Archive for the 'Essay' Category

Not talking about Pakistan

Taymiya R. Zaman in Tanqeed:

I drew a secret line around the borders of Pakistan and rarely stepped over it. In the fall of 2007, I began teaching Islamic history at a small liberal arts college in San Francisco; even though my classes on South Asia and the Middle East could easily have included Pakistan, I made sure to exclude Pakistan from all my syllabi. To avoid ever having to talk about Pakistan, I changed the name of a course a predecessor had titled “History of South and Southeast Asia,” to “Indian Civilizations.” This now meant that the course took a leisurely route through the Indus Valley Civilization, the coming of the Aryans, the spread of Jainism and Buddhism in North India, the rise of the Mughal Empire and concluded with British colonial rule and the formation of India and Pakistan in 1947. But, after an emotionally charged lecture on Partition, I would begin a section on modern Indiaand say nothing of Pakistan after the moment of its creation. My class, “The Modern Middle East,” covered American wars in Afghanistan but my syllabus screeched to a halt at the Pakistan border. Although the country inevitably featured in class discussions about U.S. foreign policy, I assigned no readings on Pakistan. In my other classes, I stayed away from the twentieth century, which meant that the question of Pakistan never arose.

Outside the classroom too, I was something of an expert at not talking about Pakistan. This was a feat, given the interest that Pakistan generated. Being Pakistani meant that well-meaning students would frequently tackle me in corridors and ask me what I thought about “the current situation” in Pakistan. More

Social media magnification

“Domestic violence and the victimisation of women is not new in our male-directed societies, what is new is the degree to which its magnification through social media can spread solidarity, and potentially trigger policy change.” Kunda Dixit in Nepali Times:

The street demonstrations in Kathmandu against recent rapes and murders of women would probably not have made it to the #2 news on BBC World on Saturday morning if it hadn’t been tagged to the anti-rape protests in Delhi. And that story wouldn’t have been the #1 item if the protests in India hadn’t snowballed due to outraged citizens on social media leading the charge. As the protests grew and continued in India, it fuelled print and TV coverage, and the chain reaction attained critical mass.

In Nepal, protests over the robbery and rape of a 20-year-old woman by immigration and police broke into the public consciousness last month because of the role of journalists and cyber-savvy activists. Left to the traditional media, the story would probably have died quietly like many other rape stories before. It was a tipping point because the crime involved immigration officials who looted the young woman and a policeman who, instead of protecting her, turned predator. Pending murders and disappearances of women in Kathmandu, and the cases of two young women who were burnt alive by family members in Banke and Bara at about the same time, added fuel to the fire. The protests in Kathmandu would possibly have happened anyway, but saturation coverage in the Indian media about the Delhi rape also helped sustain the public’s interest in Nepal.

These were not isolated crimes. Rape has always been endemic in Nepal, it’s just that women press charges more often now and the media reports it. It is also a cross-border phenomenon because we share similar patriarchal value-systems with northern India. At the time this story was breaking in Nepal, a piece by Satrudhan Shah and commissioned by the Centre for Investigative Journalism detailed many cases in the eastern Tarai of victims forced to marry their rapists by the community, police and even gender rights activists. The story was published in Annapurna Post in Nepali, and as ‘Rape for Ransom’ in English in Nepali Times. More:

The Snake in the Garden: Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer in NYT:

Once upon a time a friend told me about a retreat house in the hills of California. I drove three hours north from my mother’s home and came upon an 800-acre spread, with golden pampas grass tumbling down to a great expanse of blue 1,200 feet below. The place was radiantly silent — save for bells tolling three or four times a day — and I was so far from telephone and laptop that I could lose myself for hours in anything at all, or nothing. At dusk, deer stepped into my private garden to graze; an hour later, I stepped out of my room and found myself under an overturned saltshaker of stars.

The retreat house was the rare place where it seemed impossible to be fraught. All my worries of the previous day seemed about as real and urgent as the taillights of cars disappearing around headlands 12 miles to the south. I started to go to this place of silence more and more often, and one spring day, on my way to two weeks of carefree quiet, I told my old friend Steve about it. Much to my delight, he booked himself in for a three-day stay that would coincide with my final weekend in the sanctuary.

I stepped into my cabin on the slope above the sea, 12 days before our meeting — golden poppies and lupines everywhere — and instantly began to wonder how Steve would see it. What if the sky clouded over before his arrival, I thought, and he was greeted by rain and mist? Maybe the vegetarian food set out in the kitchen would fail to meet his exacting standards? What about the crosses on the walls? Might they trigger some unsuspected trauma from his Roman Catholic boyhood? Every day for the next 10 days I worried that the place might not live up to his expectations — or my billing. More:

The book boys of Mumbai

Sonia Faleiro in NYT:

As the lights turn red at the Haji Ali traffic intersection in Mumbai, the boy slouching against the railings quickly straightens up. Yakub Sheikh is just 12 years old, but he knows he has only 45 seconds to make some money. Holding aloft his wares, he dashes toward a black BMW and in his cracking preteen voice addresses the woman inside: “ ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’?”

Mumbai once prided itself on its literary culture — libraries, journals and poetry societies flourished; foreign books, though hard to find and prohibitively expensive, were all the rage. It was into this economy of scarcity and exclusivity that, somewhere around the 1970s, the book pirates stepped in.

