Election Notes

This is going to be short and bittersweet.

What we can hope for:

  1. An end to patronage politics (for poor and middle class people, I mean. Ending it for rich people will probably take a whole while longer.)
  2. An end to Rahul Gandhi’s political ambitions.
  3. A more rational economic regime (which, yes, basically means more free markets).
  4. A government that functions without having to appease a million competing coalition interests, and therefore more efficiently.
  5. (ADDED) A Uniform Civil Code. I honestly have always thought this was a good idea! How did we live with this mess of religion-specific laws for so long? Implementation will be an issue, obviously.

What we shall pray against:

  1. (Even more) Second-class citizen status for Muslims (and also Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and all the rest; but at least they have not been targeted as much)
  2. Nuclear war with Pakistan
  3. Touch my beef and I will cut you.

What we shall be resigned to:

  1. An inescapable wave of chauvinistic triumphalism
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In defence of Chetan Bhagat

Photograph of Chetan Bhagat, Novelist, while h...

Chetan Bhagat-Image via Wikipedia

So the man isn’t really a good writer, all right? I mean, he can string sentences together in a perfectly competent manner, but you would never read a passage from his books and think it came from Rushdie or Roy, for instance. But nonetheless, it rings throughout with- and I hate using this word, but for once I mean it- authenticity. Now, there currently exists in the front sections of most Indian bookstores rows of perfectly authentic (Indian) writing that also happens, alas, to be unreadable excrescence in many cases (I would have said most, but I couldn’t bring myself to try out a larger sample size, and saying most would be intellectually dishonest.) But Chetan Bhagat manages to pull off authenticity and still not grate, which is a rarer achievement than you would expect. Of course the fact that most conversations are in fairly colloquial “Indian English” means there’s at least one thing “wrong” in most paragraphs, but you only have to tune out your pedantic inner self a little, not stuff red-hot pokers up every possible orifice until it finally stops screaming.

Authenticity, however, isn’t even the main thing that makes him worth defending. The reason he is unambiguously a “good thing” to happen to this country is that he is a reasonable man, in the most obvious sense of the word, who also happens to be enormously popular. I’m not really familiar with his political positions in any detail but his books- books that literally millions of Indians who have read practically nothing else of a similar length in the English language- pushes mostly secular, liberal, universalist views on a populace that cannot by and large be described using those words[1]. I have no idea how much of an impact he’s having, if at all- I do know that the man sees himself as more than just a writer, perhaps as an activist of some sort, and I remember articles mocking him for his “pretensions” when what he does, essentially, (at least according to that reviewer) is sell pulp- but every bit counts, right?

[1] Do I sound like a tool here? I’ll admit that it sounds classist to paint such vast swathes of his readership with the same brush, but I’m pretty sure it’s applicable to a good portion of them.

Corruption in India, Anna Hazare and the Jan Lokpal Bill

Note: This is a very “thinking aloud” article and now that I’m done and it’s 2 AM and  I have a feeling I’m saying something silly somewhere in here. I just don’t know exactly what. If you can point it out and explain, I would be very grateful.

It has just been announced that the government has agreed to Anna Hazare‘s demands to set up a joint-committee to draft the new Lokpal bill consisting of 5 members from government and 5 from civil society, with a co-chairman from amongst the activists*. This is probably good news even from the point of view of those of us who were less excited by this agitation than most. However, a little more analysis seems warranted.

I will freely admit that this whole thing caught me entirely by surprise, since I don’t really keep up with Indian mass media. I stick to the web and even there, rely on social media to get me any really urgent stories. So when people started talking about this as “India’s Tahrir Square moment,” I gaped a bit and frantically started reading up, relaxing only once I figured out that that, as we would call it here in college, was “absolute fart”.

The central concern here is the Lokpal (now, Jan Lokpal) bill, and you should all go read that wiki page. Also this and this. This is probably one reading assignment too many for one post, but Pratap Bhanu Mehta has an excellent (if, shall we say, written from a position of privilige) take on the issue at the Indian Express, here. I’ll wait.

