Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Mountains

This is a poem I wrote some years ago. It was published in the inaugural issue of The Afghan Mosaic, which unfortunately ceased publication after a few issues due to lack of interest and funding. The poem talks about how I miss Afghanistan and how with each passing year it recedes further into my past until it seems like it was a dream...

The Mountains

There's a world I knew
Of glistening dawns
Kissed by the morning dew
In the mountains nearby

There is a place I love
Of placid lakes reflecting
The craggy rock above
In the mountains not far away

There used to be a home
That I see in my dreams
And my heart still roams
In the mountains, somewhere

There was once a land
Memories of which I keep
From shifting like sand
In the mountains far, far away

I long to go there
Among the rocky hills
And the cool mountain air
If those mountains still exist

Monday, 29 August 2011

The Anna Coin Has Two Sides

Corruption. It used to be one of those dinner-conversation words that just rolled off your tongue while you tried to talk about something other than the weather. The ice in your whiskey clinked and you moved on to the next topic. It used to be a small, but persistent fact of life. Like power cuts, school fees and new Bollywood releases. The last few months and particularly the last 10 days have seen this word change. The implications of what the world's largest democracy is seeking to do, are profound. There is a sense of a sea-change occurring. Conversations are now more frenzied, more animated, the newswires are buzzing, the online forums are on fire. The Twitterati are jumping in with 140-character opinions of their own. Something's up and everyone has something to say.

To say corruption is endemic in Indian society would be a gross understatement. It's all-pervasive. It's everywhere. There is precious little you can get done without some form of a bribe or backhander. The average Indian's life from cradle to grave is peppered with little bundles of notes shoved into sweaty palms in what looks like a back street drug deal. Chai-pani, as it's often called, begins when you are born, starting with a 'tip' when your birth certificate is issued, and then through every stage of life, admission in a nursery and later in school, then college and university, getting a driving license, a passport, a ration card, a telephone line, an electricity connection, a sales tax registration number for your business, the filing of an income tax return, the registration of your marriage, the buying of a new home, the making of an insurance claim if you damage your car, the planning permission you need to make alteration to your house and finally the issuing of your death certificate and everything in between. The greasy hand of the corrupt civil servant reaches you well beyond your grave. You would think that something had to give at some point, but no. We were content with it all. A small price to pay for expediency, we thought and continued to feed the beast, like we were tipping for pizza delivery. However, it wasn't the little stuff that put corruption on the top of the dinner table list. It was the big stuff. And my, was it big! The License Raj everyone thought was long dismantled had morphed into a different, audacious, blatant and shameless creature altogether. Politicians plundered with naked abandon. India became something of a banana republic. The video illustrates some of the scale. 

Indians love a hero and they bestow the choicest epithets on them when they spring into the public's consciousness. Such is the case of 74 year old former soldier and now anti-corruption activist, Kisan Baburao Hazare. We call him 'Anna'[pronounced Un-na]. It means big brother, more specifically kind, benevolent big brother. Not quite the grand honour afforded to Mahatma Gandhi, who was called 'Bapu' (father), but a great honour nonetheless. Anna Hazare is the new hero, the new activist, the new symbol of an Indian Spring, if you like. As I write this, the story is still unfolding and I suspect the likes of Ketan Mehta, Mani Ratnam and Govind Nihalani are salivating at the possibilities. Somehow I'm thinking Paresh Rawal. And I miss the days when an online search for 'Anna' threw up images of a lithe tennis player.

Much has been written about the hows and whys and whats, so I won't go into that here. Suffice to say that activism in India has moved beyond the burning of effigies. The result of the last couple of weeks' of high intensity drama has been severe embarrassment for the government who completely misjudged the national mood, labelling Anna's actions as blackmail. The government capitulated and now, after four decades of dilly-dallying, ducking and evading the issue, India's parliament will create a powerful anti-corruption ombudsman to police everyone from the Prime Minister to the peon in a village office, in a bid to end the institutionalised corruption that defines life in India. The Jan Lokpal Bill looks like it will become reality. Tens of thousands of civil servants and law enforcement officials will be implicated and dismissed. Harsh, career-ending punishments will be meted out. The scourge of corruption will be yanked out, roots and all. All will be held accountable. Zero tolerance. Finally. Indian politics Cromwelled. Jolly good.

