Clap-n-Clank-n-Light-a-Lamp: Politics of Sound and Light

The riotous enthusiasm with which Modi’s call for a resonant — or deafening, as it turned out — show of gratitude was met and the subsequent praise for the demonstration and more than that for Modi’s hold on the masses made for a spectacle that’s interesting in many ways than one, none of which ways augurs well for the Indian democracy in general or COVID-19 outbreak in particular. 

Problem-Solution Relationship

What was it that standing in the balcony clapping or drumming utensils or sounding a conch or whistling, as some people did, was supposed to achieve?

It was, as the Prime Minister told us, to display our gratitude to those who serve us, like the medical practitioners, nurses, delivery boys and so on. In the times of Corona crisis, we must appreciate the risk they are taking for us. Sure, why not? 

So, was it our inadequate gratitude for the service providers that brought Corona to our doorsteps, or was the loud display of gratitude the cure doctors prescribed? 

While we should be grateful to all people who serve us, it’s completely unrelated to the crisis that made the Prime Minister address the nation. And on the day of general, self-isolation called by the Prime Minister and christened — rather, re-christened — “Janta Curfew”, when most of the delivery people were off the roads and health workers working in the hospitals or sleeping off their tiredness from work, the din of gratitude was either not heard or could only disturb them at work or disrupt their well-deserved sleep. 

Was it really gratitude reflected in the clapping and all the ruckus, or was it the obedience to and support for the Prime Minister? In other words, was it social or political in nature? Need I answer it for the society that has historically treated its serving class (the shudras, the dalits) with utter contempt and breathtaking, unspeakable callousness? Rhetorical question, that. Answer, if you like, and hang your head in shame, if your pride in the “ancient civilization” — or is it “Ancient Civilization”? — permits. But that’s not really the point.

Nobody could possibly believe that clapping or the dinning of the utensils in the balconies could have any curative or preventive consequences with regard to the health emergency except perhaps those who could — and actually did — invoke the “scientific” reasons behind age-old “religious/cultural practices” and contort the less than pseudo-scientific “explanations” to somehow force-fit them into their preferred narrative to make it sound plausible to the ill-informed, credulous commoners, who have been (mis)led to believe that we are on a journey to greatness and every step, no matter how silly and fruitless, is a major milestone. 

However, nothing indicates that the Prime Minister himself was under any “scientific” misconception. “Janta Curfew” was to arrest the spread of the virus and clap-and-clank was to display gratitude towards the healthcare workers and home delivery executives. The second one was not a measure at all. So, why, in the time of crisis, did the Prime Minister want people to engage in an utterly unhelpful exercise? It obviously could not generate any actual sense of gratitude in ungrateful people, and grateful people did not need it. Also, it could not have and did not help anybody in any concrete way. So, why?

clap and clankPeople did not come to their balconies clapping and clanking because they were grateful (they kept expelling healthcare workers from their rented accommodations fearing infection long after the pointless exercise) but because they wanted to display the support for the Prime Minister by responding to the call. It was not about supporting the nation (donate, if you want to lend real support) or even the government in dealing with the crisis (staying indoors was and is the effective support, which was separately called for anyway) but about displaying support for the Prime Minister, which makes it a political exercise, pure and simple. 

Why did the Prime Minister, after urging for the “Janta Curfew” for a day — later turned into a nationwide 21-day lockdown by the Prime Minister by another 8:00 PM magic wand — ask for this entirely symbolic display that served no real purpose? Was he trying to parry a real crisis by sentimentalism? Was he being utterly impractical, naive or plain, old-fashioned stupid? None of that. It was a carefully calculated political move.

The Politics of Symbolism  

A sizable number of people stood in support of the Prime Minister Modi because that’s their default setting. Some stood in solidarity with the nation in the times of crisis. A few stood in genuine gratitude towards the health workers and delivery executives. And all of them clapped or drummed utensils together at the same time. In that deafening din, the varied, individual reasons were reduced to just one — support for one man. 

The metallic din created the impression of passionate oneness. That’s what such high-octane drumming does. That’s why battling armies have been carrying high decibel musical instruments at least since the medieval times to impassion their troops and intimidate the enemy by a genre of music collectively called “martial music”, which is characterized by shrill sounds combining bass drums, horns and bells. “Battle cry” is also used to the same effect. Both martial music and battle cries are psychological devices to intimidate the opponent and make the charging forces appear daunting, fearsome and invincible. That was precisely the purpose of the clap-and-clang exercise, too. 

Politics is a battle of perceptions, which is why political parties regularly engage in shows of strength. In politics, a perception of strength begets more strength, and also makes opponents look and feel weak simultaneously. Strength in politics is about numbers, particularly in democracies, and since the entire game revolves around perception, it boils down to the perception of numbers, which may or may not reflect the actual numbers. Political perception is best helped by the tendency to paint all people and all support with a single brush. So, support for different causes and for different reasons displayed together becomes support for the one who calls for the support — in this case, Modi.

Dissent Neutralized           

Mob behaviour is a natural dissent neutralizer, which is why it is an effective, and for the reason well favoured, political tool. But mob behaviour is not only displayed in rioting and public lynchings, which are just the violent forms of the same herd behaviour that underpins all thoughtless, collective actions undertaken by people. 

A rioting mob of a hundred people can easily take over and lay waste to a colony inhabited by three thousand people or more, and the “dissent” to rioting is “not rioting”, which can only result in the rioters taking over the colony. The only effective defense is a push back, which is nothing short of “counter-rioting,” but that is still rioting, even if defensive. To an onlooker it’s just a riot. 

Rioting, if left unchecked, spreads fast and wide because during riots the “normal” changes to the exact opposite of civil. Murder, arson, rape and robbery get normalized and even those who would normally not think of harming a soul get on the bandwagon of wanton rampage. Later, they regret and wonder what got into them.

What gets into them is the infectious mob frenzy, which is the same thing that drives people to do what others are doing only because others are doing it and then another set of “others” start doing the same because the previous “others” were doing it. And so it goes on. This doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody believes in or supports the same thing, but it definitely looks like that. And it works very well for politics because, like I said before, politics is about perception, and what is perceived exists without necessarily existing.   

The same goes for other kinds and forms of mob behaviour, too, including the non-violent ones, which can be just as harmful — sometimes a lot more — if allowed to continue for extended spans. 

The clap-clang-light-the-lamps is the same kind of mob behaviour. It does not shock, startle or offend only because it’s apparently non-violent and harmless, but thoughtless action is intrinsically dangerous, inherently reckless, and, thus, indefensibly immoral (thoughtful action being the cornerstone of morality). Again, dissent stands neutralized because to disagree is to not clap and not make noise, which makes no perceptible difference to the look of things, for sound is heard, silence is not. And sound takes over silence unless some other sound is added to counter it, which makes no difference because all sounds gets painted with a single brush in the same colour and are heard alike just like all rioting for all purposes — including defensive violence as well as looting and robbery — is simply rioting. 

Diwalification of Corona Crisis

Turn off the lights, light up the lamps — that was the next prescribed undertaking. One of the TV Channels called it “prakash parv” (festival of light) — a festival, really? Of course, nothing remedial or preventive about it regardless of the pseudo-scientific reasons — more of mythical tales actually — marshalled in favour, as usual. 

So, what’s the purpose served? Display of unity. Joint fight. One for all, all for one. We are in it together. And other such slogans have been paraded as the purposes served. 

Unity, alright. Can we opt out? Can we not fight an infectious, highly communicable and rapidly spreading disease together? Which other ways and methods are available? We are to join hands to stay isolated (however ironical that might sound) when there is a nationwide lockdown, under which we can do nothing but anyway. Actually, not only we don’t have to do anything “together,” but the only thing we actually have to do is “not be together,” which is being enforced by a lockdown. So, what’s all the lamp-lighting about? Timepass? Yes, that. But there is more. It makes people feel they are part of something big and significant (true or not, the feeling is important). So, there is this feel-good factor involved. 

One could express dissent by not switching off the lights and not lighting lamps, but that makes one stand out, which most people don’t want to do. Dissent takes a lot of courage and self-belief, which is hard to come by. Besides, to most it’s hardly any inconvenience and makes one part of a seemingly “large movement.” So, why not? Again, all lamps lit for whatever reason are part of the same display of support for the same person. 

Besides, some people might genuinely believe the fiction of the display of unity as a means to defeat a viral disease, but it’s actually their faith in the romantic idea of unity itself which gets stretched to make the display of unity seem what it cannot be — a cure or a vaccine. It could only be a display, and was.

LAmpsBut if it was merely a display and could not amount to much in terms of dealing with the health crises we are facing, was the Prime Minister misinformed, uninformed or simply under a misconception of some sort when he called for the display? None of that. 

Display on call is a political statement. It translates into and is perceived as a display not of unity of the people but of popularity of the man commanding the display. It shows that there is a “strong, tough leader” at the top, who can command people, even if it doesn’t matter to the virus and is completely irrelevant to our current struggle. But we are being “led” by a “strong leader” — not wise, not prudent, not compassionate, only “strong” — is what people want to feel. And creating such an impression is pure politics. 

People stayed back at home under the lockdown (what else could they do anyway?) before the sound-and-light displays happened and would have stayed indoors without the displays as well. So, what purpose did it serve? They told the supporters to support even more passionately, and the dissenters to stay quiet because nobody was listening. In short, people were turned into pawns in a political game yet again. A health crisis was used to make a political point. “Leaders” do not make such displays; it’s the grand displays that make the “leaders,” or, in some cases, enhance their political stature.

Some might still wonder what was wrong in the two display events. In a nutshell, two things. One, they were not solutions. Two, they were deceptively political in nature. And milking a national crisis for political mileage signifies misplaced priorities and a dangerous attachment to power.        

Also, the way the two display events were undertaken by the people in the streets across India compromised social distancing, which, in fact, is one of the three most viable measures, the other two being testing and quarantine. Thus, a politically motivated non-measure compromised a viable preventive strategy, and may have facilitated the spread of the infection, but that we might never know for sure because the current political climate in combination with a pliant media, which believes more in reporting statements and hosting shouting matches for panel discussions rather than reporting facts, does not make a fertile ground for such discoveries.

For now, we can wait for the next Sunday event.

Inoffensive Padmavat: What do Rajputs do now?

From what I hear of Padmavat (haven’t seen, and don’t intend to for my own un-Rajput, un-kshatriya anti-garbage reasons), it seems the Rajputs have been burning buses in protest over a movie that glorifies them to the moon and back, and ridicules Khilji to the dark underworlds and further down. Such irony! That’s what happens when you are aching to take offence a little too readily and without application of mind, or, for that matter, analysis of the subject matter in question.

What do you do if you have taken offence already and later find that the thing in question was not really offensive to begin with? Do you apologize for creating the ruckus and walk away? That would the rational and reasonable thing to do? But how about honour? How could a Rajput with his gilded and elevated nose allow such ignoble loss of face? After all, face is where the nose is and where the nose is cannot be ‘lost’ even figuratively. So, what do they do? Nothing very different from what any conceited, mindless bag of muscles and bones would do, which is stay the course, right or wrong.

Course correction, as we know, is a reason-dictated option for the rational in such circumstances. For the Rajputs, however, life is about bravery, courage, valour, pride, honour, dignity… and… well, invite all the synonyms of these words from their respective resting places in the thesaurus lest any of them should feel left out of a grand Rajputana celebration. So, with the offence mistakenly taken already, what do they do? They continue with the protests anyway as long as it keeps them in the limelight perhaps because this time the Rajput valour has a political shade to it.

Judges’ Press Conference: The Way Forward

Judges’ Press Conference: The Way Forward

Regrettable and confounding as it was, the press conference held by the four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court did little more than make it look like the Supreme Court was in distress. And we certainly don’t want the most powerful and dependable institution of the nation to look unstable and in turmoil. The press conference, therefore, appears to be more of a hasty misstep than a well thought out way to a solution of any kind to the issues raised by the learned judges in the press conference as well as through the letter addressed to the CJI, which was shared with the media the same day.

