Monday, November 30, 2009

Frontline: A Death in Tehran

The death in question is of the young Neda Agha Sultan, who was out on the streets of Tehran protesting, after the controversial election election results in June this year. She was shot -- probably by a basij. Frontline provides some perspective of the events -- including footage collected from camera phones and camcorders -- leading to the shooting.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Reprise: The real story behind American Thanksgiving

No, this is not meant to spoil your thanksgiving meal. But it's always good to know the story beyond what popular culture tells you. So I'd like to point to last year's post which illustrates that thanksgiving was good for the Pilgrims, one of the early groups that settled in Massachusetts in the early 17th century, but behind it lies a larger, unspoken tragedy that befell the diverse -- and at that time thriving -- set of east coast Native American communities. In fact, the odd sounding names Massachusetts and Connecticut are names in their languages. So, here's a reprise of one of my favorite posts from last year. A short excerpt:
[The Thanksgiving story] is a very important story: all nations attach special relevance to their beginnings, and the Pilgrims are a vital part of America’s national narrative. But the story, while true, is told in isolation, without a proper context; there is a sense of idyll about it. And the way it is told propagates a broader myth: that European settlers settled a largely empty expanse of North America, a vast natural wilderness. Sure, there were a few tribes here and there, some friendly, some hostile, but what could they do? They were destined to lose.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The textbook version of Thanksgiving not only obscures the broader socio-political context of the time; it also hides an immense tragedy.
Read the full essay here.

To be sure, history, however multi dimensional and complex, shouldn't change our wish to give thanks; or, more importantly, shouldn't diminish our appetites. So let's all eat heartily -- happy thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What is the nature of the self?

The physician and neuroscientist Vilayannur Ramachandran explores this fundamental, still unsolved philosophical conundrum in the last chapter of his book Phantoms in the Brain (co-written in the late 1990s with Sandra Blakeslee). This is how the chapter begins:
In the first half of the next century science will confront its greatest challenge in trying to answer a question that has been steeped in mysticism and metaphysics for millennia. What is the true nature of self? As someone who was born in Indian and raised in the Hindu tradition, I was taught that the concept of the self – the “I” within me that is aloof from the universe and engages in lofty inspection of the world around me – is an illusion, a veil called maya. The search for enlightenment, I was told, consists of lifting this veil and realizing that you are really “One with the cosmos.” Ironically, after extensive training in Western medicine and more than fifteen years of research on neurological patients and visual illusions, I have come to realize that there is much truth in this view – that the notion of a single unified self “inhabiting” the brain may indeed be an illusion. Everything I have learned from the intensive study of both normal people and patients who have sustained damage to various parts of their brains points to an unsettling notion: that you create your own “reality” from mere fragments of information, that what you “see” is a reliable – but not always accurate – representation of what exists in the world, that you are completely unaware of the vast majority of events going on in your brain. Indeed, most of your actions are carried out by a host of unconscious zombies who exist in peaceful harmony along with you (the “person”) inside your body!
Nevertheless, many people find it disturbing that all the richness of our mental life – all our thoughts, feelings, emotions, even what we regard as our intimate selves – arises entirely from the activity of little wisps of protoplasm in the brain. How is this possible? How could something as deeply mysterious as consciousness emerge from a chunk of meant inside the skull? The problem of mind and matter, substance and spirit, illusion and reality, has been a major preoccupation of both Western and Eastern philosophy for millennia, but very little of lasting value has emerged. As the British psychologist Stuart Sutherland has said, “Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon: it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it.”

Why this post suddenly? Because I've been thinking about the idea of "soul", and whether we are more than just an aggregation of the the physical body, the brain and its interior functions. This soul or, less metaphysically, "consciousness" is what marks us out, but how is it linked to the body? Some scientists are beginning to tackle that question, which is what prompted this post.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Travel notes from Chiapas, Mexico -- Part 1

This isn't the first time I've written about my Mexico trip of last Dec-Jan. But I still feel there's plenty to write, and in this series, I hope to cover all that I have missed in previous posts (though there will be some overlap of course). Earlier posts, both short and long: A whirlwind summary of Mexico, Ganesha in Mayan country, Arqueologia and Cibersexo in Mexico City, Along the Usumacinta, Conversions and the Virgin of Guadalupe, San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan.


I had expected Chiapas to be somewhat remote – at least, that’s what the guides and the travel articles had said about this small state at the southern end of Mexico. When my flight began its final approach to the airport in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the state’s capital, I saw no lights below. We could have been landing in the middle of nowhere. But the busy-looking travelers on the flight – some of them spiffily dressed as if attending some business meeting even though it was Christmas Eve – suggested that there was more to Tuxtla. And this turned out to be the case.

