Monday 24 October 2011

Floating bodies and floods

“Oh, you have floods every year with millions of refugees.” “In India, dead bodies float in the rivers.” “How can you talk about democracy when your military has massacred Kashmiris every day for the last 70 years.” “You don’t work at all because all you are interested in is the next life.”

We have to hear things like this all the time in France. Well, they are true, aren’t they? That depends on what you mean by truth. If you ask whether these things happen, then the answer is that they do. India has floods, there are often reports of dead bodies in sacred rivers, and of killings, rape, and torture by the armed forces in Kashmir. And rebirth is a part of Hinduism.

However, if truth means anecdotal evidence or representations of some larger truth, then where do these facts fit? Do they explain India? If there is more to a country of 1.1 billion than ugliness and irrationality. (I cannot understand why rebirth is irrational while heaven and hell are sane – but then I’m an atheist.)  Why do Westerners and Arabs go on and on about how backward and ugly India is to Indians who are their equals in every way? Does it never strike them that if all that there was to India was poverty and depravity, the Indians they are talking to couldn’t have existed?

Will a Frenchman believe that all Americans are 7-foot-tall? If not, why does he believe that all girls in India are destroyed in the foetus? More interestingly, what does he get by believing it?

Thursday 5 May 2011

Is it only words?

The questions about Pakistan’s role in Bin Laden’s escaping justice for a decade rises a couple of questions. But before them, a disclaimer. I have no love lost for our neighbors, Pakistan. Perhaps history will decide the terrorists they sent us are freedom fighters, but I’m not too interested in history’s judgment, especially if it may come over my dead body.

Second, while the USA may fare no better in history’s court than India – most probably, it’ll do far worse – many of my family live there. Besides, quite a few are American citizens. And I want my family to be safe far more than I want justice. That ends the disclaimer.

Now, the questions. If the presence of Bin Laden in Pakistan proves that the Pakistanis, especially the Pakistani military, are aiding and abetting terrorists, why didn’t the fact that the 9/11 terrorists plotted and trained in Germany prove that the Germans were taking revenge for the two world wars through Islamic terror, more so because the Jews are common enemies to both Nazis and Islamic terrorists? How are we so sure that it wasn’t intelligence failure and was collusion?

More importantly, if Americans do know that it was the latter, what are they going to do about it? Invade Pakistan? Impose regime change? Bomb them to the Stone Age?

Ok, here’s the second question. Apparently, when India sought America’s help after 26/11, they were told that Americans won’t allow any ‘fishing expedition’ and shown the door. Considering their own fishing expedition cost $ 2,000 billion, lasted 10 years, and yielded (quite probably) a red herring, what was the logic of ‘protecting’ Pakistan then? How does anyone investigate anything without beginning with a fishing expedition?

It’s hard to understand the rationale behind American rhetoric, but is there any rationale behind their rationale?

Monday 7 February 2011

What has wife beating got to do with blowing up people?

The India Daily reports, in a piece titled Cameron says British multiculturalism has failed

British Prime Minister David Cameron believes his country's policy of multiculturalism has 'failed' to prevent the radicalisation of Muslims by hindering their integration into the British society. In his first speech on radicalism and causes of terrorism, the Prime Minister said a "hands-off tolerance" of those who reject Western values had failed to prevent the rise of Islamic extremism in Britain. He said Britain has "even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values", a policy that needs to be revised. Addressing a security conference in Germany, Cameron argued in favour of developing a stronger national and "muscular liberalism". Decrying the long-standing policy of multiculturalism, Cameron also suggested that there should be greater scrutiny of Islamic groups that get public money but do little to tackle extremism. "Let's properly judge these organisations: Do they believe in universal human rights – including for women and people of other faiths? Do they believe in democracy and the right of people to elect their own government? Do they encourage integration or separatism?" he said.

Err… what is he smoking? What are the people who this speech is targeted at smoking? When did westerners living in non-Western lands find the least need to find out anything about non-Western people, leave alone their values? As for accepting anything but their values – the idea is plainly ridiculous, for we all know that non-Western values consist of beating women, raping children and cutting off heads and hands, things unimaginable to Westerners.

