Wednesday, February 27, 2013

 The Pains and Pleasures of Writing

I am delighted to be invited to deliver this year's Dr. EC Antony Memorial Lecture of Sri. C. Achutha Menon Government College, Thrissur. Allow me to pay a tribute to Dr. E.C.Antony, who has been recognized as a "great academician and social activist." My respects also go to Sri. C.Achutha Menon, an outstanding Chief Minister of Kerala, whom I had the privilege of meeting in Moscow many years ago.

I rarely get invited to speak on literary topics, as my long career in the Foreign Service and my present assignment in Higher Education have diminished my academic background in English Literature. Having got this opportunity to speak in memory of a legendary teacher of English Literature, I have chosen to speak today on the pleasures and pains of writing, as all of us, at one time or another, have experienced both, whether we are students, teachers, professionals and most of all, creative writers. When I speak of creative writing, I refer not only to poetry and fiction, but all writings, which contain thoughts, feelings and emotions, not just information. We engage in creative writing at one time or another and experience its pleasures and pains.

Every educated person carries ideas for creative writing, whether he ever puts pen to paper. Someone said that there are only two kinds of people on this earth, those who write and those who think they can write. Indeed, we believe that any of us can write a novel, short story, poem or autobiographical reflections if only we tried. But it is like imagining that we can play the sitar like Ravi Shanker, if only we tried. We need extensive reading, intensive imagination, a compulsive urge and specialist training to create any kind of literature. A famous writer prosaically remarked that a literary creation is a piece of furniture, which has its own requirements. We have to learn the laws of construction before we go about creating it. "Just because I had read plenty of novels did not mean I could write one, more than I could make a chair because I had sat on enough of them", said Nigel Watts. On the other hand, the Director of a creative writing program in a University for many years said that all creative writing programs ought to be abolished by law, as creative writing cannot be taught. 

Writers have their own reasons to write and many of them have explained why they write. Some do it to create a revolution. Friedrich Nietche believed in the old dictum that the pen is mightier than the sword. He said, “All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.” I suppose Martin Luther King would have been reading Neitzche when he inspired the masses by exhorting them: “If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” Mahatma Gandhi brought a mighty empire to its knees by writing. Others write for their own satisfaction and pleasure, but not without pain. According to Thomas Mann, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Writing is pain and pleasure in parallel proportions like the two sides of a coin. A young researcher collected for me what famous writers had to say as to why they wrote. Some remarkable explanations worth noting include poignant ones like Albert Camus, “The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself”; philosophical ones like Maya Angelou “A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song”; “psychological” ones like E.L. Doctorow “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia”; prudent ones like F. Scott Fitzgerald “You don't write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say”; pragmatic ones like George Orwell “I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose”; matter of fact ones like W.Somerset Maugham, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are” and simply practical ones like Toni Morrison, "If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." George Bernard Shaw is credited to have suggested that he writes for the same reason as a cow gives milk: "It's inside me, it's got to come out, and in a real sense I would suffer if I couldn't.” The pain of milking is compensated for by the pleasure of giving. The most fascinating and simple reason for writing was given by my own guru, Prof. Ayyappa Paniker, who wrote: "I cannot but bloom, as I am a flowering tree." (Pookkathirikkan enikkavathille, kanikkonnayalle)

Writing is the simple exercise of translating a thought into an action through the chosen medium of words; though finding the right word is often a difficult task. Mark Twain says: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Nonetheless, the writer must set his pen moving constantly as perfection is like chasing the horizon. Words leave behind indelible impressions that can be restrictive or resurrective in nature. The reader should be able to visualize a world of his own, rather look for real images in the mind of the writer To sum it up, allow me to borrow these prescient words of Marcus Fabius Quintillions, a Roman rhetorician of the first century AD who wrote “We should not write so that it is possible for [the reader] to understand us, but so that it is impossible for him to misunderstand us.”

