Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The saga of why elephant was not chosen the king?

When elections begin, I am often asked to sing,
the tale of why elephant wasn't chosen the king.

After dinos left the earth, the animals gathered together,
the jungle had decided to elect their leader.
The problems were moo many, and there were moo many voices,
and when it came to the king, there were boo many choices.

This is before humans, demons and demon-cracy existed,
before royalty was thought divine, or guillotine was invented,
sharing land, food, caves, was forever a problem,
and without a king, there seemed no solution.

The monkeys shook trees, wolves howled, birds roosted,
elephants shook the earth, cows mooed, jackals boasted,
an owl chaired the session, the crows spread rumors,
and cats, rats, dogs, hare, turtles, deer, lions talked in murmurs.

Finally the session began, owl asked for nominations, stated,
"There are things I know, and things I don't,
and there are things I don't want to know,
but before we begin, I must tell you how it is fated.

The king shall rule, by his will, and by his skill,
and take what belongs to him, no less, no more,
and have our respect, for who he is, as a beast,
and treat us as equals, no less, no more".

The pigs began to grunt, and showed intention to squeal.
Owl permitted it, and a boar then stood up on two feet,
and said, "A king cannot be a king, if he is equal to the others".
Owl hooted, "As king he is equal, more equal than the brothers."

Few hands went up, monkeys rose first up,
but were deemed too naughty, too childish for responsibility,
and since insects, birds were always fleeing from calamity,
rats were too small, cats too clean, dogs always licking others,

soon most of the animals were dismissed back their place,
and only the elephant and the lion were left in the race.
(There was no divine hand in this, no lotuses or roses thrown,
and no walkouts, boycotts occurred, for such things were unknown).

The elephant raised its trunk, and announced his intent,
and began his high pitched, arrogant rant,
"For years, we vegetarians, have been kept down by some,
we are in majority, we are kept on low ground by some.

We don't get full share of meals, our water bodies are attacked,
and we are always blamed for our overgrazing in hinterlands,
Elect me, I promise a turnaround, a leash on those carnivores,
see my stature, see my snout, my size, I will reinvent jungle mores."

The deer clapped, birds seemed unruffled, cows thought it boo-ring,
Wolves gnashed their teeth, cats, dogs, jackals found this talk alarming.
So when the lion rose with a roar, they felt the tremor within, and emerged an uproar,
and then the lion coughed, stretched and unstretched, and began his eloquent address:

"Friends, the elephant is strong, it lives as a throng, keeps its tribe together,
but when it comes to governance, we lions and tigers are better.
For elephant never forgets, is ever full of regrets, and is slow in many respects,
and we all know, an ant up its nose kills it, so its afraid of even little insects.

Elephant eats too much, never shares its meal, is never satisfied,
and believes its grand, but to prove it on land, wants always to be deified.
Must I mention the white elephant projects, caste/species based promises, false teeth?
You show it a bunch of bananas, or sugarcane farm, and see him sneak and steal.

We are lions, we hunt our fill, and share our meals with jackals and vultures,
and when we kill, we cleanse the herds of their weakest members,
we take what belongs to us, we are our own masters on this earth, we're brave,
and when we are satisfied, we stay low, or we return to our quiet cave.

In intention you can never suspect us, we ensure the survival of fittest!
The balance of the world, food chains, populations depends on us.
In a jungle, the unity of your herds, your morality, begins with us,
As for a king, chose the being, who can make you way of life long lasting."

The lion sat down, and elephant held his ground, and animals began to talk,
"The elephants is tough, too big to ignore, and yet can he walk his talk?
In elephant's rule, will the rabbits and rats and deer and cows overrun the earth?
There will be too many of us, the jungle will be in throes, it will be just chaos...

The lion is bathed in blood, and has hunted our kind for so long,
and yet, when he in slumber, it seems, he can do us no wrong,
so stately in slumber, so elegant in its walk, so sleek in hunt,
and he knows how to take out the brothers, who are miscreants or defunct.

