From Babu’s World

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The sour taste is to the Andhra tongue what sweet is to a Bengali. A giant mango tree rose like an unmbrella over the house with its roots in a neighboring house. In the summer mangoes hung from its great branches in clusters. The mangoes were tantalizingly close to grab and yet, owing to the fact that its roots lay in another house, they were beyond the grasp. The owner of the tree, a certain Mr. Subba Rao, considered his sole right to every mango on the tree, even to those that were not visible from his own backyard. If anyone tried to pluck a mango he would shout abuses from his part of the land. The owner never came face to face with his neighbors but his booming voice was heard all over the neighborhood. The women of the house looked up at the bunch of fruit hanging like green lightbulbs, but could do nothing to possess them. Therefore, they whispered among themselves several nicknames and uncharitable words to describe their neighbor. The children were so much aroused by what seemed like unfair treatment by their neighbor would go around the house shouting ‘Dubba Rekula Subba Rao’; they lifted their faces at the tree and raised that slogan in chorus that meant nothing more than a caricature of the man’s name.

The little boy, fondly called Babu, joined his older siblings in denigrating what he considered the neighbor’s meanness. He often went up the stairs to the first floor and lowered himself to the balcony that had the neighbor’s wall on one side but had no guard rail on his side of the house. From that vantage point he took up the chanting in earnest, thereby believing that he had raised the sloganeering to a new high. He made sure that he was safely away from the unguarded edge of the balcony. He also made sure that he had his escape route clear of debris in case the offending neighbor chose to appear suddenly over the dividing wall.

The neighbor believed that any tree arising out of his soil belongs to him even though it spanned the neighboring houses. He did not apparently subscribe to the belief held by Babu’s family that anything that appeared with in the four walls of their house, from the ground below in the bowels of the earth to the limitless sky above, is theirs to take. Babu did not know which belief was actually correct; nor did he care. He knew clearly which side he was on and so went about aiding his siblings in raising the ruckus against the offending neighbor.

In matters concerning arcane beliefs Babu often consulted an octogenarian on the premises. He believed that there was a reason behind her sunken eyes and frail figure. She had no doubt seen much from the very beginning of time. She seemed to wail when she spoke, her gnarled hands rose in resignation and her toothless mouth opened and closed like a frog’s. She sat in a corner or on the stairs and in dim lighting she appeared like a ghost, for her dark skin blended in the surroundings. Babu listened to her as if she was giving a discourse on the Vedas, even as she interrupted her monologue with screams and rants at her daughter-in-law. She told him about the time when Razakars rode roughshod over the people. Babu could sense fear in her marble eyes and some of it entered his heart that had not seen many a summer. When she spoke of the bearded goons of the Nizam, her words trembled on her frayed and ugly lips. The beard for Babu became synonymous with terror. The old woman lived with her son and her daughter-in-law in the upper story of the house. Often Babu sneaked upstairs to peek into the esoteric life of this aging relic of humanity. Once he saw her draping a sari round her sticklike body; the crafty old woman caught him spying and shooed him away, gesticulating like a witch in a seance.

Babu went upstairs for several other reasons as well. For him growing up in life meant climbing those stairs to begin with. Lowering himself to the balcony promised a thrill that was unlike any other. It was not a place where children were allowed to wander about. Lacking the guard rail, the balcony meant danger. Looking down into the house from the balcony, especially in a casual manner, meant that he was staring danger in the face. It also sent a message to the elders in the house that he was brave. It also notched his esteem in the eyes of his siblings a peg higher than he would have earned it by other means. It also afforded him a way out to conceal his other fears even from himself.

From the balcony, on the adjacent side of the mango neighbor, was the Student’s Institute, a school whose windows opened on his side. Looking through them seemed like participation in a secret rite. For the children in the school, the windows were set high and couldn’t possibly notice a peeping Tom. He loved to hear them repeat what their teacher said. He memorized snatches of English rhymes and numbers tables and repeated them to his family members verbatim. The elders thought he was very clever and petted him: he became a hero among his elder siblings for he learnt subjects without books or going to school. He was very proud of his achievement and rose in his self esteem.

The balcony taught him many things, opened doors to new subjects and experiences.

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The Lion Singh

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The troop bazaar lay in the crossroad leading to the marketplace of Koti on one side and the commercial centre Abid’s on the other. A narrow street branched off to Mozamjahi fruit market via the Rani park. Many by-lanes crisscrossed the area like multicolored threads in a quilt. In one such lane resided Avatar Singh who ran an icecream factory right from his home. When his Ambassador car moved through the lane no one dared to come out for it was so narrow that there was hardly any space left for even a mangy mongrel to pass.

Every morning wooden carts streamed into the lane to unload their burden of huge ice blocks. Workers then set to work on the blocks to crush them into tiny pieces suitable for stuffing into icecream containers. Gallons of milk, icecream powder and sweeteners were then poured into noisy machines that churned the liquid until the entire content turned into a coagulated mass.

From morning till noon the work went on; rickshaws come groaning with ice and return jauntily, while wooden trolleys roll into the factory and return heavy with their metal containers filled with ice cream and surrounded by crushed ice. The men shouted to each other and Singh the proprietor-cum-supervisor barked orders and cursed now and then when he finds slackness in work. The noise that arose each morning was enough to awaken the most lethargic of men from their sweet slumber, but Singh’s neighbors never complained. If they harbored any reservation on this account, they never let it be known to the architect of the morning mess. The ice-cream season would last two months, when the fiery Sun is in its ascendant in the months of April and May.

The ice-cream factory began from the far end of the vacant part of the house and spilled over the lane right up to the houses in front, leaving just enough for one person to walk gingerly over the place for fear of slipping on the pieces of scattered ice. For as long as the work continued, the spot shone like an ice rink, no, worse, for there was water all over the place and men moved about it all the time working and yelling at each other.

Singh stood on the front porch of his house, twirling his gargantuan mustache and the steel ring, the kada, on his wrist glinted like a sabre’s edge. He hustled the men, and often clenched his fist and raising his arm he pushed the kada with his other hand as far back as it would go. He had a gruff voice and a matching exterior that drove fear into the weak-hearted.

