Monday, October 19, 2009

You must look at our hotels

Something I've always found interesting since my teenage years is the way the Indian upper/middle classes react to the poverty in their midst. I realise this is a serious topic that influences our economic system and there are people more qualified than me to discuss it. But here I only want to address a relatively superficial aspect, namely the discomfort of the middle-class person when the existence of poverty is forcefully brought to their attention. After all most of us, whatever we know intellectually, exist in a state of blissful denial at the emotional level otherwise it would be hard to live with our consciences at all.

The person who brings inconvenient facts to our attention is frequently a foreigner. Being extraneous to the system, foreigners can expose our hypocrisies quite easily. Moreover, people from continental Europe have been schooled on "liberty equality fraternity" and naturally find our social contrasts shocking. (This is not to deny they have their own underclass and their own hypocrisy, not to mention their murderous histories... the key point is that it's always easier to spot injustice when you're an outsider to the system). I remember an Italian friend and collaborator who visited me here in the 1980's remarking on the way labourers were made to pull handcarts, like beasts of burden. Till that moment I had never quite seen it that way, and afterwards I was unable to see it any other way.

Another recollection, this time from the 1970's, highlights the reaction of upper-class Indians. My mother was then working for an NGO that had sponsored the visits to India of a few teenagers from London. So she called them home for tea. This was an era when far less information had diffused globally than today, so these teenagers were naturally a little baffled by their experience of India. I don't remember anything specific they said, but their reaction evidently annoyed a lady friend of my mother's who happened to be over. This gentlewoman then gave them a lecture which in summary reduced to the following: "We have very fine hotels in India. You must look at our hotels. Go see the Taj. It's a very fine hotel. Appreciate the decor, the furniture. We have fine hotels." I realised then that she felt ashamed and repulsed by the squalor of her own city and was seeking solace in the make-believe world of the hotel which was everything (for her) that the street outside was not.

Which brings me to my point, not that there's a very precise one. Yesterday I watched an episode of "Paul Merton in India" on TV. I imagine it's the kind of show that this lady would have hated (except that she's now passed on to the great Taj Hotel in the sky). By now a few zillion travel programmes about India have already been made, so clearly Merton, a British comedian, was looking for something different. He must have figured out that if you come to India and hang out with "people like us" you will only get an extremely slanted and limited take on the country. So he looked for things that working-class and rural people do that urban upper-middle-class people would never do. This took him to the rat-worshipping Karni Mata temple in Bikaner and the Shivratri celebrations in Girnar, complete with naked sadhus and ganja.

But the strangest segment of this show is when Merton visits a private home in Delhi with a genuine (but non-functional) wide-body Airbus parked in the backyard. Here people who could never afford to fly pay a small fee to board a disused airplane, be strapped in their seats and enjoy an imaginary flight (supposedly those too poor to pay are taken on board for free). After it "takes off" the passengers are served snacks in packed boxes (Merton points out that the "airline food" is unfortunately all too realistic!). Soon thereafter, with poorly feigned panic in her voice, the "stewardess" announces that the plane is about to ditch in the sea whereupon the passengers, laughing and joking, cheerfully jump out the emergency exits and slide down chutes back to the reality of a Delhi backyard. Merton's cameraman beautifully captures the joy and elation of the crowd.

More fun than looking at furniture in the Taj Hotel, for sure.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Backslash backlash

An article in the Times of India mentioned that Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World-Wide Web, has apologised for the unnecessary // required at the beginning of a URL. What baffled me was that the TOI article (and apparently Berners-Lee himself) referred to the / symbol as a "backslash". Surely it's a forward slash? A backslash would be \ (and if anyone has to apologise for that one, it would be Donald Knuth, the inventor of TeX).

The report widely quoted in Indian newspapers is from Asian News International (ANI) and starts: "Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world-wide-web, has finally accepted that he could have created the web without the two backslashes, //, that Internet users often grumbled about."

However in the London Times article about the same statement, one finds: "What is the point of the two forward slashes that sit directly infront of the “www” in every internet website address?". Nice that someone tried to get it right. This doesn't exonerate Sir Tim though, for the article continues as follows: " “Boy, now people on the radio are calling it ‘backslash backslash’,” Sir Tim told his audience, even though he knows they are, in fact, forward slashes." Oh well.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

War and Peace

Yesterday we had a film screening of the anti-nuclear documentary film "War and Peace" at TIFR. Its director Anand Patwardhan was present and spoke about the film before and after the screening. He last came to TIFR many years ago to screen "Ram ke Naam", his documentary about the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation and the subsequent demolition of the Babri Masjid.

