Sunday, August 31, 2008

On the Mississippi, the American West, and some other scattered thoughts

The headwaters of the Mississippi lie in central-north Minnesota, in Itasca State Park, not far from the mysterious-sounding town of Bemidji. From this remote corner of the United States, the Mississippi, only a thin, fordable stream at its origin, winds its way around the state, gathers strength, and by the time it reaches Minneapolis and St.Paul, it looks the grand river that it is. Its meander defines the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota; further south, near St.Louis, it joins with the equally large Missouri. In fact, I’ve often wondered why the subsequent flow was attributed to the Mississippi when the Missouri’s journey, beginning in far-away Montana, is just as significant and noteworthy; if anything the Missouri travels a longer distance. The confluence of the two rivers then flows hundreds of miles south before emptying in the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana.

In Minnesota, I lived about 40 miles away from the Mississippi. The river, I was told, was a geographical marker: the deciduous forests and woodlands of Eastern United States ended with it, and the great prairie began west of it. But the Mississippi is also a cultural marker: the American West begins with the river. I feel a thrill whenever I think of this – it is a thrill that echoes the anticipation and uncertainty with which Americans would have viewed the still unexplored West in the 19th century. For it was in the first decade of that century that the Lewis and Clarke Expedition began their westward exploration from St.Louis. St.Louis, in fact, has a massive arch, a commemoration of that journey which laid the basis for the territorial expansion of America from “sea to shining sea”.


I began my time in the United States in hot and arid Arizona in the fall of 2000. The “Wild West” stereotype – as I knew it back in India – seemed perfectly justified there: rugged landscapes; old, abandoned mining towns that have been revived for tourists today and enact famous fights (such as the OK Corral fight in Tombstone); souvenir shops that sell saddles, Stetsons and cowboy paraphernalia; and invariably some mention of Indians – Indians of a different kind of course: Navajos, Apaches, Hopis, Zunis, Pimas, and dozens of others, largely forgotten people, but who still live in remote reservations. (In fact, it was always a pleasure introducing myself in these reservations: eyebrows would arch in surprise and acknowledgment: “Oh, so you are the real Indian!”)

Things were different in Minnesota, but not that different. Minnesota is strongly rooted in its immigrant Scandinavian past and its Lutheran traditions, yet it still felt like the West; it had all the feel of a land that had once been the frontier, and settled only recently (roughly a century and a half). There was, besides, still talk – in radio shows like the Prairie Home Companion, even if it was mostly jest – of cowboys on horses riding the dusty plains; and still that reminder in the names of towns (Wanamingo, Wabasha) and the small reservations that dot the state, that Indians once lived here and had been dispossessed – the Dakota, the Ojibwa, the Winnebago.

And just recently, I’ve moved east, to Massachusetts – well east of the Mississippi. I am always told the East has a lot more history. And though I’ve been here only for a week, I can see some things are different. Houses here crowd upon each other and do not have the same sprawl that I am used to. The network of roads and back roads possess a haphazardness that comes with a longer history. The towns here were formed before the United States came into existence. We’re talking 18th century here, or sometimes 17th century – still recent, I know, for those from other parts of the world, used to millennia of continuous history, but old in the American sense of the term. There are fewer reservations here and that suggests land usurpation has been more comprehensive.

To dramatize, you could say I’ve traveled the American 19th century westward migration in reverse: from Arizona, one of the last few states to form, to Minnesota where the Mississippi originates and where the American West begins, and now to Massachusetts.

And it is symbolic that on the coast of Massachusetts, less than a three hour drive from where I am, is Plymouth, where, as many of you may know, a tenuous British colony established itself in 1620. It was the second such colony, the first being the Jamestown one in Virginia. Both were critical in that they laid the foundation for more immigration, and eventually, in a century and a half, led to the formation of the United States.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

On Martin Meredith’s The Fate of Africa: A meandering review-essay

A significant caveat: I have never traveled to Africa, and therefore this is only armchair analysis. But one has to begin somewhere when one wants to engage with a topic or a region; and I do hope that whatever I read on Africa will be followed in the future with actual travel. Once I get to visit, my accounts will probably be more specific; I’ll probably be writing about a particular city or theme, rather than something as grand as the whole continent.


Could a book have a bleaker title, a more damning indictment? The Fate of Africa: From the Hopes of Freedom to the Depths of Despair – what does it convey but gloominess, that Africa has hit rock bottom in all respects. There is good reason, one might say, for such pessimism: all the afflictions the world has seen in its entire history –starvation, totalitarianism, disease, genocide – have played themselves out in crippling fashion in Africa since Ghana’s landmark independence in 1957.

