interests and pursuits. I am very fond of them, but they are rare, and tend to vanish from the newsroom quickly and go somewhere else.

The remora in the newsroom does not belong to these two categories. You will find him usually towards the top of the pecking order. Unlike the snark, you can’t ‘threaten his life with a railway-share’, because he has done well, financially, thank you very much. The remora considers himself an intellectual by virtue of having done well in the newsroom. It is a matter of ticking boxes for him. Top of the pecking order — check. Therefore, scholarship — check. Therefore, books — check.

The remora, you see, makes the error of equating an interest in words with an ability to write books, or even tell stories. The error of equating professional success with artistic merit, or proof of latent creative ability. A harmless inference, you may say. Print journalism is mainly toRemora do with words, after all. But there is a considerable difference in the contexts in which words are used. We know so many who are very well-read and have a remarkable vocabulary. Their minds are inclined towards the nature and combinations of letters and words. You can’t beat them at Scrabble any day of the week. But they may not be very good writers.

Yet others may have a considerable amount of independently-derived ideas, or gleanings from several afternoons with Messieurs Camus and Foucault. But they might not be good storytellers. These are disciplines which require different kinds of skill-sets and temperaments. An accountant and an applied mathematician both deal in numbers, but we can’t confuse one for the other. Nor can every competent graphic designer be an abstract artist.

The remora, however, does not make this connection, perhaps because it has not occurred to him, which in turn indicates a somewhat defective capacity for reasoning. Or perhaps the argument I mentioned above is incorrect, and the remora is right in believing he has merit. So he writes his book, and this is where the commensalism bit comes in. With the accumulated power of the newsroom, he can now get the book published, because people know him well. Successful man, must be creative too. He thus channelizes the power of the organization, and his place in the pecking order, to tick another box. This is classic commensalism.

Let us consider a hypothetical scenario. Suppose I write a small book of my own, perhaps a humble novel. Very kicked about it, I then hawk the MS around town, perhaps standing in line at a publisher or two, perhaps hoping somebody would find some merit in the work, and give me a chance. Scores of people live in hope this way. Some get a chance, others, perhaps not. But the remora, he goes straight to the top, and his book comes out. Once again commensalism kicks in, and there is no end of gushing admirers to vindicate his view about the merit of the book. Perhaps the book does have merit. But the playing field, for the people lined up outside the publisher’s, is not equal. So here we have commensalism and class working very well together.

Now, armed with the book, and the vindication, the remora is in a comfortable place indeed, to sit in judgment of others, perhaps even in the newsroom. Now his vindication of others’ tastes or ideas matters. It has always mattered, within the newsroom, but now he has the book to back him up. Now it becomes necessary to seek his intellectual approval, and perhaps engage in intellectual discussions with him. And thus the newsroom carries on.

‘Remora’ in Latin means ‘delay’, because the fish is supposed to act as a hindrance to large vessels. In the world outside the newsroom, the remora is mainly used by fishermen to lure tortoises. So I suppose that is what the remora is, in the larger scheme of things.


And by observing him, one learns a lot about the world and the ways of humans.

Klatchian coffee is highly recommended

Among the many delights of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is Klatch, the Disc’s cognate of our world’s Arabia. And one of Klatch’s best-known exports is their coffee.

Klatchian coffee is usually recommended to sober up the extremely drunk, and even then it is to be had in small doses. If imbibed by the sober, its effects can be catastrophic. Because the coffee is so strong that it sobers you up in an existential sense.

In the ordinary run of things, even a person who stays away from alcohol or narcotics nurtures some, shall we say, ‘existential stimulants’. Your spouse loves you just as much today as the first day you met. Your parents still find joy in your presence just as they did when they held your newborn form in their hands. Your children consider you with awe and affection. Your job matters. You make a difference to people’s lives.

Or stimulants bigger in magnitude. Cosmic stimulants. There is a point to looking forward to tomorrow, because you can hope for something better. Your life has meaning beyond the mundane concerns of animal survival. There is an invisible fellow with a personal interest in your existence. Or there is an invisible fellow (perhaps the same fellow?) with a stake in theCoffee continuation of the universe, for good or bad.

Or the ideological stimulants. All people are, or should be, equal (with you perhaps getting slightly more preferential treatment). What goes around comes around. The everyday absurdities are part of a larger pattern that will someday make sense to you, failing which some fellow wiser than you may parse it for you.

Klatchian coffee, if imbibed when sober, wipes out the effects of these existential stimulants, and shows the true bleakness of this world. And unlike the implied humour in finally understanding the nature of an absurd world, a human with even a small amount of this coffee sees the starkness that lies beyond the absurd.

This condition, Pratchett tells us, is being knurd, the point where you finally face the world without your preferred stimulants. It is said to be a very painful experience, and for the unprepared creates an immediate urge to be drunk, or stoned, as quickly as possible. In Men At Arms, Sam Vimes, a policeman who is already dour and cynical to begin with, is given a small sip of Klatchian coffee, and becomes instantly knurd, causing him to howl in despair. What he sees is not described, and is left to the imagination. Knurd, as you will observe, is ‘drunk’ spelt backward.

On the Disc, several noted philosophers are recorded to have belted out works of excruciating unbearability after substantial doses of Klatchian coffee.

On our more mundane Roundworld, to arrive at an equivalent state of knurdness, one will have to take the longer route, beginning with stripping oneself of the comforts of organized religion, and then the next convenient philosophy that claims to explain your situation, and the next (because they come in waves).

What one does after discovering one is finally knurd is, of course, a matter of individual choice.