Friday, May 26, 2006

Decoding the Da Vinci Code brouhaha

I am not sure if I really want to write about all the hoopla going on about the Da Vinci Code. I figure there are far too many historians, theologians and scholars out there who are far better qualified to explain the gaping holes in the novel than I could ever hope or dream of doing so. Certain things are best left to experts because they'd know how to express their points articulately, coherently, sensibly and logically.

However, upon reading this news item, and this, and this, and this, and this, and of course, this news item from the Gulf Daily News ... I realised I cannot remain a mute spectator in the wings and not say a word about the matter. I have to say something not because I am an expert but because I'm a Christian - the believing kind - and most of the protests are, supposedly, made on my behalf, to protect my faith, as it were.

All believing Christians are upset, the chant goes, at this blasphemous portrayal and only a ban on the film will satisfy hurt feelings. This has been one of the main points behind all these protests and the support for a ban is getting increasingly shrill. But frankly speaking, I have my doubts about the ban, and I have bigger doubts about the protests. I don't doubt their sincerity though, it's just that I'm not sure if such frantic demands for a ban on the movie will be effective enough. My cynical side imagines that these protests are just the thing that the studio executives' PR machinery would want. Controversy usually generates curiosity, and curiosity usually prompts more people to purchase the 'forbidden fruit' and boost its sales. Hence, the very objective of staging a protest becomes a futile exercise, or so it would seem.

But that, as I said, is a cynical view, formed after years of working in the advertising and public relations industry. However, let me point out - even if I sound contradictory saying so - that I'm not against protests per se. Sometimes we just need to state our point of view, and allow our voices to be heard. Silence is not always golden... many times, it is just that: silent and voiceless. In such a scenario, it is vital that our point of view gets across because remaining silent will not improve our cause because the 'other side' will use this opportunity to monopolise the airwaves. Democracy does not work that way or, rather, it should not work in this manner. Every shade of opinion, every miniscule point of view, and every slant must get an equal chance to speak up and state its case. Or suffer the ignominy of irrelevance.

Having said that, I oppose the very idea of banning the film or the book, for that matter. I oppose it because I'm against the very idea of banning anything. It is a very totalitarian concept and reminds me of a very weak and feeble attempt at 'mind control.' I passionately believe that every view-point - however gruesome and unpalatable to our senses - must receive a suitable platform for communicating its message to its intended audience. In this respect, I agree with Voltaire when he said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This right, also, gives us the means to express our disapproval whenever a book or a film or a song contains opinions that offend us. Yes. It works both ways, and provides an opportunity that we cannot miss. Banning anything will simply make us miss the bus altogether.

But all these views may sound interesting on a theoretical level but what do we do when a particular opinion rises up and tries to challenge that which is holy and sacred to us? Do we sit still, quote Voltaire and act as nonchalantly as possible? As I said earlier, we must avoid any talk of a 'ban' because it will not serve our purpose and, instead, make us come across as weak, frightened and insecure. If our faith is rooted in an almighty God, then, it can and should be able to overcome any slander and humiliation. We cannot defend God because He is perfectly able to do it Himself. All we can do is either pray or express our side of the story without getting hysterical about it.

Of course, it is not easy for us to sit still when that which is central to our lives is being assaulted, and especially so, when a novel and film like the Da Vinci Code enters the popular space and proclaims that the very foundations of our faith are based on a scam. Our first reaction is to be outraged. This would be a perfectly natural response. Next step would be to stay calm and examine all that has being said and prepare a measured response. I don't suggest that we act coy, pretend nothing has happened and accept it just for the sake of accepting it. We simply respond with the assurances of our faith but without getting emotional about it.

Da Vinci Code, for instance, states that all historical data in the novel are based on 'facts', and we need to examine these 'facts' and check whether or not they stand the test of historical scrutiny. Well, they don't. It would require a separate post to point out all the gaping holes and so I shall not get into that here, but I like how this article explains the weaknesses in the Da Vinci Code and equates it with post-modern fantasies. Another article points out some of the main points of the novel and provides compelling arguments to disprove the novel's claims.

The Priory of Sion figures prominently in the novel and though Dan Brown states that the Priory was founded in 1099 and played a prominent role in protecting the secret of the 'holy grail', actual evidence points out that the Priory of Sion was founded in 1956 by a con-man called Pierre Plantard. He had his own reasons for starting this Priory and for mythologising it and creating this hoax, but one can't imagine how Dan Brown missed this important detail. This Wikipedia article and essay from the Alpheus website gives you more details about the Priory of Sion.

However, most people are not, particularly, rattled by these inaccuracies but are upset by the suggestion that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene, one of his many disciples, and that they had children and that the organised church hid this secret because it opposed the 'sacred feminine'. It is a cute assumption to imagine Jesus as a family man, but as assumptions go it remains merely that. An assumption and nothing more. Anyone who has read the gospels and studied Christ's teachings will understand that turning him into a domesticated preacher is, basically, another case of missing the point altogether. His message was radical, perhaps, too radical for that age and even ours. It defied the religious conventions of that time (and even ours, come to think of it) and he faced severe opposition from the religious establishment. His message that humans can have a personal relationship with God upset the religious hierarchies of that time (and even down the ages) because in such a setup it was, obvious, they would have no central role. It was clear that his message was not appreciated because it demanded the dismantling of external piety and, instead, believers were asked to focus on cleansing and regenerating the inner being.

From the beginning of his ministry, he was aware of his impending crucifixion and resurrection. It is inconceivable that he would purposely leave behind a widow, and then, after His resurrection abandon her here on Earth and go to heaven. It doesn't tie in well with the Jesus of the radical gospel because the crucifixion account explains that he asked John, one of his disciples, to take care of Mary, his earthly mother. He did not abandon his earthly mother but made sure she was taken care of, and if he could do that to a parent-figure he would have surely done that to a spouse. Since the four gospels do not have any such reference of a spouse, we cannot impose any assumptions into the narrative and state them as facts.

Of course, all these ideas are based on the premise that Jesus was who he said he was: the Messiah who was to come and the promised Christ of the Old Testament. I have to state that my faith is based on Jesus of the gospels and of the One wh

The other view of a domesticated Christ makes perfect sense only if one chooses to defang the gospel and create Jesus in man's image. In fact, the essential problem with the Da Vinci Code is just that. It is another attempt to put God in a box and tame Him to our convenience. This is a problem not only with the novel but, also, with humanity these days. We want everything customised, built to our specification, and meeting our requirements. This has worked well with technology, but we want to drag it to include even our philosophies, our relationships, our education and our modes of entertainment. Anything that makes any sort of demand we like to push it to a corner and label it 'intolerant', or twist it around to make it palatable.

The Da Vinci Code is not the main problem, but a symptom of a larger phenomenon at work. There is an answer, there is a cure, there is a solution. But is there an effort to look for one?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

My Web Favourites


As every web-crawler knows, the Internet is a goldmine of the coolest and most fabulous websites. I can’t say much about the million other sites that populate webville, but here are a few blogs and websites that I seriously recommend because they are not only very good but I trust the people behind them as well.

Pragya Thakur, a senior executive at American Express in New York, is a very talented writer and the moderator of two writers forums on the Ryze Business NetworkShakespeare and Company and Creative Writers Network. I have always admired her mastery of prose, her sharp observations of life, her sensitive portrayal of people and places, and her tight control on her writing. Epiphany is her blog and I enjoy visiting it as often as I possibly can because of all the reasons I just explained. Her husband Anil is an incredibly talented writer and though I haven’t read anything from him for a long time… please don’t keep us waiting for too long, Anil. By the way, it was Pragya who encouraged me to start blogging in the first place, and now I am hooked.

John Wallen, good friend and colleague at the University of Bahrain, is a critically acclaimed fantasy and sci-fi writer, poet, web enthusiast, music lover and educator. He has combined his love for English literature and his fascination for the Internet to create one of the most incredible literary sites ever. Englitcom is a storehouse of actual audio recordings of acclaimed poets and authors reading their own work. Tennyson, Browning, W. B. Yeats, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Plath are just few of the big names whose voices you can hear. In other cases where it wasn’t possible to get an audio recording, he has included recordings from famous actors. He has recently started blogging, and so do check Ulysses on Ithaca.

