The curse of interesting times: The Statesman Columnist

Supporters of US President-elect Donald Trump hold signs during the USA Thank You Tour on Dec 9, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Supporters of US President-elect Donald Trump hold signs during the USA Thank You Tour on Dec 9, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.PHOTO: AFP

Raj Liberhan

The Statesman/Asia News Network

An apocryphal invocation, "May you live in interesting times", is commonly attributed to the Chinese tradition to be cast on one's enemies and now represents the struggle and strife that is so widely evident on our personal and public landscape. Perhaps it's the civilizational grace of their philosophers that even a soul to be damned deserves a blessing in disguise.

Our own rishis and munis (Hindu sages) were far too severe on anyone who incurred their wrath, even if the alleged offence was an accident of circumstance. A demanding and often a tough penance over a long passage of time could redeem the soul somewhat, but life was never the same again.

Goodness and virtue have generally reigned supreme except when ambitions of life have to be fulfilled which is nearly always. All is fair in love and war has become the guiding light of means to all ends. The Anatomy of Wit, as far back as the year 1579, shows the earliest known origins of this great problem solver…. All is fair… No longer are there any rogues or scalawags or even scoundrels. Every vile facet of human nature is forgiven because all is fair as long as there is success in the deed.

Politics is too, in reality, a war disguised as an electoral contest to win the right to serve one's countrymen and consequently fairness in this fight is a disqualification of sorts. The United States of America, world's most powerful nation has just been through a bitter and a vituperative contest for the Presidency.

A tax evader or avoider, a self-confessed 'groper', calling for something like an ethnic cleansing in a great democracy has actually got the vote of the majority to make good his word to them. Make white America great again and throw out the Hispanics, Mexicans, Muslims and the illegals and insulate us from the rest of the dregs of this world.

Interesting times are about to begin for the land of milk and honey. Fidel Castro is reputed to have said that he would die only when America was destroyed. Is this victory a portent of interesting times?

Nearer home, in the land of the great Kalidasa, have we chopped off the branch we have been sitting on for a long time and possibly just when the branch was getting strong enough to support the weight of 1.25 billion people? The bang for the Indian buck has turned into a whimper and the economy is struggling for some air to breathe.

A "minor inconvenience" for the cause of the country to retrieve its Dharmic greatness of honesty and integrity, say the dreamsayers while the doomsayers are screaming calamity has come down on our hallowed land. Economists are as usual divided in their assessments. It is a classic division of opinions, basically saying that they don't know what will happen.

The stark truth, however, is that the economy has come to a halt, but patriotic fervour is abounding. Groucho Marx was right on the money when he said that, "Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies". A perfect recipe for interesting times.

Our own scriptures have forecast the present onset of interesting times. The Bhagvata Purana, describing the Kali Yug (age of vice), times we live in, says it will be a world where wealth alone will be considered the sign of good birth and proper behaviour, and fine qualities and law and justice will be applied only on the basis of one's power.

No one would want any corroborative evidence to attest that indeed oftentimes our world works this way. And that is why hypocrisy has become a virtue in our time and we can pretend all is fair.

Liberty, equality, and fraternity were Rousseau's rallying cry to overthrow the tyranny of the French monarchy and people across the world yearned for the right to govern themselves.

Indeed, consent of the governed became the leitmotif of free people. Communism and dictatorships were marked as forms of oppression. And now democracies are being increasingly disguised in authoritarian cloaks to counter real and imagined threats to the life and liberty of the people.

9/11 changed the way the United States had lived. 26/11, some years later, changed the governance psyche in India. Europe with its remarkable economic and political experiment of an economic union is straining at the seams.

There is a narrative of civilizations being in conflict getting formed once again. The brink is never far. Is history in the process of repeating itself and re-open the wounds of a world war? Unless we start believing that what is fair is only fair and not all is fair, we are not going to end the curse of the interesting times.

So which is the greater illusion: are we shaping the world or is the world shaping us? Either way, they will be interesting times!

* The writer is a former Director of the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi.