Thursday, July 28, 2011

The making of an audience

(This essay originally appeared in Open magazine.)

There’s a lot of good stuff out there even if little of that is mainstream. In the age of auto-tune, indie bands are stepping up to reclaim intellectual purity. (‘Indie’ is a term generally used to denote relatively obscure bands signed up with independent record labels.) As far as Western indie bands are concerned, there’s barely any money to be made anyway beyond the Anglophone market. In the case of desi indie bands, any awareness of their work would probably be limited to the Indian cognoscenti whose number is restricted to a few thousand and who till recently were inclined to pass up locally produced music in favour of classic American and British bands.

This is a condition that the fledgling Indian college radio scene can rectify. Ruia College Radio does some interesting things. The RJs speak to their guests and audience in a mix of English, Hindi and Marathi. There is even a show that promotes Urdu culture. I’ve heard them play ghazals in languages like Marathi. (I didn’t know they were performed in anything other than Urdu.) They don’t play material that might be considered commercial. It is no coincidence that Indian bands can now dream of sustaining themselves without playing a single Metallica cover. The intent is great, but they really ought to work on hitting international standards of quality.

Read more here.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

After the uprising

An extract from a poignant essay in The Observer:

Rohan Gunaratna, an international terrorism expert and author of the book Inside Al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, conducted a lengthy interview with John, and prepared a written report for the American court to which John was brought for trial. Gunaratna is an expert consultant to the US government itself on terrorism matters. "Those who, like Mr Lindh, merely fought the Northern Alliance," he wrote, "cannot be deemed terrorists. Their motivation was to serve and to protect suffering Muslims in Afghanistan, not to kill civilians."

John described his motivation in similar terms. "I felt," he later explained to the court, "that I had an obligation to assist what I perceived to be an Islamic liberation movement against the warlords who were occupying several provinces in northern Afghanistan. I had learned from books, articles and individuals with first-hand experience of numerous atrocities committed by the Northern Alliance against civilians. I had heard reports of massacres, child rape, torture and castration."

More here.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

What would Baba O'Riley say?

Teenagers comprise the largest consumer demographic in the United States today. The Merchants of Cool is a superb PBS documentary that examines what the relentless focus on the teenager does to culture.

Monday, June 13, 2011

When being gay is wrong

It has been revealed that Amina Abdallah Aral al-Omari, aka "A gay girl in Damascus", supposedly kidnapped last week by Syrian government forces, was in fact a fiction created by a white heterosexual American graduate student living in Scotland.

I had not heard of "Amina" until this morning but the framing of this story intrigues me. We are treated to an interview with Tom MacMaster, the perpetrator of this fraud, wherein he expresses contrition for his idiotic act. Elsewhere, the response from Arab bloggers more familiar with the event has understandably been scathing and it is clear on the point that MacMaster must take any criticism that comes his way for throwing in doubt, even delegitimizing, the voices of gay Arabs.

A Western commentator, Daniel Villareal, writes here:

...the next queer Middle-Easterner to cry for help on her blog will most likely receive a lethal amount of skepticism while people figure out whether or not to believe her. Now anti-gay foes can say that liberals have to fabricate stories just to bolster queer rights worldwide which dilutes the power of real abuse accounts happening in Syria this very moment. The Syrian government can now claim that any reports of real human rights abuses in the region could just be a potential American fraud or over-reactive reporting of a hoax rather than the real deal.

That observation is valid; frankly, given the circumstances, MacMaster's continuation of the blog as a dramatic story of disappearance was irresponsible to say the least.

As a spectator living several thousand miles away from the chaos, with no personal stake in it, I am tempted to ask if any barriers ought to be put in place at all, against appropriating voices. Most people would answer yes. My own instinctive response is that people must be responsible and apply self-censorship -- not the pressure of clamps. Beyond that, nothing and nobody is above criticism.

In an ideal world so long as resistance made moral and logical sense, it would gain traction. But of course reality, or at least our sense of it, is shaped by power. I remember being offended a few years ago by Slumdog Millionaire's commercial and critical success, built on its exotic and patently inaccurate portrayal of Indian voices. I wish Danny Boyle & co. had never made the movie but of course, the feel-good aspect of it appealed to millions of other Indians (to say nothing of foreigners) who didn't share my objections.

Still the Orientalist appropriation that was Slumdog is very different from this case. In MacMaster's defense his portrayal of Amina is, by all accounts, sympathetic. But this cannot hide the fact that lives are at stake. Until his confession, the Western media had taken his blog seriously. Arab gay activists even broke cover to inquire about the incarcerated Amina. MacMaster didn't think through any of this.

The Guardian notes:

(MacMaster)... started the blog... because he believed online posts about the Syrian and Israel-Palestinian situations would earn "some deference from obnoxious men" if written under an Arab woman's name rather than under his own, where "someone would immediately ask: why do you hate America? why do you hate freedom? This sort of thing."

And in an earlier confessional post on "Amina's" blog, MacMaster wrote that he was seeking, in part, to expose "the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal orientalism". Now I can sympathize with that aspiration. While we're on this subject I must also say I am vehemently opposed to underprivileged groups aggregating along a single axis of identity, whether along the lines of race or sexuality or economic status; it is a politics so self-absorbed as to completely miss the big picture. But in the end, there are infinitely better ways of going about expressing a viewpoint.

In hindsight, for all its stupidity MacMaster's deception works if only as a satire challenging self-righteous and self-serving Western readings of the situation. That is the only message worth extricating from the messy, on-going propaganda war between bloggers and the Syrian government that "Amina" has set off.

Whatever his true intentions -- satirical or otherwise -- in the fog of rapidly changing political events in Syria, MacMaster's actions have suddenly taken on greater significance than they should. American and British media outlets, which originally set the consensus agenda on the criminally exuberant coverage of the protests that swept across West Asia, are now looking for a fall guy; MacMaster is an easy target for a media bent on covering its arse.

Let us remind ourselves, MacMaster is not the story.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

What makes sport a spectacle?

(This essay originally appeared in Open Magazine.)

My mother, once a loose-limbed college athlete and a lifelong John McEnroe fan, got me hooked to tennis in the mid-1980s. I can still remember at a very visceral level feeling disoriented when the chair umpire called an increment of 15 points, as we watched my first Wimbledon match on our old Dyanora black-and-white television set, which we had to whack hard on the side every few minutes to be rid of white noise. Why 15, why not 1, I asked my mother, who shrugged distractedly, not even noticing that I was displaying phenomenal arithmetic skills. But as I got the hang of it and stopped questioning every single thing, I found myself, like my mother, immersed in the pleasure of watching Jimmy Connors take those peculiar short steps as he raced all over the court only to have McEnroe wind up at the net for the kill: it seemed nothing could zip past our man’s motor mouth.

Back then, I was still developing the vocabulary to explain why I liked what I liked. But instinctively it seemed to me that the joy lay in the suspense of it: would the ball land clean inside the tramline, would the lob sneak over Connors’s head, would the savage backhand beat McEnroe’s languid reach?


