Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Bold, open review of existing structures

For quite some time now the British news is all about the NHS and how it is falling apart.  After Brexit, the state of NHS is the most discussed and debated issue in the printed press. 

The National Health Services (NHS) came into effect on July 5, 1948 at the strong recommendation and long battle of the then health minister Aneurin Bevan, a Labour party member.  It was a time after the war and the whole of the world, even Britain, was in recovery mode. Though today none would question the need and the great service NHS offers, back then there were many objections to it - primarily because it imposed tax on everyone and secondly because, doctors saw it as a form of national socialism.  Doctors resented it because it would mean that their independence was now at stake.  They would not be 'small businesses' but state functionaries.  The NHS survived years of revamping, policy changes, even threats of being thrown out...

However, with the reeling pressure of time and circumstances, people do not fear asking the bold questions: Is it time to move on?  Do we still have to invest and sustain a sinking ship?  Alternatives are being discussed and debated.  However, none of them seem to be 'better' than what NHS can. But I like the way the whole point is discussed and debated in open.  There certainly will be some political moves going on in the background, but atleast there is no secrecy about the state of affairs, or rather the sad state of affairs. 

I've admired the way the NHS works.  I may not be aware of all its intricacies but the health care system of the country is worth admiring.  I don't see this possible in India, given its large population and the mind set we presently function with.  Furthermore with the grave economic inequalities that are characteristic of India, a general taxation for health will never really take off.  Moreover, I wonder if we'd ever have such an open and free debate in the public domain, with members of the political parties (no matter whether in power or in opposition) participating and learning, rather than politicizing and merely criticizing each other and conclusively ending up far away from the topic under discussion. 


Basic insights from the fundamental notion of Web of belief, by Willard Quine

  • often it is the external experience that forces us to relook at our beliefs, often a contradictory one, one that does not fit in to our existing network of beliefs.
  • we can choose which of our beliefs we wish to alter (peripheral, central, core).
  • often we prefer to alter the peripheral, easier, less cumbersome than revamping the whole web!
  • guided by conservation and purpose is simplicity.
  • consistency is the ultimate aim... even if it means accommodating contradictory or differing views.
  • we can never really map our whole belief system and state completely why we believe a certain thing, but we should be able to map the main reasons.

Quine talks about the 'web' specifically in the context of physical sciences and philosophy, but I think these basic principles of his theory are applicable to any belief, even religious beliefs. 

If that is the case, then are religious beliefs fundamentally the same as any other beliefs we hold in life?  If so, where and how do they diverge or part ways?  Is this point of departure also the point where religion tends to break away from life and living?  

Meaning, as criteria

Re-reading Willard Quine's Web of belief it struck me that apart from the basic point he makes about our whole belief system, as more like a spider's web rather than a neatly constructed building, one floor on top of the other, there is another aspect of importance.  Now when encountered with an experience that does not fit in with our existing set of beliefs, we can choose which of the beliefs to alter: those on the periphery, or those more towards the centre or the ones at the very core.  Then there could be a whole set of beliefs tweaked, adjusted, altered, given up, reworked... The experience that actually sets this in motion is important but not the central purpose of the whole endeavour.  The exercise is not merely to accommodate the new experience but to 'make sense' of the whole!  The belief machinery is at work primarily to make meaning of the whole web.  Until that is achieved the process continues.  Quine says the whole process is guided by conservatism and the quest for simplicity, I would say that the process is guided by meaning. 

Only then can I explain why and how I can hold very contradictory (or seemingly contradictory) views and yet carry on as if everything perfectly fits in.  It is just that in my whole web of belief the 'contradictory beliefs' are not contradictory!  The binding threads of belief make meaning as a whole - at least for now! 

Monday, 18 June 2018

Individual humility and community solidarity

The grave injustice we read about in the first reading of the day, from the book of the Kings, about Naboth being killed by king Ahab for his plot of land reflects very much some of the happenings around the world today.  Someone poor and innocent is murdered merely for holding onto what is rightfully his.  The oppressor, who is much richer and powerful, gives in to his greed and commits a murder.  What's more heartbreaking is that the king and the queen, those in the highest of authority, prey upon those whom they are supposed to protect and strengthen.  Not only the rulers, but the whole system is against the poor and innocent.

