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Mystery Short Story: The Stranger in the Train

I left home in the morning a little earlier because I had to visit my son’s school to attend the parent teacher meeting the school administration organized every six months.

Anirban, my only son, was not really bad at studies but lacked math aptitude, so Mr Dsouza, his math teacher, was the only person who complained about Anirban, that he had not improved his math performance since the last time.

Although I knew Ani was poor at math and that it was futile to expect him to become an engineer, like me, Mr Dsouza’s comments that day left me downcast for the rest of the day. Later in the day, while at office, I cancelled a meeting to be left alone.

After office, while returning home by metro, my sight fell on a person sitting across the aisle, in my compartment. Was he Mainak, that school friend of mine? At school I saw Mainak with a pinch of disdain because he was a poor student.

Mainak could draw pictures very well. I had tried helping him to improve at studies, particularly maths, but had realized he wouldn’t. He just wasn’t bright enough.

This realization slightly degenerated into disdain often showing up in my behavior towards him. Sometime, my insolence wasn’t very understated leaving Mainak a little mortified. A reticent type, Mainak never revealed he had felt insulted, though.

Then something happened.

We had given names to all our teachers based on their appearance, habits and in some cases because we simply didn’t like them. Our geography teacher was Tight Pant because he always wore tight trousers. Our biology sir was Yawn because he used to go on talking driving us bore.

Mr Basu, who taught us physical science, was called Misses Basu because he was a little effeminate. But Mrs Mitra, our math teacher, was another matter. She was graceful, dignified and yet friendly. We were in her awe. No one called her names.

I can trace my aggressive need to prove myself best at math at school to Mrs Mitra. When she pinched my cheek, to appreciate a math problem I had cracked, I would be on the seventh heaven.

When she taught a new math problem I had to be the first person in the class to answer her questions. I always had to be in her good books. I craved her attention and when it went to someone else in the class, it upset me deeply.

One day while explaining a math problem on black board, she suddenly stopped and walked to the last bench where Mainak was sitting.  Mainak was doing something on his notebook and he was doing it so intently that when Mrs Mitra went and stood beside him, Mainak didn’t notice and continued with whatever he was doing. This amused us and we laughed together which broke Mainak’s trance finally. And he looked up.

Mrs Mitra took the notebook, saw what Mainak was doing and asked him to accompany her to the teachers’ room. After sometime, Mainak and Mrs Mitra returned to our class. I was surprised to see a glow on Mainak’s face whereas I had expected him to look mortified.

Later when I asked Mainak about the incident he said he had sketched Mrs Mitra – and she was impressed it – and had encouraged Mainak to take his drawing seriously.

He showed me the portrait – it was exactly how Mrs Mitra looked while explaining the math problem on the black board.

Following this incident, a sort of friendship developed between Mrs Mitra and Mainak. I often saw them talking in the corridor.

Now when I think about my misbehavior with Mainak during his last days in school, I can understand where it stemmed from.

Following the incident, Mainak’s very sight had started enraging me. Our classes started after a morning prayer. Before the prayer we assembled in our compound and broke into several rows facing the podium where the teachers and principal stood.

One day Mainak was standing next to me in the row adjacent to mine. After prayer I called him but he didn’t pay attention. He was looking away. Was he upset with my behavior? He had started maintaining distance with me lately, I had noticed.

“Mainak,” I called again but found no response. Then we started filing into the main building. The last few steps leading into our building were a little slippery due to rain the previous night. I pushed Mainak a little hard trying to get his attention.

Trying to turn back Mainak lost his bearing and skidded. He fell, his forehead hitting the concrete banister. I couldn’t see whether it was bleeding because he had held his forehead with his arms – and before I could recover from the shock a few students and teachers rushed to him guarding my view – and took him to our school clinic – from there he was taken home, I came to know later.

That was Mainak’s last day at school. His father had got transferred to another city and they left. I never saw Mainak again.

My station was a few minutes away. By now my compartment was almost empty as it would be everyday by the time the train reached my station. That man looking like Mainak was still sitting in the seat far away from mine.

Should I go and talk to him? What if he is really Mainak and he remembers what I had done to him on his last day at school?  I didn’t mean any harm to him? It was just an accident. Why should I be hesitant? If I am hesitant will I not confirm that what I did at school was a deliberate attempt to cause him injury, not an accident?

But even if he is Mainak will his memory serve him after so long – almost 40 years? Is he in a good way – the stranger looks quite emaciated? If he is not I can offer some help – after all I had not treated him well at school. These thoughts crowded my mind. But finally I got up and gingerly walked across to the stranger who was looking down.