Cultural taste is relative. Unlike the more primal instincts, my predilection for suspense is an individual response – not something that must be shared by everyone. Some who regard Test cricket as outdated are partial to the brevity of the Twenty20 format; others who mock the vulgarity of the Indian Premier League treasure the sanctity of the long form. A music critic might be drawn to the rhythm of snooker balls crashing chaotically into each other. It’s impossible to predict what might appeal to the human senses.

Even so, there must be larger socio-cultural factors that go into making one sport watchable in the opinion of a fastidious demographic and another quite impossible to promote. What is it that draws us fundamentally toward spectacle? Why might cricket be more gripping than croquet? How big a role do the media play in shaping our interests? Is there an element of self-selection involved? To answer all of these, we ought to begin by interrogating the nature of viewership pleasure itself.

It may be fair to say that most people don’t connect with something visually until they have experienced it firsthand. Playing something makes it watchable. (After having spent years under the watchful gaze of his taskmaster father, hitting some two thousand balls a day in practice, Andre Agassi claimed he didn’t even like tennis; but going by everything he confesses in his autobiography, Open, you would suspect he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.) In his seminal New York Times essay on Roger Federer, David Foster Wallace – once a regionally ranked junior tennis player – wrote, “Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments… The Moments are more intense if you’ve played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do.” This is a variation on the old argument that to wholly enjoy a sport and gain a sophisticated appreciation for it, you need to play it at least at the club level. But does that always mean there is no pleasure to be gained otherwise? Such an ideology seems to me needlessly repressive and exclusionary.

Wallace’s deconstruction of Federer’s game is immaculate, knowledgeable and thorough. His views strike one as expert, to say nothing of his style. Along the way, he emphasizes television’s distancing effects on the viewer, and stops to reflect upon all that it captures through close-ups and the details that it misses. Yet I envy how he offhandedly detaches himself from an audience that presumably pays to watch tennis on television.

I play squash myself, at a level of proficiency sufficient to grasp nuances when I watch others compete. But squash’s misplaced reputation in the West (and to an extent, in India) as a rich man's hobby frustrates me; it can ill-afford to alienate a potential audience through snobbery. Is the pleasure gained from watching sport really more acute if one has played as a gifted amateur or professional or is Wallace’s brush-off an instance of gratifying the ego, knowing that one sees what the big deal is? Could this be a case of both?

Although research confirms that hands-on involvement enriches and crystallizes one’s perspective by activating our sense of empathy, it is probably not, strictly speaking, necessary to have played to enjoy the sport – and maybe not even to be able to hold forth with any degree of authority. Understanding a sport is not the same as speaking lucidly about it. Irrespective of their socio-economic origin, few soccer or cricket players can harness everything they know and feel in the commentary box; conversely, the pleasure a dilettante derives is not necessarily passive and ignorant. A good commentator could well make the difference between making something watchable and rendering it torturous. To make the Sherlock Holmes argument: in the extreme case, if a dilettante’s powers of armchair analysis have evolved sufficiently, he might outdo the supposed expert and provide a diversion to the audience.

While a seemingly elitist sport like tennis continues to resonate more with the club membership-owning, racquet-swinging bourgeoisie than with the working classes, television and the Internet have definitely made significant contributions towards bridging such divides. High quality commentaries and analyses are increasingly accessible and have deepened our understanding of sport, whilst simultaneously diversifying viewership.

As life expectancy goes up, age is no longer necessarily a barrier to watching or participating in athletic activities. Trying to establish any correlation between gender and liking for sports is similarly fraught with risk; I say this, mindful of the detail that it was my mother – not my father – who introduced me to sport. While the term couch potato signifies masculine identity, it wouldn’t take much to convince anyone that more women exercise at the gym than men. Who is to say an afternoon spent competing against a partner in the swimming pool (or, for that matter, in a half-marathon) does not count as enjoying a recreational sport – a sport that you might even want to tune in to on TV as your interest levels build?

Let’s just say instead, there may be no convincing those men and women who instantly switch off when confronted by a sporting moment. I have acquaintances of that variety who split hairs about Proust’s insights on memory but make a face when conversation turns towards sport. It is safe to presume they wouldn’t want to read a word of this essay.

Most casual viewers who keep an open mind automatically connect the word ‘watchable’ with ‘beautiful’. That last word connotes different things to different people. Many enjoy the presence of a pretty face or buff body. Someone I know has researched every documented case of streaking on YouTube, which is odd but fair enough: if that’s what it takes to draw eyeballs then so be it. The slam-dash of Sehwag, showcasing physicality without resorting to ungainliness, is in its own way gorgeous to watch. Others subconsciously or consciously privilege economy of movement and effort over a huff and a puff. Spoiled by the likes of Federer and V.V.S Laxman, these watchers have come to expect professionals to display a degree of grace and wince when someone wins ugly.

There is much to be said for the bewitching power of elegance when discussing audience pleasure. Watching Warne turn the ball from a leg-stump line to hit off is to experience joy that is soul-satisfyingly intense. The extent of turn and bounce is unpredictable, its effect mystical; the cause of the sensations it provokes obvious even to the initiate.


The medium of reference matters too. Watching something on television or the Internet is very different from following it on the radio or checking scores online (which are both one step removed, an abstract kind of watching through the mind’s eye). And none of these is anything like witnessing an event live.

Whenever I watch cricket on television I morph into an adrenaline junkie addicted to the thrill that spikes in the fraction of a second between frames as the camera switches focus. My breath catches every time Laxman – my favourite batsman – plays the ball uppishly in the direction of cover. I know it usually means a four or the loss of his wicket, and I cannot bear to find out what the television is about to reveal.

I hate that television is inherently a constraining medium: you can only see all that is within the confines of what the cameramen choose to capture. It was more liberating to imagine Mohammed Azharuddin bat while listening to commentary on All India Radio as he scored that magnificent 163 not out against the South Africans in Kanpur in 1996, although again, the information was rationed out by the radio man.

I have had the privilege of watching Roger Federer in his pomp dismantle opponents with a flick of his wrist as he drifted and hung over the grass, forty feet away. The Center Court press box at Wimbledon gives you a slightly side-on view of the action; I am convinced of the merits of its positioning. Being there also allows you to observe the little things, to wander into nooks that the television camera avoids, and to meet the characters, as I did (among many others) an eccentric old gentleman, a senior member of the All-England club, who had ushered members of the press into their allotted space for more than four decades. Restricted as we are by the precincts of the mainstream media, these simple freedoms can be a luxury.


I once asked the world chess champion, Viswanathan Anand, during an interview if he thought thirty-two pieces on a square board had the makings of a televised sport. Anand is one of the most fascinating and articulate sportsmen I have met (and who, by the way, makes a great case for regarding chess as a sport). He is telegenic in a pleasantly chubby sense, and someday would do brilliantly as a talking head. Always in control of his public image, he is slightly reserved but nonetheless charming, and a far cry from the dissident recluse cliché that defined Bobby Fisher in his later years. His ideas are refined and in conversation tend to emerge fully-formed.

“The Internet has worked miracles for those trying to popularise the game, but in India better use must be made of the television medium,” he said, and proceeded to compare chess to Formula 1. “At one level it's really very similar to the way Formula One functions: you have cars whizzing past. How boring is that? Then some bright chap decided to install cameras inside the car, give the viewer multiple perspectives. Suddenly F1 gets a lot more interesting, doesn't it?

