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.
(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily.)
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.
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.
(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.]
(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.
(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily.)
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, or national origin. Any group—majority/minority, strong/weak, light/dark—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 also 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 9/11, many European 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.
(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily, where it has received many comments.)
On how caste patriarchy in urban India hijacks and distorts the reality of gender violence.
Delhi now lives in infamy as India’s ‘rape capital’. In Dec 2012, the gruesome and fatal gang rape of a young woman, named Nirbhaya (‘fearless’) by the media, unleashed intense media and public outrage across India. Angry middle-class men and women, breaking some of their taboos and silences around sexual crimes, marched in Delhi shouting ‘Death to Rapists!’ The parliament scrambled to enact tough new anti-rape laws.
Many Delhiites have since grown fearful of their city’s public spaces. Opposition politicians, spotting an emotionally charged issue, promised to make Delhi safe for women. Campaigning for the BJP, Narendra Modi told Delhiites last year, ‘When you go out to vote, keep in mind "Nirbhaya" who became a victim of rape.’ AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal even promised private security guards with ‘commando training’ in every neighborhood. All this might suggest that a rape epidemic has broken out in Delhi’s streets, alleys, and buses. Mainstream media outlets in India and abroad seem to agree.
Anyone trying to analyze the issue must at least ask: who are the rapists, where do they rape, and how common is rape in Delhi? The latest 2014 data on rape from Delhi Police is a great place to start, not the least because it challenges the conventional wisdom of Delhiites and their media and politicians. It shows that, as in other countries and consistent with previous years in Delhi, men known to the victims commit the vast majority of rapes—96 percent in Delhi. These men include friends, neighbours, ‘relatives such as brother-in-law, uncle, husband or ex-husband and even father.’ More than 80 percent of them rape inside the victim’s home or their own. Strangers commit only 4 percent of rapes, which are also likelier to be reported. Yet so many people fixate on this latter scenario and take it as proof that Delhi is unsafe for women to go out by themselves.
The hard truth is that sexual predators are not so much ‘out there’ in the faceless crowd but among the familiar ones. ‘Statistically speaking’, journalist Cordelia Jenkins wrote in Mint in Aug 2013, ‘the problem [of rape in Delhi] is not on the streets at all, but in the home; the greatest threat to most women is not from strangers but from their own families, neighbours and friends.’ According to Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research, a women’s rights organisation in Delhi, ‘This data compels us to look at what is happening in and around our homes and workplaces.’ In other words, we ought to worry about rape less when women enter public spaces on their own, and more when they return home or hang out with friends. Why do so few Indians—men and women, including policy makers and public figures—seem to realize this? Some feminists have argued that this blend of pious concern with plain denial is the modus operandi of patriarchy itself.
Sheena Iyengar's excellent anthropological survey of "choice" across cultures, with special focus on its meaning in the U.S. She "studies how we make choices—and how we feel about the choices we make", including "both trivial choices (Coke v. Pepsi) and profound ones" (18 mins).
(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily, where it has received many comments.)
‘No man ever steps in the same river twice,’ wrote Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher, ‘for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’ Some also say this about ‘home’, making it less a place, more a state of mind. Or as Basho, the haiku master, put it, ‘Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.’ Still, in an age of physical migration like ours, one of the most bittersweet experiences in a migrant’s life is revisiting, after a long gap, the hometown where he came of age. More so perhaps if, while he was away, his neighborhood turned to ruin, crumbling and overrun with weeds, as happened in my case.
Last month, I revisited my boyhood home in Gwalior, a city in north central India, with my parents. I had grown up with my two sisters in Birlanagar, an industrial township in Gwalior, until I went away to college at age 17. After graduation, I left for the U.S. in 1989 for post-graduate studies and various jobs in the U.S. and Europe over the next two decades. I continued to think of Gwalior as my hometown until my parents also left in 1995 and I stopped going there during my India visits. By most measures I had a decent boyhood in Gwalior, yet I’m loath to idealize it or look upon it fondly. If it had its joys, it was also full of graceless anxieties, pressures, and confusions.
A ‘Temple of Modern India’
Many industrial townships similar to Birlanagar had arisen in mid-20th-century India, including at Bhilai, Durgapur, Rourkela, Bokaro, Jamshedpur, and Ranchi. Most were built around public sector enterprises, housing factories that employed thousands. Nehru, the modernizer, called these the ‘temples of modern India’. Birlanagar, where I grew up, was a private township, centered on two textile mills. The Birlas had started building it shortly before independence on land given to them for free by the Scindias, who ruled the then princely state of Gwalior. The older and larger of Birlanagar’s two mills was Jiyajeerao Cotton Mills (JC Mills), named after a member of the dynasty. The other mill, founded around 1950, was Gwalior Rayon (later Grasim), where my father, a textile engineer, worked for 36 years from 1958-94. Under the once famous ‘Gwalior Suiting & Shirting’ brand (watch this ad with Tiger Pataudi and Sharmila Tagore), Gwalior Rayon produced a range of fabrics combining both natural and synthetic fibers—such as cotton, wool, rayon, polyester, acetate, viscose—including some that ‘never tore’ and needed no ironing. Retailers apparently loved these products because their quality required no discounting.