Mahmood Al-Yousif, the man behind Mahmood’s Den, loves Bahrain and writes straight from his heart about all that’s happening in this lovely little island that has been my home for the past thirty-odd years. His blog is very popular in Bahrain and attracts readers not only from the Kingdom but, also, from all over the world. He writes about social issues, politics, business, his garden and, also, does some video-blogging as well. His blog posts usually receive a lot of comments and are, often, quite interesting.

Annie Zaidi, co-moderator of the Caferati Writers Network on Ryze, is another talented writer whose work I admire. Known Turf is her blog and provides some of the most sensitive observations of life in India. Those of us who are constantly being fed all the hype about the new emerging India, Annie’s blog points to other facets of the country that are often being ignored in the rush to be the next economic superpower. She is a very skilled writer and knows how to use words and phrases effectively to create the required impact. But most importantly, she is able to transport readers to her world with the power of the written word.  

And finally, Batelco, Bahrain’s sole Internet Service Provider, has revised its broadband rates and has eliminated the unlimited usage option. On the plus side, connection speed has been increased to 1 mbps but, on the other hand, the threshold limit is 15 GB and users will be charged 10 fils per MB if we exceed this limit. I’m talking about the previous BD 40 package that was previously available with a 256 kbps connection speed and no limits at all. Internet users in Bahrain are unhappy with this revised package because it will severely hamper our use of the Internet. Boycott Batelco is a dedicated website, managed by Mahmood and supported by those in Bahrain who are upset with Batelco’s unilateral decision. It provides all sides of the argument and includes a statement by Peter Kaliaropoulos, Batelco’s Chief Executive Officer, giving his rationale behind the new rates.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The silent majority

The silent majority is an elusive demographic group. Everyone knows they exist somewhere out there, but no one can point a finger and say, there they are, we've captured them in a box, strapped them with simple sentences and now you can define them anyway you want. They are much too slippery for that.

But that hasn't stopped people from attempting definitions, or even trying to fix meaning to any vague semantic jiggery pokery that often passes as 'sensible' discussions on the silent majority.

Governments, media organisations, social scientists and political groups, for instance, talk about the 'silent majority' practically all the time. It's their favourite topic or so it seems. Most decisions are taken with the silent majority in mind. Certain causes are defended to serve the interest of the silent majority. Many articles and books are written to articulate the expressions of the silent majority. And massive projects are undertaken for the benefit of the silent majority.

An infinite load of chatter seems to be puncturing the airwaves, and yet we notice a distinct inability in arriving at anything concrete. Hot air and no warm breeze.

Almost everyone who talks on behalf of the silent majority insists that the group is in danger and requires protection from the antics of the rabble rousing and highly vocal minority. Oh yes. The vocal minority. Another elusive demographic group that require a separate post to fully understand who and what they really are but we'll leave that for some other time, ok. But if truth be told, this 'save the silent majority' campaign seems to say a lot about the ones organising the campaign than about the subject matter itself.

The campaigners usually talk on their own behalf but do not say so explicitly. They cannot. That would be so selfish and self-centred and would put them in such a bad light. So they pick a more magnanimous route and become the spokespersons of this vague entity called 'the silent majority'. Sounds better that way, too. Makes them look like people concerned about the 'general good' instead of coming across as ones talking only about their own petty little life.

Of course, it's all about appearances. The image game again. An age old exercise geared towards looking good in everyone's eyes.

But most importantly, it is the safest and most convenient option as well. After all, the silent majority is always very silent, and silence can mean so many things.

And everything depends on how you interpret that silence.

Everything.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The White Mercedes

The white Mercedes Benz with a Saudi license plate was parked outside a seedy three-star hotel on Exhibition Avenue in Manama. The tinted windows would have made it impossible to see the occupants but the windows were rolled open and - in the two minutes that it took for me to drive past them - I was able to take a peek into a strange and unfamiliar world.

The man at the wheel was young - about 30 or 35 - and appeared to be enjoying a fuss his companion was making. She was slumped in her seat and instead of addressing him directly, she was looking at the road ahead and was rattling off a litany of complaints, or so it seemed. It looked like a lover's quarrel in progress and my attention was immediately directed towards what, I thought, might develop into high melodrama. But nothing of the sort happened.

