Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
India's security apparatus continues to work at cross purposes. Kolkata police not only mistakenly arrested an undercover operative of the Jammu and Kashmir police, who provided SIM cards to terrorists so that their phone calls could be tapped, but also promptly announced it to all who cared to know. Now the undercover operative's cover is blown, his family is in danger, and the J&K police are hopping mad. Great. Just great.
Meanwhile, interrogators of our lone captive terrorist from the Mumbai attacks apparently revealed to the press where the guy was being held (information was not published), complete with description of how he'd have to go past a long corridor full of cops in order to escape. I can just imagine someone in Muridke saying, "Thanks for the dope, chumps!"
On a more trivial note, it seems our terrorist craves Bachchan movies and a carnivorous diet (but has to make do with saatvik meals six days a week, and no movies). The poor dear.
The press also reports that this adult male citizen (Zardari's "stateless actors" claims notwithstanding, the guy is indeed Pakistani) and human butcher misses his mommy and daddy and wants to tell them he got misled into all this AK-57 stuff. "Misled" into AK-57s?? Maybe Sanjay Dutt can tell us how that happens.
And below, Jon Stewart's interview with an American interrogator who believes rapport and respect, not torture and insult, is a more efficient way to get information out of a terrorist.
By the way, today is international Human Rights Day.
Friday, December 5, 2008
At the best of times, I hate forwarded email by supposedly "concerned" people who have often not even Googled whatever the fuck they're forwarding. Nor do they particularly care about whether it has an effect, or what kind of effect it has. Nor will they follow up -- it's a one-off, directionless, trajectory-less endorsement of some fleeting sentiment. Such mouse-clicking "slacktivism" (isn't that an absolutely delightful epithet for when the vision-less, feckless Indian middle class believes it's "doing" something!) does serious harm when it peddles notions of revenge and hate. Here's a response to an uncle of mine, long-time Mumbai resident who now divides his year between Oceania and North America:
I can understand that people's feelings run strong at a time like this. I know what it feels like to be so frightened and helpless, because I was in the middle of it all. I was at work in ____, across from CST station and behind Cama Hospital, and between the BMC (where the attackers lobbed a grenade) and the lane next to Anjuman-e-Islam school (which they took to escape to Metro). We saw the attacks with our own eyes, outside our office windows. The terrorists fired at our building... and tried to enter it (as our security camera footage shows). And I was more fortunate than ____ [my cousin], who couldn't leave the Oberoi for two days.
Even so, I oppose the sentiments in some of the photos you forwarded. I don't think anything good is achieved by using vulgar language (the obscene pun on the Kerala CM's name), spontaneous calls for revenge (grabbing AK-47s, attacking Pakistan), and using womanhood as an insult (giving someone bangles??? I believe a woman is a human being, not an insult to masculinity).
I am also skeptical of "reform movements" that are spawned overnight with poorly thought out vision, and that may vanish within a week. In fact, people who have made solid difference in making politicians more accountable started doing so long before a terrorist attack, and they did it at the risk of their lives, too (Satyendra Dubey is no more). The true leaders and nationalists who deserve our attention are people like Aruna Roy, Sandeep Pandey and Arvind Kejriwal, and those who support them. Why not give their organizations a donation, if you feel strongly about reforming India?
With all due respect, I request that you kindly not forward me such photos or messages. I hope you will understand.
Below are some of the pix attached to my uncle's email, sent from Oceania. As of now, the URL www.reformindiamovement.org is parked with GoDaddy and contains only random links like all parked domains.
carefully orchestrated visit took foreign and local journalists around the beautifully equipped school and hospital. The school follows the national curriculum, the headteacher, Rashid Mehnaz, said, taking pupils from around the country. The poor were given financial help, with richer pupils paying fees. Mehnaz condemned violence, saying suicide attacks were "absolutely wrong - it is forbidden in Islam".
A press conference and sumptuous lunch was laid on for journalists. However, the madrasa, mosque, and other facilities remained out of bounds, and once the official tour was over the media were no longer welcome. Although the group had said anyone was welcome to look around the site at any time, the Guardian's attempt to take up this offer after the tour was met with a heavy-handed response: burly young men arrived on motorcycles and circled, demanding that we leave...
...Certainly there were plain-clothed officials present, who said they were members of "special branch" - often a euphemism for the Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency. They wanted to provide an armed escort back to Lahore, but why intelligence agents were there - and why an escort might be necessary - was unclear. Muridke is not in a dangerous part of Pakistan, and the offer was declined.
It has long been said that the ISI has secretly backed Lashkar-e-Taiba, though the agency always rejects the accusation.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Sunday, November 30, 2008
I took the above photo in Mumbai about 5:30 pm on Wednesday, November 26, 2008 -- about four hours before the terrorist attacks began. They are Mahatma Gandhi's words, in his own writing. The quote above bears a Dandi dateline, and says, "I want world sympathy in this battle of Right against Might." The quote below says, "Be truthful, gentle and fearless." Gandhi and his followers walked maybe 145 miles from Sabarmati Ashram, near Ahmedabad, to Dandi, near Surat, to "illegally" make salt as an act of non-violent civil disobedience.
I took the picture for my blog, but never imagined it would be prefacing this:
At about 10:25 pm, when I was at work in my fourth-floor office right across from CST station, we heard commotion in the street below -- explosions and gunfire. From our windows, we heard screams and saw dozens of people running along the kerb and in the suburban platform # 1 (where my train pulls in from Bandra/Andheri every day). One man was running on Platform 1 while carrying another over his shoulders. This may or may not be the same guy. The gunmen were on the foot bridge at the north end of the station that I take every day to cross D. N. Road. After maybe 40 minutes, the attacks ceased.
By this time we knew, of course, that there had been blasts or firing in Colaba, near the Leopold Cafe and the Taj. No one was sure what was going on, though. I went downstairs to check if our security would let in colleagues who were stranded in Colaba, but they chose to go home to the suburbs. I was really really scared for their safety, because there was no telling at 11:30 pm how many terrorists there were, and where they may attack next. As it turned out, my colleagues made the right decision, under the circumstances.