Justice Chelameswar meeting D. Raja and Prime Minister’s Principal Secretary Mr. Nripendra Misra turning up at the residence of the Chief Justice of India after the press conference were two further developments that we could certainly do without. It should have been realized that the phrase “in personal capacity” has absolutely no meaning in the situation the two events took place. Apparently, the CJI did not agree to meet the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, and he had to drive away from the gates of the residence of the CJI without meeting him. That was the only silver lining in the muddy cloud.

The Bar Council of India was well advised to hurriedly constitute a delegation to meet the learned judges of the Supreme Court to urge them to resolve the issue in-house, and reportedly the Chief Justice has assured the delegation that the situation will be resolved positively within the Supreme Court brethren without any outside intervention. That’s heartening to know although many — including me — would have much preferred if it had been internally resolved well before his four senior-most colleagues found it imperative to call the attention of the nation to the problems plaguing the administration of the Supreme Court. The press conference called by the learned judges certainly couldn’t be a part of any solution whatsoever, but that does not mean the problem did not exist or was/is not serious enough to warrant urgent redress. It’s not everyday that the four senior-most judges of the apex court feel the urgency to talk to the press in clear breach of The Restatement of Values of Judicial Life adopted by the Full Bench of the Supreme Court of India on May 7, 1997, Clause 9 of which states as under

Dipak Misra9. A Judge is expected to let his judgments speak for themselves. He shall not give interview to the media.  

However, the reservations regarding the mode of addressing the issue does not quite take away from the substance of it, which necessitates a positive, problem-solving approach on part of the Chief Justice of India and his brother judges without interference of any kind from any outside quarter. The delegation sent by the Bar Council of India did well to not even suggest as to how the learned judges should go about resolving the issues. They restricted themselves to urging that the matter be sorted out and put to rest within the institution itself. That’s the only advice that one can really offer the learned judges. There have been three missteps already — the press conference, the meeting with D. Raja and the failed attempt by the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister to meet the CJI. That’s already three too many, and there is absolutely no room for such ominous moves any further.

The way forward, therefore, is pretty simple: Let the learned judges of the Supreme Court sort things out among themselves. The rest of us must keep our faith in their wisdom. They are perfectly capable of handling their differences. Nothing more needs to be done, said or discussed.

Judges’ Press Conference: Desperate, Reckless and Dangerous

Judges’ Press Conference: Desperate, Reckless and Dangerous

Supreme Court justices addressing a press conference to voice their concerns regarding the internal functioning of the Supreme Court is not only unprecedented and extraordinary but also desperate and mutinous. Surely, there must be something very disconcerting afoot that made the four senior judges of the apex court reach out in distress to the people through the press, but the step is unlikely to produce desired results. Worse, it might not produce any results at all, or, worst, in addition to being fruitless, it might irredeemably shake the faith of the people in the higher judiciary and open the institution to unnecessary criticism and baseless suspicion. Those who cannot keep their own house in order are not seen as dependable guides by anybody. For now it is hard to see what the judges sought to achieve by bringing the matter out in open, for they certainly could not have hoped for a ‘democratic’ solution to an essentially administrative issue stemming primarily from the dissatisfaction with the working style of the Chief Justice, or so it seems.

Any ‘solution’ except the one found through the in-house dialogue and deliberation among the Supreme Court justices without the intervention of any outside party would be nothing short of interference with the independence of the Judiciary, which is a lot more dangerous to the constitutional democracy that India is than just about anything that the current Chief Justice can possibly do during his tenure. Any interference, direct or indirect, with the working of the higher judiciary would be contrary to the spirit of the Indian Constitution and the well-entrenched Doctrine of Separation of Powers that forms the constitutional bedrock of judicial independence in India.

JusticesJudicial independence — it might be pertinent to add here — was not presented to us on a platter and was won only after several hard-fought battles over the past many decades, and, among other things, gave us the present collegium system, which, despite all its flaws, is far better than the Executive deciding which judges be rewarded and which other punished for their judicial verdicts. If the four senior judges of the Supreme Court, in their wisdom, thought it fit to address a press conference and thereby risk judicial independence, the reason must be quite worrisome, and I do hope that it was indeed worth the risk. However, the larger question remains as to what is sought to be achieved by the step and at what cost? What good is a remedy that is far more harmful than the problem itself?

