Monday, September 28, 2015

From ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ by Ernest Hemingway

But I try not to borrow. First you borrow. Then you beg.

The old man opened his eyes and for a moment he was coming back from a long way away. Then he smiled.

‘Age is my alarm clock,’ the old man said. ‘Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?’

From ‘The Hare Krishna Explosion’ by Hayagriva Das. The Birth of Krishna Consciousness in America (1966-1969)

“That is sense gratification music,” Swamiji answers.
“Oh?” I’m taken aback. “But its Ravi Shankar,” I protest……
“Ravi Shankar is a businessman,” Swamiji says, smiling.

Sex is like an itch; when we scratch, it gets worse. So we must tolerate it, and ask Krishna to help us. We must understand that sex life is the highest material pleasure, and therefore the strongest bond to material life, to rebirth in the material world.

NASA’s space programs: “They are trying to reach the moon and other higher planets by material means. Impossible. They will not be permitted entry. You must qualify spiritually to go there….According to the Vedas, the moon is a higher planet where demigods live in advanced civilizations.”
“Then why don’t they come here?” I ask.
“Why should they?” he [Prabhupada] responds, surprised. “This is a middle planet. The demigods are enjoying themselves in the heavenly planets. Why should they come to an inferior place?”

“The eternal living entity is the enjoyed, Prakriti, and Krishna is the enjoyer, Purusha. It is the nature of the female to be enjoyed, the male to enjoy. But in reciprocation, both experience enjoyment. Prakriti in being dominated, in serving, in being enjoyed….

Swamiji gives a brief talk…… “Marriage is for life. It is the wife’s duty to serve the husband, to keep the house clean, cook nicely, and make her husband comfortable when he comes back from work…… It is her duty to bear Krishna conscious children and aid her husband in a life of progressive Krishna consciousness. And it is the husband’s duty to protect the wife and provide for her. The wife should not have to go out and work. That is a very bad proposal. The wife is never to be independent but is to be protected and remain at home. In this way, the marriage will go smoothly.”

“Women are soft-hearted,” Swamiji says, “but unfortunately they are fickle, too. They are quick to accept and reject. They come to Krishna consciousness quickly, out of sentiment, and then some boy comes along, and they reject everything. Men are not so quick to accept, but once they have accepted, they are more reluctant to reject. So the male is considered a higher birth because a man is more likely to…..remain steady. In Vedic culture, the woman is considered weak. Soft-hearted. She should be protected, not given freedom to roam about, like in this country [USA]. Therefore we are marrying our girls to nice Krishna conscious boys.”

Prabhupada discards all propaganda about the planned moon landing.
“They will never get there by these artificial, mechanical means,” he insists. “But even if they manage somehow, the demigods would kick them out.”

Prabhupada then tells the story of the boy who went to the great sage Gautama and begged him for initiation.
“What is your father’s name?” Gautama Rishi asked
“I don’t know,” the boy replied
“Go ask your mother.”
The boy went to his mother, who said, “Before you were born, I was foolish and loved many men. I don’t know whose son you are.”
The boy returned to Gautama Rishi.
“What did your mother say?”
“Since she was a prostitute, she doesn’t know,” the boy replied.

“Oh!” exclaimed the sage. “You are truthful. You are a Brahmin, I will initiate you”

From ‘Around the World in 80 days’ by Michael Palin

A minibus takes me into Athens. Earthquakes or the threat of them seem to have knocked the stuffing out of domestic architecture and we pass row upon row of bland, unremarkable concrete facades. Sad in a city which contains two or three of the greatest buildings in the world.

….Cairo. The noise is incredible. This is a horn-blower society. Egyptian drivers make New York cabbies sound like librarians. They must specially modify their cars to connect the accelerator to the horn.

My breakfast is served by a Nubian in a fez who was once a servant in the household of King Farouk. ‘Nubians make very good waiters,’ observes Dr Doss. What a dreadful reference for any nation. Its like hearing that Visigoths can iron well.

Suddenly we’re on the edge of the desert, 96 per cent of Egypt’s land surface…..

Its not really surprising the Egyptians were clobbered so often by the Israelis. They’re not warriors. They’re shy, rather jolly, humorous people. Can’t imagine them taking military life and conquest very seriously.

The Arabs love children…….

Most of the manual work in Saudi Arabia is done by foreigners. As well as the Egyptians there are Yemenis and Filipinos and South-East Asians. The Saudis prefer to be behind desks, they don’t really like to get their hands dirty.

There is no such thing as a tourist in Saudi Arabia. Every visitor has to have a sponsor – a company or a government department – which guarantees his status and suitability. Saudi Arabia may look like America but it can behave like Russia.

The Sudanese I’ve met on this trip I’ve liked very much indeed; they have a natural grace and wit and smile a lot, as though they like a good time.

…..Saudis don’t eat out much, and when they do they prefer Western-style restaurants.

…..the city of Riyadh, built almost entirely in the last 15 years and one of the hottest capitals on earth.

……like customs authorities the world over, these people always want the one extra piece of paper you never have.

Indian life is no respecter of great monuments, especially one so prominently associated with alien domination, nor does Indian life have to be sought out in back streets and certain quarters of town. It begins, like the heady, warm smell of spice and manure, as soon as you set foot on the land.

Despite the noise and heat and smell at Victoria Terminal, the faces in the crowd show none of the tension, anxiety or pent-up anger which you can see any morning or evening at a London main-line station. I think it boils down to tolerance again. The Indians do not betray impatience. They accept everyone’s right to be wherever they are. Thus poverty and appalling destitution, malnutrition and deformity are on public view, but nervous breakdowns are almost unknown.

…..I venture out for a last look at Bombay……as I walk along past these rickety tenuous little coverings, I see very little sourness and despondency. There is dignity in the faces of mothers washing in the water from the standpipe. Eyes are not averted in embarrassment or shame, the children are responsive, lively and curious. Once again I’m confused and surprised by the way India works. Poverty seems not to be judged as failure, as it is in the West. Here it is a fact of life. There are too many people and too few jobs. Those who have little or nothing are not cleared off the streets or shoved out of sight. To make something out of almost nothing, as in the case of these families huddled against the high wall, is an achievement, and that shows in their faces.

Part of the exhaustion of Indian travel is the profusion of things to see.

As in India, there are enormous numbers of people about, but the Chinese behave very differently. They’re more purposeful, they always seem to be on the move or intent on doing something. There isn’t much of the drifting, gazing, eye-wandering of India. Nor are they particularly curious. Whereas Indians are always catching your eye eager to exchange a smile, the Chinese tend to avoid eye contact and it’s difficult to get any response from the faces.

From the compartment next door comes the rasping prelude to a good spit. The Chinese are great expectorators and very often a hideous deep-throated rumble will belong to a petite lady.

The Japanese are very well dressed. Their shape and style reminds me of the Italians.

Friday, September 18, 2015

From ‘If Truth be Told. A Monk's Memoir’ by Om Swami

A siyar singhi is a little lump that grows on a jackal’s body. After it becomes the size of a betel nut, it sheds on its own. There are many tantric applications of a singhi, provided a good tantric knows how to consecrate it well. It is used to fulfil material goals, cure diseases and hypnotize or mesmerize people. It can also be used in black magic to inflict harm or injury.