Initially, these literary entrepreneurs produced only thinly bound copies, their pages spilling out or missing altogether. Popular fiction sold well, as did American cookbooks and Asian volumes of dress patterns. It wasn’t until the ’90s that best sellers were pirated; today, they dominate the black market, selling at less than half the Indian cover price. (Don’t tell E. L. James, but the woman in the BMW bought the entire “Fifty Shades” trilogy for the equivalent of $10.) Eagerly anticipated books like those in the “Harry Potter” series are often available the morning of their worldwide release. As a result, the books most readily found in Mumbai these days aren’t purchased in the city’s established bookstores but outside, where children peddle shrink-wrapped paperbacks. More:

Everybody’s friend by Raghu Karnad

Millions of Indian soldiers served the British during the second world war, yet their experience has been largely forgotten. Raghu Karnad‘s superb essay in FT:

Strange place to find family, a cemetery. Stranger yet in Imphal, a city where I’m in no position to find anything, least of all history of my own.

Imphal is not a place many Indians visit. I owe this meeting to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which maintains the cemetery, one of six in this remote part of India. Their London office informed me of its location, and I received the exact coordinates of row and number from the cemetery attendant, who was now jogging towards me across the humid lawn carrying a shoe-brush.

I crouched down to scrub grit from the plaque at the head of the grave. Brass letters rose to a shine against black iron:

Lieutenant Godrej

Khodadad Mugaseth

King George V’s Own Bengal

Sappers and Miners

Below that an epitaph:

He lived as he died, everybody’s friend.

May his beloved soul rest in peace

I’d never seen his real name in writing before. He was my grandmother’s brother, and among family he was spoken of as Bobby, though even that was rare. In fact, we’d almost forgotten that Bobby existed at all. Certainly none of us ever expected to stand at his grave.

Bobby grew up in Calicut on the Malabar Coast, part of its tiny community of Parsis, or Indian Zoroastrians. I knew that he had trained to be an engineer, and in 1942 had taken a commission in the British Indian Army. He had gone to war with the Bengal Sappers’ 2nd Field Company. Two years later, he had evidently run out of luck near Imphal. More:

We call this progress

Arundhati Roy in Guernica:

I don’t know how far back in history to begin, so I’ll lay the milestone down in the recent past. I’ll start in the early 1990s, not long after capitalism won its war against Soviet Communism in the bleak mountains of Afghanistan. The Indian government, which was for many years one of the leaders of the nonaligned movement, suddenly became a completely aligned country and began to call itself the natural ally of the U.S. and Israel. It opened up its protected markets to global capital. Most people have been speaking about environmental battles, but in the real world it’s quite hard to separate environmental battles from everything else: the war on terror, for example; the depleted uranium; the missiles; the fact that it was the military-industrial complex that actually pulled the U.S. out of the Great Depression, and since then the economies of places like America, many countries in Europe, and certainly Israel, have had stakes in the manufacture of weapons. What good are weapons if they aren’t going to be used in wars? Weapons are absolutely essential; it’s not just for oil or natural resources, but for the military-industrial complex itself to keep going that we need weapons.

Today, as we speak, the U.S., and perhaps China and India, are involved in a battle for control of the resources of Africa. Thousands of U.S. troops, as well as death squads, are being sent into Africa. The “Yes We Can” president has expanded the war from Afghanistan into Pakistan. There are drone attacks killing children on a regular basis there.

In the 1990s, when the markets of India opened, when all of the laws that protected labor were dismantled, when natural resources were privatized, when that whole process was set into motion, the Indian government opened two locks: one was the lock of the markets; the other was the lock of an old fourteenth-century mosque, which was a disputed site between Hindus and Muslims. The Hindus believed that it was the birthplace of Ram, and the Muslims, of course, use it as a mosque. By opening that lock, India set into motion a kind of conflict between the majority community and the minority community, a way of constantly dividing people. Finding ways to divide people is the main practice of anybody that is in power. More:

 

I love India, I don’t like Indians

Avirook Sen in The Express Tribune:

I love India. I hate many things about it. I cannot stand its poverty, illiteracy, corruption, and often, impotence. But I think what makes me bristle is its celebration of death, when cloaked in the gaberdine of retribution. Ajmal Kasab, a labourer from Faridkot, was hanged on the morning of November 21 and India celebrated.

He was ‘jhatka’ meat. ‘Operation X’ (the evocative codename for the macabre process of getting him to the gallows with the least fuss) was clean, efficient and secretive. There were no sly YouTube videos, even the prime minister didn’t know. The judicial proceedings — I read them with interest — were almost flawlessly fair. Then, it came down to the mercy of the highest authority in the land on such matters — the president. And the heavy, invisible will of that strange entity called “the people”.