The learned judges did not disclose what remedy they sought. All they said was that they were bringing the issue to the people of the nation and that in doing that they were discharging the “debt” and “responsibility to the nation”, which could be read as that they were performing what they thought was their democratic duty by raising the issue before the “people”. And that’s the most unsettling and perilous aspect of the step. “Bringing the issue to the people” is an all too familiar way of politicizing anything and everything in a democracy, which the Judiciary — particularly an apolitical judiciary such as ours — must avoid at all costs and at all times.

It is a little surprising and is also a mark of utter desperation that the learned justices came forward to address the press without having a solution or way forward on their minds soon after their meeting with the Chief Justice in the morning. Was it a well thought through move or just a ready reaction? They did not say that they sought the impeachment of the Chief Justice, but responding to a direct question in this regard, they left it for the “people” to decide. Impeachment of the Chief Justice is very unlikely, but there is hardly any remedy that “people” can provide. There is no mechanism for “people” to “save” the Judiciary. Constitutionally speaking, it is the judiciary that has to protect the people and not the other way round. To the general public, the press conference would sound like ‘Supreme Court in distress’, and that can only have a chilling effect on them. It is a bit like the armed protector asking the protected for protection.

Furthermore, who exactly is/are the “people”? In a representative democracy like ours, it’s practically the government — the Executive — or the Legislature, which, again, has just one mechanism at hand in the current scheme of things — impeachment. If the Executive intervention is sought, it’s as good as Socrates asking for hemlock.

Dipak MisraThe current Chief Justice is retiring in October this year, which might not leave much time for the impeachment proceedings to go through anyway and it would not be easy to build the required consensus for the extreme step based only on the dissatisfaction of  four learned justices in absence of any specific allegations of improper conduct by the Chief Justice. Also, we are talking about the impeachment of the Chief Justice of India, no less, which is a giant step by all means. It would be worse if the Chief Justice resigns on account of this controversy, for it would set an ugly precedent, and create the impression that even the Chief Justice of India could be shamed into resigning. There is close to zero possibility of that happening either. So, what could possibly be achieved by bringing the dissatisfaction to public notice? The current CJI would no longer be the CJI a few months down the line, but the questions raised and the distrust displayed by none other than the four senior-most brother judges of the CJI would persist as a blemish on the integrity or competence or both of the current Chief Justice of India, which might give further force to the prevailing sentiment that nobody is above suspicion. And, bad impressions, even the baseless ones, are very hard to fight, and far harder to defeat.

The BH Loya Angle

During the press conference, Justice Gogoi said that the four of them had met the Chief Justice in connection with the assignment of a case and confirmed that it was the PIL filed in connection with the death of Judge BH Loya, a special CBI judge, whose death came under the scanner when media reports started talking of the suspicious circumstances surrounding his death. He was hearing the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case, in which Mr. Amit Shah was accused of ordering the extra-judicial killing of Sohrabuddin carried out by the police at his behest when he was the Home Minister of Gujarat. CBI filed the chargesheet against Mr. Amit Shah, and the matter was being heard by Judge B.H. Loya. Judge Loya died of cardiac arrest on December 1, 2014. Two Public Interest Litigations (PILs) have been filed for independent investigation into Judge Loya’s death, one before the Bombay High Court and the other before the Supreme Court of India. On December 30, 2014, the judge succeeding Judge Loya discharged Mr. Amit Shah, and the CBI did not appeal the order of discharge. Admitting the case for hearing, the Supreme Court called the matter of Judge Loya’s death a “serious matter”.

Loya.jpgThis case is a very different can of worms, and Justice Gogoi’s confirmation that the assignment of this case was an issue read with the contents and in context of the letter to the CJI disclosed at the press conference, gives the controversy much grimmer and rather disturbing undertones, and for that reason I would refrain from saying anything further in this regard, for it is too serious a matter to allow for careless speculation.