And what is universal about those universal human rights? Does Cameroon equate universal with Christian or Western or both? Let's assume that only Westerners and Christians have any concept of human rights, never mind what constitutions of non-Western nations and non-Christian religious texts say. (We all know there is no difference between de jure and de facto in the West [If the West write down a right, they implement it wholly and wholeheartedly. For instance, no Westerner beats his woman.], whereas for the rest of the world, de facto is all that matters.) Now, Christians are less than half the global population; while Whites (I suppose that's what he means when he says Western) are 4 in 25 of humanity. That is a bizarre definition of universal, to say the least.

But let's get away from the facts and ask a simple question: What has subjugation of women got to do with terrorism? Aren't Communist terrorists all for women's equality? Communists are killing for universal human rights, aren't they? As for religious terrorists, if they believe the books they are killing for, they may be all for women's equality. And aren't there are substantial number of women religious terrorists too?

By the way, what are Cameroon & Co doing for the women for whom their hearts bleed? The French have banned the veil and headscarves. How about Arab language helplines, manned by Muslim women police, where those suppressed women can get some aid when their husbands beat them up?

Anyway, muscular liberalism is round the corner. Wonder what sort of muscles it has.

Saturday 15 January 2011

All French are racists...

I land in France. Among the first things I notice is that most French have a lighter complexion than me, though there are black, brown and yellow people too. I decide that the France has distinct races, and are probably racists, that is, they do not interbreed.

It takes me some time to notice that there are significant variations within the seemingly distinct complexions, which undoubtedly result from interbreeding.

My first conclusion owed much to the contrast to my own self that I originally noticed. I saw them as a group, and grouped what I saw. Later, I observed them as individuals, and discerned differences I had, deliberately or inadvertently, glossed over. Most probably, my second conclusion is closer to the truth than the first.

So why can’t a westerner fall into the same trap? Isn’t it possible that a Westerner, when he comes to the East, first notices how easterners are different from him, as a group; it’s only later that he comes to differentiate between easterners. And is it not conceivable that the initial observations, hurried and subjective, can lead the westerner to presume that easterners are homogenous, with ‘collective concepts of self’, a conclusion that would surprise most easterners? For all we know, had easterners would have seen westerners as collectivists too, had they not be trained to think of westerners as individualists!

Of course, it is well-established that easterners and westerners fashion the self differently. But then Aristotelian physics and racist anthropology were well established too. Why can’t loaded questions be asked, uncomfortable facts be ignored, and those who question conventional wisdom be dismissed as ill-informed, radical and silly?

PS: It’s ironical how quickly collectivist tendencies wear off in the east. No sooner than easterners have made a neighborhood in a hamlet, they are at each other’s throats. By the time they reach sub-castes, we have a full-fledged civil war on our hands. In contrast, westerners require evident differences in complexion before they start enslaving and massacring. There are wars between westerners too, but those were fought in pre-history, that is, pre-1945

Friday 14 January 2011

A little imagination, please

The blurb for the article The coffee king of modern India by Amy Kazmin in the Financial Times on 11 January said, “V.G. Siddhartha's Café Coffee Day has caught the mood of the country where changing social rules and rapid economic growth are new opportunities for social mobility.

Inside, the article expanded, “With its slightly suggestive slogan, ‘a lot can happen over coffee,’ the chain has captured the zeitgeist of young, modern India, where conservative social rules are gradually eroding and rapid economic growth is creating new opportunities for social mobility. The cafés are a place where backpack-carrying students, laptop-toting young professionals, amorous couples and affluent sari-clad women all come to conduct meetings, keep romantic assignations or hang out with friends. ‘It’s a comfort zone,’ says Latika Arora, a 21-year-old MBA student and a regular Café Coffee Day patron.”

I have often wondered which cuckoo-land journalists come from. When in living memory were teashops and coffee houses not hangouts for India’s poor and middleclass? Pick up any novel or old movie, and you’ll find the young men, and sometimes, young women, socialising in these places. Alternatively, they and their elders are getting drunk in taverns and bars.

Go to any village, town or city, and you’ll find the picture unchanged. So what does the erosion of conservative social rules have to do with Café Coffee Day’s success?

Anyway, why pick on poor Amy. Starbucks sold the ‘third place’ baloney and we bought it in droves. Yet, these retailers essentially make money by renting space, with the beverage, usually undrinkable, being the billing contrivance. Their business model is identical to the one many cafes and taverns have used for centuries. By now, the story should have been dead: It’s surprising it isn’t.

