Here is an 18-minute travel documentary I made based on some of what we saw and learned during our wonderful 15-day trip to Mozambique in October 2015. For more photos and travel notes, check out the Mozambique page on shunya.net.
Here is an 18-minute travel documentary I made based on some of what we saw and learned during our wonderful 15-day trip to Mozambique in October 2015. For more photos and travel notes, check out the Mozambique page on shunya.net.
On being transgender in India and glimpses from The Truth About Me, a powerful memoir by A. Revathi, which aims to introduce readers ‘to the lives of hijras, their distinct culture, and their dreams and desires.’ (Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily.)
Most Indians encounter hijras at some point in their lives. Hijras are the most visible subset of transgender people in South Asia, usually biological men who identify more closely as being female or feminine. They often appear in groups, and most Indians associate them with singing and dancing, flashy women’s attire and makeup, aggressive begging styles, acts and manners that are like burlesques of femininity, a distinctive hand-clap, and the blessing of newlyweds and newborn males in exchange for gifts.
Most modern societies embrace a binary idea of gender. To the biologically salient binary division of humans into male/female, they attach binary social-behavioral norms. They presume two discrete ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ identities to which all biological males and females are expected to conform. These two gender identities are imbued with ideal, essential, and distinct social roles and traits. In other words, the binary schema assumes a default alignment between sex, gender, and sexuality. In reality, however, gender identities and sexual orientations are not binary and exist on a spectrum, including for people who identify as transgender—an umbrella term for those whose inner sense of their gender conflicts with the presumed norms for their assigned sex (unlike for cisgender people). Transgender people often feel they’re neither ‘men’ nor ‘women’.
According to biologist Robert Sapolsky, ‘Gender in humans is on a continuum, coming in scads of variants, where genes, organs, hormones, external appearance, and psychosexual identification can vary independently, and where many people have categories of gender identification going on in their heads (and brains) that bear no resemblance to yours’. Many cultures have granted a distinct identity to various types of transgender people, including South Asian, Native American, Polynesian, and Omanese cultures. A landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2014 legalized a third gender in India, including hijras and other transgender people.
Hijras in popular culture date back to ancient times. The fact that procreation underpins the social and familial order in all societies may partly explain why in some societies transgender (and homosexual) people have been seen as useless, perhaps even a threat. What likely helped the hijras survive is that since ancient times, they have been endowed with certain spiritual powers, including to confer blessings and curses, as with ascetics. Perhaps it also helped that even Gods and heroes manifest transgender traits in Hindu mythology: Shiva has an androgynous form, half male, half female; Arjuna disguised himself as a eunuch during the Pandava exile; the goddess Yellamma has the power to change one’s sex; Krishna turned into a woman, Mohini, to marry and spend the last night with the warrior Aravan before his final battle; and so on. The hijras even have a patron goddess, Bahuchara Mata, whose temple in Gujarat is a pilgrimage site for both hijras and others.
Knowledge never progresses unencumbered by ordinary human politics. Clubbiness, careerism, prejudice, personality clashes, bigotry, corruption, charm, and other human factors affect the advancement and dissemination of all knowledge, even in the hallowed academies of the West. While the scientific disciplines may have the best inbuilt methodologies for self-correction, still their practice isn’t immune to these impairments of judgment and objectivity.
In his recent Guardian article, The Sugar Conspiracy, Ian Leslie reminds us of how important individual personalities or even the fashionability of ideas can dominate, pervert, or slow the progress of entire fields of science. He writes,
In a 2015 paper titled Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?, a team of scholars at the National Bureau of Economic Research sought an empirical basis for a remark made by the physicist Max Planck: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
The researchers identified more than 12,000 “elite” scientists from different fields. The criteria for elite status included funding, number of publications, and whether they were members of the National Academies of Science or the Institute of Medicine. Searching obituaries, the team found 452 who had died before retirement. They then looked to see what happened to the fields from which these celebrated scientists had unexpectedly departed, by analysing publishing patterns.
What they found confirmed the truth of Planck’s maxim. Junior researchers who had worked closely with the elite scientists, authoring papers with them, published less. At the same time, there was a marked increase in papers by newcomers to the field, who were less likely to cite the work of the deceased eminence. The articles by these newcomers were substantive and influential, attracting a high number of citations. They moved the whole field along.
In this context, Leslie goes on to narrate the story of how, for decades, American nutritional science chased doggedly down a rabbit hole of false conclusions about the probable causes of heart disease, under the influence of decidedly non-scientific factors. A prevailing theory became fashionable, and contradictory data was shouted down; those presenting it were professionally attacked. The shaming and silencing alternative lines of questioning surely contributed to the ongoing public health crisis we now face, in which at least two generations of people are suffering epidemic frequencies of obesity and diabetes. Leslie lays it out,
A cloying veneration of army men is yet another pathology of nationalism that’s more pervasive than ever in India today. Army men are now widely seen as paragons of nobility and patriotism. Whether their deaths are due to freak accidents or border skirmishes, they’re eulogized for “sacrificing their lives for the nation”. Politicians routinely signal their patriotism by chanting Bhārat Mātā ki Jai, victory to mother India, and fall over each other for photo ops where they’re seen honoring soldiers, dead or alive.
