Thursday, January 27, 2005

Declining an Award

    I decided some years ago that I would only accept awards from academic institutions or those associated with my professional work, and not accept state awards.
Said Romila Thapar, in a letter to the President, while declining the honor conferred upon her -- Padma Bhushan. Apparently she had refused to accept the Padma Bhushan way back in 1992 as well. Now I'm not against accepting state awards. Same time, I do not give much importance to those awards. (While most of the awardees usually deserve it, some get it based only on their contacts. Moreover a lot of deserving people never make it.) But there's something that I like about these actions, something that I won't be able to explain well.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, well-known Pakistani nuclear scientist about whom I had a post a few days ago, had refused to accept the prestigious Pakistani award, the Sitara-e-Imtiaz. His reason:

    I do not consider the process by which awards are given as carrying legitimacy. If you give someone an award in a field of science, only a panel of scientists should decide whether that person deserves it or not. A bureaucrat should not have the right to decide that a person - A or B or C - is worthy of some award. The present procedure serves only to create a culture of sycophancy that rewards flatterers.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Golden rule of thumb

Amit Varma writes @ India Uncut.

    The golden rule of thumb, for most bloggers including me, is this: quote or excerpt as you feel like, but attribute (always) and link (whenever available).
Well said. That said, I need to practice that myself! The 'eye' that you see on the right side of this blog is from here. I wanted a picture of an eye -- Locana is Sanskrit for eye -- and got this image via Google.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Piece in many parts (951-1546)

Explanations are simplifications -- do not
Care to do that -- its much too much more
Than a meaning -- it's much too meaningless
To mean -- which is the coincidence of its
Own arbitrary convention.

Should politicans retire?

The Chief Election Commissioner of India, T.S. Krishnamurthy, has remarked that politicians should have retirement. I have seen this sentiment being expressed by several others as well on different occasions. These are the sort of statements that one easily tends to nod for, especially when they come from efficient and famous civil servants like Krishnamurthy. I guess generally people agree with this sentiment, as they see a lot of fault with our system of governance and are willing to embrace any change in the system.

Remarkably I've never noticed this viewpoint ever being mooted by literary figures or social activists or those in the film industry -- i.e., those who do not retire. Civil servants, judges, and perhaps a sociology professor or two, often bring up "retirement age for politicians" for discussions. It can't be that only these groups are interested in the well-being of Indian polity. It's just that civil servants, after achieving some status, dabble in topics that get instant applause and approval from the general public. And what do most of these civil servants do anyway, after retirement? They invariably try their hand in politics, preferably electoral politics (most likely of the "aya ram gaya ram" variety).

Before the advent of twenty four hour newschannels, we wouldn't have been much bothered about the age or looks of our politicians. See Neerja Chowdhury's excellent piece -- "In Sickness and in health" -- for instance. But this is the age of image politics. In TV debates, a Milind Deora's accent matters more than what a D. Raja has to say.

The argument that younger elected representatives are going to do better, that they bring quality to parliamentary proceedings, may sound alright. Unfortunately, we do not have good examples to support that claim. Among all our prime ministers, it is Rajiv Gandhi who had a visible dislike for parliamentary discussions. Take our young MP's: Rahul Gandhi, Milind Deora, Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia, etc. What are they famous for? They are in their respective positions only because of their parentage. If you want to be in politics, if you want to represent people, and if you do not have the right connections to start with, it's real hard work. You can't be young by the time you are experienced enough to be at the top. And that experience counts, counts much more than the young looks or the accent or the smiley faces of the Gandhis, Deoras, Pilots, and Scindias.

Politics should be about issues, not about a politician's image, and not just about being in power. There's no logic in arguing that older people need to retire for youngsters to take a stand on political matters. As far as governmental positions are concerned, people do voluntarily retire when their health fail. I guess any argument for a retirement age for politicians springs from a lack of political maturity. Any takers?

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Mumbai's man-made Tsunami

... that has flattened thousands of homes and left an estimated two lakh people homeless. [Mumbai's Tragedy by Kalpana Sharma.]

Friday, January 21, 2005

Pervez Hoodbhoy

Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy is a pakistani nuclear scientist, also a prominent disarmament activist. He is currently on an India visit and was here today. The documentary on Kashmir, by Pervez Hoodbhoy and Zia Mian, was also screened on this occasion. It was followed by a discussion initiated by Hoodbhoy.