“You have got to be creative. Maybe get better commentators to tell the viewer exactly why a particular move was brilliant, I'm not sure. But it's certainly possible to do something about it. F1 could act as a model for chess.”

I can see why he cites the case of F1: as a spectacle, chess and F1 are both sports geared exclusively towards remote audiences. F1, incidentally, is a fascinating thing. Despite the phenomenon of crowds in the stands (which can only be understood as a consequence of hype), it is a sport made for television. The press box consists of a large room lined with hundreds of cubicles with a television monitor hanging over each of them. No journalist could write his story watching F1 from the stands.

But the more I think about it, I am not sure I entirely agree with the association Anand draws. Maybe F1 offers viewers a vicarious and cathartic release from following traffic laws, but few people have ever stepped into a racing car whereas many likely played chess at least once, however badly. And unlike F1 racing whose post-camera enhancement thrills are in theory comprehensible to almost everyone – especially those who play simulation games – chess discriminates on the basis of intelligence.

There is a more meaningful comparison to be drawn between and among sports that exploit the same skill sets. Racquet sports like squash and badminton could learn much in terms of expanding their audience from tennis. Comparing chess to F1 on the other hand might be a bit of a stretch.
To a prodigious mind like Anand’s it might seem plausible that expounding on the intelligence of a move would by itself draw an audience; but his argument ignores the fact that most people are accustomed to sport as a leisurely pursuit, not something that demands even more intellectual investment than their job does.

Chess is the definitive elitist sport. I played chess in school and while I know how involving it can be, it seems to me that in the absence of physicality and other forms of demonstrable action, this is the rare kind of game one cannot enjoy at all unless one fully comprehends the motives behind a move.


Now it’s all very well to appreciate a sport for its qualities but fans are not unbiased creatures. They need something to root for, colorful characters to valorize and pillory; they want war without the consequences of bullets.

There is a biological correlation between a viewer’s investment in the spectacle and the quality of performance of a favorite player or team. A German study conducted during the 1994 Soccer World Cup, indicated an increase of 28% in testosterone levels in Brazilian fans whose side was winning and a 27% decrease in Italian fans whose side was losing. According to the study, levels of testosterone in fans rise in an anticipatory manner prior to competition. ‘Winning’ can further elevate levels, whilst ‘losing’ can result in a decrease.

Rabid fans, haters and indifferent grumblers celebrate together when the spectacle in question exceeds the sport, as was the case the night India won the 2011 Cricket World Cup. And yet, whether or not you are a fan, the novelty of seeing a racer like Schumacher win race after race fades quickly. Once, people complained when Federer was pulverizing every player in sight. Now, after having upset Novak Djokovic in yesterday's rousing French Open semifinal, he is back in their good graces. The status quo must be quickly overhauled, and the underdog must win to keep things interesting. A decider between Federer and Nadal is preferable to practically anything else.

Feeling sorrow for someone’s loss is just as life-affirming as celebrating a win. In the end it’s the humanizing aspect that makes or breaks a sport; the drama that makes it watchable or unbearable.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

House has not (yet) left the building

Earlier this week, Lisa Edelstein who plays Cuddy on House announced that she wouldn't be returning for the eighth season. Cuddy was a redemptive figure, a sane counterbalance to her ex-boyfriend's raging immaturity. Never one to roll over and die, she was constructed to effectively parry House's genius for manipulation.

Edelstein's decision will upset those fans who have invested much emotion in 'Huddy' (the hurl-inducing label they stuck to the characters' union). While their repetitious on-screen clashes could have stirred a paralyzed patient into reaching for the remote, it was the seesaw sexual tension that lent the show its distinctive unpredictability. For, let's be honest: House otherwise gives off the impression of running on auto-pilot. From citing one exotic disease per season on every episode as a kind of in-joke for fans, right down to patients displaying some gory new symptom in time for the next commercial break, the viewer is trained to respond to certain stimuli. A slightly overused trick, it cannot always create a deeper connection to the show. It affects me far more to see such a strongly relatable character go.

Given how much buzz non-diegetic developments generate on the Internet, it will be tough to maintain the veil of fiction and handle Edelstein's departure with grace. We may be certain that there will be no contrived episode of idealistic blathering or suicide; but ending the seventh season without a cliffhanger, without breaking the fourth wall while knowing that Cuddy is gone forever, will take some delicate engineering.

Usually when a pivotal character quits, it is in everyone's interests to wrap up the series, a case in point being That 70s Show, which jumped the shark right about now during its own run. The enormously successful Two and a Half Men might yet survive beyond a season or two, if That 70s Show alumnus Ashton Kutcher can exploit the furore in Charlie Sheen's wake and take the show in a different direction, although Kutcher has too much money riding on him and this may be a case of trying to salvage a seat cushion from a car wreck.

But House is a little more complex than most shows. The lead character's personality has undergone so little transformation over the seasons, he would fit within the narrative conventions of a sitcom. Indeed the first few seasons of House could be read as a 'dramedy'; its subsequent generic evolution unintentionally mirrors Friends, a purported comedy that ultimately morphed into a full-blown soap opera -- and this depends on your taste -- complete with unlikeable leads.

I am only half-joking. It goes without saying, however, House has a lot more strands to work with. The philosophical possibilities are limitless when your protagonist is an amoral genius. Like a President entering his final year in office, the writers should go all out and tackle all kinds of taboo material, thereby reclaiming the show's early reputation as brilliantly non-conformist.

As it stands, the show is a watered down, emasculated version of what it used to be. I know I would have stopped watching House long ago had it not been for the presence of the irrepressible Hugh Laurie. Ted Danson's Becker (from the eponymous show) is not a patch on Laurie's interpretation of the irascible genius trope. Laurie himself is a genius and yet -- going by his interviews and other performances -- nothing like the character he portrays, which makes his skill appear all the more impressive. Outside of America the Englishman is best known for his comedic talent. He was marvelous as the clueless Bertie Wooster in Jeeves and Wooster; hilariously creepy when singing from a pedophile photographer's point-of-view and surreal as a man lodging a complaint with the police on the skit show, A Bit of Fry & Laurie.

House is Laurie and Laurie is House. Every other character on that show could be replaced and House would still be watchable, however unwatchable House got. Seven seasons have produced some extraordinarily moving moments, several mediocre episodes but no rank bad ones. The show's fans continue to impose high expectations. End it well -- not like Lost, thank you -- and the suicides and divorces will be forgiven.

How might the writers resolve the big questions? From a narrative standpoint, in the time left I would like to see House hook up with the prodigal wild child, Remy Hadley aka Thirteen. It's the only permutation left that makes any sense. The chemistry is apparent and it is smoking. Apart from the obvious tension and competition it would provoke between House and Eric Foreman, his perennial second-in-command (not to be confused with the protagonist on That 70s Show) who was once involved with Thirteen, there's something compellingly tragic about a gifted diagnostician falling for a beautiful young woman with Huntington's disease, and knowing that try as he might to save her, he will for once not get to play god. It would also be entirely in line with his character, for House is nothing if not twisted.

