Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Coming up

in the next few weeks: a review of Ramachandra Guha’s India after Gandhi: The history of the world’s largest democracy; a note about the history of the French city of Lyon and also my travels in the town of St. Etienne; and perhaps, over the next couple of months, reviews and non-fiction articles on Martin Meredith’s decidedly bleak The fate of Africa: From hopes of freedom to the heart of despair, and James Campbell’s narrative non-fiction work Middle Passages: African American journeys to Africa, which I’d promised to write about earlier, but never managed to.

For the next few days, meanwhile, I’ll be at Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota - this will be my last trip in a summer full of travel. Hopefully, I'll be able to meet some people there and get a sense of the place.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Knitting together the seams of Pangaea

Just over five hundred years ago, before the European colonization of the Americas, tomatoes, potatoes and chilies, the widely used vegetables of today (the first two at least), were unknown to Africa, Europe and Asia. It seems unimaginable now, but before the 15th century, the cuisines of Thailand and the Indian subcontinent were actually bereft of chilies! Similarly, the Americas did not have wheat or rice, just as the rest of the world had no knowledge of maize (corn).

Charles Mann in his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus provides an intriguing take on the topic:
“Until about 200 million years ago Eurasia and the Americas” [as indeed the rest of the world] “were lashed together in a single landmass that geologists call Pangaea. Pangaea broke into pieces, sending the continents drifting like barges across the ocean floor. For millions of years, the separate fragments of Pangaea had almost no communication. Evolution set their species spinning of on separate trajectories, and the flora and fauna of each land diverged…”
But with Columbus’s discovery of the Americas, the pieces of Pangaea that had drifted apart for countless millennia were now brought together: not literally but through a massive exchange of people, plants, crops and animals from the different continents. The historian and professor Alfred Crosby who first proposed the idea in his books (Mann borrows heavily from Crosby’s writings) refers to this exchange as the Columbian Exchange: a “knitting together of the seams of Pangaea”.

In this colorful description below, Mann summarizes how agriculture was radically transformed in many parts of the world :
“Ever since 1492 the hemispheres have become more and more alike, as people mix the world’s organisms into a global stew. Thus bananas and coffee, two African crops, become the principal agricultural exports of Central America; maize and manioc, domesticated in Mesoamerica [today Mexico and Central America] and Amazonia respectively, return the favor by becoming the staples in tropical Africa. Meanwhile, plantations of rubber trees, an Amazonian native, undulate across Malaysian hillsides; peppers and tomatoes from Mesoamerica form the culinary backbones of Thailand and Italy; Andean potatoes lead Ireland to feast and famine; and apples, native to the Middle East, appear in markets from Manaus to Manila to Manhattan.”
But there were some very unpleasant and tragic consequences as well. Smallpox, typhus, influenza, diphtheria, measles, all diseases from Europe swept through the American continent. Native Americans, who had no immunity to these diseases, died in inordinately large numbers. Nearly a fifth of humanity perished.

Even more startling is Crosby’s assessment of the impact of all this on Africa. When the Native American crops of maize, manioc and peanuts reached Africa after the 15th century, they transformed African agriculture and led to a population boom. As Native Americans vanished in large numbers, the colonizing Europeans faced a labor shortage. They now looked towards Africa for slaves. In Crosby’s view, “the maize-fed population boom [in Africa]” allowed “the awful [slave] trade [to] continue without pumping the well dry.”

These interpretations show just how oddly interconnected and cruel the twists of history can be.

Finally, here’s Crosby again stating in these superbly composed paragraphs (link to complete essay here) how the migration of people in the last few thousand years has altered the dominant pattern of biological evolution:
“For tens of millions of years the dominant pattern of biological evolution on this planet has been one of geographical divergence dictated by the simple fact of the separateness of the continents. Even where climates have been similar, as in the Amazon and Congo basins, organisms have tended to get more different rather than more alike because they had little or no contact with each other. The Amazon has jaguars, the Congo leopards.

However, very, very recently—that is to say, in the last few thousand years—there has been a countervailing force, us, or, if you want to be scientific about it, Homo sapiens. We are world-travelers, trekkers of deserts and crossers of oceans. We have gone to and lived or at least spent some time everywhere, taking with us, intentionally, our crops and domesticated animals and, unintentionally, our weeds, varmints, disease organisms, and such free-loaders as house sparrows. Humans have in the very last tick of time reversed the ancient trend of geographical biodiversification.”

Friday, July 13, 2007

Kamila Shamsie on telling the truth through fiction

The Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie writes of how her urge tell the truth through fiction developed while living under Zia Ul-Haq’s dictatorship. I liked most the part where she summarizes the great strength of fiction, something well known, but worth reiterating:

“Fiction writers go where news reporters and historians dare not tread: into characters' heads, into the dreams they lose at the moment of waking, into the memories forgotten, the fears never articulated even to themselves. We do all this, even while making stuff up or distorting and embellishing "what really happened" for the sake of a dramatic arc; and, in so doing, we claim our ability to convey emotional truths, more revelatory about a time and place than any series of facts.”

