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.
Here is a fascinating documentary film from China. Among other things, it reveals how democracy works in real life and the sort of political animals we tend to become under it, age notwithstanding. Below is the abridged version (34 mins) of the full-length version (52 mins, 2007).
‘What kind of thing is “Democracy”?’
‘Born into an authoritarian state that professes to value the greater good over individual expression, many Chinese children have little familiarity with Western ideals of democracy. Nevertheless, they prove themselves quick studies in Please Vote For Me, which chronicles China’s first ever modern classroom election, held among third-graders in the city of Wuhan. After the students learn the basic tenets of democracy, a campaign for the position of class monitor swiftly descends into an all too familiar jumble of campaign promises, back-room deals and dirty tricks. Funny, touching and full of small surprises, the Chinese director Weijun Chen’s documentary is a wry look at the democratic process and all its chaotic, imperfect promise.’
In this travel documentary (17 mins), I present some of what we saw and learned during our wonderful 8-days in Malawi in October 2015. We visited two areas on Lake Malawi's shores (Cape Maclear, Nkhata Bay), the beautiful Liwonde National Park, and the capital city, Lilongwe.
Check out this brilliant documentary film, The Last Train in Nepal, directed by Tarun Bhartiya (59 mins). It's "the story of an international railway line that runs for twenty miles from the little-known town of Janakpur in Nepal to Jaynagar junction in India." The film, a truly wonderful depiction of life on the Indo-Nepal border, is full of riveting human portraits. The rickety train itself emerges as a lovable character in the film. Not surprisingly, Tarun bagged the Royal Television Society Yorkshire Award for Best Director in June 2016.
An insightful, though-provoking lecture by Branko Milanovic, a leading expert and historian of global inequality, on his major new work of empirical economics that "presents a bold account of the dynamics that drive inequality on a global scale." It's followed by responses from other experts and Q&A. Among his key contributions is the "elephant curve" which illustrates how the gains of globalization were distributed in recent decades (it benefited much of the world population but not so much the middle/working-classes in the US, UK, and a few other high income countries), and his theory of Kuznets waves, a replacement for the Kuznets curve (a much contested idea in development economics; Thomas Piketty didn't show much fondness for the Kuznets curve in Capital).
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.
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.
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.
Here is an extraordinary find, the Shillong Chamber Choir, founded in 2001 and based in Shillong, Meghalaya, India. If you like this, sample more of their music on their website. Such a talented bunch with a versatile repertoire, and a great example of cultural globalization.
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".
“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.
AMRIT clinic in Bedawal .
At the Bedawal clinic: Himi, Manju Meghwal, Baiji, Moti, Dr. Mohan
Newborn with septicemia .
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.