Thursday, July 31, 2008

Starving billionaire

Zimbabwe's inflation problem, wittily portrayed with a smile. Picture from here. Earlier posts on Zimbabwe: 1 and 2.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Fishing pox

While traveling along the Mississippi last weekend – I refer to the portion of the river that divides Minnesota from Wisconsin, better known as the Upper Mississippi – I went briefly to a fishing spot. A number of people were casting their baits far into the river, from the sandy shore or from the wooden planks of the shanty, and striking it rich.

Just to clarify: I didn't fish myself, and only watched others fishing. What made my day that day, though, was this ominous sign at the same spot:

That, more than anything else, said something about the sense of humor of Upper Mississippians. I even thought, for a moment, that the round, terrifying eye of the fish in the sign actually winked at me.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Hirsh Sawhney interview of Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra returns to form in this interview with Hirsh Sawhney (though this is a 2007 interview). I say return to form because Mishra has published some very dull essays in the last couple of years - long, meandering polemics on capitalism and globalization. His views remain the same, but his take on Afghanistan, his contempt for the term “war or terror”, and most insightful of all, his thoughts on how institutions of powerful nation states keep conflicts and hypocrisies going – all come together cohesively in his responses to Hirsh Sawhney's questions, and reveal a complex picture. Indian bloggers regularly lampoon Mishra – with good reason – but I think there’s good reason also to stop and listen to what he says, especially when he is in his element.

Here are Mishra's views on Afghanistan's recent history , and why things turned out the way they did there. This to me was one of the best parts of the interview:
"When you look at the recent history of Afghanistan there is, other than the Taliban, no force there trying to unify the country or to create a nation out of its patchwork of ethnic communities. Why did they emerge when they did in the mid-1990s? To ask that question we must look very closely at how Afghanistan has been dealt this terrible hand by the Soviet Union, the United States and its immediate neighbor, Pakistan. The country consisted of various tribes, a subsistence economy, agricultural communities and herders. A small educated number of people started fantasizing about modernisation. Of course, this being part of the Cold War era, they had to take sides, and they ended up siding with the Soviet Union. There were splits within the communist party in Afghanistan. Eventually, the Soviet Union intervened. Then they pushed through this very badly-conceived, oppressive programme of modernisation, put all the girls in schools and killed all the Muslims who protested. So you had a mini-genocide which is hardly ever talked about. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans were killed during that first process of Soviet-led modernisation. Then, of course, you had resentment within these traditional tribal communities, and they threw up their own commanders and Mujahadeen leaders. The Americans, in their wisdom, decided to support these groups—the more radical ones among them. At that time radical Islam was not a threat; it was actually an ally against the Soviet Union. And then the Saudis joined in, and they had their own agenda. They wanted to be the leaders of the Islamic world, and they were feeling insecure after Khomeini had come to power in Iran. They wanted to run down Iran. So there was a confluence of interests in this thus far neglected part of the world, and what it ended up creating was a massive, amazing mess that the Taliban was left to sort out.


There was a need for the Taliban in Afghanistan at that particular moment. This has always been something we forget when we talk about anachronistic medieval eruptions. Afghans felt that they’d gone too far down the road of chaos, mayhem and random violence, and that they needed to restore some order back into the country. And that’s why the Taliban emerged, became rapidly popular and cut across ethnic loyalties. Of course, there was real oppression under the Taliban, so there was a degree of popular support when the Americans first bombed them. Forces like the Taliban are products of certain political processes set in motion by the West. Processes that create chaos and poverty instead of development, growth and progress—processes of the Cold War.


You had a pre-modern community of tribal societies, and then you had some of the most modern weapons technology available, first through the Soviet Union, and then through the Americans. I think perhaps the fact that these worlds are so fundamentally incompatible at one level, that when they clash as they did in Afghanistan, they could only have produced a 9/11. The fact that Afghanistan did not have a significant intellectual class meant that there were no mediators in the encounter between this pre-modern world and this very aggressive modern world. It was just a head-on collision, which then produced this radical Islamist ideology. Before this, people didn’t really have ideologies. People were loyal to their tribe and their regional communities, but they didn’t have these kinds of overarching ideologies that were introduced into Afghanistan by the Saudis working with the Pakistanis. So the way in which ideologies also became globalized during this period and assumed these political forms has something to do with it. I think radical Islam assumed its most political form in Afghanistan during the mid-1990s, which then attracted people like Bin Laden to it. It then became this very powerful ideology."

