Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AFP)
India’s chattering classes are behaving like they’ve just discovered a country called Ukraine! Maybe they really have. After all, Ukraine isn’t as glam as France or Italy. It’s amusing to follow the emotionally charged exchanges between self-styled intellectuals swapping "forwards" plucked from WhatsApp groups, as they take positions on a crisis threatening the world as much as Covid-19 did three years ago. Instead of a tiny virus that crept into unsuspecting lungs and killed a lot of people, we have a Russian strongman who wants to show pretenders who’s the asli duniya ka boss! Clearly, it ain’t Joe Biden! This is Vladimir Putin’s moment in history, and he isn’t about to blow it. Neither will he blow up Ukraine, as people fear. He doesn’t have to. The message has gone out loud and clear: Putin has secured his place in history books merely by flexing his martial arts-toned biceps. And firing a few missiles, of course.
Back in India, the sabjantawalas are busy creating their own narratives. We talk like overnight experts on geopolitics. Bored, idle urbanites are obsessing on the crisis, almost as if their own future hangs on how many missiles and tanks are deployed in Ukraine before a sensible "setting" is achieved, and we go back to worrying about rising petrol prices and what happens in Uttar Pradesh if the BJP loses. Memes and jokes galore are doing the rounds, even as our dynamic ministerlog fly in and out of Europe to ensure that Indian students in Ukraine get home safely. This is a timely move by the government and shows how proactive we are, even if we chose to remain non-committal by abstaining during the critical anti-Russia UN vote. Sending our airliners to bring back our kids is easier, and shows Ukraine in a very poor light. If they can’t ensure the safety of 18.000 Indian students studying in their universities, they must be really bad people, who deserve to be pounded by aggressive Russians out to grab their country, right? Desi students added to the discourse by recounting how rude the Ukrainians were to them. Stories of starvation and scary escapes to the border are making more news today than the equally poignant plight of thousands of migrant workers trudging back to their villages during the pandemic ever did.
But our sense of humour stays intact. A recent meme offered an instant solution: "Change the spelling from Ukraine to UKKKRENNE and the problem will be solved," it read, in a dig at a popular numerologist who minted millions by advocating spelling changes, involving the letter "K".
Most of us living in our Mumbai-bubble have a sizzling story or two featuring attractive Ukrainian ladies. Quite a few high society marriages took a hit, a decade ago, with the "other woman" being a beauty from Kyiv. Special charters from Ukrainian cities with gorgeous young girls on board would regularly land in Mumbai and be met by canny talent scouts who’d herd the lot for auditions with Bollywood producers looking for backup dancers in elaborate "item songs". Some of the taller girls would turn to ramp modelling, while others slightly lower in the pecking order would get jobs as scantily-clad ushers in grand-scale weddings. At one point, no Ludhiana/Jalandhar shaadi was complete without Ukrainian bar girls serving drinks to lusty shouts of "Balle Balle". Let’s not go all the way to Goa, with entire villages taken over by Ukrainians plying various nefarious trades as cops looked the other way.
This has nothing to do with our sympathy for the country under siege. The very thought of Ukraine’s President winning major dance contests and carving out a successful career as a stand-up comic is most inspiring. Pappu can dance, saala! Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has generously and disingenuously said his country "recognises Volodymyr Zelenskyy as Ukraine’s legitimate President". Spasibo! But it’s angry with the popular President for "lying to his people". Russian leaders never lie to their people, okay? It’s the same Zelenskyy who hasn’t abandoned his citizens and fled after being offered asylum. He is there on the streets, wearing a helmet and promising to defend his country till the last bullet. But hey… he also messed up evacuation plans. Why didn’t he take Putin’s threats seriously and put out an advisory to citizens to vacate homes well in advance?
Talking to a top dog in the Indian Army, who retired recently and is considered a good military strategist/tactician, I was interested to read his comments on the media coverage, providing detailed statistics about the conflict. He says such "accuracy" is totally off, if not impossible. As he put it: "Casualty reports on either side are never accurate, seldom truthful and (often) deliberately falsified. I wish our reporters understand they are giving figures of something very different than a profit and loss statement of an MNC after the AGM." He went on to scoff: "EU and Nato are like any RWA (residents’ welfare association) watching two neighbours fighting bitterly. But they daren’t discontinue water and electricity supply of those homes." I have still to come across a better perspective!
Kaun jeetega or kaun harega in this dark, dismal scenario is impossible to predict, as the real war is being fought slyly behind the scenes between players whose identity isn’t known to the world. Stealth and secrecy have always determined the outcome of battles through time immemorial. Russia doesn’t like to lose wars, as history has established. Putin is way too alpha to back down regardless of sanctions and threats from other European nations, with leaders calling him a "dictator", "criminal" and worse. The hypocrisy and double standards are there for all to judge. Who will ever forget the blatantly racist coverage on TV channels, with anchors talking in outraged terms about "white people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed by other whites"! In this White vs White war it's only Vladimir Putin who will make history and change history. What he launched against Ukraine isn’t new. Americans can be accused of this and worse. Besides, for all his belligerence and chest-thumping, Joe Biden comes across as a wimp. And why is Barack Obama’s role being overlooked? Saat khoon maaf? Like another apt meme stated: "When Russia sends tanks and soldiers into another country, it’s called INVASION. When America does it, it’s called LIBERATION".
Till peace is restored, let’s seek comfort and inspiration from poetry, as Ukrainian soldier Zhenya Peripelitsa did, standing in a field covered in snow, as he recited a poignant poem by Hamid Mosadegh: "What are you thinking? Who would believe your love turned to ashes, the jungle of my soul…"
As long as poetry can soothe us and act as a salve, there’s hope for peace!