Curiously, this adoration for army men seems most intense in urban middle-class families, including those who don’t desire or nudge their own kids to join their nation’s army. Instead, they want their kids to prepare for more lucrative professions, pursue office jobs in multinationals, live in gated high-rise apartments, and own nice cars. Or perhaps leave India for greener pastures abroad. A textbook case of hypocrisy?
These folks may claim that their reverence for army men stems from their appreciation for the sacrifice the jawans (soldiers) make for others by enduring great hardship and risk, even death. And yet these same people certainly don’t glorify other risky jobs that benefit the nation no less, like unclogging the nation’s sewers, mining the nation’s coal, building the nation’s infrastructure, or toiling in the nation’s shipping graveyard—all jobs that apparently have higher fatality, injury, and illness rates than Indian army jobs. Clearly, something else animates all that adoration for army men.
And who are the jawans who comprise the majority of the army? Most come from the rural poor and are hired after 10th grade. Some follow in the footsteps of other soldiers in their families, at times going back to British colonial times. As happens in all societies with volunteer armies and a severe lack of equal opportunity, most recruits join to escape poverty, get a stable job and a pension, and pursue a ticket to a higher social class, prestige, and some adventure. Indeed, in recent years, economic distress in parts of rural India has forced army recruiters to lower their physical fitness standards in some centers because the pool of candidates is too undernourished. Though the army does not release demographic data by caste or religion, it is well known that Muslims are severely underrepresented in it—as low as 2-3 percent—raising a host of awkward questions about its commitment to secularism.
I'm happy to announce a major update to Shunya.net! It has a cleaner look, fewer ads, more readable article pages, a slideshow on all photo pages, and attractive banners that change with each refresh. Of course, all this comes with the same great content that made you a regular visitor in the first place! :-)
To explore the photo pages and the slideshow, visit, for instance, the Victoria Falls page from our recent trip to Zambia.
Many thanks to my old buddy Pran Kurup and his talented team of graphics designers and software engineers at Vitalect Inc. for putting up with my demands and idiosyncrasies during this web update.
Population genetics is an emerging field that’s shedding new light on ancient human migrations. It complements linguistics and archaeology, which have until now been the primary avenues for understanding prehistory. David Reich, a leading geneticist and a Harvard professor, has taken special interest in the much contested issue of the original homeland of Indo-European (IE) languages and the mixing of populations in India. Watch a video conversation with him on the edge.org page below (also transcribed).
Nothing Reich says will comfort the “out-of-India” theorists, largely a Hindutva brigade of “scholars” who claim that there was no Aryan migration into India; that instead a migration happened from India to Europe; that IE languages originated in the Indian Subcontinent from a proto-Sanskrit; that the people of the Indus Valley Civilization spoke this proto-Sanskrit (never mind that their script remains undeciphered; there’s no consensus on whether it is even a linguistic script); that the Vedas are wholly indigenous in inspiration, etc. It’s amazing how many people on the Internet confidently assert that the Aryan migration theory has been “discredited”.
Of course much of this was/is nationalistic windbaggery, based on wishful thinking and gaps in rival theories, not on any solid evidence from linguistics or archaeology. Population genetics is now producing a clearer picture once and for all. But we’re not there yet, even though Reich’s work has bolstered the Kurgan hypothesis, which puts the IE homeland in the Pontic-Caspian steppe. Watch this field for more definitive revelations in the years ahead.
I have a piece in The Wire today: The Road to Fixing Air Pollution in Delhi, Beyond Odd-even. Among other things, this attempts to distill the research and learning from my recent months at the Delhi Dialogue Commission, an advisory body to the Government of NCT of Delhi. Also an announcement on the right for my talk this weekend that's open to all.
An unprecedented public health crisis has been unfolding in Delhi: 40% of our kids now fail lung capacity tests. Respiratory emergencies have tripled in the last seven years, with no relief in sight. Just breathing our air, full of toxic gases and particulates, has raised the incidence of strokes, heart disease, cancers, birth defects, pneumonia, and more. In Delhi alone, an estimated 80 people are dying daily from conditions provoked by air pollution. Much like smoking cigarettes, it’s shaving years off our lives.
Though some fare worse than others, none are immune: rich or poor, young or old. A high burden of disease erodes quality of life, family finances, and the economy. What will be the cost of this health crisis, in human lives, in healthcare, in lost productivity?
It’s a good thing the AAP government plans to build a thousand Mohalla clinics, because what’s unfolding is far bigger than last year’s dengue scare in Delhi. Though experts have long known these health effects of air pollution, years of apathy, ignorance, and denial—among both citizens and politicians—have led us here. So how serious are the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments about fixing this menace? How well do they understand the gravity of the situation?
(Click on thumbnails below for pictures, slideshows, and notes from Usha and Namit on their journey to Zambia, Oct 2015.)