I myself, along with 80-100 others, was stuck in my workplace until daybreak. All night long we watched the horrendous news unfold on TV, but at least we were safe and had food, water, bathrooms, and access to news. Others were not so lucky.
At 5 am, we trooped downstairs to take the early trains home. Some of our company drivers had left in fear, but a few cars and drivers were still there, so I got a ride home. Was home by 6 a.m.
The next day, I heard that the terrorists had tried to enter our building on Wednesday night. It figures -- the railway bridge leads from the platform almost to our side entrance. Our security cameras recorded footage of a man with a gun pointing straight ahead, walking towards the camera/entrance. The sharpest weapon our mostly unarmed security guards have is alertness -- they saw the terrorists approaching the building and immediately closed both entrances.Their quick thinking surely saved our lives -- the terrorists then headed for the Cama and Albless Hospital. Otherwise, I'm afraid we'd have been "hostages". After all, our building is the ideal terrorist target: a historic landmark in a busy part of town, near four major bus stops, CST station, the city administration headquarters, major markets. As far as I'm aware, my company has received at least two threats since May 2008. On Wednesday night, instead of us, the patients at Cama Hospital became targets.
It's all a matter of fate, who remained alive and who didn't.
Now, as we emerge from the shock, there's a sick churning feeling in the pit of my stomach at all the opportunistic politicking and the future of South Asia. Who could have imagined Gandhi's words would ring so loud 78 years later, in so different a context! I want world sympathy in this battle of Right against Might.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Manu Chao is one of my favorite musicians -- he has that rare combination of playfulness and sympathy, and even his profoundly sad songs make me want to celebrate and dance. I don't see how it's possible to more effectively encapsulate human experience in a four-minute song. The song below is on the soundtrack of Princesas, a film I've yet to see. I couldn't find a translation, but "Me llaman calle" translates, I think, to "They call me The Street". Princesas is about prostitutes. Enjoy!
Monday, November 24, 2008
Think Tina's SNL sketch was funny? That's how comedians make politicians look ridiculous, by taking their words out of context, or distorting them, right? Not always. This video shows some of what an astonishing number of Americans actually voted for. Imagine what could have been, and give thanks that it isn't. Happy Thanksgiving!
Saturday, September 6, 2008
On Tuesday, He Who Must Not Be Named — Mitt Romney mentioned him just once, Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin not at all — gave a video address to the Republican National Convention. John McCain, promised President Bush, would stand up to the “angry left.” That’s no doubt true. But don’t be fooled either by Mr. McCain’s long-ago reputation as a maverick or by Ms. Palin’s appealing persona: the Republican Party, now more than ever, is firmly in the hands of the angry right, which has always been much bigger, much more influential and much angrier than its counterpart on the other side.
What’s the source of all that anger?
Some of it, of course, is driven by cultural and religious conflict: fundamentalist Christians are sincerely dismayed by Roe v. Wade and evolution in the curriculum. What struck me as I watched the convention speeches, however, is how much of the anger on the right is based not on the claim that Democrats have done bad things, but on the perception — generally based on no evidence whatsoever — that Democrats look down their noses at regular people.
Thus Mr. Giuliani asserted that Wasilla, Alaska, isn’t “flashy enough” for Mr. Obama, who never said any such thing. And Ms. Palin asserted that Democrats “look down” on small-town mayors — again, without any evidence.What the G.O.P. is selling, in other words, is the pure politics of resentment...
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
A friend brought me this cheese from Calcutta (Kolkata) recently. My friend said it had orginally been made by priests (presumably Catholic), while another story of indeterminate source has it that was named for the Portuguese corruption of "bandar" (Arabic for port) and made by local cooks under Portuguese supervision. At any rate, today bandel is available at two shops in New Market.
An FAO webpage on traditional milk products in developing countries describes bandel as an "indigenous unripened, salted soft variety of cheese made in perforated pots. It is similar to surti paneer but made from cow's milk."
The little rounds are about 2" or 5 centimeters across, and maybe half as thick. The way to eat this cheese is to immerse it in water overnight. By morning it is distinctly softer. I pared off the rind with a knife (a butter knife is enough), and found the texture to be surprisingly spongy, like a good paneer but a bit more crumbly. The smell, however, is not like paneer! It's distinctly smoky and porky, both before and after soaking.
And you know how some things surprise you by turning out to taste quite different from how they smell? Well, bandel won't surprise you at all -- it tastes smoky and porky. I didn't like it, actually, although I like pork, and I like many kinds of cheese. This one was too strong for my liking, at least by itself.
I don't know yet whether it's supposed to be eaten in a particular way, how it might melt/cook, etc. It would probably work well crumbled into a salad, with some mild sort of greens and simple dressing. I think I could acquire the taste for bandel.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
I think Pakistan's Qaumi Tarana -- national anthem -- is beautiful, both the melody and words. Eschewing YouTube videos with military images, I have picked out three versions that I liked. I wish Pakistan's democracy every strength, great success, peace, and prosperity.
A kid showing off his shiny Ibanez.
A tribute by a cooking website, featuring Junoon's version of the anthem. The images are explained on YouTube.
And here you can listen to the words while reading the English translation. Unfortunately the type isn't very clear, and the sound starts a couple of seconds into the video, but it's simple and nice. The transliterated Urdu words are below, if you want to sing along :)
Paak sar zamin shaad baad
Kishwar-e-haseen shaad baad
Tu nishaane azme-aalishaan
Markaz e yaqin shaad baad
Paak sarzamin ka nizaam
Quwat e akhuwat e awaam
Qaum, mulk, sultanat
Paainda taabinda baad
Shaad baad manzal e muraad
Parcham e sitaara o hilaal
Rahbar e taraqqi o kamaal
Tarjumaan e maazi shaan e haal
Saayyai Khudaae zul jalaal
Monday, August 4, 2008
It's because it often seems they regard the maintenance of law and order as someone else's job. Moreover, they are so petulant and rude that they can't even seem to respect themselves. With cops like these, the citizens have a standing invitation to take the law into their own hands. Most of us don't do so, because we haven't descended into anarchy yet, but it looks like the cops are ensuring we get there.
