Saturday, May 30, 2009

Ahmed Rashid on Pakistan

How did the Pakistani Taliban reorganize itself? How duplicitous is the Pakistani Army's role? How are the United States and the CIA involved? What is the nature of India's support to Balochi dissidents? If you read Ahmed Rashid's Descent Into Chaos, you'll get the answers: the book is a definitive guide to the politics of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

And with the Taliban now in Swat, not far from Islamabad, Rashid sends us an update.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Along the Usumacinta

The young man in the above picture is from Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state; he is the operator of a motor boat that takes tourists to the Mayan ruins in Yaxchilan. I guess I caught him in a contemplative mood. We were traveling along the Usumacinta River: the river forms the border between Guatemala and Mexico. Mexico is to the left; Guatemala to the right. On either side of the river is a rainforest so fecund, it consumes everything. That morning, the mist hung low and veiled the treetops.

One wonders how the Mayans built their city states in this environment. Their ruins still exist, covered in moss and under the protective shroud of the rainforest. Above: one of the better preserved Mayan stelas in Yaxchilan.

Monday, May 25, 2009

White-tailed deer and ferns

At Quabbin Reservoir in Western Massachusetts, not far from Amherst, where I live. Yes, I know, the white tail isn't visible - but what am I supposed to do if the tail is short and is coyly hidden between hind legs?

And May seems to be the time that ferns make their presence felt -- they form a thick green carpet in the woods surrounding major trails. In the picture, I like the contrast between the green of the ferns and the white of the barks.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The ironies, misnomers and reverberations of history

I am looking forward to reading Empires of the Indus. Alice Albinia, the author, tells us the story of the Indus River by revealing the layers of history associated with it. She does this by embarking on a journey along the river, upstream (pictures from her journey here). The Indus, of course, gave India its name, though the river itself is in Pakistan -- and its origins in Tibet. Most Indians know very little about it. I had subconsciously relegated it to antiquity along with the Indus Valley civilization when a Pakistani friend assured me the Indus still exists.

Here is Albinia from the preface of the book:
The very name India comes from the river. The ancient Sanskrit speakers called the Indus, ‘Sindhu’; the Persians changed the name to ‘Hindu’; and the Greeks dropped the ‘h’ altogether. Chinese whispers created the Indus and its cognates – India, Hindu, Indies. From the time that Alexander the Great’s historians wrote about the Indus valley, spinning exotic tales of indomitable Indika, India and its river tantalized the Western imagination.

Hundreds of years later, when India was divided, it might have been logical for the new Muslim state in the Indus valley to take the name ‘India’ (or ‘Industan’, as the valley was called by an eighteenth-century English sailor). But Muhammad Ali Jinnah rejected the colonial appellation and chose the pious neologism Pakistan, ‘Land of the Pure’, instead. He assumed his coevals in Delhi would do the same, calling their country by the ancient Sanskrit title, ‘Bharat’. When they did not, Jinnah was reported to be furious. He felt that by continuing to use the British name, India had appropriated the past; Pakistan, by contrast, looked as if it had been sliced off and ‘thrown out’.
Such are, as Albinia says, “the ironies, misnomers and reverberations of history". What an apt phrase.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Why globalization has led to bigger cities

With so much interconnectedness and the ease with which information and goods flow, you would have expected the world today to be more dispersed. Instead, the developing world now has more megacities and greater concentrations of people. Edward Glaeser explains why. Excerpt:
More than 2,500 years ago, the knowledge of the Mediterranean world made its way to Greece through Athens. Twelve hundred years later, Greek and Indian knowledge entered the Islamic world through the Abbasid Caliphate’s House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Eastern wisdom came west again, through Venice and the cities of Spain. The circle continues today, as Western technology makes its way east, again through urban portals like Bangalore. Since there is so much for developing countries to gain economically by integrating with the developed world, the urban gateways to the West attract millions.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Coversations on the road

Serious travel is about meeting people. Whether it is the town just around the corner from where you live or some remote part of the world, a journey does not have shape or narrative until you meet and talk to the people among whom you are traveling.

The last few weeks I’ve been bouncing from one American city to another. Three weeks ago, I was in Arizona navigating the urban contours of the sprawling Phoenix metropolitan area; a few days later I was in a van hurtling through the gently undulating Minnesota countryside full of just-tilled corn farms; and today I am in Miami, where the Atlantic Ocean looks a bizarre and beautiful shade of green, and where all the cab drivers are from Haiti – until just a few hours ago when I met one from Nicaragua.

My conversations with those I’ve met along the way have been brief; they haven’t allowed for a deeper engagement. But they are nevertheless glimpses of how interesting people can be; and how there are plenty of surprising discoveries to be made in casual conversations.

