Tuesday, September 29, 2009
The Brihadishwara Temple in the south Indian city of Thanjavur is one of India’s most impressive. Built in the 11th century during the reign of the Cholas and dedicated to Lord Shiva, its 66-meter-tall granite gopuram (tower) and the smaller gopurams in its precincts make for a striking view. The temple is an hour’s drive from the village of Thuvakudi, where I was an college student in the late nineties. But I was completely averse to history and religion then, and not once did I visit. What’s more I did not even know that Thanjavur had this famous attraction that drew visitors from far.
A year after college, while a graduate student in the United States -- and now more interested in history -- I saw the temple mentioned in an essay about Marco Polo in the National Geographic magazine. The medieval Italian traveler had apparently visited the Brihadishwara and been impressed – it had been one stop on his grand, continent-spanning itinerary.
I managed to see the temple for the first time in July this year. The day I visited coincided with pradosham, a fortnightly event in the lunar calendar that marks a legend about Shiva. The story goes thus: Once, the devas and asuras (crudely, gods and demons) attempted to churn the ocean of milk using Vaasuki, a serpent, to extract divine nectar. But the effort went awry and Vaasuki’s poison contaminated the ocean. Shiva took it upon himself to consume the poison, which accumulated in his throat and turned it blue – that is why he is called Neelakantan, the blue-throated one.
Pradosham commemorates Shiva’s selfless act. A pradosham that falls on Saturday is called sani pradosham and is even more auspicious. For Saivites (worshippers of Shiva) this is a special day. I come from the Saivite tradition; my father observes the occasion without fail, and so did my paternal grandfather. This usually means a temple visit late in the afternoon during sani pradosham. For that is the time all gods and celestial beings congregate to revere Shiva. To be present is to be guaranteed divine goodwill.
The Brihadishwara was teeming with worshippers when I arrived. It was 5:30 pm; sani pradosham was well underway. I was struck by the singular beige color of the gopurams – no other temples I know have that color. A continuous throng of people stretched from the main entrance well into the interior, up to the raised pavilion where a massive statue of Nandi, Shiva’s bull – the second largest in India, hewn from a single block of stone – was being bathed in milk and water in the prescribed manner. Even from where I was, a quarter of a kilometer away, I could see gallons of fluid splashing off the body of Nandi. It was a surreal sight.
There were perhaps two or three thousand people – that’s a modest estimate – packed within the temple precincts. A high wall, also beige colored, ran along the perimeter and gave the place the feel of a fortress. The densest concentration was around the Nandi pavilion. It was so crowded that I found it impossible to make my way to the main gopuram, the sanctum sanctorum of which houses Shiva. But it seemed – at least from where I was – that cynosure of all was Nandi and not Shiva. In the first picture above you see the main gopuram in background, but notice that people are facing away from it. They are actually looking at Nandi being garlanded by a priest perched on an elevated platform (second picture).
I left at 6:30 along with most other worshippers. Outside, with large numbers of people milling onto the traffic-clogged street, I had difficulty navigating my way and finding an auto. When I did find one, the driver, visibly frustrated with the jam caused by the temple crowd, said: “People are saturated with faith these days!”
The remark suggested this was not always the case. Indeed, the elders I talked to only confirmed the fact: the religiosity on display that day had not existed during their time, twenty or thirty years ago.
What had changed? The explanation might lie in the societal changes brought about by the politics of Tamil Nadu.
In the early and mid 1900s, the upper caste Brahmins made up only 3 percent of the state's population, but they were dominant: they held all key administrative positions and controlled temples. But their hegemony and supremacist outlook irked an increasingly influential group of Tamil middle castes. The allegation was that Brahmins were “agents” of the Aryan, Hindi-speaking north bent on imposing their version of Hinduism on Dravidians of the south. From the Dravidian viewpoint, the primacy of Tamil and Tamil culture – which date back millennia – had to be reestablished and safeguarded. The movement was all about Tamil distinctness and Brahmin-bashing; later, leaders such as Annadurai infused it with an energetic grassroots populism. By the 1960s, the Dravidians had political power, which diminished the control of the Brahmins and gave upward mobility in the next decades to the middle and low castes who come under the OBC (other backward castes) designation (this does not include Dalits of Tamil Nadu -- known also as Adi Dravidars -- whose long due empowerment still remains a major issue in the state).
