Sunday, February 27, 2005

Sultans of string

A few of my friends show up in this Indian Express article. Also see Lubos Motl's post.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Conductor

Alexander Hemon's new story in the New Yorker. Read it. "The way you never forget a song from your childhood, the way you hear it in your mind's ear every once in a while", you'll remember this one. [Link via Indianwriting.]

Friday, February 25, 2005


Shekhar Gupta's article in today's Indian Express makes an interesting reading. He finds out on a trip to Bihar that things aren's as bad as the press portray. Not that everything is very good there, but it's not much different from other parts of India. Some plus points too: "there is a certain decency, patience, cultured-ness, a tolerance of the other in Bihar, that you won’t see anywhere — at least in the north. Women feel quite safe. They don’t get pinched, pushed, or pawed in crowded election meetings." In parts of Bihar, "the roads are as good as any in most states, certainly better than in most of Uttar Pradesh. Houses are pucca, there are schools, colleges, some small factories, you see the odd tractor, lush fields of wheat, vegetables, ripening mustard and blooming lentil. Farmers are busy, and so are their families."

I do believe Bihar is poorer than most other places in India. Other indices are bad as well, low literacy rates, etc. But check the 1991 and 2001 census reports, and you'll find that Bihar's progress in many areas are comparable to any other state, for instance a 10% increase in literacy. Definitely Bihar hasn't gone poorer because of Lalu rule. On the other hand people of Bihar were well protected from communal clashes. Remember the riots in the pre-Lalu era?

Also, Bihar hasn't witnessed the kind of farmer suicides as in Andhra Pradesh or Karnataka. Those like Chandrababu Naidu and SM Krishna made life miserable for the village poor. Lalu's RJD has fared much better in Bihar in that respect.

Tomorrow by this time we'll know whether RJD is going to get another five years in Bihar. Exit polls have predicted a hung assembly with a slight edge to BJP-JD(U) combine. Indian voters have always shown more wisdom than the pollsters, and I would expect the RJD combine to get enough seats to form the next government again.

Outlook-Picador Non-Fiction Prize

Dilip D’Souza's Ride Across the River wins the Outlook-Picador Non-Fiction Prize for this year. Ride Across the River is an account of his travel to a Kashmiri village. Congrats, Dilip!

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Outlook outs Vajpayee

Outlook expose of a CD that contains Vajpayee's speech on the eve of the Babri Masjid demolition.

    One may deduce that the BJP leaders were prepared for an apocalyptic event at Ayodhya. Sections of the parivar wanted the mosque down. Perhaps the BJP leaders were prepared for events spinning out of control. Perhaps they thought this would lead to a great Hindu awakening. But they were shrewd enough to know this would also tie them in legal complications. So there was a Plan B, a great backup scheme. One leader, a fine parliamentarian with cross-party ties, would be spared the mud that would rise at Ayodhya. In the event of assuming high office, he would be the chosen one. As it happened, Vajpayee was eventually "chosen" by Advani, the man who led the entire Ram movement. It is a compulsive conspiracy theory. But there is not enough hard evidence to prove it conclusively. On the other hand, the evidence so far does not disprove it either. The Ayodhya imbroglio remains as open-ended and oblique as many of Vajpayee's statements.
Well, Vajpayee's statements in general are not that open-ended or oblique. For instance, see the Frontline cover story: The Real Vajpayee, and in particular AG Noorani's excellent article: The man behind the image.

Here's a related post.