The airport was quite some distance away from the city; the taxi to town cost me twenty two dollars. We drove through a desolate, winding road (the driving – a warning of what was to come for the duration of my stay -- was casually reckless). As the city got closer, we passed a few single story car repair shops and houses. Men in vests sat outside in plastic chairs. It still seemed very rural, but suddenly, at an intersection that occurred at an elevation, Tuxtla's sprawl came into view: bright lights stretching far into the distance, along the slope of hills and in the valley they formed. The city, though provincial, was much larger than I’d thought. And perhaps it is the only city in Chiapas with visible American consumerist icons – I mention this because the state itself is poor and has been the center of an armed left wing movement.

I was staying at the Holiday Inn. The same street – Belisario Dominguez – also contained other American transplants: Wal-Mart and Sears. Attached to the sparkling red and white bus station nearby was a massive mall with the usual mix of expensive stores, eateries (Mexican-adapted), and a chic store where beautiful puppies – sorrowfully howling behind glass cases – were being sold. The mall’s swanky look owed a great deal to its many janitors who appeared out of nowhere to efface the slightest trace of a blemish on the gleaming floors.

The Holiday Inn restaurant was full that night; there was some live music, and it appeared you needed reservations to eat. I was surprised by the restaurant’s seeming prominence – was it simply because of its affiliation to an American hotel? Because the food was tasteless imitation Western fare – meat, boiled vegetables – and the waiters looked uncomfortable in their roles. The restaurant reverted, wisely, the next day to a Chiapanecan breakfast: frijoles or mashed pinto and black beans, tamales made the regional way, fresh squeezed juices and the ubiquitous assortment of Mexican salsas.


In the afternoon, I took a bus to San Cristobal de Las Casas in the state’s central highlands. We ascended slowly; the dense mountain greenery – a feature of Chiapas -- was startling. Some of the steepest of slopes had plots of corn with yellowing shoots of the crop. An hour later, we were at our destination: narrow alleys; cheek-by-jowl houses with red roofs; walls painted in contrasting colors; beautiful churches; mountains all around. San Cristobal is a quaint place.

Picture of a street I took in San Cristobal

But the quaintness disappeared when I traveled a few days later to the state’s deep south – up to the Usumacinta River, which forms the border between Mexico and Guatemala. The eight hour ride took us to an elevation of 11,000 feet before setting us down in the humid plains close to the Lacandon Rainforest. The towns and villages became a lot more ragged and poorer the farther south we went. In the first millennium AD, the Mayans had built incredible structures in this overly fecund and difficult terrain, even as they fought brutally among themselves. Those ruins now survive, testament to their architectural and organizational skills, covered though they are in moss and shrouded by the all-consuming rainforest. The humbling twists of history have meant that the descendents of the same the same Mayans are now some of the poorest in the country.

Picture of moss-covered ruins at Yaxchilan

My fellow travelers were all from Mexico City. Chiapas was as novel and “exotic” to them as it was to me. In this sense they were like metropolitan Indians journeying through the country’s less visited parts – Orissa or Chhattisgarh, say.

The likeness does not end there. Maoist movements are strong in the forested and remote but resource-rich parts of India – along what is called the red corridor, a vast swathe that stretches along the eastern half of India, from the south, in Andhra Pradesh, all the way to Nepal (from “Pasupathy to Tirupathy” as Sudeep Chakravarti puts it in his book about India’s Maoist movements, Red Sun). Chiapas, too, is remote, forested and resource rich; and in the 1990s it was the center of a major leftist movement, the Zapatista Rebellion. In fact, the Zapatistas announced themselves the same day the neoliberal North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect on Jan 1st 1994. The poor of Chiapas – indigenous Mayan Indians – still sympathize with the Zapatistas, and this is evident from the graffiti that you see on billboards and walls. Muera El Sistema Capitalista, one of them read -- Death To The Capitalist System. And just as the Indian government is trying hard to fight the Maoists, so in Chiapas military checkpoints are everywhere along the main routes in the south of the state. The hunt for rebels is still on, though the situation -- for now -- is stable.

To be continued...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The story of our food

I've always wondered what Indian cuisine was like before the 16th century. A slew of now indispensable grains, nuts, vegetables, fruits, intoxicants -- corn, groundnuts, cashews, guavas, cheekus (sapotas), papaya, pineapple, potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco -- from Mexico, Central and South America reached the Indian subcontinent via the Europeans in the late 1500s, but these delights had been missing until then. And in the list above, I've deliberately not mentioned that one ingredient absolutely essential to many Indian dishes now. Instead, let me quote KT Acharya, author of the short but informative book, The Story of Our Food:
We had a glimpse in the last chapter that chillis are not really Indian. These wonderful materials were brought to India from Mexico, perhaps in the late 16th century. They took a little while to catch on, but in about a hundred years, the use of chillis spread to every part of India. Before that it was [black] pepper that as used to give the pungency that is so characteristic of Indian food. In one of the sections of Ain-i-Akbari, written in 1590, there is a list of 50 dishes cooked in Akbar's court: all of them use only [black] pepper to impart spiciness. In most Indian languages, the name for chilli is simply a variation of the earlier name for [black] pepper in the same language. For example, in Hindi we say kalimirch for black pepper and harimirch for chili. In Tamil, the word for pepper is milagu and that for chili is milagai (=milagu-kai (pepper+fruit)). In Kannada, the words are karimenasu and menasinkayi. Try this exercise in your own language.

It is not difficult to understand why the chilli quickly replaced black pepper in our cooking. While the black pepper vine grows almost only in Kerala, chillis can be grown in almost every backyard, or cultivated in the fields, all over the country. Thus, they were easily available everywhere at a low price. All the many varieties that we know come to us from Mexico and none of them was developed afterwards in India. These include the green chili, red chili, long red chilli, very small and very hot green bird chilli, and the large mild capsicum. To make chilli-powder, the long bright-red variety with think skins can be dried in the sun, and ground either with its seeds to give more pungency, or without it to give a milder chilli-powder. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say the humble chilli from Mexico really revolutionized the food of India.
Indeed, we are thankful to Mexico for that. The story of food reveals a complex history of interconnections; it is really a history of globalization -- a globalization much older than the modern, accelerated version that is much talked about. What seems native now was once foreign. Think of it: Italian food before the 16th century was without tomatoes! No one in Africa, Europe, and Asia had tasted potatoes -- a staple now, worldwide-- before the Spanish conquest connected us with the Andes where it was originally cultivated, thousands of years ago, by the Indians there.

To, finish, here's another excerpt from the same book -- hat tip, Nitin Pai. All parts in italics are Acharya's quotes from original sources.

Many animal foods are described with great relish in the early Tamil literature.

Even Brahmins did not lack relish for the meat and toddy served to them at feasts held by the chieftains and princes of the land.

The meat dishes cooked with (black) pepper were called kari in Tamil, a word now used in English as curry. Fried spiced meat was called tallita-kari, fried meat was pori-kari, and meat with a source sauce made of tamarind was termed pulingari

Beef was freely eaten: there are four names for this meat in the early Tamil language, showing that it was a common and well-liked food. In the north, as we have seen, the domestic fowl was not eaten, but there was no such taboo in the south. Other delicacies were the cooked aral fish served piping hot, and the meat of the tortoise, rabbit and hare. Wild boar was hunted using nets; it was then kept in a pit and fattened by feeding it with rice flour to yield pork of exceptional taste.

Here is a description from the Tamil literature of a feast given about 150 AD by a Chola ruler:

Goblets of gold with intoxicating liquor, soft-boiled legs of sheep fed on sweet grass, and hot meat, in large chops, cooked on the points of spits … fine cooked rice which, erect like fingers and with unbroken edges, resemble the buds of the mullai (jasmine) flower, together with curries sweetened with milk.

It is interesting to note the reference to wine and to roast kababs, and the beautiful comparison of shining white rice grains to jasmine buds. Tamil literature also describes the brisk trade with both the east and the west from the ports of south India; one commodity brought in was Italian wine for use by the royalty.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Maoist movements in India -- Sudeep Chakravarti's Red Sun

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of the very revealing and disturbing Red Sun, a travelogue through the states in India affected by left wing extremism (Maoism, also interchangeably referred to as Naxalism). Rohit Chopra has an excellent interview with the author. Here's Chakravarti's long, thoughtful answer to Chopra's question:

What made you write this book? Why did you feel this story had to be told?

I have spent my career as a journalist, both as reporter and editor, tracking India’s economic development, meeting those on the “street”, as well as top ministers, entrepreneurs, and executives from India and abroad; and attending summits from Delhi to Davos. I am a direct beneficiary of India’s ongoing economic liberalization and freedom of expression that India’s urban middle classes have come to take for granted. But there is an issue I did not wish to keep quiet about. Except for perhaps a ‘unity’ based on the rupee, corruption, cinema, and cricket, there is a grave disconnect between urban and rural India and even within urban India. This disconnect is economic, social, and political. Seventy percent of India is away from the ‘growth party’. To imagine that India can be unstoppable with its gross poverty and numbing caste issues is to be in lunatic denial, a display of unstoppable ego.

Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country was a story waiting to be told. There is a fairly large and excellent body of non-fiction writing on the Naxal movement of the 1960s and early 1970s and on various subsequent extreme-Left incarnations through the 1980s, in several Indian languages and in English. But besides the occasional media coverage around the time of major skirmishing between rebels and security forces, there isn’t a book on the movements of today as driven by the Communist Party of India (Maoist) that attempts to demystify the Naxal movement.

The second reason for the book was that there is a great lack of telling the human story about and around the present play of Left-wing rebellion. Typically, one comes by statistics and glib sound bites. The dispossessed and the dead are not numbers; they were–and are–people. With Red Sun I have attempted to humanize a very tragic conflict, of a country at war with itself.

A third reason is that learned writing about Maoism in India (which continues to be interchangeably referred to as Naxalism) is generally restricted to academic journals and analyses by think-tanks. There is a crying need to mainstream it, tell the lay reader, as it were, about what is going on, shake ‘middle India’ out of its mall-stupor and diminish the delusions of grandeur of India’s lawmakers.

There was every reason to write Red Sun. The truth about this wrenching war has to be told.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Naipaul on writing

Am short on time, so here are some quick quotes by VS Naipaul from this superb essay on being a writer. Who else, I wonder, writes such great prose, such charged sentences? (The elegance of his writing is in sharp contrast to his obnoxiousness in real life -- read Patrick French's biography if you need to know more.)
All literary forms are artificial, and they are constantly changing, to match the new tone and mood of the culture. At one time, for instance, a person of serious literary inclination might have thought of writing for the theater; would have had somehow to do what I cannot do—arrange his material into scenes and acts; would not have written for the printed page, but would have written "parts" to tempt actors and—as someone who has written plays has told me—would have visualized himself (to facilitate the playwriting process) as sitting in a seat in the stalls.

At another period, in an age without radio or records, an age dominated by print, someone wishing to write would have had to shape a narrative that could have been serialized over many months, or fill three volumes. Before that, the writer might have attempted narratives in verse, or verse drama, rhymed or unrhymed; or verse epics.

All those forms, artificial as they seem to us today, would have appeared as natural and as right to their practitioners as the standard novel does today. Artificial though that novel form is, with its simplifications and distortions, its artificial scenes, and its idea of experience as a crisis that has to be resolved before life resumes its even course. I am describing, very roughly, the feeling of artificiality which was with me at the very beginning, when I was trying to write and wondering what part of my experience could be made to fit the form—wondering, in fact, in the most insidious way, how I could adapt or falsify my experience to make it fit the grand form.

Literary forms are necessary: experience has to be transmitted in some agreed or readily comprehensible way. But certain forms, like fashions in dress, can at times become extreme. And then these forms, far from crystallizing or sharpening experience, can falsify or be felt as a burden. The Trollope who is setting up a situation—the Trollope who is a social observer, with an immense knowledge both of society and the world of work, a knowledge far greater than that of Dickens—is enchanting. But I have trouble with the Trollope who, having set up a situation, settles down to unwinding his narrative—the social or philosophical gist of which I might have received in his opening pages. I feel the same with Thackeray: I can feel how the need for narrative and plot sat on his shoulders like a burden.

And the best bit, Naipaul's advice for those who aspire to write:

Every serious writer has to be original; he cannot be content to do or to offer a version of what has been done before. And every serious writer as a result becomes aware of this question of form; because he knows that however much he might have been educated and stimulated by the writers he has read or reads, the forms matched the experience of those writers, and do not strictly suit his own.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

More pictures

All taken in Bangalore this July (from a moving car, hence the lack of sharpness; click for better views). I call the city home now since my family is there. First picture is of Bangalore's Jama Masjid; the second, a statue of Anjaneyar; and third, the famous Forum Mall, which I still haven't been to yet. These malls sprang up just around the time I left for the US, so it's natural that I should think of them as "exotic", even though I've been to plenty of fancy malls in the United States, including the mammoth Mall of America.

Blogging will be light the next week or so, since I'll be traveling and there is much work to do -- the semester is "heating up". On a different note, as the one year anniversary of Obama's election approaches, do check one of my favorite posts: How I helped Obama win in eight states.