We entered Zambia by bus from Malawi and first saw the amazing South Luangwa National Park. From there we took a bus to Lusaka, the urbane metropolis of the bipedal Zambians. We had the nicest bus yet on our African trip, with video screens that however played gospel musical videos—evidently inspired by American Evangelical musical videos—for the full nine hours of the journey! This would've been a lot less bearable without the famed musical talents of Africans, at once rich and resonant (perfect weather, short naps, and the beautiful landscape helped too). Nearly everyone in Zambia is now Christian. Local preachers sometimes board long-distance buses from one stop to the next and sermonize; passengers even sing along. The president of Zambia recently held a national prayer day to beseech the Lord to arrest the decline of the Zambian currency in international markets. It astonished me yet again: Here too an entire population so quickly and so totally embraced a religious tradition so alien to their own. Old layers of magical thinking made room for new layers, such as the strange story of a son of a male God coming to earth and dying for other people's sins. Christianization in Zambia has also meant that, over a few generations, society has become more patrilineal from its mostly matrilineal roots, aspects of which nevertheless survive. A Zambian man we met couldn’t comprehend the Indian practice of dowry, the polar opposite of their own custom of men paying bride price.
Traveling westward in Zambia, I noticed rising prosperity, greater urbanization, and evidence of Zambian per capita income being 4X that of Malawi and Mozambique. Zambia's linguistic/ethnic landscape is fragmented across 72 languages (!), most mutually incomprehensible. In Lusaka, which hosts Zambians from all regions, English is commonly heard. English, as in India, is the first language of a minuscule number but the medium of instruction in all Zambian schools is now English, alongside courses in one or more of the 72 regional languages. Most people speak several languages. Modernity and Christianity have loosened old bonds of tribe and ethnicity, making intermarriages frequent in Zambia. A severe shortfall in rains last year was causing power outages—nearly all of Zambia's power is hydroelectric—but the outages were well-managed, and the outage schedule for each locality was announced ahead of time. How I wished India would learn from this. [—Namit Arora, October 2015.]
(Click on thumbnails below for pictures, slideshows, and notes from Usha and Namit on their journey to Malawi, Oct 2015.)
We crossed into Malawi from Mozambique and immediately found traveling easier: its distances shorter, tourist facilities and transportation better, and English a lingua franca. The gigantic Lake Malawi has long shaped patterns of life in this most densely populated of sub-Saharan countries, encompassing nine major ethnic groups, many of which are matrilineal and Christian. All of its native languages belong to the Bantu family, and while English is the official language, more widely spoken is the national language, Chichewa (similar to Hindi in north India; ATM machines operate in both English and Chichewa). At least nominally, a third of the population is Catholic, a third Protestant, and a fifth Muslim; people variously combine monotheistic lore with native beliefs that include animism, ancestor worship, and witchcraft.
Compared to Mozambique, I saw a more hopeful economic dynamism in Malawi's rural and semi-urban areas, reflected in its many micro enterprises, provision stores, roadside bars and eateries, and emerging consumer economy. Aspirations for upward mobility seem common enough. Its young democracy is taking root and its religious and ethnic groups coexist rather well, with differences among the latter (and their historical endogamy) yielding to a more inclusive "Malawian identity". These aspects however coexist with some grim realities: half the population is under 15; a quarter of them don't attend school; public corruption is rife; life expectancy is only 54 (due largely to malaria and AIDS); its lakes and rivers are very overfished; and its fast growing population is coming in greater conflict with wildlife. In this part of Africa, too, China looms large, evoking both admiration and disquiet. Many locals appreciate the Chinese investing in Malawi—for creating jobs and building its infrastructure, including its shiny new parliament building, its first five-star hotel, and a science university—but they worry about back-room dealings and unfair mining, timber, and trade concessions that the Chinese seem to be extracting from Malawi's politicians.
We visited two areas on Lake Malawi's shores (Cape Maclear and Nkhata Bay), the beautiful Liwonde National Park, and the capital city, Lilongwe, with its planned spaces, a nature reserve, and pockets of cosmopolitan affluence (some of its shopping centers seemed built in the image of suburban California). Yet again, we met and conversed with far more nice and interesting people than I have any right to expect on a short visit, and I'm grateful for the kindness of strangers that came our way in ample measure. [—Namit Arora, October 2015.]
(Click on thumbnails below for pictures, slideshows, and notes from Usha and Namit on their journey to Mozambique, Sep/Oct 2015.)
We began our journey in Mozambique on the southeastern coast of Africa. It’s a huge, sparsely populated country of 25 million people, with the greatest density being spread out along its 1,500 miles of stunning, tropical coastline. The south, which includes the capital of Maputo, is the region of greatest development, economic activity, and settlement. With large populations of both Christians and Muslims, Mozambique is famous for the long amity between these communities. Portuguese is the lingua franca among a host of native languages.