The man continued to ignore the woman while his eyes began to furtively scan other cars on the road. He had a look of pride on his face as if he had accomplished something really big, and his posture gave the impression that he wanted to be noticed. It had that 'look' that seemed to say, here I am look at me. And one glance at his companion made it abundantly clear why this was so.

She was an attractive woman in a saucy kind of way. The type with lots of garish make-up and the slinkiest possible attire. The type that makes heads turn and wives a little worried. The type our parents usually warn us against. The type whose company our man was definitely enjoying.

His mind was, obviously, contemplating on what he might do with her tonight, and hence, the woman's complaints were proving ineffective because they were falling on deaf ears.

And just then I noticed her eyes.

They looked empty and lifeless. There was a blank look in those eyes instead of a fiery stare that would have seemed more appropriate. The vacant glance appeared to suggest the fuss was all play-acting, nothing serious, all make-believe. I could tell it was all part of an act. Maybe a clever little way to add a human touch to their interaction. Or most probably, a cheeky way to get more money from the man. Both options - whichever way you looked at them - clearly indicated that the two were not lovers. They might have met an hour ago, the previous night or they must have had a financial arrangement or a contract-of-sorts to meet each other whenever he drove down from Saudi.

I was unable to wait at the spot for too long, and hence, I'm unaware what eventually happened to the two of them. Did the girl finally get what she wanted? Did the man respond to all the fuss and complaints? Did the two really kiss and make up?

My guess is as good as yours, but one thing for sure... it was a very sad sight because, however much you rationalise, affection - or even acts of affection - were never meant to be a purchaseable commodity.

Never.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Ring My Bell

The thing about nostalgia is that it brings back memories. Not so nice memories. And very often, the kind we like to forget. Case in point: Ring my bell by Anita Ward. I thought I had completely forgotten that song but watching VH1 Classics the other day brought back all the miserable memories all over again.

And now I just can't get the song out of my head... it's stuck there like a broken record, and I find myself mouthing, 'ring mah bell, ring mah bell' along with that ghastly 'tyoon tyoon' sound so popular in the 70s.

On the plus side, however, I realised my distaste for the disco-sound even in those days was not completely misplaced. I can't imagine all THAT was considered 'cool' along with bell-bottoms, wing-sized collars and high heeled shoes.

Thank goodness, we are in the 21st Century now.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Taliban Uncle

I am trying to understand the mind of an average Taliban terrorist. I am sure once you scratch the surface, he might turn out to be a regular bloke. Or I hope he turns out to be as regular as the guy next door or like the guy in the next cubicle. It is hard to imagine because an average Talibani or, at least, the ones we get to see on TV does not seem to be very normal.

I am sure after a long hard day’s work blowing up convoys, kidnapping and killing aid workers, whipping women who show skin and behaving like a professional killjoy, a Talibani has to come home to his family in the night.

Maybe he has children who wait for him at the door and who run to him when he comes home and ask him if he got some cookies for them. Maybe he plays football with his boys and teaches them how to give a header or even how to keep the ball in the air for more than ten minutes. Maybe he has an old mother or grandmother who longs for his company so they can run their wrinkled fingers across his hardened face.

Maybe he has a younger brother or sister with marital problems and who wait for him to come home and mediate. Maybe his wife wants him to check the fusebox and buy stuff from the local supermarket. Maybe she is worried about the baby and wants him to buy more milk and cereals this time. Maybe he is concerned that his salary will not last, and he may have to borrow to make ends meet. Maybe he wants to just sit with his wife, run his fingers through her hair, hold her very close… and make love. Maybe she wants him to do just that. And maybe, just maybe, it is the memory of her sweet scent that gives him the strength to face each tiring day at work.

Maybe.

But I am aware that it requires an enormous stretch of imagination to think of the average Talibani as an average man with average desires and average wants. I know average is a loaded word and carries with it a sense of the ordinary and the boringly normal. Talibanis, on the other hand, exist on a different level altogether. Nothing ordinary and normal about them. Their lives, their ideology, their dress code and their track record all point towards something hideous. Almost as if we are dealing with a strange beast whose DNA bleats with a different drumbeat. Not ours. Anything but ours. We cannot be like that because we are, or so we like to call ourselves, more human.

