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Commentary/Rajeev Srinivasan

Mad March, Triffids, Heaven's Gate, and Cruel April

They call it Spring Fever, our frozen friends in northern climes. In March, the first green shoots appear, snow and slush turn into spring showers, and the Mad March Hare of legend leap about, drunk with joy at the new grass and flowers, I am told. There is a bounce in one's step. In the spring, a young man's fancy turns to romance, Jane Austen declared.

In Rtusamharam, Kalidasa waxes eloquent about the Spring: Trees put forth flowers, waters abound in lotuses// Women's thoughts turn to love; the air is sweetly scented;// Mornings are pleasant and days delightful:// All things are more alluring in springtime, my love//

The cherry blossoms, in pale pink, have appeared at the Golden Gate Park. Maybe it is sakura -- cherry blossom festival time -- in Japan. We have celebrated here the ancient festival of the Vernal Equinox, and Holi, and Easter. The days are getting pleasantly long. Ah, to be in San Francisco, now that spring is in the air! I could almost believe all's right with the world.

But of course, a look at the headlines tells me the world is going about it usual bloody-mindedness with nary a care for the season. Civil war in Zaire. Albanian refugees in the Adriatic. Arabs and Jews killing each other in Israel. Kashmiri Pandits massacred near Srinagar. I am reminded of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring: are the birds silent too in Kashmir?

And then the comet, Hale-Bopp. Over the weekend, I went to some friends's lovely house in the Los Gatos mountains -- I always beg for invitations there, because it is so beautiful. From their deck, you see nothing but forest, and in the distance, the Pacific Ocean and the coastal town of Santa Cruz. Because they are far above the haze and the lights of the Silicon Valley, the sky is crystalline, and the stars startlingly numerous.

We watched Hale-Bopp, a remarkably large smudge at about forty-five degrees. It was a remarkable sight through binoculars--the giant tail fanning way out. Others at the party told me how they have seen, earlier in the week, the lunar eclipse and the comet at the same time, with an exceptionally bright Mars to boot. A true display of celestial fireworks.

And then I read an article in the London Times about plants that can produce plastics. Suddenly, it occurred to me: The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham: a rather good science fiction book I read many years ago. Triffids are sentient, ambulatory plants genetically engineered to produce oil. They are also rather ill-tempered, and might chase down and eat an occasional human. I do hope the plastic-producing plants are not quite as observant or mobile.

The uneasy balance of power between humans and triffids is broken, in the Wyndham book, because there is a celestial display: a wondrous meteor shower that everyone rushes out to enjoy. Unfortunately, everyone who sees it goes blind within a few days. Bad news -- without vision, humans are no match for the clever, malevolent triffids who butcher humans mercilessly.

I don't remember what happens in the end: Maybe brave humans hold off the triffids and destroy them. The book was written in the first flush of environmental awareness, and, like with the nuclear madness in On the Beach, perhaps the good guys don't finish first.

I am a little leery of all these experiments in genetic engineering anyway. The cloning of Dolly the sheep, and other creatures, makes me rather uneasy. Isn't there some bio-ethics issue in this somewhere? Is it proper for us to play at God? Where does all this end? Well, should we stop consuming animals altogether?

Are Mad-Cow Disease and its agent, a prion or rogue protein crystal, a warning? Arthur C Clarke, who has often been quite prescient, writes in his latest book, 3001,(the continuing saga of those inscrutable black monoliths set out in space by a higher intelligence to keep an eye on humans), that meat-eating, partly as a result of BSE-related fears, becomes extinct in the next century.

Coming back from science-fiction to equally outlandish fact, the apparent suicides of thirty-nine people in San Diego has shocked the US. These people, apparently highly educated and skilled web jockeys, were members of a group called Heaven's Gate, and they believed that through ritual suicide, they would be able to rendezvous with a space-craft hidden behind Hale-Bopps' core.

The bizarreness of the story has aroused much mirth and the usual round of bad jokes. Of course, the group is dismissed as a bunch of cranks, and as a 'cult'. But if you think about it, it is hard to see how their odd beliefs are all that much different from those of most organised religions. Someone once said that a religion is a cult with an army behind it. There is some truth to that.

Even though the Heaven's Gate group members, it would appear, killed themselves for no good reason, religion has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. In fact, more people have probably been killed in the name of religion and God than anything else. Just look at the aforementioned row in Jerusalem. Or the one in Kashmir. Or the War of the Roses. Or the pogroms in Europe. Religion at its worst.

Therefore, I, as a believer in an organised religion, cannot in good conscience condemn the group. At the very least, even though they may have done themselves irreparable harm (I think), they did not hurt anybody else. (Well, except their loved ones.) They get points for that in my book. Tragic, though.

Speaking of the commandment to not hurt others, I fear the Congress Party perhaps fails that test. It is not recorded what Kalidasa or Jane Austen thought caught the fancies of powerful old men in the spring. Congress leaders undoubtedly have their reasons for crippling the United Front government at this rather sensitive stage, when talks with Pakistan are at hand and confidence-building measures are being undertaken to attract global capitalists.

But this is surely a case of Nero fiddling while Rome is burning. Bringing down the current government, or disempowering the finance and foreign ministries does not do much for the nation as a whole. Our global competitors -- China, ASEAN, the US, the EU, South Africa -- are certainly not letting any grass grow under their feet. We need to put our internecine battles behind us.

In the end, I rather feel sorry for Prime Minister Deve Gowda. All things considered, things have progressed rather better than gloomy pundits's predictions when his uneasy coalition took over ten months ago. Deve Gowda will probably agree with T S Eliot that 'April is the cruellest month'. Or maybe, just maybe, April will come in like a lion and go out like a lamb.

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Rajeev Srinivasan

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