When lion stays around, young ones behave, old ones watch their own backs,
and wolves and dogs and bears and hyenas, always stay together as packs,
when lion holds his ground, we are discrete, we are God fearing, we're ourselves,
but in an elephant kingdom, we'd be overrun by their calves".

Jackals whispered, "and you know how elephants behave when they go 'mast',
a hungry lion can be satisfied, but an angry or 'mast 'elephant is quite worse",
Wolves howled in unison, "Lion! King! Lion! King!" and pigeons began cooing,
Dogs joined in, asses joined in, deer consented, hare jumped to feet, cows began mooing

The elephants held their noses up, and cried "foul play, foul play"
but on the day of that election, the lions took the day,
and to the crowd now in commotion, owl spoke to ease any tension,
"The results are clear, we need an overseer, an animal we all respect,

While elephant is huge, and has some popular views, its not a kingly thing,
And for the greatest benefit of all, for unity, and for a healthy co-living,
for the sake of progress, for making most happy and to prevent an uprising,
it becomes clear in this meeting, the elephant must not be the king".

Since that day the lions rule, and the jungle law is set,
"Your king must be the animal, you ever hold in respect.
While we live as God or natural selection devised us,
in the end, it is our leaders who define us".

"There are things that I know, and things I don't,
and there are things I don't want to know",
I repeat owl's words, as I loudly sing,
The raga of how or why elephant was not chosen the king.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Random Thoughts (21 Feb - 5 April)

Isn't Hanuman Chalisa most popular Hindi poem ever written?

The verses written by Goswami Tulsi Das continue to be recited throughout the North India with much affection and faith. Fully translated version exists online at

You can listen to these on youtube here:

I was particularly offended by the portrayal of Hanuman in White Tiger. Perhaps Arvind Adiga needs to hear these verses as well, but I doubt if the meaning and intent of Hanuman Chalisa can be explained to the faithless, irreverent folks.

The verses written in 'khadi boli' (old Hindi, 'the language used while standing') are written metrically. This is a verse that describes Hanuman as a great warrior sage. As you recite Hanuman Chalisa, you are reminded of the whole Ramayana, how Hanuman plays a central role in the story of Lord Ram. While Lord Ram is portrayed as an ideal human, Hanuman, even though he is a monkey, possesses superhuman abilities. The chosen God of wrestlers, as well as of "brahmachari" (bachelors forever), the most entertaining character of Ramlila (stage performance of Ramayana in ten days preceding festival of Dussera), the superhero of my childhood, Hanuman exercises a strong influence on the spiritual development of nearly every Hindu. These verses have inspired faith and valor in us for five centuries already, and here, I again thank Tulsi Das ji for creating Ramcharitamanas, the poem for common man which has been our moral code and religion's cornerstone for centuries.

After Valmiki's Sanskrit verses found Tulsi's khadi boli rendition, a new era of Bhakti and bhajans set in. While Tulsi is (with Valmiki, Kalidas, Tagore, Bachchan, Dinkar, Tiruvullar and Kabir) one of the most important Indian poets ever, our modernized, Westernized education has kept us away from his verses and message. Perhaps it is not too late for people like me to rediscover and read the iconic verses of our language.


On April 1st: I love fools day... its reminds me of a group of friends in High school, who wanted to make a World Fools Association, with Ashish as the President... and recited doggerel verses continuously :)

On another note:
Poetry about drinking
One of the finest Ghazals about drinking:
Dev Anshul (Arbit) introduced us to this song in IIT days (kal jo pi thi uska nasha hai)
If you are wondering why I recommend this song, the answer is simple:
sharab pio na pio, gaana sunnan witch ki harz hai?
suroor to hamesha se raha hai mujhe,/ pehle bahana jaam ka nahin banaya karte the...
{Weird translation:
How does it matter if you drink or not... you can still appreciate Ghazals.
From ever I have been on a high/ but earlier, we refused to blame the goblets}

I was amazed that someone issued a fatwa against Madhushala, nearly eight decades after the book length collection of rabaiyats (verses) was published. Even Mahatma Gandhi, did not object to Harivansh Rai Bachchan's verses which use Madhushala (tavern) as a metaphor. Haven't the masters, Ghalib and Hafiz, written likewise about drinking, tavern and wine?

