May 26, 2007

The vulture appreciation society is now in session!

Vulture funds are in the news these days. These funds purchase bad debt, the sort of debt which has long given up its ghost. In other words, there is no chance of getting any money back on this debt. So the vulture funds purchase this stuff, and then negotiate with the debt holders to get some return. If the negotiations fail, then they go to court to force the debt holder to pony up the debt amount and interest on the outstanding debt. So far so good! Donegal International, a vulture fund based in the USA, has taken Zambia to court and the court has granted some monies to the fund. The trouble is that this money is one third of Zambia’s total debt relief savings for this year under the various international debt relief arrangements. I don’t need to tell you what the reaction was. Apoplectic fits around the world, fingers dancing the St. Vitus dance on the keyboards, table thumping on various forums. Vulture funds are in the cross-hairs, and by Jove, they will be stopped. I have a problem with the morality of this angst and second, I have serious issues about calling them vultures.

Vultures are species, which has been massively discriminated against. Poor birds can’t help having a bald head and feeding on dead animals. They are a vital cog in the great Gaia circle of life. I used to hate them as well when I was a kid and when I first saw a big bald great Indian Vulture tearing at the carcass of a dead calf in a meadow. What was to like in a vulture? The great big dangerous looking beak, the bald head, the mottled wrinkly skin, the black beady eyes, the sheer terrifyingly wide wing span, the strength in ripping the skin and getting to the meat, the fearlessness in being on the ground while humans were just a few feet away and the fact that they were eating carrion. All this was perfectly apparent in the photograph taken by Kevin Carter. That particular picture got him the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography and showed a starving Sudanese child being stalked by a vulture. Thankfully, my real life contacts with vultures were few and far between. But within literature, vultures always appeared with a dark threatening perspective. Evil people were frequently described as vultures. Old wicked women were sometimes portrayed as a vulture.

But I slowly changed my mind about these beautiful birds as I grew up. A big thanks to my sister, who helped me to see these birds in the historical context. Besides the natural reason of loving all nature’s animals and birds, the reason why I started liking them was that I came to know about the way the Parsi’s lay out their dead inside the Towers of Silence, so that the vultures can eat them as a way of disposing of the dead bodies. Different interpretations are offered, but mainly the idea seems to be that the dead body is considered to be unclean and to avoid contamination of the earth, vultures help in removing this contamination. Also, gifting the dead body is the last act of charity that one can perform. By offering one’s own meat to the birds, something which might otherwise be wasted by cremation or burial, one performs a last service to nature. If nothing else, this is carbon neutral!

But vultures have a long history around the world. There was this god in pre-Islamic times called as Nesra, also known as the Eagle God; Nekhbet was the ancient Egyptian vulture goddess and Neret was the male counterpart. Interestingly enough, the ancient Egyptians loved the vulture because of its close bonds with its children. So the vulture stood for motherhood and apple pie (well, the last is a stretch). Even the hieroglyph of the vulture was related to motherhood, bonding, pairing, etc. The vulture was venerated by the Assyrians as a god. Native Americans loved and still love the vulture, sometimes calling them as “Grandfather Buzzard”. Iroquois have myths around how the Vulture eats carrion, but also flies in clean air and bathes in clean water. Sir Richard Palmer identified old Nigerian bronze statues of the old Nupe Kingdom around 700BC which had vulture gods. The Maya’s had a vulture god and the vulture was used in various religious representations relating to agriculture, rainmaking and warfare.

In Southern African tribal mythology, vultures represent lovers, because of the fact that vultures bond for life. Tribes in Suriname worship a vulture god called as Opete. The vulture is associated with Pallas, Ares/Mars and Apollo and is Saturn’s mount. Prometheus, poor chap, was condemned to have his liver eaten every day by a vulture and strangely enough Hercules who killed the vulture, took the vulture for his sacred bird.

I found a lovely and fascinating story on the vulture god, and I have taken the liberty to quote the full story, “Mamaiuran, an Amazon Indian tribe that lives along the banks of the Xingu River in Brazil, named their Sun god as Kuat. According to a Mamaiuran legend, at the beginning of time it was continuously night and the Indian tribes were forced to live in perpetual fear of attack from wild animals. Light could not reach the Mamaiurans because the wings of birds blocked the sky. Kuat and his brother Iae decided to steal some light from the vulture god, Urubutsin, king of the birds. The two brothers hid themselves in a corpse, and waited until the birds approached. As soon as Urubutsin landed on the corpse to eat the maggots, Kuat grasped the vulture god's legs. Unable to get away and deserted by his followers, Urubutsin was obliged to agree that he would share daylight with the two brothers. To make the light last for long time, it was established that day should alternate with night. As a result, Kuat became associated with the Sun and Iae with the Moon.”

