Archive for July, 2009

It is no laughing matter

Posted in Trivia with tags , , , on July 31, 2009 by salaamreaders

The other day, a friend forwarded this joke – a machine was invented for catching thieves. In America, 9 persons were caught in a day. In China, 30 were caught in a day. In England, 50 were caught. And in India- well, the machine was stolen in an hour!

I could not help but laugh at reading it. I am sure, that, many other Indians would also find it funny despite its insinuation that our national past-time was thievery. I am also sure, that, somewhere deep down in our hearts, we may just believe in what the joke alludes to. But if it were so, why would we laugh at something which should be acutely discomfiting?  Is it fashionable to have  a sense of humour?

James Beattie, an 18th century Scottish poet and philosopher, suggested that laughter distinguished ‘Man from the inferior animals’.  An ability to laugh is apparently considered a desirable quality in  human beings these days. Some surveys have identified, that, a sense of humour is considered an attractive attribute in selecting a sexual partner. We have turned a full circle from  Hobbes’s fear of the power of  laughter to Osho’s description of seriousness as a deadly disease. Laughter and humour are now considered good and a person who enjoys a good laugh, at himself, is thought of as liberal and progressive. It is also believed, that, humour may actually help us brave challenges thrown by life and keep our sanity in the face of adversities.

But there is a cruel side to humour too. Satire and sarcasm are often directed at people considered inferior. These may be individuals or groups sharing some common characteristics which distinguish them from the perpetrator of humour. Ethnic, national, linguistic, professional, sexist or other prejudices lead to stereotyping of people who become the butt of jokes. Humour, thus, becomes the means to inflict some sort of punishment.

Freud may well have been right in saying that we deceived ourselves about the true nature of our laughter!



Posted in India, Trivia with tags , , , , , on July 29, 2009 by salaamreaders

The American television serial-Friends- is quite popular these days among young people in India. It depicts the escapades of a group of young friends. Though these American youngsters inhabit a different world from our own, the show is still a hit here. It may be because concerns of the youth the world over remain the same and they all value friendship highly.

True friendship is celebrated in folk lore and mythology of all cultures. The story about the friendship between Lord Krishna and Sudama is a legend in India. They became friends while studying in Guru Sandipana’s ashrama. After completing their studies they went their own ways. While Krishana became the king of Dwarika, Sudama remained a poor Brahmin. His wife knew of their friendship and often implored him to ask Krishna for help. The Brahmin was contented with his friendship and did not desire anything else from Krishna. But her repeated entreaties eventually moved him to go to Dwarika to meet him. While leaving he asked his wife for a gift for Krishna. There being nothing of value in their home, she collected a handful of chivada from her neighbours and tied it in his handkerchief as a present for Krishna.

When Sudama reached Dwarika, he was overwhelmed by its magnificence and the opulence of its people. He hesitated in meeting his friend due to the obvious difference in their stations.  But Krishna was overjoyed to find his old friend at his gate. Despite being the king, he embraced Sudama and welcomed him. He seated him on his own seat, washed his feet with his own hands and offered him fruits and drinks. Everyone in his palace was astonished at the reception that the poor priest was receiving at the hands of their king. Sudama tried to hide his handkerchief thinking that his gift was worthless but Krishana soon found it and ate the chivda with great relish.

Sudama stayed with his friend for sometime but could never bring himself to ask him for any material help. After sometime he bade his friend goodbye and started back home pondering what he would tell his wife about asking Krishna for help. When he reached his village, he was shocked to find a palace with all the riches in place of his humble hut. He understood that his friend was the cause of all this. Krishana had known, without Sudama ever telling him, that he required help. And help him he did, with an open heart and without expecting anything in return. Such is the essence of friendship.

This story is very old yet so popular that it is told and retold in all languages. It is also adapted to contemporary circumstances from time to time. Shades of the same were seen recently in a Hindi movie- Billu- in which the lead role was played by Shahrukh Khan. In this movie also, two childhood friends meet after a very long time during which their circumstances had changed. While one had become a famous movie star, the other had remained poor. The poor friend hesitated in meeting the rich person thinking that perhaps he might have forgotten their friendship. But the rich person still remembered his friend. In the end, they renewed their friendship with much tear shedding and melodrama as always happens in Hindi movies.

Kural, an ancient Tamil scripture, says that friendship is shared sensibilities and not constant companionship. How true!

Squeamish about Squalor

Posted in India, Trivia with tags , , , , , on July 28, 2009 by salaamreaders

I have been ‘lurking’ around-as the site administrators are wont to tell me-a travel site these past few days. The site is frequented by many foreigners who have either already travelled or are planning to travel to India . Those who have been here are invariably struck by the terrible filth and squalor that they see all around. They deal with it differently. One couple in Ajmer, when confronted with a smelly toilet, burnt a hundred boxes of incense sticks to overcome the stench. Others adopt less rigourous stratagems. Off course, after they overcome their initial shock, some of them do  enjoy their sojourn here. But the question which puzzles me is why  Indians are indifferent to the all  pervading squalor around them?

It is not that we do not know the virtues of cleanliness. Our scriptures extoll it as next only to Godliness. Hindus are, perhaps, one of the most ritually clean people in the world; having once taken the notions of ritual purity to  such absurd lengths as having an obligation to wash themselves  even if an unclean shadow were to fall on them. There are innumerable occasions for ritual bathing at rivers, ponds and the like in our religious calendar. Even the poorest take bath regularly. It is the same when it comes to our homes. Indian housewives are extremely house proud. The humblest of the huts are kept scrupulously clean, even if only by an application of a layer of cow dung. Take a look down from the ramparts of the Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur and you will see most houses neatly painted in blue. But walk down to the same area and you would find it littered-literally.

I found an interesting explanation for this in a book-“The Heart of India” -by Nirad C. Chaudhary. He writes that it has to do with the inability of the early Aryans to deal with the climate of the Indo- Gangetic plains. It developed three mental attitudes in them; firstly an abnormal sensitivity which led to an anxiety or compulsive obsession for physical cleanliness, secondly philosophical and mystical indifference  and thirdly, neutrality or even an happy co-existence with material squalor.

But this does not explain why, while individually Indians are concerned about personal cleanliness, they are indifferent to the filth around them. Pavan K. Varma provides a clue in his book- “Being Indian”. Hindus, he says, being self -centred do not take note of any thing which does not have any direct bearing on their self-interest. This makes him insular, callous, indifferent and impervious to his environment.

Nirad Chaudhary said that squeamishness was out of place in India and he, personally, had put up with almost anything. He went so far to suggest that the necessity to be psychologically proof against filth was the first condition of understanding our life. Nevertheless, there is nothing virtuous in being indifferent to dirt, stench and ugliness. On the contrary, it is good to be squeamish about the degrading conditions of our civic life, if we are ever to change them. We must understand that it is in our self-interest to improve upon our surroundings.

Whether we will be able to climb out of the mounds of rubbish that we live on, may depend  on our ability to overcome the general indifference of our citizens to matters of public good-as opposed to narrow self-interest only.

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