I do not like “the people”. There are many of them. They rejoiced, gloated, when news of the hanging came in. I report on a murder trial in India on a regular basis — one that has the possibility of a similar result. On my way to court, I heard the radio — a jockey cracked a joke about the hanging; a young reporter with a mock under-teen delivery asked the hangman “how he felt”. Television took the story forward: why not use the “momentum” (!) to also hang Afzal Guru for the parliament attack case? More:

An authentic Hindu fascism

The Shiv Sena gave a voice to a Nazi impulse in Indian politics, writes Praveen Swami in The Hindu

“Fascism”, wrote the great Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci, in a treatise Balasaheb Keshav Thackeray likely never read but demonstrated a robust grasp of through his lifetime, “has presented itself as the anti-party; has opened its gates to all applicants; has with its promise of impunity enabled a formless multitude to cover over the savage outpourings of passions, hatreds and desires with a varnish of vague and nebulous political ideals. Fascism has thus become a question of social mores: it has become identified with the barbaric and anti-social psychology of certain strata of the Italian people which have not yet been modified by a new tradition, by education, by living together in a well-ordered and well-administered state”. more

Previously on AW: Ethnic Politics in Mumbai’s Melting Pot

The stories of our fathers

Aman Ali’s moving piece in New York Times

IN the heart of Berlin this summer I walked on stage at the Babylon Theater and began telling stories.

I was nervous. I’m a practicing Muslim, and I didn’t know how a German audience would react to an awkward, hairy brown kid.

I talked. I talked about my life, and how as a child I’d bring home a report card with a 95 percent on it, and my father would say, “Why isn’t this 100 percent? If you weren’t slacking off, you’d have 100 percent.”

An old story, perhaps, but one that gets laughs.

It still drives me nuts because he still does it. more

Premature celebration

T N Ninan in Business Standard:

Unmukt Chand captained the Indian Under-19 cricket team that last month won the World Cup for juniors. Since then, he has been feted endlessly — by his college (which is understandable), by the Delhi government, by the media. The rules have been set aside to allow him to write a university exam, reversing the rejection of his own appeals in the past; he has been given prize money that rivals that given to some Olympic athletes; and although he is yet to cement his place in even the Delhi Ranji team, he is already being compared to some of the current stars in the senior national team. Indeed, he will soon share the stage with Kapil Dev at a celebratory event! This over-the-top celebration of a young man who is barely old enough to vote and whose promise has a long way to go before it can be said to be fulfilled could be explained by several factors — round-the-clock television’s hunger for new personalities to replace jaded ones; the country’s relative scarcity of sporting heroes; and our politicians’ need to associate themselves with those who win laurels (recall how M S Gill as sports minister exploited a photo op with a wrestling champ by pushing aside his coach, whom the minister did not recognise?). There are other examples of celebration turning into embarrassment, like the viewers’ poll run by a TV channel ahead of Sania Mirza’s match against Maria Sharapova at the US Open in 2005 — 85 per cent said Sania would win. As it turned out, Ms Sharapova won with a no-contest score of 6-1, 6-2.

It is not just in sport that wish becomes father of fact; in other fields, too, we mistake promise for achievement, and are prone to premature celebration. Take the economy. The surge of rapid growth in 2003-08 was taken by far too many people as evidence that India had arrived for good on the world economic stage, though it continued to be listed by the World Bank as one of the worst places in which to do business, and though it featured poorly in competitiveness rankings. The achievements were real, of course, for India had become the second fastest growing economy; but the tasks that remained to be addressed were equally real. More:

The ghosts of Partition

Yaqoob Khan Banghash in The Tribune (Pakistan)

Every country’s Independence Day is a defining moment in its history. The events of the day are the culmination of years of struggle and the day hearkens to a new beginning. The same is true for Pakistan, except that we have yet to move on from our ‘1947’ moment. This is not because historians keep writing about it but that in our collective memory, we still have to reconcile with the events of 1947 and move forward. Let me highlight just a few aspects.

First, and here I am utilising the work of Professor Gurharpal Singh — of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London — is the legacy of violence. Since Pakistan was born in violence, violence has become intrinsic to the body politic of the country. Let us not forget that it was not the constitutional brilliance of Mohammad Ali Jinnah which finally convinced the Congress, especially Nehru and Patel, and Mountbatten to agree to a partition, but the deteriorating law and order situation in the Muslim majority provinces, which was directly related to the ‘Direct Action’, called by Jinnah in late 1946. Hence, Pakistan was literally fought for on the streets of Calcutta, Lahore, Rawalpindi, etc. This ‘violence’, which was largely planned, then became so integral to the imagination of the country that since then, both the state and the people have utilised it repeatedly. This is not to say that other countries are not born in violence and bloodshed; they are, but the degree to which this violence has seeped into the mindset of official and public in Pakistan, is destabilising. more

India and Pakistan: the great wall of silence

“India and Pakistan are divided by a great wall of silence, which liberals are anxious to breach, which ideologues are determined to strengthen, and which people are condemned to suffer,” writes M.J. Akbar in India Today

What is the difference between Indians and Pakistanis? The answer is uncomplicated: There is no difference. We are the same people, with similar personality strengths, and parallel collective weaknesses. Why then have the two nations moved along such dramatically different arcs in the six decades of their existence?

India and Pakistan are not separated by a mere boundary. They are defined by radically opposed ideas. India believes in a secular state where all faiths are equal; Pakistan in the notion that a state can be founded on the basis of religion.

The two-nation theory, which was the basis of Pakistan, did not separate all Muslims of the subcontinent from Hindus; nearly as many Muslims live in India at this moment, without any hindrance to the exercise of their faith, as live in Pakistan. Pakistan was created on an assumption, which had no basis in either the political or social history of Indian Muslims, that they could not live as equals in a united, Hindu majority India. It was a concept that flourished in the wasteland of an inferiority complex. more

Is it ever right to ban art?