According to the law, I can call the police emergency number (100) and complain anonymously about the illegal use of loudspeakers (illegal before 6:30 am, and illegal at any time in primarily residential areas; religious use is not exempted). They have to dispatch a police van and confiscate the offending equipment. Here's my conversation with Constable Jadhav a few minutes ago (Monday, August 4, 2008, at 4:16 am):
Me: I'm calling from _____, and would like to complain about the illegal use of loudspeakers at 5 am.
Constable (I don't know if it was Jadhav): Is the noise on right now?
Me: No, but it will be at 5 am. It's on every morning --
Constable: Then call at 5, when the noise is on.
Me: But it doesn't go on for long, so by the time you send the van --
Constable: I'm hanging up
Me: No, wait --
4:17 am - I call 100 again.
Me: I'm calling from _____. Please hear me through. The last time whoever answered didn't let me finish. That's not right.
Constable Jadhav: Yes?
Me: The loudspeakers start at 5 am. Please send a van.
Jadhav: Call when the noise starts.
Me: No, please understand, the noise doesn't last more than a couple of minutes.
Jadhav: This is an emergency number.
Me: I know, but it's your job to take complaints, and send a van for loudspeakers.
Jadhav: Did I say I refuse to take a complaint?
Me: No, you didn't say so, but your behavior is that of refusal.
Jadhav: Call when the noise starts, and we'll send a van.
Me: I take it you're not new to Mumbai --
Jadhav: No. Maybe you're new to Mumbai.
Me: Let me finish my sentence. If you're not new to Mumbai, you are aware that an azaan lasts a couple of minutes.
Me: So if I call you when the azaan starts, and you send a van, it's going to waste their time, because the noise will end by the time the van gets there, and they're not going to be able to do a thing.
Jadhav: The van takes only five minutes to get there.
Me: But the azaan is less than five minutes.
Jadhav: This is an emergency number. At 5 am, we will call you.
Me: Why should the police call me at 5 am? I want to sleep.
Jadhav: Because the noise is disturbing you.
Me: Yes, but my plan is to be asleep at 5, not to be kept awake by loudspeakers or cops. Besides, it's not a matter of noise troubling me, it's a matter of violation of the law. You are a police constable, so you presumably know the law.
Jadhav: You call us when the noise starts. You feel they will start at 5 --
Me: No, I don't feel anything, I know it for certain. They start every morning at this time. I don't think you're taking your job seriously. What's your name?
Me: Full name?
Jadhav: We only give out surnames.
Me: OK, then. I work for [name of media organization]. I'm going to complain about you to the ACP [Assistant Commissioner of Police].
Jadhav: You do that.
At 4:58, the first loudspeaker starts off. I call 100 again at 5:01. Get through, long pause (no constable announcing himself), disconnected.
I try again at 5:02. Same thing -- connect, silence, disconnect. Lines are not terribly busy in the morning, and this is, as Constable Jadhav reminded me, an emergency number, so there's no reason for disconnection. I'm starting to think Jadhav is exercising his discretion with the help of Caller ID.
Still at 5:02, I dial 100 yet again. I connect, and silence.
Me: I'm calling from _____, and the loudspeaker is on. Please send a police van.
Me: [specify location]
Me: Whom am I speaking to?
Well, what can you say of a police force that is too busy to enforce the law because it's too busy persecuting young couples at the seashore? Words fail me.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Here are the timings for the mosque loudspeakers within earshot of my bedroom.
4:40 - 5:30 am
4 - 4:10 pm
5:15 - 5:30 pm
7:15 - 7:30 pm
8:40 - 9:10 pm
There are at least four loudspeakers, but I can never count exactly because it's hard to separate individual voices in the cacophony. They all go off at slightly different times, and presumably each one calls azaan five times a day. Which means I am called to prayer around 20 times a day.
It's against the law to use loudspeakers outdoors in residential areas at any time, and in any area at all between 10:30 pm and 6:30 am. Religious use is not exempt from this law, except by specific court order, which is only possible for a limited number of days each year.
There are cases of mosques in Oxford (England), Brooklyn (New York), and elsewhere being restricted from at least the pre-dawn azaan, if not more. One might argue that those are non-Muslim countries with assimilationist expectations of immigrants. But even Muslims in Islamic countries understand the need to curb noise pollution. Here's what an Indonesian blogger says about mosque loudspeakers -- she and most of the commenters agree that they are a nuisance, and that there's nothing Islamic about them. Here's a report of 150 people being arrested for abuse of mosque loudspeakers, in Pakistan.
I hope God, Allah, or whoever is up there, listening to the azaans in Mumbai, is increasingly pissed off and throws a bolt of lightning at every single loudspeaker in Mumbai, because the police sure as hell aren't doing a damn thing about it.
A call to prayer may be necessary for Muslims, but not all of us are interested. Besides, a loudspeaker is quite a different thing from a call to prayer. No scripture could possibly say that electronic amplification is necessary. If you're going to have technological innovations, then why not SMS azaans? Or Islamic alarm clocks? (Update, April 10, 2009: I just discovered that there is indeed such a thing.) Let the faithful subscribe and purchase those, and let the rest of us get some fucking sleep. If the imams won't respect the law or the human need for sleep and silence, the police ought to make them.
Update, July 23, 2010: This appears to be one of the most popular posts on my blog, and people frequently find it with keywords like mosque, loudspeaker, noise. Clearly, there's a problem, and it seems to be worldwide. I just noticed that a website called Pakistani Politics Journal has linked to this post. Welcome, PPJ readers! :)
Sunday, June 29, 2008
It's official: the University of Mumbai attracts flies.
The Times of India recently reported that the University Grants Commission (UGC), the government body that oversees and funds higher education in India, may take direct control of University of Mumbai. The Times quoted the head of a UGC review committee as saying, "There has been a huge drop in faculty members, which has affected the quality of teaching and research. While the number of students has steadily gone up, over 200 faculty positions are lying vacant. Also, with 600 colleges affiliated to it, the focus is more on administration than academics."
