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How horribly wrong can experiments in science go?

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By Priyadarshi Basu

It has always been a central tendency of the human condition to strive for progress. Along the way, mistakes happen, with innumerable such instances in history. Hope being another admirable human trait, we tend to pick up the pieces and move on. But what happens if things go so horribly wrong that the future inexorably descends into abysmal, seemingly endless dystopia?

This is the primary tenet of a lot of speculative literature and science fiction novels, starting from George Orwell’s 1949 classic 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and even the modern day Suzanne Collins classic, The Hunger Games.

 

Rajat Chaudhuri’s new dystopian novel The Butterfly Effect deals with yet another set of human experiments gone wrong. In that sense, several characteristics and tropes of dystopian fiction are evident here. This is of course a common occurrence in the evolution of this genre. For example it, is difficult to imagine whether The Hunger Games, published in 2008, would have existed without Stephen King’s The Running Man (1982). But Chaudhuri’s unique and imaginative story structure sets it apart.

The Butterfly Effect has a nested structure where both the first and last sections are titled “Captain Old and the Living Dead of the Darkland”, the second and penultimate sections are titled “P.I. Kar’s Korean Adventure”, and so on. Even so, it initially feels like reading disjointed independent stories in the first few sections of the book. That the stories narrated in these sections take place in different timelines and geographical locations pronounces this effect. Chaudhuri’s virtuosity stands out when he later weaves these tales together and we are treated to the artistry of a creative storyteller.

Another striking aspect of this novel is the horrifying believability of the story. But plausibility has its pitfalls. When Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451, which presents a society that burns books and clamps down on intellectual thought, the book itself was banned for promoting “questionable themes”. The truth in it was too close to reality for comfort.

As disjointed as the first few sections are, Chaudhuri heightens the effect by changing his narrative style in each. The first of the “stories” is about a futuristic dystopian world called Darkland, policed by dysfunctional genetically-modified humans and ruled by an authoritarian dictator. This section is painted bleakly, dispassionately and sometimes violently, which must be how the characters themselves feel. Here is a railway station scene where a retired policeman-cum-hired assassin has arrived to receive a mystery visitor:

“The decrepit mass of humanity stirred, gathered their sagging energies and plodded along to the edge of the platform. Behind them they left forgotten bags and walking sticks, empty IV pouches and puddles of poop which Old carefully avoided as a Canadian engine hauling twenty-six rusty coaches chugged into the station. And the world was engulfed by smoke belching from the chimney, which gurgled out of the skylights and the clerestory windows of the centuries old station building, escaping into the moonless night, like black thoughts bubbling out of the ears of a maniac. Who would have guessed that carbonophilic steam desire would be resurrected to patch together a banjaxed population?”

In the next part of the book, where Chaudhuri introduces us to detective Kar and his assistant, in present day Calcutta, the authorial tone and concerns become quintessentially Calcuttan and the scenes warmer, probably reflecting Chaudhuri’s love for the colourful and chaotic old city. This is happening in a bar:

“The patrons got more drunk with each passing minute and a jockey sitting at the next table began to warn everyone about the dangers of betting on horses. ‘This guy, he owned three Mercs man and now you see him, begging near the Indian museum,’ he went over and over again. His friend, an elderly musician, tried to tone him down saying that the world was not interested to know about the pitfalls of gambling while another man at that table began to lament about the deteriorating quality of modern Bengali songs and how the music of yesteryears could make one cry. This last one began to hum a tune.”

When the detective arrives in Korea and travels to the mountains in a later section, the writing becomes poetic and tender, as if Chaudhuri himself regrets the impending doom that is often foreshadowed here. This is also one of the most captivating sections of the book:

“The grass was a fiery green. He caressed it with his hands. The stalks were cold from the night rain and looking closer he noticed little pink flowers peeping out of the wet earth. Somehow they reminded him of the red blooms of blood on the icy mountain pass that Miss Park had mentioned.

As he kept looking at the little flowers, he was enveloped by a pleasant perfume. The flowers were growing bigger, the stalks grew taller, the petals spread out wide, the scent was thicker now, stronger.”