After the day’s work, he left home to conduct his business outside, which consisted in collecting money from men who borrowed from him or to strike a new business deal for his ice cream sticks and cups. It was then that the women of his household came out to meet the neighboring women, when all their men too had gone out to work. Singh’s women (wife, mother and aunt) were jovial, talkative and easily made friends with the women in the neighborhood. When Singh returned from work, his women folk were already inside making parathas, the delicious soft pancakes made from kneaded wheat flour, that go with the variegated curries that only Punjabis can make.

The neighbors included two families from the South both residing in two portions of a house opposite to Singh’s. One portion was occupied by a man who worked as a clerk in a government office and in the other lived two brothers. The clerk sported a waving shock of hair, black and shining, which he often had to push back with his slender hand to uncover his small dark face. When he stepped out of the house in the morning he wore a frightened look on his face until he exited the lane. And then the same look returned when he bolted back into it at sundown and it lingered until he entered the house. The brothers, on the other side, looked well-built in comparison and much taller. The elder one wore a serious mien, walked the lane as a professor might when he is crossing the courtyard of a University. He wrote for the local daily, kept to himself mostly and rarely exposed his mind by way of word or emotion. The younger brother worked for the railways, crossed the narrow lane like a steam engine rolling down the track and often swore at the workers for messing up the lane.

The brothers had just moved in with their wives and their children, having needed a larger house to accommodate their growing numbers. One of the new members in their family was a boy of four, the only son of the elder brother. Everyone doted on the boy, even the women from Singh’s family. The boy looked chubby and very fair for a Southerner – his Uncle even went so far as to say that he was of pure Aryan blood. The Punjabi women cuddled him and took turns to pet him. After the noise of the rush hour in the morning – grating and irritating – the squeals of laughter and wondrous delight from the Punjabi women more than compensated for Singh’s rude work.

This summer was especially hot, the women told one another, for never had they felt such heat in all the dozen years they had since migrated from the cold North. Little did it matter to the local women that the Punjabis made the same comment every year; it was a delight to hear them speak, for their words rolled out in quick succession like a mountain brook bouncing down a steep slope. But the reason they said it was that Singh brought in more ice, made more ice cream and consequently made more noise for the beleaguered neighbors.

One day the younger brother’s bicycle slipped and fell as he tried to navigate through the crushed pieces of ice. He cursed the men, kicked at the little rocks of ice and his rage building up shut the noisy machine down and removed the fuse from the power source. He then ordered the men to remove the carts and the trolleys from the lane and began pushing them inside Singh’s compound. There was no sign of the women. There was no sign of Singh either; it was unusual for him to be absent at this hour. The men left singh’s house after locking the place and handing over the keys to the occupants inside. The brother kicked some more ice, hollered for Singh and having got no response picked up his by circle and went home.

In the evening the clerk returned and heard about the younger brother’s foolhardy act. He became visibly agitated. The fear in his eyes leapt out and affected the women in the house. He said that once when his aging mother could not bear noise at all as she suffered from hypertension he had asked Singh to move his factory from the residential locality. He recalled that Singh became furious at this suggestion. He used the foulest possible language and asked the clerk to mind his own business. When he persisted, albeit diffidently, Singh’s fist clenched and the next moment he felt like he had been hit by a sledgehammer. He had swooned then, he told the women, and when he awoke he found himself lying like a crumpled flower beside his ailing mother.

When the elder brother returned that evening, he had said to his younger brother not to pick up quarrels in the neighborhood. We don’t want to get into fisticuffs, he said, let’s maintain some dignity. Singh is a ruffian and if you cross swords with him you become one too.

The younger brother remained firm and let it be known to all that whatever may be the outcome he is determined to see the matter to its bitterest end. He left the house and went over to Singh’s and called out his name. Still there was no sign of Singh. His wife pushed a curtain aside and told him that Singh is expected any time soon. The brother invited himself in and asked the lady if he could wait for him in the hall. The lady didn’t think that was a good idea and tried to dissuade the rebellious youth from his hotheaded idea. But the young man was resolute and determined to meet the lion of the lane.

It was quite dark when Singh returned home. The air hung heavy like it had been churned out of an oven. The neighborhood was silent, even the sound of the radio was not heard. The kitchens made no noise, nor was there any sound from the little boy in the house. It was eerily quiet and Singh unaccustomed to silence stormed into the house and shouted: Why this quiet? Are you all in mourning? No one spoke.

He walked through the door and saw the brother sitting on a sofa, legs wide apart and arms akimbo. Is this some kind of a joke? He said and immediately found himself pushed into his room. Before he could react, the brother rained blows on him so hard he could barely stand. He ducked to evade the blows but only managed to lose his turban, which went rolling down like a rabbit out of the magician’s box. When the brother was done, he left Singh slumped in a corner too weak to move or mumble.

The troop bazaar was neither a bazaar nor populated by any troops, but certainly became less noisy as Singh moved his ice factory out of it.

Germ of an idea

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An idea buzzing in the mind, importunate, seeking expression…

In the run up to the elections several contending parties made a pitch for votes through public rallies at the Parade Grounds in the city. The place had been booked months in advance, but an exception had been made in the case of Baba Gurudev, whose number had been bumped up on popular demand.

The motley crowd of middle class families, business community, youth and religious aspirants waited under the pandals for the holy man to arrive. Satish and Gauri hustled their son and daughter to a middle ground between the business class and the working middle class. An employee of Events Unlimited, owned and operated by Satish, had reserved seats for the family and signaled to Satish to come over and occupy.

Giant fans attached to the supporting poles whirred and blew in a dash of air at the seated crowd. Fluorescent lamps lighted the aisles and flood lamps at the four corners of the ground lit up the ground beyond the pandals. Satish thanked his employee for spotting him and locating seats close to the fans.

“Did you know I was coming,” asked Satish.

“No, Sir,” answered the man, a gray haired retiree from the accounts department. “I saw you entering the grounds and decided to hold some seats for you all.” He emitted an ingratiating smile and drew himself close as though he must allow his employer more space.