Like many things that have recast themselves from Bombay to Mumbai, this 150-year-old university, which counts historic figures among its alumni, has putrefied. But even 20 years ago, when I got my undergraduate degree from there, I was not proud of it because I considered it mediocre. I was saved by the fact that I went to elite colleges where dedicated teachers went way beyond the required curriculum, to give students a real education.
The university did not offer a major in Anthropology, so I had to major half in Anthropology and half in Psychology. (Digression: when I graduated, they forgot to write "Anthropology" on my degree certificate, but luckily the calligrapher was sitting right there when I went to collect the document, and he obligingly added it in at my request, without question.) For such Anthropology as I did study, the books prescribed by the university were not available in bookstores -- you just had to read the one copy in the St. Xavier's College library, or photocopy what you could (copiers were quaintly mechanical in the mid-1980s -- it took several minutes to print a page, as I recall). For assignments (required by our professors, but not by the university), we referred to colonial missionaries' accounts (about criminal tribes with cannibalistic pasts). In retrospect, I think we read them shockingly uncritically, but even so, it was these that led me to regard "norms" from a distance, and truly broadened my teenaged mind. Besides reading and research assignments, we also had field trips (also not required by the university). I was enthused enough about a research assignment to track down the Institute of Indian Culture in Mahakali Caves Road (back of beyond in those days), meet Stephen Fuchs, the elderly Jesuit priest who had written one of our textbooks, and use the library there to research one assignment. It astonishes me now that I was so motivated, and it says a great deal about Father John Macia, who taught me Anthropology. All these activities counted for nothing in the final assessment for the degree, and yet, they were my true education. I still have my handwritten assignments, and, having taught undergraduates myself now, I'm amazed by my own (very interesting!) choice of topics. I am so grateful to my Anthropology professors, especially Eddie Rodrigues and Father Macia, for not leaving my education to the University of Bombay!
The other half of my undergraduate degree was in Psychology. The textbooks weren't bad, but that's because they were American college textbooks! They were, of course, not available in the bookstores. Besides, the curriculum was lousy -- while an excruciatingly boring course on industrial psychology was mandatory for even the half-major, Freud and psychoanalysis were not! Thank goodness for my driven, if not wildly interesting, professor Maureen Almeida. I was very lucky also to be a student of the excellent Jennie Mendes in junior college (class 11 and 12) at Sophia, and to be able to borrow my older sibling's college textbooks to write Jennie's Psychology assignments. Of course, I was fortunate to have enough curiosity to devour those excellent books -- I can never forget Clifford Morgan & Richard King (Introduction to Psychology), Henry Clay Lindgren (An Introduction to Social Psychology), and James C. Coleman (Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life)! By the time I got to degree college myself, the textbooks had changed (they probably changed them every 15 years!). The new ones were American, too, but I don't recall the authors. All I recall is that there was now DSM IV, that psychology had become extremely physiological (which I found utterly boring), that Solomon Snyder was doing cutting-edge work on neurotransmitters, and that I was deeply impressed by Milgram's experiments on destructive obedience. But -- Freud was a frill that a Psychology degree could easily do without, according to the pedagogues at the University of Bombay.
My undergraduate days are ancient history, true. But a much more recent experience -- unmediated by the dedication of college professors -- gave rise to unalloyed dismay. In 2005, on a research trip to India from the US, for my doctoral dissertation, I had a fellowship that required me to have an institutional affiliation. Mumbai is such an intellectually atrophied city that I had little choice. I contacted the head of the relevant department at the University of Mumbai. He was all wide-eyed, and seemed to consider my topic some whole new sphere of study (as anyone who peruses Modern Asian Studies or Economic and Political Weekly would know, my field of study is certainly not "unique", even though -- surprisingly -- there's no work that's even close to my topic that focuses on Bombay/Mumbai. So the department head invited me to give a talk. I thanked him and said I'd look forward to feedback from not just faculty but also graduate students. He goggled incredulously, as if I had asked to be chauffeured in a gold-plated limousine. He said, "Those duffers!" (well, some words to that effect). He appeared sincere in his belief that an M.A. or Ph.D student is not competent to comment on or ask a useful question about someone's work. My talk was arranged as somebody's in-class event (they didn't think to tell me whose, nor the title of the course). The room was full. After the talk, I invited questions. A faculty member launched into a lengthy question, tangential to my topic and ostensibly designed to probe whether I was ignorant of major debates in the field. Then, another senior faculty member asked a question, but didn't wait for an answer before launching into a long harangue about my allegedly racist and colonial perspective. He thundered against my description of a particular community organization as conservative. (I had given several examples to explain exactly what I meant. It's my own community, by the way.) He ended his schtick with an accusation and a flourish. A large group of students applauded. I had the distinct feeling they were eager to show up the Amreekawalli (I was studying in the US, true, but I'm an Indian, from Bombay. I look and sound Indian, and don't believe I come across as putting side on. I speak several Indian languages fluently, with an Indian accent. I'm not the stereotype tank-top-wearing South Bombay monolingual Anglophone chick who gibbers when attempting to speak in Hindi). They seemed not to have registered the fact that I was presenting unprocessed raw data, from which I was only beginning to build a theory. The senior faculty member appeared to be coming from the Subaltern perspective which gained ground in the 1980s, but which has been critiqued (although, of course, still remains hugely important and relevant). I guess I have the same perspective but from the post-critique stage, and am post-colonial enough to call Indians conservative if that's what they were (one can be critical, after all, without giving up sympathy for those one studies). But nuance was clearly not the order of the day in Ranade Bhuvan that afternoon.
I would rather not get a Ph.D at all than get it from University of Mumbai.
In 2007, Time Out's excellent Mumbai edition ran a cover story (Friday, July 27, 2007) on people studying Mumbai/Bombay. It mentioned many people (including me) who were studying the city through various lenses. We were all from institutions outside Mumbai, and many outside India. But, Time Out noted, the University of Mumbai has no initiative to promote the study of Mumbai, despite the city's vital role in the country's history and economy for over 300 years.
