Monday, August 31, 2009

The genius of Norman Rockwell

Painting is not my thing. But yesterday, at the museum dedicated to the famous American painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), I was stunned. Stunned by Rockwell's eye for detail; his ability to deliver an incredible array of expressions, many of them comic; and the stories that Rockwell conveys in his illustrations. Two examples -- my favorites -- are below. Both appeared as covers for the Saturday Evening Post. The theme of the first (March 16th 1948 issue) is gossip . Look closely at it and you’ll know what I mean by "incredible array of expressions". Not to mention the details – hairstyles, hats, skin tones, gloves – and the funny story that unfolds.

The second (August 30th 1947 issue) is about a family going to and returning from a picnic (click to see a much better version). Look how expectant and eager everyone is while leaving. And how everyone fatigued everyone is while returning late in the evening. What a contrast!

But then there's Granny in the backseat, with a stoic, humorless expression that does not change one bit.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A border is not an end in itself

Sumantra Bose writes in Contested Lands:
In Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Cyprus, and Sri Lanka, borders forged by war have become, or will have to become, the basis of peace settlements. But making a fetish of such borders is neither practicable nor desirable. Recognition of those borders is an essential part of the compromise, driven by pragmatism, and not an end in itself. It is extremely important to construct an architecture of peace that enables systematic cooperation across the borders drawn in blood.

This is important partly because those borders – the Green Lines of Israel-Palestine and Cyprus, the Line of Control in Kashmir, the Inter-Entity Boundary Line in Bosnia, and the border between northeastern Sri Lanka and the rest of the country – are a focal point of contention, where one or more of the parties to the conflict do not agree with the trajectory or even the very legitimacy of those lines as political boundaries. It is also important because in the early twenty-first century, an era defined by globalization and its subphenomenon, regional integration and cooperation, it is simply impossible for communities to live in hermetic segregation from one another in ethnonational ghettos. Soft frontiers and the gradual development of ties of cross-border cooperation are the longer-term anchor for the stability of peace agreements, a vital part of the safety net that must be assured to minorities caught on the “wrong” side of the line, and the path to building a culture of coexistence in the world’s most troubled and turbulent lands. The poet Robert Frost famously wrote that “good fences make good neighbors.” But he also wrote:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

When the majority feel they are the minority

Read this recent piece by Robert Kaplan on Sri Lanka. I don't agree with all of his points -- the closing bit about the historically inclusive nature of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and the lesson it holds for the the country's current politicians seemed a little forced, a little pat -- but I liked the essay overall. Kaplan makes two main points. The first is that Buddhism, despite its remarkable worldwide appeal as a religion of peace, is just as likely as any other faith to be distorted by its followers:

Buddhism holds an exalted place in the half-informed Western mind. Whereas Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism are each associated, in addition to their thought, with a rich material culture and a defended territory, Buddhism, despite its great monuments and architectural tradition throughout the Far East, is somehow considered purer, more abstract, and almost dematerialized: the most peaceful, austere, and uncorrupted of faiths, even as it appeals to the deeply aesthetic among us. Hollywood stars seeking to find themselves—famously Richard Gere—become Buddhists, not, say, orthodox Jews.

Yet Buddhism, as Kandy demonstrates, is deeply materialistic and demands worship of solid objects, in a secure and sacred landscape that has required the protection of a military. There have been Buddhist military kingdoms—notably Kandy’s—just as there have been Christian and Islamic kingdoms of the sword. Buddhism can be, under the right circumstances, a blood-and-soil faith.

The second point is that "there is nothing crueler than a majority that feels itself a minority". Kaplan is referring to the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. And this is why they feel that way:

The Sinhalese...see their historical destiny in preserving Theravada Buddhism from a Hindu revivalist assault, with southern India the source of these invasions. As they see it, they are a lonely people, with few ethnic compatriots anywhere, who have been pushed to their final sanctuary, the southern two-thirds of Sri Lanka, by the demographic immensity of majority-Hindu India. The history of the repeated European attacks on their sacred city, Kandy, the last independent bastion of the Sinhalese in that southern two-thirds of the island, has only accentuated the sense of loneliness.