“Thank you,” Gauri said to the man, leaning over Satish and switched on a charming smile. I don’t mind standing, but the children, you know, and your Sir, of course, they can’t stand these rallies.“

The man grinned to expose his betel-stained teeth. “I am glad I could be of help, ma’am.” He shrank back as Satish waved his hand as if he had had enough of it. He fidgeted and became impatient at the delay in the arrival of the baba. He looked at his daughter. She tapped her foot on the sandy ground apparently to some music from her iPod in her hand and earphones hidden behind her silky hair. The son had clamped a giant headphones and held a play station in his hands. His fingers moved so fast that Satish had difficulty following their movement. Gauri adjusted her pallu time and again and looked around immensely pleased with herself. Satish could not contain his impatience any more. He dialed a number on his mobile phone and spoke into a device attached to his left ear. He was anxious about landing a contract for which his team had prepared a proposal for submission. Feeling a tap on his lap by Gauri, Satish looked at her in irritation. His eyebrows came together and his teeth bit his lower lip. Gauri made a face and pointed at the dais. Satish concluded his phone call and sighed: “why am I even here, I don’t know!” Gauri merely smiled and watched the scene unfolding on the platform.

Baba Gurudev presented a spectacle of Churchill’s half-naked fakir as he climbed the dais surrounded by loyal acolytes. The ash-smeared forehead, the ochre robe round the loins, the sacred thread across the chest and the long flowing beard – all this evoked the image of the sanyasi. Amidst chants of sacred mantras and the noise from the surging crowds behind the barricades, Gurudev took the centre stage and raised his hand, palm outward, in a blessing, which doubled as a gesture that commanded silence. Without preliminaries, the baba launched into his speech. The crowd settled down quickly and listened to The oratorical magic from the ace of India’s timehonored lineage of holy men.

“We live today in the age of rampant commercialism and utter lack of God in our daily life.” The crowd fell silent as the words weaved a magical spell of authority and divination. “We must work together to revive the tradition of Guru-shishya, learning at the feet of the master, the way of the Upanishads.” A sense of the reverence permeated the crowd at the mention of the holy scripture, the pinnacle of India’s achievements in the knowledge of the unknown and the unknowable. The baba scanned the seated aspirants row by row until everyone sat with their back straight and their tongue tied.

“We have lost our Gurus. We have become poor. We are witness to the drain of India’s heritage from its shores, to its export to the West, leaving behind a smattering of its former glory. The Gurus have headed West, ostensibly to transport the holy message to the far corners of the globe. We have become impoverished as a result of this transportation. In the olden days of the rishis, divine messages were teleported, but today we have lost that faculty. The Gurus have chosen the physical transport instead and carried over our precious jewels and left us impoverished.” The baba paused in his address. An aid issued a clarion call. Another sounded the conch shell.

From the press gallery, cameras flashed often accompanied by a thousand clicks. TV channels streamed the event live. Giant TV monitors hung on poles conveyed the event to those standing at the very edge of the Parade Grounds.

“We need to get our Gurus back, our Kohinoor diamonds, our wealth that is being splurged on masses abroad. Let them come here, the people in the West, and take back according to their capacity, according to their karma. We go to the West for the greenbacks, don’t we? So also, let the West come here to receive the Guru’s message. The wisdom of the East shall remain in the East. The West may borrow it when it so pleases. We have a monopoly over the sacred word, the sacred rites and the sacred techniques since times as old as the hills. Let us come together to make this great nation holy once again. Make holy from the feet of the masters, from the messages of the divine, echoed from this land to the far corners of the world.” The conch shell boomed again and the sound spread to all corners of the Parade Grounds and beyond. The pandals shook in the wind that blew across the attendees and lifted their spirits.

“I have a plan to restore our faith in our scriptures, in reviving the Holy Spirit of this land, so that our Gurus may return to this abode of the God, to this place where He revealed himself through the holy word OM. It is not just for the Gurus who forsook this land for the commercial glory abroad, but also for the many seers and monks and godmen who abound in this land. They too shall find a common ground to preach and further spread their divinity among the luckless zillions of this country.” The baba paused for effect. The silence under the tents was heavy, like a pregnant woman awaiting imminent delivery. The baba looked around at the eager anticipating faces in the crowd. He folded his hands in a namashkar, closed his eyes and stood still. The crowd waited with bated breath.

“I propose the Indian Spiritual League, a forum for bringing the spiritual master and the spiritual aspirant to a common meeting point.” To the loud blaring of the conch shell, the beating of drums and the clarion calls, the baba continued: “this nation shall become the spiritual center for the world, the lighthouse to the flailing seafarers in the ocean of sorrow, the sthal of all holy sthals to initiate the novice, to elevate the apprentice, to levitate the adept and above all to fulfill the hungering soul of every Indian with easy access to the divine treasures.”

Amidst the sounds from the dais, a low clapping started from a corner in the public stands and soon spread to the entire Parade Grounds. The waving roofs and the supporting poles echoed the clapping sound as it rose in pitch and intensity. Baba Gurudev raised his folded palms above his head in reciprocation. Two people broke through the barrier, jumped on the dais and rushed towards the baba. Gurudev visibly disturbed and agitated shrank from the rushing duo and sought succor behind his aids. Even before the security could react, the two men hurled themselves on the dais and prostrated before the baba, their folded hands high in the air, in supplication, seeking blessings.

Gurudev heaved a sigh of relief, dispatched the security with haste, grabbed the mike and said, “I am overjoyed at this response to my proposal. This land shall awaken to a spiritual dawn, the likes of which the world has never seen before. May the gods shower their blessings on you all.”

A band struck up and accompanied by a chorus that sang a kirthan. The crowd began to chant in unison. Baba Gurudev retreated to the back of the stage from where he was whisked away by his aids to his ashram located outside the city.

Piracy

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Why do you condemn dear brother

The pirates of distant shores when

The men in our midst rob us with impunity

Why do you abhor the pirates of distant lands

Because they are not dressed respectably like ours?

Why do you vilify the pirates of high seas, brother, because they are not bound by our laws

The pirates amidst us are honoured by the powerful and respected by the law

Why do you denigrate brother the pirates of the open seas because they hide like cowards

The pirates among us walk with dignity and head held high

Why are you scared dear brother of fighting the pirates of the ocean because they know not the rules of engagement

Piracy among us wears Prada and wages covert wars in the courts of law

The Curse

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The bus turned noisily round a bend in the road and rattled along a canal that fed the farms, the hamlet and the livestock. I felt myself odd among the village folk. The men smoked beedis and the women kept up an endless chatter. I gathered that their lives were hard, even cruel since they spoke a lot about some disease which apparently became alarming in recent times.

