Monday, July 27, 2009

Rape of the Congo: Adam Hochschild essay

Nowhere is the plight of women as poor as it is in the Congo -- Eastern Congo particularly. Rape is an epidemic there, and there are some heartbreaking stories in this piece by Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost. Congo seems never to have recovered after King Leopold brutalized it in the late nineteenth century. Further, the Hutu-Tutsi conflict of Rwanda has spilled over into the country and still smolders there . And the profusion of mineral wealth --" gold, tungsten, diamonds, coltan (a key ingredient of computer chips), copper, and more" -- has only worsened the situation.

Hochschild writes:
Where does such cruelty come from? Four problems, above all, drive Congo's unrelenting bloodshed. One is long-standing antagonism between certain ethnic groups. A second is the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the two million or so people who flowed across Congo's porous border in its aftermath: Hutu killers, innocent Hutu who feared retribution, and a mainly Tutsi army in pursuit, bent on vengeance. The third is a vast wealth in natural resources—gold, tungsten, diamonds, coltan (a key ingredient of computer chips), copper, and more—that gives ethnic warlords and their backers, especially Rwanda and Uganda, an additional incentive to fight. And, finally, this is the largest nation on earth—more than 65 million people in an area roughly as big as the United States east of the Mississippi—that has hardly any functioning national government. After Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001, his son Joseph took power in Kinshasa, and won an election in 2006, but his corrupt and disorganized regime provides few services, especially in the more distant parts of the country, such as Goma, which is more than one thousand miles east of the capital.

Evidence of the nation's riches is everywhere. Battered Soviet-era Antonov cargo planes continually descend into Goma airport filled with tin ore from a big mine at Walikale, in the interior, now controlled by Congolese army officers. On a country road, a truckload of timber, stacked high, passes by, heading out of the rain forest toward the Ugandan border. And then one day in Goma, while I am walking with Anneke, Ida, and another foreigner, a man approaches and asks: Would we like to buy some uranium?


After two weeks my notebooks overflow with such [horrifying] stories [of rape and cruelty]. But looking at people I meet, even an entire encampment of young gold miners who are almost all ex-combatants, do I see those who look capable of killing hospital patients in their beds, gang-raping a woman like Rebecca Kamate, jabbing a young man's eye with a bayonet? I do not. People are warm, friendly, their faces overflow with smiles; seeing a foreigner, everyone wants to stop, say " Bonjour!" and shake hands, whether on a small town's main street or on a forest path. I've never seen more enthusiastic hand-shakers. At night, when the electricity works, the warm air echoes with some of Africa's best music. There is no shortage of ordinary acts of human kindness. When our car's left front wheel goes sailing off to the side of a remote mountain road, leaving one end of the axle to gouge a long furrow in the dirt, the driver of a passing truck, piled teeteringly high with goods and then with people sitting on top, immediately stops and crawls under the car, using his jack in tandem with ours to solve the problem and get us on our way.

What turns such people into rapists, sadists, killers? Greed, fear, demagogic leaders and their claim that such violence is necessary for self-defense, seeing everyone around you doing the same thing—and the fact that the rest of the world pays tragically little attention to one of the great humanitarian catastrophes of our time. But even the worst brutality can also draw out the good in people, as in the way Kamate has devoted her life to other raped women. In Goma, I saw people with pickaxes laboriously hewing the lava that had flooded their city into football-sized chunks with flattened sides, then using these, with mortar, to build the walls of new homes. Can this devastated country as a whole use the very experience of its suffering to build something new and durable? I hope so, but I fear it will be a long time in coming.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

In a Chennai city bus

It was only six in the morning but the heat in Chennai was already oppressive. I was in a city bus headed to Perambur, where my grandmother lives. The journey was about forty minutes, yet there wasn’t a dull moment. When the bus started from the terminus in Koyambedu, an alighting old man was almost crushed by the crowd rushing in to grab seats. Many had staked their claim by hurling their bags or newspapers from the outside onto seats through the open windows.