Here, then, are two vignettes.

The first is about a man I met while traveling on a shuttle to the Minneapolis airport. He was slightly plump and in his fifties. But what marked him out was his long white hair and flowing white beard. He could have been a character out of JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the RingsGandalf say – and this impression was accentuated by the peculiar twang with which he spoke. It was a Midwestern accent for sure, but some rural version I’d never heard before.

This man, Sam, was from northern Wisconsin, which he called “wild country, as wild as it gets”. For some reason he had started a farm in Western Minnesota, still the Midwest, but far away from his roots. Along with his wife and kids, he had raised cows and hogs – at one point he had two hundred of them – and grew his own vegetables. They had aimed to live off the land as much as possible and to not buy any of their food. With the outbreak of mad-cow disease, Sam stopped raising cows and switched to bison.

As their kids grew and the time came for them to attend college, both Sam and his wife decided to go to school themselves. His wife went to a college in Wisconsin first and he followed later. Sam left his farming activities and got trained in managing electrical equipment. And then he took the oddest decision: he took up a job in a place near Anchorage, Alaska. He began working for an Inuit community. He came back to Minnesota from time to time to see his wife and children.

Alaska was where he was heading now: he had been back to see his family and now was on his way to the Minneapolis airport to catch a flight to Anchorage. Later in the summer, he would return, drive to Colorado and hunt elk. It was something he did on a regular basis. Every year, he would kill an elk, store the meat and bring it back to Minnesota and make burgers – enough to last him the entire season.

How did they taste?

“It really depends on how you make them. Most butchers don’t know how to take care of meat. I do mine carefully.”

A man from northern Wisconsin starts a farm in Western Minnesota without any prior experience; then goes to school and gets a college degree late in life; takes up a job in Alaska among the natives, and spends the winters in Alaska’s darkness; periodically returns home, spends time with his son and wife, hunts elk and is an expert at making elk burgers. Sam said all this easily, in that strange accent of his.

With his hair and his beard, and the life of wandering he had chosen, Sam was something of an American sadhu.

My second story is about a cab-driver, Greg, in Minneapolis. Greg was from Liberia, but had lived in Minneapolis for a while now. He had a well established business but the economy had recently pushed him into driving taxis. I’d never met anyone from Liberia before, but I had heard a lot about the country’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. (Liberia’s history is full of irony: slaves from America were settled there in the middle part of the nineteenth century, but they promptly imitated their former masters, and, in a hideous echo of their own experience, began enslaving their indigenous fellow countrymen. Sirleaf is of that stock: she is a descendant of (or at least is associated with) the early American settlers. The odds were stacked against her since her predecessors had been rapacious rulers -- which is why her election was somewhat unexpected.)

I asked Greg what he thought of Sirleaf. I was cautious in phrasing the question, for in the past there had been visceral reactions when I’d mentioned names of African leaders – even those popular in the West.

But Greg was a fan of Sirleaf: “She’s educated, she is articulate, she is not corrupt, and she is trying her best – what more can one ask for? I think Liberia will be much better off because of her leadership. I just wish she can rule for a long time.”

As we approached my destination, I realized the song playing faintly on the stereo was quite familiar. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was popular song from the Dharmendra-Mumtaz movie Loafer: Aaj Mausam Bada Beiman Hai. Almost all Africans I have spoken to are familiar with Bollywood, but this was a song from the 1970s – popular, yes, but you wouldn't expect it to be known outside India. I asked him if it was his CD that was playing. Greg increased the volume.

“Yes, it is my CD -- I love Hindi songs. Have you seen Mr. India?”

I wished then I’d had more time to talk with him. But it was time for me to leave. Just as I was paying him, he showed me the book he was reading: The Essential Rumi.

How many more such surprises and delights, I wondered, could we have shared had we chatted for five more minutes?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Arqueologia and Cibersexo in Mexico City

(Picture of roadside book stall in Mexico City, taken during my trip last December.)

Among magazines for the lascivious eye -- with pictures of almost-nude women, including a cover that says something about cybersex -- are six issues of Mexico's most prominent archaeology magazine. Indeed, one could cheekily conclude that this image demonstrates the power of Mexico's past. When your archaeology magazines are adjacent to titillating best-sellers, it must mean you value archaelogy as much as you value matters of the sexual kind, no?

Or, if you prefer the cynical view, you need archaelogy -- universally considered a dreary and boring field -- to be juxtaposed with sexual imagery, else it will never sell.

