Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Musings on the coming of Spring


It snowed last Saturday, and it was beautiful when I walked out in the morning. The temperature was just below freezing, too warm for the snow to stick. Because there was no wind, I could trace each flake, swirling and eddying gently and unhurriedly before disappearing upon contact with the road. The flakes were everywhere, seemingly suspended mid-air, and though I have seen plenty of snow this winter, it was a special, surreal moment.


I drove to St.Paul later that day. It was only a week into spring, and the countryside was still covered with snow. My eyes blinked inadvertently during the drive, unable to take its oppressive whiteness. Beneath this all-pervasive white cloak are farms that will be plowed after the snow melts. And when they are, these plow marks, these lightly curving furrows on dark earth will, in concert with the gentle swells and ebbs of the prairie terrain, create the sublime impression that the entire landscape is somehow in motion.

The last couple of weeks, I have woken in the mornings to the sound of dripping water, the most pleasing sound after a winter so severe even hardy Minnesotans have had enough. Just beyond my bedroom window is a little awning. In one of its corners – the only one visible to me from my lazy, reclined position – water from melts accumulates slowly, bulges into a drop, then falls under its own weight: drip, drip, drip, with pleasing regularity!

And for the first time in months I am seeing grass – brownish green with a leaden, exhausted look to it – grass that has been hibernating beneath the snow since November last year.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Harjit Sodhi's story

On Space Bar’s invitation (thanks very much to her) I wrote this piece for Blog Bharti 's Spotlight Series. It’s a story I heard on Minnesota Public Radio. I am not quite satisfied with the piece since its structure can be improved, and its content suffers because my knowledge is limited by what I heard on radio. Nevertheless:


I was a student at Arizona State University in the Phoenix metro area when 9/11 happened. The days after were quite tense. On Saturday, the 15th, there were rumors among Indian students that a gang in a car was firing at people who looked Middle-Eastern, and that they were on their way to Tempe, the suburb the university was in.

The rumor wasn’t true but it wasn’t entirely false either. That afternoon, Balbir Singh Sodhi, an Indian immigrant who owned a gas station store had been shot dead. Balbir was the first victim of a dozen or so hate crimes involving South Asians and Middle-Easterners that happened in the aftermath of 9/11 all over the country. Balbir was Sikh and his turban had given the shooter the impression he was Muslim. The shooter, Frank Roque - who had apparently declared at a local restaurant that he was going to target some “towel-heads” - was arrested and is now serving a life sentence.

Balbir’s death was a terrible tragedy, but, as I learned recently, it wasn’t the complete story. The complete story had to do the Sodhi family’s immigration to the United States. In a strange kind of twist, that immigration had been spurred in the first place by the sectarian conflict in India involving Sikhs, just less than two decades before 9/11.

Harjit Singh Sodhi, Balbir’s brother and the first member of the family to have left India, talked of his experiences recently on Dick Gordon’s radio show The Story, on National Public Radio. I’ve pieced together most of this story from that interview (look in the archives for the show on Thursday, March 6th, 2008).

As clashes between Sikhs and the Indian government escalated in the early 1980s, Harjit, who had seen death from the conflict first hand, felt he and his family would never be safe in India, and decided to leave for the United States. Why the United States? Because he had read in schoolbooks that it was a wonderful place, a “heaven” of sorts. He left alone without his wife and children. But since he only had a forged passport, no contacts and little money, the process wasn’t easy: he was knocked back and forth across the world; in his quest to reach the US, he had to travel to Mexico, Cuba, Thailand, Jordan, Moscow, and back to Mexico. Finally, Harjit walked from Mexico, crossed the US border and illegally entered the United States. He first went to Los Angeles, and then did odd jobs - pruning grape vines in Fresno, working at a 7-11 store - before moving to Phoenix and starting an Indian restaurant.

The Reagan administration granted amnesty to illegal immigrants who had worked in agriculture, and Harjit, who had done that, got his green card. He was able to bring his wife and children. He was successful; he was living the American Dream. Harjit found that the United States was indeed the heaven he had envisioned it to be: safe and friendly, a place he could begin a new life. He embraced his adopted country whole-heartedly and was proud of it.

