In this 18-minute travel documentary, I present some of what we saw and learned during our wonderful 12-day trip to Zambia in November 2015. We visited the beautiful South Luangwa National Park, Lusaka, Livingstone, Victoria Falls, and Mukuni village.
For more photos, notes, and other information, check out the Zambia page on shunya.net.
Narration, script, and editing: Usha Alexander
Videography: Namit Arora
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, Indonesian, 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,
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 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.
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 is a selective story about who we are, what we share with others, why we are 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, as do the white nationalism of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. 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’.
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.
A film on the life and work of three Indian scientists: Satyendra Nath Bose, Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, and Meghnad Saha, "the significance of whose contributions are of vital importance even today in quantum physics, fibre optics, nuclear science or astrophysics." The film's biographical sketches are celebratory and tinged with patriotic pride, but it still furnishes an engaging overview of their life and work.
Many of us expected that the new BJP regime in Delhi will try to rewrite Indian history from a hardline Hindutva perspective (as opposed to the softline Hindutva of the Congress and of most leading Indian academies). But it still hurts to see it come so soon and in such a doltish package: the appointment of Yellapragada Sudershan Rao as chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (a funding agency for historical reseach in India, ICHR is to history what the NSF is to science in the U.S.). Sample the excerpt below from Rao's interview in Outlook and read historian Romila Thapar's take on his appointment.
YS Rao: There is a certain view that the Mahabharata or the Ramayana are myths. I don’t see them as myths because they were written at a certain point of time in history. They are important sources of information in the way we write history. What we write today may become an important source of information for the future in the future. When analysed, of course, they could be declared to be true or false. History is not static. It belongs to the people, it’s made by the people. Similarly, the Ramayana is true for people...it’s in the collective memory of generations of Indians. We can’t say the Ramayana or the Mahabharata are myths. Myths are from a western perspective.
What does that mean?
For us, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are true accounts of the periods in which they were written.
But shouldn’t the writing of history be rooted in historical evidence and research?
Western schools of thought look at material evidence of history. We can’t produce material evidence for everything. India is a continuing civilisation. To look for evidence would mean digging right though the hearts of villages and displacing people. We only have to look at the people to figure out the similarities in their lives and the depiction in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. For instance, the Ramayana mentions that Rama had travelled to Bhadrachalam (in Andhra Pradesh). A look at the people and the fact that his having lived there for a while is in the collective memory of the people cannot be discounted in the search for material evidence. In continuing civilisations such as ours, the writing of history cannot depend only on archaeological evidence. We have to depend on folklore too.
Or sample a 2007 blog post in which Rao, displaying his grasp of Indian history, wrote that the caste system "was working well in ancient times and we do not find any complaint from any quarters against it. It is often misinterpreted as an exploitative social system for retaining economic and social status of certain vested interests of the ruling class." Nevermind that the Buddhists, Jains, and Carvakas utterly rejected it in ancient times. He thinks "Varna leads one to moksha (the liberation of the soul) while caste system is meant for the material and human resource management of a civilized society." In RSS-style baiting, he writes, "Most of the questionable social customs in the Indian society, as pointed out by the English educated Indian intellectuals and the Western scholars, could be traced to the period of Muslim rule in north India spanning over seven centuries." If this is how he intends "to think about India’s history from an Indian perspective", we are in trouble!
For the most part, mainstream history in the United States has little in common with this trenchant narrative from a leftist perspective — and not because this has any less truth or clarity (23 mins). (They could have chosen a better title for this film though. :-)
By now you've probably heard of this summer's blockbuster book by French economist Thomas Piketty. As I see it, Piketty's primary, carefully argued, data-backed conclusion is: To salvage capitalism (and to improve the odds of social stability and world peace), governments need to raise taxes on the rich—more steeply on capital (i.e., tax on wealth and inheritance) than on labor (i.e., tax on wages)—and redistribute it to reduce today's absurd level of inequality that's on track to become even worse. The book jacket description says:
What are the grand dynamics that drive the accumulation and distribution of capital? Questions about the long-term evolution of inequality, the concentration of wealth and the prospects for economic growth lie at the heart of political economy, but satisfactory answers have been hard to find for lack of adequate data and clear guiding theories. In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty analyzes a unique collection of data from twenty countries, ranging as far back as the eighteenth century, to uncover key economic and social patterns. His findings will transform debate and set the agenda for the next generation of thought about wealth and inequality. Piketty shows that modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge have allowed us to avoid inequalities on the apocalyptic scale predicted by Karl Marx, but we have not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality as much as we thought in the optimistic decades following World War II. The main driver of inequality — the tendency of returns on capital to exceed the rate of economic growth — today threatens to generate extreme inequalities that stir discontent and undermine democratic values, but economic trends are not acts of God. Political action has curbed dangerous inequalities in the past, Piketty says and may do so again. A work of extraordinary ambition, originality and rigor, Capital in the Twenty-First Century reorients our understanding of economic history and confronts us with sobering lessons for today.
