Until Beijing, the last gold India had won at the Olympics was in 1980; no Indian had ever won an individual gold. This dismal record has been a source of shame for countless Indians. Every four years, a puny contingent would trudge to a foreign city, crash out, and the question would arise again: Why do Indians fare so badly? Answers would again span the whole spectrum: economics, culture, genetics, climate, politics, cricket, and more.
I can't remember the last time India's Olympic record bothered me. I suspect this is because Olympic medals do not correlate with values I admire in a society. They do not suggest a high civilization, one that has evolved, say, a refined balance between justice, equality, and liberty. Playing sports to me is about having fun, being social, and engaging in friendly yet spirited contests. Sure, medals measure and reward excellence and can encourage people to aim higher, but the Olympics are now so hyper-competitive that it's all about winning after a long and grueling regime of hi-tech training (and at times drugs) at sports academies, often sponsored by "national prestige" initiatives. Where is the joy? Are these sports "finishing schools" much different from those that produce beauty queens? Reduced to a spectacle of physical feats by people driven by vacuous notions of glory, fame, and success, I see no reason to care for the Olympics (save for a certain fascination that led me to trapeze artists in my boyhood). Richard Rodriquez wrote four years ago:
Historians tell us that the ancient Greeks attached no glory to losing. So, also, today: Only gold will get you onto the box of Wheaties. Only gold, not silver, not bronze, not a good try, will get you immortality. Only gold is immortal. As someone who feels his soul more Hebraic than Hellenic, I keep thinking that what is eternal about the eternal flame is the wish for immortality. The Olympics is a celebration of youth, of ripeness, of summer. It is the most sublime and foolish of human romances, and this is its liturgy. Appropriate now to the neo-paganism of today's America, where one senses everywhere the obsolescence of a word like "soul." The body is all, health is all, and death is the defeat of all. Let the games begin.
In Beijing last week, a historic sense of shame appears to have finally dissolved. Abhinav Bindra, 26, became the first Indian ever to strike gold (10m air rifle shooting). Indians are ecstatic and bursting forth with pride. Every honcho—including the PM, the President, and Sonia Gandhi—wants to honor or interview him. State governments are queuing up to award him millions of dollars of taxpayer money. This despite that he is extravagantly rich, being the "CEO of Abhinav Futuristics, the sole agent of Germany based Walther brand of weapons for India which now markets their arms to country's law enforcement agencies." His family owns a 500-crore (US$125M) firm engaged in meat processing, real estate, and weapons. Papa Bindra spent a whopping 10 crores (US$2.5M) on his son's training. Further,
Like the protagonist of Machado de Asis's novel, Epitaph of a Small Winner, I consider myself a small winner for having overcome my blind urge to procreate. Not long ago, an Indian auntie, displeased with my choice, called me selfish to my face—I was too devoted to living for myself, she said, echoing a common view of people who choose like me. I pointed out politely that modern couples who produce children seem to me more selfish in that case. They certainly do no favors to the unborn—or to anyone else in this crowded world—by engendering for their owngratification those who have no say in the matter. She persisted: But what about the emotional well-being that children provide?
A recent article in Newsweek brought me some delight. Next time this pesky auntie needles me about the deprivations of my "childless" state (there is nothing "less" about it, I tell her; call me "childfree"), I'll be sure to point her to this study:
The most recent comprehensive study on the emotional state of those with kids shows us that the term "bundle of joy" may not be the most accurate way to describe our offspring. "Parents experience lower levels of emotional well-being, less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions than their childless peers," says Florida State University's Robin Simon, a sociology professor who's conducted several recent parenting studies, the most thorough of which came out in 2005 and looked at data gathered from 13,000 Americans by the National Survey of Families and Households. "In fact, no group of parents—married, single, step or even empty nest—reported significantly greater emotional well-being than people who never had children. It's such a counterintuitive finding because we have these cultural beliefs that children are the key to happiness and a healthy life, and they're not."
Philip Toledano's upcoming book PhoneSex reveals some of the people behind those 1-900 calls (via Mother Jones):
From a few mumbled words, a phone sex operator must weave a bespoke and finely detailed fantasy encounter. It requires a vivid imagination, acting ability, and above all, a deep understanding of the human appetite. What do we crave? What words have the maximum yield? What tone will most effectively reach into a man's trousers? When to be gentle, and when to demand fealty.
Phone-sex is theater. An artificial passion-play in real-time, directed by a skilled verbal fantasist, with only one possible conclusion.
Corporations are like wild beasts. Both are driven by blind, unthinking appetites. The only authentic instinct of a corporation is to sustain itself; its drive and creativity have one objective: shareholder return. All its talk about serving the community, building dreams, and saving lives is propaganda for its employees and customers. That said, corporations can be downright amusing, especially when they collide with the world of art. I've identified three kinds of art that corporations display in their offices and which never fail to amuse me:
(1) Abstract art: This is all the brain-dead stuff that cannot possibly offend anyone, such as bright geometric patterns, twisted metal, funky designs, etc.
