Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Montaigne essay

Of repentance

OTHERS form man; I only report him: and represent a particular one, ill fashioned enough, and whom, if I had to model him anew, I should certainly make something else than what he is: but that's past recalling. Now, though the features of my picture alter and change, 'tis not, however, unlike: the world eternally turns round; all things therein are incessantly moving, the earth, the rocks of Caucasus, and the pyramids of Egypt, both by the public motion and their own. Even constancy itself is no other but a slower and more languishing motion. I cannot fix my object; 'tis always tottering and reeling by a natural giddiness: I take it as it is at the instant I consider it; I do not paint its being, I paint its passage; not a passing from one age to another, or, as the people say, from seven to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute. I must accommodate my history to the hour: I may presently change, not only by fortune, but also by intention. 'Tis a counterpart of various and changeable accidents, and of irresolute imaginations, and, as it falls out, sometimes contrary: whether it be that I am then another self, or that I take subjects by other circumstances and considerations: so it is, that I may peradventure contradict myself, but, as Demades said, I never contradict the truth. Could my soul once take footing, I would not essay but resolve: but it is always learning and making trial.
I propose a life ordinary and without lustre: 'tis all one; all moral philosophy may as well be applied to a common and private life, as to one of richer composition: every man carries the entire form of human condition. Authors communicate themselves to the people by some especial and extrinsic mark; I, the first of any, by my universal being; as Michel de Montaigne, not as a grammarian, a poet, or a lawyer. If the world find fault that I speak too much of myself, I find fault that they do not so much as think of themselves. But is it reason, that being so particular in my way of living, I should pretend to recommend myself to the public knowledge? And is it also reason that I should produce to the world, where art and handling have so much credit and authority, crude and simple effects of nature, and of a weak nature to boot? Is it not to build a wall without stone or brick, or some such thing, to write books without learning and without art? The fancies of music are carried on by art; mine by chance. I have this, at least, according to discipline, that never any man treated of a subject he better understood and knew, than I what I have undertaken, and that in this I am the most understanding man alive: secondly, that never any man penetrated farther into his matter, nor better and more distinctly sifted the parts and sequences of it, nor ever more exactly and fully arrived at the end he proposed to himself. To perfect it, I need bring nothing but fidelity to the work; and that is there, and the most pure and sincere that is anywhere to be found. I speak truth, not so much as I would, but as much as I dare; and I dare a little the more, as I grow older; for, methinks, custom allows to age more liberty of prating, and more indiscretion of talking of a man's self. That cannot fall out here, which I often see elsewhere, that the work and the artificer contradict one another: "Can a man of such sober conversation have written so foolish a book?" Or "Do so learned writings proceed from a man of so weak conversation?" He who talks at a very ordinary rate, and writes rare matter, 'tis to say that his capacity is borrowed and not his own. A learned man is not learned in all things: but a sufficient man is sufficient throughout, even to ignorance itself; here my book and I go hand in hand together. Elsewhere men may commend or censure the work, without reference to the workman; here they cannot: who touches the one, touches the other. He who shall judge of it without knowing him, will more wrong himself than me; he who does know him, gives me all the satisfaction I desire. I shall be happy beyond my desert, if I can obtain only thus much from the public approbation, as to make men of understanding perceive that I was capable of profiting by knowledge, had I had it; and that I deserved to have been assisted by a better memory.
(This is part of an essay by Michel de Montaigne, a 16th Century French philosopher)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Let the climate change if it must