Many excellent reviews of the book are compiled here (thanks to Patrick S O'Donnell). Four reviews I liked in particular, the last two of them mixed ones, are by Cory Doctorow, Paul Krugman, David Harvey, and Fred Guerin. Those who like graphs will find this summary interesting.
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.
A few weeks ago, the Indian publishing house 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 independent publishing house 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 should not 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 is 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.
In a new essay, A Deadly Triangle: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, William Dalrymple provides a breezy yet insightful overview of the conflict in the region and presents scenarios, including hopeful ones, for the region after the Americans leave Afghanistan. Thoughts?
The hostility between India and Pakistan lies at the heart of the current war in Afghanistan. Most observers in the West view the Afghanistan conflict as a battle between the U.S. and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) on one hand, and al-Qaida and the Taliban on the other. In reality this has long since ceased to be the case. Instead our troops are now caught up in a complex war shaped by two pre-existing and overlapping conflicts: one local and internal, the other regional.
Within Afghanistan, the war is viewed primarily as a Pashtun rebellion against President Hamid Karzai’s regime, which has empowered three other ethnic groups—the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras of the north—to a degree that the Pashtuns resent. For example, the Tajiks, who constitute only 27% of the Afghan population, still make up 70% of the officers in the Afghan army.
The latest issue of the Humanist magazine (July-Aug '13) has a slightly modified version of my essay from last year.
Clearly, most people don’t even know about the horror and pain we inflict on billions of birds and mammals in our meat factories. But there’s no good excuse for this, is there? It’s more likely that we don’t want to know—can’t afford to know for our own sake—so we turn a blind eye and trust the artifice of bucolic imagery on meat packaging. Some see parallels here with the German people’s willful denial of the concentration camps that once operated around them, or call those who consume factory-farmed meat little Eichmanns. “For the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka,” wrote Isaac Bashevis Singer (who also used to say he turned vegetarian “for health reasons—the health of the chicken”).
Predictably enough, many others are offended by such comparisons. They say that comparing the industrialized abuse of animals with the industrialized abuse of humans trivializes the latter. There are indeed limits to such comparisons, though our current enterprise may be worse in at least one respect: it has no foreseeable end. We seem committed to raising billions of sentient beings year after year only to kill them after a short life of intense suffering. Furthermore, rather than take offense at polemical comparisons—as if others are obliged to be more judicious in their speech than we are in our silent deeds—why not reflect on our apathy instead? Criticizing vegetarians and vegans for being self-righteous—or being moral opportunists in having found a new way of affirming their decency to themselves—certainly doesn’t absolve us from the need to face up to our role in perpetuating this cycle of violence and degradation.
In the story of modern India, as any schoolkid will confirm, the anti-colonial struggle looms large. Almost all national heroes are men associated with it. To what extent is this because the Congress, which led the anti-colonial movement, ruled in the decades that followed? Why do mainstream histories — by Indians and, for their own reasons, even by the British — give political emancipation most of the air time and lionize Gandhi and Nehru at the expense of others? From what perspective does it seem that no other movements of significance were afoot besides anti-colonialism, no other heroes?
Notably, Ambedkar, who didn't quite participate in the anti-colonial struggle — focusing instead on the emancipation of the "depressed classes" — was sidelined for decades. At best, he received grudging respect as the architect of the Constitution, arguably one of the smaller and least subversive parts of his legacy. Was this dimunition because Ambedkar was openly combative and critical of both Gandhi and Nehru, attacked Hinduism's most sacred scriptures and age-old practices, converted to Buddhism, and became a trenchant spokesman of the oppressed castes? Did that made it easy for the defensive Hindu elites to pigeonhole him as a partisan man of his people, rather than a revolutionary social thinker? Was this because the dominant castes and their intellectuals had not done even the minimal soul-searching necessary to embrace Ambedkar's most profound and radical ideas? Indeed, why is it that far more upper caste Indians have read works by Gandhi, Nehru, and Tagore, but almost nothing by Ambedkar? Do non-Dalits have little to gain from reading Ambedkar? Meanwhile, his bold and subversive analyses continue to inspire countless lower-caste activists and writers, who continue to goad Brahminical India towards a long overdue reckoning with its past and its heroes.