Why did things turn out this way? The answers, as always, are too complex to summarize in a few lines or even a book. European colonialism clearly played a major role, apportioning the continent according to its own whims and needs in the 19th century, creating arbitrary boundaries and forcing ethnic groups together that were not natural nations. Africa’s lack of large empires– if one ignores ancient Egypt, whose affiliations were as much Mediterranean as Nubian – meant there were no surviving institutions or an administrative framework (as existed in China and the Indian subcontinent) to mediate its encounter with Europe. And what did exist in some places broke under the weight of that infamous institution, slavery.

Consider one of the early interactions between Europe and Africa. When the Portuguese reached the mouth of the Congo as early as the 15th century, they found the sophisticated Kingdom of the Kongo, which encompassed a large area, and had an elaborate administrative system. Yet, within a hundred years, slave driving had devastated the kingdom. Slavery had existed in Congo earlier – as it had in virtually all regions of the world – but it worsened acutely as the Portuguese expanded in the New World.

(Depiction of the Kongo royalty encountering the Portuguese, from here.)

From those early times in the 15th century to the 19th, European physical presence in Africa was a faint imprint, but the demand for slaves had profound implications. The interior was largely unexplored, but played the relay role in the slave trade: supply and demand balancing out neatly, Africans as complicit in it as the Europeans.

It was only in the 19th century – with the help of so-called "journalist-explorers" like Henry Stanley, Africa’s most famous conquistador – that the interior of continent was mapped and opened for greater European control. About eight decades of colonialism later, as independence and sovereignty became the rage the world over, African nations awoke to their possibilities. But to join the modern world, one has to have the apparatus and institutions of modernity, and African nations were found lacking. Further, their leaders were faced with a most difficult task: “to weld into nations a variety of different peoples”, as Meredith puts it. The Cold War and the business of taking sides – a deadly one, whichever way you swung – wreaked havoc on many countries, Angola being a prime example. Caught in the crossfire, and betrayed by their own political elite who in rapaciousness sometimes surpassed their colonial predecessors, nations lurched from crisis to crisis. To compound the issue, Africa was saddled with one of the deadliest diseases in modern history. Even in Botswana, a successful country with little corruption and good infrastructure, approximately one in six Botswanans carries HIV.


This, then, is the setting and context of Martin Meredith’s book, an encyclopedic digest of the politics and tragedies of Africa since 1957. From Ghana to Rwanda, from Algeria to South Africa, there is little that Meredith leaves untouched. The book inevitably chronicles a numbing sequence of mismanagements, civil wars, and cruelties. “Some 150,000 died,” he says while describing one crisis – I forget which – and moves on. Casually put, but apt: since so much has happened, numbers do not have the same impact or significance. One country blends into another; brutalities are eerily similar. As Meredith says at the beginning of the book, “Africa is a continent of great diversity but African states have much in common, especially misfortunes.”

Nevertheless, the book avoids generalities, and proceeds case by case. Beginning with Ghana in 1957, and moving chronologically on to other powerhouses – Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, and Zimbabwe – as well as covering a host of other smaller nations, Meredith reconstructs their post-independence histories. His account is strangely mixed: it sometimes reads like a dull newspaper article full of facts and figures; at other times it is insightful, expertly deconstructing famous African leaders – Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Mobutu, Thabo Mbeki – and their blunders.

Along with these piecewise narratives about nations and their trajectories, something of the larger geopolitics of Africa emerges too. When Angola slid into war, how did other countries align themselves? What were the dynamics during the Cold War? What were the consequences of America supporting Mobutu? What happened after the Rwandan genocide ended? If one is willing to patiently make the broader connections – which can get lost in a book of this size – the book is rewarding. For instance, the conflict in Rwanda did not end with the end of the genocide; it spilled over into the Congo, and continues to cause problems today. The resources of the Congo, in turn, acted like a vortex, enticing leaders of several neighboring countries – Yoweri Musevini of Uganda, Paul Kagame of Rwanda among others made untold riches even as war devastated the region in the late 90s.

While Meredith’s writing is lucid, it is devoid of the spark that the drama of personal discovery can add to such a narrative. But he probably wanted the most objective evaluation of Africa’s plight. His style is clearly that of a reporter's – Meredith was a foreign correspondent in Africa, and wrote for London Times and the Observer. His fundamental point, though, comes through very clearly: that Africa’s failure can be attributed to its leaders and politicians. His conclusion is summarized neatly by a quote of the famous Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe. Achebe was writing about Nigeria, but his point applies broadly:
“The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.”