However, while certainly serious, was the Judge Loya case also all that urgent and of such far-reaching consequences as to call for such an extreme step? Since Bombay High Court is already hearing an almost identical PIL as the one filed before the Supreme Court, the apex court is likely to wait for the Bombay High Court’s verdict rather than hearing the PIL filed before it. And even if it doesn’t, the apex court would order setting up of a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to conduct the probe and report back, which would take some time. And by the time SIT is close to finishing the investigation, the current Chief Justice would be either close to retirement, or will have already retired, and with Justice Chelameswar retiring on June 22, 2018, Justice Gogoi is to be the next Chief Justice in all likelihood after CJI Misra retires on October 2, 2018. So, what was the urgency? Was it really necessary to bring the discontent out in open with no clear way forward from there? Or maybe there is more to it than was revealed, but if that is the case, what purpose does it serve to lay only part of the problem in open when, for want of completeness, the problem cannot even be fully understood, let alone solved?

Therefore, the questions we are left with are: Was it worth it? What was the ill sought to be remedied? Was there a remedy to begin with in the current scheme of things? If, yes, what was the remedy sought? Was the press conference the way to finding the remedy or implementing any remedial measures? And, finally, was the remedy or the way to it likely to turn out to be more dangerous than the problem itself? If the last question can be answered in the affirmative, the press conference by the learned judges was certainly hasty and utterly reckless. However, for now, we don’t really have many answers; only a large number of complex and confounding questions, and then some very serious worries.

 

Taj Mahal: The Facebook ‘facts’, and ‘the facts’

Taj Mahal

1. To begin with, it’s not ‘Shahjahan’ but ‘Shah Jahan’, and Mumtaz was his third wife (3rd) wife and not fourth (4th). He had no ‘fourth wife’ because he had only three wives, and NOT ‘seven’.

The other two wives were Akbarabadi Mahal, and Kandahari Mahal. Shaha Jahan was closest to Mumtaz Mahal, who always traveled with him even during wars, which explains her frequent pregnancies. The other two wives did not conceive as often. For the record, Shah Jahan had 16 children out of which 14 were born of Mumtaz Mahal. The reason might be that his relationship with other two wives, the words of official Mughal court chronicler of the time, Qazwini, “had nothing more than the status of marriage. The intimacy, deep affection, attention and favor which His Majesty had for the Cradle of Excellence [Mumtaz Mahal] exceeded by a thousand times what he felt for any other.”

2. Mumtaz was born in April 1592 and was married away to Shah Jahan (Prince Khurram, then) on May 10, 1612 as a 19-year-old having been betrothed to Shah Jahan officially 5 years before in 1607, when she was only 14. The marriage had the apporval of both the families and was a formal arrangement. And she was obviously UNMARRIED before marrying Shah Jahan.

3. Yes. Mumtaz died giving birth to the 14th child. They did not have condoms and the ‘Morning After Pill’ or ‘iPill’, or any alternate contraceptive methods. Besides, Islam prohibits the use of such methods anyway.

4. Well, NO. He never married after that. When he was imprisoned by his son, Aurangzeb, who was one of Mumtaz’s 14 children, Shah Jahan wanted to be detained at a place from where he could see the Taj at all times, which is why he was kept at Agra Fort and breathed his last in Musamman Burj, a tower with a marble balcony with a view of the Taj Mahal. Apparently, he wanted to keep his dead wife in his view as he embraced death in 1666. He wished to be buried by the side of his wife in the Taj, where is rests now.

Taj m“Where the HELL is LOVE here, some one please explain!!!”

I don’t know because I don’t know what ‘LOVE’ is anyway, but neither do you.

But then, it’s more about plain facts than love. Get those right before you venture to make an opinion!

Here are the online references, a dozen, including the facts officially reported by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI)the offical documents at United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), including the official report (Advisory Body Evaluation) submitted to the UNESCO for the inclusion of the Taj Mahal in the list of World Heritage Sites on October 15, 1982:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shah_Jahan

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mumtaz_Mahal

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aurangzeb

http://www.bookrags.com/biography/shah-jahan/

http://persian.packhum.org/persian/main?url=pf%3Ffile%3D00702015%26ct%3D304%26rqs%3D181

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agra_Fort

http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/251/

http://asi.nic.in/asi_monu_whs_agrafort.asp

http://www.thetajmahalindia.com/

http://www.tajmahal.org.uk/story.html

http://whc.unesco.org/archive/advisory_body_evaluation/252.pdf

First published as a Note on Facebook on February 8, 2012.