Who knows: having to chase an independent, high-functioning (yet emotionally dysfunctional) woman whose affection he cannot take for granted might even make a man of House.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Farce at its finest

This one's arguably the most brilliant set piece that the (often overrated) Daily Show has put out. It's a zinger; political farce at its finest, the finish positively heretical.

Aasif Mandvi's comic timing is exquisite. He throws in a few crucial pauses while delivering the best line I have ever heard on the show: "As one gentleman told me while standing in the... smoldering remains of what was once his village... You can't get hummus... without mashing some chickpeas."

Mandvi makes this sound like hip-hop.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Photography as imperialism

I took this recently in Austin, from close to the bus-stop on Guadalupe and 21st. Walking along the pavement and sipping on bubble tea, I'd caught sight of people pointing at the sky; I looked up and was confronted by a thing of beauty.

Mechanically I retrieved my iPhone from my pocket and shot it, like a deer. The sun eventually dipped. The radiance that lit up this spectacle faded like a decomposing carcass and I walked away.

There are many interesting details about the photo of course, new bits that you spot every time, dots I had not connected when gazing upward. The camera frames the image very differently from the eye. For instance I didn't notice until I looked at the photo that the ridiculously named Darque Tan salon crouched directly below the cloud, or that Dobie Center (which leans in this photograph like the Tower of Pisa) has a faintly reptilian look to it. I can spot faces in the clouds even.

Over the past decade I have grown more conscious of my need to track personal and family history. My phone has especially influenced the way I collect memories. The one I own currently -- a fourth generation smartphone -- is a powerful device that among other things allows me to manipulate my impressions by storing the image in full color or black-and-white: choices governed by aesthetic reasons linked purely to form. I have never owned a camera and I don't expect I ever will. This device is a functional replacement.

I used not to be interested in recording images. For years I subscribed to the mistaken belief that looking at old photographs held out only the promise of passive pleasure; consequently I didn't care enough to learn to operate my father's old Canon SLR. I still mistrust photographs inasmuch as I am skeptical of the power of words to sufficiently pin down one's thought process.

Conversely, part of my ambivalence towards these media may stem from the awareness that even though the technology is more or less widely available in most countries around the world, the act of shooting pictures is, like writing, a project of imperialism, of capture and dominance over the subject.

For Robert Browning, art was imperialistic. Perhaps I suffer from a case of faux-white man's guilt, although growing up as a teenager in Bombay and goggling at crisp images of foreignness in National Geographic, I wasn't sophisticated enough to know that far from capturing the authenticity of experience, the pictures exoticized the poor and the mundane through the use of elements like elegant fonts and glossy paper. It's funny in hindsight to acknowledge that to my impressionable mind, the quality of paper connoted an overly simple sense of what America itself meant to me: clean, fresh-smelling and a place far more welcoming of immigrants than it truly is.

Resistance to photography's imperialistic nature is powerfully sustained by knowing that uprooted from their context, images can never duplicate reality. Our realities register as intangible, fleeting fragments on the medium of our mind. McLuhan's words apply here: the medium cannot be rendered distinct from message.

All photography is political. But as is usually the case with these things, intent counts for a lot. Memory, when documented as accurately as possible, contributes to the resistance by reaffirming our humanity.

Despite its technological limitations and capacity to perpetuate larger imperialistic ideas, video works better than the photograph as a receptacle of memories when it contains both moving images and audio supplemented by language. The combination of multiple elements may overpower the resistance to imperialism, and yet somehow bring us closer to our ultimate goal: to capture a slice of all that is real in our life.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Myth and Osama bin Laden

Before the Pentagon released footage culled from a video that was reportedly recovered from Osama bin Laden’s foxhole on the night of his killing, few in the Western world outside of the CIA would have cared to envision the Al Qaeda chief in any kind of personal circumstance. Did he, for instance, prefer any particular brand of toothpaste? Did he like to pick his nose? Was he or was he not a neat freak? How was he in bed?

The most intriguing of the silent documentary clips being aired features a tired-looking bin Laden in a ski-cap, wrapped in a dark shawl instead of the messianic golden robes we were accustomed to seeing in his savvy propaganda releases, the instantly recognizable beard streaked by an unfamiliar gray. Apparently – and we are denied any further explanatory context for this hypothesis – bin Laden liked watching news coverage of himself on Arab television.

Just as it did in the days after Saddam Hussein’s capture, the American broadcast media have sought to unify under the banner of patriotism. It has lately taken to making the point that in addition to being the most hunted man in the world, a mass murderer and all-around fiend, bin Laden was also a narcissist; a man given to dyeing his beard and seeking to project a fake virility in the video messages he recorded for his supporters, a man who got off on the knowledge that he could stop the world press by sending an audio tape to any obscurely local radio station.

Yet, far from confirming bin Laden’s reputation as a murderous megalomaniac, the Pentagon video I cite humanizes him in ways that make me – personally speaking -- uncomfortable. It almost portrays bin Laden as a mere curmudgeon, a misanthropic recluse looking back sentimentally on ‘better’ days, if that is what one calls blowing up planes and warships, and murdering thousands of innocent civilians in the name of some incoherent political project to reshape the world order. The footage makes him look ill and weak from disease, and not unlike my own grandfather whose final days were marked by a courageous battle against both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

You could also turn this argument around and say, narcissism when coupled with power is a far more dangerous beast. If self-reflexive images were sufficient indicators of megalomania, then we need look no further than 82 pictures from the night of the 2008 Presidential election that the Obama White House itself later posted on Flickr. Shorn of its positive context, the image of Obama watching the drama of his accession unfold on television is nothing if not symbolic of grotesque self-love.

How might history, with its distancing perspective, judge this episode? Bin Laden may be dead but it seems inevitable Western culture must relinquish its grasp on the world’s imagination within the next century and begin to decline; and with that, history will change course.

Bin Laden’s legend was burnished by his having evaded detection for nearly a decade. In some ways he was an anachronism, more fit for the Crusades than hyperreal warfare; a throwback to Hannibal, the Carthinagian military leader who fought Rome, or Boadicea, the queen who led her tribe into battle against the forces of Emperor Nero, and other ruthless rebel leaders like these from millennia past when it was far more acceptable to kill non-combatants. And yet, in other ways, he was as invested in the notion of the modern as the most astute propagandist.

Albert Camus predicted that future historians would have two things to say of the modern man – that he fornicated and read the papers. Even if that were to prove true, I like to think they would be prepared to make an exception and say something insightful about complex characters like Osama bin Laden.

Theirs is not an easy job, however. Scholars will need to sift through all the disinformation spread by both sides over a period of three decades before they can address the question, who was bin Laden, really? It is fascinating to think that in this age of information surplus, we might never learn the answer.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Why the SlutWalk is an exercise in stupidity

Social media have facilitated the growth of a disparate bunch of imagined communities, some more hedonistic than idealistic, yet rarely have I seen anything as misguided or incoherent on the scale of SlutWalk, a recently created Facebook movement that has caught on in North America.