Friday, April 03, 2009

Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile

Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile is an incredible yet true story of perhaps the largest and the most expensive covert operation in our immediate history. The major protagonist, Charlie Wilson is a six-feet-four-inch Texas Congressman. He gets involved in serial affairs with beauty queens and belly dancers, appears liberal on most issues, keeps the most handsome, personal staff in Washington, and drinks excessively, or rather nearly to his death and destruction. But Charlie is also the man who believes in underdogs, in anti-communist policies, in support of Israel on one hand and on the other, to build 'a billion dollar a year' funding for covert operation in Afghanistan, for the US sponsored jihad against the Soviets. The importance of this story must be measured in terms of the consequences that Charlie Wilson's War brought upon the world. The defeat and dissolution of USSR in late nineties, rise of Taleban and Al Qaeda leading to the September 11 attacks and ongoing Afghan and Iraq war in their aftermath, the twenty years of (spin-off) terrorism in Kashmir, all are the consequences of the Charlie Wilson's War.

While Charlie is the politician, the man on the ground, is an equally improbable character. Enter a second generation Greek-American, street-smart CIA operative, Gust Avrakotos. His language is infested with slurs. He is an outcaste of sorts in the ivy league dominated detective agency. Crile introduces him in a chapter titled "A rogue elephant in the agency woods". Gust's character was brewed in small town bar-fights and brawls. Gust has had his share of adventures and misadventures before he got involved as the operative that masterminded the ground operation in Charlie Wilson's War. While Charlie would run through Congressional committees to get the money sanctioned, and find Israeli or Egyptian or European or American arm dealers (or politicians) to get insane amounts of ammunition, Gust worked out how, what, where, when of the mission they both loved. The mission of killing the communists. In that mission, the jihadists, the Afghans with all their tribes and peculiarities, seemed the perfect warriors for the agency as well as the key actors in the game.

The novel, like the movie based on it, moves through landscapes that tell you something about each character. Like the young Charlie transports as many voters as possible to the voting booth in Texas, to ensure that the guy who shot his dog loses the case. Gust grows up in a small town, Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, and then learns about the distastes and despair of men of different nationalities, basically when he just needs to figure out how to sell more cigarettes to bars frequented by Russians, Lebanese, Serbs, Poles, Greeks and so on. Charlie Wilson always gets into trouble, whether it is a case that made him famous as Cocaine Charlie (he got away due to lack of evidence), or a hit-and-run case, where he eventually was saved by his more than supportive staff. He has the gall to take a belly dancer to Egypt and have her perform for the minister there. He had one or the other pretty woman by his side, while he met 'the holy warriors who were destined to destroy the evil Russian empire'. Gust and other characters are developed in great detail, and if it were only a novel, I would perhaps say something about plot, writing style, sequence of events and so on. While this reads like a spy novel, with lots of sex bombs and lots of exploding bombs, Congressmen and Russian army, belly dancers and Mujahideen, billions of dollars and exotic locations, the mind-boggling thing is that Charlie Wilson's War is a line by line description of how our world was transformed. Not necessarily into a better place!

An old Indian adage says: "Behind every successful man, there is a woman". Charlie Wilson was seduced into the mission of fighting Russians and helping Afghans (termed as freedom fighters by Reagen) by the ever resourceful , glamorous, social lioness, Texas bombshell, Joanne Herring. Crile says, "In the pivotal first years of jihad, she became the matchmaker and muse to Pakistan's Muslim fundamentalist, military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq, as well as to the scandal prone Charlie Wilson". Joanne brought together the key players, Charlie, Zia, Saudi princes, and so on, who later fought and financed the war, and yes, all this was happening behind the scenes. The most interesting bits in the novel are where it gets into details of how much money was used to finance these missions, how weapons were acquired by fair and unfair means, even donkeys that carried weapons in Afghanistan were imported at exorbitant price, and how many nations were involved in this mission.