India’s tendency for self-censorship is saddening, writes Jeet Thayil. But is any book (or opera) worth dying for? From The Guardian’s Comment is Free

Like everyone else, I’ve heard of the Christian right, though mostly in connection with the US. In India, Christians are painfully aware of their minority status and, as a result, they are low-key, if not subterranean, at least when compared to other religious groups. The idea of militant Christianity here is as odd as the idea of militant Buddhism, or militant Zoroastrianism, or militant Animism, though why this should be the case I have no idea. Historically, Christians and Buddhists have been as enamoured of bloodshed as anyone else.

I was reminded of all this in January, when a group calling itself the Catholic-Christian Secular Forum threatened to take to court the makers of the Hindi movie, Ekk Deewana Tha [working translation: There Was This Crazy Dude]. The group objected to a single word used in the movie: hosanna. According to the Forum’s general secretary, the use of the word had hurt the religious sentiments of Christians and Jews around the world. Never mind that it had occurred in a song that was a hit in India and nowhere else. Credited to the composer AR Rahman, it was part of a song and dance sequence that was innocuous and forgettable – but clearly romantic. That was enough for the Catholic-Christians. According to the Forum’s general secretary, if you would not use Islamic or Hindu prayer words in popular music, why use the word hosanna “in a carnal love song”? In other words, if the Muslims and Hindus will object to perceived offences against their religious sentiments, as they frequently do, why couldn’t the Christians? more

And now for the monsoons

Gautam Pemmaraju at 3quarksdaily:

Pied Cuckoo

The migratory Pied-Crested Cuckoo is believed by some to ride the seasonal winds of the South West Monsoon to arrive in the sub-continent in late May to early June. It makes the journey from sub-Saharan Africa, traversing the Arabian Peninsula, across the ocean, visiting the Seychelles and Lakshadweep, only to arrive in Kerala at first, as the overheated land solicitously lures the ardent monsoon winds in. They breed during the rainy season, and leave the subcontinent in September. Clamator Jacobinus, the Rain Bird, or the chatak of Indian antiquity, is believed to be the ‘harbinger of monsoons’, proclaiming, as ornithologist Hugh Whistler has said, the imminent rains “with its unmistakably loud metallic calls”. There are several who keep a keen eye out for its mantic presence, but its parasitic proclivities cause much distress to the resident avian populace. I am yet to read of any sightings, far less encounter one, and its typical song is not one of the several songbird tunes that I hear everyday. However, it is raining as I write. Although a steady drizzle now, it was far more animated early this Sunday morning. Lest I am fooled into thinking that the monsoon has arrived, the first “impressions of a chaotic sky”, the teasing, ‘towering cumulus clouds’, are merely bold heralders of the much anticipated annual visitation, at once cooling down the region and giving the city a thorough wash.

As Alexander Frater writes in Chasing The Monsoon, he too gets caught up in the collective febrile anxiety leading up to the first rain, and then:

At 1 p.m. the serious cloud build-up started … At 4.50, announced by deafening ground-level thunderclaps, the monsoon finally rode into Cochin. The cloud-base blew through the trees like smoke; rain foamed on the hotel’s harbourside lawn and produced a bank of hanging mist opaque as hill fog… At Fort Cochin they were ringing the bells in St Francis Church. In the dark harbour small boats ran for home. Waves bursting over the scalloped sea were suffused, curiously, with pink light. The jetty, set under a small wooden gazebo, vanished beneath heavy surf.

The monsoons, “a creature of grandeur and complexity that defies comparison with anything”, in the words of MS Rajagopalan of the Trivandrum Meteorological Department who Frater meets early on, are meant to officially arrive in Bombay on the 10th of June. More

Sorry, Kashmir is happy

Manu Joseph in Open

There was a moment when Prashant Bhushan was irreversibly diminished, and he became the Ringo Starr of Team Anna’s famous four. It happened in the middle of a television interview, when thugs broke into his chamber and beat him up for demanding a referendum in Kashmir to solve the dispute. At the time, a section of Kashmir’s intellectuals were still waiting to hear from Anna Hazare. They were naïve enough to believe everything that television anchors said and to invite him to take up the Valley’s cause with the evil Indian government. After all, Hazare had demanded a referendum for the anti-corruption bill. He was surely the referendum-type? But Hazare soon made his position clear. Even as Bhushan’s body was still aching, Hazare publicly condemned his stand on Kashmir. According to Hazare, and possibly some other former truck drivers of the Indian Army, Kashmir was not a disputed part of India. more

Another Friday walk

Gautam Pemmaraju in 3quarksdaily:

I know all of this on account of the fact that I live on an eponymously named street. It was in fact, precisely on Friday, December 14 2001, that I decided so find out who Tertullian was, after walking out the gate of the building where I stay, to set off, as I had several times before, on a lazy, meandering stroll around Bandra, a western coastal suburb of Bombay. I recall this quite well – it was just the previous day that the Indian parliament had been attacked by five armed gunmen. The television images of September 11 were still quite fresh and there was a sense that something was afoot, and the world had changed.

Setting off on desultory walks, particularly on Fridays, had become a sort of ritual; not one rigidly followed, but instead conducted on airy impulse. They help also to break the monotony of the regimented runs that have become a part of my daily routine in the last few years. Opening my gate precisely at 6PM, as always, I step out once again onto Tertullian Road. I can’t imagine there is any clear method to what and how one thinks on such walks; I’ve always thought the process to be imprecise, swaying and buckling at whim, setting adrift, only to eventually, run aground. Much like an asynchronous non-linear edit – apprehending a sight here, a form there, affixing these with a stray thought from the previous night, or from 30 years ago, to lead on to a cryptic composite.