According to Hoodbhoy, there's a thaw in the Indo-Pak relations now. For instance several times before he did not get an Indian visa, whereas this time it was an easy affair. But we need to realize that the relationship is so precariously poised that anytime we may get back to the fragile state of affairs that was prevailing two years ago, unless both the countries consciously build up on the existing confidence building measures. There's an urgency to have "real" confidence building measures: soft borders, easier travel from one country to another, and steps to have better trade and cultural exchange, unlike things like notifying the testing of a missile two days in advance, and that sort of stuff. Hoodbhoy stressed the fact that academic exchange will have a positive impact. Especially faculty from India should take an interest in visiting Pak colleges and universities (Pak salaries in academics are fabulous, he added!). There could also be student exchange programmes.

But according to many in the audience, it's easier said than done to talk about these sort of exchange programmes. Several of them had stories about how they were denied permission by Indian authorities to go to conferences and workshops in Pakistan. Apparently a workshop in Pakistan (Islamabad, I guess) on Logic and Computer Science had to be called off as the workshop depended heavily on the participation of three Chennai based theoretical computer scientists, and none got permission from the govt authorities to go for that workshop. Somebody even remarked that it may be easy for Prof Hoodbhoy to travel to India now as he is a Unesco award winner and all that, and denial of entry could make big news. That's not the case with many relatively unknown scientists or human rights activists.

Finally, here's an old interview with Pervez Hoodbhoy that appeared in the Frontline.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Shonali Bose interview

Here's an interesting interview with Shonali Bose, director of Amu. This appeared in the Telegraph a week ago.

    "Amu is the realisation of a long-suppressed idea. I was in the first year of my college in Delhi when the 1984 anti-Sikh riots happened. I was deeply impacted by it. I never wanted to be a filmmaker, only an academician. But then my mother passed away under tragic circumstances and I left for the US. But I didn’t like academics. So I became a filmmaker. I needed to write about the mother-daughter relationship. The 1984 riots coalesced with my mother’s death. I realised how important it is to provide comfort to the grieving."

    "I never wanted to write! In Delhi, Penguin got hold of the screenplay and they were convinced it’d make a good novel. While I was editing Amu in LA I squeezed the book out. I don’t feel it stands up to the film, though I could put in all the details."

Read more ...

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Amu, Amitav Ghosh, and Amardeep

It won't be too much off the mark if I say that today I lived in 1984. Morning, I read Shonali Bose's Amu (the novel), evening I saw her movie by the same name, and after that I read Amitav Ghosh's essay about those days of 1984 that Amu portrays, titled "The ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi".

It's Shonali Bose's first novel. It's also her debut movie. The story takes place in the period from October 2001 to February 2002. It's about Amu, a twenty one year old girl, who was orphaned in the 84 sikh pogrom that took place soon after Indira Gandhi's death. Amu was then adopted by social activist Keya Roy, who moves to Los Angeles with Amu, now named Kajori or Kaju. The main reason for Keya shifting to the US is that Kaju can have a truly new life there and her traumatic memories may not haunt her again in a totally different place. Kaju decides to return to Delhi -- where "the past and present are hopelessly mixed up", and where "she might really belong to" -- from the "emotional wasteland" that is LA. She doesn't quite fit into Delhi, at one point she even feels she doesn't really fit into her own (adopted) family. Kaju wants to trace her roots, her village, her jhuggi, her biological parents. Keya had lied to her that her parents had died of an epidemic, but Kaju soon finds out that this is incorrect. The story ends after Keya disclosing all the facts about her birth parents to Kaju. Meanwhile Shonali Bose shows us some of the ugly faces of that horrible tragedy. When the movie ends, in the background, we see Vikram Chandra of NDTV breaking the Gujarat riots news following the Godhra carnage. Massacring human beings is a rule rather than an exception?

The novel, though very short (less than 150 pages), has more details. It reads more like an extended screenplay, and the thrust seems to be solely on the content. The author must have taken the easiest route to take what she has in her mind to the reader. But there are so many minute details, and Shonali Bose wants her main characters to share all of her conviction. For instance Kaju would prefer local book stores to Barns and Noble kind of a chain. The movie of course doesn't have enough space to accomodate all these minute details, and that, to me, looked better. Also Shonali Bose is more comfortable when she explains all the details and the connections herself, and she doesn't leave much for the reader to decipher. Nevertheless the book is eminently readable. We meet people like Keya Roy, Lalitha Ramalingam, and Neel who have done a lot for the riot victims, govt officials like Arun Sehgal who were rather passive and did not do anything to prevent the mass killings, and politicians (like Sajjan Kumar, HKL Bhagat, and Jagadish Tytler) who openly instigated large scale massacres. (Rajiv Gandhi had infamously remarked: "When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.")