Harjit also succeeded in encouraging his other brothers to move to the United States, with the promise that they too would have the same life, comforts and safety that he had. Balbir was one of these brothers, and in April 2001, they decided to open a gas station store together in Phoenix.

It was outside this store, five months later, while discussing plans with landscape architects, that Balbir was shot.

But that was not all. In August next year, while driving from Delhi to his village in India, Harjit got an urgent message, one he could scarcely believe, that another of his brothers, Sukhpal, a cab driver, had been shot in his cab in San Francisco. Although, it has not been established, this too might have been a hate crime. Nearly three thousand people were waiting in his village, having got the news earlier, with questions about why Sikhs - and especially the Sodhi brothers - were getting targeted in America.

Overcome with grief, Harjit broke down and momentarily contemplated returning to India. But his wife insisted that they stay in the US since they could expect justice there. Balbir’s killer, she pointed out, had been apprehended and sentenced, something she felt they could not expect back in India. Besides there were practical matters: the restaurant could not just be left behind; they had stayed in the US for over twenty years. In India they would have to start from scratch.


Almost six years hence, Harjit continues to live in the United States; two of his other brothers have stayed on as well. On occasions, he gets taunted because of his turban - he is called Bin Laden - yet brushes such insults aside. His children, born in the US, wear the turban too. Instead of assimilating, he appears to have retained Sikh and Indian aspects, and sees no contradiction in being staunchly American. Just how much he believes in the United States is clear in his response to a question by a Japanese reporter during a press conference that followed Balbir’s shooting in Phoenix. The reporter had asked:

“Mr. Sodhi, your brother was killed by an American. What do you think of the American?”

The question was pointless. But Harjit was deeply offended for a different reason. He responded emotionally:

“What are you asking me? You should be apologizing. You think I am not American, my children are not Americans? Americans have a different color or culture?”

Something in the way Harjit talked about this in the interview (and from his other comments as well) suggested he still feels strongly about the issue. But I wonder: How, in his most private, contemplative moments, does he reconcile his belief in the United States with the two tragedies that must have shaken it to the core? A distrust of India brought him to the US, but there are good reasons for him not to trust the United States as well. Yet he does not seem to feel any rancor for his adopted country - at least he betrays none in the interview. Perhaps it has something to do with the magnitude of effort it took him to reach a position of relative security: the long journey alone with the forged passport; entering illegally and taking up odd jobs; the slow climb to prosperity. Perhaps he does not want to disclaim all that he has painstakingly earned and the country that allowed him to do so.


Harjit’s respect for an immigrant’s willingness to persevere despite adversities is reflected in his position about others like him, of whom there are plenty. He feels a strong empathy for the tens of thousands of Hispanic immigrants, who - as he had done more than two decades ago - trek daily from Mexico, risking death by dehydration and harassment by armed gangs, across the arid landscape south of the United States, and eventually to the cities and towns of California and the southwestern states (and even beyond) where they find low-paying jobs in farms, construction sites, car washes, restaurants.

Harjit’s restaurant, like all other Indian restaurants, hired illegal immigrants. But now, as a business owner and a legal resident of the United States, he is being pressured by lawmakers to crackdown on them. He himself benefited from the porous borders and lax laws that allowed him to settle in the country. Not unsurprisingly, he disagrees with recently passed new laws that are tough on undocumented workers:

“You think this is a just law? I’ve heard 12 million people live illegally in the United States. They want to send all these people back? Even those who live peacefully and work hard, try to feed their families and lead a better life? I too was an illegal once.”

