Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Karina's world

I met Karina at Casa Na Bolom, a hotel and an archaeological research institute in the highland city of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. Once headed by Trudy and Francis Bloom – she was a Swiss anthropologist and photographer, he a Danish archaeologist – Na Bolom has always been committed to serving the indigenous groups of Chiapas, especially the Lacandon, a small community who live in the rainforest near the Mexico-Guatemala border. Lacandonese families can stay at Na Bolom; they can get medical treatment if necessary; and there are also education initiatives for their children.

Karina was one of these children. She was playing in the courtyard – a beautiful courtyard enclosed by bright yellow walls – with her brother and sister. She was about five years old. She had wide face, and her features were very much like those of the other indigenous children and women I met during my travels in Chiapas. Her mother, Maria, sat in the courtyard selling beads.

I met Karina shortly afterward. She readily sat next to me on the wooden bench, a big smile on her face. She wasn’t shy. I did not speak Spanish, so we communicated in gestures.

“Hari,” I said, pointing to myself. She was smart and understood immediately: “Karina,” she said.

We played for a bit. I made a rocket out of the map of San Cristobal and pretended it was headed towards me and I was fleeing unsuccessfully. Karina laughed heartily. She insisted that I repeat it. I did, and within minutes we were like good friends.

That was the last I saw of her. But the next day I traveled from San Cristobal down to the rainforest along the Mexico-Guatemala border – coincidentally, to the little village of Lacanja, where Karina had been born. When I realized this, Karina became an accompaniment to every detail I observed during my travels: the hike through the rainforest, the other Lacandonese I met, the villages I passed by on my drive. I wanted to understand the milieu she was growing up in, how she must be beginning to view the world around her.


A trail in the Lacandon Rainforest (picture mine)

Already, Karina was bilingual: she spoke Spanish fluently, but with a slight accent; I had also heard her speak her mother tongue, Lacandon, with her mother and siblings. Karina had probably spent most of her time growing up in Lacanja. She would have been used to walking with elders through the rainforest, an experience that will instill a wonder for the natural world in her.

Karina would have been told she was Mexican; and that Guatemala was short distance away, on the other side of the Usumacinta River. But the talk of nations and boundaries may not have made much sense. She was first and foremost Lacandonese. And she would realize, as she grew up, that hers was a very small community - and a community that was changing fast. Lacanja may be remote, but roads have brought tourists and economic opportunities in the last few decades.

Karina probably knows already that her people are materially poor. In fact, if you look at pictures of the Lacandon, you would think they were an isolated tribe of hunter-gatherers living in the pristine rainforest. But appearances are always deceptive, and the twists and turns of history always humbling. Very close to the Lacandon rainforest are breathtaking Mayan ruins – in Bonampak, Yaxchilan, and Palenque. The Lacandon may have come from Yucatan, another region where Mayans were once dominant. Karina will come to know, upon visiting these ruins – some of which her people consider sacred – that she is Mayan. Lacandon, in fact, is a Mayan language. Her ancestors built spectacular city states in the first millennium AD, and excelled in astronomy and mathematics.

Once upon a time, then, Karina’s people must have led a different sort of life.

With the coming of the Spanish, however, the Lacandon retreated to the rainforest. In the 1940s they were connected again with the broader world. Due to their isolation, they had, unlike indigenous communities in Mexico, retained many of their Mayan beliefs.

Moss-covered Mayan ruins at Yaxchilan (picture mine)

Karina will quickly realize as she travels the cities of Chiapas that other Mayan groups (Mayan language diversity in Chiapas is impressive: Tzotzil, Tzetzal, Tojolabal, Chol, Chuj and Zoque) are also poor, but have more experience with modernity. She will also learn of the Zapatista movement - more precisely EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional), named after Emiliano Zapata, a leading figure in the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) - which surprised everyone by capturing cities on Chiapas on the Jan 1st, 1994. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect the same day. This was not a coincidence: the Zapatistas were and still are against neo-liberal economic policies.

A board I spotted close to Lacanja

The army is still attempting to hunt these rebels. There are many checkpoints on the way to Karina’s village, Lacanja. There are also plenty of signs that the Zapatistas have sympathizers - they are, after all, on the side of the Chiapas' poor Mayan communities, who form a significant portion of the state's population. Perhaps on one of her trips from San Cristobal to Lacanja, Karina will see this board that I saw, and wonder what it is about.