Friday, May 08, 2009

To be called Taliban

I referred briefly here to the sense of humor of the Ogallala Indians of Pine Ridge reservation, South Dakota. But it wasn’t always a pleasant sense of humor as I found out once.

Let me elaborate.

During my travels on the reservation, I was trying to get in touch with a community activist named Pinky. She lived in the town of Manderson and owned a convenience store – daintily called Pinky’s Store. As I drove into the parking lot, I saw several men lounging aimlessly outside: Pine Ridge was wracked with poverty and unemployment.

Pinky was not in. I stood outside pondering my next step when I saw one of the loitering men staring at me, a strange smile on his face. He was tall, skinny and dressed in military fatigues. There was a glazed look to his eyes suggesting he may have been drunk. It was still morning.

“Taliban!” he said, still smiling, a triumphant look on his face.

I wasn’t sure I had heard him right. I stared back.

At the same time, another loiterer approached me. He was friendly, also tall, and somewhat chubby; the skin on his face was blotched and his teeth were bad – this was true of many men I met in the reservation. He asked if I needed help with directions. I did. But after he’d explained which road led to which town and what was worth seeing on the reservation, he cleverly asked for a couple of quarters.

“I need it for a cigarette.”

As I searched for coins, I stole a glance at the man in the military dress. He was still looking at me and he still had that annoying smile.

“Taliban!” he said again, with something approaching glee.

I was now sure of what I’d heard. The remark was clearly directed at me. Bemused and somewhat puzzled, I stared back at him even as I took in the insult. But I wasn't sure how to respond or start a conversation, so I left shortly after.

Why, I wondered later, had he called me Taliban? I can never know for sure, but I can certainly speculate. The young Ogallala man had probably served in the US military; he had probably been posted in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Perhaps he was no longer serving now, or had returned home for a break. The typical Taliban recruit is probably not as dark-skinned as me; yet our soldier might have come across enough men with that unmistakably South Asian skin tone – that distinctive shade of brown – that all of us from the subcontinent share.

Then, out of the blue that morning, this Ogallala Indian soldier had seen me. He had seen me in the reservation, of all places. And in me he had recognized that same shade of brown he had come across frequently while serving in Pakistan or Afghanistan. And drunk that he was, he had simply associated me with the Taliban. It was his way of having fun; his way of teasing me. Hence the smile.

An Indian from India travels to an isolated, poverty-stricken corner of South Dakota and finds himself among other Indians. And here, seemingly far away from where the much advertised “war on terror” was being fought, he finds himself being cheekily associated with some of the extreme elements of that war.

Strange how the weirdest connections can materialize in the unlikeliest places. But that is how the world is today: strands of one place and people are linked, however tenuously, with strands of another place and people. It is stating the obvious, but for good or bad and whether we like it or not, we are all tied together -- inextricably tied together.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

About powwows


Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota

In August 2007, I drove from Minnesota to the western end of South Dakota, to the Pine Ridge reservation, where the Ogallala Sioux live. The Ogallalas are one of the many Sioux groups in South Dakota. Like other large reservations in the US, Pine Ridge is remote. The 12-hour drive took me through the vast, gently swaying and mostly treeless prairie of Minnesota and South Dakota. There were no big cities, only small towns and hamlets.

I’d heard and read stories of poverty at Pine Ridge – high unemployment rates, housing problems, high incidence of diabetes. In fact, Shannon County, one of the main counties of the reservation, is the poorest in the United States. Poverty was indeed visible in some places, but the city of Pine Ridge was full of energy the day I arrived. Other reservations I’d been to had been strangely quiet and lethargic places. Apart from the odd community center, a gas station store or a school, there isn’t much to see; streets are generally empty. And the people are so shy, they hesitate even to look the visitor in the eye.

Pine Ridge was different. Every time I was lost, someone would approach and offer help. The Sioux are a gregarious people, even if on occasions they expected something in return – a couple of quarters for a cigarette or soda. And they had a sense of humor too. A seller of roasted corn asked me sit on his bench, and upon hearing where I was from, said:

“So you are the real Indian! Alright then, I am a Mexican from Tijuana. How’s that?”

(At the powwow in Pine Ridge - August 2007. Picture mine)

Pine Ridge was full of people that afternoon, and the crowds were there for a reason: the 22nd Ogallala Lakota Annual Powwow had just begun less than a mile away.

Simply put, powwows are Native American song and dance contests. They have emerged as modern equivalents of older ceremonies the tribes of the Great Plains used to have. They are festive but they are not like, say, rock concerts. Rather, powwows are generally somber and spiritual.