Perhaps it can be safely said that the power of the novel/movie comes from its content. Perhaps Shonali Bose hasn't been able to impart an extra force to the whole theme, say unlike Aparna Sen in Mr and Mrs Iyer. These and similar thoughts occupied my mind while I was walking back from the movie theatre. From there I went to the Oxford book store, where I had to go regarding a previous transaction. And it's there that I read Amitav Ghosh's "The ghost of Mrs. Gandhi". I havn't read much of Ghosh, and I hadn't known about this essay. It was a nice coincidence that I noticed this essay soon after reading and watching Amu. It's a wonderfully written piece. Amitav Ghosh writes about his own experiences in Delhi in 1984; he was teaching at the Delhi University then. While mentioning the famous "Who are the guilty?" compilation, he writes:

    "Human-rights documents such as "Who Are the Guilty?" are essential to the process of broadening civil institutions: they are weapons with which society asserts itself against a state that runs criminally amok, as the one did in Delhi in November of 1984."
Same is true with Amu too. As Ghosh continued, "there's an urgency to remember the stories that we have not written", and Shonali Bose contributes to that. In the same essay, Amitav Ghosh also quotes the Bosnian writer Karahasan who makes a connection between modern literary aestheticism and the world's growing indifference to violence. Perhaps, as Karashasan remarked, Amu shouldn't be read/watched just "as an aesthetic phenomenon, completely sidestepping questions about goodness and truth" -- I told myself. If you enjoy Amu also as an "aesthetic phenomenon", as I had enjoyed parts of it, I'll be happier.

I see that Amardeep has a comment about my previous post where I linked to Amitav Ghosh's recent essay in the Hindu. It's not easy for me to explain what I really did not like in Ghosh's article there. Now that I just read, and also very much liked Ghosh's essay about 1984, let me see whether I can compare and pinpoint what I didn't quite like in the first one.

In his 1984 essay, Ghosh recalls a passage from Naipaul, where Naipaul writes about watching a street march, his intense desire to join that, and his immediate realisation that it's not in his nature to join the crowds. Ghosh continues a bit later that writers usually don't join crowds, but in extraordinary circumstances, "you join and in joining bear all the responsibility and obligations and guilt that joining represents." I don't know when exactly Ghosh wrote this essay, but there, Ghosh clearly values bare reality more than writing and writers' habits. I guess I'm more comfortable with this position, than his apparent take in the Hindu article. Also I wondered/wonder how deep a distant writer's feelings for the victims of a disaster would be. Let me again compare with the essay about 1984. Ghosh was in the middle of the riots, he had a personal stake in it, he could easily have been a victim, he had enough to write about that. But he says he found it difficult to write about it, he wanted to be extra careful, and he wrote this essay years later. In this case, within weeks of the tsunami disaster, he goes to the Andamans, basically to write about his experiences. And there he finds the most powerful defence for writing in a tsunami victim's act (of choosing to keep his research slides instead of other personal stuff). I guess this last sentence/observation gave me a bad feeling about the whole essay. (Somehow I felt, if that particular victim wasn't there, Ghosh would have had something else in the defense of writing, and the essay would have ended with that observation instead. You often see what you want to see!) Otherwise it was an interesting read. I especially liked his argument for democracy, and the need to make the civilian officials accountable to the elected representatives.
Update: (i) Here's Amardeep's post on Amitav Ghosh's essays.
              (ii) Ghosh's essay on the 84 riots is available online here.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Amitav Ghosh's essay

Amitav Ghosh's three part essay in the Hindu about the tsunami affected Andamans:

I vaguely disliked the tone and tenor of the whole article, though there are parts of it that I liked a lot.

Monday, January 10, 2005

And my votes go to ...

Voting has started for the IndiBlog awards. My votes:

  • Best Indiblog: Amardeep Singh.
    I've been reading Amardeep's blog since last August. I really enjoy his posts. He is passionate about what he writes.
  • Best Group IndiBlog: Sepia Mutiny.
    I've been to this site a few times. Plus many blogs that I read regularly have said positive things about it.
  • Best IndiBlog directory/service: Kamat Blogportal.
    Great service.
  • Best Topical IndiBlog: The Acorn.
    Nitin's blog is just great. If you are interested in day-to-day South Asian affairs, you can't possibly ignore this site. I also like the Acorn's overall appearance. It's another matter that I often disagree with his viewpoints.
  • Best New IndiBlog: India uncut.
    Recently I came to know about Amit's blog. Very good work.
  • Best Designed: Sepia Mutiny.
    I quickly skimmed through the listed ones. I liked its appearance more.
  • Indiblog Lifetime achiever: Vikas Kamat.
    He's a veteran and deserves this award.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Exploring layers of truth in Rao’s role in history