During their heydays in the 1970s and 80s, the Birlanagar mills had over 10K employees—about 6-8 percent were Staff, the rest Labor—sustaining the livelihoods of perhaps over 100K people locally, about one sixth the population of Gwalior. In this otherwise unexceptional cow-belt city, many saw Birlanagar as a relative oasis—a modern township that drew in a diversity of professionals in nuclear families from across the country: Bengalis, Goans, Kashmiris, Tamils, Marathis, Punjabis, and more.
For a change of pace, I offer three of my many longtime musical favorites for your enjoyment. Click to listen to them on YouTube.
1. To Tragoudi Ton Gyfton by Greek singer, Eleni Vitali. "Eleni was born into music ... Her father Takis was a gifted santur player and a composer who had given music for the most important singers of the time. Her mother Loucy Karageorgiou used to sing in festive events in the evenings, and in the mornings she cleaned houses. They were of gypsy origin, with the tradition of music full of sadness and joy". The music is beautiful enough but see the following "interpretation of this song (with some liberty taken for the sake of rhyming)".
"Leave me alone, leave me alone
You only care about your own
I dont belong, I must go alone
"And when our women dance
They put you in a trance
As their fragrances surround you
With their arms around you"
2. Mamo Marie Mamo by Maria Karafizieva, who has one of the most amazing voices you’ll ever hear. She was part of Ivo Papasov & His Orchestra, which is apparently well known in the Bulgarian Gypsy folk musical tradition.
3. Douha Alia by Cheb Mami. He sings Raï, "folk music that originated in Oran, Algeria from Bedouin shepherds, mixed with Spanish, French, African and Arabic musical forms, which dates back to the 1930s." Camus fans might recall Oran as the site of his novel, The Plague.
Remember that absurd ad for the vaginal whitening cream launched in India in April 2012? At first I thought the clip below was a parody. I soon realized, to my horror, that this was a bonafide ad for another product: a vaginal tightening gel called "18 Again". The louts behind this insidious marketing campaign—including one Priti Nair in a leadership role at an outfit called Curry Nation—say this gel’s "product positioning from a brand perspective is that of women empowerment". Surreal, no? The product, made by Ultratech India, was apparently launched in Aug 2012 (I only saw this today) and attracted a fair bit of bad press, twitter venting, and scientific debunking of its claims back then.
For most of April, I traveled in Sri Lanka with my partner, Usha. Not only a beautiful island with a rich cultural history and ample wildlife, it's the only country in S. Asia rated "high" on the UN Human Development Index. It has relatively low economic disparity, little abject poverty, high literacy, and universal healthcare. To most Indians, Sri Lankan urbanscapes and rhythms of life will feel familiar and comfortable. I found traveling to be easy enough, the locals friendly, and the food delicious. Sri Lanka even has seven UNESCO world heritage sites.
It's also a country whose major ethnic communities—mainly Tamil and Sinhala but also the Muslims—haven't learned to live with each other. Their troubles mostly began in the 1950s with Sinhala nationalism and majoritarianism, driven by chauvinistic monks and militant buddhists, and fueled by cultural insecurities and jaundiced readings of religio-historic texts like the Mahavamsa. Humiliated and cornered, the Tamils demanded their own homeland; many resorted to violent resistance, leading to harsh reprisals from the Sinhala-dominated state. Over nearly three decades, Tamil areas suffered great destruction, mass exodus, and genocidal violence; ruins of war abound in the north. The LTTE may be finished, but will the great many atrocities committed against Tamil civilians near the war's end be forgotten or forgiven easily, esp. with no reconciliation underway, tens of thousands forced off their lands, and 100K+ refugees still in India five years after the war's end? Under the Rajapaksa family's authoritarian regime, Sinhala pride and triumphalism have resurged, public corruption is rampant, there is little freedom of the press and disappearances are common, especially in Tamil areas that have an oppressive army presence. The economy, however, is growing again and new infrastructure, often funded by the Chinese, is coming up: an airport, modern highways, high-rise apartments, casinos, resorts, and more. For a country its size, I found Sri Lanka to be enormously complex and interesting.
Read a brief history of Sri Lanka here. For a closer look at contemporary Sri Lankan society and politics, start with the following: How Not to Win a War, Buddhists Behaving Badly, Beyond the Beach, Sri Lanka After the War, Five Years On (an archive of recent journalism), and the harrowing documentary, No Fire Zone. Below are some of my pictures.