Wednesday 29 December 2010

Stalin cynical, Roosevelt great

The halt of the Russian forces at the doors of Warsaw as the Poles rose in revolt under  General Tadeusz 'Bor' Komorowski is universally condemned as the most cynical decision of the Second World War, where Satlin let the Nazis kill of any potential threat to his power in Poland.

The Russians maintain, at least under communist rule, that they had asked the Poles not to revolt because they (the Russians) were too exhausted  and stretched to attack Warsaw. Hence, the decision not to come in aid of the rising had, from their point of view, more to do with saving Russian lives than taking Polish ones. Obviously, this logic cannot matter to Western historians.

The other day, I was watching A Tale of Three Cities: How the U.S. Won World War II, a lecture by David Kennedy. In the Q&A session following his talk, someone asked if Roosevelt’s decision to postpone the second front in Europe in spite of Stalin repeatedly asking for it was not a cynical decision, by which he saved American lives at the cost of many Russian dead. Had UK and USA attacked France in 1943 instead of waiting till 1944, they may have taken many divisions off the eastern front. Kennedy replied that while Roosevelt may had wanted to save American lives, that’s what he was voted into office to do. Hence, he can’t say that Roosevelt was cynical. He was doing his duty as USA’s president.

Well, that logic cannot apply to Stalin, because the Red dictator had no value for Russian lives. Didn’t he send troops to the front without guns or ammunition? Didn’t he gamble with underequipped armies? Did he not kill millions in gulags and by execution? He did. But can’t the Warsaw decision be militarily and morally correct in  spite of all this?

Also, what were Stalin’s choices during the second world war? The Nazis had already shown that they were out to kill Russians, not conquer them. In fact, they killed and enslaved many who welcomed them as liberators from communist dictatorship. So, it is very unlikely that Stalin would have saved lives by letting his forces surrender.

Prof Kennedy made another interesting point during the Q&A. He said that by his estimates, USA supplied around 20% of the martial the Russians used. Now, western historians make it seem as if all the Russians’ material came courtesy Uncle Sam. While that 20% may have been decisive, it wouldn’t have mattered hadn’t the Russians been able to come up with the balance 80%.

It’s not my intention to be an apologist for Stalin and his gang. However, if we want to learn from history, we have to be objective. More importantly, historians must  remember that they are not propagandists.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Usury English style = Inclusive growth

In an editorial titled Microfinance and financial inclusion, the Financial Times says, "A crackdown (on microfinance in South Asia) would not help anyone, except perhaps traditional moneylenders and feudal landlords… Microfinance's advantages over traditional sources are that loans are cheaper and free of the social conditions attaching to credit in feudal relationships… As to the charge of gouging, microlenders have small margins in spite of their high interest rates… Evidence suggests the Indian suicides were the result of borrowers taking on too much debt from multiple sources. Credit practices must be improved to prevent this. Lenders should disclose interest rates to stimulate competition. This requires intelligent regulation.

Microfinance brings a crucial service to poor people. Rather than being attacked, it should be helped to do an even better job of assisting them to assert their financial autonomy."

The piece raises a number of obvious questions. First, why do microlenders have small margins in spite of high interest rates? Is it because their overhead costs are high? Or do borrowers default in large numbers? Or are they plain badly run?

Second, if credit practices were improved, would microfinance companies be able to charge the high interest rates? If I knew the probability that a borrower may default, can I still charge him a high rate? For instance, credit card companies in India justify charging usurious interests to all customers with the excuse that credit ratings are unavailable in India (without ever bothering to explain why they haven't developed ratings of their own over decades of operating in India): They cannot do so in civilised countries because credit scores are available.

Third, what does 'financial autonomy' mean?

Finally, why are people committing suicide when overwhelmed by loans? As per FT, microfinance is 'free of the social conditions attaching to credit in feudal relationships.' So what is it not free of? What are those borrowers afraid of? (Let's say you put money into my scheme, which doesn't work out. Now, I'd be sorry about it, but it's quite unlikely that I'd be so ashamed or petrified by failure that I'd kill myself… unless you had some abnormal bodily or psychological hold over me. What hold do these microfinance companies have?)

That South Asian politicians, in particular, and people, in general, are incurably corrupt is truer than the sun's rise in the east. Nonetheless, it does not logically follow that everything they say is to benefit landlords and usurers, more so when microfinance can offer far bigger bribes than the former.