Tempers were frayed: the old man, still unable to get off the bus, was quarreling with the teenager he had collided against. The fight threatened to escalate, but the two were blocking the entrance and a cessation of hostilities was in everyone's interest. Besides, nobody had the time.

I was lucky to get a seat; it was at the very back of the bus. Minutes later, two flower-vendors got in. Both were dressed plainly and their features were so similar, they could have been sisters. They carried capacious, sturdy-looking baskets. In pink and green polythene bags they carried the flowers they planned to sell for the day. One of them glared at me and said boldly, with a sense of entitlement, “Get up!” I obliged willingly. Later she made sure her sister – who was quieter, more soft-spoken – was seated next to her. The two began counting the money they had. The less assertive one said the numbers weren't adding up correctly, but her companion silenced her with a detailed, authoritative explanation. I wondered about their routine: how early they started their day, the markets they had to go to for bulk purchases, and how they chose the place to set up shop for the day. And they were selling perishable commodities -- how long would the flowers last? What prices would they set? So much to think about!

Just then a crowd boarded from the rear – all men except for a very frail old lady. She stood next to me. She was less than five feet tall. Her gray hair was thinning and she had a pony-tail that was no more than a centimeter long. When the conductor asked for her fare, she took offense: “Why do you ask me first? There are so many around you and yet you have to ask me! That’s because you think I am a vagrant woman of the streets, a beggar! You think I won’t pay for the ticket – that’s what it is.” In indignation, she searched her small pouch and took out a five rupee note. The conductor replied angrily that he was just doing his job.

The lady kept talking to herself in a low tone. I wasn’t able to hear clearly but the few words that I did catch suggested she was having a tough time, that nobody cared for her in this world, no one was willing to feed her a meal. Her hands were shriveled and dry – they had a peculiar, gray-white complexion, as if all life had been sucked out of them; and the same could be said about her face. She wore a checked red sari and a green blouse with a gold border. The dress was faded, but it added a hint of elegance to her bearing.

Laissez-faire in matters of the spirit

A little later, the old woman was at the window seat, next to the two flower-vendors. She continued mumbling incoherently as she looked out. Then she did something remarkable. If the bus passed by a temple, she would join her palms, close her eyes and pray. Nothing unusual in that. But if the bus passed by a mosque – and there were at least two on that route – she would pull the end of her sari over her head and cup her hands as if she was kneeling and praying to Allah. It was genuine and it was striking. Once the mosque or temple had passed, she would continue her recitation of complaints, oblivious to everything around her.

She had switched faiths so easily, so unselfconsciously! I was touched. It was a glimpse of faith at a very personal level; the comparison may not be apt, but the old lady's spontaneity contrasted sharply with the canniness and deliberation that goes with the political appeasement of religious groups in India.

A week later, in Kumbakonam, I was at the famous Guru Kovil – a temple dedicated to the planet Jupiter. I was lighting candles for the deity when I noticed four Muslim women next to me – they too were lighting candles.

The women showed no discomfort; they went freely around the temple, went to the main worship area, and prayed exactly as I did. Like the old lady in the bus, they saw no contradiction: faith was a personal thing and they could choose as they pleased. They were exhibiting “laissez faire in matters of the spirit”, to borrow a phrase M.G. Vassanji uses in his book A Place Within.

The picture above is of the four women enjoying a cup of tea outside the temple, after the morning’s worship. And let me make clear that I do not mean to infer anything broader about Tamilnadu or India based on what I have described in this post -- that would be too simplistic.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Namit Arora on Nalanda University

Namit Arora has a very informative essay on the splendors and historical context of the ancient Nalanda University. Exceprts:
Nalanda University arose in early 5th cent. CE during the reign of Kumara Gupta, though references to precursor sites associated with teaching and learning go back a thousand years to the time of the Buddha and Mahavira. Between Hiuen Tsang and I-Tsing, we have a compelling portrait of the university’s curriculum, the life of the monks, buildings, and other general features of the community.