….couplet by Kabir:
Guru jaka aandhara, chela hai jaachandh,
Andha andhe theliye, dono koop parant.
(The guru is blind and so is the disciple. The blind is
leading the blind and both will end up in the well.)

Suffering results in two types of people: those who become soft and gentle and do everything they can to ensure no one else has to suffer; and those who become hard and bitter, subjecting others to what they went through.

The tantric path is about the inner worship of Krishna. A tantric does not find union after death attractive; he wants to unite with the Supreme Soul while in the body. This requires complete annihilation of one’s societal conditioning of good and bad because a tantric will engage in rituals that may be completely unacceptable to society. But tantra says that in order to experience and see God in everything, you must not be afraid of anything, you must face and experience all circumstances with complete equanimity.

One of the side effects of meditation is that your sleep becomes light. This is because you learn to maintain a state of consciousness, of awareness.,

….Himalayas, for inexplicable reasons, remain the ultimate place for meditation. The Hindu tradition says that over the course of thousands of years, some of the greatest saints have meditated in the Himalayas, and you can still feel their divine energy there. I don’t have any proof…. But, having been around the world, I can say without the slightest hesitation that when it comes to spiritual vibrations and a certain purity, there is no other place in the world like the Himalayas. …the help you get on your spiritual journey from the indescribable and unseen forces of the Himalayas, you cannot get elsewhere.

In the rituals of tantra, the lunar calendar plays a crucial role…..some sadhanas can only be started on certain days. This information is never fully documented in the scriptures to prevent abuse or misuse of the powers a seeker gains by way of mantra siddhi; it is usually communicated through an oral tradition.

Meditation is predominantly of two types: concentrative and contemplative. In the first kind, you build your concentration. In the second, you use it to reflect on the nature of reality and your own existence. Contemplative meditation gives birth to insight, and it is this insight that changes how you see and interpret the world around you. Deep concentration leads to Samadhi, and deep contemplation allows you to maintain that state while dealing with the challenges of the world.

Bodily movements are highly detrimental to good meditation because they make you aware of the body. Therefore, its absolutely essential to sit still in meditation because a still mind lives in a still body and a still body helps in stilling the mind

Perfecting the gaze is one of the subtle but promising signs of progress in meditation because when you are meditating deeply, even a slight movement of the eyeball is enough to bring your awareness back to the body, and it breaks the concentration.
My quiet and concentrated mind gave birth to an unusual phenomenon. I realized I could shut down my heartbeat at will.

….a seeker practicing sadhana develops a sensitivity to energy beyond what the average person can feel. An adept then uses this energy to help others.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

From ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise. Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim’ by Ziauddin Sardar

The thirst to know, the imperative to think and reflect was the most resonant chord, the insistent theme I found running throughout the Qur’an.

Throughout this conversation my father remained silent. His speciality was sitting quietly and fuming…. His seismic cycle was linked in comfortable, connubial fashion to the pattern of my mother’s discourse. He would sit there, an Etna occasionally sending out smoke signals but otherwise just forming the scenic backdrop, until my mother had finished. At which point his tectonic plates would realign, causing a perturbation in his magma chamber that would generate a potent lava flow. His eruptions were made only to contradict – and every now and then to disparage – what she had said. Like an assured volcanologist, I sat quietly waiting for his intervention.

………..the great collections of Hadith compiled by Imam al-Bukhari, who died in 869 and Imam Muslim, who died in 875…The authentic voices that became traditional authority were more critical and less certain of their opinions. They thought and wrote as men of their own changing times, not as monuments of imperishable stone.
I was deeply impressed by how gentle and moderate the classical scholars really were. Take Bukhari, the compiler of one of the major collections of authentic Hadith. An exceptionally polite and mild mannered person, Bukhari in fact pioneered the science of Hadith criticism, a vast field of research combining ethics, morality, sociology, law, politics, economics and logic into a unique discipline of intellectual inquiry. At the heart of Hadith criticism is the notion of isnad, or attestation. It concerns tracing each link in the chain of narrators, those who reported a saying or action of the Prophet. Nothing was taken for granted, critical inquiry required investigating the qualities of each link in the chain as regards memory, accuracy, truthfulness, examining their competence as reliable witnesses whose testimony would be accepted in the court of civil law and tracing the chain back to Prophet Mohammad himself. But even that was not good enough. Time and geographical circumstances had to be investigated to establish that it was physically possible for individuals in the chain of narrators to have met. Moreover, further investigations were needed to ensure that the Hadith was not against reason or established historical fact; or against the teachings of the Qur’an; or that it did not express a partisan view, or that it did not contain warning of heavy punishment for ordinary lapses of conduct or mighty rewards for ordinary acts of piety.

Bukhari ….would take a bath and pray every time he examined a particular Hadith – given that he had collected around 600,000, it is not surprising it took him sixteen years to compile his collection of authentic Hadith: the Sahih. ….Of all the Hadith he examined, he included about 7,000 in his book and labelled only 2,602 as authentic. Having compiled the Sahih he was still not satisfied, he revised the text three times. When it was finally published, Bukhari’s reputation spread far and wide.

Consider Imran Malik. The School of Islamic Law this Medinan scholar inspired is said to be the most rigid, extreme and uncompromising. Yet Malik himself was anything but rigid and free from doubt. He was asked by the Caliph to write a book that would be distributed throughout the Muslim world as a guide to Islamic law. Anyone differing from this book could then be prosecuted. Malik rejected the idea outright, declaring his opinions were not certain. Anyway, he said, the Companions of the Prophet were to be found all over the Muslim world, and people could learn from these individuals, rather than from a single book. Imam Malik insisted there was more than one way to practice Islam; and that people should be free to go to any fountain of knowledge they deemed fit. Much the same can be said of Imam Shafi’i, a disciple of Imran Malik. Shafi’i ……after visiting Iraq, where the jurists followed the School established by Imam Hanafi, another mild-mannered individual who favoured personal reasoning than total reliance on Hadith and analogy. Shafi’i concluded that Maliki theories had many weaknesses. But after debating with Hanafi scholars, he concluded that the Hanafi School too was flawed. He devoted the last years of his life to producing a synthesis of the two Schools of Thought which appeared as Al-Shafi’i Risala. …..The legal opinions of these scholars, the substance that forms the body of Islamic Law, was never meant to be absolute, comprehensive or eternal, let alone the ultimate understanding of what constitutes the Law in Islam. They themselves saw, and emphasized, that their personal opinions were just opinions, which they changed frequently, and never intended to be Eternal Law. To claim, as for example Hassan al-Banna did, that the Imams had solved all problems for all time, amounts to attributing divine authority to gentle, unassuming, unsure men, Who can say that Islamic Law, as it exists, is the final word on everything?

….it became increasingly apparent that collectively, my group of Islamist friends were short on two things: self-doubt and forgiveness. The first led many to see the world in black and white. The second sowed the seeds of discord amongst us.