The idea for the event arose after a Canadian police officer, Michael Sanguinetti, made a controversial observation to a group of students at York University. It is evident that Sanguinetti was not speaking for the law when he said, "I've been told I'm not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized." He was not threatening anyone with arrest; he was not foolish enough to advocate moral policing. It is probably fair to say that his stance was more grounded in paternalistic rhetoric, which sometimes carries undertones of superciliousness.

If a woman's father disapproved of what she wore (whether out of orthodoxy or concern for her safety), it is safe to presume that she would ignore those views as outdated; she would argue a little but soon give up on the resident dinosaur. It is ironic then, that a cop -- an authority figure of similar standing who was, in this case, acting as a concerned elder -- should elicit such an overreaction for what was essentially a well-intentioned if ill-framed piece of advice.

The most significant problem with Sanguinetti's statement is that he was establishing an inaccurate causal link. Not dressing like a slut is no guarantee that a woman will escape victimization. To be victimized is to have one's power taken away by force. No woman ever ought to feel threatened on account of what she chooses to wear. Daring fashion sense is no provocation for any kind of misbehavior.

'Misbehavior' can range from cat-calling to rape. Sometimes the framing can be ambiguous. For instance flirting involves judgment, and knowing when to withdraw. At the other end of the spectrum, seducing someone -- male or female -- through suggestive sexual behavior, engaging in consensual intercourse and then claiming it was rape is the act of an emotionally unstable individual, a crime of victimization in its own right. Such subtleties need usually be applied, however, only to the fraction of exceptions. Like porn, misbehavior is generally easy to identify if harder to define.

To its credit, the SlutWalk march seeks to reiterate the patently obvious -- but, in a recent case, shockingly overlooked -- idea that the law should not discriminate between molesters on the basis of what a victim was wearing.

Here's the thing: the protest would have been better served had it been called 'What not to wear: Wear what you like!' But of course, that wouldn't have generated any controversy at all. And a movement that can't make headlines is hardly worth the name.

The inclusion of the word 'slut' in SlutWalk pushes either inadvertently or on purpose for a re-evaluation of that derogatory epithet. This is, then, no longer about rape and righteous indignation. Reduced to the level of the sensational, the debate generates larger ripples of cause and consequence; there are also unavoidable evolutionary implications that SlutWalk is not equipped to handle.

For instance, society labels promiscuous women as 'slutty' and sexually successful men as 'studs', but contrary to the popular opinion that this discrepancy in naming is unfair, I argue that it makes perfect sense at least in the context of straight people.

This much is true: as the physically stronger sex, men are capable of posing a greater threat of violence. Several studies agree that in Western and Westernized societies, sexual harassment is more often perpetrated by men on women -- a conclusion which could be extended with some justification to every country. But the majority comprises of law-abiding citizens. Women, particularly those in the West, wield the power to say no to sexual contact at every level of interaction. So long as that is respected, social order is maintained. Even if in theory, sexual choice resides equally with both men and women and is exercised after paying due attention to one's relative attractiveness, women in urban American cities are still likely to refuse a sexual encounter more often than a man. This puts their gender in a position of control.

Mate selection is a complex process. Nature tasks women with carrying babies in their womb and men with spreading their seed as widely as possible to maximize chances of survival. Family becomes an efficient mechanism for collective growth. Monogamy within marriage is of course a form of socially sanctioned hypocrisy, albeit one that serves a useful purpose: in the interests of raising a child the libido must be selectively repressed, which is one of the reasons why women must be picky about the father.

The most attractive people of either sex naturally exert the greatest power over the selection of a mate. But to put it crassly, the average heterosexual, college-educated American woman would probably have to project lesser effort -- lesser sexual energy, lesser charisma -- to get a man to sleep with her, than the average heterosexual American man must, in order to bed a woman. Both men and women seek optimal, "high-value" partners with whom they might set up a family; it just happens that high-value men are subconsciously driven by their natural instincts to conduct sexual relations with a greater number of females of "inferior social value" than women do, with "low-grade" men.

Simply put, the average man finds it harder to get laid, so any male who can manage it consistently is considered high-value, while high-value women are viewed by society as having achieved nothing out of the ordinary through promiscuous behavior, and worthy of censure for having chosen to postpone the responsibility of nurturing a child within the structured environment of a family.

As far as nature is concerned the matter transcends morality. Too many 'sluts' can threaten the future of the species by eventually settling for ‘nice guy’ beta-males and producing ‘weaker’ babies later in life, just as in-breeding and incest could potentially multiply genetic defects. That's right: if you really want to rake up controversy, try setting up a walk to promote incestuous behavior. Sluts are a lame demographic in comparison.

Jokes apart, this is not to say that women should be denied sexual freedom; this freedom will, however, be purchased inexorably at the price of social disapproval.

Such disapproval must not be countered by yelling at the top of one's lungs that being a slut is acceptable. That distracts from the real aim of these protests -- which is to dissociate 'rape' from 'what a woman is wearing' -- and sows confusion. Including the word 'slut' in the title is not the most intelligent way to market the purported revolution. A tactic less subversive than silly, and attention-seeking in intent, it will fail to move this intensely puritanical system, just as a child will (hopefully) discover it cannot get its way by throwing a tantrum in a supermarket aisle simply because it was denied a bar of chocolate.

The SlutWalk does epitomize the valid point that women are free to express themselves in any manner of their choosing. Organizing a campaign like this is one of many ways to help women internalize the feeling that they are not to blame for rape. It also serves to remind society that patronizing judgments are not acceptable and will not go unchallenged.

But SlutWalk is not a race meant to anoint the least-judgmental amongst us as winner. Disagreeing with its coding does not mean I respect women any less. If anything, I fear SlutWalk's premise is faulty, and must instead focus on resonating with the widest possible audience.

The term 'slut' is loaded with connotations of selfish, id-driven opportunism and as such carries far less gravitas than other words re-appropriated through various civil rights movements. It cannot be reclaimed via some cheap gimmick.

To achieve that kind of institutional change will require something more substantial than attaching disruptive labels to a peace rally.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

On Belfast

This evening, I was looking up a bunch of old pieces online, scouring for writing samples worth filing away, and I came across the first essay I wrote after finishing the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in 2006.

I had clean forgotten about this one. Hopefully I haven't yet hit the peak of my powers and I will gradually learn to master the long-form narrative; nonetheless it is apparent to me now that the program has had a dramatic impact on my work. Considering how hard I can be on myself sometimes, it makes me proud to think I could write so well (albeit infrequently) at 26.

An excerpt:

"The Terror tour is popular here," he says. I like his cynicism. Most operators are usually sensitive about the use of the word terror; they prefer the term "Troubles" without the pejorative connotations. "Derry was bad, but the violence in Belfast was worse," Keogh continues, as if holding out the tacit promise of a value-for-money tour.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Triumph and the Tamil Brahmin

(This essay originally appeared in Open Magazine.)

The last drinks have been downed; Indian men around the world, naked from the waist up, with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other have gotten themselves banned from bars; a morning has passed and the adrenaline rush is receding. This much remains: the Indian cricket team's victory in the 2011 World Cup will have tremendous bearing on the country's collective self-esteem. This linguistically disparate nation, forged in the context of colonialism, two wars and a shrinking world has had trouble reconciling its enormous gifts with a history of under-achievement. The multi-ethnic Indian cricket team's fortunes have often fluctuated parallel to the destiny of this nation, and captain M.S. Dhoni's poise at the moment of triumph will validate our sense of self just as in 1983 when Kapil Dev's ragged bunch of cricketers unexpectedly helped articulate it.