“Muera el sistema capitalista” or “Death to the capitalist system.”

But if Karina travels to Tuxtla Gutierrez, the sprawling capital city of Chiapas (almost eight hours away from Karina’s birthplace: how inexorable distances can be in this small state!), she will notice that the capitalist system is thriving. American stores are everywhere. The modern bus station in Tuxtla – sparkling white and red – is part of a humongous mall that could easily shame some of the ones I’ve been to the US. It is also superbly maintained: for every little blemish on the floor, there emerges, dutifully, out of nowhere, a new janitor.

This, Karina will know instantly, is a place very different from the Chiapanecan hinterland she belongs to.

Karina’s world, then, has been shaped by many forces, spanning both space and time: the dense rainforest of Chiapas and the incessantly mountainous terrain; Mayan city states; the multitude of languages; the Spanish conquest of the 16th century and its lingering effects; the blending of Christian and Mayan faiths; the modern Mexican nation state, which is sometimes like an extension of Spanish subjugation; NAFTA and the Zapatista Rebellion.

Consciously or otherwise, Karina will carry all of these with her.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Why does India neglect its classical languages?

Asks Sheldon Pollock, in this essay in The Hindu.
At the time of Independence, and for some two millennia before that, India was graced by the presence of scholars whose historical and philological expertise made them the peer of any in the world. They produced editions and literary and historical studies of texts in Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu — and in Apabhramsha, Assamese, Bangla, Brajbhasha, Gujarati, Marathi, Oriya, Persian, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Urdu — that we still use today. In fact, in many cases their works have not been replaced. This is not because they are irreplaceable — it is in the nature of scholarship that later knowledge should supersede earlier. They have not been replaced because there is no one to replace them.


Today, in neither of the two great universities in the capital city of India, is anyone conducting research on classical Hindi literature, the great works of Keshavdas and his successors. Imagine — and this is an exact parallel — if there were no one in Paris in 2008 producing scholarship on the works of Corneille, Racine, and Molière. Not coincidentally, a vast number of Brajbhasha texts lie mouldering in archives, unedited to this day.


Nine years ago, H.C. Bhayani, the great scholar of Apabhramsha, passed away. With his death, so far as I am able to judge, the field of Apabhramsha studies itself died in India. To my eyes, the situation with Apabhramsha is symptomatic of a vast cultural ecocide that is underway in this country. And not just language knowledge is disappearing but all the skills associated with it, such as the capacity to read non-modern scripts, from Brahmi to Modi to Shikhasta.


There is another Sanskrit proverb that tells us it is far easier to tear down a house than to build it up (asakto ham grharambhe sakto ham grhabhanjane). The great edifice of Indian literary scholarship has nearly been torn down. Is it possible, at this late hour, to build it up again? [...] Why should India not commit itself to build the same kind of institute to serve the needs of its culture — not just dance and art and music, but its literary culture? Why should it not build an Indian Institute of the Humanities devoted not just to revivifying the study of the classical languages, but to producing world-class scholarship, as a demonstration of what is possible, a model for universities to follow, and a source of new scholars to staff those universities?
Indeed, why not? The state of affairs is best illustrated by my own ignorance of Apabhramsha - I know what it refers to now, but if you had asked me just a few minutes ago, before I encountered it in Pollock's essay, I would have had no clue. So it goes.

Also: a recent post on Sanskrit.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Nadeem Paracha's Blow Daddy

While still on Pakistan, here's a brilliant piece of satire from Nadeem Paracha in Dawn, one of the country's most prominent newspapers (credit for pointing this out goes to a good friend of mine from Pakistan). Just as the Dalrymple essay linked in my previous post meticulously lays bare the danger that Pakistan faces due to the military's courting of Islamic extremists for dubious ends, so this piece by Paracha lays bare, with comedy that is as chilling as it is hilarious, how narrow the world of the extremist is, and how it is built on lies. Paracha cleverly uses the format of a conversation between a father and his son to illustrate his point - a short extract below:


Yes, son.

Are we going to have a war with India?


Oh, goody. We will thrash them, right? Like we did in 1857!

It wasn’t in 1857, son.

Oh, okay. But whom did we thrash in 1857?

The British, son…

And the Hindus too, right?


Did Quaid-i-Azam fight in that war along with Muhammad bin Qasim and Imran Khan?

No, son. The Quaid and Imran were born much later and Muhammad bin Qasim died many years before.

