Sunday, December 31, 2006

The real Santa Claus!

“Merciful, wise and fearless” is how the Coptic Synexarion describes St. Nicholas, the 3rd century bishop of Myra. He was persecuted and imprisoned during the reign of Diocletian and Maximian. Later during the reign of Constantine I, he was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Though many miracles have been attributed to the saint, he is best known for the anonymous gifts he gave to those in need. The most famous story is that of the merchant who lost all his wealth. He had there daughters and no money to give them as dowry. So on a cold Christmas night, St. Nicholas took a small bag of gold coins and threw it into the merchant’s house through an open window. The first daughter was married off. Next year, he left a similar gift for the second daughter. Now the merchant wanted to know who his benefactor was, and so on the third Christmas night he decides to stay awake and find out. And the rest, as they say, is history.

He is known by various names in different cultures. I call him ‘Christmas Father’. In Kerala he is also called ‘Christmas Appachan’ and ‘Christmas Appoopan’. In different parts of the world, many local beliefs have been assimilated into the story of St. Nicholas. And time, politics and commerce too have taken their toll. After the protestant reformation in Europe, there was a conscious attempt to purge all extra-biblical traditions. The reformers had a particular dislike for saints and St. Nicholas was no exception. Some even went so far as to ban Christmas. But of course, everybody knows you can’t ban Christmas. And you can’t have Christmas without Christmas Father. So stories were invented about the North Pole, and reindeer and elves in an attempt to avoid any talk of saints.

Back then, in that part of the world, belief in saints was not considered 'politically correct'. Today, in most of the western world, religious belief is itself beginning to be considered politically incorrect. There is a misperception that one must not express religious beliefs in public. This inevitably leads to the flawed conclusion that if we must continue to celebrate Christmas as a public festival, it should be decoupled from the underlying religious beliefs regarding the Nativity. Sadly, Christmas is under siege once again.

The reindeer and sleigh and elves and Mrs. Claus are just stories. And the guy at the mall with the red suit and the mask is not the real Santa, he’s just pretending. But kids, if some presumptuous grown-up know-it-all ever tells you that Santa is just a fictional character, tell them about the real St. Nicholas.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A dog's life, liberty and the persuit of happiness.

It’s almost past midnight. I lock my PC and leave the office with a friend. When we reach my place, I get out of my friend's car and walk towards my gate on a well lit alley. I notice a dog coming in my direction. A second later it starts barking. Maybe it has spotted a cat or something. I slowly walk forward. Then over the next couple of seconds it is joined by a dozen or so dogs and the whole pack coming straight at me. I turn around and walk away. First slowly, then briskly as the dogs came closer, making sure not to panic and run because I remember someone telling me that would not be a smart thing to do. Finally managed to go around the block and sneak into the house from the other side. The dogs followed me almost half the way and then decided to let go after they'd made sure that the interloper had learned his lesson.

Not everybody is as lucky. Every day hundreds of people are bitten by stray dogs in Bangalore. Yet the law allows packs of stray dogs to freely roam the streets. Apparently, the so-called animal rights activists believe that the dogs' right to life, liberty and happiness takes precedence over that of the ordinary citizen.

Investing in Charity

There was this time, however, when I did actually give some money to a young woman carrying a baby in one hand. But before you get me wrong here, let me make it clear that my generosity was not prompted by the presence of the child. It had more to do with the (presumably de-fanged) cobra she held in the other hand.

Common as they may be in this part of the world, cobra carrying alms seekers are not only people you need to be wary of. For a more practical list of warning signs read this article in the Motley Fool. There are some interesting links there to more articles on 'Foolanthropy'. With the two richest men on the planet giving away almost all their wealth, the idea of charity as an investment is definitely in.

The association between charity and investment is not new though. Tradition has it that the apostle St.Thomas, an architect by profession, was commissioned by King Gondophares to build a palace. The apostle instead gave away all the money to the poor and was promptly imprisoned for it by an angry king. But the apostle was soon released when the king's deceased brother appeared in a dream and described the wonderful palace that had been built for them in paradise.

A palace in paradise or a world free from hunger, achieving the objectives of an investment in charity requires that it be accorded the same seriousness as any other investment.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Lucky Scrooge

Lucky Uncle Scrooge (Fred's uncle, though it would be just as true for Donald's or anybody else's uncle for that matter). He didn't live in Bangalore. Because if he did, the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future would all have visited him on the same night. And I say this because I know from experience.

Earlier today I was in Tippasandra, treating myself to an ice cream after lunch when this gentleman walked up to me asking for alms. He was followed by two children, one about 9 or 10 and the other in his early teens. As usual, I refused. Definitely don't want to encourage begging and particularly so if it involves children. After a few requests, the man left. But the 9 year old didn't. He stood there with his partially stretched out hand. And I still had the ice cream in mine. Certainly not a comfortable position to be in. For a second there I wasn't sure what to do. Should I just give him some change and get back to my ice cream. Or should I stick to my stand. Still not sure if it was the right thing to do, but I chose the latter. The child stood there for some more time. As he finally left, there was this look in his eyes. Despair, disgust, anger, frustration, pain. Or maybe it was just my imagination. Not really sure what. But it won't be easy to forget.