The Sinhalese must, therefore, fight for every kilometer of their ethnic homeland, Bradman Weerakoon, an adviser to former Sri Lankan presidents and prime ministers, told me. As a result, like the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia, the Jews in Israel, and the Shiites in Iran, the Sinhalese are a demographic majority with a dangerous minority complex of persecution.

The Hindu Tamils, for their part, have been labeled a minority with a majority complex, owing to the triumph of Hinduism over Buddhism in southern India in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., and the subsequent invasions from India’s south against the rich and thriving Buddhist city-state of Anuradhapura in north-central Sri Lanka. These invasions resulted in the creation, by the 14th century, of a Tamil kingdom that, in turn, helped lay the groundwork for Tamil majorities in the north and east of the island.

Sri Lanka’s post-independence experience, including its civil war between Sinhalese and Tamils, has borne out the worst fears of both communities. The Sinhalese have had to deal with a guerrilla insurgency every bit as vicious and suicidal as the better-known ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Tamils, for their part, have had to deal with coercion, discrimination, and the utter failure of Sinhalese government institutions to protect their communal rights. There is nothing crueler than a majority that feels itself a minority.

I have not read much about Sri Lanka, so I won't comment on whether this is a correct assessment. Readers are welcome to share their views. But the majority feeling like a minority -- that's a striking thought, isn't it? We see the same sentiment in other countries and regions.

Groundwater depleting rapidly in North India

From Science (subscription required):
Farming is a thirsty business on the Indian subcontinent. But how thirsty, exactly? Satellite remote sensing of a 2000-kilometer swath running from eastern Pakistan across northern India and into Bangladesh has for the first time put a solid number on how quickly the region is depleting its groundwater. The number "is big," says hydrologist James Famiglietti of the University of California, Irvine—big as in 54 cubic kilometers of groundwater lost per year from the world's most intensively irrigated region hosting 600 million people. "I don't think anybody knew how quickly it was being depleted over that large an area," Famiglietti says.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A little busy

It's only my first year in academia, yet I've been lucky to have two students who will be defending their master's thesis on August 24th. The students work very hard. They are unaware that I am lazy -- that I am interested more in the humanities than going through the hundreds of graphs, tables and numbers they send me.

Yet, work is work, and it is this work that pays my bills, lets me travel to new places, have my own schedule for four long summer months. So, pardon the lack of posts -- especially long essays. All that shall come in due time. But now, I need to return to editing theses drafts.

By the way, did you know that an advisor feels as nervous about a student's defense as the student himself?

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Four new blogs

These are discoveries I've made recently: the incredibly diverse and informative 3 Quarks Daily; Seriously Sandeep, an angry blog, but which also tells us of the nature of Indian philosophy and Sanātana Dharma; Nilanjana Roy's literary Akhond of Swat; and finally the erudite and well traveled Namit Arora's Shunya's Notes.

This blog, by the way, turned four on July 21st. And as of August 8th yours truly not only has thirty letters in his name, he is also thirty years old.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Syādvāda: The Jain concept of relativity of knowledge

Chandradhar Sharma writes in A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy about a central concept in Jainism, Syādvāda:
Syādvāda is the theory of Relativity of knowledge. Reality has infinite aspects which are all relative and we can know only some of these aspects. All our judgments, therefore, are necessarily relative, conditional and limited.

The Jainas are fond of quoting the old story of the six blind men and the elephant. The blind men put their hands on the different parts of the elephant and each tried to describe the whole animal from the part touched by him. Thus the man who caught the ear said the elephant was like a country-made fan; the person touching the led said the elephant was like a pillar; the holder of the trunk said it was like a python; the feeler of the tail said it was like a rope; the person who touched it on the side said the animal was like a wall; and man who touched the forehead said the elephant was like the breast. And all the six quarreled among themselves, each one asserting that his description alone was correct. But he who can see the whole elephant can easily know that each blind man feels only a part of the elephant which he mistakes to be the whole animal. Almost all philosophical, ideological and religious differences and disputes are mainly due to mistaking a partial truth for the whole truth. Our judgments represent different aspects of the manysided reality and can claim only partial truth. This view makes Jainism catholic, broad-minded and tolerant. It teaches respect for others’ point of view.
Why, you may wonder, this noticeable increase in posts to do with religion? Because I have never understood religion in any substantive way. The time has now come to fill that gap. And what better place to begin than with ancient Indian schools of thought. I grew up in the Hindu tradition but never was I told that there was more to practicing religion than rituals and boring visits to temples. I knew about Shankaracharya, but it was only last month that I learned that there is such a thing as Advaita Vedanta, which he preached; I was told Hinduism was polytheistic but only now am I beginning to learn that it is polytheistic only in manifestation, and that the Upanishads actually suggest the unity of all life, of everything in fact.

