Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Of freedom and capitivity

What does a zoo mean to an animal? Is it a place where life is safe and easy? Or a situation of imposed captivity and a loss of freedom?

Animals are free to roam across the land in the wild. They can do whatever they want – the essence of freedom. That also means fending for oneself. The search for food, water and shelter therefore becomes essential for a free animal. It also means facing the vagaries of nature and avoiding the claws of predators (that range from other animals to the most dreadful one – the man).

Man, the predator, also runs zoological parks (aka zoo). Initially Zoos were a display of animals as a 'wonder' to be looked at. Then they justified their existence as places that help in 'studying and understanding animals'. Now we feel even more benevolent and justify a zoo as a place to 'preserve' other species. However, 'What or who is responsible for bringing certain species to the brink of extinction that justifies their capture, confinement and even forced mating in zoos?', will bring us back to square one situation. We devastate their habitat, interfere with their freedom and then capture and put them in cages to prevent them from getting extinct. Unfortunately, even this act of valor reeks of our selfishness. We try to save them because they may be or actually are of some use to us, somehow.

Coming back to the zoos, animals are mostly treated 'reasonably' well in a zoo nowadays. They get food, water (implying that they don't have to hunt or search and risk their life) and shelter. Even their health is taken care of by the veterinary doctors at the zoo. Heaters and coolers are provided in their cages as per seasons, to maintain a comfortable temperature for them. It is a reasonably luxurious life that many third world citizens may even be envious of and may never achieve in their lifetimes. Still, would an animal want to live in a zoo? What will you choose, luxury or your freedom, if you are in place of that animal? Whatever your answer, the fact remains that almost all of us are actually living a caged existence already. The only difference between us and the animals is that they realize they are caged but, we mostly do not.

We see the animals confined within their cages and infer that we are free because we are apparently ‘outside’. But, if someone watches us from beyond the earth, would they not find us equally confined by actual boundaries, fences, gates and grills as well as the abstract and conceptual notions like race, religion, class etc. etc.? What makes it most difficult for us to understand our own captivity is the paradox of finding comfort (that comes from familiarity and charted paths) in a confined space. The sense of comfort and ease that we get from the social structures (both physical and conceptual) is exactly the same that we use to justify the confinement of animals, especially those that are born in a zoo or captivity. For example, what will you do to quench thirst within the confines of say, your home or school or workplace? The ease of knowing these space guides us to the nearest refrigerator, water cooler or a tap, without thinking twice. We don't even have to worry about where it is coming from and it's drink-worthiness, because that is the 'given comfort' - a part of the structural confinement (both cognitive and physical) by the society that we accept in lieu of our freedom.

In contrast, a wanderer in a forest will have to think, deduce and figure out where water is most likely to be and then work his way to the source. The risk of failure being way bigger, the wanderer however has his freedom to rejoice and explore 'life' itself. An animal born in a zoo can never know what freedom is unless it steps out and manages to escape the brutality of the civilized structures, the numerous cages and the people who justify and control it.

(This is the unedited piece that was written originally for my weekly column 'Sacred Bull' in Financial Chronicle Newspaper.  Edited version was published on Oct 17, 2013)

Sunday, February 24, 2013

If I were you...

Can you hear my scream?
I may not come from the same clan
But I feel the pain
And use my throat to let out my cries
When you come charging at me
With your swords and daggers
Just like you would
If I were you.

Parvez  Imam
(Published in Financial Chronicle in march 2013)

Monday, February 4, 2013

Horses must be tamed!

Someone cheats on a partner.
Someone on a little child.
Some on their own selves.
And some are too beguiled.

The world just carries on
Even when it is torn
To shreds as petty properties
That someone else will own.
Someone else out their dies
In some patriotic fight
And valor is rewarded
By those, who sit on bribes
And drink from crystal glasses
That shine of blood and sweat
Of all those godforsaken souls
Who tread the beaten tracks.

The horses must be tamed!
For, blinded they can gain
A fortune for their masters
And their sacred, holy claims.
Question not what we give you?
You give yourself to us
“Work is worship” get that chant
Do not create a fuss.
This life, it is but just a test
The real one lies ahead
Way beyond the seven seas
And seven mountain crests.
Where you shall meet the king of kings
And live in luxury
But for that dream to be, you must
First burn in penury.
And lose yourself in the turns and twists
That this story has
About the nether world of god
And all that snazzy jazz.

Till you question, doubt and search
We cannot take you in
But once you submit soullessly,
You are accepted, kin.

So be prepared to sacrifice
Even if we play dice
Give up your wealth, do not look back
Just hail the lord and hit the sack
Those blisters aren’t anything -
An illusion.  So, for the lord, you sing
A happy tune as he rests upon
The feather bed, with his diamond rings
While muses dance to take away
His pain, after a hard, long day.

And you my friend, this is your test
Burnt, hard bread and a heavy head
The scorns, your needs and miseries,
Vanishing wealth and buckling knees
But hail the lord. Just hail the lord!
Inhale the love. Play a happy chord
He’s watching you. He’s testing you.
And after death you shall attain
That coveted place in heaven.
And we shall take upon your wealth
And let our coffers overflow
With sweat and blood that you must drip
Magic, for our modest growth.