But hang on a minute. There's something else...

There's a dark side. How clever is it to undermine a democratic process, something India has the best there is? The Jan Lokpal Bill will create a bureaucratic monolith to clean up another bureaucratic monolith? Are we assuming the Jan Lokpal would be incorruptible? That they will not inflict their own brand of morality on us? Look at Team Anna for example; we are all aware of Anna's stance on alcohol consumption. I'm not sure being tied up with barbed wire and flogged in public is what I want. I happen to like my drink. What of Arvind Kejriwal, who may have a point about reservations restricting the nation’s output? Let's not forget, he's a lobbyist. That's his job. And supercop, turned Judge Judy, Kiran Bedi? She's been encouraging Indians not to participate in elections. Disengagement of the common man from politics is exactly what got us here in the first place. Just what the entrenched politicians need. Many of the others backing Anna, with their coloured and chequered histories, aren't exactly exemplary models of decent behaviour. When an anti-virus programme begins a cleaning process, it first checks itself and its associated files for infection. Will the Jan Lokpal do that? It will be run by people after all. Humans with the associated human frailties.

What about the process that got Anna what he wanted? What he achieved may be laudable, but look at the precedent it has set: If you don't pass the bill, Anna Hazare will kill himself. If you say you want to discuss it, Anna Hazare will kill himself. If you ask to keep the elected sovereign body outside the purview of the bill, Anna Hazare will kill himself. And there you have it, unanswerable to parliament, above the constitution, beyond the checks and balances of democratic processes, we could end up with a bureaucratic monster no one has control over and a law unto itself. Much like the institutions we are seeking to clean up. Somehow this worries me immensely.

I have always been in favour of a small government, less central authority, more power to the smallest units possible and a complete dismantling of ridiculous rules that make criminals of us all. The smaller the government unit, the closer it is to the ground, the more accountable it is, the more of the people, by the people and for the people it is. It's not like the brilliant Indian constitution does not have provisions for this kind of localisation. A draft exists in Schedule 11. Look at it. Here's a useful presentation for an overview.

I could be wrong about my analysis and my views could be skewed, living in a country where a Deputy Prime Minister can get a driving ban for speeding, an MP can get a parking ticket, go to jail for misappropriating an expense claim for a sum vastly dwarfed by an amount you'd shove under the table for a place at school or lie about a night with a prostitute.

I will consider India fixed when "Don't you know who I am?" is followed by a "I don't. And I don't give a shit."

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Like it is. Unpretty.

The politician who stands up and tells us the truth will never be voted in. And what exactly is it that needs telling? I have borrowed the text below from Old Holborn's blog. I couldn't have put it better myself.

See everything you have? It isn’t yours. The Government and yourselves have awarded us the finest things money can buy. Sparkling schools, four lane motorways, foreign wars. Our unemployed drive cars, we house and feed people who will never work, nor have the intention of doing so. We send money to nations who waste every penny we send. You buy televisions and Jacuzzis for the garden on credit because you believe you have failed if you cannot have what others have. You judge people by the car they drive and the clothes they wear. Both you and we the Government have completely lost the plot. We gave the dealers of the heroin we are both hopelessly addicted to, the banks yet more money so they could supply us with yet more heroin. 

Put down your credit cards and the Government will do the same. We will go back to a time when we lived within our means. You will drive one car per family because we will take away tax credits. You will have one television in your house because we will remove child benefit. We will ask you to help educate your children because our system of educating of them is not working and is bankrupting the very children we are here to educate. 

In short, we are skint. Get used to it. No more £50 a month on Sky TV, no holidays three times a year, and no artificial interest rates that allow you to live in houses you cannot afford. In return, we will slash the cost of Government and allow you to keep the money in your pockets. Those who work hard and save, will have their money. Those who don’t will no longer have the “right” to demand others pay their bills. They can expect the poverty that not working brings with it, not to be subsidised by those who do. 

You will be free to set up businesses, to exploit markets and to earn money. If your labour is only worth £4 an hour, you will be able to sell your labour for £4 an hour and we, the Government will get out of your way. We will end entitlement by removing the faux insurance schemes that we call “welfare” but are nothing more than bribes for votes. You will learn to rely on yourselves, not on others. Our only role will be to stand out of your way, remove the hurdles of the State and not endanger your wealth with endless interference. We will not punish those who achieve because others have not. 