This brilliant talk by Dr. Robert Lustig persuasively argues that sugar, based on how our bodies metabolize it in the liver, is no less a poison than alcohol. He explains how our bodies process different carbohydrates like glucose, sucrose (table sugar), and fructose, and why sugar in the latter two forms is the primary cause of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and more. He also debunks many common myths of health and nutrition by showing that a calorie is not a calorie (its source is important), why exercising is not about burning calories but improving metabolism, why fat is nowhere near as bad as sugar, etc. Also read this review of the related new documentary, Fed Up.
A few weeks ago, the Indian publisher Navayana released an annotated, "critical edition" of Dr. BR Ambedkar’s classic, Annihilation of Caste (AoC). Written in 1936, AoC was meant to be the keynote address at a conference but was never delivered. Unsettled by the scathing text of the speech and faced by Ambedkar’s refusal to water it down, the caste Hindu organizers of the conference had withdrawn their invitation to speak. Ambedkar, an "untouchable", later self-published AoC and two expanded editions, which included MK Gandhi’s response to it and his own rejoinder.
AoC, as S. Anand points out in his editor’s note, happens to be "one of the most obscure as well as one of the most widely read books in India." The Navayana edition of AoC carries a 164-page introduction by Arundhati Roy, The Doctor and the Saint (read an excerpt). The publisher’s apparent strategy was to harness Roy to raise AoC’s readership among savarna (or caste Hindu) elites to whom it was in fact addressed, but who have largely ignored it for over seven decades, even as countless editions of it in many languages have deeply inspired and empowered generations of Dalits.
However, this new edition has drawn a mixed response. Expressions of praise coexist alongside howls of disapproval and allegations of an ugly politics of power and privilege, co-option and misrepresentation. To many Dalit and a few savarna writers and activists, this Roy-Navayana project—Navayana is a small indie publisher run by Anand, a Brahmin by birth—is a bitter reminder that no Dalit-led edition of AoC can get such attention in the national media, that gimmicks are still needed in this benighted land to "introduce" AoC and Ambedkar to the savarnas, that once again, caste elites like Roy, with little history of scholarly or other serious engagement with caste (as Anand himself suggested about Roy three years ago), are appropriating AoC and admitting the beloved leader of Dalits into their pantheon on their own terms—all while promoting themselves en route: socially, professionally, and financially (see this open letter to Roy and her reply).
Such responses may seem provincial, hypersensitive, or even paranoid to some, but they shouldn’t be brushed aside as such. They point to a universally toxic dynamic of power and knowledge to which savarna elites are so alert and sensitive in colonial, orientalist contexts, yet so blind to its parallels within India, propagated by their own class. Is this because it’s easier to see prejudice directed from above at one’s own class, versus the prejudice it doles out below? Especially on a fraught topic like caste, one’s social location shapes how one frames and conducts a debate on annihilating caste, its current state, and the heroes and villains in this fight. The folks at Navayana—a leading English language publisher of anti-caste books, including many by Dalit authors—would surely nod in agreement.
A Review of Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition by Mohinder Singh Sarna, Rupa, 2013. This review first appeared in the Sunday Guardian.
"What sort of a Pakistan was this that had entered their village like some maddened bull, trampling humanity under its hooves and turning everything upside down?" wonders an anguished man in Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition by Mohinder Singh Sarna (1923-2001), translated from Punjabi and introduced by his son and diplomat, Navtej Sarna. On both sides of the new western border between India and Pakistan, an orgy of violence had broken out in towns and villages. It was Hindus and Sikhs vs. Muslims, with both sides pillaging, raping, and killing, leaving a million dead, 12-18 million refugees, and a still-poisoned well of politics in the region.
Over the decades, Partition has produced many popular and critical narratives: its causes, villains, avoidable mistakes, its defining features and aftermath. While such narratives can never be immune from subjective perspectives, much of it—despite notable work from scholars like Gurharpal Singh, Ian Talbot, Urvashi Butalia, Perry Anderson, Gyanendra Pandey, and Jan Breman—remains mired in crude nationalistic politics, taboos, and mythologies of India, Pakistan, and Great Britain.
In 2011 for instance, when Jaswant Singh, former defense minister of India and a senior member of BJP, wrote a book in which he blamed Nehru more than Jinnah for Partition and even praised many aspects of Jinnah’s personality, the BJP expelled him from the party and banned his book in Gujarat. This despite the fact that Singh was articulating an increasingly common view among scholars. Recent scholarship has also shown that a lot of Partition violence, such as that of Rawalpindi massacres, attacks on refugee trains and foot convoys, and ethnic cleansing of villages, was carefully planned and executed—with ample collusion of state agents—by extremist groups competing for political power. That's why the violence of Partition was so much more brutal and genocidal than the violence of "mere" communal riots. Such groups included Muslim para-militaries, Hindu volunteers of the RSS, and Sikh jathas and princely rulers. In other words, much of Partition violence in Punjab did not erupt "spontaneously" among mobs and hotheads, an idea that still rules the popular imagination.
