A Muslim student is asked to draw the Prophet in this short film set in France, a few days after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Jan 2015. See what he comes up with (5 min).
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.)
"Under the Dome" is a brilliant documentary on air pollution in China that has been seen by millions. Scary as hell. India is catching up fast and would do well to avoid some of China's mistakes. Not likely though. Things are going to get much worse in India before people wake up.
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).
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.
Check out "Aftershocks: The Rough Guide to Democracy", an engaging documentary film by Rakesh Sharma. Set in Kutch, Gujarat, it tells the story of people in two remote villages whose lives are plunged into upheaval by an earthquake, an apathetic state, corporate greed, religious myth, baseless optimism, and other human tragedies (64 mins, 2002). Sharma is better known for "The Final Solution", a really good film on the 2002 Gujarat riots. You'll find both films at his Vimeo channel.
"We live in a world of unseeable beauty, so subtle and delicate that it is imperceptible to the human eye. To bring this invisible world to light, filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg bends the boundaries of time and space with high-speed cameras, time lapses and microscopes. At TED2014, he shares highlights from his latest project, a 3D film titled Mysteries of the Unseen World, which slows down, speeds up, and magnifies the astonishing wonders of nature." Must see.
Welcome to SOFEX (Special Operations Forces Exhibition) in Jordan, the premier international trade show of the global army industry, along with a training center sponsored by the U.S. and Jordan. "SOFEX is where the world's leading generals come to buy everything from handguns to laser-guided missile systems." Indeed, "just about anyone with enough money can buy the most powerful weapons in the world."
I think the video report below is both well made and depressing. As the narrator says, 16 of the 20 largest arms manufacturers selling at SOFEX are American. "America gives a lot of these countries foreign aid," he notes, "so they can come here and buy weapon systems from American companies … more often than not, they’re [using these weapons] against their own citizens. And thanks to the number of governments who are afraid of their own people, business is booming." Pax Americana, baby!
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 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. :-)
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.
Omprakash Valmiki, a leading Hindi writer and poet, died last week. He was 63 years old. He is best known for his memoir, Joothan, whose translation by Arun Mukherjee I reviewed some years ago. "It is a memoir of growing up ‘untouchable’ starting in the 1950s outside a typical village in Uttar Pradesh. Told as a series of piercing vignettes, Joothan is also a remarkable record of a rare Indian journey, one that took a boy from extremely wretched socioeconomic conditions to prominence as an author and social critic." In this video in three parts (one, two, three), Valmiki reads some of his poems, which are powerful and moving.
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.
I spoke on the topic of "value" at a recent PechaKucha event in New Delhi, hosted by the Adianta School for Leadership and Innovation, New Delhi on Aug 29, 2013. "PechaKucha 20x20 is a simple presentation format where you show 20 images, each for 20 seconds. The images advance automatically and you talk along to the images."
Pecha Kucha Night #20: Value
We use the term value in two surprisingly contradictory ways in our everyday life: on the one hand, we speak of our valuables, market valuation, and other forms of economic worth, and on the other hand we speak of social, cultural and moral values. In generations past it was more or less accepted that these two forms of value could not be reconciled. The things one had to do to create economic value might simply remain in tension or opposition with one’s personal or familial values. Increasingly, however, we see that young people in India and around the world are trying to bring these two kinds of value into alignment with one another.
Since the establishment of numerous other social venture funds, we have seen the world of social entrepreneurship explode. National governments are beginning to make further investments into new private organizations that are committed to doing well while also doing good. Many new start ups and social enterprises are making waves in India, Africa, Europe and the United States.
Have we truly reached the point where economic value = social value? Or is further innovation in policy making, regulation and market maturity going to be required to ensure that we get there? Do different people, from different walks of life see value in increasingly similar terms? Or do can we now see new grades and shades of meaning in this term, as it splinters between financial, macroeconomic, environmental, political and cultural dimensions.
This is the theme for our upcoming Pecha-Kucha Night at the Adianta School Campus at Chhattarpur in New Delhi. We will host eight pathbreaking speakers who will speak for seven minutes each, using 20 slides for 20 seconds per slide, exactly. RSVP now for what will be a memorable night of beer, momos, sound, light, thought and conversation.
To commemorate Teacher's Day today, here is a great talk on how men ought to approach "gender issues", and the complicit silence and self-deception that pervades the lives of men. Obvious parallels here for upper-caste Indians on how to approach "caste issues".
Two days in south Rajasthan with AMRIT Health Services, a not-for-profit initiative
“The demand to sacrifice a goat was not something we had expected as a precondition for setting up the clinic,” Dr. Pavitra Mohan explained. A pediatrician and public health professional, he was telling me about the initial days of setting up the first AMRIT Clinic in Bedawal, a Meena village in south Rajasthan that otherwise had no healthcare facility. The problem was that the building he had identified as adequate for his purpose was directly across from the village temple to their god, Hemliya Bavji, but it required major renovations, including the construction of a toilet, apparently the first in the village. Though the panchayat welcomed the clinic, several villagers refused to allow a toilet so near the temple, on religious grounds. To make matters worse, they also refused to allow trimming the sacred tree overhanging the building in order to build rooms on the roof for the healthcare workers to sleep at night. But after further talks and negotiations, they finally granted permission to build the clinic and trim the tree as well.
