The last post was a result of musing on what a silly old buffer Sir Robert Winston is, and wondering why C list celeb scientists like him and Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield are encouraged by the comfortable, middle-low-brow guardians of public opinion to patronise and mislead us. Winston has a snip in g2 today, his usual chuntering guff. It’s about religion. It shows no sign of reflection, analysis, reading, understanding. It’s not so much that a lot of it is wrong, it just does not begin to address the issues he pretends to address. Assertions like “Nor should we blame religion for the various Crusades in Europe” puts us in an intellectual landscape I guess well below five good GCSE passes, and the second rate biographer’s habitual “would have”, as in “We had less protection against repeated changes of climate than other species - yet we survived. Human spirituality would have played an important part,” are an embarrassingly clumsy way of lying about what we know and what we don’t know. I want to know whether this is important, this substitution of comfortable, soft centred irrational guff for stringency. It may be. Politicians and corporations thrive on it, because it’s a camouflage for convenient lies. (“The science tells us...” has the same intellectual standing as “The Pope tells us...” as if Science was an oracle which you visited and it gave you a precise and unambiguous answer*). Demagogues thrive on the kindly wooliness of pundits. It allows Tiny Tony Torture to pretend that it is of no importance that for cash he’s handing out control of schools to bigots who believe in Creationism. It allows the idea of intelligent design to be presented as if it were other than pure tosh, as if Occam had never flashed his razor. It allows despicable buffoons to pontificate about torture on the basis of an idiot hypothesis about one terrorist knowing where the bomb is that is going to blow up the whole planet, but refusing to reveal all without being given a good torturing. (For a reworking of this argument see More thumbs up for torture, though I rather fancy substituting Blair and his cabinet for kittens.)
Society today is genuinely nicer than it was even twenty years ago. We are more tolerant, more accepting, less judgmental (I’m not, but most people are). But with every good a bad creeps in in disguise. Sir Rob is clearly a good and kindly man. I think his celeb status allows him to seep a sort of chronic poison.
*A Greek philosopher walked into the mountains because a fortune-teller told him he would die that day with a blow to the head and he wanted to be away from people and the tall roofs of houses from which hard things might at any moment plummet down. So he walked into the wilderness and passed the day far from the works of men. At evening as he turned for home an eagle flying high in the sky dropped a tortoise on his head.
Man Mandir Palace, Gwalior fort. Terror. It started as just claustrophobia. The guides there were adolescent tearaways who thankfully were easily distracted by their preferred pastime of hurling stones off the battlements onto what or whoever might coincide with their trajectory a hundred metres below, so when we declined their services they didn’t follow us and lurk. The Mughal Emperor Babur described the place as "the pearl amongst the fortresses of Hind," and the fortifications, stretching around a three kilometre long plateau are wild, ruined, melancholy and largely deserted, just the odd group or family here or there, strolling up on a crumbling wall above a colonnade of a hundred arches, picnicking by the scrub-filled remains of a tank while the kites and shikras turn on the warm upcurrents. A place full of Chirico shadows and ghosts. The Palace in one corner of the fort is Fifteenth Century, and the upper floors are like in other Rajput palaces, cool and airy with carved sandstone screens. But there were subterranean wonders as well, and we had to shuffle about in the dark among the bats to find the way, which was down narrow curving steps within the ten metre thick walls, right angle turns, flights of steps dividing from flights of steps, one ascending, one going down. We weren’t alone, there were courting couples and families here and there, also finding their way, but encounters were sporadic, there were giggles and little suppressed screams and more muddled cave noise. Then we came to a round chamber of grey stone entered through an arch, with a big central dome supported by a circle of heavy pillars. Somewhere off it we