And oh, those angels love you so
On either shoulders perched so low
Feather-light yet heavyweight
With morals, pushing you below.
The fairies dance all over you
They love you but won’t interfere
Your miseries are for you to bear
If heaven you must dare.

So in the end what do you learn?
Morality or religious fun?
Someone once said somewhere, somehow,
“Morality makes you do what’s right
No matter what you are told.
Religion is doing what you are told
No matter what is right.”
But right and wrong are relative
Like scales of two dissimilar songs.
Whichever you choose, is yours to sing
And hold the tune along.

But think about those pictures grey
That keep you tied, always at bay.
And the pride, that you have buried deep
Somewhere beneath some little creep.

Parvez imam
(Published in Feb 2012 in Financial Chronicle)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Facebook Friends

Like. Like.
Like. Like.
Like. Like.
And beyond that click
Are questions
And meanings
And words
That are never said.
And lots more
From a distant friend
Just a click away...
Another like.
Another smile.
I like that!


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Picking up a fight

Just the other day someone sent a link to a beautiful classical rendition of a Tarana (a style in classical music) in Raag Bhairon.  It was truly a blissful performance by an old guru.  I heard it over and over again.  Then out of curiosity scrolled down to see the comments other listeners have left on the page.  That, I think, was a big mistake.  But then, I wouldn’t have written this piece without that experience.

It amazes me, how easily people can pick up a fight over just about anything… even the most beautiful music.  Classical Indian music has had some very fine traditions based on respect - for the Guru or Ustad (the teacher) as well as for the music and the compositions.  I have had the good fortune of spending some time with an Ustad during my college years.  He was a soft spoken, pious, five-times-praying Muslim.  Knowing well, that I was a rebellious and non-religious person, he still took me as his student without any hesitation.  As years went by I began to realize that his serenity came from his music and his happiness from sharing it.  I do not remember him ever bad mouthing or knit picking anyone - even those who would make him wince by asking him to teach them seven Raags in the two weeks they had taken off from their busy schedule.  He would just smile and say “It took me all these year, but you may learn it faster”.

Once an overzealous, persistent young man asked him how much time would he require to master classical music.  Ustad chuckled, “Only three hundred years”.  The young man’s eyes popped out as Ustad continued, “Hundred years of good listening, hundred years of good practice and hundred years of good performance… and you will be there”.

Through numerous anecdotes and examples, he taught me that the art of music lies in becoming one with it, like a Sufi with his God.  When you achieve that purity ‘of notes and rhythm’, music becomes your lover.  After that there will be no place left in you for hatred.  Though I always saw him as a peaceful soul, immersed in his music, I was surprised when I found him reciting a bhajan, totally lost in it, one day.  Singing praises of a Hindu God did not seem a problem for this pious Muslim.

And here we are mistrusting and abusing each other for almost no rhyme or reason.  Am referring to the comments posted below that beautiful rendition I was listening to.  An aficionado has displayed his knowledge of classical music by listing down the names of classical music Gharanas (traditional schools) however all of them belonged to a particular religion.  It was followed by an abusive post with yet another list of Gharanas, all belonging to another religion and challenging the first one.  The next post abuses the second one and supports the first.  Religious lines drawn, the fight is on and the maestros, whose names they are fighting for, must be churning in their graves.

It is so easy to pick up a fight over nothing - thanks to our fears and mistrust of others; and our insecurities and confusions of being tied to imaginary boundaries that we ourselves continue to propagate.  How does it matter how many names of Gharanas or Raags one knows and the religion they may belong to?  Our claim to fame cannot be cramming some names and then trying to limit them into our self-defined stupid and artificial boundaries and borders.

Wish we could somehow strip ourselves off our fears and dive into music just to become one with it and sway, irrespective of our religions or a lack of it.  But then, it won't be as much fun as abusing another, right?

Parvez Imam

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Of Rape, Protest and Our Selfishness

‘Mard bano aurat ki izzat karo (Be a man, respect women)’, read a poster at a protest against harassment of women. An incident of gang-rape of a young woman working at a bar triggered a lot of anger and protests in Gurgaon, by the people of Gurgaon… or so they claimed. The incident was horrific. I completely stand by the woman. The perpetrators of this heinous crime must be punished… all seven of them. The irresponsible cops, who were informed immediately but instead of acting on the information took a dig at the girl for working late at a bar, must not be let off the hook for this massive dereliction of duty that allowed a rape, that could have been prevented, to happen. I am not sure who angers me more - the seven boys who raped the girl or the three policemen did not prevent it from happening.