And so, in early 2013, AMRIT Clinic opened in Bedawal with a small team of qualified nurses and healthcare workers, who constitute the core of AMRIT Health Services (AHS) in the villages. They are supported by a doctor who visits once a week and is also available for telephone consultations on other days. Hoping for a view into the work of this organization—its context, its challenges, its benefits to the local population—my partner and I went for a visit in early August; our plan was to produce an introductory video about their work.
With Dr. Mohan, Niti Sharma, Manager of Operations, Himi, Fellow, public health, and Dr. Gargi Goel, a young pediatrician who had come out on a job interview, we drove ninety minutes from Udaipur city to Salumbar, the last little town where basic services—petrol, meals for purchase, rooms for the night—were to be found before we headed out into the fairly isolated villages of the remote countryside. From Salumbar, we continued for another forty-five minutes on narrow, broken or dirt roads to Bedawal, the first of two clinic sites we visited.
With little vehicular traffic, buffaloes and goats took up the slack. An occasional bus or jeep rattled back toward Salumbar, overloaded with people sitting on top or swinging off the sides, as this was their only available transportation. Maize stood tall in small plots receding into the hills and valleys on both sides of the roadway, and squatting among these fields were mud and stone dwellings with broad verandahs and rough tiled roofs supported by carved wooden beams and lintels. Droves of children in shabby school uniforms—mostly boys—milled along the roadside near the village center, laughing, playing. Electrical wires were stitched across the landscape, but we learned that much of the time they are dormant, sometimes for days. For me, arriving from the sticky heat of Delhi, the cooling breezes of this region’s modest elevations and its fresher monsoon air were invigorating.
Despite the goat sacrifice, Himi told us, one of AHS’s early challenges has been to gain the trust of the local people. There had never been qualified medical practitioners in these villages, but a particular brand of charlatan, known locally as Bengali Doctors, preys upon the people, charging hundreds of rupees to put patients on a saline drip and inject a drug cocktail that gives them a jolt, no matter their ailment. When villagers first came to the clinic, they expected the same treatment and were suspicious or dismissive if they did not receive it. And when the nurses asked only fifty rupees for a week’s treatments, the villagers scoffed. What kind of medicine can be so cheap? “Then they were afraid we might do some magic on them,” Himi said. Fortunately, as more and more people have been helped or cured by the efforts of AHS, the perceptions are changing.
Is Islam a religion of peace? On the occasion of Eid today, I thought of this recent and eloquent defense of Islam by British journalist Mehdi Hasan at a debate at the Oxford Union. Hasan was responding to the opposing views of Anne-Marie Waters, Peter Atkins, and Daniel Johnson. For the record, Hasan's side (including Mathhew Handley and Adam Deen) won this heated debate 286-168.
In Dec 2012, Hasan also participated in a spirited interview / debate with Richard Dawkins on whether religion is a force for good or evil.
The Green Revolution of the 60s and 70s is best associated with higher yields through new innovations in agricultural science and technology. To attain its impressive results however, the new farming practices used synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides which ravaged the soil, damaged ecosystems, polluted groundwater, encouraged crop monocultures, and raised the incidence of certain diseases. The resulting land degradation fueled the search for new land and deforestation. In other words, modern intensive farming practices are not sustainable, and various experiments worldwide have tried to make them sustainable while increasing yields at lower cost — the agricultural holy grail.
Here is a promising Al-Jazeera story about "two million farmers in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh [who] have ditched chemical pesticides in favour of natural repellants and fertilisers, as part of a growing eco-agriculture movement [that] has improved soil health and biodiversity, reduced costs and upped yields." Could this catch on more widely?
In 2006, China surpassed the U.S. to become the leading producer of green house emissions. But a big reason for its higher emissions is that China has become the industrial heartland of the world. Developed countries that claim to have reduced carbon emissions have, in effect, shifted their factories and pollution to China (this is one outsourcing no politician in the U.S. complains about). As consumers, all of us are now a party to China's green house emissions. Each time we buy a plastic toy, a blender, or an iPhone, we inject a blast of CO2 over China.
In a new article and the animation below, George Monbiot describes the bogus accounting that's de rigueur in measuring carbon emissions. It only accounts for territorial emissions, not outsourced emissions. With proper accounting that's linked to consumption, the U.S. is still way ahead of China in its contribution to climate change. The difference is even starker if we consider emissions per capita.
When nations negotiate global cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, they are held responsible only for the gases produced within their own borders. Partly as a result of this convention, these tend to be the only ones that countries count. When these “territorial emissions” fall, they congratulate themselves on reducing their carbon footprints. But as markets of all kinds have been globalised, and as manufacturing migrates from rich nations to poorer ones, territorial accounting bears ever less relationship to our real impacts.