found another flight of stairs, very narrow, leading upwards. At the top was a chamber identical to the one below. It should have been all right. I’m not susceptible to claustrophobia, and as is clear in the photograph there is an aperture in the outside wall, so you always know which way you’re facing. The narrow flights of stairs, dark and too low, would have been the place for needing to get out. And yet there in that spacious chamber I felt first anxiety, then terror. It wasn’t an overpowering terror, I didn’t feel the need to scream or run madly is several directions, in fact I could note it as terror and deal with it; but it was definitely terror and nothing else. Our retreat was easy. There were other steps upwards, and soon we were back among the bats in the nether halls of the upper palace. Why the terror? The last Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb had probably murdered one of his brothers there, though I didn’t know that at the time, and there would have been torture, but of what medieval fort or palace anywhere in the world is that not true. And I really do not believe in fluences, presences, hauntings. I think it was something specific, the leaving of one chamber that was aesthetically impressive, and yet can have had no humane purpose, and the unforeseen arrival in another, vertically above it, and identical. A part of the brain assumes that you have made the walking in a circle mistake and ended up where you started. But the body remembers that you have climbed dark steps and descended none, so you can’t be in the same place. And then the mind body synthesis, that it is rationally impossible that you are in the place you started, and yet you are - and the inevitable subconscious hypothesis, that however many stairs you climb or descend, and despite the fact that you know which way you are facing because of the stab of light through the outer wall, each flight will always end up in this round pillared chamber, until you die.
“Those saddhus would sometimes come to Dewas and bless the Palace, and demand a hundred rupees each. Malarao would speak them as fair as he could and give each of them one rupee. They then cursed the Palace and returned to Ujjain.” E M Forster, The Hill of Devi
A puzzle had remained from the Sravana Belgola some years ago. Jains, or at least the monks, do without everything except air. Sometimes they just stand in the forest, naked, for years on end. Less ascetic Jains, those who are not monks, tend to be rich. This is because it is a central tenet of Jainism that no living thing should be hurt; they wear cloths over their mouths to prevent tiny insects wandering in and perishing. The prohibition on hurting anything cuts out most occupations - abattoir work, warfare, construction, agriculture, fisheries. In fact the only thing a Jain can decently do is to go into trade or the financial sector, where you would be unlikely to crush or maim any living thing. Great wealth aside, there is little to suggest acquisitiveness should be a Jain characteristic. Jainism, like its more or less contemporary Buddhism, was not in its origins a religion. It was an atheistic philosophy of how people should live and die, running alongside the Vedic profusion of gods that was later to become Hinduism. Nonetheless temples were built, the Luna Vasahi on Mount Abu among them; around the year 1231, all marble. The sculptors were paid each day for marble shavings by weight in silver, and for marble dust by weight in gold. It took fifteen hundred craftsmen twenty one years, or some combination of those numbers, to complete one of the most fractal buildings in the world. In places the marble is so thin it is slightly translucent. There is a monolithic dome carved as diminishing pendant coronae of lotus petals. Every surface of pillar, lintel and arch is the marble equivalent of filigree. It, the temple and its detail, are mesmerising. In the Sravana Belgola those years ago there were big signs everywhere saying Only Make Donations at the Door. Our priestly guide spend an inordinate time distinguishing between each of the fifty two thirtankaras in their niches. Then, in the particularly deep shadow of a pillar, he said, “OK, you can give me the cash now.” In the kind of panic you might have when doing your first street drug transaction I handed over whatever we were going to donate to the temple. The rest of the guided tour passed quickly. Then by the door the same priest sat cross legged and invited us too to be seated, before asking what money we were