From quite early on in this novel, we get the feeling that the character of detective Kar, who gets an assignment to find a group of lost Indian tourists in Korea, is closest to the author. However there are equally important characters like the geneticist Tanmoy Sen and the enigmatic internet parlour hostess Jiyoo Park in Seoul. That Kar is close to the author’s heart is also evident from the fact that Chaudhuri has imported him from his previous novel Hotel Calcutta, where Kar has his own story, and made him a protagonist in this one.

Sen, however, is the pivotal character in The Butterfly Effect – by my reading the novel is built around him, though there could be many alternate readings of this magic box of narratives. The sections developing Sen’s character, whose quest, so to speak, is for a Holy Grail of genetic engineering, are closely interlinked, while the mood oscillates between self-doubt and hyperactivity, reflecting his inner conflicts.

Perhaps the mood switches also reflect the fact that the narrative here travels from India to England, and between Calcutta and London, both Victorian metropolises, but quite different in character and temperament. There is a Victorian flavour to the London scenes, like one taking place in an old gin-palace, and there are also descriptions which bring Edgar Allan Poe to mind.

“The violinist was smoking a briar. The acrid smell of tobacco had filled the lounge room right up to its crumbling ceiling and with each drag the fire of his pipe glowed even brighter, like the beating heart of an animal wide awake in the abyss of night.”

Chaudhuri’s focus on genetic engineering in the novel is backed by detailed research. An environmental activist himself, the author has taken pains to understand the biotechnological aspects required for the generation of genetically modified organisms. As a scientist, I have to say that his understanding of how modern genetics laboratories and equipments function is authentic. The gene transfer, manipulation and editing technologies described in the book are already a reality. How human beings use these technologies is for the future to reveal, but Chaudhuri’s implicit warning through the vehicle of a novel is to be deeply pondered upon.

One peculiarity of the book is a studied withholding of romantic possibilities and storylines. There are instances where romantic connections begin to manifest themselves, especially between the character named Ujaan and a Korean woman, but the author seems reluctant to venture deeper. It seems this is a conscious choice.

Perhaps the author is so intent on making his point that he felt romance would be a distraction, but given that love is universally a signature of hope, it might have given the reader a modicum of respite from the gathering gloom of Darkland. Yet, this gloom and darkness compel us to wonder what the future will be like.

(The writer a geneticist by profession and an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction. Source: scroll.in)


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Opinion

Theology of Presence

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Amir Suhail Wani

“O you who believe! Remember Allah With much remembrance”: Al Quran

To believe is to be in a state of presence. Presence, though not the climax, but is, one of the most cherished states and authentic manifestations of belief. To let God stay far away in the realm of abstraction and beyond-ness not only dilutes the spirit of worship, but it brings under scrutiny the very notion of belief. Religion, in its finest form, aims at invoking in man the spirit of presence, so that the believer may feel and experience the himself in presence of divine and may thus be able to envision a living and existential relationship with his creator and his object of devotion. Religion, even in its basic etymological connotation invokes the sense of “connectedness and attachment” with the object of devotion. It is in the very essence of man that he wants to be greater than what he is and when submitting before the divine, the individual, finite and subjective ego undergoes an existential, psychological and spiritual transformation of unique nature which expands its contours beyond those of physical perimeters. In any act of worship, the subject envisages the object of devotion as infinite and it not only pays homage to that infinite by bowing to it, but it very much desires to expand its own finitude under the radiance of that eternal infinite. This is what is meant by the philosophical benediction that “make me Thou, not an it”.