From my blogroll

  • Dilip D'Souza's Death Ends Fun has excerpts from Settlements and Shelter: Alternative Housing for the Urban Poor in Bombay, by Rudolf C Heredia for the Committee for the Right to Housing. The report is twenty years old, but nothing has changed in these twenty years as far as slum dwellers' plight is concerned, writes D'Souza. Dilip is doing an excellent job in digging out archival material and chronicling the current events.
  • Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is on a roll. Many interesting posts every day. Brief, to the point, posts; delightful read. Incidentally, she found Chetan Bhagat's novel interesting. Uma writes: "It was great fun. Could have done with a substantial amount of editing and syntactical smoothening, but there was a delicious vein of humour throughout which made the book very readable."
  • Amit Varma's India Uncut is another frequently updated blog. You can almost skip reading newspapers if you visit this site! We had some e-mail correspondence regarding a recent post @ India Uncut about the Annie Hall moment. Read it here.
  • Yazad Jal's new resolution: "I should [also] break out of my laziness and post a few reviews, especially of books I’ve read recently." Not an easy task, as his reading average is two books per week. One of the books Yazad is reading currently is Rajni Bakshi’s Bapu Kuti. Hope to see him reviewing that too. (Bapu Kuti is the name of the hut where Mahatma Gandhi lived while he was in Sevagram, Wardha. Here's a beautiful essay on related stuff by Ram Guha: 766 kilometres from somewhere. I had recently read Sudhir Kakar's novel Mira & the Mahatma, and my thoughts on that are here.)

We do know!

    Another author in Rupa's stable is going to benefit from its largesse. This is Chetan Bhagat, author of Five Point Someone — What Not To Do At IIT. The book crossed an incredible one lakh copies sales in less than two years. How much this has to do with the young Hong Kong-based banker's marketing skills picked up at IIM, and how much with Rupa's strategy of pumping cheap paperbacks into the market, we'll never know. [Outlook]
I guess this has to do more with Chetan Bhagat's skills. He had plenty of skills left unused anyway as most of his skills had not gone into the book!

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Another literary spat?

    "Who is reviewing whom, why does Author A hate or love Author B, and should Author C be reviewing Author D when they are living together?"
Read more ...

Page 3

A good review of a good movie.

Friday, February 18, 2005

A quick scan

  • Decline in child sex ratio among educated sections [The Hindu]
    Preference for a male child seemed to be higher among the educated and rich sections of society, says a study by the Centre for Social Research. In the prosperous and educated South Delhi zone, the girl-boy sex ratio below five years has declined to 762 girls born for every 1,000 boys, the study says. But what is alarming is the growing acceptance of female foeticide and lack of implementation of the law, the centre observes. In an analysis of the data on child sex ratio, the centre points out that the rich and educated class have greater access to ultrasound clinics where sex determination tests of the foetus are done surreptitiously.
  • History in the box [Ram Guha's column in the Telegraph]
    Indian historians are, for the most part, too insular and timid to take history to the people. Indian media is too vulgar to do so. And there is yet a third problem, that in India, history is most contentious, productive not just of intellectual argument but also of sectarian violence. If heads can be broken and libraries burnt on account of a single line in a book about Shivaji, can one imagine the reaction to a series on television about the Mughals? Or a series about the national movement?
  • Home beautiful [From Khushwant Singh's column]
    A doctor friend of mine was posted in a very remote hilly town of Arunachal Pradesh. There was no electricity nor telephone. The evenings were dreadfully monotonous and lonesome. To kill boredom, he taught English to a group of tribal villagers in the evening. Within a few days the tutor and the students became quite intimate. One evening, a student asked if my friend had a photograph of his wife. It so happened that he had one of her taken in front of the Taj Mahal, and he handed it to the villager. After studying it quite approvingly, for a moment, he remarked: “You have a very beautiful home!”
  • Nominees for the first Man Booker International Prize [BBC]
    Margaret Atwood, Saul Bellow, Garcia Marquez, Gunter Grass, Ismail Kadare, Milan Kundera, Stanislaw Lem, Doris Lessing, Ian McEwan, Naguib Mahfouz, Tomas Eloy Martinez, Kenzaburo Oe, Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth, Muriel Spark, Antonio Tabucchi, John Updike, Abraham Yehoshua.

Open Secrets

Former Intelligence Bureau Joint Director Maloy Krishna Dhar's book -- Open Secrets-India's Intelligence Unveiled -- has claimed that the Babri Masjid demolition was planned ten months in advance by top leaders of the Sangh Parivar. The book also has many other revelations. Now Outlook magazine has a CD of a speech of AB Vajpayee, in which, just a day before the demolition, he asks the karsevaks to level the land. News reports say that Krishna Dhar has mentioned about this CD in his book.