Sunday, July 20, 2008

My blog turns 3

Yes, it’s been three years since I put up my first post. The nature of my posts, the frequency, and my focus – everything has been evolving and this will continue. In fact, I cringe sometimes when I read some of my early posts, as I am sure I’ll cringe sometime in the future when I read some of my recent writing.

I've posted with greater regularity (at an average of 4 per month, whether long or short) the last year and a half. With so many changes that are currently happening in my life – on the personal and work front: not all pleasant – I am not sure how the next year shall be. But I've enjoyed writing in this space enormously: where else but on a blog can one express one’s personality and shape one's writing the way one wants? I hope to continue.

To mark the occasion, I’ve listed some of my favorite posts from last year, by category. These include short as well as long posts.

1. A review of Ramachandra Guha’s wonderful India after Gandhi
2. America’s Westward Expansion and thoughts on Wounded Knee – My longest post in the last year. It’s theme is the westward expansion of America in the 19th century and the impact on American Indian history.
3. The Ota Benga story
4. The Americas Before Columbus and The Old World: Yet another of my comparative ruminations of why world history has turned out the way it has.
5. From hunter-gatherers to farmers: Thoughts on an Economist article.
6. Resettlement of refugee farmers in Punjab after partition – Elaboration of a section in India after Gandhi.

1. A short note Dostoevsky’s characters
2. On Willa Cather’s O Pioneers
3. Thoughts on Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building
4. On Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves

Travel and Current Affairs:
1. On China’s burgeoning presence in Africa
2. Will Mugabe of Zimbabwe stay on? – the question has been answered for now.
3. On the Nigerian movie industry, also called Nollywood
4. Short notes from a trip to Hampi
5. A trip to Lyon in France last July
6. A short post on my fascination for the Great Plains

1. My adventures with the Balkan dish, ajvar.
2. Mark, the janitor
3. Meelad’s nationality: About the neighbors I live with, and, a lighter look at deducing nationalities.
4. And my most recent post – My Glimpses of Hispanic America – which I haven’t given enough time yet, but which I see no harm throwing into the mix.

My readership has also gone up somewhat from last year, which is heartening. Please feel free to comment and criticize. What aspects interest you? What do you find dull? Do speak your mind. After all, readers mean the world to someone with writing aspirations.

And from past years: My blog turns 2; Blogging, almost a year on.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Framed by a Mughal motif: My first glimpses of Hispanic America

As a student at Arizona State University in Tempe, I lived in a neighborhood that consisted mostly of cheap apartments. For five of my six years there, I stayed at different points on the same curving street – Orange Street – flanked by spindly palm trees, and patches of green lawns maintained laboriously by sprinklers.

It was here that I began to understand illegal immigration from United States' porous southern border, an intensely debated national issue. In the days after I arrived (the Fall of 2000), I heard other Indian students using the term makkus to refer to Mexicans – or any Hispanic immigrants for that matter. It was mostly a derogatory term, though many used it benignly, in the same way they used gultis or gujjus. The general consensus was that one shouldn’t live in a makku area, for there would be many bike thefts and muggings (there was, of course, some truth to this assertion: even the most uncomfortable prejudices are generally well rooted in reality). But in the Phoenix metro area, immigration, illegal or otherwise, was so rampant that Indian students had no way of getting away from makkus. Indeed, the southwestern cities in the United States can sometimes seem like an extension of Mexico.

Like many others, I arrived with no idea of this. It made sense that Arizona had Mexicans – Mexico after all shared a border with the state – but of their history and culture I knew nothing. I did not even know they spoke Spanish. Later, I would develop a fascination for Mexico's explosive sixteenth century history, and begin to slowly understand the forces that made the country what it is today, but those early years as a student in Arizona, I knew very little. It was only through everyday encounters with Mexicans who worked odd jobs and were my neighbors that I formed my initial impressions.

And my strongest impression, interestingly enough, comes from the immigrants I met at Copper Kettle, the Indo-Pak restaurant in the neighborhood.