The book’s title – a denouement of sorts – might indicate there is little chance of the continent redeeming itself. If one looks at the conflict that erupted after Kenya’s elections last December, or the never-ending authoritarianism of Mugabe, one might be tempted to agree with such a view. But history works in strange ways; no region or people can be written off. Already a broad pan-African sensibility is emerging, spurred by the common suffering of the last century and a half. The African Union, however ineffective it may seem to external observers, is an expression of that commonness. A larger sentiment was also at work when John Kufor and Kofi Annan of Ghana attempted to mediate the crises between the sparring Kenyan leaders, Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga early this year.

More importantly, Africa is better connected now – in terms of trade (though much more can be done on this front) and exchange of ideas – than ever before in history. Isolation, whether geographic or self-imposed, has been the bane of many societies. The Native Americans and the Aborigines of Australia, cut off as they were from the ideas, innovations and material goods of Europe and Asia for millennia, suffered immensely because of it. The same could be said of parts of Africa. But unlike the Native Americans, who declined in large numbers owing to European diseases, colonization and settlement and were thus unable to define their own destinies, Africans have another chance.

There is an additional aspect to this story of globalization: Already China and India are heavily engaged in Africa, and have sparked off a new scramble for its resources. To some this too is exploitation, the 21st century version, in essence similar to Europe’s plunder of Africa. China’s burgeoning presence in particular is raising some questions. But in the end, such exchanges of skills, ideas and material goods, if they happen gradually and if they are managed well – and that latter if is a big if – are mutually beneficial. Even in ancient times, the most powerful and robust societies were those that were well positioned to use the innovations of other regions. Africa will have to use its opportunity, and one feels it is the heavyweights – Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa – that will have to lead the way.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Moving places

I drive tomorrow, from the Midwest to the East Coast, to Amherst, Massachusetts, where I'll be starting an academic position at UMass. It'll be a long drive, and I probably won't have internet access for at least a week. And given the time it takes to settle down and all that, it might take longer for me to get back to blogging (I have to begin to teach as well in ten days). Until then, I ask for your patience - that is to those who regularly read this blog, however small that group might be.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Bales of hay

There is a rather specific and strange calling that I have, and it is studying and appreciating bales of hay arrayed upon farms. How odd, you might say, that I should focus on something so plebeian. But I’ve been drawn to them ever since I first noticed them on my long road trip through South Dakota last August. This past weekend, as I traveled in a wide arc through central-north and north-east Minnesota, I was mesmerized again. It helped that in this part of the state – unlike in the south where corn and soy-beans are the staple – all farms are hay farms. And August is the time that tractors run through the farms and roll the hay up into bales.

Why do I like them? Because they are large and cylindrical, grand-looking, about half my height; there’s also something in the way they are arrayed, something in the symmetry - the light brown of hay going well with the green of the grass, and the tractor trails still fresh. Driving lazily through the deserted back roads of the Fond du Lac reservation near Lake Superior, I came upon a farm with a significant number of these rolled beauties. The perimeter of the farm was lined by clumps of yellow wildflowers, and they added to the prettiness and sense of idyll. I wish I was a better picture-taker; you’ll have to do with these for now. Click on the pictures to fully appreciate - I insist: size matters and there are many details that become evident.

(The second one, I took last year, at a place in South Dakota, a hamlet really, with a double digit population.)

A peripheral fact: the roof of a gas station - opposite which I found the farm this year - had this long name, not unlike my own: Nahgahchiwanong Adaawewigamig. This is the Chippewa Indian word that translates roughly to Fond du Lac store - the actual store, not in the picture, is to the right.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The grand travel writing of Naipaul

No one analyzes or sums up societies so swiftly and so startlingly as VS Naipaul. There is something like magic in his sweeping assessments; they are abstract, thrilling and they challenge. Naipaul's novels might be famous, but it is his travel writing that I really like.

Consider this excerpt from Among the Believers, where, from the evidence around him, Naipaul quickly summarizes Indonesia's history and how it is a country with a strong connection to its past:
To be in Jakarta was to be in a country with a sense of its past. And that past went beyond the freedom struggle and colonial times. The Dutch had ruled for more than three hundred years; Jakarta was the city they had called Batavia. But the Dutch language was nowhere to be seen. The language everywhere, in Roman letters, was Indonesian, and the roots of some of the words were Sanskrit. Jakarta itself – no longer Batavia – was a Sanskrit name, the “city of victory”. And Sanskrit, occurring so far east, caused the mind to back centuries.

