Friday, December 30

Democracy for the Himalayan Kingdom

The King of Bhutan recently announced that the country shall become a parliamentary democracy with constitutional monarchy come 2008.

Bhutan, which has been a monarchy since 1907, began its gradual progress towards democracy in 1953 when King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck established a 130 member National Assembly. Over the years a Royal Advisory Council was set up followed by a cabinet in 1968. Finally in 1998 King Jigme Singye Wangchuck introduced significant reforms and transferred most of his powers to the Prime Minister, along with provision for impeachment of the king. The draft of the new constitution for transition to democracy in 2008 will soon be put to referendum. However after a century of monarchy and ‘God-like’ status awarded to the King, the transition to democracy will not be a smooth ride. When the king made this announcement the people were “shocked” and “expressed a desire that the king continue to rule for many more years to come” according to a Bhutan Times article.

A quick look at Bhutan brings forth certain facts which make it difficult to believe that the transition would be easy.
1) For one Bhutan is made up various ethnic groups which are also a matter of intense political controversy. Examples like Afghanistan are sufficient to explain how this fact can pose a problem in setting up a peaceful democracy.
2) It has earlier been reprimanded for its alleged violation of human rights and torture of Nepali immigrants, who are prone to violent protests. A formal dress code was imposed for all residents of Bhutan, irrespective of their background, ethnicity, religious beliefs etc which further aggravated the problem.
3) Bhutan has only one legal newspaper, which is a biweekly - the Kuenset. Known as the fourth pillar of democracy, a free media is virtually absent in Bhutan. How then can one be assured that freedom of speech and expression would be ensured?
4) The Himalayan Kingdom was the last country in the world to introduce television in as late as 1999! Though the king introduced some form of cable television in the country, the increase in crime rate in the years thereafter has been attributed to the introduction of cable television.
5) Where tourism can prove to be a major economy booster what with its breathtaking scenic beauty, Bhutan is said to have a policy of restricted tourist access so as to keep the locals away from the tourists’ “influence”.
6) Its economy is one of the most underdeveloped ones and trading is limited to its few neighbors.

It is also important to understand that the people of Bhutan are hardly educated in a democratic way of life and it is extremely important that a massive awareness movement for the same is undertaken for the democracy to evolve healthily. It would be interesting to know that in Bhutan each family-unit and not each individual counts for a single vote. This should be remedied in the new electoral lists to be created.

Of course the present king cannot be discredited for bringing in whatever traces of reform one comes across in Bhutan today. Giving up power takes courage and the king should definitely be applauded for his efforts towards ushering in democracy. It is now up to the new constitution and government to make the best of this phase of reform and boost its economy and overall development. Without sticking to irrational and impractical acts like restricting tourists, it should exploit its potential for catapulting its economy. It should cash upon its new forward looking image and develop relations with countries even beyond its immediate neighbors. Till date India has been managing its communications with the outside world and Bhutan needs to grow up in this regard if it wishes to grow and prosper as a democracy. Though it will take a lot of hardwork and years of patience to actually create a place for itself and derive benefits, the present situation of ‘transition to democracy’ holds great potential.

This can also prove to be a good chance for India to prove it’s democratic and ‘important global player’ credentials. Assisting Bhutan in creating political awareness, electoral reforms etc. during this crucial period, can boost India’s image and it should take full advantage of the situation.

Monday, December 26

Walk the 'Talk'

The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) recently held a summit at Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Set up with a purpose to "strengthen solidarity and cooperation among Islamic States in the political, economic, cultural, scientific and social fields", it is the only religion based inter-governmental body in the world. Its formation in 1969 raised quite a few doubts, but the Mecca Summit seems to attempt to falsify those and present a new face of the OIC to the world.

The new OIC according to General Mussharaf will be a "dynamic and forward looking" one. The Saudi-US Relations Information Service article elaborates upon the new look of the OIC :
According to OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, “A new OIC based on the principles of transparency, accountability, effectiveness, flexibility and pro-activeness must take the initiative to deal with the urgent problems of our day and age
.” A new OIC will have a more comprehensive and larger scope of activities. These activities include monitoring, coordinating, agenda-building, advocacy and raising awareness about such crucial issues as conflict prevention and management, minority affairs, disaster relief, policy harmonization, economic and commercial development, science and research, education and cultural issues, women’s and children’s rights, preventing extremism of all kinds, and easing religious, sectarian and ethnic tensions through the guidance of scholars and leaders.

If the OIC is sincere in its 'talk' and does actually abide by its above mentioned plans, then it could definitely serve to decrease the suspicions the non-Muslim world has about Islam and Islamic countries. It might dissuade the scores of youth falling prey to the brainstorming of the Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations from straying away and wasting their lives and consequentially aid the 'war against terror'. It might help being in hope and prosperity to the worn-torn States in the Middle East. It might, in short, help usher in a period of peace for the entire world.