So was Vajpayee part of this conspiracy? I would think yes. Not because of these new evidences though. He has always been a central figure in the Sangh, and an event of that order would not have taken place without his knowledge. In any case, now that there's some sort of a proof of his involvement, the Liberhan commission should look into it.

Here's a previous post of mine on Babri Masjid.

Update: Here's Venkitesh Ramakrishnan's review of Maloy Krishna Dhar's book in the Frontline.

Don't forget us

"Democracy and freedom are meaningless without justice and the rule of law." The Real Afghanistan by Pankaj Mishra.

Now who's cunning?

When Jeb Bush tries to protect us from negligent brown men, degenerate Locana and her fellow multiculturalists cry out, "racial profiling!" But this is standard political debate for the hollow Democrats of the Fifth Column, who respond to completely logical arguments with irrational name-calling. The statement 'Locana is one of the pathological National Public Radio set' is not a metaphor. It is a job description. The liberals of the liberal elite have become more wildly spiteful in their bloviating negativism than I could scarcely have imagined last week.

A leader not trying to take the war to Al-Sadr would be blatantly untrustworthy in the extreme.

Isn't Condoleeza Rice a more fitting recipient for the Nobel Peace Prize?

[R. Robot on Locana; link via Bad with titles]

Thursday, February 17, 2005


Check out a beautiful post on Nepal by Kaushik.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Criminalisation of politics

Looks like Shaibal Gupta is the person one should listen to, if one wants to know more about Bihar. He has spent more than twenty years trying to understand this state. In a Rediff interview, he talks about Bihar, with a clarity that comes from a deep understanding of one's subject. Read it!

One of the things that he says in this interview struck me very much. This is regarding the politician-criminal nexus. Gupta says:

    This in a sense can be traced back to the JP (Jayaprakash Narayan) Movement (1973 to 1975). JP urged an end to all ideology and for the people to participate in politics sans ideology. At that time the socialists were very strong in Bihar but after JP's call, many people joined politics even if they did not believe in the party's ideology. What this did was destroy the party structure and prevent the party from having an organisation that could mobilise support. So after the JP Movement ended and politicians needed to mobilise support, they turned to local criminals who invariably had some kind of an organisation and the money and muscle power to mobilise support. Thus it was that the criminals became a part and parcel of Bihar's political set-up.
Advocating "politics sans ideology" is pretty popular these days. Even many mainstream politicians buy that argument. I guess it's easier to stick to your ministerial chairs when you tread this line as this easily appeases the corporates, media and other opinion makers. For example, when Gurcharan Das exhorts us to distrust all ideologies, he becomes a hero, his books become bestsellers, he frequents TV shows. One reason why Bill Clinton is a darling of many of us in India -- for Americans there could be "real" reasons -- is that he seemed to symbolise a kind of pragmatism that wasn't bound by any ideological concerns.

Interestingly, among my friends, it's precisely the Gurcharan Das admirers who invariably talk about the criminalisation of politics. Next time perhaps I should direct them to Shaibal Gupta's analysis!

Monday, February 14, 2005

Frontline cover story on Amartya Sen

The latest issue of Frontline has several articles on Amartya Sen. Also a lengthy interview. Excellent read, overall. Some excerpts:

    On economic liberalisation:
    My position has been that Indian policymaking and planning have suffered both (1) from "the licence Raj" with an overactive government in some fields (stifling industrial initiative), and (2) from the "neglect of social opportunities" with an underactive government in other areas (such as school education, basic health care, land reforms, micro-credit facilities). Liberalisation addresses the first problem, but not the second.

    There are also issues of local policies, to make a country move forward in benefiting from the opportunities of global exchange of ideas and commodities. The lessons that China offers in this second respect have to be viewed more seriously in India -- there is much to learn from, there. To admire China's performance, but to ignore what makes that possible, cannot be a sensible attitude.