Nalanda was more like a school of higher learning than an undergraduate college. Prospective students had to be at least 20 years old and submit to an oral exam at the university entrance. They had to demonstrate deep familiarity with a host of subjects and with old and new books in many fields. No more than two or three out of ten were admitted, and even they were promptly humbled by the caliber of their teachers and co-students.

When Hieun Tsang visited Nalanda, there were 8,500 students and 1,500 teachers in 108 residential monasteries, which often had two or more floors. Excavations thus far have revealed many exquisitely carved temples and a row of ten monasteries of oblong red bricks directly across a row of stupas in brick and plaster. Each monastery has rooms—either single or double occupancy, with wooden doors back then—lining four sides of a courtyard, a main entrance, and a shrine facing the entrance in the courtyard. Rooms typically had chairs, wood blocks, small mats, and utensils stored in niches cut out in the walls.


Buddhism began waning in India after 800 CE. By then, Hinduism had assimilated many of its features—vegetarianism, insider critiques of the caste system, ending animal sacrifices—and embraced the Buddha as the ninth avatar of Vishnu. A bigger factor was the rise of Bhakti, or devotional Hinduism, and its great appeal to the masses. One could say that the religious market was shifting to a more user-friendly product, and as a result, Buddhism lost much of its royal patronage. The Palas were the last major royals to support Nalanda as a center of learning and the arts (stone and bronze sculpture in particular). A museum on-site, which houses many finds from Nalanda and the nearby region, has many curious sculptures from this period: Buddhist deities trampling on Brahmanical ones, such as Shiva, Parvati, and Ganesh. A Buddhist goddess has mighty Hindu gods like Indra, Vishnu, and Shiva as her ‘vehicle bearers,’ while she carries the severed head of Brahma in one hand. A plausible explanation is that the Buddhists were on the defensive—they had to resort to more dramatic imagery to assert their religious superiority to the ambivalent.

In 1193 CE, Nalanda was put to a brutal and decisive end by Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turkish Muslim invader on his way to conquer Bengal. He looted and burned the monastery, and beheaded or burned alive perhaps thousands of monks. The shock of this event lives on in local cultural memory; during my visit, I too heard the legend that the three libraries of Nalanda—with books like the ones Hieun Tsang and I-Tsing carried back to China—were so large that they smoldered for six long months.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The MGR phenomenon

I am referring to MG Ramachandran (1917-1987), one of the most important figures of Tamil politics, who, with help from other prominent leaders of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), including the crafty script-writer Karunanidhi, seamlessly moved between cinema and politics as if the two were one. In the process they created a politics that had all the drama of movies and movies that were overtly political. Later MGR broke with Karunanidhi, formed his own party, the AIADMK (All India Anna DMK), and used his power as a star to cast a kind of spell on Tamil Nadu. I would like to give you a flavor of the MGR phenomenon using excerpts from Vaasanthi’s Cut-outs, Caste and Cine Stars, which I wrote about briefly here.

1. Cinema with a pint of blood

Blood donations in Tamil Nadu and MGR movie premieres were strangely connected -- this is the sort of anecdote that just about proves that reality can be more bizarre than the wildest fiction:
It looked as if every young man in town was eager to donate blood. The hospitals noted a record number of donors. Young Sadanand Menon, who was just out of college and joined the Indian Express, as a reporter, was intrigued. And also deeply touched. The editor had asked him to look into the new phenomenon. It was strange indeed. But Sadanand found out that the crowd of donors peaked on Thursdays, declined on the following days and rose again from Wednesday. The donors were paid five rupees per pint of blood. The blood was sold to buy cinema tickets for the new releases on Fridays. He confirmed that whenever a new MGR movie was released, the queue for blood donation was the longest on the previous day.
2. Sipped juice is holy water

India Today -- as quoted in Vaasanthi's book -- on MGR:
For close to a decade, the matinee-idol-turned politician had monopolized the floodlights as only a man who has straddled Tamil Nadu's intertwined worlds of cinema and politics can. As a hero of scores of films, his name was a household word for more than twenty years. And his well-known acts of personal charity -- distributing food and clothes to the poor -- had earned him a special affection bordering on worship. If he merely sipped a glass of orange juice offered to him at a public meeting, the rest of the liquid would be diluted in buckets of water, which would then be passed around for his fans to drink as theertham -- holy water. Slumlords in the industrial town of Coimbatore used to pull down giant film hoardings of MGR and hire them out to slum women to sleep on at night.
3. Cultivating an image