…..Rosser-Owen quoted a verse by an Arabic poet: ‘So long as belief and unbelief are not perfectly equal, no man can be a true Muslim.’

‘What is Sufism?’…..the tenth-century mystic Abul Hasayn an-Nuri….replied: ‘Sufism is neither external [experience] nor knowledge, it is all virtue.’ Al-Junayd, who is credited with formulating the Sufi path, answered: ‘Sufism is that you should be with God without any attachment.’ …….Samnun…end of the ninth century…..said: ‘Sufism is that you should not possess anything nor should anything possess you.’ An alternative approach to pinning down Sufism is to define it in terms of its central experience – fana. Fana literally means to be dissolved, to be annihilated. Junayd…… when ‘you die to yourself and live by Him’. Essentially, it is the negation of the Self: negation of will, existence, self-consciousness and being; forsaken for union with God, assimilation into His will….. The discipline that leads Sufis to fana is zikr: the act of remembering Allah. Zikr can consist of elaborate procedures but usually involves saying ‘Allah’ loudly, stretching the word as it is pronounced, and saying it with all the force of heart and throat.

Sheikh Nazim Adil Haqqani, a Cypriot Sufi…… ‘There are three big snakes that harm human beings,’ he said. ‘Beware of them: to be intolerant and impatient with the people around you; to be dependent on something you cannot leave; and to be controlled by your ego.’…..the Sheikh said ….. ‘I am the collector of souls. I polish souls till the ego has evaporated…… There is too much information in the head of young seekers. You must empty your mind of all that you know. Only then can you begin the journey towards tasawwuf.

Hypocrisy, fanaticism and self-righteousness were dismissed by [Nasruddin] Hodja with equal candour…….. In a famous story, Hodja suggests that every argument has more than one side: two men involved in a quarrel ask Hodja to settle their dispute. When the first man tells his version, Hodja says: ‘You are right.’ The second protests, demanding to tell his version, after which Hodja remarks: ‘You’re right.’ His wife, who has been listening, intervenes: ‘But they cant both be right.’ Hodja promptly replies: ‘Woman, you’re right, too’ Muslims everywhere need a character like him to lean against……

In classical Islam the quest for knowledge had always been intimately linked with extensive travel; a fact endorsed by none other than Al-Ghazali. The eleventh-century philosopher and theologian is a towering figure in Islamic history … the classical author most Muslims turn to in despair.  …..while writing about certainty, he was perpetually on the edge of doubt, always searching for truth, moving from one fit of skepticism to another. ‘No one believes,’ he said, ‘until he has doubted.’….. For al-Ghazali travel is an essential component of belief……Both worldly knowledge and inner knowledge of one’s Self and one’s position in the cosmos are acquired through travel ……

Al-Ghazali distinguishes two general categories of travel: rihla and safar. …….Rihla is outward, physical travel, professionally undertaken…… Safar involved physical exertion as well as inner transformation, liberation and attainment ……The journey must transport the individual towards new experiences and encounters and force him to perceive the interconnectedness of all things around him ……The traveler learns from mixing with ordinary people who force him to constantly re-examine his own assumptions, his accustomed routine of activity and thought, thus transforming him from the inside and producing a new synthesis.

The Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, resting place of the Beloved Prophet Muhammed…..Medina, the ancient city of Yathrib, is the second holiest city of Islam ……the social and commercial life of the city focused around the Prophet’s Mosque. The original mosque was built of sun-dried brick, the floor was of earth and the ceiling constructed of palm fronds covered with mud and supported by pillars of palm wood. This mosque has been rebuilt a number of times over the centuries, added to and made splendid by caliphs and kings. The Ottomans in particular paid a great deal of attention both to the Prophet’s mosque and to the City  ……..In the time of King Abdul Aziz, it still retained its Ottoman flavor ….At the entrance to the city, a splendid inner castle stood as a reminder of the medieval wall which once defended it. Streets were lined with stucco houses, ornamented with intricately worked wooden lattices. The Prophet’s mosque was rose red with Ottoman minarets and magnificent gates surmounted with gold inscriptions set there by Turkish calligraphers. …..between 1948 and 1955, during the reigns of two successive Saudi Kings, the mosque was extended by one-third and entirely rebuilt in grey stone…….most of the old city was left untouched. Only a few large modern hotels overshadowed the old houses, and here and there occasional car parks appeared as eyesores. ……. ‘In June 1973,’ Angawi’s voice was clipped with emotion, ‘there came a second transformation. In a matter of days ……the whole city was razed to the ground.’ No one complained. Indeed, not many knew what had happened. ‘Fourteen hundred years of history and tradition disappeared in a dust cloud, gone’

Like most Saudis, Al-Turki was more polite than frank

Throughout their history, it is said, the Bedouins had nothing and owned nothing; but they had plenty of time. They enjoyed hanging around, waiting, not rushing to do anything in particular. So, waiting has become an essential ingredient of Saudi life.

……the thirteenth-century Muslim political scientist Ibn Taymiyya……was concerned, almost exclusively, with the strength and survival of the Muslim community at a time when Islam, recovering from the onslaught of the Crusades, was under siege from the Mongols. He saw dissension amongst Muslims as their main weakness and sought to ban plurality of interpretations. Everything had to be found in the Qur’an and the Sunnah; and even theology and philosophy, Ibn Taymiyya asserted boldly, had no place in Islam. The Qur’an had to be interpreted literally. When the Qur’an, for example, says God sits on His throne, He sits on His throne, period. No discussion can be entertained on the nature of the throne or its purpose. Nothing can be read metaphorically or symbolically.

The students from Medina University were fiercely loyal both to their Saudi mentors and their particular school of thought. The Wahhabism they learned was manufactured on the basis of tribal loyalty – but the place of traditional tribal allegiance was now taken by Islam. Everyone outside this territory was, by definition, a hostile dweller in the domain of unbelief. Those who stood outside their domain were not limited to non-Muslims; they included all those Muslims who have not given allegiance to Wahhabism. The ranks of unbelief were swollen by the Shias, the Sufis, and followers of other Islamic schools of thought…… The students would often tell me that any alliance with the unbelievers was itself unbelief; that one should not just refrain from associating or making friends with them, but should also shun their employment, advice, emulation, and try to avoid conviviality and affability towards them.

In Saudi Arabia ……all men in the Kingdom are dressed in white…..White is the natural colour for such an extreme climate; it reflects the sun and absorbs very little heat. Women have to be covered, from head to toe, by law, in black shrouds that absorb all the sun and all the heat. Women wear their shrouds ninja fashion, observing not traditional female Muslim dress, hijab, but the more extensive niqab, the head-covering that leaves only a narrow slit where the eyes are visible. The only place in Saudi Arabia where this refinement of dress is not seen is within the precincts of the Sacred Mosque itself where the conventional Islamic precepts of female garb include the requirement for the face to be uncovered.

By radically denying the complexity and diversity of Islamic history, over time and vast areas of the world, and rejecting diverse, pluralistic interpretations of Islam, Wahhabism has stripped Islam of all its ethical and moral content and reduced it to an arid list of dos and don’ts. To insist that anything that cannot be found in a literal reading of the sources and lore of early Muslims is kufr – outside the domain of Islam – and to enforce this comprehensive vision with brute force and severe social pressure for complete conformity spells totalitarianism.

