Monday, March 23, 2009

Life is a cheat

This is a minor transgression. Just one of those days when I feel like spraying the blog with some silly philosophizing graffiti. I was wondering why do black and white dolphins have to jump out of blue waters, to heckle at our colorless serfdom, in our dreams? Life has become so uninspiring! I read over tea in the morning that Americans* are planning more pilotless drone attacks in Pakistan*, where robots decide who to kill and who not to. [Programmed to kill, they usually spare none]. In India a fetor always accompanies frenzied activity. They are making cement hued fly-overs everywhere you look. Only people look a little rudderless, unsure of where to go.

A carpenter working on a log of wood in the woods was pounced at for no reason. Perhaps for daring to be poor. Poverty is great misery. It makes you faceless and grim. And people can treat you like shit. While his little children cried [when has that mattered] six cops held the poor carpenter under their brave jackboots. Then a volley of bullets ended his misery forever. They plan to add another terrace to the Tulip garden by the Dal Lake. For tourists to see. A poor man’s unmarked grave is nothing. When the rich wage war, it's the poor who die, the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre once said.

Every day I wake up after dreaming a caboodle of half-dreams, I reason that human beings are all flawed. No one is perfect. I think our imperfections make us more real and hence human. We come with an odd mix of eccentricities and ecstasies. As a raconteur that excites me pretty much. Was it Fitzgerald who let the thought out that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat.
The redeeming things are not happiness and pleasure but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle. We should, perhaps, forgive ourselves.

I’m headed for a Sabbatical. I hate to carry on with activities sans joy, laughter minus happiness and life without a shred of love.

God, I reckon I’m a shade depressed. Can’t fathom why.


*[There was a time, not too long ago, when both blocks -- the CIA and Afghan resistance fighters [then Mujahideen and now extremists] planned attacks together against the 4oth army]

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Peacemaking in poppy lands

In less than three weeks from now – on April 3 and April 4 – 26 leaders from 26 NATO countries will clink glasses in Strasbourg, France and Kehl, Germany. Over glasses of pinot noir and pilsner, the NATO buddies will celebrate their 60th anniversary summit. It has also been 26 years since the embarrassing disintegration of the Soviet Union. Hence the two-day celebrations! The clink of burgundy glasses notwithstanding, NATO is caught up in quick sands in Afghanistan. In a recent well-argued policy paper F. Stephen Larrabee, Distinguished Chair in European Security, Rand Corporation, goes on to deduce that NATO's very reputation is at stake in Afghanistan.

NATO seems to be losing it in the craggy hills and poppy meadows of Afghanistan. Since the invasion of this beautifully desolate country in 2001, NATO has lost close to 600 personnel. Taliban, rejuvenated and resurgent, backed by stealth elements in Pakistan’s notoriously naughty Inter-services Intelligence [without whom the cold war might still have been on] is back in business. The hugely influential American think-tank Brookings Institution [which everyone at Washington reveres] accurately sums it up: The south [of Afghanistan] is in worse shape. For the last two years, British, Canadian and Dutch troops have been fighting desperately to stabilize Kandahar, Helmand and Urzugan provinces against a determined Taliban based across the border in Pakistan.

Mullah Omar’s recent statements point to the audacity and confidence of Taliban. The one-eyed boss of Taliban [good plus bad] says that NATO forces will leave defeated shortly, like the Soviets in 1989. Omar has gone to the extent of offering NATO safe passage out of the country. All independent reports coming out of Afghanistan indicate that Taliban is encroaching steadily into the provinces around Kabul. In any case President Karzai’s writ is limited to the capital only. He faces elections in August and has begun to make tough noises. He has lost his mentor’s [US] blessing, which is openly calling him a useful idiot. When news reports in American and British newspapers start calling a foreign puppet government corrupt, it should consider its days numbered.

Amidst this escalation Obama, caught up neck deep in the recession ravel, is planning a charm offensive in Afghanistan. He is poised to increase troop levels pretty soon, perhaps by as many as 30,000. Tariq Ali, the brilliant British intellectual perhaps rightly points out that Obama advisors on Afghanistan are not on the button. One reason why NATO won’t succeed in the country is because they are by and large seen as complete aliens, talking an imperial language. They don't know anything about Afghanistan. Neither the language, nor the culture. Importantly the shelf life of any foreign army in Afghanistan has historically been limited.