I am not sure if the Taliban hold an exclusive right over matters of evil. Human history is full of bloodthirsty tyrants whose murderous spree brought havoc in the lives of common people. Most civilizations and countries have been founded on the blood of innocent lives who perished mainly because they shared a different ethnicity. No one can claim innocence because no one is truly innocent as long as the ‘flaw’ exists. But before that ‘flaw’ can go, we need to take a good, long and hard look at our fascination with pointing fingers at others.

All that is fine and sounds good as a dinner table conversation, but what does one do with a beast like the Taliban? Do we use the same civilisational arguments while dealing with those brutes? Do we have to treat them as ones deserving a fair hearing?

I think we have to because not doing so would make them winners in their terror campaign. And if they succeed in making us like them, then, we have lost it. We have given in to the dark side and become as inhuman as them.

But maybe – just maybe – if we try and scratch the surface of a Talibani and look for the human inside, there might be some hope. Some chance of rapprochement. Some meaningful breakthrough in relations. Some ray of sunlight, at least.

And a faint chance that, perhaps, this image would have had a happy ending. Maybe. But that's making an assumption, a far-fetched one, hoping that, perhaps, ‘Taliban Uncle’ would have listened to those small kids and released their daddy K. Suryanarayana. At least, they wouldn’t have been left orphans and their mother a widow.

A small possibility, yes,  but filled with such promise and hope.

After all, even Talibanis have families, right.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Tyrant Alert

I came across this post on Fufa, one of the forums on the Ryze Business Network, and felt it was significant enough to warrant wider coverage. And hence, I'm reproducing an email that was posted on the board as a gesture of my solidarity with that campaign... and my hope and prayer that justice will be met.

The Gujarat riots that took place a few years ago have been a blot in the history of modern India not only because of the senseless savagery that took place but due to the apparent connivance of state officials in perpetuating, provoking and even abetting the violence and ethnic cleansing.

Chief Minister Narendra Modi is a man who, I think, deserves a place right next to Hitler, Stalin, and Osama. He should have been fired from his job but sad to say he is still in the hot seat and as this email suggests he is still capable of perpetuating his nefarious ways. While this particular campaign is asking for revoking the police chief Pande's promotion, but personally I hope it would also lead to Modi's resignation and eventual prosecution.

People like him do not deserve a place of power in any democracy. People like him must be punished so that democracy can be strengthened. People like him must be hauled over judicial charcoals because it's the right thing to do.

From: "Smita Vasudevan "
Subject: Experiments with violence in Gujarat
Date: Mon, 01 May 2006 00:00:54 -0500

Last week I read the book 'Scarred – Experiments with violence in Gujarat' by Dionne Bunsha. I read about a pregnant woman whose womb was cut open, the unborn child pulled out and thrown into the fire before her eyes. She was then burnt alive. Her crime? Only that she prayed to a different God (or the same God by another name?).
Ahsan Jafri was sitting in his house when the mob entered. They stripped him and cut off his fingers. Half dead, he was paraded around the neighborhood and asked to say 'Jai Shri Ram'. After which his hands and legs were cut off and he was thrown in the fire to roast alive.

Jafri had called up the Police Chief Pande, asking for help much before the mob got there.
Pande knew what was happening. But he just let innocent people die. Why? Perhaps he believed that they deserved to die because they were Muslims, perhaps it's because the little children being burnt alive were not his own or just maybe it was because he knew he'd be rewarded for this one day. And that day has finally come. On the April 28 2006, Modi promoted Mr. Pande to the position of DSP.

The only people fighting this injustice are a bunch of social workers and the families of those killed. In all probability this man will go scot-free.

But it doesn't have to be that way.... Not if each of us takes a 5 minutes off to write to anyone who can do something. Just pick up your phone and SMS NDTV at 6388. Go to their website www.ndtv.com and pen down a note of protest in the 'Feedback' section. Make them cover the issue in-depth so that more people raise a noise. Take 5 minutes off to pen down a note and send it to letters@thehindu.co.in

Please forward this mail to everyone that you know. The more people protest, the more they will be heard.

Today it was someone else's mother that was raped, someone else's sister who was burnt alive, and someone else's child that was hacked to pieces. What if it had been your own? Over a 1000 people died in Gujarat. Help their families get justice.