On this occasion as on the previous one, I was struck by a number of things. Patwardhan is by his own admission a "dissident" and an activist who speaks for the poor and the marginalised and against ethnic, religious and political divisions. He is one of the most eloquent of his kind and unlike a lot of dissident activists, I found him persuasive and was moved by his empathy and concern for humanity. He isn't content with the sort of government-bashing and industry-bashing that regretfully provides pre-fabricated speeches for a lot of other activists.

However he can be harsh (and who am I to complain about that?). In the question period, one of my colleagues challenged his claim that today wind energy generates more electricity in India than nuclear energy. But another colleague confirmed that the claim was correct and the first person quickly retracted. Now Patwardhan had caught his prey. His exact words to the challenger, as I recall them, were: "If I'm right about this, and you're a scientist, shouldn't you have known?". Ooooooo.... And yet, a valid point.

Now about the film. Patwardhan is a very talented documentary film-maker, truly outstanding in fact. His camera angles, editing, choice of subjects are superb. He has the unique and powerful ability to trash a person by pointing his camera at them, asking a simple question (or sometimes saying nothing) and letting them make bigger and bigger fools of themselves. My opinion of L.K. Advani was formed by seeing Ram ke Naam in the 90's. Using only his own words, the film made clear that he was a deeply divisive person who would willingly harm the nation for his own political agenda.

Advani doesn't feature in War and Peace but various other people manage to put their foot firmly in their mouths while Patwardhan's cameras are rolling. Pramod Mahajan speaking at an election rally, Pakistani and Indian fundamentalists addressing people or just talking to the camera, and a bunch of people including former Atomic Energy chiefs and also former President Abdul Kalam, all manage to come off as too obsessed with either sectarian agendas or delusions of grandeur to care about the common man and woman. All this was counterposed with moving impressions of villages and peasants affected by the Pokharan tests or by radiation from mines. While the big guns gave a poor impression, the peasants interviewed spoke wisely, thoughtfully and eloquently about their fate. The movie disturbed me deeply and I'm grateful for that.

One of the observations I found most convincing in the film (this is something I've always believed) is that to get people to fall into line with a political agenda, myths and stories have to be created and cultures have to be glorified on one side and defamed on the other. We are all familiar with the myth of the good, honest, God-fearing United States of America innocently working for its own betterment in a world full of deceitful, hostile countries that are jealous of its success or just wish to harm it for unknown reasons. I would guess most educated Indians have laughed at this sort of claim, but only when it comes to the USA. Patwardhan provides persuasive reasons to believe that exactly the same view of ourselves is being formed in middle-class India, and he calls it "nuclear nationalism".

I'm constantly horrified by how many young people fall for this sort of myth-making. Not less than three of them asked Patwardhan essentially the same question: nukes may be bad but, surrounded as we are by evil Pakistan and murderous China, what can poor innocent India possibly do but defend itself?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The best of times

Today's newspaper reports that the Congress-NCP plans to start "Marathi language conservation fortnights" and the BJP-SS combine plans to have the best world literature translated into Marathi.

In a previous posting, I had suggested that:

"It might still be possible to do something that would charm and attract people to learn Marathi and appreciate its depth and beauty, its literature, its poetry..."

and I'm happy to find that all major parties have finally listened to me!

Of course the BJP-SS could not resist adding the demand for a law requiring celebration of Marathi Week each year. I don't find compulsion very pleasant but I'm gratified that they want to use legal compulsion rather than their knuckles. Other local parties aren't being so reticent and their threats to make us love Marathi or lose our teeth will make their supporters (and occasional fellow-travellers [link deleted]) happy.

Now one does hope that the translations planned by the BJP-SS combine are done by genuine litterateurs (there are plenty of them in this state) rather than party hacks. Otherwise we might end up with "ईट वास बेस्ट ऑफ टाईम्स..."।

P.S. I know people think I exaggerate, but please come to Colaba and take a look at the wonderfully named बेस्ट टी कोल्ड्रींक आणि स्नेक बार (BEST tea coldreenk aani snack bar) at the bus station outside the Museum! The only Marathi word in this title is "aani" meaning "and". Are there no words in Marathi for tea and snacks?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

You have the right to your opinion as long as you agree with us

Two recent articles in the Guardian, this one and this one, confirm what we always knew about censorship in the Land Of The Free.

I find the following quote striking: "Almost 4,000 attempts to ban books have been recorded over the past eight years, though the ALA [American Library Association] believes the figure is a gross understatement. All cases are voluntarily reported, and many more are likely to go unrecorded, sometimes because librarians have been threatened with dismissal if they sound the alarm. Most would-be censors are parents concerned about their children's reading or members of religious groups."

On the other hand, the would-be censors don't tend to have much success in bringing about an official ban. That means the US at least ranks better than Gujarat in this domain.