( 2) Faux Rebel art: Former anti-establishment art—long defanged, decontextualized, made chic—is now the art of the "edgy" establishment. For example, a large woodcarving of Ché Guevara’s shaggy face in the board room (yes, I saw one in downtown San Francisco); a copy of a Diego Rivera mural in the lobby, etc.
(3) Motivational art: the most common kind, with framed posters of, say, a lone bald eagle in flight, muscular rowers in a longboat, lean people scaling mountain peaks. "Inspirational" words appear beneath: only those who see the invisible can do the impossible; true leaders don’t strive to be first but are the first to strive; dream more than others think is practical, expect more than others think is possible.
At last, a fitting response to (3) has emerged with Despair, Inc., a company built on selling demotivating art!
"AT DESPAIR, INC., we believe motivational products create unrealistic expectations, raising hopes only to dash them. That's why we created our soul-crushingly depressing Demotivators® designs, so you can skip the delusions that motivational products induce and head straight for the disappointments that follow!"
Check out some of their framed posters and the messages on them. My favorites include:
- Goals: It's best to avoid standing directly between a competitive jerk and his goals. - Challenges: I expected times like this - but I never thought they'd be so bad, so long, and so frequent. - Consulting: If you're not a part of the solution, there's good money to be made in prolonging the problem. - Defeat: For every winner, there are dozens of losers. Odds are you're one of them. - Adversity: That which does not kill me postpones the inevitable. - Apathy: If we don't take care of the customer, maybe they'll stop bugging us. - Leaders: Leaders are like eagles. We don't have either of them here. - Mistakes: It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others. - Risks: If you never try anything new, you'll miss out on many of life's great disappointments. - Teamwork: A few harmless flakes working together can unleash an avalanche of destruction.
One of the common refrains I heard from progressive people in Pakistan and India during my month there this summer was, “We love the American people -- it’s the policies of your government we don’t like.”
That sentiment is not unusual in the developing world, and such statements can reduce the tension with some Americans when people criticize U.S. policy, which is more common than ever after the illegal invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.
I used to smile and nod when I heard it, but this summer I stopped agreeing.
“You shouldn’t love the American people,” I started saying. “You should hate us -- we’re the enemy.”
More here. (Also check out this story from his brief teaching stint in Pakistan.)
(A longer version of the article below appeared in the Dec 2008 issue of Himal Southasian.)
The road to Dholavira goes through a dazzling white landscape of salty mudflats. It is close to noon in early April and the mercury is already past 100F. The desert monotones are interrupted only by the striking attire worn by the women of the nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoral tribes that still inhabit this land: Ahir, Rabari, Jat, Meghwal, and others. When I ask the driver of my hired car to stop for a photo, they receive me with curious stares, hoots, and giggles.
This is the Rann of Kutch, an area about the size of Kuwait, almost entirely within Gujarat and along the border with Pakistan. Once an extension of the Arabian Sea, the Rann ("salt marsh") has been closed off by centuries of silting. During the monsoons, parts of the Rann fill up with seasonal brackish water, enough for many locals to even harvest shrimp in it. Some abandon their boats on the drying mudflats, presenting a surreal scene for the dry season visitor. Heat mirages abound. Settlement is limited to a few "island" plateaus, one of which, Khadir, hosts the remains of the ancient city of Dholavira, discovered in 1967 and excavated only since 1989.
Entering Khadir, we pass a village and find the only tourist bungalow in town. It hasn't seen a visitor in three days; I check in and head over to the ruins. I've planned this for months; even the hottest hour of the day cannot temper my excitement for the ruins of this 5,000 year-old metropolis of the Indus Valley Civilization. While hundreds of sites have been identified in Gujarat alone, this is among the five biggest known to us in the entire subcontinent, alongside Harappa, Mohanjo-daro, and Ganeriwala in Pakistan, and Rakhigarhi in India.
At the site office, a caretaker and his friend are playing cards on a charpoy. They offer me a chair and a glass of water, cooled in an earthen surahi. On a wall are the mysterious inscriptions from the famous signboard of Dholavira, painted above contemporary motifs to suggest a continuity of sorts. I learn from the caretaker that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) still excavates each winter, alongside researchers from overseas. Hundreds from the local village are then employed on site. He says he has learned directly from the experts and offers to be my guide. I readily agree but hope that as part of the deal, he will overlook the "Photography Prohibited" injunction I had noticed earlier—a perfectly exasperating habit of the ASI—else I would have to attempt a bribe. I am relieved when the caretaker does not press the issue.