…Wahhabism, I had concluded, had been employed to introduce two metaphysical catastrophes in Islam.
First, by closing the interpretations of our ‘absolute frame of reference’ – the Qur’an and the life of Prophet Muhammad – it had removed agency from believers …..Muslim societies were doomed to exist in suspended animation. If everything was a priori given, nothing new could really be accommodated. The intellect, human intelligence, became an irrelevant encumbrance since everything could be reduced to a simple comply/not comply formula derived from the thought of dead bearded men.
Second, by assuming that ethics and morality reached their apex, indeed an end point, with the Companions of the Prophet….. negated the very idea of evolution in human thought and morality. Indeed, it set Muslim civilization on a fixed course to perpetual decline. …..the challenge of our time, I argued, was to work out values and norms that were clearly and distinctively better than those worked out by Companions of the Prophet.

We Muslims live among the wreckage of our heritage, we lop off its sophistication, lose precious works of subtle minds that once strove to pursue inventiveness within our own dynamic framework.

Most Muslims consider the Shariah to be divine. But there is nothing divine about the Shariah, I explained. The only thing that can legitimately be described as divine in Islam is the Qur’an. The Shariah is a human construction; an attempt to understand the divine will in a particular context – and that context happens to be eighth-century Muslim society. We need to understand the Shariah in our own context; and reconstruct it from first principles…

….Asma Barlas … outspoken feminist scholar of Islam …..The Shariah, she explained, was formulated by jurists, all of them male, during the Abbasid period (749-1258), a time in history well known for its sexism and misogyny. This male bias is evident in the way the Shariah treates women and men unequally, particularly when it comes to criminal justice. An obvious example relates to testimonies where we have the notorious ‘two-for-one formula’. ‘Equating the testimony of two women with that of one man,’ said Asma, ‘naturally leads to a view of the woman being half a man’. But, explained Asma, the Qur’an discusses at least five cases which involve the giving of evidence, and in only one case does it suggest taking two women as witnesses in place of one man. In the far more crucial case of adultery, the Qur’an privileges the testimony of the wife over that of the husband. So, for example, if a husband charges his wife with adultery and cannot produce four male witnesses to the act of penetration, he cannot serve as his own witness. In such instances, the Qur’an allows the wife to testify on her own behalf and if she swears her innocence, it does not give her husband any further legal recourse against her. ‘Now, the classical jurists did not take this to mean that men should testify in fours or that the woman’s word outranks that of the man’s!’

The Shariah also fails to distinguish between different types of extramarital sex, Asma said. For example, it does not differentiate between adultery, fornication and rape. As a result, women who are victims of rape and sexual abuse can find themselves – and have found themselves, not just in Pakistan but also other Muslim countries like Nigeria and the Sudan – being charged with a crime and sentenced to be stoned to death. ‘Stoning to death,’ Asma emphasized, ‘is another aberrant law since the Qur’an does not sanction stoning to death for any crime whatsoever.’

‘….to call for reforming the Shariah is equated with an attach on Islam,’ Asma replied….. The Mullahs have been particularly clever in equating religion with law…. To change the Shariah we have to stand up to powerfully entrenched clerics and interpretative communities who will put up a deafening roar against such an exercise on the grounds that it is un-Islamic or even anti-Islamic. And in this way they continue to underwrite their own monopoly on religious knowledge. ‘Another irony for a people whose religion does not sanction a class of professional interpretators of religious knowledge in the form of a clergy’ ………. ‘The Shariah and veiling of women have become the quintessential symbols of Islam. As we know, the veneration of symbols can keep people from thinking about what the symbols actually symbolize.’

….Parvez Manzoor ….. ‘So, in essence, the Shariah is morality and ethics rather than law,’ I said.
‘Precisely,’ Parvez shot back …… ‘But the Muslim mind does not distinguish between ethics and law.’
‘What if law becomes unethical? And truth becomes equated with method?’
‘Ah,’ said Parvez, ‘this is precisely what happened in Islamic history.’
………There was no Shariah at the time of the death of Prophet Muhammad….. for almost 150 years after the death of the Prophet, the accumulated ensemble of the exercise of ‘learning’ and ‘understanding’, which was the religious knowledge of Islam, was not called the Shariah. This knowledge was largely personal, free and somewhat subjective. The first act of objectification and reification occurred during the early Abbasid period when this accumulated knowledge was confused with history ….. Thus, history became a substitute for religious inquiry and learning but as the historically frozen corpus of juristic rulings. The Will of God, which was previously discovered through intellectual methods, was now seen as being expressed in injunctions and prohibitions……. From the second Islamic century onwards there emerged a set of mechanisms, or disciplines, for understanding the Word of God. Toward the end of the Abbasid period, that is around the thirteenth century, this mechanism, known collectively as fiqh, came to constitute ‘the jurisprudence of Islam’. It entirely determined the form and content of the Shariah. ‘The “method” of the Shariah became indistinguishable from the “truth” of Islam itself,’ Parvez explained.
‘So, in fact, the Shariah, as understood by Muslims today, has nothing really to do with the truth of Islam. It is in fact largely fiqh, a body of historically frozen judicial thought and rulings?’
‘Indeed,’ replied Parvez. ‘It is a theoretically founded mechanism for traditional authoritarianism. Small wonder that Islamic theology and law have developed little since then.’
We both concurred that the method of the Shariah does not encourage bold, innovative and speculative thought. Its preoccupation with existentially concrete ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ stifles creative imagination, and as a consequence, makes Shariah-minded individuals and cultures conservative and backward-looking in their general outlook on life… has become a tool of oppression

I had finally reached a firm conclusion: without reforming the Shariah, which actually amounts to reformulating Islam itself, a humane earthly paradise will always elude Muslim societies….. Muslim individuals and communities had to reclaim agency: the right to reinterpret their religious texts according to their own time and context. In reality, the Shariah is nothing more than a set of principles, a framework of values that provides Muslim societies with guidance. But these sets of principles and values are not static or indeed a priori given, but are dynamically derived within changing contexts. And the duty to reinterpret the basic sources of Islam belongs not to revered men long dead, or to obscurantist Mullahs who exercise power over Muslim communities in the name of these classical scholars, but to each individual Muslim. The believers cannot simply be blind imitators….The hurdles obstructing the path to a new watering hole come, as they always have, from deeply entrenched religious and political power structures.

The European Reformation resulted in the transfer of authority for the governance of this world from the Church to the State, from Popes to princes. It was the origin of the process known as secularization. This began with the theological struggle for reform of religion, and it culminated in the secular state being seen as the only authority that could guarantee liberty of conscience and diversity of religious belief.

What do you get when you separate Shariah from the State, religion from politics? The question haunted Muslim scholars and thinkers from the early days of Islam. ….One of the foremost Muslim thinkers to give serious thought to this issue was the philosopher Al-Farabi…….belonged to a group of thinkers who were collectively known as the Mutazilites, literally the Separatists. …..all denounced strict, Shariah-based faith and worked to transform Islam into a more humanistic religion.  The Mutazilites argued that with reason alone one could know how to act morally; and by corollary, there was no necessity to combine religion and statecraft.