 

This human urge of finding means of self expansion by submitting before the divine is the greatest expression of human will and self sacrifice. But this spirit is rendered meaningless and antithetical when religion, in its state of decline, reduces to mere theology. In this reductionism, God remains no longer a living reality in the life of believer. He is rather replaced by a set of axioms and statements which fail to stimulate and satisfy the deepest spiritual yearnings of man and this deepest spiritual yearning is nothing but an aspiration to come in living contact with the divine and transcendental. Islam and for that matter most of the religions strongly condemn the deistic notions about God for it leaves absolutely no scope for religious indoctrination and creates an unimaginable void in the realm of Transcendence. It is in response to nuances like these that the notion of presence assumes multifold importance. It is not only prayer but our entire life that demands, by virtue of its spiritual dimension, that we live perpetually under the spell of divine. Thus religions teach us not merely to pray and thus make prayer a part of our life, but they come to turn our entire life into a sort of prayer. This transformation of life itself into prayer is what has best been embodied by Islamic teachings which reiterate time and again that all acts shall be done according to the law/s prescribed by God and at the beginning and end of each of our activity, the name of God shall be invoked. Not only this, the orations we recite at various instances from entering a washroom to starting our prayer are nothing but a beautiful way of making God a perpetual and living presence in our lives. None of our activities shall be divorced from Transcendent and while we are bodily constantly engaged in acts of world and matter, our heads, hearts and souls shall be perpetually turned to the divine. This act of remembering God in world of forgetting paves the way for “discovering God through material representations”. The highest form of this discovery is prayer and within prayer itself it is dua that marks the height of living relationship between God and believer. The purpose of prayer, as has been narrowly appropriated lately is not merely to make God change his mind and to bring our naive desires to fruition. Prayer is in fact the testimony of our living and real time relationship of servitude and dependency on God. Thus when God asserts “If My servants ask you regarding Me, I am indeed Near. I answer the call of those who call upon Me when they call. So let them answer My call and let them believe in believe in Me–in order that they be truly guided.”, he makes us understand in most emphatic and explicit way that he is very much existentially related to us and responds to our prayers. This response to prayer shall not be seen as the fulfilment of our prayers in material realm (which is true on its own), but it shall invoke in us the existential quest and inspire us to awaken our slumbering spiritual sensibility so that we may truly feel that God is indeed responding to us as our creator and as an object truly worthy of our devotion and worship.

This notion of presence has been subjected to double irony. The religious centric people lost sight of this appeal and dedicated their energies in confining and codifying God in their formulae of logical atomism. They rigidly tried to fix God in their self made definitions made out of untenable language as if trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. While as the role of this intellectual cum theological process can’t be belittled, but their overemphasis on making God comply to their abstractions and creating an unsurpassable chasm between the creator and creation surely set them on too rigid a path. The aftermath of this theorization of God not only created uncompromising hostility among different religions, but within the same religion it gave birth to unending clashes, unforseen intolerance and created such shameful examples that served the purpose of latter day anti religious forces. The second threat, and that is more dangerous, to this “theology of presence” has come from movements like new age spirituality, occult practices and pseudo spiritual shopping malls. Whereas traditional religion and traditional metaphysics taught us to see this world as a reflection and reverberation of transcendental realm, the new age spirituality has tragically represented the divine realm as an “extended expression” of human realm and this immanent universe. This has been sort of shifting the frame of reference and with this shifting of frames, the meaning of spirituality and metaphysics is inverted on its head. This misplaced mysticism and consumerist spirituality is far dangerous than no spirituality at all. In absence of spirituality, one may set out to discover the genuine and true spiritual traditions, but the presence of fake and pseudo spirituality creates a halo effect around man and his genuine thirst and quest is buried under the garb of this “materialistic spirituality”.

There are no palatable solutions to this malice that has invaded our religious obligation of perpetual presence and taught us to be satisfied with rituals without knowing their meaning. What one can do is to read, if one can, the religious scriptures and try to get to the roots of these scriptures. Look out for commonalities among scriptures and try to make a sense out of these commonalities. Another suggestion is to read the authors like Rene Guneon, Frithjof Schoun, Martin Lings, William Chittick and others of their class. What is special about these authors is that they speak about traditional metaphysics in contemporary idiom with an insight that is both inspiring as well as awakening. Finally we must note and note it seriously that life is not a profane activity sprinkled with events of sacred prayers, rather life is sacred as a whole and the existential realisation of this axiom is fundamental postulate on which all religions stand.