Streaks of grey and black scarred the intense orange glow in the west. A concrete column from a long triangular structure emitted smoke that hung like an umbrella over it before drifting westward with the wind. In the foreground brick-lined cylindrical holes in the earth gaped at the open sky. A checkered pattern of farms contrasted closer to the eye with an occasional palm tree and a pond full of weeds and lotus blooms.

I noticed that I got a fine coat of dust as the bus rolled into a square where a village fair was in progress. Here the bus discharged almost all its occupants. A man thrust a bottle of mineral water at me through the window. I raised my hand to take it when my eyes fell on a colored patch on his arm. I recoiled, but pretended not to have noticed it and gently fobbed off the vendor with a lame excuse. I don’t need to buy water now, since the journey has ended and I would soon be home with Amit.

Several villagers greeted Amit as he drove me in his open Jeep to his medical camp situated on a knoll. A ramshackle government building served as the camp where he slept in the night and practiced by day.

“I am glad you came.” Amit smiled and his eyes gleamed in delight. “This is the first time I have ever had a companion during my medical practice outside the city.”

A chance acquaintance in a coffee parlour some months ago, Amit struck me as odd and even a bit eccentric. Contrary to his profession, he drank and ate like a glutton. For about a month in a year Amit closed his clinic and went to a village to practice. He called it a ‘combo tour’ of study and vacation, away from the noise and pollution of the city. He also spoke of some moral responsibility the logic of which eluded me.

I have never been in a doctor’s clinic except for consultation. It was indeed a rare opportunity for me to watch Amit conduct his medical business, no, his free check up of patients in this village that took me about seven hours to reach.

As the evening progressed, the patients came empty handed and returned with a prescription or some medicine. About an hour later the visitors stopped coming and Amit joined me in the veranda with a couple of beer bottles and a plate of roasted peanuts.

“It is a hard job for you, isn’t it?” I said. Amit nodded.

“Why did you choose this village?”

“This village is under a curse,” he said, echoing a local sentiment I overheard on the bus.

“Do you really believe that?” I asked, incredulous.

Much to my amazement, he nodded. “Did you notice the patients? They are suffering from a disease that is bleaching their skin in patches.” He popped a few peanuts into his mouth and began grinding them noisily.

“Is it contagious?” I remembered the vendor of mineral water. I couldn’t keep the note of alarm out of my voice.

Amit shook his head. “Relax. Just don’t drink the water here. This is all you need to drink as long as you stay here,” he said, pointing at the beer. “There is no dearth of it,” he assured me.

“What do you do for cooking?”

“Oh. There’s a sump full of treated water. That will do for our water needs.”

I am less inclined to continue this line of conversation. What am I doing here? All I wanted was a decent holiday and here I am, drinking beer where some weird disease stalks this accursed village. To top it all, I am holed up with a nerd I barely knew. He had sent me a letter or was it a prescription? A terse line of invitation scrawled on a prescription paper. And the image of an idyllic setting had floated before me.

He seemed to sense my mood, for he said: “You will have a wonderful time here, I am sure. Plus, you will get to see the countryside up close. You wanted to know about India’s villages. That’s what you told me the last time we met, remember, in that beer parlour.”

I downed the beer for the better to conceal the wince on my face. I nodded and managed a weak smile. I resolved to return home the next day and spent the night turning over ways of excusing myself without offending my host.

***

In the morning a young lady came to visit Amit. She left her sneakers in the veranda and entered the consultation room, closing the door behind her. She emerged after a few minutes and passed by in silence with scarcely a glance at me.

On enquiry, Amit said she was a client. That is all I could get from him about her. And my curiosity grew. The lady returned again the next day and this time the duo was closeted for nearly a half hour. This was more than I could bear. And the curiosity got the better of my resolve to leave.

One day on the pretext of a walk down the knoll I followed the woman discreetly. She stopped at a thatched hut and spoke something into it. Apparently someone responded, for she thrust a paper into the hut. I managed to see a man take the paper from her and bow in respect. She left without another word.

I followed her on to the other end of the village. She made her way round the holes in the ground to the triangular structure with its concrete column. I frowned and returned to the camp. I heard Amit cooking in the kitchen, whistling a Bollywood tune.

After lunch we set out on a walk through the village. Men and women worked in the fields, caring for the crops and scaring the birds away.

“Where are the children of the village?”

“You will find them in the tannery.” He waved his hand toward the place where the lady had disappeared.

“Are we going there now?”

Amit shook his head. “No place to be in for a tourist.” He dismissed the idea with a shake of his palm. “We will go down the stream.”

I looked once at the umbrella of smoke in the distance and followed Amit into the soft sand by the stream. We sat on a rock outcrop and watched the water flow by. A breeze stirred the leaves of a palm tree. It was quiet, save for the occasional shout from the farmers. I felt relaxed and gave myself up to the pleasant sensation.

Back in the camp, after the evening consultations, we sat on the veranda beer in hand. The quietness followed us; even the croaking of frogs and the distant cry of an infant did not disturb the silence.

A car drove up the knoll, its headlamps lighting up the camp. I looked inquiringly at Amit. He shrugged and took a swig from his bottle. Two men alighted and walked purposefully towards the camp. One wore pajamas while the other was dressed in trousers and a full-sleeved shirt.

“Doctor babu, stop entertaining Sneha’s foolish notions,” the burly man in pajamas said, accosting Amit in the veranda.

Amit went inside and returned with a bottle of beer. “Have a drink Mr. Vohra,” he said, and offered the bottle.

The man waved him away and said, “I have not come here to exchange pleasantries. I want you to stop it at once. I insist.”

Amit remained unfazed as he said, “I can’t refuse a client.”

“She is not your client,” retorted the man in trousers.

Amit looked coldly at him. He turned to Mr. Vohra and said, “I have not asked her to come to me.”

“Look here doctor. This is highly irregular. You must stop it. If you don’t I am afraid I will have to adopt harsher means to stop you.” With that Mr. Vohra stormed out of the veranda.

His follower sneered and pointed an index finger at Amit as much as to say: take care, or else.

After the men left silence returned like an uninvited guest.

***

As usual Amit was reticent about the whole issue. He merely divulged the fact that the burly man was none other than the tannery owner and husband of Sneha the lady in question. The follower was a government official from the pollution control board. My curiosity turned into worry as thoughts of a confrontation between Amit and the man over the lady gnawed at me. Once again I toyed with the idea of returning home, but curiosity held me back, especially when it was becoming interesting.