 

THE EAGLE REBIRTH TALE: AN INSPIRING LIE?

eagle 00A good number of motivational speakers across the world have used the tale of eagle’s rebirth to inspire loads of people. According to the story, generally told through a PowerPoint presentation, eagle is the most long living bird with a lifespan of around 50 years. But when it crosses 20 years of age, its beak gets ‘bent’, its ‘flexible’ talons are no longer effective and its wings get stuck to its chest from the weight of its heavy feathers making it difficult to fly. This leaves eagle with only two choice — to die or to go through “a painful process of change that lasts 60 days”.

The ‘painful process’ referred to is the one wherein the eagle flies to the top of a mountain and sits at its nest and hits the rock with its beak repeatedly and determinedly until the beak breaks. The eagle waits until the beak grows back on afresh, after which it plucks off its talons, and when the talons grow back, it proceeds to pluck out its feathers to have new feathers take their place. And when the new feathers are back, according to the presentation, “after five months, the eagle takes its famous flight of rebirth and lives for 30 more years.” Then there is a longish inspirational lecture of leaving one’s old self behind and jettisoning bad, old memories together with other past burdens to start afresh like the eagle.

There are many problems with this story right from the start, its inspirations value notwithstanding. First, five months are not 60 days. So, if the eagle takes its famous flight “after five months”, but the “painful process” lasts only “60 days”, what happens during the remaining 90 days? The eagle remains without its talons or beak for months, and without both, it cannot hunt and eat. It’s the top of the mountain, where the conditions are hard, and the eagle remains there without food for five months or two months, depending upon which part of the same version of the story one chooses to believe. However, some of the presentations in circulations have corrected the basic calculation mistake and though everything else remains the same, including the pictures used in most cases, the 5 months stand corrected at 150 days. But it also means that the eagle survives without food for 5 months or 150 days, which is unlikely to the point of being near-impossible.

Even if that error is dismissed as a minor typographical one, the story, despite being inspiring, simply doesn’t ring true. It’s remarkable, but it’s fictional. To begin with, the beak of the eagle is sharp and is always turned down. Hence, the word ‘aquiline’. No eagle has a straight beak at any point of time in its life. So, the curved beak theory, as shown in the PowerPoint presentations, inspires no confidence.

Sharp vision, strong talons and beak are characteristic features of the ‘raptors’ or ‘birds of prey’, who hunt and feed on prey. The beak and talons are made of hard keratin, a bit like the fingernails of human beings, and new layers of keratin grow over the old layers giving them a sturdy structure. The talons, therefore, are strong and hard and are not ‘flexible’ as the story propounds. All raptors, including the eagles, keep their beaks and talons in very good condition by regularly cleaning and sharpening them by rubbing them against the rocks, stones and other hard surfaces. The layers making the beak and the talons grow throughout eagle’s life, which takes care of the wear and tear in regular course.

The idea of feather-plucking by eagles is also quite weak because feather replacement in birds occurs through a version of the process of molting, and is gradual because birds need sufficient feather density in order to maintain the body temperature and repel moisture. Molting is a regular process and the old feathers are regularly shed with new feathers taking their place cyclically in natural course. Therefore, an eagle doesn’t need to take a short trip up the mountains to lose all its feathers and get new ones in their place. It keeps happening every now and then, like in the case of any other bird.

As for the age, in certain presentations of the same kind, the eagle is claimed to live for as long as 70 years, but in nearly all such presentations the lifespan is claimed to be 50 or above. However, the well-documented fact is that the average lifespan of an eagle in the wild is around 30 years, and in captivity, under controlled environment, they might live up to 50 years, but the presentation, quite obviously, is not talking of an eagle reared and maintained in captivity. Furthermore, eagle is certainly not the bird with the longest lifespan. Many birds live much longer than eagle does. A few large parrots live to the age of 80 and the average lifespan of albatross is 50. The nature has not been unfairly kind to the eagles and has not equipped eagles with the ability to extend the duration of their lives at will as the inspirational presentations claim. So, that part of the story also doesn’t hold either.