Needless to say, reading is the most essential requirement for writing. Some writers say that one needs to read a thousand sentences before writing one sentence. Reading gives you language, thoughts and experience, not to be copied, but to be imbibed to ignite your imagination and to express your thoughts in elegant language. The war with words ensues only if one has conquered the first battle; which is the drive to initiate writing. Blaise Pascal once prophecied, “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I would say that the solution to it is to engage in the art of writing. The ability to embrace the self in solitude and empathize with fellow human beings either directly with the characters created or indirectly with the targeted reader is essential for creative writing. Starting to write is often painful, but finishing it is pleasurable. It may be tedious, but the pure pleasure of writing is priceless, just like it is for a bird that sings in the wilderness. The sense of fulfillment that one derives out of writing is often compared with that of motherhood.

Language was the earliest and the best invention in human history. It arose not only from man’s absolute necessity to convey his ideas, but also his enthusiasm to communicate in the best possible manner. Creative writers molded the language, in its many manifestations, to change the world itself. The voice of the writers ought to be the voice of change and the collective voice of the society should bring about progress and betterment. The voluminous novels and scholastic tomes have determined the course of history in the past and micro writings on twitter and facebook create revolutions today.

Turning to my own experience of writing, which consisted initially of professional analyses of political events and personalities and now of newspaper columns and autobiographical narrations, is prompted by an urge to share experiences and shape opinions. I would not call it creative writing, but the sense of fulfillment in seeing my writings published gives me immense joy. Even after many years of public speaking, producing television programs and blogging, the thrill of seeing bylines in the leading publications of the world is unparalleled. Today, the writer has been liberated from the clutches of editors and publishers, as blogs and electronic publications are not subject to the scissors of editors and publishers. But the traditional interaction with editors before a piece sees the light of day is an exercise I enjoy most. Most Indian publications carry columns either as they are written or edited for brevity or acceptability, but writing for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Quarterly involves a dialogue with gifted editors, who do not leave any fact unchecked or views unexamined. The final product inevitably has the stamp of the publication in both language and content. The partnership between the author and the editor embellishes rather than diminish the value of writing.

The pleasure and pain of writing, I imagine, is more in poetry and fiction, but any writing that goes beyond conveying information carries the exhilaration of creation as well as the frustration of inadequacy. Like many others who believe that they can play the sitar like Ravi Shankar or sing like Yesudas if only they tried, I too dream of the day when I can create a masterpiece of classical proportions. But for the time being, I must be content with the lesser experience of expressing my thoughts in words for the pure joy of it.

Thank you.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Strategic Dialogue with John Kerry

By T.P.Sreenivasan

Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai told me in a television interview last week that the only change he expected in India-US relations in the second term of President Obama was that they would be “normal”, not “novel” anymore. The relationship had become stable, wide-ranging and mutually beneficial, with a large number of working groups contributing to its growth. The gains of the Strategic Dialogue in 2012 would be consolidated and expanded. Economic relations, described not long ago as flat like a “chappati” now looked more like a “poori”, he said.

We cannot be so sanguine about the next round of Strategic Dialogue primarily because the US delegation will not be led by the familiar and friendly Hillary Clinton, but the new Secretary of State, John Kerry, whose reputation on the Hill does not augur well for India. He has the makings of a non-proliferation Ayatollah and a Pakistan enthusiast.  Among the Senators and Congressmen, whom we met to explain the Indian position on the 1998 tests, Kerry stood out as the most negative. He was convinced that India had made a grave error by testing and that it should be reversed under the pressure of sanctions. He eventually supported the India-US nuclear agreement and also led a business delegation to India.

Kerry is known to be particularly friendly to Pakistan and he has been stressing the need for India to continue the dialogue with Pakistan, regardless of terrorist attacks and ceasefire violations. During his confirmation hearings, he declined to make US aid to Islamabad conditional to the release of Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi, who helped find Osama bin Laden. Pakistan had not gotten "credit sufficiently for the fact that they were helpful," by allowing the Americans to search for Osama.  Kerry said that he intended to raise the issue with Islamabad, but thought it would be unwise to cut assistance given Pakistan's importance as a supply route to Afghanistan. “We need to build our relationship with the Pakistanis, not diminish it," he said. He had no chance to speak on India because no question was asked on India at the confirmation hearings.

