For several weeks now, we have been waiting for something to happen that would grab the headlines away from the Covid19 crisis engulfing the world. Or more pertinently, India. Well, something did happen – on India’s forbiddingly mountainous terrain of Ladakh bordering China. This was not the diversion one was seeking from the pandemic problem but, as Shakespeare had it, “’tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but’tis enough, ’twill serve.” He had a way with words, did old William. The Bard of Avon also fulminated, ‘Cry “Havoc,” and let slip the dogs of war,’ as he was clearly in a very bad mood, a sentiment I heartily endorse when I think of the present conflagration in the Galwan valley or Pangong Tso or wherever the hell it’s happening. My geography is, at best, dodgy. In sum, while we can raise a feeble one and a half cheers that CV19 has been temporarily pushed into the background, I am not sure the Galwan issue hogging the banner headlines gives us much cause for the balance one and a half cheers. If anything, it has only added to our misery. The one bit of good news amidst the mayhem is that the stock markets, against all conventional wisdom are on the upswing, though no one seems to know why. No matter. For now, we will take whatever crumbs are thrown our way. For tomorrow they could plunge steeply southwards.
To revert to the skirmish with our Chinese brothers (some brothers), military experts have termed the June 15 fisticuffs and the bloody business with stones and wooden club thingummies embedded with nails and so on as a ‘watershed moment’ in the history of Sino-Indian conflict. Evidently for decades now, there has never been a ‘kinetic’ confrontation between the two sides, a term I am not contextually familiar with, but if ‘kinetic’ was good enough for the luxuriantly moustachioed Major General Bakshi, it is good enough for me. While on the subject of General Bakshi’s expressive moustache, I cannot help but be reminded of P.G. Wodehouse’s magnificent description of the Duke of Dunstable’s enviable, upper lip vegetation, in a moment of extreme agitation. ‘….his moustache, foaming upwards as if a gale had struck it, broke like a wave on the stern and rockbound coast of the Dunstable nose. A lesser moustache, under the impact of that quick, agonised expulsion of breath, would have worked loose at the roots.’
It is quite amazing that in this day and age, when armies across continents are armed with the latest, state-of-the-art weaponry, here are two rival battalions in mortal combat going hammer and tongs at each other, quite literally, taking us back to the days of our Palaeolithic ancestors. Fists of fury, eyeball to eyeball – didn’t someone educate them on social distancing, particularly when you are up against a race that gave us Wuhan and the Coronavirus?
Our primary source of information, naturally, is the media. While newspapers, the online or the papyrus versions, give us an opportunity to read and absorb happenings over the previous day in a calm, reflective and collected manner, the real action is on our news channels on television. Particularly on the so-called debates, where the verbals get so violent some may almost term them ‘kinetic,’ if the good General Bakshi will be kind enough not to sue me for copyright. In the time-honoured fashion, our small screens at home are full of flailing fists, antagonists screaming blue murder at each other, while Arnab Goswami and his ilk attempt, infructuously, to maintain the peace. In actual fact, the anchors only add fuel to the fire. In all this excitement our Prime Minister and some of the opposition leaders become collateral damage at the hands of those elected to be mouthpieces of their respective parties. I am particularly tickled by one chap who is always reclining at the back of a moving car while spewing fire and brimstone. I can never remember his name, but it has always puzzled me why he can’t sit comfortably at home while spewing f and b.
These so-called debates, more often than not, give us much cause for mirth and merriment during these grim times. Still on the Indo-China kerfuffle, take the common or garden word, finger. Grammatically, it is a noun denoting the ten digits at the extremities of our upper limbs consisting of thumbs, forefingers, index, middle, little and so on. In more informal and somewhat rude parlance, the word can also be employed as a verb, as in ‘he was right royally fingered,’ metaphorically meaning the unfortunate ‘he’ clearly got the worst of the deal, drew the short straw. The expression can also, on very rare occasions, be interpreted literally, but that can get a bit anatomical, clearly unsuited to a respectable blog such as this. Suffice it to say that when the Americans ‘give someone the middle finger,’ the recipient of the offending digit has been told off in no uncertain terms.
In case you are wondering why I am going to all this trouble talking about the humble finger, you can place the blame squarely on whoever decided to name the several ridges descending from mountain peaks in Galwan or Pangong Tso or wherever, Fingers. A proper noun, with a capital F and everything. As in Finger 1, Finger 2 and going on all the way to Finger 8. If there are more than 8 Fingers in Galwan or for that matter Pangong Tso, then I am not in the know. Not that it matters, frankly. A Finger here, a Finger there, big deal. It’s just that when the conflict was first reported and all these retired decorated army and air-force types were scrambling over each other on our television screens to give their expert views, they started spouting sentences like, ‘China have taken full control over Finger 4, and unless the Indian forces can ascend Fingers 5 and 6, we could be in serious trouble.’ That’s when I first encountered the curious employment of the word and cottoned on to the fact that a Finger was a mountain ridge, which is where the Chinese were comfortably and strategically ensconced, looking down at us and yelling nasty things at our soldiers in their unintelligible tongue, while the Indian troops, for the most part were holed up in the troughs, looking up. Unsurprisingly, no proper noun has been ascribed to the troughs. Clearly, this was a situation unfavourable for our brave jawans, who needed to find a more strategic way to get the better of their opponents. Any soldier worth his salt will tell you that, given the choice, a peak is a much better place to be perched on, than to be craning from a trough. In the final analysis, it’s all a matter of who fingers whom first.
Finally, as I go to press, in a manner of speaking, still on China I was tickled pink to learn that a large number of Lord Ganesha idols have been made to order in Beijing, Shanghai or, Shiva forbid, possibly Wuhan. Had this not come to light during the Ladakh imbroglio when anti-Chinese passions are at fever pitch, Indian importers would have carried on in their merry ways flooding our markets with cheap, Chinese-made Ganeshas, and none of us any the wiser. It is only fitting then, that I end with the famous legend surrounding Lord Shiva, his consort Parvati and their two children, Ganesha or Vinayaka or Pillaiyaar (our Gods enjoyed multiple monickers) the elephant God, and his elder brother Subramanya or Kartikeya or Muruga, who looks more like a normal human being.
The story goes that Parvati came into possession of a divine mango with magical powers and told her two children that whoever circles round the globe three times and is the first to return home, will win the blessed fruit. Kartikeya hopped on to his pet peacock and set off on the long journey. Ganesha’s pet, the domesticated mouse, didn’t stand a chance against his winged rival. In a flash of inspiration, Ganesha merely traipsed round his parents thrice and bowed reverentially, explaining to them that they are his world and all that lay therein. Ganesha had the fruit and ate it too! For once Shiva, who usually hogs the limelight, allowed his good wife to take centre stage, along with the kids.
So what does that fable teach us about the present fracas in Ladakh? Simple. The Chinese may boast of fire-breathing dragons, but India’s canny elephant gods can stamp them out in a trice. If only we can gain access to the peaks of some of those Fingers!