Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Away traveling

I will most likely be unable for post for the next ten days. That's because it is time to travel again, talk to people, and see new places. This time, I am traveling in the home country: I will be following an arc through the upper half of Tamilnadu. I will be visiting temples in Tiruvanamalai, Kumbakonnam, Thanjavur, Tiruchirapalli, before returning to Bangalore through Erode and Sathyamangalam. I hope in the process to get a better sense of Tamilnadu's history and its religious traditions. I know it instinctively, since I am Tamil myself, but I have not looked at it as rigorously as I have looked at, say, Native American or Mexican history.

And along the way, I will be reading two interesting books: UR Anantha Murthy’s classic Samskara, and, Arzee the Dwarf, the just-released first novel of my friend, Chandrahas Choudhury, whom I met in Bangalore last Friday at the book launch, and had some very good conversations with over the last three days.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Does language shape our worldview?

Lera Boroditsky thinks so. And she presents a fascinating example:
Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia. I came here because of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space. Instead of words like "right," "left," "forward," and "back," which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space.1 This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like "There's an ant on your southeast leg" or "Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit." One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is "Where are you going?" and the answer should be something like " Southsoutheast, in the middle distance." If you don't know which way you're facing, you can't even get past "Hello."

The result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge between speakers of languages that rely primarily on absolute reference frames (like Kuuk Thaayorre) and languages that rely on relative reference frames (like English).2 Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them — in fact, forces them — to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities. Because space is such a fundamental domain of thought, differences in how people think about space don't end there. People rely on their spatial knowledge to build other, more complex, more abstract representations. Representations of such things as time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality, and emotions have been shown to depend on how we think about space. So if the Kuuk Thaayorre think differently about space, do they also think differently about other things, like time? This is what my collaborator Alice Gaby and I came to Pormpuraaw to find out.

To test this idea, we gave people sets of pictures that showed some kind of temporal progression (e.g., pictures of a man aging, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. If you ask English speakers to do this, they'll arrange the cards so that time proceeds from left to right. Hebrew speakers will tend to lay out the cards from right to left, showing that writing direction in a language plays a role.3 So what about folks like the Kuuk Thaayorre, who don't use words like "left" and "right"? What will they do?

The Kuuk Thaayorre did not arrange the cards more often from left to right than from right to left, nor more toward or away from the body. But their arrangements were not random: there was a pattern, just a different one from that of English speakers. Instead of arranging time from left to right, they arranged it from east to west. That is, when they were seated facing south, the cards went left to right. When they faced north, the cards went from right to left. When they faced east, the cards came toward the body and so on. This was true even though we never told any of our subjects which direction they faced. The Kuuk Thaayorre not only knew that already (usually much better than I did), but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis

(Spoilers ahead for those who haven't read.)

What if sudden misfortune strikes someone in a family? What if the misfortune is of the kind where the member is disabled or becomes diseased but does not die? What does it feel like to be helpless?

Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is about these questions.

Gregor Samsa of Prague, the only breadwinner of a family struggling to make ends meet, wakes up one morning and finds he has metamorphosed into a gigantic insect with “many legs pitifully thin compared to the rest of him”. He is lying in his room and has to get to work, but is unable to move in the usual human way. As pleas from his parents and his manager from work who has come to ask about his absence mount, Gregor slowly gets to the door, succeeds after much labor in opening it and reveals his new self. His family is shocked, the manager runs away, and his father shoos Gregor back into his room.

Gregor can still think as before but his speech is unintelligible. His appearance is grotesque but he is not harmful in any way. He has the best of intentions. It is his sister, Grete, who now takes care of Gregor and feeds him, even though they cannot communicate. Gregor and Grete had shared a wonderful relationship. Gregor appreciated his sister’s talent for music and was putting away some earnings to send her to music school. The two siblings had planned to announce this to their parents during Christmas. Now, with Gregor's metamorphosis, that plan is no more.

And yet, Grete tries her best to help Gregor. He reciprocates the best he can. This a moving part of the story:
To find out about his likes and dislikes, she brought him a wide assortment of things, all spread out on an old newspaper: old, half-rotten vegetables; bones left over from the evening meal, caked with congealed white sauce; some raisings and almonds; a piece of cheese, which two days before Gregor had declared inedible; a plain slice of bread, a slice of bread and butter; and one with butter and salt. In addition to all this she put down some water in the bowl apparently permanently earmarked for Gregor’s use. And out of a sense of delicacy, since she knew that Gregor would not eat in front of her, she left hurriedly and even turned the key; just so that Gregor should know that he might take himself as comfortable as he wanted.
Since his appearance has the potential to unsettle, Gregor scurries and hides under the couch as his sister enters the room to lay the food on the floor. But Gregor's head is still visible. To make sure his sister does not get a glimpse when she brings food, he struggles painfully with his legs to arrange a bed sheet in such a way that he is completely invisible. Grete is grateful. In turn, she also recognizes that Gregor, when he is alone, might benefit from positioning himself, difficult though such a maneuver is, against the window to look outside – it was something he did frequently before. She adjusts the chair every day so Gregor is able to do this in his present vermin state.

But is Grete’s compassion endless? The latter part of the story – the tragic part – is the family’s gradual realization that Gregor has become a liability. To keep the family going and to pay back the mortgage, Gregor’s retired father has to return to work; his mother turns to sewing clothes; Grete becomes a saleswoman. Over time, Grete becomes irritable. She stops cleaning Gregor’s room. Dirt and crumbs gather. Gregor loses interest in food and spits it out. He begins to starve, walks in his own filth, and becomes weak. One morning, after an altercation, his father hurls apples at him, one of which gets lodged painfully in his scaly back.

As the story draws to a close, Kafka seems to be posing the question: How unconditional is our love for those whom we consider close and how much can we endure for them? The Metamorphosis does not give a clear answer, but we are able to intuit the internal lives of those trapped in such a conundrum. Kafka achieves this in fifty pages of spare, well-controlled prose. No wonder The Metamorphosis is considered one of literature’s greats.

And here is an essay on recent book on Kafka's relationship with his father.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Mexico travel notes – San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan

Other posts on my Mexico trip: Traveling to Mexico City, A whirlwind summary of Mexico, Ganesha in Mayan country, Karina's world, Arqueologia and Cibersexo in Mexico City, and Along the Usumacinta. Together they might give a better sense of the trajectory of my travel and the themes I am trying to explore.

Near the highland town of San Cristobal de las Casas in southern Mexico are the towns of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan. These are Mayan towns. The people are short in stature, their complexions are dark, and their eyes small. As in many places, skin color here is an indicator of socioeconomic status. In Mexico, most people are of mixed Native American and European descent but the darker you are, the more indigenous you are, and therefore – given the history of subjugation – the more likely you are to be poor. Spanish is the lingua franca throughout Mexico, but Tzotzil and Tzetzal, both Mayan languages, are spoken in this part of the country. And the religions practiced are a blend of Mayan and Christian beliefs.

In San Juan Chamula I went to a “church”. I use quotations because this wasn’t a typical church, even if from the outside it looked like one. The picture above (I know, it’s a bad picture, and features a stranger's head prominently) is of the large, haphazardly organized market facing the church. San Juan Chamula is a materially poor place. It is not unlike an unclean and crowded small town in India. Food stalls flanked the main road. Children ran around visitors trying to sell trinkets. The day I visited, a ceremony was in progress near the church entrance, where a group of men, women and children had gathered for a slow dance. In commemoration, some town officials – wearing shawls and sporting wide, sombrero-like hats – set off rockets at regular intervals. I have missed Diwali in India for the last nine years, but the fireworks at this December event in southern Mexico made up for it somewhat.

Inside the church there were no pews; the floor was strewn with aromatic pine needles. Along the sides were figurines of saints in glass cases, whom the locals, seated on the floor, worshiped with great reverence. But it was the altar that was striking. There was no visible statue or image of Christ. All I could see was an excessively decorated space: the principal adornments were banana leaves and balloons. I was startled by this use of banana leaves. In south India they are everywhere of course: they may be used as, say, disposable plates, or to build makeshift arches at entrances to weddings and religious events. But I had not expected to see them used in somewhat similar fashion in Mexico. And there was a further similarity: getting a glimpse of the decorated altar in the church felt akin to getting a darshan of an overdressed, impossible-to-see deity at a crowded temple in India.