The importance of image was not lost on MGR. These are his own words:
It is not enough if you are good man, you must create an image that you are a good man. Every man must have an image. Take Nagi Reddy or S.S. Vasan or myself. Each of us have a distinct image. The image is what immediately strikes you when you see a person or hear his name. You put forward an image of yourself if you want to get anywhere.
Vaasanthi writes:
MGR’s entire career can be termed as a synthesis between acting and politics. His fans and supporters were so carried away by the image that they could see no difference between the screen characters and the real was believed that he would agree only to play roles that corresponded to his personal values and commitments.
4. MGR and women
Narendra Srinivasan makes an interesting observation in his book Ethnicity and Popular Mobilization. ‘Women were sensitive to the basic issues MGR raised – the availability of food and water, as they are homemakers; and temperance, as excessive male drinking bled their family budgets and often led to violence against them.’ Rural women desired protection against a culture that was associated with alcohol, violence and the perception of women as whores. MGR gave them status and a sense of dignity by calling them ‘thaikulam’, community of mothers.

And women loved MGR, no matter what he called them. With the advent of cinema halls, there was a newfound freedom they enjoyed within the darkened walls with just their hero on the screen. They could consort with the beloved hero in their imagination, identifying with MGR’s various heroines. ‘The intensity of this identification,’ Subramanian says, ‘meant that support was readily transferred after MGR’s death to Jayalalithaa, who was one of MGR’s popular screen heroines through the 1960s and the early 1970s.
Interestingly enough, Rajnikant, the other cine star Tamilnadu is crazy about, is not so popular with women. Vaasanthi reasons that this is because of "Rajni's anti-hero image -- the irreverent, smoking, drinking, woman-bashing hero -- appealed only to the diaffected male in search of an identity, and definitely not a female audience."

5. The poor, Sri-Lankan born Malayali

And finally here’s a very short biography of MGR that may help complete the picture. I present this deliberately at the end, rather than give an up-front introduction – that’s because sometimes you get fascinated with a person’s deeds and then want the details: “Who was this guy?” “What was his background?” In short, MGR was Malayali and was born in Sri Lanka into a very poor family. But here's more:
Marudur Gopalmenon Ramachandran was born on 17 January 1917, in Kandy, Sri Lanka. MGR’s father, Gopala Menon, died when was still a child and left the family penniless. Ramachandran’s mother Sathya moved to India with her children and settled in Kumbakonam, Tamilnadu. Hunger claimed the lives of two of his sisters and an elder brother. Driven by extreme poverty, MGR began his acting career as a theatre artist at the age of seven, and joined the Madurai Original Boys Company, owned by M. Kandasamy Pillai. Ramachandran was fair-complexioned and pretty as a girl, and it was said that it was common for the wealthy, land-owning young men of Thanjavur district to sexually abuse such kids. This, according to a chronicler, may have affected MGR’s psyche. After a long struggle M.G. Ramachander, as he was then called, got a break doing small roles in mythological films followed by action films that became his forte. Critics never thought much of his limited talent as an actor though his films broke records at the box office. He also won the National Award for acting in Rickshawkaran.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Brahmin and the Buddhist

At a stall in a Bangalore temple, I found a little book – the size of a pocket book, seventy odd pages thick, and priced at ten rupees – on Swami Vivekananda’s famous Parliament of the World Religions speech in Chicago, 1893.

The book contained the text of Vivekananda’s address and there was a section titled Buddhism: The Fulfilment of Hinduism. I was drawn immediately. Like many other Indians, I’ve always wondered why Buddhism, after having been so dominant for a millennium in India, receded so comprehensively even as it expanded eastward. What was the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism? The former, with its suspicion of ritual worship and caste, seemed like the latter’s adversary; it also seemed as if the latter had reasserted itself strongly and caused the former's decline. To such an extent that Buddha is considered by many today as an incarnation of Vishnu.