Friday 17 December 2010

Brains leaking

In an article titled, Rahul Gandhi warned U.S. of growth of extremist Hindu groups: WikiLeaks on leaked cables from American diplomats in India published by WikiLeaks, the Hindu writes: "Their (American diplomats') view of Indian politicians is variable, however. The failure of Sonia Gandhi, who chairs the ruling United Progressive Alliance coalition, to overcome opposition to a nuclear power agreement is criticised heavily.

A deal would see, the U.S. diplomats said, a big boost for clean energy in India and a market worth $150bn for American companies. 'Mrs Gandhi never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity,' one cable sent in November 2007 said."

There is something very disturbing about this, a typical sample of what's been coming out in the press thanks to the WikiLeaks. It's the childishness of the remarks. 'Mrs Gandhi never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity… 'raucous democracy' of India… "If you want to end malaria you have to get rid of the swamp," the Indian national security adviser told the FBI director last year.

The picture that emerges from embassies and government offices across the world is not of sage statesmen or sly scoundrels, but of mediocre people who haven't outgrown the editorship their class magazines. Too clever by half, yet unwilling or unable to cope with complexities, and seeking comfort in cynicism. Was diplomacy and international relations always like this?


Monday 13 December 2010

9% growth… from selling the country

“Rajeev Chandrashekhar, a Rajya Sabha MP and former FICCI president, has pointed out that agriculture has grown at a dismal one per cent and manufacturing at no more than three per cent. The so-called miracle has been achieved through phenomenal growth in mining, real estate, construction.” So says Neelabh Mishra in his article in Outlook, titled The Banana Sheikhs.

Read this with Jagdish Bhagwati’s lecture The Unfinished Reform Agenda. The good professor says nothing about the sources of growth, even while  he rages against Indian novelists being allowed to write on the economy.

When ordinary people cannot see the growth they are supposed to be enjoying, who do they turn to, economists with figures or novelists with facts?

Friday 26 November 2010

Mahabharata as a ripoff of Godfather

I was watching the movie Rajneeti on YouTube and looked up its Wikipedia entry. It says: "Robert Abele of the Los Angeles Times found that while it aimed 'for something trenchant about thwarted destiny and ugly ambition in modern Indian democracy', it 'mostly winds up with a convoluted and tonally awkward Godfather rehash, with nary a character worth rooting for...' Frank Lovece of Film Journal International said, 'More pulpy than political, this Godfather-ripoff Hindi electoral drama is a candidate for oblivion in U.S. theatres. ... [I]t all eventually becomes so ridiculous and over-the-top violent that there is nobody, nobody, to root for.'"

Now, the movie's director has made it quite clear that it is a modern version of the Mahabharata. This is immediately apparent to any Indian viewer. And since it'd be hard to find an Indian who doesn't know the basic story of the Mahabharata, the director doesn't have any new story to tell. Hence, the question of confusion doesn't arise, at least for the main audience of the movie, Indians and Indian diaspora.

As for not having a character to root for, the original story doesn't have any. So one can't say that's a deficiency. In fact, that's something that makes it interesting hundreds of years after it was written. Here's a story with many heroic characters but no hero.

But what made the two American reviewers search for Godfather in Rajneeti? It is about a family war, but so are many Indian movies. It must be the 'quickie' early in the film, because Godfather I had one too. It does not matter, of course, that the quickie in Godfather was used to define a character (Sonny) while the one here is central to the plot.

Well, if one similar scene makes a movie a remake of another, Godfather III is a remake of Pather Panchali. Why? Because there is a scene towards the end of former where the godfather lets out a silent scream over the body of his slain daughter, and this scene is similar to the one in Pather Panchali where the father cries uncontrollably when he comes to know of his daughter's death. In the latter scene too you don't hear his cries; instead, there is piece on the taarshenai.

What's my point? That Rajneeti is not a remake of Godfather but a retelling of Mahabharata? That's obvious. What's less obvious is why the two Western reviewers started on the wrong foot - they assumed that an Indian film must be ripoff - and ended with a completely wrong logic.

Of course, one can't blame them completely, because a great many Indian movies are ripoffs, but don't journalists have a responsibility to do a background check? Or is that unnecessary for brown people?