Then who ruled Pakistan in those days?

There was no Pakistan in those days, son.

But there was always a Pakistan! It has been there for 5,000 years!

Who have you been talking to, son?

No one. I’ve just been watching TV.

It figures.

Daddy, why are all these people against us Arabs?

Arabs? But we aren’t Arabs, son.

Of course we are because our ancestors were Arabs!

No, son. Our ancestors were of the subcontinental stock.


Never mind.You seem to like wars, son.

Read on

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

William Dalrymple on Pakistan

William Dalrymple writes in the New York Review of Books of the steadily disintegrating situation in Pakistan. The main reason for this is the policy of courting Islamic extremists, wholeheartedly adopted since the 1980s by the Pakistani army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The ISI must simply and unequivocally be termed a rogue agency. But ISI had the support of the CIA (which, for the role it has played in meddling with countries the world over, must also be called rogue). The CIA-ISI supported Islamic extremists were then fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The ISI also found extremists useful in bogging India down in the Kashmir conflict.

Decades have passed and the beast that was unleashed in the 1980s is now threatening to consume Pakistan. Even in Lahore, Pakistan's cultural and artistic capital, far away from the Afghan border, journalists and editors are being threatened by radical groups. The activist Asma Jahangir has also received warnings - "in her case, to desist helping the victims of honor killings."

Dalrymple's entire essay, which focuses on Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid's book Descent into Chaos, is well worth reading; but here are some of my picks - these, in my opinion, are the most telling.
"As Hamid Gul, the director of the ISI who was largely responsible for developing this strategy [of using jihadis in Kashmir], once explained to me, if the ISI "encourages the Kashmiris it's understandable." He said, "The Kashmiri people have risen up in accordance with the UN charter, and it is the national purpose of Pakistan to help liberate them. If the jihadis go out and contain India, tying down their army on their own soil, for a legitimate cause, why should we not support them?" Next to him in his Islamabad living room lay a large piece of the Berlin Wall presented to him by the people of Berlin for "delivering the first blow" to the Soviet Empire through his use of jihadis in the 1980s."

"The army's senior military brass were convinced until recently that they could control the militants whom they had fostered. In a taped conversation between then General Pervez Musharraf and Muhammad Aziz Khan, his chief of general staff, which India released in 1999, Aziz said that the army had the jihadis by their " tooti " (their privates). Yet while some in the ISI may still believe that they can use jihadis for their own ends, the Islamists have increasingly followed their own agendas, sending suicide bombers to attack not just members of Pakistan's religious minorities and political leaders, but even the ISI headquarters at Camp Hamza itself, in apparent revenge for the army's declared support for America's war on terror and attacks made by the Pakistani military on Taliban strongholds in FATA. Ironically, as Rashid makes clear, it was exactly groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which were originally created by the ISI, that have now turned their guns on their creators, as well as brazenly launching well-equipped and well-trained teams of jihadis into Indian territory. In doing so they are severely damaging Pakistani interests abroad, and bringing Pakistan to the brink of a war it cannot possibly win."
And last, but certainly not the least, is Dalrymple's suggestion that the "Saudi-financed advance of Wahhabi Islam" needs to be stopped, and that the Sufism of provinces such as Sindh could be an effective counter against such puritanical strains:
The Saudis have invested intensively in Wahhabi madrasas in the North-West Frontier Province and Punjab, with dramatic effect, radically changing the religious culture of an entire region. The tolerant Sufi culture of Sindh has been able to defy this imported Wahhabi radicalism. The politically moderating effect of Sufism was recently described in a RAND Corporation report recommending support for Sufism as an "open, intellectual interpretation of Islam." Here is an entirely indigenous and homegrown Islamic resistance movement to fundamentalism, with deep roots in South Asian culture. Its importance cannot be overestimated. Could it have a political effect in a country still dominated by military forces that continue to fund and train jihadi groups? It is one of the few sources of hope left in the increasingly bleak political landscape of this strategically crucial country.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Ramachandra Guha on his Lahore trip

The historian Ramachandra Guha, author of India after Gandhi, writes about his recent Lahore trip here. A sample:
The day before I was due to depart for Lahore, a publisher friend sent me a story by a writer she referred to as "a sort of Pakistani R.K. Narayan". I read it on the flight, and found that for once a publisher had sold an author short. Through the character of an ordinary electrician, Daniyal Mueenuddin had uncovered the violence and callousness of everyday life in rural west Punjab of Pakistan.