As the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, however, he had said some time ago that India-US ties were "without doubt one of the most significant partnerships in US foreign policy.” “There are fewer relationships that will be as vital in the 21st century as our growing ties with India and its people," he said, reflecting Obama’s own words about the significance of the relationship.

Kerry has already set the stage for the Strategic Dialogue by telephoning External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, in response to the latter’s message of congratulations, and telling him that he was looking forward to the visit. He recalled his past visit to India to promote business relations between the two countries. Kerry has, in other words, signaled that he would follow the Obama line on India and not be prejudiced by his own inclination towards Pakistan. Like Hillary, who adopted the Obama worldview once she lost her bid for the Democratic candidature for President, Kerry may also follow his master’s voice than his own.

Kerry and Khurshid will, however, find the going tough during the Strategic Dialogue more on real strategic issues that have arisen since last year than on purely bilateral matters. Primarily, Kerry will seek India’s cooperation in the increased US engagement in Asia Pacific. As Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran has noted, there is “a potentially destabilizing asymmetry between the emerging economic architecture and the lack of consensus on what the emerging security architecture should look like.” India has already opted for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes China rather than the US sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership, which excludes China. Ambassador Nirupama Rao said recently that India would welcome the US engagement in what she called “Asia of the Indo-Pacific” on the basis of a vision of “all powers in Asia and beyond work together to address the traditional and non-traditional challenges and to create a basis for a stable and prosperous Asia.”

Kerry will certainly press for more forthright support from India for the intended rebalancing, considering our own problems with China. The success of the Strategic Dialogue will depend on the leeway that the US detects in the Indian position. One bargain we should seek in this context is India’s membership of the Asia Pacific Economic Community (APEC), from which India was deliberately excluded. While ASEAN should remain at the center of the economic and security architecture in the region, our own interests will be better secured with a greater understanding with the United States.

Afghanistan could be an area, in which India may be able to secure guarantees for a post 2014 scenario in exchange for greater accommodation in Asia Pacific. The tendency of the United States to exclude India from the dialogue on a future dispensation may prove costly for India. A possible return of Taliban as part of the new Government in Kabul will be the beginning of the end of our involvement in Afghanistan. Indications that the US might be present in some form in Afghanistan may be welcome, but increase in violence may result in its sudden withdrawal.

Among global issues, the Arab world would receive attention in the dialogue. While both countries are in favour of democratic movements, the outcome has caused anxiety to both. India shares with the US a special interest in the stability of the Gulf and an exchange of ideas cannot but be beneficial.

The US had already indicated last year the ways in which the irritants such as the nuclear liability law and the purchase of fighter aircraft from Europe could be dealt with. Though the way out of the liability law has not been revealed so far, both sides have been optimistic on this score and tangible progress has been made in preparing the ground for the US nuclear sites. Much headway has been made in expanding defense cooperation. A review of the working groups will show much progress in cooperation in energy, education, agriculture and anti-terrorism. But the next big development in bilateral relations is still elusive. For that very reason, a second visit by Obama to India may not be an outcome of the talks.

Both Kerry and Khurshid are new to the Strategic Dialogue, but the change in personalities may not make much of a difference as long as their principals remain committed. If anything, Khurshid’s extraordinary skills may make up for the absence of Hillary Clinton.

Kerala's Tryst with Italy

New York Times  (India Ink)

Indian states, though powerful in matters of internal administration, rarely deal with foreign governments. A bizarre shooting near Kerala’s coast involving Italian marines last year, which killed two Indian fishermen, gave the state a crash course on international diplomacy, one that also tested Kerala’s political standing with the central government.