Drum groups – to whose intense beats and high-pitched chorus dancers bedecked with feathers perform – come from tribes all over the United States and Canada. The event is typically held in a fairground – as it was in Pine Ridge that day – with the drummers housed in tents encircling the central space, called the arbor. The arbor is where the dancers perform. On the outside periphery are shops selling all sorts of trinkets, souvenirs, crafts, t-shirts, and, importantly, high calorie fare – fry bread, funnel cakes, corn dogs, fries – that can add to your waistline in a day.

(One of the dancers. Picture mine.)

Incoming traffic to the powwow fairground in Pine Ridge had blocked the main road. And people were driving in from all directions, even the unpaved roads. Some arrived as part of a parade of horses. A cloud of dust had risen around the tents where cars were jostling for a parking spot. Almost everyone in the cars and at the powwow was Indian. Along the congested road, Indians were selling hot dogs and corn garnished with lime and chili; in a basketball court adjacent to the fairground, Indian kids, many of them wearing Tupac t-shirts (the rapper is enormously popular in the reservation), were playing an intramural basketball game as hip-hop blared from stereos; and at the powwow itself, Indian dancers – kids as well as adults, dressed in breeches, shawls with colorful designs woven onto them, their faces painted in many colors – danced in serious and self-absorbed fashion, careful of their foot movements; and there were portly Indian policemen, participating in powwow ceremonies, sporting black hats, their shirts displaying tribal seals.

Indians, in other words, were everywhere. That's not what the uniniated visitor would have expected to see in South Dakota.


1846 and Now

Back in the 1840s, this part of the state was dangerous frontier country for traveling whites precisely for that reason: Indians were everywhere. The great westward movement of American settlers – something that Thomas Jefferson set into motion with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 – was in full flow. The Ogallala Sioux were witnessing weary hordes of settlers from the east making their way to the Pacific Coast in slow-moving wagons. The Sioux, proud people that they were, looked upon these settlers initially with derision. They were no strangers to Europeans; they had met the French, vagrant adventurers and fur-trappers. But there had been nothing like this: large groups of people doggedly migrating in pursuit of a new life in the West.

Francis Parkman, author of the classic The Oregon Trail was one of few who saw firsthand the interaction of the Ogallalas with the whites. Parkman was an adventurer from Massachusetts; he was specifically interested in Indians – in a condescending sort of way as was the norm at the time – and that is why he had made the journey to the frontier. Later he would live with the Ogallalas for three weeks.

In the early part of his trip, in the summer of 1846, Parkman was traveling in the western end of Nebraska – not far from where Pine Ridge is today – when he saw a group of settlers cross paths with a large band of encamped Ogallalas. Parkman was an astute observer, and to him this meeting of the two groups was indicative of something broader; it was a precursor of what was to come. This is how Parkman describes it in The Oregon Trail:
“Not far from the chief stood a group of stately figures, their white buffalo robes thrown over their shoulders, gazing coldly upon us; and in the rear for several acres, the ground was covered with a temporary encampment. Warriors, women, and children swarmed like bees; hundreds of dogs of all sizes and colors ran restlessly about; and close at hand, the wide shallow stream was alive with boys and girls and young squaws, splashing, screaming and laughing in the water. At the same time a long train of emigrants with their heavy wagons was crossing the creek, and dragging on in slow procession by the encampment of the people who they and their descendents, in the space of a century, are to sweep from the face of the earth.” [italics mine]
More than one hundred and sixty years have passed since Parkman prophesied the extinction of the Indians. Has his claim, so confidently made in 1846, come true? In essence, yes: there are a mere 3-4 million people of Indian ancestry in the United States – that’s out of a population of nearly 310 million. Contrast that with this startling fact: Indians from India – people like me, very recent immigrants – number more than 2 million in the United States.

But if Parkman were to somehow lift himself from his grave and attend the powwow in Pine Ridge in 2007 (or any year for that matter), he would have nothing but surprise in store for him. Indeed, the crowds at the powwow that evening would have served as a pointed rejoinder to the claim that Indians were destined to vanish. Despite the demographic decline they have experienced for the last five centuries, American Indians are doing the best they can to take modernity in their stride and maintain some measure of cultural continuity.

And powwows, in my opinion, are one medium through which that reinvention is taking place. Because it features tribes from all over North America, a powwow is like a federation of Native Americans. It can seem like an alternate, subterranean world, distant from the American mainstream. But powwows are conducted frequently, in every part of North America. I myself have been to powwows in the Phoenix metro area; I am aware they are are held even in small towns in the eastern states and the Midwest. No matter where you live in the United States,
there will most likely be one within three hundred miles of you this weekend.

So attend one if you can and you will sense, even if only in a fleeting way, what an Indian America on a grander scale might have been like had history taken a different course.