The Indian caste system has long violated some of the most basic tenets of human dignity, inflicting untold
misery, humiliation, and injustice on too many for too long. In recent years, perhaps for the first time, those on the lowest rungs
of the social pyramid defined by caste have begun to write and tell their own stories,
bearing witness to their slice of life in India. These include the
Dalits (‘the oppressed’)—formerly ‘untouchables’—numbering one out of
six Indians. Theirs is not only a powerful new current of literature,
it is also a major site of resistance and revolt. Here is a poem by Omprakash Valmiki, a Dalit writer best known for his autobiography, Joothan, which I plan to review soon.
What Would You Do?
If you Are thrown out of your village Cannot draw water from the well Are abused In the screaming, echoing afternoon Told to break stones In place of real work Are given leavings to eat What would you do? If you Are told to drag away Animal carcasses And Carry away the filth Of a whole family Given hand-me-downs to wear What would you do? If you Are kept far from books Far from the threshold Of the temple of learning If you are hung up like Jesus On a blackened wall In the light of an oil-lamp What would you do?
Here is a folk singer I recorded in May 2005 in the highlands of Khajjiar, Himachal Pradesh, India. He sings in a language called Pahari, derived from Sanskrit and Prakrit, with many dialects across the Himalayan belt. We were near the town of Chamba, so this particular dialect is probably Chambiali, though I can't be certain. I speak Hindi, also with roots in Sanskrit, so I can make out many words—enough to say that he is addressing his beloved in the first song and his attachment to place in the second—but not enough to translate (any Pahari speakers reading this?). Such are the myriad indigenous musical forms that globalization will probably make extinct in the years ahead.
I look for the same strengths and value in science fiction as I do in any other kind of film. But I don't care for macho, action-adventure films; I absolutely avoid them. Avatar is an action-adventure science fiction film. But it's not macho. Which is not to say it doesn't include some macho characters. I hope the difference is obvious.
James Cameron has long been recognized as the rare writer-director whose blockbuster vision allows as much value and presence to his female characters as to his male characters. Whatever the general merits of his previous films, The Terminator, Rambo II: First Blood, The Abyss, and The Titanic, one thing they can't reasonably be accused of is celebrating the masculine at the expense of the feminine. It's not only that his strong, brave, intelligent, and resourceful lead characters, Sara Connor (Linda Hamilton, The Terminator 1984) and Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, The Abyss 1989), are two among the spare handful of feminine hero(in)es one finds at all in science fiction films. It's not just that his male characters are full enough to encompass the feminine, as when he shows us Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, Rambo II 1985) crying, even succumbing to the wilderness of his grief, driven by his heart as much as his head, or as when he casts the romantic hero of The Titanic (Leonardo DiCaprio, 1997) as a man who runs from a fight, preferring to sketch pictures, instead. Cameron not only doesn't flinch from femininity or see it as weakness in opposition to masculinity, he seems hardly to notice the divide, and that's what allows his characterizations to feel natural and authentic.
Avatar is, in many ways, a larger film than any of his others. Probably his magnum opus. Outlandishly expensive to make, visually almost revolutionary, and politically loaded, Cameron took every risk with this film. Cameron is notorious for his brash ego. But it's possible no humbler person might have dared this production and this story. And what did he give us, after all? A heroic fantasy of White Guilt. The story of Pocahontas, re-imagined.
The story of Pocahontas is rooted in historical events, though few details are actually known. It is generally known that Pocahontas was one name of a daughter of Powhatan, the primary chief of a confederacy of Algonquin-speaking tribes in what is today Virginia, in the southeastern United States. She met the Englishman John Smith in 1607, when she was probably between 10 and 13 years old, while Smith was helping to establish Jamestown, the first successful English colony in North America. Smith later recounted to Queen Elizabeth that Pocahontas had intervened to save his life when her father's people captured and tried to kill him. Pocahontas befriended the colonists in Jamestown, and even saw to it that they were provisioned with food when they were starving, earning herself great respect among them. In 1609, Smith returned to England. In 1613, Pocahontas was taken captive by the English, who hoped to exchange her for weapons which her father had stolen from them. Her father ultimately did not make the ransom. Pocahontas rebuked her father for abandoning her, married an English tobacco farmer, becoming Rebecca Rolfe, and went with him to England in 1616. She died of illness on a boat the following year, when returning to the colonies. She was survived by her son, Thomas Rolfe.
There's neither evidence that Pocahontas ever saw Smith again after he'd left the Jamestown colony, nor that they ever had any kind of sexual relationship, though Smith did express to the Queen a degree of respect and affection toward her. Meanwhile, the toehold that colonial powers had gained in Jamestown grew and strengthened. By the mid-1600's, Powhatan's people were largely destroyed by European diseases and warfare. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I came across this 2002 article by Richard Altschuler that answers the following questions I've had for a while:
Does the expiration date on a bottle of a medication mean anything? If a bottle of Tylenol, for example, says something like "Do not use after June 1998," and it is August 2002, should you take the Tylenol? Should you discard it? Can you get hurt if you take it? Will it simply have lost its potency and do you no good?
In other words, are drug manufacturers being honest with us when they put an expiration date on their medications, or is the practice of dating just another drug industry scam, to get us to buy new medications when the old ones that purportedly have "expired" are still perfectly good?