Immigration, of course, isn’t a simple issue: it isn’t about freely allowing entry, neither is it about erecting supposedly impenetrable fences (an actual fence is currently being constructed along the US border). Just about every region in the world faces this problem; even within countries, the movement of people poses problems and creates tensions. The answers aren’t simple, but stories like Harjit’s - what events his adult life has straddled and what searching questions he’s been asked! - give us much needed glimpses into the travails and successes that accompany such journeys.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Excerpts from The Second World

Parag Khanna’s The Second World is a fascinating book. As a forerunner to its release, Khanna wrote about its principal thesis in a lengthy New York Times article (my post about it here). He posited that the world consisted now of three major powers: a weakening United States, a growing European Union, and China. Further, and more crucially, he argued that it is in second world countries – such as Kazakhstan, Libya, Vietnam, Brazil to name just a few – that we will witness shifts in global power. Khanna has actually traveled to more than three dozen such countries in the span of two years; the book is based mostly on his travels.
At times the tone of the book is too formal. Sample this for instance: “During travel, thought and perception merge; contradiction can emerge as a truth to be revealed, not some exception to be disproved. Such ambiguity is the corollary of complexity after all. Reality is famously resistant to theories that measure the world according to what it should be rather than how it really is.” Also momentum-breaking is Khanna’s use of such clunky words and terms as “autarky”, “kleptocratic economy”, “petrocracy” – words common perhaps in a policy document, which is what The Second World is.

But quibbles aside, The Second World analyzes complexities unfolding in far-flung places. I can't think of another book that covers so many countries, summarizes their prospects and roles in the international geopolitics, gives pithy descriptions of their cities, and quotes diplomats, academics, taxi-drivers and street side vendors. (Though each person gets exactly one or two lines. We never get flesh and blood portraits of these nameless people – The Second World isn't that sort of effort. )


Now to some excerpts that are the main purpose of this post.

Khanna provides subtle analysis of the dynamics in Central Asian countries -- formerly on the famed Silk Route -- and the Russian Far East which, though they might seem to have fallen off the map, are crucial because of their resources. He feels that a new version of the Great Game – one that imperial powers, Tsarist Russia and Victorian Britain, were engaged in the 19th century – is now being played. And China seems most active everywhere; not only its government but its people too. Consider this:
“Meanwhile, north of Beijing, the Great Wall is crumbling and roughly six hundred thousand illegal Chinese immigrants a year are pouring northward into Russia’s depopulated Far East – a number almost identical to Russia’s annual population decline.


The Far East has become a Russian dream-nightmare: China is developing the region in ways Russia has not, and it is gradually occupying it as a result. What looks like Russia on a map looks a lot more like China on people’s faces. Chinese citizens (and Koreans deported by Stalin) visit Chinese-operated health clinics, and Chinese men even marry Siberian women, whose husbands are either perpetually drunk or already dead as a consequence. ”

Tibet and Xinjiang – China’s largest provinces with separatist aspirations and without which it not only shrinks dramatically in size but also loses its gateway to Central Asia – also get a separate chapter. Here's what Khanna has to say about Tibet, which has been in the news recently:
“Large empires are maintained through a combination of force and law, and China has not wavered in its strategy across Tibet and Xinjiang; it merely a difference of degree. In even the remotest corners of Tibet, small army bases house platoons of the [Chinese] People’s Liberation Army (PLA), with soldiers menacingly practicing martial arts twice daily in public squares, often right next to ancient and fragile Buddhist stupas. Even inaccessible jungle areas designated environmentally protected zones are often actually military encampments. Signs trumpeting “Tibet Power” refer strictly to Chinese electricity company.”

Let’s go now to a different part of the world: South America. I mentioned earlier that Khanna gives pithy descriptions of cities – in fact these descriptions are to me the best parts. Here are a couple of examples. First Caracas, Venezuela:
“At least six different militias loyal to Chavez menacingly roam the streets of Carcass on foot, on motorcycles, and in jeeps, wearing camouflage and body armor. With machine guns casually dangling from their shoulders, they are jovial with red-shirted Chavistas but intimidating to all others. Rampant crime keeps opposition off the streets, and while they’re struck home, citizens watch Chavez’s marathon monologues on the television stations he has seized.”
And to finish, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro:
“In a country that is three quarters urban, Sao Paulo has grown into something beyond a mega-city sprawl: it is well nigh infinite city, with a population that can neither be contained nor measured. Its countless steel-gated complexes are, in effect, high-rise favelas for those who can afford housing. Sao Paulo’s Rua Oscar Freire has been rated one of the world’s top luxury shopping streets, and wealthy Paulistanos boast the highest rate of private helicopter usage in the world – but at chic restaurants, women make sure to have their purses bound with wire to their chairs. By contrast, marvelous and desperate Rio- stretching so many miles on the coast that a marathon there would require no loops – is a beachfront metropolis noted as much for its favela shantytowns as its trend-setting restaurants. But like Istanbul, there is an underlying rhythm, even coziness, to the inevitable chaos of a city so large it is sometimes difficult to tell whether Rio is claiming nature or nature is claiming Rio as they expand and encroach on each other.”
More to come as I get into the second half of the book.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