I have an essay in The Caravan on Ambedkar's place in the Indian imagination, and why he hasn't received his due from upper-caste Indians.
"Turn in any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path,” wrote Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, India’s foremost crusader for dignity and civil rights. That monster has always haunted Ambedkar’s legacy, polarising it along caste lines. On the one hand is his godlike presence in Dalit communities, who, out of affection and admiration, have built countless statues of him, usually dressed in a Western suit and tie, with a fat book under his arm, and in whose folk songs, poems, and calendar art he has long held pride of place. For generations, his bold, secular, and emancipatory ideas inspired many Dalit activists and writers, many of whom recall their lives in “before-and-after Ambedkar” phases. When Omprakash Valmiki, the author of the memoir Joothan: A Dalit’s Life, first read about Ambedkar’s life and work, he “spent many days and nights in great turmoil.” He grew more restless; his “stone-like silence” began to melt, and “an anti-establishment consciousness became strong” in him. Ambedkar gave voice to his muteness, Valmiki wrote, and raised his moral outrage and self-confidence.
On the other hand, there remains a longstanding apathy for Ambedkar among caste Hindus. What respect he gets from India’s elites is usually limited to his role as the architect of the constitution—important, but arguably among the least revolutionary aspects of his legacy. The social scientist and educationist Narendra Jadhav, interviewed in the Times of India earlier this year, described Ambedkar as the “social conscience of modern India”, and lamented that he has been reduced to being “just a leader of Dalits and a legal luminary.” Indeed, even thoughtful, liberal elite Indians are commonly ignorant about Ambedkar’s life and social impact, both in his lifetime and in the decades since—as the scholar Sharmila Rege noted in Against the Madness of Manu: BR Ambedkar’s writings on Brahmanical Patriarchy, not only lay readers, but Indian post-graduates and academics in the social sciences, humanities, and women’s studies are also unlikely to have read him. What explains this severe disjunction in how Ambedkar is received in India?
Saartjie (or Sarah) Baartman isn't a name that many will recognize, outside of her native South Africa. But her story seems to embody so much about historical (and modern) contradictions of race and gender, violence, fantasy, exploitation, and prejudice, that she's become an icon for many, such as the founders of the Saartjie Baartman Center for Women and Children in South Africa.
Baartman was a young Khoisan woman who traveled to England in 1810, when she was 20 years old, to become a performer. In England, she quickly became famous as the "Hottentot Venus," the main attraction of a popular Piccadilly freak show exhibit, in which she presented herself as a wild savage tamed by her keeper. Dressed in a revealing bodysuit and beaded ornaments, she swaggered and growled for the audience, and turned to let them closely examine her famously prominent buttocks. Between performances, she lived comfortably, dressing as a European woman and going freely about town. She also fell to heavy drinking and her health declined. After a few years of this in England, she was sent to France, where her exploitation deepened, including her presentation as a biological specimen studied by leading scientists eager to promote their theory of white racial superiority. In France, she died of one or more undetermined infections at the age of 25.
The fact that the cause of her death remains uncertain is curious, given that after her death her remains were carefully examined, measured, and preserved in pieces. Of particular interest to these men of science who dissected her were her genitalia, which were separated and kept in a jar that was displayed in France's National Museum until the late 20th century. In 2002, after calls from the South African government, her remains were finally repatriated and buried, surrounded by a great swell of national feeling and homage paid in speeches, song, and dance.
I recently stumbled across the 2010 film, Venus Noire, the story of Saartjie Baartman, by Lebanese-French filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche. (Watch the trailer, here.) Unsurprisingly, the film, which runs 2:40 hours and includes a significant portion of subtitled dialog in Afrikaans and French, was never distributed in the US, beyond the film festival circuit. But it is a film worth watching, difficult and complex and surely controversial for portraying Baartman's life with unmitigated rawness. Without a soundtrack, the earthy, deeply inhabited performances of the actors and complexity of storytelling give the film a realism that deftly and vividly builds the world around Baartman, while leaving her own interior experience largely open for the viewers' interpretation and projection. Not only does this relieve the filmmakers from presuming too much about what she thought—many details of which remain unknowable or controversial—but it also gives the film the heft of a sledgehammer without ever preaching or pounding home any particular message; it removes the matter from the realm of the debatable and forces us to feel, to confront her humanity with our own.