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Taking the high road

Fali Nariman, one of the most honest of men I have known, has recently published an absorbing autobiography, Before Memory Fades. A little earlier, in a foreword to the memoirs of a man of deep faith, Russi M. Lala, Fali wrote: "Whilst I too believe in God, I don’t believe that God concerns himself with the fates and actions of individual human beings." Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes.

india Updated: Jun 18, 2010 22:00 IST
Gopalkrishna Gandhi

There are ten hurdles that we must overcome to re-configure our society along the grain of human civility. It’s not easy, but we have to try.

No believer can be so credulous as to have never felt Doubt, no unbeliever so sceptical as to have never experienced grace.

I hear the ring of truth in Tennyson’s lines:

“There lives more faith in honest doubt. Believe me, than in half the creeds.”

Fali Nariman, one of the most honest of men I have known, has recently published an absorbing autobiography, Before Memory Fades. A little earlier, in a foreword to the memoirs of a man of deep faith, Russi M. Lala, Fali wrote: “Whilst I too believe in God, I don’t believe that God concerns himself with the fates and actions of individual human beings — in their daily chores, in their pettinesses and quarrels, in their moments of joy and sorrow… As a Zoroastrian I believe that good and evil exist as separate forces and that the world we live in is a ‘battlefield’.”

That statement reminded me of a school-time experience. I was about seven or eight. My class had been asked to do an artwork with ‘original’ themes. Singularly deficient in original ideas, I asked my brother Ramchandra for ideas. After listening to my ‘problem’, he asked me to fetch paper and pencil. And then he ‘dictated’ the drawing to me.

“First,” he said, “draw a triangle on one side of the paper.” I drew the thing. “Now draw another facing it, only make this one stand on its head.” Being unsure of how to draw an inverted triangle, I turned the page round and drew the second one.

“Now shade the one that is upside down.”

“Okay.”

“Good. Now, what do you see?”

“One triangle empty…”

“Not ‘empty’, but seen in outline only.”

“And the other one dark.”

“Not ‘dark’, but shaded, shadowy.”

“So?”

“The one that is seen in outline stands for the forces of Good…”

“The other one is Evil?”

“No, not Evil… it stands for… the Asuric forces in the world.”

“Asuric?”

“Asuric, as opposed to Sura-s, or the Deva-s.”

“Oh, like Ravana and Rama.”

“The world has Sura-s and Asura-s, the two are in constant logjam, the one trying to neutralise the other.”

“Who wins?”

“That is not the point.”

“Then what is the point?”

“The point is that both of them are there and you can choose to be on one or the other side.”

“Oh.”

“So, is that okay?”

“I suppose so…”

“So you have here an unusual drawing, a very unusual drawing.”

“What shall I call it?”

“What do you think you should call it?”

“I am asking you.”

“And I am asking you.”

“Good versus Evil?”

“Call it ‘Good and Evil’”.

I cannot remember how the drawing was received, but the memory of that art lesson has never left me, nor has the phrase ‘Asuric’. It comes back to me often, especially when prayer overpowers me. I pray a-tremble. If both forces exist, Someone has validated both, given them both space to slug it out and if as Nariman believes, we live in a battlefield, we have it well and truly cut out for us.

Why, I ask myself in such moments, why is it that despite sages and seers, despite statesmen at the helm and steersmen at the stern, despite a most civilised and civilising Constitution and several exemplary laws, why do we see so many agonies and anxieties in our land?

And I find myself regularly invoking Grace, in ‘battlefield’ despair and frenzy, for a way out of some of our common agonies. They number many, but I will enumerate ten, preamble-fashion:

May ‘We, the People of India’ having solemnly resolved to re-configure our society along the grain of human civility:

1. Hearken to the edicts of the Emperor Asoka to see why trees are important, and extend that awareness to cover forests, water bodies and commons that ‘developers’ eye as cunningly as raptors spot their prey.

2. Recognise in the animal and floristic motifs of Asoka’s Lion Capital a duty cast upon us to treat wildlife and the habitat it is inseparable from, as a bequest of natural integrity, not ‘an ecological luxury’. And to understand that if we must slaughter animals for food, we do so with some humaneness, knowing that the cow and the hog are as aware of the approach of pain as we are.

3. Read Rabindranath Tagore’s Visarjan so as to see how horribly mistaken we are in sacrificing animals at the altar under the impression that religion thrives over the jugulars of a kicking ungulate.

4. Reach our own times and see that zoonotic pandemics and vector-borne diseases are ‘caused’ by our unscientific and unhygienic methods of mass-rearing, bulk animal-farming, solid-waste (mis)management and sewage-accumulation.

5. Acknowledge the fact that our demand for water is increasing while the supplies are static.

6. Observe and begin to address the fact of overcrowding as a sign not of our ‘population rising’ but of short-termism in our designs for development, in our suburban and urban planning modules, and our fixation with ‘growth’ as distinct from an ecologically sustainable lifestyle for the nation.

7. Understand too, that ‘overcrowding’ entrenches male-dominance and is particularly unkind to large sections of India’s daughters for whom earlier-than-legal marriages continue to be a curse.

8. Examine self-critically our society’s penological ethos which wants individuals on ‘death-row’ hung but co-exists with ‘honour’ killings, trafficking, domestic violence that abuse ‘liberty’.

9. Re-assess our fascination with anniversaries, statues, felicitations and commemorations involving massive public expenditure when time, money and energy of all kinds need appropriate, not ostentatious deployment.

10. And, finally, see how money plays its part in India from cricket to telecom, from elections to art auctions, from real estate to virtual worlds, giving much-valued support to techno-commercial India, but leaving Himalayan, coastal and littoral India, and the India of forests with its tribal inhabitants to a different ‘equality in status and opportunity’.

If we were to adopt and give to ourselves these tasks, would we carry the battle between Good and Evil to near where Good may prevail? I don’t know but it would be unnatural not to try. Trying would give one the moral authority to meet the Creator’s eye and ask in the words of an old Hindi film-song:

‘Duniyaa banaane waale, Kyaa tere man mein samaayi, Kaahe ko duniyaa banaayi?’

( Gopalkrishna Gandhi was the Governor of West Bengal from 2004 to 2009. The views expressed by the author are personal.)