True, the elegance of the prose matched that of the Mysore master. But the world was more brutal, and hence more credible.

However, the world I was about to enter was altogether more civil and genteel. Lahore is Pakistan’s most cultured city. In three intense days, I met a cross-section of Pakistan’s thinking classes—journalists, activists, lawyers and economists. Naturally, our talk was dominated by the tensions then prevailing. I sensed, among these sensitive and hospitable people, a triple fear: the fear of their city being overrun by Taliban-style fundamentalists; the fear of their government being taken over once more by the military; the fear that after the recent terror attacks, their country would be shunned and scorned by India, and the world.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Quick thoughts and quotes on Sanskrit

I learned Sanskrit for five years, in middle and high school. And yet, at the end of those five years, I had nothing to show for my efforts. All the rote learning and exhausting analyses of sandhis had come to nothing. I couldn’t speak the language except for a few rudimentary, stilted sentences. Others in the class were the same way.

Over the years, I’ve lost touch with Sanskrit, and only recently have I begun to learn of its history and merits – often by Western scholars of the language. The Clay Sanskrit Library (New York University Press) for instance, is a monumental undertaking: many ancient Sanskrit texts, secular and religious, poetry and prose, are being translated; the library has already released several titles. I am currently trying to read Dandin’s Daskumaracarita (I really don’t know how to add the proper accents to the title, but the English translation, by Isabelle Onians, is called What Ten Young Men Did.)

One of the best and most evocative descriptions of Sanskrit I’ve read, though, is in linguist Nicolas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. Ostler surveys the world’s greatest languages: if you ever wanted a scholarly yet readable history of languages, this is it. But it is clear he has lavished the most attention upon the 75-page chapter, Charming like a Creeper: The Cultured Career of Sanskrit. This is not surprising: Ostler has a PhD in linguistics and Sanskrit from MIT.

It was in Charming like a Creeper that I first learned how complex the grammar of Sanskrit – which I had much difficulty learning in school – is and how it had been relentlessly analyzed by Indian scholars such as Panini before and in the first millennium AD. As Ostler writes, “the Sanskrit word for grammar, vyakarana, instead of being based, like the Greek grammatike, on some word for word or writing, just means analysis: so language is the subject for analysis par excellence.”

The rules of grammar in Sanskrit as expounded by Panini in his treatise Ashtadhyayi are as rigorous as the transactional format of the Turing machine. This is an amazing connection: between millennia-old ideas of grammar and modern computing. I admit I am still trying to understand what this exactly means; perhaps in a few years I can write about it with more authority. But for now, here is an extract from Ostler’s book:
“…the grammar that the tradition had defined was a vast system of abstract rules, made up of a set of pithy maxims (called sutras, literally threads) written in an artificial jargon. These sutras are like nothing so much as the rules in a computational grammar of a modern language, such as might be used in a machine translation system; without any mystical or ritual element, they apply according to abstract formal principles.”
Ostler also talks about how Sanskrit spread to the far corners of Asia, traveling along with its principal disseminators, Buddhism and Hinduism. Unlike the languages that accompanied monotheisms of the Middle East – Arabic or European languages such as Spanish – the spread of Sanskrit was entirely devoid of conquest. The south-east Asian kingdoms and even places as far away as Japan, took up elements of Sanskrit probably because it was a matter of prestige, arriving with either Hinduism or Buddhism. Evidently, India had a reputation at the time as a place where great ideas and philosophies emanated from.

The case of Japan is particularly interesting. Ostler proposes that
“Japan owes the order of its symbols in its syllabary, the so-called kana, or go-ju-on, ‘fifty sounds’, to the order of letters in Indian alphabets.”


“This thoroughgoing intellectual borrowing at the root of the writing system demonstrates that not just the sound of the Buddhist chants but also elements of traditional analysis of language had spread to Japan with Sanskrit.”
Thus, Sanskrit, traveling with the Indian subcontinent's spiritual exports, influenced the far-flung parts of Asia not only with regard to religious ideas, but also subtler aspects, such as the structure of languages. Japan was not the only case: Tibet, Cambodia, and Thailand were influenced too in this fashion. In fact, these cultures may have become literate only with the coming of Sanskrit and its associated vernaculars, such as Pali.

And finally, a quote from an interview of Ostler, in which he summarizes why he loves Sanskrit so:
Q: Your affection for Sanskrit comes through in your book. What is it about Sanskrit that appeals to you?