“Aaar…you Mainak of Cathedral Mission, 1972 batch?”

The stranger slowly looked up and replied in a shaky voice: “Arnav, you still remember me.” There was deep cut on his forehead which was still raw.

Grudges We Hold

At Bangalore Literature Festival this time I stumbled upon a discussion on grudges held by Sophie Hannah, a UK author, who shot to fame writing Agatha Christie’s detective novels and is currently working a nonfiction book on grudges we hold and how they are good for us. Driving back home, from the festival, I made a mental list of grudges some that readily leapt to mind and some that required a little mind straining.

Intensifying a grudge through imagination – Some grudges disappear over time and some don’t. The ones that hold on actually get more intense with time – because we keep imagining new situations – completely our figment of imagination – similar to those that engendered the grudge and expect the person who caused it to react in the same or similar way to the imagined situations, multiplying the grudge we have. It could be a social behavior, like behaving above your station or being patronizing, in the same way or expressing disagreeable views. Almost anything.

Grudge against pleasure seekers – This type of grudge is held by kill joys who believe they belong to a higher moral platform because they don’t indulge themselves in pleasure. Drinking is the most common form of pleasure they disapprove of and drinkers are the most common pleasure seekers they love to hate or hold a grudge against. At least in India. Read my blog on this.

Ideological grudges: Have you ever wondered why liberals and conservatives never tire of hating each other? Of course, because they come from conflicting viewpoints. But we perfectly get along with people with differing views in our day-to-day lives without wanting to kill them. The reason why liberals love to perpetually hate conservatives and vise versa is that one’s views go against the common sense of the other.

Common sense? Yes. There is actually very little common in common sense. Our common sense is framed by things we know to be absolute truth – so much so that their veracity is inarguable to us. Our common sense is shaped by education, social influences etc. A writer’s ‘common sense’ is very different from the common sense of a, say, business man or a person coming from some other walk of life.  Similarly, importance of national borders, for example, is non-negotiable for conservatives for the same reason that social inclusion is for liberals: common sense (which is shaped by basic value system). Read my blog.

Grudge against myth busters: We all like to believe in lies, that hardwork pays, that honesty is the best policy, that that filmstar, who looks so humble and nice, is a good person and a role model. There is a possibility these things we like to believe in are true but there is also a probability that they can be wrong. Hardwork pays but not every hardworking person is successful; in fact the reverse is sometimes true. And that filmstar may look and sound down to earth but that doesn’t necessarily mean he has to be a ‘good’ person, too.

Yet we like to believe in these myths as individuals and also collectives. And when somebody bursts these lie bubbles, he immediately becomes a hate figure. It’s happening so much in India. Read my blog for more.

How Attitute Towards Booze Has Changed in India

In last 10 years or so, a global consensus has developed that smoking is bad for health. Many have left smoking. Many have reduced smoking. And even chain smokers admit smoking is harmful but find a justification to smoke anyway. However, a similar consensus does not exist about the harmfulness of alcohol – at least not at a social level.

There is awareness about the bad side of drinking but we like to give it the benefit of doubt. This can be for various reasons. Alcohol cannot be consumed everywhere and anywhere like smoking.  We generally drink in spaces which are either makeshift arrangements or dedicated to drinking like a bar.

This low visibility means other than co drinkers none has seen you drink except, maybe, on social occasions making drinking a private pleasure rather than a public spectacle, for the most part at least.

Alcohol is generally associated with socializing and celebration – there is no better social ice breaker or equalizer than boozing. Doctors have long told alcohol, if taken in moderation, is actually good for heart. It is an essential part of many religious festivals and rituals therefore enjoys natural acceptability.

But the poor alcohol is not having a great time. In some countries, alcohol is banned for religious reasons, particularly the Islamic countries, but some other countries (or states in case of India) are either imposing ban on its promotion, distribution or consumption.

A bill passed recently in the Irish Parliament’s lower house limits alcohol advertising and requires alcohol products not be displayed with other products within a shop. In India there are some states where alcohol has always been banned but recently it has encountered new bastions of resistance. A few years ago, the Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar banned alcohol in Bihar. He cited social and healthcare reasons for his decision. And the ban has translated into electoral gains for him.

Perhaps India would make a good study for why alcohol is facing new centers of resistance and prohibition. Given India’s social disparity, alcohol is both a devil, responsible for a range of social ills like worst forms of misogyny, irresponsible money blowing etc (mostly experienced by the poorer sections), and a pleasant fellow companion which symbolizes high living and aspirations (how the middle class views drinking). 