    On the similarity between Hindutva and colonial interpretation of Indian history:
    India's religions and mystical thoughts did not threaten to undermine[the] imperial intellectual distance. There was no great difficulty in providing encouragement and assistance to those who gathered and translated "the sacred books of the east" (as Max Muller did, with support from the East India Company, commissioned in 1847, resulting in a 50-volume collection). But in the standard fields of pure and practical reason, the propensity to see a gigantic intellectual gap between India and the West -- stretching long back into history -- was certainly quite strong.

    The Hindutva activists are, of course, keen to take pride in India's past, but seem to have some difficulty in knowing what to take pride in. The focussing on religion is similar to a part of the British imperial reading of Indian history. The neglect of real Indian science and mathematics, which began flourishing from the first millennium CE, in favour of some imaginary view of "Vedic mathematics" and "Vedic science", plays right into the hands of James Mill's charge of Indian fabrication.

    On affirmative action:
    The whole idea of merit is a contingent one; it really depends on what things are to be valued. We cannot disassociate the idea of merit from the idea of a good society, from the idea that people have reason to value what is seen as merit.

    [The] argument that caste must be avoided in politics can be seen, at least partly, as a move to escape addressing issues of inequality linked with caste. It does depend much on who is invoking caste and why. If the upper caste Hindus want to go around terrorising and killing landless lower caste peasants (as has happened in, say, Bihar), then caste is being used for anti-egalitarian regressive politics. But if caste is used for solidarity of the lower castes in order to demand some right and to have a less unequal society, then it has clearly a positive function. The problem, however, is that even for lower castes, sometimes the identities are so divisive that instead of being a source of solidarity against the top-dogs of society, they end up being internally divisive for bottom-dogs.

Friday, February 11, 2005

China-Kerala Nexus!

A Chinese-engineered coup is soon going to overthrow the monarchy in Nepal because there is a bunch of Keralites wielding significant power in Delhi, says Rajiv Srinivasan. Chineses conquest of Tibet was also due to two or three Keralites. (Yes, this is the guy who believed that the tsunami was caused by the arrest of Kanchi Shankaracharya.)

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Mira & the Mahatma: A review

Think Gujarat and you think of mass killings, massive lootings, militant Hindutva, and Narendra Modi. Of course, Gujarat looked very different long ago. We all know very well that this is where Gandhiji initiated his experiments to build a community of men and women who would adhere to the highest standards of non-violence and truth and strive to achieve their greatest spiritual potential. But there's always a danger of forgetting. Thus it is soothing and indeed apt that good writers take interest and throw light into the life and times of the likes of Mahatma Gandhi. Varied standpoints and new insights have to be welcomed, and these need to replace sheer hatred on the one hand and mere idolatry on the other. Sudhir Kakar's new work -- Mira & the Mahatma -- is a rich contribution in this direction.

Sudhir Kakar, famous for his many works -- The Ascetic of Desire, a novel based on Vatsyayana, and a translation of Kama Sutra (with Wendy Doniger), to mention just two of them -- does a fine job of a master storyteller in Mira and the Mahatma. It is about Mirabehn, Mahatma Gandhi, and their relationship spanning many years. It is also about Navin, the "highly educated, yet curiously naive" narrator of the novel, who was Mira's Hindi teacher at Sabarmati. Sudhir Kakar entrusts Navin to tell us about "the great modern mytho-historical epic that is Gandhi's life", a life characterised by a heartfelt concern for the poorest of the poor, a profound interest in engaging with everybody, an uncanny ability to publicly admit one's mistakes, and an admirable tendency to arrive at a consensus, "at the risk of exposing himself (and the author) to the ridicule of our cynical times."

Madeline Slade -- who wished "to hear the call of the Eternal", who loved Beethoven, who worshipped nature -- gets captivated by the Gandhian philosophy, after reading Romain Rolland's biography of Mahatma Gandhi. She decides to come to Gandhi's ashram at Sabarmati. Madeline arrives in Sabarmati, after practising the Gandhian way of life herself for a year, now renamed Mira by Gandhi, gets into the ashram work and the Indian independence movement. Through the eyes of Navin, and through the enormous number of letters and diary entries of Gandhi, Mira, Navin, and Rolland, the story develops: moving descriptions of the ashram life, Gandhi's fight against untouchability, the Dandi march, and activities at the Sevagram. Mira's "intimacy and ease of intercourse" with Gandhi, and the intensity with which she adores him often lead to tensions between her, the Mahatma, and Kasturba. Comes Navin, with his baggage of "problems", ranging from swapandosha to a love for academics and literature! In the Gandhian scheme of things, dabbling in fine arts and literature is a luxury, "a product of idle fancy", that one cannot afford before achieving swaraj; one should choose to do only what one must.