That upward mobility has in turn contributed to a growing religiosity. This is somewhat paradoxical, since the ideological roots of the Dravidian movement are atheist. The movement's founder, the firebrand atheist EV Ramaswamy Naicker, known more popularly as Periyar, was a smasher of Hindu idols. And the state’s current chief minister, the 85-year old Karunanidhi -- one of the movement's veterans -- is avowedly anti-Hindu. But godlessness as an ideology never ran deep among the masses. As Vaasanthi writes in Cut-Outs, Caste and Cine-Stars, the “people of Tamil Nadu…never took Periyar’s atheism very seriously. They took just what they wanted. They realized that his focus was more on demolishing the Brahmin’s hegemony over society and politics than demolishing the gods.”
Today, Brahmins are a non-issue in Tamil Nadu. But the newly empowered middle castes have adopted the mores of the upper castes. A new hierarchy, with echoes of the old, has developed -- and it has been strengthened, as elsewhere in India, by caste-driven electoral politics. The late sociologist MN Srinivas calls the phenomenon Sanskritisation. Being pious and following certain customs are ways of projecting one’s elevated caste status. This has resulted in a resurgence of local gods and goddesses -- Adi Parasakthi for example. And feature stories in Tamil weeklies are often about film stars and prominent personages visiting their villages to worship their family deities.
Cultural trends are too complex to be explained away by elegant-sounding theories; and faith is too multifaceted a sentiment to be tied merely to caste or status. And yet I couldn’t help but wonder: Was Sanskritisation largely the reason for the crowds at the Brihadishwara during Sani Pradosham that day?
Saturday, September 26, 2009
If war has been mankind’s most powerful negative urge, then the universal agreements that limit the horrors of war and protect civilians have been the hallmark of progress and have reflected man’s deeper instincts for civilization. The Geneva Convention may not have halted the Jewish holocaust, Rwandan genocide, or terrorism but they have given us a code of conduct by which we can judge the actions of our leaders in the desperate times of war. That is why the decision by President Bush on February 7, 2002, to deny captured al Qaeda, Taliban and other terrorist suspects prisoner of war (POW) status or any access to justice was a step backward for the United States and for mankind – one that has haunted the United States, its allies and the international legal system ever since. Whereas in the West it created a furious debate about civil liberties, in the Muslim World it further entrenched dictatorship and abuse of civilians.The name of the chapter is, aptly, America Shows the Way.