Alcohol has a cultural taboo in India. Until roughly 30 years ago, drinking was a private matter. People hardly flaunted their drinking habits in open and those known to drink were frowned upon. In middle class circles, drinking was a moral degradation only film stars, businessmen and lower classes indulged into.

Moral degradation was not the only reason to hate drinks, though; that drinking was believed to have the potential to bring economic devastation was another. We heard enough instances of people ruining their lives due to drinking (somewhat exaggerated accounts) and these were disdainfully cited in casual conversations to demonize drinking and drinkers.

And to make the demonization complete, a woman was thrown into the self-destructive stories. After all, how can an unmoral practice be complete without the involvement of a woman you don’t have any legitimate relation with? The sinister duo behind every drinker’s self-destruction was alcohol and woman.

In Bengali the adage was may arr modh – drinking and woman.  In the Hindi heartland, it was sharab aur sabab, roughly translating into drinking and debauchery. As if the presence of one was necessary to complete the amoral character of the other.

This view was held mainly by those who felt being nondrinkers placed them on a higher moral platform. And there was too much chest thumping about it and a tendency to judge others based on if they had any ‘bad’ habits, which chiefly meant if they drank.

Yet these self righteous nondrinkers would not spare an opportunity to remind others that knew enough people who drank (implying that they were familiar with elite circles and culture where drinking was a common practice, but they wouldn’t do it themselves out of sense of rectitude).

Drinking was mostly a moral question – it hardly had anything to do with healthcare concerns. Now, so many years later, many people drink moderately because of health reasons.

If you look at the three classes that were associated with drinking (the film stars, the business man and the lower classes), it will reveal two things: one is they are classes generally kept outside the purview of moral standards and the other is the economic devastation drinking was believed to result in could be best managed by the three classes. The film star and business man were wealthy and the poor man was anyway so devastated that no devastation could bring him down any further.

This class association meant anybody known to drink was seen as aristocratic or depraved, the former can be traced back to the upper class denizens, like the film star and businessman, the latter to the lower class guy. Normal people with family concerns were not known to drink (or at least they assiduously hid their drinking exploits).

Now drinking enjoys much more social acceptability. Many more people drink – and don’t make bones about it. (The saints have learnt to accept and co live.) When there is a family gathering or something it is not unusual to have discreet arrangements for drinks. At wedding parties there are separate drink counters. The number of youngsters drinking has shot up phenomenally. In fact, it has become a problem.

For youngsters or people in their middle ages drinking is a mix of aspiration and something they enjoy. Not that this aspiration was nonexistent earlier (as I said above drinks had an upper class appeal, too), but now people are more comfortable expressing them. (Commies would say the society has become capitalistic and lost its earlier humility and maybe they would be right.) Its logistics have also become easier. The 25 to 40 to 45 age group has more disposable income and they don’t mind blowing a bit of it in bars and pubs.

Most families are nuclear now, so drinking at home does not involve being frowned upon by an elder. In fact, people from earlier generations have become much more open to their children or grandchildren drinking. Drinking is considered a health hazard but not a moral degradation.

But drinking is becoming a problem with this generation. Professional stress, life style issues, more money to spend…are leading to over consumption of alcohol…which of course has its consequences. ..as if the walls of fear the earlier generation had built around them to keep the consequences of drinking away have collapsed. The problems the poorer classes faced are still there.

Irresponsible drinking habits have spawned devils like road accidents and healthcare issues. Thanks to this, drinking today is a favorite whipping horse of doctors who attribute almost all healthcare concerns, from obesity to high blood pressure, to drinking and smoking.

The lesson is simple: anything you overdo is bad.

Will Homosexuality Get Social Acceptability in India

Decriminalization of Article 377 may have made same sex relationships legally acceptable but finding social acceptability is a much bigger challenge. Alternative sexuality is a fact none of us, in Indian mainstream culture, want to deal with.

We all know Hindu scriptures have mythological characters with alternative sexual orientation, a fact that RSS has been attributing its support for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) rights to, but that is just academic knowledge for most and doesn’t colour our attitude to people with alternative sexual orientation. (Other religions are completely closed to the idea of same sex unions, a fact that’s partly responsible for the lack of social acceptability same sex relationships have – it goes against the notion that sex should only be for procreation; else, it becomes pleasure.)

They are seen with loathing and kept at a distance, as far as possible.  In fact the aversion for them is so much that it is difficult to capture in words.

There is considerable fear about them. It is believed they are sexually promiscuous and therefore are potential carriers of sexually transmitted diseases, that if they find you within proximity they may ask for sexual favours, that they are creatures coming from some dark, unknown place, that they are completely beyond the pale.