Bungalow No 78, or ‘The Retreat’, stands on the corner of Rebello Road. Having passed by it for over 12 years now, I had become accustomed to the sight of the two elderly ladies who sat on the porch every afternoon. They are no longer to be seen. The bungalow was in the news recently. A real estate developer had some men of a private security firm beat up the lone guard and take possession of the structure, claiming that it had been sold to him. The plot is part of the St Sebastian Homes Cooperative Society, under a long lease to Edmund Joseph Vaz, and as per the society by-laws it cannot be sold to non-Catholics. Land grabbing by local thugs acting on the instructions of predatory builders/politicians, is a common occurrence here. The price of land, the potential development of plots into apartment complexes, is a murky and hugely profitable game. While most low-rise structures have capitulated, there are several others that remain standing. Of these, there are quite a few locked in dispute. The builder-politician nexus is perpetually on the lookout for easy prey, and senior citizens, many whose children live abroad, are precisely that. I have no count of the number of real estate related crimes in Bombay, but I’m certain it would be a significant, if not disturbing, one. More:

Swing away from sanity

In The Telegraph, Mukul Kesavan on what’s wrong with illiberal arguments

I knew about Imran Khan in a second-hand way well before I’d heard of Salman Rushdie. India didn’t play Pakistan at Test cricket till 1978, so Indian cricket fans didn’t know that much about Pakistani cricketers through the Seventies, but we knew about Imran, mainly because of a three Test series in Australia in 1976-77 where Imran’s bowling made sure that honours were even at the end of it. This was a real achievement, given that the Australians had wiped the West Indies out, 5-1 in a six Test rubber not long before. Then Bishen Singh Bedi’s team toured Pakistan in 1978 and Indians got to see Imran in awesome action, in live, black-and-white telecasts. We lost 2-0 and Imran’s fast in-swingers had a great deal to do with that defeat. I remember thinking at the time that it was the first time I had seen a genuinely quick south Asian bowler in action.

Salman Rushdie became part of the collective consciousness of anglophone Indians in early 1981 when his second novel, Midnight’s Children, was published. For many desireaders of my generation, Midnight’s Children was proof that it was possible for a post-colonial Indian writer to write ambitious fiction in English. There had been many worthwhile novels written in English by Indians after 1947 but none that had used the language in this unafraid, proprietorial way. I was a graduate student in Cambridge at the time the book was published and I watched Rushdie collect the Booker Prize on television (it was the first year that the BBC did a live telecast of the event). There were similarities with my first sighting of Imran: I watched the telecast in black-and-white because a black-and-white TV set was all my friends could afford; also, it felt like a sporting contest. According to the bookies, the two main contenders for the prize were Rushdie and D.M. Thomas (for The White Hotel). Everyone in that room was a desirooting for Rushdie; our team won. more

Capitalism: A ghost story — by Arundhati Roy

Rockefeller to Mandela, Vedanta to Anna Hazare…. How long can the cardinals of corporate gospel buy up our protests? Arundhati Roy in Outlook:

Is it a house or a home? A temple to the new India, or a warehouse for its ghosts? Ever since Antilla arrived on Altamont Road in Mumbai, exuding mystery and quiet menace, things have not been the same. “Here we are,” the friend who took me there said, “Pay your respects to our new Ruler.”

Antilla belongs to India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani. I had read about this most expensive dwelling ever built, the twenty-seven floors, three helipads, nine lifts, hanging gardens, ballrooms, weather rooms, gymnasiums, six floors of parking, and the six hundred servants. Nothing had prepared me for the vertical lawn—a soaring, 27-storey-high wall of grass attached to a vast metal grid. The grass was dry in patches; bits had fallen off in neat rectangles. Clearly, Trickledown hadn’t worked.

But Gush-Up certainly has. That’s why in a nation of 1.2 billion, India’s 100 richest people own assets equivalent to one-fourth of the GDP.

The word on the street (and in the New York Times) is, or at least was, that after all that effort and gardening, the Ambanis don’t live in Antilla. No one knows for sure. People still whisper about ghosts and bad luck, Vaastu and Feng Shui. Maybe it’s all Karl Marx’s fault. (All that cussing.) Capitalism, he said, “has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, that it is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells”.

In India, the 300 million of us who belong to the new, post-IMF “reforms” middle class—the market—live side by side with spirits of the nether world, the poltergeists of dead rivers, dry wells, bald mountains and denuded forests; the ghosts of 2,50,000 debt-ridden farmers who have killed themselves, and of the 800 million who have been impoverished and dispossessed to make way for us. And who survive on less than twenty rupees a day. More:

The idea of happiness

Sociologist Ashis Nandy in EPW:

In 2007, one of Britain’s leading schools, Wellington College at Crowthorne, announced that it would offer classes on happiness to combat materialism and celebrity obsession.1 The following year, New Scientist summarised the results of a 65-country survey to show that the highest proportion of happy persons lived in, of all places, Nigeria, followed by Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador and Puerto Rico. It is true that happiness surveys differ in their findings. According to some, happiness has much to do with prosperity, levels of development and healthcare; according to others, these things do not matter. It is the second set that has produced countries like Vanuatu, a former happiest country in the world that most have not heard of, and last year’s world champion in happiness, Bangladesh, which many believe could well qualify as one of the world’s unhappiest countries.2 In comparison, some of the richest nations languish near the bottom of the list.