To quote from the book:
"No insurgency had ever enjoyed such a range of support: a country (Pakistan) completely dedicated to providing it with sanctuary, training and arms, even sending its own soldiers along as advisers on military operations; a banker (Saudi Arabia) that provided hundreds of millions in funds with no strings attached; governments (Egypt and China) that served as arms suppliers; and the full backing of a superpower (the United States through CIA). All of that plus various kinds of support from different Muslim movements and governments, as well as intelligence services of England, France, Canada, Germany, Singapore, and other countries."

It is true that this support inflicted heavy losses on the Russian army and air force. It is true that Charlie Wilson's War was the grand punch which bought down the Soviet Empire. It is true that the mission remained covert in spirit and achieved its goals by using some of greatest resources (brainpower, muscle, technology, espionage). The grand warriors of that time, the Afghan freedom fighters, were even transported to American hospitals for treatment. What is curious and interesting, for it is most apparent throughout the story, is the fact that the extreme fervor of jihadis, their hate for people outside their tribe and culture, was ever staring in the face of the key operatives. If ends satisfy means, then Charlie Wilson's War was a justified, for it met its initial aim. But, but... things must come a full circle, and the story just doesn't end with Wilson's script.

The Russians left, but the tribal mistrust that has existed for centuries did not. The warriors were not disarmed, were not resettled, and to top it, a whole system of planning, organizing and manning armed struggle was created. Soon these jihadis were up in arms against each other, and Afghanistan continued to bleed. Many warriors were now sent to other missions. Kashmir and Punjab in India became hot beds of militancy, and the weaponry and savagery procured for fighting Russians destroyed the peace and sub-cultures there. Since Zia was the man in charge of covert operation, he was kept in power (that he had hung Bhutto, democratically elected leader, was forgiven) and the amount of money poured into Pakistan then, was what financed their nuclear arsenal, their army and their propensity to support jihadis against chosen enemies. Later and before, US supported such dictators to meet their ends in Pakistan and elsewhere.

Only a decade after the grand exit of Russian army, American armies were to enter Afghanistan to hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda and Taleban... and fight against some of the very people US & CIA has trained and armed with their taxpayers money. It is said in India that whenever outsiders tried to rule the Afghans, they failed or they perished soon after, and this legend dates back up to the times of Alexander. The unsuspecting British army had a harsher experience in early nineteenth century. But of course, in this case, even the more immediate history is not discussed or remembered. It is not recalled that every exhibition of brutality by the jihadis that has hit headlines in the past decade was cheered when it was done against the Russians. Every tactic of using air force to bomb villages in Afghanistan was criticized by the US when the planes and pilots were Soviet. Sadly, only the characters have changed, the methods, motives and means have not, the telling effects on a country ravaged by war are very much there. Charlie Wilson's War is a reminder of not only how a war was won, but also of how the neo-enemy of United States was created out of a breed of men who wanted to fight and slaughter their enemies with bare hands.

In Mahabharata, unarguably the greatest epic poem ever written, it becomes clear that in wars, there are no real winners. There is no moral war, for in a war, men and armies use any means possible to win. Even though the valor is real, there are heroic fights, exhibitions of skill and martial superiority, the only outcome a war warrants is the destruction of both parties. Charlie Wilson's War ends with an epilogue titled: "Unintended consequences". Since we live in a world terrified of these unintended consequences, since we wish to understand how it all began, and how is it all carried out, we all must take time to read the Charlie Wilson's War. While the movie gives a sampler of what the book portrays, the movie is not full of as many details or rather, it is impossible for anyone to assimilate this information so easily. Yet, if it were not for the unintended consequences, and if it were not all real, Charlie Wilson's War makes for a 'fun' reading. Once you start thinking about it, which you will, it turns into a horror. Since it is better to face the facts and fight our ghosts, I recommend this book to every thinker, politician, historian, American and human being living in our times.