These notions come from two things: one is we don’t come across many of them in our day to day lives – or maybe we do but we don’t know because the stigma attached with alternative sexuality pushes some of them into closet – they pass themselves off as normal fellows; ignorance about them, which you would have understood from some of the points above; the most ubiquitous members of this community are the ones who accost us on Indian roads – the hizras (transvestite). And frankly speaking, there is very little reason to like them – not so much for how they look but what they do – extorting money, making lewd remarks.

Some would say this may be how things are generally but there are islands of tolerance – places where it doesn’t matter whether you are a gay, lesbo or straight. And one of those places are the IT companies. Yes, maybe some companies have clearly defined policies against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, where tolerance is induced and not natural. But in most IT companies there aren’t – you are expected to avoid discriminatory behavior in general.

But the question is not so much about whether or not there are policies but whether there is an environment where they don’t feel excluded. The general culture in IT companies is very regressive. Informal conversations, jokes and jibes in most IT companies reflect the popular street culture preferences where any discussion even remotely related to sex or gender is on binary lines and there is aggressive disapproval for anything that doesn’t fit in.

Capital – How Eco Lib has Changed Delhi

As a kid I stayed in Delhi for three years. Later – many years later – I went to Delhi to join my first job and start my career fulltime. A few years later, when I came to Bangalore to join another company, I missed Delhi dearly. Materially, Delhi didn’t give me anything more than Bangalore. I was earning more in the IT city and I felt I had more job prospects here than in Delhi; still there was something about Delhi I missed.

Maybe it was the affection you have for a place where you have spent a slice of your childhood. In later years, as I got more used to Bangalore, I stopped missing Delhi as much, but that soft spot for Delhi didn’t completely die out, not even when the capital city made news for wrong reasons. The soft spot has survived Rana Dasgupta’s Capital: A Portrait Of A Twenty First Century Delhi…too.

Delhi is a city of migrants from myriad places and backgrounds, but even by Delhi standards, Dasgupta is an unusual migrant to the city. Unlike other migrants, who come to the city from different parts of India, Dasgupta migrated to Delhi from New York after leaving his job with a marketing company to be with the woman he loved and also write the book he had been trying to for some time.

Returning to Delhi was a journey reverse to the one his father had undertaken many decades ago and a few years after India’s Independence – to go to Germany and then to England and settle down there. (Rana Dasgupta was born in England to an English mother and Bengali father.)

A study of how Delhi has changed since economic liberalization (in 1991 when India opened its markets to the world), Capital starts on an autobiographical note and then moves on to its subject – Delhi- exploring each and every facet of the historical city through its past, present and lives of its denizens…going from the birth of the city (Shahajahanabad) through its years as capital of Colonial and post-Independence India to the turbulent later decades which shaped the culture and ethos of the city.

Dasgupta starts on a very optimistic note visiting lives of people who have tremendously benefitted from the economic liberalization – and then gradually settles into a tone critical of the economic phenomenon…chapter after chapter as the book peels one layer after another off the city – violence, misogyny, lust for wealth, rich poor divide, a predatory health care system – everything that’s bad about Delhi – leaving you feel as if there is nothing good – has been traced back to eco lib.

Capital reminded me of something someone had told me many years ago: that behind everything there is an economic reason. Dasgupta has traced back all the changes that he believes have come to Delhi in recent years to the economic phenomenon in 1991, analyzing the reasons behind some of the bizarre things that happened in the city in recent past. The Nirbhaya incident was in the future when the book was written, but do you still remember the Nathari killings or the Manu Sharma murder case?

Dasgupta attributes the aggressive culture that Delhi is known for to the wounds inflicted by Partition. He says the Punjabis who migrated to Delhi during or post Partition lost almost everything to the large scale killing, arsons and pillaging that took place during the riots triggered by Partition. So much (including their women) was snatched away from the migrants during Partition that they were left feeling emasculated, castrated, unmanly.

This feeling of masculine deficiency, Dasgupta says, manifested itself in a warrior ethos…as a compensatory emotion…which outlasted the Partition generation and is also found in their children. This warrior ethos expresses itself through over aggression leading to different forms of violent behavior.

It is also responsible for the success of Delhi’s business class, according to Dasgupta. By unleashing economic opportunities, eco lib has had an incendiary effect on the warrior ethos of Delhi’s business class resulting in expansive business ambitions and projects unthinkable in the pre eco lib days.

But these humongous business successes have not come from types of businesses that are idea driven, like IT where Bangalore rules the roost, but businesses dealing in areas where there are government regulations – where bribes, political connections, muscle power and big money call the shots.