Institutions of higher learning are the hallmark of civilization. With this chronic apology of a university, Mumbai has no claim to being an evolved and civilized city. It will go on selling medical college admissions to the highest bidders, cranking out hundreds of thousands of semi-employable B.Com. and B.Sc. graduates each year, and producing EngLit graduates and journalists who can't write a sentence to save their lives. Forget about History, Philosophy, and other disciplines that demand abstract and critical thinking! This once-great city, today riddled with potholes, feces, spit, garbage, worse sanitation than bombed-out Baghdad, corruption, poverty, multiplex cinemas, the bizarre but unshakeable corporate and middle-class delusion that it's going to be a "global" city, and the constant fatuous revelry of the insanely selfish rich, has got the university it deserves.
Friday, June 13, 2008
Victims of the Union Carbide gas leak continue to suffer, their injuries and deaths uncompensated. We must support them
By Indra Sinha, author of Animal's People, which was short-listed for the 2007 Man Booker Prize
On July 26 2006, my friend Sathyu Sarangi called me in tears from Bhopal to tell me that our mutual friend, Sunil Kumar, had taken his life. Sathyu said that when they lifted Sunil down from the ceiling fan from which he had hanged himself, he was wearing a T-shirt that said, "No More Bhopals".
Sunil was an orphan of the Union Carbide mass-gassing of Bhopal, losing his parents and three siblings on that night of terror. Aged 12, he began doing two jobs a day to bring up his surviving sister and baby brother Sanjay. He became a leader of the survivors' struggle for justice and was one of the people I loved most in Bhopal.
The BBC reported, wrongly, that Sunil was the inspiration for Animal in my novel Animal's People, but Animal certainly benefited from Sunil's courage, sense of humour and ability to live on 4 rupees (£0.05) a day. Like Animal, Sunil heard voices in his head, and suffered nightmarish visions. You can read his story here.
On the day that Sunil died, Dow Chemical's CEO Andrew Liveris visited the UN to deliver a much-publicised speech. Fireboats hired by Dow's public relations agency jetted huge sprays aloft over the Hudson River as Liveris told the assembled diplomats "Lack of clean water is the single largest cause of disease in the world and more than 4,500 children die each day because of it … We are determined to win a victory over the problem of access to clean water for every person on earth … we need to bring to the fight the kinds of things companies like Dow do best."
Stirring words. But when asked if he would clean up Bhopal, where the drinking wells of 20,000 people have been poisoned by chemicals abandoned by Dow's subsidiary Union Carbide, causing an epidemic of cancers and hundreds of children to be born malformed and with brain damage, Liveris replied, "We don't feel this is our responsibility".
Liveris couldn't be more wrong. Under the "polluter pays" principle enshrined in both Indian and US law, Union Carbide is responsible for cleaning up the contamination and compensating the thousands whose lives have been ruined. In buying Union Carbide's assets, Dow also acquired its liabilities. Dow set aside $2.3bn to settle Union Carbide's US asbestos liabilities. How then can it refuse to accept Union Carbide's Indian liabilities?
The hard answer is that Indians are not quite as human as Americans. Dow paid $10m to settle out-of-court with an American child damaged by Dursban, a pesticide so dangerous that it has been banned for domestic use in the US. But Dow employees were found to have bribed Indian Ministry of Agriculture officials to license Dursban as safe for home use in India. If an Indian child dies I doubt if there'll be $10m or even $10,000. As a Dow public affairs chief famously remarked of the paltry compensation paid to Union Carbide's victims, "$500 is plenty good for an Indian".
Why doesn't the Indian government force Dow to clean up Bhopal? The Indian law ministry has advised Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that Dow is indeed liable for Union Carbide's misdeeds in Bhopal. It's exactly what he doesn't wish to hear. He and his ministers are in contortions to appease Dow, which has offered to invest $1bn in India if freed from its Bhopal liabilities. When news broke of this sordid backroom hustling, 280 legal professionals, among them retired judges and eminent lawyers, said the attempts to exculpate Dow were unconstitutional and illegal.
Earlier this year, 50 Bhopali survivors, many old and sick, walked 500 miles to Delhi to ask the prime minister for safe drinking water and to make Dow clean the factory. For two months Manmohan Singh left them camped on a sweltering pavement without a reply. When Bhopali women brought their damaged children to his house and chained themselves to his railings, he had them arrested. The policewomen who led them away wept.
When India's prime minister finally gave a reply, it was all prevarication, no substance. The Bhopalis then declared that they would launch an indefinite hunger strike until their demand for justice was met.
On the eve of the fast, police beat up women and children as young as six years old who had gone to protest outside the prime minister's office. The police said they'd been told to get tough. Many of us around the world rang to protest and I asked a Mr Muthukumaran of the prime minister's office if Manmohan Singh had ordered the beatings. "Are you joking?" he replied. On the contrary, I had rarely been more serious.
As I write this the Bhopalis are still in jail, and we hear that Dow Chemical is sponsoring an exhibition called The Gallery of Good at the Cannes advertising festival. Next Monday, Dow will present The Chemistry of Socially Responsible Marketing, which is presumably the advertising campaign on which it has lavished upwards of $100m. But telling lies beautifully does not make them true. Wouldn't it have more socially responsible to use the money for cleaning up Bhopal?
I have spent much of the last five years writing a novel in which victims of a chemical disaster caused by a rogue corporation are sold out by their own politicians, triggering a desperate hunger strike. Animal's People is set in the fictional city of Khaufpur, but whatever success it has had, it owes to the inspiring courage and spirit of the Bhopalis, and the descriptions of the hunger strike were drawn directly from the experiences of my friends.
Sunil is dead, but on their small stretch of pavement in Delhi, now battered by monsoon rain, nine others have sat down to begin an indefinite fast for justice. Among them are my old friend Sathyu and, grown up into a fine young man, Sunil's baby brother, Sanjay.
How can I not join them? How can we all not support them?
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Bougainvillea (Bougainvillea brasilensis) is named after an eighteenth-century French navigator who discovered the colorful and very thorny vine in southern America. This would be the chap Diderot alluded to in his "Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville", which was not really about travel but a critique of French society and politics.