Vivekananda’s reading is different: to him the Buddha was “the fulfilment, the logical conclusion, the logical development of the religion of the Hindus.” Rejecting the ceremonial side of Hinduism, the Buddha had instead taken the spiritual route. Caste was not a barrier to enlightenment: “a man from the highest caste and a man from the lowest may become a monk in India and the two castes become equal...there is no caste; caste is simply a social institution.” And Vivekananda speaks admiringly of the Buddha’s “wonderful sympathy for everybody, especially for the ignorant and the poor.” Because Sanskrit was largely the language of ritual and not spoken, the Buddha wanted his teachings to be written in the vernacular of the day.

But it is in the final two paragraphs that Vivekanda reveals his thesis: how Buddhism and Brahmanism (which I assume refers here to Hinduism -- at least the Hinduism of the Vedic kind) complement each other, how without one the other cannot survive.

As Buddhism died out in India,
Brahmanism lost something – that reforming zeal, that wonderful sympathy and charity for everybody, that wonderful leaven which Buddhism had brought to the masses and which had rendered Indian society so great that a Greek historian who wrote about India of that time was led to say that no Hindu was known to tell an untruth...

Hinduism cannot live without Buddhism, nor Buddhism without Hinduism. Then realize what the separation has shown to us, that the Buddhists cannot stand without the brain and philosophy of the Brahmins, nor the Brahmin without the heart of the Buddhist. The separation between the Buddhists and the Brahmins is the cause of the downfall of India. That is why India is populated by three hundred millions of beggars, and that is why India has been the slave of conquerors for the last thousand years. Let us then join the wonderful intellect of the Brahmin with the heart, the noble soul, the wonderful humanizing power of the Great Master [the Buddha].
It’s a striking thought, since there are indeed places in the world today -- India is one, of course -- where the two religions exist independently, without the other.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Ma for the brain, Pa for food and sex

Maternal and paternal genes don't contribute equally to the child's genetic makeup, this Scientific American article suggests; they actually compete to silence the other's influence. This is pretty normal, but if the process goes awry, neurological disorders result. And here's the interesting bit: apparently mothers are more responsible for cerebral stuff -- stuff to do with language, thought and complex activities -- while fathers are more responsible for pleasures of the senses: eating and mating.

Needless to say, all this is emerging knowledge, and is to be taken cautiously. But the next time you meet your parents, you may look at them strangely now that you have read the article. Ah, so this is why, you will secretly think, I have this strange, unmentionable fetish; this is why I love jalebis and candy; this is why I am poor in music and math!

Key concepts from the article [link]:
1. When passing on DNA to their offspring, mothers silence certain genes, and fathers silence others. These imprinted genes usually result in a balanced, healthy brain, but when the process goes awry, neurological disorders can result.

2. Imprinting errors are responsible for rare disorders such as Angelman and Prader-Willi syndromes, and some scientists are beginning to think imprinting might be implicated in more common illnesses such as autism and schizophrenia.

3. Even typical brains are the result of asymmetric contributions from Mom and Dad. Higher cognitive function seems to be disproportionately controlled by Mom’s genes, whereas the drive to eat and mate is influenced by Dad’s.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Vaasanthi on the world of Tamil politics

I have just read the introduction of Tamil journalist and writer Vaasanthi’s book Cut-outs, Caste and Cine Stars: The World of Tamil Politics, and I already know I am going to enjoy reading the book, that it is going to tell me things about my home state that I am completely unaware of. After my travel last week through cities in Tamilnadu’s interior, I am eager for analysis that can provide perspective. Vaasanthi's is just the right book. Here she is, telling us why politics in Tamilnadu is so regional:
The most striking difference has been the regionalization of party politics in Tamil Nadu when compared with other states. While ethnic forces were gaining ground in other parts of India as well, it was in Tamil Nadu that they dominated party politics. It is this that has, till today, prevented the growth of parties with an all-India face in the state. By transforming Tamil language into a object of passionate attachment, by introducing notions of self-respect and regional pride and by providing their version of Tamil cultural history, the DMK spokespersons came out as better Tamil nationalists than the Congress, for instance. The party created what has been described as a ‘hegemonic hold over Tamil political life and culture’. The Congress has long since been marginalized in the state for this reason.