Where Capital…has impressed me is despite being a book on a city it manages to avoid becoming local. Delhi has been dealt with as a reflection of global problems – poor rich divide, life style and environmental issues, corruption – everything that is local and yet global.

Why Congress is Jittery about VS Naipaul

If you are familiar with VS Naipaul’s stature as a writer you would have got a little surprised by the indifference of Congress guys on Twitter to his passing away recently.

And when I say Congress guys I mean the entire pro Congress brigade from editors through average sympathizers to Cong MPs. I can understand the tepid response from the average Cong sympathizers and even those who formally represent the party.

They mayn’t know much about Naipaul – because Naipaul is not Rushdie nor was he a very popular commercial writer like, say, Jeffrey Archer or John Grisham. Before he won the Noble Prize for Literature, he was hardly known outside the group of people with genuine interest in English literature. After he won there was a sudden eruption of interest in Naipaul.

That’s when many who didn’t know him would have read him the first time (this includes me). And many would have restricted their knowledge about him and his work to what the media had to say about him, that he was an anti-Muslim bigot, a misogynist etc. But what about the pro Congress editors?

I didn’t see too many posts from them beyond the customary ‘great writer bad human being RIP VSN’ ones. Did you?

Many of them would have read Naipaul, at least his nonfiction books. Many of them would have interacted with Naipaul when he came to India to research for his last book on India, The Million Mutinies Now. On record Naipaul had met Vinod Mehta (who is no more with us), Vir Sanghvi and Shekhar Gupta.

Only an article by Vir Sanghvi was an expection to the rule. In the article, Vir Sanghvi claimed he knew Naipaul rather closely having met him several times while Sanghvi worked in Calcutta and Naipaul was visiting the city.

Sanghvi admitted his greatness as a writer but little bit tarnished it by calling Naipaul’s contemporary relevance into question. “Will his novels stand the test of time? Does anybody still read say, A House for Mr. Biswas? Will they read it ten years from now?”

Most of his books are celebrated and no discussion on post 2nd World War great books is complete without a mention of A House for Mr. Biswas.

This ‘tell as little as you must, then shove him inside the carpet’ approach of Congress online image managers towards VS Naipaul is not strange. VS Naipaul’s nonfiction work on India – mainly An Area of Darkness, which was written in the mid-60s and was scathingly critical of India – almost of everything you can think of.

The India that Naipaul criticized so strongly in his first two books An Area of Darkness and A Wounded Civilization was actually Nehru’s India. And Naipaul never changed his views until Million Mutinies Now, many years after An Area of Darkness, published in 1990.

This was two years before liberalization and many years before liberalization made its effect on India felt, but Nehru by then was firmly placed in India’s past separated by several subsequent leaderships of Congress.

And if you think a little deeply, the India that Naipaul rejected – the Nehru constructed India – is the main bone of contention between BJP and Congress. BJP says Nehru’s socialist model, which Congress followed until Rajiv Gandhi started tinkering with things in the mid-80s, denied India its share of development, made it poor, and deepened corruption even as it strengthened the grip of the Gandhi Nehru parivar on power.

Congress says the path shown by the first prime minister of India is the right path for the country, and moving away from the Nehruvian way is where India’s doom lies.

But Congress knows it stands on a very shaky ground when it comes to Nehru. Economically India has moved beyond Nehru. His contributions to nation building may be immense but sadly obscured by the subsequent years of Congress rule when Nehru’s economic legacy degenerated into license raj which held back India until it was dismantled in the early 90s, his institutions were subverted as his own daughter strengthened her grip on power – Emergency was an extreme manifestation of which – and the Congress became the fiefdom of one family.

So if you found the response of the online Cong image managers to Naipaul’s death underwhelming it’s because there is no point paying too much attention to a writer who held inconvenient views about a period when Congress was in power especially when the tempo for 2019 general elections is building up.

When We Were Orphans – A Detective Novel with a Difference

Christopher Banks, a retired detective now staying in London, is reminiscing about his past, his exploits as a successful sleuth, his life and that very important case involving the sudden disappearance of his parents in 20th century Shanghai. When We Were Orphans was my third Kazuo Ishiguro novel, Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World being the other two.

Unlike the other two, When We Were Orphans has a more tangible storyline, but what it deals with within the four walls of the story delivers on the expectation I have come to have of an Ishiguro novel – themes like nationalism, filial love, how we remember things from the past and elliptical prose, if sometimes a little workmanlike.