The pink papery part isn't the real flower, the little white thingies are, although I've no idea on what basis botanists decide these things (if you do, please leave a comment). Based on the pictures I've seen of French colonies in the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean, and my own sojourn in Pondicherry, it seems French colonists liked to cheer up whitewashed architecture with pink, white, and deep orange variants of bougainvillea. And although Mumbai was never French territory, bougainvillea has always been part of my landscape here. It clung to a stretch of chicken wire along my school boundary, creating a shady canopy under which you could sit on the low garden wall. And there was also a big jumble of it in a corner of the garden around my parents' home. Sadly, that went when the railways took a strip of land from our landlord to widen the rail corridor. Can't think why the landlord didn't put it back inside the new property boundary, because it's pretty easy to grow. The photo above was taken on May 17, at the gates of the "haunted house" at the end of the street.
Photo of anthurium below, taken on the same day, outside the building next door to ours.
Anthurium. Photo by moi. If you'd like to use it for any reason, please let me know!
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
Mumbai has been intolerably humid. The air was so still and thick with humidity that I felt I simply couldn't bear it. Neither my nor my friends' homes have air conditioning. Nor do the buses, trains, nor most taxis. But bear it I did, simply because there was nothing else to do. These past few weeks, the air conditioning at my workplace was a sort-of incentive to go to work. (I say "sort of" because they crank the damn thing up until your brain freezes and your fingers stop moving. That's not very pleasant, either.)
A couple of hours ago, it rained -- a heavy shower for a good 20 minutes. It's like someone turned the air conditioning on for the whole neighborhood. It's dark now, and although tomorrow Mumbai is sure to be back to its nasty muggy self, at least the dust will have washed off the leaves, and the air, normally a yellowy-brown despite the year-round coastal breeze, will be a little clearer.
For the rest, here are a few glimpses of Mumbai's summer. Photos by yours truly. If you want to use them, ask me, okay?
Saturday, May 24, 2008
The gun, silly! The gas card is only good for $250 worth of gas. How will you fill your new car after that? But go with a gun to the gas station -- hey, free gas, whenever you want it!
Mr Muller said that every buyer so far "except one guy from Canada and one old guy" chose the gun, rather than the gas card. He recommends a Kel-Tec .380 pistol, which he describes as "a nice little handgun that fits in your pocket".
Dear Mr Muller, I can't think of a single reason why I'd need a handgun in my pocket, but anyway, proceed:
He added that the promotion was inspired by recent comments from one of the Democratic nominees for the presidential election, saying: "We did it because of Barack Obama.
"He said all those people in the Midwest, you've got to have compassion for them because they're clinging to their guns and their Bibles. I found that quite offensive. We all go to church on Sunday and we all carry guns."
Hmmm. Why not cash in on all the tactless or tasteless things presidential candidates have said, with totally ironic business plans for each? I'm starting a June assassination pool. Any suggestions for McCain gaffes?
When I was about 16 or 17, the brother of a girl in my college (I think she was called Deepa), who went to Brandeis, brought back a book on one of his visits home. That book was called American Pictures, by Jacob Holdt. A friend of mine borrowed that book from Deepa, and I borrowed it from her (Jacob Holdt touched many lives in India with that one much-borrowed copy of his book!). And so I learned that there was poverty in America. And I learned that another Dane, Jacob Riis, had recorded alarmingly similar wrenching poverty a century before Holdt. Thanks, Deepa's brother!
The New York Times today has a review of a new book on Jacob Riis, titled Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York. Daniel Czitrom, professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, co-author of the book with Bonnie Yochelson, art historian at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, is quoted in the NYT as saying:
“I’ve always been struck by the tension between the empathy and sympathy that’s powerfully depicted in many of those images, and the kind of stereotypes, racial language, that he uses in the text... There’s a tension between the text and the photographs. Today, no one really reads Riis anymore, and yet the photographs remain incredibly moving.”
The NYT reviewer, Sewell Chan, writes:
The commonly held view of Riis is that of the muckraking police reporter, whose seminal 1890 work, “How the Other Half Lives,” prompted legislative reforms, focused attention on the desperate lives of poor urban immigrants and left an enduring mark on the history of documentary photography.
Less well-known are the contradictory elements of Riis’s life and work. He was an entertainer, a self-promoter, an evangelical, and a political conservative who had little faith in the power of government to correct social ills, arguing instead for Christian charity. He held views on race and ethnicity that would be considered offensive today. Though he is now heralded as a major figure in photographic history, he declared in his 1901 autobiography that he was “downright sorry to confess here that I am no good at all as a photographer.”
"The Baby's Playground", by Jacob Riis, c. 1890. Image source: The New York Times
Thursday, May 8, 2008
Monday, May 5, 2008
Previously on "What's wrong with American academia"
Part 2 (latter part of post)
It's a common criticism of academia that it remains isolated in a lofty ivory tower peopled with latte-drinking, Volvo-driving liberals. The accusation is, of course, an old stereotype. But while it typically comes from right-of-center students and working-class people who feel silenced or marginalized, I make it from a left-of-center academic's perspective -- from within, you might say (and a little bit from without also). I consider the majority of these allegedly latte-drinking, Volvo-driving scholars to be conservative -- even those who publish in "radical" academic journals -- because they hide in that ivory tower and refuse to engage with social injustice around them, despite theorizing and analyzing it till they're blue in the face. "You don't want to be seen as a troublemaker," one professor, who has published under a "radical" series, advised me. There's something profoundly unethical about making your career by expounding a vision that you don't live. Oh wait, it already has a name: hypocrisy.
Yeah, these people vote Democrat, and they lecture and write books about Rosa Parks and postcolonial resistance and Gramsci. Their office doors signal their views with self-consciously earnest flyers and cartoons, all progressive of course: "Had a good weekend? Thank a Liberal!". The self-congratulatory ring is probably not intentional.