For the longest time, I didn't know what to think on this whole climate change business. It seemed very important and exciting but it was also rather hard to tell where the truth lay. As a concerned citizen, someone who cares for trees and animals and the planet, I was inclined to side with the environmentalists. I had seen the beautiful hills of Northeast India being decimated. I knew that the song of the pines could no longer be heard in the towns there. We had mosquitoes, and traffic jams, and it was warmer, so people had fans in shops and even houses. All this was new, and definitely not nice.
The thinking got a little complicated because I also figured that the things causing the pollution are things I, for one, am not prepared to live without. I need my electricity. If it comes from polluting thermal plants, which 70 per cent of it in India does, well, too bad. I'm not giving up on bijli because of pollution far away.
I also need my car and plane. I've done my time in buses and traveled the breadth of the country unreserved on trains. I can afford a flight now, so I will take it.
If this is how I feel, it seems rather mean to deny others like me the right to a better life. The half a billion or so people in this country who live without electricity can't be faulted if they too want it. The morality on cars and planes may be a little more complicated, but surely, if someone gets an education, finds a job, and buys a car or planet ticket from his own hard earned money, there's nothing wrong with it?
So let the climate change if it has to. Technology will hopefully find a way, like it always has, to keep us ahead of doomsday scenarios like Malthus'. It's a risk we really can't avoid.
We can, however, ponder two statements. Gandhi once said the earth has enough for every man's need, but not every man's greed. Some years ago, I asked Amartya Sen about his thought on this, and he said, no one can curb the desire of people for a better life.

Friday, December 04, 2009

No terror without safe havens

Do you remember the pictures of Saddam Hussein when he was caught? The dictator who had caused three major wars and sent more than a million people to their deaths looked like a beggar. He lay on the ground, with a bloody mouth, disheveled. It was possible suddenly to feel pity even for him.

V Prabhakaran’s end was worse. The ‘tiger’ who had killed so many lay in the mud with half his head blown off.

The point of invoking those memories is to say that in the end, they were both ordinary mortals. Without the protection of their soldiers and their states – a temporary de facto one in Prabhakaran’s case - they were nothing.

That is the fact which leaders of some of the major insurgencies in India’s northeast are probably coming to terms with now. The United Liberation Front of Asom and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland have been feared forces in Assam. They derived a large part of their power from the fact that their leaders enjoyed safe haven in Bangladesh, out of reach of Indian forces.

Now that haven is gone, and suddenly, the leaders of both these groups find themselves in captivity. They are powerless and their groups are in disarray.

It only took a change in government policy in Dhaka to bring about the sudden change in conditions. The capture of ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, which could not be achieved since 1979, was finally done in days, without military action.

There is now a window of opportunity for the Indian government to bring lasting peace to the northeast. The extremists who will never give up their delusions of grand homelands can be sidelined. The corrupt, who make a living out of terrorism, can be safely jailed. The moderates can be talked to, and heard.

A similar chance of peace might have emerged across South Asia if the government of Pakistan were to do what the Bangladesh government did. It is known and acknowledged by pretty much every government in the world that the leaderships of the Taliban, al Qaeda and Lashkar e Toiba are in Pakistan. Dawood Ibrahim has been known to live there for years.

Yet the United States is forced to send 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan and spend 30 billion more dollars because the Pakistanis won’t deliver five or six gents to them. India loses less; it is forced into a silly and pointless exercise of sending dossiers, and a much more useful and necessary exercise of getting its police and intelligence agencies in order.

The al Qaeda is in disarray. The Taliban is divided and on the run. Yet Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar remain sources of power, because they are protected by powerful interests in Pakistan. Their protectors retain them as bargaining chips and pawns, despite the risks to their own country.

President Obama’s Afghan strategy is likely to achieve little without real cooperation from Pakistan. Merely holding Afghanistan’s population centres will ensure status quo at best. Any lasting improvement will come only if the real powers in this game – those who protect Osama and his ilk – stop doing so. That would be real cooperation, and it would help stabilize all of South Asia.

This is not to say that all political violence in the region would end if Pakistan’s military changed its policy. The Maoists in India and Nepal, for example, would still be around. The desire of many Kashmiris for independence or more autonomy would still live on. Governments would still need to address legitimate political and social grievances.

But the random bomb blasts that kill innocent civilians might hopefully become a thing of the past.