But for some reason, the Abrahamic religions went off the vulture solidly, with quotes such as “Some vultures came down to eat the carcasses, but Abram chased them away. - Genesis 15:11”, "These are the birds you must never eat because they are detestable for you: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey, - Leviticus 11:13 “My chosen people have become as disgusting to me as a vulture. And indeed, they are surrounded by vultures. Bring on the wild beasts to pick their corpses clean! - Jeremiah 12:9” and "Lord, where will this happen?" the disciples asked. Jesus replied, "Just as the gathering of vultures shows there is a carcass nearby, so these signs indicate that the end is near - Luke 17:37”.

In Islam, we have “[49.12] O you who believe! avoid most of suspicion, for surely suspicion in some cases is a sin, and do not spy nor let some of you backbite others. Does one of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? But you abhor it; and be careful of (your duty to) Allah, surely Allah is Oft-returning (to mercy), Merciful. (eating the flesh relating to the vulture’s habit of eating carrion) and Book 007, Number 2717: A'isha, the wife of the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him). said: I heard Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: Four are the vicious (birds, beasts and reptiles) which should be killed in the state of Ihram or otherwise: kite (and vulture), crow, rat, and the voracious dog I (one of the narrators, 'Ubaid- ullah b. Miqsam) said to Qasim (the other narrator who beard it from 'A'isha): What about the snake? lie said: Let it be killed with disgrace.

Be that as it may, vultures are now considered to be bad. Vultures are now associated with lawyers who chase after ambulances, or journalists who infest gory accident sites to take photographs and write gory stories or culture vultures (a name of a column in the Guardian newspaper) about people who swoop down on any cultural activities, but have doubtful experience or expertise in arts. So vultures have got a bum rush and as I mentioned in the beginning, so do the vulture funds.

I am not impressed by this idea of shovelling money into the African countries by the ton. First we give them money, then we give them goods, then we give some more loans, some more aid, some more preferential treatment on trade, then we don’t do anything about their kleptocratic and bare faced theft of taxpayers’ monies. Then after decades of corruption and theft, the Africans don’t have anything. So the tub thumping useful idiots ask for debt relief. Whines of, how can we improve the lot of our people when we are forced to pay so much in interest and principal debt payments? Awww, poor you! Ok, guess what? Forget about all the debt and the interest. Better still, now you can ask for more loans and steal some more. Take the case of Zambia itself. The previous kleptocratic thief who was in charge for ten years, Grand Poo Bah Frederick Chiluba was convicted of stealing $46-million. Why the heck do you want to fund a country headed by such thieves? And why would anybody object to holding the country and its leadership responsible for the scarce resources that we give to them?

No, the idea behind borrowing money is to invest in productive and useful assets. If the idea behind borrowing money is to steal it, then that is stupid. It is like me borrowing money to spend it on holidays, gambling and purchasing drinks. Silly reasons! So what do you end up with? You end up with a bunch of idiots, both on the receiving side as well as the paying side. I don’t know about you, but I absolutely hate being treated like an idiot and throwing good money after bad. I work hard for my money, as you do, and would you like your money to be given to a person who uses the money to go on holiday? And then to add insult to injury, says that he cannot return the money, so SOMEBODY ELSE, out of the goodness of THEIR heart, say, that’s all right, you don’t have to return the money to him. Robbing Peter to pay Paul, and twice over.

The vulture funds impose discipline on these borrowers, these kleptocratic morons. The debt that they have bought up was written off. There was no chance of getting that money back. They bought up the debt and are making sure that the countries repay the money. Perhaps that will teach them. Just like vultures make sure there is no disease in the country, by eating up dead carrion, these vulture funds help in cleaning up debt and removing moral hazards. So do not tell them off, my friends, they are helping you and me in protecting our taxes, which is obviously not something that our governments are doing very well. Nobody says no to our taxes helping the deserving poor and being spent for deserving causes, but nobody likes our money to be wasted. Thank god for vultures then.

All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt!

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