A: Well, the Indian background helps: my parents would never have met if they had not both been sent out to India owing to the Second World War. But Sanskrit has many virtues that attract. Its grammar has been rigorously analyzed, but not in a doctrinaire way – there is room for intellectual debate. The classical Indian culture in which Sanskrit first flourished offers an immense variety of material, from romantic comedy and sensual poetry to epic, massive-word play, political science and philosophy. It embodies a contradiction, that a language whose literature is so lithe, should be indigenously analyzed as a sort of architectural structure. And I suppose I like the fact that it is so difficult (coming from English, certainly), yet so familiar in another way (coming at it from Latin, Greek and Russian).

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ganesha in Mayan country

Generally, India has never been very distant, no matter where I've traveled. It isn't hard to find Indians and, besides, there is always the ubiquitous Indian restaurant, however pathetic. Even in the town of St. Etienne, which is in a provincial part of France and where I never expected to eat any curry, I found at least four Indian restaurants.

But in remote Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, the only Indians are Mayan Indians. In the highland city of San Cristobal de las Casas, there was, for a long time, no indication that there would be anything from the home country - and I expected it to stay that way. So you can imagine my surprise when, on one of my walks through town, I found the following sign.

I still haven’t figured out what it means – I believe it is a sign for a hotel or hostel. But how nice it was to see my favorite deity, the pot-bellied Ganesha, the Elephant God, rendered so well so far away from home.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A whirlwind summary of Mexico

I am back from Mexico. The trip was illuminating in many ways. It’s time now to get on paper everything of importance that I observed. I’ll start with broad thoughts on the country, and in future posts – which might run for the next two months, or even more – I’ll elaborate on specific aspects. Wherever possible, I’ll try to contrast Mexico with India in the hope of unearthing interesting insights. Some readers may have wondered why I focus on topics that most of the time are unrelated to India. Indeed, it’s been a conscious choice, made in the hope that, at some time in the future, armed with knowledge about other cultures and their histories, I’ll be able to understand my own background better.

Mexico – the modern nation state – is about a fifth the size of the United States (India is about a third). It is broad in the north, and progressively tapers in width; at its southern end, the Yucatan Peninsula juts back up into the Atlantic, like the tail of a scorpion. This northward tilt of the Yucatan Peninsula means that Miami to Cancun is a short jaunt. Unsurprisingly, coastal Yucatan is full of beach resorts packed with American revelers.

My first trip to Mexico was in May 2007. I visited then the northern state of Chihuahua, the largest in the country, and which shares a long border with the United States. This time, I visited Mexico City, the capital, in Central Mexico. I also went to the country’s southernmost state, Chiapas. These are three very different places. Mexico may only be a fifth of the United States in size, but mountain ranges run relentlessly through the country. It takes a lot of time to travel by road in Mexico. For instance, Chiapas is a tiny southern state, and though roads there are in good condition, it takes seven hours to travel from San Cristobal de Las Casas in the central highlands to the Lacandon Rainforest, along the Mexico-Guatemala border.

Geography of this sort generally means diversity, and indeed, Mexico had diverse cultures before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. The National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City is testimony to that diversity. This unbelievably comprehensive museum collects and maintains with great care all pre-Hispanic cultures. Not just the Aztecs and the Mayans, the most visible and popular cultures, but also Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Olmecs, Toltecs, the people of Casas Grandes and countless others. Just as the Indian subcontinent has a shared civilizational heritage, yet each region its own culture, language and distinctness, so Mexico once had numerous cultures with common practices but which maintained their own identities and languages.

All that began to change in 1519, when strange things began happening on the Atlantic coast of Mexico. Bearded men arrived in ships, and rode on massive beasts that had never been seen before. Horses, which the Spaniards introduced, were new to the Americas. Indeed, all domesticated mammals – cows, pigs, donkeys, pack mules – did not exist in either North or South America at the time of Spanish arrival.

The clashes that ensued between the Spanish and the pre-Hispanic cultures of Mexico were won decisively by the Spanish. Some of the collisions were quite destructive - destructive on the pre-Hispanic side - as I’ve often stressed before.

In the centuries that followed, indigenous languages slowly faded – though many like Nahuatl still persist to this day – and Spanish became the lingua franca. Millions were converted to Catholicism. The Catholic Church became powerful. In contrast to Protestant United States, where the natives were either exterminated or corralled into reservations, the Spaniards in Mexico (then called New Spain) intermarried with the Indians, giving rise to the mestizo. This is a vital fact and difference between Mexico and its northern neighbor.