The hotel [where Naipaul stayed] was known as the Borobodur Intercontinental, after the ninth-century Buddhist temple in central Java. The ground plan of that great nine-terraced temple was the basis of the hotel logo: three concentric dotted circles within five rectangles, stepped at the corners with a rippling effect. It was stamped on ashtrays; it was woven into the carpets in the elevators; it was rendered in tiles on the floor of the large pool, where the ripple of the blue water added to the ripple of the pattern.

Indonesia, like Malaysia, was a Muslim country. But the pre-Islamic past, which in Malaysia seemed to be only a matter of village customs, in Indonesia – or Java – showed as a great civilization. Islam, which had come only in the fifteenth century, was the formal faith. But the Hindu-Buddhist past, which had lasted for fourteen hundred years before that, survived in many ways – half erased, slightly mysterious, but still awesome, like Borobodur itself. And it was this past which gave Indonesians – or Javanese – the feeling of their uniqueness.
It’s a recurrent theme in Naipaul’s writing: his nostalgia for erstwhile Hindu-Buddhist glory, and his hostility to its erosion by later Islamic influences. One may or may not agree with his interpretations but the writing is remarkable. The best part of Naipaul’s travel books is his ability to combine his grand, if sometimes shaky, ideas with the stories of the numerous people he meets: a sort of merging of the abstract with the specific. Naipaul listens and questions carefully; and there is a tension in this dialogue. His own prejudices shape the narrative of the people among whom he travels, but he also steps back often and the stories stand for themselves. India: A Million Mutinies Now, written in this fashion, is in my opinion one of the best assessments of the country in recent times.

Update, Aug 11: And it appears that Naipaul is now writing a non-fiction book on Africa. He's already been to Uganda, is now in Nigeria, and plans to travel to other West African countries and South Africa. What will he have to say, I wonder. A Bend in the River is the Naipaul book I like the least - I found it quite vain and self-obsessed - but his travel pieces about Zaire and Ivory Coast in 1970s were on a different plane. It's possible that on this trip to Africa, some of his opinions about the continent will change, as his ideas of India have over the years. You'll find some of his preliminary thoughts on Nigeria in this interview with a Nigerian newspaper. It's only an interview - which is different from writing, especially in the case of Naipaul - but one still sees here that same tendency to make quick but fairly accurate assessments. (Interview link through Amitava.)

And here’s one of my older posts about Naipaul, where he discusses his methods in travel writing.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

The ugliness of the Indian male

Mukul Kesavan’s The Ugliness of the Indian Male contains a controversial proposition: that Indian males are ugly, largely because of their disgusting habits. And on what basis is this proposition made? Kesavan writes:
Let’s start with the extremities. Examine the nails of any Indian man: the cuticles will be yellow with haldi and the underside of the bitten-off tip will be spotty with accumulated dirt. When you think of where they put those nails, this is not surprising. I’ve seen respectable men conducting conversations with their index fingers two digits deep in their nostrils, digging with industrial enthusiasm. If you ever see a desi man delicately rubbing the tip of his index over the pad of his thumb, beware. Don’t do near him: he’s rolling the bogies he’s mined into little balls.

He uses those same fingers to adjust himself in public. All Indian men do this, without exception. The refined ones do it furtively, but the majority do it openly without shame or embarrassment. A famous Indian batsman does this regularly with the butt end of his bat handle under the gaze of thousands of spectators. You can’t do this and be goodlooking, you really can’t. You could be John Abraham (an exception to the ugly rule) and your looks wouldn’t survive this particular habit. And if it isn’t thumb and forefinger it’s the pinkie inserted into the ear and vibrated with manic vigor. This generally comes with eye-rolling and little oinks of pleasure. You’ll never see Indian women do this, only men. It’s an important route to ugliness.
I’ll have to confess that as an adult Indian man, I may have been guilty of some of the things stated – whether in a refined, furtive way, or publicly, I won’t reveal. But if you are enraged by this sexist claim of Kesavan’s don’t hesitate to protest. And what do Indian women have to say to this, I wonder?

I know for sure that Indian men have a lot to say about Indian women. When I was in college in Trichy - in a hostel with 400 sexually-unfulfilled, testosterone-charged guys - all sorts of depraved comments were made about the few girls who also studied with us, and who lived in a separate hostel. It was quite offensive, I must say; I can't even mention any of it. The strange thing is that not a single one of them had the courage to say anything in the company of the same girls.

So: Kesavan's view applies not only to some unclean habits, but also to what spews from the mouths of some frustrated young Indian men.