Mozambique holds the distinction of having had the longest experience of European colonialism on the African continent, beginning hardly a decade after the first European ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1497. Here the Portuguese stumbled upon the bustling world of Indian Ocean trade, which had already been plying for centuries. Determined to dominate it, they conquered one of its robust island trading ports and built a permanent settlement by 1507. The island, called Mozambique after its reigning sultan, Ali Musa Mbiki, would become the first capital of colonial Portuguese East Africa, which grew from there. For over 450 years, Portugal administered its colony with overtly racist policies and little concern for its development.
This long engagement with Europe has left its mark most obviously for today’s visitor in Mozambican cuisine, both in the unique fusion that today makes up Mozambican food, as well in introducing the many European and New World foods that entered the common diet. Most significant of these is corn (maize), which revolutionized African agriculture and quickly became the primary staple food across Southern Africa. The Portuguese also introduced the cashew nut, which is today a major export crop and readily available as a street food, along with the chili pepper, which was nativized to become the peri-peri pepper, used to make the hot sauces that are a table-top staple across the region, to name but a few examples.
Mozambique won its war of independence from Portugal in 1975 and set about building a communist government, but was soon engulfed in another horrendous, 16 year war—in part a civil war, in part a proxy war fueled by South Africa, Rhodesia, the Soviet Union, and the USA as another front of the Cold War—that handicapped its development and helped to keep it one of the absolutely poorest nations on earth.
The country has come a great distance since the days of the war and today it bears an undeniably optimistic outlook toward the future. Especially in Maputo, where its rapidly growing economy is anchored, there’s a sense of hope and possibility, a belief that the country can be drawn upwards from its past. In and around Maputo, a thoroughly modern city, infrastructure development appears to be going strong, aided enormously by China, which has won for itself rights to newly discovered oil fields in the north. But it must be said that not all Mozambicans are on board with the trade-offs being made, and fear their country is being sold off at a pittance. Public education and healthcare suffer miserably; any Mozambican with any means plans on a trip at least to South Africa, India, or further afield to receive medical care or opportunities for higher education.
Mozambique is a physically demanding place to travel, as distances are long, buses unwaveringly unreliable and unfailingly overstuffed. Though the roads are all newly built, and along the coast the major routes are paved, though there is as yet little motorized traffic along them, it’s clear that the infrastructure is not keeping pace with the country’s own demands for intra-country transit. Chinese assistance has provided modern airports, roads, and buses, but I was astounded to learn that there is only one passenger train operating in so vast a country—and that too a creaky old thing that clatters slowly, when at all, back-and-forth along a single 360 km track between Nampula and Cuamba in the north. While making one’s way across immense, empty stretches of countryside, packed 25 people and cargo to a 14-seat minivan, the thought that a passenger railway would revolutionize Mozambique’s development is inescapable. Nevertheless, with patience (and strategically self-imposed dehydration, to avoid the need for a bathroom), one can discover a country of astonishing beauty and friendly, welcoming communities of people who are finding a new way in their rapidly changing world. At every stop, the discomforts of getting there immediately evaporate into the wonder of the present. [—Usha Alexander, October 2015.]
The seventh of January is the birthday in 1800 of Millard Fillmore, who in 1850 became the thirteenth President of the United States of America. Fillmore ascended to the Presidency upon the untimely death1 of President Zachary Taylor, the erstwhile Major General "Old Rough and Ready."
A Whig and an anti-slavery moderate, Fillmore nonetheless signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act2 which lost him the party's nomination when he pursued a second term3 and led to the disintegration of the Whig Party altogether4. Fillmore is often ranked among the ten worst American Presidents, batting at roughly the Mendoza Line5, just above George W Bush.
In 1969 and also on this day, Barbara Castle, the second longest-serving Member of Parliament in British history, wrote in her diary
It was nice to see Indira Gandhi again: I warm to her. She is a pleasant, rather shy and unassuming woman and we exchanged notes about the fun of being at the top in politics. When I asked her whether it was hell being Prime Minister she smiled and said, 'It is a challenge.' Oddly enough, I always feel protective towards her.
Every group I spoke to greeted me as the first woman Prime Minister to be. I hate this talk. First I'm never going to be PM and, secondly, I don't think I'm clever enough. Only I know the depth of my limitations: it takes all I've got to survive my present job6.
One wonders what Fillmore thought his place in history would be. And, equally, one wonders whether Castle knew she might have secured a more prominent world historical legacy without necessarily needing to have been particularly competent.
(Full disclosure: I'm currently leading a task force on air pollution at the Delhi Dialogue Commission, a think tank of the Delhi government.)
The government of Delhi recently announced several measures to combat the hazardous levels of air pollution in the city. This includes emergency measures to reduce some of the eighty daily deaths from the current spike in cardiopulmonary cases in Delhi’s hospitals. It also declared some medium- and long-term actions, such as shutting down one coal power plant and possibly another; raising of vehicle and fuel emissions standards from Bharat IV to VI in just one year (a very bold move that leapfrogs Bharat V entirely, pulling in Bharat VI earlier than anyone had thought possible); limiting operating hours and enforcing emission standards for diesel trucks entering Delhi; adding more bus and metro services; taking steps to reduce road dust, and the open burning of trash, leaves, and other biomass in Delhi.