Holbrooke is the special envoy in the region. Now the guy did help resolve Bosnia after the Balkan war. Since his arrival, there has been a sudden change in the American lexicon. The term ‘enemy combatant’ [made infamous by that Texan brute] has been dropped now. Suddenly there is good and bad Taliban. How does one determine who’s good and who’s bad Taliban, I asked the Afghanistan Ambassador to India, Sayed Makhdoom Raheen today. ‘Those who owe their allegiance to the constitution of Afghanistan and agree on a participatory democracy constitute the good Taliban’, Mr Ambassador replied. We can’t afford to lunch with that dreaded Omar, he chuckled to make it easier for me to place the bad Taliban. Simple. [Journalists are so dumb!]

Afghans have always been warriors. They have been weird in equal measures. Today, nearly 30 years after he was killed in a communist coup, Afghanistan’s president Mohammad Daud – who overthrew his cousin King Zahir Shah in 1973 and became the country's first president -- was reburied in Kabul. Since 1700 30 men have ruled Afghanistan [Karzai being the 30th]. Of these, only four served out their terms and died a natural death. Others were dethroned, assassinated, imprisoned, deposed and killed, deposed and exiled, deposed and hanged, beaten to death and so forth.

The country continues to baffle.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Pakistan's musical chairs

Pakistani politicians are a filthy rich and terribly mischievous.
The poor country is torn between its wealthy leadership. They jockey for power shamelessly and once they grab it, they abuse it like their mistresses. They mostly talk about democracy but don’t mean it at all. ‘Pakistani Awam’ [the people of Pakistan] is a recurring theme in their speeches but in effect they are so full of themselves. They bicker in the open like whoremongers. Jinnah’s dream has gone sour.

The country is in the throes of a vicious power struggle. The wealthy ex-PM-cum-Amir-ul-Momineen designate [Leader of the faithful] Nawaz Sharif is a bitter man these days. He is frothing because Benazir Bhutto’s widower, that colorfully shady character who cuts off-color jokes with foreign female politicians, has not lived up to his word. Zardari and Sharif hugged tightly last year as they forged an alliance to restore democracy in Pakistan after long years of military rule. It appears now, Sharif feels, that Zardari had a dagger in his achkan [long coat] when they hugged.

Zardari, on his part, has been saying to his aides [there are only his men now, he is slowly doing away with his late wife’s and father-in-law’s most trusted supporters: Raza Rabbani is out of favor, Aitzaz Ahsan cannot be trusted, Makhdoom Amin Fahim has been completely sidelined, Sherry Rahman is not happy] that he cannot afford to trust the ex-Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhari. The ex-CJ who dyes his hair each morning, like Sharif, is more of a rakish activist rather than an honorable justice. The corrupt Zardari is more than sure that once Iftikar is reinstated, he will let the Damocles sword loose on him.

The truth be told Sharif is no great fan of judiciary. Perhaps the only common strand between him and the tough nut Iftikar is their love for the black dye that they apply -- in the characteristic subcontinent style -- in an effort to hide their years. Sharif wants to use Iftikar to stymie Zardari’s rise in the Pakistani politics. The president’s men realized this and attempted to check- mate the wily Sharif’s. Zardari’s hand-picked judiciary recently disqualified both Sharif brother’s from holding any political post in the country because of a nine year old high jacking charge [that joke when Musharraf was returning from Sri lanka in a plane, low on fuel]. As soon as the court gave its loaded verdict, Zardari moved swiftly like a predator on an empty stomach to dismiss the PML-led Punjab government.

Sharif was left totally miserable. Since reinstating judge Iftikar was one of his poll planks, he decided to join the lawyers and threw in his lot [and he’s pretty influential in Punjab] behind the lawyer’s movement. The long march [March 12-March 16] was planned. Sharif wanted nothing short of a revolution. Since he trucks comfortably with the Islamic parties, the right-wing got behind him. They too feel sidelined by the whisky-sloshed President. Zardari, despite his foibles, is deeply secular, like his party. The feud for Pakistan is taking place at many levels.

Zardari, though petty minded, too has a point. The hitherto dominating north Punjabi elites don’t like the idea of a Sindi, non-Punjabi administration and they are doing everything to undermine his presidency. The Iftikar drama is part of the same game. In any event, the argument goes, the judiciary is never a vehicle of change. It is at best a referee. Nawaz is singularly fixated on the idea of installing the ex-CJ because he knows that it may well prove to be Zardari's fall. Hence the President is balking.