What would one's response to such a tragedy be?  Or what can one do if one finds oneself in similar situations?  The Gospel seems a very absurd response:  show the other cheek!
...offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.
Where then is justice and how can one live an honest and simple life?  One can answer that it lies in the following passage from the Kings, when the wrath of God prophecies against Ahab and Jezebel - but that does not save neither Naboth, nor Ahab!  However, the gospel passage itself has a response.  It is of individual humility and surrender.  But that's what one is to do when one finds oneself in such a situation: surrender; not react.  But as a community each one is to stand for the one being oppressed.  Every act of injustice is to be challenged without being aggressive or hateful... just state that the act is wrong!  Gandhiji, a non-Christian understood this perfectly well!  Christian ethics is always communitarian. 

That also means that when there is injustice being meted out to someone in the society, I need to take a stand on behalf of those oppressed. This is where our society fails itself:  we expect everyone else to support and stand by us when unjustly treated, but rarely do we stand by someone who is in a similar situation.  Individual humility (having done all one can do to prevent the injustice) and community solidarity:  Sounds utopian but actually possible and humane.  No violence, no hatred, no unprovoked anger.  

Sunday, 17 June 2018

The Kingdom of God

Both the first and the third reading of the day have plants and growth as their central theme.  It is all about seeds and plants and a detailed description of life/growth. 

One thing for sure about seeds and growth: they take their time to grow.  There is no rushing.  When the time is right, the seeds will sprout and it will take its own time to grow.  There is nothing called instant growth.  One can at the most speed up the growth by supplying the plant with all the required nutrients and water.  But even then there is nothing called, 'instant growth', like 'instant coffee' or fast food!

Secondly all of this growth is invisible to the naked eye.  Right since the germination, which usually takes place beneath the ground till the very end of the plant, it is slow and invisible process... nonetheless real and apparent. 

Two typical characteristics of the Kingdom of God: slow and invisible but sure and full of life!  

Saturday, 16 June 2018

BIpolar vision; disordered history

A very logical and challenging 'letter to the editor' published in The Times (June 15, 2018; p. 32), titled 'Hindu' Taj Mahal ... the letter is in response to an article published earlier about an UP minister's tirade that the Taj Mahal should be renamed after a Hindu god, like Ram or Krishna, because it's 'Muslim' name is bad!
Sir, The renaming of the Taj Mahal after a Hindu god, proposed by an official in India's ruling party, the nationalist BJP (World June 13), is proof of its determination to turn India into a Hindu state.  The Muslims invaded India at the Battle of Panipat in 1526.  It was a brutal conquest but they brought with them their art, music, culture, dance, language and architecture, which have enriched India for centuries, and any financial profit they made stayed in India.
The British also conquered India, displaying unbelievable cruelty during the Mutiny of 1857. They too brought with them their art, law, culture, language and parliamentary system of government, although they exploited the country and looted its treasures.
Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, is no friend of the Muslims, yet he and his ilk are hell-bent on maintaining a friendly relationship with the British. 
Any nation that vandalises history is morally bankrupt. The Taj Mahal: it is not only an Indian jewel but a Unesco world heritage site.  India should be proud of it and leave it be. 
Dr Kusoom Vadgama
Indo-British Heritage Trust
Agree very much with the very highly biased notion of history and creation of a nation based solely on selective identity politics 

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Anet's commandments

Till I come back from school...

  • you should not go out anywhere.
  • you should not celebrate with anyone.
  • you should not cut the cake before I come. 
  • no singing at all, till I come home.  

Well, today is Mummy's b'day and those above were my 4 year old niece, Anet's orders before she left for school, this morning!

Happy b'day, Mummy!