On Nollywood

Click on the links below to see the videos on which this post is based: Link 1 and Link 2. The picture to the left is of the famous Nigerian actress, Stephanie Okereke.

I wrote here that the most vibrant movie industry after Hollywood and Bollywood is Nollywood, from Nigeria. Nigerian movies are not released in theaters but made directly available on DVDs, CDs and videos. As the most populous country in Africa (130 million), Nigeria provides a ripe market for Nollywood (it also has markets elsewhere in Africa and the diaspora). The industry is based in bustling Lagos, where there's a powerful actor’s guild with 5000 registered actors.

Nollywood’s settings are decidedly rudimentary, the special effects tacky and amateur, but that’s because the directors work on shoestring budgets and extremely short timelines (2-3 weeks for instance). They work despite choking traffic and noise on Lagos streets; bystanders are often brought in to do roles in impromptu fashion; and in one case a movie was shot in an actual hospital, with patients and hospital staff featuring in roles even as they went about their daily routines.

There is simply no time for elaborate sets: Nollywood directors and crews make do with what they can.

I saw two video documentaries (by Journeyman Pictures, links above) on YouTube recently that gave fairly decent overviews of Nollywood. The second video includes interviews with some successful directors, mainly Ralph Nwadike; an actor, Hank, whose I-am-a-big-man attitude, sports cars and fancy motorbikes reminded me of Salman Khan; Nollywood’s most popular actress and heart-throb, Stephanie Okereke; and a 25-year old director and scriptwriter, Chinny Ahaneku, on the sets of her historical movie, Deceit of the Gods, set in a precolonial Igbo village. (The Igbo are one of the major ethnic groups in Nigeria.)

Let’s go on the set of Deceit of the Gods for a bit.

The movie is being shot in a village in Eastern Nigeria, with much effort expended on costumes and authenticity. The villain in movie is an evil priest who sacrifices children and twins; there is also an evil forest - readers of Chinua Achebe’s famous Things fall Apart will be familiar with these cultural aspects of precolonial Igbo society.

At some point in the story, a white priest needs to appear and introduce Christianity to the village. But the director, Chinny, has not planned for a white actor. In a hilarious moment that is representative of the spontaneity with which Nollywood movies are made, she requests a cameraman, Jacques, a white South African – in fact the only white person in the village at the time – with no acting experience to fill in the role.

“But I have never acted,” he protests.

“Acting starts in a day; everything starts in a day!” Chinny pleads.

Jacques agrees reluctantly. He slips into a “tight-fitting and excruciatingly hot white robe”. Chinny had planned a minor role for him, but, in yet another unplanned twist, Jacques becomes a major actor in the movie and has to act for two full days.

To the evil priest and king of the village, the colonial priest delivers such solemn sermons as: “Idol worship and human sacrifice is from the devil. But if you accept God Almighty, he will save from all Evil!”

The movie ends on a feel-good note. The evil heathen priest is driven away; the king and the villagers accept the word of God preached by the white priest and convert to Christianity. The villagers dance to celebrate this happy event. Chinny herself plays the king’s bride, bringing in the love angle. (Again video here.)


I found the movie's main premise fascinating because its happy ending is diametrically opposed to the climax of Chinua Achebe's literary classic Things fall Apart. Achebe’s story too is about a precolonial Igbo village that has its own rules and hierarchy. It also has the same customs that seem strange today – such as sacrificing twins in the evil forest. Here too Christianity comes and declares that heathen ways should be given up. But the end result is not only an end to cruel customs, but also a complete breakdown of Igbo society. The ambivalence produced by the arrival of Christianity, and the collapse of Igbo society as it was then is at the heart of Things fall Apart; it takes up only a 30 odd pages, but Achebe does it brilliantly.