What intrigues me is how many of the chatterati have focused on the alternate-day driving restrictions for a fortnight (based on the license plate’s even/odd last digit) to the exclusion of other measures. Is this because it’s the only measure that calls for a bit of sacrifice from them? They’re posting articles on why such rationing of road space won’t work, or how car owners will rush to buy cheap used cars that’ll be even more polluting. They’re conveniently ignoring the fact that this is a 15-day emergency measure, that no rich man is likely to buy another car for the 8 out of 15 days that he won’t be able to drive his primary car. The complainers seem to include: (1) entitled upper-class folks who forget that driving is not a right but a privilege, that the right to non-toxic air precedes the right to drive; and (2) those who have no idea how bad Delhi’s air is right now and what it’s doing to our bodies.
Second, even if this measure became permanent at a future date (after due analysis and debate), it’ll likely happen after scaling up public transportation, in certain zones before others, and during certain hours. Designed right, it’ll accompany disincentives for diesel (which emits 7.5 times more PM 2.5 than petrol), reclaiming sidewalks for pedestrians, bike lanes, and a much higher cost of car ownership. For instance, we could charge an annual registration fee that rises steeply for two or more cars in a household (to prevent out-of-state registrations, it’d require the driver’s main residence to be the registered address), raise parking fees, limit and enforce parking in designated spaces, etc. To deter people from buying a second car to beat driving restrictions, its license plate could be given the same last digit as their first car, or the permitted days for a car could be shuffled every three months. More options might become possible in due course (when we have an up-to-date vehicle registration database), such as congestion pricing in certain zones and issuing citations via traffic cameras. That some devious little minds may find ways to beat the system is hardly a good argument against trying to redesign our transport systems and urban spaces.
Nirmukta is running a series on Facebook in which people are invited to submit a photo and briefly comment on being "more than an atheist". An editor invited me and Usha and asked, "can you send a pic in which both of you are together? It would be great to feature more couples."
Here's the comment and pic that Usha sent in:
I grew up in a relatively tolerant, liberal, Hindu family. We were taught that Hinduism accommodates atheism, and both my parents professed (mildly) to be atheists. Nevertheless, in my childhood, we regularly did pujas at home, recited Sanskrit prayers, and listened to or read the Hindu myths. But many of my earliest encounters with Hindu mythology awakened a rage in me, an anger at the way the stories made me feel as a girl. Long before I could understand these feelings or the reasons for them, Hinduism and Patriarchy became inseparable in my experience and understanding. And very soon, instinctively, I rejected both. At the same time, I grew up in an extremely conservative, backwards, and religiously overwrought small town in the American West, where friends and classmates regularly tried to pull me to their churches—Mormon, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist—each of them vying to save my soul in all the wrong ways, without a shred of actual human sensitivity. By my pre-teen years, I’d already abandoned all organized religion as useless, alienating, and corrupt. I wanted, instead, to discover a system of ethical beliefs that was meaningful to me.
Soon afterward, during my teens, my reasoning about the manifest world and the moral world together guided me away from all theistic doctrines of any kind. But I always knew that giving up faith in god or an afterlife wasn’t enough; that’s not where one can stop questioning one's beliefs and presumptions about ourselves and our world. We still must figure out what we value, how we might construct meaning in our lives, how we relate to others, and so much else. We all know of prominent atheists who are poor role models, having built upon their atheism their own versions of dogma and intolerance, which seem counter to the purpose of a seeking mind—atheism has hardly proven a cure for unreason and immorality. Rather than bludgeoning others with my lack of belief, I feel that each of us must work to forge our own synthesis of critical reason and compassion. So I seek to continue questioning dominant and reductive beliefs and practices around gender, race, caste, class, language, the environment, animal rights, economics, history, nationality, culture, and more. I find there’s often much to learn from and admire in other people, whether they are theists or not. But I knew early on that, for me, religiosity in a life partner would be a deal-breaker, for it’s essential to me that my partner and I should share our fundamental worldviews, and non-theism is fundamental to my apprehension of the world.
Why Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, is more profound and important than her first
Even before its publication, Go Set a Watchman had become controversial, acquiring a whiff of conspiracy, inauthenticity, and foul play. It seemed unbelievable that Harper Lee would publish again after more than half a century of quiescence—and that too a novel written long ago and thematically near to her first and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Published in 1960, Mockingbird has become an American classic and standard reading in every American high school. It is revered for its poignant telling of a thoughtful and courageous white man who does his best to hold up the candle of racial justice in the Jim Crow South. How could anything new live up to that? Why would Lee imperil her own legacy?