Later in the afternoon, I went to Zinacantan, to a house where textiles were sold. The building was a simple, single-storied structure. The interior was cool and the floor earthen. A living room led to an enclosed courtyard where clothes in bright colors and patterns – scarves, blouses, skirts, bed sheets – were displayed for sale. These were also the colors and dresses that the women of the region wore. Bright blue seemed to be a favorite, like the dress of the woman in the picture (she’s demonstrating the weaving process). The house seemed like the communal space of a large family. The sellers were all women; the men stared shyly from a distance.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Grants, writing and a poem

Apologies for the sluggishness this month. I got busy with a grant application to a federal agency under the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This type of writing is not fun. You have to sound very assured and gung-ho about your research but that’s not how you feel inside. That is why grant writing and writing for technical publications can never have the same tension that writing of the personal kind has. The term “personal” is to be interpreted in the broadest sense: I do not mean writing about oneself, but writing honestly about topics and themes one feels deeply about.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been planning two pieces. The first is about the dogs, both pets and strays, I came to know while living in Nagpur for five years. We lived in a third floor flat and our place had four balconies. I could observe neighborhood dogs closely early in the morning when I was supposed to be studying. I became familiar with two generations of dogs; there are many small stories I want to weave together and tell.

The second is about my first year of college in Tiruchirapalli -- at the Regional Engineering College (now National Institute of Technology). The experience was special. By design, regional engineering colleges are meant to bring together students from the local state and students from all parts of India. So we had representation from every state. We had people of all complexions: there was an incredibly fair guy from Kashmir, and my austere and studious roommate for the first year was very black . All the major languages of India could be heard in the corridors of hostels. It was my first lesson in diversity.

These are going to be long pieces. It will take me a while to write them, and maybe in the process, I’ll get bored and distracted, as so often happens. But my hunch is something will materialize. Pardon the lethargy meanwhile.

Since this is a post without much direction, I have the license to ramble a bit. Let me share with you a poem I wrote in my third year of college. I was a prolific poet then and spammed online bulletin boards with my work: early indication that I would become a blogger. This is a dark poem, very cheesy: it expresses my rage against deforestation. Keep in mind, before you nitpick about my very "black and white" view, that I was 18 or 19 then!

The wood-cutter and the woodpecker

Chunk! Chunk! goes the woodcutter's axe;
Peck! Peck! attacks the woodpecker.
When the two pairs of eyes met,
there ensued a conversation:

"Why, dear man, do you cut the tree?" the pecker asks;
"For the same reason that you peck the tree."
"Your answer does not satisfy; it puzzles me."
"A living exists for us because of this tree;
you pick insects and thus subsist
while I sell timber and get money."

"But does not the tree die
as the axe hacks the bark away?
Does not the squirrel flee
to another tree miles away?
Do not the eggs break on falling
much to the mother-bird's dismay?"

"True - but for the living of one
another has to succumb.
It is this rule of survival
that we experience every day.
Woodpecker, do you not eat
insects embedded in the bark of trees?
do you not kill them?
impale them with your pointed beak?
Talk not of my cruelty;
think of your own shame."

Shocked by what had been said,
the woodpecker withdrew.
Lashed at by man's vicious tongue
decieved by his sincere talk
and cloaked in guilt and shame,
it never ate insects again;
and of hunger died one day.

Today, in the forest, there remain only stubs
of the trees the axe brutally cut.
All the woodpeckers have died of shame;
all the squirrels have run away;
and all the birds have flown away.

Today, in the forest, remains barren land,
in the middle of which wooden houses stand.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Still searching for: Dinner With The President

In June 2007, I saw a preview of Dinner With The President, a documentary about democracy in Pakistan. I’ve been looking for the movie ever since but have not been able to find it. In the meantime, all the teaser clips that I see of the movie only make me long for it more. In the two years that have passed, much has happened in Pakistan: the President of the documentary’s title is no longer the President; a political icon has been assassinated; and the Pakistani Taliban are posing a serious challenge. Yet, my sense is that Dinner With The President still remains relevant.

The President of the title is of course Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf surprisingly agreed to a dinner interview with Sabiha Sumar, one of the makers of the documentary. But Musharraf is not the only person Sabiha interviews. She talks to the young and the elite; she travels to a tribal area presumably in Pakistan’s west or northwest and talks to elders. The latter meeting is particularly tense. There is not one other woman at this gathering. Undaunted, Sabiha asks questions that make all the assembled men squirm. What does democracy mean to them? Why do they insist on strict interpretations of the Quran? Where does it say in the Quran that women are supposed to wear head scarves?