According to historian Perry Anderson, Ambedkar was "intellectually head and shoulders above most of the Congress leaders". The fact is that Ambedkar, uniquely among the major national figures, not only overcame enormous personal odds, he also developed a pioneering critique of Indian society based on the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Indeed, he was far more modern than even Nehru. This aspect of Ambedkar — rooted in a scrupulously reasoned, secular and radical egalitarianism, coupled with bracing civil rights talk of social justice and human dignity — is unprecedented among Indian leaders and it still hasn't received its due in mainstream scholarship.
For a good introduction to Ambedkar's mind, few documents will surpass The Annihilation of Caste. Originally written in 1936, it was meant to be a speech that was never delivered — the reasons for which appear in the prologue. This reprint in 1944 is accompanied by a critique by Gandhi, followed by Ambedkar's brilliant rejoinder. Read it and realize why perhaps more than any other leader of modern India, Ambedkar remains relevant to every dream of a just, modern, liberal, secular, humane, and democratic society in India.
A review of The Indian Ideology by Perry Anderson. It first appeared as "No Saints or Miracles" in the Himal Southasian print quarterly 'Are we sure about India?' (January 2013), and is reproduced with permission. This online version (updated, about 10 percent larger) first appeared on 3QD in two parts: One, Two.
‘Nations without a past are contradictions in terms,’ wrote Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. Precursors to every modern nation are stories about its past and the present — stories full of invention, exclusion, and exaggeration — which help forge a ‘national consciousness’. Historians, wrote Hobsbawm, have ‘always been mixed up in politics’ and are ‘an essential component of nationalism’. They participate in shaping a nation’s mythos and self-perception. In his vivid analogy, ‘Historians are to nationalism what poppy-growers in Pakistan are to heroin addicts: we supply the essential raw material for the market.’ The more nationalist a historian, he held, the weaker his bid to be taken seriously as a historian.
But not all historians are equally complicit. Some are deeply skeptical of the dominant national histories and claims of nationhood. ‘Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation,’ wrote the scholar Ernst Renan. The skeptical historian may even see positive value in certain aspects of nationalism—its potential to bind diverse groups and inspire collective action, for instance—but she always sees a pressing need to inspect and critique its claims, assumptions, omissions, myths, and heroes. Scrutiny may reveal that a ‘cherished tradition’ is neither cherished, nor a tradition; likewise for supposedly ‘ancient’ origins and customs, traits and virtues, arts and culture, and other qualities of life and mind said to define the essence of a nation and its people. This approach is especially common among Marxist historians (their analytical orientation defines the genre, not their views on communism). The best of them know that there is no ultimately objective history, but who yet seek to write history from below and attempt to expose the actual conditions of social life, including the divisions, conflicts and oppressions that plague any nation.
This, then, is the vantage point of Marxist historian Perry Anderson’s magnificent and lucid new work, The Indian Ideology. What does the title refer to? In his own words, it ‘is another way of describing what is more popularly known as "The Idea of India", which celebrates the democratic stability, multi-cultural unity, and impartial secularity of the Indian state as a national miracle.’ Anderson offers a critique of this idea.
Nationalism in India arose in the 19th century. A native elite, responding to British colonialism, began articulating a consciousness based on a new idea of India. Until then, despite civilizational continuities, the Subcontinent had no sense of itself as ‘India’, no national feeling based on political unity or a shared identity. Rival political units and ethnic groups abounded, divided by language, faith, caste, geography, history, and more. There was no historical awareness of the ancient empires of Mauryas or Guptas, or that the Buddha was Indian. This and much more of the Indian past would emerge via European scholarship, profoundly shaping ‘Hinduism’ and Hindu self-knowledge. Anderson surveys the rise of Indian nationalism and offers sharp vignettes of the minds and matters that drove Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru, Bose, Ambedkar, Mountbatten and others. His analysis of the forces that led to Partition is astute and provocative. He assesses the performance of the independent nation-state and subjects Indian intellectuals to a withering critique for what he diagnoses as their comfort with ‘the Indian ideology’. Though not without shortcomings, Anderson has given us a masterwork of critical synthesis — trenchant, original, and bold — that should fuel discussion and debate for years ahead.