….Iftikar Malik …… ‘Secularism is the only antidote to the vicious literalism, supported by a spiritless and meaningless ritualism that’s taken hold of the Muslim mind’ ……..Iftikar was ready to concede that secularists can be just as doctrinaire as religious persons. But in his view secularism provided an umbrella for pluralism to flower, for dissent to be tolerated, for democracy to flourish in Muslim societies …. ‘…..I’m arguing for secularism not at the expense of religion but as a method for reinterpreting and revisiting religion itself.’

In France and Germany, Muslim girls in headscarves are often seen as a threat to secular civilization and banned from attending school. But non-Muslim (white) women wearing scarves are seen as chic and fashionable. Why this dichotomy? …. A secular society does not provide its citizens with absolute freedom but confines it within the boundaries of its own absolutes…..

‘…. “Islamic Revolution” in Iran. It’s the standard pattern: a charismatic leader heads the initial movement; once his regime is established, demands for greater radicalism and purism culminate in a reign of terror and virtue where the leader is transformed into a demigod and becomes sole arbitrator of what’s “revolutionary” and what “counter-revolutionary”. That’s what happened in Turkey. Mustafa Kemal played the role of demigod admirably: “I am Turkey,” he declared ….’

Where did the European Enlightenment come from? ….Its foundations were laid by Islam. Islam taught Europe virtually all it knew about science, philosophy and education……how to differentiate between civilization and barbarism, and to understand the basic features of a civil society. Islam trained Europe in scholastic and philosophic method, and bequeathed it its characteristic institutional forum of learning: the university. …showed Europe the distinction between medicine and magic, drilled it in making surgical instruments and explained how to establish and run hospitals. And the Ottomans played an important part in all this.’ …….. ‘Liberal humanism, the hallmark of post-Renaissance Europe’ Ekmeleddin explained, ‘has its origins in the adab movement of Islam, which was concerned with the etiquette of being human.’

………The Satanic Verses ……….. What I, and most Muslims, took exception to was Rushdie’s deliberate attempt to rewrite the life of Prophet Muhammad in an exceptionally abusive and obscene way…….. In the novel, Rushdie uses the abusive term ‘Mahound’, coined in the Middle Ages in Christendom to describe the Prophet as a devil, to reframe the biography of Muhammad……. The passages of The Satanic Verses that caused most offence to Muslims relate to the wives of the Prophet Muhammad. In the episode of the Curtain, a prostitutes’ den, Rushdie explicitly gives each prostitute the name of one of the wives..

Malay Islam is often described as ‘gentle’, moderate and eclectic ….. Much of this gentleness comes from mysticism….The Sufis….were more tolerant to pre-Islamic beliefs……left an indelible imprint on the Malay mind ….Spanish Islam too was deeply influenced by mysticism ……

‘What made Andalusia so successful for so long…..?’ asked Merryl.

….Gulzar Haider answered …..‘There was ethnic pluralism, religious tolerance, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and culture – from painting to poetry to music to philosophy. And no one thought these things to be un- or anti-Islamic. And now we lack them all.’

From ‘Into India’ by John Keay

[Surprising but there is lot of typecasting, racial stereotypes etc. in this book. I don’t think John Keay would be proud of reading this work again]

Hinduism, when shorn of its prostitution to political ends, remains the most accommodating of religions. Indians, resident and non-resident, are the most obliging of peoples.

…a word of thanks to the Indian people. They are their own worst critics and nothing sells there like another attack on India.

For one country, one nation, India has more races, more languages, more religions and more social groups (tribes and castes) than any comparable corner of the globe. This incredible diversity of peoples is one of the country’s great fascinations.

….Indians are recognizable as a gentle, excitable and slightly potty people. The land of Nod is characterized by a certain passivity interpreted, according to one’s point of view, as lethargic resignation or tolerant stoicism ….the national obsession with religion. For most people this means Hinduism, a peculiarly Indian phenomenon tantamount to the Indian way of life. The mass of non-Hindu communities owe to it a good deal more than they care to admit.

India has a curious way of changing people. The authoritarian becomes a bully and the earnest student an emaciated ascetic. No one comes away indifferent. You feel either rejected or converted and the most balanced subsequent analysis soon plunges into bitter recriminations or soars with extravagant praise. India is never just a country or a holiday; it is a whole experience. It asks much of visitors and by their response to it they judge it. India is what it makes of you. For this bit of self-discovery as well as for the country’s more obvious surprises it is as well to be prepared.

In Delhi clambering on swollen feet from jet to tarmac………..One of the richest, strangest and most exciting smells imaginable shoots up the nostrils like a whiff of brandy. Urine and jasmine, cow dung smoke and frangipani, low octane exhaust and the acrid bidi cigarette combine with the baffling aromas of Indian cuisine to make the air almost tangible. In the quiet, cool expectancy of the post monsoon dawn this smell can be either wildly upsetting or immensely reassuring; it all depends on whether India is a new or a familiar experience.

There is a general untidiness about the place, piles of builders rubble and farmyard refuse both off and on the road.

For all the poverty and hardship Indians are a jollier bunch than their counterparts in the West. Neuroses are as rare amongst businessmen as bitterness is amongst beggars. Suicide is exceptional and the angst of our Western world unknown. A long face reserved for the plight of India is best forgotten if one is to cope with the more typically Indian characteristic of boundless optimism.

I should hate to be thought guilty of romanticizing poverty but there is about the rural poverty of India great beauty as well as sadness.

….Aurangzeb, the nigger in the woodpile so far as Indian historians are concerned because his bigotry led to the severe persecution of Hindus.

At Patna the remains of the imperial city are disappointing. Then as now stone was scarce in the Gangetic plain. The city was built largely of wood. This explains why the great monuments of the period are not in U.P. and Bihar but far away in the Vindhya Hills and Maharashtra.

‘Hinduism,’ wrote Dr. Radhakrishna, one of independent India’s first presidents, ‘is a way of life giving absolute liberty in the world of thought.’

Against its inequalities must be set the undeniable fact that caste has given to Indian society an unequalled stability enabling it to survive innumerable political upheavals, conquests and economic disasters including six hundred years of Muslim rule, nearly two hundred of British, and currently the attractions of communism. ‘As a scheme of social adjustment (it) compares rather favorably with the European of warring territorial nationalities’ writes W.H. Gilbert. It has accorded to backward and subject peoples a place in society without depriving them of their livelihood and individual way of life – something of a contrast with the American treatment of the Red Indian or the Australian of the Aborigine. And finally it acknowledges the responsibility of the caste for its individual members thus providing the rudimentary benefits of a welfare state. Ideally a caste member may expect from his caste a home if he is an orphan, food if he is unemployed, medical assistance if he is sick, credit in hard times ………….