For the greatest power on earth to wage its “war on terrorism” by rejecting the very rules of war it is a signatory to, denying justice at home, undermining the U.S. Constitution, and then pressurizing its allies to do the same set in motion a devastating denial of civilized instincts. America's example had the most impact in Afghanistan, where no legal system existed; in Pakistan, ruled by a military regime; and in Central Asia, where the world's most repressive dictatorships flourished. By following America's lead in promoting or condoning disappearances, torture, and secret jails, these countries found their path to democracy and their struggle against Islamic extremism set back by decades. Western-led nation building had little credibility if it denied justice to the very people it was supposed to help. It could well be argued that over time Islamic extremists were emboldened rather than subdued by the travesty of justice the United States perpetrated. The people learned to hate America.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
At a nicely air-conditioned building, a pleasant and self-taught computer-literate young man gave me a tour of the library and explained how Lankarani’s website [Google says visiting it is "dangerous" for software reasons, so proceed at own risk] operated in seventeen languages, including Swahili and Burmese, for all of his followers. It was updated daily with the Ayatollah’s proclamations, fatwas, or religious commands, if he’d issued any recently, and general information, but, most important, it was a place to ask questions: e-mails poured in every day in all seventeen languages and were carefully printed out, one by one, and arranged according to language in mailboxes for Lankarani’s Iranian and foreign talibs (Arabic for “students”, and where the word “Taliban” comes from) to translate, so that they could be answered by one of his senior staff, such as his son, but always reviewed by the Ayatollah himself. I was shown e-mails in English, translated into Farsi, where the Ayatollah had crossed out an answer and written his own, to be retranslated and transmitted back electronically. Most of the questions in the emails I saw related to sex; for example, a sixteen-year-old boy from England had written about his friend who had had oral sex with a fourteen-year-old boy and was worried that his prayers would be nullified and that he might be punished by God. The Ayatollah’s answer was refreshingly short and simple: repent and don’t do it again. No mention of homosexuality, no judgments -- who said the conservative Ayatollahs weren’t compassionate? I read the same thing, “repent”, page after page, for almost without exception the questioner had committed some kind of sin, or at least thought he had, or claimed to have a “friend” who had. I looked around at the banks of computers and the dark, highly polished wooden mail slots filled with printed emails: Digital confession, I thought. The Vatican should get into this.
Monday, September 21, 2009
I would argue that the best travel books do not even come under the travel label: they may thought of as books of history, anthropology or politics. In fact, my favorite books this year -- Pankaj Mishra's Butter Chicken in Ludhiana; Basharat Peer's Curfewed Night; Ahmed Rashid's Descent Into Chaos; Vaasanthi's Cut-outs, Caste and Cine Stars; Sumantra Bose's Contested Lands; Hooman Majd's The Ayatollah Begs to Differ -- are all travel books, even though their authors may not think of them in such a narrow way.
The question remains: does travel writing have a future? The tales of Marco Polo, or the explorations of "Bokhara Burnes" may have contained valuable empirical information impossible to harvest elsewhere, but is there really any point to the genre in the age of the internet, when you can instantly gather reliable knowledge about anywhere in the globe?
Certainly, the sort of attitudes to "abroad" that characterised the writers of the 1930s, and which had a strange afterlife in the curmudgeonly prose of Theroux and his imitators, now appears dated and racist. Indeed, the globalised world has now become so complex that notions of national character and particularity - the essence of so many 20th-century travelogues - is becoming increasingly untenable, and even distasteful. So has the concept of the western observer coolly assessing eastern cultures with the detachment of a Victorian butterfly collector, dispassionately pinning his captives to the pages of his album. In an age when east to west migrations are so much more common than those from west to east, the "funny foreigners" who were once regarded as such amusing material by travel writers are now writing some of the best travel pieces themselves. Even just to take a few of those with roots in India - Vidia Naipaul, Pico Iyer, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth and Pankaj Mishra - is to list many of the most highly regarded writers currently at work.
So Dalrymple's question, whether travel writing has a future, is a bit silly -- just small talk. Good nonfiction writing about a place or people -- whether it is history, a particular sociopolitical trend, or current affairs -- automatically qualifies as travel writing. And there's plenty of it going around.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
It wasn’t easy in the beginning. The Spanish defeated the Aztecs in 1521, but the tipping point came only ten years later, when the brown-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe miraculously appeared to Juan Diego. Diego was Indian, and he saw the virgin on the slopes of the Hill of Tepeyac in Mexico City. News of the miracle spread rapidly and resulted in mass conversions.
But the story isn't that simple. Tepeyac is believed to have been the worship site for the pre-Columbian, Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin. So what seems Catholic actually has indigenous roots; indeed, that must have been part of the appeal. Today, the Virgin is the preeminent religious figure and icon in Mexico.
Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City -- probably the second most visited Catholic shrine in the world. The church is at the summit of Tepeyac Hill, the same place Juan Diego saw Guadalupe. The principal attraction is an image of the Virgin at the lower end of a massive gold cross. Draped below is the flag of Mexico: at its center is the aggressive image of an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus; a serpent wriggles in the clamp of its beak.