Wednesday, 13 June 2018


Within a month or so, the schools here in the country will close for the summer vacations and end the academic year.  Holidays!  That magic word, perhaps the best sound for a student!  However for most people here holidays is synonymous with travel.  Unless they go somewhere far, holiday is not a holiday.  Staying at home over the holidays does not make a holiday.  I guess Don Bosco's understanding of holidays as 'a change of occupation' is a redundant definition by any modern standards! 

This association of holidays with travel is an outcome of the upward economic mobility of any society.  Back in India, most people even today would like to spend the holidays at home.  Travel and tourism is not (yet) in the worldview of Indians.  It may have much to do with smooth travel facilities and the luxury of the comfort of home - something very difficult to replicate elsewhere. 

So for the time being, once the holidays (of others) begin, I'll enjoy the congestion free roads, flexible Mass timing and number or participants, and practically the whole house for myself! 

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Of Divine providence and play

Initially when I joined the Salesians I was surprised to hear from the elderly Salesians that most of our benefactors were actually poor people - some much poorer than us Salesians whom they were helping!!  Only then the gospel of the widow putting in her two pence, her entire earnings, made profound meaning to me. 

The readings of the day from the book of the Kings, about Elijah the prophet and the widow, offer a similar insight.   Elijah is told by Yahweh that he has instructed a widow to cater to his food.  And who is this widow? A wealthy aristocrat? Not at all!  She is so poor that she has only one meal left and on the brink of starvation!  Yet she agrees to share the food, the only food she has, all that she has, with a total stranger. 

God continues to play tricks: initially by designating her to share her only meal with a stranger and then by never letting her jar of flour and jug of oil go empty!  And what's Elijay doing?  What he is designated to do!

Monday, 11 June 2018

Playing the second fiddle

The saint of the day, St Barnabas, is said to have stood as a witness and presented Saul, after his conversion, to the apostles as a genuine Christian.  They do undertake some missionary journeys and do much good.  However, history remembers Paul more than Barnabas.  While both carried out their missionary activity, initially together, it is Paul who almost overshadows Barnabas with his eloquence, wisdom and reach.  Perhaps this was also the cause of their parting ways - could be! 

What strikes me is that Barnabas was - at least initially - willing to play the second fiddle, if one might use such a hierarchical language in ministry.  In cricketing terms, Barnabas let Paul do the real scoring and only lend his support by rotating the strike.  Barnabas, was one of the apostles, a chosen one of Christ. Paul, on the other hand, a newcomer, one who had never seen Jesus during his lifetime here on earth.  Yet Barnabas let Paul take the lead. 

This was possible only and as long as both of them understood that the mission at hand was greater than their individual egos.  A good lesson for us priests and religious when engaging in ministry: letting the Spirit work rather than insisting on it working (only) through me, or worse, emphasizing my work.  

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Summer bloom

Creating memories of my labour in the garden...


Digital youth ministry

If not this generation, the next generation of Indian children will most certainly be the 'generation z'!  Today we in India still have the 'luxury' of a captive audience, by way of young people in our schools, parishes, youth centres and colleges.  Thanks to our culture and rootedness in family connections it may really take some time before the European scenario is replicated in our hometowns:  we'd have the previously listed institutional set ups, but the actual meeting place of the young will no more be playgrounds, youth clubs or classrooms.  They will be meeting, chatting, discussing, deliberating things and life matters online! 

Like the case of very many youngsters in the cities and in Europe, the only place where you can actually see and meet young people is online!! And the only friends they have are in the virtual world.  I see this so vividly here in the UK.  I know that this is not the healthiest for human growth, but this is the reality.  This is our 'giveness'.  A strange era (atleast for 'oldies' like me, but not for the young of today).  The Salesian mantra of 'Being out there with young people' is still valid.  But we can be and do so without physically leaving one's room! More than any other place on earth, digital youth ministry is very much the way forward here in the first world! 