Colonial Mexico had a clear hierarchy: at the top was the tiny elite comprising of those born in Spain but living in Mexico; next were the criollos, who were of Spanish descent, but born in Mexico; next came the mestizos, of mixed Spanish and Indian descent. At the bottom of the pyramid were blacks and mulattoes who had been imported as slaves, and, of course, millions of Indians, many of whom were also enslaved and given very few rights.

Today, mestizos form nearly 60-75% of the population of Mexico. Northern Mexico – the Chihuahua region – even had Chinese immigrants, who had come to work for the construction of railroads in the 19th century. I met a potter in the village of Mata Ortiz who claimed he had some Chinese ancestry - and it looked that way too. There are also Mormon and Mennonite communities in Chihuahua.

In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain, but the country remained on the boil for the next hundred years. In that period, it lost almost half of its territory – all in its north: Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas – to American aggression. This is why immigrant Mexicans in the American Southwest today will tell you that they are merely repopulating a territory that is rightfully theirs.


In the late 1850s Mexico elected a liberal Indian President, Benito Juarez (left). This was a remarkable achievement, not only because Juarez was Indian - Indians were the most underrepresented group - but also because he was born into a poor family. Western Europe, meanwhile, was hatching its colonial schemes: Mexico was soon invaded by France, and came to be ruled for a while by, believe it or not, Maximilian I, a scion of an Austrian royal family. (Maximilian's wife Carlota was the daughter of the Belgian King Leopold, who plundered the Congo and sanctioned the death of millions – a holocaust that is hardly ever talked about.)

Eventually, though, Juarez regained control and after his death, Porfirio Diaz ruled for more than three decades. Diaz’s rule ended with the beginning of the Mexican Revolution, in 1911. The revolution essentially channeled the rage of peasants and the working class against wealthy, property-owning elite, and threw up such leaders as Emiliano Zapata, Francis Madero, and Pancho Villa. If you visit Mexico, you’ll find Zapata’s fiery face, with its long mustache (left), staring at you from walls and paintings – Zapata seems to be everywhere. His name also features in a modern, still-existing movement in Chiapas, which I mention below.


For the last 80 years, Mexico has had relative political stability, though one party – the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI – held power for more than seven decades, up until 2000. The country has benefited from its large oil reserves. In the 1990s, the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) were finalized, causing much controversy.

On January 1st 1994, as NAFTA went into effect, and as communal land was increasingly privatized, a new movement, comprising largely of indigenous people, emerged in Chiapas, called the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN in Spanish). EZLN was suppressed by the Mexican military in its initial years, but is still active in the villages of Chiapas. I saw plenty of signs during my travels that suggested it is still functioning.

With regard to the concerns they raise, movements like EZLN are not different from shadowy Marxist-Naxal movements in India.


Like India, Mexico is deeply unequal and many live in poverty. Mexico's complex history of subjugation and power have meant that wealth has not always trickled to those at the bottom. But if I compare, say, Bombay with Mexico City – two of the world’s largest cities – I would say the former, despite being more glitzy and glamorous, is a lot poorer and weaker in terms of infrastructure than the latter.

But as far as petty and violent crime is concerned, Mexico City probably fares worse: carjackings, kidnappings and murders are rife. Mexico’s drug cartels, its bane, have entered a new phase: the equilibrium of power seems to have spiraled out of control, resulting in increased violence this past year (violence has been especially severe in certain states like Michoacan and Sinaloa). The cartels are also locked in a struggle with Felipe Calderon’s government, which has decided to confront them head on. During my visit, one newspaper had a headline that screamed “Decapitated!” (in Spanish, of course); and below was the gruesome image of ten trussed-up headless men.


Infrastructure in Mexico is quite good. Roads and public transportation are very reasonable – the buses extremely comfortable and fares low – even in poorer states like Chiapas. One can argue that the country has been independent since 1821, and therefore has had much more time to control its trajectory as a nation and provide for its people. Indeed, given that it is rich in resources, it might come as a surprise to many that Mexico has not attained first-world status yet.

But really there is nothing to be surprised about. Modernity remains a wily beast, always eluding, always evanescent. Few countries have managed to tame it successfully, and Mexico is no exception.