The novel is unlike an average detective book – it is about a detective without being a detective story where the solution at the end of the investigation is not as important (or maybe just as important) as the things the investigator discovers and reveals to the reader in the course of investigation – about society, history and other things of common human interest.  Christopher Banks recalling his exploits as a detective just is a small tributary flowing into a larger narrative he is narrating; the purpose of the recollections is only to the reader that he is a well-known detective and not how he solved his cases, the chief concern of any detective story.

Finally when he embarks on the most important case of his life, finding out the reason behind his parents’ sudden disappearance so many years ago, after wading through a Shanghai, currently smarting under a Japanese attack, which has changed beyond recognition since when he left it for England as a child – Christopher Banks finally encounters a truth about his parents contrary to what he was deceived into believing as a child by them.

The truth devastates him and also leaves the reader surprised. When it comes to the reader, though, it’s not the truth alone which is surprising, completely different from what the novel prepares the reader for, but also the fact that it is too ham-handed an ending for an Ishiguro novel.

Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World end on a very gentle and misty note. Upon later reflection, I gave the ending, We Were Not Orphans, a benefit of doubt considering that, unlike the earlier two Ishiguro novels I had read, this one is a detective story where the reader is kept waiting for the truth until it arrives at the very end of the novel, making a more well defined, maybe a little sensational ending a necessity.

I read Pale View of Hills at least four years before Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for literature last year. Although I liked the book, I found it too indescribable, but it created an interest in Ishiguro. I researched on him and came to know about his other books. Through his interviews on Youtube, I came to know his views on genre which is made so much of in publishing. He says the idea of genre does not have any literary relevance; slotting books into different categories only helps market them, nothing else. When We Were Orphans is a work in that tradition: a genre bender.

I felt vindicated when he won the Nobel for literature. By the way, this was my second novel I read as an ebook on Kindle.

Why Liberals and Conservatives Are Always at Loggerheads

The divide between liberal and conservatives is outside the purview of personal life. Only politicians can be divided on liberal and conservative lines. The common man doesn’t care, much less knows clearly what is what. In the apolitical sphere, the divide is more on the lines of what one considers good or acceptable to one’s value system or social sphere. What is good or acceptable is always a mix of ideas that draw from both liberal and conservative schools of thought.

And where values are not applicable like in practical matters, common sense rules the roost.

Loving your nation doesn’t mean you can’t feel empathy for another nation or national. You love your tradition without being anti-modern. And so on.

Yet social media interactions are almost always polarized. If you spend some time on Twitter, for example, you will realize it’s impossible to not take sides – liberal or conservative. The divide is more obvious on TV.

I think it has not so much to do with loyalty to either of these two ideas but opposition to what one considers common sense. Actually common sense is not as apolitical, neutral, innocuous, egalitarian, universal as we think it is. One man’s common sense can be another man’s lack of it. It is shaped by community sensibilities, awareness etc. These things define what is ‘common’ to you. A professor’s common sense, for example, is very different from a man coming from another walk of life.

For some, a little misogynistic or class driven attitude is how things should be normally, but for others, these things stick immediately. They may not publicly object but will privately disapprove.

People take sides or get enraged so easily on social media because this common sense is hurt.

The rage we see on social media against the liberals is because what they stand for, espouse, support, oppose goes against general common sense of people with a conservative bend of mind. Things they have always known to be true (that you should respect the religious sentiments of people, that your country should come first etc) or right are being called otherwise.

There can be multiple examples of that but to cite a few.

Trump’s general behavior is unbecoming of a president and his policies are bizarre but how does that justify not acknowledging his achievements, however little, or carefully under reporting or outrightly overlooking them? This is how American media behaves with him. And this defies the common sense of many people.

In India being a liberal has come to mean attacking everything that is dear to conservatives – national boundaries, mainstream culture, army – they have little else on offer.

And because the liberals don’t stand for anything concrete – borderless humanitarian concerns, triumph of reason over prejudice – the conservatives attribute liberals’ espousal of lofty causes to their pesonal interests. Snootier types, the liberals don’t engage in a direct showdown with the conservatives and blame the declining public discourse caused by the current regime.

Liberals think the conservatives don’t have brains because they don’t understand that even the army can be wrong; the conservatives think liberals are sinister, amoral, generally rich and self-interest driven people with lot of respect for everything foreign and elite and utter disdain for everything indigenous.

Both are opposed to each other’s ‘common sense,’ the basic sense we are all expected to have, even if it varies from person to person.

Is there no difference between a conservative and liberal and is it all made up, merely a social media phenomenon, a public stance?

We have basic and acquired characteristics. The basics, according to me, form the person essentially; the acquired, received through later awareness, are borrowed from the other side. But when it comes to making a choice, the basic characteristics override the acquired ones.