However, I am not concerned here with comparative happiness or the methodology of studying happiness. I am concerned with the emergence of happiness as a measur­able, autonomous, manageable, psychological variable in the global middle-class culture. And the two events can be read as parts of the same story. If the first factoid – discovery of happiness as a teachable discipline – suggests that in some parts of the world happiness is becoming a realm of training, guidance and expertise, the second reaffirms the ancient “self-consoling” “naïve” belief that you cannot always be happy just by virtue of being wealthy, secure or occupied. You have to learn to be happy.

Together they partly explain why clenched-teeth pursuit of happiness has become a major feature and a discovery of our times. More:

The joy of quiet

Pico Iyer in NYT:

Last year, I flew to Singapore to join the writer Malcolm Gladwell, the fashion designer Marc Ecko and the graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister in addressing a group of advertising people on “Marketing to the Child of Tomorrow.” Soon after I arrived, the chief executive of the agency that had invited us took me aside. What he was most interested in, he began — I braced myself for mention of some next-generation stealth campaign — was stillness.

A few months later, I read an interview with the perennially cutting-edge designer Philippe Starck. What allowed him to remain so consistently ahead of the curve? “I never read any magazines or watch TV,” he said, perhaps a little hyperbolically. “Nor do I go to cocktail parties, dinners or anything like that.” He lived outside conventional ideas, he implied, because “I live alone mostly, in the middle of nowhere.”

Around the same time, I noticed that those who part with $2,285 a night to stay in a cliff-top room at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur pay partly for the privilege of not having a TV in their rooms; the future of travel, I’m reliably told, lies in “black-hole resorts,” which charge high prices precisely because you can’t get online in their rooms.

Has it really come to this? More:

If the price is right

Ashok Mitra in The Telegraph:

Gentlemen do not engage in public brawl; if they have a grievance to air, they write to the London Times. That was the British code. In a quintessential bourgeoisie society, it did, in fact, work. A letter in the Times would make a minister sit up, there would perhaps be a question or two in Parliament, things would move fast, the matter raised in the letter, despite sometimes bordering on the frivolous, would be attended to.

The Indian gentry, as could only be expected, inherited the code of the ruling nation. It is more than 60 years since the British left; the colonial hangover nonetheless refuses to disappear. In the decades immediately following Independence, the comfortably placed upper and middle classes, which included the self-styled intellectual set, assumed they were in charge of the polity. Some of them entered the civil services or the defence forces or belonged to the boxwallah tribe. A few turned to active politics and were either with the ruling party or with this or that opposition group. A considerable segment however remained outside these orbits. But they hated the idea of being left out of the processes of nation-building that were on in that phase. They loved to think big and small and often imagined to have the right solution to the grave issues facing the country. There were yet others with diverse social interests or of ideological persuasions nurturing an intense desire to express themselves in the public domain. For all of them, the British convention of unburdening one’s point of view in letters to newspaper editors became the accepted mode. A geographical distribution of the load of the letters that got written took place almost in the natural course. Gentlemen in the south — and occasionally ladies — would write to the stodgy Hindu owned by the Kasturi family. Those in the west wrote to The Times of India, managed by the Bennett Coleman group, which had already passed on to Indian hands. Letters from the northern region would crowd into the office of the Hindustan Times, owned by the Birlas and edited by the Mahatma’s son, Devdas Gandhi. For the East, the preferred destination was the Chowringhee Square address in Calcutta of the still-British-owned Statesman, slightly hoity-toity, but at least continuing to be jealous of the elegance of its language and grammar. More:

The industrious god

Gautam Pemmaraju at 3quarksdaily:

The beleaguered liquor baron/industrialist/MP Vijay Mallya, considered to be the ‘Richard Branson of India’ by many, is currently seeking ways to rescue his debt-ridden airline. Having drastically cancelled flights over the last few weeks, the colourful airline promoter, who also has an Indian Premier League cricket team, an F1 racing car, one of the biggest private yacht’s in the world, a slew of vintage cars, amongst other baubles, has been defending himself against widespread criticism. Speculations of a possible government bailout have angered many around the country.

He is also a patron of the historic temple in the hills of Tirupati, in southern Andhra Pradesh, bordering Tamil Nadu. With a prominent guesthouse there, he is known to be an avid devotee of the resident god Venkateshwara (also Balaji, Srinivasa), and has never been shy with either devotion or largesse. Newspaper reports abound that every new aircraft of his first takes a flight of obeisance around the Tirumala hills where the temple is located, before ferrying passengers.

A former BJP minister of Karnataka and mining baron, G Janardhan Reddy, who is now in jail on charges of illegal mining, had donated to the temple a ‘2.5 foot long, 30 kg’ diamond encrusted gold crown worth over $10 million then in 2009. Recently the temple administration (the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanam trust or TTD) stated officially that there was no question of returning the gift in response to demands calling for its return. Political parties and other groups led protests against the ‘tainted’ offering, claiming that it “polluted the sacred ambience of the sanctum sanctorum”. Earlier this year, the now incarcerated politician and his brother (known as the Reddy brothers – partners in the controversial Obulapuram Mining Company) donated yet another diamond studded crown, gold laden garments and other ornaments worth around $3.5 million, to the deity at Srikalahasti temple, which is at the foothills of the main temple. More:

Has India’s growth and development been an “unprecedented success or extraordinary failure”?

Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen in Outlook:

Is India doing marvellously well, or is it failing terribly? Depending on whom you speak to, you could pick up either of those answers with some frequency. One story, very popular among a minority but a large enough group—of Indians who are doing very well (and among the media that cater largely to them)—runs something like this. “After decades of mediocrity and stagnation under ‘Nehruvian socialism’, the Indian economy achieved a spectacular take-off during the last two decades. This take-off, which led to unprecedented improvements in income per head, was driven largely by market initiatives. It involves a significant increase in inequality, but this is a common phenomenon in periods of rapid growth. With enough time, the benefits of fast economic growth will surely reach even the poorest people, and we are firmly on the way to that.” Despite the conceptual confusion involved in bestowing the term ‘socialism’ to a collectivity of grossly statist policies of ‘Licence raj’ and neglect of the state’s responsibilities for school education and healthcare, the story just told has much plausibility, within its confined domain.

But looking at contemporary India from another angle, one could equally tell the following—more critical and more censorious—story: “The progress of living standards for common people, as opposed to a favoured minority, has been dreadfully slow—so slow that India’s social indicators are still abysmal.” For instance, according to World Bank data, only five countries outside Africa (Afghanistan, Bhutan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and Yemen) have a lower “youth female literacy rate” than India (World Development Indicators 2011, online). To take some other examples, only four countries (Afghanistan, Cambodia, Haiti, Myanmar and Pakistan) do worse than India in child mortality rate; only three have lower levels of “access to improved sanitation” (Bolivia, Cambodia and Haiti); and none (anywhere—not even in Africa) have a higher proportion of underweight children. Almost any composite index of these and related indicators of health, education and nutrition would place India very close to the bottom in a ranking of all countries outside Africa. More:

Three hundred Ramayanas – Delhi University and the purging of Ramanujan

Mukul Kesavan in The Telegraph:

When I studied history as an undergraduate in Delhi University in the mid-1970s, A.K. Ramanujan’s essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas”, hadn’t been written and therefore couldn’t be read. The current vice-chancellor of Delhi University, on whose watch this essay has been purged from the university’s syllabus, was a student of mathematics in the same college at the time, a contemporary of men like the writer and member of parliament, Shashi Tharoor, the writer and publisher, Rukun Advani, and the broadcaster and civil servant, Ramu Damodaran.

I mention these seemingly irrelevant details because I’ve been trying to work out why the vice-chancellor and the academic council of Delhi University chose to delete Ramanujan’s essay from the BA history course. The essay is a marvellous account of the hundreds of ways in which the Ramayana has been told, complete with examples of this narrative diversity. I can’t imagine that the vice-chancellor, a member of that urbane cohort, the Class of ’75, wanted the essay removed because he agreed with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad goons who first agitated on the issue three years ago. They did this by trashing the department of history and physically assaulting the head of the department. This happened during the tenure of the previous vice-chancellor, but no holder of this office could possibly wish to further the work of thugs who seek to violently limit the intellectual freedom of a university. So that couldn’t be the reason. More:

In The Hindu, historian Romila Thapar asks: ‘Will they bash up universities in Jakarta and other places for teaching different versions of the Ramayana?’

The shape of intolerance: AK Ramanujan’s essay must be read, not argued over, says Hartosh Singh Bal in Open.

Also in Open: Three Hundred Ramayanas

Anna Hazare is the icon of banal Hindutva

Jyotirmaya Sharma in India Today:

Does Anna Hazare have an ideology? Despite the surfeit of emotion that Hazare generates, this is a legitimate question that ought to be asked, understood and answered. That he is no democrat in the sense the word ‘democracy’is normally understood is a foregone conclusion, something that even his most vocal admirers would admit. He brings to debate and discussion the rigour and predictability of a military drill. His model of rule, governance and statecraft is that of undiluted paternalism, something even his secret admirers would admit.

That he is medieval in his outlook, one who would like people who he doesn’t like to be flogged in public, hanged in public and humiliated in public, is no great secret waiting to reveal itself. His world is a simple world that divides people into friends and foes and proceeds to pass moral strictures against his foes.

Neither is he too bright: calling actions evil can be polarising, but he calls people evil which is polemical and arrogant. He does not have the mental facility to focus on actions rather than the agents of such action. He feels he has neither the capacity for error nor the capacity for self-deception. For him, rhetoric is a substitute for explanation and not a demand for explanation. More:

Romancing the revolution

Hartosh Singh Bal at 3quarksdaily:

Sixty-five years or so after India’s independence, conflicts that question the idea of a constitutional republic do not show any signs of dying down. A few deservedly get some attention, such as the one in Kashmir. The others, for instance the events in the northeast, hardly get noticed in the rest of India, leave alone the rest of the world. What is common to most of these conflicts is that they are localized along India’s borders where ideas of ethnicity, religion and belonging are contested. There is, however, one such conflict that escapes these categories – the armed struggle against the Indian state by Left-wing guerillas interchangeably termed Maoists or Naxalites.