At first glance, the cross and the virgin suggest a common Christian theme. But when you learn that the virgin is not Mary but Guadalupe, and that the depiction on the flag captures the vision that inspired the “pagan” Aztecs to build the surreal lake city of Tenochtitlan – which the Spanish destroyed comprehensively and renamed as Mexico City – you realize that there is more to Mexico’s mass conversion than meets the eye.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
The promotion now means more money – five thousand more rupees. Arzee can now think of getting married, though the painful memory of an abruptly broken relationship still haunts him. All that is in the past, he reassures himself; a bright future now awaits him.
Arzee’s anticipation infects the early pages of the novel, but it is short-lived. The promotion will not materialize because Noor Cinema is closing. Arzee is devastated: his job at the Noor had anchored him in life. He had loved film projection ever since he had first visited the theater with his mother when only thirteen. He loved the large, black projector, Babur (a distortion of the original German name, Bauer), which “for thirty years had been standing in the same place in the same room, breathing out four shows a day”. But no more! It was as if the sun itself was blowing out, ending all life on earth.
For the next hundred pages, we accompany a disoriented Arzee as he drifts around Bombay, searching for new direction. The novel's third person narration remains faithful to the protagonist. Even the punctuation matches well: Choudhury uses exclamations liberally but they are there to convey Arzee’s childlike wonder and curiosity. And every thought, every description contributes to a complex, layered construction of Arzee’s inner world.
Arzee stands at the center of Arzee, but he is surrounded by a constellation of personalities. Only a few, though, play a major part. There is Deepak, a canny and very practical man, full of bluster and cynicism. But his toughness is only a facade; Deepak is quite capable of warmth and empathy. He hounds Arzee regarding a debt, but has an ear for Arzee’s travails even though he pretends not to care. There is Arzee’s mother, whose “soft tyranny” is felt throughout the book; there’s Monique, whose romance with Arzee unfolds beautifully -- before the abrupt end. And, to a lesser extent, there is Phiroz, the old Parsi head projectionist, who is preoccupied with his daughter Shireen’s wedding.
Shireen is in fact one of novel’s sparkling minor characters. Arzee’s conversation with her is one of the high points of the book --her vitality leaps through the pages. She makes such an impact that we fully expect her to reappear and play a bigger role – but that is not how the novel is structured. There are other, similarly striking one-scene characters.
No review of Arzee can be complete without a mention of its superb dialogues. Let’s a look at an exchange between Arzee and Deepak. Our little hero owes a debt to a syndicate, and Deepak, who works for the syndicate, has been set on the case. Arzee has been avoiding the bullying Deepak, but gets accosted one day. After they’ve settled on what should be done – Arzee is very much on the defensive – they get to bantering about movies. Deepak asks what’s playing at the Noor Cinema.
“Saathi. It’s a film from the early nineties….It’s got Mohsin Khan, who used to be Pakistani cricketer of the eighties. Made a double hundred in England once. It’s a hummer.”The funniest parts of the book can be found in the Arzee-Deepak and Arzee-Shireen conversations. In the above excerpt, notice the way ‘Deepakbhai’ is used – it creates a cadence or rhythm that punctuates the exchange. And because free-flowing conversations allow for spontaneity, Arzee’s earnestness (and intelligence, though that's not so evident in the above) are brought sharply into focus.
“Is it as good as Satya?” asked Deepak. “In my opinion there isn’t any Indian gangster movie as good as Satya.”
“Good choice, Deepakbhai! That’s the best gangster movie you can hope to see if you also want songs and dancing in it.”
“I’ll tell you what I like about the movie. The hero hardly says a word in whole three hours. Talking’s not his thing, action is. Even when he falls in love, he can’t bring himself to say much to his girl. That’s why she finds him sweet.”