Since the release of Watchman, many readers have indeed announced their heartbreak over the revelations and struggles contained within. This new story takes place in the same small Alabama town we came to know in Mockingbird, where the endearingly wild little Scout grew up learning from her father, Atticus Finch, to recognize the humanity of those who seemed different from herself. But it’s now twenty years later and we meet the young woman Scout has grown into. On a visit from New York to her hometown in the mid-50s, the twenty-six year old Jean Louise Finch—who no longer goes by her childhood nickname—finds it transformed by time, the postwar economy, and the emergent Civil Rights movement. Much of the story centers around Jean Louise’s sense of unbelonging in the place where her roots remain yet deeply felt, and the cognitive dissonance she suffers as she discovers the people she most loved and trusted to be unapologetic racists:
Why doesn’t their flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up? … Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me—these same, these very people. So it’s me, it’s not them. Something has happened to me.
They are all trying to tell me in some weird, echoing way that it’s all on account of the Negroes… but it’s no more the Negroes than I can fly and God knows, I might fly out of the window any time, now.
The highs and lows of identity politics, and why despising it is no smarter than despising politics itself.
Our identity is a story we tell ourselves everyday. It’s a selective story about who we are, what we share with others, why we’re different. Each of us, as social beings in a time and place, evolves a personal and social identity that shapes our sense of self, loyalties, and obligations. Our identity includes aspects that are freely chosen, accidental, or thrust upon us by others.
Take an example. A woman may simultaneously identify as Indian, middle-class, feminist, doctor, Dalit, Telugu, lesbian, liberal, badminton player, music lover, traveler, humanist, and Muslim. Her self-identifications may also include being short-tempered, celibate, dark-skinned, ethical vegetarian, and diabetic. No doubt some of these will be more significant to her but all of them (and more) make her who she is. Like all of our identities, hers too is fluid, relational, and contextual. So while she never saw herself as a ‘Brown’ or ‘person of color’ in India, she had to reckon with that identity in America.
Identity politics, on the other hand, is politics that an individual—an identitarian—wages on behalf of a group that usually shares an aspect of one’s identity, say, gender, sexual orientation, race, caste, class, disability, ethnicity, religion, type of work, or national origin. Any group—majority or minority, strong or weak, light or dark-skinned—can pursue identity politics. It can be a dominant group led by cultural insecurities and chauvinism, or a marginalized group led by a shared experience of bigotry and injustice (the focus of this essay). Both German Nazism and the American Civil Rights movement exemplify identity politics based on the racial identity of their constituent groups. Both Hindutvadis and Dalits are identitarians of religion and caste, respectively. As Eric Hobsbawm noted in his essay Identity Politics and the Left, labor unions, too, have long pursued identity politics based on social class and the identity of being an industrial worker.
Life, and identity politics, can amplify certain aspects of our identity while suppressing others. During the Sri Lankan Civil War, the Tamil Tigers elevated Tamil national identity over that of caste. Gender identity turns secondary in some contexts: Indian women often close ranks with Indian men when White Westerners lecture them on sexual violence in India. Likewise, Dalit women often close ranks with Dalit men when upper-caste women expound on gender violence among them. Especially after September 11, 2001, many European citizens and residents with complex ethno-linguistic roots faced a world hell-bent on seeing them as, above all, ‘Muslims’.
Below is a talk I gave at Thinkfest 2015 to a classroom-sized audience on 26 Jan, 2015 (90 minutes). It was hosted by Nirmukta, dedicated to promoting science, freethought and secular humanism in South Asia. (NB: the audio in the first few minutes is choppy but fine thereafter.)
The topic I chose is "What do we deserve?" For our learning, natural talents, and labor, what rewards and entitlements can we fairly claim? This question is particularly relevant in market-based societies in which people tend to think they deserve both their success and their failure. I explore the fraught concepts of "merit" and "success", and what outcomes we can take credit for or not. I present three leading models of economic justice by which a society might allocate its rewards—libertarian, meritocratic, egalitarian—and consider the pros and cons of each using examples from both India and the U.S. (Also read a companion essay to this video, and read a report on Thinkfest 2015.)
A Plea for Culinary Modernism is a though-provoking essay on modern food and our attitudes towards it by Rachael Laudan, food historian and philosopher of science and technology. "The obsession with eating natural and artisanal," she argues, "is ahistorical. We should demand more high-quality industrial food." She is also the author of "Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History", now on my reading list.
As an historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by Culinary Luddism, a past sharply divided between good and bad, between the sunny rural days of yore and the gray industrial present. My enthusiasm for Luddite kitchen wisdom does not carry over to their history, any more than my response to a stirring political speech inclines me to accept the orator as scholar.
The Luddites’ fable of disaster, of a fall from grace, smacks more of wishful thinking than of digging through archives. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast: artisanal and traditional versus urban and industrial; healthful versus contaminated and fatty. History shows, I believe, that the Luddites have things back to front. That food should be fresh and natural has become an article of faith. It comes as something of a shock to realize that this is a latter-day creed. For our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad.
(My review of Kaleidoscope City: A Year in Varanasi by Piers Moore Ede. It appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, 24 April, 2015.)