As it always happens in case of Pakistan, America intervenes.
Their own fucked up strategy, now called war on bad Taliban, not war on terrorism [Obama is such an aesthete] in neighboring Afghanistan may go completely haywire in case Pakistan implodes. Holbrooke last night made desperate calls to both Zardari and Sharif.
Media reports suggest that a fevered backroom give-and-take is on.
A compromise may be in the offing soon. For the while, the army though increasingly impatient, may stay put in the barracks.
Kiyani is not exactly Mush.

The amusing power games in Pakistan are hugely distracting its leadership from tackling the real problems that confront it – the unholy tangle of terrorism and economic depression. Left unsolved they may well sink Pakistan along with the Islamists and liberals.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

How many deaths will it take...

There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.
~ Prof Howard Zinn, leading historian and author

The air was laden with a hint of festivity. Two friends, let us call them Amin and Javed, woke up to a frosty February morning unsure of what the day had in store for them. They lived in the same village, a picaresque hamlet called Bomai, situated on the foot of a hazel colored Kashmir hillock. It was a special day for the teenagers, one that they had planned over many days. They were going on a trip to the neighboring village, where a locally venerated saint’s birth anniversary was being held. Many boys and girls [along with adults] from the tiny village went on foot across the sienna hammock to visit the astaan [shrine]. The boys were apparently all kicked up.

The thing with the countryside, as with most urban centers, in a conservative place like Kashmir is that religion and rituals can be a damn serious business. It is all pervasive. You will basically come across naïve, loving people who just happen to take their faith and tradition very seriously. The saint lovingly called Mehboob-ul-Alam [love of the world] and Sultan-ul-Arifeen [king of knowledge], was born to a Rajput landlord family some 500 years back in Tujar. Lore has it that he was ennobled from a young age – and preached a unique blend of love and mysticism. People thronged the place to get blessed from him. Five centuries later the love affair continues. His birthday is still a big occasion in the hills.

Days before the urs, as the birthday is called locally, a fair-like aura sets in. Hawkers suddenly get busy installing stalls that sell dumplings and fritters, shaped like small potato wedges. Immigrant sweet-makers erect their small shops to make helva [sweet confection] and paranthas [oily round bread] that sell like hot cakes. Village shopkeepers stock up on everything from Chinese toys for kids to fake perfumes for shy damsels, who put on their best firak-yazar [loose tunics with matching trousers] and set off to the astaan, giggling along the way. Children shriek with joy. Men sing hymns aloud. Boys bum around.

Amin’s mom served him tea and bread for breakfast. He couldn’t eat too well. All he wanted to do was join his friends at the fair. Javed too hurriedly gobbled his breakfast and rushed off to meet his band. Together they wanted to visit the neighboring village, look at the girls, puff off, pay the obligatory visit at the holy saint’s shrine [where incidentally Sultan-ul-Arifeen isn’t buried, being just born there]. They thought they could perhaps come home late carrying small plastic bags with helva and alov-mongey [potato wedges deep fried] in them. Without having to fear a parental rebuke. Such little pleasures.

While the teenagers waited at the village square for other friends to turn up, an army party pulled up, guns cocked and gaze cocky. They began to randomly frisk people. Pushing some and vexing others. The boys avoided eye-contact with the troopers who came from the nearby army camp, notorious for its reputation. Riding roughshod the army men began to eve-tease girls on their way to the fair. Some people gathered courage and asked the troopers to behave. Insults were exchanged. The boys, curious, joined the crowd.

The day that had begun on a cheerful note was beginning to look morose. A rude interlude hung. People, historically, used to attend the urs had never observed such nuisance. The army tried to chase them away. People refused to budge. This construed an act of defiance. How could the village folk not scoot when they are chased! Guns were aimed at unarmed people. Since people in these parts of the world cannot have human rights and no international humanitarian law applies [India believes UN resolutions on Kashmir are old and hence redundant] -- it was decided to fire upon a bunch of harmless village people.

The crackle of gunfire sent people scurrying for cover. The carnival unexpectedly turned into a carnage. Blood splattered on the damp February soil. The hate colored bullets entered Amin. He lay in the village square, Rs 100 bill tucked away carefully in the pocket to buy some snack, dying a slow death. Javed fell to another bullet, eyes wide open. Little dreams lost forever.

Nothing much. Two more innocents. Two more Kashmiris. The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic, I recall of Joseph Stalin.

Protests, some hollering, a strike. Enquires. Commissions. Normalcy.

Amin and Javed, in their teens, go to graves and will never attend the fair again. Not fair.