going to reneder unto God. “B-b-but-but...” I said and on the spot developed a steely intransigence in the face of exotic men of religion demanding gifts which I have held on to ever since. And I mused on how this unembarrassed personal greed squared with standing in the forest so the vines grew round one’s legs and trunk, taking nothing from the world but air. Brahma is likewise free from desire for transient matter, so there are hardly any Brahma temples in India. Pushkar is one of the exceptions. The Brahma temple there is very small, very old and as we were there for the main religious festival of the year, very crowded. The previous night we had walked through the town along the narrow busy streets. Young men approach, press rose petals into your hand, tell you you must throw them into the water. We prevaricated but soon we found ourselves, J and me, down on a ghat, looking over the spangled lake, clutching our rose petals damply while a young Brahmin in jeans led us in prayer and incantation. First we prayed for our family and friends, then we did a bit of hari Krishna ’n’ Rama-ing (I hadn’t realised Hindus were responsible for this, I thought it was anorexic people with bad dress sense and possible mental health issues), then our prayers homed in more specifically on the Brahmins of Pushkar, of which it turned out there were some two thousand, all dependent for their livelihood on nothing but generous and loving donations from such good people as ourselves. It turned out that virtuous and generous people like ourselves gave surprising amounts, a sum of a million rupees was mentioned, though in the end our young spiritual guide said twenty quid would be sufficient. At this point I noticed my sister who had been praying and incantating much more brusquely than we, a little removed to our right, now stalking up the ghat, looking severe. Enough. I gave the man of religion twenty rupees. He was angry, indignant, insulted. I was haughty and authoritative. That or nothing. The man of religion flounced up the steps cursing. I gave the lad who was protecting our shoes ten rupees. He was angry, indignant, insulted too, even more theatrically than the Brahmin. He gave the note back. I said that or nothing. He tried to return it once again. It dropped in the dust. Where maybe it still lies. Up in the street I asked my sister what she’d given her guru. She said, “five rupees, and he was lucky.” But she had the authority of the wedding mangalasutra round her neck. Acquisitiveness is the Brahmin's right. And the reputation of Brahmins spherical with gluttony is no cause for shame. The gods themselves are worldly creatures. Outside Pushkar on two adjacent conical hills are two other temples, one to the wife of Brahma, Savitri. She is estranged from the godhead because a long time ago, when she was away, Brahma invited a tribal girl to take his consort’s place in an important ceremony. In the year 2002 the priests of the Savitri temple brought a case in the regional court against the priests of the Brahma temple. Their argument was that Savitri had been forced to divorce Brahma because of his betrayal, and thus had been forced to decamp to a temple some distance from the town and its lake (created by Brahma when he dropped lotus petals on the earth), decamp to a temple what is more on top of a steep and rocky hill which people were disinclined to walk up; so no money could be made from worshippers, and the goddess was without financial support; and therefore the god Brahma, in the form of his temple managers, owed Savitri, in the form of her temple managers, alimony. Quite a lot of it. Brahma’s infidelity, albeit only a ritual one, had occurred a couple of millennia back, and the question of backdating the payments is germane. The legal arguments are complex, the implications of victory for the Savitri faction incalculable. The case drags on - maybe for another two thousand years. At Mount Abu we had a charismatic guide, a young man with compelling eyes who was already going places in local politics, a champion of the poor. He spoke fluently about the Jain religion, and at last answered the question of the venality of priests in Jain temples. Jainism, he said, is not in that sense a religion, and they don’t have priests at all. The guys who look after Jain temples and stash the loot are, of course, Hindu Brahmins. J said she’d also asked the guide about the standing in the forest not eating for a year thing. He’d looked at her for a few seconds, raised an eyebrow a millimetre, and looked away.