Folks, it turns out that River of Faith has done well, amassing 27K views on YouTube in its first 3 weeks [and 75K at the end of 6 weeks]. Which means it has even bested a whole lot of cat videos! Furthermore, I've been persuaded to offer it on Amazon.com for those who like DVDs, including institutions. Check out the DVD cover below (sans barcode and DVD logo). This should be up on Amazon in early April and ready to ship within days (I'll announce when it is). Also, for the first time ever, a magazine introduced me last week as "a documentary filmmaker". Watch out, you documentary filmmakers! :)
Update (25 April, 2013): The DVD on Amazon is now shipping!
Over half of Indians do not have access to any professional healthcare. For those who fall ill, where else in the world is money, in particular, as well as place of residence, such decisive factors between living and dying? How much of this gap—in one estimate, the richest 20% outlive the poorest 20% by over 15 years—can be bridged by a functional public health system? And why isn’t this aspiring superpower building one? In India, questions like these are a dime a dozen. The following video provides a quick overview of the state of Indian healthcare.
David Harvey, social theorist, Marxian scholar, proponent of zero growth in advanced economies, and author of The Enigma of Capital, offers an uncommon perspective on how capitalism has worked out in recent decades, its many crises and modes of resolution. After stating that it is "easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism", he nevertheless looks at why it is so hard not only to imagine an alternative to capitalism, but even to the kind of capitalism we have today. At the very least, there is food for thought here.
For some time now, I've been digging into the partition of India: Urvashi Butalia's excellent, The Other Side of Silence on the experience of the women, children, and Dalits of Punjab (I hope to do a review soon), Remembering Partition by Gyanendra Pandey and Jan Breman, The Partition of India by Ian Talbot and Gurharpal Singh, and Stern Reckoning by GD Khosla (most partisan of this lot). I also recently saw the movies Tamas and The Train to Pakistan (both on YouTube) and plan to watch Silent Waters soon. While much new scholarship has appeared in recent years on the partition of Punjab and Bengal, little is known about "the third site of Partition — colonial Assam, and particularly the region of Sylhet." A friend pointed me to this article in Himal that has more on Partition historiography and the experience of Sylhet.
Sixty-five years after Partition, the scholarship that event generates is varied and contested. Now more than ever before, writers and researchers are questioning the heavy focus on Punjab and Bengal at the expense of the third site of Partition – colonial Assam, and particularly the region of Sylhet, which elected to join East Pakistan in a 1947 referendum. The history of Sylhet opens up new complexities beyond the typical discourse that sees Partition as primarily a matter of religious communalism.
The study of Partition’s more narrowly regional dimensions is a recent development. The first Partition historians – Michael Edwardes, Penderel Moon, David Page, V P Menon, G D Khosla, and others – focused on decolonisation and the high politics of the division of India, with a core focus on Punjab. Punjab had captured the popular imagination because of the enormity of Partition violence there, which completely clouded this first phase of scholarship. The 1960s saw another spurt of Partition studies, including debates on the emergence of communalism, and also the publication of the memoirs of many key political players with a hand in the events of 1947. Still, the main focus remained on Partition in the Indian west. Meanwhile, nationalistic scholars in India engaged in glorifying the new state and eulogising the post-Partition leadership. Little emerged on Partition’s impact in areas distant from the ‘core’ of north India and Punjab; Partition became a largely Punjabi experience and not, as it actually was, a story of both east and west India. Even until recently, many professional historians who have contributed immensely to the study of Partition – Mushirul Hasan, Ian Talbot, Stanley Wolpert, David Gilmartin, Alok Bhalla, Anita Inder Singh, Ravinder Kumar – have been loath to engage with the Partition experience in the east.
I also discovered 1947partitionarchive.org, where I came across this harrowing "eyewitness account" by Major Jagjit Singh.
On this Thanksgiving Day, consider watching this extraordinary and beautifully filmed Nature documentary in which naturalist Joe Hutto raises 16 wild turkeys from incubation to adulthood, an experience that changed his life. As their turkey mother, Hutto spent over a year in a Florida forest with these birds, each developing a complex and unique relationship with him. He shows us their stages of development, their innate knowledge of the environment, their curiosity and survival instincts. He exults at their distinct personalities, social and emotional lives, individuality and playfulness, and their different appetites for physical affection.
Hutto gets very immersed in their lives, begins to understand their communication, and learns to "talk turkey". He identifies over 30 distinct turkey vocalizations for other animals like rattlesnakes and hawks. He explains how "within each of those calls are inflections that have very different meanings". His bond with one bird in particular, and the way it ends, is especially remarkable and unexpected. En route, Hutto also reveals his own shifting state of mind and what he has learned from this experience about his own life. It might well become hard to see turkeys as "dumb birds" after this documentary, which, incidentally, won the 2012 Emmy for Outstanding Nature Programming.