Saturday, 14 February 2015

BOOK REVIEW BOTH NAKED AND LIBERAL

(“The Naked Liberal, an Anthology of George Menezes”, edited by Selma Carvalho, published by Cinnamon Teal Publishing, Goa, pages 209, price Rs 295/-)
Naked, liberal, George Menezes, Goa – enough to get most men salivating! The last time I saw a cover page of naked, liberal Goa it was when that “dirty old man” Khushwant Singh was the editor of “The Illustrated Weekly of India” way back in the 1970s. The full blown cover had a young firangi couple adorned with a minimal display of flowers that revealed more than they concealed! The image endures to this day.
George Menezes (GM) is also an old man now, but not dirty. He is Goan, speaks the naked truth and is unabashedly liberal in his thinking. There are several photographs in the book, but not of Khushwant’s genre. Nevertheless, there is enough to tempt, tease and titillate. One has to sometimes read between the lines to bare the truth, as in his relationships with Klaudia in Germany and Helena in America, or to understand his observation about the refugee woman with the “small firm breasts” bathing outside his apartment window.
This book though is far from voyeurism. It is a voyage, taking one back to GM’s early days on a little island called Divar in Goa’s halcyon days. It talks about his father, Professor Armando Menezes, a rationalist cum nationalist, a renowned professor of English literature, who made poets like Shelley and Keats come alive. It talks of his diminutive and devoted mother, and the incompatibility of his parents’ marriage. “My father was a six-foot something, a towering intellectual with an equally towering temper. My mother was five-foot-nothing, patient, soft spoken and gentle as a dove”. But then, isn’t incompatibility the spice of life? And GM has had more than his share of “Sugar & Spice”, nasty and nice; as so often portrayed in his columns over the years.
This anthology of GM’s writings is edited by Selma Carvalho, head of the British Goans project in the U.K. Pardon me for saying that I am seldom enamoured of NRI commentaries on Indian culture or ethos. This is what the editor says, “It is in the dark, dank recesses of family vaults which have long been neglected … that rich treasures are to be found; where the apocryphal can be weeded out and replaced with the truth of a livid experience”. Ouch, is this some kind of a journey into Roman catacombs or Egyptian tombs? Fortunately not. The editor, however, redeems herself by quoting Armando Menezes that “behind all the books, there is a man, and the man is worth more than all the books”. She adds that, nevertheless, “We are reticent to pry into the lives of our authors”.
GM dispenses with this reticence by himself allowing us to pry into his life – to go beyond the words, to the man himself. That is what I like most about GM, his world beyond his words. He has obviously inherited from his father a mastery over language, both poetry and prose. Infact, even his prose is poetic, and he uses poetic licence to score quite a few points, but without being licentious. His is a unique genre of words, verbs and verse; rhyme and reason; a flavour for every season.
The book itself has various sections on the family roots, colonial and liberated Goa, Bombay, his poetry, and an all embracing section on “Man, Politics and Religion”. My personal acquaintance with GM, for 27 years, falls in the last category, which I thought would interest me the most. It didn’t, perhaps because I already knew what was being articulated. But it would still be of abiding interest to those who aren’t so familiar with GM.
For me, the really endearing part of the anthology was being privy, without having to pry, to GM’s personal relationships – be they with his parents, his wife Thecla (so beautiful even in suffering), his children and grandchildren, and even with his mysterious lady friends! It is here that he truly merits the title of The Naked Liberal.
The experiences in France, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S.A. are enthralling Рhis mistakenly standing in the wrong line, and getting free bread from a soup kitchen; or the corruption that he encountered when posted as the Airforce Attach̩ to France.
At a personal level I share a wee disappointment. GM was elected National President of the All India Catholic Union in 1986, and hand-picked me to be his successor in 1990. But the book is strangely silent on this eventful chapter of his life. In a future edition I do hope that another chapter will be added.
GM’s self-deprecating humour, something that endears a writer to his readers, is evident in his epilogue “Watching my own Passing Away”. It depicts his imaginary funeral. There were only three persons present – a frustrated money-lender, a jilted lover and a cop looking for the dead body! Great men are those who can belittle themselves, and yet extract a laugh, not a sigh of sympathy.

There is much more that I could write in this review. But it would be better if you got your own copy and read this anthology for yourself. It’s worth the money honey, or sonny, as the case may be. I conclude in George Menezes’ French idiom, that “The Naked Liberal” is indeed au courant. 

NOT-A GOOD IDEA?

None of the Above” (NOTA) seems to be the flavour of the season; with jurists, activists and analysts all jumping on to the NOTA bandwagon. They would have us believe, as the jingle for a mobile phone company goes, “What an idea sirji”. But does this really ring true in the body politic?
I have been actively engaged with a motley group of civic activists, who range from Gandhian to Marxist in their ideology. I have heard them call for the Right to Reject (RTR) ad nauseum. But I have never found it to be such a good idea sirji. What do the proponents of NOTA/RTR say that has influenced the Supreme Court (SC) judgment?
The proponents claim that it will spur political parties to change their ways about the selection of candidates. It will have a deterrent effect on them and impose self-discipline. Some parties may actually be relieved that they now have a readymade excuse to deny tickets to undesirable elements. The no-sayers will have their identity kept secret, and won’t have to fill up the cumbersome Form No 49(O) at the polling booths. Those who had earlier chosen not to vote, or voted under duress for a lesser evil, would now have another alternative. This is the death knell for TINA (there is no alternative). It could also prevent bogus voting against the names of those who otherwise may not have turned up at the hustings. All this sounds wonderful on paper. What of the ground reality?
Though I do not belong to any political party, and have, over the years, voted for various political parties/ persons, I have nevertheless been involved in voter awareness programmes, and also electoral politics. Hence I see the ground realities somewhat differently.
The only person who seems to have openly opposed the NOTA/RTR judgment is Somnath Chatterjee, former Speaker of the Lok Sabha, a 10-time MP, and an SC lawyer himself. He says that the SC is “indulging in sensationalism”. Is the SC being swayed by public opinion or by sound jurisprudence? I am not a legal eagle, but I would agree with Chatterjee that the SC is indulging in judicial overreach, and encroaching on the role of the legislature. Chatterjee questions, “How can suggestions be given without considering the repercussions?”
Why do people vote in India? Committed voters tend to vote along caste or communal lines. Very few have an independent political ideology. As for those who vote along party lines, they will continue to do so, regardless. One cannot expect a major “swing” among such voters. This leaves us with the undecided or non-voting electorate. Some of the undecided could be impelled to vote if there is a major issue at stake, like the Emergency in 1977, or the Ramjanambhoomi movement in 1996.
However, NOTA/RTR is specifically addressed to those who are disinclined to vote, for whatever reasons. They could have a general apathy or specific antipathy to those standing for elections. I do not see significant numbers of this section of voters being enthused by NOTA/RTR, more so if it has no impact on the electoral outcome. In its present form NOTA/RTR is a toothless tiger, based more on rhetoric than sound reasoning. It would have teeth only if such a vote was the highest, and the verdict annulled, or the candidates disqualified. I don’t see this happening, and parliament will never allow it. It therefore serves no useful purpose, other than as an expression of angst against the political class; of which we already have enough in the social, print and electronic media, thanks largely to Anna Hazare.
I also do not see NOTA/RTR having a major impact, unless there is a concerted effort in a given constituency in a particular election. Who is going to mobilize such massive public opinion against the established political parties?  Arvind Kejriwal, who once advocated the RTR, has himself joined the political establishment! So who is going to bell the cat? Assuming, without admitting, that such a super-person exists, would it not be better for such a person/ organization to choose a good candidate instead, and mobilize positive public opinion, instead of futile negativism?
What of the other dangers, which have already been expressed? What if extremists/ terrorists/ Maoists issue a diktat to a frightened electorate to use NOTA/RTR? What will then happen to the legitimate democratic process? In Kashmir this could even invite international ridicule. Hasn’t Gen V.K. Singh already done his bit by crossing the line of actual verbal control?
Let not the medicine be worse than the disease. The true and positive solution lies in creating greater voter awareness, and in speaking up against corruption, criminalisation, caste and communal politics. This is no doubt an arduous task, but there are no short cuts in sight. Instead of criticizing the existing political parties, one should join their ranks to impact them, or like Kejriwal, float one’s own party if one has the will and the wherewithal.
I, for one, am certainly not impressed by the NOTA/RTR in its present form, nor do I see it as a game changer in Indian politics. It is not such a good idea, Sirji!
·         The writer is a Kanpur based social activist.
SEPTEMBER 2013



THE FLYING ELEPHANT

We were sitting around the wooden bench that served as our dining table.  The room was an all-weather one – hot in summer, cold in winter, and water everywhere during the rains; and sipping our jaggery tea (sugar too expensive) from enamel tin mugs.  Outside was thick bamboo, after which Bans (bamboo) Bareilly is named.  Flocks of peafowl pranced around.  This was Jyotiniketan Ashram.
Swami Deenabandhu (Fr. Augustine Lobo OFM Cap) sipped his tea with one hand and swished a wicker fan with the other.  He was talking about how simple St Thomas Aquinas was.  A scholastic had once told him that a horse was flying, and Aquinas looked out to see it!  He would rather believe that a horse could fly, than that a man would lie. Just then I shouted, “Father, Look at that elephant flying behind you”.  He turned immediately.  All of us laughed.  The fact remained, that Father believed.  He believed in me, he believed in man, he believed in God, he believed in the impossible. Now his credo is fulfilled.  On the 13th May, he passed on to the heavenly shore, at the ripe age of 80.  What is so special about the man?  His story speaks for itself.
Born in 1911 in Permude, South Kanara, he was ordained a diocesan priest in Mangalore in 1935.  Three years after his ordination, he joined the Capuchin Order, then known for its austerity.  For several years he was a pastor, seminary professor, novice master, etc.  But another call came.  In 1971, at the age of 60, when most people have retirement plans, he took another courageous step forward.  He left the relative comfort of the monastery to live in Jyotiniketan Ashram, Bareilly.  This ashram was starkly frugal – no electricity or running water, self-cooking with firewood, vegetarian meals, and a routine of 5 sessions of daily prayer.  Enough to frighten timid souls.  Swamiji was the Acharya for 20 blessed years.  The ashram was his life’s fulfillment, though his services went beyond its confines.
Having lived with Swamiji in Jyotiniketan for seven grace-filled years, perhaps I knew and understood him very closely.  It is now my filial duty to keep his message alive. Firstly, I would term him a “spirit-filled” person.  Jesus said that those born of the Spirit are like the wind.  You do not know where it is coming from or where it is going (cf Jn 3:8). Swamiji was like that, most unpredictable, and not something to be bottled up.  His life contrasts with those who, when ordained, think that they have arrived; or when they celebrate their silver jubilee, feel that they have done enough. At 60 it is not easy to learn to cook, to learn another language, or to make do without basic amenities like electricity.  Being spirit-filled, he was a holy man.  When hospitalized, those attending on him felt holiness exuding from him. When he left the hospital they felt a void.
His holiness made him humble.  He never considered himself a Guru, but an ordinary friar (brother) like St Francis of Assisi.  This humility made him accessible to all – lepers, dalits and the spiritually or economically marginalized.  It also made him serviceable.  He could never say no to a person in distress.  People took undue advantage of his goodness.  But he would counter criticism by saying, “I would rather be fooled a hundred times, than turn one deserving case away unattended.”  Indeed Swamiji was simple to the core, the simplicity that the pure of heart have, those that can see God (cf Mat 5:8).
Though no specialist in any Indian spirituality he was authentically Indian.  A bishop who tended to frown on forms of inculturation, on seeing Jyotiniketan said, “This is truly Indian, where there is no dichotomy between life and worship“. Thereafter he encouraged several others to visit.
This authenticity also found expression in Swami Deenabandhu’s ecumenical vision.  On the one hand he was fully Catholic – faithfully praying the breviary, or encouraging confession, which are no longer ”fashionable”.  On the other hand his approach to other Christians was one of brotherhood and equality.  There were no signs of triumphalism or “We are the chosen few” syndrome.  Christians of all denominations felt equally at ease in Jyotiniketan.  Perhaps this was also a legacy of Rev Murray Rogers, the founder of Jyotiniketan.  He was an Anglican pastor, who with his wife Mary had founded the ashram, and later made way for Swamiji, himself moving on to Jerusalem.
In the funeral oration the Capuchin Provincial observed that most people’s greatness is discovered only gradually after their death.  It is most appropriate for Swamiji.  His life should speak more eloquently in death.  There are two things that could be singled out – one for the Religious, the other for the Laity.
For him priesthood wasn’t the peak, religious life was; to live the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. His poverty was heroic, having no personal possessions.  His khadi cassock was worn and frayed.  The village cobbler made his sandals of tyre rubber.  His celibacy gave him the capacity to love more, not less.  He was truly affectionate, and always had brotherly love for women.  It is so difficult to love somebody of the opposite sex, without sexual overtones.  But he had this unique quality, which Jesus called a gift that is not for everybody (cf Mat 19:11). Obedience meant doing God’s Will, as Jesus did, so he was ever-willing to accept the authority of others, who were much younger and less accomplished.  For him obedience was a liberating experience, not a hindrance.  His authentic religious life made him a popular retreat preacher and spiritual advisor to several congregations.
As a layman, my endearing experience of Swamiji was his attitude towards the laity.  In our seven years together, I never felt a second-class citizen.  In the true sprit of Vatican II he regarded the laity as equals.  He did not have the paternalistic father – son relationship, but the fraternal one.  He also strongly believed that the clergy should stick to the parameters of their vocation – instruction, worship and community building; and not encroach on or usurp the role of the laity in the social-economic and political fields.  He always spoke of married life in glowing terms, as a beautiful gift.  A far cry from St Paul telling his people, that if you can’t be celibate then go and marry; some kind of condescension or compromise (cf 1 Cor 7:25-40).
Swamiji’s greatness made him so much more human.  He could laugh loudly, especially if the joke was on himself.  I remember the time somebody gave him a shampoo bottle for his long hair.  Presuming it to be hair oil, he applied it after his bath!  The best was when he made coffee for a departing English guest on a misty winter morning.  By lamplight he put chilly powder for coffee and rice instead of sugar in the cup! Poor Englishman.
Swami Deenabandhu has gone forward into eternity. His life and values are an everlasting testimony, that for one who believes – in God, in Man, in the Church - nothing is impossible.  Even elephants can fly.
(This piece was originally written in 1991, at his passing on. It is being reprinted now as his life and testimony warrant it)

SEPTEMBER 2013