The Mecca summit also opened fresh discussions about 'Islam Hadhari' which mean 'Civilisational Islam' and connotes the renewal, reform and revivalism of substance of form in the Muslim world. Said to be basically a Malaysian concept it would show Islam "as a religion of enlightenment, peace, tolerance, development" according to the Malaysian Prime Minister Badawi. Though certain sections feels that it is an attempt to pacify the West and apologize for perceived Islamic threats, the PM feels otherwise. He explains that it would be a "guide for more moderate vision of Islam that focuses on economic and technological development, social justice and religious tolerance." The concept as explained here is definitely very optimistic and forward looking.

If one is to believe the leaders of the OIC to follow their decision and also be guided by Islam Hadhari, I think it wouldn’t be long before the 'war on terror' becomes history.

Thursday, December 22

Love in ‘majnu’ land.

The front page of Times of India today attracts you with its headline - Outrage over ‘khaki Taliban’. The story talks about ‘Operation Majnu’, aimed at breaking up frolicking couples in parks, a drive against obscenity launched by the Meerut police. According to the report certain television reports showed women cops bullying and punching women who were apparently involved in ‘obscenity’ by being in a park with a male counterpart! (Just look at the name- Operation Majnu – on one had you glorify him for being a lover beyond compare and on the other malign him by conducting such operations!)

The story and the act are certainly infuriating as once again the moral brigade has come into play. The only fault of those women was that they were in a park with a male. For all you know he could have been the woman’s brother, father, cousin ……… whatever. Infact one of the assaulted woman told reporters that she was sitting in the park with her brother after having met with her advocate for a case against her husband for cruelty! Can the woman expect justice for cruelty by her husband if the law enforcers are themselves so brutal? Now even if it were a couple of lovers, how does it give the police any right to physically assault them? Since when has ‘visiting a park with a male counterpart’ become synonymous with ‘indulging in obscenity’? Does being police give the cops the right to decide and accordingly impose restrictions and punishments for ‘obscenity’? And basically how do you define ‘obscenity’? Taking a stroll, sitting on a bench, chatting, laughing, holding hands, kissing, making out…. how and where do you draw the defining line?

I remember the time in college when the Shiva Sena- VHP moral brigade had come down with full force on the Valentine’s Day celebrations. A friend of mine had the misfortune to be born on the day and he entered college carrying a bouquet of flowers that his friends had given him. But the ‘moral police’ thought he was out to gift it to a girl and celebrate and ‘abuse Indian culture’ and so they tore the flowers away from him and abused and insulted him! Poor guy was almost in tears- his last birthday in college had been brutally ruined!

I am no great supporter of ‘public display of love and affection’ but neither does it mean that it gives me the right to go around physically assaulting a boy and a girl just because they are together. It is for the couple to impose self restrictions and what others can possibly do is advise them to keep their hands off each other in public. Whether they do it or not is their concern. I do get pissed off by seeing couples kissing on road sides and parks, where hundreds of passersby gape at them and pass indecent remarks, where impressionable children stare and wonder. More so because I think the reactions of the onlookers insult the very pristine emotion of love.

I agree that it is necessary to keep a check, for eve-teasing and rapes are not a novelty. The police should however keep their senses intact and check and verify before lashing out at the persons involved. For all they know the couple might be just breaking up forever, fighting emotions and not about to make out. It is a truth that couples need their privacy and special moments and we need to trust the sanity and sense of responsibility of couples before taking any drastic actions.

What happened in Merrut was a disgrace to the country that dreams of being a significant international player and boosts of a rich culture, thousands of years old. It shows our narrow mindedness which can see nothing beyond ‘obscenity’ in the interaction of individuals of opposite sexes. We need to grow up as a society and come to appreciate the complexity and beauty of relationships of the two sexes that is also necessary for overall harmony.

Tuesday, December 20

Receipt of Acknowledgement

‘Please send me a receipt of acknowledgement for the same’
! How many times, how many times do we write this in our correspondences? And yet more than half of the times you neither get a receipt, and acknowledgement…………….. what’s that?!?

Come to think of it, it is not just our formal correspondences that are full of such frustrating behavior but the very personal ones too. Infact the more personal the correspondence the greater the expectation and even greater the disappointment. Like you write to your friend telling him/ her about your achievement or wishing on his/ her achievement or say send him/ her a birthday card and hope that you will get a call or a few words of acknowledgement. But what do you get, thenga! Infact the next time you meet online or in person there is no mention of it from the other side and you wonder if the letter/ card ever reached the person. You keep on expecting and you are repeatedly disappointed.