A villager turned up bearing a sealed envelope; Amit took it and thanked the messenger.

“Let’s plan an open air lunch today,” Amit said. We packed a lunch and set out to the brook. The Sun burned down from the open sky and the water was like molten silver. The quietness of the place and the shining brook mellowed my anxiety a bit. And the next moment the cause of my worry appeared in person. I caught sight of Lady Sneha approaching us with the messenger.

I nudged Amit to look. He smiled and his eyes brightened. She nodded at me and shook hands with Amit. The villager stood at a little distance from us.

Sneha looked at me and then inquiringly at Amit. She seemed reassured when Amit introduced me as a friend.

“Dr. Amit, the medicine you prescribed for this man is not very effective,” she said, pointing at the villager. “The disease is spreading rapidly on his body.”

“That is all we have got right now. I am afraid there is no sure cure for this sort of thing. From the number of patients I am seeing I can say that it is spreading rapidly in the village.”

“Is there no hope for this man, then?” She looked sadly at the poor villager. The patch on his arm reminded me of the mineral water vendor. “He lost his job and the respect of his fellow villagers. No one wants to deal with him. He lives in his own village as an outcast. Even his son left him to die.”

Amit looked grave. A somber mood prevailed over us for some time. The brook seemed to hold its breath, for its gurgling mellowed.

The villager stood motionless. There was no expression on his face, just an air of finality about him.

“It’s the water, ma’am,” Amit said, “and the soil and the poultry. Polluted. Matter of time before everyone is affected by it. The tannery has poisoned their lives.”

At this revelation from Amit, I saw the Sun in the villager’s eyes and his frame shook for no apparent reason.

“I will arrange a rehab for this man,” Sneha said, getting up. “I must get back quickly before my husband reaches home.”

***

Nursing a bottle of beer back in the camp, I asked Amit: “Why is she concerned so much about that villager when the whole village is in danger from this disease?”

“That villager used to work in the tannery. Mr. Vohra dismissed him from the job when he contracted the disease.”

“So it is not just an act of charity on the part of the lady. She feels she owes it to him.”

Amit nodded. “She tried to persuade her husband to do something about it. When he refused, she came to me. I told her about the heavy metal contamination from the tannery operations. She helped me gather samples from the pits and the soil around them. I have enough evidence now to start litigation against the factory.”

“Does Mr. Vohra know that his wife is colluding with you against him? Is that why he came to warn you the other day?”

Amit shook his head. “He suspects that his wife has taken a fancy for me.”

At once I felt remorse. Going by appearances, it was so easy to think of the obvious. “What about that other man, the official who tagged along with Mr. Vohra?”

“According to Sneha, he is the man who has taken a fancy for her. It was he who goaded Mr. Vohra against me to deflect him from his own dishonorable intentions. It is not difficult for you to understand why the tannery passed the pollution check.”

I fell silent. The palm trees swayed in the wind. Amit went in to whip up a vegetarian dish.

I stood up and stretched my limbs. In the distance the tannery seemed to come alive with a lot of activity. Unusual. At this hour the workers retired for the day. Smoke rose from the cylindrical pits. The triangular roof of the building glowed in the setting Sun. Soon the smoke spread to all the corners of the tannery. I saw that it was fire and not just the orange sunlight glinting off the steel structure.

I hollered for Amit. Fanned by the wind, the fire raged to the height of the concrete column. Within an hour the tannery became a heap of ash, burnt bricks and mangled steel.

“The curse on the village, my friend, is now removed.” Amit’s lips curled into a smile.

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[First published in new Asian Writing at http://www.new-asian-writing.com/‘the-curse’-by-anand-betanabhotla-india/%5D

Excerpt from my novella

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“Sir, I have a question.” A frail hand rose diffidently. Avinash looked at the girl in spectacles and nodded. “Sir, isn’t history also about progress?”

“What according to you is progress?”

“Progress is … it is how we progress, you know, Sir.”

“Give me an example.”

“Um, from barbarians we became very sophisticated,” ventured the girl.

“History is about change, certainly. It records how the change has occurred over a period of time. But all change is not progress, is it?”

“We no longer live in caves and in the jungles. We have homes and streets.” A boy from the back bench joined.

“That is a change alright, and it is progress, too.”

“Sir, is there change that is not also progress?”

“What is progress?” Avinash put the question again, looking at the whole class.

“To progress means to improve”

“To become better”

“To grow”

“OK. Alright.” Avinash raised his hand. “Think this over. In the olden days, we went to war with arrows. Each arrow could kill only one soldier. After a thousand years we have learnt to kill more efficiently – we use missiles that could potentially wipe out thousands of soldiers in one second.”

A boy let out a low whistle that drew titters from others.

“Yes?” Avinash pressed for a more enlightening response. “Given the definition of progress, do you call this progress?”

“Maybe we need to redefine progress,” someone said, and a few others supported him.

“Yea, yea,” they seconded and thumped the benches.

Avinash shook his head. “Consider this; it is not just soldiers dying by the thousands in a battle field, even civilian life is at a great risk of annihilation or permanent genetic injury. Think of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the Cold War. Or, in our own time, the terrors unleashed by religious and ideological fanatics, who have progressed from rebellious victims to soulless militants.”

A girl responded “Sir, it is certainly progress as far as the weapons are concerned.”

“So,” concluded the teacher, “what has progressed is our capacity, not only to destroy legally people en masse, but also to boost our hatred in society to murderous limits. I wonder if you would call that progress.”

He waited for the thought to sink in. The class fell silent for some time.

“Sir, you said that memory is history. Does memory lead to progress or not?”

Avinash looked thoughtful for some time, his eyes scanning the questioning faces before him. He said, “An arrow evolved into a missile, right? And hate, that built the arrow, progressed into mass murder. So now we have become sophisticated barbarians.”

He paused, and then said, “If memory is holding you back, then there can be neither change nor progress.”

“But without memory I could not go back home,” protested a girl.

“Or remember anything for the exam!” said another.

“We are talking about the memories of hurt, of loss… ” Here he paused, wondering if he was not sliding into his own past. Into that region of memory that held his greatest secret – his hurt, his loss, his guilt, his fear.