But Shamsie writes also that the social context and the world of facts can never be ignored and is quite important:
“But the fact is, making up the emotional truths would not be possible without facts. You need to know the contours of the world into which you are going to drop your made-up characters and their made-up lives; when people ask me which parts of my novel are based on things that really happened, I point out that I can't make up context, only the shapes that fill it. And though my editing process consists in good part of cutting out every fact I've garnered through research, I would never have been able to write the books without that research itself.”
The full article is here.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

My blog turns two

My blog turns two this July – July 21st to be exact (here’s my first post), but since I won’t be around then, I’ve decided to celebrate early. I had no idea when I began this blog that it would survive this long. So to mark the occasion here’s some commemorative trivia:

1. How my blog's name came to be: In July 2005 my immigration documents were giving me much administrative trouble because officials always misinterpreted my long name. So it seemed only natural at the time to somehow reflect this in the blog. Admittedly, there wasn't much logic in my choice, but then that's just the way it was :)

2. The average number of visitors per day to my blog is currently 8 – while this is dismal by the standards of megablogs such as this one, my average has doubled in the last year. (Ah, how one can get to dissecting these petty things! But there’s no denying the pleasure I get from such analyses!)

3. Astonishingly, I have posted only 58 times in the last two years! But May and June 2007 were unique in that in that I posted 4 times (a first) in each of these months. Again by the standards of megablogs who pile upwards of 300 posts annually, this is dismal. Nevertheless my increased output is worth mentioning. :)

4. The price of pencils easily takes the top position for the maximum number of comments. The second position is shared by The necessary vanity of a writer and My grandfather and my name.

5. The founding story of Tenochtitlan, my short note on the magnificent city of the Mexicas before the Spanish conquest, was the most frequently visited post this year because of certain Google search terms that led browsers to it. Other posts which most frequently get visitors through Google: Premchand’s Shatranj ke Khiladi, The great movement west, and The lost boys of Sudan.

6. Some of my favorite posts this year are: Two themes from Dostoevsky's The Idiot, Romila Thapar and the history of India, Naipaul on travel writing, Books this year, and Zadie Smith on writers and writing.

7. This self-commemorative post will not be complete without a hat tip towards the blogs I have learned a lot from and follow religiously. The literary blogger Chandrahas Choudhury’s The Middle Stage is exceptional in my opinion, and is my favorite blog by far. If Chandrahas maintains the sort of momentum he currently has (and I wish him the best), he's certain to go places. Other blogs I follow regularly are: Jai Arjun Singh, Amit Varma’s India Uncut, Sonia Faleiro, Prufrock’s Page, Samanth Subramanium, and Manasi Subramanium. And Kartikeya Date’s A Cricketing View deserves a special mention.

P.S: Will be traveling all of next week (going to a conference in St.Etienne), so the next post will be a while.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

On al-Khwarizmi and the diffusion of ideas

In the last few years, I’ve been fascinated by how ideas that originate in one place diffuse and reach other cultures, and how these receiving cultures shape them in their own distinctive ways. Recently, I found these paragraphs that explain how the numbers we use today – commonly called Arabic numerals – and take for granted made their way in the 8th century from India to the brilliant mathematician Musa al-Khwarizmi, originally an Uzbek but resident at the time in Baghdad. It was through Musa al-Khwarizmi’s treatise On the Calculation of Hindu Numerals that the Europeans got to know of this system of representing numbers (which is why they called it Arabic numerals). Because of its advantages over the cumbersome, alphabetic Roman numeral system, Italian merchants like Fibonacci preferred it:
“Traditional systems had used different letters of the alphabet to represent numbers or cumbersome Roman numerals, and the new system was far superior, for it allowed people to multiply and divide easily and check their work. The merchant Leonardo Fibonacci of Pisa, who had learned about Arabic numerals in Tunis, wrote a treatise rejecting the abacus in favor of the Arab method of reckoning, and as a result, the system of Hindu-Arabic numeration caught on quickly in Central Italy. By the fourteenth century, Italian merchants and bankers had abandoned the abacus and were doing their calculations using pen and paper, in much the same way we do today.”
Musa al-Khwarizmi also pioneered the field of algebra (root al-jabr). The paragraph below explains, how the alphabet x came to represent the unknown in all of mathematics:
“Al-Khwarizmi had used the Arabic word for "thing" (shay) to refer to the quantity sought, the unknown. When al-Khwarizmi's work was translated in Spain, the Arabic word shay was transcribed as xay, since the letter x was pronounced as sh in Spain. In time this word was abbreviated as x, the universal algebraic symbol for the unknown.”
And here’s how word ‘algorithm’ came into being:
Robert of Chester's translation of al-Khwarzmi's treatise on algebra opens with the words dixit Algorithmi, "Algorithmi says." In time, the mathematician's epithet of his Central Asian origin, al-Khwarizmi, came in the West to denote first the new process of reckoning with Hindu-Arabic numerals, algorithmus, and then the entire step-by-step process of solving mathematical problems, algorithm.”
The picture above of Musa al-Khwarzmi is from this Wikipedia website, and, interestingly, is a commemorative stamp issued by the Soviet Union in 1983.