Even the trappings are true to the stereotype: two of the four profs on my committee drove European cars (the third had a Civic -- a humble non-hybrid, I belive -- and I don't know what the fourth one drove). I don't think I ever saw any of them drink a latte, although their wine-drinking preferences (imported, i.e. non-US) were a sufficiently bourgeois equivalent. And what a flurry of excitement when Wegmans opened in town: 100 kinds of cheese, all imported -- why, we could all pretend we were in Paris! Now, I've nothing against the cheese, of course, except that it started at $8/lb. What I did find offensive was the look of fatuous delight on the professors' faces, which brought to mind the image of old Parsis in a South Bombay audience, tapping their feet to "Britannia Rules The Waves", nodding their heads in time and singing along, feeling mighty cultured.
One humble professor I knew drove an old Japanese car, taught about slavery and race, and is openly gay -- check off three boxes on the liberal list. She displayed a sense of great accomplishment in going to Cuba, although her trip was evidently quite affordable and legal. She brought back some cigars which she shared with a chosen few (including me) at a barbeque. I didn't hear her say much about the Cuban people, markets, or streets. But she made sure to casually mention that these were the most expensive Cuban cigars there are. Sometime later, she had her kitchen remodeled with beautiful handmade tiles ordered from another poor country. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for increasing the consumption of artisan products from poor countries. But every room in her home shouted, "I love Third World things!" Therefore, by association, she must love Third World people, right? After all, I'm Third-World, and she granted me the privilege of puffing at one of her horrendously expensive Cuban cigars (which, by the way, was like casting pearls before swine -- I don't like cigars, and I found it no less disgusting than any other cigar. If I must smoke, let it be a cigarette).
Liking Third World things, and visiting Third-World countries, is easy if you have the money and a visa. It does not make you liberal or warrant a sense of accomplishment, if you're bourgeois (which, let's face it, college professors are). Ivory-tower liberals, like other bourgeois, can afford to consume the Third World.
True, they choose to travel to Venezuela or Kenya, when they could have chosen Paris or Amsterdam (well, often they've already done Paris and Amsterdam). But that choice doesn't automatically make them liberal any more than skateboarding does. Voluntarily risking life and limb by traveling to a poor country -- through exposure to tropical viruses, flying on tinpot planes, etc -- is adventure, like risking injury or death by skiing or bungee jumping. Voluntarily exposing oneself to danger, as a thrilling diversion, is the fatuous delight of the rich -- quite a different thing from exposing oneself to danger to earn a meager livelihood, as many poor people (in poor and rich countries) do out of necessity.
Now, some may argue that a thrilling diversion is harmless. Could be, but it's not always so. My liberal Japanese-car-driving professor wants to visit a Third World country while her colleague's father is still governor, so she can be a guest in the governor's palace. Traveling to poor countries in a way that underscores how privileged you are, and lets you find more ways to exploit that privilege, does not (or should not) enhance your liberal credentials. It's the imperial fantasy of a farm-girl-turned-bourgeois-professor in small-town America. She's privileged by American standards (tenure, respectability, etc), but not really big cheese. At $45-50/hour (I'm guessing), she probably can't afford to fly business class and stay in club floor suites. But in a Third-World governor's palace, servants will bring tea to her four-poster bed every morning, and a liveried chauffeur will drive her around town. After a week or two, liberal credentials renewed by Third-World visit, she will return to Smalltown, USA, suitcases bursting with silk and silver -- precious pieces of imperial fantasy -- and hold forth authoritatively on the country she returned from.
So what does it mean when this conspicuous consumer of Third-World goods tells a Third-World person they have no right to be in the US? She was not an immigration officer. She was not my employer or advisor. She was not a law enforcement officer. I had never even taken a class with her! Yet she pronounced a judgement that it was not for her to pronounce, on a story that she hadn't fully heard. Hearing it might have brought to the surface the possibility of standing up for me, against one of her colleagues. Moral dilemmas are icky and complicated. The fewer sides of the story you listen to, the simpler you can keep it, at least in real life.
(Oh, and she also neglected to pay me for some work I did for her. Work without pay is that stuff you teach and write about, Professor Liberalism -- slavery!)
The real demonstration of one's liberal values is to be willing to standing up not just for someone, but also against someone, and to strive to ensure a fair hearing. That would be worthy of a sense of accomplishment -- crossing divides, sticking your neck out for what you profess (but perhaps they're called "professors" because they only profess), forging an equal partnership with the marginalized, not splitting "Others" into "good" and "bad" (e.g. "You're okay, but other Asians are not."). In a consumption situation, your beliefs are not tested. There's no dilemma.
Consider the non-dilemma situation of the Cuban-cigar-sharing barbeque: some white-American locals and some internationals were invited. "International" has a nice, liberal ring to it, doesn't it? But you want to be careful not to go too foreign, because then everyone has to work at understanding the conversation, and that just ruins the evening. So, a white couple from Oceania and myself, an Asian (me, the only non-white guest of the white professor who would later tell me I had no right to be in America). Looking back, I see why I was the perfect liberal accesory: non-white, with an accent distinct enough to be "foreign", but not so foreign as to ruin the evening. I'm articulate in English, and my views are liberal. I add a touch of diversity to any gathering, without demanding that people cope with my foreignness. No dilemma, no inconvenience.
In the dilemma situation, I not only got no hearing, but was roundly told to get out of America, and -- incredibly petty -- not paid for work done. By a racism-hating, Republican-bashing, slavery-decrying feminist gay tenured professor. The amount she owed me was not a big sum, but when it's coupled with a "Get out of America" lecture, you have to wonder about people who make their career writing about slavery.
To be sure, disengaged academics will write brilliant books, if they're brilliant. But they will never inspire or change a life. The most brilliant professors I've known as a graduate student are generally pedantic and boring in their discussions of even the most moving and profound subject material. The one professor who stands out in my memory (and the memories of most of his students) as life-changing had an incredibly courageous pedagogy (nothing edgy, just utterly earnest, honest, and challenging) and a skill and sensitivity that could only have come from the sincerity of the questions we all grappled with in class together. Thirteen years later, I'm still moved to tears when I read the papers I wrote for him. He was denied tenure at the university where he taught me, and I suspect it was because he allowed people to question received notions of pedagogy as well as of race. Only the luckiest among us get to encounter one or two teachers in our lives who are that gifted and devoted.