This is from Aniruddha Bahal’s Bunker 13. Bahal is the journalist who did a sting on Indian defence procurement which exposed the BJP Defence Minister of the day in naked bribe-taking and caused Vajpayee’s government such embarrassment that the Minister had to step down from office for a few months until the hub-hub died down. Bunker 13 is gung-ho and laddish, violent and amoral, the `you` narrator is a bit irritating and the final twist is maybe sentimental, but it’s a terrific book. The following says something about torture, which a couple of British people on The Moral Maze, one apparently called Melanie Philips, were discussing as if it were a slightly dubious but guiltily pleasurable consumer product from Tesco. A journalist is talking to Major Kholi of the indian Army up on the Kashmir LoC. She asks him about torture. “The locals coming back after three months of Mossie mumbo-jumbo and basic arms training know no secrets that we can squeeze out of them. We just ask them their name. They don’t want to tell us, we don’t waste our calories kicking their balls. We cook some name up. Exercise our imagination. Shift our workload to Srinigar where the guys are trained for sorting out confusion. They have procedures. They open a file in the name we have given the Mossie. Then they interrogate the fucker twice a day for three months, sponge him of all he knows and transcribe what he says on white sheets of paper and run it through their encryption machines or whatever the fuck they have there. But the basic problem remains - the guy knows nothing. So he has to keep inventing stuff to keep the guys off his back. And when you are tossing data out of the blue you don’t often remember it the same way the second time around and you end up contradicting yourself. That’s the opening the interrogator is looking for to prove to himself that you are hiding something and so he extends your interrogation schedule by another month. At the end of it your average Mossie just goes dumb, he has a problem even getting the alphabets right. When you get to that stage the interrogators at Papa 2 jump you to the list of hardcore nuts. Once you get to that status...” Bunker 13 is published by Faber, 2003
A quick question to an old friend, a professing Hindu, a Professor, a man of science and the Enlightenment. “Do you believe in Ganesh?” “Yes.” “Right. Me (that’s me, writing this), if I was living in a farming village, for a year or so, the life of a villager, working, dawn to dusk, poor, after a bit I’d go along to the temple with everyone else, if it was a Ganesh temple the god and I would begin to share a history, transactions and undertakings, promises fulfilled or not, on either side, good things and bad things, to me he’d begin to have a personality, a history, a strong psychological presence. In that sense, and it’s as good a sense as any, Ganesh, to me, would exist. “But, do you believe in Ganesh as a discrete being, entirely independent of human consciousness, and a being who is aware of his own existence?” This test can be applied to other deities
I stood back from the narrow path to let a guy leading two late adolescent camels past. Wherever you were you were quite close to several of the animals. I was not paying so much attention, but my head was already turning as I registered a loud crack, a jolt and, focus now on the offending beast, I saw an oblique withdrawing leg, and a head, turned half back towards me, and an eye that wished to meet mine, to register that this was not an act of random violence. That registered, it turned away. Then the physical sensation. A camel’s foot is like a boxing glove. It hit me on the outside of the thigh well above the knee, and at the point of impact there was no bruising or pain, but the force bent my leg in the direction the knee joint is not articulated to bend. It was OK, I could walk, and actually I felt a gammy leg was quite appropriate, a bit Raj. But the paranoia was much worse. There were maybe ten thousand camels there in the desert scrub outside Pushkar and none, as far as the eye could see, kicking anybody. There was a whole lot of camel noise, groaning and wheezing and existential protest, but no violence. Except this one camel, which had kicked me, deliberately, clearly, because the foot came out at forty five degrees to just where I was standing; and, from its expression, knowing exactly who it was kicking. Either, this was revenge for some slight or wrong in other incarnations; but you would have to believe in reincarnation for that. Or, and this is how I calmed my rising sense of persecution, the stupid animal had mistaken me for someone else. Before, I had worried about the technique of sticking a piece of wood through camels’ noses as a sensitive lever to which to attach the reins. Now I found that practice not so much of a concern.