(The author is a freelance columnist with bachelors in Electrical Engineering and a student of comparative studies with special interests in Iqbaliyat & mystic thought. He contributes a weekly column for this newspaper that appears every Monday. He can be reached at: amirkas2016@gmail.com)

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Kathua verdict: fact, fable and fiction

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Shabbir Aariz                                   

Finally some relief has been accorded to the family of the victim, Asifa by the trial judge Mr Tejwinder Singh by convicting and punishing the guilty. But it is too little if not too late. The investigating agency has undoubtedly done a commendable job in piecing together the evidence against the odds and succeeded in obtaining conviction for criminal conspiracy, gang rape, poisoning and murder of 8year old Asifa on 17th of January 2018 in Rasana village near Kathua in Jammu. Rape is the fourth most common crime against women in India. The National Crime Records Bureau of India suggests a reported rape rate of 2 per 100,000 people, much lower than reported rape incidence rate in the local Indian media. However, Times of India reported the data by National Crime Records Bureau unveiling that 93 women are being raped in India every day. Every year 7,200 minors are raped as the statistics suggest without unreported ones. Rape is, surprisingly a weapon of punishment in India. In 2014, in Jharkhand village elders ordered the rape of a 14year old. The husband of the woman who was assaulted sexually was told to carry out the rape. As the woman’s husband dragged the girl to a nearby forest, villagers only looked on. Earlier West Bengal village reportedly ordered the gang rape of a 20 year old woman for falling in love with a man from another community. Even in case of Kathua, two BJP ministers stood in favor of the accused. Sexual crimes being committed with impunity not even sparing foreign tourists led to issuance of rape advisories like women travelling should exercise caution when travelling in India even if they are travelling in a group, avoid hailing taxis from streets or using public transport at night. India feels like it is going through an upsurge of sexual violence against children and after several incidents including Asifa’s, received widespread media attention and triggered public protest. The Prime Minister condemned it and UN Secretary General, Antonio Guiterres said “guilty must be held responsible” describing the incident “horrific”. This led the Government of India to reform its penal code for crimes of rape and sexual assault. As such India’s cabinet approved the introduction of death penalty for those who rape children. The executive order was cleared at a special cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Modi. It allowed capital punishment for anyone convicted of raping children under the age of 12. India’s poor record of dealing with sexual violence came to fore after 2012 gang rape and murder of a student on a Delhi bus. The four men involved were sentenced to death. The Supreme Court maintained the death sentence of the convicts; Akshay Thakur, Vinay Sharma, Pawan Gupta and Mukesh. Rejecting their appeal Justice R Banumathi said the men committed “a barbaric crime” that had “shaken society’s conscience”. It is worthwhile to mention that the death penalty to the said persons was given in the year 2013 while as the executive ordinance came in April 2018 after Asifa’s incident and of a 16year old girl in northern Uttar Pradesh by a member of BJP, Kuldeep Sengar (ironically, victim’s father was arrested and thereafter killed by the Kuldeep’s supporters.) Prior to 2012, there was no single law specifically dealing with children as victims of sexual offences. Then came Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act in 2012, India’s first comprehensive law to deal specifically with child sex abuse and surprisingly the number of reported cases of child abuse rose by nearly 45% the next year.

The new amendments enable a court to hand out a death penalty to someone convicted of raping a child under 12, even if it does not result in death. In countries like China, Egypt, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, rape is punishable with nothing short of death by hanging, beheading or firing squad. Despite the changes to the law and arming Indian courts, there is reluctance to carry out the death penalty. Is there anything wrong with the collective Indian psyche that deters even courts from putting curbs on sexual crimes against even minors? One feels disgusted for the punishment not being exemplary in Asifa’s case when on trial crimes like gang rape and murder were proved. The court was saddled with the law and verdicts of Supreme Court where death penalty awarded was not interfered with and also its observations emphasizing the gravity of such crime with its impact on the society. Do the laws also have a fiction value? When do we really implement them? Is something more needed to shake society’s conscience? It is more likely that the convicts in this case will go in appeal to the higher court against the judgement. The verdict of the lower court also calls for a counter appeal by the prosecution seeking enhancement of punishment to death of the convicts.