This latest win, this refusal to bow down to the fear of losing, resonates strongly with me as an Indian but as a Tamil Brahmin -- which, if you didn't know, comes with the excess baggage of negativity, cynicism and plain old sarcasm -- I'm baffled. Yesterday afternoon as I stood a little away contemplating the crowd celebrating raucously out on the patio of a downtown Austin watering hole, I felt, dare I say it, ecstatic. I had no put-downs. The possibility of defeat and heartbreak now defused, I even broke into a cheer or two.

That said, I'm not your average Tamil Brahmin. I didn't grow up in Tamil Nadu. I stand over six feet tall and with my features could pass off as a North Indian although my Bambaiya-inflected Hindi would give me away. Further complicating matters, like most heretics I have invested too much energy in trying to prove to my parents that the way they raised me was all wrong. The only son of a scientist growing up in a Bombay suburb, I was not permitted to ride my cycle outside of our cul-de-sac (even as my mother, a high school teacher, attempted to undercut his authority by allowing me to cycle off on exploratory jaunts when I was not playing cricket -- don't get me started on the politics). My father -- no M.S. Dhoni at the best of times -- would express his displeasure every time he caught me excitedly attempting to give chase to a cricket ball rolling out of bounds into the main road. He was quite scary to behold. Didn't I know there was so much to look out for: rash drivers, blind turns, rash drivers making blind turns? Why tempt fate?


There is much to say in praise of Tamil Brahmins, bless our souls, but why on earth do we typically react to the fear of loss by attempting to exert as much control as possible? Why did we love employing "I told you so" as a defense mechanism after Azharuddin's men had lost yet another game in the 1990s when, make no mistake, we were bleeding just as much as you were? Why am I so unadventurous in comparison to the stereotypical Punjabi -- so what if Yuvraj Singh's family is descended from the warrior class -- or even a Maharashtrian like Sachin Tendulkar?

Sure, there will always be exceptions. You don't need to assure me that there are enough courageous Tamil Brahmins who have gone into the Armed Forces. And to dispute my flattering, simplistic characterization of North Indians, an exceedingly aggravating Lucknowi acquaintance of mine superstitiously made bets against India in the last two matches, and then just to be doubly sure, announced every ten minutes on Facebook during the semifinal against Pakistan that India would somehow contrive to lose from a decent position -- as if getting his friends to loathe him were somehow central to India's chances of warding off defeat. But these cases do not invalidate my argument.

Without in any way succumbing to self-loathing I can say mine is a community of control freaks. I make that generalization secure in the knowledge that this behavior is as instilled as it is institutional. Quite absurdly, I was taught at home that nobody would want to be friends with me unless I did well in school. If the aim was to show me the consequences of academic failure, it flopped: I learned instead to crave the friendship of those who perceived me as an inferior, to love those who did not love me back, to perpetually attach greater value to that which was out of my reach.

Incredibly, such emotional violence remains systemic in the community. The Tamil Brahmin idealizes what he cannot have. Having coped with damage in their own lives, most parents and responsible adults arguably lack the imagination and patience needed to demonstrate love and nurture a child's emotional health. The academy churns out young Tamils with low self-esteem, and -- more dangerously -- whose blind spots deny them the capacity to deconstruct their false sense of ego and heal all the damage.

There is no sense of knowing how to express our feelings; just as damagingly we aren't consciously trained to build a verbally sophisticated argument. Emphasis is laid solely on "step-by-step thinking", which is most applicable to subjects like mathematics and science, areas that were viewed as the only acceptable options for any intelligent Tamil boy at least until when my generation was growing up. Just in case we actually live up to the stereotype and are devils at calculus, we are routinely taught to underplay our achievements. And while we are at it, we learn to coldly mock Punjabis for their grossly cartoonish, attention-seeking behavior.

We are as a general rule nerdy, non-confrontational, and when pushed to the wall exceptionally passive-aggressive. All of this is clearly distinct from an internalized humility: we want praise all right, but we want others to blow on our trumpets. When we find people disinclined to do that for us, we mutter under our breaths for a bit that the world doesn't value our talents enough and then go back to repeating the same mistakes over again.

After I arrived in America to get a PhD, for the first couple of years I was constantly thrown off by the tendency of my American colleagues from various ethnic and racial backgrounds, and also socially ambitious Indian acquaintances who spoke any number of different languages, to perform enthusiasm. This they did by talking up their research interests as if they breathed, ingested and farted academia. I on the other hand made no attempt to establish rapport with professors or impress them in any way, believing my work ought to speak for itself.

Big mistake. My advisors thought I had lost interest in what I was doing. I quickly rectified the situation by assuring my professors breathlessly that I certainly enjoyed what I was doing, which, unlike the typically Tamil Brahmin, excruciatingly self-parodic aspect of my performance, was never a lie in the first place.


In spite of my proclivity for smug introspection and the narcissistic existence (masked, if you will observe, by a spartan outlook), the Tamil Brahmin ought not to be analyzed in isolation, along one axis of identity. Therefore applying a wider cultural lens, I find that I belong to an India that is at once familiar and foreign, an India whose identity is constantly shape-shifting between eager supplicant and economic heavyweight, an India that is at times unrecognizable to me from just five years ago.

I was in India this January. During a quick run to a fancy suburban Mumbai mall I paid Rs. 100 for a dosa and coffee, and the dollar price for clothes that weren't a patch on the stuff Indian companies export to the West. The local culture still operates on the laissez-faire principle of let-others-take-care-of-everything, yet things are changing: the threshold of tolerance for governmental corruption has been breached, the middle class has gained some weight, the needs and desires of this diverse population are growing.

We are learning to ask pertinent questions. The political ideology of cultural oneness has traditionally worked much better in India than in the United States. This is in part because differences in skin color and facial features, which are less perceivable among Indian social groups, are a more obvious divisive factor in the case of American ones; and also in part because state ideology is rarely questioned in Indian classrooms. In the land of the free, anti-social, intellectually radical tendencies are held as unacceptable; in India the expression of individuality itself is derided as rebellious and viewed as an affront to the social order, even oneness. Cue revolution to overthrow the status quo but instead Gramsci's conception of the organic intellectual was subverted by the likes of Karunanidhi and Bal Thackeray, and the Indian public sphere remains captive to haphazard outbursts of feeling.

Now emotional outbursts are not necessarily a bad thing at all -- the Enlightenment's snobbish stress on reason over feeling has skewed both Western liberal and, by osmosis, Tamil Brahmin perceptions of sophistication -- but so long as the poorly educated classes continue to be manipulated by parochialists and intellectually dishonest leaders, the minority middle class (which as always remains obsessed with social climbing) will view intellect as the prime tool with which to distinguish itself. Any empathy will be replaced by the instinct for self-preservation. Stereotypes of apathy and political disengagement will be reinforced, social progress impeded. Why must it take the degree of cruelty exerted by a Mubarak or Gaddafi to provoke political change?