One year after the shooting, the case appears to be nearing a quiet conclusion in what could have been a messy international fight. Though the outcome may not completely satisfy Keralites, they are not likely to find fault with their government. Kerala fought for as long as it could to handle the case on its own turf, and its determination has strengthened the state’s position in domestic politics.

In the afternoon of Feb. 15, 2012, two impoverished fishermen, returning to the Kerala coast from an exhausting fishing expedition, were shot dead by two Italian marines who were guarding an oil tanker, the Enrica Lexie, on suspicion that the fishermen were pirates.

The Indian authorities say the Italian marines had behaved suspiciously on the fateful day. After the marines killed the two fishermen, their ship sped away, the authorities said, angering the Indian Coast Guard, which pursued the tanker and brought it to the Kochi port under escort.

The Italian authorities, on the other hand, say that the marines warned an approaching boat to keep away, and that when it did not, they had no choice but to fire warning shots into the air. Since the shooting took place in international waters, the ship was not obliged to come to the Indian shore and that the matter would have been investigated back in Italy, the Italian authorities say.

If Italy had admitted its marines had made a mistake and offered compensation out of court in the early days, the case would have ended long ago. But Italy insisted that there was a piracy attempt and that since the shooting took place in international waters, India had no jurisdiction to try the marines on murder charges in India.

Then Kerala’s courts intervened and affirmed jurisdiction. A judge later rejected an out-of-court settlement that the Italians had worked out with some local church leaders.

Emotions ran high in Kerala, accentuated by the suspicion that Italy's Delhi connections would let the marines off the hook at any time. The two Italians were lodged in prison first and then in a more comfortable guesthouse at the repeated requests of the Italian government at the highest level in Delhi. High-ranking Italian officials visited Kerala multiple times on behalf of the marines.

But Kerala’s courts maintained pressure, and it appeared that the case was moving toward a conviction. Then the Italian government filed a petition with the Supreme Court arguing that because the shooting occurred in international waters that the trial could not be held in India.

The chief minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy, may have heaved a sigh of relief when the case was moved to the Supreme Court, but the shift initially caused much consternation in the fishing community in Kerala. The victims’ next of kin and the owner of the fishing boat were disappointed that the huge compensation that they had expected to receive through a direct settlement with the Italians or through a court order eluded them.

In fact, when the marines were allowed by the Kerala High Court to go home for Christmas after depositing 60 million rupees ($1.1 million) as surety, the local people were praying that they would not come back. The marines returned ahead of time, much to the disappointment of the next of kin.

Delhi took the line that the whole incident was an unfortunate accident, not involving any machinations by the Italians. It is in that direction that the case has moved.

Last month, the Supreme Court rejected Italy’s argument but ruled that the case should be moved out of Kerala and into a special Indian court under international maritime law. Since the shootings had happened in the contiguous zone and not territorial waters, Kerala had no jurisdiction, the Supreme Court said.

Even if the marines are ultimately convicted, it is likely they will return to Italy. On Monday, India announced that in November it had ratified a treaty with Italy, which was agreed upon before the shooting incident occurred, that allows citizens convicted of crimes in either country to serve their prison sentences in their home country.

Though it wasn’t the outcome it had sought, Kerala is taking a pragmatic view. Moving the legal battle from Kerala itself has brought down the profile of the case and the pressure of public opinion. Now, the state will accept any decision by the Supreme Court as long as adequate compensation is given to the next of kin and the boat owner.

The episode was not without its benefits for Kerala, which emerged with its principles intact. The central government never challenged Kerala, nor did it pressure the state to make concessions, and Mr. Chandy himself emerged as a tough negotiator and a champion of the law, which can only benefit the state in the future.

Ironically, the heroic efforts of the Italian government to get their nationals released from an Indian prison won the appreciation of many Indians, including Keralites. They pointed to the sustained efforts at the highest level by Italy to rescue the marines and criticized the Indian government for not doing enough for its own nationals in prisons abroad, accused of far less serious crimes.