He shook his head as if to clear it and continued “It is progress when you move up from class to class, from the position of a clerk to that of a manager. Is it progress when, psychologically speaking, you are where you have always been?”

The children looked perplexed, but he went on all the same. ‘Sow the seeds,’ was his motto, ‘who knows where they will sprout?’

“What would you call it, Sir, if it is not progress?”

“We don’t have a word yet, do we? Let’s try and invent one.”

[An excerpt from Magnificent Loss published by Indireads]

Pollution – within or without?

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Hello! Share your experiences, please.

A policeman stopped me at a traffic signal just as it turned green. He stood right in front of the car and directed me to the far left by the footpath. I knew I was in trouble and pulled over apprehensively. He thrust his swarthy face through the window and demanded to see the pollution check certificate. Bummer! I knew I had not got it renewed and had been meaning to get it done for some time. I rummaged through the chaos in the glove box and came up with a certificate. ‘This one is expired,’ remarked the policeman drily and asked me to pay the fine. I pleaded with him to let me go, but he stubbornly refused. ‘You know the rules,’ he was saying. ‘You have not got it checked in three months. That is a serious offense.’ I lied about overwork and pleaded some more. The policeman was not convinced and kept shaking his head. Then he asked me to settle it fast, he had a traffic to control, or else pay the fine – it was six times more than the cost of a pollution check. I ‘settled’ for the cost of the certificate, but he wasn’t interested. He wanted me to double it. I was horrified and showed it, but he couldn’t care less. ‘Pay the fine, Sir,’ he said politely. I figured that after ‘settlement’ and the renewal of the certificate, it would still be half the fine. I agreed and shelled out hard cash. I bled in my heart, fumed at myself for postponing the inevitable and cursed the ‘robber’ of a cop who could have easily directed me to a checkup point that was right across the road!
I made a U-turn and headed toward the pollution check point, a stone’s throw from where the unscrupulous and greedy cop robbed me. The chap at the roadside checkpoint asked for the year of manufacture and went about performing the computerized test. After a while, out came the details on the computer monitor. He keyed in some details and printed it out. He charged me about 30% more than what I had paid the last time. ‘Prices have gone up since,’ he enlightened me and stretched his had a little more towards me. I asked for a receipt. ‘You got the certificate. There is no receipt.’ I said something to the effect that this was not fair. ‘Are you authorized to charge so much?’ I asked, now thoroughly saddened and desperate. ‘You can check elsewhere,’ he pointed out. I asked him to show me the official price document. He said there was no such document. ‘You can return the certificate if you don’t want to pay,’ he offered me a way out of the impasse. He looked at the road and shuffled his feet as if he had a line of customers to attend to. There was not a soul behind me, but his manner, unrelenting and impatient, unsettled me. I thrust an amount that was a little less than he asked for and vowed never to get my car certified from him again. He did not insist on being paid what he had demanded. He pocketed the money and said there were some in the city who charged more than he did. He was probably right, for there was apparently no stipulated fee. I knew of course that the price varied every six months or so, but what I did not expect was a price differential for the same service.
Private operators run this service under the banner of RTA, the Road Transport Authority. Operators house their equipment in a van parked by the side of the road. It is their mobile office and service center rolled not one. Besides the driver, there is just one technician who actually does the job. There was no other operator for miles on either side of the road. There is always a cop not far from the mobile checkpoint. He would intercept you at a traffic junction to make his dirty deal. Reminds me of the nail on the road that pierces the unsuspecting tyre and flattens it. The harried motorist thoroughly dismayed finds a fix not far down the road. You pay what the roadside puncture man demands – they don’t allow you the luxury of a haggle. One could argue, ‘Why don’t you pay what the pollution check technician asks for?’ The RTA banner does not force him to abide by government rules – there are no rules. He is just a private operator, an authorized service provider. That’s all.
“The next time you see a mobile pollution testing van in your neighbourhood, chances are that it is running without the government’s permission…” warns The Times Of India. It went on to add, “What’s more, these centres are also charging exorbitant fees for pollution check.” Now, isn’t that cool!
I reminded myself that despite our socialist leanings we are a nation of private enterprise. We pay by the price tag. If there is none, we pay by bargain. If that is not allowed, we have the option to move on and find another. In the process we run the risk of getting caught for non-compliance of government rules. Bribe your way out, but that is only a momentary relief. If you haggle with a cop, it might get worse. He may challenge you on other counts like license, registration papers, seatbelt, tinted glasses and so on. One never knows what is amiss until it is demanded by the authorities. And they do it adroitly – lying in wait for an ambush round a corner, when you least suspect it. Like the nail on the road, dropped deliberately by the puncture man to ensure that his business runs smoothly.
New vehicles don’t pollute as much as their older cousins, less so the diesel variety. According to a government-run website, four wheelers of the petrol variety cause 12% of total pollution from automobiles as against only 2% by the diesel vehicles. Why not make an exception for diesel motorists? And for new cars less than five years old. But it is easier to make overarching rules, a lot easier to enforce, a lot easier to collect more money by way of penalty for non-compliance, a lot easier to assess annual returns from the number of registered vehicles, a lot easier to comply with international norms for pollution check. It is, alas, a lot easier for the cop on the road to make quick money on the sly.

Living in the Shadow

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Specialists rule our lives and we submit to them completely. We regard them as beacon lights. They are our saviours, our torch bearers, our leaders. We have specialists in every walk of life; from the cradle to the grave they are around to tell us what to do and what not to do. For example, you are tired and need to relax. You ask, ‘How do I relax? I feel so bored.’ And along comes the specialist in fun and entertainment. You give yourself over to the monkeys on the screen; they tickle your fancies, whet your appetites, live your dreams and fantasies and at the end of a couple of hours in which you forgot yourself, your boredom and your tiredness, they leave you none the wiser or more spirited than you were before it. And then there are counselors for your job, your career; if you have trouble with your spouse you have those who will tell you what to do and how you must live your life with your partner, with your babies, and with your bosses. We have specialists of all kinds; we are told what soap to buy, what perfume to splash on our body, what rouge to apply on the face and what colour of hair you must have.