Done? Ok. Does anyone yet realize that this bill will create what is essentially a Jedi Council run by a lot of not-very-Jedi people? (Not that that worked out so well either, of course.) It can initiate prosecution, file FIRs, integrate itself with the anti-corruption wing of the CBI and the central vigilance commission, and mandate a minimum sentence of 5 years and a maximum of life imprisonment for any case. Certainly sets up a deterrent, huh?

Corruption in India, at least, can be broadly divided into 2 types: first, the “greasing of palms” necessary to get most basic services  or “baksheesh”, that poses an annoyance to almost every citizen who has to come into contact with a government agent-from the RTO who evaluates your driving to the policeman who comes to verify your address for your passport. This is usually necessary irrespective of the legality of your actions (although more often than not it’s done where only minor issues remain). The second type is large, institutional corruption, where you bribe an official for a government contract, or to approve your factory despite it not clearing regulations etc. Of course, even institutions that do everything right might need to pay up just to keep things moving, and even individuals might be paying for special favours or to make someone look the other way. But the point is that the vast majority of citizen’s annoyances are with the former, and few top down legal actions are likely to affect these much. Go to www.ipaidabribe.com (a wonderful initiative). Go look through the reports of bribes paid. The vast majority fall into this category.

So what is my point? My point is, the appropriate metaphor for the state of Indian corruption is not some ravenous dragon terrorizing the innocent villagers. It is a million little mosquitoes biting intermittently at a weary populace as they trudge to work every day. A big fu*king sword might be useful against a dragon, but the mosquitoes are probably just going to wait until you tire yourself out by waving it around.

An ineffective weapon against (most) corruption in India

Of course, a lot of this depends on just how the system is going to be implemented, and I’m thoroughly clueless about that, so this might be unfair criticism. It might be that the system also involves introducing technology that can track “choke points” of paperwork. It might be that it can set up an efficient and responsive bureaucracy that will basically do what the vigilance commission has always been meant to do, only properly. I certainly hope so. I just don’t think I can count on it.

PS: OK, so the important caveat here is that it is the latter sort of institutional corruption that arguably matters more as far as economic growth, safety, environment and a whole host of other things are concerned. And this bill will hopefully make it easier to prosecute that kind of case and reduce the levels of corruption there. Which is why I don’t think this is a bad thing, by any means. I just think it’s likely to do a lot less for most ordinary people than they think.

PS2: And, of course, I realize that the ipaidabribe website is prone to a sampling bias that favours this sort of corruption.

*”Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee will be the chairman of the committee that will also include law minister Veerappa Moily, telecom minister Kapil Sibal, home minister P Chidambaram and water resources minister Salman Khurshid as members.Besides Hazare, those representing the civil society in the joint committee will be eminent lawyers Shanti Bhushan, Prasant Bhushan, retired Supreme Court Judge Santosh Hege and RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal. Shanti Bhushan will be the co-Chairman.”-TOI.

Nothing to do

How can it possibly be the case that there is “nothing to do” in Chennai? Of course, in any given place with a laptop and a reasonably fast internet connection there are more than enough things that can keep me occupied any number of hours, but leave that aside- Madras is supposedly one of the most “cultural” cities in this country. Surely there’s more to do than whine at the prices of beer in the clubs and dip your feet in the ocean at Besant Nagar Beach?

I have decided that next semester-my last semester- is going to be 4 months of “exploring Madras”. Which essentially means that at least every two weeks I’m going to try and find something to do here in Chennai that I can’t find in…most other places, at least. I have no idea how to do this yet, so any sort of suggestions are eagerly solicited. Given that I’m going home tomorrow this is a really bad time to make this decision, but… oh, I’ll just re-blog it then.

Matters of Principle

I was reading this article on livemint and wondering what to make of it. I had also read an article called “UID: Facility or Calamity” at South Asia Citizen’s Web that Aashish had shared on Google Reader a while back, which I also wanted to revisit and link to, but their site is partially broken and I can’t get at the page: here’s a cached version on google. It says, essentially, that:
a) the Unique ID/Aadhar scheme, which gives a biometric ID to all citizens is not voluntary in any real sense of the term for a lot of people, because it’s required to access certain “social security” services,
b) that it is being implemented in a hap-hazard fashion which doesn’t ensure coverage for everyone,
c) that it will be inaccurate, (pretty much guaranteed, it’s only “how bad” that we can control)
d) that this program is going to be very (too?) huge in scope, allowing for conditional cash transfers and rolling up several existing services into one, and
e) that it is going to turn into a surveillance tool that is almost guaranteed to be misused, and that there are no options for redressal of grievances that do not go through the same body.

Now, all of these are true to some extent, but… well, b) and c) are going to be true for just about any government initiative, isn’t it? And one would think a biometric ID would, if anything, be less amenable to fraud than anything else. As for d): it was DESIGNED for that, wasn’t it? I didn’t really see the problem in that when it was first proposed, and I’m not sure I see the problem now, apart from a natural distrust of big government; but somehow I don’t think that was the problem for the authors. So we are left with a) and e), and I realized, I’m not actually very concerned about a) . (This would be the matter of principle referred to in the title.) In theory, I should be quite upset about it, especially when combined with e), but if it comes with sufficient efficiency gains for people who, let’s face it, really need all the help they can get, I’m a lot less upset about it. I’m concerned about e), of course, and I’m not getting this thing unless I absolutely have to,  but I find myself willing to take the risk for other people, when there are other considerations in play… and n0, the sheer hypocrisy of this doesn’t escape me. That’s just how I roll sometimes. (Read the Livemint article I linked to earlier for some context, though.)

A large part of the reason I’m not more upset at this is that I do have a little bit of a fetish for this sort of technocratic solution to all our problems, implemented by fairly well-respected members from the private sector; although the last time I re-read the Foundation series was at least a year ago! I think I would take b), c), and e) a lot more seriously if this were something else. As it is, I can’t honestly come down on this one way or the other, except to say that “calamity” seems to be a remarkable overstatement.

Wikileaks and the Long Haul

A Question

Who is it that still does not understand this mundanely vicious cycle of curfews/blockades/other form of economic (at best) or physical deprivation–> popular outrage/support for separatists/anti-government sentiments–>Emboldened and newly capable extremists/ separatists/terrorists/ “freedom fighters”, if you wish–>more attacks on the state/the outsider group of choice/other suitable targets, usually meaning white people–>more curfews etc?

Everyone who has any sort of power over any of these decisions should be made to go through the Analog Circuits course here in IIT Madras; 4 months with Shanthi/Nagi should thoroughly drill in the concept of positive feedback.

Yes, I know I’m oversimplifying. I know riots kill people, and curfews presumably result in less damage overall.  I don’t know what we should do instead. But I find this situation, at least the way it is reported, a little ironic:

“No separatist leader would be allowed to paralyse life across the valley and cause adverse effect on education of children, commercial activities and the livelihood of people,” an administration official said.

PS: Am I going a little too crazy with the links etc? Zemanta makes it really tempting.

Books I’ve Been Reading

Not including all the Harry Potter fanfiction. Quick reviews, because I have nothing particularly long and insightful to say about most of them. I’m just looking around my desk (and inside the Stanza iPhone app) and trying to remember what I’ve been doing for the past two weeks, because I sure haven’t been doing anything productive.

Are You Experienced (William Sutcliffe):

This book could be a fun read if you are a) not an Indian, b) okay with casual racism, and c) like reading gritty/funny travel stories. I picked it up because the back cover suggested c) , not realizing that a) and b) are at least as necessary. The basic plot is about a guy who hates travel but goes to India because he wants to sleep with his best friend’s girlfriend (someone whose characterization at least some feminist readers might get upset about, although I was content just to think she was a bitch), talks to oh-so-whacky people and gets oh-so-funny diarrhea and gets back to wonderful Britain, so unlike smelly, dirty, horrible India.

I made it through the book only out of sheer boredom. And because I was invested enough in the character to see if he finally got to screw someone (No… technically). It seems to have gotten some good reviews, surprisingly enough, but all by British newspapers, so maybe they just fulfil the three criteria mentioned above; it’s decently written, so if you pretend you’re white and English, I suppose it looks alright. Meanwhile, I’m happy I only spent 20 bucks on it.

 

 

Gods of War, by Ashok Banker

I promised a full review of this, and I will get around to it sometime, so leaving this blank for now. Or maybe I’ll just have part 2 of this and include that book I forgot the name of. As a very, very quick review: the opposite of everything I found wrong with the last book, in an almost as bad way. Ashok Banker tries to take on what he sees as the pervasive racism/anti-Hinduism/whatever of western SF and makes something so ridiculous that it would’ve been quite wonderfully funny if he had opted to write the same story in the style of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy instead of an Author Tract. (Essentially, the evil Americans will kill us all!)

The Left Hand of Darkness  (Ursula Le Guin):

This book is one of the first major works of feminist SF, at least according to wiki, and I’d been planning to read it for a while. It was certainly interesting, well-written and it had quite a few new ideas, but… it just wasn’t that much fun. I mean, it wasn’t boring by any definition, but it doesn’t fixate you to the page or get your heart beating or make you so engrossed that you miss your meals, which is what I have come to expect from a really good book. I think the major problem was just that I started reading it with too many expectations; I’d certainly recommend it to anyone who is interested in SF in general, anyway.

There are two fundamental facts that shape the story. One is that the world of Gethen is far colder than our own, and the only inhabitable land is a (relatively speaking, of course) small bit between 2 huge ice sheets. The second and more important factor is that everyone on Gethen is a hermaphrodite, and essentially- but not quite- bisexual. For a few days every month, they go into the state of “kemmer” in which they can shift to either men or women, depending on a variety of factors. Anyone can bear children. This leads to what is a much more “equal” society, in a sense that one can’t ever replicate among “normal” humans. The book explores the implications of this in some detail.

The plot follows Genly Ai, Envoy to the planet Gethen (Winter) of the Ekumen, a collective of planets that guides development and facilitates trade, etc. His mission is to convince them to join the Ekumen, but many of the people he talks to don’t believe him, and the others are paranoid and afraid that if they join they will have to relinquish control over the planet to some galactic bureacracy, although he explains that it does not work that way. We go with him from Karhide, which is a monarchy with a slightly paranoid king, to Orgoreyn, which is basically an efficiently run communist government (complete with a powerful secret police that controls the Parliament and “Voluntary Farms” for political prisoners) and then back in a reckless voyage across the Ice (a stand-in for the uninhabitable wilderness that features in stories of this sort set in the real world). There are various obstacles along the way, and any number of diversions. The structure of the story has several tropes and narrative devices that a literature student can spend a good deal of time on, but I’ll skip over all that and just ask you to read the book. 

Equal Rites (Terry Pratchett):

This is the first of the Witches series in Discworld. I’d finished both the City Watch series (awesome, in almost every book) and the Death series ( pretty good; Susan Sto Helit is wonderful, and Hogfather is the sweetest fantasy I’ve read in a very long time), and I remembered reading somewhere that Granny Weatherwax was something of an analogue of Captain Vimes (still my favourite character in all the Disc), so this was the natural next choice.

Equal Rites, interestingly, is another “feminist” book. It’s about what happens when a wizard’s magic-“male” magic- happens to get passed down to a newborn girl by mistake. it doesn’t mix well with witch’s magic, which is “female magic”, and…well, several anecdotes and outbursts on sexual equality later, the girl manages to become a wizard. I don’t want to insult the book here- it’s quite a fun read- but I can’t honestly pretend that the overall plotline isn’t completely predictable. The basic premise is rather interesting, though, and as with so much of Pratchett’s works the really good parts are the little things, and this book has as many hilarious pieces of dialogue as most of his work.

See also this essay: Why Gandalf never Got Married.

Wyrd Sisters (Terry Pratchett):

This is the second of the Witches series (Book 6 of Discworld) but it clearly isn’t set up as a sequel to Equal Rites, which I was very disappointed by: I would very much have liked to see a little more about Esk, the first female wizard, who we parted with when she was a mere 9 years old. 

The book is… I can’t say a homage to Hamlet/Macbeth so much as something that just happens to borrow from them in fairly obvious ways (although, strangely enough, this is not mentioned on the wiki page). The titular “Wyrd sisters” are the 3 witches Nanny Ogg, Grandma Weatherwax and the young Magrat Garlick, all of whom are very different from each other and all of whose characters are built up quite wonderfully. The basic plot is this: the Duke murders the king in order to usurp the throne after being bullied by his more ambitious wife. The old king’s new born heir winds up with the witches, who give him to a family of traveling actors to raise. The new king turns out to be really bad news, and is slowly going crazy, and the kingdom itself “awakens” and…things happen. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, although the real twist is only right at the end, and showcases Pratchett’s rather non-traditional (for a fantasy setting, that is) views on destiny and monarchy. The major theme of the book is “the power of words”, or propaganda, as well as the psychological tricks (“headology”) that the witches usually employ to make things happen.

Next up: the remaining Witches novels, as and when I finish them, Gods of War, and the other book I was reading last week which I seem to have forgotten the title of.

PS: Ok, apparently I had a lot more to say than I thought. Either these will really be mini-reviews the next time, or I’ll just do full posts for each book.

Home

As with most kids, my parents and grandmother had to resort to quite a few tricks to get me to eat my veggies when I was growing up. Though none went so far as to tell me that I would get mutant powers from the radioactive food(Calvin strip), there were quite a few outrageous attempts. One of them was to just blatantly say that a vegetable (koorkha; I still don’t know the English name for it) tastes like chicken. Of course, it doesn’t taste anything like chicken. It tastes like most tuber-like vegetables when made with masala/curry mix. But we bought it anyway, and kept trying to see if it was even vaguely chicken-like, and consequently ate somewhat more of this than most other vegetables. In fact, as retarded as this makes me seem, it was only 3 days ago that I finally decided that they were definitely lying.

“Culture clash” is a ridiculously over-exploited cliche with regards to the Indian psyche. It’s a favourite theme for just about every writer of “Indian Fiction in English” (the other one, of course, is colonialism and the Raj, so you can probably decide that it’s the whole deal), and “Indian English films” have the same obsession. Perhaps it was a reaction to this relentless torrent of media informing me that I was a confused and tortured soul, but I had pretty much decided that it’s Not That Big a Deal. Yes, there were lots of little “moments of confusion” as I grew up, but by this time, I had felt that I and most of the people that I grew up with more or less smoothly navigate our identities as Malayalees* who spend a great deal of time in “Western” skin. However, lately, I’m beginning to question that.

We use English in daily life almost exclusively not only because it’s the default medium (after all, we can’t speak the language that a lot of the people we have to deal with speak) but also because nearly all of the “input data” that we have comes to us in English: from text books for specific subjects to newspapers, blog posts, and all social media, as well as television and cinema. (You can argue that all this can be made “native” without much extra difficulty, and in fact it is in almost all other cultures, but the fact remains that at least now, most of this is most conveniently accessed in English.) It’s simply easier to “think” in English-avoiding the additional processing step of translating all of this data once we access it- and thus, inevitably, we do. (I do, and the only people I have asked do, but I will confess that I’m just assuming this here without any real statistical proof. Would anyone like to comment?) Obviously, this means that the natural “output” is also in English; it would require still more processing to translate, even if one is quite adept in both the languages. This effort is quite minimal in most cases, but it isn’t zero, which explains the cases of people like A who are very traditional(one might even say sheltered or naive or any number of stronger terms), who has only mallu friends(i.e. close ones; it’s almost impossible for most of us to end up in a situation with only mallu friends, unless they have some very strong biases), and talks only in mallu with them, but still ends up using whole phrases of English for any even moderately complicated concepts.

Now, I had understood all this a long time ago, and had mostly made peace with it. Whenever I am home, I speak in fairly “pure” Malayalam with parents, cousins, and most other people that I meet**. Of course, even when I speak “pure” Malayalam there is literally no way around using English for any technical or non-fundamental concept, because I simply don’t know the words for them, but I restrict them to simple nouns, not phrases. This is, however, changing, albeit slowly. I still talk only in Malayalam with my immediate family, but the number of borrowed words/phrases is increasing. Much more marked is the change with cousins, especially the ones from my generation. Even the ones who grew up here are now (deliberately or unconsciously) switching to English every now and then for whole sentences at a time. I’m not very concerned, but it is food for thought.

After a long period of discussion, debate and analysis on how-badly-do-I-want-it, what-am-I-going-to-do-with-it, why-do-I-need-it,  is-it-really-a-good-idea-buying-second-hand, and how-much-money-should-one-really-spend-on-things-like-this-anyway, I finally bought an iphone 3G. Or at least, my brother finally paid money to some guy on ebay so he can send him an iphone 3G. If all goes well, I should get it when he comes down for Christmas. If all doesn’t go well, I’ll end up listening to a whole bunch of I-told-you-sos.

One final anecdote: there are two main swimming pools (excluding the one in our school; I would have said 2 “public” pools, but they’re members-only, which really isn’t the same thing) in this town. One is fairly centrally located and in the Kottayam club premises, which also has lots of other facilities. The downside is that it is tiny, and inevitably overcrowded. The other is bigger and much more serene, but it’s a little out of town, and not nearly as many people go there. I usually prefer the second one. So I went there this evening because I really, really need the exercise, and it was as empty as always: me, 2 much younger kids, and an old man in the pool, with the kids’ mother and some other guy watching from the pool-house, which is a bit off. The old man is perhaps in his late 50s or early 60s, and he’s doing laps, albeit very slowly. When I finish off a lap I notice him standing about a quarter way from the shallow end, clutching the wall, and he weakly waves me over. When I get there, he says, “Can you help me? I think I’m having an angina attack.”

Oh, fuck. That’s bad, right? Where are all the people? Why isn’t there any lifeguard or attendant here!?

“Ah, OK, shall I go get someone?”
“No, there are 2 pills in the left pocket of my trousers, they’re hanging up in the locker room. It’s a grey tracksuit, actually. Just bring those.”
“OK”

I run in, and nearly slip and crack my skull. I find the trousers and search and don’t find anything and search again and find 2 absurdly tiny pills in the right back pocket, and rush back.

“Here.”
He swallows one pill and leaves the other one there. I watch him and wonder if I shouldn’t get someone anyway.

“Ah, much better. I think I’m alright now. Just watch me, OK?”

He then does 2 lengths without stopping.

_______________________________

*I talk about only Malayalees and not Indians in general here for two reasons. One, I don’t have any first hand experience of any other group, so it would be unfair to make generalizations about them; to use a technical analogy, it is one thing to use a fact that I know holds in some situation and trace out possible implications, which is like linear interpolation between two points on a graph. I might be off, but I know there’s some semblance of truth. It’s a different issue to assume that the facts in one instance probably hold for another instance, which is like doing linear interpolation at the edge of the graph, knowing only the slope and one point. The second reason is that I don’t really think it’s this prevalent in other groups anyway. We as a group are rather renowned for our tendency to go far and wide and interact with other cultures. Also, from what I’ve heard, the relative position of Hindi to English in north India is much, much stronger than the relative position of Malayalam to English in Kerala. Basically, people care about it more.

**Important exception: I use English with lots of people in my school who are just much more comfortable in English, and also with “fraud mallu” cousins who are visiting, who grew up outside and didn’t really mallu that well and/or just prefer using English.

Queen-mania

I’ve been listening to their greatest hits album on repeat for a while now, screaming out “fat bottomed girls” in falsetto. Today I finally wikied them(I’d done it a long time back, but now that I’m this into their music, I paid more attention) and I’m still surprised… how come I didn’t know till now that Freddie Mercury was, when it comes down to it, Indian? I mean, ACTUALLY Indian, Gujarati parents, grew up in Bombay, the works.

Well, he looks a LITTLE bit Indian

Well, he looks a LITTLE bit Indian

Oh and yeah, my falsetto voice is getting a real workout. 🙂