Isolation in the ivory tower can, of course, impoverish scholarship itself. (I am speaking of humanities and social sciences, which is what I know best). But more on that some other time. Coming up on future episodes of "What's wrong with American academia":
- Pointless punctuation
- Antidepressants and the privatization of social dysfunction
Image source: http://www.cartoonstock.com
Saturday, April 26, 2008
An election in which a Democrat winner would be of especial historic significance -- either Barack Obama as the first black man, or Hillary Clinton as the first woman.
Clinton sometimes sounds like a feminist, but always piggybacks on her husband's success.
Obama, one of first African-American leaders to appeal to non-black Americans and thus be a "viable" candidate, seemed for long at pains to avoid political blaxploitation.Not inevitable, but Clinton did, eventually, play the race card herself (or her husband did, or campaign did) (January 24).
ABC ran a report (March 13) about Obama's "anti-American" pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, evidently taking at least some quotes out of context (see video below). Making Obama anti-American by association (after all, he already is half-foreign, or Muslim, or something, so it follows logically that he must be anti-American. Because all of those folks hate America, don't they?)
...he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions - the good and the bad - of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.
Oddly enough, the Chicago Sun Times, which reported that Obama defended his pastor (March 26) today said he distanced himself from his pastor (April 25). And ABC, which started the Rev. Wright furore with the mishmash of soundbites, also said in yesterday's video (below) that Obama "distanced himself" but doesn't clarify from what/whom. For the record, Obama distanced himself from Wrights divisive remarks, and explicitly not from Wright the man or Wright the preacher. It's not true what they say about history being written by winners. Most of the time, it's written by bozos who can't complete a thought.
So, what it boils down to is this: America is refusing to be color-blind. When a black man runs for president as a person, and not as a black person, he is forced to address the fact that he's black. And the same America which forces him to address that fact (the media, some politicians, and sections of the electorate) compound that circumstance of birth with other similarly irrelevant circumstances, like having the DNA of someone who's Muslim. US media and politicians try to force identity politics upon those who have done everything to rise above it. This is the tragedy of racism in America.
Thursday, April 24, 2008
Good luck keeping plastic out of your body and life. If you know anything about BPA in toothbrushes, or if you have general plastic-avoidance strategies to share, please leave a comment.
How do I lower my exposure?
Switch to frozen or fresh vegetables. Use glass, porcelain and stainless-steel containers, particularly for hot foods and liquids. If you don’t want to use a glass baby bottle, several companies, including the popular brand Born Free, now sell BPA-free baby bottles and sippy cups. For formula-fed babies, you can switch to powdered formula rather than liquid.
Although many plastic products claim to be microwave safe, some scientists warn against putting any plastic in the microwave. “There is such a wide variety now, from disposable containers to actual Tupperware,” says Dr. Anila Jacob, a senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based advocacy group. “I don’t know of anyone who has done definitive testing of all these different types of plastic containers to see what is leaching into food.”
Sunday, April 20, 2008
Here's an old favorite REM song, from New Adventures in Hi-Fi. It always reminds me of Geraldine Page's character in Interiors walking into the sea until she disappears.
Nothing could be bring me closer.
Nothing could be bring me near.
Where is the road I follow
To leave it, leave?
It's under, under, under my feet.
The sea spread out there before me.
Where do I go when the land touches sea?
There is my trust in what I believe.
That's what keeps me,
That's what keeps me,
That's what keeps me down,
To leave it, believe it,
Leave it all behind.
Shifting the dream
Nothing could bring me further from my old friend time.
Shifting the dream
It's charging the scene
I know where I marked the signs.
I suffer the dreams of a world gone mad
I like it like that and I know it
I know it well, ugly and sweet,
I temper madness with an even extreme.
That's what keeps me
That's what keeps me
That's what keeps me down
I say that I'm a lightweight
I say that I'm a airplane
That never left the ground.
That's what keeps me,
That's what keeps me,
That's what keeps me down,
To leave it, believe it.
Leave it all behind.
Lift me, lift me,
I attain my dream.
I lost myself, I lost the
Heartache calling me.
I lost myself in sorrow
I lost myself in pain.
I lost myself in clarity,
Memory, leave, leave.
That's what keeps me,
That's what keeps me,
That's what keeps me down,
To leave it, believe it,
Leave it all behind.
That's what keeps me,
That's what keeps me,
That's what keeps me down,
To leave it, believe it,
Leave it all behind.
Lift my hands, my eyes are still,
I'll walk into the sea
Shoot myself in a different place
And leave it
I've longed for this to take me,
I've longed for my release
I've waited for the callin'
To leave, leave.
Friday, April 18, 2008
I learned about the poet Aimé Césaire unfortunately late in my life -- during my second stint in grad school (thanks, Sue O'Brien!). Césaire was born in Basse-Pointe, Martinique, in 1913.
Césaire met the Senegalese writer Léopold Sedar Senghor while he was a scholarship student in Paris in the early 1930s. He is credited with creating the concept of négritude. Even as a young student, he understood the power of culture, and began to actively oppose cultural imposition by metropole France on colonized peoples. He did this by starting L'étudiant noir (the black student) in 1932, together with Senghor and the Guyanese Léon-Gontran Damas. In this journal, black writers challenged traditional models of French literature. Knowing how academia functions today, I wonder his faculty put pressure on him to stop or leave. Anyhow, Césaire graduated from the Ecole Normale Superieure.
Césaire returned to Martinique, and became widely known in the late 1930s for his Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (notebook of a return to the native land). In Martinique, he taught Frantz Fanon. Obviously, Césaire belonged to that now-nearly-extinct species, the truly courageous engaged academic.
Césaire was mayor of Fort-de-France, Martinique, from 1945 to 2001, and a deputy in the French assembly for Martinique. More radical politicians, who favored independence, saw his role in the departmentalization of the colonies as a compromise. A long-time member of the French Communist Party, he grew disillusioned with Communism after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.
In 2005, Césaire refused to meet Nicolas Sarkozy, then interior minister, because the latter's party had supported a law that would glorify French imperialism in schools. The law was repealed by Chirac's government.
Césaire died on Thursday, at the age of 94, in Martinique. Here's a list of his writings.