The Tamils cannot relate to the BJP’s Hindutva either for the same reason. The increasing religiosity in evidence now in Tamilnadu should not be attributed to the spread of the BJP. The BJP with its North Indian, Hindi-speaking, Hindu-fundamentalist veneer has made little dent on the Tamil psyche. The pronounced religiosity that is strikingly visible in Tamil Nadu is another contradiction that might baffle an outsider who has heard about the Dravidian movement and its atheist protagonist, Periyar. Ironically, the growing religiosity is the direct result of the shift in the caste hierarchies thanks to the Self-Respect Movement and the reservation benefits and the resultant upward social mobility, which has brought about a silent and willing ‘Brahminization’ of the backward communities who tend to project their caste status through their religiosity.
During my trip, I witnessed this “pronounced religiosity” that Vaasanthi mentions – and it was news to me that it wasn’t there, say, twenty or thirty years ago. But the last sentence in the quote explains a lot: it is precisely the sort of insight I am looking for.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Healthcare costs: the Atul Gawande New Yorker essay

Do expensive state of the art medical facilities correlate with better health outcomes? In this superb essay, surgeon and writer Atul Gawande tells us how, in certain places in the United States, technology can collude with strange monetary incentives to increase health care costs and reduce the quality of care. Physicians are leaning towards more tests, more scans, more surgeries -- all of which generate revenue -- when simpler wait-and-watch alternatives would have been preferable. And there is no conspiracy here: the system in the United States seems to have subconsciouly evolved this way because of the incentives in place. Atul Gawande travels to the city of McAllen, Texas and makes the argument that the overutilization of medical resources has sent costs skyrocketing. And he tells us that only by trimming the fat from the system will Obama be able to finance healthcare reform.

Development in dangerous places

In 2001 the United Nations announced the Millennium Development Goals, pledging to end global poverty by 2015. I argued then that it needed to focus its concern on a much smaller group of countries than it had identified. There is, as I argued in The Bottom Billion, an essential difference between a poor family in China and an equally poor family in Chad. Although both enter into the global headcount of families living in extreme poverty, the poor family in China has credible hope that its children will grow up in a society of transformed opportunities: China will be part of the future global economy. Credible hope for the future of one’s children makes poverty bearable; that was the condition accepted by millions of immigrants to America. In contrast, Chad has not offered its population a credible basis for hope.

Chad is not alone. It is one of a group of about 60 small, impoverished, post-colonial countries that “came unnatural into the world.” With neither the social unity needed for cooperation, nor the size to reap the benefits of larger scale, they are structurally unable to provide the public goods—such as security—that are critical for decent quality of life and imperative for economic development. They have diverged from the rest of mankind. They will never tap their vast reservoir of frustrated human potential unless the international community, at least for a time, supplies basic public goods that go beyond the typical aid agenda. This, stated baldly, is the thesis of my new book, Wars, Guns, and Votes. It is a troubling thesis. I have come to it reluctantly, and the international community has shied away from it, as have the societies of the bottom billion themselves.

Why is outside intervention necessary? The countries of the bottom billion are, paradoxically, too large to be nations, yet too small to be states. They are too large to be nations because, with rare exceptions, too many different peoples, with too many distinct ethnic and religious identities, live in them. This is not because they have large populations: on the contrary, the typical bottom-billion country has only a few million people. But these populations have yet to forge a strong sense of national identity that overrides older sub-national ethnic and religious identities. Considerable research shows that where sub-national identities predominate, it is more difficult for people to cooperate in providing public goods.
That's Paul Collier in the Boston Review. Link via Amitava Kumar. Update: William Easterly launches a scathing critique.