“That’s just it, Deepakbhai. Excellent analysis!”
“There’s no need to lay on the butter. I just have a clear point of view, that’s all. I know what I like and what I don’t like.”
“That’s the way to be.”
“And speaking of Pakistanis,” said Deepak, “they shouldn’t be allowed to work in our films until they return what they’ve taken of Kashmir. Make as many double hundreds in England as you want! But don’t come here and steal roles off our heroes and screw our girls. Kashmir first! Then, we’ll see.”
“But what’s Kashmir got to do with all this Deepakbhai?”
“It’s all connected. You can’t put all these things in different boxes. If the Pakistanis are going to come over to this side and eat up our jobs, then let them bring some land over as well! No give, no take.”
“It’s a thought, Deepakbhai. I hadn’t looked at it that way before.”
“You will now. Everything in the world is connected. If something goes up, something else has to go down.”
Choudhury is a prolific Bombay-based literary critic and writer whose best essays are featured in the blog The Middle Stage. With Arzee he has shown he is just as adept at creating his own fictional world as he is at interpreting others'. The beautifully spare prose of the novel, the memorable characters sketched within a short space, the dialogues – all point to a writer well in control of his reins. There is much to look forward from this author.
Finally, here are two more excerpts that occur in different parts of the novel but share the same theme: our perception of the loved one. Dashrath Tiwari, a taxi-driver friend of Arzee – another one-scene character – says this during the course of a long conversation:
“What is love? The loved one is a person just like you and me, a person with a hundred faults and failings. But briefly he or she is transformed into someone utterly beautiful, perfect – a being from the heavens! Love is the true home of the imagination. Requited love – that is the paradise raised from nothing but a pair of synchronized imaginations.”Much later in the book, Arzee catches a glimpse of himself and Monique in the mirror and thinks:
The mirror made it seem as if there were two of each of them, and this was true in a way, for (Arzee thought about this carefully) she was both the Monique that she was and the Monique he took her to be, and these two were similar but not the same, and he was both himself and the Arzee who belonged to her. And in the gaps and linkages between these real and reflected beings, all kinds of meanings and suggestions seemed to be lurking.It requires some skill to put so neatly into words that which we know instinctively but are unable to express easily. Pick up Arzee and you'll find plenty such observations scattered throughout.
Tuesday, September 08, 2009
A collection of 98 short biographies, the book stems from a project initiated by the Women in Science panel of the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore, to provide young girls with inspiring role models (see http://www.ias.ac.in/womeninscience). The diverse personal stories span many disciplines and regions of India — and are inspiring.
The earliest chronological entry is for Anandibai Joshi, the first Indian woman to go abroad and study to become a doctor. From 1883 to 1886 she attended the Women's Medical College in Philadelphia and was awarded an MD degree for her thesis Obstetrics Among Aryan Hindoos. Unfortunately, she contracted tuberculosis and had to return to India. She received no treatment: Western doctors refused to treat a brown woman and Indian doctors would not help her because she had broken societal rules. Joshi died in 1887 at 22 years of age.
Many of those highlighted were the first to break into male-dominated professions: Asima Chatterjee was the first Indian woman to be awarded a DSc; E. K. Janaki Ammal was elected a fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences the year it was founded; Kamala Sohonie was the first female director of the Institute of Science, Mumbai; and Bimla Buti is a former director of plasma physics at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy.
It is interesting that many of these women scientists came from ordinary middle-class families. Most grew up not in the nation's big cities but in rural areas, where getting an education in any discipline, let alone in science, is difficult. In rural Punjab, mathematician R. J. Hans-Gill had to pretend to be a boy and wear a turban to attend school — a secret that was kept between her family and the headmaster. Biologist Chitra Mandal was accompanied to school in rural Bengal by her grandmother because the teacher would not let the four-year-old in without someone to look after her.
Thursday, September 03, 2009
I've reproduced the content below from a page that I recently created on my website. Some of the links here have been discussed in earlier posts. Feel free to voice your opinion.