Siva’s phallic symbol is a symbol not a phallus. Most Hindus would be deeply shocked if you suggested they were worshipping a sex organ. So, too, would the village clergyman if you accused him of idolizing beans and marrows at the harvest festival. Both are just symbols of fertility and bounty. So, too, the cows and the rivers. They mean more in India because India is still an overwhelmingly agricultural country. The yield of livestock and field means not just higher or lower incomes but the difference between subsistence and starvation in the perilous lives of the poor. No wonder they take their symbols seriously.

Caeser Augustus received ambassadors from the Pandyas in Madurai who, like the Cheras, employed Roman soldiers as a bodyguard….. The abundance of good building stone and the flagging iconoclasm of the Muslims has left the South far better endowed with ancient buildings than any part of India.

….in Kerala, as a whole, where the Muslim population is close on thirty per cent, there was no serious rioting during the partition crisis in 1947 as there was in Bengal and Punjab. Kerala’s Muslims are still far closer to the Arab world than to the Mohammedanism of Pakistan.

* The Cambridge History of India quotes, from the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles II, a delightful piece about Thomas’ reluctance to go to India. ‘Whithersoever thou wilt Lord, send me; but to India I will not go.’ Eventually he had to be sold to a visiting Indian who was looking for a carpenter to take home with him.

Besides the Catholic and Syrian churches, Kerala has more than its fair share of Protestant churches, Missionaries, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Anglican, Seventh-Day Adventist and Jehovah’s Witness recognizing Kerala as one of the world’s greatest free ports where doctrine was concerned are all well represented ….half the population seems to be in holy orders ….If you have a new religion to impart to the world nowhere will you find a more promising seedbed than in Kerala …. Nuns are so plentiful that they are now being exported to Italy.

[Kerala] …. Nowhere in the world have Jews been so happily accommodated or so long saved from persecution but somehow they have never prospered….
A social climate which for thousands of years allowed such different communities to live in peace is something almost unprecedented…. Hinduism is not a crusading religion. By being born into a certain caste an Indian is born a Hindu; there is no other way of initiation and the idea of conversion is therefore meaningless. But so basic is caste to religion that the Hindu is happy to recognize another man’s birthright to his religion. The Christians, Jews and Moplahs are not of course castes but to the Indian way of thinking they are certainly approximations. And however despised and discriminated against, they are entitled to their religion and bound to their dharma just as is the Sudra and the Untouchable or the donkey and the fly.
This extraordinary harmony makes more sense when seen against the background of the Hindu majority in the South. ‘A madhouse of caste’ was how Vivekananda, the man who first popularized Hinduism in the West, described Kerala but it could just as well apply to the whole of the South. Nowhere else in India does one find so many castes and such minute caste distinctions.

…..the Coorgi maidens are famed for their good looks. In a country like India where the beauty and grace of the women is a revelation as staggering as the poverty but less easily ignored this is no mean distinction. It probably has something to do with the emancipated position of women in Coorgi society and with the fact that here there was a settled European community of planters with the leisure to appreciate their surroundings.

…..the way in which social life and religion are one. The temple and its religious connotations extend deep into the bazaars just as the bazaars and the gaiety of Indian life extend deep into the temples.

….Mount Abu ….Unlike a Hindu temple the whole place is spotlessly clean; there are no greasy lingams, no slippery puddles of ghi. And the priests are not the wild-looking purohits of Madurai but vaguely ethereal figures gliding noiselessly round the fifty-two outer shrines. In each of these sits a solitary Jina, more a prophet or ‘great spirit’ than a god. To any but a Jain they are indistinguishable except for variations in the marble.

[Indian Railways] ….Just as surprising in view of all the red tape, the piles of ledgers and stacks of forms, is that when days later you present yourself at what may even be a different station there on the carriage door is your name. In some extraordinary way the whole system works. You settle in and give an order for lunch, tea, dinner, morning tea and breakfast the following day and with uncanny precision each in due course arrives exactly as ordered. Like Indian Airlines the whole system seems appallingly inefficient but unlike the airlines the railways are reliable. Trains are not fast but they are rarely more than a few minutes late. Monkeys change the signals, left-wing students derail the engines, floods wash away the track, passengers lean on the communications cord and cows fall asleep on the line yet somehow the trains keep running. It’s all so very typical of India. It can’t work but it does.

…in society everyone knows and respects his status and that of others. Strife is certainly not eliminated but the insecurity which makes one man an exhibitionist, another a hypocrite, a third a snob, is rare. Psychological barriers are as scarce as fences and traditional Indian society one of the most accommodating in the world.

The erotic sculptures, like the Kamasutra, are explicit. They portray couples in the many variations of the act of love and do so with a gentle dignity unknown to our sex-crazed society ….is it just an example of the Indian zest for life in all its forms?
In both literature and sculpture there is an overriding tendency to analyse, enumerate and categorise. One sees it in the listing of the seven forms of yoga, the sixty-four rishis, the four states of consciousness and so on. The seven types of kiss listed in the Kamasutra or the eight types of love bite place this work firmly in the same tradition. The three attitudes of the Buddha, the nine avatars of Vishnu, the fifty-two jinas take the same tradition into sculpture…. The caste system with its four varnas and numerous but always explicit and listed subdivisions is another example. Everything it seems must fit into some dimly perceived cosmic order of things which out of the complex mathematics of the world of gods and men is finally reducible to the beautiful simplicity of the All, Brahman, the Godhead, the One….. Love-making, like everything else, has its place in the great scheme of things. Its pleasurable as well as its procreational aspect must be accommodated. Unlike Christianity Hinduism appreciates this and finds even in the temple a place for eroticism. It is sad that even some Indians find this embarrassing and dismiss it as primitive.

Half the passengers had fallen asleep in their seats, an enviable achievement in which all Indians are adept.

With the possible exception of Russia no society in the world is so imbued with graded professionalism.

Noticeably absent is any sign of building stone. The Bengali builds out of mud and brick; there is little in the way of architectural tradition. Instead of statuary and temples the artistic genius of the Bengali was turned to music and literature. With the possible exception of the South no region of India can claim such a rich heritage or flourishing contemporary culture.

India has a positive genius for souring the sweetest of tempers….

Many other animals enjoy important roles in Indian mythology but all beasts, birds and insects are, according to Hindu, Jain and Buddhist belief, entitled to toleration.
…..animal kingdom is not something separate but as much part of the whole hierarchy of life as the Untouchable castes or the unclean foreigners. The distant but tolerant attitude shown to them extends to the animals. As a result nowhere in the world are monkeys so mischievous or birds so tame.

This sense of being accepted as an equal, or at least as someone whose presence is not resented, is what the visitor or traveler most likes to feel. It is possible the most rewarding part of the experience of India. In the cities you are still over-charged by shopkeepers, cheated by taxi-drivers, mobbed by students and questioned unmercifully by everyone. But rarely if ever are you actually resented and just occasionally you feel quietly, genuinely accepted.

Gullibility is a national trait but the tallest story is not to be dismissed outright. The toleration and acceptance which India extends to everyone and everything are contagious.

Though populated by a weak and ineffectual race, Kashmir has been loved with a fierce passion by the succession of invaders and visitors who thought of it as theirs.