The responses is not all uniform. There are few dissenting men who seem to be against the intransigence of some of the elders. At the end, Sabiha's questions become so disconcerting to the assembled group, some men walk out, while others stay and talk to her.

The full clip of this interaction – a must-see in my opinion – is here.

Monday, June 01, 2009

King Leopold and Mobutu

King Leopold II of Belgium owned the Congo in the late 1800s; it was called the Congo Free State. He treated it like his personal property. He did this suavely and charmed his European contemporaries. But terrible things were happening in the Congo. Leopold never visited this profitable African patch of land (as large as Western Europe), but he was well aware and responsible for all the atrocities. He let others, like Stanley, do the dirty work. Congolese were being enslaved by force; their hands were chopped off if they refused to cooperate in the lucrative rubber production enterprise that Leopold was running. Millions of people were murdered. Yes, millions: it is a holocaust most of us don’t even know about. Leopold, meanwhile, lived lavishly and built mansions all over Europe. (For more on this forgotten chapter of 19th century history, read King Leopold’s Ghost.)

The demons of history keep reincarnating. A hundred years later, the Congo – now renamed Zaire, a word with Portuguese roots – came to be ruled by another despot, a homegrown one: Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga, which translates roughly to “an all powerful warrior who goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.” That is how the man called himself.

The world knew him simply as Mobutu. He wore a leopard hat and carried a cane. He was America's ally in Africa's cold war intrigues. He ransacked Zaire, embezzled huge amounts of money, and built palaces everywhere. But he lavished special attention on his ancestral home, near Zaire’s border with the Central African Republic. There he created a gaudy town called Gbadolite. As Richard Dowden writes in Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles:
“As if spraying his territory, he built a palace in every major town in Congo, but at Gbadolite there are three. The rest of the town is there simply to serve them. So it has an international-sized airport so that Mobutu’s family could hire Concorde to go shopping in Paris or New York and a Coca-Cola factory in case they needed a drink…

Kawele Palace was the private home. The entrance is a triumphal arch and at the back there is a vast swimming pool on two levels and a banqueting hall of royal proportions. From the terrace you can see across to what was once Mobutu’s zoo and a European-style farm with cows flown in from Switzerland and sheep from Argentina.”
In other words, an incongruous but not unusual juxtaposition: a flagrant display of wealth in an extremely poor place. A century ago, King Leopold sucked the wealth out of Congo and built mansions in Europe, but his 20th century reincarnation built mansions in Congo in addition to building some in Europe. But let me not go on and on about this – all my knowledge about Congo comes from books, and a real engagement with a place is possible only after some serious, focused travel.

Let me instead finish with an anecdote about Mobutu which shows what a bizarre life he led (the anecdote is from Dowden's book as well). Like many rich and powerful men, Mobutu had a wife and a mistress. The mistress was the wife’s twin sister. To please his wife and ensure she did not know of the time he spent with his mistress, Mobutu played an elaborate game of hide and seek:
And the middle of the town [Gbadolite] on a low hill is a palace for Kosia, the twin sister of Mobutu’s wife, Bobi. In public the twins accompanied him, dressed identically. In private, I am told by a former guard, it was a different matter. Bobi was very possessive and when Mobutu wanted to spend time with Kosia, he would tell his wife that he was going to Kinshasa. The presidential convoy would swoosh off to the airport but Mobutu would sneak back to Kosia’s palace. A Mobutu lookalike complete with leopard hat and cane, would mount the steps of the plane and wave to Bobi – you can see the runway from the presidential bedroom – then the plane would leave for Kinshasa. A few days later the process would be done in reverse. The guards at Kosia’s place were under separate command from those at the President’s house and were forbidden to talk to each other on pain of death.
Imagine that: a Concorde takes off with an impostor in it; it travels all the way to Kinshasa, 710 miles away, and then returns a few days later. Just to keep the rigmarole going. It’s both hilarious and grotesque.

Update: Please see Alex Engwate's thoughtful comment, where he clarifies where the name Zaire comes from (I have mistakenly called it a word with Portuguese roots).