Copper Kettle was relatively cheap – five to six dollar meals – and the food, while never consistent, was occasionally excellent. It was a popular haunt for students. The interior was dark; sub-continental themed paintings and tapestries hung on the walls. There was a fatigued look to the place, and from the faint but unmistakable smell of bug spray, I felt cockroaches were teeming beneath the faded carpet.

On the wall behind the cashier’s bar, where we placed orders, was a large opening in the shape of a Mughal motif. The kitchen was partially visible through it. Framed, then, by the contours of this stylish motif – which curved elegantly on either side to converge at the top: like the dome of a mosque – were the Hispanic immigrants who worked in the kitchen, cutting onions and garlic, stirring curries and washing dishes. There was something unique and affecting about this; it remains an enduring image from my time as a student in Arizona. It is also what inspired me to write this post.

The lady who ran the restaurant was a tall, middle-aged Pakistani woman, fair-skinned, with eyes that slanted upward. She was dressed usually in a salwar-kameez. She bustled around, carrying food to tables and settling bills. She was cranky, often complaining to customers of how tortured she felt listening to the same songs that played in the restaurant for hours on end. She vented on the Hispanic busboys with a somewhat feudal air, slapping her forehead and shaking her head, upset that Jorge or Gerrardo hadn’t carried the plates out in time. They in turn stared back at her blankly. They probably did not understand a word, and this only incensed her more.

She seemed to trust Luis, though. He was even allowed to handle payments, which was surprising. I talked with Luis a bit, since he was the only one who spoke English. He was a short, dark man, always in a baseball cap, and ever ready with an endearing, gap-toothed smile. He lived a few blocks away. Like other immigrants, he worked multiple jobs. I ran into him once at Four Peaks, a popular local brewery and restaurant. It was a large, noisy place, with a lot more staff and waitresses. There, Luis seemed puny and insignificant, yet was just as cheerful. He said he worked there on Tuesdays and Thursdays while other days he was at Kettle.


There were plenty of Indian restaurants within a five mile radius of the university. Since I craved incessantly for curry, I visited all of them frequently. And therefore became familiar with the Hispanics who worked at these places: the articulate, short man who worked at Delhi Palace; the guy with a troubled, brooding look, who seemed to switch Indian restaurants every two weeks; the waitress with curly hair and large glasses at the Udipi place, whom I spoke to in Tamil first – I was so certain! – and was mystified to learn later that she was Mexican.

And I can go on and on, beyond Indian restaurants: the short, stout men from the south of Mexico (or so my friend Jesus told me) who worked at construction sites, and wore striking, orange jumpers; the families who were my neighbors, whose kids rode tricycles in front of the porch; the crowds I saw at Food City, the cheapest of all grocery stores, where the bill was never more than ten dollars no matter how much I bought, and where I discovered cayenne pepper and tomatillos.

Awareness or curiosity doesn’t always come easily - how we tend to take the milieu around us for granted! So while I lived in that neighborhood for a long time, it was only after three years that I began asking some questions. Who were these people I saw each day? What had caused some of them to make the long trek across the Arizona desert, risking death by dehydration, capture by the Border Patrol and intimidation by armed gangs? Why did they not look Caucasian, though some looked almost so? What was Mexico’s history? Who were the Aztecs and the Mayans – always mentioned in reference to Mexico – and where were they now?

I know more now than I did then, but perhaps one day, I’ll be able to write a longer piece – a travel, history and current affairs piece – that ties all these questions together. For now, there’s much to learn, and lots of travel to do.

Sunday, July 06, 2008


Am traveling currently - in India right now and it's been a busy few days - so have not been able to post as usual. Hope to be back soon, though. There's few posts I have in mind right now: a review of Martin Meredith's bleak-sounding, The Fate of Africa, which I finished recently after tarrying for a long time; thoughts on the neighborhood I lived in while a student in Arizona; and maybe some discussion of Naipaul's reading of the decline of the Vijayanagara empire (centered around Hampi), which he uses in India: A Wounded Civilization to illustrate India's complex Islamic and Hindu-Buddhist history (Naipaul's view, of course, is that the former ground out the latter, but there is more to it than just that).

But as before, I have strayed and never posted what I have promised - let's see how I hold up now.