And if it is your girlfriend/ boyfriend you are dealing with…………… the pain is well not spoken about. Imagine a case where your boyfriend/ husband is out on a tour and you are missing him. You long to meet him, to talk to him, to hug him……………….. and so pick out a beautiful , sweet, charming, romantic card and send it to him. Your mailbox tells you he has ‘just seen your card’ and the wait begins. You hope, you wait, you hope………. But nothing happens. No phone call, no letter, no return cards, no offline messages…………. no ‘receipt of acknowledgement’ of your little gesture of love. You have spent a lot of time choosing that perfect card (sometimes even a lot of money), writing those wonderful words, those sweet nothings (but they are not nothings, they mean so much!) ……… and your friend/ lover does not even acknowledge your act, let alone appreciate it. You let it happen again and again and not say a word for fear of a fight, of souring the relationship, of missing out on the few moments that you have across distances………….. because you care, you love the other person! Yet you are heartbroken and the hurt is suppressed, but not forgotten!

Now why does this happen? Why does your friend, sweetheart not care enough to acknowledge your gesture? What makes him/ her just ignore it? What makes the doer not speak up against the heart breaking act?

If any of you know the answers to it please let me know. And you can rest assured you will get a receipt of acknowledgement for it!

Tuesday, December 6

Gone With The Wind

It’s been quite a few years since I started reading seriously and yet it was surprising to many that I had not yet read ‘Gone With the Wind’. Its fame as an epic novel, a not-to-be-missed novel however did not make me take it up until last week. And now that I have read it I wonder why I never read it before.

For one it’s a mighty lengthy novel and I love those. I like to put up a challenge for myself each time and check my reading speed with my comprehension and retention. And this time I must say I was at one of my best because its such a wonderful book.

The setting of the strife-torn years of the American Civil War gives the writer a lot of space to play with characters. Their desire to have the happy old days back and the necessity to adjust to the changed times to survive, gives every character sufficient space to make his presence felt and add to the story. Be it the heroine Scarlett or the former convict Archie, each one creates an impression upon the final outcome of the book.

The story is of Scarlett O’Hara, a beautiful and headstrong girl of 16 years who is in love with Ashely Wilkes, though almost all the county boys are in love with her. However when she learns of his engagement to Melanie Hamilton, a rather plain looking girl who also happens to be his cousin, she is enraged and in a fit of anger decides to marry Charles, Melanie’s brother. A few days after the wedding Charles and Ashley go off to fight the war and soon Charles is dead and Scarlett is with his baby. But she continues to love Ashley. Widowhood and baby leave her depressed for she wishes to enjoy life, and the real story begins when she reaches Atlanta to live with Melanie and her aunt. Secretly hating Melanie, she continues to love Ashley, but over the war-torn days becomes a pillar of support for Melanie. Atlanta falls and she runs back home only to find her mother dead and plantation looted. There is hardly anything to eat and Scarlett it left to feeding the family. Living under a constant threat of soldiers attacking and looting once again, she tries to build up her home again and works on farms and grows some cotton. However financial problems are overwhelming and she travels to Atlanta to borrow money from Rhett Butler, a speculator, and the only person with money that could be lent out. HE refuses and she ends up marrying her sister’s buex for his money and starts running lumber mills and doing business without any scruples. All she desires is to have so much money that never again would she have to go hungry. Over time she is widowed again and she marries Rhett Butler. Inspite of having all the ingredients for a happy marriage, it is not such for Scarlett continues to love Ashley and look for him in Rhett. The book ends with Melanie’s death and Scarlett realizing her love for Rhett, by which time he is so disillusioned and grieved that he leaves her. The author leaves the reader guessing as to what happens to Scarlett next as the book ends with her being all alone without love and only money, which has lost its initial value for her due to the realization of real love.

All this happens against the backdrop of the American Civil War and I think no history book could have explained the nuances of the Civil War as this book does. Though wars are fought on the battlefield, the real war is in the homes of the thousands of sufferers. The real war begins only after the end of that on the battlefield. And Gone With The Wind portrays this fabulously. The dire socio-economic conditions created by the war bring home to the reader the futility of war. The sudden descend to poverty of the region, the need to work on fields, and as labor, the starvation and money-mindedness that develops through it among the characters, the complete chaos in the social order, are so well documented, that not only does one understand the implications of the American Civil War but War as a whole. Though one despises Rhett Butler for making money out of the destruction, we also nod in agreement with him, for survival without such an attitude would be impossible in those conditions. Such conditions also force Scarlett to do a man’s work for which she is criticized and hated, but which at the same time marks the ushering in of the empowerment of women. It speaks of the strength - both physical and psychological - of the womenfolk and makes us realize that without their support and the work that they do behind the scenes, no society would recuperate from the wounds of a war. It could be the baking activity of Mrs. Merriweather, an otherwise conservative and ‘contentious’ woman or the lumber mills of Scarlett, it all adds to the restructuring of society.