There is a Persian saying which runs to the effect that if the world is coming to an end on no account choose as father of a new race either a Pathan or ‘the rascally Kashmiri’. The poor Kashmiris, no one has ever had a good word for them……Though charm, wit and a certain arrogance are there the national trait is, undeniably, dishonesty. Even the fair-minded British Sahibs never quite recovered from the shock of finding such a perfect land inhabited by such an untrustworthy, spineless and obtuse people.

….the Kashmiri’s exceptional ability as a salesman.

…Ghulam Mohammed. He distrusts Munshi intensely but not primarily because the latter is Hindu. All Kashmiris, regardless of religion, distrust one another. A more suspicious people it is hard to imagine…

The genius of Indian is that of accepting others, not necessarily of liking them. Refugees from Persia, from Tibet and from East Bengal or Pakistan are tolerated; Christians, Muslims and Anglo-Indians are tolerated; Untouchables and beggars are tolerated; equally birds, animals and insects are tolerated. But of sentiment or affection towards any of these outsiders there is little.
If this makes of Indians – and I am thinking of Indians as a generality, not just the peoples of the Himalayas – a seemingly cold and unfeeling people, nothing could of course be further from the truth. For me the most distinctive trait of the Indian people is their kindness. Not a wishy-washy politeness – in most Indian languages there is no equivalent for our incessant ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’ – but a warm solicitude comprised of gentleness and compassion.
Untouchability and case or communal discrimination are not especially kind. But these are group attitudes. The hierarchy of subcastes and communities is not rigid. Each is for ever trying to put one over on its neighbor or do down its opposite number. The kindness of Indians lies in the individual not the group.

As the member of a community an Indian will frequently express prejudices and hostilities which you know that he as an individual would never condone on the level of personal relations.

Only the Saddhus, the itinerant holy men of India, can claim to be true individuals, beyond the bounds of caste and community….. It is as if the strength of group loyalties satisfied a man’s need for security leaving him free to shower on the Saddhu, the true individual, a patience, generosity and kindness beyond the understanding of any other nation.

Zoroaster and Ambedkar, Mahavira and Nanak, Siva and the Aga Khan, Christ and Krishna – they are all there side by side in the devotional shops, testimony to an extraordinary eclecticism. Far from resenting the intruders India seems to glory in its own diversity. Refugees, Bengali, Tibetan, Khoja and Parsi, are accommodated. Invaders, Huns, Scythians, Afghans and Mongols, are absorbed. Indigenous peoples, Tribals and Dravidians, are assimilated. Even the visitor finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the heart of the country. Sensing the Indians’ ready acceptance he moves from the cities into the countryside, from the hotels to the ashrams and from the first sweeping impressions into the ever-deepening experience of India. ….The Hindu, or better, the Indian genius is for endless elaboration, complication and contradiction, something of a contrast to the West’s passion for simplification and logic ….In India one never gets to the bottom of things.
At the same time, there is to Hinduism, or the way Indians live, a certain logic which is worth pursuing… Lungi, dhoti, pyjamas and kurta only have to be worn to be appreciated as the coolest and most comfortable attire imaginable in a climate like India’s. The caste system …..has a great deal to be said for it. Even arranged marriages in the context of strict caste observance, the joint family household and the Indian attitude to love are not such a bad idea.

Just as the poverty is rarely as obvious as it seems at first glance so the absurdities of India are rarely as mad as they look.
Hinduism is a most practical religion with not one but at least twenty good explanations for every quirk…… Indians learn to accept the complications and the contradictions ….The diversity and complication of life is itself reason for a certain quiet caution as prudent as it is resilient

……a rapid slideshow of flashing pictures. I saw a troop of schoolgirls in bright blue dresses picking their way through the coco-nut palms which were green and gold in the setting sun. I saw an old man resting on a stack of hay by the railway. I saw a close-up of his eyes, big, bright and gentle, the eyes of a saint wet with tears and smiling with kindness……There were sunsets of frightening splendor seen through the palm groves of Malabar and there were dawns of dew on the tents and mist in the valleys high on the Dhola Dhar. There were temples and palaces, forests and plains, crowds and faces, endless crowds and faces.
More than its diversity, more than its confusions and contradictions, scenes like these stick in the mind. The experience of India is punctuated by moments of such intense and arresting beauty that all else, poverty, heat and sickness, are forgotten. As the experience crystallises, a hard crust of opinion and theory closes over the variety and fascination of India. Only these scenes and images are left. They grow sharper and brighter. Significantly one forgets who or where they are. They are just scenes of India and Indians, a place apart and a people all of whom belong there.

From ‘Into the Wild’ by Jon Krakauer

Dark spruce forest frowned on either side the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean toward each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness – a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.

I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence. I wanted excitement and danger and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love. I felt in myself a superabundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life.

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, an obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board. The hospitality was so cold as the ices.

The physical domain of the country had its counterpart in me. The trails I made led outward into the hills and swamps, but they led inward also. And from the study of things underfoot, and from reading and thinking, came a kind of exploration, myself and the land. In time the two became one in my mind. With the gathering force of an essential thing realizing itself out of early ground, I faced in myself a passionate and tenacious longing – to put away thought forever, and all the trouble it brings, all but the nearest desire, direct and searching. To take the trail and not look back. Whether on foot, on snowshoes or by sled, into the summer hills and their late freezing shadows – a high blaze, a runner track in the snow would show where I had gone. Let the rest of mankind find me if it could

But have you noticed the slight curl at the end of Sam II’s mouth when he looks at you? It means that he didn’t want you to name him Sam II, for one thing, and for two other things it means that he has a sawed-off in his left pant leg, and a baling hook in his right pant leg, and is ready to kil you with either one of them, given the opportunity. The father is taken aback. What he usually says, in such a confrontation, is “I changed your diapers for you, little snot.” This is not the right thing to say. First, it is not true (mothers change nine diapers out of ten), and second, it instantly reminds Sam II of what he is mad about. He is mad about being small when you were big, but no, that’s not it, he is mad about being helpless when you were powerful, but no, not that either, he is mad about being contingent when you were necessary, not quite it, he is insane because when he loved you, you didn’t notice.

My father was a volatile, extremely complicated person, possessed of a brash demeanour that masked deep insecurities. If he ever in his entire life admitted to being wrong, I wasn’t there to witness it.

At that stage of my youth, death remained as abstract a concept as non-Euclidean geometry or marriage. I didn’t yet appreciate its terrible finality or the havoc it could wreck on those who’d entrusted the deceased with their hearts. I was stirred by the dark mystery of mortality. I couldn’t resist stealing up to the edge of doom and peering over the brink. The hint of what was concealed in those shadows terrified me, but I caught sight of something in the glimpse, some forbidden and elemental riddle that was no less compelling than the sweet, hidden petals of a woman’s sex.

I wished to acquire the simplicity, native feelings, and virtues of savage life; to divest myself of the facticious habits, prejudices and imperfections of civilization; …..and to find, amidst the solitude and grandeur of the western wilds, more correct views of human nature and of the true interests of man. The season of snows was preferred, that I might experience the pleasure of suffering, and the novelty of danger.