Then began a series of protests. Various groups, various places… everyone venting out their anger… and rightfully so. The demand is to make Gurgaon safe for women. Now that is ridiculous - something as basic as safety has to be demanded? Should it not be provided proactively? We have the police, the government and departments and hundreds of officers and a whole paraphernalia to handle everything. Yet we have to struggle and fight for something as basic as safety? How is it possible that even when authorities are being paid to run a state (even the country, for that matter), people keep suffering from a lack of basic necessities - food, shelter and safety? What are those, supposedly running the system, doing and getting paid for? That answer isn’t that difficult to guess. The more difficult question is ‘WHY’. Why is it that things don’t work in this system? Why is it that people are discriminated against, and most remain poor and helpless, while a few keep getting richer and more powerful? The answer is not too difficult to guess but pretty difficult to digest.

In the fa├žade of being civilized and educated, we ourselves are responsible for the way things are. Discrimination begins right here. The power (in)equations are supported by us with a smile as we bow down to please those whom we fear.

We have it all ingrained and drilled into our head. We remain incapable of thinking beyond what is fed and of looking inside our own horrible heads. For example, and coming back to Gurgaon, we love to believe that we, who live in the high rises are ‘the’ people of Gurgaon. Are we really? What about those who actually owned these farmlands and grew crops here for ages till laws were bent and the land was bought over. Where are those people today? What was their culture? Do they have any place in this circus of beautiful words and apparent display of wealth, modesty and altruism?

Read the opening words again and think for a moment what is our own understanding of this system where patriarchal and economic concepts of disparity fuel most inequalities. ‘Mard bano aurat ki izzat karo (Be a man, respect women)’. Does this not follow that very patriarchal concept of being a ‘man’ that makes us believe that a woman is a ‘possession’ or a ‘property’ and thus lesser than man? Should it not have read, ‘human’ instead?

And this was just ONE such poster among various other things. Why do we miss out on the fundamental issues that lead to the problems… be it of safety or women or children or poor or whoever? What prevents us from analyzing our own thoughts and looking deep within? To top it all, one could even smell a silent race (of being on the top with more media coverage and headcounts) among some groups protesting for the issue.

We may believe we have evolved, but in the end we remain little selfish creatures who completely miss the point of understanding both life and humility. To sum up in the words of one of my favorite film makers, Charlie Chaplin, “I am at peace with God. My conflict is with Man.”

Parvez Imam
Dated: March 20, 2012

Friday, December 16, 2011

This one's for dad.

When my father passed away last week, my younger sister was with him. The hospital formalities required filling up various forms. A column for the death certificate requires the religion of the deceased. My sister did not hesitate even for a moment to scribble ‘Humanity’. The hospital staff was confused but she insisted and they had to accept it. My other siblings and I loved her for that for that's what dad would have wanted.

As a little child of six, quizzed at school about religion, I asked him what it is and which is mine. All other children knew theirs and had mocked me for my ignorance. He patiently sat down and explained the concept and then went on to say 'you can choose whichever you like when you are 18'. My sister and I were super thrilled at having a choice over something which all other kids were burdened with.

Thus we grew up without a religion in a small town where other children, and sometime even adults, would tease us for being rootless without a religion. But the power of being able to choose after having understood our choices, was way bigger than their petty jokes. By the time I was eighteen I realized that I do not need to choose any religion... in fact all are mine. I did not cram up verses from Koran, Bible, Gurugranth Sahib or any such book, but we had access to whichever we wanted to read and understand.

Dad questioned the institutionalization of religion as we see it today. The comparison of 'mine better than yours' irked him for he had read them well and could discuss any religion with anyone for hours, straight from the books along with the context of the lives of the initiators of each religion. No wonder then that I grew up often playing with a beautiful white idol of Gautam Buddha in our house. It was a simple sculpture which I loved without even knowing who or what it was. Much later I learnt that dad wanted to name me Siddartha, as he was reading Buddhism around the time I was born.

His burial later, which was done according to Muslim tradition as mom chose that, we called all his friends, acquaintances and neighbors to our house to share his memories. Our invite read, this is 'not to mourn his death, but to celebrate the life he lived'. We were surprised to see the number of people who came in spite of their own health, age and distances. But before that, I must share a most beautiful thing that mom did as we lifted dad's body to head for the cemetery. Amidst her sobs she whispered her last words to him softly as both my sisters hugged her, 'Pardon me if you did not like it this way but I did what I thought was best to offer you my respect'.

At the gathering at home, people shared their memories. Srivastav uncle, a neighbor who had recently moved to another house quite far from dad's but never broke his contact, shared an incident about dad which we had no clue about. 'I landed up in the colony at 3.30 am in the night with a truck and laborers to move in' he said. 'I knew no one here then. But within minutes a light came on in a house and a man walked out with a bottle of water and glasses to welcome me with the ease of a friend and said, "you must be very tired, have some water and anything else you need... my house is right here". I was amazed that in this concrete jungle there is at least one person with a heart who can step out to embrace a stranger' he smiled.

No wonder then that when dad was unwell, Srivastav uncle and many others, including the children from the colony whom he used to teach, kept visiting him regularly and offering us any and every help we may need.

What else could one write in the religion column then, but ‘humanity’ for this man, if at all such a column must exist?

Parvez Imam