But let me not get carried away with details: all I wanted to say was that I need to catch up with reading of a different kind, and that there will be more posts to come on similar themes.

Monday, August 03, 2009

700,000 acres in Ethiopia

Rana Dasgupta writes of the profligacy of Delhi's affluent: their obsession for fancy foreign cars, diamonds, wasteful parties, bodyguards and the like. But what interested me most was this conversation with MC, the son of a billionaire, who has a major business plan:
‘We’ve just leased 700,000 acres for seventy-five years; we’re opening up food processing, sugar and flower plantations.’

He is so matter of fact that I’m not sure if I’ve heard correctly. We have already discussed how laborious it is to acquire land in India, buying from farmers at five or ten acres a time. I can’t imagine where he could get hold of land on that scale.

‘Where?’ I ask.

‘Ethiopia. My father has a friend who bought land from the Ethiopian president for a cattle ranch there. The President told him he had other land for sale. My dad said, This is it, this is what we’ve been looking for, let’s go for it. We’re going in there with [exiled Russian oligarch] Boris Berezovsky. Africa is amazing. That’s where it’s at. You’re talking about numbers that can’t even fit into your mind yet. Reliance, Tata, all the big Indian corporations are setting up there, but we’re still ahead of the curve. I’m going to run this thing myself for the next eight years, that’s what I’ve decided. I’m not giving this to any CEO until it meets my vision. It’s going to be amazing. You should see this land: lush, green. Black soil, rivers.’

MC tells me how he has one hundred farmers from Punjab ready with their passports to set off for Ethiopia as soon as all the papers are signed.

‘Africans can’t do this work. Punjabi farmers are good because they’re used to farming big plots. They’re not scared of farming 5,000 acres. Meanwhile, I’ll go there and set up polytechnics to train the Africans so when the sugar mills start up they’ll be ready.’

Shipping farmers from Punjab to work on African plantations is a plan of imperial proportions. And there’s something imperial about the way he says Africans. I’m stunned. I tell him so.

‘Thank you,’ he says.

‘What is on that land right now?’ I ask, already knowing that his response, too, will be imperial.


MC is excited to be talking about this. His spirits seem to be entirely unaffected by the recession that currently dominates the headlines. He orders another beer, though we have exceeded the time he allotted me. All of a sudden, I find him immensely charismatic. I can see why he makes things happen: he has made me believe, as he must have made others believe, that he can do anything. I ask him how he learned to think like this.

‘I’m only twenty-eight,’ he says. ‘Why not?’

He becomes flamboyant.

‘We’re going to be among the top five food processors in the world. You know the first company I’m going to buy? Heinz.’

I’m interested in his Why not? Is it on the strength of such a throwaway reason that nearly three-quarters of a million acres of Ethiopia are being cleared and hundreds of farmers shipped across the world? I wonder what the emotional register of this is for him. It seems as if, somewhere, it’s all a bit of a lark.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

"Religion means...spiritual realization."

Do not care for doctrines, do not care for dogmas or sects or churches or temples. They count for little compared with the essence of existence in each man, which is spirituality, and the more this is developed in a man, the more powerful is he for good. Earn that first, acquire that, and criticize no one; for all doctrines and creeds have some good in them. Show by your lives that religion does not mean words or names or sects, but that it means spiritual realization. Only those can understand who have felt. Only those who have attained to spirituality can communicate it to others, can be great teachers of mankind. They alone are the powers of light.
That’s Swami Vivekananda telling us the message of his guru, the famous Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836-1886). Ramakrishna Paramahamsa's search for God, the life of renunciation and austerity he led, are indeed remarkable. The Wikipedia link I've provided gives all the details, but the story is most poignant in the words of his disciple -- it is from one of Vivekananda's essays, Great Teachers of the World that I've excerpted the above.