It will not be comfortable, but if you want comfort, it is your job to earn it, not ours to distribute your money to those who WE feel should have it. We will not judge those who are rich, we will not judge those who are poor. It is not our task. All we will provide is secure borders and the rule of law. You are now free to be free. You are free to grow because the state has been constrained. We will shrink as you grow. Find your fertile soil and plant the seeds of enterprise. 

We wish you well, 

your Government.

And what do we do about the genuinely needy? We take care of them, of course, without trying to palm them off as someone else's responsibility. They raised you, remember?

Friday, 26 August 2011

Stick A Fork In It

I'm around 17 or 18, at someone's house for dinner. Rice is served. I ask for a fork. 

Mrs Host: "Puttar ék minute"
Little Miss Host: "Mummy saadé kol kaanté nahin."
Mrs Host: "Béta chamché vali daraaz vich dékh, hoéga zaroor."

A silence descends on the group and I can feel dozens of pairs of eyes staring at me. No-one can see it, but underneath my turban, my ears are red. An agonizing 60 seconds later Little Miss Host calls out from the kitchen, "Mummy! Nahin itthé!"

Mrs Host gets up in a huff and ambles into the kitchen. By now everyone has stopped eating. Minutes later she returns with a shiny fork in her hand, "Puttar éh leh".

Suddenly Little Miss Host wants a fork too. “Mainu vi kaanta chahideh!” And of course her little brother wants one too. They both rush off to the kitchen to get one and come back fighting over who should get the one with the yellow handle and who should get the one with ‘Thai – Smooth as silk’ written on it. One of them ends up crying and the other gets a slap from Mrs Host. A baby in someone’s lap gets startled, starts bawling and knocks down a glass of water. The baby’s milk bottle disappears under the dining table and two adults crawl underneath to retrieve it. What have I done?!

I just want the earth to open up and swallow me.

It doesn't and soon enough order is restored, the group resume their breathing, tensed shoulders slump and the eating begins. Mr Host, who is sitting next to me says sympathetically, "Beta, saanoo logan nu kaantéyan di aadat nahin."

I offer a weak defense saying that I'd grown up in a boarding school "jithé saanoo mar-mar ké chhuri-kanté naal khana sikhaya." I can see that none of this washes with the crowd. Every single pair of eyes is still glancing up at me after every other spoonful. I know what they're thinking:

"Vadda aya chhuri-kaanté vala".

Sunday, 7 August 2011


Last Thursday, a known felon with an illegal, lethal fire-arm was shot dead by the police. The details of the incident are still emerging following an investigation by the IPCC. In the weekend that followed, riots erupted in Tottenham.

There's a strong suggestion that many of the actions in Tottenham appeared to be pre-planned. Some of the explosive 'devices' could not have come from a spontaneous reaction - they had to be procured, stored and transported. It looked premeditated. Blame will be thrown around - mostly aimed at the current government, there will of course be no mention of inflammatory rhetoric by the 'revolutionary' types, of course not - that's only reserved for right-wing commentators.

Following the mayhem, no one is asking 'Who benefited from these riots?' The government didn't. The police didn't. The businesses didn't. The local authority didn't. The residents didn't. And then you see it:

The Race Relations industry is big in this country - rivalling the per capita spending of this type in the US and more than any of our European neighbours. With the bonfire of the QUANGOs and pragmatic approach to spending on 'community outreach' programmes funding of this nature has shrunk drastically and is set to be cut even further.

Add to this the backdrop of the past 10 years (9/11 being a trigger point) funding of this type has mostly shifted to the Muslim demographic away from the traditional black youth programmes.

The giants of the Race Relations industry have a lot vested in the continuation of state funding. Many of these so-called community organisations are headed by dodgy characters and cronies of the PC-brigade so often favoured by politicians that aim for the ethnic minority vote, which usually come in blocks.

A knee-jerk reaction by the government will see the reinstatement of a lot of funding flows once again to these race relations 'experts'. They're rubbing their hands with glee. Everyone knows who they are.