And therefore in an apolitical atmosphere where our beliefs are not put to test or they don’t find any opposition because generally we like to surround ourselves with ‘like minded’ people, balanced views are given but when on social media, the ‘common sense’ is challenged and we take sides.

Return of a King: The First Afgan War

There is a certain cyclic order to British rule in the subcontinent. Successful occupation, social disconnect with the natives obscuring the British to a growing resentment (mostly based on religious but also nationalistic sentiments) caused by the actions of a handful of British officials and other elements of the colonial entourage, the resentment slowing but steadily solidifying into mass based anger simmering under the surface for some time and then a singular incident blowing it up into a wide spread revolt against the British leading to their large scale massacre (including their children and women folk), the sudden explosion of revolt and its utter brutality taking the British by surprise.

They are destroyed, defeated and pushed back. There is a period of calm. The British organize themselves and retaliate. The retaliation is severe, equaling the savagery and ferocity of their opponents. The natives are massacred, humiliated and defeated. British power is restored.

Sepoy Mutiny, in 1857, which rocked British rule in India albeit for a short period, has the same pattern to it.  Around 100 years before the Mutiny there was lot of bonhomie between the British and natives (exemplified best by an affair between a British spy and a lady of Muslim nobility in Hyderabad – read  Dalrymple’s The White Mughal – which had scandalized the Muslim and the English society alike).

This bonhomie was frowned upon by high officials in England and it slowly stopped leading to a complete absence of social exchange between the ruler and the ruled, placing the British poorly to gauge the widespread anti-British mood among Indians which led to the outbreak of the Mutiny, a result of multiple factors but provoked by a single incident – a minor East Indian Company soldier’s refusal to put cartridge in his mouth to tear off its opening which was rumored to have been greased with animal fat.

Large scale massacre of the British followed – followed by British retaliation and restoration of British rule in India. William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal brilliantly captures everything about the Mutiny.

In many ways, 1857 was a repeat of 1840 – 41, when British rule’s hubris, ignorance of local conditions and insensitivities towards local sentiments led to a similar disaster but on a much, much bigger scale, this time in Afghanistan. William Dalrymple’s Return of a King, which I read recently, deals with it.

The British have intelligence that Russia is planning to invade India, the jewel in the British Empire crown, via Afghanistan with the help of Napoleon. The intelligence sends panic waves in British quarters from London to Calcutta and the theory, which was highly exaggerated, finds its backers and gathers momentum over time. Only a friendly administration in Afghanistan can prevent the disaster, the British decide eventually.

Shah Shuja had been deposed from the throne many decades ago by Dost Mohammad who has ruled Afghanistan since. Against the advices of one of their most hands-on observer – Alexander Barnes – who has spent considerable time in the region, the British decide to invade Afghanistan to depose Dost Mohammad and restore the rule of Shah Shuja.

After a bitter war between the two sides, the British manage to restore Shah Shuja to the throne of Afghanistan. But problems start soon after. Three things slowly turn the mood of the Afghans against British occupation: dislodging of Dost Mohammad, a popular king; British policies in Afghanistan some of which hit the interests of the local tribal chiefs involving removing and curtling subsidies they had received for very long from the king; and the most incendiary one: licentious ways of the British officials using Afghan women, from all social sections, for pleasure.

Amidst growing resentment  a singular incident involving a slave girl, who had escaped from the harem of an Afghan of nobility to Alexzander Barnes, now the highest British official in Afghanistan whose licentious ways with Afghan women are chiefly responsible for  the growing anger against the British – sparked the revolt. The common Afghans, enraged by the fact that the kafirs are dishonoring their women folk, rise to arms massacring anything and everything British on their way. A mob storms into Alexzander Barnes’ place and slaughter him.

Eventually British exit from Afghanistan is negotiated but here awaits an even bigger disaster for the British. Afghanistan is a complex country whose different provinces are ruled by different tribal leaders – and a central leadership’s authority is dependent on their fealty to it. However, tribal groups often act independent of the dictats of their central leadership.

On their way out of Afghanistan when the British entourage is passing through the Khyber Pass they find themselves completely helpless against the tribal groups constantly buffeting them with sniper and ambush attacks in a terrain completely unfamiliar to the British and one that the tribals know like the back of their hands. The weather is more inhospitable than the terrain. An unexpected snow storm leaves the British troops, leaving officers and fellow companions frozen to death and those escaping death, completely maimed.