Eagle is one of the most widely studied birds, and no credible study supports the inspirational story that these slides tell. On the contrary, there a great deal of scientific data to refute the story. The story, therefore, has doesn’t seem to have much going for it in the real world although it certainly is a fancy yarn apparently spun out of thin air by some imaginative speaker.

Hopeless False?

Yes, almost. But we might consider a few things before dismissing the story completely. Reportedly, it has been claimed by the purveyors of the story that since eagle doesn’t have to do much and has to just sit through the period of ‘rebirth’, it needs very little energy and can, for that reason, stay alive without food and water for that duration. Well, it’s not impossible, but certainly very improbable.

Yes, it is also true that eagles bang their beaks against rocks, but scientists believe that they do it in order to clean and sharpen their beaks. One might imagine that it is the beginning of the process of rebirth, but even then it is inconsistent with the story because the story claims that it happens at the top of the mountain, after which the eagle sits there and waits for the beak to grow back on. The beak replacement part of the story is not supported by any observation or study.

So far as the long age is concerned, the life expectancy of the eagles has increased and in some cases eagles have been reported to live upto 70 years, but those have been very rare cases. May be those were the eagles that went through this process of ‘rebirth’ although no study has found that so far.

To conclude, there is negligible factual support available to the story. So, it is very likely that it is just a fictional tale. But then, there is nothing wrong with inspiring fiction so long as it is not passed on as ‘fact’.

Originally written for Let’s Comply on November 18, 2015, but remained unpublished largely because factual verifications undertaken during the course of writing brought the veracity of the claims made in the ‘inspirational tale’ under question, and the story, as it turned out, no longer served the inspirational purposes it was set out to serve to begin with. 

Snapchat Outrage: Why So Serious?

SnapI never knew that my not downloading or using Snapchat would be so wonderfully and so convincingly explained by none other than the CEO of the application himself, assuming that he indeed said what one of his employees attributed to him though some kind of denial is very likely very soon. But as things stand for now, it turns out that I have always been so completely convinced of my status as a poor man in a poor country (hope it’s not yet anti-national to say that) that I never even thought of downloading an application that has been so popular in India.

But what’s this outrage about? Why are people so angry at what the CEO fellow said? What’s wrong in being poor? It just means that one has less money than most other people. So? How is it a disparaging remark? It’s just a judgment on one’s economic standing even if it is not founded on any concrete facts, in which case it’s more of a perception based on some flimsy impression.

But then, even if it was true and was based on sound facts and reasoning, how does it lower one’s worth in the world unless money or wealth is the only or the most important measure of excellence or superiority, which would make everybody who was not rich worthless from Socrates, Plato, Immanuel Kant, Nietzsche, Marx to Mozart, Ghalib, Mir, Vinci, and the endless list goes on and on. Throughout human history there has been no dearth of poor but otherwise perfectly worthy individuals.

Of course, there is nothing wrong in being wealthy or being interested in earning money or having the talent to garner wealth, but there is nothing wrong is being poor either. So, why the outrage?

If you are rich and evil, or poor and manipulative, that might be open to some judgment of some sort, but being rich or poor per se is like being tall or short, dark or light, blonde or brunette, or Superman fan or Batman aficionado. One can be legitimately judged for what one does, and not for the state one eventually finds oneself for one reason or the other unless one has brought about the state on oneself, but even in that case one would be judged for what one did and not for the state itself.

Then again, who said it? A young, opinionated CEO of a media company, which owes its success largely to a good product idea, which they managed to execute well enough to catch the imagination of the people. The CEO is entitled to his opinion regarding who his product is for, especially when he expresses it privately. Why attach so much importance to the words of a 26-year-old man, who is young enough to be entitled to a certain degree of rashness and haste in drawing sweeping conclusions, particularly in a relaxed setting? So, Mr. Spiegel, you are rich, we are poor. Okay. Done. Sleep well.

Personally, Snapchat has always been a non-starter for me. Now I know why. And I am perfectly comfortable being poor.