The living and the dead of Varanasi have long enticed Western travelers, especially those fond of ‘Eastern spirituality’. Among them is British writer Piers Moore Ede, who, after many short visits, recently spent a year in this ancient city in Uttar Pradesh, northern India. From a Spartan flat overlooking the Ganga, he forayed into other parts of Varanasi, always ‘grateful for return to the familiarity and lyricism of the river bank’. Kaleidoscope City, an account of his experiences, brims with warmth, humility, and curiosity.
Moore Ede covers a fair bit of ground. He marvels at folk theater performances of The Ramayana. He probes the life and beliefs of an Aghori ascetic, among the most austere of holy men. He meets the city’s legendary master silk weavers, almost all Muslim, who still weave exquisite designs on manual looms inside their homes. Sampling Varanasi’s foods, he fondly delves into the locals’ love of sweets. He learns about the city’s great musical heritage, discovering that Muslims often ‘worked as professional musicians in Hindu temples’. He uncovers sad stories too: a prostitute and victim of a sex trafficking ring; white-robed widows who, often discarded by their families, come to die in Varanasi; textile workers fallen on hard times in the age of globalization.
As a Westerner in Varanasi, Moore Ede inhabits a privileged world, which both enables and limits him. If people sometimes trust him for being an empathetic outsider without a threatening stake in their lives, he admits he can often only see ‘the facade rather than the finer details, and cannot decipher the inner meaning of things.’ This is partly the lot of all outsiders, for whom encounters can be superficial and realities invisible. Moore Ede seems oblivious to the range of crookedness in the holy men he meets. At times, he is too uncritical, more like a fellow believer than a journalist. His yoga-studio Hinduism seems untouched by dissident voices—of the Buddha, Nagarjuna, or Ambedkar, say. Like many before him, he is prone to reducing the varieties of secular and religious life in pre-modern India to stereotypes. He writes, for example, that ‘At the heart of India’s change lies an unmistakable shift away from moksha as the central goal of life, towards that of material prosperity.’ Witnessing the disruptive juggernaut of modernity, he comes close to romanticizing the vanishing traditions of village life.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of Kaleidoscope City are the author’s respectful encounters with people and his sensitive exposition of several Varanasi traditions. Interwoven are many lovely impressions of the fleeting and the quirky. The rhythms of life and death by the river are vividly rendered in Moore Ede’s fluid prose.
(On the ethnic history and politics of Sri Lanka and a review of Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War. A shorter version appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, 3 April 2015. Below is the original long version—the director’s cut. Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily.)
Few places in the world, of similar size, offer a more bracing human spectacle than the beautiful island of Sri Lanka. It abounds in deep history and cultural diversity, ancient cities and sublime art, ingenuity and human folly, wars and lately, even genocide. It has produced a medley of identities based on language (Sinhala, Tamil, English, many creoles), religion (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, animism), and geographic origin (Indian, Malaysian, European, Arab, indigenous), alongside divisions of caste and class. Rare for a country its size are the many divergent accounts of itself, fused at the hip with the politics of ethnic identities—a taste of which I got during my month-long travel on the island in early 2014.
The Sri Lankan experience has been more traumatic lately, owing to its 26-year civil war that ended with genocide in 2009. The country’s three main ethnic groups—Sinhalese (75 percent), Tamil (18 percent), and Muslim (7 percent)—now live with deep distrust of each other. One way to understand Sri Lankan society and its colossal tragedy is to study the causes and events that led to the civil war. What historical currents preceded it? Did they perhaps make the war inevitable? What was at stake for those who waged it? What has been its human toll and impact on civic life? In his brave and insightful work of journalism, This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War, Samanth Subramanian attempts to answer such questions while bearing witness to many of its tragedies.
A Brief Social History of Sri Lanka
Around two-and-a-half millennia ago, waves of migrants from the Indian subcontinent overwhelmed the island’s indigenous hunter-gatherers, the Veddah (a few descendants still survive). Migrants arriving from modern day Bengal, speakers of Prakrit—an Indo-European language that evolved into Sinhala—intermixed with indigenous islanders to later become the Sinhalese. Other migrants from southern India, speakers of Tamil and other Dravidian languages and belonging mostly to the Saivite sect, also intermixed with the islanders to later become the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Which group of migrants arrived first, a question hotly pursued by the nationalists, lacks scholarly resolution. Both groups established themselves in different parts of the island: the Sinhalese in the center, south, and west, the Tamils in the north and east.
As with many ideas and concepts, "neoliberalism" means different thing to different people. They often talk past each other, for they don't have a common understanding of the term. In this piece, Wendy Brown, author of Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, first presents a compelling view of neoliberalism and then discusses the "consequences of viewing the world as an enormous marketplace".
The most common criticisms of neoliberalism, regarded solely as economic policy rather than as the broader phenomenon of a governing rationality, are that it generates and legitimates extreme inequalities of wealth and life conditions; that it leads to increasingly precarious and disposable populations; that it produces an unprecedented intimacy between capital (especially finance capital) and states, and thus permits domination of political life by capital; that it generates crass and even unethical commercialization of things rightly protected from markets, for example, babies, human organs, or endangered species or wilderness; that it privatizes public goods and thus eliminates shared and egalitarian access to them; and that it subjects states, societies, and individuals to the volatility and havoc of unregulated financial markets.