Elsewhere in the world, having grown up without the sense of entitlement that is so embedded in the Western heteronormative experience, the Tamil diaspora and the Indian population at large is capable of adapting without complaint or controversy to any social circumstance. With a mix of pride and ruefulness I say then, we are like rats: capable of surviving but not welcome at dinner. On account of reasons ranging from racism to the alienating experiences of otherness, I am of the belief that try as we might we will never truly fit into foreign cultures by performing whiteness. The path of the noble savage is not the one to follow.

As India consolidates its global presence as a thought leader and gives up the old habit of fitting into wherever a place could be found, we risk falling into the trap of seeking solutions for problems like wealth disparity and caste wars in problematic Western models of wisdom and modernity. I certainly didn't connect, intellectually or emotionally, with Tennyson's immortals of whom I had read in my class six English poetry volume and of whom it was said, into the jaws of death / into the mouth of hell / rode the six hundred. Suffice to say my experience was limited to riding safely enough, along the outer rim of the mouth of hell.

But to point fingers is futile and ultimately missing the context. My father -- a Tamil Brahmin if there ever was one -- chose, through no fault of his own, to try and protect me at whatever cost from everything that could go wrong. I am grateful for everything that he has done for me, the life lessons that he taught me even if some of these were inadvertent.

I have since learned that the most effective way to transform my own life is to perform small corrective actions that snowball into a demonstrably altered behavior until it becomes becomes second nature. It is imperative that subsequent generations of Tamils invent their own reality, one in which they are humble enough to learn from the experiences of others, yet confident enough -- in the manner of this amazing cricket team -- to tackle problems with self-belief. Perhaps some day in the near future this Tamil Brahmin, inspired by Dhoni's sense of fearlessness, will let his child explore the world outside, get a feel for it, on a bicycle.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Young and the Mindless

The case of Alexandra Wallace -- the UCLA student who originally posted that tasteless rant on YouTube -- fuels a debate that has been fought on multiple levels for more than six decades across much of America.

Political correctness, that most usual of suspects, has surprisingly little to do with all of this. It is easy to recognize that Ms. Wallace crossed a line and is going to pay dearly in many ways for her indiscretion, although this young woman's thoughtless words could yet polarize the matter between resistance and change and pave the path for a career in politics.

The media for its part, having arrived at some quick and wholly reasonable conclusions, is patting itself on the back so hard that this is threatening to turn into another of Barack Obama's teachable moments -- from which, let's face it, few (and certainly not Ms. Wallace) have ever taken away anything worthwhile.

Since that last episode featuring Henry Louis Gates Jr. and one of Boston's finest, many mainstream American media outlets remain happy to employ "racism" as a trigger word, especially to define black-white relations, and continue to frame the issue as a challenge this country can somehow overcome merely by keeping that word in constant and mindless circulation. These bastions of fine journalism have not so far proved willing or intellectually capable of complicating the argument on a consistent basis.

For instance, during the coverage of the 2008 election cycle I was shocked to see Democrat spin doctors desperately seeking to dispel the questionable assertion that Obama was a Muslim man as if being Muslim implied that Obama was working to destroy America from the inside. Over the past decade, in the aftermath of the events of September 2001 and other political developments, Muslim and Chinese folk have been increasingly constructed -- not only by conservative radio talk-shows and TV channels but also, curiously, by liberal and centrist media such as MSNBC and CNN -- as the new USSR, the new bogeymen. And here's another example of oversimplification at play: American hegemonic cultural discourse deems "Asian" to be representative of a diverse set of South-East Asian civilizations. If we agree that racism is borne out of an imbalance in power relations between cultures, you could posit that it is in fact racist for anyone to willfully deny Indians from South Asia, who constitute a significant minority community in America, the right to self-identify as 'Asian'.

As someone who was raised outside of this country and has lived here for less than three years, my knowledge of its history is doubtless unsophisticated but on the other hand my position as a privileged outsider affords me insights that may escape (and I use this word cautiously) "natives". All of this suggests to me that a significant percentage of this country's citizens may have learnt from mainstream media to read the very serious and complex issue of racism in limited ways. Indeed there are many blind spots to remove before this society is able to evolve into something truly post-racial.

Monday, February 21, 2011

With apologies

In many American cities and towns (New York being a notable exception, where everyone always seems in such a hurry) people make a fetish out of politeness. Strangers talk too much from nervousness. Neighbors rarely know one another and restrict communication to chatter. Too many parents act emotionally distant with their own children, much in the manner of a customer who smiles pleasantly at the barista in the local coffee shop and asks how their day was, mechanically, without any real involvement. Americans, and Westerners in general, tend to view politeness alongside routine and habit as an important marker of cultural sophistication and do what it takes to avoid disturbance.

There will be exceptions. Last week outside a restaurant in Boca Raton a persistently whingy iconoclast of my acquaintance got involved in an argument about the principle of tipping for valet parking, embarrassing many of us who were there to celebrate an impending wedding. But cut ahead by accident in a line at the grocery store and nine times out of ten, you will likely apologize to me in a singsong lilt -- Oh, I'm sorry! The 'I'm' will hit an expressive peak of surprise and be followed by a flurry of remarks, interrupted by staccato bursts of laughter that inevitably taper off with a reference to the length of the line. After that we will carefully avoid each other's eye in tacit acknowledgement of the fact that this was not an especially meaningful interaction.

Funnily enough, for a culture bred on an illusion of niceness, apologies for genuine and grievous wrongs are just as hard to come by in this country as they probably are anywhere in the world. Politeness does not correlate with an absence of ego. The only distinctly American response to all of this may be the tendency to get passive-aggressive, to somehow stir the calm of overwhelming politeness without resorting to violent language.

Some of you will roll your eyes and say, 'How does it matter? Isn't it better to be excessively polite than rude, passive than agitated?' And you would have a point: as long as peace is maintained why should we care? Indeed, it is infinitely more preferable to avoid a scene such as the one my father found himself in a few months ago in Mumbai, where he got into a slanging match with someone who deliberately decided to post himself at the head of a queue -- a circumstance which, while entirely common in disorganized laissez-faire cultures like India, has the capacity to cause a spike in one's blood pressure.

But I would make a distinction between my father's rant and the social disdain that bears down upon rude people in America: my father was fighting for a fundamental courtesy that remains elusive whereas the American distaste for rudeness is rooted in self-righteous contempt for a minority that is unfamiliar with normative social customs. In other words, we must always take the side of the less powerful.

It is not surprising that in America I have yet to encounter anyone courageous enough to break into a queue. Decades after the civil rights movement gained sufficient traction, America has efficiently indoctrinated a vast majority of its citizens of both party persuasions with the propaganda of political correctness. Left wing correctness may differ from right wing ideology, but there is common ground. That is something to be cautiously admired: the danger of a different kind of prejudice, a prejudice against those unschooled in the latest social fad, is at least partially offset by the promise of social evolution. If a country like India is to maintain its rate of economic and cultural progress its people must learn to tell apart those rules that are anachronistic from the ones that make contextual sense.

