Thursday, December 31, 2009


To all readers of Thirty Letters! My apologies for not posting more frequently, but I will be back in the next ten days or so. Meanwhile, do enjoy the coming of 2010!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Best best books 2009

Savor Chandrahas Choudhury´s best non-fiction and fiction books of the year. This is from a man who lives and breathes books -- and earns a living that way too. Note especially the lesser known entries in the list --for example the Tamil writer Salma´s The Hour Past Midnight, which I will definitely be reading. My own very short list-- many books in it inspired by Chandrahas´ selection from last year -- is here.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A break

Thirty Letters will be taking a break for two weeks and a half. If I post, it will just be some links - or I might say hello now and then. Full service resumes second week week of Jan. Merry christmas to everyone!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Travel notes from Chiapas, Mexico -- Part 2

Read Part 1. Earlier posts on Mexico, 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.


The ride from San Cristobal to Palenque – famous for its Mayan ruins – and then on to the village of Lacanja took eight hours. I traveled with a group of Mexicans. We started in a van early in the morning. The town of Ocosingo, where we had breakfast, was high in the mountains; most of it was still hidden by the morning mist which veiled the tops of trees. The town comprised primarily of rickety buildings and huts adjacent to plots of corn and orchards of banana trees. It was clearly different from Tuxtla, the somewhat booming provincial capital I’d arrived in, and San Cristobal, whose quaintness makes tourists coo in admiration. Ocosingo, it turned out, was an advance glimpse of the largely agrarian and poor Chiapanecan countryside.

(Landscape near the town of Ocosingo.)

Some of the Mexicans I was traveling with were fluent in English; they interpreted for me. Among them was a couple, Carlos and Maria. Carlos was in his late twenties; he was skinny and wore glasses. Maria was perhaps a year or two older and slightly taller. Both worked in Mexico City, for the same firm. They had met and fallen in love a few weeks ago. It wasn’t clear if Carlos was already married and if this was an adulterous affair. Whatever the case, Chiapas was their getaway. Here, far away from Mexico City, they were very public about their courtship: they kissed and smooched and made honeyed noises – so much that it became sickening after a while.

They were at it in front of Misol Ha, a magnificent waterfall, about three hours from San Cristobal. At the Mayan ruins at Palenque – which, because of the number of people and commercial activities that surrounded it, seemed like an extension of Disneyland rather than a place of genuine antiquity – they continued their brazen lovemaking. Even the most spectacular of stepped pyramids would not deter them. Later in the evening, in the rainforest town of Lacanja, they insisted, despite the lack of tents, that they be assigned a separate, isolated one for obvious reasons.

(The Misol Ha waterfall en route to Palenque.)


The Mexico of today is a direct consequence of a titanic, half-a-millennium-old clash. In 1521, Spain conquered the massive, organizationally sophisticated yet repressive empire of the Aztecs. In the next two centuries, New Spain expanded northward and southward, its wealth resting on the toil of slaves from Africa and millions of Indians. In the process, however, society became very mixed. To be sure, whites of Spanish descent still remained powerful, but the part-Spanish part-Indian mestizo became prominent as well – a large proportion of Mexico today is mestizo. But the unmixed Indian – whether of Aztec or Mayan stock, or of the hundreds of other tribes and confederacies in various parts of the country – remained, for the most part, at the bottom. If it is caste that draws the lines in India, in Mexico it is the different racial classes that emerged from the Spanish conquest. Even today, the whiter you are, the more likely it is that you are part of the elite. Darkness means indigenousness, a relegation to the lowest rungs of society.

Carlos and Maria were likely mestizos but they were pale enough to be almost white. It certainly seemed they´d had a privileged upbringing. On occasions Carlos would turn dismissive and arrogant – and it was in these moments that the gulf between him and the indigenous Indians among whom we were traveling became most obvious.


The town of Lacanja, where we stayed for the night, lies at the edge of the Lacandon Rainforest. Our accommodations – beds with mosquito netting -- were simple but clean. It was pitch dark outside; the rush of the river and the heavy but intermittent rain set up a roar and a patter.

To get to the Mayan ruins at Yaxchilan – a must for the pretentious traveler who parades his off-the-beaten-path adventures – you have to catch a ferry at a clearing at the bank of the Usumacinta River. The river forms the border between Mexico and Guatemala. The jungle dominates both flanks, but hamlets dot the bank on the Guatemala side: huts, children splashing in the water, and more ominously, now and then, the flash of a military uniform.

(The Usumacinta River. Guatemala begins on the opposite bank.)


Motor boats and their operators waited at the clearing for the tourists. A little inland was a simple canteen, where we stopped for breakfast and later returned – after having seen the ruins at Yaxchilan – for lunch. The place served basic Mexican fare. It was run by the locals, the Lacandon, a community of a few hundred. Like other groups in Chiapas, the Lacandon are descendents of the Mayans but what set them apart was their isolated jungle existence until the mid 20th century. In this sense they were akin to a long lost Amazonian tribe. On the menu was a tacit admission that service at the canteen might not be up to the mark because “we are a people of the jungle who have only recently been connected to the outside world. We are, however, working hard to do better.” Surprisingly, the note was in English. The Lacandon may have just come "out of the jungle", but those who ran this canteen were savvy enough to connect with the English-speaking Western traveler.

During lunch, Carlos talked with Maria and me about his plans. These plans too had to do with the “outside world”. He wanted to get an MBA; he preferred the prestigious universities in the United States – Harvard or MIT. He had an uncle in Boston who might be able to help. When a waiter passed by, Carlos ordered fresh squeezed orange juice; I ordered one as well. The waiter, a dark Lacandon teenager with an awkward hairstyle and a dour look, nodded imperceptibly. The contrast was sharp – here were the three of us, evidently privileged in that we could talk about MBAs and travel between global metropolises as if it were normal. Set against us was the young waiter, who had a different reality: his obvious animosity towards us likely stemmed from that reality.

“I especially want your opinion on an issue,” Carlos said to me. “It’s not the MBA. It’s about my current job and a new job offer I have.”

Carlos currently worked in a Mexican-owned pharmaceutical firm, but had just received an offer from an Indian pharmaceutical company (Indian as in from India).

“I know Indian companies are doing well these days, but I have a concern,” Carlos continued. My orange juice arrived, but the teenage waiter had not brought Carlos’. Carlos reminded him again, this time with a touch of anger and condescension.

“These guys have terrible service… Anyway, my concern has to do with growth at this Indian firm. When it comes to promotions and new opportunities, could it be that this company might sidestep me because I am Mexican and instead prefer somebody Indian?”

There was no way I could have answered that question, simply because I knew nothing about dynamics within Indian corporations. But I found it ironic that ethnicity remained such a concern in a supposedly “global” setting.

“It’s hard to generalize,” I offered.

Lunch was almost over. Carlos had still not received his juice. I pointed to him the apology on the menu about the relative newness of the canteen and hence the lack of service experience. Carlos flared up.

“Just out of the jungle – what a lie! These guys need the slightest excuse: they know exactly how to play the game. They are clever, these guys. They are doing this deliberately to us.”

“But why?”

“We are from the city, that’s the only reason. They hate us out here because we are from the city!”

Carlos stood up to look for the waiter, ostensibly to give him a piece of his mind. But not finding him, he sought out another waiter and vented his frustration. The waiter promised the juice would come. And it did come, but only when we were ready for the bill. It was brought by the original waiter.

Carlos glared at him. But the boy’s defiant, dour expression did not change.

Such a trivial issue, and yet it had brought divides to the fore: between the urban rich and the rural poor, between a privileged, almost-white mestizo and indigenous teenager living in a small jungle outpost.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Suketu Mehta on the Bhopal tragedy

Twenty five years after the unbearably tragic Bhopal Catastrophe, the guilty are still out there. Suketu Mehta raises questions about corporate impunity (via 3QD):
Union Carbide and Dow were allowed to get away with it because of the international legal structures that protect multinationals from liability. Union Carbide sold its Indian subsidiary and pulled out of India. Warren Anderson, the Union Carbide chief executive at the time of the gas leak, lives in luxurious exile in the Hamptons, even though there’s an international arrest warrant out for him for culpable homicide. The Indian government has yet to pursue an extradition request. Imagine if an Indian chief executive had jumped bail for causing an industrial disaster that killed tens of thousands of Americans. What are the chances he’d be sunning himself in Goa?

The Indian government, fearful of scaring away foreign investors, has not pushed the issue with American authorities. Dow has used a kind of blackmail with the Indians; a 2006 letter from Andrew Liveris, the chief executive, to India’s ambassador to the United States asked for guarantees that Dow would not be held liable for the cleanup, and thanked him for his “efforts to ensure that we have the appropriate investment climate.”

What’s missing in the whole sad story is any sense of a human connection between the faceless people who run the corporation and the victims.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

My favorite books this year

It's that time of the year -- everyone comes up with lists. I generally don't do this, but given that the end of the semester has pretty much taken over my schedule, a post like this is a lot easier than a long essay or a review. So here are my ten for the year, in no particular order:

1. Curfewed Night -- Basharat Peer
2. Butter Chicken in Ludhiana -- Pankaj Mishra (which prompts the question: why does Mishra write such boring stuff these days?)
3. Cut-outs, Caste and Cine Stars -- Vaasanthi
4. Arzee the Dwarf -- Chandrahas Choudhury
5. Descent into Chaos -- Ahmed Rashid
6. The Metamorphosis -- Franz Kafka
7. Contested Lands -- Sumantra Bose
8. Red Sun -- Sudeep Chakravarti
9. How Fiction Works -- James Wood
10. The Ayatollah Begs to Differ -- Hooman Majd (even though I haven't finished it yet)

Some other books that caught my attention:

1. Essentials of Indian Philosophy -- M. Hiriyana
2. A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy -- Chandradhar Sharma
3. The Columbian Exchange -- Alfred Crosby
4. The Mexico Reader: History, Politics, Culture
5. The Peru Reader: History, Politics, Culture
6. Samskara -- UR Anantha Murthy
7. The Story of Our Food -- KT Acharya