The humiliation makes international news headlines and is seen as the biggest reversal to face the Empire since its beginning. Prestige has to be restored. Retaliation and recapture of Afghanistan follow…

This is followed by another revolt taking place – this time spearheaded by Akbar Khan the son of the deposed king Dost Mohammad who had been banished to India by the British after he surrendered to them following the British invasion of Afghanistan to restore Shah Shuja to the throne of Afghanistan.

This revolt is different from the earlier one which ousted the British from Afghanistan the first time. The earlier one was due to a confusion of several factors – imposition of a puppet ruler, British policies and behavior with locals – where religion played but a minor role; the second rising is distinctly religious in character, mobilized by Akbar Khan as such.

Faced with a religious uprising, and depleting British coffers owing to an ongoing Opium War in China, Britain decide to retreat from Afghanistan…to India. However, the retreat, this time via a route different from the earlier one, is an experience no different from the earlier disaster – again constantly troubled by Afghan tribes through sniper attacks carried out from the crevices of the craggy mountains surrounding the serpentine passageways through which the British entourage (the entire soldiery, families and camp followers) are retreating.

To this day the country remains as inhospitable to foreigners as it was 170 years back when the British had left. The Russians got a taste of that in 1989. The Americans have been bearing the burnt for some time. While Dalrymple was researching the book, an Afghan told him: “We sent the Brits on their way. The Americans know their game is up, only their bosses back home refuse to accept the reality. The next will be the Chinese.”

The America We Hardly Know

You can know a country from its small towns and villages because the big cities are almost same everywhere. Bill Bryson’s A Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America establishes that fact beyond any doubt. The America you meet in the small towns that Bryson takes you through are a world very different from how we know America.

Taken from Good Reads

You will meet American bigotry (against blacks), poverty, ignorance about the world beyond, tits and bits of history, encountering an America, in the process, which is anything but glamorous and alluring.

And along the way your constant companion will be Bryson’s whacky observations (some of which indeed make you laugh) and autobiographical details about growing up in small town America (Des Moines, Iowa), which always adds character to travelogues, as he takes you through the obscure towns and cities of America on his way back home several years after he settled in England with an English wife.

What stays with you finally are not so much the prosaic details about these places (some are not efficiently laid out, some are plain dirty, some have no proper eateries etc.) as much the America the country and society that emerges through them.

There are searing observations. In the North people don’t dislike blacks as overtly as they do in South. In the North the whites wish blacks all success in life, but avoid being seen socializing with them. Somewhere are deep: America is a country of small town values – hard work, religion etc.

Bill Bryson’s writing style is complete standup comedy. Sometimes it’s effective and sometimes it reads like the kind of comedy a group clown does while among his school friends, knowing that any joke is better than no joke.

But then I have my sympathies with Bryson. Writing a travelogue is not easy – keeping the reader interested with the most average matters of life can be tedious to write and to read a well, that’s why travel book writers resort to history and autobiographical details. Alas, some of the towns Bryson drives through are so utterly obscure and insignificant that probably there is no recorded history to fall back on.

Where there is nothing to build the narrative around you wade through page after page of gibberish or Brysonism about what he thinks about a bad TV anchor whose show he stumbled upon when he switched on the TV in a hotel room – expecting that a nice piece of history or sprinkling of autobiography is just round the corner. It’s not that your patience is never rewarded but sometimes you are also left with disappointment.

But when your patience is rewarded with a piece of history or an autobiographical slice, it’s like a crunchy chocolate nugget coming in to break the monotony of landmass of vanilla ice cream.

Bryson’s father is a recurring presence in the book reappearing to rescue his son over and over again. Bryson’s father grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s and that left a lifelong impact on him: it made him extremely tightfisted – always looking out for opportunities to minimize expenditure. This fiscal restraint was a constant presence in Bill’s and his brother’s upbringing, staying in economy hotels when they went vacationing, which they did very often, eating at not so good hotels etc. This solid middleclass upbringing informs Bill Bryson’s worldview – an indifference to money and a loathing for extravaganza – which is evident through the book but prominently comes through when he visits Los Angeles, Nevada. But I also suspected he plays up the indifference to money and wealth thing a bit.

As much as Bryson sees everything American through the eyes of an insider someone who grew up in the country, Bryson also brings a refreshing perspective of an outsider, having stayed in England for many years.

When he happens to a backward place which has a reputation poverty stricken, he observes the houses seem to have everything you need for a decent living; yes, of course they don’t have air conditioners, fridges (the book was written may years ago) etc. – the quintessential American middle class gadgets – but that hardly makes them impoverished.

He continues that his father in law, in England, in his younger days was many years away from owning his own car and he never owned a firsthand car in his whole life; but no one called him poor or sent him aids. Observations like this save the book from becoming a dry tourist guide.