 

(A leading lawyer and eminent poet, author contributes a weekly column. He can be reached at:  vaklishabir@gmail.com)     

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Let’s Become Environmental Protectionists!

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Dr. Shahid Amin Trali

It’s very alarming to find the unending disturbances to our environment. Man’s foul play with the nature is not going well with the present as well as our future. The environmental problems are mounting towards a bigger trouble in future but we are yet to recover from deep hibernation/sleep mode. This menace of pollution has existed for centuries but increased at an alarming rate after industrial revolution in the 19th century. Pollution is one of the biggest global killers, affecting over 100 million people. The world’s population is ever increasing and the treasures of the resources are getting overexploited.

 

There is greater need that we must promote better and efficient use of resources. Mass production of plastics, which began just six decades ago, has accelerated very rapidly—most of it in disposable products that end up as trash. If business goes on as usual, plastic pollution will double over the next thirty years. That would mean there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Plastics have several health hazards, both for humans and animals. Not just that, it is detrimental for the environment too. We must encourage the reduction, recycling and re-use of wastes as raw material for new products. Our younger generation is highly creative and all they must be given is ample support and opportunities. We must promote ‘Jugaad’ creation, the idea of using the waste to make something novel and save resources. We need to set examples from our home places and re-use what we would easily throw away and conserve for a future.  What we cannot recycle let us try not use them. Let’s promote paper products as they break down better in the environment and don’t affect our nature as much.

Learning to be more environmentally friendly is not that difficult task than we think. We must start by living with a greater awareness of the resources that we use in our daily life.  For example we must turn off the lights as soon as we leave a room in our homes and offices or even schools and colleges.  We must be environmental friendly when it comes to building our homes and buildings. Trees are necessary for us to survive. We must plant small trees around our home, don’t cut them unless it’s necessary, work with local environmental groups to plant more trees and educate others about the beauty and benefits of trees.

Water needs to be conserved. Few ways to conserve water are – take short showers, keep the running tap close while we brush our teeth, recycle water in our home, use water saving appliances etc. More good ways to contribute will be consume less energy, buy recycled products, and create less waste and many more. We must refrain from open burning as backyard trash and leaf burning releases high levels of toxic compounds. We must use public transit as much as possible. Let us walk more and drive less to conserve fuel and prevent auto-emission. Let’s use bicycles and scooters for shorter distances to save resources.

Cleanliness leads to cleanliness. We can easily find that a dirty place adds to its dirtiness. When we come across a fresh place, we think twice before turning it bad and dirty. It is sad when we think for our clean homes and hardly care for the roads, hospitals, educational institutions, offices, markets etc. Our mindset has to undergo a big overhaul that our public property is our own property.

India is one of the three worst offending countries when it comes to environmental performance. Corporate leaders have started joining the race to save the planet. Being environment-friendly, eco-friendly, going green are huge claims referring to goods and services, laws, guidelines and policies that inflict reduced, minimal, or no harm at all, upon ecosystems or the environment. But the attempts need to be strong and concrete. Small and medium sized companies in particular generate a lot of pollution and need awareness and support policies to safeguard the environment.

Individuals, organizations and governments need to join hands to protect our environment.  Let’s educate others about the significance of living an environmentally friendly life. The more we will share an awareness of the richness of the environment, the more we can do together to protect it. Environmental love and care must receive an all time attention and priority. Let’s go beyond the model building exercises for safer environment and turn them into reality. Organizations must appreciate and reward the employees for their environmental care.

The Philippines recently has taken a unique and wonderful initiative. The island country passed a law under which every student there has to mandatorily plant ten trees in order to get their graduation degree. The law if it is implemented properly will ensure that over 175 million trees will be planted every year. The law will be applicable for college, elementary, and high school students as well. Our education system must owe greater responsibility towards environment and find some unique strategies to safeguard it. Let’s go green and pledge to protect our environment. (The author is Assistant Professor, ITM University Gwalior, Youth Ambassador, International Youth Society. He can be mailed on: dr.shahidamin15@gmail.com)

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