Check out Ashok Mitra's well-written piece in the Telegraph. Two quotes:

    "P.V. Narasimha Rao’s government was formally responsible for the cataclysmic cross-over. But render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Praise Narasimha Rao for being the obedient servant of the emerging situation, but accord due credit to Rajiv Gandhi, if the latter did not fritter away the country’s exchange reserves in the manner he did and alongside incur huge short-term foreign debt, globalization and liberalization would have still remained an unfinished agenda — at least for some more while. Rajiv Gandhi dared to be irresponsible; Narasimha Rao merely reaped the harvest of that irresponsibility."

    "Does that mean poor Rao had no outstanding achievement he could claim as very much his own? It may sound harsh, but there is one happening history will exclusively credit him for: he was the prime minister who slept through, peacefully, the entire afternoon even as the Babri Masjid was being demolished on December 6, 1992."

Here's a comment, along similar lines, that I posted on Amardeep's blog:
    History may forgive Narasimha Rao's failings, if history forgives everybody regardless of the crimes committed! Chances are that Rao's legacy will be remembered as one of ruthlessness (St Kitts & Jain Hawala, for instance) and indecisions (anti-Sikh pogrom & the 6th December). I fail to see why everybody assumes LPG (Liberalisation, Privatisation, and Globalisation) is something that has benefitted India. I would think that an average Indian doesn't like the taste of reforms; all the pro-reform govts were always voted out in India. Rao's own state of Andhra Pradesh is one of the worst casualties of the economic reforms. It's funny that an Indian politician speaks about honor in the comity of nations. Less than 25 kms from Hyderabad - the hitec city, children still die of simple cases of diarrhea due to lack of primary health care! That doesn't bring any dishonor?

    Of course he was erudite and all that, but I wonder whether it's erudition or people's support that's more important for a political leader. The erudite Rao clinged to prime minister's chair by bribing members of parliament. Sonia Gandhi, who gets ridiculed for her fake degrees, knew a better way to get into history books.

    One positive thing that I can think of Rao's prime ministership is that he showed an enormous respect for parliamentary proceedings as PM. He was always present in the parliament, willing to participate in debates, sometimes even answering questions which otherwise a junior minister would have answered. Contrast that with Rajiv Gandhi's contempt for parliamentary affairs, and the mess that Vajpayee and Advani create in the parliament today.


R's cabdriver yesterday was a talkative, and in many ways interesting, middle aged man. Among other things, he told her that he had great plans to celebrate the new year, including taking his family to Marine Drive and the Gateway of India. The tsunami killed his plans. He thought it was not a time to celebrate, within a week of a disaster of that magnitude.

R and I also did not have anything special for the 31st December. But then the new year eve was like any other day, except for a few extra phone calls that we receive, on the previous occasions too. This time, a friend had suggested something that can be called a celebration, but I dissuaded him, saying that the Government has cancelled all celebrations and let us not have any special event either. I did not mention the word "tsunami", as it's incorrect to imply, and was indeed incorrect, that I understand the misery of the affected people unlike him and I care more for them. It's just that, like most of my friends, he too thought there's really no need to connect a private beer-music-dance affair with a public disaster.

If there's a professional category of people, whom I uniformly like, it's that of cab/auto rickshaw drivers. There may be politicians whom I like more, but there are definitely politicians whom I heavily dislike. Beggars -- I think I never liked a single beggar. I think of my favourite professors, but soon some faces pop up whom I very much disliked. I think of the unemployed poor youth of our villages, I never found any of them interesting enough to talk to. Of course it's well-known from Upanishadic times that an empty stomach doesn't like philosophical discourses (and glib talk for the same reasons?). I do this experiment with several groups, I find that only cabdrivers I like uniformly. They are rich enough and informed enough, enough to talk about Ambani brothers or Kofi Annan or Schwarzenegger or even Anisha Baig. They are poor enough and simple enough, enough to feel somebody else's pain and hunger or cancel their new year celebrations in the wake of a natural disaster.

Unfortunately auto rickshaw drivers are loathed by many. You finish a superb dinner at a posh restaurant, you tip the waiter generously, on the way back you quarrel with the rickshaw driver for five ruppees. You see your spouse off at the airport at an odd hour (and should be thankful to the sleeping cabdriver for agreeing to drop you wherever you want), and you indulge in cheap bargain. Over a late night coffee at Barista, friends pompously talk about how the other day one of them in fact did not pay the customary late night extra charges for a cab. I usually keep quiet in these circles, not to displease my friends.

True, rickshaw drivers do bargain for extra fare, and some times they have valid reasons for that -- road is full of potholes, wouldn't get any passenger on the return trip, etc. Some times they may bargain without any reason. But at least you can negotiate with the cabdriver. You can't do that with a Chartered Accountant or a physician. I know of a CA who charged Rs.750 for an hour, and talked about his daughter's merits for full one hour. Doctors charge Rs.250 just to say that you are keeping perfect health.

My liking to the auto driver starts with an incident that took place twenty years ago. I was getting into an auto, and I fainted in the vehicle, perhaps for a few seconds. The driver immediately got a cup of tea for me. When we reached home, my father paid the driver the fifty paise for the tea with the actual fare. The driver wasn't willing to take that. He said it was his duty to take care of me as I fainted in his auto! I used to think of that incident as an isolated nice gesture from a nice individual. Now I think a majority of rickshaw drivers would have acted the same way.

I can think of several such instances involving cabdrivers, instances of good-heartedness, sometimes instances of efficiency. Once I would have definitely missed a train at Chennai, if I did not get the help from an auto driver. When I got into the auto, the driver asked for three times the normal fare, and promised that I wouldn't miss the train. He took me through all possible shortcuts, stopped the vehicle very near to the station, and took my luggage and put it in my coach. If he didn't do any one of those three things, I would have missed the train!

I would guess that porters, small businessmen, vegetable vendors who earn enough for an okay living, all would be like cabdrivers. I do not have much experience with them. They have enough space in their minds to genuinely bother about others' problems. I think it's their wisdom that votes out an Indira Gandhi who curtails freedom of expresssion, or a Chandrababu Naidu who loots a state. The worldview of the richer and the sophisticated tends to be selfish and self-centred. I'm not saying that all the rich people are like that, but I think exceptions are often outcomes of conscious decisions. The poorest, for instance the tribals in India, may also have a self-centred view. They can't afford to be otherwise.

Have you ever wondered why a cabdriver feels a personal loss in a public disaster, whereas an educated professional can easily compartmentalise the private and the public domains?

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Monbiot's column

Two quotes from George Monbiot's column in the Guardian.

    Why must the relief of suffering, in this unprecedentedly prosperous world, rely on the whims of citizens and the appeals of pop stars and comedians? Why, when extreme poverty could be made history with a minor redeployment of public finances, must the poor world still wait for homeless people in the rich world to empty their pockets?

    The money pledged for the tsunami disaster by the United States is the equivalent of one and a half day's spending in Iraq. The money the UK has given equates to five and a half days of our involvement in the war.

Also see Mike Whitney's piece on the Znet: The Duplicity Of The Media.

Monday, January 03, 2005


  • President APJ Abdul Kalam talked about the tsunami warning system in his convocation address at the University of Hyderabad. The tech savvy president was very enthusiastic about the tech part of it. Listening to Kalam talking so eloquently about it within a couple of days after the disaster, I wondered whether people at the helm genuinely comprehend the depths of the catastrophe and the human misery involved. People like Dr. Kalam seem to be believing in technology for technology's sake.
  • So it was refreshing to see P. Sainath projecting a different viewpoint, which I would think anybody with a little bit of common sense would/should have realised oneself. A quote:
      We have spent the better part of 12 years gutting public health care, privatising hospitals and charging user fees in Government ones from people who cannot pay. Fracturing an already inadequate and fragile system. Now, when there is a deadly danger of epidemics, there is little to fight them with. It is odd that we allow Governments to get away with atrocities against the poor. But sternly hold them to blame for an unprecedented natural disaster.
    Sainath's article has many other extremely valid points.
  • Kitabkhana's e-mail to litbloggers:
      Two days ago, a good friend of mine who also blogs started up a blog called Tsunami Help (that's tsunamihelp DOT blogspot DOT com). He thought it might be a good place to start with compiling information about the disaster that's rocked South Asia--you know, put together donor lists, track the death toll, maybe get people thinking. People started joining in, one by one, and then in dozens, and then in scores. In just two days, Tsunami Help wracked up over 1,00,000 hits. It has thirty-odd people posting from all over the world, and that number is growing.
  • Finally here's the The Hindu Relief Fund.