Starvation is not a pleasant way to expire. In advanced stages of famine, as the body begins to consume itself, the victim suffers muscle pain, heart disturbances, loss of hair, dizziness, shortness of breath, extreme sensitivity to cold, physical and mental exhaustion. The skin becomes discolored. In the absence of key nutrients, a severe chemical imbalance develops in the brain, inducing convulsions and hallucinations. Some people who have been brought back from the far edge of starvation, though, report that near the end the hunger vanishes, the terrible pain dissolves, and the suffering is replaced by a sublime euphoria, a sense of calm accompanied by transcendent mental clarity…..

From ‘Don't Ask Any old bloke for directions. A Biker's whimsical journey across India’ by P G Tenzing

That was my life. Spent in groping around areas I didn’t know or care about. And having to deal with the vicious in-fighting that goes on inside every government I have ever served.

Dechen went out yesterday to a celebration of the Gurung New Year, and met a clouded leopard on the way. The way to greet a leopard around here is to scream bloody murder and run like hell. The cat eschews the screaming part but runs like hell in the other direction.

The number of accidents on Kerala’s roads is one of the highest per capita in India. The obvious reasons are narrow roads, habitation throughout the road length, too many vehicles, over-speeding and drunken driving. Over-speeding is the crux of the matter, and here the typical Malayali ego trip comes into play: I can drive faster and better than any fucker on the road.

The traffic eases as I reach the district of Palghat. I see a man pee on the side of the road. This is the rarest of rare sights in Kerala because of the density of population – and the general absence of the penile exhibitionism rampant everywhere in the country. I stop the bike and pee in joyful brotherhood with him.

Food. Food in Kerala is to die for. Fish, chicken, pork, beef, whatever, all cooked in delectable coconut oil. Except putte – a rice-based cylindrical piece of poison which can choke you during breakfast. I suspect this dish was created to get rid of guests who overstay.

Tamils are extremely courteous, Everybody is a Sir. A young woman on a scooter told me that my side-stand was up. The only unknown woman to engage with me on her own initiative throughout the journey – if you discount the obscene gesture made to me by a prostitute somewhere in north India.

Tai Chi has always fascinated me. ….Looks easier than it is. Much easier. The system is very hard on the hips and the balance required is phenomenal.

I’d replaced the jeans I’d worn earlier with baggy cotton pants. Jockeys, I found, were the best undergarments, because even a minor crease around the posterior can play havoc after a few hours. At times I’ve had to raise myself from the bike to give air and solace to the weeping twins.

The government services are generally reviled by the chattering classes and, at times, rightly so. However, in defence of the services, I have to say that many officers work hard and honestly under extremely adverse conditions and still make a difference in the lives of some of the poor of our land. That is the gospel truth. I swear I have seen saints at work who could make you feel worthless. On the flipside, there are also those ghouls who enter into a macabre dance with pot-bellied netas.

I was to live in a village with the Santhal and Kolha tribes……The staple diet is mostly watery rice with salt. A special occasion is marked with a feast of boiled edible leaves from the forest along with raw onion and chilly. And most of the work is done by women, while the men drink the blues away. …..The strange thing about this village is the cleanliness. No garbage. They have nothing to buy from the markets, so there is no refuse. There are no cats and dogs in the village, because there is no food for them. They would be competition, in fact, for a source of protein: field mice. This is a part of India we rarely see or hear about. There are millions of such people without hope. I sense a great betrayal from our side. ……An enduring image of my visit to Bhalupani was that of an old lady leaning on a walking stick, carrying water to her hut from a well. Back and forth. Again and again. She had no relatives and survived on handouts from the villagers.

Kolkata is a crazy place. Its premier football clubs have different fish as mascots, and the price of these in the market shoots up or falls with a thud depending on which team is the winner of the match on a given day.

The guy has spent his life in the pursuit of sex and the conclusions he’s drawn from his experiences. ….his theories….having sex with your wife daily ensures her fidelity to you; the act of sex is the best exercise because every part of the body is involved (including yanking at your partner’s hair, which constitutes a scalp massage); the trick to finding out if a woman is faking an orgasm is to look for a faint flush on her chest; women are horniest after eleven in the night; the way to delay ejaculation is to press the depression between the asshole and the balls.

A Buddhist funeral in Sikkim is one messy and long affair. The mourning period is a full forty-nine days. In between, we had to take Dad’s ashes to Bodhgaya …..the holiest place for Buddhists. I felt a blast of energy pass through me inside the main temple. I have never been the same since. Don’t ask me what happened that day. I don’t know, except that it was Dad’s parting gift to me……

Stay in the smaller hotels outside town because you will always get a room. It will be cheaper than the central places, and you will be treated well by the staff.

I know that there is a divide between the honest and dishonest officers in all the states. The honest ones are losing the battle on a daily basis. Some stay and fight every single day. Others look away and manage to keep their own noses clean. Some are looking for a way of moving out of the system somehow.

There is a serious lack of policy-makers in this country, a paucity of long-term thinking, and of think-tanks…..somehow, the country stumbles along.

He was the type of singer who looked deep into your eyes, probing for signs of adulation.

At an accident site near Purnea town, hundreds of people had gathered on the national highway. They had burnt a truck that had mowed down three pedestrians, and were throwing rocks at the policemen at duty. India at work. I quietly slipped away.
Two other sights on that stretch stayed etched in my mind. One was the lines of bare, shitting asses all along the highway…. What with the floodwaters raging below them, there was nowhere else for these poor people to go. The other was scores of dogs run over by trucks on the road, both in Bihar and Bengal.

A study of the bureaucracy would reveal a surprising number of clinically depressed people – roughly 25 per cent, I’d say. All of them square pegs hammered into round holes.

The chicken-neck to Assam was a long and ….wet ride. Passing through the tribal countryside was interesting. Women looked you in the eye boldly. This was a change for me.

I meet Keralites all over the country at the oddest places.

I got talking to the waiter with the grand name of Morning Star. One of the attractive things about people in Meghalaya is that you never know what sort of name will next be sprung at you. From Evening Star, Hopping Stone, General and Captain to Oneboxstar and Cabinet.

Contrary to popular belief, mindless violence does not happen all the time in Bihar. I was greeted and treated well in that state of earthy people. You just didn’t act funny with them – or you lay yourself open to losing a limb or two.

The roads in south India are far better than those in most of the rest of the country.

I wonder why nuns have to look so serious. Loving Jesus should make them smile.

Today, on the west coast road, was a day without public transport and I was happy to give lifts to people who asked. Unlike some other states, Kerala provides a safe community and there was no hesitation on my part.

Goa is very different to the rest of India. The religion, dress, the emancipation of women, its architecture and its ocean of bars, all set it apart. The roads are narrower but well kept.

…Rajasthan…I landed in Beawar. I found the people of the region simple, with an innate sense of hospitality.

From ‘The Psychic Touristg. A voyage intot he curious world of predicting the future’ by William Little

I’m from England – we don’t talk to strangers because they might do something embarrassing like talk back.

This is the home of Darwin’s Rottweiler, otherwise known as Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and geneticist, and I’m worried that I’m about to get bitten.

Suddenly a man, who I really hope is the gardener, starts up a chainsaw in Dawkins’ front-garden.