Till recently the outside world had paid little attention to this conflict which stretches through a large part of the forested belt of central India, a belt also occupied by forest-dwelling tribes subsumed under the label `tribals’. As narratives of an emerging, liberalizing India have lost their novelty, correspondents both foreign and Indian have suddenly discovered a counter-narrative in the Maoists. Unfortunately though, the tribals already badly done in by the Indian state and the Maoists are being used again, as props in stories that show them as noble savages rescued from exploitation by gun-wielding Marxists. More:

Where is India’s Steve Jobs?

Samanmth Subramanian at India Ink/NYT:

Perhaps this is a hollow, even narcissistic, question. Brazil hasn’t produced a Steve Jobs; neither has China, the Philippines, Zambia, Australia or any one of dozens of countries around the world. We cannot even be certain that America “produced” Jobs, in the sense that a factory produces an automobile, by processing a load of raw material into a finished specimen; Jobs may have been entirely sui generis and only coincidentally American. But I put the question anyway to Aditya Dev Sood, the founder and chief executive of the Center for Knowledge Societies, a consulting firm that works in what may be considered Jobs’ pet areas: user experience design and innovation management.

The question of innovation has been weighing particularly heavily on Mr. Sood’s mind because, later this week in Bangalore, his firm will host Design Public, a conference on innovation and the public interest. Mr. Sood’s first thought, unsurprisingly, concerned the Indian education system, “which prepares us for society by a series of instrumental grading mechanisms that treat us like chickens in a hatchery.” This is, he contended, a legacy of colonization, and although Thomas Babington Macaulay’s infamous Minute of 1835 is now deep in India’s past, it still lays out colonial sentiments on education vividly. More:

The age factor

The appointment of three new judges to the Indian Supreme Court opens the debate: do we need to appoint younger judges? Abhinav Chandrachud in Frontline. 

A FEW weeks ago, the Supreme Court of India’s collegium, consisting of the Chief Justice and four most senior judges, cleared the names of three High Court judges for appointment to the Supreme Court. Once the collegium’s binding recommendation was accepted by the President, the new judges, Justices S.J. Mukhopadhaya, Ranjana Desai and J.S. Khehar, were sworn in to the court on September 13. This new slate of appointments will be worth noting for several reasons. Not insignificantly, this is the first set of Supreme Court appointments made by the present Chief Justice of India, Justice S.H. Kapadia, since he took over the office from Justice K.G. Balakrishnan in May 2010. One of the new judges is a woman – only the fifth woman among 196 judges appointed to the Supreme Court in its history spanning over six decades, and this is the first time two women judges will serve on the Supreme Court at the same time. The new appointments offer a telling glimpse into the trend of Supreme Court appointments during the last decade. more

My cup runneth over

In Open, Arpita Das on the pleasures of being well endowed:

At 11, I got breasts. I remember it as something that happened overnight—one day, I was a flat-chested innocent running about topless after my brother in the front garden, and the next, a jittery-juddery girl with breasts, looking over her shoulder to catch anyone eyeing her frontage. It probably did not happen that way, but I suppose that is how you remember cataclysmic events in your childhood.

So anyhow, at 11 I got breasts, and a lifetime of negotiating with the power they wield began. At the time, I was part of a gang in school, with four overly short boys and four unduly flat girls. Much before they became sites of veneration, my fledgling boobs, therefore, turned into objects of adolescent ridicule. “Arpita can’t run fast enough because she has to carry her tits,” they yelled after me. The boys joined in the name-calling in the girls’ presence, but on the PE field, or while playing dark room on birthday parties, they brushed past me hoping for a feel-up.

Soon Marks & Spencer bras became part of the shopping list I handed to my father, much to his chagrin, every time he travelled to the UK. I can picture him now, looking furtively through the lingerie selection, not daring to ask for help from the pert salesgirls standing by, as he selected functional, non-frilly bras for his 13-year-old daughter. Back home, much before I received a postcard from a boyfriend showing Picasso’s famous painting of Paloma running with her breasts hanging out of her dress, I started strutting my stuff in Delhi’s conservative Bengali locality Chittaranjan Park, often going for walks in the evening in a tight T-shirt with no bra. Yup, by 13 I had discovered the power of having a distinctive pair of breasts. More:

The dead begin to speak up in India

Kashmir is one of two ‘war zones’ in India from which no news must come. But those in unmarked graves will not be silenced, writes Arundhati Roy in The Guardian

At about 3am, on 23 September, within hours of his arrival at the Delhi airport, the US radio-journalist David Barsamian was deported. This dangerous man, who produces independent, free-to-air programmes for public radio, has been visiting India for 40 years, doing such dangerous things as learning Urdu and playing the sitar.

Barsamian has published book-length interviews with public intellectuals such as Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Ejaz Ahmed and Tariq Ali (he even makes an appearance as a young, bell-bottom-wearing interviewer in Peter Wintonick’s documentary film on Chomsky and Edward Herman’s book Manufacturing Consent).

On his more recent trips to India he has done a series of radio interviews with activists, academics, film-makers, journalists and writers (including me). Barsamian’s work has taken him to Turkey, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Pakistan. He has never been deported from any of these countries. So why does the world’s largest democracy feel so threatened by this lone, sitar-playing, Urdu-speaking, left-leaning, radio producer? Here is how Barsamian himself explains it: more