Moving on to the characters, I think that of Scarlett is very well-written and that every girl would be able to relate to her to differing extents. Scarlett loves being the belle of the county, and wants people to know her as kind and gentle as her mother and at the same time has that negative side to her. Her selfishness, almost wicked ways of facing the times and making and thinking money, make one think if that is not what we would do in similar circumstances. Though her means are ‘wrong’ and actions hateful, it is difficult to not like her and feel sorry at times. And when she finally realizes her love for the charming Rhett Butler, only to be shaken off by him, one cannot help but feel sorry for her. All through the novel her portrayal as a tough and headstrong woman is quite appealing, especially to a person in our times of women’s lib and against the backdrop of the descriptions of behavior expected of a lady then.

I would definitely like to mention that the vivid descriptions of ‘ladylike behavior’ though romantic in a manner are also quite disgusting, for they mean that the only purpose of a woman’s life is to ‘catch a good man’. Right from the outer dressing of the girl to her conscience, everything is decided by the norms of behavior set down by society and through the initial part of the book they seem to be the best for a girl. Any deviation is looked at with disgust and at times even the reader is lead into believing that Scarlett’s behavior is ‘wrong’. It is commendable that the writer has the power to make the reader think as if in those times.

Another very strong character in the novel is Rhett Butler, the most despicable man around but who carries a heart full of love for Scarlett and his little daughter Bonnie. His cunning ways and talk have a charm to them that would appeal to any young lady, for each one looks for a streak of cunningness to her man to add spice to the adventure of life. But yet he is despised because he is such, has the gall to talk against the ‘Cause’, make money out of the destruction of people and show least respect for any woman around. With the arrival of his daughter Bonnie, out of wedlock with Scarlett, a perfect match to say the least, a new dimension of his character is unfolded. The indefinable love he showers upon his child, the change in attitude and behavior only for her sake, make him quite dear to the reader. And his grief upon her death and disillusionment of sorts after Scarlett’s illness, get him the readers’ sympathy. One also feels sorry for Scarlett because she is unable to understand his love. Rhett Butler is that charming, debonair and cunning man whom you can neither choose to love nor hate.

That apart the writer has come up with a very strong but weak character, which in spite of appearing at the fringes of the story is a very important part of it all. Melanie Hamilton, the plain and genuinely kind wife of Ashley Wilkes. She is physically not very attractive and also weak, but the kindness of her heart makes people rally around her and she becomes the ‘unlikely’ centre of attraction. Her genuinity and innocence at times seem exaggerated but one also wants to believe that such people exist in this world. She is not very prominent and appears in bits and pieces throughout the novel. Yet her presence across the book and through the unfolding of the story is unmistakable. She comes forth as a pillar of strength for Ashley and Scarlett, though Scarlett is apparently the stronger character. This is evident at the time of her death and also in the various instances where Scarlett fears not the criticism of the society but rather being upbraided by Melanie. Even Rhett Butler is shown as respecting only her as a real lady. Her inner strength is displayed at the time of the Yankee soldier’s killing, the discovery of Scarlett and Ashely’s relationship, her capacity to pacify the grieving Butler and also at numerous other times when she puts life into the social life of the after-war Atlanta. Melanie is someone you wouldn’t generally give a second look but who unwittingly attracts attention by the genuinity of her heart and belief in the goodness of all. I definitely liked the character of Melanie because she gives you a happy feeling that all is not wrong with the world.

Gone With The Wind with its numerous characters and story spread across a thousand pages is difficult to summaries in a few words. Each character deserves at least some space and so I shall stop with discussing the three ‘central’ characters.

The language of the book is simple, though at times the language of the blacks becomes uncomprehendable. However it adds to the dialogue-like feel of the book. Each character is vividly described and were I a painter, I would have had no problems painting every one of them. The social situation, the turmoil of the times and the disastrous impact of it on the lives of the characters are very well put forth and help complete the visualization for the reader. Another very important aspect of the book according to me is that it is devoid of any elaborate and unnecessary sex scenes. For most of the times such instances instead of adding to the novel, divert the reader from the main theme and one can make out that they have been added only to either increase the length of the book or because ‘readers’ like it’. It’s applaudable that the writer has kept away from any such temptations and not spoilt the fun of the book through such tricks, though there is ample space in the book for them too.

All in all it is a must read, though I would definitely say that it should be read at a time when one is mature enough to have patience and stamina to read it out within maximum a week’s time, as the atmosphere such a reading creates aids the understanding of the characters and would definitely make the reader appreciate the book better.