By that I mean politeness is a good value to learn and implement until it becomes a tool for social repression. In the West, white heterosexual males (and other organized configurations in the hierarchy of dominance such as intellectuals and wealthy industrialists) are taught to apologize for institutional privilege but in effect they apologize without necessarily recognizing the irony that this privilege is reinforced systemically irrespective of how sorry anyone feels. I am always shocked by how disdainfully many Westerners of varying identities speak of the post-colonial tendency to stare at light-skinned people; while I can understand how uncomfortable it must be to be objectified, and that it is problematic for Indians to subconsciously or consciously value blond hair over black, there is an implicitly racist agenda in the idea that locals in their own environment cannot be permitted to stare at people of another ethnicity merely because it is inappropriate by Western standards.

Now in the interests of politeness I shouldn't have made such a provocative accusation, but I bring it up to draw attention to a classic western liberal blind spot. Caught up as they are in congratulating themselves for pointing out that Indians should no longer remain overawed by what was essentially an evil and exploitative white hegemonic apparatus, those arbiters of political correctness fail to consider all aspects of the power dynamic and commit a sin greater than rudeness -- conceit.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Fiction: A quadrant analysis of love

We were going at our Korean takeout with chopsticks, my boyfriend and I, when he looked up at me and exclaimed, ‘I have it – I know how attraction works!’
Read more here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

...And perspective for all

Within Western academia – and also the modern Indian intellectual tradition, pressed under the weight of its colonial inheritance – there is an unfortunate tendency to view knowledge as the sum of discrete parts. Even as rationality underpins all logical discourse and debate, the sciences are treated as wholly detached from the humanities and the social sciences. Any mixing is frowned upon by the tradition-bound academic establishment as uncouth, worse trendy.
This phenomenon ought not to be confused with the fact that the same research question might be pursued in both a department of urban studies and a department of electrical engineering; an ostensibly bipartisan exercise during which however the other’s theoretical perspectives are usually ignored. Such analytical approaches from different angles also inadvertently highlight the arbitrariness involved in creating and naming such departments (and to an extent, disciplines), which may depend on how much funding – internal or external to the university – is made available.
The Protestant work ethic has raised efficiency in countries like America to the level of art. Every division in academia serves a purpose. As the sociologist Andrew Abbott argues, discipline exceeds department: a distinction must be made between the two even if they are hard to define. As a rule of thumb the older the discipline, the more stuffy a department is likely to be. Occasionally disciplines shape-shift to cope with epistemological advancements. But the same systemic logic that stimulates the creation of exciting new domains such as media studies (which borrows heavily from weathered disciplines like sociology, political science, and even technology) also creates an artificial sense of competition for legitimacy. New disciplines must constantly fight off accusations of redundancy and dilution.
The older ones usually have it easier. History and anthropology for instance may count among the few disciplines that span all knowledge and time: the history of scientific discovery probably covers about as much ground as the cultural anthropology of world music. But we shouldn't be constrained to apply such perspectives every time we encountered an idea that grabbed our interest.
This is not to say that these divides have never been overcome. In academia professors often hold joint appointments in different departments. Keeping an open mind to mixing disciplines in some ways also helps reduce the gender divide in this age of post-Enlightenment. But the larger point remains that divisions and prejudices persist.
In the Indian context, the institutionalized segregation of the Arts and the Sciences at the undergraduate level has especially negative consequences, and exacerbates the problems created by the pre-existing division of disciplines: it stifles creativity further and serves to re-inscribe India’s identity as a nation that services the needs of developed nations.
Unlike in most Indian schools and colleges where overpopulation has traditionally forced otherwise well-meaning instructors to instill discipline by discouraging individuality, the education system in developed nations can afford to emphasize identity. While not every American child succeeds in articulating a clear sense of purpose, they are required to speak in complete sentences, write coherent essays in school. There is no sense in blindly praising Western systems of education but this crucial, underrated aspect helps many American students build the stamina to think rigorously.
It is time high school and college students in this country were allowed, like those in the West, to sample a wide variety of classes in disciplines that interest them. That is the best way to help kids make an informed choice about careers. Institutions with low student-to-teacher ratios are permitting this already. This is an opportune moment for the innovation to diffuse further, for rural India to narrow the divide between brand and myth.
Hard as it may be to grasp the range, an interest in quantum electrodynamics is not in any sense fundamentally incompatible with a keen understanding of the workings of, say, the Hindi film industry. Ideas are sometimes sparked by the most unexpected of encounters; metaphors from daily life may inform the most esoteric of arguments.
These criticisms are not meant to take away from the positives. The Indian education system has improved steadily and significantly over the past decade. Salaries for teachers have risen; the quality of training has gone up. Some schools and colleges are even starting to harness technology as a teaching aid. While PowerPoint helps in the long run to professionalize the system we must not be distracted from the fact that there remains an urgent need to instill critical thinking so that we might combat sensory clutter.
Compartmentalizing knowledge is an easy but ultimately damaging solution. We might be better served if we examined this matter through the lens of the ancient polymaths: men and women whose identities were plotted along multiple axes, and who made significant contributions to multiple spheres of knowledge.
We might only speculate about the direction of mankind's intellectual evolution. As such, facetiously speaking, we may be trapped in a future in which no advancement is possible, for want of time, unless life-spans increase dramatically or a ten-year-old super-specializes within a discipline.
While humans have of course progressed beyond a point where it might be possible to have an equally nuanced grasp of cutting edge nuclear physics and the pre-colonial evolution of the Devanagari script, it is important to sustain an amateur interest in something radically beyond one's own specialization so as to retain perspective and remain immune to the threat of stasis.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Opportunities in a new era of globalization

I spoke with a bunch of management students at a college in New Mumbai at the start of the New Year. Though within the confines of a classroom, it was all very casual. I chatted with the kids (who were all in their early twenties) about my life experiences, threw in a few stories, got them to open up about their lives, their interests. Many of them had backgrounds in commerce, some in engineering, others in IT. One fellow had a degree in marine biology from Russia and said he was fluent in five languages. One of the (regrettably few) girls in that class said she was studying German on the side and hoped to conduct business with German houses someday.

Many of them seemed passionate about business and entrepreneurship, which was pretty great. One of the students for instance told me he wanted to run a restaurant but his parents didn't think he ought to; so he'd applied to b-school as a way to learn the general principles of running a business.

I spoke to several such kids individually after class. Part of the point was to reassure them that that they didn't need to do ridiculously well in college to "succeed" in life; that they would be better served by identifying a bunch of interests and working towards being among the best at those. They seemed to enjoy our chat as much as I did. Afterwards a couple of them told me that they wished their professors would engage them the way I did, which I took as a massive compliment.

The talk was a rewarding experience for me, not least because I got to refine my sense of how urban, college-educated students think today. It appears to me that while students are just as hesitant to question authority as my generation used to be, they are slowly beginning to buy into the notion of India as a potentially powerful global entity; no doubt this feeling will foster in them a sense of self-belief -- even entitlement -- over the next few decades.
I plan to recycle bits of the talk when I speak to class X and XII students at a couple of schools early next week. Here's my presentation from Jan 3. Feel free to borrow elements from it if you plan to speak to school or college students: