Saturday, January 27, 2007

Keeping our backs bent

This is something that I have noticed quite often these days: we Indians love to keep our backs bent. There are cornerside "temples" that spring up everywhere in Bombay, since every street corner is home to some devi or the other. Everyone who claims to know something even remotely mystical immediately gets a huge following. We need no reason to follow, we believe that everyone who claims that he is a mystic must be one. Travel to the banks of the Ganges and you will come across thousands of sadhus (holy people) who all claim to know everything. Even in a fairly educated city like Bombay there are tons of faith healers, fortune tellers, roadside sadhus. Every Indian family has some sort of family sadhu, much like their family doctor. Do the names Satya Sai Baba, Sri Sri Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Gorakh baba, sound familiar? Look around at your house: if you have a picture of a non-ancestral human decked in flowers: that's your family sadhu. (Ancestors are usually decked in flowers and for good reason: they worked quite hard to get us where we are. I might not worship them but I have a great amount of respect for them, and their hard work.)

When will we grow a respectable degree of skepticism? Following anyone with a beard and a saffron cloth makes us supremely gullible. It is not just the Hindu charlatans that I loath. On reading The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa In Theory And Practice, by Christopher Hitchens , I was amazed at how little I knew about the woman. I have heard countless school and college kids say that Mother Teresa is their role model. It is amazing how a little PR can turn a person into a saint.

Ultimately it costs us dearly: pointless trips to view holy people from far away, to be given the honor of sweeping their estates, pointless hours wasted in listening to charlatans talk of how they could recite the Gita when they were two years old, and of course, large amounts of money handed over to these crooks.

Considering that I am doing research into a fairly narrow field, I could think of a hundred questions to ask to a person who claims to know everything. The questions themselves are immaterial since even understanding the question would take quite some knowledge which I know these crooks don't have. And answering them would take wisdom which they surely lack. But that is not important: what is important is to have the skepticism to say, "I will not believe you are a wise man till you prove it to me."

Holding someone at the same level as God is a fairly large move. Don't you think the person needs to pass some sort of tests? If you cannot trust this person with all your money, your children (and especially your daughters, this is India after all!), your spouse, then perhaps you shouldn't be worshipping them.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Great movies, great music

I've started listening to Louis Armstrong recently. It is not often that I encounter new music that I like, so it was quite a nice surprise. Louis is surprisingly consistent in his quality, and all his music is refreshingly brilliant. And to think Jazz started because the African Americans were being oppressed by the whites. They had something to say, and wanted to be heard.

Just yesterday N and I watched "Promises", a movie made by B.Z. Goldberg. Fairly simple: Mr. Goldberg (or going by his name: BZ) grew up in Jerusalem and now lives in the US. Going by the accounts in news, you probably are aware of a slight violence problem in Israel. We all hear what the politicians say, but what do the people feel? And to find out, BZ interviews both Israeli and Palestinian kids. Nothing fancy, he just listens. Sometimes they talk about what they do: play soccer, volleyball, and sometimes they talk about the conflict and how it affects them. It is a lovely view on the reality. Even though BZ is Jewish, his portrayal is plain and unbiased. The misery of Palestinians and Israelis comes through quite easily. The kids speak freely because they too have something to say. And BZ wants them to be heard.

Both movies and music are means of expression: of telling a story. Invariably, the really good stuff tells a good story, or tells a mediocre story extremely well. I might not be as oppressed as the African Americans were, but it is easy to feel their plight when listening to Armstrong and T-Bone Walker. It is not just misery that needs audience: "Don't worry, be happy" is a fine example of happiness needing audience as well.

On all discussions of record companies, and the recent escapades of the MPAA and RIAA, the big question is, "But who will pay the artists?" Well, most of the artists really don't care much for being paid: they want to be heard. Like Artie Shaw famously said, "... but the business is dirty." He was much happier being heard, and playing what he damn well wanted to play. When business got involved, it took some of the pleasure away from him. I don't think BZ Goldberg wanted to smash the box office with his movie (and I really doubt it will). I think BZ wants to be heard, and that is compensation enough. Like Tyler Macniven, who made the endearing movie, "Kintaro Walks Japan", BZ wants you to listen. Tyler even put his entire movie on Google video, and you can buy the DVD if you'd like. But you don't have to. This is not limited to movies: Frizbee puts its music online. I might be their sole Indian fan, but they're glad they're being heard outside Wales.

It is people like Jones,Gwynedd, Hughes (Frizbee), BZ (Promises) and Tyler Macniven (Kintaro Walks Japan) that have my attention. And dollars.