But this online contact is only the initial contact phase.  The deeper accompaniment will be possible and is truly meaningful only when we are face to face, in person.  However, more and more today, if not for this initial online contact, the later personal contact is almost impossible.  What we most significantly can do is make know of the presence of an 'anchor' to young people, not get them to stick to it!  In due course, at important moments of life, when faced with challenges they find unsurmoutable, they will atleast remember that they can 'anchor' on someone.  Perhaps then we can play a more consistent and influential role in their individual lives.  Till then, the sporadic, accidental, non-essential tweets, texts and chats are the way forward. 

Being at home with ourselves

While discussing with a group of members of the Salesian family about the notion of spiritual accompaniment of young people, it came across to me that the basic starting premise of our effort is that there is something not right with young people today!!  For me that is a dangerous launching pad.  We (the grown ups of today) have a 'problem' with the young of today - may not be a life and death problem but let's say, a difficulty.  I realized that our preceding generation had the same complain about us!!  Nothing very different.

The starting point of all our interactions with the young should be meeting them where they are - not where they 'should' be!  The way forward is not to become like them or make them like us.  We are the digital immigrants and no matter how hard we try we will never become digital natives.  Nor is any attempt to make the natives feel like immigrants of any real benefit.  The best way forward is to be with ourselves today.   Most of us do not know how to be ourselves, leave alone how to be be with God! In being happy and contended with ourselves and in our openness (non-judgemental attitude) to be with them lies the key to a harmonious future, both for us individuals and for our collective society.  

Muonic generation

Muons are part of electrons (themselves part of atoms and molecules).  However one specialty of these muons is that their lifespan is 220th fraction of a second.  One of the research students at the university doing her research on muons is trying to see the benefits of colliding muons.  Her first challenge is to get sufficient muons, enough to cause a collision, and most importantly 'prolong' their life to more than that minuscule fraction of a second, to actually make the collision happen!  One possibility she said was to speed up the muons to the speed of light, wherein time slows.  That way one could 'extend their lifespan'. 

Listening to Fr Louis Grech's talk on spiritual accompaniment of Generation z (the digital natives), I could not but see the great connection and similarities between muons and generation z.  The digital natives of today too are like muons.  Very short attention span, a pace of their own, exist in a world quite different from the rest, the interaction space is on another plane (the instant media, not even social media). So I was asking myself how can one 'extend' time with such a generation?  How to travel at the speed of light in order for that interaction to take place? 

Whatever be the pace and space inhabited by generation z, they too are flesh and blood.  They too have feelings, emotions, fears, anxieties, pain... I think it is in those times that time actually slows down for them.  That's the possibility of 'catching up with them'.  But this 'catching up with them' is not going to be possible if we have not had some accidental but meaningful interaction with them somewhere in 'their' world at some time. 

Gone are the days, at least in most of Europe, where the space of interacting with young people is a formal physical institution where they all are gathered and listening attentively to the words of a Salesian.  Or the young members of a youth club which meets every weekend or evening of a weekday.  Most youngsters today are members of groups, but all online. None physical. None geographical.  

Friday, 8 June 2018

Believers advantage

Sometimes I envy those who do not believe or practice any religion.  They seem to have a very 'free' life.  No compulsion of any religious obligation.  Need not make time for any prayer or visit to the place of worship.  Need not bother about following the rites and rituals of any life events (like marriage, death, first communion, confirmation, baptism...).

On the other hand, we religious have to spend so much of our time in prayer, Mass, meditation, prayer services, monthly recollections, retreats, rosary, besides catching up with all that the Pope says, the Vatican decides, the Rector Major writes, the provincial circulars and the diocesan newsletter.

However one major advantage, besides the emotional, communitarian and spiritual support believers enjoy, is the sense of purpose.  The former group does not have to bother about doing things for someone beyond.  Those who work solely for themselves sooner or later do get bored or too mired in themselves.  Philanthropists are a bit better off.  But we believers have the opportunity to dedicate our work and the purpose of all our actions to a Higher cause.  This additional vertical dimension of our purpose not only shades but adds meaning to our life and activities.  For us religious without the primacy of this dimension, we would well be mere philanthropists or altruists.
Marian message at the end of a prayer service during the retreat...
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