But in Nollywood, as in Bollywood, there has to be a clear resolution, the end has to be happy, and that’s why Deceit of the Gods ends in simplistic fashion, with villagers joyously converting. And why not? Who wants to see it end seriously?

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Let's commemorate the Potato!

Don’t you think the world should be paying tribute to the potato, that ubiquitous tuber, the essential ingredient into so many dishes, from masala dosas to beer-battered fries to its mashed form that is indispensable to Americans on Thanksgiving? Just yesterday I myself cooked and enjoyed potatoes for dinner with onions, garlic, turmeric and some red chili powder.

Indeed, the United Nations too has recognized the need to commemorate: 2008, it has declared, is the International Year of the Potato. This might sound comical, but if you look at the economic impact of the potato over the last five hundred years it’s quite appropriate. Which is why The Economist also has a series of articles in its latest issue acknowledging contributions. Consider this one, Spud we like:
Unlikely though it seems, the potato promoted economic development by underpinning the industrial revolution in England in the 19th century. It provided a cheap source of calories and was easy to cultivate, so it liberated workers from the land. Potatoes became popular in the north of England, as people there specialised in livestock farming and domestic industry, while farmers in the south (where the soil was more suitable) concentrated on wheat production. By a happy accident, this concentrated industrial activity in the regions where coal was readily available, and a potato-driven population boom provided ample workers for the new factories. Friedrich Engels even declared that the potato was the equal of iron for its “historically revolutionary role”.
And how can we forget what it did to Ireland in 1845, when a million died and a million others emigrated?


Delve deeper into history and we find that the potato wasn’t even available to Europe, Asia and Africa before the 16th century. Not only that, tomatoes, maize and chilies were not available either– yes chilies too were absent, believe it or not! The inescapable conclusion is that food must have been quite dull before the Spanish sailed to the Americas and brought back these culinary treasures. All these crops were first domesticated in Mexico, Central or South America a very long time ago. Potatoes were first domesticated in Peru 7000 years ago; the country now has 3500 edible varieties.

Here's the important lesson. There are many things today that we enjoy and take for granted. But if we understand their origins well, we learn that had it not been for trade and exchanges across cultures – the phenomenon we call globalization today, and which is much-maligned – we wouldn’t be enjoying them at all. And just because something comes from a different, faraway land does not mean that a community or culture or nation cannot add its own distinctness to that import. Did the Italians not combine pasta with tomato, a New World crop, to come up with something that is considered uniquely theirs?

Needless to say, this doesn’t apply only to food, vegetables and crops; there are parallels in a host of other areas. One only has to look.

Both pictures from The Economist. And an earlier post on another thing we take for granted: agriculture. And an even earlier post on how the supercontinent Pangaea broke into the continents of today, and how after 1492 the seams of Pangaea have been knitted again, not literally but through a massive exchange of crops, animals and people, now called the Columbian Exchange.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Brothers Karamazov - a quick note

The last time I wrote about The Brothers Karamazov, I complained about the book being long-winded. I'd been reading Constance Garnett’s translation at the time. Thanks to Chandrahas' suggestion, I used the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation for the remaining two thirds of the book. And how the pages flew by! The Brothers Karamazov is now undoubtedly one of my all time favorites.

In the introduction, Richard Pevear claims to have kept Dostoevsky’s idiosyncrasies of prose intact so as to retain the humor. TBK may be considered a dark, tragic book, and sure it is that, but it is also exceptionally funny, so much that I burst out laughing in the most unexpected places, even when such serious matters as parricide were involved.

TBK is also, I feel, a spiritual book in many ways, and I’d like to retain the book’s intensity – its unrelenting questions about sin, conscience, loving and forgiving – as long as I can. I’ll try to write about my interpretation of the book’s themes in a longer post. For the moment, though, a couple of earlier posts on Dostoevsky: 1 and 2.