It is very interesting to notice certain points somewhat buried in the main body of the text. For instance, we see that when Gandhi plunges himself into social work, the educated urban youth starts to gather around the charismatic Jawaharlal Nehru (who, according to Gandhi, likes mainly two things: politics and women). We notice, through Mira's eyes, that it is the rich who are worst at giving in the fund-raising events for combating untouchability. ("Most of them would search for a coin rather than hand over a note of high denomination from their bulging wallets.") Interestingly, the well-to-do were not hesitant in giving away their wrist-watches and rings when the appeal was for donations to the Gujarat Congress Committee towards the freedom movement. (Today, the same voices that praise a Dilip D'Souza for his reporting from the tsunami affected Nagapatnam, loath him for his Ambujwadi writings. Isn't there a striking comparison?)

When Gandhi returns to the freedom struggle, he searches for a form of collective action that would capture the imagination and rouse the spirit of the poorest of India's masses. He looks for something that touches the life of every villager, and decides on salt. Gandhi was truly a man of the masses. Indeed his belief in non-violent movements stems from his conviction that the masses will not respond to a violent revolution.

Skim through this book, and you get an acquaintance of numerous vivid characters like the legendary Hindi novelist Premchand, who greatly inspired Navin, and Mahadev Desai and Maganlal who were Gandhi's closest assistants at Sabarmati. Then there are many other interesting personalities who get a quick mention: Kaka Kalelkar (the walking stick that Gandhi used during the Dandi march was his gift), Pandit Jagat Ram who was jailed by the British for twenty one long years, Seth Ranchodbhai who paid a princely sum of Rs.525 for Gandhi's salt, aspiring Hindi writer Jainendra Kumar, Behram Khambatta who was Mira's host in Bombay on her arrival, Helen Haussding whom Gandhi had slapped in a moment of uncontrollable anger, etc.

Maybe it's also worth pointing out, in this age of human gods and capsuled spiritualism, what Gandhi felt about the so called spiritual gurus.

    "There are no perfect gurus we can turn to in our imperfect times. It is better to grope in the dark and wade through a million errors to reach the Truth than to entrust oneself to someone who knows not what he knows not."
The ashrams of these modern "gurus" lack the humaneness of a Sabarmati or a Sevagram. In Ramachandra Guha's words,
    "[their] exhibitionist Hinduism is in sharp contrast to the non- denominational but deeply felt spirituality which fills Gandhi's own place. Perhaps [their] inmates read and prayed, but it is difficult to believe that they ever argued or laughed."
Back to Mirabehn: as mentioned earlier she and Gandhi did have problems due to her seemingly possessive attitude towards Gandhi. Mira was often "saddled with the burden of choice", her head understanding Bapu's letters one way, and her heart reading it differently. Mira had experienced "a violent and passionate disturbance" with a Scottish pianist, an exponent of Beethoven, before coming to Sabarmati, and later she would have an intimate but failed relationship with Prithvi Singh, who converted to Gandhism from the Gadar party. I'm not sure about the significance of this, but much later at the very end of the novel, Mira now leading a retired life in Austria, we see her Indian (male) servant expressing a desire to leave her and return to India.
    "Was hers a tragic story whose heroine insisted on seeing it as a romantic quest in which, after withstanding the perils of the road, she had been rewarded by an exaltation beyond normal human experience?",
wonders Navin/ Kakar. But we cannot judge the success or failure of someone else's life. This perhaps is in the spirit of Gandhi, who once said (to Prithvi Singh):
    "I disbelieve history so far as the details of acts of heroes are concerned. I accept broad facts of history and draw my own lessons for my conduct as long as they do not contradict the highest laws of life, but I positively refuse to judge men from the scanty material furnished to us by history."

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

DN Jha: Review of The Vedic Age

Outlook has a review of a recent (well, not that recent) book by Irfan Habib and Vijay Kumar Thakur. The book is titled "The Vedic Age". The reviewer is the well-known historian DN Jha. Here's the link. Perhaps an easy introduction to the book, one gets at the Editorial:

    The Vedic Age completes the first set of three monographs in the People’s History of India series. It deals with the period c 1500 to c. 700 bc, during which it sets the Rigveda and the subsequent Vedic corpus.

    It explores aspects of geography, migrations, technology, economy, society, religion, and philosophy. It draws on these texts to reconstruct the life of the ordinary people, with special attention paid to class as well as gender. In a separate chapter, the major regional cultures as revealed by archaeological evidence are carefully described.

    Much space is devoted to the coming of iron, for the dawn of the Iron Age- though not the Iron Age itself- lay within the period this volume studies. There are special notes on Historical Geography, the caste system (whose beginnings lay in this period) and the question of Epic Archaeology. A special feature of this monograph is the inclusion of seven substantive extracts from sources, which should give the reader a taste of what these texts are like.

    As in the first two monographs, the authors seek to present updated information with clarity of exposition and reasoned analysis. Both the general reader and the student should, therefore, find here much that is interesting and thought provoking.

    The Aligarh Historians Society, the sponsor of the project of A People’s History of India, is dedicated to the cause of promoting the scientific method in history, and resisting communal and chauvinistic interpretations.

Now, as I understand, DN Jha is a serious historian, like Romila Thapar or Irfan Habib or RS Sharma. One would expect a certain decency from someone like Jha while reviewing a book. I'm not talking about the content of the review here, of which I do not know much to make a comment. What I disliked is this: throughout the review, Jha is deliberately blind to the fact that the book is a joint work. He attributes everything solely to Irfan Habib. He ends the review thus:
    Enriched by extracts from primary texts, Habib can clearly handle a wide variety of sources. Far from being a narrow specialist in medieval history, he works on a very wide canvas of time. In fact, those of us who’ve seen him present research papers on ancient Indian historical geography at the IHC may be puzzled to find a coauthor on the cover. Did he really need that?
Looks very distasteful. Did DN Jha really need that?

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Robert Langlands

Robert Langlands is giving a public talk at TIFR today evening. Here's a news report about the talk from today's Times of India.

  • Math luminary to show old masters' modern magic.
    What Langlands does has arguably had the most profound influence on the course of number theory in the last 50 years. Thanks to Langlands' own unifying insights, two vibrant mathematical areas — representation theory of Lie groups and number theory — are now seen as intimately entwined, resulting in a burst of creative research. An outstanding example is Andrew Wiles's proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. Experts say one reason why this is so important is because it pushes forward the eponymous Langlands Program, which is a set of conjectures suggesting deep and surprising interconnections between arithmetic and symmetry. The programme provides a bi-numerary dictionary of sorts, translating one field into another. In 2002, the proof of another piece of the Langlands Program by the French mathematician Laurent Lafforgue won the Fields Medal, which is often called the Nobel Prize of Mathematics. Langlands is visiting the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and is to deliver a public lecture on Wednesday at the Homi Bhabha auditorium on ‘Descartes and Fermat: Reading the Ancients as Moderns'.

Valmik Thapar on Indian Wildlife Crisis

Valmik Thapar in his thought provoking column in the Indian Express writes that our national parks today have become an anarchic monster due to the sheer stupidity of those who create the rules that govern a Park and then those who enforce the same. For instance, the famous Bharatpur Bird sanctuary in Rajasthan is dying because of continued water scarcity.

    Look what happened to the World Heritage Site of Bharatpur National Park. Ridiculous decision-making created a dam on the river that supplied water to this wetland -- the river dried up, so did the best wetland in the world. The state fears opening the dam today because of people agitating and the law and order problems that will follow. So Bharatpur dies, turning from wetland to desert.
It saddens me to read about the plight of Bharatpur. Though I was never really into birdwatching, one of my best friends in school was so passionate about birds that I too started loving them. We had Salim Ali's books as references, but the real reference material was Induchoodan's book in Malayalam -- Birds of Kerala. [Induchoodan (1923-1992), whose real name is KK Neelakantan, was an English professor, whose love for birds and nature was infectious. He was the founder of Kerala Natural History Society (KNHS). My friend was in touch with him.] Around this time Suresh Elamon used to serialise small descriptions of butterflies that can be spotted in Kerala in Mathrubhumi, a Malayalam daily. We used to collect those articles. [I remember how happy I was when I first saw South India's largest butterfly -- the southern birdwing -- near my grandparents' house in Karivellur.] Our Malayalam teacher encouraged these activities by a few of us, and he took us to meet Sunderlal Bahuguna (of the Chipco movement) when he visited Calicut sometime in the mid eighties. We met Bahuguna at Advocate Namasivayam's (then president of KNHS) house. I think I was in the fifth standard then. I remember presenting him my drawing of a butterfly, which he appreciated very much.

Later in my college days, we had a "nature club". Our Zoology professor, Prof. Ramakrishnan Palat [I never did biology, I was/am a math student], was very interested in taking us to wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. For two years we had also worked for a project (Western Ghats Biodiversity Project) of Madhav Gadgil. There were two friends from school days, with whom I'm still in touch, and several others with whom I'm not. One of them became quite famous later: Gopal Menon, the director of documentaries "Hey Ram: Genocide in the Land of Gandhi" and "Resilient Rhythms". In fact he did his first documentary when he was with us. I think it was titled "Yamam" (restraining), and this was about the destruction of the rain forests of Kerala.

Well, I was digressing, the original plan was just to link to Valmik Thapar's article. Thapar says India is facing its worst wildlife crisis after independence. This is his plea to those in power:

    Wake up chief ministers, forest ministers, bureaucrats; wake up Prime Minister -- this is the worst wildlife crisis since Independence. You chair the prestigious National Board of Wildlife that has not been convened for 17 months. Convene an emergency meeting without delay. Reform the finance departments. Reform your own political leaders. Reform the Forest Service (it is time to create an arm of this service only for our National Parks and permit transfers across states from one National Park to another). The present system stinks -- while the crisis boomerangs, Project Tiger and the MoEF are busy organising an international symposium in March to celebrate Project Tiger's 32 years! A disaster awaits to envelop the finest forests of our land.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Five Point Something

Chetan Bhagat's IIT based novel "Five Point Someone" is suddenly there everywhere. It is displayed very well in bookstores, and you wouldn't miss this title on the pavement bookstalls in Churchgate-Fort area. (R tells me that it's one step ahead of Amitav Ghosh's "Hungry Tide" -- which I havn't read till now, but she has enjoyed very much -- in the Crossword bestsellers list. Of course the bestseller lists don't mean anything as far as the literary merits are concerned, but it's funny that a serious writer like Ghosh is grouped with a five point some one in some list!)

I had read "Five Point Someone" a couple of weeks back. It's definitely not a serious work, but it's not meant to be one. What one expects in a book, in that case, would be a gripping storyline, told neatly and logically. This one doesn't have any of these qualities. Instead, what one notices is silly arithmetic mistakes -- involving percentages, lack of a sense of time -- somebody rides a scooter which is bought only three months later, factual mistakes -- color TV arrives in India only in the late 80's, etc. The main characters, fantasising providing superior weapons to CIA, just did not attract me. One word, a word that's used a zillion times in this book, would aptly describe this book -- crap.

On several occasions, one of the main characters complains about the IIT system: not many great engineers or scientists have come out of the IIT's. I do not know about that, but I guess that comment stands valid if one considers novelists or storytellers. At least that's the inference that can be drawn from this five point something!

Chetan Bhagat's blog says that he's coming up with a second book. Here's hoping that that will prove this post wrong.

Sagarika Ghose's column

Sagarika Ghose has a column in today's Indian Express [link via Amit Varma], where she argues that the young MPs have failed to live up to their promise. There are obvious reasons, of course. For it's not due to their political experience that they are MPs today. "Family has brought them political success, but paradoxically family has trapped them in political stagnation", Ghose writes.

She continues:

    "When political life was ideological, such as for example in the 1970s, with youth activists taking an active role in initiatives like the Nav Nirman movement in Gujarat or in the anti-Emergency movement, a range of young leaders -- whether it was Sitaram Yechury or Arun Jaitley -- rose as the rebellious young men of different ideologies. But when politics is based on dynasty -- and why blame just the Congress, almost every political party, whether it's the RJD or DMK or the National Conference, is run by family coteries -- then youth simply becomes harnessed to feudal family loyalties. Young politicians are thus not allowed to become an alternative energy source, they simply exist to parrot parental views."
It's hard not to agree with Ghose here. But her contrasting our aged ministers with Narain Karthikeyans and Sania Mirzas are naive and wrong. Also the conclusion which she derives, that
    "today for a young bright person inclined towards public service, politics and the party system are no longer attractive. Instead, its increasingly perhaps the NGO movement of different ideologies that provides an opportunity for real public work."
Certainly there are good NGO's out there who do a lot of isolated good work, there's no denying that. But it's also a fact that today many "bright young" people join NGO's only because it's a lucrative career option. Arundhati Roy has said it very well:
    "The NGO-ization of politics threatens to turn resistance into a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job. With a few perks thrown in. Real resistance has real consequences. And no salary."
I remember reading a news report that blood banks usually go dry when elections approach, as political party activists are busy electioneering! Apparently, the NGO's aren't good enough to replace the party workers! There have been extensive reports about the work that DYFI -- youth wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) -- volunteers have done in the tsunami affected areas of Tamil Nadu [see Dilip D'Souza and Amit Varma]. I've witnessed, in my school days, how influential DYFI was in the Kerala literacy movement of the late eighties.

The only antidote to bad politics/ politicians/ political parties is good politics/ politicians/ political parties. Sagarika Ghoses (and TS Krishnamurthys) would probably never realise this. And I would think that in "good" politics, something else matters more than sheer brightness and youngness.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Three interviews

Three interviews that I read today.

Noam Chomsky on the future of Iraq and post 9/11 US:

    9/11 made a lot of people think: 'We'd better figure out what is going on in the world. We'd better figure out what our role is and why things like that are happening. And the result was a huge increase in interest and concern. Huge audiences. I spend probably an hour a night just turning down requests for interviews from all over the place. They're not necessarily agreeing but they're thinking about what is going on. This is a very polled society and right before the November elections two of the major polling institutions, Program on International Policy Attitudes in Maryland and the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, both published major studies of popular attitudes and they were extremely interesting. What they showed is that the two political parties are far to the right of the population on issue after issue. What's happened is that the public is far removed from the bipartisan political system and intellectual culture and that is a reflection of changes that have taken place for many years.
Romila Thapar in today's Indian Express:
    The discipline of history itself has undergone immense changes. We talk today not of the truth. People practising the humanities and the social sciences, we talk about understanding...and there are different ways of attaining that. This is not an arbitrary thing. It's not that X has a certain understanding, I have another and you as the public have to decide. There are mechanisms, procedures by which history is written today. These did not exist a hundred years ago. It was practised almost by instinct by certain very good historians. Today, we train our history students in techniques by which you analyse data. One has of late been battling with people who are not trained historians. If you say, 'To hell with all your historical rules and methods, I will pick up a text and interpret it the way I want and that's history', face up to it, the historian will turn around and question your method. It's really like the debate between astronomy and astrology where there is no conversation.
Wendy Doniger @ Swaveda. This was in June 2004 (after the "dishonest book" controversy). [See Amardeep's post, and the links therein.]
    Indeed, I did not say, nor do I believe, that the Gita is a dishonest book. What I HAVE said about the Gita is quite clearly stated in the first chapter of my book, The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), particularly pages 14-18. There I speak of the Gita as a prime example of what a great mythic text can do to lead the person who reads or hears it to a very important spiritual insight, namely, to a way of transcending everyday, selfish concerns by connecting them with the greater vision that a religious text inspires us to see.