I was nothing but a tourist. India is a vast place, in population, populations, and all four dimensions including time, going back to the Harappans. I’ve just spent three weeks there as a tourist. So, like walking to the sun, you start where you are, walk for ever, and the sun’s still up there where it always was. I’ll leave the aesthetic, which is another dimension through which India seems to extend indefinitely - the Taj Mahal, the most clichéd example, when it first comes up in its entirety through the East Gate is beyond cliché. I only went to see it because my son and Siraz down the garage said I must. It never occurred to me that a building could make me feel like crying, or seem the only perfect thing in the world. There, seduced already, wandering off into the transcendental in which I absolutely do not believe. (The appearance of the Taj is theatrical, it is revealed quite suddenly as you walk towards a high ogee arch in a screening wall). No, what most impressed me about India was that wherever you are, wherever you look, nearly everything you see is made there. When I came back and saw Britain briefly with a tourist’s eye, what impressed me was single human beings with self esteem hovering around the hundred per cent mark, accelerating and decelerating their persons across this minute fraction of the surface of the planet in vehicles weighing three tonnes that will do 200 KPH. This is the Jeremy Clarkson universe, of idiot fantasy. You know that Britain manufactures practically nothing, yet has “the fourth largest economy in the world”. You wonder of what this economy consists. Then you realise that if you take all your credit card debts, consolidate them, and transfer them to a single credit provider, then such a transfer, for each average UK adult (excluding mortgages), adds nearly £8000.00 to “the economy,” and the aggregate of such debts is over one trillion (or one hundred thousand million) GB Pounds. That’s how we have the Fourth Biggest Economy in the World. We add up all the negative numbers, and then multiply them by -1. We are doomed, doomed. In India, performance and speed are not at a premium. There are a few Hondas and Toyotas and a lot of cars and motorbikes made under licence, Maruti Suzuki, Hero Honda, but practically all of the lurch and honk and flow of the traffic is India manufactured and not going very fast, and the 1948 vintage Ambassador, though much evolved, is still the official vehicle. This seems true of most other stuff, televisions a cookware and textiles and clothes and food and diesel generators, so you get the impression that India could be cut off from the rest of the world for a year or two without suffering too much. Well, it would need fuel imports. But otherwise, they could survive. India does not seem much in need of the global liberalisation, the Fourth Largest Economy in the World voraciously asset-stripping their utilities to fund our one trillion personal debt, as preached by Tiny Tony Torture and his Chums. In India, where one human being in six lives, 60% of all savings are held by people who work outside the formal economy. I don’t know what that means in fiscal terms, but clearly all these millions of people do not work in the “financial sector” or as hairdressers. And that’s the first photo. It looks down from Jami Masjid, and if I’d had a better zoom would take you into a dark ravine, the end disappearing in haze, like something in a computer game, with complex bridges of gloomy wires and pipes and girders bridging between the cliffs of dwellings piled up like natural formations almost as if they’ve been hewn out of a substance half way between mud and rock. These narrow streets are there in every town in India, millions of them, and from a distance they feel almost frightening in their multiplicity, their burden of population, the mystery of what goes on there in its uncataloguable recursive diversity. And yet, two things. Walk down one, and you are among human beings who are about their own concerns, who do not notice you unless they want you to buy something. You are immediately part of the seethe and flow. The walls either side are stained ochre or grey, dull and gloomy, and there is dust and rubbish of course, though not so much of either, but in among all this is paint and decoration and shopfront after shop front, business after business, palm reading, CT Scans, retailers of every sort, stone masons, a shrine to Ganesh, Internet cafés, opticians, ayervedic massage, a rubber manufactory, bicycle shops, pharmacies, anything you could expect and among it a lot of other stuff you might not. And the second. I have to quote from memory from Parvan Varma’s book on India because I must have left it there: the average family may well live in a dark hole in the warren of Old Delhi, but they will have room there for a washing machine, a cooker, a fridge, a television, music centre, God, his consort, and maybe a wall mounted fold down dining table. And they will be buoyant. (Varma is more elegant than that, But I have the gist.) So that’s the strongest impression an idle tourist has brought back from that triangle between the Himalayas and the three seas that meet at Kanniyakumari; the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea; a place where rickshaws have mobile phones that you can hire by the minute to trade in diamonds, arms or bullion on platforms beyond the imaginings of - well, me anyway; where the Mafia is endemic and everywhere, and driving an economy that has tentacles all over the earth; whose intellectual capital in science, technology, IT, and trade is also spread over the earth; where Tata and Ashok lorries are transporting steel by the millions of tonnes over narrow roads; whose diaspora, the NRIs or Non-resident Indians, will remit about $500 billion to the homeland over the next ten years. History moves on to a place where we are not.