Thursday, May 23, 2002

I consider myself a hardcore sceptic. As a journalist, scepticism comes with the territory and is constantly honed. But I liked to believe that I never let it cloud my judgment. I always respected other people's beliefs, however irrational they may have seemed to me. And never tried to force my opinions and scepticism down other people's throats. I suppose that's what people call tolerance.
Four years ago, my wife was going through a particularly stressful period, brought on by a trying journalistic career and a crippling slipped disc.
I had accompanied my wife for a health programme in Bangalore. Someone suggested that she try the Art of Living course before we head back to Mumbai. A deeply spiritual person -- as opposed to religious, which she is not -- my wife readily agreed. We did the course. I must admit that I had no deep spiritual experience. But it did offer me some fresh perspectives on life and the breathing techniques were rejuvenating.
We came back to Mumbai. And I promptly forgot all about it and returned to the hurly burly of work. To this day, I have not resumed the practice.
But my wife's experience was completely different. I am not exaggerating when I say it transformed her life -- and, by extension, mine. She has not been miraculously cured of her bad back. But she has found a wellspring of strength inside her that helps her fight and manage the pain. She leads a largely stress-free life, is far more active than she has been for a long while, and has a greater gusto for life than I do :) She has now completely immersed herself in the foundation's work. She has found her purpose.
Last week, Sunday Mid-Day, a newspaper my wife and I once worked for, published an article by Sharad Nair about the Art of Living, an article that breached all norms of good journalism and decency.
Criticsm is understandable, even necessary. But criticism, especially in the public domain, can be dangerous when it stems from prejudiced opinion, distorted facts and tid-bits of juicy gossip about the private life of unnamed women.
A pretty substantial portion of the article covers the life of a young Art of Living teacher who, it claims, had a bad marriage. According to the article, she tried to find peace through a number of measures. Before finally, says the writer, she did something that required hard work: "She had flings."
I am not easily outraged, but this takes the cake. My wife couldn't recall anyone that fitted the author's description. But even if this person exists, it begs the question: How does the author know about the "flings"? Surely she hasn't confided in him. If she has, he certainly shouldn't be betraying such a confidence in public, especially since short of naming her, he has dropped enough clues for people close to her to be able to identity her. Surely, this isn't relevant. Surely, this isn't journalism.
Eventually, according to the article, she joined the Art of Living and became a teacher. In conclusion, the man seizes the moral high ground: "If you can find guidance from her," he says, "you won't need a lamp in a cave."
If it were left to him, perhaps he would recommend burning women who have affairs at the stake.
The rest of the article is full of:
clever writing ("For a man whose name sounds like a typo, Sri Sri Ravi (sic)" -- coming from a writer who spells Jedi with an 'a', that sounds a bit rich);
stereotypical generalisations (people in Art of Living are "too rich, too bored, too lost and single" -- there are thousands who don't fit this description; "teachers chiefly come from affluent families" -- again not a fact, though the media is obsessed with that variety);
an attitude that insults the faithful ("they are taking away business from the shrinks" -- implying that all those who join the fold require a psychiatric's couch);
and really, really little else.
He brands the Art of Living as some yoga and grandmom's literature. Why should anyone believe the claim? The author is no expert in these matters. Neither has he done the course. It's like reviewing a movie without watching it. It's just plain irresponsible.
According to me, it is neither. I know, for I have done the basic course, and I have seen my wife go through several advanced and other courses.
Here comes the unkindest cut: The author is not a staffer; my inside sources haven't even heard about him; I have never seen this byline before (have any of you?); and there's nothing by him I can find on the net. I smell a pseudonym.
In these intolerant times, I am amazed that a newspaper showed such poor judgment and scant respect for people's beliefs and sentiments. It was a careless, insensitive and shoddy bit of reporting.

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