Why are we so dependent on the specialists? “The specialist knows; I don’t know.” Yes, of course. The scientist tells me about the nature of the earth; the doctor cures me of my illness; the barber cuts my hair; the banker keeps my money safe; the builder knows how to construct a house for me. True. All these specialists are certainly required by all of us. Life without them is unthinkable. From ancient times, ever since we formed and lived in societies, we needed them – the traders, the craftsmen and so on. But, surely, we are not talking about them at all. The specialists we are talking about are of a different kind. They stimulate your urges and appetites; they tell you what you should think and do; they tell you what you should read; what you should wear; how you should behave; what you should become. In the temple, the priest dictates. In the market place, the advertiser guides you about what to buy. The clothes we wear must come from a well-known designer, even if it costs you a fortune. “Wear your attitude”, they tell you, whatever that means I am unable to fathom. They tell you how you should live your life; how you should build your personality. We cheerfully submit to their ministrations and injunctions and allow ourselves to be led easily. And easy as it is to follow somebody than to think for ourselves, we depend on them.

Why has the specialist become so important to us? Are we so gullible enough that we are easily carried away by the specialist’s mumbo jumbo? Have they robbed us of our thinking, put to sleep our intellect and made us incapable of handling our own lives? Why are we, like sheep, easily led, as it were, by the entertainers, the beauticians, the couturiers, the counselors, the consultants and the shrinks? We have made our life a second-hand affair, for we constantly repeat what this, that or the other specialist has said. The scribes tell us how to handle news, what opinions we must have, what we must do or not do in a given situation and generally fill our minds with inconsequential things that we use to endlessly debate amongst ourselves.
In matters of the spirit, the Guru is the lord; he leads and we follow; he pontificates and we accept; he shows the way and we tread the path. The Gurus have set up shops all over the world; they spread their wares and invite us to buy; they mesmerize us with words and we get carried away; they make us sit quietly, dance to their tunes, laugh at their jokes and above all, like the entertainers, make us forget for a few hours our problems.

What is it precisely that the specialist offers? He offers a way to escape from the routine and the boredom of life. He adjures you to be different and yet how can a product of specialization be different? He tells you what is ‘in’, what it means to be modern and what fashion you must chase. He espouses the common, the uniform and the accepted. The outsider is bad business for him and so he advocates conformity – to an ideal, to a standard. He has a formula for success, at any rate that is what he is selling; it is his USP – the universal selling point of his success.

But, of course, we are all in this game and no one to blame. We are both the exploiters and the exploited. For, the specialists are the same as those who depend on them. It is just a matter of roles we play. As a specialist you are the exploiter and as the ordinary man looking up to the specialist, you are the exploited. You may be a specialist in your chosen field, but in other matters you are once again at the receiving end.

[ Originally appeared in Chillibreeze ]
http://www.chillibreeze.com/articles_various/Living-in-the-shadow-of-specialists-810.asp

Horror show

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A single tree in a field. Its branches full of leaves spread far from it’s trunk. They stooped from their own weight. No flower or fruit adorned the tree. A ring of shadow surrounded the tree like a halo. All around it the evening sun shown brightly. Beyond the shadow there was a lush outgrowth of weed. An oft-trodden path led the way from the tree to the village. Behind the village lined several trees providing shade to the huts, flower and fruit to the villagers and stood tall and erect.

I was so lost watching the scene unfold before me that I didn’t immediately notice my son Tinku pulling at my churidar. I looked at him and knew at once that he needed something to keep him from getting restless. Popcorn, potato chips, coke or whatever to take his mind off the boring documentary.

“We cannot go out now, beta. We need to wait until it is over.” He frowned in impatience and dropped his head on my lap. “Let’s go home then,” he said, tracing the gray and white pattern on my dress.

A group of women formed outside a hut. They were gesticulating towards the lone tree and spoke animatedly. I could not follow their language, but it became clear as they advanced in a single file towards the tree that something was the matter concerning this tree.

The women had their hair braided into knots over their head. Some had wild flowers stuck into the folds of the braids. A single cloth just covered their bosom and tied at the back. From below the navel hung a lainga that reached just over their shins.

“Why are they dressed like that, Ma? Chi! Shame, shame.” I hadn’t noticed when he started watching the film again. “They are tribals, Tinku. That is their dress. Nothing to be ashamed of.”

The women surrounded the single tree making sure they stood just outside its circle of shade. They spread themselves apart until they formed a ring round the tree. Then a curious thing happened. Even Tinku looked with his eyes wide open. There was not a sound in the theatre. Neither shuffling feet nor impatient fidgeting broke the silence.

The eyes of the women became red and opened fully. Their eyebrows came together, so close as to be almost touching each other. The muscles in their arms became taut. And in one voice they hailed the tree with a salvo of verbiage. Though the words failed to convey any meaning, even young Tinku did not miss the point of this verbal onslaught aimed at the tree. The voices rose in unison and in pitch, even as lethal doses of wrath issued from their hoarse cries.

“Why are they cursing the tree, Ma?” I shushed him with a wave of my hand.

As the wordage rose in volume and force, the leaves of the tree began to fold in, the branches drooped further and the tree seemed to shrink visibly. The shade round the tree shrank and the women advanced menacingly. Hurling abuses and madly gesticulating like one possessed, the women began closing in: the ring narrowed like a noose.

The tree lost its poise and pulled its branches in until some of them snapped. Then the leaves withered and the tree began to dry as though its sap were being drained somehow. The shadow round the tree now barely encircled the tree – it became a blotch on one side.

The women stopped their tirade as abruptly as they had begun and began to disperse. The sun went down the hills behind the village. Darkness crept stealthily down the hillsides as the women lit their lamps in the huts.

Tinku held my arm and drew closer. I was about to say something when suddenly the room darkened. Just for a moment. And light began to show again as dawn spread across the floor of the valley. The trees behind the village began to nod in the gentle morning breeze.

The field ahead of the village however lost its solitary occupant. A heap of mangled branches and a canopy of leaves lay like a shroud over the broken trunk of the single tree.

“Why are you crying, Ma?”

I realized that a tear ran down my cheek and hastened to wipe it off. I grabbed Tinku’s arm and we both hurried out of the hall.

The Power of the Symbol

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Ever since humans began using symbols they have been endowed with power beyond their immediate use. Symbols arose out of a need to communicate; however, their usage down the history has shown that they soon overpowered the mind that created them, for the better in some areas and for the worse in others. As social activities grew in number and complexity, the importance of symbols soon became apparent and consequently they began to appear in many different forms, shapes, sizes and colours. The purpose of symbols went far beyond simple representations of things – from merchant seals and regal emblems, through social bonds and tribal loyalties, to street signs and scientific notations, and wars, symbols have played a significant role in human affairs.

Historians tell us that symbols have been in use since millennia, going as far back in time as when humans were making stone implements more than 7000 years ago. Rock art and cave paintings of ancient human societies reveal that it was customary to use symbols in pagan rites. For example, the swastika, meaning ‘well-being’ in Sanskrit, was used by the Indus Valley people more than 5000 years ago. It is still in use today in most Hindu rituals for the same purpose. Very few symbols like the swastika have survived to the present day, though many like those used on coins and stone tablets have lost their significance. Some have undergone changes in form, but continue to serve the same purpose like the signs of the zodiac, which probably predate the swastika by a thousand years. Many cross-like symbols existed since pre-historic times before it evolved into the cross of Christianity as we know it today. The Egyptian sphinx and Aladdin’s lamp evoke feelings of wonderment and awe even to this day, though their original purpose and significance have been lost forever.

It is obvious that symbols have a definite purpose beyond their visual appeal and decorative function. A symbol stands for something that is out there in the world or in here in the mind. Before language was invented, people communicated their thoughts with symbols. It was the only way of communication in the ancient world, other than sounds and gestures, for language was not yet born. Whether you communicated with the dead, the nature or the people living around you, you used symbols. They were not limited to the pagan rites, however, but extended to the identity of the people that used them. Symbols fused people together, helped form societies and were expressions of loyalties to a tribe. Symbols eventually led to scripts like the Egyptian hieroglyphs and the rudiments of a language gradually took shape as people traded goods and the need to count became evident. As societies evolved symbols became more and more expressive until they stood for ideas beyond the representations of physical objects and social events. With the growth of symbols and the diversity of their usage, people came to depend on their use in almost all walks of life – rites, trade, astrology, counting – and eventually over centuries they came to stand for complex ideas that led to religion, culture, mathematics, astronomy and philosophy.

As symbols became the nucleus of daily life, our dependence on them not only grew beyond measure, but also led to both happy outcomes and undesirable consequences. As abstract representations of physical objects or natural events in the world, symbols helped us develop ideas into scientific theories, drawings into works of art and other-worldly feelings and experiences into religious beliefs. In science, we deal with universally accepted symbols. In works of art, symbols are specific to the culture and traditions of a society. In matters of religion, however, symbols are treated not just as representations of inarticulate ideas and feelings, but as the reality they are purported to stand for. Symbols in religion have remained static for thousands of years, unlike those in science, art and other human affairs, which have happily evolved over time depending on our changing needs. The religious symbols have no common universal frames of reference such as those in science and therefore our dependence on them seems to be unjustified. While symbols have brought us together in the fields of science, art and commerce, they have also divided us in matters of religion.

A symbol is not the thing; it has no significance in itself; it has a meaning only in relation to the thing it represents. And yet, it has come to mean much more than the thing itself. A flag is not merely a colourful representation of a nation on a piece of cloth: you can be shot or incarcerated for despoiling it. A picture of a god is no more than an artistic representation of an idea or a mythical man or woman endowed with extraordinary capacities; but it can lead to insane acts of violence, instigated by unscrupulous people. The word God is obviously an idea of GOD, since there is no universally accepted God symbol. Therefore, the believer and the unbeliever both react strongly to that word, each according to his or her cultural background, which is made up of imagery and symbolic representations. The symbol zero, we learn, had met with a lot of resistance in the West because it signified nothingness or emptiness, which went against the then Christian theology. The followers of Shiva and Vishnu had clashed over the alleged superiority of one over the other and the symbols they adorned their foreheads with had immediately divided them into warring camps. The thin line that divides a symbol from the reality it is meant to represent vanishes at the merest whisper of opposition: the symbol becomes the reality.

Symbols have been used to harness mass power in order to achieve certain desired ends. Political parties use symbols in order to promote mass identification. Democracies thrive on voting the symbol representatives to power. This mass appeal sometimes helps legitimize political actions which may seem patently inhuman in other contexts. The rallying power of the symbol was fully exploited by the Nazis before the Second World War. Since they adopted Swastika as their party symbol, it became infamously associated with the most appalling crime in the history of humanity: six million Jews became victims of the Nazi’s racial bigotry. The communist ideology propagated by the symbol of hammer and sickle consumed the minds of a whole nation before it collapsed under the weight of its own tyrannical means to impose it on millions in the erstwhile Soviet Union. The advertisers use symbols to promote their product brands. And the well-known channels of advertisement, like hoardings, TV commercials, web banners and SMS ads on the mobile phones, are intended to lodge the symbols in the mind: the worth of the product (of which kind many exist in the market) hardly justifies this subliminal invasion and the resultant excessive cost to the consumer.

Not only in our waking moments, but even when we are sleeping, symbols affect us. They are the stuff of which dreams are made. We don’t want to know why we dream, but merely what a particular dream means. There are always specialists around to interpret them for us. Because most symbols make sense only in a cultural context, we have many kinds of dream interpretations like the Islamic, the Christian, the Hindu, the Freudian and so on. And the specialist thrives in a pluralist society like our own. However, the hidden meaning of a symbol eludes even the adept, not so much from a lack of adequate knowledge, but perhaps because the meaning has changed dramatically over time. Despite being open to several, and sometimes conflicting interpretations, symbols in dreams continue to invite the specialist to provide meaning to the dreamer. Wake up, dear reader, and know your symbols well, and their meaning in a dream context, for not a day passes without dreams.

Aldous Huxley wrote that “Man is an amphibian who lives simultaneously in two worlds – the given and the homemade, the world of matter, life and consciousness and the world of symbols.” He points out that the symbols in science have been carefully chosen to represent the physical world; however, in matters of religion and politics no such effort preceded the creation of symbols. Consequently, while the former helped us to grow technologically, the latter has held us back from overcoming our brute nature. No matter how many symbols we deal with in our daily life, it is perhaps more important, and urgent, to distinguish between those that aid our understanding and those that excite our passions, than merely to be overcome by their avowed meanings.

[my article reproduced from http://www.articlesbase.com/culture-articles/the-power-of-the-symbol-2610910.html%5D