Each of these is an important and objectionable effect of neoliberal economic policy. But neoliberalism also does profound damage to democratic practices, cultures, institutions, and imaginaries. Here’s where thinking about neoliberalism as a governing rationality is important: this rationality switches the meaning of democratic values from a political to an economic register. Liberty is disconnected from either political participation or existential freedom, and is reduced to market freedom unimpeded by regulation or any other form of government restriction. Equality as a matter of legal standing and of participation in shared rule is replaced with the idea of an equal right to compete in a world where there are always winners and losers.
Ananda Sen, the young Bengali protagonist in Amit Chaudhuri’s sixth novel, Odysseus Abroad, is an aspiring poet, singer of ragas, and seeker of the romantic spark in London, 1985. Raised in Bombay but with ancestral roots in Sylhet, Bangladesh, Ananda has been studying English literature for over two years at a university in London—all details that also describe Chaudhuri’s own past. Ananda’s maternal uncle, Radhesh Majumdar—a character based on Chaudhuri’s own uncle—is in London too, in a Belsize Park bedsit for 24 years. Odysseus Abroad is a portrait of Ananda, Radhesh, and their relationship, rendered through their memories, everyday experiences, and responses to contemporary British culture.
Odysseus Abroad is not a traditional novel. It has no plot, no existential crisis, no darkness lurking in any soul; nor does it abound in moral conflicts or messy heartbreaks. In a recent interview, Chaudhuri, professor of contemporary literature at a British university, claimed to have ‘rejected the monumental superstructure of the novel in favour of the everyday rhythms of the day.’ Sadly, in Odysseus Abroad, this feels like the author taking away the cake and not offering any pudding either.
The novel opens with Ananda, 22, who dreams of getting published in Poetry Review, practices singing twice a day, and frets about his noisy Indian neighbors above and below his flat. From the daily rhythm of noises—creaking floorboards, kitchen sounds, a new kind of ‘angry, insistent’ music called ‘rap’—he has figured out the patterns of life of the young Gujaratis upstairs. Though ‘disengaged from Indian politics’, he is ‘dilettantishly addicted to British politicians—the debates; the mock outrage; the amazing menu of accents’ on TV. We learn that his privileged class status in India—marked by a ‘cursory but proud knowledge of Bengali literature’, ‘lettuce sandwiches as a teatime snack’, speaking English at home, ‘a diet of Agatha Christie and Earl Stanley Gardner’ in his early teens—meant that he remained largely oblivious to class until he came to England.
"Under the Dome" is a brilliant documentary on air pollution in China that has been seen by millions. Scary as hell. India is catching up fast and would do well to avoid some of China's mistakes. Not likely though. Things are going to get much worse in India before people wake up.
(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily.)
What to make of the verdict in Delhi’s Assembly elections this month? After a dismal show in the national election last year, when many had written it off, the Aam Aadmi (‘common man’) Party achieved a crushing win in Delhi with 67/70 seats. Delhi may be electorally small but being the capital of the nation and of empires past, the headquarters of the national media, and a trendsetter for other regions, its control has great emotional significance—all too evident in AAP’s main rival BJP’s desperate eleventh-hour tactics to win in Delhi.
The verdict has drawn many explanations: AAP’s strategy, grassroots campaign, and populist promises; people’s disaffection with the fueling of communal strife by RSS, VHP, and other BJP-affiliated Hindu right-wingers; the invisibility of BJP’s much-hyped ‘development’; BJP’s arrogance, disorganization in Delhi, and its dirty campaign; AAP’s success in framing this as a two-way contest which enabled anti-BJP votes to consolidate behind AAP; Modi’s $18K splurge on a suit—in retrospect, a major wardrobe malfunction, and so on. Whatever the mix of factors, last year’s ‘Modi wave’ now seems subdued, if not stalled.
Various polls show that AAP won due to greater support from the poor, the rural sections, slum dwellers, lower castes and Dalits, religious minorities, students, and women voters of Delhi—an enviable constituency for social liberal democrats like me. I’m not a member of AAP or any other party but I wanted AAP to win—not only because the alternatives were much worse but also because, despite some lamentable populism, there are many hopeful and progressive things in AAP’s politics and 70-point manifesto. These include two innovations it already practices: transparency in campaign finance and ensuring candidates have no heinous criminal charges. AAP’s win may bolster BJP’s opposition in upcoming state elections. It may even slow the rise of BJP’s communalism and its model of development in which growth of the corporate sector is prioritized far above social welfare and primary services—a GDP-growth led model akin to neoliberalism and almost always marked by rising disparity, shrinking safety nets, crony capitalism, and faster ecological damage. Indeed, why pursue GDP and corporate sector growth if not to primarily help increase human knowledge and reduce human suffering?