(This five-part series on early Islamic history begins with the rise of Islam, shifts to its golden age, examines two major currents of early Islamic thought—rationalism and Sufi mysticism—and concludes with an epilogue. It builds on precursor essays I wrote at Stanford’s Green Library during a summer sabbatical years ago, and on subsequent travels in Islamic lands of the Middle East and beyond.) __________________________________________
Muslims discovered Greek thought hundreds of years before the Western Christians, yet it was the latter who eventually domesticated it. Why did the reverse not happen? Why did the golden age of Islam (approx. 9th-12th centuries)—led by luminaries such as al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Alhazen, al-Beruni, Omar Khayyam, Avicenna, and Averroës—wither away? Despite a terrific start, why did Greek rationalism fail to ignite more widely in Islam? In this epilogue, I’ll survey some answers that have been offered by historians and highlight one that I hold the most significant.
Earlier in this series, we saw how three contending currents of thought dominated the Islamic golden age—orthodoxy, rationalism, and mysticism—based on three different ways of looking at the world. Orthodoxy in Islam looked to the Qur’an to justify a whole way of life. A universal, durable code of behavior and personal conduct is an understandable human craving, and so much more comforting when God Himself shows up and lays it out in one’s own language! Orthodoxy is by no means limited to ‘revealed’ religions; it took root in Hinduism via its castes, priests, and rituals. Suffice it to say that humans have been drawn to narrow and exclusive systems of belief with a dismaying alacrity.  The orthodox, it’s worth pointing out, are not all that otherworldly. The mullahs, bishops, and pundits are rarely disengaged from their social milieu, as the mystics tend to be. The orthodox may covet the rewards of the other world but what happens in their own—as in what norms, practices, dogmas, and rituals are followed—is profoundly important to them. They care deeply about this world and, in their own way, struggle to improve it, sometimes even waging war over it.
The mystics are rather different. They don’t care much for holy books or religious clerics, and receive God as a subjective experience, beyond the bounds of dogma. An essential mystical experience lies in the believer’s sobering realization of the inadequacy of reason in knowing God and his design. Love and devotion—even rapturous ecstasy—help bridge the enormous gulf he sees between him and God. Happiness comes not from material pleasures but from surrendering to the benevolent divine. He deals with existential angst by suppressing his self and ego. Mystical teachers across cultures have appealed to a non-dualistic approach to nature, in which everything in existence is not only interwoven but is a manifestation of the divine. Clearly, a mystical worldview does not engender ideas like competition, personal ambition, or democracy, nor does it preoccupy itself with theories of justice or science or critical inquiry. Instead, it eschews religious orthodoxy and furthers a tolerant, pacifist, and private faith, often alongside a gentle, dreamy, fatalistic detachment from the world.  Such otherworldly mysticism flowered in Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and Eastern Christianity, but barely so in Western Christianity.
The rational current of Islam, as also in Western Christianity, was sparked by a small group of philosophers, scientists, doctors, liberal theologians, explorers, poets, artists, and their royal patrons in a fortuitous window of peace, prosperity, and cosmopolitan culture. They drew inspiration from ancient Greek texts, adapting them to their own milieu. A great intellectual ferment led to notable advances in areas like navigation, astronomy, and mathematics, which became the bedrock for later European advances. The bold thinkers who led the Islamic golden age profoundly inspired later Christians, including Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham. What then explains the fate of al-Farabi’s rationalist tradition? Before considering some answers, let’s briefly revisit the Greeks to remind ourselves of a few defining features of their society.
For its size, Ecuador may be the most geographically diverse country in the world. Besides the volcanic islands of Galapagos, it has three distinct regions: a coastal belt, the Andes mountains, and the sparsely inhabited El Oriente, or the Upper Amazon Basin to the east. El Oriente is mostly primeval rainforest, merging into cloud forest in the eastern foothills of the Andes. It teems with rivers that feed the mighty Amazon, the lifeblood of the "world's richest and most varied biological reservoir, containing several million species of insects, plants, birds, and other forms of life, many still unrecorded by science. The luxuriant vegetation and wide variety of trees include many species of myrtle, laurel, palm, and acacia, as well as rosewood, Brazil nut, and rubber tree." As in parts of Brazil, the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador is also shrinking, led by the usual economic motives (timber, petroleum, etc.) and new human settlements.
About six years ago, Usha and I went to El Oriente. We took a bus from Quito to the tiny town and jungle outpost of Tena, where we hired a taxi and went further east to a point along Rio Napo called Puerto Barantilla, where we took a boat to our jungle lodge near the mouth of Rio Arajuno. Over the next three days, we explored the region with local guides, including a memorable all-day hike through primordial forest, buzzing with streams and massive diversity of life (it rained hard that afternoon, making our hike path quite treacherous). We also went river rafting one day after assembling a raft out of logs with our guide's help, and hiked to amaZOOnico, an animal rescue and rehabilitation center run by local and overseas volunteers. Here we saw some of the great variety of Amazonian wildlife, including macaws, toucans, trumpet birds, tortoise, many kinds of monkeys, jaguars, ocelots, peccaries, tapirs, capybaras, agoutis, etc. The lodge served all of our meals. Dinner staple was fish with vegetables, rice, yucca or plantain, and tropical fruit, served by candlelight (the lodge had no electricity). The mosquitoes were large and vicious. The forest comes alive at night with the sound of a gazillion crickets.
The 10 min video below is based on the footage I took there (turn on HQ mode after it starts playing; a QuickTime version is here).