By all accounts, the United States healthcare system is in crisis. We hear this every day: some 45 million people are uninsured; hundreds of thousands go bankrupt every year because of medical bills. Everybody agrees the current system is dysfunctional. But the solutions are contentious and divisive. Should government play a greater role by introducing a public insurance option in addition to Medicare and Medicaid to cover the uninsured? If everyone is going to be insured, where will the money come from? These questions elicit shrill noises from both extremes of the political spectrum. And there's the question of culture, culture of the nation -- that ambiguous but all-too-influential presence in the background. Mention 'government' in connection with US healthcare and the term 'socialized medicine' will follow like a stigma.
My intent in creating this page was to aggregate content from the internet pertaining to policy issues in US healthcare. This is a daunting task of course, and I am no expert. But in the process of teaching a healthcare class last spring, I came across essays, documentaries, radio clips that I'd like to share. Email me if you think there is material that should be added.
The PBS Frontline documentary Sick Around the World compares the health systems of developed countries -- Britain, Japan, Germany, Taiwan, Switzerland -- and reveals the glaring flaws in the US healthcare system. Three key shortcomings emerge. In the countries listed above 1) No one with a pre-existing condition is denied insurance 2) Everyone is covered one way or another 3) Pricing mechanisms are transparent and nobody goes bankrupt because of medical bills. Are these basic things too much to ask in the United States? Sick Around America, another PBS Frontline documentary, focuses on the shortcomings of the American health insurance industry.
It is true that European nations have a much better universal care record. But history played an important role in shaping the insurance structure of these countries. The national health systems of Britain and France emerged as a result of the devastation wrecked by the Second World War. Switzerland, because of its wartime neutrality, took the private insurance route before opting for reform in the last decade. Surgeon and writer Atul Gawande says in Getting There From Here that the experience of the United States is different and that difference must be acknowledged. Hence piece wise reform of healthcare, by building on what currently exists currently in the US, is better than a radical overhaul based on models elsewhere.
Healthcare insurance reform is not healthcare reform, although the two are related of course. True healthcare reform is possible only if costs are brought under control. Atul Gawande explains why healthcare costs are ridiculously high 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 subconsciously evolved this way because of the incentives in place. Gawande travels to the city of McAllen, Texas and finds that the over utilization of medical resources has sent costs skyrocketing. Only by trimming the fat from the system will Obama be able to finance healthcare reform.
David Ignautius argues that Denise Cortese, CEO of the famous Mayo Clinic, should be made "medical commander" of Obama's health reform initiative. Cortese's message is similar to Atul Gawande's: Health insurance reform is necessary, but true reform is possible only if medical practices are paid for value (outcomes, safety and service) rather than for the number of services provided. Peter Ubel, a primary care physician, says yes, we must change how we pay physicians, but we must also change how much they are paid in the United States. Certain types of specialty physicians have disproportionately high incomes. Unfortunately, this is an issue no one is willing to tackle politically.
Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt talks with Terry Gross (NPR) about the lack of transparency in healthcare pricing. Each hospital may negotiate a different rate with a different insurance company for the same service; and the prices are kept secret. Indeed, there may be a tenfold difference in prices because of this secrecy. Hospitals have to hire an army of hagglers to negotiate and keep track of prices. This hikes up administrative costs. In other developed countries, pricing is not this opaque.
Reinhardt also discusses the feasibility of a public, Medicare-like insurance option for the uninsured. The private insurance companies don't like this, because they fear they will no longer be able to complete with a government run option that enrolls millions and sets its own prices. Paul Starr, author of the famous 1984 book, The Social Transformation of American Medicine, weighs in with pieces in the American Prospect: Sacrificing the Public Option and Perils of the Public Plan. Finally, this essay in The New York Review of Books discusses the messy political process underlying healthcare reform; and Bill Moyers of PBS interviews scholars and policy experts on various aspects of reform.